May 2013: A bomb goes off near a roadside café in As Sulaymaniyah, Iraq. Veteran photojournalist John Hart and his 27-year-old Kurdish Christian translator, Nalan Abuna, are caught up in the explosion—an explosion which is to become the trigger for a series of high-stakes events. May 1198: John Hart's ancestor, Johannes von Hartelius, discovers that The Copper Scroll, the most prized possession of the Knight's Templars, has been stolen and is about to be used to help raise an army for a Fourth Crusade. When decoded, The Copper Scroll is expected to hold the secret of Solomon's Treasures, together with the key to the building of a new Temple of Solomon in the Holy Land. May 2013: John Hart discovers a secret message from Johannes von Hartelius inside the Holy Spear, indicating the possible location of The Copper Scroll in a hollow mountain, known as Solomon's Prison, in Iran. John Hart sets out to retrieve the scroll, echoing Hartelius' epic battle, almost 1,000 years earlier.
About the Author
Mario Reading is an internationally renowned expert on the life and prophecies of Nostradamus. He is the author of the Antichrist series, The Music-Makers, and Nostradamus: The Complete Prophecies for the Future.
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As Sulaymaniyah, Iraq
WEDNESDAY 1 MAY 2013
Later, John Hart came to feel that he had anticipated the explosion by a split second. That there had been a momentary vacuum before the blast during which he had reached towards Nalan Abuna, his guide and translator in Kurdistan, and taken her hand in his.
Either way, the makeshift metal screen that separated their private seating area from the main expanse of the teashop had undoubtedly saved their lives. Hart had awoken on the shard-bedecked tiles with Nalan curled tightly against him, hip to hip, as if they had dozed off on the floor together in flagrant disregard for public decency.
Hart let Nalan's fingers reluctantly slip from his. He pressed both hands to his ears and swallowed. Ten times. Twenty. He knew enough about the percussive effects of bombs not to risk getting to his feet before he could hear again. It would be like succumbing to an attack of acute labyrinthitis.
For Hart was no stranger to sudden outbreaks of violence. He had undergone his first major bombardment in Sarajevo, twenty years before, when he was cutting his milk teeth in photo-journalism. The memory of that bombing could still jolt him awake at night, his sheets drenched, his body aching with a form of muscle memory that led his limbs to flex and contract with no discernible input from his conscious mind. It was at that time, too, in Sarajevo, that he had seen what they call the 'dervish effect' at work. People flailing around in the immediate aftermath of a bomb strike, their faces blank, their eyelids ticcing, their arms, if they still had any, feeling out for non-existent support.
No, Hart decided. He would have none of it. He would lie there on the ground until his hearing and his senses returned. Only then would he act.
When next he awoke, Nalan was crouching over him. She was cradling his head in her lap and encircling his face with her arms. He could see her lips moving, but he could not hear what she was saying.
A man lurched past them and then turned back, in slow motion, as if he had forgotten something. A single red star appeared in the centre of his forehead.
Hart began to make out Nalan's voice through the fog that was inhabiting his head.
'They are firing at us. They are massacring people. We must leave here. I know where to go. It is very near. There are high walls. They will not get in.'
Hart tried to get up. He pitched forward onto his knees, as if that single wild movement was what he had always intended to do. Nalan took him by the hands and helped him to his feet. Her touch felt familiar to him now, despite the fact that their physical knowledge of each other had barely progressed beyond the most fleeting of handshakes.
He had known Nalan Abuna for a total of three days. To all intents and purposes they were strangers. Until this moment – this freak occurrence – their relationship had been an entirely formal one. Businesslike. Mutually convenient. He was a forty-year-old freelance photojournalist, with all the collateral damage that such a profession entailed, and she was thirteen years younger than him and his paid employee. A Chaldean Christian and a Kurd. Engaged to be married, as she had swiftly informed him, no doubt in a bid to anticipate, and thereby disarm, any likely passes. Strictly out of bounds.
Hart began to run. He lurched from side to side, with Nalan keeping pace beside him. He saw more people fall. Out in the street, bodies and body parts were scattered across the asphalt like the tossed pieces in a jackstraws game. Hart saw the remains of the burnt-out car in which the bomb had been hidden upended on the pavement three doors down from the teashop. As he ran, he inadvertently kicked a woman's unattached hand. He knew it belonged to a woman because it was freshly painted with henna in honour of the public holiday which had been due to begin that day at sunset.
Ahead of him another man spun round and fell to the ground. The firing intensified. Hart pulled Nalan down beside him. They flattened themselves on the asphalt, fully expecting to be killed.
As he lay beside her, with his cheek pressed tightly against the warm tarmac, Hart could feel his wits slowly returning. This wasn't the first time that he had been pinned down by gunfire. As a photojournalist, guerrilla warfare and street-fighting were his stock-in-trade. He knew he needed to get a grip on himself, or they'd never get out of this. But he was still shaking from the seismic effects of the bomb.
Hart drew in three lungfuls of air through his nose and expelled them loudly through his opened mouth in a bid to alter the direction of his consciousness. Then he steadied his breathing back to normal and tried to filter out the clatter and clamour of the automatic weapons and focus on the intent behind them. It took him less than ten seconds to realize that the gunmen were not concentrating their fire on him and Nalan, but on a group of people huddled a hundred and fifty metres away, near the entrance to a mosque.
'We need to move now. It's our only chance.'
Nalan rose with him, as if they were twin parts of the same person. They ran. Each eternal second they were out in the open Hart expected the deadening thump of a bullet in the small of his back, or to see Nalan pitch to the ground beside him in a welter of blood and tangled limbs. He urged her ahead of him so that he might protect her, at least to some extent, with his body. She glanced back at him in surprise. It was a look only a woman can give a man. To Hart, the look she gave him offered a sort of completion. If he had died at that precise moment he would have died happy. But he did not die.
Nalan led him to a steel-grilled gate set into a high concrete wall. A teenage soldier in a khaki uniform and an antiquated Kevlar vest was standing behind the grille, holding a submachine gun. He was so scared that his shoulders rocked like an old man's in the throes of a coughing fit. When Hart tried to force open the grille, the soldier raised his weapon.
Nalan shouted at the soldier in Kurdish.
The soldier drew back a little at the sight of the woman. He flushed. Then his shoulders steadied, as though at the orders of an unseen officer. He indicated with his head that Nalan should retry the gate.
Nalan pushed it open and she and Hart stepped inside. Hart glanced back down the street to see if anyone was following them. Bullets pinged off the concrete wall twenty feet above his head.
'We need to lock this gate,' he said. 'Right now. They've seen us come in. They are killing everybody. This boy won't be able to protect us. Look at him. He's still in fucking nappies.'
Nalan talked to the soldier again. Intently. Quietly. Pointing first at the grille and then at them.
An older man ran up. He pushed the soldier to one side and began shouting at Nalan.
She shouted back.
After a moment the older man withdrew a large key from his jacket pocket and locked the grille. As he did so, an armed figure came into view thirty yards away across the street and started firing.
The older man took two steps backwards and fell heavily onto his buttocks. For a split second the movement seemed almost comical – like a toddler who has lost his footing in the fleeting instant before tears begin. He pitched onto the ground, blood welling from a sequence of bullet holes stitched like poppies down the line of his suit.
Hart hustled Nalan away from the gate. The young soldier followed them.
Nalan pointed to a narrow passageway, thatched with barbed wire, that snaked between two high walls. 'This is the way.'
They zigzagged down the passageway and out into a large courtyard filled with rusted tanks, superannuated field guns, and the exoskeletons of trucks and armoured personnel carriers. To one side of the courtyard stood the ruins of a building. It was pitted and scarred with the ancient marks of shell holes and bullet gouges. Near to the building was a life-sized plaster memorial depicting six facially bandaged human beings bound so tightly together that they resembled a tree. A tree of death.
'What is the name of this place? Tell me quickly, Nalan. I need to pass this information on to someone I know.'
'This is the Amna Suraka Museum. They call it the Red Interrogation House. It was the Ba'ath Party's intelligence headquarters until 1991. It is here that the Mukhabarat tortured, raped and killed hundreds of Kurdish freedom fighters on the orders of Saddam Hussein.'
'It is the only place we will possibly be safe, John. It is built like a fortress.'
Hart sprawled against the courtyard wall and took out his mobile phone. His battery was at half power because he hadn't bothered to recharge it the night before. Hell. Why would he? He wasn't on active assignment. He was on a reconnaissance tour for photographable locations for a piece his ex- girlfriend Amira Eisenberger had been commissioned to write on Kurdistan's economic resurgence. No one was meant to be shooting at him. No one was meant to be bombing him. Kurdistan was notoriously safe. Not like Mosul. Or Fallujah. Or Baghdad.
'Amira? It's John. Don't talk. Just listen and record.' He waited for a moment while she set the recorder. 'There's been a car bombing. A hundred yards down from the Amna Suraka Museum in As Sulaymaniyah. My interpreter and I were having tea three doors away from the blast. We're okay. Shaken, but okay. But we're pinned down here in the museum. The people behind the bombing are killing everybody. It's bedlam out there. It's like the Taj attack in Mumbai. You'd better check what's coming in on the wires. I suspect they've made me as a journalist thanks to the cameras I'm carrying. I'll be prize meat for them. I've got only Nalan Abuna with me and a boy soldier, who looks about ready to piss his pants. And I'm halfway through my battery.'
'Is the museum secure?'
'Tight as a drum as far as I can make out. It used to be Saddam's torture house. But they'll blow the gates before too long. Then we'll be for it. I'm switching off now. We're going to make for one of the upper floors.'
Hart saw Nalan shaking her head.
'No. Hold that. Where are we heading for, Nalan?'
'The basement. We are going down into the basement.'
'We'll be in the basement, Amira. Nalan knows this place. I'm taking her word she knows the best spot to hide up in. I'll call you again when we're safe.'
'No, you won't.'
'What do you mean?'
'You'll get no signal down in the basement.'
Hart glanced again at Nalan. She shook her head a second time.
'That's a risk we'll have to take, Amira. The bastards are at the gates. We need to go.'
They ran past a sequence of small cells, some little larger than a man. Each cell had a metal door with a peephole let into it.
'They can get to us down here, Nalan. We'll be sitting ducks.'
The young soldier, too, seemed content to follow Nalan's lead. She's a guide, thought Hart. It's not surprising she knows this place. I understand nothing of her language. Perhaps she knows this soldier? Knew the man in the suit who was lying dead just beyond the grille. That would explain things.
Nalan pointed behind him. 'Now. We shut this connecting door and barricade it. Here. There are wedges. And a bar. The door is made of sheet metal. It was built to keep prisoners in. They will not blow it without dynamite. Grenades will not work against it. Our soldiers will be here soon. If they come quickly, we shall be safe.'
Hart and the young soldier began barricading the door. How certain this young woman was of herself, Hart found himself thinking. How secure in her knowledge. Looking at her, it was hard to believe that she'd been the near victim of a car bombing ten minutes before. Had seen people killed before her eyes. Had run down a street awash with blood and body parts while the bombers had used her as a moving target. From where had she derived her courage? From what source?
'What is this, Nalan? What is this figure of a man?' Hart was looking at a life-sized plaster model of a prisoner in one of the cells flanking the doorway. The man was chained to the wall by one hand in a purposefully uncomfortable position, so that he could neither stand fully upright nor lie stretched out on the floor to sleep.
'He is a Kurd. Like me. It is what they did. They made this model to remind the Kurdish people of all that happened to them during Saddam's time.'
In a further room, another full-sized model of a man hung from a pipe in the strappado position: his arms stretched out behind him, the full weight of his body bearing down onto his shoulders. An electrical cord, attached to a magnetic field telephone, hung from around his neck.
'I can tell you who this man is.'
Hart inclined his head. Nalan's face had taken on a haunted aspect, as of someone who senses a malevolent presence just beyond them, but still marginally out of sight.
'This is my father, John. And many others like him. Men and women both. This is what Hassif did to them. His favourite places to electrocute you were the tongue, the fingers, the little toe, and the sexual organs. He spread the places he electrocuted you as far apart as possible so as to cause the most extreme spasms. The muscles themselves conducted the electricity. So you were electrocuting yourself, so to speak. When this happens you cannot think. You cannot breathe. Your heart goes into spasms. They wet your body with salt water so as to better distribute the current. They even use luxury gels and creams so that the skin is not burnt at the point of contact, giving the torturers away if the prisoner is ever released. This is what they did to my father over many weeks so that he could no longer use his arms.'
'How do you know about this? Did they release your father? Did he tell you?'
'He told me this before he died. Yes. He wished me to remember. To carry the memory of it in me.'
She ushered Hart ahead of her. The young Kurdish soldier hung back, as though he suspected what Nalan was telling this English stranger who had intruded on his life, and did not wish to interfere.
'I want you to look in here, John.'
Nalan stood back and pointed to the entrance to a cell. The steel door was open, but this cell was darker than the others – the only light that entered came from out in the corridor. It illuminated the life-sized model of a woman leaning against a concrete pillar. Her head was thrown back and her eyes were shut. A young girl, less than half her size, was clinging to her legs and looking down at the ground.
'This is my mother. The young girl is me. I was five years old in March 1991 when they came to liberate Amna Suraka. I had been here since I was three.'
Hart couldn't take his eyes from the two female figures. 'This is you? This little girl?'
Nalan nodded. 'This is my mother, yes. And this is me.'
'So this is how you know this place? This is how you knew to bring us here?'
'This is how I know this place. There were forty women and children imprisoned in this room. You see those blankets on the floor? The dog bowl over there to drink from? That is how they saw us. As dogs. The women left those behind when they were released by the Peshmerga following a two-day gun battle. You saw the bullet marks outside in the courtyard where we came in? The shell holes? Our soldiers found the rape rooms and the torture chambers and the isolation cells when they broke in. It sent them crazy. They killed 700 Ba'athists in this place. It was far too few. Guards. Torturers. Rapists. Spies. But not Hassif. No. That man managed to get away. Later, when the Allies eased off their air attack, Saddam came back. For a while it looked like he would get his revenge. That Hassif would return to torment us. But the no-fly zone was implemented. For the first time in a hundred years, the Kurds were free.'
'And your mother?'
'They raped her too many times. Humiliated her too many times. It was too much for her to bear. She and my father committed joint suicide in 1993. I was brought up by my uncle and aunt. They were very kind to me. I am very lucky.'
Hart glanced down at his watch. It had been two hours since they had heard the last of the hand grenades exploding against the outside door of the museum. For a while after that there had been silence in the streets. Now the gunfire was starting up again.
The young soldier stood up and walked across to where Hart was sitting. Wordlessly, he handed Hart his abbreviated AK47. He returned to his corner, sat down, and turned his head to the wall.
Hart hesitated, unsure what to do.
But Nalan knew.
She got to her feet and approached Hart. She opened her hands. He understood immediately. He handed her the AK47.
Excerpted from "The Templar Inheritance"
Copyright © 2015 Mario Reading.
Excerpted by permission of Atlantic Books Ltd.
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