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CHAPTER 2

NAVY ADMIRAL LUIS Ávila was seated on a bar stool inside a deserted pub in an unfamiliar town. He was drained from his journey, having just flown into this city after a job that had taken him many thousands of miles in twelve hours. He took a sip of his second tonic water and stared at the colorful array of bottles behind the bar.

Any man can stay sober in a desert, he mused, but only the loyal can sit in an oasis and refuse to part his lips.

Ávila had not parted his lips for the devil in almost a year. As he eyed his reflection in the mirrored bar, he permitted himself a rare moment of contentment with the image looking back at him.

Ávila was one of those fortunate Mediterranean men for whom aging seemed to be more an asset than a liability. Over the years, his stiff black stubble had softened to a distinguished salt-and-pepper beard, his fiery dark eyes had relaxed to a serene confidence, and his taut olive skin was now sun-drenched and creased, giving him the aura of a man permanently squinting out to sea.

Even at sixty-three years old, his body was lean and toned, an impressive physique further enhanced by his tailored uniform. At the moment, Ávila was clothed in his full-dress navy whites—a regal-looking livery consisting of a double-breasted white jacket, broad black shoulder boards, an imposing array of service medals, a starched white standing-collar shirt, and silk-trimmed white slacks.

The Spanish Armada may not be the most potent navy on earth anymore, but we still know how to dress an officer.

The admiral had not donned this uniform in years—but this was a special night, and earlier, as he walked the streets of this unknown town, he had enjoyed the favorable looks of women as well as the wide berth afforded him by men.

Everyone respects those who live by a code.

¿Otra tónica?” the pretty barmaid asked. She was in her thirties, was full-figured, and had a playful smile.

Ávila shook his head. “No, gracias.

This pub was entirely empty, and Ávila could feel the barmaid’s eyes admiring him. It felt good to be seen again. I have returned from the abyss.

The horrific event that all but destroyed Ávila’s life five years ago would forever lurk in the recesses of his mind—a single deafening instant in which the earth had opened up and swallowed him whole.

Cathedral of Seville.

Easter morning.

The Andalusian sun was streaming through stained glass, splashing kaleidoscopes of color in radiant bursts across the cathedral’s stone interior. The pipe organ thundered in joyous celebration as thousands of worshippers celebrated the miracle of resurrection.

Ávila knelt at the Communion rail, his heart swelling with gratitude. After a lifetime of service to the sea, he had been blessed with the greatest of God’s gifts—a family. Smiling broadly, Ávila turned and glanced back over his shoulder at his young wife, María, who was still seated in the pews, far too pregnant to make the long walk up the aisle. Beside her, their three-year-old son, Pepe, waved excitedly at his father. Ávila winked at the boy, and María smiled warmly at her husband.

Thank you, God, Ávila thought as he turned back to the railing to accept the chalice.

An instant later, a deafening explosion ripped through the pristine cathedral.

In a flash of light, his entire world erupted in fire.

The blast wave drove Ávila violently forward into the Communion rail, his body crushed by the scalding surge of debris and human body parts. When Ávila regained consciousness, he was unable to breathe in the thick smoke, and for a moment he had no idea where he was or what had happened.

Then, above the ringing in his ears, he heard the anguished screams. Ávila clambered to his feet, realizing with horror where he was. He told himself this was all a terrible dream. He staggered back through the smoke-filled cathedral, clambering past moaning and mutilated victims, stumbling in desperation to the approximate area where his wife and son had been smiling only moments ago.

There was nothing there.

No pews. No people.

Only bloody debris on the charred stone floor.

The grisly memory was mercifully shattered by the chime of the jangling bar door. Ávila seized his tónica and took a quick sip, shaking off the darkness as he had been forced to do so many times before.

The bar door swung wide, and Ávila turned to see two burly men stumble in. They were singing an off-key Irish fight song and wearing green fútbol jerseys that strained to cover their bellies. Apparently, this afternoon’s match had gone the way of Ireland’s visiting team.

I’ll take that as my cue, Ávila thought, standing up. He asked for his bill, but the barmaid winked and waved him off. Ávila thanked her and turned to go.

“Bloody hell!” one of the newcomers shouted, staring at Ávila’s stately uniform. “It’s the king of Spain!”

Both men erupted with laughter, lurching toward him.

Ávila attempted to step around them and leave, but the larger man roughly grabbed his arm and pulled him back to a bar stool. “Hold on, Your Highness! We came all the way to Spain; we’re gonna have a pint with the king!”

Ávila eyed the man’s grubby hand on his freshly pressed sleeve. “Let go,” he said quietly. “I need to leave.”

“No … you need to stay for a beer, amigo.” The man tightened his grip as his friend started poking with a dirty finger at the medals on Ávila’s chest. “Looks like you’re quite a hero, Pops.” The man tugged on one of Ávila’s most prized emblems. “A medieval mace? So, you’re a knight in shining armor?!” He guffawed.

Tolerance, Ávila reminded himself. He had met countless men like these—simpleminded, unhappy souls, who had never stood for anything, men who blindly abused the liberties and freedoms that others had fought to give them.

“Actually,” Ávila replied gently, “the mace is the symbol of the Spanish navy’s Unidad de Operaciones Especiales.”

“Special ops?” The man feigned a fearful shudder. “That’s very impressive. And what about that symbol?” He pointed to Ávila’s right hand.

Ávila glanced down at his palm. In the center of the soft flesh was inscribed a black tattoo—a symbol that dated back to the fourteenth century.

This marking serves as my protection, Ávila thought, eyeing the emblem. Although I will not need it.

“Never mind,” the hooligan said, finally letting go of Ávila’s arm and turning his attention to the barmaid. “You’re a cute one,” he said. “Are you a hundred percent Spanish?”

“I am,” she answered graciously.

“You don’t have some Irish in you?”

“No.”

“Would you like some?” The man convulsed in hysterics and pounded the bar.

“Leave her alone,” Ávila commanded.

The man wheeled, glaring at him.

The second thug poked Ávila hard in the chest. “You trying to tell us what to do?”

Ávila took a deep breath, feeling tired after this day’s long journey, and he motioned to the bar. “Gentlemen, please sit down. I’ll buy you a beer.”

 

I’m glad he’s staying, the barmaid thought. Although she could take care of herself, witnessing how calmly this officer was dealing with these two brutes had left her a little weak-kneed and hoping he might stay until closing time.

The officer had ordered two beers, and another tonic water for himself, reclaiming his seat at the bar. The two fútbol hooligans sat on either side of him.

“Tonic water?” one taunted. “I thought we were drinking together.”

The officer gave the barmaid a tired smile and finished his tonic.

“I’m afraid I have an appointment,” the officer said, standing up. “But enjoy your beers.”

As he stood, both men, as if rehearsed, slammed rough hands on his shoulders and shoved him back onto the stool. A spark of anger flashed across the officer’s eyes and then disappeared.

“Grandpa, I don’t think you want to leave us alone with your girlfriend here.” The thug looked at her and did something disgusting with his tongue.

The officer sat quietly for a long moment, and then reached into his jacket.

Both guys grabbed him. “Hey! What are you doing?!”

Very slowly, the officer pulled out a cell phone and said something to the men in Spanish. They stared at him uncomprehendingly, and he switched back to English. “I’m sorry, I just need to call my wife and tell her I’ll be late. It looks like I’m going to be here awhile.”

“Now you’re talking, mate!” the larger of the two said, draining his beer and slamming the glass down on the bar. “Another!”

As the barmaid refilled the thugs’ glasses, she watched in the mirror as the officer touched a few keys on his phone and then held it to his ear. The call went through, and he spoke in rapid Spanish.

Le llamo desde el bar Molly Malone,” the officer said, reading the bar’s name and address off the coaster before him. “Calle Particular de Estraunza, ocho.” He waited a moment and then continued. “Necesitamos ayuda inmediatamente. Hay dos hombres heridos.” Then he hung up.

¿Dos hombres heridos? The barmaid’s pulse quickened. Two wounded men?

Before she could process his meaning, there was a blur of white, and the officer spun to his right, sending an elbow smashing upward into the larger thug’s nose with a sickening crunch. The man’s face erupted in red and he fell back. Before the second man could react, the officer spun again, this time to his left, his other elbow crashing hard into the man’s windpipe and sending him backward off the stool.

The barmaid stared in shock at the two men on the floor, one screaming in agony, the other gasping and clutching his throat.

The officer stood slowly. With an eerie calm, he removed his wallet and placed a hundred-euro note on the bar.

“My apologies,” he said to her in Spanish. “The police will be here shortly to help you.” Then he turned and left.

 

Outside, Admiral Ávila inhaled the night air and made his way along Alameda de Mazarredo toward the river. Police sirens approached, and he slipped into the shadows to let the authorities pass. There was serious work to do, and Ávila could not afford further complications tonight.

The Regent clearly outlined tonight’s mission.

For Ávila, there was a simple serenity in taking orders from the Regent. No decisions. No culpability. Just action. After a career of giving commands, it was a relief to relinquish the helm and let others steer this ship.

In this war, I am a foot soldier.

Several days ago, the Regent had shared with him a secret so disturbing that Ávila had seen no choice but to offer himself fully to the cause. The brutality of last night’s mission still haunted him, and yet he knew his actions would be forgiven.

Righteousness exists in many forms.

And more death will come before tonight is over.

As Ávila emerged into an open plaza on the riverbank, he raised his eyes to the massive structure before him. It was an undulating mess of perverse forms covered in metal tile—as if two thousand years of architectural progress had been tossed out the window in favor of total chaos.

Some call this a museum. I call it a monstrosity.

Focusing his thoughts, Ávila crossed the plaza, winding his way through a series of bizarre sculptures outside Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum. As he neared the building, he watched dozens of guests mingling in their finest black and white.

The godless masses have congregated.

But tonight will not go as any of them imagine.

He straightened his admiral’s cap and smoothed his jacket, mentally fortifying himself for the task that lay ahead. Tonight was part of a far greater mission—a crusade of righteousness.

As Ávila crossed the courtyard toward the museum’s entrance, he gently touched the rosary in his pocket.

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