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4:57 p.m.
Gondar, Ethopia

      "How much for the woman?"
       Shocked, Caedmon Aisquith schooled his features into a neutral expression.
      "There's a broker in Addis Abba who specializes in light-skinned females. Demand is high in the Asian market," the Ethiopian
continued. As he spoke, the tall man flipped a
mishaba back and forth, the Muslim prayer beads softly clacking. A sound made
malevolent by the unsavory barter. "She'll fetch a good price."
      Caedmon cast a sideways glance at the woman in question. Garbed in a traditional
shamma, the vibrant blues and purples
accentuated her flawless skin and espresso-colored eyes.
A vision of grace and docility. Seemingly oblivious to the conversation taking
place, she modestly held a gauzy headscarf to her mouth, her gaze fixed to the floor.
      "While certain to command a premium, 'she is more precious than rubies: and all the things thou canst desire are not to be
compared unto her.'"
      The verse from Proverbs met with a blank stare.
      "Er, the lady's not for sale," Caedmon clarified.
      The haggler placed his free hand over the knife scabbard at his waist. "A pity."
      "Leave be, Omar. It's obvious that our guest is not interested in the flesh trade."
      At hearing that disembodied voice, Caedmon peered over his shoulder. A slightly-built septuagenarian stood directly aft, the other
man having noiselessly approached. Like a ghostly specter materializing out of thin air.
      The bead clacking instantly ceased. Contritely bowing his head, Omar retreated several steps, melding into the shadows of the small
shop.
      "Please forgive Omar for what must seem, to an Englishman, a rude impertinence." Unlike his underling, who was attired in a
knee-length white robe and matching trousers, the older man wore finely-tailored, Western-style clothing. Smiling, he extended his
right hand. "I am Bereket Haile Medeksa."
      "Caedmon Aisquith." Feigning respect, he grasped his right elbow with his left hand. Then, adding to the deceit, he said, "I am
pleased to make your acquaintance." He didn't bother introducing the woman. As Omar had so crassly observed, she was a mere
commodity. "Is the
Diarium Templar still for sale?"
      "It is. However, I must first ask that you submit to a body search. A distasteful, but mandatory, precaution in my line of work,"
Bereket said by way of explanation.
      "Needs must." Caedmon obligingly raised his arms. As Omar patted him down, he stared at the dusty assortment of souvenirs --
tacky T-shirts, postcards, snow domes -- that lined the nearby shelves.
      A few moments later, formalities concluded, Bereket gestured to the open doorway in the rear of the dimly-lit shop. "Shall we
adjourn to the showroom? Omar will keep an eye on your woman while we conduct our business."
      "I prefer that she accompany me." At seeing Bereket's brows draw together, Caedmon pressed the point. "Not only is the woman a
valuable piece of merchandise, she's fleet of foot."
      "She seems compliant enough."
      "You wouldn't say that had you been the one chasing her through the
merkato earlier today."
      The confession met with a chiding
tsk-tsk. "You Westerners are too lenient with your women. Very well." Permission granted,
Bereket led them to the back of the shop.
      The back of the showroom turned out to be a windowless, climate-controlled space that safeguarded a staggering collection.
Scepters, coins, ancient manuscripts, and sculptures were all displayed to advantage. There was even a magnificent jeweled crown
housed in a dramatically-lit glass case. Peering upward, Caedmon noted that there was a surveillance camera mounted near the ceiling.
The ingrained training that he'd received in Her Majesty's secret service immediately kicked in. Although he'd left MI5 two years ago,
there were some lessons that a man never forgot.
      Caedmon unobtrusively scanned the room, searching for an alternate means of egress.
      Bugger. There was only the one exit. If the situation turned dicey, he and the woman would have to maneuver past Omar, who was
now manning the front entryway.
      Caedmon turned to his host. Seen in profile, Bereket resembled an ancient pharaoh. A far cry from his actual profession, Bereket
Haile Medeksa the most notorious black market antiquities dealer in Ethiopia. The souvenir shop in the front was just that, a front for a
highly lucrative, and highly illegal, business operation.
      "May I see the
Diarium Templar?"
      "By all means." Smiling -- his ebullience undoubtedly buoyed by the thought of a hefty profit -- Bereket gestured to a wooden
lectern positioned a few feet away. "I think you'll be quite impressed."
      With a curt nod, Caedmon motioned the woman to the lone chair in the corner of the room. He then stepped over to the lectern.
Next to it, someone had placed a pair of white cotton gloves. As with the body search, they were a necessary precaution.
      Gloves donned, Caedmon stared at the remarkably well-preserved codex, the embossed leather aged to a rich burnt umber. His
anticipation fast mounting, he opened the cover. On the first page, penned in a purplish-black ink, the date had been neatly scribed in
Latin, the lingua franca of the day.
Anno Domini Nostri Iesu Christi MCLXV. 'In the year of our Lord Jesus Christ 1165.' At reading
that, his heartbeat spiked a notch.
      During the Middle Ages few people could read, let alone write. The fact that the diary had been written by a young Knights Templar
named Anfoy de Montegut made the
Diarium Templar an extraordinary, and utterly priceless, relic. An order of warrior monks, the
Knights Templar had been founded during the Crusades to battle the Muslim infidels in the Holy Land.
      Caedmon skimmed the dated entries that chronicled the intrepid knight's secret mission to the Ethiopian empire. Clearly dazzled by
what he had seen in the land of Sheba, de Montegut had included a number of hand-drawn sketches.
The stone obelisks at Gondar.
The ancient temple at Yeha. And a curious depiction of two mating hartebeests.
Tamping his growing impatience, Caedmon turned
the vellum pages, searching for a particular illustration. If he didn't find it, the entire trip to Ethiopia will have been a waste of--
      Bang on! he silently marveled, his gaze alighting on the sought-after sketch.
      Although crudely drawn, he instantly recognized the fabled box with the two winged angels on top of the lid. Beneath the
illustration, Anfoy de Montegut had written the Latin word
arca. As in the Ark of the Covenant, the gold-plated chest that, according to
the Old Testament, had held the Ten Commandments and had accompanied the Hebrews during their desert wanderings.
      In addition to the drawing of the Ark, in the middle of the vellum page, there was a neatly rendered Greek cross.
      At seeing the familiar image, Caedmon frowned, knowing full well that the symbol had no connection to the Ark of the Covenant.
One image belonged to the pages of the Old Testament, the other to the New.
      The mystery deepens, he mused as he removed the cotton gloves.
      Turning away from the
Diarium Templar, he walked over to where Bereket stood near the doorway. He wondered if the antiquities
dealer had any idea that his ill-gotten inventory contained such an amazing treasure.
      "Fifty thousand dollars is a steep price for a medieval codex that has no documented provenance." As he spoke, Caedmon noticed
that the woman had gotten up from her chair and was discreetly making her way over to the lectern.
A vision of grace and docility.
      "It is a rare, one-of-a-kind relic." Then, staring him straight in the eye, Bereket said, "The price stands."
      "Mmmm . . . may I call on you in the morning? I'll need the rest of the evening to mull over my decision."
      "Of course. Please take as much time as you need." If he was annoyed by the delaying tactic, Bereket gave no indication.
      A few minutes later, his hand tightly cuffed around the woman's arm, Caedmon exited the souvenir shop. At the end of the block, he
veered to the right, bypassing a gaggle of Ethiopian shoppers, all of whom carried a brightly-colored umbrella to ward off the late-day
sunshine. No brolly at the ready, he pulled his female companion into the shadow of a centuries-old sandstone castle.
      The woman at his side immediately yanked off the blue headdress, liberating a mass of dark-brown, corkscrew curls. Caedmon
surmised from Edie Miller's outraged expression that his partner was none too pleased.
      "'How much for the woman?!' Hello! And welcome to the twenty-first century. I came
this close--" with her thumb and index finger,
Edie indicated a scant half-inch measure --"to kneeing that bozo Omar in the balls."
      "You Americans, always griping about something." Amused by her ire, Caedmon wrapped an arm around Edie's shoulders and
pulled her close to his side. "Were you able to get a shot of the
Diarium Templar?"
      "I've been a professional photographer for ten years, but that was definitely a first." As she spoke, Edie removed a smartphone
from the voluminous folds of her
shamma. "Although, luckily for us, I'm fairly certain that I got a clear shot of the diary page."
      "Well done, Miss Miller," he warmly complimented. "Unless I'm greatly mistaken, our intrepid Knights Templar, Anfoy de
Montegut, inserted an encrypted code onto that particular page of his diary. One that will hopefully reveal the sacred relic's
whereabouts."
      "And what do you think our chances are? Of finding the Ark of the Covenant," Edie clarified.
      Caedmon smiled and said, "The odds have vastly improved. Assuming, of course, that we can crack the code."
5:49 p.m.
Lalibela Restaurant

      ". . . no sooner did King Solomon build his fabled Temple to house the Ark of the Covenant than the Queen of Sheba traveled to
Jerusalem to view the architectural marvel." As he spoke, Caedmon shifted his hips, adjusting his 6'3" frame to the two foot high
traditional
mesob table; a problem compounded by an eight inch stool.
      Watching the contortion act, Edie bit back a smile. "If the Ethiopian legend is true, then the queen evidently went on the--" with her
fingers, Edie made a pair of air quotes --"
after hours tour, giving birth nine months later to Solomon's illegitimate son, Menelik.
      "The same legend claims that, upon maturation, Menelik stole the Ark of the Covenant from the Temple of Jerusalem and secretly
transported it to Ethiopia."
      "Hiding the darned thing God knows where." Like the Knights Templar before them, she and Caedmon had come to Ethiopia in
search of the fabled Ark. A potentially dangerous venture given that the gold-plated chest could supposedly level mountains, raze cities,
and annihilate entire armies. It was one of those dramatically gory tales from the Bible that Edie hoped contained more fiction than fact.
      "For nearly three thousand years, the Ark's disappearance has been one of the great unsolved mysteries," Caedmon remarked. "To
quote the medieval author Wolfram von Eschenbach, the discovery of the sacred relic would be 'the consummation of heart's desire.'"
      In the process of pouring honey wine into two small glasses, Edie paused. "Should I be jealous?"
      "Not in the least," Caedmon assured her. "My attraction to the Ark is entirely cerebral."
      "Spoken like a true Oxford graduate." One side of Edie's mouth quirked upwards. "And how about your attraction to me: cerebral or
visceral?" Teasing aside, it was a valid question. She and Caedmon met five weeks ago when she'd witnessed the theft of another relic of
the Old Testament, the Stones of Fire. That dangerous exploit had inspired their current hunt for the Ark of the Covenant. Having been
flung into a heady and passionate whirlwind, she still didn't know Caedmon's favorite color. Or movie. Whether he preferred stick shift
or automatic.
      Caedmon raised his wine glass. Holding her gaze, he said, "My feelings for you are cerebral, visceral, and lest you mistake me for a
monk in an abbey, decidedly carnal."
      "Good answer." Edie clinked the rim of her glass against his. "And right back at ya, Big Red." Not for the first time, Edie thought that
if you morphed some of history's famous redheads -- Erik the Red, William Shakespeare, and Thomas Jefferson -- you'd end up with
Caedmon Aisquith. Book smarts, street smarts, the man had it all.
      "Shall we have a go at the photo before our food arrives?" Reaching into his breast pocket, Caedmon retrieved the smartphone.
      As she examined the almost childish depiction of the Ark on the devices' display screen, Edie said, "So the working theory is that this
illustration of the Ark, along with the Greek cross, comprise a single encryption code."
      Caedmon lightly tapped an index finger against his chin, a gesture that Edie instantly recognized as his poker tell. "Unless we can
decipher the meaning of the cross in the
Diarium Templar, it's an ancient mystery that may never--"
      "Hold that thought." Turning her head, Edie smiled at the approaching waitress. Uncertain of what they had ordered -- neither
party spoke the other's language -- she anxiously watched as a domed platter was placed on top of their table.
      Wearing a dubious expression, Caedmon unfolded his napkin. "Our server obviously didn't understand my request for a fork."
      "You know what they say: 'When in Rome,'" Edie retorted, just before she removed the cover with a dramatic flourish. A large
sourdough pancake, dotted with heaps of hot food covered the entire platter. Catching a whiff of lemon and garlic, her stomach
impolitely growled. Famished, she tore off a piece of the
injera bread, using it to scoop up some lamb stew. No sooner did she pop the
morsel into her mouth than she grabbed the decanter of honey wine, in desperate need of a refill. "Man overboard," she sputtered once
the spice-crises had passed. "Wow. Talk about a sucker punch."
      Caedmon took the decanter from her hand. In that instant, their gazes met, both of them acutely aware that his fingers had grazed
against hers a moment too long. At least by Ethiopian standards. A conservative country, kissing, hugging, and hand-holding in public
were expressly taboo.
      "Try the lentil dish. It doesn't have as much of the
berbere chili pepper."
      Unable to help herself, Edie giggled and said, "
Berbere is ver-ver hot. Kinda like me, huh?" A playful wink punctuated the
addendum.
      A warm smile worked its way onto Caedmon's face. "Indeed, your charms are numerous."
      Emboldened by the compliment, Edie slowly ran her finger over the rim of her glass . . . in the exact spot that her lips had just
touched. "Do I detect a glimmer of interest in those blue eyes?"
      Caedmon leaned closer to her. "More like a gleam of--  No sudden moves," he unexpectedly ordered. "A Toyota truck just pulled up
to the front of the restaurant. Unless, I'm greatly mistaken, Bereket's security man is in the passenger seat."
      "Do you mean Omar, the male-chauvinist bozo from the antiquities shop?"
      "None other. And he has a muscular fellow in tow." As he spoke, Caedmon hurriedly shoved the smartphone into his shirt pocket.
"Our shady antiquities dealer had a surveillance camera in the showroom."
      Hearing that, Edie's stomach muscles painfully tightened.
      "If Bereket reviewed the tape, then he knows that we got something for nothing." Fifty thousand dollars was a steep price for a
single page of the
Diarium Templar, that being the reason why she'd surreptitiously snapped the photo.
      Caedmon pushed himself upright. Bending at the waist, he helped Edie to her feet. His movements quick and efficient, he slapped a
wad of
birrs onto the table. Bill paid, he ushered her toward the back of the restaurant where a steady stream of waiters moved back
and forth between the dining room and the kitchen.
      "Wait here," Caedmon whispered, escorting Edie to a large column a few feet from the kitchen doors. "I'm going to scout the
premises to see if I can find a rear exit."
      Not so sure she liked Caedmon's plan, Edie flattened herself against the wooden post.
      A few moments later, curiosity getting the better of her, she tentatively peeked around the side of the column . . . just in time to see
Omar and his cohort enter the restaurant.
      "
Yeat no faranji?" Omar yelled in a commanding voice.
      Whatever he hollered, it captured everyone's attention. In the next instant, heads swiveled, necks craned, and heated whispering
ensued. One restaurant patron raised his arm and pointed to where Edie stood, cowering behind the column.
      Crappola. She'd just been outted by the locals.
      Fear a great motivator, Edie gathered the flowing hem of her
shamma and ran towards the kitchen, shoving her shoulder against a
swinging door.
      At a glance, she could see that the space resembled any large commercial kitchen -- bubbling cauldrons of food, a line of aproned
assistants slicing and dicing, and harried wait staff bearing over-sized trays aloft.
      Edie turned to the nearest prep chef. "Could you please tell me where--" Suddenly, without warning, she was roughly yanked
backward.
      Standing behind her, Omar's cohort, holding a fistful of purple fabric in his hand, began to reel Edie toward him, Floundering, she
twisted, first one way, then the other. When, a few seconds later, she began to lose her balance, Edie automatically grabbed the edge of
the prep station to keep from falling on her keister. Which was when she caught sight of an open sack that was filled to the brim with the
red powder used in so many Ethiopian dishes.
      Acting on impulse, Edie shoved her hand into the sack. Then, turning to face her captor, she blew a mound of
berbere at his face.
      Almost immediately, the brute released his hold on the
shamma. Furiously yelping, he slapped both palms over his eyes. Edie
assumed that he was screaming the Ethiopian equivalent of 'Face on fire!'
      Tuning out the commotion -- everyone in the kitchen now yammering at full volume -- Edie charged toward a screen door,
emerging a few moments later in an alleyway. Before she could catch her breath, someone seized hold of her wrist, tugging her behind a
trash dumpster.
      "Keep your hair on," a man hissed in a lowered voice.
      "Caedmon! Thank heaven," she exclaimed, relieved to see him.
      "Postpone the hosannas. The Captain of the Guard has just arrived."
      Craning her neck, Edie saw a tall man decked out in traditional Ethiopian garb at the far end of the alley.
      "It's Omar," she warbled, her heart thumping against her breastbone. "Now what?"
      "I suggest that we put our faith in God Almighty."
6:17 p.m.
Church of the Nine Saints

      "But this is the house of the Lord!"
      "Trust me. He won't mind the trespass," Caedmon assured Edie, having discovered the unlocked church vestry during his earlier
reconnaissance. Turning his head, he peered down the alley.
Damn. "Omar is on the move," he informed Edie as he nudged her into the
vestry.
      Needing to find a makeshift weapon, Caedmon hurriedly perused the chamber, his gaze landing on a pile of sticks haphazardly strewn
on the floor.
      Perfect.
      He dashed over and grabbed a four foot length of shellacked sycamore. In Ethiopian churches, resting sticks were used by
supplicants who were forced to stand for the entire service. With a sturdy stick in hand, he shepherded Edie through another doorway
and into a dimly-lit nave. Keeping to the shadows, they scurried down the aisle, which was buttressed on one side by a row of stone
pillars. On the opposite wall, dust-laden slashes of faint light shone through the clerestory windows.
      Side-by-side, they headed toward the vestibule at the far end of the church. From there, they could exit the building and hail a taxi.
The perfect getaway.
      Halfway into their trek, Edie tripped over the hem of her
shamma. Caedmon caught her in mid-tumble. As he did, he noticed that
she was frantically wiping her right palm against the gauzy dress fabric.
      What are you doing? he silently mouthed.
      Edie held out her palm, the entire surface stained a rusty hue. "It's--"
Aa-choo! The unexpected sneeze loudly echoed throughout
the nave. "--
berebere."
      A pounding footfall immediately ensued, the robust sneeze having alerted Omar to their whereabouts.
      Because there was no time to devise Plan B, Caedmon cinched a hand around Edie's elbow, pulling her into the shadow of a massive
column. Silently bidding her to stay put, he then stepped back into the aisle, holding the sycamore stick like a club. He then slowed his
breathing.
Waiting.
      "I smell the stench of an Englishman," Omar taunted.
      "Sod you," he retorted, raising the sturdy stick a few inches higher.
      At seeing the length of sycamore, Omar scowled, his nostrils flaring. In one quick move, he slid a
danakil knife from the scabbard at
his waist. Approximately nine inches in length, the angled blade was traditionally used to gut dead animals.
      Bugger.
      Galvanized into action, Caedmon lunged at his opponent, swinging the stick at the other man's head. Omar, possessed of damnably
quick reflexes, recoiled out of harm's way. About to launch another attack, Caedmon pulled up short, flabbergasted to see Edie emerge
from the shadows directly behind Omar. In her right hand, she grasped a chain from which dangled a gold-plated thurible, the ornate
vessel used to burn incense. A determined look in her eyes, she swung the thurible over her head like a medieval flail, the sudden motion
producing a distinctive clanking noise.
      Startled, Omar jerked in Edie's direction. That being his cue, Caedmon took a straight-drive cricket swing, hooking his stick behind
the Ethiopian's knees. With one strong-armed jerk, he was then able to yank Omar's legs out from under him, the other man hitting the
stone floor with a resounding thud. Loosened from his grip, the
danakil knife skittered across the floor. Loudly bleating, Omar
awkwardly rolled onto all fours.
      Just then, an intrusive burst of daylight flooded the nave.
      "Where is the bitch-whore?" a loud voice called out.
      "Oh, God! It's Omar's accomplice," Edie moaned as she pointed toward the lone man silhouetted in the open church doorway. In the
next instant, the thurible slipped through her fingers, the vessel striking the stone floor with a loud clamor.         
      Grabbing Edie's hand, Caedmon charged toward a spiral stairwell located on the other side of the nave. He assumed that the circular
shaft -- which he estimated to be four stories high -- led to the church belfry.
      Moments later, they were nearly two stories into their ascent when Caedmon heard a stream of angrily muttered curses. He didn't
have to peer over his shoulder to know that Omar and his accomplice were in pursuit. As he and Edie rounded the last curve, the
stairwell opened onto a sandstone belfry. The proverbial end of the road.
      Panting, Edie fearfully glanced at him. "Would they actually kill us because we took a photograph of--" At hearing a strident voice
suddenly broadcast over a public loud speaker, she visibly jerked. "Ohmygod! What's that?"
      "
That is the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer." Moreover, it was a mandatory call for all pious Muslims who, five times a day,
stopped everything they were doing and immediately headed to the nearest mosque.
      The thud of stomping feet quickly receded.
      "Saved by the
adhan," Edie said as she sagged against him.
      Permitting himself a gusty sigh of relief, Caedmon braced his hands on the belfry's arched portal. Below them, the city of Gondar
spread out in a maze-like fashion, a labyrinth of medieval castles and mid-century apartment buildings. "I don't bloody believe it," he
muttered, stunned at what he'd just glimpsed in the near distance. Quickly removing a folded map from his pocket, he opened it,
checking the location.
      St. Peter's Monastery.
      Edie elbowed him in the ribs. "I recognize that excited gleam in your eyes. So how about filling me in?"
      Extending his arm, Caedmon directly Edie's attention to Gondar's medieval quarter. "Behold a most incredible sight . . . a monastery
shaped like a cross. A Greek cross to be precise, all four arms of equal length, the flat roof emphasizing the building's unique shape."
      "Do you think the Ark of the Covenant is hidden inside the monastery?" she asked, her face animated with excitement.
      "I haven't the foggiest. It may simply be a signpost that will lead us to the next clue."
      "There's only way to find out."
      "Indeed." Caedmon extended a crooked elbow in Edie's direction. "Shall we?"
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Copyright 2014. Chloe Douglas. All rights reserved.