By Bill Napier
St. Martin's Paperbacks Copyright © 2005 Bill Napier
All right reserved. ISBN: 9780312936686
Splintered IconPart OneGOD'S LONGITUDEChapter 1
THE BIRD circles gracefully, high in the mountain thermal, a slow, lazy motion. Delicate fine-tunings of its wings, the product of ancient evolutionary forces, keep its head perfectly level in the updraft and its black eyes steadily fixed on a spot five hundred feet below. These eyes are focused on a large, motionless animal. Ancient instincts tell the bird that this big animal is in trouble.
A SHADOW flits briefly over the man. Something big, but he can't think what. He forces his eyes open but at first sees only the harsh sun. Then a high, black shape: a bird, a beautiful thing, soaring in the mountain air.And another. And another.Need to drink. Tongue a lead weight. Face hot, beaded with sweat.
Lots of them now.They're circling around me. Getting lower.
A buzzard lands, about twenty yards away. Not graceful at all: powerful tearing beak, bald head, long scraggy neck, big talons. And those black shiny eyes.Strong flapping behind me, from big wings, and ascuffling noise, like two birds squabbling. And then a quiet rustling sound, very close. Almost at my neck.I can't move!
Several pairs of eyes now. No pity in them, no way to plead or reason, no way for our minds to connect. Closing in, in cautious little hops. Indians round a wagon circle.They'll go for the softest parts of me first, the eyes. Then maybe my ears and nose. Then they'll start on my neck and cheeks, tearing at the flesh.Don't die, not like this. Not eaten alive by vultures.
"IT'S NOT like forensic entomology, for example."The Professor--at least that's what he appears to be--is a small, weedy, wrinkled man with a sweaty, pinched face and a turned-down mouth with thin, mean lips. He is wearing a cheap grey nylon suit, an absurdity in the Jamaican climate: it is stained with sweat from his armpits. A gaudy tie is pulled wide at the neck. His eyes are small and black. He is leaning over a small wooden artefact on the table in front of him. It is in three panels, hinged together so that the two side panels can fold on top of the central one. This central part contains a little rectangle of gnarled wood. The other two panels are painted, a mother and child on the left panel, Christ crucified on the other against a black and stormy sky. He is scanning this strange object with a large magnifying glass."Entomology?" A second man scratches his head.The Professor smiles primly. "Insects. If this was an insect we would have a large DNA database. But as you see, this is a piece of wood, not an insect, and wood, after all, is dead. There are some special tests we can applyto test for particular types--staining, shining ultraviolet light on them and so on. But these are only useful for identifying unusual families of trees, usually obscure species from South America. The Vochysiaceae family, for example, accumulates aluminium from the soil, and its wood turns blue if we apply a special reagent."As execution chambers go, this one is comfortable, even luxurious. The room is large. One wall consists of nothing but French windows. Beyond it there is a broad balcony, and beyond that the black expanse of the midnight Caribbean. Expensive air conditioners whisper, barely audible, from the corners. The floor is laid with imported Italian marble, in big multicoloured squares. The furniture is heavy, dark brown and ornately carved in the Mexican style. Exotic lampstands and vases are scattered around, and Jamaican artwork in bright primary colours decorates the walls.Three people are seated on a deep, low, white leather sofa. In the middle is a bearded man, tall and well-built, in his early thirties. He is sitting upright, tense and watchful, calculating the odds. A teenage girl to his left, casually dressed in jeans and white sweater, is breathing in big gulps, hyperventilating. She has a bruised cheek. Her eyes are wide with fear and she is trying hard to keep herself under control. On the man's right is a woman also in her early thirties. She too is casually dressed and calculating the odds, coming up with the same hopeless answer. They know that, so long as the Professor keeps talking, they stay alive. Their problems begin when he shuts up.Two men are standing across from them at a table. One of them is the Professor; the other is of Mediterranean extraction, probably Greek. He is short andstocky, with a deep-wrinkled, angular face. He is wearing black trousers and an open-necked shirt with a silver cross--or swastika--hanging around his neck on a chain.A heavy black revolver lies on the polished table in front of the Greek, within his arm's length. His companion is talking.Apart from the Greek, six others in the room are armed with guns, five men and a woman. The woman is leaning back, relaxed, in an armchair in one corner. She too has Mediterranean features; she is wearing a long, slim, pink evening dress and a lot of gold. She has a revolver resting on her lap. The five men are sitting around on casual chairs, with the exception of a young, black Jamaican with dreadlocks. He is sitting cross-legged on a bean cushion and is rolling a large joint, his gun on the floor. He seems to be more interested in his joint than in the prisoners. The woman, however, is watching them carefully, a cat eyeing up a mouse, a distant half-smile on her lips. From time to time she rotates the barrel of her gun, a chamber at a time, as if checking that it is loaded."A scanning electron microscope is a lot of work, and to tell you the truth, my most useful tool is this magnifying glass. For example," the Professor says, peering closely at the wood, "there are about eighteen thousand species of tree worldwide, but I can already, after a few seconds with my lens, narrow this wood down to a few hundred possibilities."He drones on. His small black eyes are shining enthusiastically and his lips are puckered primly. "Tree trunks are really marvels of plumbing. There are chains of large cells which carry water from the roots to theleaves, and more chains which carry the sugary liquid made by the leaves back down through the tree trunk. Different species have different patterns of plumbing, you know. Ah, now this is interesting. Here we have big structures mixed in with the smaller, finer cells. That means I can eliminate a whole swathe of trees, in particular the softwoods. I believe we are down to ash, hickory or oak."The young Jamaican says: "Ya." He has finished rolling the joint. He pulls out a thin blue lighter, flicks it and puffs. Whorls of ganja smoke begin to drift upwards. He watches them rise towards the ceiling, a look of contentment settling on his face.The Professor looks up from his magnifying glass. "Jesus Christ was most probably crucified on a cross made from a white oak, a common tree in the Middle East then and now. Something like a boat was discovered some decades ago on Mount Ararat in Turkey. It turned out to be made from white oak, and enthusiasts have seen it as evidence that the boat was Noah's Ark." Again that prim, superior smile. "There are several types of oak, quercus robur, quercus rubra ...""Doctor ..."But the Professor seems insensitive to the volcano of impatience building up inside his companion. " ... and I can tell you that this particular wood is white oak."The Greek says, "What are you telling us, Doctor? That the wood is from the Middle East?""Unfortunately white oak is also found in North America. It was often used for shipbuilding two hundred years ago. However, in my opinion this wood is much more than two centuries old. And there are subtledifferences between North American and Middle Eastern white oak. It is my opinion that this is not North American white oak. Yes, it comes from the Middle East. And yes, it is very, very old."The Greek's temper has reached its limits. He asks: "Is it the icon or not? Yes or no?"The Professor smiles triumphantly. "Of course proper verification would require carbon-14 dating. But I can safely rule out some sort of elaborate modern forgery."For the captives, the remark is a death sentence."Thank you, Doctor." The Greek exhales air as if a pressure valve has been opened. "I think you can leave us now. Cassandra, would you see to the Doctor's fee?"The Professor gives a slight bow of his head. "I would like to be well clear of this island before"--he glances briefly at the captives--"before there is any unpleasantness."The Greek exposes his teeth. "You will be long gone before anything happens here." The woman in pink uncrosses her legs, stands up and walks towards the prisoners. Her high heels click-click sharply on the stone floor.The Professor gives a last glance at the prisoners, this one slightly anxious. "They have seen my face, you know.""Doctor, you have absolutely no worries in that direction."She raises her gun.Copyright © 2003 by Bill Napier. Continues...
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