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By Patrick Kapera A tale of World on Fire Part of Operation: Nightfall

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Tuesday, July 20, 2004
1922 hours GMT (8:22pm local time)
Monte Carlo, Monaco

Monaco, diamond throne of the Mediterranean, hotspot epicenter of the modern cultural revolution — and ground zero for a sweeping string of terrorist attacks. Sleek military helicopters hovered across the early night sky, backlit by a kaleidoscope of pyrotechnic extravagance, searching for four suspects — three women and a man, the lattermost tentatively identified as the notorious “Rose,” Emilio Thorne.

“Do you have any idea where you’re going?” Asia screamed. She struggled to keep hold of Emilio’s hand as he dragged her through the crowded festival streets.

“North,” he answered. “The Avenue Princesse Grace leads out of the city.”

They fell in line behind an enormous three-story showboat float, amidst several confused acrobats, and slowed to adopt the performers’ speed. Emilio scanned the crowd for any sign that the twins had tracked them down again. Overhead, a two hundred-foot starburst exploded, momentarily bleeding all the color out of the scene and eliciting a collective gasp from the crowd’s pale-stricken faces. Two figures darted through the frozen snapshot, slicing through the audience with lethal confidence. Their clothes were different but their parallel features were unmistakable.

“We have to keep moving,” said Emilio. Once again, he dragged Asia behind him — this time over the float’s rail, onto its lowest level, and past lines of topless dancers. Moments later, they rounded a corner and climbed one of the float’s many staircases, toward its top level.

Seconds later, the twins burst out of the parade line, shoving spectators aside. They leapt into tight somersaults, cleared the float’s rail, and headed for the staircase, knocking dancers aside along the way — just as Emilio hoped.

“What now?” Asia’s question was nearly drowned out by the high whine of a sparkler-driven windmill atop the float, but Emilio expertly picked it out of the clutter.

He looked past the float’s centerpiece — a giant laughing balloon head — from an approaching helicopter to a structure closing on the east — the Grimaldi Forum, an ultra-modern affair exalted as the “convention center of the third millennium.” The masterpiece of glass and steel engineering rose out of a man-made land extension, the world’s largest perfectly cut gem trying to break free of its earthly prison.

“We jump,” he said.

“You’re kidding.”

Emilio led Asia out onto one of the float’s enormous pneumatic “arms,” a leisurely flapping contraption lined with swirling, flaming pinwheel propellers. They felt the arm start to give under their weight as they approached its outermost tip, but Emilio kept them moving, holding one eye on the forum as it crept underneath. He waited, waited…

“Now!” he cried. They tumbled off the end of the arm and onto the flat roof of the forum’s main structure, behind the center’s pristine glass entrance building. Emilio immediately broke into a run, drawing upon years of experience on the wrong side of the law. He didn’t look back — at this point he was only concerned with clearing the rooftop. If they didn’t make it to the other side, out of the empty rooftop kill zone, nothing else would matter.

Seconds later, the twins hit the top floor and leapt toward the arm, intending to use it as a launching platform toward their prey. On its way back up, the arm was unprepared for the sudden force of the girls’ landing and cracked in half, its outer end plummeting toward the street amidst a shower of flame and sparks. The twins righted themselves mid-air, losing several precious moments skidding to a temporary stop on the roof, then broke into a run of their own.

Emilio and Asia cleared the rear building’s roof and sprinted across the forward structure’s expansive skylight. Inside, early evening partygoers marveled at their passing, discretely applauding their adept slide down the 45-degree front windows, into the fabulously decorated outdoor pavilion. They blinked and waited with rapt, if morbid, curiosity as the duo came to a stop just short of the final slide into the street-side parade crowd.

Asia fought for breath. “Full circle,” she said. “What now?”

Emilio watched the damaged float slow to a halt, panic radiating out from it like a tidal wave. Above, the helicopters closed in on the scene — and the forum. He looked back to gauge the twins’ progress and waited. Again, timing was crucial…

“There’s a plan, right? You didn’t just leap toward the pretty building, did you?” Asia might have sounded worried, if her amusement weren’t so obvious.

As the twins hit the entrance building, dive-charging across the skylight to a chorus of stunned surprise from below, Emilio grabbed Asia and stepped off the pavilion’s edge. The first of the helicopters, aiming to cut the suspects off where they were, sailed overhead, coming to a stop over the pavilion — and the twins. Two others banked to compensate, but only managed to park themselves over the chaotic street scene after Emilio and Asia slid onto the sidewalk, slipped into the fleeing throng, and dropped out of sight.

Emilio angled through the crowd, toward the trees lining the bay’s edge. Under the canopy, he doubled back, leading Asia south toward an aging church at the cusp of the sea. Despite the chaos outside, the church interior remained calm, the proverbial center of the storm.

“Deo Juvante,” Emilio muttered as they raced through the building. Asia glanced at him questioningly, Latin clearly not her strong suit.

“Local saying,” he told her. “With God’s help.”

Ducking into a cool, damp staircase, they headed for the bell tower, searching for new perspective.


Tuesday, July 20, 2004
2148 hours GMT (10:48pm local time)
Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde, Marseille

From the majesty of her Romano-Byzantine pedestal, the Virgin Mary observed creation. The view of Marseille from the 19th-century basilica was unparalleled, the whole of the hillside city languidly stretching out to sea like a lazy sea lion basking in the sun’s waning glory.

Once, when he was young and unimportant, unconcerned with the troubles of titans, Sir Richard Poole respected this view. He enjoyed Marseilles’ disarming, picturesque scenery, the meandering, cliff-side roads and the endless, unassuming horizon. He marveled at the city’s incredible bouquet, the smells of lavender, Provincial herbs, and omnipresent bouillabaisse drifting through the streets and settling into everything, and everyone. He loved the pervasive sense that nothing terrible could ever happen here, despite the warnings to stay away from the outer quartiers at night.

But just as age had stolen the city’s strategic importance, it had also made away with Poole’s innocence. Visiting once cherished holiday sites, trying to reconnect with fond memories, old friends… It rang hollow for him. The ruins of his youth were just backdrops now, places to hunt and people to doubt.

Today Poole hunted his Kane, his World-Serpent, the most horrific creature he’d ever encountered, who both disgusted and defined him. Dr. Friedrich Kholera, fallen angel of the bio-medical research set whose dreams of global rebirth fell only one step short of total annihilation. Years, in fact decades before, they squared off across continents, their bitter feud producing a twisted trail of fractured governments and broken lives. The seemingly unconnected aftershocks of each encounter rippled out across the globe, across months and years, sending the fragile Cold War era spinning wildly off course, toward this strained, worrisome present.

The worst part? Poole never fully understood why the feud escalated so sharply, why it became so personal. Certainly, Kholera’s extinction agenda had to be prevented, but so little of the fighting actually had anything to do with the mastermind’s ultimate aims. Somewhere along the line, the rivalry shifted from civilized skirmishes to crude, spiteful campaigns of personal destruction. Lines were drawn. Bystanders were forced to take sides, and many of them were broken or died for their convictions. In the end, Poole’s only anchor to his noble, deluded past was settled firmly in a sea of his closest friends’ blood.

At the basilica’s foot, Poole approached the edge of a wide stone rail overlooking the southern end of the city. He produced a pair of binoculars and feigned a shy smile at the couple to his right. They returned to their vigorous embrace and he activated the binoculars’ military-grade magnification feature, scanning the footpaths and streets around the Parc Borély. He picked out all the people lounging beneath the gently waving plane trees and memorized the faces and clothing of everyone laughing and clapping at the pétanque field. When he had a running tally of every variable in the area, he switched his earbud transceiver back on.

Poole didn’t bother to say anything; he knew Sparks was listening, watching for the GPS signal. He wasn’t disappointed. “It’s about time you checked in, Ros. How was the mother ship?”

“I need a sat-tap, Sparks. Anything over the French coastline, specifically Marseille.”

“Sure. Ignore the geek until you need help with your homework.”

“Sparks…”

“You didn’t have to go silent, Richard. I could have helped you out of Atlanta.”

“Lynx needed you more. How is she?”

“She’s fine. Hellman clipped her with a Stinger on his way out, but she limped to a friendly airfield — once she outdistanced Pitfall’s goon squad, anyway. What about you? How’d you get out?”

“I burned Chaos.”

The line went quiet. Over 1,000 kilometers away, behind the reflective Illuminated Futures façade, Sparks worked through the shock, then fumed. “You… what?”

“That Harlequin…” Poole said. “Quite the womanizer. You should be more careful choosing your handlers.”

“Chaos was my last insider with Pitfall.”

“And now he’s a field agent… Or he will be, once you spring him from Guantanamo. I’d see to that quickly, by the way. Chaos doesn’t strike me as the most level-headed bloke under pressure.”

The line went quiet again. Poole took a moment of perverse pleasure from Nathan’s speechlessness, especially in light of the ‘mother ship’ comment, then dove back into business. “How’s that sat-feed coming?” he asked.

“We’re close,” Sparks said. The irritation was still clear in his voice. “You might want to know… Quite a few operatives have gone missing in and around your area over the last 36 ours.”

“Makes sense. The hired hands are out in force.” Poole clicked several silent pictures with the binoculars’ hidden digital camera, then uploaded them through its internal satellite relay. Two figures started moving across the park, one a lithe, weasel-like fellow in a threadbare suit, the other a lumbering giant threatening to prove evolution wrong with every ungainly step.

The pair unceremoniously made its way to a park bench, where the smaller of the two sat, suspiciously checking to see if anyone nearby was watching them. Before he could confirm their anonymity, however, the giant started rummaging around under the bench’s wooden slats, eventually lifting the entire seat — including his cohort — above his shoulders. The giant peeled a small envelope from the bottom side of the slats as his partner frantically clutched to the bench and pitched wild obscenities at him.

“Law of averages demands that at least a few are competent,” Poole said.

Sparks received the pictures. “The Whitlows,” he said. “Guess your instincts about Kholera’s old channels were right on the money.”

“I’ll see where they’re going,” Poole directed. “You see where they’ve been.”


Tuesday, July 20, 2004
2258 hours GMT (11:58pm local time)
Saint-Barnabé, Marseille

Emilio and Asia fell through the safe house door, locked in a playful embrace. He only scarcely managed to slam the door shut before she dragged him into a roll along the front corridor wall, and as they collapsed on the living room sofa, she found his lips and drew him into a lengthy, spirited kiss.

Asia fought to catch her breath again, this time for an entirely different reason. “Thaaat waaasss… incredible,” she purred.

“To be fair, I didn’t arrange the gunfire, and the twins were something of a surprise as well.”

“You handled yourself pretty well.”

“Sure.” His tone shifted.

“What’s wrong?”

Emilio didn’t answer, instead distracting her with another attentive kiss. They fumbled at each other’s ragged clothing.

“I saw you out there. You were… decisive, poised. This wasn’t the first time someone’s tried to kill you.”

Asia slipped her hand between the buttons of Emilio’s shirt. “How many scars will I find under here?” Her fingers danced across his chest, but despite the electric trails they left behind, he couldn’t relax. His pulse hadn’t slowed to less than a throbbing charge since Kam Ran, and the welts on his back still ached.

A cuckoo clock in the corner struck twelve, pulling both of them back to reality.

“We have to get ready,” Emilio said, pulling out of her arms. “Augustin will be here soon.” He stalked over to a desk and flipped open a hidden cavity behind several small nooks, producing a package wrapped in waterproof fabric. He unrolled it to reveal an elaborate, personalized disguise kit, and started brainstorming their new identities.

Asia leaned over him and draped her arms over his shoulders. “You’re a peculiar one, Mr. Thorne.”

“Hm?”

“All that dashing charm, the way you manipulated those helicopter pilots, this place… You’re about as smooth as they come, but when you’ve got a sure thing…”

Feeling him tense up, she rose, pulling her hands to his shoulders.

“Who is she?” she asked, after a long pause.

Emilio turned to face her. He didn’t like to be interrogated, especially by someone he’d met the same day. “I’m not the only one here someone’s trying to kill,” he said.

Her teasing smile dipped.

“You give me my space,” he said, “I’ll give you yours.”

“He has a past…”

“And a future, one hopes. Now, who would you like to be today?”

The front door smashed inward, splintered and nearly pulled off its hinges under the weight of a powerful attack. An enormous figure stepped into and occluded the forward corridor, quickly approaching the main room. He coarsely gulped air like an angry bull and his footfalls landed like falling bricks. Behind him entered a smaller blood relative, a frail, shifty villain brandishing a sleek black service pistol.


From a rooftop across the street, Poole observed the Whitlows’ unrefined entrance into the safe house. “They’re making their move,” he said. “I’m headed in.”

“Richard…” said a voice behind him — an all-too-familiar voice. “I’m sorry, Richard.”

As he whipped around, a meaty hand wedged under his chin, lifting him off his feet and pinning him against a wall. His breath failed him, his windpipe collapsing beneath the vice-like grip. His attacker was unfamiliar, though the man looked like one of the Krypt’s shadowy back alley enforcers. Above the man’s high collar, however, his skin was slate gray and pitted with deep, weeping abscesses. Something was literally eating him alive…

The enormous bruiser whipped his arm out across the roof, sending Poole sprawling at a woman’s feet. Poole lifted his gaze, fighting to clear his vision, but all too soon he wished he hadn’t.

Hunched over him, afflicted by the same appalling malady, stood Alex Kole, her face twisted into a mask of tear-streaked anger. She seized upon Poole’s stunned surprise, hammering her clenched fist into his jaw and sending him careening off the roof…

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