ALTERNATE BEGINNING: Attempted Mugging/Conflicting Schedules
Apparently a lot of Bombshell submissions were making this mistake--putting a scene in at the start of the story which established how kick-ass the heroine was, without it really tying into the main story arc. Here's my contribution to that problem :-) The part that continues, with Maggi and Lex in his penthouse apartment together, was set to establish the dueling-secret-society issues, but again, it wasn't hooking into the main adventure, which was the quest for the Isis Grail. So it got saved into my cut-files folder, and I tried again.
Some women get a tickly feeling on the back of their neck. Lately, my sense of danger hits in my throat. A tightness. A clenching. Call it divine intervention.
One minute I was jogging south near the sunlit HudsonI prefer Riverside Park to Central Park. The next, I had the strangest urge to, well, scream.
Not like an eek-somebody-help-me scream, either. A get-the-HELL-out-of-my-space scream. Maybe roar would be a better word. Either way, I knew it meant danger.
I spun, dropping my center of balanceand faced down what turned out to be a shifty-eyed, scrawny guy in his early twenties, not three feet behind me.
"What?" I demanded, loudly, for three reasons. The yell released some of the tension in my throat, helping me breathe. It got other people's attention. And it startled the would-be mugger's gaze from my fanny pack to my face. He was a tattooed cliché, too skinny with multiple piercings, greasy hair, scraggly cheeks and sagging clothes.
And he was high. I recognized the glazed look from some of my college students. The ones who usually stop attending after the first few weeks of class.
"Do you want something?" I demanded, taking a threatening step into his space.
Mugger-boy stumbled an uncertain step back. Most criminals target someone who looks like an easy victim. Maybe he thought my breasts and uterus made me that.
Did this boy have a lot to learn, or what?
He scowled and ducked his head, swiped a dirty hand across his stubble. He mumbled something dismissive about "Nothing," as he swung quickly past me.
"Get yourself some help!" I yelled after him. You can't save everyoneand damn it, I'd been in the zone. Jogging is not my favorite form of exercise unless I'm running with my boyfriend, feeding off his overabundance of self-discipline. Alone, I prefer swimming laps or, more recently, the climbing gym.
But my exercise time was short this afternoon, and Lex's schedule had him out of town, so solo jogging it was.
Catching my breath, I waved toward the sunlit statue of Joan of Arc on her stone horseher sword was already lifted as if to hail me backand I began to run again.
Just in time to see Mugger-boy, some fifty feet ahead of me, push another woman off the path. He snatched her purse as she flailed over with a high yelp.
I was running before my next breath. "You okay?" I shouted as I pounded toward the fallen woman.
She pointed after Mugger-boy. "My purse!"
I took that as a yes and bent into my speed. Time for my Nikes to live up to their name.
Me and a goddess, yet again.
The kid swerved away from the Soldiers and Sailors monument into a hard right, across the pastoral Garden for All Seasons and toward the river. I vaulted onto and then over a commemorative bench, landed running across the grass, and kept him in view. He blasted through an informal soccer game, disrupted two picnics, and nearly ran down a dog-walker, setting five animals into a yapping frenzy. I circled them all and ran faster. He barely missed taking down a cyclist, then rounded a hotdog stand and, apparently, decided that a straight sprint along the path would be easier. Go figure.
And I thoughtwhat do I do if I catch him?
But elbows pumping and head down, watching him through my eyelashes, I sprinted too. Sometimes you have to do the right thing no matter how it's going to turn out.
I read somewhere that men are better equipped for sprints, with larger hearts and more lung tissue, while women are better made for long-distance runs. But hell, we're more than our physiology. It's not like Mugger-boy was a poster child for good health. On the other hand, he was at least five years younger than me and desperate.
Despite my deliberately steady breaths, my lungs ached to take greater gasps of air. My calves and thighs burned. My ears roared with my own pounding pulse. Just a little longer and I'd figure something out.
Then I saw him angling for the 79th Street Boat Basin, which gave me another burst of strength and speed.
Water, I could handle.
Just as Mugger-boy reached the piers and chanced a glance over his shoulder to see if I was still there, I slammed into him, propelling us both off the concrete bank and splashing into the Hudson River.
Cold, muddy water closed over our heads. For a moment the symphony that is the cityhorns, shouts, musicvanished into the submerged roar of boat motors. In that brief stillness, I caught the purse from the mugger's scrawny hands and yanked. Then I kicked. This summer I'd missed the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, but I'd already registered for the Great Hudson River Swim coming up in a few weeks. This wasn't my first time in the river. Just my first time in the river wearing shoes and socks.
By the time I surfaced into noise and sunshine, I was ten feet from him and firmly in possession of his ill-gotten gains.
"What the hell was that?" he demanded, floundering to his feet in the shallows. "Lady, you're insane!"
"I'm insane? You're willing to violate a basic code of humanity for a few twenties and some credit cards any smart person would cancel as soon as they reach a phone, and I'm insane? You represent everything that's wrong in our society, everything that's that's unhealthy and divisive. Why the hell do you pick on women, anyway?"
He'd started looking worried as soon as I said basic code of humanityor maybe that was just confusion. Now he seemed flat-out lost. "Um because women carry purses?"
"And that's it, huh? So it has nothing to do with you thinking of women as victims?"
"That's him!" called a woman from the sidewalk, hobbling in our direction with a swarthy policeman in tow.
The cop called, "You people need to get out of the water, now!"
The mugger splashed toward the bank, awkward in his apparent fear of me and my ranting.
"Next time you think about stealing some woman's purse," I warned him, "you just think of your mother, and your sisters, and your girlfriends and maybe, god-forbid, your daughters. But most of all, you think about me. And what I will do to you if this happens again. Got it?"
Clearing the water, he all but fled to the cop.
I'm not usually that fervent. Really. But if it made an impression on the guy, so be it.
I returned the purse, made my report to New York's finest, then squelched my way soggily south toward the park exit. I'd only made it as far as the Eleanor Roosevelt statuemy favoritewhen my phone, in my waterproof fanny pack, rang. I sank onto an iron bench and thumbed the green button. "This is Magdalene," I answered.
And a voice from my recent past, rich and soft with a lilting Welsh accent, said, "Maggi, it's Rhys. I may have found another chalice."
Then he asked, "How do you feel about Egypt?"
* * *
By the time I caught the subway, changed lines, and emerged into my boyfriend's Gramercy Park neighborhood, I'd committed myself to Egypt. A major benefit to my job as a college teacher is having summers off. Heaven knew my passport was current. And due to recent circumstances, I had a good chunk of money tucked away, earmarked solely toward the rescue of lost goddess chalices, aka grails.
Because I am a Grailkeeper.
The short-semester version?
Men weren't always in charge. Women once worshipped a goddess. Athena, Freya, Isisshe had thousands of faces. When they had to go underground, hundreds of years ago, the women hid their most sacred relics. They kept their secrets through fairytales and nursery rhymes, mother to daughter, sister to friend, one empowered woman to another, right down to the present. Right down to me.
Then, just this summer, things changed. Someone powerful began to seek out grails and destroy them. When they went after my family grail, I made sure to get there first. Now I was thinking the time had come to liberate the rest. All the legends say the grails are waiting until the world is ready for the reemergence of feminine power.
In any case, I had to protect the cups. I knew too much. That, if nothing else, made them my responsibility.
The least I could do about the Isis Grail was to visit Alexandria and gather information. In the meantime, the timing couldn't be better for getting more input.
The whole reason I was in Manhattan, instead of back home in Connecticut, was to host the first ever meeting of local Grailkeepers in my boyfriend's penthouse.
As I let myself into the sun-washed apartment, an unexpected noise put me immediately on guard. I scanned the open living area, with its arched windows and expensive furniturenothing. So I approached the source of the sound, even without the warning of a sore throat
And a half-naked man, wearing only a towel and holding a saber, stepped around the corner to reveal himself. He had a warrior's build, tall, broad-shouldered. His tight muscles, clearly visible above that low, damp towel, were well defined, as if he'd been working out before his shower. His normally ginger-brown hair had darkened from the damp, but I would've recognized him with any color hair. Or without. Even without the still healing scars, dark pink across his shoulder and ribs, I would know him in my soul.
Lex. The best and worst thing in my life, depending on when you ask.
He lowered the sword. "What are you doing here, Mag?"
"Me? I thought you were in Atlanta this weekend."
Trails of water slid off his hair to drip random paths down his shoulders, his chest, his hard abdomen and under the towel. Those scars, from a knife attack several months earlier, were still starkly visible.
"No, that's next weekend," he saidbut came closer to give me a kiss on the cheek, even as he did. He smelled great, soapy and humid and male. I fisted my hand in order to leave the towel alone. "You said you were going to stay home and visit with your mother this weekend."
"No, that's next" That's when I realized what had happened. And the implications. "Oh. My. Goddess."
His hazel eyes narrowed with shared comprehension. "You thought you were meeting here tonight?"
"I am meeting here tonight. Everybody RSVP'd."
"Couldn't you move it to your place?"
"In Connecticut? The only reason we're doing it here is because it's so centrally located. Especially for the lady from Boston. I hate to ask, but you wouldn't mind going out for the night, would you?"
He stared, impassive to the point of regal.
I tried wheedling. "Lex? Please?"
Okay, so I suck at wheedling. But he laid the sword on the kitchen table, with a wooden thud, then looped his arms loosely over my shoulders. "Now you want something from me?"
We weren't sleeping together, just now. Like I said, our relationship is complicated. Further confusing matters with sex, no matter how good it can be, didn't seem wise damn it.
Even if I'd gotten it on good authority that the physical can also be spiritual.
I stepped back from his embrace, softening the rejection by turning and kissing his corded forearm on my way past. Mmm. Then I leaned against the table. "Yes, Lex, I want something for you. This is a big night for me. It's" I generally didn't tell him a lot about this; he had his own divided loyalties to worry about. Still, it was his apartment. "It's a Grailkeeper thing."
"I figured that much." He went to the door and relocked all three locks, but not in a villainy way. Really.
"That's not why you're here, is it?" To spy on Grailkeepers?
"I'm here because I thought you were meeting with your hereditary feminists next weekend. While I'm in Atlanta."
"This is not good, Lex. As far as I know, Grailkeepers have never been organized. Flying under the radar has been one of our best strengths, our best protections. You are not an under-the-radar guy."
Yep, he's that Lex Stuart. Not Donald Trump. Not Bill Gates. But important, all the same.
More important than most people know, in fact.
"True," agreed Lex. "But that's not the only problem."
"At least put on clothes before you tell me about more problems. Please?"
He looked down at himself, then looked back up with a slow, seductive smile. Damn, that look packed a punch. It hit me like a gut-shot, stole my breath, turned me light-headed and yet intensely aware of my body.
This had been a long couple of months.
"You're the one experimenting with celibacy," he murmured, teasing. Though I was fairly sure he was along for the celibacy ride. At moments like these, I wanted to end the wait for both of us.
Luckily, he took pity before I had to question myself further. "In any case," he said, retrieving his sword off the table, "you're not the only one having company tonight."
I sat up. "Tell me it's not your family."
"Oh, it's not my family."
Good. I have major issues with his father, uncle, and cousin. "Then who?"
Lex forced his lips upward into something that mocked a smile and my stomach twisted. Tight. The very fact that he didn't answer me was answer enough.
Another short version?
The powerful men trying to destroy goddess grails were part of an ancient society, the Comitatus. Unlike Grailkeepers, they were strictly organized and demanded vows of secrecy from all members. Everything I knew about them, therefore, was guessworkpart eavesdropping, part luck, and part academic connect-the-dots.
I knew the Comitatus was structured around a royal bloodline, dating back to the kings of ancient Sumeria.
I knew they'd once held noble aspirations, which had clearly fallen by the wayside generations ago.
I knew that Lex's cousin, Phil Stuart, was their current leader, but that their true leader was attempting to regain control, though how he meant to do that without full war, I had no idea. After all, Lex took his own vow of secrecy very seriouslyeven after Phil's supporters had tried to murder him in this very apartment.
See, it turns out my on-again, off-again boyfriend since childhood wasn't just a member of the Comitatus. He was the most direct descendent of the ancient royal blood. Literally the Sang Real, or Sangreal.
AKA the Holy Grail.
Like I said--our relationship is complicated.
But that seemed like nothing beside the realization that, due to our scheduling snafu, we were entertaining Grailkeepers and Comitatus in the same apartment tonight.
I won the toss, and the Grailkeepers got to meet on Lex's rooftop terrace. Some instrumental music on the stereo cut the worst of the traffic noise. A faint breeze helped mollify the urban heat that sends most New Yorkers packing for the coast. Iced drinks finished the job, along with a great assortment of other refreshments; at least half the women who'd showed up brought food with them.
I watched them mill and mix, trading stories about their grandmothers and their daughters, and I wished I could relax with them. It's exciting, the first time you realize that you're part of so huge a group, even more exciting to realize that your bedtime stories might not just be stories.
But everyone hadn't arrived yet. And with a bunch of Comitatus right downstairs.
"How many to go?" asked my friend Sofie. She's a cop, though tonight she was in plainclothesif you can call a mudcloth caftan plain.
"Just one more. A student from Columbia."
"You don't really think they'd hurt her, do you?" She meant the company downstairs.
"Of course they wouldn't. There's a whole chivalry thing about guests. And even if they tried, Lex wouldn't let them. But."
"Who made this spinach dip?" called one of the ladies, a gynecologist from the Bronx. "It's fantastic!"
A sculptor from the Village, silver-haired and brimming with energy, copped to the spinach as her aunt's recipe, then diverted the attention by praising the hummis.
Sofie patted my shoulder. "But it's hard to unlearn paranoia, right? Those guys really did a number on you in France."
"No, they just opened my eyes." When the doorbell sounded downstairs, I shouldered through the new wooden door and down the spiral staircase to the living room.
After all, I'd extended the invitations. That made this my responsibility, too.
Silence greeted mesilence, and a solemn collection of Fortune 500's, several of whom stood at my appearance. Lex, who wore pricey tailored suits with the ease of blue jeans, was halfway to the door but paused to wait for me.
It was only because I'd known him so long and so well that I could see the annoyance behind his mask of politeness. His company, twelve men in all, had promptly arrived in the five minutes before 7:00. Mine had spread out over half an hour. But mine had been invited, not summoned. It makes a difference.
"I could have gotten it," he murmured, low.
"This is the last of the interruptions," I assured him. "Barring bathroom breaks."
He smiled, but didn't look appeased.
"Sorry about the mix-up tonight," I told his guests, raising my voice. Several of them assured me that it was no bother at all.
Tonight's scheduling snafu of Grailkeepers and Comitatus was on par with seating Hatfields at the McCoy table for a wedding reception. Minus the shotguns and, hopefully, ceremonial daggers. So far I saw no hint of weapons amidst Lex's collection of buttoned-up businessmen.
On the one hand, I'm sure it's hard to run a secret society, much less plan a coup, with too many bathroom-break interruptions. On the other, I had to wonder what the men down here would look like wearing ski masks and threatening me and my latest goddess grail.
"Maybe we'll move to the kitchen," Lex murmured with mild distaste.
I answered the door.
The girl on the other side, Darlene her e-mail had said, was a study in black. Not just her skimpy tank and tight jeans, but her hair, nails, and makeup. This latest Grailkeeper was pure Gothand she fit in amidst the doctors, lawyers, and bankers of Lex's meeting like a rat amidst purebred terriers.
"Am I in the right place?" she asked, narrowing her lined eyes at the company behind me, "Or is this some kind of insider-trading support group?"
I liked her right off. "I'm Magdalene," I assured her, leading the way to the spiral staircase. "Our meeting is upstairs."
"I'm Darlene," said my latest visitor, as we mounted the stairs. "So what's with all the suits?"
"My boyfriend and I got our dates mixed up." I waved. "Sorry again, guys."
Lex lifted two fingers in my direction, his attention on his won company.
"That's your boyfriend?" I couldn't tell how much of her inflection was admiration, and how much was confusion.
Behind and beneath us, I heard Lex say, "Let's call this meeting to order."
Darlene waited until I'd closed the door to the terrace to say, "Is it my imagination, or were those guys mere Roberts Rules of Order away from putting on fezzes and voting in the new Grand High Poobah?"
I grinned. In fact, I suspected they were voting Lex the new Grand High Poobahor whatever you'd call the head of the Sang Real line and the Comitatus. Why else would he hold a private meeting? His cousin Phil had misappropriated his place long ago, when Lex's blood had been "tainted" by leukemia. But Lex had been a picture of health for years, while Phil misran the organization into the bad guys they'd become.
Most of them had become. I had to trust that Lex had picked his associates well.
That was their business, though, and we had ours. "Ladies," I said, "This is Darlene."
Sofie offered her a drink.
I joined the nearest cluster of women--a housewife and mother of four, the lawyer from Boston, and a lesbian activist. "So what do you think of the Grailkeeper website that my cousin and I put together?"
* * *
"But shouldn't we leave the chalices where they were hidden?" asked the sculptor, Petra, an hour later. About half of us sat on big floor cushions in a circle, while another large cluster stood by the edge of the roof, downwind, smoking and debating whether there really was power to the ancient grails. We hadn't had to call the meeting to order or follow a single Robert's Rule, which was fine by me. I wanted input, not structure.
"Not if men are already doing a search-and-destroy on them," said Darlene, on her third beer. She'd assured me she wasn't driving. This being New York, I believed her. "I don't know about you, but the story I heard growing up was that the cups were supposed to be shared if the world becomes ready for them. That they're they're waiting."
"'The cups wait to be discovered,'" I quoted, from the end of the story my grandmothers and my mother had told me. "'The cups wait to be united.'"
"'They wait to change everything,'" added Ellen, mother-of-four. "'They're still waiting.'"
Darlene finished it. "'Maybe, my child, for you.'"
The rest of us mouthed similar words. Not exactthe bedtime story had been passed down for centuries without being written, but even without pure quotes, we were stating the same basic idea.
I shivered at the quiet moment of convergence between uswomen who'd only met tonight, clearly sisters all the same. Even the ladies from the smoking group, not all of whom were smoking, glanced our direction as if sensing the sudden shiver of power.
And that was just from a handful of Grailkeepers getting together. What would it be like to combine grails?
Darlene broke the spell. "What if when our moms and aunts told us that, they really meant it? The cups are waiting for us, for now. Why not?"
Pyrrha said, "First of all, how do we find them? Half the rhymes that got passed down have become gibberish; nobody knows what they really mean anymore. And then there's the issue of whether we have a right to take them. Isn't that theft?"
"Not if they belonged to our ancestors," insisted Darlene.
"Actually," said Tara, the lawyer, "the 'it belonged to my ancestors' defense rarely holds up in court. Otherwise there'd be a whole lot of happy Indians running around."
"Native Americans," corrected Jude, who was of Cherokee descent. But she said it with a smile....
ALTERNATE BEGINNING: Researching Secret Societies
I tried several beginnings, trying to find the right balance between explaining what had come before and forging into the new adventure, before I found the one that I thought best captured the sense of Isis (the one in the book, which takes place at the Egypt exhibit in the Met). Here's one of the attempts which didn't make the cut. I may yet harvest some of it for a future GrailKeeper adventure.
I felt like a spy, sidling into the Truth Handle bookstore that August afternoon.
A cramped little shop in the Village, overcrowded with weird books and even stranger clientele, Truth Handle specialized in conspiracy literature. Joe, the stocky clerk behind the counter, caught my gaze and slid his eyes toward the back of the store. We knew each other from the handful of visits I'd made since Junethat, and all the money I'd already spent there on my own personal quest.
I nodded and wove my way around a pair of black-clad Goths, a skinny guy in a UFO T-shirt, and an apparent yuppie in business casual. Of them all, I viewed the yuppie as most suspicious, especially in here. Then again, in my cargo pants and camisole, brown hair pulled back into a ponytail, I probably looked as out of place as he did by about ten years.
College students hang at places like these all the time. College professors, even young ones, not so much.
I passed shelves proclaiming the truth about JFK, Founding Fathers, Media Cover Up, The Middle East, and, one of my favorites, Truth About the Holy Grail. Riiight. I hesitated only when I reached the curtained doorwaya handwritten sign above it read, Enter and Die. I arched a disbelieving eyebrow toward Joe, who was readjusting one of about three pedestal fans struggling to breathe relief into the hot shop.
He nodded permission, so I slipped through the drapes, which looked like they'd once been bed sheets. Behind them lay your usual backroombare walls, exposed pipes, mini-fridge, and towers of cardboard boxes.
Leaning against the wall was a multiply pierced woman in a muscle shirt and camouflage pants that somehow went perfectly with her buzzed, raven-black hair.
"You're Magdalene?" she asked in a raspy, smoker's voice.
"And you're Ren," I guessed, offering my hand. "Hi."
She ignored the hand. "Why are you asking questions about the Comitatus?"
Out front, there was no section titled "Comitatus." But they were one secret society that I knew for sure was real, what with them trying to kill me and all. After I'd exhausted the limited print sources, Joe had offered to hook me up with a so-called expert.
"I know someone who's a member," I hedged. I just couldn't get answers out of him, what with it being a secret society.
"Father? Brother? Boyfriend?" Ren looked deliberately at my bare left hand. "Not a husband."
Boyfriend. Sort of. "Something like that."
She curled her lip at my reticence. "Look, I'm risking my life meeting with you. For all I know, you could be spying for them, here to shut me up."
She was testing me. "If you know anything about the Comitatus, you know they're an all-guy organization. The yuppie out front might be spying for them, but not me."
The curtains on the doorway shifted. We both spun to face it in unison, dropping our weight, ready to fight. The female Goth scowled at us both. "Is any place to take a leak back here?"
"No," said Ren. "Go away."
The kid did, muttering under her breath. I noticed that a hand-printed sign over this side of the door, opposite of Enter and Die, read, We All Die Eventually.
"You're cautious, anyhow," noted Ren, once she was gone. "That's good. But that symbol on your necklace, the two overlapping circleswhat's that stand for?"
"It's a vesica piscis. Some people call it a chalice-well pendant." Then, since she was taking as big a risk as I was in this meeting, I gave her a little more. "It stands for the Grailkeepers."
Both of her pale brows, the pierced and the unpierced, went up. "Grailkeepers?"
"Women whose mothers or grandmothers have told them stories about the hidden chalices once used by goddess worshippers."
Ren frowned, picking at her chipped green nail polish.
"Back before their worship was forced underground," I added.
She squinted back up at me, seemingly unconvinced.
"Legend holds," I continued, "that if brought together, the goddess grails can increase womanpower a hundred fold. I think that's why the Comitatus is trying to find and destroy them."
Now Ren looked up. "Well crap," she said. "We can't let that happen."
To my surprise, she looped her thumb and forefinger together into an OK sign and extended her hand to me, chipped polish and all. "'Circle to circle.'"
It's a game many of us Grailkeepers learn in childhood, linking circleslike on my necklaceto recognize each other. Clearly she'd known what the symbol meant, and had only made sure I did as well. I mimicked her gesture so that the loop of my fingers overlapped hers while I gave the correct response. "'Hello, friend.'"
And at that point, we stopped being strangers and became sisters.
"You're sure you want to get involved with the Comi's?" pleaded Rin, once we'd settled onto the scuffed concrete floor. She kneeled. I was in half-lotus position. "They really are bad news."
"I'm already involved. They went after my grandmother's ancestral grail. I got it first." Barely. A cousin in England, also a Grailkeeper, now had the Melusine Chalice safely hidden. "I've decided it's time to collect as many cups as I can before they get the chance."
And okay, yes. I was also sleeping with one of those Comi's, a man whoI hopedmight eventually turn the organization back to using their powers for good, if only he could displace his cousin. The lingering shock of Lex's involvement explained why I was researching secret societies until I dreamed about shadow governments, cover-ups, assassination theories and some occasional weirdness about Elvis sightings.
If I could just understand what was going on in the hidden ranks of the Comitatus, maybe I could understand him too. It was a better plan than giving up on himand a much better plan than blindly trusting his dark world.
"Okay," Ren conceded. "Here's what I've got. I had a temp job a year back."
As it turned out, her computer skills went far beyond the word-processing and data entry her high-powered employer needed. After a friend on the housekeeping staff died mysteriously, she began to follow up on some of the woman's suspicionsand ended up documenting over a month of secret activity going on in the company's private boardrooms.
"Finally I got scared. I sensed that they were starting to suspect me. Maybe it was my imagination."
"If there's one thing the Melusine Grail taught me, it was that women should trust our instincts," I said.
"Well I didn't want to end up like Rosa, so I resigned. Sometimes I still think they might be watching me. They've got so damned much money."
Once, the Church had run the Western world. Then the kings, then the governments. Now it was big business. I quietly asked, "Did you come across the name Stuart?"
"Sure. Someone named Stuart was in charge."
Even though I'd known that much, I hated hearing it from someone else. "Phil Stuart?" I asked, naming Lex's cousinthe one I believed ran the current Comitatus. "Or Alexander?"
Ren shrugged. "They didn't use first names. All I know is, that Stuart bastard wasn't anybody I'd want to mess with."
By the time Ren had told me everything she'd gleaned about the secret society du jour, some that I knew and a little that I didn't, I had to face the truth. Researching might give me an illusion of control over the situation. I'm good at it. But it didn't really change a thing. It didn't satisfy me. It didn't put my heart to rest.
I was still sleeping with the enemy, childhood sweetheart or not.
"So do you really feel safe?" she asked, and I jumped. Had she read my mind? "Wearing your Grailkeeper symbol for anyone to see, I mean?"
Oh. That. "There are a lot more of us out there than you'd think. Maybe it's time we made more of an effort to acknowledge that."
"So what other chalices have you found? Other than the Melusine Grail, I mean."
Actually that had been it. After I'd rescued the Melusine Grail, my boyfriend Lex had been badly attacked. It had taken him awhile to recover. Between that, and us turning our on-again off-again relationship onto High.
Had I fallen into the trap of putting my relationship ahead of everything else, even after everything I knew?
The very suspicion of it made me feel sick.
"I'm working on another one," I told her now, making it true just like that. My birthright was not the Comitatus.
It was the goddess grails.
Once Ren and I split up, I scrolled through my cell-phone contacts until I hit the 14-digit overseas number that Rhys Pritchard had given me. My friend Rhys was the only male Grailkeeper I'd ever met. He'd invited me to come visit him some weeks ago, when his studies at the Sorbonne got him an exciting internship.
I glanced at my watch while the phone rang with that strange, quick-buzz of a ring you sometimes get in foreign countries. It was just after two o'clock in New York.
That meant it was a little after nine o'clock in Egypt..
INTERVIEW WITH MAGGI:
Sometimes I'm not sure exactly what's going on in a character's head, so I have to find a way to talk to them (outside of the book). I don't imagine they remember these conversations, but they often help me. Here's an interview I have with Maggi as I'm deciding what will happen in Abu Sir....
MAGGI, TALK TO ME
Yeah. I'm a bit busy now. Off to save Lex, if I can.
GET IN A VEHICLE AND TALK TO ME IN TRANSIT
Do you know what's weird about Egypt? That only some of it is weirdby which I mean, foreign. The headscarves. The smellsspicy. The personal space issues. That all sounds really unusual for me, and it IS unusual. But I'M STILL ME, even here. Me, Magdalene. I'm scuba diving and sword fighting and SUMMONING GODDESSESCreatress of Universal Powers here! More active than my usual gig. And yet I'm also wanting to research everything. I'm coming to see that as a security thing, by the wayand I'm still freaking in love with goddamned LEX STUART, and he's still going off behind my back doing Secret Society stuff.
You can take the girl out of her stress overload, but you can't take stress overload out of the girl.
Won't this damned thing go any FASTER?
WHERE ARE YOU GOING, THAT YOU NEED TO HURRY?
Pyramidsand don't get me started on the whole death and rebirth thing. I need to save Lex.
Wouldn't it be nice to know that? But something's gone wrong. I sensed it. Isis told me, and maybe Melusine did too.
YOU'RE BECOMING THE VESSEL OF THE GODDESS.
And it feels like being in Egypt. Different, but the same.
TELL ME ABOUT RESEARCH AND SECURITY.
Yeah. I've been thinking about that this last week. When I knew I was going to Egypt, out came the research books. And the trips to the Met.
Apparently I try to control things by learning about them. When in fact the knowing doesn't change the THING, it just changes how you react to it.
Rhys suggested it.
We were talking about Lex. And secrets.
TELL ME MORE.
Here's the deal. Ever since his mid-teens, Lex has belonged to the Comitatus. Hell, even since childhood he knew he was o the Royal Blood; that he was head of the line.
He's known all that, but did he tell me? NO. So while the reality was one thingLex in Important Society, Robbed of Even More Important Birthrightwe were courting and making love and making plans in something of a different world.
So then I found out about the Comitatus and the Sangreal, and I was thrown.
But what's weird for me to grasp is, LEX HADN'T CHANGED. Just my perception of him did.
And damn it, this sounds so theoretical, but the way I felt wasn't. I felt sickkind of like he'd died. Especially once I knew he was one of the bad guys.
But here's the thing. My HEART wouldn't accept he was a bad guy. Especially when I was kissing him. Especially when I thought he would die.
Then he didn't die, and my heart was won over, and my body was pretty in favor too, but my mind my mind was afraid to do the research. So avoiding info was also a security thing.
But a stupid thing. First, I let it go because Lex was so badly injured. Then, when he was able to come home, to walk, all that.
When Lex was feeling better.
He wanted to make love to me, but didn't want to take advantage of our relationship.
SOUNDS COMPLICATED. THOUGH I NEED TO GO DEEPER THAN THAT.
I think part of me always sensed he was keeping secrets. I think that's why I never married the guy. Now that I know he's keeping secrets, things are wonky. Part of me loves himmy inner romantic, my girly side, is glad to know that he's in a secret society, to have it on the table, to assume that he's doing good-guy stuff. But really, I STILL DON'T KNOW what he's up to. I can hope, based on what he said. But damn it, I still don't know. KNOWING that I don't know isn't the balm you might think it would be.
And yetam I really one of those women who thinks ignorance is bliss? AGH. And even if I was, I'm not anymore, damn it.
Which brings me back to research as security.
I wanted to learn everything I could about secret societies. The more I knew about secret societies, the more I could guess about Lex. Except that it would always BE GUESSING. I struggled with that, in Egypt. Rhys helped.
HELPED HOW? ISN'T HE?
Interested in me? Maybe. I was interested in him, too. But he's even more interested in the truth. And then there's ISIS.
OH, PRAISE GOD--WE GET TO THE GODDESS
Funny phrasing, but yeah. Isis is one of those goddesses who is part of a pairing, and yet who's majorly famous in and of herself. She's about relationships. Maybe I needed that.
TELL ME ABOUT YOU AND ISIS
At firstresearch. No surprise there, right? You know, the dates of Ancient Egypt make me feel small. Thousands of years into the past! But by time Isis finished with me, I realized the full truth of as above, so below. Nobody is small who doesn't choose to be.
PARTIAL INTERVIEW WITH LEX--
Darned if I can find the earlier part of this interview (it seems to be a continuation). Possibly it's on my laptop or my PDA. But here's the end of it. Notice how Lex doesn't name names :-)
YOU WERE TELLING ME THAT YOU DIDN'T JUST GO TO EGYPT FOR MAGGI
I did go to Egypt for Maggi. If Maggi hadn't been in Egypt, I would likely have gone somewhere else first. South America, or perhaps China. Egypt was a decent place to start.
AND WHAT EXACTLY WOULD YOU DO THERE? WE'RE IN NO TIME, HEREIN YOUR MIND. NOTHING YOU SAY BREAKS YOUR OATHS.
My main goal was to convince the C---- to demand that P--- step down and I step up. Enough people within the main organization, the inner circle if you will, were unnerved by the direction we had taken, especially after the assassination attempt on me, which was excused as the work of a small, rogue splinter group and not officially sanctioned.
Unfortunately, P--- is not creative enough to be the one who veered the C---- away from our original goals. In fact, my father or grandfather are likely as much at fault. We were still an organization about keeping order in the world through our, well.
Something like that. But order increasingly became about status quo. Did you know that there were no black C---- members?
It is for some people. And of course there are no women. The rise of female power, and the importance of non-white peoples, both threatened those among the C---- who felt uncertain enough about their own position to feel fear. Maggi stirred that up when she began hunting the Grails. P--- and others among the group are certain that she is planning an uprising of women who mean to take over everything, and wholly disempower the men. P---'s done nothing about that over the last few months for two reasons. One is that I am dating her, publicly, and he is already getting some distrust from members over the assassination attempt; we are not supposed to touch one another's families. Mind you, we are supposed to keep our own families in line, and the other reason Maggi has been safe is, she has not been actively pursuing her grailquest, so my associates innocently assumed I was keeping her in line. Now that she is going to Egypt, finding Grailkeepers there, joining an expedition that has claimed to be looking for the sunken temple of Isis.
It's about to hit the fan, and I want to be in Cairo when it does.
THE START OF A CATRINA/RHYS BOOK, CONNECTED TO HKOT
After finishing HKOT, I knew that Catrina and Rhys had a spark between them. Initially, I planned a GrailKeeper book for Catrina, working off of the fact that she had drunk from the Isis Grail. That's when I wrote the following chapter. But as I continued working a Catrina/Rhys story, the idea for The Madonna Key series developed. In order to make The Madonna Key about more than just my characters, I let Catrina and Rhys's first book, LOST CALLING, not be a GrailKeeper adventure. But this doesn't mean Cat won't become a GrailKeeper in the future! In the meantime, here was my initial take....
Save the children!
Catrina Dauvergne woke with a curse of frustration. Every night it was the same thingnot the same dream, but always in the same, tangible setting. Misty, wooded mountains. High, craggy cliffs.
But when she sat up, she was in bed in her Egyptian hotel room. She fumbled for a cigarette on the bed table, then cursed more vehemently to remember that she'd given them up. Catrina felt like a traitor to La Belle France for quittingher country sometimes felt like one of the last bastions of sanity against a bewildering craze of political correctness. But like caffeine, nicotine caused insomnia. She desperately needed sleep.
In fact she lay slowly, carefully back down, pressed her cheek into the linen pillowcase, closed her eyes
"Merde!" She rolled out of bed and snapped on the light, which did little to improve her plain surroundings. Not that anyone volunteered for an archeological expedition for the lush accommodations. The Hotel Athens, with its small rooms and old furniture and narrow beds, was more than adequate for the two months that the Egyptian government allowed the foreign scholars.
Of those two mere months, only a week remained. And every day, Catrina felt less capable. Every night she found herself in a disturbingly real world that no sane woman would wish to inhabit. Mud. Exhaustion. Massacre. Children.
"What children?" she demanded--in French of course--of the emptiness around her. Though the expedition booked double rooms, her roommate had departed a week earlier.
At which point the dreams had begun.
Catrina stood and yanked on a luxurious white robeapparently stolen from the Four Seasons, Cairothat her roommate had left behind. Snatching her room key, she stalked out into the quiet hallway of the hotel.
An old man sat on the floor against the wall, between her room and the iron-cage elevator. His arms were around his knees and his silvery head rested on them. He lifted a dark, strangely soulful gaze as she turned away from him, but as with any derelicts, she ignored him. Instead she ran, barefooted, up the concrete stairs to the fourth floor.
She knew of one person who might be able to explain these nightly visions. Rather, she knew of two people, but only one who was here. Only one to whom she wished to speak.
A businessmanhe looked Lithuanian to herstared as we strode past in the hall. She glared at him, and he looked away. Perhaps this was the Arab Republic of Egypt, rife with headscarves and veils and even those engulfing black burkas, but it was also three o'clock in the morning. The Hotel Athens catered to Western clientele, and she'd paid good money for her cramped little room, not counting what she'd lost by taking a sabbatical from her job as a museum curator. If she wished to wear a robe, so be it.
She knocked on the door marked 409.
Nothing. At least, nothing except the tactile memory of mud between her toes and the smell of charred flesh in her nostrils. She resented the intrusion of such unpleasant memories, clearly not her own.
Catrina was a modern Parisian. She had as little to do with mud and murder as possible. Almost as little as she had to do with children.
She banged on the door again. Another door, perhaps three rooms down, cracked open and an Italian shouted at her, with rude gestures. She shouted and gestured back. Her Italian was flawless, and even on a good day, she did not waste time with cordialities.
It wasn't even dawn, and already today was not a good day.
She pounded on the door, using her shoulder as well as both fists, hard enough that the 9 came loose and swung into a subscripted 6. Finally, Rhys Pritchard opened the door.
Apparently the priest slept nudeor at least in his briefs. She deduced this from the fact that his pajama pants were inside out as if he'd pulled them on in a hurry, in the dark. He'd not done a good job with the drawstring, either, and they sagged loosely enough to reveal the low curve where his belly met his hips. The length of his chest was also bare, except for chest hair and a small silver crucifix, and quite attractive. His face, angular like a pre-Raphaelite knight's or a fallen angel's, needed a shave. The lids of his bright blue eyes sagged with sleepiness. His black hair was tousled from sleep.
Rhys Pritchard was another of the Alexandrian project's divers, a thirty-something student from the Sorbonne. Catrina had found him attractive long before she'd learned he either was or had been a Catholic priest.
After that she'd found him nearly irresistible.
Ah well, she had never claimed to be cautious in her tastes. No trespassing signs had the same effect on her.
But this morning. Mud. Mountains. Children.
No, this morning not even the forbidden fruit of a sexy, near-naked priest with a rumpled bed behind him could distract her from the memories.
"What," she demanded, "did that bitch do to me?"
Pritchard stared, as if only now waking up.
"When I drank water from the Isis cup," she insisted, to nudge his memory. "The bitch must have done something."
He blinked, frowned, then cleared his throat. "By 'bitch,'" he ventured. The word, pétasse, sounded awkward on his lips from more than his lilting, Welsh-accented French. "Do you mean my friend Magdalene? Or the goddess Isis?"
"Both of them," decided Catrina grimly.
Pritchard said, "You'd best come inside."
* * *
Catrina had not particularly liked Rhys Pritchard's "friend," Magdalene Sanger. The American woman harbored some kind of goddess-complex, her claimed excuse for upturning archeological sites in both France and Egypt. A few weeks ago Sanger had arrived at the Alexandrian expedition just long enough to stir up trouble, endanger a faience goblet from the time of Cleopatra, and whip strange men into murderous rages at the pyramids of Abu Sir. In fact, Catrina had enjoyed that last part, the whipping of men into murderous rages. She liked seeing any woman hold her own against connards like the ones who'd wanted the Isis cup. She'd enjoyed bashing a few heads herself.
But the rest? Goddesses, chalices, and evil secret societies? It was mere myth, and the fact that Sanger had actually persuaded Catrina to drink from the ancient faience goblet of Isisdared was more like itonly made her gullibility more frightening. Catrina felt glad the woman had gone, and not just because it left her with a room to herself.
But apparently, Maggi Sanger's lunacy remained despite her physical absence. It lingered in her dreams.
"What kind of nightmares?" asked Rhys, after Catrina's initial explanation.
"Horses. Mountains. Mud. Knights." She stopped pacing to glare at him. "Does it matter? I cannot sleep. It began after I drank from that damned goblet. I think your friend drugged me."
"She did not drug you."
"Of course you would say this. You are in love with her."
Rhys scowled. "I am not in love with her."
But of course. That explained why he'd invited the woman to Egypt, followed after her like a puppy, and even helped her steal the goblet from the sunken palace of Cleopatra which the expedition was so meticulously cataloguing. Not to mention
She pointed at a pile of books and papers in the corner, where Rhys had clearly been reading and making notes. In the middle of one page he'd written "Magdalene!" and underlined it. Several times.
He said, "That's about the Biblical Magdalene, not the one from New York."
She might as well give him the benefit of a doubt. He was not completely under the American's power, after all. Catrina had convinced him to help her put the goblet back into the harbor.
If only she hadn't drunk from the damned thing first!
"If she did not drug me, then why did the water from the goblet give me visions?" she demanded.
He folded his arms and frowned. "What visions?"
"A woman's face, dark and beautiful, made up of many faces. It." It had shaken her, at the time. She waved the question away. "It doesn't matter. I've forgotten most of it."
But she hadn't forgotten how she'd felt, afterward. Wrung out. The way she felt after her nightmares.
There had to be a connection.
"If she did not drug me," she challenged, "then explain what is happening."
"Have a seat," offered Rhysnot for the first timeand indicated one of the room's plastic chairs.
Catrina fell back onto his bed instead, just to be contrary, and propped herself on her elbows as the springs settled.
So Rhys took the chair. The fact that she'd paid so little attention to his bare chest and rumpled hair was indication of just how severely lack of sleep had affected her judgment. Though lean, Rhys Pritchard was not at all unattractive. "Maggi is a Grail Keeper."
Catrina shook her head. "Not this again."
"Grail Keepers are descendents from ancient goddess worshippers," Rhys continued, ignoring her. "Back when their religion was forced underground, those priestesses hid their most sacred relicsmainly gobletsand passed the secret of those hiding places on to their children. Keeping the secrets of the grails make them Grail Keepers."
"Or so she tells you," challenged Catrina.
"So my mother tells me," countered Rhys. "She is a Grail Keeper as well."
Catrina sat up, intrigued despite herself. One woman might be mad. But two women who considered themselves part of this ancient lineage? Three, if she counted her old professor, Maggi Sanger's great aunt.
Not that cults could not have far more fools among them. But that, combined with her own strange reaction to drinking from the Isis Cup.
"Suppose this is true," she conceded. "Why would one of these 'sacred relics' give me nightmares?"
"Perhaps they are not nightmares," suggested Rhys. "Perhaps they truly are visions."
She laughed. "And you believe this? I thought you were a priest. Is there not a level of hell for soothsayers and fortune tellers, where their heads are on backward?"
Rhys sighed. "First, you're referencing Dante's Inferno, not holy scripture. Priests are not required to spread the gospel of Renaissance allegories. And second, I am a laicized priest, so the requirements hardly matter."
"Laicized." She'd been wondering about that. "This means you quit?"
"Exactly. I will always be an ordained priest, but I am no longer employed by the Church, nor bound by the limits of the profession."
"Why did you quit?" Why waste time on false courtesies? She wanted to know.
"I wished to marry, with Catholic priests cannot do." His eyes focused on the medal around her own neck, a Madonna. "But you know that."
She glanced again toward his pile of handwritten notes. "You wished to marry Magdalene Sanger?"
Rhys flushed. "To marry one of my parishioners."
Catrina craned her neck to get a better view of his ring finger, which she knew full well was bare.
"She died," said Rhys shortly. "Three days before the paperwork came through."
That explained the haunted air and pained distance that hovered beneath his otherwise easy smiles.
"Way to piss off God," mused Catrina, and appreciated how the priest's eyes widened at her blasphemy. But she'd played the I-grew-up-without-a-mother card often enough as a child to have little patience with such tragic histories anymore, either from herself or from others. "So you honestly believe my nightmares may be psychic visions? Because of an old cup?"
"I offer it only as one explanation." He ran his hand down his face, clearly tiredbut not as tired as she was. "Maggi tells me that she has been given powers, for lack of a better word. When she drinks from the goddess grails. The Isis Cup gave her a certain cleverness in healing, supposedly because of the goddess's ability in that arena. Since Isis was so all-encompassing a goddess, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that you were granted some kind of omniscience which is manifesting in your dreams."
"Omniscience about knights? Mountains? Mud? I do not need this omniscience."
Rhys muttered something. When Catrina arched a questioning eyebrow, he repeated, "'Take this cup away from Me.'"
When she stared, he added, "Mark 14:36."
"Mon Dieu," she muttered, surprised at how easily she could imagine him in vestments, considering that he was half naked. "You are a priest."
"Just a theologian, at this point," he countered, scowling toward his papers. "I'm particularly up to date on Christian passages regarding cups. Considering that we are in Alexandria."
Any scholar worth her salt knew that the ancient Library of Alexandria had been famous for its expansive collection of ancient knowledgeancient knowledge which had been destroyed by any number of authorities, depending on the version of history one believed. Not as many knew that the institution had been rebuilt yet again as the ambitious Bibliotheca Alexandrina. The new library was built to hold millions of books, audio-visual materials, three museums, art galleries, and seven research institutes. Rhys Pritchard was not the only member of the expedition who'd been making regular visits to the library for more than to admire its unusual architecture.
Not, thought Catrina sourly, that this brought back into existence any of the historic documents destroyed with the original.
"This research on cups," she said. "Is it for your friend Magdalene and her grail keeping?"
Rhys cocked his head. "Are you deliberately trying to annoy me? I am not in love with Maggi Sanger. I left the priesthood long before I ever met Maggi Sanger. I'm not currently doing research for Maggi Sanger. If you must know, I'm looking for a particular grail. The cup of the Last Supper. You may have heard of it?"
"Perhaps." Catrina smiled, strangely pleased, and lay back on his bed.
The next thing she knew, the sun was rising, and she'd slept. Without nightmares. She turned her head and saw a nest of towels and knapsack which she supposed had served as Rhys Pritchard's [cot] while he let her catch up on her rest.
Rhys himself was not there. Likely he'd gone down the hall to the shared bathroom, to get ready for work.
Catrina sat up and stretched, feeling remarkably good. This had been a fortunate discovery.
She'd discovered the secret to getting rid of these annoying nightmares.
Do not sleep alone.