I woke on a cold tile floor. Its geometric designs left no clues as to my whereabouts. Overhead, brick arches added to my confusion. My coat draped over a nearby railing, its contents spilled onto the floor. Moaning with the pain pounding inside my skull, I rolled onto my back.
Someone said something in what sounded like Italian.
A bulk of black cloth hurried my way. He put one black military boot on my chest and pressed down. My ribcage felt ready to explode. I couldn’t breath.
“Signore,” black bulk said, his face hidden behind a carnival mask, “cease moving or I shall crush your chest.”
I believed him so I lay still.
“You came to visit San Marcos with the Circle of Fourteen, yes? Don’t lie to me, Americano.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m a journalist. They promised a story.”
He laughed and leaned more on my chest. “You lie, like all Americanos. Journalists don’t carry guns. They fight like women using false words.”
A thinner figure draped in black, swept into view carrying a rectangular object the size of my travelbook. “Dominare,” a woman’s voice, “we are pressed for time. We can leave the scum to die in this crypt. Time to initiate our plan.”
“Si, Fulmine, it is. Have you prepared the bomb?”
She snorted a breath in disgust. “You think I’m a fool? Of course I have all the preparations ready.”
Gunshots sounded from nearby.
“Stay with him,” Dominare said. “We will take care of these annoying Circle meddlers. Switch out the Marcos book and replace it with your bomb. I want that Marcos book.”
She saluted and Dominare moved toward the gunshots. Several other black shadows followed him.
Fulmine pointed a gun at me. “Move it, asshole. To the altar.” She indicated the direction with the wave of her weapon. I rose and we moved past the railing and into a small domed area. “Sit there,” she pointed the gun against another railing. “Move and I will ruin one knee. Move again and I will ruin the other. You understand?”
“Yeah, I understand you’re a cold blooded killer.” I had yet to obey her order. I should have.
Two steps and she was upon me. She hit me in the mouth with the butt of her gun then kneed me in the groin. I fell like a rock, and vomited. God, it hurt so bad, I couldn’t move. I cursed her in dozens of combinations of profanity. Blood from my split lip stained the tiles.
I heard the sound of stone sliding, but paid it no mind. I focused on not moving. It hurt to blink. I heard her fumbling with something, followed by more stone sliding. Then Fulmina stood over me like the angel of death.
I stared venomous daggers at her. Without taking her shark eyes from me, she stuck her handgun in her waistband. She bent down and punched me in the eye. Stars rocked my head. I didn’t see it coming, but she kicked me in the ribs. Sharp pain shot throughout my body, paralyzing me. She grabbed me by the front of my shirt.
“That bomb will go off in five minutes with enough downward force to destroy most of Venice’s pilings. San Marcos will be under water in fifteen minutes. Enjoy the last moments of your life.”
She let go of my shirt and started to leave. Passing the railing where my coat waited, she spotted the book lying on the floor. Fulmine scooped it up and charged down upon me.
“Here,” she threw the book at me.
“Can’t…open it. Message from…the Circle.”
Snorting with disgust, she bent over and picked up the book. “Where?” She opened it and a white cloud erupted from the compartment holed out in its pages.
“Nighty night,” I said.
Her eyes rolled back in her head and she collapsed in an unmoving heap.
I dragged myself to my feet and stumbled over to the altar. I leaned upon its surface. I didn’t want to move, just crawl in a corner and let the world pass me by. I only had four minutes to get the bomb out of the building. But where to take it?
Gunshots sounded closer. Then, “Fulmine, hurry your skinny ass out of there.” Dominare did not sound happy with her delay. If he only knew.
I gave a one word reply in what I hoped sounded like her voice. Then more gunfire erupted and I figured he had too much on his hands to try to realize Fulmine hadn’t spoken.
Ignoring the pain without much success, I spotted the scrape marks on the tile. With seconds ticking down, I pushed against the altar. It moved with little effort. A square enclave under the altar contained a package. In the gloom of the space, the digital numbers on a clock reached three minutes. From outside the church I heard the sound of a helicopter.
I glanced at the unconscious Fulmine. A brown package similar to the bomb had fallen from her grasp. The book of San Marcos.
Gritting against the pain, I rushed out of the church through the blasted door, my coat flaring out behind me. The gunfire slowed to sporadic shots. The main target sat in the middle of the piazza, a black ops helicopter. Its rotors sent up a cloud of dust. In my mind, I counted down the remaining seconds. Charlie twenty-eight. Charlie twenty-seven. Charlie twenty-six…
Dominare stood at the side of the copter directing his troops remaining on the piazza. They returned fire coming from the Procuratie. Must be my Circle friends. One of the Black Plague spun in a spray of blood. Dominare picked up the body and tossed it into the open door of the copter.
“Hey, Dommie!” I ran straight at the helicopter. He glanced my way.
Another Plague jerkoff turned at the sound of my voice and opened fire. A spray of bullets hit the railing just to my front. Gunfire erupted from the Procuratie, and the shooter went down.
Nearing the copter, I slowed and—my side exploding in firery pain— tossed the package to Dominare. He caught it in one beefy hand and looked at it. His gun started to come up in my direction.
“From Fulmine.” Charlie twenty-one. Charlie twenty. Charlie nineteen…
Before he could decide what to do, I turned direction and ran for the Procuratie. Gunshots pinged on the helicopter behind me. Charlie sixteen. Charlie fifteen. Charlie fourteen…
“Take off,” Dominare’s shouted. The blades sped up, creating a powerful backwash beating against me. I dove and slid across the wet pavement under the arches of the Procuratie. With teeth clentched to prevent screaming out my suffering, I edged close to blacking out.
I came to a stop against the far wall.
“What did you do?” George screamed at me. “You gave him the text of San Marcos. There’s invaluable—”
“Georgie,” I said, “you might want to lie down. Charlie six. Charlie five.” The copter cleared the roofs around the piazza and headed south over the lagoon. “Charlie three. Charlie two. Charlie one. Bye-bye.”
An explosion ripped through the night. The fireball reflected off the walls and columns of the Palazzo Ducale.
“One Black Plague helicopter down,” I said, grinning and grimacing. Police sirens began going off in the distance. “About time,” I muttered.
“You destroyed the San Marcos text!” George was in my face and I could see the hairs in his nose. His spittle hit me on the chin.
I reached into my jacket, paused, and pulled out a book. “You mean this?”
He snatched it away, embracing it like a lover.
Katharina knelt down and kissed me on my split lip. It hurt, but I refused to pull away. When she did she said, “You saved the church and the book.”
Always thinking about what’s important, I asked, “How about a date? I need some questions answered for my news report.”