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Salvatore Conte never questioned his clients' motives. His many missions had taught him how to remain calm and keep focused. But tonight was different. Tonight he felt uneasy.
The eight men moved through the ancient streets. Entirely clothed in black, each was armed with lightweight Heckler & Koch XM8 carbines equipped with 100-round magazines and grenade launchers. Padding along the cobblestone in soft boots, every man scanned his surroundings with infrared night-vision goggles. History loomed all around them.
With an abrupt hand signal to hold position, Conte paced ahead.
He knew that his team was just as apprehensive. Though Jerusalem's name meant "City of Peace," this place defined turmoil. Each silent road was bringing them closer to its divided heart.
The men had traveled separately from a handful of European countries, convening two days earlier at an apartment leased in a quiet part of the Jewish Quarter overlooking Battei Makhase Square, their accommodation booked under one of Conte's numerous aliases, "Daniel Marrone."
On arrival Conte had played tourist to familiarize himself with the web of alleyways and winding streets surrounding the thirty-five-acre rectangular monument in the center of the fortified Old City—a massive complex of bulwarks and retaining walls standing thirty-two meters high that resembled a colossal monolith laid flat upon Mount Moriah's steep ridge. Easily the world's most contested parcel of real estate, the Islamic Haram esh-Sharif, or "Noble Sanctuary," was more familiar by another name—Temple Mount.
As the cover of buildings gave way to thetowering western wall, he motioned two men forward. The wall-mounted floodlights cast long shadows. Conte's men would blend easily into the dark pockets, but then so could the Israeli Defense Force soldiers.
The endless dispute between Jews and Palestinians had made this the most heavily guarded city in the world. However, Conte knew that the IDF was rife with conscripts—teenage boys whose sole purpose was to fulfill three-year service requirements and no match for his hardened team.
He peered ahead, his night-vision goggles transforming the shadows to eerie green. The area was clear except for two soldiers loitering fifty meters away. They were armed with M-16s, donning standard-issue olive green fatigues, bulletproof vests, and black berets. Both men were smoking Time Lite cigarettes, Israel's most popular—and, to Conte, most offensive—brand.
Glancing over to their intended entry point at Moors' Gate, an elevated gateway on the platform's western wall, Conte quickly surmised there was no way to gain access to the Temple Mount without being detected.
Shifting his fingers along the barrel, he flicked the XM8 to single-shot mode and mounted the rifle on his left shoulder. He targeted the first green ghost with the red laser, aiming for the head, using the glowing butt of the dangling cigarette as a guide. Though the XM8's titanium rounds were capable of piercing the soldier's Kevlar vest, Conte found no sport—let alone certainty—in body shots.
One shot. One kill.
His index finger gently squeezed.
There was a muffled retort, slight recoil, and he saw the target buckle at the knees.
The scope shifted to the remaining man.
Before the second IDF soldier had begun to comprehend what was happening, Conte had fired again, the round penetrating the man's face and cartwheeling through the brain.
He watched him collapse and paused. Silence.
It never ceased to amaze him just how token the expression "defense" really was—offering little more than a word to make people feel secure. And though his native country had a laughable military competence, in his own way, he felt he had become its equalizer.
Another abrupt hand signal ushered his men onto the sloping walkway approaching Moors' Gate. To his left, he glimpsed the Western Wall Plaza nestled along the embankment's base. Yesterday he had marveled at the Orthodox Jews—men separated from women by a curtained partition—who gathered here to mourn the ancient temple they believed had once graced this holy place. On his right lay a small valley littered with excavated foundations—Jerusalem's oldest ruins.
A substantial iron gate sealed with a deadbolt denied access to the platform. In less than fifteen seconds the lock had been picked and his team funneled through the tunneled entrance, fanning out across the broad esplanade beyond.
Slipping past the stout El-Aqsa Mosque abutting Temple Mount's southern wall, Conte turned his gaze to the esplanade's center where just over tall cypress trees, a second and much grander mosque stood on an elevated platform, its gilded cupola illuminated like a halo against the night sky. The Dome of the Rock—embodiment of Islam's claim over the Holy Land.
Conte led the team to the esplanade's southeast corner where a wide opening accommodated a modern staircase, cascading downward. He splayed the fingers of his gloved right hand and four men disappeared below the surface. Then he signaled the remaining two men to hunker down in the nearby tree shadows to secure a perimeter.
The air in the passage became moist the further the men descended, then abruptly cold, giving off a mossy aroma. Once they had assembled at the base of the steps, rifle-mounted halogen lights were switched on. Crisp, luminous beams bisected the darkness to reveal a cavernous, vaulted space with arched stanchions laid out on neat avenues.
Conte remembered reading that twelfth-century Crusaders had used this subterranean room as a horse stable. The Muslims, its latest occupants, had recently converted it into a mosque, but the Islamic decor did little to mask its uncanny resemblance to a subway station.
Running his light along the room's eastern wall, he was pleased to spot the two brown canvas bags his local contact had promised. "Gretner," he addressed the thirty-five-year-old explosives expert from Vienna. "Those are for you."
The Austrian retrieved them.
Slinging his carbine over his shoulder, Conte took a folded paper from his pocket and switched on a penlight. The map showed the exact location of what they'd been charged to procure—he didn't favor references to "stealing"—the term demeaned his professionalism. He aimed the penlight along the wall.The Sacred Bones
A Novel. Copyright © by Michael Byrnes. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.