It was winter, but deep within Washington, D.C.’s National Cathedral was a brewing tempest. There was a small chamber, a chapel where believers might entreat God more privately. It was early, and the sun was still low enough to cast splintered rays of amber and rose-colored light into the room, illuminating millions of dust particles swirling in the air—a reminder, for some in attendance, of the aerosolized threats surrounding them.
People were, in large part, gathered on one side of the aisle. Numbering over a dozen, they were mostly scientists with a few religious leaders sprinkled amongst them. The other side of the room was nearly empty. Two episcopal priests. A scientist. A former public health official. A pastor made famous by his best-selling books.
Ye of little faith, Yuval Naftali thought to himself as he waited impatiently.
The morning’s demonstration was a last-minute addition, a joint request from high-ranking clergy, fearful of being humiliated in view of the largest media event the worl`d had ever witnessed. Yuval initially refused, but without proof, the Bishop of Rome threatened to return to Italy—a rejection that would have undoubtedly cascaded onto other important dignitaries.
Yuval clicked his tongue as he checked his watch.
“Just a few more minutes and we’ll begin,” he said, forcing a crooked smile across his bony face.
The chapel had been transformed into something of a laboratory. The front pews were pushed back. Two large monitors stood on either side of the altar. Cables ran everywhere, connecting a group of ornate antennas to everything else.
The door to the chapel opened, and security personnel walked in, their eyes darting about the room. One of them led a dog spiraling through the pews, stopping to sniff everyone.
“Please,” Yuval said in embarrassment. “We are all friends here, are we not?”
The men ignored the startled reactions they created and eventually settled into the corners, their arms resting atop submachine guns jutting out from beneath their coats. A number of high-ranking clergy, clothed in brilliant ruby vestments, walked in and took their seats.
“Ah! Here we are,” Yuval said as he gestured towards the door.
A man in a motorized wheelchair rolled into the room, its joystick pressed forward by his gnarled hand. A priest dressed in a flowing red and white robe followed him to the front.
“The Archbishop of Asunción,” Yuval announced with reverence, as if applause were expected.
“Which one is he?” one of the scientists joked, his shorts and sandals a marked contrast to the spectacle of liturgical clothing in the room.
“Please, gentlemen,” Yuval pleaded with them. “We are all friends here.”
The world was set to enter its second decade since the microbe known as MALKA-6 had been officially recognized. Almost ten years earlier, stories emerged of a killer virus in China that had people dropping dead in the streets. Within months, nearly the entire planet was consumed with panic.
Tensions ran high because there was another group of people who responded differently. Some of them were deeply religious, others not. They were bound by their refusal to be afraid. Rather than fear, they had responded with a distinct lack of concern. They had carried on with their lives as if nothing had changed. And for that, there was resentment.
As head of the World Health Alliance, Dr. Yuval Naftali felt some responsibility for bringing these two groups together, a meeting most said would never happen. He took a few deep breaths to gather himself and motioned for the man slumped in his wheelchair to turn towards those in attendance.
“Thank you all for being here today. I appreciate your putting aside your differences for a few hours—a sacrifice, I think, that will benefit the world.”
Several of those seated looked across the aisle at their sworn enemies, skeptical reconciliation would ever be possible.
“You all know why we’re here,” Yuval said. “You’ve heard of discoveries that have been made over the past few months. I was hoping for everyone to witness this miracle firsthand tonight—along with the rest of the world. But there are doubters amongst you. As someone who once wrestled with my faith, a struggle I can certainly understand.”
A member of the security team walked to the doorway and peered outside before returning to his post.
“And so, it seemed a small demonstration was in order. Cardinal Gordillo,” Yuval said, gesturing toward the priest, his plump fingers resting on the shoulders of the crippled man. “On behalf of the Pope, Cardinal Gordillo has requested a demonstration. I trust you will talk to no one else about what you are about to see?”
The Cardinal nodded his head in agreement.
Yuval looked at the others in the room. “Everyone else?”
They affirmed their promise.
“Very well,” Yuval said, removing his jacket. “Cardinal, how long have you known Mr. Maduro here?”
“Twenty-seven years,” the Cardinal responded, his baritone accent booming. “He was my very first bautismo, an honor I will never forget.”
“It was a beautiful christening, I’m sure.”
Yuval paused again, this time purely for dramatic effect. “We’re also honored to have Dr. Luis Yamamoto here today—his studies of motor neuron disease familiar, no doubt, to some of you.”
One of the scientists bowed his head and waved his hand in acknowledgement.
“You have had just a short time with Mr. Maduro this morning, Dr. Yamamoto. Are you able to make a diagnosis of his condition?”
Dr. Yamamoto stood. “His condition is consistent with late-stage amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.”
“ALS,” Yuval said. “Or Lou Gehrig’s disease, for those of you unfamiliar with medical terminology. Muscle weakness. Respiratory failure. No cure. Most dead within two to ten years.”
Many in attendance looked uncomfortably towards Mr. Maduro, his eyes locked on the floor.
“Did you have a chance to look at his electromyography charts?”
“I did,” Dr. Yamamoto said.
“Consistent with late-stage amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.”
“Very well,” Yuval said, turning towards the Cardinal.
“Cardinal Gordillo, are you able to recall Mr. Maduro before this condition?”
“Yes, of course. He was the star of his school football team. An average student, but athletically gifted.”
“Did you and your congregation ever pray for this man?”
“We have lifted him up in prayer for over eight years.”
“Has his condition improved in that time?”
“He is still alive, a blessing for which we are eternally grateful.”
Yuval nodded his head in agreement. “Yes, we are grateful for that blessing,” a trace of mockery slipping through his teeth.
“Dr. Yamamoto, you are one of the world’s preeminent neurologists. What do you say to Mr. Maduro? What cures can you offer him?”
“None,” he replied quickly, without a trace of emotion.
“Riluzole and edaravone. Neither work as well as we’d like.”
“Can either of them return this man’s ability to speak clearly?”
“Unlikely,” Dr. Yamamoto replied.
“Would they allow him to walk again one day?”
“Never,” he said. “It’d take a miracle.”
“A miracle?” Yuval asked playfully. “Wouldn’t that be something? A miracle? Just like we read about as children?”
The distant strains of an orchestra and choir drifted through the entire building, a haunting tune of pure reverberation.
A rehearsal for this evening, Yuval thought. So many moving parts, finally coming together.
This was his rehearsal. Here, beneath the great sanctuary above, he could practice the timing. The pauses. The phrases—all of them carefully planned out weeks ago. Tonight, he would get one chance to execute the program flawlessly as the entire world watched.
“Where did miracles go?” he asked slowly. “What happened to them?”
Yuval’s dramatic delivery, intended for the millions that would be watching later that evening, began to wear thin on those in the room.
“Gentlemen,” he asked, “is there anyone here who doubts the condition of Mr. Maduro?”
Silence filled the room. Cardinal Gordillo wiped some spittle from the man’s mouth onto a bib tied around his neck.
“Then we seem to be at an impasse, do we not? Science claims to have all the answers, but, as Dr. Yamamoto has just admitted, it’s clear there are none. Mr. Maduro would seem to have no hope of ever getting better.”
Yuval glanced towards the wheelchair. “My apologies, Mr. Maduro—if only temporarily.”
“Our religious faith makes the same claim. God loves his children greater than we love our own, does he not, Cardinal Gordillo? He has infinite power at his disposal and yet—despite years of prayer—he is silent. He does nothing.”
Yuval’s tone reached another register as darkness enveloped the room.
“What hope, then, do we have for Mr. Maduro? If science cannot save him, and spiritual powers cannot either, what hope does he have?”
Yuval relaxed as he leaned against the altar, a pose he’d practiced hundreds of times. He looked around the room, making eye contact with everyone there.
“It turns out,” he whispered, as if to share a precious secret, “it turns out, there is hope. Not through science alone. And not through faith alone. But through their union. Through their marriage. A blending of the two we have only just begun to understand.”
A metallic crash reverberated from outside, followed by someone yelling in anger, breaking the spell Yuval had cast.
“Could someone close the doors?” he asked, perturbed by the disturbance.
One of the Cardinal’s security detail left his corner post and silently shut the doors.
Union. Marriage. Where was I?
“A blending of the two,” Yuval continued, “we have only just begun to understand.”
Yuval switched on the monitors and rolled some of the equipment around the man in the wheelchair.
“Do you believe?” Yuval asked Mr. Maduro, pulling his head upright. “Do you believe in the power of this union?”
Despite years of ALS, the man still had limited movement. He shook his head up and down as best he could.
“Is that a yes?” Yuval asked again, his voice rising in tone. “You do believe?”
The man continued to nod.
“Cardinal Gordillo, could you ask some of your brethren up here? We’re going to pray for this man.”
Gordillo appeared shocked at the request, unsure if he was being mocked or not.
“Go ahead,” Yuval said, as he continued to manipulate some of the equipment surrounding the altar. “Get your best men up here. Pastor, you, too.”
Some of the scientists grew uncomfortable with their choice of seats, subconsciously sliding away from the center aisle as a few of the clergy walked toward the front.
Yuval sensed their unease. “Scientists, your work is already done. You can just sit back and enjoy the show—unless you feel like joining us in prayer.”
Yuval kneeled directly beside the crippled man, their eyes level with each other. “Is your family here with you today?” he asked.
Mr. Maduro struggled to shake his head no.
“Why isn’t your family here with you?”
Mr. Maduro pressed his knuckles against the screen attached to his wheelchair, typing a response.
“You’re my family,” a computerized voice prompted as the man slapped his chest and tried to point at Yuval, his eyes filling with tears.
“So touching. The man has no family.”
Yuval gestured to his right. “Our best scientists.” To his left. “Our best men of faith.”
He held both arms up in the air. “Yet Mr. Maduro is left with nothing—not even a family to take care of him. But he believes in what you—what all of us—might accomplish.”
Four men encircled the wheelchair. Yuval grabbed the Cardinal’s hand in solidarity.
“Pastors and priests. Scientists and researchers. You will never forget about you are about to witness,” he said, his voice booming louder than ever as he turned one of the monitors inwards. “The union of science and faith will be sealed forever!”
* * *
Outside the chapel, Natalie Connolly couldn’t make sense as to what was going on within. She’d been looking for her father—lately always within an arm’s length of Yuval—when she heard someone close the wooden doors. Through stained glass windows, she could vaguely see a group of men surrounding something, their hands outstretched in fervent prayer. She craned her neck, trying to find a better pane of glass through which to see. Although she couldn’t hear what they were saying, the way their shoulders shook made it look as though they were weeping.
Suddenly, something made her feel as though a lightning bolt struck her chest. In the center of the room, barely visible, was a wheelchair—laying on its side.
It was empty.
Some ninety miles away, in the crags of northern West Virginia, Thomas Finch listened intently as he hugged the cold mountainside. There were few sounds in winter but, nevertheless, he’d grown accustomed to cataloging everything he heard. Right now, the list included gurgling water, a diesel engine in the distance, and the snapping of a twig. Cracking wood wasn’t normally a cause for alarm, but the silence that followed had his pulse thumping in his ear. About 40bpm too high, he guessed.
Animals don’t care about making noise, he thought to himself. Not unless they’re hunting something.
Located at the bottom of a dead-end gravel road that twisted for a half-mile down the side of a mountain, he was less than a hundred feet from a hunting cabin he had recently commandeered when he heard the snap and froze. Finch scanned the terrain, looking for any sign of movement. He hadn’t had a shower in days, but if his hands were any indication, his face would have been nearly indistinguishable from the fauna surrounding him. Years earlier, in better health, he would have taken a chance and made a run for it.
“You’re built for speed, Finch. Not endurance.”
He could hear the words of his cross-country coach echoing through his head, polite words meant to steer him into another sport—a suggestion he refused. Now he couldn’t take any chances—not even a sprint. His heart was falling apart—he could tell. It was only a matter of time.
He can’t see me if I don’t move. Unless he’s already seen me. In which case I’m already dead.
It was early morning and leaves were still covered in frost. At least they’d keep silent. He looked up the mountain above him and could see nothing but tree trunks breaking through the last bit of fog. Just below, a creek cut along the small pasture the cabin occupied, its banks encrusted with shards of ice.
Trying to slow his heart, Finch opened his mouth wide and began taking deep breaths.
Several men emerged from the mist above him. Three of them, possibly four, just a few hundred feet away. Rifles. Full tactical gear. Even their faces were covered. He slid his canvas bag above him in hopes it might offer camouflage as they made their descent.
Finch began to shimmy down the mountain, pulling his bag with him.
To his left, another team of men began to scramble their way down. He glanced to his right. Four hundred feet away, a third team had nearly reached the creek below him.
A shot split the air in half. Finch instinctively closed his eyes and clenched his bag in hopes the folded canvas might offer some protection. Another shot, then another, echoed across the mountainside. Men began to yell directions to each other.
He stole a glance above him. One of the men dragged another behind a tree. Two others lay in a twisted pile on the ground.
Finch looked around, and the other teams had disappeared into the trees.
Where’d they go?
He grabbed his bag and clambered down the mountain, expecting another shot would ring out at any moment, ending his life. The creek was too wide to jump. He stomped on the edges, breaking the ice apart, the resulting noise giving his position away for anyone who cared to listen.
Slow is steady. Steady is fast. The words of his least-favorite drill instructor ran through his mind.
He stepped into the creek, and his legs seared with pain.
Slow is steady. Steady is fast.
Finch held his bag above the water and forced himself across, flinging each leg forward through the frigid current. He slammed his elbow down upon the ice lining the bank, again and again, until he had a clear path.
Why’d they stop shooting?
His heart was pounding, but there was nothing he could do as he flung his bag onto the rocks. The ice caught his pockets and tore through his leg as he tried to claw his way out. He was stuck.
He looked up the mountain above him. The two figures remained where they had fallen. The others were either gone or hiding. Finch backed down into the water and smashed a bigger opening within the ice. His fingers were too numb to grasp nearly anything.
Another crack of gunfire split the air.
I’m going to be killed by fucking cargo pants.
Finch scissor-kicked his legs furiously. He rose out of the water high enough to grab a low-hanging branch. It bent down into the water, and by grasping hand-over-hand, he pulled himself onto the shore.
It was only thirty feet to the cabin, but there was no cover—he’d be totally exposed. Finch grabbed his bag and tried to run but immediately stumbled to the ground, his legs frozen stiff. Instinctively, he raised his hands in the air and stumbled backward toward the cabin.
“I surrender,” he said out loud. “I surrender.”
Finch reached the porch and tried to throw the sliding glass door open. It wouldn’t budge.
He hobbled around to the door on the side. It was also locked.
He’d just left the cabin to look for something—anything—to eat and felt sure he’d left the doors unlocked. He held his bag against the windowpane and slammed it with the heel of his hand, a wild punch which did nothing. He tried his elbow. Again, nothing.
What I’d give for a hammer.
He collapsed on the porch and tried to slow his breathing. One hundred and forty beats per minute. One-twenty was supposed to be his max—any more was too risky. Twisting sideways, he peered around the corner, looking for signs of men crossing the creek. A digital tone played from within his bag.
Why is my phone still on? he thought to himself. No wonder they found me.
Just days on the run and they’d already traced the burner he’d stolen from a local gas station. He fumbled through the bag and held the phone up to his face.
What I’d give for a hammer—and some reading glasses.
Finch squinted his eyes, still unable to decipher what the message read. He made an okay sign with his hand, curling his finger so only a sliver of light could pass through—makeshift readers he’d come to rely on.
It was a message from Natalie—his ex-wife.
They did it, the text read.
He had just texted her an hour earlier—the first time in forever.
She had replied.
I just saw it. They can heal her.
Finch clutched his chest as his heart skipped hard.
John Brinkley stood outside the bedroom door, praying for strength. Beside him waited two of his deputies and a priest—all of them more anxious than he. At 52, Brinkley was a beast of a man—heavier than he would have liked, but with a frame that still carried his weight with ease. Brinks they called him. An armored truck.
He put his elbow against the door and paused.
Maybe I’m getting too old for this.
At this point in his life, he thought nothing could genuinely frighten him.
He was wrong.
When he heard the call come in—a frantic mother screaming for her child—it chilled his entire body. Once he arrived at the scene, the parents were so hysterical he’d been forced to escort them outside.
“You boys ready?” he asked.
They all nodded solemnly.
The door jamb had already been split open along two deadbolts set above the knob. He cracked the door and peaked inside. He could see nothing but floor, smeared with blood.
“We’re going to need some shoe covers.”
Both deputies turned back down the hall.
“Monroe,” Brinkley barked. “Stay here.” The deputy reluctantly turned around and stood behind the priest.
Brinkley pushed the door open with his elbow, giving a full view inside the room. It was clearly a young girl’s bedroom, once decorated with care. Blue walls. Stuffed animals. A tiny chandelier over the bed.
But things were out of place. Sheets were torn from the bed. The mattress was set at an angle across the box springs. Toys were strewn about the room. Swirls of blood across the floor gave clear indication of struggle.
At least she put up a fight.
The girl’s body lay on her stomach, as if she were looking at something under the bed.
“Where’s her head?” Monroe asked in horror.
Brinkley doubled over as he fought the urge to vomit. A barb of pink spinal column protruded from the bloody stump of what had been her neck, the flesh completely shredded.
“Dear God,” the priest said, instinctively covering his face with his hands.
In twenty-four years of law enforcement, Brinkley had never seen anything like it. Crime scenes, particularly involving children, were still difficult for him to process. This was something entirely different.
He peered around the perimeter of the room, looking for her head. The hysterical phone call made sense now, his subconscious already removing the mother from a list of suspects.
“Monroe, go get those shoe covers and tell Garcia to get friendly with the dad.”
A breeze picked up outside, knocking something against the house. The priest tapped Brinkley on the shoulder and pointed to a bloody window beside the bed. A chill coursed through his body as he realized the killer might still be in the room. Instinctively, he grabbed for his pistol, but it wasn’t there—forgotten by his bed in his haste to leave.
I AM too old for this.
Monroe returned and handed the covers to Brinkley.
“Give me your gun,” he said as he slipped the plastic sleeves over his shoes. “I forgot mine.”
Brinkley stepped into the room and nearly retched as his feet begin to slide and stick with every step. He peeked under the bed and saw that it was clear. Monroe pointed at the closet door as Brinkley made his way around the edge of the room. The muffled voices of Garcia and the sobbing parents could be heard coming through the window, resting slightly ajar.
Brinkley yanked the closet door open, peering in from the side. Normally, he would have boomed a thunderous command to intimidate whomever might be hiding into submission, but for some reason, his voice faltered. He tried to project but couldn’t.
“Clear,” he said, his voice cracking with anxiety. Even though the closet was uninhabited, he couldn’t shake the creepy feeling the whole scene generated.
“No head?” Monroe asked.
“I don’t see it anywhere,” Brinkley replied, taking a closer look at the body. “Did the parents say anything to you? What the locks were for?”
“I can probably answer that,” the priest chimed in. “They were having trouble controlling her. They said she was trying to hurt them, trying to hurt herself—totally out of control. Thought I might be able to help.”
“How long you been here?” Brinkley asked.
“I don’t know. 15 minutes before she called you.”
“Who busted the door open?”
“Must have been the dad. I was with the mother.”
Brinkley looked around the room again. Drawings. Pictures of friends. Swimming in a lake. Riding a horse.
“How old was she?”
“Six or seven, I think.”
“And you’re their priest?”
“No,” he replied, beginning to sense an accusation. “I don’t know them. I was the first person they came across with experience in dealing with… supernatural things, I guess you would say.”
Now we’re starting to make some sense.
“She was possessed?” Deputy Monroe asked.
“Well, she was obviously disturbed—that’s all I can say. I never even saw her until just now.”
“Did they suggest to you she was possessed?” Brinkley asked, his detective engine firing on all cylinders.
“No. They don’t seem like the superstitious type.”
This would make anyone superstitious.
Brinkley snapped on a latex glove and took a closer look at the body. Her hands were covered in blood, the fingernails encrusted with some unlucky person’s flesh.
I’ve never seen a kid put up such a fight.
“Supposedly, people who are possessed can show superhuman strength,” Monroe offered. “Whoever did this ran into the wrong girl.”
Brinkley looked around and mentally processed the room again.
What am I missing?
Her bed had been moved—marks in the floor made it obvious. The stuffed animals—their heads, torn off. An empty bowl sat on the floor beside the bed. The lamp on the nightstand was still on, a few children’s books and a bottle of Pepto-Bismol, its only contents.
A blood-curdling scream floated in from outside, the same haunting voice from the 911 call. Brinkley ran to the window and looked outside. The father was holding the mother, who had collapsed into his arms. Garcia’s back was toward the parents, his arms outstretched as if shielding them from something.
Brinkley threw the window open, blood dripping from the sash. “What is it? Garcia! What’s going on?”
Garcia looked back and said something to the father, who dragged the mother away. Once they had moved far enough, Garcia pointed down emphatically toward the ground then toward his temple.
“What’s he saying, Brinks?” Monroe asked.
“I think we found our head.”
“Out there? What’s it doing out there?”
Brinkley looked around the room again, tracing the swirls of blood. Something began to click.
He looked around the window and poked his head outside for a moment. He turned back and looked at the body again. The hands. The fingernails.
This can’t be possible.
“Who could do something like this?” the priest asked.
“A monster,” Monroe said, as nausea turned to anger.
The priest crossed himself and began reciting a whispered prayer.
Brinkley grabbed the muzzle of his gun and handed it back to Monroe.
“I don’t think this was murder,” Brinkley said, his mind filled with dread. “I think it was suicide.”
Dr. Albert Connolly stormed towards the cathedral, looking for Yuval Naftali. Something unexpected had happened, something for which Connolly was furious.
I cannot believe he did this, he thought to himself as he flashed a security badge to the men guarding the entrance.
Word of Mr. Maduro’s miraculous recovery spread quickly, despite Yuval’s insistence those in the room say nothing of what they had witnessed. As head of the National Institutes of Health, Connolly had insisted things remain a secret until later that day, a necessary step to ensure the maximum media coverage possible. No one but a few had seen Yuval’s discovery in action—not even Connolly. The fact others had seen it first—common people who had spent nothing, risked nothing, and dreamed nothing to make it possible—had him fuming. The fact the premature reveal had been specifically at Yuval’s request guaranteed there would be fireworks.
The evening’s event was billed as something dramatic—the most important advance in the history of science. But there was a twist, a wrinkle that had nearly everyone on the planet intent on watching. The advance wasn’t just scientific—it was also spiritual. It was the culmination a lifetime of work of Albert Connolly, a man who had felt the presence of God within the lab as much as any church sanctuary. For him, the Psalms and Proverbs offered solace and comfort, but so, too, did the journals of Linnaeus and Mendel. Bach and Handel were glorious—the polio vaccines of Salk and Sabin, even more so.
The sanctuary was still being prepared for the event. Workers were everywhere. Risers for media were set in the back. Cables snaked down the sides, connecting cameras and microphones to the enormous production trucks parked outside. At around 7pm, velvet pipe and drape would direct the scientists, clergy, politicians, and celebrities along the red carpet from their vehicles into the narthex, cheered by the thousands of spectators already gathered outside the chain-link fencing surrounding the building.
That was just ten hours away.
The guest list was impressive. A bevy of stars ensured news of the event would reach the common man. Cosmologists would attend. Molecular biologists would be there. The academic world was buzzing with news of their discovery and several particle physicists were thrilled to have received an invitation. But without the appearance of esteemed men of faith, their followers would likely never believe what would be reported. And so, the Catholic and Orthodox churches were to be represented by their highest ranking officials. The Grand Ayatollah and Grand Imam were expected, as were a few prominent Hindu priests and Buddhist monks. Connolly had pulled every string, every favor he was ever owed—whatever it took—to guarantee their presence.
For the aging doctor, the event could not have come soon enough. At 78 years old, the mental acuity that had so effectively powered his spiritual and scientific exploration was fading. His six-and-a-half-foot frame, once an imposing presence throughout the halls in Bethesda, was beginning to feel less so. Through his jovial attitude and frequent charity events, he was the vision of eternal youth imbued. But tension from years of MALKA-6—not to mention the strain of his attempts to bridge two sides of the enormous conflict it caused—had taken its toll.
Connolly appeared to have aged ten years since he received the call, just weeks before.
“It works,” Yuval told him. “It’s confirmed.”
It had taken two decades of secretive research and development, a long series of incremental advances that made this final call seem all but inevitable. But it had finally happened.
It works, Connolly thought to himself, shaking his head in disbelief. I can’t believe we did it.
* * *
The unlikely bond Dr. Connolly and the mercurial Yuval Naftali developed during the previous decade was legendary. Connolly was the highest-ranking health official in the United States, an elder statesman within the scientific community, the religious themes he attempted to weave throughout his work a constant source of ridicule—scorn he was willing to bear. Yuval, once an up-and-coming phenom whose research amazed the world, had recently extended his influence into social and economic arenas as he took over the World Health Alliance. Connolly signed off on nearly every grant—billions in funding. Yuval and his team tore through every dollar. Through incredible tension, they both remained laser-focused on the mission. Other personalities came and went, but Connolly and Yuval had somehow been able to shelve their egos in hopes of serving the greater good—no matter their differences on what greater good actually meant.
The tenuous affinity they shared with each other seemed to evaporate the morning after the call.
“We should pray,” an exuberant Connolly said after rushing to the laboratory. “Don’t you think? We should give God thanks for this incredible gift.”
Yuval froze. He was stunned, unsure what to say.
“It’s only fitting,” Connolly said. “We should consecrate this breakthrough. Dedicate it to the service of God.”
“Which god?” Yuval asked, straining to conjure a smile from his face.
“Oh come now, we both serve the same Yahweh, don’t we?”
“Dr. Connolly, I’m concerned at how the religious community might receive our work.” Yuval was clearly headed in another direction. “The union of science and faith is not something they’re going to accept. Not readily.”
“You’ll have some wonderful papers, I’m sure. The journals will kill each other to publish them.”
“Priests don’t read scientific papers.”
“Some do,” Connolly chimed.
“Most do not. Rabbis don’t. Imams don’t. The Hindus and the Buddhists—I don’t imagine they do either.”
“What do you propose?”
Yuval breathed deeply, his eyes wandering to another place or time. “We should do a demonstration. A public demonstration.”
“The auditorium at the NIH—it can seat two hundred people.”
“No,” Yuval shot back. “A very public demonstration. On their turf. In their space. In a setting they’re used to seeing. In a language they’re used to hearing.”
Connolly’s mind began to swirl.
“It can’t be seen as a science event,” Yuval continued. “It’s got to feel like a very special religious occasion. That must come first.”
“The National Cathedral,” Connolly muttered.
“Yes,” Yuval replied, his brow furrowed with intensity. “Invite everyone.”
* * *
“What do you think you’re doing?” Connolly screamed.
He found Yuval in the temporary office he’d seized for the week. Workers outside stopped as Connolly slammed the 8-foot door behind him, sending a concussive boom rolling through the halls.
“Careful,” Yuval said. “We’re in a house of God here.”
Connolly walked around the conference table to confront him directly, his nose whistling with air as he tried to control his breathing. “We agreed. Absolute secrecy. No leaks! No nothing!”
Yuval backed away.
“We agreed!” Connolly screamed, grabbing Yuval by the shirt. “What are you doing?”
Yuval took Connolly’s hand and tried to calm him. “It was just a few people.”
“Everyone out there is talking about it! We’ve taken everybody’s cell phones, but it’ll get out. It’ll be over every newsfeed within an hour!”
“We were about to lose the Cardinals,” Yuval countered. “If they don’t come….”
“You should have let me handle that!”
He is taking over, Connolly thought to himself. He is taking over, and there is nothing I can do to stop it.
Connolly walked away, trying to gather himself.
Just a few more hours and my life’s work will be complete. Just a few more hours and he won’t be a threat anymore.
“You have a darkness,” Connolly stated matter-of-factly. “Has anyone ever told you that?”
Yuval appeared unmoved.
“I wasn’t always high church,” Connolly continued. “I had a Pentecostal phase. Do you know what that is—Pentecostals? They’re wild. They dance. They speak in tongues. All the crazies are Pentecostals. I was one of them. I outgrew it, eventually. But one thing stuck with me—auras. Almost like a smell you can see.”
“And I suppose you can smell me?” Yuval sneered.
“I can see a smell. I hadn’t noticed it before. I can see it now. It’s a darkness. Something’s changed.”
“You’re positive your devotion to science survived this Pentecostal phase?”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“Auras, Connolly? Darkness. I suppose next I can expect to be labelled a demon?”
“I know about your research,” Connolly said. “Technion Institute, Transcriptomic Laboratory: Myth, Magic, and the Teoma Gene. By Hans Ylimäki et. al. That ring a bell?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“I know your aliases, Yuval. I didn’t grant you all that money without looking into things.”
Yuval pretended not to be shocked Connolly knew his secret identity. “I was a rebellious post-doc who should’ve never been given a lab and a microphone. I said crazy things. I was speaking in tongues, like you.”
“We replicated your paper, Hans.”
Yuval looked stunned. “What are you talking about?”
“We replicated your research. We used twins and everything. You know that almost never happens. We did it twice, just to make sure. And it worked both times.”
“I don’t even remember half of that study.”
He’s lying, Connolly thought. He’s hiding something.
“You think I’m not being honest with you?” Yuval asked.
“I think you’re up to something. I think that stunt you pulled this morning was just the first part of something else.”
“Okay,” Yuval said, pulling away and gathering himself. “I’ll be upfront with you. We have an unannounced person making an appearance tonight. I wanted it to be a surprise.”
Yuval smiled broadly. “Yes.”
“You know where he is? Not sure if you’ve heard, but he’s missing. He escaped. Days ago. He’s vanished.”
“We found him.”
“And he’s coming? Tonight?”
Connolly was stunned. “Why? No one on our guest list will come if he’s here.”
“Thus, the secret.”
“He’s the most hated man on the planet.”
“Not by everyone,” Yuval countered. “You live in a bubble here in D.C. and your conferences and galas. Out there, people love him.”
“How is that possible? After what he did?”
“They think he did the world a favor. He’s a hero in their eyes.”
Connolly paged through years of anger he normally kept squirreled away. “I just don’t see it.”
“Tonight represents the union of science and faith. Don’t think of it like a marriage. Think of it like a reconciliation. What better moment will there ever be to show the world reconciliation is possible? Finch, making a public apology, confessing his sins before the world, surrounded—in forgiveness—by those very people he so wronged. It will be beautiful.”
“He’s rejected science. He has no spiritual faith. He’s a murderer who has nothing to do with anything we’re doing here.”
“He will atone for his sin. I can assure you of that.”
“They’ll arrest him the moment they see him.”
“I’ve made arrangements to ensure that won’t happen—at least, not tonight.”
Connolly was still unconvinced. “How are you planning on getting him here? You know how petulant he is—he’ll never agree to doing any of this.”
“Oh, I think he will,” Yuval said. “They should be putting him on a helicopter right about now.”
In Bethesda, Maryland, Natalie Connolly raced over the cobblestoned courtyard of the mansion they called home for the week. It was a wonder someone had enough wealth to loan a house like this to others—an enormous French Colonial with wine cellars, two pools, and a world-class library. But, her father had many friends—friends who owed him favors. The space was a perfect location to entertain—and in some cases, house—the seemingly endless collection of celebrities and dignitaries that needed coddling and assurance their presence was appreciated.
* * *
“Is this the Biltmore Mansion?” her daughter had asked when they arrived, days earlier.
“No, but it’s a close second.”
“We really get to live here?”
“For a while, Eva. Not long—just a week or two.”
“Can you take me on a tour? Like at the Smithsonian?”
“I will do my best.”
The cobblestones were rough, but once Natalie moved Eva inside, the gurney she was confined to—along with all the ancillary equipment stored beneath—rolled more easily.
“Here,” Natalie said, adjusting the incline of the bed. “Sit up a little bit more so you can see better.”
“It’s loud in here.”
Needs more paintings, Natalie nearly said before stopping herself.
“That’s because there’s no carpet. This is the Grand Foyer. This is where all the distinguished guests will come in and receive a warm welcome from Papa.”
“And us, too?” Eva asked.
“Papa will be happy to see us, too.”
“No—I mean, will we get to welcome the distinguished guests?”
Pain shot through Natalie’s heart. Then anger, always following close behind.
It was too much for her to bear. The best medical care in the world, her father the most well-known celebrity in public health. Her only child, unable to even move her arms to shake someone’s hand.
Why didn’t he just kill her?
Natalie couldn’t believe the thoughts that flashed through her brain. Unlike her father, her faith in God was non-existent. She’d spent her entire education in parochial schools—typically a guarantee of spiritual rebellion—but had somehow emerged apparently unharmed. It was much later, after her daughter’s accident, that the prayer and silent reflection stopped.
Her marriage in shambles, her father consumed by work, she withdrew into herself and resolved to a lifetime of bitter nihilism.
* * *
Natalie bounded up the spiral staircase and into her daughter’s bedroom, cicadas piping through the open windows. Eva was asleep, the clicking and whirring of machines under her bed a discomforting reminder of her condition.
I can’t believe this is possible. Natalie had been whispering it to herself the entire ride from the cathedral. I can’t believe it.
“Eva,” Natalie said, rocking her gently. “Eva, baby. Wake up.”
The young girl stirred as Natalie wiped beads of sweat from her tiny nose. “Wake up, honey.”
She opened her eyes and looked around for a moment, confused. “What is it?”
“Remember your paintings? Remember the paintings you used to make for me?” They were Natalie’s most treasured possessions. She’d consulted with preservationists at the museum on how to care for them.
Eva was still groggy from sleep. “I think so.”
I can’t believe I’m saying this.
“How would you like it if you could paint again?”