VAULTS OF POWER
James “Mack” McIntyre III was the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s First Vice-President and he made sure visitors fully understood the meaning. The corner office with an angle view of Lower Manhattan, mahogany furniture and Oriental rug were standard and he didn’t pay them much attention. Placing the desk against the light of the window, blinding whoever sat across from him, was a deliberate choice. But above all, it was the power wall, carefully put together around the casual sitting area in the west corner, that sent the message. From eye level up the wall was covered with artsy pictures, all black and white, all casual snapshots of Mack with anyone who counted on Wall Street or in Washington. Whoever had been moved from the blinding seat in front of the desk and the window to the comfort of a low chair around the coffee table ended dazzled by Mack’s influential network.
Mack glanced at his power wall, tightened his grip around the telephone receiver, opened his desk drawer and gulped two tablets of Maalox. He shut his eyes and pictured the nuthead he was talking to, Aleister Barton, in the third underground level of his London headquarters.
He’d heard Barton say once that you needed to be deeply rooted inside the Earth when tending to matters of this world, and that it was essential to be in visual darkness when pursuing true light. “For in truth,” Barton had said, “all men are in darkness, with only the bearer of light to guide them.” He’d gone on to explain the meaning of Lucifer, at which point Mack stopped to pretend listening.
But Mack was quite sure that even right now, as he was talking to him, Barton, possibly swiveling in his leather armchair, was watching through his windows to the world, eyes dancing from one to the other of his several computer screens arcing his desk. Some would be displaying spreadsheets of Garden of Evil, the company he launched twenty years ago producing just one group, Sons of the Serpent, now a multinational, multi-activity business. Other screens would put him in direct eye contact with his nightclubs. From what Mack heard, Barton’s favorite pastime was to take over surveillance cameras of his clubs, zoom in on healthy underage girls and watch as the magic little pills sold on premise turned them into docile yet creative sex toys.
“You’re telling me this guy Toslav is commissioned by someone? As in instructed? I want to make sure we have the facts clear here,” Mack said.
“Instructed. Two years ago.” There was some background noise of screeching and screaming. “The mission was to track the document,” Barton said. “The clients knew about the Logonikon. And they offered a bloody five million dollar fee.”
Mack loosened his Ferragamo tie and rubbed his temple with his free hand. “Why would he tell you about the fee?”
“Bragging,” Barton said. The background noise faded.
Mack leaned back in his chair. His cufflinks projected diamond-shaped sparks on the ceiling. “You think he was lying?”
“I think he was drunk. Couldn’t put a sock in it.”
He swung forward in his armchair. “Tell me again how this happened.” He put his elbows on his desk and his chin on his fist and locked his eyes on the framed picture of himself in Bulldog Lacrosse gear.
Barton cleared his voice. “I had someone follow the Gabriel woman ...”
“Who was following her?”
“My people.” Barton sounded standoffish. “I'm handling this end of the operation, okay?” Standoffish alright.
His gaze drifted to his favorite snapshot, taken at Camp David, a spur of the moment picture of him patting the President on the back.
Barton continued, “First she went to a Swiss law firm, then straight from there to a private bank in Marseilles, France. It’s got to be where the Logonikon is. Ten minutes after she had gotten there, a private investigator showed up. Shot photographs of her as she came out—“
“Did she have the Logonikon?”
“How do you know?”
“She only had a tiny purse. No document holder. Nothing.”
“The private was doing work for Toslav.”
“How do you know?”
“He told us.”
“What kind of a private is that?”
“The absurdly cheap kind. That’s the bizarre part. Easy to bribe. Works with the police too. Informer. Thought you might want to know that. Anyway. I had Toslav’s complete bio by midday. He’s a dealer of rare books and stuff…”
“What kind of stuff?”
“Occult—talking heads, ancient tarot decks, antique Ouija boards—”
“Okay, okay, okay.”
“And he's a member of a couple of clubs I also belong to.”
“You don't need to know that, Mack.”
“The hell I don’t.” He reached for another Maalox.
There was silence on the line, then Barton said, “I don't care if you're the fucking President of the…”
“First Vice-President, Barton.”
“I don't care if you're the fucking President of the Fed or…“
“Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Barton. There's a difference.”
The line went silent except for a ruffling noise, then Barton's voice came out syrupy. “I don't need you, Mack. I'm this close to getting the Logonikon and I don't need you.”
Mack’s chest pounded. “Don't even think about it.”
“That's much better,” Barton said. “You realize how much you need me, don't you? And you realize I'm calling you as a favor, do you?”
Mack drummed his fingers on his desk, waiting for the creep to get over his fit of power. He knew Barton from way back. From Yale, when Barton had been cherry-picked for Skull and Bones by Mack and his peers. Barton was as different from Mack as it could get in the old boys’ network, and they had had minimal contact throughout the years, each climbing their respective ladders, Mack in the banking system, Barton in mind control through music, drugs and religion.
When Mack learned through his monitoring network that the Gabriel family was taking action, he could think of only one person he could maneuver to get the job done. And that was Barton. For Barton would have a vested interest too. And he had the infrastructure to get things done, which Mack did not. At least not those types of things.
At that time, two weeks ago, Barton was acting as the high priest of Bohemian Grove. So Mack packed khakis and short sleeved shirts, made a couple of phone calls, had his name added to the ultra-selective list of guests, and travelled to the redwood forest of Monte Rio, Northern California.
Bohemian Grove is a large summer camp for a special crowd: two thousand male members of the American corporate elite and their five hundred carefully screened guests—politicians and international tycoons. As such, it provided an ideal setting for arranging deals that democracy, with its principle of separation of powers, made impossible. Legislation is discussed, vice-presidents are picked, wars decided on or ended. Bohemian Grove oils the system.
There is a religious aspect to it that Mack wasn't too crazy about. It involves sacrificing a human body to a giant owl in the deep of the night. He didn't see the point of it all, but that’s how it works. Barton, being High Priest, was in charge of all this religious rigmarole. And because what Mack needed from Barton was supposed to have a religious meaning, Mack figured that showing up just before the ceremony started would put Barton in the right mood.
Barton was standing behind the forty-five foot high statue of the Owl, watching as Bohemians gathered across the lake to worship. Called by the music spilling from loudspeakers scattered throughout the redwood forest, they came in clusters of four or five and took place on the rows of folding chairs, facing him, across a small lake. Two thousand of the most powerful men on the planet. It had to boost the man's ego, Mack thought.
Barton was born in England, the only child of a fanatically Catholic mother and a Communist father. But what really screwed him up was that his godfather, the local parish priest, turned out to be his biological father. Young Barton ran away when the resemblance became too striking and the bullying too much to handle. He would have been twelve, at most. He was eventually taken in by remote cousins in the States who managed to patch up the damage, at least temporarily, and at least enough to have him accepted at Yale with full scholarship. Or so the story went.
Mack never gave the gossip much thought. To him it was more telling that the guy had managed to bring a start-up to a Fortune 500 level while maintaining total ownership, avoiding SEC control and remaining unknown to the general public. The IRS was fed clean balance sheets with handsome profits. He knew Barton’s logic to be that as long as hefty taxes were paid, they wouldn’t care to know where the money came from. It was Barton’s strength, Mack thought. It could also be his weakness.
He stepped out of the bushes.
Barton turned around. “How's it going, McIntosh?”
“Is it? Terribly sorry.” The British accent was cultivated, sometimes gone, and sometimes awkward. An attitude, Mack thought. “What can I do for you?” Barton said.
“I have an offer.”
“Why am I not excited?” He donned a long white robe, and it made him look taller, and wider. Mightier, too.
“The Logonikon,” Mack said, and felt he had an edge.
“What about it?”
“It's about to be released. I need you to intercept it.”
Barton was playing with the cuffs of his robe. “Why me?”
“You have the most at stake.”
“If it's religious, why are you informed?”
The hell with this Brit. “That's not how we work, Barton.”
Barton didn't answer. A bell sounded on stage, calling the worshipers to silence. He put on a pointed hat that doubled as a mask with slits for the eyes. He looked like a Klansman, carried himself with the pride of an archbishop.
Mack straightened himself, imperceptibly rolling his shoulders. Time to pull out the envelope before the freak did his show. “Everything you need to know,” he said, handing him the envelope. “They’re getting ready to go to France.”
Mack pointed to the envelope in Barton’s hand. “Get us the Logonikon.”
He left Barton and walked around the small lake symbolizing the river Styx. His footsteps were muffled by the glooming recording of cellos that filled the forest. His silhouette was swallowed by the night. He sat on a folding chair on the fifth row. He was one of many Bohemians. Torn between a yearning for belonging and a sense of ridicule.
Within an hour and a half the ceremony reached its peak.
Scottish music played. Four attendants in black and brown robes brought an old-fashioned carriage to the Great Owl. On the carriage was a body tied on a gurney. Barton and two priests in black stepped forward. Torches lit the scene. The body on the gurney was naked. Barton started a prayer. Some worshipers repeated the words. Then he was presented with a dagger he called sacred.
As he raised it above the body, cries of ecstasy came from the crowd. He lowered it with the control and precision that came from long practice. Pronouncing the last words of the ritual, repeated by the now frenzied crowd, he grabbed the heart with both hands, held it up and turned around as light flowed on him.
He presented the offering to the Owl, his bloodied hands cupped around the heart, then returned it to the body.
His hands were crimson to his wrists.
The crowd around Mack was hysterical.
A priest in a red robe lit a torch from the Eternal Flame burning at the Owl's feet. He passed it to Barton, who pronounced the ritual words, “Hail fellowship! Eternal flame! Once again, Midsummer night sets us free!” and lit the body on fire.
Now, listening to Barton on the phone, Mack could smell the stench of the burning corpse again. He still wondered about the heavy bleeding, too.
“You realize you’re the one asking for the favor, not the other way around, right?” Barton repeated. On his end of the line, the screeching picked up.
“Cut that noise, will you?”
“Noise? You mean this?”
Mack had to hold the receiver away.
The screeching turned to raucous, receded, then Barton said, “It’s pure music. It hardly even qualifies as metal.”
“Noise to me.”
Barton laughed. “Ask your daughter, what’s her name again? Natalie? Ask her if that’s noise.”
Mack clenched his teeth. How did this lowlife, this pervert even know he had a daughter? He had to get him back on track. “Tell me what happened.” His voice was steady enough.
“As I was saying, there is this club Toslav and I belong to but he rarely attends. I arranged to run into him and pretended to recognize him.”
“Why the hell are you chasing Toslav? The Gabriels have the Logonikon.”
“Let me finish with Toslav. So I meet him and turn the conversation my way and pretty soon we're talking about the Logonikon. He tells me he's almost secured the purchase from the owners and has a client calling him every day. I tell him I'd outbid his client. That's when he says he can’t do that because it was the client who tipped him off to track the Logonikon down there…”
“The client told him where the Logonikon was? That's what you're saying?”
“And Toslav is all about his reputation. Thinks if he outsmarts the client he might as well start selling potatoes. When I said I'd double the price he mentioned the five million dollar figure. I suppose he thought that'd be enough to cool my feet. When I insisted, he went berserk, like he had talked too much. Then he got really pissed off when I asked if I could at least take a look at the Logonikon before he transferred it to his client.” There was a silence on the line. “That's about it,” he finally said. “But hey, Mack,” he chuckled, “don't sweat it, huh?”
Mack rubbed his forehead. “Now tell me why you didn't get in touch with the Gabriel woman yet.”
“She is out of commission. Fell during a visit. She’s in the hospital.”
“Her fiancé and her sister flew in from the US. I’m working on ways to approach them.”
The sister was the treasure hunter. The fiancé was the Marine. “I don’t like the sound of that,” Mack said.
Barton sighed. “I’m flying to New York the day after tomorrow. Let’s have dinner. In the meantime I’ll take care of Toslav.” He gave him an address and hung up.
Mack stared at his power wall. Connections. Life was about connections.
Connect with people in the right places. Connect the dots in the right order. Someone out there knew where the Logonikon was. More than he did. Someone out there was securing its ownership. Better than he did.
Very few people knew what the Voynich manuscript was; and until now he thought no one knew where its decoder, the Logonikon, was. That he was proven wrong meant a few individuals were about to crack his country's feet of clay. He looked at his power wall again.
Barton was going to be tough to control. And dangerous. He thought again about how he had casually mentioned his daughter. Sickening. Nothing was casual in Barton’s world. Especially not young women.
He walked down to the Starbucks on Nassau, right across the street. Asked the girl behind the counter if he could borrow her cell phone for a minute.
She gave him a blank stare. “What happened to yours?”
He didn’t have one. Never did, never would. He cherished his liberty too much. “I left it at the office. It’s an emergency.”
He pointed across the street. “New York Fed,” he said and pulled a hundred dollar bill.
She ignored the bill. “Police?”
She raised an eyebrow. “Can you get me a credit card?”
“We don’t handle private accounts.”
“What kinda bank?”
He wriggled the bill impatiently. “We make sure the economy is sound and the banks don’t steal your money,” he said. “May I use your phone now? This is a national emergency and I am compensating you tax free.”
She snapped his bill and handed him her phone. “You’re just calling your mistress.”
He went towards the restrooms and heard her say something about pictures. He locked himself up and dialed a number in Virginia. The old familiar voice picked up. Good. “How’s it going,” Mack said.
The guy was quick. Mack hadn’t pronounced a name, so he didn’t answer and waited.
“You still have your contacts in French Domestic Affairs?” Mack asked.
He told him his idea.
“Guess that could be done,” the answer came.
“Just a scare, okay? I’ll take care of the consul.”
Mack hung up and brought the phone back to the girl.
She took it with two disgusted fingers and gave him a nasty look. “Anything else?”
“Tell me I didn’t miss the police.” The hospital floor squeaked under Tom’s polished shoes. He closed the door neatly. The back of his shirt was soaked with sweat.
“You didn’t miss anything. They’re as useless as tits on a nun.”
“How would you know?” He gave Robyn a quick hug. He was holding a can of Coke. Warm. No condensation on it, and it had to be in the upper eighties in the room. He sat on the only chair. Snapped the can open. Took a long sip. “What did they say?”
She told him.
He let it sink in. “So goddamn typical.” Took another long sip.
“What was she doing here?” She still couldn’t believe Sybil would go to Marseilles without telling her.
“Did she tell you about the appointment with Durand?” Tom asked.
“The Swiss lawyer? Last time we spoke was before Switzerland.” She looked at Sybil. No eyeball movement. Imperceptible breathing.
He ran a hand over his cropped hair. “Long time ago.”
“What did she tell you?”
His answer snapped. “I didn’t have network.” Meaning, he’d been away, not in touch with Sybil.
She thought about it for a beat. “So you don’t know shit either.”
He cleared his throat. “Did you ever discuss that letter?”
“Anything strike you as strange?”
“About the letter?”
“Everything strange.” First their father’s lawyer released a letter written two weeks before his death in Marseilles. Next, Sybil was almost killed in the same God-forsaken place. It was more than just the letter.
“What were your parents doing here when they had that car accident?”
“The French Riviera.”
“Okay. Where exactly were they killed?”
“Some small road. Car fell off a cliff.” She looked at Sybil, grey and thinning, and the bitter taste of loss filled her mouth. “We were just kids.”
“You were sure it was an accident?”
“I didn’t think like that back then. It never came up later.”
He nodded and stayed silent, maybe on his own trail of thoughts.
She was trying to think things through. What was it that their father needed to “hand down” to them? Was he aware of any danger? “Any idea what this is?” she finally asked, and handed Tom her boarding pass.
Tom took his time, then said, “Where d’you see that?”
He glanced toward the bed.
“Nurse changed the dressing while I was here,” she said.
“Police mention anything?”
“Let’s leave it that way,” he said.
There was a long silence. He looked at the drawing. She looked at the drawing, upside down. Then he said, “Was your father interested in old manuscripts?”
Her father had been in genetic research. “Are you?”
“Usually not.” He stood and patted his back pocket, where his wallet made a bump. “I’ll be back in an hour or two.”
After Tom left, Robyn paced, looking through the dirty window, then to Sybil, then back to the window. Thinking things through. Thinking about the letter and the odd symbol. Thinking to avoid feeling. Thinking while the room filled with stillness and she couldn’t stand it anymore.
She noticed Sybil’s lips were cracked. Dehydration. The IV was still trickling. Must be the heat. She wasn’t much of a caretaker, but she figured an atomizer or lotion would feel good. She went down the hall in search of a nurse. Found a long office with a half-eaten snack on a desk full of paperwork, next to a plastic tray holding meds and syringes. No nurse. Went down a hiccupy elevator to the main entrance, a large glass affair that must have been sleek in the seventies but hadn’t received maintenance since then. No one in the hallway. She located a vending machine behind a dusty plastic plant. Fumbled through her pockets for change. Didn’t have the required euro coins.
Back in the room she pulled a T-shirt from her bag. Let the water run in the bathroom, long enough to get cooler water and wash down the most of whatever accumulated in the pipes. Then she soaked a corner of the T-shirt and moistened Sybil’s lips in light dabs. Pressed the fabric to let just a few drops slide inside the mouth. “We’ll make those bastards pay,” she said. When she figured she’d done enough dabbing, she stretched the T-shirt on the back of the chair. Then she opened the suitcase.
The clothes were folded neatly, the contents shifted to one side. The style was typical Sybil. Silk tops, designer jeans, Italian shoes, chiffon dresses, lace things. Hard to tell what they were without unfolding them, and Robyn didn’t want to unfold anything. She took each piece of clothing and stacked it on the other, shallower side, in unsteady piles. She kept sifting, hoping for some answer, stifling the bundle of tears forming in her throat.
When all the clothes were on the other side of the suitcase, there was only Sybil’s handbag left, crushed along the edge, probably stuffed in there by the police. She opened it and pulled out a purple Filofax organizer. Thumbed through it. The appointment with Durand had been last Thursday at 10 am. Nothing written down for the rest of last week and this one.
She fumbled some more and felt the sleekness of a cell phone. No password. The battery was running low. The last calls were US numbers, not foreign. One call to Tom on Wednesday, aborted. That would have been the day she landed. Nothing on Thursday. Nothing after, incoming or placed.
Emails. Junk emails and work emails. One sms, unknown number. She clicked on it. No message, just a blank space.
Tissues, a small wallet, a passport, a bunch of keys, lipstick, a pen and a small box of Advil.
And a thick, brown envelope.
The names “Sybil Gabriel & Robyn Gabriel” were printed in an old typewriter font. She flipped it over. The back flap, tightly glued, was embossed with an elaborate seal. The envelope was cut open. She slid her hand inside and retrieved two things. A small, flat key. No tag.
The other thing was the statue of an animal, no more than four inches long, its tail outstretched, flat and with cut-outs. It was off-white, lightly shiny and soft. She put it on the floor. It rolled to the side. Its odd shape prevented it from standing. She nestled it in her palm. It looked like a lioness, with large paws, a gaping mouth and piercing red eyes. Or an Asian dragon.