Jason watched his pew empty and the slow procession continue toward the altar. Anxious for Mandy's return, he rose to stretch his legs. He used the moment to study the statuary that flanked a confessional booth. Now standing, he also regretted that third can of Coke he had consumed. He glanced back toward the cathedral's vestibule. There was a public restroom outside the nave.
Glancing longingly back there, Jason was the first to spot a group of monks entering the rear of the cathedral, filing through all the back doors. Though in full-length black robes, hooded and belted at the waist, something immediately struck Jason as odd. They moved too quickly, with an assured military precision, slipping into shadows.
Was this some final bit of pageantry?
A glance around the cathedral revealed more cloaked figures at other doors, even beyond the roped transept beside the altar. While keeping their heads bowed piously down, they also seemed to be standing guard.
What was going on?
He spotted Mandy near the altar. She was just accepting her communion. There were only a handful of parishioners behind her. Body and blood of Christ, Jason could almost lip-read.
Amen, he answered himself.
The communion finished. The last parishioners returned to their seats, including Mandy. Jason waved her into the pew, then sat next to her.
"What's with all the monks?" he asked, leaning forward.
She had knelt down with her head bowed. Her only answer was a shushing sound. He sat back. Most of the parishioners were also kneeling, heads bowed. Only a few like Jason, those who had not taken communion, remained seated. Ahead, the priest finished tidying up, while the elderly Archbishop sat atop his raised dais, chin to chest, half-dozing.
The mystery and pageantry had died to embers in Jason's heart. Maybe it was just the pressure of his bladder, but all he wanted to do was get out of here. He even reached to Mandy's elbow, ready to urge her to leave.
Motion ahead stopped him. The monks on either side of the altar pulled weapons from beneath folds of cloth. Gunmetal shone with oil in the candlelight, snub-nosed Uzis, mounted with long black silencers.
A chatter of gunfire, no louder than a chain-smoker's staccato cough, spat across the altar. Heads rose along the pews. Behind the altar, the priest, garbed in white, danced with the impacts. It appeared as if he were being pelted with paintballscrimson paintballs. He fell atop the altar, spilling the chalice of wine along with his own blood.
After a stunned silence, cries rose from the parishioners. People sprang up. The elderly archbishop stumbled from his dais, drawing to his feet in horror. The sudden motion knocked his miter hat to the floor.
Monks swept up the aisles from the rear and the sides. Orders were shouted and barked in German, French, and English.
Bleiben Sie in Ihren Sitzen Ne bouge pas
The voices were muffled, the faces beneath the hoods obscured by half-masks of black silk. But the raised weapons punctuated their orders.
Stay seated or die!
Mandy sat back with Jason. Her hand reached for his. He clutched her fingers and glanced around, unable to blink. All the doors were closed, guarded.
What was going on?
From the pack of armed monks near the main entrance, a figure appeared, dressed like the others, only taller, seeming to rise as if called forth. His cloak was more like a cape. Clearly some leader, he carried no weapon as he strode boldly down the central aisle of the nave.
He met the archbishop at the altar. A heated argument ensued. It took Jason a moment to realize they were speaking in Latin. The archbishop suddenly fell back in horror.
The leader stepped aside. Two men came forward. Guns blazed. The aim was not murder. They fired upon the faceplate that sealed the golden reliquary. Glass etched and pocked, but held. Bulletproof.
Copyright © 2004 James Rollins - Excerpted from Map of Bones by James Rollins. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher, William Morrow.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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