The Magic Circle

( 16 )

Overview

When her cousin is slain by an unknown assassin, Ariel Behn becomes the sole heir to a family legacy: a sinister cache of manuscripts that thrusts her into the deadly center of international intrigue--and an age-old enigma that spans the centuries. Whoever assembles and interprets the cryptic clues of this ancient mystery will possess the power to control the fate of the world.

What strange powers lie hidden within the manuscripts? Splashed against a lavish backdrop that sweeps ...

See more details below
Paperback (Mass Market Paperback)
$7.27
BN.com price
(Save 9%)$7.99 List Price

Pick Up In Store

Reserve and pick up in 60 minutes at your local store

Other sellers (Paperback)
  • All (141) from $1.99   
  • New (13) from $4.30   
  • Used (128) from $1.99   
Sending request ...

Overview

When her cousin is slain by an unknown assassin, Ariel Behn becomes the sole heir to a family legacy: a sinister cache of manuscripts that thrusts her into the deadly center of international intrigue--and an age-old enigma that spans the centuries. Whoever assembles and interprets the cryptic clues of this ancient mystery will possess the power to control the fate of the world.

What strange powers lie hidden within the manuscripts? Splashed against a lavish backdrop that sweeps from the rise of the Roman Empire to the fall of the Berlin Wall, THE MAGIC CIRCLE finds one woman standing at the center of it all: Ariel Behn. As she races across continents to reveal the dark secrets buried in her family's past, she begins to unlock the chilling truth of the coming millennium. . . .

Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Neville's reach exceeds her grasp by a long shot in her chaotic third novel (after The Eight and A Calculated Risk), a bewildering attempt to blend historical fiction, New Age adventure and modern techno-thriller. Utah nuclear technician Ariel Behn receives a set of mysterious manuscripts from her Native American cousin Sam, who has narrowly survived their attempted theft. As possessor of the scrolls, Ariel finds her life in similar danger, especially after her company sends her to Russia with handsome, mysterious Wolfgang Hauser. During a torrid affair with Wolfgang, Ariel comes to suspect that he may be after the scrolls himself. At the same time, various members of her glamorous, far-flung family inform her that Hitler, Genghis Khan and the ancient Romans all sought the scrolls, which seem to hold the key to a secret power grid beneath the earth. Alternating family history with thorny historical passages, Neville brings the narrative back to Utah for a ludicrous wilderness showdown among the scrolls' pursuers. Neville has buried a decent story in so many expository layers of far-fetched historical gibberish and New Age nonsense that even her most devoted readers may find themselves exasperated.
Los Angeles Times
Not to be missed... Extraordinary... I've read nothing like it since the author's previous bestseller, The Eight.
The Seattle Times
A page-turner...A cerebral caper that crosses a thriller with a romance and a mystical quest.
Los Angeles Times
Not to be missed… Extraordinary… I've read nothing like it since the author's previous bestseller, The Eight.
Seattle Times
A page-turner…A cerebral caper that crosses a thriller with a romance and a mystical quest.
Kirkus Reviews
Like Neville's 1988 debut, The Eight, another daft, overstuffed, sprawling sofa of a yarn involving dozens of famous figures, places, and objects, along with a mysterious manuscript that nobody ever gets to read—oh, yeah, and the collapse of communism. Ariel Behn, a nuclear security worker and part-time code-breaker, is devastated when her beloved brother, Sam (he isn't really her brother and. well, it's complicated), turns up dead. Among other things, he had a manuscript for Ariel that, suddenly, all sorts of people are eager to lay their hands on. Then a decidedly undead Sam (bad guys tried to assassinate him and got the wrong man) contacts his sister and says he sent her the encoded document, though it's never arrived. The devilishly handsome Wolfgang Hauser of the International Atomic Energy Agency also shows an interest in the manuscript, as does Uncle Lafcadio, arriving from Austria, violin teacher Dacian Bassarides (Ariel's grandfather, we eventually learn), and Ariel's boss, Pastor Owen Dart. Meanwhile, in numerous historical asides, we meet Ariel's great-aunt Clio (she finds something important in the Sibyl's cave in 1890), Jesus, Aleister Crowley, Pontius Pilate, four Roman emperors, Joseph of Arimathea, Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, etc.

What are they all after? It seems a set of ancient sacred objects, or "Hallows," possess immense magical powers, and the manuscript describes—maybe locates—those objects. There's more than one manuscript, of course. Elsewhere, Ariel learns just how diverse and cosmopolitan her huge family is: Adolf Hitler, or "Lucky," was a close family friend; various other relatives turn out to be fascists; and wolfishWolfgang, a Nazi who's crazy about Ariel while he thinks she's thoroughly Aryan, is crushed to learn that her grandfather was a gypsy. The heroine's devastating discoveries concerning her family's murky history are intriguing and worthwhile; pity Neville didn't just junk the rest of it. Still, fans of The Eight should stagger away with bemused grins.

Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345423139
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/30/1999
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Pages: 560
  • Sales rank: 186,419
  • Product dimensions: 4.15 (w) x 6.87 (h) x 1.24 (d)

Meet the Author

Katherine Neville was a global executive in data processing and was a vice president of the Bank of America for many years. As an international consultant, she delivered computer systems for corporations and governments around the world. She was for some years a commercial photographer, professional model, and painter.

Katherine Neville's first novel, The Eight, was an international bestseller. Her second novel, A Calculated Risk, was a New York Times Notable Book. Her novels have been translated into more than fifteen languages. She lives in Virginia and abroad.

Read More Show Less

Read an Excerpt

Snake River, Idaho

Early Spring, 1989

It was snowing. It had been snowing for days. It seemed the snow would never end.

I had been driving through the thick of it since well before dawn. I stopped at midnight in Jackpot, Nevada, the only pink neon glow in the sky through hundreds of miles of rocky wasteland, in my long ascent from California back to Idaho, back to my job at the nuclear site. There at Jackpot, against the jangle of slot machines, I sat at a counter and ate a grilled, blood-rare steak with fries, chugged a glass of Scotch whiskey and washed it down with a mug of hot black coffee--the multi-ingredient cure-all my uncle Earnest had always recommended to remedy this kind of stress and heartache. Then I went back out into the cold black night and hit the road again.

If I hadn't stopped back in the Sierras when the first fresh snow came down for the half day of skiing I'd suddenly felt I needed to soothe my aching soul, I wouldn't have been in this predicament now, sailing along on black ice in the middle of nowhere. At least this was a nowhere that I knew well--every wrinkle of road along this trek from the Rockies to the coast. I'd crossed it often enough on business, for my job as a nuclear security expert. Ariel Behn, girl nuke. But the reason for this last jaunt was a business I'd just as soon have missed.

I could feel my body, against my will, slipping into autopilot on that long, monotonous stretch of snowy highway, as the dark waters of my mind started pulling me back to a place I knew I didn't want to go. As the miles clicked away, the snow swirled around me. I heard the crunch of my studded tires as the black ice flowed beneath me.

But I could not erase from my mind the dappled color of the grassy slope back there in California--the smoothly geometric pattern of those tombstones moving across it, those thin, thin layers of stone and grass. All that separated life from death--all that separated me from Sam--forever.

The grass was electric green--that shimmering, wonderful green that only exists in San Francisco and only at this time of year. Against the brilliant lawn, the chalk-white gravestones marched in undulating rows across the hill. Dark eucalyptus trees towered over the cemetery between the rows of markers, their silver leaves dripping with water. I looked through the tinted windows of the limousine as we pulled from the main road and doubled back into the Presidio.

I had driven this road so many times when in the Bay Area. It was the only route from the Golden Gate Bridge to the San Francisco Marina, and it passed directly by the military cemetery we were entering. Today, observing it up close and in slow motion, it was all so beautiful, so ravishing to the eye.

"Sam would have loved being here," I said aloud, speaking for the first time during the ride.

Jersey, sitting beside me in the limo, said curtly: "Well, after all, he is here, isn't he? Or what's all the hoopla about?"

At these close quarters, I caught a whiff of her breath.

"Mother, how much have you had to drink?" I said. "You smell like a brewery."

"Cutty Sark," she said with a smile. "In honor of the Navy."

"For God's sake, this is a funeral," I said irritably.

"I'm Irish," she pointed out. "We call it a wake: drink the buggers on their merry way. In my opinion, a far more civilized tradition..."

She was already having trouble with the three-syllable words. Inwardly, I was cringing, hoping she wouldn't try to give part of the eulogy that was to be delivered by the military at graveside. I wouldn't put anything past her--especially in this state of incipient inebriation. And Augustus and Grace--my well-starched father and stepmother, who disapproved of everything--were in the car just behind.

The limousines pulled through the iron gates of the Presidio cemetery and slid on past the funeral parlor. There would be no indoor service, and the coffin was already sealed for reasons pertaining, we'd been told, to national security. Besides, as we had also been told--more discreetly--it might be hard to recognize Sam. Families of bombing victims usually preferred not to be afforded that opportunity.

The line of cars moved along Lincoln Avenue and pulled up the drive, sheltered by brooding eucalyptus, at the far end of the cemetery. Several cars were already parked there--all with the recognizable white license plates of the U.S. government. Atop the small knoll was a freshly dug open grave with a cluster of men standing around it. One was an army pastor, and one with a long, thick braid of hair looked like the shaman I'd asked for. Sam would have liked that.

Our three limos pulled up in front of the government cars: Jersey and I in the family car, Augustus and Grace behind us, and Sam in the car up front in a lead-lined coffin. We all got out and started up the hill as they unloaded Sam from the hearse. Augustus and Grace stood quietly aside, not mingling--which I frankly appreciated, so Jersey's breath wouldn't be a problem. Unless someone lit a match near her.

A man with dark glasses and a trench coat separated from the gaggle of government types and moved over to speak a few words to the other two family members. Then he approached Jersey and me.

I suddenly realized we weren't dressed for a funeral. I was wearing the only black dress I owned, one with purple and yellow hibiscus all over it. Jersey was in a chic French suit, that particular shade of ice blue which was her trademark when she was on the stage, because it matched her eyes. I hoped no one would notice our lapse in protocol.

"Mrs. Behn," the man addressed Jersey, "I hope you don't mind waiting a few more minutes? The president would like to be here for the ceremony."

He didn't mean the president, of course, but a former president: the one Jersey called the Peanut Farmer, whom she'd performed for when he was in the White House.

"Hell no," said Jersey. "I don't mind waiting if Sam doesn't!"

Then she laughed, and I got another waft. Though I couldn't see the man's eyes behind those glasses, I noticed that his mouth tightened into a thin line. I stared at him in stony silence.

The helicopter was coming down across the road, settling on the Crissy Field landing strip beside the bay. Two dark-paned cars had driven out to meet it, and to collect our distinguished guest.

"Mrs. Behn," the shaded one went on, sotto voce, as if in a spy movie, "I'm instructed to tell you that the president, acting on behalf of our current administration, has arranged this morning's agenda. Although your son, as a civilian adviser, was not technically a member of the military, his death took place while he was performing a service for...I should say rather, operating in an advisory capacity to the military. Our government therefore plans to honor him appropriately. There will be a small ceremony; a military band will play; then the deceased will be given the seventeen-gun salute in farewell. After that, the president plans to present to you the Distinguished Service Medal."

"What for?" said Jersey. "I ain't the one who died, Sugar."

The ceremony had not gone exactly as planned.

After it was over, Augustus and Grace had retired to their suite atop the Mark Hopkins on Nob Hill, sending a message that they were "expecting me" to join them for dinner. Since it was just lunch time, I took Jersey to the Buena Vista to drink her lunch. We found a wooden table at the front windows, overlooking the wharves and the bay.

"Ariel, honey, I'm really sorry about what happened," said Jersey, tossing down her first glass of scotch as if it were milk.

"Sorry doesn't help," I said, repeating a line of hers from my childhood, when I'd done something wrong. "I'm having dinner with Augustus and Grace tonight. What the hell am I supposed to say to them?"

"Fuck them," said Jersey, looking at me with those famous icy blue eyes, which seemed surprisingly clear, given her recent dietary habits. "Tell them that I was startled by the guns. It's true. I was startled by those damned guns going off in my ear."

"You knew they were going to give a seventeen-gun salute," I pointed out. "I was there when the security agent told you. You were as drunk as a skunk. That's why you fell into the grave--good God--in front of all those people!"

Jersey looked up at me in injured pride, and I glared back.

But all at once I felt it coming over me, and I just couldn't help myself. I started laughing. First Jersey's expression changed to surprise; then she started laughing, too. We laughed until tears were streaming down our faces. We laughed until we could no longer catch our breath. We were choking with laughter and holding our sides, at the thought of my mother sprawled, ass up, six feet down in a hole in the ground, before they even had a chance to lower the coffin.

"Right in front of the Peanut Farmer and everything," Jersey practically screamed, and this set us off on another peal.

"Right in front of Augustus and Grace," I gasped between hysterical sobs.

It took a long time to run down, but at last we subsided into moans and chuckles. I wiped my tears with my napkin and leaned back with a sigh, holding my stomach, which was raw from laughter.

"I wish Sam could have seen what you did," I told Jersey, squeezing her arm. "It was so bizarre--just what tickled his funny bone. He would have died laughing."

"He died anyway," said Jersey. And she ordered another drink.

At seven o'clock I arrived at the Mark in the limo Augustus sent for me. He hired a car whenever he visited any city so he'd never have to degrade himself flagging down a cab. My father was into appearances. I told the driver to collect me at ten p.m. and take me back to the little Victorian inn where I was staying across the bridge. Three hours of Augustus and Grace, as I knew from experience, would be more than adequate.

Their penthouse hotel suite was large and filled with the lavish flower arrangements Grace required in any surroundings. Augustus opened the door when I knocked and regarded me sternly. My father was always elegant, with his silvery hair and tan complexion. Now, in a black cashmere blazer and gray trousers, he looked every bit the part of the feudal lord he'd been rehearsing for all his life.

"You're late," he said, glancing at his gold wristwatch. "You were to arrive at six-thirty so we could speak privately before dinner."

"This morning was enough of a family reunion for me," I told him.

I instantly regretted having alluded to the earlier events of the day.

"And that's something else I want to speak with you about: your mother," said Augustus. "First, what can I fix you to drink?"

"I had lunch with Jersey," I said. "I'm not sure I need anything much stronger than water."

Wherever Augustus went, he had a well-stocked bar set up, though he drank little himself. Maybe that's what went wrong when he and my mother were married.

"I'll fix you a spritzer; that's light," he said, and squirted the soda from a mesh-encased bottle, handing the wineglass to me.

"Where's Grace?" I asked, taking a sip as he mixed himself a light Scotch.

"She's lying down. She was quite upset by that little debacle your mother pulled this morning--and who can blame her? It was unforgivable." Augustus always referred to Jersey as your mother--as though I were responsible for her very existence, rather than the other way around.

"Actually," I told him, "I felt her display provided a well-needed touch of brightness to the entire morbid affair. I mean, I can't really imagine playing brass bands, shooting off guns, and giving someone a medal--all because, in the service of the U.S. government, he got himself blown to pieces like a dismembered patchwork quilt!"

"Don't change the subject on me, young lady," my father reprimanded me in his most authoritarian tone of voice. "Your mother's behavior was absolutely shocking. Deplorable. We were fortunate that reporters were not permitted."

Augustus would never use words like "disgusting" or "humiliating"; they were too subjective, involving personal emotion. He was only interested in the objective, the remote--things like appearance and reputation. Not feelings, which were ambiguous and beyond quantification.

In that regard, I was a good deal more like him than I cared to admit. But I still couldn't bear the fact that he was more interested in my mother's comportment at a social event than in Sam's brutal death.

"I wonder if people scream, when they die like that?" I asked aloud.

Augustus turned on his heel so I couldn't see his face. He went across to the bedroom door.

"I'll wake up Grace," he informed me over his shoulder, "so she'll be ready in time for dinner."

"I don't see how we can speak," said Grace, blotting her eyes, which were swollen with tears, and brushing a wisp of stark blonde hair from her forehead with the back of her wrist. "I don't see how we can eat. It's truly incredible to imagine how we can all be sitting here in a restaurant, trying to behave like human beings." Until that moment, it had never occurred to me that someone like Grace had ever visualized the concept of attempting to behave like a human being. Things were starting to look up.

I glanced around at the walls of the restaurant, which were done up with lattices covered in painted vines. They were scattered with a few tiny red lizards, which seemed to be basking in invisible sunlight. The table groupings were separated by large plantings of fresh chrysanthemums--flowers which are offered in tribute to the dead in all Italian cemeteries.

I'd begun and ended the day in a cemetery. Only that afternoon, I'd looked up the word in a bookstore. From Greek: koimeterion, a sleeping chamber; koiman, to put to sleep; cunae, a cradle. It was nice to think of Sam, wherever he was, as cradled in sleep.

"He was so young," Grace was saying between little sobs as she took another bite of steak tartare. She adjusted her diamond bracelet, adding the telltale words, "Wasn't he?"

The truth of the matter was, Grace had never met Sam in her life. My mother's divorce from Augustus had been nearly twenty-five years ago, and he and Grace had been married for little more than fifteen. In between was lots of proverbial water beneath the bridge, including how Sam got to be my brother without actually being the son of my mother or father. My family relations are rather complex.

But I had no time to think of that, for Grace had moved on to her favorite topic: money. As she switched to it, her tears miraculously dried and her eyes took on a luminous glow.

"We phoned the lawyers this afternoon from the suite," she told me, suddenly filled with buoyant enthusiasm. "The reading of the will, as you know, is tomorrow, and I think I should tell you that we got some good news. Though they won't give out the details, of course, it does appear that you are the principal heir!"

"Oh, goody," I said. "Sam hasn't been dead a week, and already I've profited. Did you dig out exactly how rich I'll be? Can I retire from my labors right now? Or are the tax folks likely to take most of it?"

"That's not what Grace meant, and you know it,"said Augustus, who was designing forms in his crème de volaille as I jabbed at the capers on my Scottish salmon. They rolled around the plate and evaded my fork. "Grace and I are only concerned for your own interest," he went on. "I didn't know Sam--at least not well--but I'm sure he cared a great deal for you. After all, you practically grew up as brother and sister, didn't you? And, as Earnest's only heir himself, Sam must have been very...well, comfortable financially?"

My late uncle Earnest, who'd been in the mining and mineral business, was my father's older brother, and rich as Midas. On top of that, he died with every cent he'd made, because spending money was of no interest to him. Sam was his only child.

When my parents, Augustus and Jersey, divorced, I was still very tiny. My mother ran around with me for a number of years, visiting all the capitals of the world. She was welcome in such places, since she'd been a famous singer long before marrying my father--which is how she met the Peanut Farmer and nearly everyone else of high social visibility. The Behn men had always liked flamboyant women. But, like my father, they often had trouble actually living with them.

Jersey had been drinking for years, but everyone expected opera singers to be swilling champagne as if it were water. It wasn't until Augustus announced his betrothal to Grace--a clone of Jersey at a similar age, but now twenty years her junior--that the bottle came out of Jersey's closet. She fled with me to Idaho, to consult my widowed, hermitlike uncle Earnest about financial matters (my father had invested all her earlier musical income in himself--another Behn male trait), and to everyone's surprise, Jersey and Earnest fell in love.

And I--a child who'd grown up like Eloise at the Plaza, eating pacirc;t´ de foie gras before I could pronounce it--suddenly found myself in the middle of a nowhere that I now, nearly twenty years later, called home.

So my father's question, seemingly vague, was really direct and to the point. My mother, married to two consecutive brothers, had actually stopped drinking during Earnest's lifetime. Knowing her as he did, though, Earnest left his all money to Sam, with a proviso to take care of her and of me "as he deemed best." And now Sam himself was dead. In all likelihood, his death made me a multimillionaire.

Uncle Earnest died seven years ago, when I'd just entered college, and none of us had seen Sam since. He simply vanished. Jersey and I got our two checks every month. She drank hers, and I put mine into an account and left it there. Meanwhile, I did something radical--something the Behn family women had never done. I got a job.

It was when I started working as a nuclear security officer, my first week on the job, that I heard from Sam. He phoned at my office, though God knows how he knew where I was.

"Hi, hotshot," Sam said--his favorite name for me ever since we were children. "You've broken a family tradition: no high notes or high kicks in the chorus line?"

"'Life upon the wicked stage ain't ever what a girl supposes.'" I quoted from my vast, unsolicited musical repertoire. But was I ever happy to hear his voice. "Where have you been all these years, blood brother? You don't need gainful employment, I gather, now that you're the full-time family benefactor. Thanks for all the checks."

"In fact," Sam corrected me, "I'm gainfully employed by a variety of governments that shall remain unnamed. I provide a service no one else can--with the possible exception of those who've been hand-trained by me, a group of one. Maybe one day you'll consider going into a joint venture?"

And that cryptic hint of a job offer was the last I'd heard of Sam until my phone call from the executor.

I felt the tires start to suck under the snow. The whole car was sliding, pulling with a riptide force off the road.

Adrenaline rushed with a hot gush up to my brain as I snapped to and gripped the steering wheel. With all my strength, throwing my whole weight behind it, I yanked those massive tons of steel back from the edge of the shoulder. But now I was hurtling in the opposite direction, out of control.

Bloody hell, I couldn't run off the road! There was nothing out there but snow, and more snow. It was so black, the snowfall so thick, I couldn't even see what was beyond the road on either side--maybe a sheer drop. I heard my mind, as if inside a well, screaming "Fool! Fool!" while I racked my brain trying to recall when I'd passed the last light in the abyss out there--fifty miles back? One hundred?

As these panicky thoughts ran through my mind, with that dual processing ability we come equipped with, I was still able to marshall my muscles and juices to try to bring the car back under control. I rocked it back and forth like a yo-yo trying to prevent it from spinning out, trying to feel beneath me--as I would under a pair of skis--the tires hydroplane on the new snow that had now formed a slick, waxy surface atop the lethal deeper layer of diamond-hard black ice.

It seemed forever until I felt I was winning the wrestling match, and the rhythm of the thousands of pounds of steel started to move toward a center of balance. I was shaking like a leaf as I let it slow to thirty, twenty-five. I took a deep breath and started it back up again, knowing as I did--as a mountain girl--that you never stop completely when the snow's coming down like that, or you may never get momentum again.

As I moved on into the black and empty night, casting up a few prayers of gratitude, I shook my head, slapped my face hard a few times to get back to reality, and rolled down the car window to let the blizzard come in and swirl around inside. Needles of snow cut my skin; I took a deep breath of icy air and held it in my lungs for a minute. I wiped my stinging eyes with the back of my glove, then yanked off the ski cap I'd been wearing and shook my hair around wildly in the whirling wind that was battering around inside the car, blowing bits of paper in its wake. By the time I rolled the window back up, I had returned to reality greatly sobered. What the hell was wrong with me?

Of course, I knew what was wrong. Sam was dead, and I was having trouble visualizing life on this planet without him. It was what a schizophrenic might call being "beside yourself" with grief. Though I hadn't seen or heard much from Sam these past seven years, he was always there in everything I did. In a way, he was the only real family I'd ever had. For the first time I realized that in his absence I had conversations with him in my mind. Now, I had no one to talk to, even in my head.

But I wasn't about to join Sam in the happy hunting grounds this moment. Certainly not by flunking an intelligence test out here on the midnight road. It was then that I noticed the glow in the distance that I could just make out through the thick lacy curtain of snow. It was large enough to be a town, and there weren't that many out here in the high desert. It looked like home to me.

But the adventure was not quite over.

I pulled up on the road above the house--which contained the charming root cellar I called home--and looked down in exhausted frustration. The driveway had disappeared, vanished in the whipped-cream snow that had drifted above the first-floor windows. After days of grueling combat driving, it seemed I now had to face a dig-in to reach the house at all, much less uncover my fathoms-deep basement apartment. That's what I deserved for living in a cellar in Idaho--just like a goddamned potato.

I turned off the ignition and sat in the car, looking in gloomy silence down the steep hill where the drive used to be, and trying to figure out what to do. Like all mountain folk, I traveled with emergency supplies in all seasons--sand, salt and water, thermal underclothes, waterproof footgear, fire making supplies, jump starters, ropes and chains--but I had no shovel. Even if I had, I'd be incapable of moving enough snow to get my car down that drive.

I sat there, mindlessly numb, watching the soft, sifting shroud of falling snow dropping silently around my car. Sam would say something funny just now, I thought. Or maybe jump out and start dancing in the snow--a snow dance, as if he were taking credit for the handiwork of the gods...

I shook my head again and tried to snap out of it. I heard the phone ringing in my apartment below. The lights were off in the main house, suggesting that my eccentric, if adorable, Mormon landlord had gone off to the mountains to catch the fresh powder for tomorrow's skiing--or perhaps over to the temple to pray for the driveway to clear itself.

Much as I hated mucking about in deep powder, I understood that the only way to traverse the steep gap between the house and the car was to ski. Luckily, my lightweight cross-country boots and skis were in back with the other survival gear--if I could only manage to follow the line where the drive should be. Our yawning chasm of a front lawn, nearly invisible beneath the drifts by now, might seem as bottomless and lethal as quicksand if I fell into it. And it also meant I'd have to abandon my car up here on the road for the night, where it would vanish, too, if the snowplows came through at dawn before I could rescue it.

I yanked the skis from the car, as well as my dufflebag and the few belongings I thought I could carry over my shoulder, and I set them out on the flat road. I was rummaging for my boots when, through the side window, I saw my mailbox--identified by the little flag rising like a gay beacon from a drift--and suddenly recalled I'd forgotten to stop my mail when I'd left so hastily for the funeral. Slamming the car door shut and hanging onto the handle for balance, I swept off the mound and extracted the mail that must have been building up all week; it was more than I'd imagined. So with my other hand I let go the door handle and reached for the dufflebag, unintentionally stepping slightly away from the car.

With that first step, I sank into snow up to my waist and I kept on sinking. I felt the fear clutching at me as I struggled against myself to keep from panicking. I knew that thrashing about would only make me sink faster. I'd lived in these parts long enough to hear of many folks who'd been smothered, sinking into bottomless snow--where they couldn't move arms or legs to free themselves. And the second I started to sink, it also occurred to me that I'd departed for the funeral with little fanfare--telling my boss only that there'd been a death in the family and leaving a cryptic note for my landlord. It was entirely possible, even if my car were found, that no one would find me until after the spring melt!

I tossed the disabling pile of mail up onto the road--under the car so it wouldn't sink into the drifts and vanish, too. I managed to get one elbow propped on the solid surface, clawing with my other hand until I could twist enough to get both arms flat on the road. When I pushed myself up, it felt like vaulting from a swimming pool with fifty-pound weights on my legs: it wrung out every ounce of energy I had. I lay flat on my stomach on the road, shaking and hot with fear and exhaustion. It didn't last long; soon the chills set in as the clinging ice from my full-body dip in that snow bank saturated my inadequately waterproofed clothes.

I staggered to my feet and yanked the car door open. Cold, soaked, thoroughly wiped out, I was furious with myself. Wasn't Jack London's "To Build a Fire" required reading for mountain children? About a chap who goes out in the tundra at sixty below, against all advice and precaution. He freezes to death. Very slowly. Not what I had on my agenda.

I pulled the cross-country boots from the car, laced them with stiff fingers in soggy gloves, snapped on my long, featherweight Nordic skis, stuffed the bundle of mail in the duffel, slung it over my shoulder, and slalomed down to the back door. Why hadn't I tried that as my first idea, and bypassed Mr. Postman until morning?

The phone was again ringing as I kicked off my skis, threw open the door, and half tumbled--along with a mess of powder--down the steep stairway to my cozy dungeon fortress. At least, it had been cozy when I'd left it a week ago.

I flicked on the lights, and saw the ice caking the inside of the windows like a frozen waterfall, and patterns of crystals formed on the mirrors and picture glass like something out of Dr. Zhivago. Softly cursing my damned landlord, who turned down my heat to spare expense whenever I left the building, I kicked off the dripping boots before I stepped onto the orientals, raced across the open, book-lined living room, and made a dive into pillows to grab the phone on the floor.

I kicked myself at once for even picking it up: it was Augustus.

"Why did you leave?" were the first words out of his mouth. "Grace and I have been nearly at our wits' end, trying to find you. Where have you been?"

"Having fun playing in the snow," I told him, rolling over on my back in the pillows and cradling the phone to my ear. "I thought the party was over; were there other treats in store?" I unbuttoned my wet trousers and tried to wriggle out of them, so I didn't get pneumonia down here in this bitterly cold dungeon--or, more likely, develop mold. I could see my breath in the air.

"Your sense of humor has always seemed to me ill-timed, at best," Augustus informed me coolly. "Or perhaps only your sense of timing. When you vanished just after the reading of the will, we phoned your hotel only to learn you had checked out earlier that same morning. But once we'd heard the will, of course, Grace and I had agreed to a press conference...."

"A press conference?!" I said, sitting bolt upright in astonishment. I tried to keep the phone to my ear as I yanked myself out of my wet parka and pulled off my sweater, but I only caught Augustus' last words:

"...must be yours as well."

"What must be mine?" I asked. I rubbed my hands hard over my goosebumpy body, stood up and dragged the phone over to the fireplace. I was stuffing pinecones and paper under the pile of logs inside as Augustus replied.

"The manuscripts, naturally. Everyone knew Sam had inherited them, how very valuable they must be. But after Earnest's death no one could locate Sam; he seemed to have been swallowed up. When I tried to discuss it before, and even during dinner, after the funeral, you seemed to want to avoid the issue. But now that it's known you're not only Sam's principal heir but his sole heir, naturally matters have changed..."

"Naturally?" I said with impatience as I lit the match under the kindling and watched with relief as the flames leapt up at once. "I have no idea what manuscripts you're talking about!"

And stranger still, I thought, regardless of what they might be worth, why on earth would someone with my father's predilection for privacy ever dream of agreeing to a press conference over it? It was more than suspicious.

"You mean you don't know of them?" Augustus was saying in an odd voice. "How can that be, when the Washington Post, London Times, and International Tribune were all here? Of course, there was nothing we could say, since the manuscripts were not in the hands of the executor--and you had vanished as well."

"Maybe you could clue me in, before I freeze to death," I said between clenched and chattering teeth. "What are these manuscripts Sam left me--no, let me guess: Francis Bacon's letters to Ben Jonson, admitting that Bacon really did--as we've always suspected--write all Shakespeare's plays."

To my surprise, Augustus didn't miss a beat. "They're worth a good deal more than that," he informed me. And my father was a man who understood the meanings of words like worth and value. "The very moment you learn anything about them, as I've no doubt you will," he went on, "you must notify me or our attorneys at once. I don't think you quite appreciate the position you are in."

Okay, I thought. I'll give this one more try. I took a deep breath.

"No, I suppose not," I agreed. "Could you see your way to share with me, father, what the whole world already seems to know? What are these manuscripts?"

"Pandora's," Augustus said curtly, the name sounding bitter as acid in his mouth.

Pandora was my grandmother--my father's loving mother, who'd abandoned him at birth. Though I'd never met her, by all accounts she'd been the most colorful, flamboyant, and outrageous of all the Behn women. And with our family tree, that was saying something.

"Pandora had manuscripts?" I asked my father. "What kind?"

"Oh, diaries, letters--correspondence with the great and near-great--that sort of thing," he said in a dismissive tone. Then casually, he added, "It's possible she might have even written a memoir of sorts."

I might not see eye-to-eye with my father on most things, but I knew him well enough to know when he was pulling my chain. He must have been calling here every fifteen minutes for the past two days; that's why I'd heard the phone ring twice during my brief foray outside. If he was in so much of a panic to reach me, and this stuff was so hot he had to give in to a press conference, why was he playing footsie with me now?

"Why all the belated interest?" I asked. "I mean, granny dearest has been dead for years, right?"

"It's generally believed that Pandora left these manuscripts in trust to the...other side of the family," my father said stiffly. I started thinking just how complex my family relations actually were. "Earnest must have had them under lock and key for decades, for he had many offers," Augustus went on. "But he couldn't evaluate their true value, because apparently they were all written in some sort of code. Then your cousin Sam..."

Holy cow!

I stood there before the fire in my skivvies, phone in hand, as my father's voice flapped on like meaningless noise in the background. Good lord--they were in code.

Sam had vanished just when his father Earnest died. He was out of touch for seven years, and now he was dead. And what event coincided with that hiatus? His inheritance, including, perhaps, that of these manuscripts. And what was Sam better at than anyone on earth? What was his profession and calling? What had he spent his lifetime teaching me, that got me my very well-paying job? He broke codes.

Sam was a code breaker, maybe one of the best in the world. If Sam knew about these manuscripts of granny's, it would have been far too hard for him to resist having a look, especially if his father wanted to determine their value. He must have seen them--perhaps broken them--long before Earnest died. Of that, I was certain. So where were they now? But there was a question more crucial to me at this moment, given my own unique situation:

What was in my grandmother's diaries, which I had now technically inherited, that was so dangerous it had gotten Sam killed?

Read More Show Less

First Chapter

CHAPTER ONE

The Cave

And they do not know the future mystery, or understand ancient matters. And they do not know what is going to happen to them; and they will not save their souls from the future mystery.

--Prophecy of the Essenes The Dead Sea Scrolls

Now has come the last age of the song of Cumae. From the renewed spirit of the Ages a new Order is born. Now the Virgin returns, the reign of Saturn returns. Now a new generation is sent down from heaven on high.

--Messianic Prophecy of the Sibyl Virgil's Fourth Eclogue

Cumae, Italy Autumn, A.D. 1870

It was just before dusk. The ancient volcanic Lake Avernus, high above Cumae, seemed to float in the air, partly veiled with a thin, metallic haze. Between the patches of mist, the lake's glassy surface mirrored opalescent clouds, scudding across the crescent sliver of the moon.

The walls of the crater were wild with scrub oak, changing color from bloodred to purple in the descending twilight. The aroma of the dark sulfurous lake filled the air with the eerie sense of danger. The very landscape of this ancient, hallowed spot seemed to be waiting for something, something that had been foretold for thousands of years. Something that was about to happen tonight.

As the darkness deepened, a figure slipped stealthily from the trees bordering the water's edge. It was followed swiftly in the darkness by three others. Though all four were dressed in sturdy leather breeches, jerkins, and helmets, it was clear by form and bearing that their leader was a woman. Over her shoulder she carried a pickaxe, a roll of oiled tarpaulin, sturdy rope, and other climbing gear. Her male companions followed silently, skirting the rim to the far side of the lake until they reached the spot that they'd located from the crudely drawn map in their possession.

The woman moved back into the shadows, where a thick cluster of trees camouflaged an abutment of overhanging cliff. In darkness, she felt along the sheer face of vine-covered rock until she'd once more found the hidden crevasse. Pulling on heavy gloves, she loosened the rubble she'd so carefully replaced earlier. Her heart pounded as she slipped sideways through the narrow cleft in the rock, followed by her three companions.

Now inside the cliff, the woman quickly unrolled the tarpaulin. With the help of the others she stuffed it into the crack so that not even the smallest trace of light from the cave could be observed outside. Then she pulled off her metal helmet in the darkness and lit the carbide miner's lamp affixed to it. Tossing back her mane of blonde hair, she gazed at her three rugged companions, whose eyes glittered in the lamplight. Then she turned to look at the cave.

Carved from the lava rock, the walls of the vast cavern rose more than one hundred feet above them. It took her breath away when she realized they stood at the edge of a sheer cliff that dropped off into the pitch-black void. She could hear the sound of rushing water from what seemed hundreds of feet below. This was the passage that had once led those seeking the mysteries deep within the bowels of this extinct volcano. This was the legendary place sought by so many over so many centuries, the cavern that had once served as home to the most ancient of all prophets: the Sibylline Oracle.

Now, as she shone the lamp across the glistening walls, the woman knew there could be no mistaking what she'd found. The cave was exactly as described by those who'd visited here from earliest times--Heraclitus, Plutarch, Pausanius, and the poet Virgil, who'd immortalized this grotto in verse as the site of Aeneas' entry into the underworld. Indeed, she knew that she and her three comrades could well be the first to have laid eyes on this fabled spot in two millennia.

When the emperor Augustus had seized power in Rome in 27 b.c., his first act had been to round up any written copies of the Sibylline Oracles. He'd burned any he had deemed "inauthentic"--those that did not support his tenure, or which had prophetically heralded the return of the Republic. Then he'd ordered the Cumaean grotto sealed, and its official entrance, located not here but at the base of the volcano, was buried beneath a mountain of rubble. All trace of the famous cave's existence had been lost to mankind. Until now.

The young woman set down her gear and once again pulled on her mining helmet with its small beacon of light. Extracting from her leather jerkin the crudely drawn map she'd brought, she handed it to the tallest of the three men. She addressed him aloud for the first time.

"Aszi, you will come with me," she told him. "Your brothers must remain here and guard this entrance. For if we can make no progress below, this crevasse will have to be our only avenue of escape." Turning to the sheer cliff, she added, undaunted, "I shall make the first descent."

But he'd taken her by the wrist. His handsome face searched hers with great concern. Then he drew her to him and gently kissed her forehead.

"No, let me go down first, Clio," he said. Then he added, with a smile, "I was born on the rocks, you know, carita; I can climb like a goat. My brothers will lower you after me." When she shook her head, he told her, "Despite what your father may have sketched out on this map before he died, it's just one man's scholarly opinion, formed only from reading dusty books. Even through all his travels, your father could never find the place, and you know well that oracles are often dangerous. The one at Delphi kept a brood of deadly pythons in her cave. You can't know what we'll find in the shrine you imagine is down there, in the dark."

Clio shuddered at the thought, and the two strapping young men nodded in support of their brother's bravery. Aszi lit a second lamp, which he clipped onto his own helmet. The men lashed down the heavy rope, and their younger brother, with only his bare hands on hemp, used his hobnailed boots to clear the wall and vanished with a brief, flashing smile into the darkness.

After what seemed a very long while, the rope swung loose, so they knew he had touched bottom. Clio passed her own rope between her legs to form a harness, which the brothers secured to the main line as double protection if she slipped. Then she, too, went over the side.

As Clio descended the sheer rock face, alone and in silence, she studied the schist in the light of her lamp as if it contained the key to some riddle. If walls had ears, she thought, this one might reveal thousands of years of mysteries. Just like the Sibyl herself, a woman who could see all of the future and past.

The oldest oracle in history, a woman who lived in many lands, over hundreds of generations, the Sibyl was born on Mount Ida, from which the gods once overlooked the war on the plains of Troy. More than five hundred years before Christ, the Sibyl traveled to Rome, where she offered to sell to king Tarquin the books of her prophecies spanning the next twelve thousand years. When he refused to meet her price she burned the first three volumes, then the next three, until only three books were left. Tarquin did buy these, and he enshrined them in the Temple of Jupiter, where they remained until that, too, burned to the ground, along with its precious contents.

The Sibyl's vision was so profound and far-reaching, she had been granted any wish by the gods. She asked to live for one thousand years, but she forgot to ask for youth. As the end of her life approached, she had shrunk so small that nothing remained but her voice, which still prophesied from a little glass ampulla placed in this ancient cave of the mysteries. People traveled from far and wide to hear her song--until Augustus silenced her, for eternity, with Neapolitan clay.

Clio hoped beyond hope that the information her father had gleaned from his wealth of readings in ancient texts, a vision he'd only really understood on his deathbed, would prove to be true. Whether true or not, to follow the overriding wish of a dying man had already cost her everything she'd known in her young life.

When she reached bottom, she felt Aszi's strong hands grasp her waist, helping her to gain her footing on the slippery rocks that bordered the onrushing underground river.

They walked for more than an hour through the caverns beneath the volcano, following the directions her father had laid forth on the map. At last they came to the hollow, high in the rock, beneath which the Sibyl's successors, young country women, had for centuries sat on a golden throne--now a mass of crumbled stones--transmitting the oracles passed down from the mind of the ancient goddess. Aszi stopped beside Clio, then unexpectedly bent to her and kissed her on the lips. He smiled.

"You are nearly free," he said.

Without another word, he bounded up the tumble of rock to the hollow, scaling the last length of cliff with his hands. Clio held her breath as he gained a purchase against the rock with his boots and stretched to reach into the high hollow, feeling about in the dark hole above his head. After a long moment, he drew something out.

When he returned, he handed it to Clio. It was a shimmering object, like a tiny vial, not much larger than her palm. Clio had never believed that the Sibyl's voice was contained in an ampulla, but rather that the ancient vial held her prophetic words. Her prophecies, Plutarch had said, were written on small bits of metal, so light and fragile that, when released, they were borne away on the wind.

Clio carefully opened the vial and the tiny leaves tumbled out into her palm, each the size of a fingernail, and each inscribed in Greek. She touched one leaf and looked into Aszi's dark purple eyes gazing into her own.

"What does it say?" he whispered.

"In Greek? I don't know what the others say, but this one says, ÔHen to Pan,'" she told him, looking at the leaf. "It means ÔOne is All.'"

The Sibyl had foretold what would happen at each critical turning point in history--and more important, how it was connected to each critical event of the past. It was said that she'd predicted the dawn of a new celestial age, the Age of Pisces, the fish, immediately following her own, whose avatar would be a virgin-born king. The Sibyl could see mysterious connections, like spider threads spanning thousands of years, connecting the age of Pisces with that of Aquarius, the water-bearer, an age that would not dawn until twenty centuries later--which would be just about now.

As Clio slipped the leaves back into the vial and prepared to return to the surface, she feared she knew what this moment really meant. As her father had always imagined, by unearthing a bottle like this, a bottle filled with time, perhaps she'd opened a door that should have remained closed, a Pandora's box.

Tonight the Sibyl's song, which had lain mute in darkness beneath the volcano, had been reawakened for the first time in nearly two thousand years. Cleo and Aszi began their long walk through the caves, back to the surface.

The Witness

I only am escaped alone to tell thee, My thought darkened as by wind, the water...

There's always someone has to tell them, isn't there? Someone chosen by the chance of seeing, By the accident of sight, By the stumbling on the moment of it, Unprepared, unlearned, unready, Thinking of nothing, and it happens, and he sees it. Caught in that inextricable net Of having witnessed, having seen.

It was I. I only. I alone. The moment Closed us together in its gaping grin Of horrible incredulity.

I only. I alone, to tell thee... I who have understood nothing, have known Nothing, have been answered nothing.

--JB Archibald MacLeish

God always wins.

--JB Archibald MacLeish

Snake River, Idaho Early Spring, 1989

It was snowing. It had been snowing for days. It seemed the snow would never end.

I had been driving through the thick of it since well before dawn. I stopped at midnight in Jackpot, Nevada, the only pink neon glow in the sky through hundreds of miles of rocky wasteland, in my long ascent from California back to Idaho, back to my job at the nuclear site. There at Jackpot, against the jangle of slot machines, I sat at a counter and ate a grilled, blood-rare steak with fries, chugged a glass of Scotch whiskey and washed it down with a mug of hot black coffee--the multi-ingredient cure-all my uncle Earnest had always recommended to remedy this kind of stress and heartache. Then I went back out into the cold black night and hit the road again.

If I hadn't stopped back in the Sierras when the first fresh snow came down for the half day of skiing I'd suddenly felt I needed to soothe my aching soul, I wouldn't have been in this predicament now, sailing along on black ice in the middle of nowhere. At least this was a nowhere that I knew well--every wrinkle of road along this trek from the Rockies to the coast. I'd crossed it often enough on business, for my job as a nuclear security expert. Ariel Behn, girl nuke. But the reason for this last jaunt was a business I'd just as soon have missed.

I could feel my body, against my will, slipping into autopilot on that long, monotonous stretch of snowy highway, as the dark waters of my mind started pulling me back to a place I knew I didn't want to go. As the miles clicked away, the snow swirled around me. I heard the crunch of my studded tires as the black ice flowed beneath me.

But I could not erase from my mind the dappled color of the grassy slope back there in California--the smoothly geometric pattern of those tombstones moving across it, those thin, thin layers of stone and grass. All that separated life from death--all that separated me from Sam--forever.

The grass was electric green--that shimmering, wonderful green that only exists in San Francisco and only at this time of year. Against the brilliant lawn, the chalk-white gravestones marched in undulating rows across the hill. Dark eucalyptus trees towered over the cemetery between the rows of markers, their silver leaves dripping with water. I looked through the tinted windows of the limousine as we pulled from the main road and doubled back into the Presidio.

I had driven this road so many times when in the Bay Area. It was the only route from the Golden Gate Bridge to the San Francisco Marina, and it passed directly by the military cemetery we were entering. Today, observing it up close and in slow motion, it was all so beautiful, so ravishing to the eye.

"Sam would have loved being here," I said aloud, speaking for the first time during the ride.

Jersey, sitting beside me in the limo, said curtly: "Well, after all, he is here, isn't he? Or what's all the hoopla about?"

At these close quarters, I caught a whiff of her breath.

"Mother, how much have you had to drink?" I said. "You smell like a brewery."

"Cutty Sark," she said with a smile. "In honor of the Navy."

"For God's sake, this is a funeral," I said irritably.

"I'm Irish," she pointed out. "We call it a wake: drink the buggers on their merry way. In my opinion, a far more civilized tradition..."

She was already having trouble with the three-syllable words. Inwardly, I was cringing, hoping she wouldn't try to give part of the eulogy that was to be delivered by the military at graveside. I wouldn't put anything past her--especially in this state of incipient inebriation. And Augustus and Grace--my well-starched father and stepmother, who disapproved of everything--were in the car just behind.

The limousines pulled through the iron gates of the Presidio cemetery and slid on past the funeral parlor. There would be no indoor service, and the coffin was already sealed for reasons pertaining, we'd been told, to national security. Besides, as we had also been told--more discreetly--it might be hard to recognize Sam. Families of bombing victims usually preferred not to be afforded that opportunity.

The line of cars moved along Lincoln Avenue and pulled up the drive, sheltered by brooding eucalyptus, at the far end of the cemetery. Several cars were already parked there--all with the recognizable white license plates of the U.S. government. Atop the small knoll was a freshly dug open grave with a cluster of men standing around it. One was an army pastor, and one with a long, thick braid of hair looked like the shaman I'd asked for. Sam would have liked that.

Our three limos pulled up in front of the government cars: Jersey and I in the family car, Augustus and Grace behind us, and Sam in the car up front in a lead-lined coffin. We all got out and started up the hill as they unloaded Sam from the hearse. Augustus and Grace stood quietly aside, not mingling--which I frankly appreciated, so Jersey's breath wouldn't be a problem. Unless someone lit a match near her.

A man with dark glasses and a trench coat separated from the gaggle of government types and moved over to speak a few words to the other two family members. Then he approached Jersey and me.

I suddenly realized we weren't dressed for a funeral. I was wearing the only black dress I owned, one with purple and yellow hibiscus all over it. Jersey was in a chic French suit, that particular shade of ice blue which was her trademark when she was on the stage, because it matched her eyes. I hoped no one would notice our lapse in protocol.

"Mrs. Behn," the man addressed Jersey, "I hope you don't mind waiting a few more minutes? The president would like to be here for the ceremony."

He didn't mean the president, of course, but a former president: the one Jersey called the Peanut Farmer, whom she'd performed for when he was in the White House.

"Hell no," said Jersey. "I don't mind waiting if Sam doesn't!"

Then she laughed, and I got another waft. Though I couldn't see the man's eyes behind those glasses, I noticed that his mouth tightened into a thin line. I stared at him in stony silence.

The helicopter was coming down across the road, settling on the Crissy Field landing strip beside the bay. Two dark-paned cars had driven out to meet it, and to collect our distinguished guest.

"Mrs. Behn," the shaded one went on, sotto voce, as if in a spy movie, "I'm instructed to tell you that the president, acting on behalf of our current administration, has arranged this morning's agenda. Although your son, as a civilian adviser, was not technically a member of the military, his death took place while he was performing a service for...I should say rather, operating in an advisory capacity to the military. Our government therefore plans to honor him appropriately. There will be a small ceremony; a military band will play; then the deceased will be given the seventeen-gun salute in farewell. After that, the president plans to present to you the Distinguished Service Medal."

"What for?" said Jersey. "I ain't the one who died, Sugar."

The ceremony had not gone exactly as planned.

After it was over, Augustus and Grace had retired to their suite atop the Mark Hopkins on Nob Hill, sending a message that they were "expecting me" to join them for dinner. Since it was just lunch time, I took Jersey to the Buena Vista to drink her lunch. We found a wooden table at the front windows, overlooking the wharves and the bay.

"Ariel, honey, I'm really sorry about what happened," said Jersey, tossing down her first glass of scotch as if it were milk.

"Sorry doesn't help," I said, repeating a line of hers from my childhood, when I'd done something wrong. "I'm having dinner with Augustus and Grace tonight. What the hell am I supposed to say to them?"

"Fuck them," said Jersey, looking at me with those famous icy blue eyes, which seemed surprisingly clear, given her recent dietary habits. "Tell them that I was startled by the guns. It's true. I was startled by those damned guns going off in my ear."

"You knew they were going to give a seventeen-gun salute," I pointed out. "I was there when the security agent told you. You were as drunk as a skunk. That's why you fell into the grave--good God--in front of all those people!"

Jersey looked up at me in injured pride, and I glared back.

But all at once I felt it coming over me, and I just couldn't help myself. I started laughing. First Jersey's expression changed to surprise; then she started laughing, too. We laughed until tears were streaming down our faces. We laughed until we could no longer catch our breath. We were choking with laughter and holding our sides, at the thought of my mother sprawled, ass up, six feet down in a hole in the ground, before they even had a chance to lower the coffin.

"Right in front of the Peanut Farmer and everything," Jersey practically screamed, and this set us off on another peal.

"Right in front of Augustus and Grace," I gasped between hysterical sobs.

It took a long time to run down, but at last we subsided into moans and chuckles. I wiped my tears with my napkin and leaned back with a sigh, holding my stomach, which was raw from laughter.

"I wish Sam could have seen what you did," I told Jersey, squeezing her arm. "It was so bizarre--just what tickled his funny bone. He would have died laughing."

"He died anyway," said Jersey. And she ordered another drink.

At seven o'clock I arrived at the Mark in the limo Augustus sent for me. He hired a car whenever he visited any city so he'd never have to degrade himself flagging down a cab. My father was into appearances. I told the driver to collect me at ten p.m. and take me back to the little Victorian inn where I was staying across the bridge. Three hours of Augustus and Grace, as I knew from experience, would be more than adequate.

Their penthouse hotel suite was large and filled with the lavish flower arrangements Grace required in any surroundings. Augustus opened the door when I knocked and regarded me sternly. My father was always elegant, with his silvery hair and tan complexion. Now, in a black cashmere blazer and gray trousers, he looked every bit the part of the feudal lord he'd been rehearsing for all his life.

"You're late," he said, glancing at his gold wristwatch. "You were to arrive at six-thirty so we could speak privately before dinner."

"This morning was enough of a family reunion for me," I told him.

I instantly regretted having alluded to the earlier events of the day.

"And that's something else I want to speak with you about: your mother," said Augustus. "First, what can I fix you to drink?"

"I had lunch with Jersey," I said. "I'm not sure I need anything much stronger than water."

Wherever Augustus went, he had a well-stocked bar set up, though he drank little himself. Maybe that's what went wrong when he and my mother were married.

"I'll fix you a spritzer; that's light," he said, and squirted the soda from a mesh-encased bottle, handing the wineglass to me.

"Where's Grace?" I asked, taking a sip as he mixed himself a light Scotch.

"She's lying down. She was quite upset by that little debacle your mother pulled this morning--and who can blame her? It was unforgivable." Augustus always referred to Jersey as your mother--as though I were responsible for her very existence, rather than the other way around.

"Actually," I told him, "I felt her display provided a well-needed touch of brightness to the entire morbid affair. I mean, I can't really imagine playing brass bands, shooting off guns, and giving someone a medal--all because, in the service of the U.S. government, he got himself blown to pieces like a dismembered patchwork quilt!"

"Don't change the subject on me, young lady," my father reprimanded me in his most authoritarian tone of voice. "Your mother's behavior was absolutely shocking. Deplorable. We were fortunate that reporters were not permitted."

Augustus would never use words like "disgusting" or "humiliating"; they were too subjective, involving personal emotion. He was only interested in the objective, the remote--things like appearance and reputation. Not feelings, which were ambiguous and beyond quantification.

In that regard, I was a good deal more like him than I cared to admit. But I still couldn't bear the fact that he was more interested in my mother's comportment at a social event than in Sam's brutal death.

"I wonder if people scream, when they die like that?" I asked aloud.

Augustus turned on his heel so I couldn't see his face. He went across to the bedroom door.

"I'll wake up Grace," he informed me over his shoulder, "so she'll be ready in time for dinner."

"I don't see how we can speak," said Grace, blotting her eyes, which were swollen with tears, and brushing a wisp of stark blonde hair from her forehead with the back of her wrist. "I don't see how we can eat. It's truly incredible to imagine how we can all be sitting here in a restaurant, trying to behave like human beings."

Until that moment, it had never occurred to me that someone like Grace had ever visualized the concept of attempting to behave like a human being. Things were starting to look up.

I glanced around at the walls of the restaurant, which were done up with lattices covered in painted vines. They were scattered with a few tiny red lizards, which seemed to be basking in invisible sunlight. The table groupings were separated by large plantings of fresh chrysanthemums--flowers which are offered in tribute to the dead in all Italian cemeteries.

I'd begun and ended the day in a cemetery. Only that afternoon, I'd looked up the word in a bookstore. From Greek: koimeterion, a sleeping chamber; koiman, to put to sleep; cunae, a cradle. It was nice to think of Sam, wherever he was, as cradled in sleep.

"He was so young," Grace was saying between little sobs as she took another bite of steak tartare. She adjusted her diamond bracelet, adding the telltale words, "Wasn't he?"

The truth of the matter was, Grace had never met Sam in her life. My mother's divorce from Augustus had been nearly twenty-five years ago, and he and Grace had been married for little more than fifteen. In between was lots of proverbial water beneath the bridge, including how Sam got to be my brother without actually being the son of my mother or father. My family relations are rather complex.

But I had no time to think of that, for Grace had moved on to her favorite topic: money. As she switched to it, her tears miraculously dried and her eyes took on a luminous glow.

"We phoned the lawyers this afternoon from the suite," she told me, suddenly filled with buoyant enthusiasm. "The reading of the will, as you know, is tomorrow, and I think I should tell you that we got some good news. Though they won't give out the details, of course, it does appear that you are the principal heir!"

"Oh, goody," I said. "Sam hasn't been dead a week, and already I've profited. Did you dig out exactly how rich I'll be? Can I retire from my labors right now? Or are the tax folks likely to take most of it?"

"That's not what Grace meant, and you know it,"said Augustus, who was designing forms in his crme de volaille as I jabbed at the capers on my Scottish salmon. They rolled around the plate and evaded my fork. "Grace and I are only concerned for your own interest," he went on. "I didn't know Sam--at least not well--but I'm sure he cared a great deal for you. After all, you practically grew up as brother and sister, didn't you? And, as Earnest's only heir himself, Sam must have been very...well, comfortable financially?"

My late uncle Earnest, who'd been in the mining and mineral business, was my father's older brother, and rich as Midas. On top of that, he died with every cent he'd made, because spending money was of no interest to him. Sam was his only child.

When my parents, Augustus and Jersey, divorced, I was still very tiny. My mother ran around with me for a number of years, visiting all the capitals of the world. She was welcome in such places, since she'd been a famous singer long before marrying my father--which is how she met the Peanut Farmer and nearly everyone else of high social visibility. The Behn men had always liked flamboyant women. But, like my father, they often had trouble actually living with them.

Jersey had been drinking for years, but everyone expected opera singers to be swilling champagne as if it were water. It wasn't until Augustus announced his betrothal to Grace--a clone of Jersey at a similar age, but now twenty years her junior--that the bottle came out of Jersey's closet. She fled with me to Idaho, to consult my widowed, hermitlike uncle Earnest about financial matters (my father had invested all her earlier musical income in himself--another Behn male trait), and to everyone's surprise, Jersey and Earnest fell in love.

And I--a child who'd grown up like Eloise at the Plaza, eating pacirc;t´ de foie gras before I could pronounce it--suddenly found myself in the middle of a nowhere that I now, nearly twenty years later, called home.

So my father's question, seemingly vague, was really direct and to the point. My mother, married to two consecutive brothers, had actually stopped drinking during Earnest's lifetime. Knowing her as he did, though, Earnest left his all money to Sam, with a proviso to take care of her and of me "as he deemed best." And now Sam himself was dead. In all likelihood, his death made me a multimillionaire.

Uncle Earnest died seven years ago, when I'd just entered college, and none of us had seen Sam since. He simply vanished. Jersey and I got our two checks every month. She drank hers, and I put mine into an account and left it there. Meanwhile, I did something radical--something the Behn family women had never done. I got a job.

It was when I started working as a nuclear security officer, my first week on the job, that I heard from Sam. He phoned at my office, though God knows how he knew where I was.

"Hi, hotshot," Sam said--his favorite name for me ever since we were children. "You've broken a family tradition: no high notes or high kicks in the chorus line?"

"Life upon the wicked stage ain't ever what a girl supposes.'" I quoted from my vast, unsolicited musical repertoire. But was I ever happy to hear his voice. "Where have you been all these years, blood brother? You don't need gainful employment, I gather, now that you're the full-time family benefactor. Thanks for all the checks."

"In fact," Sam corrected me, "I'm gainfully employed by a variety of governments that shall remain unnamed. I provide a service no one else can--with the possible exception of those who've been hand-trained by me, a group of one. Maybe one day you'll consider going into a joint venture?"

And that cryptic hint of a job offer was the last I'd heard of Sam until my phone call from the executor.

I felt the tires start to suck under the snow. The whole car was sliding, pulling with a riptide force off the road.

Adrenaline rushed with a hot gush up to my brain as I snapped to and gripped the steering wheel. With all my strength, throwing my whole weight behind it, I yanked those massive tons of steel back from the edge of the shoulder. But now I was hurtling in the opposite direction, out of control. (Chapter One continues...)

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3
( 16 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(3)

4 Star

(0)

3 Star

(5)

2 Star

(6)

1 Star

(2)

Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Noble.com Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & Noble.com that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & Noble.com does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at BN.com or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation

Reminder:

  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & Noble.com and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Noble.com Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & Noble.com reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & Noble.com also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on BN.com. It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

 
Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously
Sort by: Showing all of 16 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 5, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Slow

    The characters were unmemorable, nor endearing. The plot was buried in historical inaccuracies and disjointed. I only continued to read because I hoped it would go somewhere, but was sorely disappointed.
    I also bought its sequel at the same time, but have not started to read it since the first was so disappointing.

    The Expected One is FAR more compelling.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 15, 2009

    The Magic Circle is not all that magical!

    This was my first Neville book and I was very disappointed. After reading the reviews of her first two books, I really expected more. The characters were interesting but weakly developed and there were so many of them presented that it was difficult to follow their relationships. The plot was too complex and over-developed causing it to be confusing. The plot got lost in all of the information that Neville attempted to present. It just seemed to go on and on. The supposedly historical chapters were dry, lenghthy, and uninteresting and just added to the confusion. They did not add to the storyline but detracted from it. Some of them made me wonder what, if anything, they had to do with the rest of the book. I think the storyline would have flowed better without them. I usually hate to see a good book come to an end, but this was a chore to read and I couldn't wait to finish it. The book cover was the best thing about this book!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 27, 2006

    wow and not in a good way

    At some point I stopped reading the history/myth aspects of the story and focused on the main character. However, when I got to the point in the story when Ariel meets Zoe and I felt the need to draw a family tree to identify who was related to which evil doer, I started to skim. And I continued to skim for the next 200 pages. I think that there was a good idea for a book in there somewhere, but where was the editor.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 20, 2005

    Total Disappointment

    This book was a total mess and a true disappointment. The main plot line was interesting, but the historical chapters are confusing and distracting. I was really looking forward to reading this book....what a total disappointment.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 28, 2004

    COLOSSAL BORE

    What a overly complicated plot with unremarkable characters and a big headache to read. Disappointing to say the least.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 13, 2002

    What a Disappointment!

    Having read and enjoyed Neville's first 2 novels ('The Eight' and 'A Calculated Risk'), I looked forward eagerly to her latest effort. Ye Gawds, what a disappointment! 'The Magic Circle' turned out to be the literary equivalent of the scene in the movie 'Monty Python & the Meaning of Life' (1983) in which an obese man enters a restaurant and eats until he literally--and messily--explodes all over the place. Neville drops a little of everything (New Age, the Nazis, American In- dians, Druids, the Bible, South Africa, and so on, and so on...) And to boot, the book goes on for another long chapter after the climax. Worse, she uses that worn-out soap opera plot device of several characters having different parents or grandparents than one is supposed to have (after a while, I wouldn't have been surprised if Adolph Hitler had turned out to be Our Heroine's grandfather!) All this could be forgiven if 'The Magic Circle' were a first effort by some amateur novelist. Katherine Neville is capable of much better than this, but she seemes to have forgotten all the rules of good storytelling that made her first novels so much fun to read. Sad to say, the third time was NOT the charm.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 21, 2002

    Disappointing

    I expected a thriller and was given a fantasy. This book incorporates more myths than anyone could imagine in one volume. It starts with much promise: a young man slain, a young woman his heir, the inheritance a collection of ancient manuscripts which we are led to believe can control the fate of the world. This novel was hard to follow and I don¿t believe Neville succeeded in bringing the ancient and modern worlds together. The family which is at the heart of the story is most unbelievable and leaves the reader wondering if there is any way a family could be this complicated. This could almost be considered a family saga as well as a thriller/fantasy.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 19, 2000

    Heady and Thick

    I don't know, maybe it's the times and people Neville chooses in this one, but I had a harder time following it and didn't enjoy it nearly as much as I did 'The Eight' or even 'A Calculated Risk.' Those books are fantastic because they're cerebral but not impossible to follow. I had a hard time linking the subjects together in this book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted September 29, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    The Magic Circle by Katherine Neville The author of the book &q

    The Magic Circle by Katherine Neville

    The author of the book "Eight" uses a similar formula: two tales separated by time, but intertwined in mystery, as the means to tell a story.

    The first tale deals with the last days of Jesus Christ from A. D. 32 to A. D. 61. As the world stands on the brink of a new two thousand year cycle, emperor Tiberius tries to decipher the clues of an age old enigma: the source of power that comes from objects like the spear that killed Jesus and the sword used by John to slice the centurion's ear as they came to take Jesus away. Tiberius passes this knowledge to Caligula, Claudius, and finally Nero - all of who try to decipher the mystery to no avail.

    In the year 1989, Ariel Behn, a toxic materials expert at a remote nuclear site in Snake River, Idaho, finds her life shattered when her cousin, Sam, is slain by an unknown assassin. As the heir to a family legacy - a cache of manuscripts that contain not only the source of political power, but also to the source of all energy - Ariel races across continents to reveal the dark secrets in her family's past, thus she begins to uncover the chilling truth of the coming millennium.

    Again, the story is told from Ariel's first person point of view and from the third person point of view of the characters near Jesus.

    Unfortunately, this time, it doesn't work. Ms. Neville creates a mess with Ariel's family. Every chapter we learn that the Behns are screwed up. Their family tree is so convoluted that it's very difficult to follow how they are related to each other. It might have helped if the author would have printed a chart of the family tree.

    Ms. Neville tries to attach too many things to Pandora's manuscript - Ariel's inheritance and the cause of all the mayhem. On one side are the Nez Percé Indian tribe and their religion that is based on nature. Then there is Christianity and the source of everlasting life. Then there is Greek and Roman mythology, the succession of eons - two thousand year cycles - and astrology. She also includes Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan. She also tries to incorporate the druids and the Celtic culture. In an attempt to unite all of these philosophies, Ms. Neville uses the thirteen sacred Hallows:

    "To make this connection, thirteen sacred objects must be brought together in one place. Each object fulfills a specific purpose in the ritual of rebirth of the new age, and each of these objects must be anointed in the divine fluid before it is put into use. The objects for the next age are these: The Spear, The Sword, The Nail, The Goblet, The Stone, The Box, The Cauldron, The Platter, The Garment, The Loom, The Harness, The Wheel, and The Gaming Board. He who unites these objects without possessing the eternal wisdom may bring forth, not an age of cosmic unity, but one instead of savagery and terror." P. 211

    Thus we get a lesson in history about Hitler and all the villains and heroes who were after these objects. Ms. Neville creates a confusing web of factoids that are both annoying and almost impossible to follow. A good idea gone wrong...

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted March 12, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Great read!

    Characters are weakly developed, but full development would make too long a read for the story. Plot is interesting. Mystery is outstanding. Realism of the main relationships is outstanding. Description of spiritual experience is outstanding. Capture of historical weave is outstanding. Balance is sometimes thrown off by detailed descriptions of surroundings which lend nothing to the story. Otherwise technical writing skill is outstanding.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 20, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted October 25, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted November 16, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 20, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted July 8, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted July 29, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

Sort by: Showing all of 16 Customer Reviews

If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
Why is this product inappropriate?
Comments (optional)