Sarah edged along the courtyard’s inner wall until she found a place to stand. Gazing over the crowd already gathered there, she guessed that everyone in the compound was here: nearly seven hundred men, women, and children either squatting or sitting wherever there was a space. The subdued murmur of people talking quietly to one another filled the courtyard, and Sarah watched six emaciated men, almost too weak to move, drag the stretchers of those who were too weak to move into the far end of the courtyard and arrange them before a makeshift platform. The Messiah’s podium stood on the platform, and Sarah wondered if the rumor was true that The Messiah would appear today.
No one had seen The Messiah for almost a week—not his closest aides, not even his concubines. He had barricaded himself in the ICON staff supervisor’s office, a large room on an upper floor of the central building of the Regional Administration Center. Six days ago, around three o’clock in the morning, a loud hammering was heard coming from that office—the sound of nails being driven through the solid oak door and frame. Those who wished to speak to The Messiah—once they had negotiated their way through his ranks of official bodyguards—were forced to shout through the door, often receiving no response. If they did get an answer, it was in the form of an unintelligible grunt accompanied by a chair hurled in the general direction of the doorway.
Sarah gave a weary sigh and leaned against the cool stone of the wall. She closed her eyes and began humming to the music that blared continually from beyond the high compound walls. A week after the storming of the center, when it had become obvious that any attempt at serious negotiation was out of the question, the ICON Rapid Response Unit had wheeled large, armored speakers right up to the walls and started pumping a steady flow of heavy-metal rock at high volume into the compound. At first the younger members of the group had made a great show of dancing vigorously in front of the windows—the music was not unlike what they listened to in their free time anyway.
No one danced now. The volume had grown steadily louder with each passing day, or so it seemed. Between the incessant din of the music and the gnawing hunger, Sarah was finding it increasingly difficult to think clearly.
The tear gas attacks were still regular as clockwork. The RR unit outside was becoming quite adept at placing the canisters where they would create the most aggravation. Every three or four hours, a short burst of gunfire would signal the beginning of the attack and, moments later, two or three green cans would sail over the walls. Occasionally, one would miss its target and fall into the courtyard where it would be picked up and tossed back. But mostly, the ICON sharpshooters were able to place the canisters just out of reach.
Occasionally, too, one of the sharpshooters would pick off a careless cult member, but this was rare. Of the 993 cult members led by Messiah Eleazar Ben Miller, who had taken over the Big Sky Regional Administration Center three months ago, a total of 687 remained. At least, that was what they were told. Sarah had seen a few of the dead bodies, but they hardly added up to the missing 306. She thought she knew what had really happened to them, but it was dangerous to say anything about it.
Two nights ago she heard a hushed commotion outside her window. The noise died down to the sound of running feet on the gravel of the forecourt, and soon after, there were shouts in the street outside the walls. Then all grew quiet again. She couldn’t make out exactly what had been shouted but knew what it meant—some lucky souls had defected.
Sarah watched as a young man plugged a microphone into a large black speaker cabinet standing beside the podium. He flipped a switch that brought the speaker to life with a loud pop. After giving a few tentative taps on the microphone, he stood aside and waited. Silence descended on the crowd as all heads turned expectantly to the door leading to the administration building. They waited for The Messiah to appear.
During her time in the cult, Sarah had seen The Messiah many times. He was a big man. Six and a half feet tall, weighing two hundred and seventy-five pounds, he commanded attention by size alone. His features were outsized, too, but his hands were small and delicate, almost feminine. He wore his hair and beard long and untrimmed. He had a deep, resonant voice and a direct way of speaking that captivated his devoted audience, and an unwavering zeal seemed to burn from his dark eyes.
A minute later, The Messiah emerged from the doorway, but the man Sarah now saw shuffling up to the podium bore only a passing resemblance to the man she knew. It was as if the past six days had aged him six decades. Gone was the long, energetic, springing stride, the toothy grin poking through the dark beard, the hearty bellow of greeting. The Messiah shambled now, head down, slump-shouldered, and hesitant like a doddering old man.
Upon reaching the podium, The Messiah took the microphone in his hand and drew a deep breath. “My children . . . ” he said, his voice ragged from sleepless nights. He tried clearing his throat, but to little effect. Everyone strained forward to hear him. “My children; my sons and daughters . . . I look into the face of each one of you gathered here today, and I take strength from what I see. Your faith has made me strong. Your faith has made you strong. Our reward is coming soon. I can feel it. “In these last days, I have been talking to the exalted Ruler of Heaven, our shield and defender, Jehovah, Allah, almighty maker of the heaven and the earth, sea, and sky. He is greatly pleased, my sons and daughters. He has counted you all righteous and is proud for you to be his justified and sanctified soldiers. He has promised each and every one of you a place at his own high table in the next life where we will feast on the bodies and drink the ever-flowing blood of our enemies. He has promised this to me, my children, and now I pass along this promise to you, so that you might share in my glory.”
The Messiah paused to let this sink in. He stroked his scraggly beard, then drew a deep breath and leaned into the microphone. “We will drink the blood of our enemies at the Lord’s high table in heaven!” he shouted with something like his former strength.
When the spattering of applause died down, he continued. “Our work here has not been in vain. Our glorious Lord says that we have made a noise that even now echoes throughout the world, shaking the mighty in their fortresses. My children, I once shared with you the vision of the righteous fulfilling their destiny in every corner of the globe. I imagined a virtuous army dispelling the powers of darkness, dispatching them with a fist clenched not in oppression, but in holy anger.
“I still cherish that vision, my children, but now I understand that it will be realized in a different form. My glorious maker has revealed that we must prepare the way for greater works by his hand. We are his beloved firstborn. And now”—he thrust his arms outward; his voice had been gathering strength and now boomed off the walls of the courtyard—“it is time for us to claim our new bodies!”
Sarah noticed a movement in the doorway behind him.
“It is time,” The Messiah continued, “for us to ascend to a higher plane of existence. By leaving our earthly bodies, we will sublimate into the indestructible bodies the mighty maker reserves for his heavenly host. No longer restrained by our earthly vessels, we will be free to travel between the celestial spheres at will—his will, my children. Our battle will no longer be physical, but spiritual. We have been chosen, my children! Chosen to be the first of a legion of spiritual warriors who will scour the earth until it gleams like a fresh-cut diamond.”
He paused again, looking out over the assembly. “Sons and daughters!” he cried suddenly, “let us now drink to our divinity!”
Sarah craned her neck to look through the bobbing heads of the people. It took her a moment to see that a utility wagon had appeared from behind the podium, bearing what seemed to be a number of large plastic water containers. Several men moved from behind the wagon, each of them clutching a long stack of small paper cups in one hand and a drawn sidearm in the other. “Don’t be afraid, little children,” The Messiah continued as the men took up positions in front of the wagon. “Drink deeply of the sweet nectar of heaven. Drink from the cup of life! Your earthly cares are at an end—tonight you will be in the Lord’s heavenly house.” He cast his eyes over the gathering. “Who will be the first to demonstrate the depth of their faith?”
“Here!” came a cry, and a hand went up. “Here!”
One of the attendants moved toward the upraised hand and paused before an enfeebled woman lying on a stretcher before the podium. He offered a cup, which she took in a shaking hand and gulped down instantly.
“Yes, drink deep, my daughter,” The Messiah said, his voice a soothing invitation. “Drink all of it.”
Within seconds, the woman began to shudder. “Do you feel it, my child? Do you feel the hand of God, the spirit of the fiercest in battle, changing you? Is it not glorious, my daughter?”
The woman convulsed; a small stream of white liquid spilled from her mouth.
“Let us all sing a battle song of righteousness, my sons and daughters! Let us usher in the new age of spiritual enlightenment with great rejoicing!” bellowed The Messiah with the old fire. He started a triumphant chorus as the woman slumped back onto her bed, limbs jerking.
Sarah sang along with everyone else as the attendants moved slowly through the throng. Many crowded around the wagon, but some were too weak to stand and had to be served. Sarah watched mothers help their children press the cup to their lips and gulp down the drink. Sarah sang, her voice quivering softly while lines of people collapsed and fell like lazy domino chains.
The singing was very low when the cups finally reached the far wall where Sarah waited. There were fewer than fifty people left to take up the musical refrains. The Messiah now sat on the edge of the platform, head in hands and a gun in his lap.
When those nearest her went down, Sarah slipped down against the wall, too. And when no one was looking, she rolled herself next to a nearby body and pulled the still-warm corpse over her. To make her deception complete, she took some of the white fluid from the lips of the corpse and dabbed it around her own mouth. Then she lay back and, shutting her eyes against the horror, forced herself to remain utterly, deathly still.
When ICON forces stormed the compound nine hours later, they found only eight survivors: Sarah, and seven others in deep comas, not having taken enough poison to kill them completely. They also found four men beside the podium, each with a bullet through his head and no evidence of having drunk the poison. These particular victims were known to be upper-echelon members of the cult. The gun that fired these bullets was found in the hand of Jonathan Miller, a.k.a. The Messiah, a.k.a. Eleazar Ben Miller. He had also put a bullet into his own head.
The charred remains of almost four hundred men and women were found in a fire pit at the edge of the Regional Center’s rose garden.
Alex Hunter stepped out of the yellow cab and into the heat-flash that bounced off the pavement. It was 10:45 A.M. He’d been in the city less than thirty minutes, and already his head was pounding. Sweat trickled down his collar and seeped into his shirt; he felt as if he were swimming inside his uniform. Just what I need, he thought grimly, a September heat wave in one of the dirtiest, most crowded cities on earth.
New York, New York—so great they named it twice. Yeah, right, he thought. Probably, they just couldn’t believe it the first time.
Hunter hadn’t asked for this assignment. It had been dumped on him from a great height. Smacking the heads of rabid radicals was not his idea of a good time, and besides, it was a waste of his considerable talents. What am I doing here? he wondered as he gazed up at the ICON tower looming over him. He had asked and answered that question a hundred times since flying in that morning. You know what you’re doing here, and you also know why. The black-tinted windows of the tower shimmered in the sun, making the enormous building appear to sway in its own private, slow-motion earthquake.
He climbed the twenty-four steps to the entrance and placed his palm on the metal push bar. It was hot and he yanked his hand away. “Out of the frying pan,” he muttered, “and into the fire.” Putting his shoulder to the door, he shoved his way in.
The reception area was a box of reinforced concrete and bulletproof glass—a cramped, airless cubicle with sticky rubber matting on the floor. Hunter shook off a feeling of mild claustrophobia as he fished his ID from his pocket, waving it at the nearest of the three armed guards waiting inside the door. One of the guards motioned him through and pointed to the security booth, where a bored-looking officer sat behind an assessment screen. Hunter swiped his ID card across a magnetic pad and waited for his details to appear on the monitor. In a moment, they came up:
Hunter, Alexander Scott
ICON RNK: *Lieutenant, First*
ICON CLSFCN: *Special Agent*
SECCLR: SA Priority / Top Level
SVC-RD: *10 yrs* Awards: 5 / Citations: 1
The duty officer yawned and pressed a button beneath the counter; two large steel doors opposite the entrance clicked open.
In a second reception area, Hunter was met by another security guard. “Morning, sir,” said the guard, stepping out from behind his desk. “Gun, sir?”
“Yes,” Hunter replied. “Standard issue. Nothing fancy.”
“You’ll have to leave it here.”
“We’ve had a few incidents lately,” the guard informed him.
“You’ll get it back.”
Hunter unsnapped his hip holster and gave the man his sidearm, then unbuttoned the jacket of his dark blue uniform and pulled his handgun from its shoulder holster. “Take care of them,” he said, handing over the two automatics. “I don’t want to see them all scratched up when I come back.”
“Sure thing,” replied the guard as he tagged the weapons and dropped them into a metal box behind his desk.
Hunter rebuttoned his jacket and started through the metal detector in the doorway.
“Have a nice day, sir,” the guard called after him.
“Too late for that,” said Hunter, stepping through the doorway and into the lobby. The first thing to hit him was the cool air.
Hunter closed his eyes and felt the sweat chill his skin. When he opened his eyes again, he took in the gigantic scale of the room. Mother ICON, he thought, gazing at what seemed to be three or four acres of cool pink marble and several tons of gleaming brass, you’ve outdone yourself this time. He’d been in dozens of ICON headquarters around the world, and all were built to be imposing, but this one surely topped them all. The proportions were calculated not only to make visitors feel small and unimportant, but also irrelevant, insignificant, and impotent.
The International Confederation of Nations—known the world over as ICON, the last and greatest empire, mother to the unwashed billions—maintained its grip on power with an evertightening iron fist. But the world was changing; fever and ferment were everywhere; people were restless, discontented, even angry. Rebellion was becoming commonplace, part of the daily routine—heck, in some quarters it was almost a civic duty.
All of which made Hunter’s job more challenging. Not that he minded—it kept him in beer and bratwurst.
“Agent Hunter!” a female voice called out. Hunter turned and was met by a pretty woman in a uniform bearing a silver supervisor’s insignia. She was petite, with fine, sandy blond hair, pale skin, and a hint of peach-colored lipstick. Her appearance was immaculate—nothing wrinkled, nothing irregular, nothing out of place. Her uniform was perfectly tailored and she carried a small brown leather portfolio. She exuded a cool, official air and an aloof sexuality that Hunter found very appealing.
“I’m Janet Riley.” She extended her hand and Hunter shook it. “I asked to be notified when you came in. You’ve got an appointment with Commissioner Steiner scheduled now. Shall we go up together?”
She led him to a bank of elevators and entered the express car that ran only to the upper floors. Supervisor Riley put her ID card in a small slot underneath the call button and pressed it. A red light flashed for a second and then turned green with a ping.
The elevator took them straight to the thirty-second floor where, after a smooth and silent journey, they were delivered to a sleek waiting room with jade green carpeting and a rank of low brown leather chairs. A receptionist behind a walnut desk glanced up at them for a fraction of a second. “Go right in. The commissioner’s expecting you,” he said, his voice as languid as his manner. Riley stepped aside and let Hunter go first. He took a deep, silent breath, put his hand to the brass doorknob, and gave the massive paneled door a push. The door swung open quietly, and he stepped into what might have passed for a luxury airplane hangar.
Hunter’s gaze swept around the room, taking in the sumptuous interior. Two walls were glass, floor to ceiling, affording an impressive view of the waterfront and Staten Island beyond; the other walls were taken up by three large paintings—postmodern paint-spattered tantrums, to Hunter’s inexperienced eye. The floor was an open field of sky-blue carpet, and the ceiling was dotted with tiny spotlights that glowed like stars in a cream-colored firmament. In the center of the room a thin man sat in a tall chair behind a veritable blockade of polished granite—perhaps the largest desk Hunter had seen in his life.
“Ah, Special Agent Hunter,” said the man, looking up. “Pleased to meet you.”
Hunter advanced quietly across the carpet. There were no other chairs in the room. Visitors obviously weren’t meant to stay here very long—at least, not comfortably.
“Commissioner Steiner,” responded Hunter as he came face to face with one of the most powerful men in New York. A long, thin neck supported Steiner’s round, bald head. His slightly hunched shoulders gave him the appearance of a vulture on a perch—an impression only strengthened by two keen dark eyes that watched the world from beneath dark brows. He wore the standard gray uniform of all ICON’s top-level commanders.
Hunter remained at attention as the commissioner rose slowly from his chair and raised his hand in a salute, which Hunter returned with practiced precision. Supervisor Riley acknowledged her superior with a nod and took her place beside Steiner’s desk, silent, her hands folded before her, waiting to be addressed.
Commissioner Steiner resumed his seat and reached for one of the two yellow folders before him on the otherwise naked desktop. One of the folders bore the blue stripe of a personnel record—which Hunter assumed was his own—and the other was a red-tagged duty folder.
“We were expecting you last night, Agent.”
“Please accept my apologies, sir. My flight was canceled.”
“Yes, I know,” replied the commissioner distractedly as he flipped open the file with the blue stripe. He read to himself for a moment, then said, “You’ve been an unfortunate man, Agent Hunter.” He tapped Hunter’s file with a finger. “Your last assignment landed you in the soup, I see.”
“You could say that, sir,” he replied automatically. “Due to unforeseen circumstances, there was considerable collateral damage. I took full responsibility.”
“Yes,” mused the commissioner, as his thin lips twitched into a smile. “I’m sure you did.” He closed the file and pushed it across the granite desktop. “Don’t worry, Agent. I’m not here to judge you. This isn’t the first time that an officer has been stripped of his rank, and you won’t be the first one to bounce back—assuming you want a second chance.”
“I most certainly do, sir.”
“Then you have nothing to fear from this quarter. We won’t let a little collateral damage worry us.” Steiner placed a narrow hand on his chest. “Personally, I like a man to show some initiative. Things happen in the field—I know that. All I ask, Agent Hunter, is that you keep me informed. I want to know what my agents are up to. That way I will always know how best to help them if something . . . unfortunate should happen. Understand?”
“Good. And I want you to remain in touch with Supervisor Riley here.” Steiner nodded at the woman standing silently beside him.
“Just a tiny formality, nothing more. You are more than qualified to look after yourself in the field, I know that. But it is my policy in situations like this, where an agent may be struggling,” he spread his hands in a gesture of sympathetic understanding, “to keep the lines of communication open.”
Hunter bristled slightly at the implication that he was damaged goods. “You can trust me, sir.”
“Oh, it isn’t about trust, Agent,” replied Steiner quickly. “Don’t think for a moment we don’t trust you. But if you should find yourself in a position where you need someone on the other side of the fence to help you out, do not hesitate to call her.” The commissioner glanced at Riley and smiled. “She’s good, or she wouldn’t be working for me.”
“Thank you, sir. I’ll remember that.”
Steiner waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. “Now then, down to business.” He picked up the red-edged file and handed it to Hunter. “Here’s your brief—no need to read it now. You’ll want to get acquainted with the city first, of course. New York is quite . . . unique, as they say, but very straightforward. We can of course, arrange a tour . . . ” his voice trailed off.
“Thank you, sir,” said Hunter, taking the hint. “As it happens, I actually prefer making my own way around.”
“I thought so.” The commissioner flashed an enigmatic grin.
“Great minds think alike.”
Hunter waited for something more, but that seemed to be the end of the conversation. “Well, if there is nothing else, sir,” he volunteered, “I’ll get started.”
“Good,” said the commissioner, rising from his seat. “You’ll keep me informed on the progress of your investigation? I want reports.”
“Of course,” he answered, adding, “but these things can take time.”
“I understand, Agent,” said Steiner affably. “Just make sure Supervisor Riley can get in touch with you at all times.”
“I will do that, sir.”
“Fine.” The commissioner stood and raised his hand slowly.
“And you’ll give me reports?”
“I will, sir.”
“Good man.” Commissioner Steiner gave his new agent a final salute.
The interview over, Hunter tucked the folder under his arm, put his heels together, and gave a quick salute. Commissioner Steiner nodded and settled back into his great chair.
Hunter turned and started away; he had almost reached the door when he heard from behind him, “New York has its share of hotheads, rebels, and malcontents, I don’t deny it; but we keep a tight rein on things in this city. Terrorism is the hot issue right now; it’s the media’s favorite buzzword. But we have things pretty well in hand here, you’ll see.”
How very reassuring, thought Hunter, and wondered yet again why on earth he was here. He gave the commissioner a last nod and paused while Supervisor Riley opened the door for him.
“Don’t take it so hard, Agent,” whispered Riley as soon as they were outside. “Just get through this assignment in good shape, and you’ll soon have your old rank back. I’ll see to it.”
“Thanks,” he muttered. Then, wishing his baby-sitter a good day, he turned and walked away.
“You’ll phone me?” she called after him.