The Sacrificial Lamb
An Excerpt From The Vesuvius Isotope
A teenaged couple was crossing the bridge in front of me, holding hands. I could hear the footsteps of the strange man behind me. Nobody else was in sight.
The street that led off into the seafood district was much darker than I had thought it would be. The only sound I could hear was the rhythmic lapping of the waves against the sides of the bridge, and their ebb and flow washed away my confidence that the restaurants would still be open.
The teenaged couple entered the castle through its arched opening. Instead of turning left and entering the seafood district, I followed them.
The man behind me followed as well.
The castle was wide open; there was no ticket booth of any kind. It appeared that one could just meander through at leisure. A stone walkway wound upward toward the top of the castle. Over the high wall bordering the walkway was a drop to the street of the seafood district below. The couple strolled up the path and I followed.
The walkway passed by a series of dungeons, and the couple faded slyly toward one of them. Wordlessly, the young man pushed his mate roughly against the bars of the gate barricading the dungeon and began kissing her with abandon. As he advanced from the girl’s mouth downward and began hungrily kissing her neck, she tipped her head back and caught my eye. His hand was snaking its way into her shirt. Her glance told me to get lost.
I ducked beneath an archway and began briskly climbing a staircase through a dimly lit passageway.
When I heard the footsteps behind me advance to keep pace with my own, I began to understand that I was not just being paranoid. This man had been following me from the start and was now deliberately staying only steps behind me.
I reached the top of the staircase and stepped under another archway. To my horror, I suddenly emerged onto a large terrace. It was open almost three hundred sixty degrees around and offered panoramic views of the Bay of Naples. Short, squat cannons pointed out in all directions through low openings in the waist-high stone wall. Beside them were small piles of cannonballs at the ready.
I ran toward a cannon and reached down for one of the cannonballs, but it was far too heavy for me to throw with any accuracy. I let it fall back onto the pile.
The only other object on the terrace was a spindly statue depicting a centaur-like creature. It stood a few feet from the stone wall, positioned as if the centaur was looking out over the water. The statue was clearly too thin to hide behind.
As I hurriedly scanned the expansive space, I realized all too clearly the purpose of it. This had been a formidable fortress. Both its location and its structure were perfect for the function. There was no way to sneak up on the inhabitants of this castle.
I quickly realized the irony of my situation. On the terrace of a two-thousand-year-old fortress designed to offer failsafe protection from invaders, I was suddenly completely exposed and simultaneously trapped. A wrong turn had traded the narrow, cryptic passageways of the castle for a sacrificial altar, and I was the lamb. Except for one skinny statue, there was nothing to hide behind and nowhere to go except back through the archway. And the man from the train station was coming through it.
I ran behind the statue. It provided abysmally thin protection, and the backward cocked head of the centaur suddenly seemed mocking.
The man emerged from the archway, and suddenly the darkness surrounding me was not nearly complete enough. I could see into his eyes. They still bore that same cold, emotionless expression.
“Katrina!” he said.
As if reeling from a physical blow, I scrambled backward until I felt the stone wall slam into my lower back. “What do you want?” I practically screamed.
“I have a message from Jeff!”
But his hand was reaching into his pocket, so I gripped the wall with both hands and jumped.
Kristen Elise, Ph.D. is a drug discovery biologist and long-time resident of San Diego, California. She lives with her husband, stepson, and three canine children. Please visit her websites at www.kristenelisephd.com and http://www.murderlab.com.
Back cover blurb for The Vesuvius Isotope:
When her Nobel laureate husband is murdered, biologist Katrina Stone can no longer ignore the secrecy that increasingly pervaded his behavior in recent weeks. Her search for answers leads to a two-thousand-year-old medical mystery and the esoteric life of one of history’s most enigmatic women. Following the trail forged by her late husband, Katrina must separate truth from legend as she chases medicine from ancient Italy and Egypt to a clandestine modern-day war. Her quest will reveal a legacy of greed and murder and resurrect an ancient plague, introducing it into the twenty-first century.