Authors: James Rollins
Tags: #Mystery, #Adventure, #Thriller
The third hunter barged inside, plainly intending to take a shortcut
the church rather than
it, planning to bring up the rear behind his fleeing quarry.
Both Tucker and the man were equally caught off guard.
Tucker reacted first as the hunter’s eyes spotted the woman in the ivory coat and struggled to comprehend how she could be there.
Using that momentary confusion, Tucker lunged and barreled into the man with his shoulder, driving him back out the door and into a narrow dark alley. He slammed him against the brick wall on the far side, driving an elbow into his solar plexus, hard enough for the air to burst from his chest.
The man gasped and slumped, but he had enough wits to paw for a hidden weapon. Tucker spun, swinging his arm with all the strength in his shoulder. He struck the hilt of his KA-BAR dagger against the man’s temple—and drove him to his knees, where he fell limply on his face.
Tucker quickly searched him. The woman stepped out, too, smartly closing the door to the church, looking terrified.
For the moment, with the church mostly deserted, no one seemed to note the attack. He confiscated a FÉG PA-63 semiautomatic pistol, used commonly by the Hungarian police and military. He also found an I.D. folder topped with a badge and flipped it open, recognizing the man’s face, but not the badge, though it looked official. Across the top it read
and at the bottom were three letters: NSZ.
The woman gasped upon seeing it, recognizing it.
That can’t be good.
He stared up at her.
“He’s with the Hungarian national security service,” she said.
Tucker took a deep breath and stood. He had just cold-cocked a member of the Hungarian FBI. What had he gotten himself into? Right now, the only answers lay with this woman.
He knew he didn’t want to be found crouched over this unconscious form, especially by the guy’s teammates. People still had a tendency to disappear in this former Soviet Bloc country, where corruption continued to run rampant.
And, at the moment, was he on the
side of the law or the
As he stood, he studied the scared eyes of the woman. Her fear seemed genuine, based on confusion and panic. He remembered how she had crossed the plaza, offering so open a target. Whoever she was, she wasn’t some criminal mastermind.
He had to trust his instincts. One of the reasons he had been paired with Kane was his high empathy scores. Military war dog handlers had a saying—
It runs down the lead
—describing how emotions of the pair became shared over time, binding them together as firmly as any leash. The same skill allowed him to read people, to pick up nuances of body language and expression that others might miss.
He stared at the woman and recognized she was in real trouble.
Whatever was happening was not her fault.
Committed now, he took her hand and headed quickly for a back alley. His hotel was not far off—the Hilton Budapest, right around the corner. Once he got her stashed somewhere safe, he could figure out what was really going on and do something to end it.
But first, he needed more information. He needed ears and eyes in the field—and in this case, a nose, too.
He recovered his cell phone, tapped a button, and radioed a command.
ane hears the word in his ear, spoken with authority.
He stands and tugs free of the leash, ignoring the clatter of the clasp on the pavement behind him. He slinks behind the bench to where the shadows will hide him. He lifts his nose to the night, senses swelling outward, filling in the world around him with information beyond mere sight, which is keen enough in the dark.
The ripeness of garbage rises from a pail . . .
The tang of old urine wafts from the stone wall . . .
The smoky exhaust of cars tries to wash through it all . . .
But he stays focused, picking out the one scent he was told to follow. It is a blazing trail through all else: the smell of leather and sweat, the salt of skin, the musky dampness held trapped beneath the long coat as the man walked in front of him.
He follows that trail now through the air as it hangs like a lighted beacon through the miasma of other scents. He hunts along it from the bench to the stone corner, staying to shadows. He watches the prey come running, circling back into view.
He slinks low.
The prey and another man rush past him, blind to him.
He waits, waits, waits—only then does he follow.
Belly near the ground, he moves from shadow to shadow until he spots the prey bent over another man. They pick him up, search around, then head away.
He flows after them, a ghost upon their trail.
ucker hurried the woman through the main entrance to the Hilton Budapest. The historic structure was just steps away from the Matthias Church. They had no trouble reaching it unseen.
He rushed her into the lobby, struck again by the mix of modern and ancient that typified this city. The hotel incorporated sections of a thirteenth-century Dominican monastery, integrating a pointed church tower, a restored abbey, and gothic cellars. The entire place was half modern hotel and half museum. Even the entrance they passed through was once the original façade of a Jesuit college, dating back to 1688.
He was allowed a room here with Kane because of a special international military passport that declared the dog to be a working animal. Kane even had his own rank—major, one station higher than Tucker. All military war dogs were ranked higher than their handlers. It allowed any abuse of the dogs to be a court martial offense:
for striking a superior officer.
And Kane deserved every bit of his rank and special treatment. He had saved hundreds of lives over the course of his tours of duty. They both had.
But now they had another duty: to protect this woman and discover what they had stumbled into.
Tucker led her across the lobby and up to his guest room: a single with a queen-sized bed. The room was small, but the view looked off to the Danube River that split the city into its two halves: Buda here and Pest across the river.
He pulled out the chair by the desk and offered her a seat, while he perched on the edge of the bed. He glanced to the video feed and saw that Kane continued to track the two men, now carrying their third teammate, groggy and slung between them. The group threaded through a series of narrow winding streets.
He kept the phone on his knee as he faced her. “So maybe now you can tell me how much trouble I’m in, Miss—?”
She tried to smile but failed. “Barta. Aliza Barta.” Tears suddenly welled, as the breadth of events finally struck her. She looked away. “I don’t know what’s going on. I came from London to meet my father—or rather
look for him
. He is a professor at the Budapest University of Jewish Studies.”
Aliza glanced back at him to see if he knew the university.
When he could only give her a blank expression, she continued, some family pride breaking through her tears. “It’s one of the most distinguished universities of rabbinical studies, going back to the mid-1800s. It’s the oldest institution in the world for training and graduating rabbis.”
“Is your father a rabbi?”
“No. He is a historian, specifically researching Nazi atrocities, with a special emphasis on the looting of Jewish treasures and wealth.”
“I’ve heard about attempts to find and return what was stolen.”
She nodded. “A task that will take decades. To give you some scale, the British Ministry that I work for in London estimates that the Nazis looted $27 trillion from the nations they conquered. And Hungary was no exception.”
“And your father was investigating these crimes on Hungarian soil?” Tucker began to get an inkling of the problem here: missing historian, lost Nazi treasures, and now the Hungarian national security service involved.
Someone had found something.
“For the past decade he had been researching one specific theft. The looting of the Hungarian National Bank near the end of the war. A Nazi SS officer—
Erhard Bock—and his team absconded with thirty-six cases of gold bullion and gems valued today at $92 million. According to reports at the time, it was all loaded onto a freighter steaming up the Danube, headed to Vienna, but the party was bombed by fighter planes, and the treasure was jettisoned overboard, near where the Morava River joins the Danube.”
“And this treasure was never found.”
“Which struck my father as odd, since this theft was so well known, as was its fate. And the mouth of the Morava River is quite shallow that time of year, made even shallower by a two-year-old drought at the time. To my father, it seemed like
would have found those heavy crates before the river mud claimed them.”
“But your father had another theory, didn’t he?”
Her bright eyes found his. “He thinks the treasure was never removed but hidden somewhere here in Budapest, stashed away until Erhard Bock considered it safe to return. Of course, that never happened, and on his deathbed, Bock hinted that the treasure was still here, claiming it was
buried below where even the claws of the Jewish dead could reach it
Tucker sighed. “Like they say, once a Nazi, always a Nazi.”
“Then, two days ago, my father left me a cryptic message on my answering machine. Claimed he had made a breakthrough, from a clue he had discovered in some newly restored archive of the university’s library, something from the Prague cave.”
“The Prague cave?”
A nod, then Aliza explained, “The university library here contains the largest collection of Jewish theological and historical literature outside of Israel. But when German troops marched into the city, they immediately closed the rabbinical university and turned it into a prison. However, just before that happened, the most valuable manuscripts were hidden in an underground safe. But a significant number of important documents—three thousand books—were sent to Prague, where Adolf Eichmann planned the construction of a
Museum of an Extinct Race
in the old Jewish Quarter.”
“What a nice guy.”
“It took until the eighties for that cache of books to be found in a cave beneath Prague. They were restored to the library here after the fall of Communism in 1989.”
“And your father discovered something in one of those recovered books.”
She faced him, scrunching up her face. “In a
text, of all places. On the message, he asked for my help with the British Ministry to obtain satellite data. Something my father in Hungary couldn’t easily access.”
“What sort of data?”
“Ground-penetrating radar information from a U.S. geophysical satellite. He needed a deep-earth scan of the district of Pest on the far side of the Danube.”
She glanced out the window toward the river as the spread of the city glowed against the coming night. “After I got that message, I tried calling him for more details, but I never heard back. After twenty-four hours, I got concerned and asked a friend to check his apartment. She reported that his flat had been ransacked, torn apart, and my father was missing. So I caught the first flight down here. I spent the day with the Hungarian police, but they had barely made any headway and promised to keep me informed. When I got back to my hotel room, I found the door broken open, and all my luggage searched, the room turned over.”
She glanced at him. “I didn’t know what else to do, didn’t know who to trust, so I fled and ended up at the square. I was sure someone was watching me, following me, but I thought maybe I was being paranoid. What could anyone want with me? What were they looking for?”
“Did you ever get that satellite information your father asked about?”
Her eyes widened, and her fingers went to the pocket of her coat. She removed a tiny USB flash drive. “Is this what they were looking for?”
“That, and possibly
. To use you as leverage against your father.”
“But why? Where could my father be?”
Tucker stared down at the cell phone on his knee. The party that Kane tracked had reached a parked sedan beyond the historical district. He saw Kane slow to a stop and slink back into the shadows nearby. The leader was easy to spot, leaning against the hood, a cell phone pressed to his ear.
“Maybe these guys can tell us,” he said. “Do you speak Hungarian?”
“I do. My family is from here. We lost most everyone following the deportation of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. But a few survived.”
He patted the bed next to him. “Then listen to this.”
She joined him and stared at the live feed on the screen. “Who is filming this?” She leaned closer. “Aren’t those the men who were following me?”
She squinted up at him. “How—?”
“I had my dog track them. He’s outfitted with a full surveillance package.”
His explanation only deepened that pinched look. Rather than elaborating in more detail, he simply turned up the speakerphone so the audio from the video feed could be heard. Traffic noises and a whisper of wind ate most of the big man’s words, but a few coarse phrases came through clearly.
Aliza cocked her head to the side, listening.
Tucker appreciated the long curve of her neck, the way her lips pursed ever so slightly as she concentrated.
“What are they saying?” he asked.
She spoke haltingly, listening and speaking at the same time. “Something about a cemetery. A
Jewish cemetery.” She shook her head as the man ended his call and vanished into the sedan. “He mentioned something at the end. A street.
As the car pulled away, Tucker lifted the phone and pressed the button, radioing to Kane. “Return home. Good boy, Kane.”