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The Demon Crown

James Rollins


  For Mama Carol,

  For all she gave to those around her,

  selflessly and lovingly throughout her life


  I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae [parasitic wasps] with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars. . . .


  in a letter written May 22, 1860, to botanist Asa Gray

  They’re seriously misunderstood creatures.


  Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire




  Title Page




  Notes from the Historical Record

  Notes from the Scientific Record















































  Author’s Note to Readers: Truth or Fiction


  About the Author

  Also by James Rollins


  About the Publisher


  Sigma Force has its roots buried beneath the Smithsonian Castle, a massive and turreted red sandstone structure built in 1849 at the edge of the National Mall. From that one venerable building, the sprawling complex of museums, research facilities, and laboratories of the Smithsonian Institution was born. But before all that and throughout the Civil War, this single building housed the entirety of the Smithsonian’s collections.

  But where did this shining testament to science get its true start?

  Oddly enough, it wasn’t an American who founded the institution, but rather an eccentric British chemist and mineralogist named James Smithson. Upon his death in 1829, he bequeathed a half-million dollars to the United States (about twelve million in today’s value, or roughly 1/66th of the federal budget at the time) to found “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.”

  Still, to this day, there remains a cloud of mystery surrounding this benefactor. For one, James Smithson never set foot on American soil, yet he left his fortune and a substantial mineral collection to this new nation. Furthermore, during his life, Smithson never spoke of his intention to bequeath such a largesse upon the United States, and oddly after his death, his nephew buried him in Genoa, Italy, rather than in England. One of the reasons little is known about the man today is that near the end of the Civil War, in 1865, a devastating fire broke out at the Castle. While the lower levels were spared (only sustaining water damage), the upper levels were torched. Most of Smithson’s handwritten papers—including his diaries and research journals—were destroyed. In that one fiery act, the man’s lifelong work was forever lost to history.

  But the intrigue surrounding Smithson didn’t end with his death. In the winter of 1903, the famous American inventor Alexander Graham Bell traveled to Italy against the expressed wishes of the Smithsonian Board of Regents and broke into Smithson’s grave in Genoa. He collected the man’s bones into a zinc coffin and fled back to the United States aboard a steamship. Upon his return, Bell interred Smithson’s remains at the Castle, where they remain today.

  So why did the inventor of the telephone defy the wishes of his fellow Smithsonian board members to secure Smithson’s body in such a harried manner? Was it merely, as claimed by most, that Smithson’s grave was being threatened by the expansion of a neighboring Italian quarry? Or was there something more going on concerning the eccentric James Smithson—first, his out-of-the-blue donation, then the mysterious fire that destroyed his heritage, and finally the strange journey by Alexander Graham Bell to secure his bones?

  For the shocking truth about a dark American secret, keep reading . . .


  Palaeovespa florissantia, a paper wasp that lived 34 million years ago. Image credit: National Park Service

  What’s the deadliest animal on the planet? Let’s take score. Sharks kill about six people a year, while lions account for roughly twenty-two deaths. Surprisingly, attacks from elephants cause five hundred fatalities each year. Snakebites double that number with a thousand deaths annually. We humans, of course, outdo that considerably by slaughtering four hundred thousand of one another every year. But the true assassin of the animal world is much smaller and far deadlier. Namely, the lowly mosquito. As vectors for a slew of diseases—malaria, yellow fever, West Nile, and now Zika—these flying bloodsuckers alone account for more than a million deaths each year. In fact, mosquito bites are the leading cause of mortality in children under five.

  Still, other tiny beasts also vie with the mosquito for this deadly crown. Tsetse flies cause ten thousand deaths each year. The aptly named assassin bug (Reduviidae) does a bit better with twelve thousand. Ultimately, some insect will kill one person out of sixty every year.

  Why is this important? It serves as a cautionary reminder that we are not living in the Age of Man, but rather—as has been true for more than 400 million years—in the Age of Insects. While humans have been on this planet for a paltry 300,000 years, insects existed eons before the dinosaurs, multiplying and spreading, filling every environmental niche. In fact, it is now hypothesized that insects contributed—if not led—to the extinction of the dinosaurs. How? From analysis of recent fossil records, it has been discovered that these tiny predators attacked those lumbering saurians while they were compromised and weakened by the climatic changes at the end of the Cretaceous Period, contributing significantly to their demise through predation, disease transmission, and sickness. At that opportune moment in prehistory, insects took advantage to finally rid the planet of their main competitor for all those new plants and flowers—and in one fell swoop, ended the Age of Dinosaurs.

  Which, of course, begs the question concerning the insect’s latest competitor for the earth’s dwindling natural resources: Could we be their next target?


  11:07 A.M. CET

  December 31, 1903

  Genoa, Italy

  With time weighing heavily upon its passengers, the carriage climbed recklessly up from the snow-swept city of Genoa. It jolted hard around a sharp twist in the narrow street.

  Seated in the back, Alexander Graham Bell groaned. He was still recuperating from a fever following the transatlantic voyage with his wife. To make matters worse, upon arriving in Italy two weeks ago, nothing had gone smoothly. At every turn, Italian authorities thwarted his plans to secure the remains of Ja
mes Smithson, the man who had founded the Smithsonian Institution. To facilitate this bit of grave robbing, he had been forced to act as both spy and ambassador, doling out bribes and deceit in equal measure. It was a game for a much younger fellow, not a man in his midfifties. The stress had taken its toll.

  His wife clutched his wrist. “Alec, perhaps we should ask the driver to slow down.”

  He patted her hand. “No, Mabel, the weather is turning. And the French are breathing hotly down our necks. It’s now or never.”

  Three days ago, just as he had secured all the proper permits, some distant French relatives of Smithson had wormed out of the woodwork to stake a claim on his body, little knowing what truly was at stake. Before this French roadblock could become entrenched, he had argued with Italian authorities that since Smithson had left the entirety of his estate to the United States, such an endowment must surely encompass his very body. He solidified his position with fistfuls of lire plied into the right hands, while at the same time categorically declaring—falsely—that President Theodore Roosevelt supported his mission.

  Though he had prevailed in this subterfuge, he could not count on it lasting much longer.

  It’s indeed now or never.

  He placed a palm over his breast pocket, where a fragment of paper was folded, its edges still charred.

  Mabel noted his hand. “Do you believe it could still be there? In his grave, buried with his body?”

  “We have to be sure. Someone came close to destroying this secret half a century ago. We can’t let the Italians finish the job.”

  In 1829, James Smithson was buried by his nephew in a small cemetery atop a seaside promontory in Genoa. At the time, the graveyard was owned by the British, but the Italians had retained a claim to the ground beneath it. Over the past few years, a neighboring quarry had been slowly eating its way through this hill, and now the company wanted to take it all down, including the cemetery.

  Upon learning of the threat to the bones of the founder of the Smithsonian, the museum’s board of regents had debated whether to rescue those remains before they were blasted into the sea. It was during that time that an old letter came into Alexander’s possession. It was written by the Smithsonian Institution’s first secretary, Joseph Henry, the man who oversaw the building of the Castle and who would eventually die within its walls.

  “Henry was no fool,” he mumbled to himself, stroking his thick beard.

  “I know how much you admired him,” Mabel consoled. “And valued his friendship.”

  He nodded.

  Enough to follow his instructions to this gravesite in Italy.

  In the letter written the year before his death, Henry told a tale that traced back to the Civil War, when the tides were turning against the South. Henry had come upon a strange notation in one of Smithson’s old diaries. He only stumbled upon it because he had been seeking additional documentation concerning Smithson’s endowment, trying to discern why the man was so generous to a country he had never even visited. During that inquiry, he came across a single exception to the estate, something not bequeathed to the United States. While the man’s entire mineral collection—his lifetime work—was preserved at the Castle, one artifact was held back. It was an object that Smithson ordered his nephew to bury with his body upon his death.

  The oddity drew Henry’s interest, enough for him to diligently search the man’s journals and diaries. He eventually found one reference to it, to something Smithson called The Demon Crown. Smithson expressed regret at unearthing it during a trip to a salt mine near the Baltic Sea. He claimed it could free something horrific.

  “ ‘The very hordes of Hell upon this World . . .’ ” Alexander whispered, quoting from a page of Smithson’s diary.

  “Do you truly believe that’s possible?” Mabel asked.

  “Somebody believed it enough during the Civil War to try to burn the Smithsonian to the ground.”

  Or so Henry had thought.

  Upon discovering Smithson’s secret, Henry had discussed it with some fellow board members, even wondering aloud if this artifact might be used as some form of weapon. Then three days later, the mysterious fire broke out at the Castle, which seemed to specifically target Smithson’s heritage, both his papers and his mineral collection.

  From the timing of this act, Henry suspected someone at the Smithsonian had betrayed his fears to the Confederacy. Luckily, Henry had kept Smithson’s journal that referenced the artifact in his own office, so it had been spared the worst of the flames, though the cover was charred and sections lost. Still, Henry decided it best to keep this recovery under wraps, informing only a trusted circle of allies. The group formed a covert cabal within the museum, and over the passing years, they were entrusted with the Smithsonian’s darkest secrets, information often kept even from the president.

  One example of that was the mysterious symbol discovered tattooed upon the wrist of a scoundrel whom Henry finally connected to the fire. The man died before he could be questioned, slicing his own throat with a dagger. Henry had sketched a copy of that symbol in his letter, serving as a warning for future generations.

  It looked like a variant of the masonic symbol, but no one knew what group this particular incarnation represented. Decades later, when Smithson’s grave was threatened, Henry’s group approached Alexander and showed him Henry’s letter. They recruited him to their cause, knowing it would take someone of his prominence and notoriety to pull off this bit of skullduggery on Italian soil.

  Though Alexander was not sure what he would find—if anything—in Smithson’s grave, he had agreed to undertake this task, even using his own money to finance the mission. No matter the outcome, he couldn’t refuse.

  I owe it to Henry.

  The carriage bumped around the last turn and reached the summit of the promontory. The vantage offered a wide view across Genoa to its harbor, which was crowded with coal-laden winter barges, so many that it looked as if you could cross the bay by hopping from one to the other. Closer at hand, the small cemetery beckoned, surrounded by white walls crowned with shards of broken glass.

  “Are we too late?” Mabel asked.

  He understood her concern. A corner of the cemetery was already gone, tumbled away into the neighboring marble quarry. As Alexander climbed out of the carriage into the bitter wind, he spotted what could only be a pair of coffins shattered below. He shivered, but it was not from the cold.

  “Let us be quick,” he warned.

  He led his wife through the cemetery gate. Ahead, he spotted a clutch of men huddled in thick coats. The party consisted of a few government lackeys and a trio of laborers. They gathered near a prominent sarcophagus cordoned off by a spiked iron fence. Alexander hurried over, bending against the wind, one arm around his wife.

  He nodded to the American consul in attendance, William Bishop.

  Bishop stepped closer and tapped his watch. “I heard a French lawyer is on a train from Paris. We should be prompt here.”

  “Agreed. The sooner we’re aboard the Princess Irene with the bones of our esteemed colleague and headed back to America, all the better.”

  As snow began to fall, Alexander stepped toward the gravesite. A gray marble pedestal bore a simple inscription.


  to the



  James Smithson, ESQ

  Fellow of the Royal Society


  who died at Genoa

  the 26th June 1829,

  aged 75 Years.

  Bishop crossed to one of the Italian representatives and spoke briefly. In short order, two of the laborers set about using crowbars. They cracked the seal on the tomb’s marble lid and lifted it free. Nearby, the remaining worker readied a casket made of zinc. Once Smithson’s bones were transferred into it, the box would be soldered shut for its transatlantic voyage.

  As the men worked, Alexander stared again at the inscription, his frown deepening. “That’s odd.”
r />   “What is?” Mabel asked.

  “It states here that Smithson was seventy-five years old when he died.”


  He shook his head. “Smithson was born June fifth, 1765. By my calculation, that means he was only sixty-four when he died. That inscription is wrong by eleven years.”

  “Is that significant?”

  He shrugged. “I have no idea, but I imagine his nephew would have known his uncle’s true age, especially as he was setting it into stone here.”

  Bishop waved Alexander closer to the tomb as the sarcophagus’s lid was finally carried off. “Perhaps you should do the honor.”

  While he appreciated the gesture, he considered balking, but he had already come too far to turn back now.

  In for a penny, in for a pound.

  He joined Bishop before the open tomb and peered inside. The wooden casket inside had long rotted away, leaving a blanket of heavy dust over what was clearly a set of bones. He reached reverently inside, parted the debris, and lifted the skull, which was surprisingly intact. He almost expected it to crumble as he gripped it.

  Stepping back, he stared into the eye sockets of the Smithsonian’s founder.

  As stated on the inscription, Smithson was an esteemed fellow of the British Royal Society, one of the world’s most distinguished scientific groups. In fact, the man was tapped to join this society the same year he graduated from college. Even at such a young age, his scientific talent had been well regarded. Afterward, as a chemist and a mineralogist, he spent much of his life traveling throughout Europe collecting mineral and ore samples.

  Yet, so much remained unknown about the man.

  Like why he left his fortune and collection to the United States?

  Still, one fact was indisputable.

  “We owe you so much,” Alexander murmured to the skull. “It was your generosity of spirit that changed forever our young country. It was your legacy that taught America’s greatest minds to set aside petty ambitions and work together for the collective good.”

  “Well spoken,” Bishop said, holding out his gloved palms. The weather was growing harsher by the minute, and the consul clearly wanted this matter finished.