Chapter 1


A Splendid Adventure


Malaysia, June 1939


The towering promontory glistened in the perfect water. Not even the merest ripple broke the becalmed reflective surface. A halo of moonlight, shining from that distant crescent, outlined the crag's reflection in the sea below.


The dark clad man moved slowly as he slipped over the gunwale of the rowboat and into the shimmering surface of the Indian Ocean. His arms, still aching from the exertion of rowing along the rocky shore of the island, burned afresh as he began stroking through the tepid water. The abandoned rowboat rocked aimlessly in his wake.


He did not have far to swim. The course he had navigated throughout the night had kept him a stone's throw from the shallows, where gentle waves seemed to materialize out of nothing to roll and crash on the rocks below the promontory. These waves were generated by the barest of winds in the part of the Indian Ocean along the equator, known to the unlucky sailors who became stranded there as "the Doldrums." Though they had not the force to knock a small child off his feet, they would lend enough impetus for the swimmer to coast the last hundred feet into the sheltering embrace of the promontory.


So much, thought Nick Kismet, for the easy part.


The fortress atop the promontory was virtually unapproachable. A single road snaked through the verdant jungle, on the island. That overgrown track however was not so much a means of access, as a baited trap. An entire army might be lost attempting to take the fortress by that route. The dense foliage could conceal hundreds of armed men, and was reputedly barbed with a lethal variety of pitfalls and booby traps. Travel through the rain forest itself was likewise an exercise in futility; days might be spent hacking through the growth for only a few miles of forward progress.


Kismet did not have an army. Nor did he have days to waste chopping with a machete. In fact, by his best reckoning, he had about half an hour.


Behind the curtain of shadows at the base of the crag, Kismet stripped out of the dark oilskins he had worn during the swim, and pulled on fresh garments from a satchel of the same waterproof material. The lingering dampness on his skin and the pervasive tropical humidity rendered the khakis soggy before he had finished shaking the scorpions from his boots, but it was, he decided, still an improvement.


He had earlier examined the promontory for nearly an hour, surveying it carefully with a spyglass from the deck of the Sultan's yacht. Likely, the pirates looking out from the fortress had watched him just as assiduously, but they had no cause to suspect what he was up to. Even so, from this perspective, everything looked different. His thoroughly planned ascent now seemed to bear as much resemblance to his situation as an obsolete roadmap. Closing his eyes, he willed himself to concentrate on the mental image of the crag, ignoring the shifting web of shadows all around.


Despite its imposing shadow, the cliff was not sheer. Foliage clung to its steep slopes, highlighting the protrusions of rock that formed a veritable stairway up the face. Moving with a confidence born of urgency, Kismet deftly picked his way up the cliff, slowing his pace only when the upper reaches of his climb were in sight. He paused just below the lip, listening for the telltale sounds of conversation or footsteps. He heard only the sound of the breakers, rushing softly against the rocks where he had stood only minutes before.


The last part of the climb would require a dynamic exertion; Kismet could touch the lip of the precipice with his outstretched fingers, but he would have to jump and heave himself up onto the edge in a single movement. If the sentinels of the fortress' night watch were looking his way when he did, things would get ugly. It was the sort of all or nothing situation he had found himself in for most of his adult years; the sort of situation that made him wonder why he had not chosen a more pedestrian way of life.


And yet, as the current of time took him inexorably toward a place in his life where he ought to seek his own comfort, he knew that such was not his destiny.


Or are you just afraid to admit you're getting old? chided his conscience.


In many ways, it was the quest to reclaim his youth that had carried him here, clinging to thorns and scrabble on the face of a cliff, just below a pirate fortress. It had began innocently enough; a voice from his past reaching out to draw him into the scheme; a scheme he had turned his back on over fifteen years ago.


"I found it Nick," Higgins had exclaimed. "The sapphire! Cleopatra's Star!"


And while he had made an outward show of reluctance, part of him was greedy for the adventure Higgins' pronouncement promised.


Cleopatra's Star! A sapphire that, according to legend, had adorned the most beautiful queen in history; a beautifully polished cabochon, with a radiant six-point star glistening and shifting in one hundred-fifty-three carats of flawless blue corundum. Though not as large or impressive as the Star of India, the tales of Cleopatra's Star had fueled the imaginations of two young men, both veterans of the bloody slaughter of the Great War. Kismet and Alex Higgins had left Cairo, where the former was working with Howard Carter in his excavation in the Valley of the Kings, and had traveled half the world together searching for it. They had nothing more to guide them than the crazed ranting of an Egyptian beggar, a tattered and probably fraudulent map, and the assistance of not a few unscrupulous con artists, who always seemed to have the missing piece of the puzzle, for the right price. In many ways, their failure to find the sapphire had put him back on the path he was still following. The whole episode now seemed to him like a juvenile treasure hunt, and it was his awakening to that truth that had prompted him to view the world of antiquities more seriously. While many of his subsequent quests might have been similarly dismissed as fortune hunting, he had tried to believe that there was a nobler purpose to it all. In most respects, this rationale was actually true. His recent discovery of a sunken Greek galley containing the legendary Golden Fleece, a valuable and, as he learned powerful artifact, was just such an example.


Withal however, he had to admit that the treasure hunting twenty-two year old he once was had never stopped looking. Cleopatra's Star itself had continued to shine, its starburst pattern, a radiant beacon on the horizon, luring him into dangerous shoals. He had never completely given up the idea that he might someday find it. Nevertheless, he was taken aback the day that Higgins found him in Paris.


The years had not been kind to his one-time friend. The robust young man that had fought with him in the service of the French Foreign Legion during the Great War, and had later combed the sands of Egypt alongside him, now seemed worn and haggard; his vitality burned away with the intensity of his lifelong quest. As he searched the Englishman's face for some recognizable feature, he wondered in the back of his mind if he looked as spent to Higgins.


In many ways, his reunion with Higgins felt like something postponed too long. Not because of guilt for a friendship which he had allowed to fade; in fact, as the years passed, he came to view his adventures with Higgins much the same as his friendships in grammar school. He was more apt to remember Higgins' idiosyncrasies than his endearing charm. Rarely did he wax nostalgic when thinking of the three years that he and Higgins were almost constant companions. No, what he felt was more akin to going to the dentist after weeks of ignoring a nagging toothache.


"Here!" Higgins had thrust a dog-eared copy of Life magazine at him. "It's right here. Has been all along."


Taking the magazine from Higgins, he had noticed the absence of a wedding ring on the other's finger. Biting back an inquiry, Kismet had instead allowed Higgins to show him the photograph. And in that grainy photograph, Nick Kismet saw the treasure, which had eluded them for so many years.


"This is our chance, Nick! We can finally get that sapphire. It will be a splendid adventure."


It had not mattered at all to Higgins that the sapphire was now, and had probably always been, clearly the property of a Malay sultan; the very same man who wore the jewel on a chain around his neck in the photograph. Perhaps it was simply a matter of closing the book on a chapter of his life which had gone on for too long; a chapter that had cost him the best years of his life, his marriage, and the opportunity to watch his adopted children grow up. Yet he could not close that book without seeing Cleopatra's Star for himself. That was something that Nick Kismet understood intimately.


What had begun with a simple pilgrimage to Singapore however, had quickly soured. Upon arriving in the Sultanate, the men were dismayed to learn that the star sapphire had been stolen, along with the other jewel in the Sultan's turban, his wife, former stage actress Elizabeth Thompson. Kismet vaguely remembered Elizabeth from photos and magazine articles, chronicling her success on stage and her fairy tale marriage to one of the world's wealthiest men. Though she had never graced the silver screen, inevitable comparisons had been made to Marlene Dietrich, but the cynics had deemed her past her prime; too old to be the leading lady in the motion picture theaters. Now it seemed her fairy tale romance had become a bizarre melodrama worthy of Hollywood, kidnapped by Chinese pirates under the command of "Tiger" Jin. The pirates, more slave traders than anything else, had attacked the Sultan's yacht, stealing both Elizabeth, and the jewel she flaunted.


It had made such perfect sense at the time. Kismet had let Higgins volunteer them into helping the Sultan rescue his bride and recover the treasure. But it was Kismet all alone on the face of the promontory, contemplating his mortality and misspent youth.



Shaking his head to clear the reminiscence away, he sucked in a deep breath, and pulled himself onto the lip of the precipice. He exhaled softly as he immediately dropped low and rolled away from the edge, seeking cover.


The walls of the fortress were precariously near to the edge. Kismet cleared the distance to the base of the stone barrier in a few steps, and flattened himself there, trying to pick out the sentries on the battlement above. For thirty seconds he watched, fighting to keep his breathing soft and shallow, despite the exertion of having rowed, swam and climbed to this point. Then he saw it, the faint glow of a cheroot ember high above, to his left.


The smoldering red point of light hovered motionless for a long time, then flared brightly. A moment later, it soared out over Kismet's head and vanished into the jungle carpet. A barely audible thumping noise indicated that the sentry had resumed his walking tour of the battlement. Kismet counted twenty footsteps before going to work.


He drew several items from the satchel, his hands moving instinctively. The holstered Colt M1911A1 automatic pistol, a near duplicate to the one he had lost in Soviet Georgia several month previously, he threaded onto his belt, just above his right hip. It was not the ideal place for a quick draw, but it was all he had time for. Alongside it went the scabbard of his Khukuri; the legendary fighting knife of the Nepali Ghurkas. He smiled in the darkness as he felt the outline of a five-pointed star beneath his fingertips. The lacquered metal insignia was bonded to a silver hip flask, likewise a memento of his adventure in the Black Sea region, though he had long since replaced the clear vodka with a more robust Kentucky single barrel whiskey.


These were not the items he required for the next phase of his assault on the fortress, but experience had taught him that he would inevitably need all of them, perhaps save the bourbon, before the night was over. Upon further reflection, he decided he might need that as well. He absently ran a hand through his damp hair, then reached into the satchel again.


This time he extracted a coil of half-inch rope, connected to a grappling device. The triple-hooked business end was wrapped in a thick layer of black cloth. Kismet played out two arm lengths of rope and began whirling the hook and line in a broad circle. When the hook had achieved sufficient momentum, he released it, stepping away as he did, lest it fall back on his unprotected skull.


It did not. The hook sailed over the parapet and landed with a muted thud. Kismet pulled in the line until the hook caught. He gave it a final tug to make sure it was set, then wrapped the line around his body. His biceps screamed in protest as he began ascending the vertical surface. His booted feet slipped uncertainly against the damp upright poles that formed the perimeter of the fortress. Nevertheless, three minutes later, he was atop the stockade, peering up and down the length of the battlement for any sign that he had been noticed. The only sentry, the man he had spied before, was poised with his back to Kismet on an adjacent wall. His posture suggested that he was urinating out into the jungle canopy. Kismet suppressed a chuckle, and heaved himself over the wall.


He landed lightly, though to his ears the noise was certainly enough to arouse suspicion. He loosened the hook from where it had bitten into the wood, and drew in the line.


The fortress' walls enclosed a small city of buildings and pens. Randomly spaced ladders dropped down into the street of the pirate citadel, but Kismet had little interest in what lay below. Elizabeth was a prisoner of the tower. He had chanced to spy her during his survey of the fortress, and knew exactly where to find her.


He moved stealthily, always keeping an eye on the less than vigilant sentry who roamed the battlement, occasionally crouching behind the stationary artillery emplacements which protruded quill-like from the wall. As he ducked under the cover of the south facing tower's entry arch, he examined the face of his pocket watch in the dim glow of a hanging charcoal brazier. He frowned when he read the message there; it was about quarter of eleven. It ought to have been much later than. He held the timepiece to his ear, but heard nothing.


The watch had stopped. A bead of water glimmered from behind the crystal. Disgusted, he thrust the useless watch back into his pocket. Now he had no idea how much time remained before the Sultan commenced the second phase of the plan.


He did not ascend the short, rickety staircase to the tower's uppermost room; likely the pirates would keep guard at her door. Instead, he eased back out onto the battlement, and perched atop the stockade. Playing out a few yards of rope, he whirled it around to gain momentum, then expertly hooked it around a beam in the outrigger above the towers large window. Gripping the line tightly with both hands, he swung out into the night.


His body described a tight semi-circle as he swung around to the outer face of the tower. An extended foot touched the wall just below the window, allowing him to quietly gain a foothold on the sill. There was no glass in the window, only a gauzy net designed to keep the mosquitoes out. Kismet peered through the veil, and saw one of the objects of his quest.


He recognized her immediately, though there was little question of who she was. Kismet surmised that glamorous actresses were rare in the pirate fortress. And she was indeed very beautiful. The actress sat with her back to the window, gazing into a streaked vanity mirror as she patiently brushed her cascading hair. She wore only a filmy negligee, which seemed to be made of the same stuff as the mosquito netting. Odd attire for a prisoner, he thought absently. Kismet savored the role of peeping tom for a brief moment, then cautiously pulled the veil aside.


"Elizabeth," he whispered.


The actress' eyes found him in the mirror, and her hand froze in mid-stroke. Otherwise, she did not react to his presence.


"I'm here to rescue you," he continued, stepping down into the room. The grappling hook remained secure around the beam, and he gripped the rope lightly in his right hand. "Get dressed. We haven't much time."


She laid the brush aside and pulled on a gown of the same fabric as her chemise. It didn't increase her level of modesty dramatically, but it would have to do. "Who are you?"


"My name is Nick Kismet." He extended a hand, and nodded toward the opening. "Let's go."


She eyed the rope warily, but took his hand and followed his lead. She moved into his embrace, intuitively understanding what she had to do. As her arms tightened around his body, he could not help noticing how good she smelled.


Together, they swung from the heavy line, out into the night, and back against the fortress wall. Kismet helped her climb over the sharpened stakes, pulling the fabric of her nightclothes free before it could tear. She waited patiently for him to climb over, holding her arms in her hands, as if to ward off a chill. Whatever her intention, Elizabeth's posture seemed to flaunt her figure; her arms crossed under her breasts, thrusting them up as if for inspection. In every other way, she seemed cool and detached, as if this were the sort of thing she did every day, and no longer found it even mildly stimulating.


"Now what, Nick Kismet?"


Kismet shook his head to break the hypnotic spell cast by her breasts. "Now, we get out of here."


"Lead on," she replied indifferently.


Kismet nodded. "First we need to get off this wall." He glanced around, locating the lone sentry on the opposite wall, apparently in the midst of another smoke break. "This way."


Kismet led her to a primitive ladder, one of dozens that descended into the citadel. She descended, maintaining her cool silence until they were both on the ground. "I take it the Sultan sent you."


"Your husband," he replied, as if to remind himself. "Yes. That is to say, we came up with the plan together."


She looked past Kismet, as if distracted. "I don't recognize you. I thought I knew most of the Sultan's acquaintances; especially the American ones."


"I've only just met him," Kismet explained, holding out his hand. She regarded it suspiciously than placed her own smooth palm in his.


"And you volunteered to rescue me? Just like that? My, how very heroic." If she was mocking him, Kismet could not hear it in her voice. She kept her voice kept low as they meandered between the wood huts, which comprised the village. "I must say, I didn't think the Sultan cared enough to try to rescue me. The sapphire maybe--"


"Your husband is very concerned for your safety."


She smiled knowingly into the darkness. "You are a very naive man, Mr. Kismet. The Sultan is concerned for the safety of his possessions. I am but one of many baubles he has acquired. If he is concerned, it is because he does not like losing his pretty things."


Kismet paused at the edge of a hut, peering around the corner to see if the way was clear. "Well, I am concerned for your safety, and that has nothing to do with possessing you."


"I am touched," she replied, her voice ringing genuine. "But you are also here for the sapphire, aren't you?"


It was Kismet's turn to smile unseen. "I've been after that damn sapphire for sixteen years. You know what? It's just a big shiny rock. I wouldn't trade my life-- or anyone else's-- for it."


"I know where it is."


Her statement, delivered in the same offhand tone that she had used since he stepped into her life, caught him totally off guard. "What?"


"I know where Jin keeps it. I can get it, if you'll let me."


"Too dangerous. The Sultan can get it later."




"After he levels this place. Which should be starting any minute now. In other words, there's no time."


"What on earth are you talking about?"


"Never mind. Let's go."


"Wait." Her voice carried an urgency that compelled him to stop. "I am not leaving without that sapphire."


"Are you nuts?" he hissed. He turned to face her, but she was already moving away. He had to break into a jog to catch her. "What the hell do you think you are doing?"


"Getting the sapphire," she replied, her eyes glittering with anticipation. "Trust me. I know exactly where it is. I can get it."


Kismet scowled, but somehow found her persuasiveness too compelling. "All right, but hurry."


"Follow me."


As Kismet walked closely behind the actress, he once more found himself confronted with her beauty. Yet it was not only her physical form that alternately aroused and discomfited him. Her casual disinterest seemed to mask a passionate, win-at-all-cost spirit, and he found that almost irresistible.


What in the hell are you thinking, Kismet? His conscience shouted. She's a married woman.


Elizabeth led him unhesitatingly through the compound. "You seem to know this place awfully well for a hostage."


"They liked to show me off. Not unlike the Sultan." She led him to the door of a large building that adjoined to the east wall of the fortress. The rusted iron latch parted with a tortured shriek, causing Kismet to wince, but evidently raised no alarm. "In here."


The expansive barn-style doors led through a brief corridor, then opened into a great hall, dimly lit with oil lamps hanging from ornate iron hooks in each corner, but otherwise unfurnished. A balcony extended out at the second story level, encircling the hall like a mezzanine. Though the floor was littered with straw, and the air reeked of animals, the building did not seem to be a barn in the strictest sense.


"Wait here," directed Elizabeth, ducking back into the corridor.


"Hold on. Where are you going?"


"To get the sapphire."


"Then I am coming with you."


She shook her head confidently. "It's better if I go alone. It will only take a moment..."


Her pause concerned him. "What?"


She seemed to be staring at his waist. "Your gun. Can I have it?"


Kismet also looked down at the holstered Colt. "What do you want with my gun?"


"What do you think?" she replied, laughing as if there were no cause for concern. "Protection."


"If you need protection, then let me come with you."


"Nick, would you just trust me?"


He frowned, even as he found himself fumbling with the flap. Out of habit, he rocked the action forward, chambering a round. "Do you know how to use this?"


"Of course. I've used prop guns dozens of times."


"Well this isn't a prop," he growled, handing it over. "If you have to shoot someone, they won't get back up at the end of the scene. And you will wake up the whole fort, so don't use it unless it's life or death."


"Of course, Nick." Her tone was suddenly carefree again. She hefted the gun, then blew him a kiss over her shoulder as she hastened back down the corridor. "Wait here. I won't be a minute."


Kismet sighed, leaning against the wall. Then, as the door slammed shut, he stood erect. "Wait a minute. Why the hell did I give her my gun?" He turned on his heel and stalked toward the door.


It was locked from the outside.


He stared dumbly at the blank wood before his eyes. The latch mechanism remained merely a mental image on the other side; safe from anything he might scheme.


"Okay." He leaned against the wall again. "She latched it. Means nothing, I'm sure."


He fiddled with the door for a moment, trying to work the latch through the sliver thin crack where the doors came together, but it would not budge. Fidgeting, he dug out his watch again and checked the face. The time was unchanged. He frowned, remembering that it had stopped, and began shaking it, as if the power of his ire could loosen the seized mechanisms, and restore the timepiece to functionality.


He knew that very little time remained. Where in the hell was Elizabeth?


The sudden inaction frustrated him. He had been constantly moving, constantly doing; now he was just waiting. He paced the length of the corridor twice before he could take it no more. Elizabeth had surely been caught. He had to help her. There had to be another way out.


Leaving the relative shelter of the entry corridor, he ventured out into the great hall. The four corner lamps threw out semicircles of light through their streaked glass panes, light that fell impotently on the hay-strewn floor, without offering any real illumination. Kismet strode the length of the hall, peering into the shadows at the far end for some indication of another exit.


There was something there, something glinting in the darkness.


He moved toward the far end, his hand dropping to find comfort in the haft of his Khukuri. The night suddenly seemed less quiet; he could almost hear the timbers of the structure creaking in the wind. He knew that very soon, things were going to get a lot noisier, and he didn't want to be in the fortress when that happened. He had to get Elizabeth and get out.


Kismet search for the far end of the hall ended abruptly at a grillwork of iron bars. Like everything else, they had lost any metallic sheen they might once have possessed to the corrosion of humid, salty air. Nevertheless, they remained firm and impassable. He gripped a vertical bar in each hand and attempted in vain to move the barrier. Daunted, he took a step back and tried to discern what lay beyond the bars.


With an ear-splitting squeal, a section of the bars began to rise like a portcullis. Kismet gaze riveted on the slowly ascending gate, and he suddenly felt very uneasy. Floating in the darkness beyond were two glowing embers that looked exactly like--


"Eyes. Uh, oh." He began slowly backing away from the cage.


Gentle laughter abruptly echoed in the great hall. Kismet glanced up quickly, instinctively, then forced his gaze back to the eyes of whatever it was that watched him from the now opened cell. "I should have known better, when you said to trust you."


"Yes," replied Elizabeth from somewhere above and to his left. "Are you always such a sucker for a pretty girl, Nick?"


"More often than you'd believe," he muttered, more to the mocking voice of his conscience, than to the actress. "So let me guess. Jin made you a better offer than the Sultan?"


"Oh, I certainly did," replied a different voice. Though masculine, the speaker's tone was high, almost flute-like, and his speech was deeply accented. "Lights!"


The hall was suddenly bathed in the glow from more than a dozen oil lamps, all shining down from the balcony. Kismet did not look away from the eyes, which still seemed to be hiding in shadow, but in the periphery of his view, he saw at least a score of men moving about above him. He knew without looking that Elizabeth and Jin, the leader of the pirate gang, were among that number.


"You do seem to have trouble with the ladies," chuckled Jin. "Maybe you will have better luck with my other princess."


The hovering embers blinked, then moved forward out of the darkness. Kismet was not surprised at all when the features surrounding the glowing points coalesced into the face of Jin's namesake; a tiger. Kismet locked his own eyes with the stare of the stalking cat, backing up slowly.


"Or perhaps not."


Without looking away, Kismet fixed the place where Jin's voice seemed to be coming from. He vaguely remembered reading that Bengal tigers liked to attack their human victims from behind; that they would not approach if their prey seemed to be watching. This had prompted the men working in the Indian jungles to wear masks on the back of their heads, so that their "eyes" were always watching out from behind. Kismet had no idea if this was merely jungle lore, or if the tigers on the Malay isles were as gullible as their cousins to the north, but it seemed like a good idea. As the cat padded forward however, he saw evidence that the animal had been starved and abused; doubtless, it would not wait long to attack anyone trapped with it in the pit. His hand dropped to the flap of his holster, prompting a derisive laugh from Elizabeth.


"Looking for this?" He knew without looking that she was waving the .45 caliber automatic from her perch above. Another step slid him closer.


He was not fumbling for his gun as she surmised. With slow, deliberate moves so as not to provoke the tiger, he took the hilt of his Ghurka knife in his right hand.


"Ah," sighed Jin. "Perhaps this will be more entertaining than I first believed."


Kismet tight expression cracked in a wide grin. "You don't know how right you are."


His arm moved in a barely visible arc, the Khukuri slipping from its sheath as he stretched his arm upward. His gaze never faulted. The heavy knife sailed end over end, and a loud thump, followed by a groan signaled that it had struck home. A moment later, someone pitched over the balcony railing and crashed onto the floor in front of him. The Khukuri clattered to the floor an instant later.


"Welcome to the party, Jin."


The pirate winced as he pushed himself to his elbows, dazed by the fall. Kismet's Ghurka knife had struck hilt first in the center of Jin's forehead. The steel butt cap had gouged an enormous hoof shaped wound, and blood streamed from it, into the pirate's eyes from where it flowed like tears down his face and onto the floor. The droplets fell upon something smooth and blue in mid-journey, an enormous crystalline gemstone that dangled from a gold chain around the pirate's neck. Jin stared blearily at Kismet, then his eyes opened wide as he whirled around to face his pet.


The tiger had already sprung, and at that moment, all hell broke loose.


The entire promontory seemed to shudder, and a peal of what sounded like thunder rolled though the hall. The balcony was suddenly filled with chaotic shouting, mostly in Chinese, but Elizabeth's strident shrieking wove in an out of the din. A second tremor followed quickly on the heels of the first, and this time, the beams of the hall groaned. The fortress was under attack. The second phase of the Sultan's plan had begun.


Kismet jumped back as the tiger pounced on its fallen master. Loud concussions echoed in the hall as at least one of the pirates on the balcony tried to distract the tiger by shooting at it, but in so doing they only further imperiled their master. Kismet instinctively raised a hand to ward off flying splinters of wood as he rushed through the hall.


The pirates on the balcony were attempting to flee, but their frantic efforts only impeded each other. Elizabeth seemed to be struggling to stay on her feet as the human current changed unpredictably. With a grim smile, Kismet decided to rescue her for the second time that night.


Another shell crashed into the compound, causing the ground to heave, and blasting open one of the doors into the great hall. At least three of the pirates were knocked from the balcony, crashing stunned on the floor below, while others clung to the railing to avoid a similar fate. Kismet felt the debris pelt him, but suffered no real harm from the nearby explosion. The tiger ignored the attack altogether, gripping Jin's throat in its mouth and throwing the pirate across the floor. It was on him again in a second, swiping its claws across his face. Kismet caught a glimpse of Cleopatra's Star, still hanging around Jin's neck, but now glistening like a ruby; bathed in blood.


He dove for the fallen Khukuri, snatching up the blade that had put an end to Jin's laughter, as he rolled away from the indiscriminate claws of the tiger. He charged toward the corner of the hall, leaping at one of the lantern hooks, using it to launch his ascent from the arena floor.


His arms screamed in agony. All of the exertions of the night seemed to return in a single burst of pain. Gritting his teeth, he planted his feet against one of the support pillars and tried again. Somehow, with his biceps quivering on the verge of total fatigue, he reached the level of the balcony floor and drove the tip of his Khukuri into the wooden flooring, using it as a handhold to pull himself the rest of the way up. Swinging his body like a pendulum, he got one of his legs up, then the other, then managed to roll his torso onto the balcony. Frantic pirates stumbled blindly over him as they fought with each other in order to escape. Only when he stood up in their midst did they identify him as a foe and turn their destructive attention toward him.


Kismet parried the thrust of a cutlass, hearing the unmistakable sound of the blade piercing flesh behind him, and the groan as a wounded pirate went down. His fist, still clenching the hilt of the heavy Ghurka knife, hammered into the sword's wielder, and as the man staggered against the railing, Kismet guided him over. He plucked the cutlass from the man's grip as he went, and wrenched it free of the body of the man who had inadvertently been on the receiving end. Sheathing the Khukuri, he took the longer sword in his right hand and charged the pirate ranks, scattering them.


Elizabeth stood a head taller than most of the men on the balcony, and Kismet saw her hair flashing only a few feet away. With wild slashes, he mowed a path toward her. When she saw him, a tortured look crossed her beautiful face. "Damn you!"


"I see you didn't get the sapphire, princess."


Her eyes blazed as she raised her hand toward him; the Colt locked in her grip.


Kismet lashed out with the cutlass, its tip striking the barrel of the gun and knocking her arm upward as the firing pin struck the shell. The muzzle flashed in his face, but its missile struck the ceiling. He quickly moved in closer, snatching the gun away with his left hand.


She raised a fist, as if to strike him, but he was faster. Stabbing the cutlass into the floorboards, he delivered a roundhouse to the actress' jaw that spun her around. Before she could fall, he snatched her up and threw her over his shoulder. He pushed the Colt back into his holster, and worked the cutlass loose.


"Well this has been fun, princess. But it's time to take you back to your husband."


If Elizabeth heard him, she did not reply. Kismet fought his way through several more pirates, and found a door leading outside. From there a landing led to a staircase, which in turn placed him in what appeared to be a stable yard.


The sounds of the shelling now filled the night. Much of the fortress was in flames, and the wall on the ocean side was breached in three places. From the top of the stairway, Kismet had an unobstructed view of the ships out on the ocean, the Sultan's hired navy, pitching deadly shells at the pirate stronghold.


The residents of the fortress were trying to return fire, but their artillery had been the first thing targeted, and only one of the cannons remained operational. Half a dozen men were trying to wrestle the big gun into a position to be useful. Before they could succeed however, they heard the sound of an incoming shell and scattered. An instant later, the last of the pirate guns blew apart in a deadly shower of metal that cut two of them down.


After descending the staircase, Kismet pitched the cumbersome pirate sword. He moved quickly toward the stable, throwing the double doors open wide. Once inside, he surveyed the selection of mounts, and grinned in satisfaction at what he saw. A dozen Asian brown elephants stamped about in terror from the explosions and mayhem. Kismet cautiously opened their stables, allowing all but one to exit. The towering beasts ignored him in their rampage for the open air. He waited a moment for the din of their trumpeting and thundering footsteps to subside before approaching the remaining elephant, the one that appeared to least agitated by the chaos. He entered the animal's stall through the keeper's door and approached it carefully, soothing it with his voice. The elephant eyed him warily as he approached, but did not react when he placed a hand alongside its trunk.


"Good girl," he murmured, hoping it would not take offense if he had misjudged its gender in the dark. He heaved Elizabeth's motionless form onto the animal's back, then ducked back outside to unlatch the stall gate.


As he guided the elephant out of its stable, he climbed up onto one of the gates, and jumped onto its back. Elizabeth still had not moved, but he positioned her in front of him so that he could keep an eye on her. He then grasped the elephant's ears and held on.


The other escaping beasts had blazed a wide trail through the citadel, instinctively knowing the way to the gate that exited into the jungle. Kismet let his mount follow, doing nothing to control it except for murmuring calming words into its ear, to keep it from emulating its stampeding brethren. In minutes they passed through the gateway, over the splintered ruins of the door, and left the besieged fortress behind.


The explosions did little to illuminate the dark woods. The canopy of overgrowth quickly eclipsed any ambient light, forcing Kismet to place all of his trust in the elephant. Hopefully, the animal had been used for carrying burdens through the jungle, and knew the route well.


Less than three minutes after their egress, a magnificent explosion rocked the promontory, spewing fountains of flame hundreds of feet into the air. One of the naval artillery shells had hit the fortress' ammunition dump. The severity of the explosion had doubtless leveled every remaining structure in the citadel, and probably toppled the outer walls as well. Only the most cowardly of Jin's pirates, the ones who had fled into the jungle at the first sign of attack, would survive this night.


Following that climactic eruption, the elephant's pace slowed. The sounds of the jungle at night now seemed louder than the attack on the fortress. Kismet raised his head up from the elephant's neck and tried to pierce the veil of night. Faint orange light flickered behind them through cracks in the trees, but all else was darkness. "Well," he sighed to the elephant. "That didn't go too badly."


His grin faltered as the elephant rounded a bend in the trail, and the glow of torches was suddenly all around him. Scores of armed men lined the road on either, their rifles trained on him. They moved forward, closing off the road in either direction, shouting to him. Though Kismet spoke neither Bahasa nor Malay, the meaning of their threats was clear.


He tightened his grip on the elephant's ears. If he stayed low, he just might be able to charge their ranks and escape.




Kismet's grip faltered. He raised his head and saw Alex Higgins approaching, in the company of another familiar face, the Sultan.


Kismet relaxed and slid down from his mount, allowing the armed men to tend to both the elephant and Elizabeth. Higgins rushed over and swept him up in a bear hug. "You made it!" He then held Kismet at arm's length. "And the sapphire? Did you get it?"


"Good to see you too," managed Kismet, almost breathless from the embrace.


The Sultan's mercenaries had seized the road leading through the jungle, laying an ambush for any of Jin's pirates that might escape the bombardment. Kismet had been the first to come along, suggesting that the defeat of the pirate city was total. The hired soldiers, probably a rival pirate faction who had found the Sultan's offer irresistible, formed into an assault party and began marching up the jungle road.


Kismet followed Higgins toward one of the tents set up in a clearing near the road. A kerosene lamp, revealing a basin full of fresh water and several cots illuminated the interior of the tent.


"Did you get the sapphire?" repeated Higgins.


Kismet scowled at his old friend. He leaned over the basin and began splashing water on his face. Only then did he answer the Englishman. "When I last saw it, it was a cat's play toy. Don't worry. I am sure that the Sultan will find it in the rubble."


Higgins's expression fell. "Well, at least you are all right. What happened?"


Before Kismet could answer, the flap of then tent flew up, and several uniformed men stormed inside. The Sultan stalked in, his face livid with rage. "How could you?"


Kismet was taken aback. "Your highness?"


"She has told me how you attacked her," raged the Sultan. "Have you no honor? That you would try to rape my wife, and take my sapphire for yourself? I will have your head for this!"


Kismet gaped, mouthing a reply. From the fierce expressions of the Sultan's guard, he deduced that trying to explain the facts would do little to help his situation. It seemed a different defense would be required.


He leapt at the Sultan, wrapping an arm around the Malay royal's neck. By the time the guards could react, Kismet had the muzzle of the Colt buried in the Sultan's ear. In Chinese, a language which he figured the Malaysian soldiers would understand, he ordered them to drop their weapons. Higgins stood aside gaping, as they complied. Kismet backed toward the tent flap with his hostage firmly in his grip. "Are you coming?"


"Nick, I-- What about the sapphire?"


Kismet nearly choked. "What about it? It belongs to him. He's welcome to it."


"But Nick, to see it. That is why I have come here."


Kismet bit his lip in frustration. "All right, Alex. I hope you know what you're doing."


He took a step backward, then propelled the Sultan forward into the midst of the guards. As they instinctively knelt to aid their sovereign, Kismet fled through the camp.


He spied the elephant that had provided his escape from the fortress tethered to a tree near the road. As he ran toward the beast, the first shots were fired after him. He wrenched the elephant's tether line free, and led it into the road, using it for cover. The beast, spooked by the gunfire, took off in a frantic gallop, dragging Kismet alongside its stomping feet. In seconds however, the elephant's pace took them well away from the hail of bullets. Kismet fought his way up the tether rope, eventually climbing up once more onto its back.


As the two rogues escaped into the darkness, Kismet risked a glance over his shoulder. The guards were taking up a firing line, and behind them he could see the Sultan and Higgins; silhouettes in torchlight. The big Englishman seemed to be arguing with the other man; trying in vain to convince him of Kismet's innocence. He wasn't about to stick around and see what the final verdict was.


He could not of heard Higgins' barely whispered parting words as he disappeared into the dense jungle.


"Good luck to you, my old friend."




Chapter 2--The Confession of don Miguel Cristobal


Stowing away aboard the S.S. Mongolia had proved far easier than gaining entry into Tiger Jin's stronghold. Nevertheless, Kismet kept his head down for a full day before risking exposure among the passengers and crew of the passenger ship.


He wasn't really a stowaway. He and Higgins had booked return passage on the steamer a week earlier, so he was in fact a ticketed passenger. Nevertheless, three days of hiding and evading had made him wary. Using a variety of disguises, some requiring a great deal of creativity, he managed to make his way as far as Bombay. Along the way, he had heard whispers of unrest in the Sultan's domain and rumors indicating that he was a wanted man. He did not know if Higgins had escaped the peril. His greatest fear was that the Sultan would brand the Englishman an accomplice to Kismet's "crime" and execute him. But Higgins had chosen to stay behind, and there was nothing he could to change that. With any luck, Higgins had managed to board the Mongolia in Singapore, and they would be reunited shortly, only slightly worse for wear.


He reflected on his original reunion with Higgins. Paris had seemed on edge, the shadow of war looming, and seeing his old comrade in arms wandering across the cafe to greet him had triggered a sense of deja vu. Of course, neither he nor Higgins looked much like the young men they had been during the Great War. Higgins' hair was a stiff, iron gray, cropped short and thinned to nothing at his crown. He still towered over Kismet, but the tower seemed not quite so high any more. His skin hung in loose jowls from his cheeks, though Kismet suspected that underneath the sagging flesh of the years, Higgins was still a match for any man or beast of burden when it came to tests of strength and endurance.


During the course of their voyage to the Indian Ocean, Higgins had seemed preoccupied with Cleopatra's Star. Kismet was able to infer a few details from the Englishman's tale of his lifelong search. Higgins had not been able to find real employment following his initial return from the search a full year after Kismet had left him in North Africa. He had apparently found work as a mercenary, joining in small wars and tribal conflicts throughout the world, always searching for the clue that would put him back on the trail. Of his family, Higgins had said nothing. Kismet wondered if there was anything to say.


Kismet remembered Marie Delacroix vividly. He had very nearly fallen in love with her and she with him. He could not now recall exactly why the two of them had not connected; only that Higgins, a few years his senior and closer to her in age, had ultimately won her hand in marriage. At the time, it had not mattered to any of them that their acquaintance was measured in mere hours and days. The Great War had set the world afire; men going off to fight and probably die needed the thought of a loving family back home to keep hope alive. For Marie, it had doubtless proved more of a shock to learn that Higgins, unlike her first husband Jean, had survived his tour of duty.


Kismet could only speculate on that reunion. He and Higgins had parted ways long before the latter decided to postpone the treasure hunt, and return to the idyllic notion of family life. Nevertheless, he could not help but wonder just how long the marriage had lasted, once the two of them were together under the same roof.


As Mongolia sailed into the setting sun, Kismet cautiously drew back the tarpaulin covering the lifeboat in which he had been concealed for nearly two full days. He immediately stretched his six-foot frame, trying to work out the kinks in his muscles, the result of long hours in the cramped boat. He was aching and hungry, and he desperately needed to bathe, but he already felt much better knowing that a few score leagues now separated him from the Sultan's domain.


He secreted his satchel beneath the bench seat of the lifeboat, taking only the nearly empty flask, which he stuffed into his back pocket. His clothes were torn and sweat stained from days of flight through the humid jungle, but the decks were thankfully deserted as he made his way into the bowels of the ship.


Mongolia was an old vessel, built along a smaller scale than the modern ocean liners that vied for speed records across the Atlantic. She made a regular run between Suez and Bombay; her captain proudly boasted that it was the very ship used by the famous English adventurer Phileas Fogg in his eighty day long circumnavigation of the globe. Kismet had laughed when the tale had first been related, during their initial passage aboard the ship on their way to the Sultan's domain. If the ship was the one Jules Verne had been thinking of when writing Around the World in Eighty Days, it would have to be at least sixty years old. Kismet judged her to be about half that age, but perhaps the novel had inspired her name, inasmuch as she plied the same route as that fictional steamer. Fortunately, the journey that took Phileas Fogg nearly two weeks would now require only about five days.


Kismet remembered the layout of the Mongolia fairly well. He quickly descended below decks, intent on finding the ship's laundry. Half an hour later, he emerged from the room in fresh, if borrowed clothes, looking and smelling a good deal better than he had in days. A cursory inspection in a mirror showed him only slightly worse for wear. He thought he looked a little thinner, and his hair, which he kept cut short to avoid a daily battle with his unmanageable cowlicks was getting a bit long; overall he had cleaned up nicely. Only the stubble on his unshaven chin kept him from looking perfectly presentable. He would worry about that later, after he had found Higgins.


He made his way to the ship's salon, hoping to find some food leftover from dinner. In addition to being the place where gentlemen retired after dining, for cigars and cognac, the salon aboard Mongolia also served as the ship's library and reading room. Kismet imagined he would attract little attention in the quiet surroundings, and when he got there, he found the large hall virtually deserted. Only one other person occupied the room; a scholarly fellow who did not look up as he entered.


Kismet made his way to the bar and ordered a shot of Macallan, and a plate of anything the steward could dig up. He downed the Scotch whisky, chasing it with a glass of cola over ice, while the steward prepared a platter for him. He accepted the plate of leftovers graciously, and went to find a table. As he passed the salon's only other patron, he glanced over the fellows shoulder to see what held the man's rapt attention. What he saw piqued his curiosity.


The man was studiously translating several plaster casts, inscribed with wedge shaped marks and pictograms. Kismet immediately recognized the script as cuneiform, the written language of ancient Chaldea; possibly the oldest form of writing known to man. He could not resist the urge to know more.


"Now there's something you don't see every day," he remarked, stepping around to face the other man.


The translator looked up, a faintly perturbed expression flickering across his features. He reminded Kismet of a stern schoolteacher, or a strict father, someone whose quiet wrath was more to be feared than the most violent of outbursts. Kismet smiled, hoping to put the man at ease, but saw no change in the icy blue eyes. He risked extending a hand to the man.


"How do you do? My name is Nick Kismet."


The other's expression softened imperceptibly, but he disdained the handclasp. "Kismet? Fate, destiny, or perhaps luck?"


"Mostly luck, I think." Kismet tried to steer the conversation away from the etymology of his name. "Sorry to interrupt you, but I noticed you were viewing cuneiform tablets. It's not what one usually reads over a nightcap."


The stern face finally cracked a smile. "I suppose not." He took Kismet's hand in a firm grip. "Dr. John Lee at your service. This may surprise you, Mr. Kismet, but I have heard of you."


"You don't say."


"Indeed. Three years working for the Smithsonian, acquiring and restoring countless antiquities, followed by a secretive expedition to the Arctic Circle. After that, you began to work for the League of Nations, representing the committee for the International Treaty for the Protection of Antiquities."


"Only a handful of men around the world know, or would even care about my occupation," remarked Kismet. "I am surprised that you are one of them."


"It is the name," confessed Lee. "It caught my attention whilst I was perusing some book or magazine about the modern day search for antiquities. When I come across a name as unique and powerful as yours, I take notice."


Kismet raised an eyebrow, but did not explore the matter. "Forgive the interruption, but as I said, it isn't every day that you see someone reading cuneiform."


Lee gestured for him to sit. "I am returning from Persia, where I have been involved in an excavation of the library of King Ashurbanipal of Nineveh. These are casts taken from latex peels of clay prisms found in the dig."


Kismet set his plate on the table, and slid into a chair opposite the other man. Lee indeed looked like a schoolteacher; he wore rather ordinary clothes, with a conservative hair cut and a neatly trimmed beard, shot through with gray. Only a lapel pin of gold, a sunburst with the Egyptian glyph of the Eye of Thoth, gave any distinction to his apparel. The emblem seemed anachronistic against Lee's nondescript wardrobe and grooming choices. Kismet stared at the insignia, trying to remember where he had seen it before.


"I take it you are not a medical doctor."


Lee chuckled, but his eyes did not seem to be laughing. "No. I earned my doctorate in comparative theology. For several years I have been doing research with the Theosophical Society and similar organizations. Now I am pursuing a personal quest."


Kismet nodded, but was suddenly wary. Anyone who made a study of theosophy, a modern twist on ancient spiritualism and magic, was likely to be a crackpot, and he had wasted too many valuable hours of his life arguing with such men. "So what did you find at Nineveh?"


Lee pushed the cast across to him. "What do you make of it?"


Kismet laughed as he looked. "If I had a full reference library, I might be able to translate this in a week--" He paused because, as he gazed at the seemingly random pattern of wedge shaped marks, he saw a few familiar groupings.


"I've seen this before," he finally admitted. "This is the Epic of Gilgamesh."


Lee smiled again. "Excellent. Everything I have heard about you is true."


"You almost sound as if you expected to meet me."


"I don't believe in coincidence, Mr. Kismet. Our meeting was certainly fated."


"So what is your interest in one of the world's oldest fairy tales?"


Lee laughed, but his icy eyes froze away any hint of humor. "The quest of Gilgamesh is one that I happen to share."


"Gilgamesh sought immortality."


"Even so."


Kismet sighed, leaning back in his chair. "Gilgamesh never found the secret of eternal life. What makes you think you can?"


"Actually, Gilgamesh did find it. Uta-Napishtim, the only man to be given the gift of immortality, told Gilgamesh of a plant which could give him eternal life; a plant that grew at the bottom of the sea. In the legend, Gilgamesh recovered the plant, only to lose it to a hungry serpent."


"I stand corrected. So is it your supposition that such a plant actually exists?"


"How very astute of you, Mr. Kismet. What if it was that simple; eat the fruit of the Tree of Life, and live forever? Would you not do so in a heartbeat?"


"Maybe. But if such a plant, a Tree of Life, existed, someone would have found it by now."


"And why do you believe no one has?"


Kismet contemplated the cast for a moment. "Are you telling me that you believe the tale of Gilgamesh to be rooted in fact?"


Lee smiled again, a humorless grin that lowered the temperature in the humid salon by several degrees. "Theologians cannot help but recognize the similarities between characters in the Epic, and those mentioned in the Bible. Gilgamesh is certainly Nimrod, the king who would be a god. Uta-Napishtim the immortal who survived the Great Flood, is Noah. And Genesis also speaks of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden; doubtless the same plant Gilgamesh sought. Its placement at the bottom of the ocean would be an allusion to Eden being lost to the flood."


Kismet stroked his chin thoughtfully. "Okay, I'll buy that. Of course Noah did die, whereas Uta-Napishtim was supposed to be immortal."


"Noah lived to be nearly a thousand years old; the longest any man lived after the Great Flood. His son Shem, though not living quite as long, apparently possessed a similar gift of longevity. To the rest of the world, they would certainly seem immortal."



"And it is your contention that they possessed some vestige of the Tree of Life from the Garden of Eden, that kept them alive well beyond the limit of an ordinary life span?"


"Contention? Better to call it an hypothesis." Lee reached for a stack of books and loose notes that shared the table with the plaster replicas. From the middle of the stack, he took out a thick, well-worn Bible. "If we are to accept the account of the Bible as truth, and that is a leap of faith which many in our modern society are no longer willing to make, but I ask your forbearance, then the account of Genesis proves unquestionably that the antediluvians lived to extraordinary ages. Adam, Methuselah and Noah himself, all lived to be nearly a thousand years of age. What changed following the Great Flood that so radically changed the life span of mankind?


"The answer is here. Genesis chapter two: 'And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads. The name of the first is Pison: that is it which compasseth the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; And the gold of that land is good: there is bdellium and the onyx stone. And the name of the second river is Gihon: the same is it that compasseth the whole land of Ethiopia. And the name of the third river is Hiddekel: that is it which goeth toward the east of Assyria. And the fourth river is Euphrates.'"


"I'm not sure I follow you."


"The rivers that issued out of Eden, the garden of life, were likely imbued with the properties of the Tree of Life, mentioned here in verse nine: 'the tree of life also in the midst of the garden.' Adam and Eve were not permitted to eat of the fruit of that tree, expelled from the garden for their transgression and barred from entering by the cherubs and the blade of a flaming sword. Nevertheless, the life-giving properties of the Tree of Life flowed out of Eden in the waters of those rivers; diluted to be sure, but still potent enough to enable those men to live to extraordinary ages."


"Then the Flood came and washed it all away," continued Kismet, a hint of skepticism in his tone. "So how did Noah and Shem manage to live on for so long afterward?"


"One explanation would be that both were born into the antediluvian world; both would have tasted the waters of life that flowed, perhaps in the river Euphrates. But I postulate a different theory.


"Noah was certainly the favored of God, even as Uta-Napishtim was in the Epic of Gilgamesh. I believe that Noah may have carried pieces of the Tree, perhaps its fruit, plucked from the river waters before the Flood. He would have given these powerful items to his sons Japheth and Shem, though not to Ham, the accursed progenitor of the Negro race."


Kismet made a sour face at the diatribe. He liked Lee less as the conversation progressed. He shoved a forkful of food into his mouth, thinking of a way to excuse himself.


"Nimrod," continued Lee, "Was a descendant of Ham, and likely coveted the gift that Noah had passed to his superior offspring. Perhaps the quest of Gilgamesh is an allegory describing Nimrod's desire to seize that power from the children of his grandfather's brothers."


"It seems to me like you have taken some pretty wild leaps of logic here."


"There is much more evidence to support my claim."


"Such as?"


"Earlier you asked why no one else had ever discovered the secret of immortality. I have compiled many accounts that lead me to believe that several men throughout the ages have." Lee shuffled several papers out of the stack. "Here are accounts of the Comte de Saint-Germain, an alchemist who reputedly discovered the secret of immortality in a substance he called the philosopher's stone."


"I have heard of him. Or rather, I have heard of the various charlatans throughout the years that have claimed to be Saint-Germain, or Cagliostro or Ahasueurus the Wandering Jew."


"Are you so sure that they were charlatans? If Noah or Methuselah could live to be nine hundred years old, why not these men?"


Kismet shrugged. He silently admonished himself for not having excused himself when Lee first mentioned theosophy. He had seen this pointless debate coming, and should have immediately left the room. "Those storied failed to convince me then, and nothing I have heard here convinces me now."


"Then consider a different tale." Lee picked up the Bible again. "Have you ever heard of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ?"


Kismet shrugged again. "Aside from the fact that hundreds of churches, schools and hospitals are named for it, not really."


"The Devotion of the Sacred Heart is a liturgy found in the catechism, though it is not explicitly mentioned in scripture. The doctrine itself has more to do with the symbolism of Christ's love for mankind, a love so passionate that it caused his heart to burn visibly.


"In the subtext of this tale however, I see yet another clue in the puzzle of the quest for immortality. There is a tradition among the Gnostics, who were in fact among the earliest of Christ's followers, and never accepted the pollution of the Roman church, that Jesus was in fact one of the Magi; a class of Rabbis devoted to studying the Kabbalah. During the forty days and nights, which Christ spent in the wilderness, he learned the secret of unlocking the powers hidden in the language of the Torah. I believe that he also found something else.


"Another supposition of scholars is that Shem, the son of Noah, was also Melchizedek, King of Salem, and there is no mention of Melchizedek dying in the scriptures; in fact, St. Paul alluded to Melchizedek's immortality in the Epistle to the Hebrews. It is my belief that Melchizedek bequeathed his vestige of the Tree of Life to Jesus Christ during the forty days of his meditation, and the Christ in turn used the knowledge of the Magi to incorporate it into his own flesh, making it one with his own heart."


"That is an interesting way of skewing the scriptures," remarked Kismet. "But it doesn't really support your idea of eternal life. Jesus didn't exactly survive to a ripe old age."


"Only because he was slain. And yet death could not hold him, for he rose three days later, as an eternal spirit." Through his discussion, Lee's voice remained calm, never betraying the passions he evidently harbored toward the subject. "Notice however the particulars of his crucifixion, mentioned in the Gospel of St. John: 'But one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water.' The spear of the centurion Gaius Longinus pierced the heart of Jesus. When that happened, the heavens darkened and the earth shook. The gospel of St. Matthew says that tombs were opened and the dead came to life. Imagine the power that was released when the Sacred Heart was pierced. The spear of the centurion became a powerful talisman, as did the chalice in which Joseph of Arimathea collected the heart-blood of Christ. Longinus himself received the gift of immortal life."


"I have heard that legend as well, but as I recall, Longinus viewed his immortality as a curse."


"Only because of his guilt for having slain the Christ. He doubtless wished to kill himself, even as Judas the betrayer did, but he was denied the release of suicide."


Kismet shook his head, as if clearing away cobwebs. "Okay, so Jesus' powers to heal, raise the dead and everything else came from the fruit of the Tree of Life mentioned in Genesis. We'll sidestep the fact that about every Christian on the planet would view that as blasphemy. How exactly is that going to lead you to the secret of immortality? If what you say is true, the Sacred Heart of Christ perished when he died."


"True, but remember what I said earlier. Noah passed his gift on to Japheth also. There were at least two, and perhaps many more pieces of the Tree of Life that survived the Great Flood. For the sake of our discussion, we shall refer to these as the Eternal Hearts. Shem, who later became Melchizedek, had one, which eventually became the possession of Christ, and made possible his transcendence of the flesh. Japheth also took possession of one of the Hearts, and I believe that this is the one which Nimrod, or Gilgamesh sought and eventually captured."