THE SPIDER IN THE LAUREL
Rafael Ward Book One
Free Preview of Chapter One Below
Rafael Ward was about to die.
It was a fact as sure as any in his textbooks. The fall of Rome in 476. Christopher Columbus in 1492. The formation of Relic Enforcement Command in 2016. Fact: the door at the end of the hall would be the last he would ever walk through.
It wasn’t a completely unpleasant thought. There was something right about it. About this basement. The door. Like walking through it would be the final payoff on a debt owed.
Besides, he had to do it. There were things worse than death. Places worse than ash-filled urns. He thought of the Tower. One way or another he’d be there soon. Better to push on than to run away, to leave that debt unfulfilled.
His legs didn’t move, didn’t take him from that last stair down into the hall. He’d been taught to avoid basements. “You can jump out a window or from one roof to another,” Agent Compano, his recruiter and trainer, had said. “But in a basement, you’re stuck. It might as well be a coffin.” Yet here he was, on his first solo operation, ordered into the cellar of an abandoned apartment building in South Philly. Ordered into darkness and dust and an almost ridiculous silence that pounded inside his head like waves.
He concentrated on his breathing like he’d been taught. “Control the aspects of the operation you can control,” was another of Agent Compano’s tips. “Trust us to take care of the rest.”
Trust. It seemed a simple thing for Relic Enforcement Command, the REC, to ask. Trust them to control what Ward couldn’t. What he couldn’t control was that he worked for them. Quitting wasn’t an option. Agents of the REC, even conscripts like Ward, were sworn for life. There was nothing to do now but take that next step off the stairs. Success or death. The REC’s unofficial motto.
He squinted down the hallway that extended from the stairwell. By the remaining light from the top of the stairs he could make out two doors lining the left side of the corridor and one on the right. Even with his limited six weekends of REC training, he recognized the danger this setup presented: ambush.
Five minutes ago, as he’d approached the building, he’d replayed in his mind the last thing Agent Compano had told him in person. It was two weeks ago, and he’d just been informed that his training reviews were approved. He was now an active Agent. She handed him an unremarkable black briefcase containing the items he would need to carry out his duties. In an uncharacteristic display, she placed a hand on his shoulder.
“It’s simple, Professor,” she said. “Collect the artifact, count the cash, and deliver the contraband to Command.”
“What about the…” he wanted to say suspects or perpetrators, but the words didn’t feel right, “…the bad guys?” That choice felt even worse.
“You let us take care of that,” she said. “Just do what you’re told. Operations like yours are simple. Good fun. You might even get to like it.” The corner of her lip curled like it was being pulled by a fishing line. It was as close to a smile as he’d ever seen from her. She actually meant what she said, he realized. To her operations like his were easy and fun.
Ward was not having fun. He was certain there wasn’t going to be anything simple or easy about what waited for him behind the door at the end of the hall.
His breathing finally even and under control, Ward reached beneath his black leather field jacket for his Command-issued RT40 pistol. The RT, or Republic Tactical, forty-caliber weighed just over two pounds loaded, and at the target range it never felt an ounce more. But in the near dark of the stairwell, its weight tripled.
Still, Ward found it a welcomed heft. A dozen clichéd lines raced through his mind, plucked from the pop noir novels he’d been reading since grade school. Lines about, and by, characters like Terry Mack, Philip Marlowe, and Chili Palmer.
He waited in the dark, the narrative would go, reassured by the weight of the gun in his hand.
They were bad fiction from a forgotten era, yet Ward loved them as much as the medieval history and literature he taught at Carroll University.
And here he was, clenching the knurled grip of the RT40, its weight making him feel safe.
He tried to ignore the fact that he’d never fired a weapon outside a range, not even during his military service—the two year mandatory Citizen’s Duty everyone enlisted in after high school—which he’d completed just over a decade ago. But, as Agent Compano had said more than once, Ward hadn’t been recruited for his commando skills. In Professor Rafael Ward, they had the perfect mole. He was one of the Atlantic District’s leading experts in medieval European history, and thus in the illegal religions academically known as mythologies, of that era. He was exactly the type of person outlaw Believers would accept as one of their own.
At least they would so long as they didn’t know about his childhood.
Ward put the thought out of his mind and chambered a round. He stepped from the stairway and began his progress through the hall, the rising dust making the floor shimmer. The room seemed to spin. All the comfort of the pistol in his hand drained away.
He became aware of his heartbeat pounding at the same time the desire to run returned. But there was no turning back. There hadn’t been since he’d opened the door to his office near the end of the spring semester to find his officemate Ken Hickey fidgeting, wide-eyed on the couch. Ken, in his standard oversized khaki blazer and baggy trousers, looked like a rumpled pile of terrified laundry. Standing in front of Ken had been two powerfully built men in identical black suits featuring black shirts and white ties. And Agent Compano.
She wore the same standard REC suit as her partners, but with a slightly more feminine cut and the addition of a red bar across her tie near the knot. Her brunette hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail. She was younger than Ward, but her eyes asserted absolute authority. Once Ward was in the tiny office, Agent Compano had asked Ken to excuse them. He did so, shrugging on his way out the door as if to say, “Sorry, dude. Hope you don’t die.”
Ward hadn’t died. During a brief conversation in the office, he’d been “volunteered” to join the REC. Just like he’d been “volunteered” to undertake this operation in this basement. And regardless of the “volunteering,” REC Agents did not offer excuses. They did not fail.
Ward’s thigh muscles pulsed in time with his heart. “Come on,” he whispered. He locked his eyes on the door at the far end and forced his feet to shuffle forward.
As he approached the midpoint of the hallway a voice in his head announced: The doors, Rafe. Check the doors.
Ward’s stomach tumbled over itself as he realized he’d been so focused on the door at the end he’d forgotten about the potential ambush. He shook his head and thanked the internal warning. He’d benefited from similar instinctive announcements before. He liked to think of it as his conscience, with a built-in alarm. A sentinel perhaps, for when the academic side of his brain lost track of the practical world around him. It was what kept him from dropping a coffee mug when he’d only placed half of it on the edge of his desk. Or from being run over when he stepped into the street while lost in thought about the day’s upcoming lecture. It offered approvals and dissents for everything from choosing to study history, to backing off the purchase of a convertible yellow sports car which would have been near useless in the Philly winters, and likely would have been a money pit.
In this case the voice might well have saved his life. To find out, Ward pressed his ear to the closest door on the left. At first, he couldn’t hear anything over the pumping of his own pulse. He pulled back a little. This time he heard nothing. A good nothing. The kind of nothing that indicated there was no one inside waiting to kill him. In the limited light, he examined the doorknob. A thin film of dust clung to it. He relaxed his hand and re-gripped his pistol. Agent Compano had never taught him to check for dust on doorknobs. That one was all him. He held back a grin but still congratulated himself. He then repeated the listening and doorknob check at the remaining two doors. Silence and dust. He continued down the hallway pressed against the wall, just in case.
At the end of the corridor Ward placed his ear to the final door. At first this one, too, produced only silence. Then, as he was about to pull away, he heard something. Not much. Maybe the shuffling of feet.
Maybe an ambush.
Ward dismissed the thought before his heart rate rose again. Agent Compano, posing as Ward’s contact and point person for what she called the relic black market, had set up this meet. Ward was an asset. Her asset. She wouldn’t send him unprepared into a full-on ambush.
Then again, her first priority was to Relic Enforcement Command. To confiscating the relics that Believers used to inspire their insurgencies and terrorist attacks. The REC was the nation’s key anti-Belief weapon. Bibles, manifestos, novels, videos, downloads, anything at all on the censor list, even tattoos and utterances invoking faith or gods—the REC tracked them all. But actual relics, these were the REC’s priority.
Would she really care, Ward wondered, if I was killed during an otherwise successful operation?
He knew the answer but wouldn’t allow his mind to speak it. Instead, he focused on the door and on what he did know, the details of the operation as relayed via Agent Compano’s encrypted text. He was to meet a man named Torres who would pay him ten thousand dollars in cash to transport an as of yet unidentified artifact to an as of yet unidentified location outside the Atlantic District.
The artifact and the location didn’t matter. Ward wouldn’t be keeping the cash and he wouldn’t be taking the item anywhere but the REC’s field office, known as the Tower, about four miles to the north. By the time Ward had arrived at the Tower, Torres would be in custody, likely in interrogation. By the end of the weekend he’d be feeding the Crematorium across the river in Camden.
Simple and easy, as Agent Compano would say.
Maybe, Ward thought, disturbed at how naive he sounded even in his own head.
Either way there was nothing left to do but open the door and get this whole thing over with. Before he did, however, Ward returned his pistol to the belt holster beneath his jacket. When drawn, Agent Compano had taught, the gun is all your adversary sees.
“Unless you intend to open the meeting with gunfire,” Ward remembered her saying, “keep it holstered.”
A gunfight was the last thing Ward wanted. He smoothed his jacket over the pistol. Checked the hallway behind him once more. No movement. No open doors. There were only his own boot prints in the dust.
He tried to remember what Agent Compano had taught him about calming his breathing, letting it find its natural respiratory pause, while lining up a target with a tactical rifle. Had she said to take the shot on the exhale? On the inhale and hold it? Was it different depending on whether you were lying still or rushing through a firefight?
His pulse was quickening not slowing. His breath coming in short bursts not rhythmic lengths.
You're overthinking, Rafe.
He exhaled and opened the door.
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