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The Thieves of Heaven

The Thieves of Heaven by Richard Doetsch
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The most closely Guarded treasure on Earth.

An explosive ancient secret.

A breakneck journey into the heart of the Vatican.

In a small, heavily fortified room just north of the Sistine Chapel, a master thief is about to strike. All he needs is an instant–to steal the most important treasure in the Vatican museum: two antique keys–one gold, one silver–that protect the secret of salvation….

But a surprise awaits Michael St. Pierre deep inside the Vatican, an ancient secret so explosive, it sends him running for his life—from the streets of Rome to a small stone church in Israel—with two stolen keys and a terrible realization: the consequences of his desperate, brazen act are far greater than he could ever have imagined.

For the treasure he has uncovered—the gleaming prize buried within the most clandestine structure on earth—is about to bring him face-to-face with an enemy more shocking, frightening, and insidious than anyone can guess....

From the Paperback edition.
Random House Publishing Group; April 2006
ISBN 9780440336020
Read online, or download in secure EPUB
Title: The Thieves of Heaven
Author: Richard Doetsch

Nighttime in NYC

Michael St. Pierre flipped the Steiner night vision monocular down over his left eye, loosened his grip on the rope, and continued his descent from the fifteenth floor. The darkened alley, now rendered green, was his landing site. He was careful not to look toward the big city lights in the distance; he couldn’t afford blindness at this moment in his life. The alley below was clear except for a few bags of garbage and a couple of rats on their nocturnal prowl. A thirty-yard jog across the street would put him over the ten-foot granite wall into the nighttime safety of Central Park. He stayed in the shadows of the buildings around him. He wasn’t worried about getting caught: the hard part was over and this particular corner of the world was deserted.

He was sixty feet from touchdown when out of his left eye–the enhanced one–he caught a glimpse of flesh. Soft, naked flesh. It was in the adjacent building, a town house, fifth floor. The dark, nobody-home, adjacent building sitting just off Fifth Avenue. He swore he could make out a breast. He averted his eye; he wasn’t a Peeping Tom. But it was a nice sight. A stone’s throw away. He never would have known, but for the night vision. He wasn’t worried, though: she couldn’t see him, of this, Michael was sure.

He continued his descent through the hot sticky night. But, like a siren, the vision pulled him back, if only for a second. Yes, it was a breast. Two, in fact. Well proportioned
above a trim waist, the whole scene bathed in green. God, he did love the view up here. The woman lay on her back. He couldn’t really make out her face but it was an exceptional body. He watched as it writhed in passion. Think of the job, he reminded himself, fighting the momentary lust.

He released his guideline, continuing his descent. He had invested too many hours to risk it all now over stolen glances at unsuspecting lovers. He would be home in no time flat if he stuck to the plan, safe in the embrace of his bride, who was far more alluring than this woman before him. Though she did possess a body like none he had ever laid eyes upon.

Without warning, as if reading his thoughts, the woman’s head snapped left toward the window. Michael froze, holding fast to the line, not a sound, not a breath. Had she seen him? Impossible. He was dressed for concealment; the area around him couldn’t be darker. And then his insides turned to water.

She wasn’t looking at him. She couldn’t. Her eyes were covered with a dark cloth; in her mouth was a ball gag. The twisting of her body was not passion but terror. He looked harder. She was bound spread-eagled to a table and she was in pain. A sudden rage filled him as he saw a figure poised at her side; the man’s face was obscured but the gun in his hand was not. This wasn’t a game: the woman was being taken against her will. And it was all happening less than twenty feet away from him.

He looked down. Only fifty feet to go. Freedom. He felt the small pouch on his back shift its weight. Six months of planning for that pouch; it was his future. He wasn’t going to let it slip through his fingers. This was no time to be a hero.

But she was still there, the green hue of the nightscope painting her skin, her body straining against its bonds. Michael didn’t need to hear to know she was screaming
behind the gag in her mouth.

Summertime on the Upper East Side. Most had abandoned the city for the Hamptons, for Greenwich, for their little piece of what they called the country; their apartments left dark and dusty until September. The kings and queens abandoned their castles for greener pastures and fresher air, leaving behind Silicon Alley fiefdoms and Wall Street empires. It was a concentration of wealth unlike any in the world, all encased behind thirty blocks of limestone facades and hulking Irish doormen.

The imposing embassy was originally the home and offices of J. S. Vandervelde, an oil baron whose empire rivaled those of Getty, Rockefeller, and Carnegie. The Akbiquestan government bought the building in the early seventies not for her ornate beauty but for her impenetrable exterior structure: walls three feet thick, massive doors, bulletproof windowpanes. The Vanderveldes had known their place in the world: they knew their enemies better than they knew their family and so had their home designed accordingly. Johan Sebastian Vandervelde had constructed his fortress–eight floors of mansion, seven floors of office–in 1915, moving his family uptown from their Greenwich Village home on Fourth Street. Running afoul of his workers had grown commonplace with Johan Sebastian and there was a price to be paid. It just wouldn’t be paid in blood on his own doorstep.

The Akbiquestans also knew their place in the world and knew they needed a bunker more than an office building. They had upgraded Vandervelde’s former home since moving in, plumbing, electric, heating, and security. The only way in was through the front door, if you were willing to endure guards, scanners, guns, and the like.

But people tend to think in two dimensions, not three. An assault from above was never considered a threat, even when the Akbiquestan ambassador was in residence.
The roof was outfitted only with standard alarms on the roof doors, windows, and skylights.

It had taken six months of planning. Michael knew every corner of the building better than its longest resident. The Landmark Preservation Commission had been extremely accommodating in providing full plans and specs on the property. When they heard he was writing a book on the history of the most famous avenue in the world, they dropped everything they were doing to assist the nice young man in the Ralph Lauren suit. Not only did they provide info on the building in question, but on each of the adjacent structures. Forbes Carlton Smyth–Michael chose the alias for its implied pedigree–assured every commissioner he would receive an acknowledgment for his assistance. The building’s American security system was easily identified and access codes were purchased from the manufacturer for a nominal fee, as U.S. sentiment didn’t run deep for the Akbiques.

Like every good businessman, Michael was thorough in his work, dotting every i and crossing every t. He was every bit the professional. No stone left unturned in his planning, no detail overlooked in his research. Every foreseeable scenario was played out and provisioned for. But unlike other businesses his was a firm of one. No R&D staff, no secretarial pool, no VP of human resources. Michael always worked alone; in an untrusting field, you can’t be the trusting kind. Always performing below-theradar lifts: governments, criminals, the over-insured. Nothing could or would ever point to him. Always in and out in minutes, never a mistake, never a trace, never a clue, and, most importantly, never caught.

The embassy was down-staffed now that the United Nations was on hiatus. Two guards on duty per shift, a handful of daytime secretaries, and that was it. Everyone else had returned home to enjoy the mountainous desert land they represented.

The ambassador, Anwar Sri Ruskot, was a well respected general who excelled at diplomacy, but that talent ran a distant fourth to his greatest skills. General Ruskot was well-known in the black markets as a top courier, fence, and merchant specializing in the movement of antiques, jewelry, and paintings, all the while hiding behind his diplomatic credentials. As far as the general was concerned, the diplomatic pouch was an invention greater than electricity, the light bulb, and women combined. Rumors of his activities ran rampant in law enforcement circles but the FBI and Interpol were powerless. If they shook the tree, the State Department would have a major crisis on their hands that could swiftly escalate to bloodshed between the not-exactly-friendly countries. When General Ruskot was in town, he ran his enterprise from the fifteenth floor of the embassy, well out of reach of his guards, councilors, secretaries, and busybodies. His office was on the top floor, where only he was allowed. Ruskot claimed that it was here he conducted his country’s most sensitive dealings and that if those dealings were to be prematurely exposed, the impact would be catastrophic to world diplomacy. Nobody ever entered fifteen, under any circumstance.

Michael was the first to see the ambassador’s true operation. He hung in the middle of the room on a Kevlar wire, five feet off the ground, shining a small penlight. The study was large, a cross between a gentleman’s library and an opium den. A massive masculine desk surrounded by high-back red leather chairs was positioned against the rear wall, while on the opposite end was a nomadic sitting area of thick deep pillows centered around a hookah, its stale opiate smell still clinging to the air. Among the host of Eastern antiques and master paintings, Turkish rugs and tapestries, there were ledgers, files, and computers detailing each shady transaction, each illicit payment, every underhanded deal. While most of the criminal element was discreet about record-keeping, that was a worry Ruskot would never have: the general wasn’t on American soil, this was pure Akbiquestan ground protected by the Vienna Convention.

Michael had entered the alley shortly after midnight to begin his ascent. The four-story boutique sat just off Madison Avenue, its granite-block face a climber’s dream. On his back he carried several lengths of thin kernmantle rope; at his waist, carabiners, clamps, and a tool kit–all taped to avoid jingling. From the shadowed alley he began his climb, his fingers clinging to the impossibly narrow lips between the building’s granite blocks. As if out for a stroll, he scaled the boutique in seconds, then cut across the roof and headed up the adjacent eight-story apartment house. Possessing the style and strength of a master, he moved building to building toward Fifth Avenue, rising higher in the city as he went. Michael loved climbing buildings more than rocks. They possessed a greater challenge, a greater sense of accomplishment for him. He’d gotten hooked on man-made facades back in college: the Towers dormitory was his first Mount Everest. He had worked his way up to the twenty-second floor of the dorm, slipped in and out of a student teacher’s window without so much as a sound; all for want of a test paper. The adventure didn’t have the payoff he was hoping for– the girl he stole it for had still failed the exam.

Michael descended to the Akbiquestan Embassy roof from the adjacent eighteen-story condo. The skylight, installed in ’68, was alarmed but easily defeated through a few choice splices. He removed the glass, looked about the dark room through his monocular, then lowered himself down. Hell of an apartment, hell of an art collection. Michael had studied the plans like a playbook and could easily redraw them blindfolded; he knew every inch of the place long before he set foot inside.

Through his various sources he was aware of a considerable amount of uncut diamonds on the premises and his contacts were proven correct when the six-foot-high 1908 Wells Fargo safe swung open under his knowledgeable fingers. There were diamonds, all right. He unfurled the black velvet jewelry roll and there they sat like stars against a night sky, winking and sparkling up at him. Enough to fill a cookie jar. Thirty million black market, untraceable dollars. What made the job even sweeter was no one would ever report these diamonds missing. They were surely stolen, illegally insured, their existence known to only a select few. The ambassador would never send out an alarm. Too many questions would be raised as to their origin. Under no circumstance was anyone entering the fifteenth-floor suite to inspect the scene of this crime. No police, no investigation, no problem.

At the same moment as the safe door swung open, Cpl. Javier Samaha was growing restless at his post by the embassy door. The guards had drawn lots to see who would rotate home and Samaha had gotten the proverbial short straw. The monotony of twelve-hour shifts was making his feet throb and his head ache. It was a quiet night, a Thursday, and nothing, as usual, was happening. Besides eating, reading, and cards, there wasn’t much else to do. Despite all the fears of being a stranger in a hostile land, there had never been an incident at the embassy or against any of his countrymen. Samaha thought the ambassador’s paranoia unfounded and the man’s precautions
over the top. This was the twenty-first century, the age of tolerance, and the embassy sat in the most diverse, liberal city in the world. Besides, it was the middle of the summer, all the radicals and college kids were on vacation, nobody was going to stage even a protest until at least September. Samaha turned to the desk officer and told him he was going to make his rounds early, he needed to stretch his legs and clear his head. He usually started on the second floor and worked his way up, but exercising what little authority he possessed, tonight he decided to start at the top.

Michael closed the safe and stuffed the diamonds in the satchel, throwing it over his back. He took a brief moment to admire the artwork, confident that no one would be
entering this restricted area, and noticed a jeweled cross in the corner. It was nine inches high and encrusted with a host of sapphires, rubies, and emeralds. He had come only for the diamonds, but the cross just screamed to him, he didn’t know why. It wasn’t in his plan and he hated deviating; he was always extremely fastidious in his work. He knew the key to success–which translated to not being caught–was to stick to the plan. But after all, this would be his last job.

He threw the cross in the bag and was out of there in 93 seconds.

The elevator door opened on fifteen. Corporal Samaha knew the restrictions but tonight curiosity had gotten the better of him. No one was around to catch him, so what harm would it do? He checked the only apartment door on the floor–the only door the guards didn’t have a key for–and, confirming that it was securely locked, headed for the fire stair, a bit disappointed. Then he turned and looked back at the carved mahogany entrance to Ruskot’s sanctuary. The corporal didn’t have much respect for the paranoid diplomat, but it was his sworn duty to protect the general and to uphold the dignity of his country. Samaha resigned himself to never knowing the truth up here and turned his thoughts to coffee. He’d opened the fire door and stepped into the stairwell when he heard a sharp click in the silence. He stopped, focused his hearing. The sound came from the apartment. He heard it again. Not as loud this time but it was definitely a click, and it wasn’t natural. He retraced his steps and checked the door: locked. He placed his ear to the polished mahogany, listening intently. He was sure he heard something. He thought of the implications, of his duty to his country; he considered the general’s violent personality and he considered the general’s violent personality again.

Throwing caution to the wind, he kicked in the door. The apartment was dark but for the light pouring in from the hall and the little bit of glow coming from the skylight. The corporal noted the roomy study was finely appointed, better by far than any other room in the embassy. A palace in the sky. He took a moment looking about. Nothing appeared out of place. He took particular notice of the large safe; pondering its use, he checked the lock. Secure. He turned to leave, deciding the sound he’d heard was probably just a settling noise from the air duct. But then he noticed the wall.

It seemed like a water stain, an outline of dust. Samaha moved in for a closer look at the wall, stepping over the pillows and casting a disparaging glance at the hookah. Though the apartment was deep in shadow, there was just enough light to make out the shading. The corporal ran his fingers along it, tracing its outline. Sunlight had, over time, discolored the wall but one single area still retained the vibrant green of its original application, a small area in the shape of a cross.

And so Michael hung fifty feet in the air with his guaranteed future in the satchel upon his back. Five stories to freedom. A tortured woman before him about to die. His bad feeling, the one in the pit of his stomach, the one that usually told him to run the other way, was almost overwhelming. But it was nothing compared to the fear he felt
for the innocent victim he’d glimpsed.

He raced up the rope, hand over hand, made the hundred-foot climb in seconds, and leaped the parapet. Twenty feet away and nine floors below was the six-story town house. He scaled the adjacent condo, dug his fingers into the brick face and shimmied his way across, affixed and played out his rope, then lowered himself down.

He liked a carefully thought-out plan, always had one, always had a backup, and always had a backup to his backup. Flying by the seat of his pants was something he preferred to avoid. He was running on adrenaline and now would have to rely on instinct. He reviewed what he knew: the town house was held in a corporate name, some European textile firm, it was usually occupied by a husband, wife, and a little schnauzer, and it had a cheap and ineffective alarm system. This building had been part of his planning; it was a fallback position, he had studied it well.

Thoughts raced through his head. Where was the husband? Who was the perpetrator? Was it the husband? Was this how this couple got their rocks off? No time for questions, only facts: the woman’s body language had pleaded to God for help–she was about to die.

It really wasn’t much of a decision. Samaha explained to the desk officer that he’d heard something on fifteen and despite his orders not to enter the floor, had felt it was his sworn duty to protect his country. He explained that he checked the rest of the building and felt someone may have been prowling about the roof. Nonsense, was all the duty officer said. Samaha suggested calling the NYPD to have them do a drive-by and to keep their eyes open for anything suspicious. It was a good cover story–let the police comb the area; if the thief was still about, the cops would catch him and Samaha would be credited with quick thinking. He might even get a commendation. And if they didn’t catch anyone? General Ruskot and his wicked temper were due back in two weeks. Going AWOL in a city like New York was not that bad an alternative.

Michael entered the town house silently through the top floor window. He had no gun; he hated guns, never had a use for them and wouldn’t know what to do with one if he
had it. But he did have his knife; he held it in his hand, the handle smooth, comforting to his touch, its blade reflecting shards of light off its deadly edge. He rolled it back anD forth in his palm, saying a silent prayer he wouldn’t have to use it; its honed metal was unfamiliar with the suppleness of skin.

He flipped down his nightscope, painting the rear guest bedroom in its eerie green glow, then stepped in the hall. Subtle sounds of thrashing, naked skin screeching against a table, a low whine drumming behind it, combined to shiver his soul and strengthen his resolve. At the end of the hall, just outside the door, lay the schnauzer, motionless in a pool of blood. Michael inched his way down and peered into the room. It was a pottery studio: racks of drying clay pots lined a wooden shelf; various paints, thinners, and glazes on a desk; a large kiln in the corner, he could hear its exhaust fan venting intense internal heat. The smell was moist and earthy mixed with an unnatural hint of jasmine. Scraps of dried clay littered the floor; wooden tools were strewn about, as if a whirlwind had whipped through the place. He saw the table where the work was done, where the clay was pounded and molded, cut into pieces and formed into art. But it wasn’t clay being worked tonight.

The woman was blonde, on the closing end of her thirties. A thin layer of sweat coated her body as her breasts heaved in fear. Even naked, you could tell she was of exceptional wealth, her body toned like an athlete, her face chiseled to perfection by a Park Avenue plastic surgeon. Her pedicured feet hung over the edge, tied to the legs of the table, her arms were secured above her head, a black scarf covered her eyes. The tearful moans coming from behind the ball gag chilled Michael’s heart, but at least they confirmed one thing: the woman was still alive.

Upon the windowsill was what could only be described as a nineteenth-century medical kit, a sawbones’s menagerie of crude antique surgeon’s tools: knives, scalpels, and
bone saws.

He looked everywhere–there was no sign of the woman’s assailant. Ripping off his nightscope, Michael flipped on the light and raced to her side. Her skin was unmarred; whoever had done this had not yet started to work. He quickly began cutting her from her restraints. She kicked and let out a muffled shriek, unaware that Michael was her savior.

And that’s when the steamroller hit him square in the side of the head. Michael tumbled backward, dazed, losing all sense of time and reality. He glimpsed a shadow, its face obscured by a scarf, holding a sculptor’s mallet in its right hand and in its left a large gun. Michael’s head throbbed as he fought to hold on to consciousness. He never imagined death as an option when the night started, but now . . . Not a word was said as the cold barrel of a gun came to rest against his forehead. The madman thumbed back the hammer then paused, seeming to draw joy from prolonging the moment. Michael squeezed the hilt of his knife, taking comfort in the fact that it was concealed. Then, without a moment’s hesitation, he thrust his blade upward into his attacker’s wrist, buried to the hilt, the bloodied tip jutting out the back of the man’s forearm. The assailant fell backward, tumbling against the kiln. He landed shoulder-first against the twelve-hundred-degree metal as his gun skittered away. Instantly, the stench of scorched flesh filled the air.

Michael stumbled to his feet, trying to get his bearings, his head still a jumble from the brutal blow. He grabbed the table to steady himself and finally got a good look at his attacker. The man’s eyes were cold and dead as smoke rolled off his seared shoulder and blood poured from his arm, dribbling down the handle of Michael’s blade. Oblivious to the pain, the man ripped the knife from his mangled wrist and charged, jamming the knife into Michael’s shoulder, tackling him to the floor. The madman grabbed the knife handle and, like a dead pig on a hook, dragged Michael by the hilt across the room, dumping him by the kiln. With a snarl of rage, the man kicked the blade; agony shot through Michael’s body.

Teetering on the edge of blackout, a loud radio squawk startled Michael. A police monitor. It was his attacker’s. Michael could barely make out the words: “Possible robbery at the Akbiquestan Embassy, car in route.”

Michael lay there, his body heading into shock from the pain. The woman on the table shrieked a strangled scream through the gag in her mouth; she would surely be seeing death now. Michael’s thoughts ran to his wife. How would she ever understand? He pictured the police explaining his death to her; how he was found; how he was murdered. Could she please help them with their investigation? Help them to explain the stolen diamonds in the satchel on her husband’s back. Did she know the dead naked socialite? Were her husband and the woman having an affair?

Against any rational thought, Michael reached up and in one mighty pull ripped the knife free from his shoulder, the pain so intense it sucked him instantly toward darkness. He was close to blacking out when a flowing liquid shocked him back to life. The solvent ran along the floor, spreading everywhere, burning his nose, scorching his skin as it seeped into his open wound. For the first time in his life, the realization of his mortality was upon him. If he didn’t move–and now–not only would he die but so would the woman.

Standing in the doorway, the madman drew back his arm, the wick of a makeshift Molotov cocktail ablaze. Michael struggled to his feet as the man hurled the flaming
bottle straight at him. The paint-thinner bomb floated through the air for what seemed an eternity before arcing downward, finally exploding on the red-hot kiln. Fire mushroomed up, racing out along the floor. The madman disappeared as the doorway burst into flame.

Michael, fighting the agony of his throbbing shoulder and what was surely a concussion, scrambled across the room through the thickening flame and smoke. From a shelf he grabbed a tarp and threw it over the stunned woman. He tore away her mask and gag. She saw the flames and shrieked, on the border of hysteria. Tying his rope to the table leg, Michael hurled a chair through the window and, immediately behind it, the rope. He clipped on his harness and grabbed the lady. She didn’t need to be told where they were going: she held on.

He hurled himself and his burden out the window as the room erupted. Together, they tumbled down through the summer air as the table skidded along the floor, finally slamming home against the window. They jolted to a halt–stories above the alley below. Flames licked out the window only yards above their heads.

They touched down on the sidewalk just as the town house windows exploded, flames and plumes of smoke curling up into the city sky. The interior of the town house glowed orange as the sixth floor became fully engulfed. He lay the woman down. She was whimpering incoherently as she pulled the tarp tight around her naked body, shivering and weeping.

Michael tore off his belt, throwing the tools in the bushes, and checked the diamond-filled satchel on his back. Still there. The blood poured from his shoulder, his dark shirt had gone crimson. He hoped the blood loss wasn’t fatal; he didn’t have time to deal with dying right now. He leaned over the woman. Life was returning to her eyes. She smiled, as the tears rolled down her face.

Sirens blared and within seconds three police cars screeched to a halt across the street. Michael looked across Fifth Avenue toward the wall to Central Park. He touched the pouch on his back; it was his future. Freedom was only twenty yards away.

He could still make it.

From the Paperback edition.