Read an ExcerptThe Sinai Secret
By Greg Loomis Dorchester Publishing Copyright © 2008 Greg Loomis
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Chapter One Stift Melk an der Donau (on the Danube) Austria The present
Joseph Steinburg, Ph.D., stood at the two-story entrance facing the afternoon sun. In front of him, the hill on which the first part of the monastery had been built in the tenth century dropped precipitously into the rushing gray waters of the Danube. Behind him was the library. Fifty-foot-high book-lined walls ran the three-hundred-foot length of the huge room.
From the chapel below came the vesper chants of the thirty or so monks who still occupied that part of the baroque abbey not presently used as a parochial school. He paid no attention, if, in fact, he even heard.
Were it not for the boat pushing barges upstream and the cars humming along the highway across the river, Steinburg could have been anywhere in time within the last millennium.
He wasn't thinking about that, either.
He could only ponder the strange discovery that had occupied him for the last two days.
A year ago the abbey had begun the awesome task of creating a computer index of the library, including the two thousand-plus volumes that dated back to the ninth through the fifteenth centuries. Last week one of the graduate students had discovered a number of bound parchments in ancient Hebrew, perhaps misplaced in the panic to hide all things of value that ensued when, in 1683, Kara Mustafa and his two hundred thousand Turks laid siege to Vienna, just fifty miles to the east. Although the Turks were forced to withdraw only three months later, these documents had, most likely, not been returned to their proper place, remaining with what were at the time current religious writings. The Church had asked Steinburg, part-time archeologist and full-time professor of ancient Hebrew history, to translate and date the documents.
From the heavy parchment and ink, Steinburg guessed the physical pages themselves could be as old as Melk. But the events they described were older, much older. The unusual syntax, phrases borrowed from pharaonic Egyptian, indicated that someone had painstakingly translated a chronicle from, say, 1500 to 1200 B.C. Or, to be politically correct, B.C.E., before the Common Era. In any event, before Hebrew itself was recognizable as a written language.
A cautious man, Steinburg turned around and walked back inside to one of the rolling ladders on rails, climbed to the top tier, and examined the exact area where the material had been found. Sure enough, the neighboring volumes all dated from the mid- to late-seventeenth century.
Once back on the parquet floor, he returned to the table where the parchments were unrolled. He pulled on the surgical gloves that protected the documents from any acid that might be contained in the moisture of his skin, then turned to the laptop on which he was composing a draft of his translation. He was aware of the irony of the anachronism, using electronic transcription in a place where manuscripts had been hand-copied for centuries.
But how did these documents come to be here in Austria in the first place?
If Steinburg had to guess, a pursuit he loathed as a professor but had to embrace as an archaeologist, he would say the ancient parchment had found its way to Europe as a trophy of the Crusades, most likely the third, when Duke Leopold V had held the English king, Richard the Lionheart, for ransom at his castle at Durnstein, just a few kilometers down the Danube, where ruins of its towers could still be seen. Possibly these pages had been brought to Melk from the centuries-old castle of some former crusader for safekeeping before the Turks breached the castle walls. A number of families in this area dated their ancestry back that far.
Steinburg sighed his relief at having at least theoretically solved the mystery of the papers' origin.
How the Church-or, for that matter, the world-was going to solve the consequences of his discovery was another issue.
Two hours later, he stood and glanced around the room.
Ancient or not, the facts narrated in the documents could have very contemporary implications.
Implications far beyond the halls of abstract academia or the dusty pages of history.
He could simply return the documents to oblivion in their place among the top row of books and leave Melk, hoping his translation of both Hebrew and old German would likewise be lost in obscurity. But somehow that didn't seem a satisfactory option. Part of his compensation for his work was right to publish his findings in his choice of scholarly journals. The information had value to some people if published, perhaps even more if not.
At any rate, he had no intent of shunning the acclaim his work would earn. The purpose of academia was to disseminate knowledge, like a breeze laden with the parachutes of dandelion seeds. How it was used was not his to question.
He had not noticed that a frail glow from electric sconces now illuminated the cavernous room, the sun having long set. He wondered if the abbey's lightbulbs were intentionally dim to simulate the candles that had burned here for centuries.
He stood, nodding as though reaching an agreement with himself. Reaching into his computer's traveling case, he produced a disk and copied the notes he had spent the last two days inputting. Then he e-mailed the draft of his translation to his home computer. Better backup than a disk. Tomorrow he would print out both his translations along with his notes, and send it to the abbey.
But for now ...
Well, he could look forward to at least a modicum of academic recognition, perhaps even more than his cousin, the scientist.
Then he had an idea.
Documents in hand, he walked out of the library, down several halls, and across a courtyard to where by day a gift shop sold souvenirs, books, and religious medals. Behind the shop was a small office, one to which Steinburg had been given a key yesterday when he needed to send a fax. The door to the outside was closed and bolted for the day but yielded easily to his key. If he remembered correctly ...
Yes, the fax machine was also a photocopier. Closing his mind to the potential damage that might be done to the documents, he carefully placed them one by one on the glass plate.
His cousin in Amsterdam had mentioned a project that might make these old writings interesting. But if he sent these, Benjamin would have them for months, perhaps a year before Steinburg could publish. Not a problem. His cousin Benjamin was also a professor, but of some sort of exotic science. Analytical chemistry, theoretical physics-Steinburg wasn't sure.
He opened the desk and extracted a bulky envelope and a roll of stamps. He quickly jotted a note requesting the copies either be destroyed or hidden until he published. He estimated the stamps required, addressed the envelope, and dropped it in the sack of mail to be picked up the next day.
He smiled. That ought to get him back for the unintelligible formula his cousin had published last year, a theoretical equation that had caused a mild stirring in scientific journals. These Hebrew scrolls were going be bigger, much bigger than Benjamin's theory.
The two had been friendly rivals since childhood, and now Steinburg would be one up.
A glance at his watch told him he would be late getting home to Vienna. Locking the office, he returned to the library, exited away from the river, crossed a courtyard, and found his ancient but immaculate Volkswagen Beetle in a gravel parking lot now deserted by the daily tour buses. He drove out the gate, away from the abbey's manicured grounds, and onto the road leading to the bridge. In his rearview mirror, Melk's twin towers and dome were fading in the growing dusk.
By the time he reached the narrow bridge high above the Danube, Steinburg had an idea which publications would be given the opportunity to see his work.
His thoughts were interrupted by a pair of lights behind him. From their height above the road it had to be a truck.
Strange. Trucks were expressly forbidden on this bridge.
And the damn thing was speeding, too.
Steinburg realized what was going to happen only an instant before the crunch of metal against metal sent the Volkswagen crashing into the side railing of the bridge.
He felt a jolt of fear. No way was that rampart going to hold, to keep his car from smashing through into the void below.
He was quite right.
Chapter Two The White House Washington,D.C. 0423 EST
The ringing of the telephone beside the bed brought Phillip Hansler, the president of the United States, to groggy awareness. He groaned softly as his eyes took in the time on the digital clock next to the phone. As he fumbled the receiver to his ear, he thought the obvious: He was through with sleep for the night. Only his chief of staff had access to this line, and no one called at this hour with good news.
Rather than wake his wife beside him, he sat up without turning on a light. "Yeah?"
"Good morning, Mr. President. The Iranian situation has gotten out of hand. The Joint Chiefs are on their way, should be in the situation room within the next ten minutes."
The president hung up without reply before he slipped from beneath the covers, feet groping for the slippers he had left beside the bed.
"Shall I order up some coffee?" The question came from the mound in the covers beside where he had been.
There was at least a skeleton crew manning the White House kitchen twenty-four hours a day.
The president was shuffling toward the bathroom. "No need. There'll be plenty where I'm headed."
The very mention of the place gave him chills. Far below the White House, the situation room was actually a series of rooms, including bath and kitchen facilities, that had been constructed as an emergency bunker during the Cold War in case an imminent nuclear attack did not allow enough time for the president to evacuate Washington. Equipped with the most advanced communications, it still served as a command post in times of national emergency.
Minutes later the president stood in front of the elevator just outside his private living quarters. He could already hear a cacophony of sirens growing louder. He checked his watch. The military cavalcade and its escorts would be right on time.
As the president entered the conference room, the three commanding generals and one admiral snapped to attention. The president imagined he could hear the jangle of medals. How did these guys get all that brass and ribbon on so quick, anyway? They must have multiple sets, each already pinned to fresh uniforms.
The president gave a cursory nod. "Be seated, gentlemen, please."
Four sets of pressed and starched rear ends plopped into chairs. A white-jacketed orderly appeared with a carafe of coffee and a stack of cups just as the White House chief of staff, the secretaries of state and defense, and the director of intelligence slid into their places.
"Shall we wait until we can find the vice president?" the chief of staff asked.
Not unless you intend to search every single woman's apartment in Washington, the president thought. A widower of two years, the vice president had become difficult to reach on short notice at night and on weekends, behavior that would have to be modified if the man's obvious ambitions were to be realized.
The president shook his head. "Have someone continue to try to reach him. In the meantime let's not keep everyone waiting."
The president gave a grateful nod to the coffee server and took a steaming cup from the tray. "Okay, I know you didn't get me up at this hour for the pleasure of my company." He nodded to Jack Allen, a black navy admiral in his late fifties, the first member of his race to reach that rank and only the second to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"What's up, Jack?"
The admiral pointed to a huge flat-screen monitor displaying the Near East from the Mediterranean to the Hindu Kush. A red dot was moving east to west.
The admiral spoke in a bass so deep the president had remarked that it sounded like it came from somewhere beneath his feet, the voice of an Old Testament prophet. "The picture, Mr. President, is a real-time satellite relay, and represents six K-twelve or SUMA missiles, each capable of carrying ten or more seperate warheads, possibly nukes. They were launched from three different sites in the Iranian desert, sites our satellites never picked up. Probably underground."
"Israel. There's nobody else within the K-twelve's range that has a beef with Iran."
The chief of staff leaned forward to look down the table at his boss. "Mr. President, you'll recall last week the Israelis threatened a preemptive strike if Tehran didn't begin destroying its nuclear-capable missiles. Looks like the Iranians have launched first."
A tall, rangy woman of indeterminate age was leaning forward to be seen. With her prominent nose and long, masculine walk, Susan Faulk, secretary of state, often reminded the president of a stork striding through the marsh in pursuit of a juicy frog. Avian or not, the woman was both brilliant and intuitive in recognizing the national interests of both her country and others'. She had predicted that Iran's recent war games had not been an empty show but were fully intended to prepare for offensive action against its enemy, Israel.
The president admired her clarity of thought. "Yes, Susan?"
"We can be certain Prime Minister Konic of Israel is watching, too, already preparing Israel's reply, probably a strike not only at Iran's military installations but oil fields as well. With Russia and China as Iran's biggest customers, we can expect them to jump into this if their supply of fuel is threatened."
"Both Russia and China know we stand firmly behind Israel. They know they act at their peril," the president said. With the millions of Jewish voters and hundreds of millions of their political contributions, no president could do otherwise. He turned back to the military. "How long until those things hit?"
A silver-haired man in air-force blue answered, "Seventeen minutes, ten seconds, Mr. President."
"Anything we can do to shoot 'em down?"
The air force man shook his head. "Not enough time. We'll have to rely on the Israelis for that. We sold them the hardware. Still, I'd anticipate about fifty percent of the intruders will get through."
The president didn't want to even think about the damage thirty nuclear devices could do to the United States, let alone a country as small as Israel.
"Let me make sure I have your consensus here," he said. "We've got an attack, likely nuclear, against Israel. There's little doubt of retaliation, which will likely bring in China and Russia. Suggestions?"
The secretary of state raised her hand. "Only one choice, Mr. President. You have to contact Prime Minister Konic immediately."
"I'd guess he's sort of busy right now."
"Nonetheless, you have to speak to him, convince him not to strike back, at least not until we can speak to the Russians and Chinese."
It would be easier to convince the hotheaded Israeli to convert to Islam. But, as president, Hansler had to try.
Why the hell had he wanted this job in the first place?
As though someone had read his mind, a warrant officer appeared at the president's side. "Telephone, sir. It's Prime Minister Konic."
A pin dropping would have sounded like an explosion.
"Did you say Prime Minister Konic?"
Skeptically, the president picked up the receiver. "Moshe?"
"Phil!" boomed a voice that sounded like it came from the same room rather than from halfway around the world.
Since becoming president, Hansler had become fast friends with the head of the Israeli nation. The two had enjoyed fly-fishing for trout on the president's Montana ranch as much as socializing at international gatherings. It had been difficult not to lose sight of the fact that all Israeli leaders made a business of getting as close to their American counterparts as possible. Israel's survival depended on it.
"How's Nancy? Your boy about through college this year? Send him over here for a graduation trip!"
The president glanced around the room, aware that Konic's voice was spilling out of the receiver. "Er, Moshe, I take it this isn't a social call?"
"Right you are," blared over the connection. "I expected to hear from you-a little matter of those pesky Iranians."
The president would have used another adjective, but he said, "We have the missiles on satellite. Hope the defenses we sent you work."
"Oh, never mind the antimissiles." The man's voice was downright jovial, as though he were telling a favorite story. "We'll be just fine. The reason I called you was to tell you just that-that we'll be okay. No need to go to alert status."
"You mean you don't intend to retaliate, to bomb Iran into the Stone Age?"
"Far as we're concerned, Iran's been in the Stone Age for decades. You checked out their politics? No, no retaliation will be necessary. Go back to sleep."
The president removed the receiver from his ear long enough to glance at it as though he might assay the sanity of the speaker. "No retaliation?"
The four-star marine general on his left tugged gently at the president's cuff. "Mr. President ..."
The president gave him an annoyed look until he followed where the man was pointing.
There was no longer a dot on the screen.
"See what I mean?" the Israeli statesman asked with a triumphant cackle. "Hang in there!"
"Moshe! What ... How did ...?"
"Jehovah's will, Phil. Your Bible says faith can move mountains. All we did was make a few missiles go away."
The line went dead.
The air force general was speaking earnestly into a cell phone.
"What the hell happened?" the president asked.
"What did not happen, Mr. President, was a malfunction of the visual equipment. The missiles really disappeared."
"You mean the defensive system functioned better than predicted."
"No, Mr. President. The satellite showed no launch of countermissiles. The Iranian hardware just evaporated."
The president slumped deeply back into his chair. "And just how the hell did they do that?"
Silence was his only answer.
"Okay, okay," the president said. "I want to know exactly what took place, why those missiles disappeared, vanished, or whatever. And in the meantime I want a total lid on this. I hear so much as a whisper about tonight, somebody's gonna finish their career counting caribou in Alaska."
Excerpted from The Sinai Secret by Greg Loomis Copyright © 2008 by Greg Loomis. Excerpted by permission.
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