Matchup, p.51
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       MatchUp, p.51

           Lee Child
 

  FRA IGNACIO WAS TIRED—EXHAUSTED, REALLY. He and his five fellow Jesuits had been on the run for the better part of a year. They had started in the Holy Land, where they had been sent on a secret mission by Pope Clement VIII to bring back to Rome the fabled Sudarium—the Veil of Saint Veronica—the cloth used to wipe the blood and sweat from the brow of Jesus on his way to the Crucifixion, imprinting his face on the fabric. He had been told that it had been unearthed in the Sinai by tomb raiders who had no idea of its significance to the Holy See, to the church itself.

  Clement VIII had bought the holy relic from a merchant in the Levant. Fra Ignacio and his group had been dispatched from Rome to fetch it since the Holy Father trusted no one other than his beloved Jesuits to ensure that this Veronica, as it was sometimes called, was the genuine article as, over the years, any number of fakes had been foisted upon the Vatican.

  He made contact with the merchant and the judicious biblical scholar, who had authenticated the Veronica for Clement VIII. He never saw the veil itself, for it was already housed in a quiverlike cylinder made of zinc, clad in three layers of copper, with a watertight seal at one end. Twelve days after arriving in the Levant, they made their way back to the ship Clement VIII had provided for them.

  But luck was not with them.

  Before they could board their ship with the treasure, they were ambushed and attacked by a band of thieves who had stolen the veil and boarded a waiting pirate ship. Fra Ignacio’s ship had pursued the pirate vessel across the full length of the Mediterranean, out into the Atlantic through the Straits of Gibraltar, and all the way to the pirates’ base in Honduras where his crew had retrieved the veil in a daring nighttime raid. With the veil in hand and their ship resupplied they had set off for home, only to be blown off course by a hurricane and left shipwrecked off the coast of Texas.

  Stranded off the coast of the vast New World, he took the veil along with the few surviving members of his crew and headed north through the Rio Grande Valley. Turned away by the priests at the mission in Albuquerque but now reprovisioned and with horses and pack mules, they turned westward toward California.

  Days later, after crossing through a red-rock-lined valley and in the face of an early winter storm, they had holed up for several days in a limestone cavern under a thick canopy of ponderosa pines. Late in the day, they said their prayers, then ate a meager dinner. Afterward, Fra Ignacio left the others, moving deeper into the cavern where he had buried the Veronica case upon arriving. It took all his strength to move aside the protective boulder he had used to conceal the treasure. Then, as he did every evening at this time, he placed his trembling hands around the cool copper protecting the relic.

  It was at that precise moment he heard screams and pleas for mercy coming from the men he had left behind near the cavern’s mouth. He heard the soft whir of shot arrows, the clink of obsidian against rock, and knew a band of marauding Apaches had found them.

  Returning the veil to its hiding place and rolling the boulder back into position, he kissed the rock before retreating deeper into the cavern. His torch guttered, and the way grew dim. Eventually utter blackness engulfed him. He slowed his pace and paused, waiting for his eyes to adjust.

  Suddenly, without warning, he was grabbed from behind.

  His throat was slit with the blade of a hunting knife.

  BLACK HILLS, ARIZONA

  PRESENT DAY

  MARTIN PRICE LOVED AMERICAN INDIAN arrowheads. Over the years he’d amassed an impressive collection. None were more beautiful than the Apache obsidian arrowheads, masterfully chipped and honed to razor sharpness. So it was no surprise when he saw the glint of chipped obsidian on the floor of the limestone cavern adjacent to an abandoned glory hole. The hopeful miners from years past who’d dug the test hole must have left the place empty-handed and disappointed.

  Not Martin.

  Seeing the almost perfect arrowhead and slipping it into his pants pocket lifted his spirits. They needed lifting because he and his two fellow Gnostic Observatines had been up here in the wilds of the Black Hills, high above Sedona and Jerome, for over a week now without finding what had purportedly been hidden here since the beginning of the seventeenth century.

  The Veil of Saint Veronica.

  So many fakes had surfaced over the centuries that the Vatican had given up all hope that the Veronica still existed. But Bravo Shaw, the head of the Gnostic Observatines, a lay splinter sect of the Franciscan Observatines, had received information from one of his many worldwide sources not only that the Veronica existed, but that it was hidden in a limestone cave somewhere in Arizona’s high desert country. A diary entry found in the Vatican, purportedly written by the sole survivor of Fra Ignacio’s doomed expedition verified that fact. But the story of the Veronica ending up in Arizona had seemed far too preposterous to be believed.

  By everyone, but Bravo.

  He’d dispatched Price and his companions to go in search of both the cave and the veil. It was early November, about the same time of year when, according to the diary, Fra Ignacio and his men had been slaughtered. It was cold, and after weeks of rough living and of finding nothing, Price’s companions were growing restless, itching to get back to the warmth and comfort of their San Francisco headquarters.

  But Price’s luck had changed when he had asked a group of elk hunters about the existence of a limestone cavern, and they’d directed them here. There were plenty of signs of human presence. Empty beer cans, tobacco cans, paper wrappers, a fire pit. And yet that arrow had somehow escaped everyone else’s notice.

  Was it a sign that had been meant for him alone?

  Thoughtfully, Price stood where he was and used his Maglite to examine his surroundings, looking for something to speak to him, but there was nothing. If the solid limestone walls around him held a secret, they weren’t telling. Moving deeper in the cavern, he heard the steady drip of water and saw the ghostly forms of looming stalactites and stalagmites. Looking at them rather than watching his feet, he stumbled over a boulder. As he struggled to regain his balance, the boulder moved. The movement was minuscule, but it was enough to tell him that the rock wasn’t a natural part of the cavern itself.

  It seemed separate.

  Had it been put there deliberately and for a reason?

  Was that even possible?

  With his heart rate climbing, he dropped to his knees and shoved against the rock with all his strength. With that much pressure exerted the boulder moved with surprising ease, revealing a hand-dug depression below. The beam of his flashlight illuminated the verdigrised surface of a metallic curved object. He had been told that the Veronica was preserved in a copper-clad cylinder. On the ground next to the cylinder lay a pile of beads and an ivory crucifix. He scooped up the crucifix and slid it in his pocket.

  Two screams resounded through the cavern.

  The Gnostic Observatines, declared anathema by Clement VIII for their belief that truth went beyond traditional church canon, were well trained. Price, one of the best of Bravo’s men, understood his priorities. The veil came first, his life and the lives of the others second.

  Quickly now, for he had little time, he typed a message into his phone.

  UNDER ATTACK.

  Then he dropped the phone into the depression next to the cylinder and the scatter of beads. Shoving the boulder back in place, he loped deeper into the cavern and away from the spot where the veil lay buried, dousing his flashlight as he went and hearing the sound of pounding feet behind him. Light from some other source temporarily blinded him. He’d already drawn his .45, but before he could take cover behind the nearest looming stalactite, something whirred behind him and a stabbing pain shot through the space between his shoulder blades.

  He fell facedown onto the cold damp rock.

  Before he could regain his footing, hands he couldn’t see grabbed his arms and hauled him upward. A heavy blow shattered his cheekbone, then another punch in the pit of his stomach doubled him over. He gasped, trying and
failing to suck air into his lungs. Whoever was holding him let go of his arms, and he crashed facedown on the cavern floor in an explosion of pain.

  That pain, however, was nothing compared to what was to come.

  SISTER ANSELM BECKER WAS STILL sleeping peacefully in her solitary cot at St. Bernadette’s Convent in Jerome, Arizona, when the jangling ringing of her cell phone awakened her. It was a distinctive ringtone, one that belonged to her benefactor, Bishop Francis Gillespie, calling from his residence at the archdiocese in Phoenix.

  Glancing at her bedside clock, Sister Anselm read 4:45 a.m.—well before her normal waking time for morning prayers. A nighttime call like this could only mean one thing. Somewhere in Arizona a badly injured patient was in desperate need of a patient advocate. That was Bishop Gillespie’s self-appointed mission—to care for badly injured patients, often solo travelers or undocumented immigrants—who found themselves suddenly thrust into the world of hospital care and unable to cope. Sister Anselm, an eightysomething Sister of Providence, was the bishop’s main tool in that regard. Not only was she a skilled nurse, she was conversant in any number of languages and was able to translate health-care jargon into something understandable.

  “Good morning, Father,” she said. “What seems to be the problem?”

  “Two hours ago, a pair of elk hunters camped out in the Prescott National Forest came upon a badly injured, naked man lying in the roadway. There was an arrow in his back. I’m told he’d also been tortured and is suffering from severe hypothermia. The hunters were out in the middle of nowhere. They wrapped the guy up as best they could and drove him to St. Jerome’s Hospital in Flagstaff. I’m told he’s in serious condition.”

  “Why did they call you?” she asked.

  “They believe the victim may be a priest. The only thing he had in his possession was a bloodied crucifix. So far he hasn’t regained consciousness, and he’s likely to go into surgery soon. I’d like you to be there as soon as you can.”

  “Absolutely,” she said. “I’m on my way.”

  It took more than an hour for Sister Anselm to arrive at St. Jerome’s Hospital in Flagstaff. Once there, she paused outside the ER to read through what little information there was on John Doe’s chart. He had indeed been struck in the back by an arrow. After stabilizing the patient, ER personnel had used ultrasound imagery to thread the arrow through the chest cavity and out through his rib cage without damaging any additional internal organs. His next stop would be an operating room where surgeons would address other pressing internal injuries.

  Squaring her shoulders, she entered the ER and approached the proper cubicle only to find that another visitor—a distinguished-looking and fit young man—had preceded her.

  “Who are you?” he demanded, barring her way. “And what business do you have with Martin Price?”

  “That’s his name?” she asked, making a notation on the iPad. She carried it with her. “Martin Price?”

  The man nodded.

  “I’m Sister Anselm Becker, a Sister of Providence,” she said. “I’ve been asked to serve as Mr. Price’s patient advocate. Who might you be, and how do you know this man? Are you a relative?”

  “My name is Bravo Shaw,” he said. “I’m the director of the order of Gnostic Observatines. Martin Price is a member of our order.”

  A pair of nurses hurried past Sister Anselm and Bravo Shaw and disappeared into the cubicle. They appeared moments later, wheeling Price and his IV tree out of the ER and toward the operating wing. While Shaw watched Price, Sister Anselm studied him. He didn’t look like any priest she’d ever seen, and if he and the patient were members of an order, why would Shaw refer to himself and the patient by their given names?

  “Father Shaw, I’ve been a Sister of Providence for more than sixty years,” she said. “I’ve never heard of an order called the Gnostic Observatines inside or outside the church.”

  “Bravo, please, rather than Father,” he said, smiling at her in a way she didn’t much care for. “We’re Franciscans, adhering to St. Francis’s original dicta. The order was cast out by Pope Clement VIII because we refused to go against St. Francis’s edict and remain Conventuals. Over the years, my predecessors developed an interest in religious relics and have conducted explorations outside the strict boundaries of the church.”

  Father Shaw had a way of speaking that she found both intimidating as well as annoying. She also didn’t like the fact that he obviously knew far more than he was willing to share.

  “I suppose you called the Vatican for support,” she said dryly.

  A slow smile spread across Bravo’s face, a smile she found unsettling, even a bit wicked, and a little shiver traveled down her spine.

  “The Vatican and the Gnostic Observatines are not in contact,” he said. “As I indicated, we haven’t been since the era of Clement VIII. When it comes to church doctrine, and methods, we don’t see eye to eye.”

  “And just what is the Observatines’ mission, Father?”

  Bravo gave a small laugh. “I see I have come up against an immovable object.”

  She lifted one eyebrow. “And are you declaring yourself an unstoppable force?”

  “I suppose,” he said, “you’ll have to judge for yourself.”

  Sister Anselm allowed herself the ghost of a smile, the smallest treat. “Your mission, Father.”

  “In a nutshell, Sister, we’re humanists. We are locked in an eternal battle against evil for the souls of mankind.”

  “As is the church.”

  “Method, Sister. I told you our methods differ.”

  Having been put in a thoughtful mode, she made another note.

  “Returning to facts,” she said, looking up from her iPad. “Father Price’s date of birth? Next of kin? Place of residence?”

  Bravo continued to be amused by her use of the word Father but had said all he was going to on the subject. “All that information is confidential, I’m afraid. Because of the nature of what we do and the dangers involved to ourselves and potentially to our loved ones, that information is never divulged.”

  “Then tell me what Father Price and his team were doing up in the mountains.”

  “I’m afraid I can’t do that, either.”

  “Can’t or won’t?” she asked, irritated. “I’m quite sure they were looking for something, and if you are who you say you are, the odds are you sent them to find it.”

  Bravo remained silent.

  “Very well then,” she said, slipping her iPad into the generous pocket of her jacket. “In that case, we’re even.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Have you ever heard of HIPAA?”

  Shaw frowned. “Of course.”

  “It’s now officially invoked. Father Price was the victim of a vicious attack. He’s been tortured, was unconscious when he was brought to the ER, and remains unable to communicate. You claim to be concerned about him. Perhaps you are, but for all I know, you may have been responsible for what happened to him in the first place. What if you’re here masquerading as his friend, but really came here for the express purpose of finishing the job? Until I have a clearer idea of whether or not you pose a threat, you won’t be allowed anywhere near him.”

  “Are you kidding?” Bravo demanded. “You’re trying to kick me out?”

  “I will kick you out,” she declared without a hint of smile. “That’s not a threat. It’s a promise. Since you won’t tell me what Father Price was searching for, I won’t allow you to have access to my patient, simple as that. In fact, I could most likely have you thrown out of the hospital altogether. Once the police get here.”

  “The cops aren’t coming,” Bravo said.

  She appeared to be genuinely startled. “What do you mean they’re not coming?”

  “The hunters who found Martin didn’t report the incident to the authorities at the time they brought him to the hospital, and I’ve been assured that they won’t be doing so in the future. Neither will the hospital. Once he lea
ves here, all trace of his having been here will be erased.”

  “You’re impeding an official investigation into the commission of a crime,” she said. “Why would you do such a thing?”

  “Because the presence of law enforcement would instantly alert our enemies to the fact that Martin is still alive, in which case, the first thing they would do is send someone here to finish the job. Once Martin is out of danger and declared fit to travel, I intend to have him transported back to our U.S. headquarters where he’ll be able to recover in relative safety.”

  “You believe he’s still in danger?”

  “Absolutely.”

  “If I’m caring for him, doesn’t that mean I’m in danger, as well?” she asked.

  Looking uncomfortable, Bravo nodded. “I suppose it does.”

  She fell silent for a moment. “As long as Martin Price is a patient in this hospital, Bishop Francis Gillespie has charged me with protecting him. I fully intend to do so, against all comers.”

  “But, Sister,” Bravo said, “you have no idea what you’re up against.”

  “I’m up against it?” she asked. “It sounds as though we’re both up against it, so why don’t you explain it to me? If I’m expected
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