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Warning: this novel contains profanity and graphic violence.

Chapter Nine

 

The black London cab tore along the M3 motorway at one hundred and forty kilometers per hour, passing cars and lorries in a blur. In the distance, the squat, cream-colored tower of Winchester Cathedral was visible amidst a tangle of grey urban landscapes.

In the rear seat, Pendergast, sitting next to Constance, glanced at his watch.

“We need to be at the Southampton docks in fifteen minutes,” he told the driver.

“Impossible.”

“There’s another fifty pounds in it for you.”

“Money won’t make ’er fly, sir,” the driver said.

Still, the vehicle accelerated even further, tires squealing as the driver negotiated the roundabout onto the southbound A33. The Winchester suburbs quickly gave way to greenery. Compton, Shawford, and Otterbourne passed by in heartbeats.

“Even if we do make the ship,” Constance said at last, “how are we going to board? The Le Monde this morning said every stateroom’s been booked for months. They’re calling this the most sought-after maiden voyage since the Titanic.”

Pendergast shuddered. “A rather unfortunate comparison. As it happens, I’ve already secured us acceptable accommodations. The Tudor Suite, a duplex at the ship’s stern. It has a third bedroom we’ll be able to use as an office.”

“How did you manage that?”

“The suite had been booked by a Mr. and Mrs. Prothero of Perth, Australia. They were happy to exchange the tickets for an even larger suite on the Britannia’s world cruise this coming fall, along with a modest monetary consideration.” Pendergast allowed himself the briefest of smiles.

The cab shot past the M27 interchange, then began to slow as the traffic inbound to Southampton grew heavier. They passed through a dreary industrial zone, then row after row of semi-detached brick houses, as they approached the maze of streets in the old town center. They made a left onto Marsh Lane, then an immediate right onto Terminus Terrace, the big vehicle dipping and swerving deftly through the traffic. The sidewalks were thick with people, most of them holding cameras. From ahead came the sound of cheering and shouting.

“Tell me, Constance, what it is you discovered that caused you to leave the monastery with such precipitation?”

“It’s quickly said.” She lowered her voice. “I took your parting request to heart. I made inquiries.”

Pendergast lowered his own voice in turn. “And how, Constance, does one ‘make inquiries’ in a Tibetan monastery?”

Constance suppressed a grim smile. “Boldly.”

“Which means?”

“I went into the inner monastery and confronted the monks.”

“I see.”

“It was the only way. But… funny enough, they seemed to be expecting me.”

“Go on.”

“They were surprisingly forthcoming.”

“Indeed?”

“Yes, but I’m not sure why. The monks in the inner monastery truly don’t know what the artifact is—Lama Thubten was honest in that regard, or who created it. It was carried

“And?”

Constance hesitated. “What the monks didn’t tell you is that they know the purpose of the Agozyen.”

“Which is?”

“Apparently, it is a instrument to wreak vengeance upon the world. Cleanse it, they said.”

“Did they hint as to what form this ‘vengeance,’ this ‘cleansing’ might take?”

“They had no idea.”

“When is this to happen?”

“When the earth is drowning in selfishness, greed, and evil.”

“Ah, how fortunate, then the world has nothing to fear,” said Pendergast, his voice heavy with irony.

“Right. The monk who did most of the talking said it was not their intent to release it. They were its guardians, there to insure it didn’t escape prematurely.”

Pendergast thought for a moment. “It appears that one of his brothers might not agree with him.”

“What do you mean?”

Pendergast turned to her, his grey eyes luminous. “I would guess that one particular monk felt the earth was ripe for cleansing. And he contrived for Jordan Ambrose to steal the Agozyen—and unleash it upon the world.”

“What makes you think that?”

“It’s very clear. The Agozyen was extraordinarily well protected. I spent more than a year at the monastery and never even knew it existed. How is it that a casual visitor, a mountain climber not even there for study, managed to find and steal it? That could only happen if one or more of the monks wanted it stolen. Lama Thubten told me he was certain none of the monks had the object in their possession. But that doesn’t mean a monk couldn’t have helped an outsider obtain it.”

“But if the artifact is as terrible, as they say—what kind of a person would want to see it deliberately unleashed?”

“Interesting question. When we return the Agozyen to the monastery, we’ll have to seek out the guilty monk out and ask him directly.” Pendergast thought for a moment.

“Curious that the monks didn’t simply destroy the object. Burn it.”

“That was the last question I asked. The monks grew very frightened and said it was impossible for them to do so.”

“Interesting.” Pendergast paused. “In any case, to business. Our first task will be to get a list of passengers—and when they boarded.”

“You think the killer is a passenger?”

“I’m quite sure. All crew and hospitality staff were required to be on board ship well before the hour of Ambrose’s death. I find it significant that he disguised himself with this bloody bandage before going to see Ambrose.”

“Why? He was disguising himself so he wouldn’t be traced to the crime.”

“I doubt he intended to commit a crime when he went to the hotel. No, Constance, the killer disguised himself even before he knew what Ambrose was offering, which suggests he’s a well-known, recognizable person who wished to remain incognito.” Their conversation was cut short as the taxi pulled up at the foot of Queen Dock. Pendergast leapt from the car, Constance following. To the left lay the Customs and Departures building; to the right, a perfect Babel of onlookers and well-wishers, camera crews and media types. Everyone was waving British flags, throwing confetti, and cheering. To one side a band was playing, adding to the general din.

And over everything towered the Britannia. It seemed to dwarf not only the dock, but the entire city, its black hull rising toward a glittering snow-white superstructure more than a dozen decks high, all glass and balconies and mahogany brightwork. It was larger and grander than anything Constance had ever imagined, and its bulk threw an entire neighborhood—Platform road, the Banana Wharf building, Ocean Village marina—into shadow.

But the shadow was moving. The horns were blasting. The dockworkers had slipped the hawsers and retracted the boarding gantry. High overhead, hundreds of people stood at its railing or on the countless balconies, taking pictures, throwing streamers, and waving goodbye to the crowd. With a final ground-shaking blast of its horn, the Britannia slowly, ponderously, inexorably began to move away from the dock.

“Ever so sorry, guv,” the driver said. “I did my best, but—”

“Bring the bags,” Pendergast interrupted. Then he dashed off through the crush of onlookers toward a security checkpoint. As Constance watched, he stopped only long enough to flash his badge at the police, then he was off again, heading past the band and the camera crews toward a scaffold covered with bunting, on which stood a thick press of dignitaries and—Constance assumed—North Star corporate officers. Already the group was beginning to break up; men in dark suits were shaking each other’s hands and stepping down off the scaffold.

Pendergast darted through a sea of lesser functionaries that surrounded the scaffold and singled out one man standing at its center: a portly gentleman with an ebony walking stick and a white carnation on his dove-gray vest. He was being congratulated by those around him, and he was clearly surprised and taken aback when Pendergast inserted himself into the little group, uninvited. The man listened to Pendergast for a moment, a mixture of impatience and irritation on his face. Then, abruptly, he frowned and began to shake his head furiously. When Pendergast continued to talk urgently, the man drew himself up and began to gesticulate, poking his finger first at the ship, then at Pendergast, his face flushing a deep red. Security personnel began to crowd around them and they were lost from sight.

Constance waited by the taxi, the driver at her side. He had not bothered to retrieve the luggage, and she was not surprised; the huge bulk of the Britannia was still gliding along the dock, moving slowly but picking up speed. There would be no more stops until it reached New York after a crossing of seven days and six nights.

As she watched, the ship’s horn let out another blast. Abruptly, large jets of water began to boil around the bows. Constance frowned: it almost seemed as if the vessel was slowing down. She glanced back in Pendergast’s direction. He was visible again now, standing beside the man with the carnation, who was talking into a cell phone. The man’s face had gone from red to purple.

Constance returned her attention to the ship. It was no illusion: the ship’s bow thrusters had reversed, and the Britannia was creeping backwards toward the dock. The ear-splitting cheering around her seemed to falter as the crowds looked on with increasing perplexity.

“Blimey,” the driver muttered. Then, walking around to the rear of the taxi, he opened the boot and began to pull out their baggage.

Pendergast gestured to Constance, indicating that she should meet him at the security checkpoint. She made her way through the buzzing crowds, the driver at her heels. On the dock itself, workers were hastily extending the lower boarding gantry again. The band faltered, then gamely started up again.

The horn gave yet another blast as the gangway was maneuvered into position against its black flanks. Pendergast ushered her through the checkpoint and together they walked quickly down the dock toward the ship.

“No need to make haste, please, Constance,” he said, taking her arm lightly and slowing her down to a leisurely stroll. “We might as well enjoy the moment—of keeping the world’s largest ocean liner waiting, that is—not to mention its more than four thousand passengers and crew.”

“How did you manage it?” she asked as they stepped onto the gantry.

“Mr. Elliott, principle director of the North Star Line, is a warm acquaintance of mine.”

“He is?” she asked dubiously.

“Well, even if he wasn’t ten minutes ago, he certainly is now. The gentleman and I are recently acquainted, and he is warm now—very warm.”

“But delaying departure? Getting the ship to return to the dock?”

“When I explained just how much it would be to his advantage to accommodate us—and how much to his personal disadvantage not to—Mr. Elliott was most eager to be of assistance.” Pendergast glanced up at the ship, then smiled once again. “You know, Constance, under the circumstances I think I’m going to find this voyage tolerable—perhaps even agreeable.”

 

Copyright © 2007 by Splendide Mendax, Inc., and Lincoln Child

THE WHEEL OF DARKNESS is available in paperback from Grand Central Publishing, www.HachetteBookGroup.com.

© 2019 Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child