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The Omega Factor
By Steve Berry
Read by Scott Brick
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Enter UNESCO investigator, Nicholas Lee, who works for the United Nations’ Cultural Liaison and Investigative Office (CLIO). Nick’s job is to protect the world’s cultural artifacts—anything and everything from countless lesser-known objects to national treasures.
When Nick travels to Belgium for a visit with a woman from his past, he unwittingly stumbles on the trail of a legendary panel from the Ghent Altarpiece, stolen in 1934 under cover of night and never seen since. Soon Nick is plunged into a bitter conflict, one that has been simmering for nearly two thousand years. On one side is the Maidens of Saint-Michael, les Vautours—the Vultures—a secret order of nuns and the guardians of a great truth. Pitted against them is the Vatican, which has wanted for centuries to both find and possess what the nuns guard. Because of Nick the maidens have finally been exposed, their secret placed in dire jeopardy—a vulnerability that the Vatican swiftly moves to exploit utilizing an ambitious cardinal and a corrupt archbishop, both with agendas of their own.
From the tranquil canals of Ghent, to the towering bastions of Carcassonne, and finally into an ancient abbey high in the French Pyrenees, Nick Lee must confront a modern-day religious crusade intent on eliminating a shocking truth from humanity’s past. Success or failure—life and death—all turn on the Omega Factor.
This is my first book with the Hachette Book Group. My sincere thanks to Ben Sevier, senior vice president and publisher of Grand Central, for taking a chance on an old guy like me. To Wes Miller, my editor, whom I’ve greatly enjoyed getting to know and working with. He’s a man of remarkable insight. This book became much better thanks to him. Then to Tiffany Porcelli for her marketing expertise; Staci Burt, who handled publicity; and all those who created the cover and made the interior of the book shine. A grateful nod also goes to Sales and Production who made sure there was a book and that it was widely available. Thank you, one and all.
A deep bow goes to Simon Lipskar, my agent and friend, who made this book possible.
A few extra mentions: Jessica Johns and Esther Garver, who continue to keep Steve Berry Enterprises running smoothly. Nathalie Dumon, who showed Elizabeth and me around Ghent and provided some early research materials. Noah Charney, the expert on all things relative to the Ghent Altarpiece. And Christophe Masiero for helping out with my French.
As always, to my wife, Elizabeth, who remains the most special—and most intuitive—of all.
One other sad point. During the writing of this book, the man who pushed me to learn the craft of writing passed away. Frank Green lived a long and productive life. Many writers, myself included, owe him a great deal. He was a tough taskmaster, generous with his time, and if you kept your mouth shut and ears open you could learn a great deal. Previously, I’ve dedicated two books to Frank, but it seemed only right to thank him one last time. He will be greatly missed.
The dedication for this book is a bit unusual. Novelists deal in the world of imagination. A novel is, by definition, not real. Sure, there are facts and people and things that might be real, but the plot, the conflicts, crucibles, and conclusions are only a story, designed simply to entertain the reader.
Walt and Roy Disney also dealt in the world of imagination. Walt was the dreamer, a visionary. Roy was more grounded, practical, the financier. Neither could have flourished, though, without the other. Dreams languish unless somebody can find a way to transfer them into reality.
That was what Roy did for Walt.
Together they were an amazing creative team who produced some of the most enduring characters, places, and stories in human history.
Their relationship was a close one, but not perfect. They disagreed and fought, as brothers do, but, in the end, they always came back together. Both seemed to realize that neither was complete without the other. Proof of that came after Walt died in 1966. The dream of a second theme park on the East Coast was just that, a dream. Its creator gone. But Roy made it his mission to see to it that the “Florida project” came to fruition. On October 1, 1971, that happened when Roy formally dedicated, not Disney World, but what he renamed as Walt Disney World.
Seventy-nine days later Roy died.
So this book is for the two Disneys, Walter Elias and Roy Oliver, imagineers extraordinaire, creators of the incredible, two men who continue to spark wonder, produce joy, and touch the world.
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Like a dog that returns to its vomit,
is a fool who reverts to his folly.
Late Spring 1428
His pursuers were gaining, so Jan van Eyck prodded the horse with a jab from his boots. The animal seemed to sense their quandary and increased his speed, blasting out each breath of the cool mountain air in a torrid wheeze.
Jan was alone, being chased in terrain that was both unfamiliar and hostile. When he’d first spotted the Moors, before midday, he’d counted nine on horseback. Two more had joined the chase since. The task he’d been sent to achieve was vital to his benefactor, capture was not an option, so he urged the steed forward with a snap of the reins.
He knew his ride well. A good horse, with quickness and intelligence, could, and had, succored him many times. When ill, a horse was cared for with more wisdom than was vouchsafed to most Christian denizens. Horses were the means whereby kingdoms flourished, and the coursers, the palfreys, and especially the destriers responded to affection with an unmatched loyalty. He knew of one knight who returned home from war and was not recognized by his betrothed but was instantly embraced by his faithful stallion.
He stared ahead.
Jagged, snow-topped mountains rose all around him. To the west, like a sphinx on the desert plain, a svelte peak stood detached, its upper folds sheathed in silvery white, another spur of the pointed Pyrénées shadowed far behind it. He did not need to stop and listen to know that hooves were beating across the meadow behind him. He’d wanted to make his way north unnoticed. It was a mere two-day ride from Tormé, on the Spanish side of the mountains, to Las Illas on the French side. The refurbishing of the ancient town into a new fortress had only recently been completed, and he knew its presence, so close to the border, was a source of friction to the Moors.
Though Navarre and Aragon both were in Christian hands, Moors still freely roamed northern Spain. Slowly, the reconquista was driving the Arabs southward. Castles and towns were being regained every year. Eventually, surely, the Moors would be forced to board ships and return to Africa, ending six hundred years of occupation. But, in the meantime, they continued to spoil churches, sack convents, and waylay travelers, especially those who ventured too far south and dared to cross the Pyrénées.
His mind flashed to the warriors behind him.
Moor meant simply “dark,” and the deep olive of their skin stood in stark contrast with the loose-fitting white tunics, the colorful turbans, and the scarfs that draped their necks in a kaleidoscope of silken thread. They were a brutal lot, a clear menace, and he did not want to face their crescent-shaped scimitars or their mounted archers. He’d been expecting volleys of arrows, but the pursuit so far had been through thick stands of fir and pine, so clear shots had been unobtainable. He hated archers. A true warrior should only come to battle with an ax and sword in hand. What had the poet said? Coward was he who was the first archer.
He allowed his attention to switch from the ground to the route ahead, relying on his horse to make sure the footing was true. A blast of crisp wind swept through a nearby cleft and slowed his progress. The trees around him began to change, the firs diminishing, towering pines now dominating. Each trunk reached audaciously toward heaven, many twisted as if in pain, most bereft of limbs.
There would now be more opportunities for the archers.
The horse slowed and twisted a path through the pines, avoiding granite boulders and leaving a clear trail across dainty edelweiss. A stillness wrapped the dusky forest. The musty scent of twigs and boughs filled his nostrils. Above, the sun was warm, the clouds low, which meant rain might eventually become his ally. But, for now, any storm was too far away to be of assistance.
He stopped the horse and risked a look behind him.
No one was in sight.
He tried to listen for some sound that might betray the Moors’ presence, but the clicking of grasshoppers interfered. He emerged from the trees and found a path leading eastward.
A signed paper in his saddlebag certified that he was the duly authorized representative of Philip the Good, the reigning Duke of Burgundy. By trade, he was an artist. Philip’s court painter. But by service he was a spy, in the employ of the duke. His current mission had taken him into Spain on a reconnoiter of local roads and territories. His attention to depth and detail, his skill and accuracy with pen and brush, was what distinguished his art. The duke liked to say that his visual cunning was unmatched. But unlike his paintings, where the real world only inspired what he represented, when on a covert mission what he produced had to be an exact match. On this trip he’d sketched valuable maps that led to important mountain passes, all vital to any army in the future.
Jan was broad-shouldered and solid in limb. His brown hair had grown out, stubby like a brush—his beard long and ragged, which made his pallid face look even paler. Normally, he’d be clean-shaven, but he’d intentionally not shaved the past few weeks, the facial hair adding a measure of welcome disguise. His head was lean, large, and some said square, with a high brow and a fine straight nose. It helped that he spoke Spanish and understood the local customs. All of which made him the perfect spy.
Another breeze brushed past and he savored a quiet moment. His skin was wet and hot, his legs achy. Beneath the mantle he was clad in heavy mail. A weighty aventail bit into his neck and chin. He’d dressed for battle, ready for whatever might come his way, and eleven Moor horsemen had accepted his challenge. He wondered if someone in the last village had given him away. It was a Christian community but, as he’d been warned, the Moors had eyes and ears everywhere.
He reached down and stroked the horse. The animal flattened his ears and accepted the affection. The twitter of a finch came from an adjacent tree. He half expected the clash of an ax or the buzz of a saw, but there was no sign that anyone else loomed nearby. Before him, another pass opened and beyond spread the brilliance of an emerald-breasted valley. A clearly defined trail wound a path ahead through a thick stand of beech. He urged the horse forward and sat up in the high saddle, thinking perhaps he’d lost his pursuers. He’d be glad when he could remove his ponderous metal clothing and enjoy the comfort of night. He should make Las Illas before sundown.
Ahead, on one of the trees, something caught his attention.
He approached and stopped.
Carved into the trunk of an enormous beech was the image of a bird. Great care had been taken with its representation. The plumage and beak distinct, its mighty wings held close and tight, ready for flight.
He recognized the vulture.
The Spanish called it quebrantahuesos. Bone smasher.
And he knew why.
He’d watched in awe many times while the great raptor had dropped its prey from the air onto rocks, breaking the bones and making it easier to get at the rich marrow. Strange that someone had taken the time to so beautifully depict such a predator here. Below the bird were letters. Not of a language he knew, though he recognized the Arabic symbols. Around him the rock crannies groaned from the wind. He was deciding on what next to do when the stillness was disturbed by a low swoosh that quickly grew in intensity.
He knew the sound well.
Arrows piercing the air.
In the next instant three tips sucked into the earth just ahead of him.
His head whirled around.
The Moors had rounded a bend in the trail and were fast approaching. He urged his horse forward. Their first shot had been off, but they would be more accurate with the next folly. He allowed his right hand to drift from the reins to make sure that his battle-ax was still held by its leather strap to the saddle. He might soon need the weapon.
He entered the mountain pass.
To his left rose glaring white cliffs. Box brush clung to every crevice. An inky-black forest loomed to his right. He almost diverted the horse into the trees, but his lead on the Moors was good and he thought he might be able to outrun them. He had to be either over or near the border, and he doubted the Moors would follow him into French territory.
He rounded a bend in the trail and ducked beneath an outstretched limb. His horse was in full gallop, the hooves skimming across the hard ground. He saw another of the carved vultures in a trunk ahead, along with more Arabic symbols. Just as he passed the tree the horse’s front legs found a soft patch of shale and together they plummeted toward the ground. He knew what was coming, so he leaped as the animal pounded the earth and hoped his suit of mail would protect him from the worst of the fall.
He slammed into the hardpan next to the horse. While he rolled left, the horse tumbled on, a sickening whelp signaling that the animal was in pain. He somersaulted several times. Chain mail dug into his sheepskin shirt. He brought his arms to his head and shielded his face from rocks as he careened off the trail. He continued to tumble until finally coming to rest against the gnarly roots of one of the beeches.
He sat still for a moment and assessed the damage. There was pain, a multitude of cuts and scrapes, but nothing excruciating. He tested his arms and legs. Nothing seemed broken. He moved his head from side to side. His neck was unaffected. Jesus, almighty God. He’d been lucky. The smell of mold and moss filled his nostrils. He immediately listened for sounds of the Moors.
But there was nothing.
The thought of his pursuers roused him to his feet.
He pushed back the coif and allowed the hood to droop onto the nape of his sweaty neck. He swiped blood from his brow, then staggered back to the trail. The horse was on its feet, ready.
What a tough stallion.
He looked to the right.
The Moors were farther down the trail, still atop their mounts, simply watching him. Thankfully, they were far enough away that their bows would be useless. He waited for them to charge. He would be easy prey since both his sword and ax were with the horse. Good thing. He might not have survived the fall with those strapped to his waist. He stared at his enemy and decided that if they advanced, he would flee into the woods and take his chances. Perhaps he could disarm one of them and gain a weapon.
“They will not come forward,” a voice said from behind him.
The language was Occitan.
He turned and spied a black-garbed nun who stood alone in the center of the trail. No feature on her face betrayed a shred of fear or anxiety. Odd. He could not decide which was the greater threat—the known antagonists or this out-of-place character.
“What do you mean?” he said, staying with Occitan, then turned his attention back to the Moors.
“They will not come forward,” she said again.
He did not take his eyes off the riotous band.
“There is no danger,” the nun declared, the words calm, like the echo of a voice from heaven.
“They are a mighty danger,” he made clear.
But he was unconvinced.
So he decided to test the declaration.
He took a few steps forward and raised his arms above his head. He crisscrossed them back and forth and screamed at the horsemen in the language of Aragon, which they would surely understand. “Come forward, you cowards, and do battle.”
They did not accept his offer.
“Are you afraid of a single man, unarmed? Of a nun?”
No response came from their dark, scathed faces.
He lowered his arms.
“By God, you are afraid,” he yelled.
Ordinarily, to challenge a Moor was to invite a fight to the death. Arabs had not held power in the Iberian Peninsula by being weak. Yet these heathens merely turned and trotted their horses away. He wondered if his eyes were deceiving him. So he continued to watch until they disappeared around a bend, and all that remained was dust twisting in the air. He turned back to the nun and wanted to know, “The birds carved to the trees. What are the words in Arabic beneath?”
Somehow he knew this woman could answer the inquiry.
“The devil will have his own.”
“Those are their words?”
The nun nodded. “We adopted it from them. A warning from long ago.”
He stepped close and noticed the chain around her neck and the symbol, in silver, it supported.
He’d seen knights, kings, and dukes display them. But a nun? He pointed. “Why do you wear that?”
She beckoned with an outstretched arm.
“Come, and I will show you.”
Tuesday, May 8
Nick Lee rushed toward the flames and smoke, growing more concerned by the moment. He’d flown to Ghent to see a memory that had haunted him for a long time, the images of her as crisp and vivid as if from yesterday, not nine years ago. They’d come within a week of marriage, but a life together had not been meant to be. Instead, she chose another path, one that had not, and would never, include him. His words at the time had stalled in his throat. Hers were definitive.
I have no choice.
Which seemed the story of his life.
A volatile mixture of good and bad, pleasure and pain. Right place, wrong time? Definitely. Wrong place, right time?
More than he liked to admit, in fact.
He’d started in the army as an MP, then tried for the Magellan Billet at the Justice Department but was not offered a position. Instead the FBI hired him, where he stayed five years. Now he worked for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, more commonly known as UNESCO. Part of the UN since the beginning, its mission was to advance peace through education, science, culture, and communication. How? Mostly through initiatives like World Heritage Sites, a global digital library, international literacy days, and a thousand other programs designed to promote, preserve, and sustain human culture.
He was employed by a small appendage within that giant beast. The Cultural Liaison and Investigative Office. CLIO. A play off the Greek goddess Clio, the muse of history. Officially, he was a credentials-carrying UN representative, which definitely opened doors. In reality he was boots on the ground. Trained eyes and ears. A field operative. Sent where needed to deal with artistic and cultural issues that could not be resolved through conference calls, ceremony, or diplomacy.
Sometimes you just have to kick a little ass, one of his bosses had said.
He’d been there right after ISIL plundered Iraqi churches, museums, and libraries. On-site in the Maldives when radicals dynamited Buddhist artifacts. In Timbuktu, after the Battle of Gao, when parts of that ancient city were ravaged by war. His job, first and foremost, was to stop any cultural destruction. But if that wasn’t possible, then he’d deal with the aftermath. He’d come to learn that many so-called cultural purges were simply smoke screens for the hasty acquisition and subsequent sale of precious artifacts. Fanatics weren’t entirely stupid. Their causes needed money. Rare objects could easily be converted to a stream of wealth that was virtually untraceable. No worries about bank accounts being seized or frozen by foreign governments. Just make a deal with reclusive buyers more than willing to supply gold, cryptocurrency, or cash in return for the seemingly unobtainable.
Thankfully, this trip to Belgium did not concern anything threatened, except perhaps his heart. He’d been looking forward to seeing Kelsey again. She was here in Ghent doing what she did best. Art restoration. It had been a mutual love of art that had first drawn them together. Then something wholly unexpected, at least from his point of view, pried them apart. He’d never seen it coming. Should he have?
Hard to say.
Nine years had passed since they last saw each other face-to-face. Their parting had not included any tearful farewells, hugs, handshakes, words of comfort, or encouragement. Not even an argument or anger.
Just an end.
One that had left him stunned.
Their communications since had been through social media. Not much. Electronic comments here and there. Just enough to stay in touch. She had her life and he had his, and never should the two mix. He’d many times wondered if maintaining any contact was a good idea, but he’d done nothing to curtail it. Was he a glutton for punishment? Or maybe he just wanted her in his life, however that might be?
Two weeks ago she’d suggested in a Facebook direct message that he come to Ghent. A first. An invitation to visit. Which made him wonder. Good idea? Bad? But once she’d told him what she was working on, he’d decided, what the hell, why not. Now he was here and the building he’d been sent to, per her texted directions, was on fire.
Was she inside?
He ran faster.
He was a few blocks over from the ancient Cathedral of Saint Bavo on a darkened street amid Ghent’s old town. All of the buildings around him seemed a tribute to Flemish architecture, a gauntlet of brick brownstones with stoops and chimneys. He was not far from the famed Graslei. A stunning ensemble of riverside guild houses spanning centuries and styles. Once part of a medieval port, one of the oldest sections in a town dating to the fifth century, it had been a focal point back when Ghent acted as the center of Flanders’ wheat trade. The district now was a touristic hot spot with a high concentration of café patios. He was hoping to have a late supper with Kelsey at one of them after seeing what she’d promised to show him.
The building ahead, ablaze in smoke and fire, rose three stories to a stepped-gable roof, but all of the destruction seemed localized on the ground floor. People had gathered in the narrow street, watching, but no one was moving to help. He ran up and asked if the fire department had been notified. An older woman said in English that a call had been made. He heard sirens in the distance and decided not to wait for their arrival. Instead, he bolted toward the front door in six quick steps and pushed the heavy wooden slab inward.
Intense heat and smoke poured out.
He grabbed a breath and plunged inside a large studio, metal racks of art equipment and supplies lining the walls. Tables filled the center. All consistent with a workshop, where Kelsey had told him she wanted to meet.
But no fire raged here.
“Kelsey,” he called out.
He heard a noise from the next room and headed toward the open door. There, he saw Kelsey engaged in a struggle with another person. The figure was black-clad, in tight-fitting clothes, the head and face hooded. It was hard to see much through the smoke, the only light coming from a raging conflagration on the other side of the room that was rapidly burning, the flames crackling and curdling like the sound dried wood made in a hearth.
He moved to help, just as the black figure pushed away and landed a kick to Kelsey’s gut that staggered her back. The attacker used the moment to bend down, grab something from the floor, then disappear into the smoke. He blinked away the burn from his pupils and found Kelsey.
He helped her from the floor, gentle with his touch, and they fled the room. “You okay?”
Her eyes were red, watery, and wild. Her gaze changed from rage, to fright, to recognition. “Nick.” She coughed out the smoke from her lungs and nodded fast. “I’m fine. Really. I’m okay.”
The curtain of time parted in his mind. It was like nine years ago again, and that familiar connection clicked. But he forced his thoughts to the present. “We have to get out of here.”
She shook her head. “I have to stop the fire.”
“Help is on the way. They’ll do it. Let’s go.”
She would not budge. “Nick, go after her—”
Two policemen burst into the room.
“I’m okay,” Kelsey said. “Get my—laptop back.”
One of the uniforms came close to help, and the other wielded a fire extinguisher that he began to use on the flames.
“Please,” she said. “Go.”
- “Berry once again smoothly blends action and history. Dan Brown fans will want to check this one out.”—Publishers Weekly
- “Nick is a good character, with plenty of room to grow. Here's one vote for Berry making a series out of Nick's adventures.”—Booklist
- Praise for Steve Berry
- “Berry pumps the veins of history with action-packed adrenaline.”—The Chicago Tribune
- “Berry is the master scientist with a perfect formula for the bestseller lists.”—Associated Press
- “(Berry) proves once again that he has a genuine feel for the factual gaps that give history its tantalizing air of the unknown.”—The New York Times
- “Bestseller Berry once again shows there’s no working author more skilled at combining thrilling adventure with engrossing historical detail."—Publishers Weekly
- “Prolific writer Steve Berry has been creating intelligent, top-shelf fiction for decades.”—bookreporter.com
- On Sale
- Jun 7, 2022
- Hachette Audio