Son of the Morning (Chapter 3)

"IT SHOULDN'T BE DIFFICULT TO FIND HER," PARRISH SAWYER murmured, leaning back in his chair and tapping his immaculately manicured nails against the wooden arm. "I'm sadly disappointed in the Minneapolis Police Department. Little Grace has no car, no survival skills, yet still she's managed to elude them. That really surprises me; I expected her to run screaming to a neighbor, or to the first policeman she could find, but no, instead she's gone to earth somewhere. Annoying of her, but all she's doing is delaying the inevitable. If the police can't find her, I'm confident you can."

"Yes," Conrad said. He didn't elaborate. He was a man of few words, but over the years Parrish had found him extremely reliable. Conrad could have been either his first or last name; no one knew. He was stocky and muscular and didn't look very bright; his bullet-shaped head was covered by short dark hair that grew low on his forehead, an unfortunate apelike resemblance that was only heightened by his small dark eyes and prominent brow ridges. His appearance, however, was deceiving. His chunky body could move with amazing speed and finesse, and behind his stolid expression was a brain that was both astute and concise. Best of all, Parrish had never seen Conrad exhibit any distressing signs of conscience. He carried out orders with admirable, machinelike precision, and what he thought of them no one but himself ever knew.

"When you find her," Parrish continued, "bring the computer and the papers to me immediately." He didn't give any instructions on how to deal with Grace St. John; Conrad wouldn't need direction on anything that simple.

There was a sharp, slight incline of the bullet head, and Conrad silently left the room. Alone, Parrish sighed, his fingers still drumming out his frustration with the situation.

It had turned unaccountably messy. Nothing had gone as planned. They should have been there, all three of them; he had made certain all three vehicles had been present before going in. But Grace hadn't been there, and neither had her computer or the documents. Moreover, Ford and Bryant had been remarkably good liars; Parrish hadn't expected it of them, and he didn't like being surprised. Who would have thought two nerdish archaeologists would have sized up the situation so accurately, and in an instant formulated a very believable lie?

But they had, and he'd made a very bad mistake in believing them. Such gullibility wasn't at all like him, and the sense of having been made a fool of was irritating.

Unfortunately, it seemed Grace had been just outside the house, watching and listening. That strange little sound he'd heard outside the window had probably been her; leaving a gap in the curtains, even a tiny one, had been another uncharacteristic mistake. Some days were just abitch.

He and Conrad's team had quickly withdrawn, leaving no fingerprints or other sign of their presence behind, and the scene in the bedroom had looked pretty much as they had planned. Any cop walking in on that, two men half-naked together in a bedroom, both of them shot in the head, and one's wife missing – well, it wouldn't take a genius to figure it out.Minneapolis 's finest had reacted just as he had expected; they were being circumspect, keeping details from the media, but Grace was their prime suspect.

He had thought she would seek help immediately, so he had returned to his luxurious home in Wayzata to wait. He wasn't worried about her accusations; after all, why would he kill two people in order to steal some documents he could obtain by simply asking for them? He was a respected and well-connected member of the community. He was on two hospital boards, he gave regularly and generously to all the politically correct charities, and several of the richest families inMinnesota had hopes – useless ones, of course – of enticing him into the fold by way of marriage. Moreover, he had an alibi in the form of his housekeeper,AntonettaDolk . She would swear he had been working in his study all evening, that she had even taken coffee to him.Antonetta could pass any lie-detector test devised by man, a useful ability in a housekeeper, and one he valued far more than dusting. She worked, of course, for the Foundation; he had surrounded himself with people loyal only to him.

To think that the documents had surfaced after so long! They had come out of an insignificant dig in southernFrance , a dig that had produced so little, and nothing that appeared of any great age, that the documents hadn't drawn any attention. Certainly no one whose job it was to evaluate all finds and report anything interesting to him had found anything intriguing in documents that seemed to be only a few centuries old. He would have to take care of the bungler-another job for Conrad. If the documents had been correctly evaluated, they would never have been photographed, stored, and the photographs sent to Grace St. John for routine translation. None of this would have happened, and the information would be in his hands instead of Grace's.

It was Ford who had alerted him to the content of the obscure documents, and therefore caused his own death. Life could be so ironic, Parrish thought. Ford's chance comment about Grace's latest project, something about the Knights Templar, had set events into motion.

Parrish had quickly checked the assignment records and traced the original documents to their storage location inParis . The French could be so difficult about allowing artifacts, even not-so-old ones, out of the country. Parrish had sent his people in to retrieve the papers, only to find that they had been destroyed, apparently by fire-though nothing else in the vault had been damaged. Nothing remained of the documents except a fine, white ash.

Grace St. John had the only existing copies. And according to the assignment record, she had been working on the translation for three days. Grace was good at her job; in fact, she was the best language expert on staff. He couldn't take the chance that she had already deciphered enough of the documents to know what she had; she, and everyone else who knew what she'd been working on, had to be eliminated.

Strange that Grace should prove more difficult than either Ford or Bryant. How long had he known her? Almost ten years? She had always seemed such ashy, mousy type, no makeup, her hair scraped back in an unflattering braid, slightly overweight. Her complete lack of style was an affront to his sensibilities. For all that, several times over the years he had been tempted to seduce her. Likely he had been bored, between women; little Grace presented something of a challenge, with her ridiculous middle-class morals. She "loved" her husband, and was faithful to him. But she had perfect skin, like translucent porcelain, and the most astonishingly carnal mouth he'd ever seen. Parrish smiled, feeling the blood pool in his groin as he considered the uses to which he could put that mouth, so wide and soft andpouty . Poor old Ford had certainly lacked the imagination to enjoy her as he could have!

She would be as helpless in the streets as any child. Anything could have happened to her during the night. She might already be dead.

If so, one problem would be conveniently solved, but he sincerely hoped she was still alive. She would keep the papers with her, and when Conrad found her, he would find the papers. If any of the human trash that prowled the streets at night killed her, however, her computer would be taken and fenced, and the papers thrown away. Once the copied documents disappeared into the maw of the night world, they would likely never surface again. They would be gone, and with them the long-search ed-for, critical information. There would no longer be a purpose in the Foundation, and his plans would be reduced to so much ash, just like the original documents.

That couldn't be allowed to happen. One way or another, he would get those papers.

Grace couldn't sleep. She was exhausted, but every time she closed her eyes she saw Ford, the sudden, horrible blankness of his eyes as the bullet snuffed out his life, saw him toppling over on the bed.

It was still raining. She sat huddled in a metal storage building, hidden behind a lawn mower that was missing a wheel, a greasy tool box, some rusting cans of paint, and several moldy cardboard boxes marked "Xmas Decorations." The eight-by-ten building hadn't been locked, but then there wasn't anything in it worth stealing, except for a few wrenches and screwdrivers.

She wasn't certain exactly where she was. She had simply walked north until she was too tired to walk any farther, then taken refuge in the storage building behind a fifties style ranch house. The neighborhood was showing signs of raggedness as its lower-middle-class respectability slowly deteriorated. No cars were parked in the carport, so she had taken the chance that no one was there. If any neighbors were at home, the rain had kept them indoors, and no one shouted at her as she walked slowly across the backyard and opened the flimsy metal door.

She had scrambled over the clutter until she reached a back comer, then settled down on the dirty cement. She had sat in a stupor, staring at nothing. Time passed, but she had no grasp of it. After a while she heard a car drive up, and several car doors slammed. Kids yelled and argued, and a woman's voice irritably told them to shut up. There was the squeak of a storm door opening, then the slam of another door, and the human clatter was silenced behind walls that held warmth and normalcy.

Grace leaned her head on her knees. She was so tired, and so hungry. She didn't know what to do next.

Ford and Bryant would be buried, and she wouldn't be there to see them one last time, to touch them, to put flowers on their graves.

Her throat worked, closing tight on the surge of grief that made her rock back and forth. She felt herself flying apart, felt her control shredding, and she hugged her arms tightly as if she could hold everything together that way.

She had never even taken Ford's name, Wessner, as her own. She had kept her maiden name,St. John . The reasons had been so practical, so modem; her degree had been awarded to Grace St. John, and there was her driver's license, her social security, so much paperwork to be changed if she changed her name. And, of course,Minneapolis was in the vanguard of political correctness; it would have been considered hopelessly gauche by the academic crowd if she had taken Ford's name.

The pain was almost unbearable. Ford had been willing to die for her, but she hadn't been willing to use his surname as her own. He'd never asked, never even mentioned it; knowing Ford, it hadn't been important to him. He'd been sogrounded; their marriage had mattered to him, not what name she used. But suddenly, to her, it mattered. She yearned for that link to him, a link she would never have now, any more than she would ever have his children.

They had planned to have two. They had talked about it, but put parenthood off while they both built their careers. After this past Christmas, they had decided to wait another year, and Grace had continued taking her birth control pills.

Now Ford was dead, and the useless pills had been left behind in a house to which she would never return.

Oh, God, Ford! She couldn't bear-this. The pain was too great. She had to do something or she would lose her mind, run screaming from this filthy little metal building and stand in the middle of the street until she was either arrested or killed.

Jerkily she pulled the computer case from the plastic bag. The light in the building was a dim, muted green, too poor to do any translation work off the copies themselves, but she had already had some of them transferred to disk and she could work on the computer. She was too tired to get much accomplished, but she desperately needed a few minutes of distraction. She had always been able to lose herself in her work; maybe this time it would save her sanity.

She didn't have much room, crammed in the corner the way she was. She repositioned the boxes of Christmas decorations, sliding one in front of her to use as a desk; she knew from experience that the laptop generated too much heat to rest it on her legs. She slapped down the mouse pad, then opened the top of the computer and pushed the switch on the side. The screen lit and the machine made its musical electronic noises as it went through the booting process. When the menu appeared on the screen, she moved the cursor down to the program she wanted and clicked the mouse. She already knew which disk she wanted, and had it ready to slide into the A drive.

The disk contained the section she had been working on before, when curiosity had led her to do more research on the Knights Templar. The language was Old French, something she was so familiar with that she should be able to work even with her mind so numb.

She accessed the file, and the words filled the screen. The letters were indistinct with age, strangely formed, and medieval people had been very creative spellers. There hadn't been any standardized spellings back then, so people had used whatever sounded right to them.

Grace stared at the screen, slowly scrolling as she read and reestablished herself in the work. Despite everything, she could feel her concentration gathering, her focus narrowing as the documents pulled her into their power. The name popped out at her again, "Niall of Scotland," and she took a deep breath. She eased down into a cross-legged position on the concrete, moving closer to the computer as she automatically fished out a pen and the pad that was always in the computer case for taking notes.

Whoever this Niall of Scotland had been before joining the Order, he had quickly become renowned as its greatest warrior. She skimmed over the cramped lines on the screen, jotting down notes on sections she couldn't quite make out, or on words that were unfamiliar to her. She didn't notice her heartbeat speeding, or feel the increased oxygen boosting her concentration. Instead she felt as if she were being sucked into the screen, into the epic account of a monk who had lived and died almost seven hundred years before.

Niall had been "of great size, threeelles and five more." Since this document was in French, Grace decided the measurement would more likely have been a Flemishell, twenty-seven inches, rather than an English one of thirty-seven inches. And though Niall had been Scots, the Scotsell was something like forty-five inches, which meant that by Scots measurement threeells and five inches would have placed him close to twelve feet tall. The Flemishell was more reasonable, making the man stand about six feet four, tall for his time but not freakishly so. Medieval people had been of varying sizes, depending on their nutrition during childhood. Some knights had been ridiculously small, their suits of armor looking as if they had been made for children, while others had been big even by modem standards.

According to this paean, Niall had been unsurpassed in swordsmanship and the other arts of war. There was account after account of battles he had fought, Saracens he had killed, fellow Knights he had saved. Grace felt as if she were reading a tale of a mythical hero along the lines of Hercules, rather than a Middle Ages record of an actual Templar. Granted, the Templars had been superb soldiers, the best of their time and the equivalent of modem-day special forces. But if the Templars had been such good soldiers, why had Niall of Scotland been singled out for excessive praise? She assumed she was reading actual records of the Knights Templar, and while outsiders would understandably be impressed by the great Knights, the Knights themselves would take such exploits for granted. It seemed unlikely they would aggrandize the accomplishments of one.

She scrolled down, and there was a break in the narrative. The text picked up on what seemed to be a letter, signed by someone named Valcour. He expressed concerns about the safety of "the Treasure," and the importance of protecting this, which had worth "greater than gold."

Treasure. Grace stretched her back, rotating her shoulders to ease the kinks. She didn't know how long she had been staring at the computer, but her feet were asleep and her neck and shoulder muscles tight with strain. There had been something about a treasure in the material she had read onKristian's computer, but she had been skimming, looking for any mention of Niall of Scotland, and she hadn't read it closely. She did remember that the Knights Templar had been an extremely wealthy order, so much so that kings and popes had borrowed gold from them. Their treasure had been gold, so how could its worth be "greater than gold"?

She had been holding fatigue at bay by the sheer force of her concentration, but now it hit her again, pulling at her limbs and eyelids. Her hands were suddenly clumsy as she exited the program and removed the disk, fumbling it back into its protective sleeve. She turned off the computer and scooted back, almost groaning aloud as she stretched out her numb legs and renewed blood flow surged painfully through her veins.

Clumsily she edged herself around, propping herself up against the boxes of decorations. She could feel sleep coming, rushing toward her like a black tide of unconsciousness. She welcomed it, desperately needing the surcease. Her eyelids were too heavy to remain open a second longer. Her last thought was "Niall," and she had a brief picture of him, tall and powerful, swinging a six-foot sword with one iron-hewn arm while enemies fell dead all about him, before she slipped completely beneath the tide.

Six hundred and seventy-five years away, Niall awoke with every nerve alert, his head lifting from his pillow. A single candle guttered in its holder, and the fire in the hearth had almost burned out. He had been asleep for almost an hour, he estimated, relaxed by some energetic love play. He had heard-what? Only the slightest whisper of sound, different but somehow non-threatening. Normally, if he was awakened suddenly he had a dagger in one hand and a sword in the other even before his eyes were fully opened. He hadn't reached for his weapons, which meant his battle trained senses hadn't detected any danger.

But something had awakened him, and the sound had been near. He looked at the woman sleeping beside him, softly snoring, the noise little more than a snuffle. That wasn't what had disturbed him.

They were alone in the chamber, the thick door securely barred, and the secret door beside the hearth was closed. Robert never came without first sending a message. But Niall felt as if someone had been there, and the sudden presence of a stranger had jerked him awake.

He got out of bed, his movements so silent and controlled thatEara slept on undisturbed. Though he couldsee no one was in the chamber with him except for the woman in bed, still he prowled the perimeter, trying to detect a scent, a whisper of sound, anything.

There was nothing. Finally he went back to bed and lay awake, staring into the night.Eara still snored

beside him, and he began to feel irritated. He should have sent her to her own pallet after they had finished. He liked sleeping with women, liked the warmth and softness of their bodies beside him, but tonight he would have preferred being alone. He felt a vague need to concentrate on the elusive sound that had awakened him, andEara's presence was distracting.

He tried to remember exactly how the noise had sounded.It had been soft, almost like a sigh.

Someone had called his name.

Conrad gripped the punk's greasy hair, jerking his lolling head back. He studied the effects of his work. Both of the punk's eyes were swollen nearly shut, his nose was a bleeding mass of crushed cartilage, and instead of missing just a few teeth he now had few left. That had been nothing more than the softening up, though. The real persuasion had taken the form of broken ribs and fingers.

"You saw her," he said softly. "You robbed her." "No, man," The words were mushy, almost unintelligible.

That wasn't the answer Conrad wanted. He sighed, and twisted one of the broken fingers. The punk screamed, his body arching against the tape that held his ankles strapped to the chair legs and his wrists lashed to the wooden arms.

"You saw her," he repeated patiently. "We don't have the money no more!" the punk sobbed, his minuscule store of courage already depleted.

"I am not interested in the money. Where did the woman go?"

"We got the helloutta ' there, man! We din' hang around,y'know ?"

Conrad thought about it. The punk was probably telling the truth. He glanced at the crumpled body behind the chair. Too bad the young black man had used very bad judgment and pulled a knife on him. Perhaps he would have noticed something this cretin hadn't.

To be certain, he twisted another finger, and waited until the screams subsided. "Where did the woman go?" he asked again.

"I don' know, I don' know, I don' know!" Satisfied, Conrad nodded. "What was she wearing?" "I don' know-"

Conrad reached for a finger, and the punk shrieked. "No, don't, stop!" he screamed, blood and mucus streaming from his broken nose. "It was raining', all her clothes was dark."

"Pants or a dress?" Conrad asked. Ithad been raining, and if the woman had been out in it all the time she would have been soaked. He wasn't unreasonable; he didn't expect this idiot to notice colors at night, and in the rain.

"I don'-pants. Yeah. Maybe jeans, Idunno ." "Did she have a coat, a jacket?" The weather had turned colder, which wasn't unexpected. It was the warmth that had been unusual forMinneapolis , not this more seasonable chill.

"I don' think so." "Short sleeves or long?" "Sh-short, I think. Not sure." He gulped in air through his mouth. "She was carrying a garbage bag,kinda hid her arms."

No jacket, and short sleeves. She had been wet to the skin, and she would now be very cold. Conrad didn't wonder what was in the garbage bag; it was a commonsense solution to keeping papers dry. Mr. Sawyer would be pleased.

She had gotten money from an ATM, and this piece of excrement had promptly robbed her. She was without funds, without any means of coping. Conrad thought he should be able to find her within a day, if she hadn't sought out the police by then. Though Mr. Sawyer had everything under control even if she made accusations against him, Conrad preferred to find her himself. It would be easier that way.

He looked at the human trash in the chair. The punk had no redeeming qualities. He had no skills, no morals, no value.

A bullet was too expensive for exterminating vermin, and too quick. Conrad reached out his gloved hand and closed it on the punk's throat, and expertly crushed his trachea. Leaving him suffocating in the chair, Conrad walked out of the abandoned house in the worst part of the city. He moved silently, unhurriedly. Screams were common in the neighborhood. No one paid him any attention.