Chapter One ONE
On the evening of her thirteenth birthday, Charlie Thorne committed a crime.
As crimes went, it was a minor one, merely illegal entry. Charlie had no intention to steal anything or hurt anyone—although she knew from experience that even the most carefully thought-out plans often went wrong.
Which was exactly what happened that night.
The location was the penthouse condominium of Ahmet Shah, the oldest son of an extremely wealthy Egyptian shipping magnate. Charlie had been plotting the crime for two weeks, surveying the building, doing research, learning everything she could about Ahmet and his home.
Charlie was exceptionally smart. She had an extremely high IQ and a gift for languages; since arriving in the country, she had taught herself Egyptian Arabic. She could have hacked Ahmet’s computer to get the information she wanted—although that hadn’t been necessary. Ahmet loved the spotlight and was extremely active on social media, and so he had unwittingly posted everything Charlie needed to know online.
Ahmet was a vice president at his father’s company, but he didn’t appear to work very much—if at all. Instead, his main profession seemed to be spending money. He had vacation homes in Aspen and Malibu and an eight-bedroom yacht that was currently anchored off Ibiza. He belonged to seventeen different country clubs around the world, three of which he had never even visited. He had just returned to Giza after spending two weeks in a $10,000-a-night hotel room in Bali.
And now he was throwing a massive party to celebrate being home again.
Charlie had briefly considered breaking into Ahmet’s condo while he was in Bali, but the security system was elaborate and state-of-the-art, and the building was patrolled by armed guards. Charlie had many talents, but breaking and entering wasn’t one of them. Besides, there were far easier ways to get into someone’s home, no matter how well protected it was.
Under the right circumstances, you could just walk through the door.
Ahmet Shah loved entertaining. It hadn’t taken Charlie long to learn that about him; her first Google image search for the young man turned up hundreds of party photos taken at his penthouse. Large, crowded, glamorous parties, the kind that certain types of people were desperate to score invitations to.
The condo had also been featured in several architectural and design magazines, which allowed Charlie to easily memorize the layout of the rooms and catalog most of the artifacts on display.
Including one artifact in particular. The one Charlie had been trying to locate for the past two months. In a magazine photo, it was in the background behind Ahmet as he showed off another piece of art that wasn’t anywhere nearly as important.
An artifact so powerful and significant should never have been in a private collection. Ahmet Shah would have been wise to keep its location a secret. But then, Ahmet did not appear to be a very wise person. From Charlie’s research, he was a wealthy brat who wanted to be famous—and he didn’t even know what he possessed.
Charlie took it as a good sign that the party happened to be on her birthday. She felt like celebrating, but unfortunately, she was no longer in touch with any of her friends. Four months earlier, circumstances beyond her control had forced her to cut ties with all of them and vanish from their lives. None of them had heard from her since then. None had the slightest idea what had happened to her.
And as for celebrating with family, well… Charlie had some very unusual family issues. Her half brother Dante was a CIA agent who had blackmailed her into working for the US government. He was the reason she was now on the run, pursued by intelligence agencies and criminals around the globe.
Although, Charlie had to admit, thanks to Dante, her life had become quite exciting. If it wasn’t for him, she wouldn’t have even known about the artifact in Ahmet Shah’s penthouse.
To access the party, all Charlie had to do was pretend to be a member of the catering staff, which was easy. The party was going to be a big one, with more than sixty servers. And caterers all over the world wore virtually the same uniform: white shirt and black pants. The clothes were cheap and readily available—not that Charlie had to worry about money.
Charlie was tall for her age and behaved with a maturity that made her come across as someone who was several years older. In addition, she was extremely multiracial—partially Latina, Black, Asian, Middle Eastern, and Caucasian—and multilingual; with her caterer’s uniform and her newfound mastery of Egyptian Arabic, she easily blended in with the other hired help.
The building where the party was taking place was imposing and opulent in the front but basic and industrial in the back. There was a rear entrance for nights like this, so that the catering supplies and staff wouldn’t have to come through the main lobby and tie up the elevators. As Charlie had expected, the scene at the rear entrance in the hour before the party was chaotic; the catering staff was scrambling to unload truckloads of food, glassware, serving dishes, utensils, and linens and get them up to the penthouse. Charlie simply grabbed a tray of canapés and fell in line. The single security guard stationed there was distracted, trying to get the phone number of an attractive young caterer; Charlie walked right past him and into the service elevator without any trouble at all.
The penthouse was even more spectacular than she had expected. The magazine photos hadn’t done it justice. It was extremely modern in design, which served as a stark juxtaposition to the ancient treasures in Ahmet Shah’s art collection: papyrus scrolls and sandstone sculptures that were thousands of years old. But for most visitors, the most amazing feature was the view of the pyramids.
The western walls of the penthouse were floor-to-ceiling glass, fronting an outdoor deck with an infinity pool. All of it faced the famous Giza pyramid complex. Although the ancient tombs were still surrounded by the sands of the northern Sahara, the modern city came surprisingly close to them, creating a jarring clash of the old and the new. The edge of the pyramid complex was lined with other luxury condominium towers, high-end housing developments, ghettos, shopping centers, school campuses, and even a golf course, whose irrigated green fairways looked bizarrely out of place beside the desert sands. At night, the great pyramids were lit with floodlights, so they practically gleamed against the dark sky.
However, as impressive as the view of the pyramids was, Charlie was far more interested in something inside the penthouse.
And yet she couldn’t go see it right away. There were security cameras in every room and plenty of guards patrolling the condo. So Charlie bided her time, waiting for the right moment. For a few hours, she worked dutifully as a caterer, first by helping set up for the party, arranging banquet tables and prepping food, and then, once the guests began to arrive, by carrying around trays of hors d’oeuvres and collecting empty glasses. When the party finally reached its peak, and the rooms were jammed with guests, Charlie decided it was time to make her move.
She ducked into a bathroom and took off her catering clothes, revealing the party dress she’d been wearing underneath them all along. Ahmet Shah’s guests were rich, and so, to blend in, Charlie had splurged on a designer outfit. It was sleek and stylish—although not so stylish that it would grab attention. Attention was the last thing Charlie wanted. She quickly put up her hair, did her makeup, and crammed the caterer’s uniform into a cabinet under the sink. Then she stepped out and joined the party.
Charlie had little concern about the other caterers recognizing her; the lights were dim and the condo was packed. She even managed to pluck a few sliders and a soda off the trays of passing servers without being noticed. She worked her way through the crowds, ignoring two separate attempts by young male guests—unaware of her age—to flirt with her, and finally reached what she had gone through so much trouble to find.
It was in Ahmet’s office at the more private end of the penthouse, where the bedrooms were. The door had a simple lock that Charlie picked with a hairpin in twenty seconds. Then she stepped inside and locked it again behind her.
The walls of the room were thick and soundproofed, immediately reducing the raucous noise of the party to a distant murmur. A security camera was mounted at the far-upper corner of the room, facing the door; Charlie couldn’t do much about it except keep her head down so that there wouldn’t be a clear view of her face—and hope that if anyone was monitoring the system, they were too distracted by the rest of the party to notice her.
The office was designed in traditional Western fashion, with a large oaken desk and built-in bookshelves. There was nothing on the desk, save for an unused notepad and a desk calendar that still showed April, even though it was June, indicating that Ahmet didn’t do much work in there. And there were very few books on the shelves, two of which were upside down, indicating that Ahmet didn’t read much either. Instead, the shelves were mostly lined with pieces of art: sculptures and bits of pottery, some of which were tacky junk, and some of which were incredibly valuable.
The wall opposite the desk was dominated by a large, garish piece of modern art. The tablet Charlie was looking for was mounted to the side of the artwork, toward the corner, as though it wasn’t important.
Still, it took Charlie’s breath away.
Because Charlie, unlike Ahmet, knew what it was.
In Ahmet’s defense, the tablet didn’t look very impressive. It was a pale slab of sandstone into which words had been crudely etched in Latin, and so old that the surface had been worn down, leaving much of the inscription only faintly visible. Furthermore, it was broken; a thin crack split it from top to bottom, and its edges had crumbled away, leaving the sentences—and many of the words—incomplete. As a result, even though Charlie knew Latin, she still couldn’t fully translate the text.
The tablet was mounted to the wall with steel brackets. As Charlie had noted in the magazine photos, Ahmet hadn’t even bothered to put it in a protective case.
Which was good, because Charlie needed to touch it.
She snapped a few photographs with her phone first, but assumed those wouldn’t tell her everything she needed to know. The photos could barely capture the faint words, let alone the texture of the stone.
To do that, Charlie removed a roll of thin, almost translucent paper from her dress, as well as a stick of red graphite. Then she set to work creating a rubbing. She unfurled the paper, pressed it firmly against the tablet, and then dragged the graphite back and forth across it. Wherever the paper touched the stone, the graphite left a coating of red, while the places that were sunken, like the etched words, remained white. In this way, Charlie was able to duplicate the tablet on the paper. The technique was simple but effective; even the faintest words on the tablet were easily readable on the rubbing. Although Charlie feared getting caught, she didn’t rush, making sure her rubbing was as accurate as possible; any mistakes she made in haste could alter the message left in the stone.
She was almost finished when she heard the office door rattle. Someone was putting a key in the lock.
There was no place for Charlie to hide. All she could do was back away from the tablet and drop the rubbing and the graphite in a wastebasket beside the desk.
The office door opened, and Ahmet Shah entered. He froze in surprise upon seeing Charlie in his private office. And then his surprise turned to suspicion.
“What are you doing in here?” he demanded in Arabic.
Despite her fear, Charlie smiled at him brightly. “It’s a funny story…,” she began.