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Col de la Traversette
Donald Ellyson tried to scream, but nothing happened. He had done a lot of reprehensible things in his fifty-five years, but this was not how he had expected to die -- his throat sliced and hot blood running down the front of his parka. This was supposed to be the discovery of his life, the one that would legitimize him and land him at the top of the academic heap. But the moment of his greatest triumph had suddenly become the last moment he would ever know. And for what? Did his benefactors actually think he was going to stiff them?
Sure, he was known to gamble, and yes, he often stole artifacts from archeological digs to sell on the black market, but so did a lot of other people. It was just the way the world worked. Certainly, the punishment shouldn't be death.
It was only three years ago that Ellyson had joined a group of archeologists excavating a site southwest of Istanbul. During the dig, a hidden room with a vast trove of parchments had been discovered. Upon closer inspection, the documents appeared to be remnants of the famous Library of Alexandria, which was considered to be the greatest collection of books in the ancient world.
The library had been almost completely destroyed by the Romans who sacked and burned it in both the third and fourth centuries. It was widely assumed that the balance of the library's contents were destroyed when the Muslims, under the Caliph Umar I, laid siege in 640, but as Ellyson and his colleagues pored over the documents, they realized how wrong that supposition was. Someone at some point in history had apparently managed to preserve a large portion of what remained.
Ellyson was fascinated by what the parchments contained. One in particular was absolutely astounding. It was written in Greek and detailed a firsthand account of one of the most brilliant and most deadly undertakings in ancient history. He never catalogued that manuscript and went to great pains to make sure no one else on the dig even knew of its existence.
It was a treasure map of sorts, and though it did not have a great big X marking the spot, it promised unfathomable rewards. Once out of Istanbul, Ellyson went straight to the most likely source of funding for an expedition like this. He had been in the game long enough to know players who would jump at the chance to get their hands on what the manuscript suggested was waiting out there. And, indeed, the promise contained within the manuscript proved irresistible to his erstwhile partners.
Like Ellyson, those partners had read the classical accounts of Livy and Polybius, as well as works by renowned historians such as Gibbon, Zanelli, Vanoyeke, and a host of others too numerous to list. The more the partners read, the more they learned, and the more they learned, the more they became intrigued with the potential power of Ellyson's discovery.
Based on the archeologist's request, the partners spent millions on aerial surveys by planes, helicopters, and even satellites, combing many of the Alpine passes between southern France and Italy in hope of locating a particularly valuable item referred to in the parchment.
Ellyson had defied convention, turning his back on the more popular historical locations, as none of them fit the picture he had cobbled together from his ancient texts. Good fortune, though, did not smile upon his undertaking. Still, despite the lack of progress, the archeologist was confident he'd be successful in the end.
Though at times money was extremely difficult to come by, the men funding Ellyson's search did whatever they had to do to keep the coffers full. Their organization had been searching for decades for just this type of find and couldn't stop now. The power it promised to deliver was too important to give up on over something as trivial as money.
It wasn't until recently, aided by three summers of record-setting heat across Europe, that the snow had begun to melt, glaciers had begun to recede, and, near the Col de la Traversette, Ellyson had uncovered the first pieces of archeological evidence that proved he was on the right track -- straps of leather from an ancient harness, shards of pottery, and a small collection of broken weapons. He had narrowed a staggering field of haystacks to just one, but that one was replete with fathomless gorges and crevices, any number of which might contain his needle.
The Col de la Traversette was one of the most treacherous and highest mountain passes in all of France. Over the centuries, both French and Italian authorities had attempted to sabotage parts of it in the hope of stemming smuggling between their countries, but the pass lived on. A mere ten meters wide at the summit, the remote pathway was only accessible during a short period between mid-summer and early fall -- and even then conditions could still be unbearable. Locals referred to the region's weather as eight months of winter followed by four months of hell.
Despite these daunting obstacles, Ellyson had finally found his needle. He was a much better archeologist than he had ever given himself credit for. And the interesting thing about it was that the group funding his project wasn't even concerned with the entire find, only a part of it -- the part he had used as bait. It was all that had been necessary to get them to finance the operation. What they wanted from the find was a mere token to him, something he could easily do without. It was, in his mind, a minor footnote that had been lost to history. If his benefactors were willing to cover the cost of his entire project, he had no intention of denying them such a small item in return.
Even now from his prone position on the floor, Ellyson could see the object they had been after -- a long, intricately carved wooden chest. It was right there -- theirs for the taking. He didn't need or want it. So why did they have to kill him? Nobody would have ever known that the box, or more importantly what was inside it, was missing. Much like me, thought Ellyson as he heard the sound of his two Sherpas approaching and watched as his killer removed a small-caliber automatic from his parka.
After calmly replacing the pistol in his pocket, the assassin stared at the wooden, coffinlike box. For over two thousand years, the ancient weapon had lain beyond the reach of man, frozen within the glacial ice of this remote Alpine chasm, but all of that was about to change. The assassin removed a satellite phone from inside his coat and dialed the ten-digit number for his employer -- a man known to him only as the Scorpion.
Copyright (c) 2005 by Brad Thor