The Thirteenth Skull

Page 1

KNOXVILLE, TENNESSEE

I parked the Koenigsegg CCR sports car, with its bicom-pression centrifugal supercharging system and twin parallel mounted Rotrex compressors in the garage beneath Samson Towers, in the space marked RESERVED. Beneath the word was the very dire warning that all violators would be towed at their own expense.

After taking the private elevator from the garage to the main floor, I walked through the huge atrium, past the waterfall gurgling and splashing in the center. The guards behind the metal scanner and X-ray machine waved me through with a smile, and the guy at the security desk gave me a respectful nod, and I thought of my uncle Farrell, who’d had the same job before my life got really weird.

I took the express elevator to the penthouse suite, twisting the Great Seal of Solomon on my finger, a nervous habit I couldn’t seem to break. I was thinking about putting it on a chain to wear around my neck or maybe stashing it in the hidden compartment beneath my father’s desk, where I’d found Excalibur about a thousand years ago.

Samuel came out of my father’s old office wearing a worried expression. “Oh, there you are,” he said. “I was getting concerned.”

He followed me into the inner office and closed the door behind us.

I told him about the meeting with Abigail Smith in the old church.

“She’s the new director of OIPEP,” I said. “She didn’t seem too thrilled about it.”

“This is very grave news,Alfred,”Samuel said. “As the director, Dr. Smith will be under great pressure to obtain the Seal from you. And the Company, as you know, can be ruthless.”

“Sometimes good people have to do bad things,” I said.

He nodded.

“Well, I’m still not sure I buy that argument, Samuel.” I sank into the fat leather chair behind my father’s desk.

Samuel sat across from me, clearly worried. “Perhaps I should not have left the Company.”

“But if you stayed I wouldn’t have a legal guardian. Well, I guess I would, but it might be Horace Tuttle, and I really don’t like Horace Tuttle.”

“I will do all within my power to guard you, Alfred.” Samuel got very serious, which was a lot more serious than most people get. “I will never abandon or betray you, though hell itself contend against me.”

“Don’t say that.” I laughed. “We’ve been down that road before.”

He nodded, and a dark look passed over his features.

My face grew hot. I shouldn’t have said that. It didn’t come out right and now it was too late to take it back.

“Anyway, I told you to forget about it,” I added quickly. “I know why you thought you couldn’t come with me to face Paimon. That wasn’t you at the Devil’s Door.”

“Oh, that is the terrible thing, Alfred, the thing I must live with until I live no more: it was me, and I have wasted many hours trying to convince myself otherwise. Too often we blame the temptation itself for our succumbing to it.”

I winced. “Please, don’t talk about temptation.”

I got up and went to the window, turning my back to him. I stared down at the street thirty-three stories below.

A delivery truck was parked in the loading zone in front of Samson Towers. A guy dressed in a brown uniform was unloading boxes from the back onto a dolly. The day was sunny but very cold, and the man’s breath exploded in curling white plumes over his head while he worked.

Nearly two months had passed since my final showdown with the demon king named Paimon, but the memory of what it offered me was still glittering and sharp.

A little house on a shady street. A kind older man and his pretty wife. And me. I went to school and hung with my friends. And that’s about all I did. No adventures. No saving the world from total annihilation. Just a normal life.

Nearly every morning since that day I woke with a little stab of regret for turning down the demon king’s offer.

A black SUV pulled up behind the delivery truck as the guy in the brown jacket and slacks wheeled the dolly toward the front doors, disappearing from view. A man in a dark suit emerged from the SUV, talking on a cell phone. One of the guards came out, pointed at the SUV and made a little waving motion with his hand, while the guy on the cell phone tried to juggle his phone conversation with the one happening with the guard.

Behind me, Samuel said, “Whatever the future holds, I will never forget this second chance you’ve given me, Alfred.”

Before I could say anything, a car sped around the corner, screeched onto Gay Street on two wheels, and then accelerated until it rammed into the rear of the SUV. The sound of the impact carried through the frigid air up to the penthouse. The man in the dark business suit fell forward, colliding with the guard as he stumbled backward.

Samuel’s faint reflection appeared behind me at the window. “What happened?” he asked.

The car’s hood had crumpled completely against the SUV’s bumper, shattering the windshield and deploying the air bag. I couldn’t see the driver.

“That guy just rammed into—”

A fireball leaped into the sky, and instinctively we jerked back from the window. The guy in the black suit and the guard faded out of sight toward the front of the building.

A second later they were back, joined by two other guards from the Towers and a few other people who tried to approach the burning car, but I didn’t think there was any way somebody could have survived that.

A voice spoke behind us. “Hey, what’s up?”

We both whirled around. Samuel reached inside his jacket for his gun.

It was the delivery man. He was holding a large tube wrapped in brown paper. It looked like the kind of packaging posters come in.

“I got a package for a mister”—the delivery guy consulted his clipboard—“Alfred Kropp.”

“I’ll take it,” Samuel said. He took a step toward the delivery man.

“All right,” the man said pleasantly. The package turned end over end as it fell to the floor, like it was falling in slow motion, the clipboard falling with it.

The man in brown was holding a sawed-off shotgun. He pointed it at Samuel’s chest and pulled the trigger.

I screamed, but my scream was buried under the roar of the blast.

Samuel fell forward, both hands clutching his chest.

The singing of sirens was floating up from the street below, but my mind barely registered them. I rushed the shooter.

The barrel of the gun swung toward my face. My foot caught on Samuel’s writhing body and I fell forward. Instinctively my left hand shot out and I shoved the barrel upward just as the guy pulled the trigger, sending the blast into the ceiling. I swung blindly with my right fist, landing a lucky punch square into the guy’s Adam’s apple. He countered with an elbow to my cheek.

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