THE UNDEAD MUST DIE
The Order of the Black Rose
Copyright 2015 Penny BroJacquie
All Rights Reserved
THE UNDEAD MUST DIE
Copyright 2015 Penny BroJacquie
All Rights Reserved
The book contained herein constitutes a copyrighted work and may not be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, or stored in or introduced into an information storage and retrieval system in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written, permission of the copyright owner, except in the case of brief quotation embodied in critical articles and reviews.
This book is work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales or organizations is entirely coincidental.
“DID YOU KNOW that Lord Byron carved his name into one of those marble columns?” a voice asked from behind her.
Floriana’s first thought was whether the query was addressed to her; the second was to whom that calm and deep voice belonged. She turned around and looked at a male figure standing a few steps away. The light of the sun directly behind him blinded her, and the white-dressed man, in the glare of the sun, appeared to have angel wings on his back.
What the heck?
Had there been something in the coffee she’d drunk with breakfast?
“Did you know that?” asked the stranger, taking a step toward her.
“Lord Byron was a great philhellene. He even spent much of his fortune on the Greek battle for independence from the Ottoman Empire”, he explained, ignoring her obvious puzzled look.
She raised her hands to protect her eyes from the sun and tried to discern the man’s facial features.
“Was Lord Byron really here, at Cape Sounion?” she asked.
“Not only did he come here, but he also wrote a poem about the place. It is said that his name is engraved into one of the columns of this temple right here. The inscription exists, it’s just not known for certain whether Byron was the one who engraved it.”
He walked hastily to the north side of the ancient temple, and he motioned for her to follow him. Now she could tell, he had no wings. Of course. However, he was holding something she couldn’t see, something black. Walking with difficulty on that stone-littered, sloping ground, she caught up and found herself beside him.
Seventeen white marble columns were what was left of the ancient temple dedicated to Poseidon, god of the sea and water according to ancient Greek mythology. They were about 60km east of the city of Athens, the capital of modern Greece. The tall hill that the temple remains stood upon, which penetrated the Aegean Sea like a pointed spear, had inspired the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. Nowadays, it inspired the romantic feelings of thousands of couples who rushed to enjoy the sea views early in the morning, as well as the breathtaking sunsets in the evening.
“Here it is. Can you see it?”
She looked carefully at where his finger was pointing. Indeed, on the base of one of the middle columns at the north side of the temple, the word Byron was etched with cursive letters.
She turned to him. Now she could get a better look at him. He had broad shoulders and a slim waist, very active and athletic without a doubt.
Damn, I forgot to comb my hair. Again.
“Excuse me, I forgot to introduce myself. My name is Eric.”
He took her hand, and then he bowed and kissed the top of it gallantly.
“Um… I’m Floriana.” She was still trying to overcome the shock of the unexpected knightly kiss.
“And what are you doing here at this place on the Mediterranean Sea, Floriana?” he asked, offering her a black rose.
A black rose? That’s what was in his hands!
She received the flower, amazed by its unnatural beauty. She brought it close to her nose and inhaled its delicate fragrance.
“Um… I study… I mean… I am a student of fine arts. I am interested in the history of art. I thought there’s no better place to begin than Greece. It’s full of ancient ruins.”
“You didn’t pick the right time to come here, though. It’s more romantic at sunset.”
“Oh, I’m not looking for romance. I travel alone, simply for educational reasons.”
She regretted it the moment she said it. She had been tired of giving the pathetic impression of a sexually inexperienced student. She stroked her neck and opened one button of her shirt. She didn’t manage to do it discreetly, though.
Now I’m going to get freckles from the sun. And my shoes are so dusty.
She was so busy observing her appearance that she didn’t notice the nervous glances that the charming stranger was throwing around.
“It’s late April, and it’s so hot already,” he said. “Want a drink? There is a cozy café down there.” He pointed to a tidy building near the entrance of the archaeological site.
There was no way for her to say no. They took the downhill road to the coffee shop. She was chatting, uncontrollably excited as she was about the beautiful man whom she’d come across. He was shaking his head condescendingly.
Then everything faded away. The last thing she saw before she blacked out was two ominous figures moving straight toward her.
SHE DIDN’T ENJOY going to their neighborhood playground. Her mother used to urge her to go, hoping she would make friends with other children.
Her mother couldn’t understand why she didn’t like playing with other children. The truth is, she loathed mingling with other kids. They used to mock her for her red hair and freckles. They were irreducible, noisy, and dumb. None of them knew by heart all the tales of Greek mythology.
But above all, she did not like the swing sets. That ceaseless back and forth, back and forth, back and forth… How giddy she was feeling… Her mom should take her out from there, but her mother was nowhere to be seen. She had to shout, cry out for her mom, beseech to take her out of there.
“Mom!” she yelled. She felt her lips move, but she didn’t hear her voice. She took a deep breath and released the loudest cry her throat and lungs could give. Once again, she didn’t hear her voice. Everything around her began to darken and she tried to shout again. “Mom! Mom!” Her mouth opened, however no sound came out. That couldn’t be happening. She was yelling out as hard as she could. She was pushing herself so intensely that her throat and lungs felt like burning. And she was swirling, whirling, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth…
Someone grabbed her hand. It was a woman. It was her mom. Her mother came to her rescue.
She will take me out of this hell.
She was beset by darkness, but soon her troubles would come to an end.
“Only if I had given birth to you when I was ten, I would have been your mom.”
She tried to open her eyes, but a bright, blinding light forced her to close them again.
“Don’t be afraid, you are not in danger,” a female voice told her.
As soon as her eyes became accustomed to the light, she looked around. She was lying on a bed. She was in a room that looked like a ship’s cabin. A shapely brunette was sitting on a white sofa right next to the bed. Everything was swaying rhythmically right and left. She felt her body heavy, as if it was sinking in a sand dune.
“Where am I?”
This time she heard her own voice asking the question, but she did not recognize it. What the heck was happening?
“We are on a yacht. You might be feeling odd for a few hours but you will get better soon. No need for you to worry, everything is fine. At least for now,” the young woman announced in a strict voice.
“I’m feeling sick… My head… My stomach… How did I end up here?”
“The good old chloroform. This is the answer to everything you asked. I’m sorry. We had to improvise, and we had to do it fast.”
“Chloroform? I don’t understand. How?…”
“Eric. Remember him? He gave you a rose when he met you outside that ancient temple. We had it soaked with chloroform, but we couldn’t be sure how effective it would be and how quickly it would take effect. Luckily for us, you didn’t only smell that rose, you stuck your nose in it.”
“Eric! I should have known better.”
A man like him couldn’t have been allured by her uncombed hair and her dusty shoes.
“Don’t feel embarrassed. No one resists Eric.”
“Why? I mean why did you do that to me? What is it you want from me? And why am I on a yacht?”
She felt a twitching inside her stomach like her guts were dancing inside her abdomen.
The attractive woman stood up, took a bucket that was placed near the sofa and set it before Floriana. She was dressed in black and a black ring adorned her middle finger.
“You can consign your … goods in here. You are still under the influence of the drug. It will pass in a few hours. Until then, you should rest and have a good sleep. Either way, you can’t go anywhere. We’re in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.”
It was then that Floriana realized that sleeping was the best option she had, at least for the moment.
SHE COULDN’T TELL how many hours she had slept. When she opened her eyes, she was still in the same white cabinet with the wooden floor. The rocking of the ship was the same, however she wasn’t feeling as queasy. The headache had dissipated and her stomach was no longer upset. On the contrary, she was feeling hungry.
The brunette wasn’t in the cabin anymore. She was alone. She looked at her hands… no scratches, nor bruises. Her clothes were all in place, her shoes and backpack were tidy, set beside the bed. A flat TV was on the wooden cabin wall between the bed and the sofa. It was tuned to an English-language news channel unknown to her with a weak TV signal strength.
“Naked man attacked homeless, ate victim’s eyes,” was the news headline.
“I’m going to get sick again.”
The yacht cabin was dark, lit only by the light of the TV screen.
Better in the dark. I might have the advantage of surprise.
She put her shoes on, and she grabbed her backpack. It was time to go for a walk.
She groped in the darkness for the exit. She found a closed wooden door. She turned the doorknob silently and opened the door a few inches. She looked carefully from the small opening.
Um… The loo. Maybe later. Certainly later, although I could pee right away.
She continued groping until she reached another door, right next to the toilet one. She opened it carefully and looked out. A dark, empty corridor ran to the left until it reached two closed doors. Across, there was an unlocked cabin, which seemed to be empty. Everything was made of fine-quality wood.
Those guys must be moneybags!
A small wooden staircase was on the right leading upstairs. The sound of a calm conversation was coming from the low-light interior space. The loud sound of the yacht engine made the dialogue hard to hear.
She climbed the stairs without a second thought.
“Welcome to our boat! Tea or coffee?”
A deep, calm voice came from the right. Floriana turned towards where the voice came and saw Eric sitting on a couch behind a folding table. A plate of leftovers and a pile of newspapers was resting in front of him. A small vase with black roses decorated the table.
The roses that deceived me.
The sheltered deck was large and oblong, surrounded by windows in contrast to the claustrophobic downstairs. It was night outside, and the sea was everywhere. The yacht’s bridge was on the right. It was different than what she thought, it looked more like an office.
On the left, a blond man was sitting in a comfortable chair holding a rudder attached to a dashboard full of buttons and monitors with maps. A small kitchen was behind the cockpit. The brunette woman was standing there holding a tray.
“I was coming to you. You must be hungry. Come and sit with us,” she invited Floriana, heading to the table where Eric was sitting.
What a polite group of kidnappers they are!
“Who are you? And why am I here?” she asked calmly.
The tall woman left the tray on the table and offered her a plate of cold sandwiches.
“Be seated Floriana, and we’ll tell you everything you need to know.”
She couldn’t say ‘no’ to some food. She couldn’t figure out exactly how many hours had passed from the time she had breakfast.
“How do I know that it is not poisoned?” she asked, while scrutinizing a piece of sandwich.
“We are anything but murderers. At least we don’t kill innocent people, especially those who are useful to us,” Eric retorted.
“How could I possibly be helpful to you? I don’t even know you. And you, sir, you should not address me after the stinking game you played. If I weren’t holding this sandwich, I would have punched you by now.”
“We want you to know how regretful we are for what happened to you,” the woman said in a strict voice. “But let’s take things back from the start. First of all, let us introduce ourselves. I am Maite Albert. This is Eric, as you already know, Eric Falk. And this is our captain, Egon Pfaff.
“And we are all in a James Bond movie,” Floriana mumbled while munching a mouthful of sandwich.
“I like this chick,” Egon broke his silence.
“Floriana, we believe you have information that will help us put an end to a serious threat. I know it sounds rather grandiose, but we want you to help us to save the world, “Eric said calmly.
“To save…. What…” She was almost drowned by surprise, laughter, bread and cheese.
“You guys are joking, right? Someone will come out from the corner and say ‘Smile! You are on Candid camera!’ Come on, tell the truth! Where is the camera?”
She laughed so hard her eyes filled with tears.
“Boy, you are really great! Ha ha ha! … Who told you to pull a prank on me? Ha ha ha! … Come on, tell me … You’re all looking so serious! … Really, guys, why are you looking so serious?”
She looked around, no one was smiling. She lifted up a glass of water and she drank a sip.
“I wish it was a joke. Unfortunately, it is true and we are all involved,” Eric replied in his gruff voice. “Humanity is facing one of the greatest threats in man’s history. A sinister plan to mankind’s destruction has already been set in action. We are the good guys who want to prevent the danger. And if our information is correct, you are the person who possesses what we need to stop this plan. So what do you have to say now?”
“I think I want to pee.”
“Everything alright in there?”
Maite’s rasping voice would give away how ravishing she was.
“An Amazon with a model’s looks and a German pedagogue’s behavior” she thought, before opening the door. This sort of visit to the restroom didn’t only offer the necessary physical relief to her, but it also reserved a few minutes of security and loneliness, which was enough time to process everything she had just heard. Her instinct told her she was safe, her captors wouldn’t hurt her, at least not promptly. They would have harmed her by now if they wanted, as they had the chance. Instead, they had left her alone resting in a bunk without a guard. Of course she wouldn’t be able to escape, unless she was a mermaid.
They had also offered her lunch and they were nice to her. They even apologized for kidnapping her. Kidnap. What a scary and upsetting word. Why would anyone take an indifferent student of arts like her into custody? She was penniless, orphaned by parents, the woman who had brought her up had also died long ago and she was not aware of any relatives she had. She holds a secret that could save the world, so she was told. But what kind of hidden knowledge could a girl who grew up in an isolated Scottish island have?
With these thoughts in mind, she followed Maite to the upper deck of the yacht. Egon was still at the helm, with Eric standing closely by his side. Dots of light broke the monotony of darkness outside the yacht. Obviously they were rapidly approaching to a coast.
“We’re reaching the port. We should start packing,” Eric recommended. “I’m sure you have many queries. I’ll try to answer as many as I can, but all your questions will be answered when we arrive at our destination.”
“Which is… where exactly?”
“An island in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.”
“A Greek island? Are we going to Crete?”
“Uh, we left Greek territorial waters behind hours ago. We’re heading west. Have you ever been to Malta, Miss?”
She would have jumped with joy if she wasn’t kidnapped.
She stared at Eric with bulging eyes. The semi light accented his rough facial features and his overwhelming cunning smile.
If he were a literary hero, he would have been Jane Eyre’s Mr. Rochester, no doubt.
It was not a surprise that she fell so easily into his trap.
“We’re reaching Malta! How can that be possible? How many hours have we been traveling for?” she enquired.
“We’ve been traveling for 14 hours and we have traversed more than 530 nautical miles at a speed of 37 knots. We are a little hasty, you see.” That was Egon’s turn to answer.
“I admit I’ve always wanted to visit Malta, the island of the Knights, but I had imagined making this trip under different circumstances. What’s the rush, if I may ask?”
“Floriana, believe it or not, humanity is facing great danger,” Eric replied.
“I dare not to believe that. However, may I ask what kind of danger it is?” she gibed.
Eric took a gulp of whiskey before answering, “Speaking in simple terms, some bad guys tried to create a type of Super Human. They failed. Their formula fell into the hands of some good people. With the greater good in mind, they tried to use that formula to eliminate serious diseases and subsequently extend human life. Something went wrong and the formula fell into the wrong hands. We have evidence that it has already been used to cause several peculiar attacks worldwide.”
“Look at her face,” Maite mocked moving closer to Eric.
Floriana couldn’t decide whether she liked that woman or not.
“To make it clear, that formula, is it salutary or destructive?” she asked, ignoring the sarcasm.
“In the wrong hands it could have been baneful. Nevertheless, when those good guys gained possession of it, they tried unsuccessfully to transmute it into a lifesaving remedy. The guys who hold it now… They are a global threat,” Eric explained.
“I still don’t get it… What do I have to do with it?”
“Your parents were the good guys in the story.”
Suddenly the night became day. Red, yellow and green flashes flooded the night sky, blasting deafening exploding sounds.
“Are we under attack?” she cried breathless grabbing the first chair she found close to her. Her heart was about to break from terror. She closed her eyes to protect against the colorful flashes that washed the yacht. The explosions were getting closer and closer. Covering her ears with her palms, she knelt beside the chair with her eyes held shut tightly.
“Seriously? Are we excepting from her to save the world?” Maite taunted.
She opened her eyes only to see them burst out laughing, obviously amused by the spectacle.
“Cinderella, stand up. It’s not the time to turn into a pumpkin.” It was Egon’s turn to mock her.
With a big smile on his face, Eric kneeled at her level and announced in a stilted gravely manner, “Welcome to Malta!”
Her cry of surprise was lost in the rippling sound of explosions. The yacht was now sailing slower, although the scenery outside hadn’t changed.
“And who’s bombarding Malta?” she looked at him suspiciously.
“No one’s bombarding Malta” Eric appeased her, offering his hand. A black ring adorned his middle finger. “Haven’t you ever heard of the Malta International Fireworks Festival?”
With his help she stood up on her feet. She straightened her skirt and spent an unruly curl of hair behind her ear. “Um … no,” she coughed, as if she would regain her lost dignity by doing so.
Stupid girl, once again you are the laughing stock.
Hitting her palms in a theatrical way, Floriana approached the side windows. “Let’s see the fireworks!”
She gazed a green line that tore the black sky before it was broken into colorful strips of light, which dived down until they disappeared just above the sea surface. Another rocket light, red this time, surged toward the sky. The explosion created a colorful chrysanthemum, which shortly afterwards disappeared in the dark night sky. One more clinging, one more light eruption, and one more riot of color adorning the sky of the Grand Harbour of Valletta.
“Isn’t it beautiful? This is my favorite time of year. Wherever I am, I always get back to Malta.” Such a romantic declaration was quite unexpected from Maite, who had now approached her.
The International Fireworks Festival was one of the most important and popular events in the small state of Malta. Every year for the last three nights of April, the sky above the jagged, natural harbors of Valletta capital was filled with light and colors, while the beaches were full of people, locals and tourists who enjoyed the extravaganza and the parallel events.
“Tonight is the grand finale, which as always is taking place in the Grand Harbour.” Eric’s voice was barely heard through the whistles and explosions, which sounded increasingly louder as the boat approached the launch platform in the center of the Grand Harbour. “That’s a lucky coincidence for us. We won’t grab anyone’s attention if we simply mingle in with the crowd. Just be sure to look like a happy tourist enjoying the spectacle,” he added.
“What about the look of the kidnapped one?”
“Trust me, you don’t want to have that,” he replied briskly.
Six green light strips whizzed before them, ascending above the yacht and bursting into bright, green waterfalls. As their vessel was approaching the shore, they could hear the chant of crowd that had flooded the Grand Harbour. Egon was leading the boat at low speed to the Vitorioza Yaught Marina, the second largest bay on the Grand Harbour’s east side. With skillful maneuvers, he drove it close to the cordage with Eric standing on the bow ready to drop the anchor at a moment’s notice.
“Bring your backpack!” Maite commanded, holding three bags in her hands.
The fireworks dance was now behind them, while sounds of excitement and rhythmic repetitious slogans were coming from the inner city. After overtaking the piers St. Angelo, Vitorioza, and Baker, they arrived at the dock booked for their yacht in the center of the natural bay. Slowly and carefully, Egon made a 180 degree turn until the rear reached the pier. Eric jumped out on the concrete and tied the headland nimbly.
Maite led Floriana by hand towards the shore. Walking rapidly, the two women left the yacht behind. They followed a slightly uphill road until they reached a small parkland that seemed to spring up through the asphalt. There, among the people who had gathered to admire the fireworks, Maite nodded to stop. Floriana looked around nervously. The fireworks spectacle illuminated the beautiful medieval town that was wrapped around the lacy coastline. The bay resembled a finger that was piercing the mainland, creating two hills on either side of the Grand Harbour. The hill that they were looking at, over the countless yachts moored in Vitorioza Marina, was the Senglea district. The one they were standing on was called Birgu; the fortified town that played a significant role in the Great Siege of Malta in 1565.
A few minutes later, Eric and Egon emerged from the enthusiastic crowd. The two men absolved Maite from the weight of two of the bags she was carrying and together, they took their way towards the inner city.
“As we said! Behave as a tourist would,” Egon whispered into her ear. Eric and Maite were following behind throwing exploratory glances toward the crowd that surrounded them.
“I am here against my will, among people whom I don’t know whether to trust or not, and without having any knowledge of where I am going and what I am prompted to do,” Floriana muttered.
“You are being among people who used to know your parents personally and shared a common purpose with them. How bad can this be?” A carefree smile lit his face.
“The parkland we just passed was the Monument of Freedom Day. There, on the right, is the church of St. Lawrence or San Lorenzo, if you prefer its Italian name.” Egon pointed to a church with two steeples on the front and a purple dome emerging from the background. “We are hard core tourists,” he winked.
She eyed him as he was walking beside her. He seemed to be amused with their tentative adventure. He didn’t have Maite’s solemnity, neither Eric’s sophisticated charm. He was friendly and talkative, the person to whom you would entrust your problem. For the first time, she noticed his facial features. Handsome, well built, in his thirties. And with a controversial sense of humor.
“Where are you from, Egon?”
“I was born in Sweden but my parents were Germans.”
“And why did you call me a pumpkin?”
“Excuse me?” He looked puzzled.
“When I was terrified by the fireworks, you told me: ‘Cinderella, it’s not the time to become a pumpkin’. According to the tale, it was the coach that was turned into pumpkin, not Cinderella.”
Egon erupted in laughter. “Sorry, I got confused by your hair color. You know, pumpkin, orange, your hair… Nevertheless, fairy tales are not my forte. I prefer real life action.”
The small group climbed some marble stairs built centuries ago and they found themselves in a strangely deserted neighborhood at the north of the church. Tall Baroque buildings with thick, sand-colored walls surrounded a cobbled alley. Two wooden doors decorated with the Cross of the Knights caught her eye. She had the sense of travelling back in time, when the Templars dominated in Malta. After crossing a narrow alley, they came in to a bustling square. The fireworks competition was over, but the partying in the streets was still ongoing. She looked at a group applauding a flaming, galloping steed made of fireworks. She glanced at Eric and Maite, who were still behind them. They seemed to be in the middle of a serious conversation. Egon was walking by her side relaxed and joyful. The definition of a happy tourist.
“We’re now at the Misrah ir-Rebha square.” He put his arm around her waist and leaned toward her until his mouth nearly touched her ear. “It has an octagonal shape, and it’s the junction of eight streets that…”
A flurry of activity caught their attention. Egon turned toward where the fuss came. He instinctively raised his right hand to protect himself as a shadowy figure moved against him. The Scandinavian found himself struggling with a disheveled creature, half-naked, in a state of psychosis.
Within only a few minutes, chaos replaced the jubilant atmosphere. Screams burst out all around them. People started to run frantically, violently pushing those in their way. A flaming Catherine wheel collapsed under the pressure of the crowd, and its burning pieces fell on a small group of children. With their clothes on fire, two of them ran, one fell on the ground trying to extinguish the fire, and the fourth, a girl, started screaming hysterically.
Maite grabbed Floriana by the hand, and together, they started running away from the bedlam. Egon was wrestling with what seemed to be a frenzied man. The creature looked human, but he was absurdly strong. With his teeth, he gripped Egon’s sweater collar and tore it into pieces. Watching the drooling and grinding teeth looking for his neck, Egon put his hands under the chin of his opponent, struggling to avoid the bite. The slobbery jaws were just a few inches from his throat. In a desperate attempt, the blond man grabbed the creature’s jawbone with one hand and the upper jaw with the other to keep them apart. He felt its stinking breath in his nostrils. His arms were burning from overexertion. Suddenly, the creature collapsed and fell on the ground in front of Egon’s feet.
“What took you so long?” he cried, exhausted.
Eric was standing before him holding a bloodied cricket bat.
“You two were too close to each other. I was afraid I would knock your head too. Are you okay?”
“Well, I think so, except for the fact I am covered in saliva. Man, I owe you. I’ll never tease you again for this silly sport you play.”
Eric hugged him with his left arm. “You’re lucky I had the cricket bat with me on the trip; otherwise, I don’t how I would have stopped this thing. If I had pulled out a knife or gun, I would have attracted the attention of the police. And that’s the last thing we want.”
Lying on the ground, the creature began to move its limbs. It let out a moan when a boy ran over it, stepping on its stomach. The little boy was so fearful that he didn’t even turn to see what he had treaded on.
The sound of bustling came across from the other side of the square.
“There must be another of those things. And this one here is still alive. We have to get going now,” Eric commanded, lifting his bag off the ground.
“Where are the girls?” Egon asked wiping his hands on what was left of his sweater.
“Maite has taken Floriana with her. They’re heading to the House, where we should have been by now.”
MAITE AND FLORIANA were running to escape from the human maelstrom that had been created in the Misrah ir-Rebha square. The bloody attacks forced the crowd in the square to run away to save their lives. The disruption piqued the curiosity of those who were celebrating in the surrounding streets. Many of them rushed to the square to see what was happening, while, at the same time, a wave of people tried to make their way out.
Everything had happened so quickly. One minute Floriana had been talking with Egon, and the next moment, Maite had pulled her by the hand and they had run away. Noise and tremor surrounded them.
The brunet woman was still holding her hand and leading her to a wide street with stately baroque buildings on both sides. She looked around. All of the buildings were two stories and sand colored. Elaborate metal spirals and ogees decorated the small, narrow cornices, remnants of the French Baroque era that left its mark on the Maltese architecture.
“What just happened?” she asked hardly breathing.
“That was the reason you’re here,” Maite replied in a steady, controlled voice.
“I don’t understand. Nothing makes sense. Nothing of what has happened to me the last few hours makes any sense. Where are the lads? Why they aren’t following us?” she protested panting.
“All your queries will be answered shortly,” Maite said before pulling her firmly to the right. They found themselves in a narrow, blind alley. Two Victorian lampposts emerging from opposing walls filled the impasse with a soft, yellow light. Teal wooden doors and windows, along with potted green plants created a cozy neighborhood atmosphere. The brunette beckoned to stop running. With a calm gait, they proceeded to the alley’s end and stopped in front of a large cypress door, half-covered by centenarian ivy. Maite pushed the button of a bronze Victorian doorbell.
Heavy steps were heard from behind the door. A young man loomed behind the half-open door, looked on with intense look, and said in a low, trembling voice:
They crossed a hallway with a white and black marble floor that lead to an inner courtyard full of rosebushes bearing black blooms. Large vaulted doors made of wood and glass were on each side of the rectangular courtyard. A few iron tables and chairs filled the space.
The young man who had greeted them opened one of the arched doors and showed them the way to a large room in the west side of the building. She couldn’t see his face clearly, but her gut was telling her he wasn’t a dangerous guy. He was young, several years younger than Egon and Eric, with dark blond hair. He was obviously worried, and his vocabulary seemed to be running out in phrases like “come” and “here”.
They came into a low-lighted chamber. Two large leather sofas, equally large wooden desks, a few coffee tables, and a large library on one side decorated what was the reading room. Two people, a man and a woman, were sitting on one of the sofas, eyes fixed on the screen of a plasma TV.
“Thank God, you’re safe!” The woman popped upright and rushed to embrace Maite. Her tight jeans indicated a well-defined silhouette, but a few faint wrinkles on her face betrayed that she was older than she looked.
“Where are the rest of you?” the unknown man asked. He seemed to be in his 50s, and Floriana assumed he was the leader.
“They lagged behind.” Maite’s voice betrayed her concern. “I hope they’ll be here soon. We had to leave; things became too dangerous out there. I guess you know what happened.”
“It’s all on live broadcasting.” The woman pointed at the TV screen. A female journalist was reporting from the square with the latest developments.
“The celebration turned into a thriller in Misrah ir-Rebha square when strangers attacked the crowd gathered to watch the Festival of Fireworks. According to preliminary information, the perpetrators were two, probably men, and for unknown reason they went on rampage and started attacking indiscriminately with extreme violence. Fifteen people, seriously injured, have been transported to the nearest hospital, and two of them are in critical condition. It’s still unknown whether the perpetrators have escaped or are among the injured. We’re waiting for the official announcement from the police. National security will join the investigation. The possibility of a terrorist attack has not been excluded.”
“What about the weapons the perpetrators used? What do we know about them?” the anchorman asked.
“Um … We are waiting for police’s official announcement, but…” the young reporter stopped weighing what she was about to spell out, “but eye-witnesses reported that the attackers used their teeth as their weapon. In short, they were biting.”
“Biting!” the anchorman cried. “It seems that some of the witnesses have a weird sense of humor. Possibly they shouldn’t be taken seriously,” he blasted the unfortunate reporter. “We’ll come back to this when there’s a development.”
“One might get fired tonight despite the fact she did an excellent job,” the matured woman sighed before she turned to Floriana.
“And you must be Floriana. You can’t imagine how happy I am to see you again!” She took the young girl in a warm embrace as if they were old friends who have met again after years apart.
“Have we met before?” She stood bewildered, wondering whether she should reciprocate the embrace or not.
“You were two years old the last time I saw you. I’m Valerie Newman, and I was a good friend of your mother’s. Here’s Carson Blake.” She pointed to the older man, who rushed to shake hands with their young guest.
“And I am Vittor de Paul. I’m sorry I didn’t introduce myself earlier.” It was the young man’s turn to shake hands with her.
“Has she been informed about the reason she’s been brought here?” Carson addressed Maite.
“Not clearly enough. We believed that the Master should be the one to thoroughly inform her,” she replied.
“You believed correctly. The Master is waiting for you. Vittor will lead you to him, and I’ll make something for you to eat,” Valerie said. Noticing Maite’s discerning eye, she comforted her:
“If the boys fail to arrive soon, we’ll send someone to look for them.”
The deep voice of an old man invited them in as soon as Vittor knocked the heavy oak door. They entered into an icy dark chamber with the smell of cigar in the air. She saw the figure of a man seated behind an old, heavy desk. A large bookcase of dark cherry wood stood behind him.
Maite and Vittor entered the room. Floriana followed them timidly. A lamp burning on the desk lit the face of the man, and she could see his facial features: thin lips, elongated nose, and sharp bright eyes. With an invisible eraser, she imagined erasing the wrinkles out of his face.
He must have been quite good-looking in his youth.
With the help of a staff, he stood up and approached her. A wide smile spread across his face.
“I have waited so many years to meet you again. I wish we had been able to meet under different conditions. Welcome, Floriana.”
“Well, it’s nice to meeting you… again… I guess.” She gave him her hand, and he held it gently.
The door opened, and Valerie entered holding a large wooden tray laden with a steaming teapot, a few cups, a plate full of cookies, and bowls full of jam and honey. She placed the tray on a table across the room.
“We spoke to Eric on his mobile. They are both well, and they’ll be here in a few minutes,” she said.
“Fantastic. Once they arrive, please tell them to come here with no delay. Thank you, Valerie,” the Master asked politely.
“Please, help yourselves!” He pointed to the dinner table after Valerie left the room. “You’ve been through a lot today. I’m afraid, after what happened tonight in the square, there is more to come. Probably sooner than you think.” His voice depicted him as a decisive, severe, yet polite man.
The two young women approached the table and filled their plates with biscuits and buns. Floriana added a few tablespoons of orange marmalade, while Maite settled for a cup of hot tea. Vittor offered a cuppa to the Master, who had joined them.
The old man drew a chair and sat down. “Thank you, my boy. Now please leave us. We have a lot to talk about,” he said in a calm tone.
“But,” Vittor protested, “I have to stay.”
“No, young man, you have not,” the Master made himself clear.
“How can you say that? I am the one who needs the information this girl can give us,” the young man insisted.
“You’re just the scientist who will assess the information this girl may give us. Beyond that, you don’t need to know anything else.” The icy cold voice of the man declared his unwillingness to negotiate.
“But, Maite is…” Vittor stammered.
“Maite has been risking her life for the cause for so long that she’s entitled to know why she imperils herself,” the Master hissed staring severely at the young man.
“Alright,” Vittor admitted his defeat.
Floriana’s eye followed him as he opened the door and got off, head bowed. Then she gazed at the old man, who was the real leader of this strange group in which she was tangled up. He was sitting in his chair with his hands supported on the silver handle of his staff. A black ring adorned the little finger of his right hand.
“I’ve seen that before!” she said in a eureka moment, munching a bagel smeared with jam. “That black ring! Eric wears one just like that! So do you! You just all wear it on different fingers,” she pointed to Maite with her jam-covered index finger.
“It took you a while, but you finally got it,” Maite mocked her, showing her own black ring the way a jubilant bride would have displayed her wedding ring.
“This is not just a black ring.” The Master took his ring off his little finger and placed it reverently on a cloth napkin he took from the table.
“What do you see?” he asked her.
The patina of time had left scars on the silver hoop. An ornate carving stood on the black, oval agate stone in the ring’s mounting. She looked closer, and then she saw it.
“A rose! It’s a black rose,” she exclaimed, entranced by the exquisite beauty of the engraving.
“Black rose rings, black roses on the yacht, black roses in the yard… What on earth do all these mean?”
With slow and careful movements, the old man put the ring back on his finger, where undoubtedly it’d been for so many years.
“My dear child,” he replied pompously, “tonight you will hear things you’ll wish you had never heard and learn about things you would have preferred to ignore.”
“DESPITE THE COMMON belief, black roses do exist. You might have seen them growing in our courtyard. Our ancestors were those who planted the first seeds, seeds they brought from their trips to Tibet centuries ago,” the Master said, adding a spoonful of sugar to his tea.
“In the flower language, the black rose is the symbol of hatred and death. However, the language of flowers, established in the 19th century, ignores the true symbolism of the black rose, the symbolism that was given by the first alchemists: revitalization, renewal and regeneration.” He stirred his tea with a silver spoon.
His movements were all well measured, revealing him as a man who wants to have everything under his control. The staff, he was holding, gave away his injured legs, although the movements he made with his hands were fast and stable. His eagle eyes implied a perspicacious mind imprisoned in an old man’s body.
“Who are you people? Some kind of cult?” she asked, confused.
“We are honored to be servants of the Order of the Black Rose. That wasn’t a personal choice; we were born to serve our cause. Since our ancestors founded the Order centuries ago, the honorable responsibility has passed from generation to generation, from father to son, and from mother to daughter, along with these rings. Not all have been found able to bear the onus of the Black Rose. But the cause is so important that only a few have lost their path. The oath we give to the ideals of the Order is heavy. It is an oath that can’t easily break.”
She felt his intense gaze, like he was trying to scan her thoughts. It was an uncomfortable feeling.
“What is this cause of yours that’s so important?”
“The greater good,” he replied, “the proper functioning of human societies. At any cost.”
Floriana felt a thrill going up her spine. Despite everything awkward that had happened in the last hours, a sense of adventure had conquered her feelings, and her curiosity was stronger than her fear and anxiety. She looked at Maite, who seemed amused by their young guest’s confusion.
“We’d better take first things first. Everything said in this room tonight should stay inside these walls. No leak will be allowed. If anything leaks out, we’ll act accordingly.”
Her limbs felt frozen, as if the circulation of blood had stopped.
“What exactly are you going to do?”
“I’m sure you won’t need to know. Unless you’re planning to betray us…”
The old man leaned toward her and looked her in the eyes in a way that made her feel uncomfortable.
A sudden noise startled her as the heavy door opened and Eric and Egon made a slapdash entrance. Maite jumped from her seat and rushed to embrace Eric.
“Hey, no hug for me?” Egon asked with a faked complaint.
“Young man, I hope it’s not me you want to hug,” the Master mocked, leaving aside his hitherto serious attitude.
Egon approached him, and they shook hands. It wasn’t a formal handshake; it was the kind of contact a grandfather would have with his beloved grandson.
They really act like a family, if they aren’t relatives for real.
Maite turned to Egon and hugged him, smiling.
“You save the best hugs for Eric,” he teased her.
“Any problem with that, buddy?” It was Eric’s turn to join the teasing game.
“The truth is that we’ve all been worried about you,” said the Master.
“Everyone? And you?”
Floriana turned and looked at Egon, who had asked her the question. She wanted to tell him that she was more concerned about her own safety, but she chose to remain silent.
“Sit down; we have no time for greetings. What happened tonight in the square shows that there is no more time to lose. It also shows that they know that we know,” the Master said regaining his solemnity.
“Do you think we were the target?” Eric asked as he pulled a chair to sit near them.
“Most probably. Why would they unleash them on a small and peaceful island like Malta?”
“It is not the first time that these things have made an appearance,” Egon said from the back of a comfortable armchair he had chosen to rest himself on.
“You’re right,” the Master replied, “but all those were shakedown incidents. Think who their victims were: an old homeless man in Atlanta; a drug addict in London, homeless as well; a mentally disabled woman somewhere in eastern Russia… All those victims were vulnerable to any threat. They were individuals for whom there was no one who would notice their disappearance, and possibly, nobody would be sorry for their loss.”
“What happened to these people?” Floriana asked.
“They were assaulted by persons designated as insane and under the influence of drugs. Perhaps you have heard of the so called scented crystals drugs.”
Yes, she had heard about them, on the TV news a few hours ago when she was captive in the yacht.
“It is a cover up for what it’s actually happening. It’s not a drug that causes this kind of reaction,” the leader of the Order said. “In all cases, the perpetrators behaved as beasts. When they attacked their victims, they were in a state of rage, and they had what was described as supernatural power. All victims bore deep wounds caused by bites. In most cases, vast pieces of flesh were removed from vulnerable body parts of the victims, such as the face, shoulders and legs. In an attack that took place in Shanghai, the offender had managed to eat half of his victim’s face before being shot in the head by police officers who rushed to the scene.”
Trying to hide her disgust, she asked: “What was the fate of the victims and their perpetrators?”
“All shot dead with a bullet in their brain.”
Her stomach churned. “This is absurd,” she protested, “how is it possible for any country to accept doctors killing their patients?”
It was Eric’s turn to reply. “None of the victims ever reached a hospital. The authorities called to deal with the cases were ordered to act this way. Worldwide.”
Her disgust had turned to rage. “How can innocent people be executed on a global scale without any consequences?”
The Master looked at her with a deep, exploratory look. “It was the only option, my child. And there never will be an alternative unless you agree to help us.”
Trying to avoid his gaze, she turned to Eric who was sitting across from her. He was calm and grim. Next to him, Maite was playing nervously with her black ring, while Egon, comfortably seated in his armchair, was staring at something in his hand. The feeling of uneasiness spread in the room. They were hanging on her lips, waiting for her reaction.
“We probably shouldn’t be requesting an instant response. You should first know the whole truth before you make your decision.” The Master’s serious voice took her out of her thoughts. “So, let’s resume from where we were before our boys came in.”
“You’ve probably heard of the Knights of St. John, or the Order of St. John, as they’re also called. Founded a thousand years ago in Jerusalem by the Order of Knights Hospitaller, they intended to provide medical assistance to the pilgrims who visited the Holy Land. It was after the First Crusade and the Latin Christian conquest of Jerusalem when the Order gained its religious and military character. Along with the Knights Templar and the Teutonic Knights, they had the task of defending the Holy Land. Following the conquest of the city of Acre by the Arabs, the Order took refuge in Cyprus and Rhodes, two islands of the Eastern Mediterranean.”
The old man’s narrative helped her to relax. She felt as if the grandfather she’d never met was telling her a story.
“The Knights of Rhodes prospered and managed to protect the island from pirates and Ottomans. However, they failed to withstand the powerful military forces of Suleiman the Magnificent, and in 1522, after a six months’ siege, they were forced to abandon the island. First they took refuge in Sicily, then in Malta. The Knights of Malta hadn’t the inglorious end the Knights Templar met. They paid an annual tax in Spain, known as The Maltese Falcon, and courageously defended the island against the Ottoman and privateers’ conquest efforts. Those who defended the island from the Ottomans in the Great Siege of 1565 aren’t only our ancestors, but they’re yours as well.”
She had no idea who her ancestors were. She didn’t even know who her grandparents were. Her mother never spoke of them. She didn’t want to interrupt the narrative, so she mentioned nothing.
“The Knights of Malta became a great military and economic power. Taking advantage of the strategic location of Malta, they managed to arrange important alliances with major European royal houses. But a short Corsican man was destined to be the one who would end their domination. Napoleon Bonaparte and his French forces invaded Malta in 1798, forcing our ancestors to seek refuge in other European countries. A century later, Pope Leo XIII, restored the Grand Master of Malta, but things would never again be the same for us. The split had occurred, and it was definitive. Our ancestors scattered to England, France, Russia, Germany, and Spain according to the Auberge they represented. Some returned to Malta and became part of the island’s modern history. Some, however, chose to remain in obscurity and be absorbed by the esoteric movements of the 18th century.”
After drinking a sip of his tea, the Master continued recounting,
“Somehow the Knights Templar had opened the way for these movements. After King Philip IV of France threw their leaders at the stake on charges of blasphemy and the practice of satanic rituals, the interest in their legacy rose sharply in many European culture salons. Their system of organization provided a model for the Masonic Lodges’ structure around Europe and North America. It was also the inspiration for the founding of Theosophical Communities such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. That was an organization dedicated to the study and practice of metaphysical, occult and paranormal activities. The system of the Golden Dawn was based on the hierarchy of the Masonic Lodge, except that women were equal to men, which was quite daring in times like those. Its members studied Christian mysticism, Kabbalah, the ancient Egyptian religion and Theosophy.”
She had no idea what the meaning of all of this was. “What does all of this have to do with what happened to me in the last 15 hours?” she asked.
“A little patience and you will soon understand,” the Master replied. “Toward the end of the 18th century, disputes broke out within the Golden Dawn, and a few years later a split occurred. From London, where the headquarters were, their branches spread around the world, from New Zealand to the USA. The Order of the Black Rose was one of them and returned here where it all had started. The ring with the engraved rose in black agate is our symbol, and it’s passed from generation to generation. It was passed to your parents, but it never arrived in your hands…”
That was the last thing she ‘d expected to hear. Her father had died after a short illness when she was two years old. She didn’t even remember his face. Everything she knew about him came from stories her mother had told and some photographs she had given to her.
“Things might have been different if Rokku Rossi, your father, hadn’t been killed…” the old man continued.
“My father wasn’t killed; he got ill, and he died when I was two years old,” she objected.
“My good child,” the Master sweetened his voice, “your father was killed during a laboratory experiment he led.”
“But my father was a pediatrician; he wasn’t a scientific researcher,” she protested.
Choosing his words slowly and carefully, he replied with a broken voice.
“Your father was a successful molecular biologist and geneticist. And he died right at the time he thought he was going to make history.”
“But my mother…” Floriana stammered.
“Your mother wanted to protect her family, and in order to manage, she was forced to separate from them. She wanted to protect you and those she loved from the serious danger she was facing.”
Noticing his leader’s trembling voice and his misty eyes, Eric stood up. He approached his mentor, put his hand on his shoulder and whispered, “Let me take over.”
Standing next to his teacher, he gave Floriana an intense gaze. Despite the fatigue of the day and the bizarre events in the square, he retained his enigmatic charm with which he had seduced her at Cape Sounion. It had been only a few hours ago, but it seemed so far, as if it was days ago.
“As our Master said, theosophical ideas had gained great popularity in the early 20th century, and some of the most powerful salons in Europe and North America were filled with mystics. Many closed societies, based on the Masonic model, were created before the Great War. Among them was the Reichshammerbund, which, along with its sister organization, Germanenorden, began to promote the anti-Semitism movement, claiming the superiority of the Aryan Race. An offshoot of Germanenorden was called the Thule Society, and it was the one that financed the Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, later known as the Nazi Party.”
“I’ve heard of the Thule,” she interrupted him. “It was a country supposedly located on the verge of the ancient world, discovered by the Greek geographer, Pytheas, during the 4th century BC. Many thought it was the Atlantis, the mysterious country about which Plato spoke in his famous dialogues. That’s where the Thule Society took its name.”
“Congratulations,” the Master uttered. “You proved to be a good student. Your parents would be proud of you.”
“Thank you,” she blushed. “It’s said that Hitler himself was a member of the Thule Society.”
“That has never been proved,” Eric replied. “Despite the fact members of the Thule Society such as Hermann Göring, Rudolf Hess and Heinrich Himmler were prominent members of the Nazi Party, Hitler was opposed to the esoteric movements and he outlawed them a couple of years before WWII started. However, he was a great fan of astrology.”
“Will you ever get to the point?” Egon grumbled from the armchair where he was immersed. His voice sounded heavy and tired.
“You’re right,” Eric agreed. “Regardless of the fact that Hitler persecuted the movements, the Nazis were deep into mysticism and the occult. Impregnated by the nationalist beliefs of the Völkisch movement, they recruited the elite of the German scientists to create the purest Aryan race, the strongest weapon, the invincible soldier… The concentration camps were not just places where those who didn’t meet the Aryan standards were exterminated. They were also venues of irrationally inhuman experiments. The Nazis had, in their service, brilliant scientists, but they also recruited occultists and magicians. In other words, alchemists.”
Her bulging eyes made him stop narrating. A slightly ironic expression was drawn on his thin lips. Obviously, he was entertained by her puzzled look.
“Don’t be surprised. Alchemists still exist in modern times; they just don’t wear pointy hats, and they don’t stir thick, green liquid in cauldrons,” he said, adapting a charming smile.
“Those demons would do anything to dominate the world. As it turned out, they were not as capable as they thought they were. Neither magic pots, nor pagan invocations eventually saved them. It was a dark time, but the good eventually prevailed. The good always prevails over evil,” the Master said with a dreamy tone in his voice.
He put his weight on his staff and slowly stood up. Old memories filled his mind, memories of his youth that increased the adrenaline level in his body, bringing back the vitality he had briefly lost.
“We did a good job back then. Our spies had infiltrated the highest layers of the Nazis’ structure. They never learned who betrayed their secrets. We managed to get to the most secret of their laboratories, where they’d been working for Great Work.”
“Do you mean the creation of the atomic bomb?” she asked hesitantly.
“No, no… The alchemists had years of knowledge concerning the liberation of nuclear power but avoided to make it widely known because they were aware of how catastrophic it could be for mankind.”
He paused as if weighing his words. “At least that was what Foulkaneli himself, the alchemist who had managed to transform graphite into gold, confided in me. I was very young and enthusiastic, full of ideals and with the flame of serving the greater good burning in my heart. My studies in chemistry and physics secured me a post in the secret laboratory of Flakturm 1. Only a few were aware of what was happening in the basement of that antiaircraft shelter located in Tiergarten. Everyone who knew belonged to the highest levels of the hierarchy of the Nazi government. I was a German citizen, born in Munich by German parents, and I didn’t raise suspicion. Unfortunately, my young age and my inexperience in science prohibited me from having access to all of the experimental programs. Each day I was stopped by closed doors. Every day I was standing outside laboratories I couldn’t enter. Those rooms held the deadliest secrets and outlandish experiments. We thought those experiments had vanished when Flakturm 1 was destroyed in the Allied bombing. We discovered how wrong we were two decades after the war ended…
“Foulkaneli was a Paris resident, but he frequently took trips to Berlin. He had free access to all Flakturm 1 workshops, and he could work on any project he chose. Nobody really knew what those experiments were for, and Foulkaneli would refute any claims that they were working on the development of the atomic bomb. All indications led to the conclusion that they had been working on the creation of a super human, the ultimate soldier, who could be used both on the battlefield and for city surveillance. There were indications of what they were working on, but no robust evidence. I found myself unable to gather a case against them. I had the will; I had the passion, but I was young and inexperienced. And I’ve carried the burden of that failure all my life.”
He took a sip of his tea, which was now cold. He took a deep breath and continued his narration:
“It was a few days after Berlin surrendered to the Red Army, when some Soviet officials ordered two German public servants to bury the remains of two men in Nazi uniforms on the bank of the River Spree. As it turned out, three decades later those were the corpses of Hitler’s secretary Martin Bormann and SS doctor Dr. Ludwig Stumpfegger. They had both committed suicide by biting cyanide capsules near a railway bridge near Lehrter Railway Station. The two men had left the Führerbunker, Adolf Hitler’s underground bunker, the day after the Führer and his spouse Eva Braun committed suicide. They tried to escape by breaking the Soviet bloc, but they were trapped, and they chose to end their own lives. A small leather folder was found on Stoumpfegker’s dead body. It contained personal documents proving the identity of the Führer’s personal doctor, along with several manuscripts. The folder came into the possession of the Soviets, who agreed to destroy all its contents. But we knew we shouldn’t trust the Soviets. It took many years of effort and intrigue for our people in Moscow to discover Stoumpfegker’s leather folder in a KGB underground storage facility and take its secret documents into their possession.”
He approached his desk, unlocked a drawer and opened it with slow movements. With gentle strokes, almost pious, he pulled out a transparent plastic folder. He carefully pulled out a few yellowed pages full of handwritten notes.
“These are the notes of Foulkaneli and his associates. Humanity must be thankful for two reasons: our people’s effectiveness and the Soviets’ oversight of these documents’ importance.”
He was interrupted by a knock on the door. It was Valerie holding a large platter filled with pieces of ham, cheese and boiled eggs. Carson followed her with a tray full of dishes, glasses, cups and a steaming teapot.
“After such a hard day, you probably need some protein. We also brought some hot tea. Eric, Egon, there’s crockery and cutlery for you as well,” Valerie said while placing the tray on the table.
“Is there any news from the square?” asked Maite, who had hitherto sat silently.
“According to the TV news coverage, fifteen people were transferred to the hospital. Seven of them were slightly injured when they got shoved during the confusion. The rest of them have deep wounds made by sharp objects of indeterminate shape, and they are in serious condition,” Carson replied.
“Human bite wounds,” Eric concluded.
“Those eight people,” Egon said in a slow, deep voice, “count them nine. I got bitten too…”
“TAKE IT EASY! I am fine. I simply got bitten.”
Egon was sitting, holding his right wrist with his left hand, while all six others had surrounded him, chatting incessantly and waving their hands nervously.
“When did that happen? Where?”
“Was it when we were attacked?”
“Where is the wound?”
“Why you didn’t tell us?”
“How are you feeling?”
“My God, how serious is it?”
“Stop it now! All of you!”
Egon’s voice echoed in the room with heavy wooden furniture. Silence followed the uproar. His hitherto carefree face had darkened, and his playful smile was replaced by a grimace of concern.
“You must control yourselves, if you want to help me. Unless you don’t,” he said with a devious smile.
“It was my fault,” Eric said. “When the turbulence started, one of those creatures attacked us. Egon protected Floriana before Maite took her away, and he found himself fighting against it. I didn’t act fast. I didn’t draw my gun because I didn’t want to attract the attention of the police. I hit the creature with the cricket bat I had in my backpack, but I lost time. My friend, the blame is mine. I don’t even dare to ask you to forgive me…”
“Nonsense! There is no reason to blame yourself. And, please, don’t cry for me. I’m not dead. You won’t get rid of me so easily,” Egon said when he saw the tears in their eyes.
Being the only one who had maintained his composure, the Master asked calmly, “How serious is the wound? Why didn’t you say anything as soon as you arrived?”
“It’s just a hack. Trying to remove that bastard’s mouth away from my neck, I grabbed its jaws. I felt his teeth scraping my skin, but I did not pay attention. When we arrived here, I noticed the hack on my index finger. I didn’t think it was something serious, and I did not want to have you worry. Besides, in the reports we received, all victims bore serious injuries. Pieces of flesh had been stripped off. There were no reports about victims with minor lacerations and abrasions. However, since we have gotten here, I have started feeling a strange fatigue. And you know that I don’t get tired easily,” Egon winked.
The Master took the ill man’s finger in his hands and looked closely. “This is not just a hack. It’s an infected wound. Do you see this yellowish white liquid on the bleeding? This is pus. Definitely not a good sign,” he observed. “According to what’s been reported so far, in victims who bore light and shallow wounds, no changes started to occur less than 12 hours after they were attacked. A body as robust and healthy as Egon’s most likely will have symptoms appear with a 3-4hours delay. We need to hurry.”
He held Egon’s hand firmly and looked him in the eyes. “My son, I promise you, everything will be fine.”
“Of course it will! We’re the guys with black roses, remember?” Egon replied with a gentle and playful voice. Even in a moment as difficult as this, he remained charming and frisky.
“Tell Vittor to come,” the old man addressed Valerie and Carson. “He is our scientist, the one who has studied all the data we have collected. We have a discussion to conclude with this young lady here. We don’t have time to lose. The clock is ticking.”
When Valerie and Carson exited the room, those who were left behind gathered around the big wooden desk. Floriana and Maite sat side by side on a leather couch, while Eric preferred to stand next to his friend. The Master returned behind his desk and rested a hand on the leather folder. Its content had caused so much pain to so many, including them.
“I’d prefer to keep Vittor out of this, so we need you to do it quickly,” he addressed Floriana.
“Before telling me anything, please let me express my regret about what happened to Egon,” she replied. Her physical and mental strength had been strongly tested within the last 24 hours, but she was devastated by the latest development.
“I feel responsible for what happened to you,” she turned to Egon. “I am the one who should be in your place. You tried to protect me and look what happened to you. I owe you my life, Egon.”
Her voice was broken, and her hands trembled. She had a lump in her throat, and her breathing was heavy. She could have been in Egon’s place. She could have been the one agonizing for her life. As she could have been lying in her bed in her hotel room in Athens, looking at the photos she took at Cape Sounion. None of this would have happened if she wasn’t so dumb and gullible. Nothing would have happened if she hadn’t been flattered by the alleged interest of a handsome man. Of course everything on her was shouting what low self-esteem she had. She shouldn’t have been surprised at how her abductors had profiled her that well.
My abductors have turned out to be murderers as well.
It couldn’t have been better.
Egon’s voice dragged her off her thoughts. “Now you have the chance to save my life. And if you do, we’ll be even,” he said with a warm smile.
“As much as I love Egon, the ugly truth is we don’t have to rush only for his salvation. There are seven other people hospitalized who may be showing the symptoms any time now,” the Master brought them back to reality.
Clutched in his hands were the handwritten notes he had removed from the leather folder. He placed half of the pages on the left side of his desk and the rest of them on the right. The pages in the stack to the left were stained and yellowed, while those on the right were cleaner and white.
The old man put his finger on the brittle pages. “These are the notes of Foulkaneli and his associates.” He moved his hand slowly to the right until his palm rested on the stack with the white pages. “And these are the notes of Rokku Rossi, your father.”
“My father!” Floriana cried. Within seconds, the grief gave way to surprise in an emotional roller-coaster of which she wanted to get free. “What could my father possibly have to do with this?”
“Your father wasn’t only a brilliant scientist, he was also a member of the Order of the Black Rose,” the Master continued without lifting his eyes up to look at her. “Unfortunately, his love for science prevailed over the greater good, which the Order serves. He ignored the mandate not to deal with Foulkaneli’s findings. He took them into his possession, taking advantage of his powerful position in the Order.”
“Powerful position in the Order?” she asked, bug-eyed.
“Girl, you need to stop interrupting,” Egon growled looking at his injured hand.
“Your father’s family’s position within the Order was traditionally strong. Your father practically stole Foulkaneli’s notes, and with his assistant, started experiments based on them. Foulkaneli’s team originally worked for the creation of a super soldier. However, your father’s intentions were nobler. He was fascinated by the idea of creating an invulnerable human being, and he believed he could achieve that by using the alchemist’s conclusions. With his partner’s help, he evolved a trophozoite, an amoeba like organism, which they first tested on mice. After the microorganism was injected in their blood, the rodents would develop enormous powers, which they would then use to exterminate the other mice in the same cage. Afterwards, they would fall in to a deep slumber, almost falling into a coma, which they would come out of a few hours later. Your father believed he had discovered a way to improve the immune system of rodents and prolong their lives. He thought their aggression was an indication of their robustness. Besides, it is a law of nature that the stronger obtrude on the weaker. He hoped he could implement the same to a human body. He believed he had found a way to prolong human life, but in order to prove it, he needed to test it on a human body. He needed a human guinea pig. But who would have agreed to risk his life for a drug based on the notes of a paranoid alchemist? Any requested help from the scientific community would have jeopardized the secrecy of the Order of the Black Rose, as would publishing his findings in scientific papers and justifying how he had arrived at his conclusions. Humanity would have learned about the secret Nazi experiments, Foulkaneli, and the Stumpfegger folder, and our role would have been revealed. So he decided to anoint himself a guinea pig. A decision that was as gallant as it was stupid.
“This is how, 16 years ago in his laboratory here in Malta, Rokku Rossi knocked on the door of eternity, and he was lost in the maelstrom. He locked himself in a well-sealed room, and he injected the amoeba into his blood. Similar to the mice, he gained power so enormous he could not control it. He destroyed the few items placed in the room, and he tried to breach the security door. Through the door’s window, his assistant watched him in horror, unable to react. As happened with the rodents, he was later drawn into deep lethargy. But when he woke up, he was no longer himself. He was not even human. The niches of his eyes dripped blood, and his pupils were transformed into white lumps. His skin was wrinkled and full of wounds gouging pus. He wandered aimlessly in the room and reacted only to shadows on the window of the door. He tried to attack each shadow, striking the door with supernatural power. His face had disappeared, as had every trace of human consciousness…”
He took a deep breath and let a sigh release from his chest, looking at Floriana. She had a grimace of surprise and horror on her face.
“So my father, he was a… zombie?”
She could not believe she had asked this. Embarrassed as she was, she looked around the room. Maite and Eric kept their serious expression, while on Egon’s face a bitter smile was painted.
“Now you know what I’ll have been transformed into in less than 24 hours,” he said.
In this a heavy atmosphere, the Master took the floor again:
“Although a product of pop culture, zombies may be a word close enough to describe the situation that your father experienced.”
They were startled by the sudden crackle of the heavy door. Vittor rushed into the room with a stack of papers in his arms. Breathing quickly, he apologized for the invasion. His hair was uncombed, and his eyes betrayed he had enjoyed a short sleep.
Turning to Egon, he asked, “How are you? I brought all my notes with me. Don’t be afraid. Everything will be fine. I promise.”
The Scandinavian got up painfully from his chair and approached the young newcomer. “If you promise, then I fear nothing,” he proudly tapped Vittor’s shoulder.
Vittor pressed the papers tightly in his arms and smiled coyly.
“I need you to follow me in the basement lab. I have to run some tests. We need to see how far the bacteria have travelled in your blood. Based on the reports we have from the previous cases,” he showed the documents in his arms, “we’ll be able to understand what stage you are.”
He turned to the older man. “Have you made any progress? Is there a way to create the antidote?”
“We’ll know shortly. You’d better do the tests needed, and when we’re ready, we’ll notify you. It’s going to be a long night.”
“HE’S A GOOD kid, but he has to be more confident,” Eric observed once Vittor with Egon got off the chamber and the door closed behind them.
“This isn’t something to discuss now,” the Master blasted, surprising Floriana who had approached the office with a heavy heart. Every minute a secret from her family’s past has been revealed and she didn’t even dare to think what the outcome of this adventure would be.
As if he guessed her thoughts, the Master softened the tone of his voice and said, “We are all entangled in a crazy story. In fact, it wasn’t even our choice. We accepted our families’ tradition in the belief that we work forward the common good. And believe me, we lost a lot along the way.”
“You say that my father was a member of your Order and had suffered horrible death. My mother never said anything relevant. What I knew was that my father was a pediatrician and he died after a short illness. You said that the Order relays on family succession. This means that the family of my father belonged to the Order. I never met any of my father’s relatives. My mother shunned while talking about them, it was as if they never existed. Unfortunately, she died when I was eight years old and I never had the chance to push her for some answers.”
“Your father’s loss was a big hit on your mother. She blamed the Order. As I mentioned before, you then lived here in Malta. One day, she came to my office and started to accuse me that I had poisoned her husband’s mind with the outrageous beliefs of the Order. She made it clear that she considered me responsible for what happened to her family and that she wanted to break any connection between us. That evening, you both left for London and I never saw you again. You were two years old.”
That was weird, her mother had never stated that they had lived in Malta. And she had no memories of their life here. Of course, she had still been an infant…
“Nonetheless, your mother didn’t only take you with her, she also took all your father’s notes,” the old man continued.
“And you let her do it? Just like that? You never tried to get them back?” she asked puzzled.
“Your mother knew that any link with the Order can hardly be disrupted. She knew she had to negotiate hard to gain any kind of absolution. As she knew how she should sacrifice something very important for her if she insisted to keep the formula in her possession. The negotiation was hard until we reached a satisfactory, but painful solution. That’s how one day you and your mother left Malta with the formula in your luggage and a life outside the Order boundaries. In return, however, you left behind something very important, a piece of you.”
She leaned her head, confused.
“Is that what you want from me now?”
The Master shook his finger. “No, no … we need you to solve a riddle.”
“All this fuss for a crossword?”
She looked at Eric, who was smiling. On the contrary, Maite remained unimpressed.
Neither their leader seemed to share the instant cheer and continued speaking in a serious tone:
“Part of our agreement was to ensure your mother a laboratory in London so she would continue the experiments on her husband’s findings. She wanted to find an antidote in case the amoeba formula fell into the wrong hands.”
“Why didn’t she simply destroy the formula?” she asked.
“Because we had the insight that some of your father’s notes had already fallen into the wrong hands. Shortly after the accident, his partner was found murdered in his apartment. The drawers of his desk had been violated and his computer was stolen. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back and your mother asked for her detachment of the Order.”
“Did she find the antidote?”
“She found it indeed. And she made sure to hide it away from everyone.”
The Master stood up from his desk and headed for the library. He sought out a thick volume in one of the middle shelves and grabbed its spine. He turned and looked at her. This time he was smiling.
“The old trick with the closet, hidden behind a bookcase. Cliché, isn’t it?” he said.
He removed the volume from the shelf and left it on a table next to him. He put his hand in the gap and put his finger on a small loop of leather. He pulled the noose towards him until a thin wooden strip was detached from the back of the bookcase. When the wooden strip met the rack, he put his hand into the created gap and pulled out a mail folder.
“Is that the antidote formula?” she asked.
“No, this is what will help us to find out how to create it,” he replied.
He put the envelope on the desk and returned to his place.
“Let me sit down again. Time has not been polite to my arthritis.”
The Master looked at Eric as if he asked for his consent and then turned to Floriana.
“Six years after you moved to London, we learned that your mother was killed in a road accident in Latin America.”
“That’s right,” Floriana confirmed. “She had joined a humanitarian mission in Colombia as a volunteer doctor. The car she was in fell into a cliff and caught fire. She was burned alive.”
She took a deep breath and continued:
“I was eight years old and a guest of one of my mother’s friend in London. Her name was Dora. My mother trusted her that much that she appointed her my guardian in her will. After the funeral, Dora and I went to live in Orkney Islands, north of Scotland.”
“Dora was one of us, a member of the Order. I don’t expect you to remember, but I had visited you in Orkney once,” Eric said quietly.
“How… When…” she gawped before the Master interrupted her:
“Let it be! Dora was the only person from the Order your mother trusted. They remained close friends as Dora wasn’t an active member of ours. None of us ever believed your mother’s death was an accident. That’s why we decided Dora and you should move to an isolated place, in a closed society, where we could be able to guard your safety. However, at the same time we had to respect your mother’s will, and never sought to communicate with you. We had to break her will now and in this way because of this letter,” he gave her the envelope.
The paper did not seem old and the word “Confidential” was written on the front side with handwritings reminiscent to her mother’s.
“Can I open it?”
The Master nodded. “This is the reason you’re here.”
Three pages of handwritten characters were the contents of the folder. The characters filled each page from one end to the other without spaces and without making any sense.
“Is it some sort of code?” she asked.
Eric popped up his seat and approached her.
“I knew you would understand! My insight was correct!”
“You want me to break this code?”
The Master took from a drawer of his desk a few sheets of paper and a pencil, placed them neatly in front of her, and responded boldly:
They had surrounded her like the trees surround a glade. They were trying to see the words that she’d put on the paper, although she hadn’t put any that were worthwhile. Even the old man stood beside her, supported on his staff. She was seated at the table where they had dined a few hours earlier, the coded documents in front of her and a pile of smeared papers on the side.
“I’m feeling like I’m never going to break the code,” she said, jiggling the pencil in her hand absently.
“Try to get into your mother’s mind,” the Master advised.
He was right. The code was a creation of her mother’s, who hid the elements of the antidote within three pages of incoherent Latin characters. A few years after Rokku’s death, Anthea Colleja had managed to make a vaccine for the terrible brain-eating microorganism that her husband had created. In an effort to protect it from those who had killed Dr Rokku’s partner, she hid its formula in a coded message. Her instinct told her she had to inform the Order of the Black Rose of its existence; however, her decision to avoid any contact with them was definite. Thereupon she locked the envelope with the code in a safe deposit and gave the key to Dora, the only link she had with the Order, with a mandate to use it only if she died. When Anthea was killed in a road accident in Latin America, Dora removed the envelope from the safe deposit and sent it to the House of the Black Roses.
“I know your mother showed you how to break codes,” said Eric.
This was true. Encryption was their favorite game. Floriana learned to break codes alongside the alphabet.
“What kind of mother teaches encryption to her child?” Maite taunted.
“A mother with a purpose,” the Master observed.
“You probably don’t know that encryption sharpens thinking. Now, stop talking and let me think”. She closed her eyes, covered her ears with her palms and tried to concentrate.
“What is she doing? Calling the spirits?” It was Vittor, who had just entered the room in a hurry.
“I suppose that will be next if decoding fails. We’ll call mama Althea’s spirit,” Maite mocked.
“I have the results of Egon’s tests. The infection is progressing slowly in his blood. That means we may buy a few extra hours. However, the news coming from the hospital isn’t so good. One of the injured has already fallen into a coma,” Vittor said.
“The sand in the hourglass is running out. Floriana, you must break the code now!” the Master commanded, before turning to Vittor and saying, “Tell Valerie to be in constant communication with the hospital. We have to be able to know at any time the condition that the victims are in. Tell Carson to call our people in the police department. We need to learn what happened to the creatures that made the attack. Then come back here. You are the one who will confirm whether these papers include the formula for the antidote.”
Then, he asked, “Well, young girl, have you anything to give us?”
The type of encryption she had learned from her mother was based on the method of Replacement Code. Simple and classic.
In the Replacement Code, letters or groups of letters are replaced systematically by other letters from one end to the other end. Floriana had mastered two types of this method: the Julius Caesar Code and the Keyword Code.
A message written with the Caesar Code can be decrypted if each letter is replaced by one that follows three spots later in the alphabet. Thus, A is replaced by D until the X, Y and Z are replaced by A, B and C respectively.
In the Keyword Code, a secret word or phrase takes the place of the equivalent first letters of the alphabet. The rest of the cipher text letters are used in alphabetical order, excluding those already used in the keyword.
She filled several sheets of paper trying to decipher using the Caesar Code. None of them seemed to have the desired result. She decided to try the second option, but she needed a keyword. How on earth could she know the word or phrase her mother had chosen as a key to the most important cipher she had ever invented?
Floriana perhaps? Nah, that would be too easy.
She replaced the first letters of the English alphabet by the letters that consisted of her name. Then she placed the letters she had removed in the spots where the letters of her name should have been. Nothing. She did the same with her father’s name, Rokku. And then, her mother’s name, Althea. The result was the same: a bunch of gibberish.
“Did you share a mother-to-daughter secret? Did you have a favorite place? Or song?” Eric asked her.
They liked to eat fajitas, shortbread and chips. They used to drink tea with strawberry flavor and listen to the Beatles. None of this, however, broke the code. More than an hour had passed, and their nerves were stretched as far as they could go.
“For God’s sake, she was your mother! Had she given you a nickname or alias?” Maite broke.
She had no nickname. However, sometimes her mother called with her favorite heroines’ names. Pocahontas? She was obsessed with Pocahontas for quite long. No, this is not the keyword.
“Who was your favorite heroine?” Eric teased Maite. His face had a sweet expression.
“Mulan, who else?” she replied, playing with her black ring nervously.
“This is not a surprise,” Floriana said.
Mulan was closer Maite’s character than Cinderella or Rapunzel were. Putting these thoughts aside, her eyes fell on Maite’s hands.
“Black ring, black rose, black flower, black tattoo … Milady!”
Milady de Winter, the seductive spy in The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas père who bore a tattoo on her shoulder, a black fleur-de-lis!
She grabbed a blank paper and wrote down hurriedly:
M i l a d y
Then she wrote all the letters of the alphabet.
A b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z
She replaced the first six letters by those of the keyword and filled the spots of the missing ones by the rest of the letters in alphabetical order, excluding those already used in the secret word.
M i l a d y g h b j k c e n o p q r s t u v w x f z
She clutched the encrypted pages and started replacing letters: M where A was, where I was B, L where C, and so on. Words representing chemical elements began to fill the first paper, and the second, and the third.
The most important finding, however, was the headline:
“Antidote for Amoeba-Z.”
The code revealed was indeed the formula for a shot against the deadly microorganism. The Order’s claims proved to be sincere. Still, how could she ascertain whether the “Bacterium-Z” caused the mayhem she experienced a few hours earlier? Flash thoughts began crossing her mind. Everything had happened so fast, the revelations were so shocking that she hadn’t even thought to question their credibility. The incident in the square was an undeniable fact and the TV news confirmed the existence of the hospitalized victims. However, how could she be certain their injuries were really caused by human bites and a brain-eating amoeba would transform them into zombies any time soon? How could she be sure about the role her parents played in this bedlam? The coded notes were written in what seemed to be her mother’s handwriting, yet, how could she rely on her memory after all these years?
The sound of a chair falling dragged her out of a world of thoughts, letters and chemical elements in which she was sunk. A male hand grabbed the papers she was holding and a female voice sounded behind her:
“Hands up, or I shoot!”
TO BE CONTINUED
The Undead Must Die, Episode 2 will be released on 1 January 2016.
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Special thanks to Stacey, Hannah, Ken, and Daniel for their editing and proof-reading services. Many thanks to my beta-readers, Barbara and Hermione. Love you all!
Floriana, a British art student, travels to Greece to admire and study the magnificent ancient Greek artefacts. She couldn’t imagine, though, that a morning excursion to cape Sounion would turn to an agonizing race across Europe. Surrounded by mysterious sects, presumptive killers, and black roses, inexperienced and clumsy Floriana discovers with horror that she is the keeper of a secret that can save humanity from its most dreadful enemy: undeath. The Undead Must Die is a two-episodes story that constitutes Volume 1 of The Order Of The Black Rose book series. The Undead Must Die is due to release on 1 January 2016.