Murder and the discovery of a lost 16th Century manuscript by Nostradamus sends Selena Connor, Nick Carter and the Project on a global hunt for the lost Ark of the Covenant. The manuscript is composed of coded four-line prophecies that make little or no sense. Contained within the seeming nonsense is a trail of clues leading to the Holy Land and the ancient Order of the Knights Templar.
They're not the only ones looking for the Ark. The body count begins to rise as members of America's wealthy ruling class seek the Ark for themselves. They plan a cynical war for profit and the Ark is part of their plan. They'll do whatever it takes -- including murder--to get what they want.
Nick suffers from PTSD, and it's pushing Selena away. If he doesn't start dealing with the issues causing his nightmares and unintended violence, he'll lose her. But how can he find time when he's in the middle of one of the most dangerous missions of his career?
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This part of Paris hadn't changed much since the Revolution. Faceless tenements brooded on either side of the street. A thin stream of dirty water ran along a channel worn into the middle of the ancient lane. The leather soles of Nick Carter's shoes made a flat, hard sound on cobblestones that had echoed with the rumble of carts ferrying victims to the guillotine. Selena Connor walked beside him.
Selena wore a casual outfit she'd picked up in one of the designer salons. Designers loved making clothes for women like her. She was the kind of woman people noticed, with the elegance and body to carry it off. Sunglasses hid her violet eyes. Her reddish-blonde hair and tall, athletic grace turned heads wherever they went.
Nick had on a gray sport coat Selena had seen in one of the shop windows. It was always hard to find something that handled his broad shoulders but this one had fit perfectly, right off the rack. It matches your eyes, she'd said. His eyes were gray, flecked with gold, so it was close enough. He'd bought it to please her, because she liked it. Secretly, it pleased him, too. The European styling of the jacket and a half-day's black stubble on his chin almost made him look like a local.
They came to a shop window where a leather-bound edition of Voltaire's collected works was displayed on a bed of faded red cloth.
"This is it," she said.
The shop looked like it might have been new when Marie Antoinette was telling people to eat cake. It had a wooden door painted blue and old iron hinges. There was a sign in gold leaf written on the dusty glass of the window.
Jean-Paul Bertrand, le Propriétaire
Livres Rares et Curieux
Selena reached for the bell pull and stopped.
"That's odd," she said.
"The door is open," she said. "That's not right."
It was, by about two inches.
"Jean-Paul said to ring and he'd let us in. He keeps the door locked. You can only get in by appointment."
She pushed the door open the rest of the way and they entered the shop.
"Jean-Paul?" Selena called.
Her voice was clear, vibrant. There was no response.
The front room of the shop was deserted. Shelves filled with books lined two of the walls. An antique oak reading table with carved feet took up space in the front, near the window. The place smelled of old books, of dust and paper. In the back of the room was a zinc counter. Behind it, a beaded glass curtain hung in front of a passage leading to the rear of the shop.
"Jean-Paul?" Selena called again. "Hello? It's Selena."
Nick's ear itched. "Something's not right," he said. He tugged at his scarred ear. Without thinking, he reached for his gun. It wasn't there. They were on vacation. No guns.
"He's an old man," she said, "and he doesn't hear well. He's probably in the back."
Selena stepped around the counter and parted the beads. The hall was narrow and dark and close. There was a light at the end. She walked down the hall and pushed aside another curtain. Nick bumped into her as Selena stopped short.
Selena's friend lay on his back on the floor, mouth gaping. His teeth were yellow from years of nicotine and coffee. His eyes were open, staring at the ceiling. Blood covered his white shirt and spattered the walls. Books and papers littered the floor. The room stank of death.
"Jean-Paul," Selena said. Her face was white. She started toward him.
Nick stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. "Better not touch him." He went to the body.
"Look at this."
She came over and looked down at the floor. Letters and a number were written there in blood.
"Does it make any sense to you?" Nick asked.
"No. Who would do this? I don't think he had an enemy in the world."
"He had at least one."
Nick gestured at the mess. The room had been searched by someone who didn't care about cleaning up afterward.
"Whoever killed him was looking for something."
"He had some valuable first editions. It must have been a robbery."
"This is over the top for a lousy book, even one worth a lot of money. An old man like this, they didn't need to kill him. Makes me angry."
"He sounded stressed when I talked with him. He was insistent that I come see him today."
"You didn't tell me that."
She looked at the body of her friend. "I didn't think anything of it." She bit her lip.
"I'm sorry, Selena."
"We call the cops. Then I'm going to call Harker. I don't want to spend the night in a French jail."
Director Elizabeth Harker was their boss. She ran the Project and had the clout to get the French cops to back off. The President's authority went a long way.
Four hours later, the police let them go back to their hotel. They were staying in the Le Marais District, on the Right Bank, in the kind of European hostelry where you left your key at the desk when you went out and the desk clerk was always courteous. It was a friendly place. It didn't hurt any that Selena spoke French like a native.
"Bon jour, Madame," the clerk said. "Something came for you."
He took a package from under the counter. It was wrapped in plain brown paper and addressed to Selena. There was no return address.
"By messenger. It arrived this afternoon, while you were out." He handed it to her with the room key.
She looked at the address on the package. "This is from Jean-Paul," she said to Nick. "I recognize his writing."
The hotel had an ancient cage elevator. They clanked at a snail's pace to their floor.
Their room was large and looked out over a narrow balcony onto a quiet street. There was a private bath, a dresser and television, a wide bed covered with a patterned comforter and two comfortable armchairs. Nick sank into one of the chairs. Selena came out of the bathroom and sat on the bed.
"I wonder what this is?"
"Why not open it and find out?"
"Smartass." She gave him a look and tore off the wrapping.
"It's a file."
She took out a file folder tied with a length of red string and undid the tie. Inside the folder was a manuscript, yellowed and brittle, written in a cramped hand in black ink.
Selena looked at the first page. Nick heard her take in a deep breath.
"I don't believe this." There was excitement in her voice. "This was written by Nostradamus. I think these might be the lost quatrains."
"Nostradamus? The prophet?"
"What are the lost quatrains?"
"Nostradamus published his prophecies in groups of one hundred, called centuries. Each prophecy had four lines."
She nodded. "The Seventh Century is incomplete. There are 58 quatrains missing. No one has ever seen them. This manuscript is beyond rare."
"Rare enough to kill for?"
"Oh, yes. There are collectors who would give anything for this. Not only that, I think the writing is by Nostradamus himself. A hand written manuscript by Nostradamus would be worth a lot. The lost quatrains in his own hand would be priceless."
"This is probably what Bertrand's killer was looking for," Nick said. "Why send it to you?"
"I've known him since I was a child. He and my uncle were old friends."
"Maybe he meant it as a gift."
"No. If it were a gift he would have given it to me in person. He must have wanted to get it out of the shop." She paused. "Whoever murdered him could come looking for it. If they know he sent it to me."
"We should take it to the Embassy and send it home in a diplomatic pouch. "
"You want to keep it?"
"You want to find out who killed your friend? There's a reason he sent this to you. We won't know what it is unless you read it."
"No one just reads Nostradamus. He was worried about the Inquisition. He played word games and wrote in Greek and Latin and Provencal. Everything is deliberately obscure."
"Can you do it?"
Selena was a world class authority when it came to translating difficult texts and languages.
"Probably. But if we keep it, we're holding back evidence."
"If we don't keep it, the French police will keep us. Cops are suspicious. They'll think we killed him to get our hands on this."
Selena looked out the window. "You're right. Let's go to the Embassy."
She put the manuscript back in the file and the file back in the box. She tucked the box under her arm. They went downstairs and handed in the key and left the hotel. They started down the street to find a cab.
Movement in an alley on the right. A man came at them, knife held low, the blade gleaming in the afternoon light. Nick parried with his arm, the move born of years of practice and training. The blade sliced through the new jacket, into his arm. He followed through with an elbow strike to the skull that numbed his arm. He stiffened the fingers on his other hand and drove them like a spear up into the man's diaphragm, trying to rupture it. The attacker doubled over and Nick brought both hands down and drove a knee into his face. The man went down, blood pouring from his nose. The knife clattered away on the sidewalk.
A second man went for the package under Selena's arm. She let it go, twisted and kicked out from the hip and landed on the side of his chest with her foot. His ribs made a dull crunching sound. He screamed in pain and fell to the ground. She kicked him in the head. He stopped screaming.
Nick rubbed his elbow and looked down at them. One man was unconscious, the other moaned and writhed on the sidewalk. The whole fight had taken less than twenty seconds. Across the way, an elderly couple stared at them.
Selena's face was tight. She was breathing hard, her breath pushing out between half open lips. She looked at his arm.
"You're bleeding," she said.
Dark blood oozed through the rip in his sleeve.
"It's just a scratch."
Selena bent down and picked up the box with the Nostradamus file. Nick looked up and down the street. A crowd was beginning to gather.
"We need to get out of here," he said, "before the cops show up."
"Some vacation," she said.