The Skeleton Key (sigma force)James Rollins
The Skeleton Key
( sigma force )
From New York Times bestselling author James Rollins comes a thrilling short story that delves deep beneath the city of Paris to a dark necropolis, where the only means for escape is…The Skeleton Key.
Seichan is ripped out of the Sigma series for an adventure all her own — but can she survive? The beautiful and elusive assassin wakes in a hotel in Paris with a deadly electronic collar fastened to her throat. Joined by a boy who is similarly threatened, she must rescue the son of a hated enemy, who has fallen under the sway of the nefarious leader of an apocalyptic cult. To survive, she must venture into the dark world beneath the City of Lights, into the infamous catacombs of Paris. Caught between two enemies, she must fight for her life…while time ticks down toward a fiery apocalypse. But in the dark, surrounded by the moldering bones of the dead, even success does not equal survival. In the end, the only true hope for the world lies in a stunning act of betrayal.
The Skeleton Key
She woke with a knife at her throat.
Or so she thought.
Seichan came fully alert but kept her eyes closed, feigning sleep, feeling something sharp slicing into her neck. She instinctively knew not to move. Not yet. Wary, she relied on her senses, but heard no whisper of movement, felt no stirring of air across her bare skin, detected no scent of body or breath that was not her own. She smelled only a hint of roses and disinfectant.
Am I alone?
With the sharp pressure still on her neck, she peeked one eye open and took in her environment in a heartbeat. She lay sprawled in an unknown bed, in a room she’d never seen before. Across the bed, the covers were finely textured brocade; above the headboard, an old tapestry hung; on the mantel over a fireplace, a crystal vase of fresh-cut roses sat beside an eighteenth-century gold clock with a thick marble base. The time read a few minutes past ten, confirmed by a modern clock radio resting atop a walnut bedside table. From the warm tone of the light flowing through the sheer curtains, she assumed it was morning.
She picked out muffled voices, speaking French, a match to the room’s decor and appointments, passing down the hall outside the room.
Hotel room, she surmised.
Expensive, elegant, not what she could afford.
She waited several more breaths, making sure she was alone.
She had spent her younger years running the slums of Bangkok and the back alleys of Phnom Penh, half feral, a creature of the street. Back then, she had learned the rudimentary skills of her future profession. Survival on the streets required vigilance, cunning, and brutality. When her former employers found her, and recruited her from those same streets, the transition to assassin proved an easy one.
Twelve years later, she wore another face, an evolution that a part of her still fought, leaving her half formed, waiting for that soft clay to harden into its new shape. But what would she become? She had betrayed her former employers, an international criminal organization called the Guild — but even that name wasn’t real, only a useful pseudonym. The real identity and purpose of the organization remained shadowy, even to its own operatives.
After her betrayal, she had no home, no country, nothing but a thin allegiance to a covert U.S. agency known as Sigma. She had been recruited to discover the true puppet masters of the Guild. Not that she had much choice. She had to destroy her former masters before they destroyed her.
It was why she had come to Paris, to chase a lead.
She slowly sat up and caught her reflection in a mirror on the armoire. Her black hair was mussed by the pillow, the emerald of her eyes dull, sensitive to the weak morning sunlight.
Someone had stripped her down to her bra and panties, likely to search her for weapons or wires or perhaps purely to intimidate her. Her clothes — black jeans, gray T-shirt, and leather motorcycle jacket — had been folded and placed atop a neighboring antique Louis XV chair. On an Empire-period nightstand, her weapons had been arranged in a neat row, making a mockery of their lethality. Her SIG Sauer pistol was still in its shoulder holster, while her daggers and knives had been unsheathed, shining stingingly bright.
As brilliantly as the new piece of jewelry adorning her neck.
The stainless-steel band had been fastened tight and low. A tiny green LED light glowed at the hollow of her throat, where sharp prongs dug deep into that tender flesh.
So this is what woke me up…
She reached to the electronic necklace and carefully ran a fingertip along its surface, searching for the mechanism that secured it. Under her right ear, she discovered a tiny pin-sized opening.
But who holds the key?
Her heart thudded in her throat, pinching against those sharp prongs with every beat. Anger flushed her skin, leaving behind a cold dread at the base of her spine. She dug a finger under the tight band, strangling herself, driving the steel thorns deeper until—
— agony lanced through her body, setting fire to her bones.
She collapsed to the bed, contorted with pain, back arched, chest too constricted to scream. Then darkness… nothingness…
Relief flooded through her as she fell back, but the sensation was short-lived.
She woke again, tasting blood where she had bitten her tongue. A bleary-eyed check of the mantel clock revealed that only a moment had passed.
She rolled back up, still trembling with aftershocks from the near electrocution, and swung her legs off the bed. She kept her hands well away from her neck and crossed to the window, needing to get her bearings. Standing slightly to the side to keep from casting a shadow, she stared below at a plaza at the center of which stood a massive towering bronze column with a statue of Napoleon atop it. An arcade of identical elegant buildings surrounded the square, with archways on the ground floor and tall second-story windows, separated by ornamental pillars and pilasters.
I’m still in Paris…
She stepped back. In fact, she knew exactly where she was, having crossed that same square at the crack of dawn, as the city was just waking. The plaza below was the Place Vendôme, known for its high-end jewelers and fashion boutiques. The towering bronze Colonne Vendôme in the center was a Parisian landmark, made from the melting of twelve hundred Russian and Austrian cannons collected by Napoleon to commemorate some battle or other. Across its surface climbed a continuous ribbon of bas-relief depicting scenes from various Napoleonic wars.
She turned and studied the opulent room, draped in silk and decorated in gold leaf.
I must still be at the Ritz.
She had come to the hotel — the Ritz Paris — for an early-morning meeting with a historian who was connected to the Guild. Something major was afoot within the organization, stirring up all her contacts. She knew that such moments of upheaval, when locked doors were momentarily left open and safeguards loosened, were the perfect time to snatch what she could. So she had reached in deep, pushed hard, and risked exposing herself perhaps too much.
One hand gently touched the collar — then lowered.
Definitely too much.
One of her trusted contacts had set up this rendezvous. But apparently money only bought so much trust. She had met with the historian in the Hemingway Bar downstairs, a wood-paneled and leather-appointed homage to the American writer. The historian had been seated at a side table, nursing a Bloody Mary, a drink that had originated at this establishment. Next to his chair rested a black leather briefcase, holding the promise of secrets yet to be revealed.
She had a drink.
Still a mistake.
, her mouth remained cottony, her head equally so.
As she moved back into the room, a low groan drew her attention to the closed bathroom door. She cursed herself for not thoroughly checking the rest of the room upon first waking, blaming it on the fuzziness of her thinking.
That lack of vigilance ended now.
She stepped silently and swiftly across the room, snatching her holstered pistol off the nightstand. She shook the weapon free as she reached the door, letting the shoulder harness fall silently to the carpet.
She listened at the door. As a second groan — more pained now — erupted, she burst into the bathroom, pistol raised. She swept the small marble-adorned chamber, finding no one at the sink or vanity.
Then a bony arm, sleeved in tattoos, rose from the tub, waving weakly as if the bather were drowning. A hand found the swan-shaped gold faucet and gripped tightly to it.
As she sidled closer, a skinny auburn-haired boy — likely no more than eighteen — used his hold on the spigot to pull himself into view. He looked all ribs, elbows, and knees, but she took no chances, centering her pistol on his bare chest. Dazed, he finally seemed to see her, his eyes widening at both her half-naked state and the obvious threat of the weapon. He scrambled back in the empty tub, palms held up, looking ready to climb the marble walls behind him.
He wore only a pair of boxer briefs — and a stainless-steel collar.
A match to hers.
Perhaps sensing the same pinched pressure on his neck as Seichan felt on hers, he clawed at his throat.
“Don’t,” she warned in French.
Panicked, he tugged. The green light on his collar flashed to red. His entire body jolted, throwing him a foot into the air. He crashed back into the bathtub. She lunged and kept his head from cracking into the hard marble, feeling a snap of electricity sting her palm.
Her actions were not motivated by altruism. The kid plainly shared her predicament. Perhaps he knew more about the situation than she did. He convulsed for another breath — then went slack. She waited until his eyes fluttered back open; then she stood and backed away. She lowered her gun, sensing no threat from him.
He cautiously worked his way into a seated position. She studied him as he breathed heavily, slowly shaking off the shock. He was taller than she’d at first imagined. Maybe six feet, but rail thin — not so much scrawny as wiry. His hair was long to the shoulder, cut ragged with the cool casualness of youth. Tattoos swathed his arms, spilled over his shoulders, and spread into two dark wings of artwork along his back. His chest was clean, still an empty canvas.
“Comment tu t’appelles?” Seichan asked, taking a seat on the commode.
He breathed heavily. “ Je m’appelle Renny… Renny MacLeod.”
Though he answered in French, his brogue was distinctly Scottish.
“You speak English?” she asked.
He nodded, sagging with relief. “Aye. What is going on? Where am I?”
“You’re in trouble.”
He looked confused, scared.
“What’s the last thing you remember?” she asked.
His voice remained dazed. “I was at a pub. In Montparnasse. Someone bought me a pint. Just the one. I wasn’t blottered or anything, but that’s the last I remember. Till I woke up here.”
So he must have been drugged, too. Brought here and collared, like her. But why? What game was being played?
The phone rang, echoing across the room.
She turned, suspecting the answer was about to be revealed. She stood and exited the bathroom. The padding of bare feet on marble told her that Renny was following. She picked up the phone on the bedside table.
“You’re both awake now,” the caller said in English. “Good. Time is already running short.”
She recognized the voice. It was Dr. Claude Beaupré, the historian from the Panthéon-Sorbonne University in Paris. She pictured the prim, silver-haired Frenchman seated in the Hemingway Bar. He had worn a threadbare tweed jacket, but the true measure of the man was found not in the cut of his cloth, but within the haughty cloak of his aristocratic air and manners. She guessed that somewhere in the past his family had noble titles attached to their names: baron, marquis, vicomte . But no longer. Maybe that’s why he’d become a historian, an attempt to cling to that once-illustrious past.
When she had met him this morning, she’d hoped to buy documents pertaining to the Guild’s true leaders, but circumstances had clearly changed.
Had the man figured out who I am? If so, then why am I still alive?
“I have need of your unique skills,” the historian explained, as if reading her thoughts. “I expended much effort to lure you here to Paris, to entice you with the promise of answers. You almost came too late.”
“So this is all a ruse.”
“Non . Not at all, mademoiselle. I have the documents you seek. Like you, I took full advantage of the tumult among our employers — your former, my current — to free the papers you came hunting. You have my solemn word on that. You came to buy them. I am now merely negotiating the price.”
“And what is that price?”
“I wish you to find my son, to free him before he is killed.”
Seichan struggled to keep pace with these negotiations. “Your son?”
“Gabriel Beaupré. He has fallen under the spell of another compatriot of our organization, one I find most distasteful. The man is the leader of an apocalyptic cult, l’Ordre du Temple Solaire .”
“The Order of the Solar Temple,” she translated aloud.
Renny MacLeod’s face hardened at the mention of the name.
“Oui,” Claude said from the phone. “A decade ago, the cult had been behind a series of mass suicides in two villages in Switzerland and another in Quebec. Members were found poisoned by their own hand or drugged into submitting. One site was firebombed in a final act of purification. Most believed the OTS had dissolved after that — but in fact, they’d only gone underground, serving a new master.”
Her former employers often harnessed such madness and honed its violence to serve their own ends.
“But the new leader of OTS — Luc Vennard — has greater ambitions. Like us, he plans to use the momentary loosening of the Guild’s reins to exert his own independence, to wreak great havoc on my fair city. For that reason alone, I’d want him stopped, but he has wooed my son with myths of the continuing existence of the Knights Templar, of the cult’s holy duty to usher in the reign of a new god-king — likely Vennard himself — a bloody transformation that would require fire and sacrifice. Specifically human sacrifice. To use my son’s words before he vanished, a great purging would herald the new sun-king’s birth.”
“When is this all supposed to take place?” Seichan asked.
“Noon today, when the sun is at its strongest.”
She glanced to the mantel clock. That was in less than two hours.
“That is why I took these extreme measures. To ensure your cooperation. The collars not only punish, but they also kill. Leave the city limits of Paris and you will meet a most agonizing end. Fail to free my son and you will meet the same fate.”
“And if I agree… if I succeed…”
“You will be set free. You have my oath. And as payment for services rendered, the documents I possess will also be yours.”
Seichan considered her options. It did not take long. She had only one.
She also understood why Claude Beaupré had collared her and turned her into his hunting dog. He dared not report what he’d learned from his son to the Guild. The organization could simply let Vennard commit this violent act and turn it to their advantage. Chaos often equaled opportunity to her former masters. Or they would stamp out Vennard and his cult for their hubris and mutiny. In either scenario, Gabriel Beaupré would likely end up dead.
So Claude had sought help outside of regular channels.
“What about the boy?” Seichan asked, staring over at
Renny MacLeod, unable to fit this one jigsaw piece into the puzzle.
“He is your map and guide.”
“What does that mean?”
Renny must have noted her sudden attention on him and grew visibly paler.
“Search his back,” Claude commanded. “Ask him about Jolienne.”
“Who is Jolienne?”
This time the kid flinched, as if punched in the gut. But rather than going even whiter, his face flushed. He lunged forward, grabbing for the phone.
“What does that bastard know about my Jolie?” Renny cried out.
Seichan easily sidestepped his assault, keeping the phone to her ear and spinning him with one hand. She tossed him facedown on the bed and held him in place with a knee planted at the base of his spine.
He struggled, swearing angrily.
“Stay still,” she said, digging in her knee. “Who is Jolie?”
He twisted his head around to glare at her with one eye. “My girlfriend. She disappeared two days ago. Looking for some group called the Solar Temple. I was in that pub last night trying to drum up a search party among the other cataphiles .”
She didn’t know what that last word meant. But before inquiring, her attention focused on the kid’s naked back and the sprawl of his tattoo. This was the first chance she’d had to get a good look at it.
In black, yellow, and crimson inks, a strange map had been indelibly etched into his skin — but it was not a chart of streets and avenues. In meticulous detail, the artwork depicted an intricate network of crisscrossing tunnels, widening chambers, and watery pools. It looked like the map for some lost cavern system. It was also clearly an unfinished work: passages faded into obscurity or ended abruptly at the edges of the tattoo.
“What is this?” she asked.
Renny knew what had drawn her attention. “It’s where Jolie disappeared.”
Claude, still on the phone at her ear, answered her more directly. “It is a map of the Paris catacombs, our city of the dead.”
* * *
Fifteen minutes later, Seichan was gunning the engine of her motorcycle and speeding over the twelve stone arches of the Pont Neuf, the medieval bridge that spanned the River Seine. She wove wildly around slower traffic, crossing toward the Left Bank of Paris and aiming for the city’s Latin Quarter.