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THE JUDGMENT STONE
THE IMMORTAL FILES BOOK TWO
By Robert Liparulo
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2013Robert Liparulo
All rights reserved.
The surface-to-air missile blasted out of a rocket launcher resting on the monk's shoulder and streaked toward the hovering helicopter. Fire plumed from the rear of the bazooka-like weapon, bright in the night-time gloominess of St. Catherine's courtyard, momentarily blinding Jagger Baird, who stood behind it and off to one side. Through the haze of bleached retinas he saw the 'copter rise and whirl around with the aerial agility of a hawk and the rocket sail past it. Seeming confused, the projectile corkscrewed toward the moon and exploded. The helicopter moved beyond the compound's west wall, over the monastery's gardens, and vanished.
Jagger watched for a few more seconds. When it didn't reappear, he stepped closer to Father Leo. The youthful monk's splotchy beard, flowing black cassock, and—mostly—the smoking weapon still perched on his shoulder made him look more like a Taliban fighter than a man of God.
Jagger said, "Where'd you get that?"
Leo turned a big grin on him. "If only the rocket had been heat-seeking."
Leo let the launcher slide off his shoulder and fall to the stone ground. "I wish." He reached inside his cassock and pulled out a black shotgun. He pumped the forestock, chambering a shell.
"I need a gun," Jagger told him.
Leo's forehead creased. "Where's yours?"
As head of security for the archeological dig outside the east wall of the monastery, Jagger should have been armed to the teeth—at least better equipped than the monks—but Egypt enforced strict gun restrictions, especially among foreigners. Still, he had petitioned Gheronda, the monastery's abbot, for a firearm, and the old man had reluctantly given him a Ruger Super Redhawk Alaskan, a short-barreled .44 magnum revolver with a wicked recoil. "All the brothers are afraid of it," Gheronda had explained with a slight smile. It was Jagger's under one condition: he had to keep it locked in a pistol safe in his apartment. Far from ideal—how many bad guys waited around while you ran for your gun?—but it was better than nothing. Or maybe not. Not when you were making your rounds when the action started, as he had been just as someone tried to blow open the compound's main gate.
Jagger looked up to his third-floor apartment, where he hoped his wife and son were holed up in a makeshift panic room: a small closet with a bolted metal door, which Jagger had installed after the last attack on the monastery. "Beth has it," he told Father Leo, picturing his wife pointing the weapon at the door in a two-handed grip. Don't mess with Beth.
Leo reached into his cassock again and produced a semiautomatic Glock, a model 17 9mm. He handed it to Jagger, who ejected the magazine, checked it for bullets, shoved it back into the grip, and chambered a round. That done, the two of them turned toward the gate. The inner iron door—one of three that blocked the entrance— bulged inward. Smoke seeped through the edges and streamed up the wall like a waterfall in reverse. Five other monks—Fathers Bardas, Luca, Antoine, Mattieu, and Corban—stood or crouched in a thirty-foot semicircle around it. Three of them wore black cassocks and caps. Luca, obviously rousted from bed, had on a gray flannel nightshirt that fell to his knees; all he needed was a cloth nightcap—and thirty more years—to be Ebenezer Scrooge awakened by a ghost. Corban wore a brown bathrobe cinched tight around his waist; a silver pectoral cross hung over his chest. Each of them was pointing either a rifle or a handgun at the gate. They looked as incongruous and awkward as Clint Eastwood competing in the Miss USA pageant.
"Back away!" Jagger yelled. He gestured with RoboHand, his prosthetic forearm and clamping hook. "Hurry! Move!" The only way anyone was coming through would be if they detonated another explosive, which would most likely send the doors and surrounding stone walls hurling toward the monks.
Apparently, when the first explosion failed to breach the gate, the attackers had decided to use the helicopter to get in. Having encountered Leo's rocket, and with no way of knowing the one shot had exhausted his supply, their next move was anyone's guess.
"Only six of you?" Jagger said to Leo. "Where're the rest?"
"Not all of us are fighters. Not the kind you're used to."
"What kind are they?"
"Prayer warriors," Leo said. "You can bet they're engaging the enemy at this very moment."
"Wonderful," Jagger said. He scanned the grounds. The courtyard was wedge-shaped, about thirty feet at its widest point. It was formed by the front wall; the long basilica, which angled diagonally from the back of the courtyard toward the wall; and a structure built around the Well of Moses. No Disney-cute names here: supposedly it was the very well at which Moses met his future wife, Zipporah. Radiating out from the courtyard was a crazy jumble of buildings— constructed at odd angles, in various shapes and sizes and materials over the course of seventeen centuries—honeycombed by alleys, stairs, walkways, terraces, and tunnels. All of it was crammed into an area the size of a city block, hemmed in by ancient walls sixty feet high and nine feet thick.
Over the multileveled rooftops and terraces he could see the top floor of the Southwest Range Building at the far back of the compound. It stretched the entire length of the rear wall and, situated on high ground—the entire monastery was built on the sloping base of Mount Sinai—it appeared even larger than it was. In addition to a hospice, chapel, and monk cells, it housed a library and icon gallery, second only to the Vatican's in historic importance and monetary value. Whatever the attackers wanted, chances were it was there.
Behind the Southwest Range Building, the mountain on which Moses had received the Ten Commandments rose like a watchful presence, a charcoal silhouette against a slate sky. Jagger was thankful for the moon, which here in the Sinai always seemed closer to Earth than it did back in Virginia. Even in its current half-lit state, its radiance washed away many of the compound's shadows and gave the surfaces a silvery luminosity.
He turned in a circle and stopped when he was facing Father Leo. The monk held the shotgun in one hand, its muzzle pointed up. Feet apart, spine straight, eyes slowly scanning the top of the front wall, he looked ready for anything. No fear, just vigilance. Jagger wondered how many times the man had defended the monastery and if he'd known what he was getting into when he joined the order.
Jagger asked, "What are they after?"
Continuing his visual sweep across the wall's ramparts, Leo shook his head. "I don't know."
In the still air Jagger could hear the blades of the helicopter slowing, its engine dropping to a purr, then cutting off. It had landed in front of the gardens, on the opposite side of the monastery from the archaeological dig. He ran toward the compound's northwest corner, bounded up a long flight of stone stairs, and came to a patio in front of a row of unused monk cells. He climbed onto a railing and hoisted himself onto the porch's steeply sloping roof. After twice almost losing his footing, he reached the flat roof of the monk cells. It was only about eight feet from the porch roof to the exterior wall; "small" didn't even begin to describe the private living space the monks allowed themselves. Crossing it, he reached the compound's outer wall, the top of which came to his chest. He climbed up and crawled to the outside edge.
The helicopter sat in the faded edge of the light from lamps mounted on the outside wall. It was canted on the slope leading to the mountain opposite Mount Sinai, its blades turning as slowly as a rotisserie. The things scrambling out of its wide side door and running toward the monastery made Jagger's breath stop in his lungs.
A single word gripped his mind, momentarily paralyzing him: monsters.
Beth sat on the floor of the bedroom-closet-turned-panic-room, knees bent up in front of her, back to a side wall. By the light of a battery-powered, pull-chain light, she smiled assurances at Tyler, sitting against the opposite wall, frightened eyes, brave smile.
She said, "Everything's all right."
"How do you know?"
"Your father's out there. That's good enough for me." But she didn't blame him for being scared. The last time there was trouble at the monastery, the boy had been shot. That time the attackers had been the Tribe, a small remnant of the original forty who'd been cursed with immortality for their transgressions with the golden calf. They sought redemption by killing sinners, but through millennia of secrecy and violence, their motives and methods had twisted into behavior Beth believed God could never condone. Together the family had discovered that Jagger was like them, an Immortal—a revelation even he had found as startling as the existence of Immortals in the first place. A car crash nearly two years earlier had fragmented his memories, making them neither complete nor reliable. It had also killed a family beloved by the Bairds and taken Jagger's left arm.
Hearing the blasts outside, Beth wondered if the Tribe had returned.
Tyler was now fully recovered from the gunshot wound, largely thanks to possessing a bit of Jagger's incredible healing ability, but he'd almost died and the whole ordeal had been traumatic for everyone. On the bright side, Tyler had snapped out of his need to regress to an age when things were less complicated and scary, when he found comfort in a blankie and his thumb. It amazed her that an event that should have thrown him further into fearfulness and insecurity had instead made him one amazingly courageous and independent ten-year-old. He even wore around his neck the bullet they took out of him. She was proud of him for using it as a reminder of his victory over forces that had tried to kill him. She looked for it now, but his pajama top covered it.
"If everything's fine," Tyler said, "why do we have to be in here?"
"Because we promised Dad," she said. "Remember?"
Rolling his eyes, he made his voice deep and mimicked his father: "'Anything weird happens—gunshots, screams, little green men falling from the sky—get in there and bolt the door. Don't come out until you hear me on the other side.'"
She nodded and glanced at the rectangular metal door set flush to the wall above Tyler's head—the gun safe, just large enough to hold one handgun and a box of ammo. The lock was biometric: to open it, she or Jagger needed only to press a thumb on a square of black glass beside the door. She could get to it in seconds. Jagger wanted her to arm herself whenever she used the closet as a panic room—"If ever," she'd corrected him, truly believing he was being overcautious but loving him for it. She had also told him she'd wait until she needed the gun. Despite his teaching her and Tyler how to handle it safely, she didn't want to accidentally shoot herself or Tyler if something startled her while she was holding it in that tight space.
It was such a tight space, in fact, that if all three of them used it at once, Tyler would have to sit on one of their laps. She tried to imagine a situation in which Jagger ever would join them instead of fighting the threat, and she couldn't.
What had turned the closet into a panic room were a metal door, a special door-length hinge, four commercial-grade deadbolts, the gun safe, a light, and a bunch of supplies like batteries, a first-aid kit, freeze-dried food, two gallon jugs of water, and blankets.
She wished they'd invested in a satellite phone, though she didn't know whom she'd call. She didn't even know what the danger was. She had been washing the dinner dishes, Tyler had been brushing his teeth, and Jagger had been out making his evening rounds when they'd heard an explosion, and a tremor had run through the floor. Both her and Tyler's first inclination was to rush outside to see what happened, but she'd restrained herself and grabbed Tyler's arm. Then they'd heard shouting and doors slamming; that's when she'd guided her son into the panic room and locked the door. Since then, she thought she'd heard a helicopter, gunshots, and another explosion, this one farther off.
On the way into the closet she'd grabbed her Bible. She cracked it open now and turned to the book of John. It reminded her of God's active involvement in their lives, and she felt a tinge of hope. The Bible had been given to them by John the Apostle—also an Immortal and now using the name Owen Letois—who'd appeared at the monastery in time to save Tyler's life. And it was Owen who'd crashed his jet into the Tribe's drone control center, terminating their attack on Las Vegas. That he walked the earth was wondrous and miraculous; that she could call him friend was God bestowing a blessing on her family.
She read aloud: "Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid."
Tyler smiled, and his face visually calmed. What she wouldn't give to have the faith of a child. The Bible says it, so it must be true. She believed that too, but her adult mind had a propensity to overcomplicate, to put a but after every sentence: But bad things do happen ... but my husband is out there, no doubt right in the thick of whatever's happening ... but I'm still afraid.
"Read more," Tyler said, so she did.
As the assault team came more fully into the light, Jagger realized they weren't monsters, only men—wildly dressed and cosmetically made up. One, two, three, all of them gripping assault rifles, two with big packs bouncing on their backs. They seemed a ragtag bunch, no uniformity.
One was bald with a mustache and long, pointed goatee; black raccoon makeup over his eyes; no shirt, showing off layers of bulging muscles. Another, tall, maybe six five, six six, wore jungle commando garb: an olive flak vest, matching long-sleeved shirt, and many-pocketed pants. Long black hair flowed out from under a camo hat, the soft brim pinned up on the sides. Two dark lines ran diagonally over each cheek from the bridge of his nose: war paint. The massive gun he carried easily, as if it weighed nothing, appeared to be a .50-cal Browning machine gun—BMG—the kind meant to be mounted in the rear of a Jeep. An ammo belt ran from the weapon and looped over his shoulders.
And one, he realized, was a woman. Jagger's stomach tightened, but then he realized she wasn't Nevaeh, leader of the Tribe. Where Nevaeh was catlike, smooth, this woman moved in sharp, fast jerks, twitchy. She could have fronted a rock band: shiny leather vest fastened in front with studs—bare arms and cleavage suggested nothing underneath—studded wrist bands, leather pants.
A fourth attacker fast-walked into the brighter light, arms swinging like upside-down metronomes, and Jagger decided "ragtag" didn't cut it; insane fit the bill better. The guy was a character straight out of a steampunk graphic novel. A tight leather mask covered his face and head, stitches everywhere; round brass-framed goggles; where his mouth should have been, a ribbed gas-mask hose dangled, ending in a canister bouncing against his sternum. He wore a leather trench coat, buttoned from collar to midthigh. The material itself went all the way to his ankles. He was carrying a crossbow, a quiver of arrows on his back.
Movement caught Jagger's eye, and he saw a man standing on the opposite slope in line with the main gate. He seemed to have been there awhile, watching. He wore all black: a tee under a sport coat, snappy slacks, and gleaming dress boots with pointed toes. A fedora angled slightly over a movie star face, dark features, evening shadow, close-cropped mustache, and soul patch. One hand hovered over his chest, a smoldering cigarette between two fingers. The other hand rested on his hip. All casual, just waiting for the show to begin.
Which it did, with an overture of machine-gun fire. Bullets chipped away the stone edge in front of Jagger. Fragments pelted his forehead and cheeks. He scrambled back and jumped down to the roof. Going from there to the porch's roof, in the darkness he misjudged the distance and slope and tumbled forward. He twisted himself around, continued to roll, and felt the roof vanish under him. His right hand grabbed the edge, lost it. RoboHand shot to an upright patio-roof support and clamped it with vise-like strength. He snapped to a stop, dangling fifty feet above a stone walkway.
He hefted himself up and over the railing and clambered down the stairs. He found Leo and the other monks just off the courtyard, huddled together between the Well of Moses and the basilica. They'd heard him coming, and every gun was pointed his way.
"What was that?" Leo asked. "The shooting."
"I guess they wanted me off the wall."
Excerpted from THE JUDGMENT STONE by Robert Liparulo. Copyright © 2013 by Robert Liparulo. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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