Chase Baker is not only a true Renaissance Man, he’s a man who knows how to find trouble. A part-time resident of Florence, Italy, his resume reads like a modern day Da Vinci or Casanova. Writer, private investigator, tour guide, historian, treasure hunter, adventurer, and even archaeological sandhog, Chase is also a prolific lover. Unfortunately for him, his dangerous liaisons all too often make him the target of a jealous husband. Now, at the direct request of the Florence police, he finds himself on the trail of an archaeologist by the name of Dr. Andre Manion who’s gone missing from his teaching post at the American University. But having worked for the archaeologist several years ago as a sandhog on a secret but failed dig just outside the Great Pyramids in the Giza Plateau, Chase smells a renewed opportunity to uncover what just might be the most prized archaeological treasure in the world: The mortal remains of Jesus. But how will Chase Baker go about finding both the archaeologist and the Jesus Remains? With the help of Manion’s beautiful ex-wife, Chase will manage to secure an up-close and personal examination of the Shroud of Turin, not only to view the famous image of the crucified Christ, but to unlock the relic’s greatest secret which is none other than a map, or a key, detailing the precise location of Jesus’s body. Fans of Dan Brown, Clive Cussler and JR Rain will find The Shroud Key an irresistible adventure.
“…When they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs, but one soldier thrust his lance into his side, and immediately blood and water flowed out.”
– John 19, 33-34
“The most famous human being in all of history was a first century Jewish revolutionary.”
“You stole my wife!”
That rather inflammatory accusation is lobbed from a fully grown man who, despite his God given gender, is most definitely screaming like a girl. A high school math teacher, to be precise, who’s attempted two back-to-back roundhouse swipes at me and whiffed miserably.
“I did not steal your wife,” I insist in as calm and nonthreatening a voice as I can possibly muster under the circumstances. “Your wife stole me. Get it?”
Here’s the deal:
I’m standing outside the Duomo Cathedral in beautiful, scenic Florence, Italy. No, that’s not right. I’m not standing. More like I’m dancing, dodging the punches and swipes of this paunchy, Dunkin Donut fed middle-aged American. The American wants me dead. Dead and buried. Yet I feel terrible for him. His chubby face has gone heart-attack red, eyes swollen with tears and rage. His horrified wife looks on as do a crowd of tourists who have come to the Duomo to witness some glorious Renaissance history but instead have managed to acquire free ringside seats to a brawl between a walking tour guide and one very jealous husband.
How did I get here? How did guiding these nice mid-western white-bread Americans result in my pulling the rope-a-dope inside one of the most sacred piazzas in the world while in the distance the polizia alarms blare, and the crowds of Japanese gawkers look on in smiley faced astonishment?
The sad truth of the matter is this:
I did it by being me. Chase Baker, former sandhog turned bestselling thriller writer, slash private investigator, slash tour guide, slash full-time screw up when it comes to some of the more attractive female clientele.
So what harm can come from a little innocent flirting?
Just ask the man desperately taking swings at me, trying to knock my teeth down my throat.
Maybe this isn’t the first time easy love has come my way via a tour client, and this isn’t the first time a jealous husband has wanted to hurt me over it. It’s just that this is the first time things have gotten physical in public, with potential clients looking on. So then, like a freshly dug grave that’s caving in on all sides, I suddenly find myself way in over my head.
But then, this rather sensitive situation is not entirely my fault. For example, it’s not my fault that the woman in question rang my doorbell at midnight last night, waking me from out of a sound sleep just to “chat” and drink a little Chianti together. Not my fault that I’m still the same not-entirely-worse-for-wear Renaissance man I was the day my now ex-wife walked out on me holding my infant daughter in her arms, shouting, “You don’t want a marriage! All you want is a plane ticket to anywhere but here!”
What is my fault, is my having answered the door for this exceptionally attractive tourist in the first place. Better that I simply rolled over and ignored the ringing doorbell. Better that I shut out the image of her lush blond hair, jade green eyes and legs so long and firm they began at her feet and ended somewhere inside her shoulders. Better that I reminded myself of her marriage status and then simply dozed cozily back to sleep.
But of course, what made things worse is that the lovely tourist woke the dog. And once Lulu, your two year old black and white pit bull is awake, half the residents on the Via Guelfa are awake from her barking and carrying on.
Dragging myself out of bed, I ran my hands over my short hair and down my scruffy face. I stretched myself one way and then the other, feeling the solid muscles in my back and arms tense up. Opening the shutters onto the cool spring night, I felt the cool air touch my naked skin, and I laid eyes upon the blond apparition thumbing my buzzer.
“It’s midnight, Mrs. Doyle,” I said out the open window. “I’m closed for business.”
In the background, I could make out the noise of some revelers returning from the bars near the Piazza Del Duomo, their boot heals slapping against the cobble-covered roads.
“I just want to chat,” she said, smiling, her alcohol-soaked voice sounding sultry and sexy in the night. In her right hand she gripped a five Euro bottle of Chianti which she raised up as an enticement, like she required an enticement with those eyes and everything that went with those eyes. “Look, Chase. I brought refreshments.”
I felt my heart beating. Felt my blood flowing through my veins. I glanced down at Lulu who was standing just a couple of feet away on the smooth wood floor of my five hundred year old third floor apartment.
“What should I do, Lu?” I whispered.
“You know what you should do,” the pit bull said with a wag of her tail. “You should go the hell back to bed. Get up bright and early in the morning, work on your new book, then get in a quick run before having to meet your group at ten for the Duomo tour. That’s what you should do. Don’t forget, you need the dough-ray-mi.”
“Yah,” I agreed, gazing back down onto the blond goddess dressed in short black mini-skirt, black lace tights and knee-length leather boots. “I should go back to bed, shouldn’t I?”
“But you’re not going to do that are you, Chase?” Lu added. “As usual you’re gonna listen to your dick, unlock the door for this lonely but very married tourist, invite her into your world. You’re gonna drink her wine until it’s almost gone and then you’re gonna get naked. From that point on I gotta be forced to listen to your moans and groans and bed-board banging when I should be getting my rest. But then what the hell do I know? I’m just a stupid dog. I don’t even know I’m alive.”
“You sure you’re just a dog, Lu?”
“If it looks like a dog, smells like a dog, barks like a dog…”
“Most dogs don’t talk human speak.”
“Most dogs ain’t gotta live with you, Chase. And you’re making all this dialogue up in your head anyway.”
“Thanks for reminding me, Lu. Thought I finally lost it for a minute.”
Working up a grin, I inhaled a deep, satisfying breath, and decided, “What the hell?”
That’s when I proceeded to jump down into the rabbit hole.
“Okay, Mrs. Doyle, I’m gonna let you in. But just for an hour. Long day tomorrow, remember? The Duomo tour and the ‘David’ in the Academia. You’re paying me big bucks for this.”
“Oh, good one, Chase.” Lu, moaning under her breath. “Real smooth.”
“Back off, Lu. Daddy’s got a date.” A wide smile plastered on my face, I sprinted out of the bedroom to the front door. Unbolting the door, I leapt down the stairs to let her in…
…Ten hours, thirty three minutes, and sixteen seconds later, I find myself wrestling. Only I’m not naked and the person I’m wrestling with is most definitely not a jade-eyed blond beauty. I’m grappling with the overweight husband of said jade-eyed beauty.
A one, Mr. Robert Doyle.
“I knew you were with her last night when I rolled over and she was gone,” screams the red-faced faced man, as he tries to trap me in a bear hug. “I knew it the moment you set eyes on her you’d try and get in her pants.”
I shove the far softer Doyle away, hold up my hands in surrender like I want no part of fighting him. And I don’t. He’s my client after all, and by the looks of his physical constitution, only two heartbeats away from a major coronary.
“She came to me, Mr. Doyle. Last night at midnight when I was asleep.”
“That supposed to make me feel better, Chase Baker?”
In the near distance, the wailing sirens growing louder. So is the crowd that surrounds me.
“Fight!” someone barks. An Australian. “Don’t just dance like a couple of Sallies.”
Australians love to fight.
“Yah, punch his lights outs!” someone else shouts. A Japanese man. Sounds like, “Punch his whites out!”
But I really don’t want to go all Russell Crowe on this man; don’t want to punch his lights out. He’s just angry, confused and hurt.
Doyle takes another swing at me, and another. This time he connects with my right jaw, sending a shock wave of pain into my head. It also flicks a trigger. My defensive trigger. The one that brings out Chase Baker the Survivor. The one that’s been triggered in bars and Irish pubs the world over. Istanbul, Athens, Cairo, Rome. You name it. I’ve tossed my fair share of punches and swallowed a few too. But this is the first time it’s happened while working.
“Chase, don’t you dare hurt my husband!” cries the suddenly concerned voice of Mrs. Doyle. She’s still looking mighty choice in her black mini skirt and leather boots. She did her share of screaming last night in my apartment. Now she’s screaming once more. Only difference is, she’s changed her tune entirely. Her eyes are filled with tears and she’s clutching her face with her pretty little hands. I’m the bad guy now. Like last night’s little midnight affair was all my idea.
“Don’t you dare hurt my husband you big bully!”
Her face is a combination remorse, fear and hatred for herself over what she’s done.
I know the look all too well. I’ve seen that face before on a dozen other too-attractive-for-their-own-good girls whose husbands have just discovered the worst thing they can possibly imagine: That their pretty little trophy wives are also pretty little cheats.
My head is ringing like the Duomo bell. I feel slightly out of balance. So much so that I don’t see yet another punch coming. This one connects with my other jaw. The crowd roars in approval.
If the first wallop triggered a survival mechanism, this one sparks rage.
“Sorry, Mr. Doyle,” I say, “but you leave me little choice.”
Taking a step into the bigger man’s body, I lead with an uppercut that travels through the math teacher’s soft underbelly all the way to his spine. I then quickly follow up with a left hook to the lower jaw and just like that, it’s lights out for Mr. Doyle on the cobblestones of a breathtaking Renaissance treasure.
It’s also precisely when the polizia arrive.
They jump out of their white and blue Fiat squad car, grab me by my weight-trained arms, demand that I drop to my knees. How’s the old saying go? It’s not the angry man who punches first who gets caught. It’s the sucker who punches last who eats the crap sandwich.
“Hey, he started it!” I shout. But what I really should be doing is pointing at Mrs. Doyle, insisting, She started it!
The polizia don’t want to hear it anyway. This isn’t the first time they’ve picked me up for brawling and it certainly won’t be the last. They push my arms up over my head in the opposite way God intended for them to be pushed. The pain causes little flashes of white light to explode in my brain as I feel the steel cuffs being slapped over my wrists.
“You big bully!” shouts Mrs. Doyle as she slaps me across the face. Then, dropping to her knees over her out-cold husband, “Oh my sweet darling, are you okay?”
“Let’s go, Chase,” one of the blue-uniformed cops insists in his Italian-accented English. “You’ve got yourself a front row audience with Detective Cipriani…Vai, vai.”
“Does this mean I’m under arrest, officer?” I say as they painfully yank me up onto my feet.
“Si,” the other cop says. “It means your ass is glass.”
“Grass,” I say. “It’s ‘ass is grass.’ Why don’t you learn to get it right, Pinocchio?”
I feel the quick fist to the gut, and it’s all I can do not to double over.
“Why don’t you learn to shut up, Chase?” the cop says. “Silencio.”
“Good idea,” I say through gritting teeth. “I should learn to shut up and you should learn to speak English…The international language of choice the world over.”
Together the cops drag me to the squad car where they thrust me into the back seat, slamming the door closed. An EMT van arrives on the scene then, the medical technicians immediately exiting the vehicle and going to work on the still prone Doyle. Meanwhile, the cops hop back into the front of the cruiser.
As the cop behind the wheel pulls away from the piazza, I catch one more glimpse of Mrs. Doyle. She’s still kneeling over her husband. I shoot her a smile, like, Thanks for last night. But she returns my glance with a glare that would ice over Dante’s Inferno. When she raises up her right hand and flips me a manicured middle finger, I realize I should have listened to my dog, Lu, and not my other head.
“I’ll never learn,” I whisper to yourself. “Oh well, at least Detective Cipriani has nice cigars.”
I contemplate smoking a fine Cuban cigar all the way to polizia headquarters.
“Signor Chase Baker!” shouts the guard sergeant as he approaches the iron bars of this dark, dank, basement holding cell. “You are free to go! Andare!”
I shove through a pen that’s filled mostly with drunk, piss-soaked vagrants who’ve migrated from Peru. Why they cross over the big drink to Italy instead of heading north to America, which is far closer, beats the hell out of me. Maybe they get better health care here. Or maybe it has something to do with a higher alcohol content in the beer…Yeah that’s it, more alcohol in the beer.
The barred door slides open.
I step on through, offer the uniformed guard sergeant a smile like, Top o’ the mornin’ to ya! Or, Top o’ the late afternoon anyway. He doesn’t smile back. Go figure.
“Su,” he says, nodding at the staircase before me.
Su…That’s Italian for “up.” As in, Get the hell up those stairs! It’s also something an American redneck might shout at an old dog before kicking it in the ass with his Redwing-booted foot.
“Up the stairs, Chase. Detective Cipriani would like a word with you in his office.”
“He asking or telling?” I say.
But the short, stocky cop just glares at me like he has no idea how to answer my query. And he doesn’t. The guard sergeant on my heels, I climb the concrete steps as ordered, like an old dog being led around by his master.
A minute later I’m granted my private audience with Florence’s top cop. If you want to call him that. Detective Federico Cipriani closes the door to his office, asks me to take a seat in a wood chair set before his long dark wood desk. Set out on the desktop is a translucent plastic baggy that contains my personals: my belt, the laces to my boots, my wallet, my passport, my cell phone, my cigs, my Saint Christopher’s medal, my gun, my bullets … I go to reach for them.
“Not yet!” barks Cipriani, from across the room. “We need to talk first, Chase.”
I sit back, my eyes peeled on the internationally licensed 9 mm Smith & Wesson.
“Looks like the Doyles aren’t pressing charges,” I say. “How sweet of them.”
The fifty-something Ciprinai goes behind his desk, sits himself down. He’s a big man with a barrel chest and a pleasant looking face mostly hidden behind a thick but well trimmed beard. His eyes are brown as is his hair, and the dark blue suit he wears was no doubt purchased in Florence, probably at the department store across the street from the Piazza Della Republica.
“It’s true they have dropped their case of assault against you,” he nods, picking up my handgun, staring down contemplatively at it. “But that doesn’t excuse you from punching the merda out of an American tourist.”
“You detaining me further, Cip?” I say, pronouncing the nick name like “Chip.”
He shakes his head.
“No, just trying to somehow get it through that thick skull of yours that the time will come when I can no longer keep you out of trouble. Eventually you will be asked to leave Italy for good.”
I force my eyes wide open.
“Never,” I say. “Who will guide all those lovely lost women who’ve just arrived from America and England and Australia and Japan and China and Russia and…?”
“I’ll never understand it why a bestselling author like you still insists on providing guided tours or working as a private detective or even a, what do you call it, sand dog? Doesn’t make sense.”
“Three reasons,” I say, slipping my hand inside my bush jacket for my cigarettes, but then quickly realizing that they are stuffed into the plastic bag along with my lighter and my bullets. Oh well, I’ve been trying to quit on and off for years now. “One, writing is a solitary existence. It gets mighty lonely. Second, guiding, detecting and sandhogging–not sanddogging–provides me with badly needed human contact and it also makes for good story material now and again. Third, the money is good and on occasion great. Royalties are good too but not always so consistent. You with me here, Cip? Just think of me as a Renaissance man living and thriving in the home of the Renaissance.”
He spins the gun on his thick index finger like a little boy and his plastic six-shooter, bites down on his lip.
“You know I don’t like that you are able to carry this in my peaceful town of art and culture.”
“Money talks,” I smile. “Especially in Italy. Just ask the American GIs who saved your ass from Nazi enslavement during World War Two. And you personally signed off on my permit, don’t forget. Besides, this isn’t your town anyway, Cip. It’s Brunelleschi’s town, or haven’t you noticed that big giant marble dome occupying the center of the city?”
“You’re not getting any younger, Chase. Soon you will not be so attractive to the young women who travel to this beautiful country. Perhaps you will now consider spending more time with your daughter in New York City.” Working up a smile. “You know, grow old gracefully. With dignity.”
“The food is better here. So is the wine. And I’m forty something. I’m not even close to old, yet.”
Cip sets the gun down on top of his desk. Opening the small wooden box set beside it, he pulls out a cigar, cuts the tip off with a small metal device he produces from his jacket pocket and gently sets it between his front upper and bottom teeth. Firing the cigar up with a silver-plated Zippo, he sensually releases a cloud of blue smoke through puckered lips. Then, slowly straightening himself up in his swivel chair, he reaches across the desk with his free hand, pushes the box of cigars in my direction.
“Thought you’d never ask,” I say.
Stealing a cigar from the box, I bite off the tip, spit it onto the wood floor. Leaning over the desk, I allow the cop to light me up.
“You always were a class act, Cip,” I say, sitting back. “When do I get my gun back?”
“Not yet,” he says. “I have a favor to ask of you first.”
I exhale the good tasting and very smooth Cuban-born smoke. If silence were golden, we’d be bathing in the stuff.
Finally I say, “Okay, Cip, you’ve got that look on your face like we’re going to be working together again whether I like it or not. What do you need? You want me to dig up some dirt on someone? Maybe follow some cheating hubby around Flo for a while?”
He shakes his head, smokes.
“Not exactly,” he explains. “But you’re right. It’s possible I have a job for you.”
“I’m listening, so long as it pays.”
He gets up, comes around the desk, approaches the set of French windows behind me, opens them onto the noises of the old city.
“I need you to find a missing man for me,” he says after a time.
I turn in my seat, looking at his backside as he faces out onto the cobbled street below.
“Find him where?” I say, knowing the question sounds like a silly one since if Cip knew where the man was he wouldn’t be asking me to find him in the first place. But it’s a good place to start.
“Somewhere in the Middle East would be my best guess. Egypt, perhaps.”
I smoke a little, visions of my sandhogging days in and around the Giza Plateau pulsing in my brain.
“Egypt,” I repeat. “Not the safest of places at this point in modern global history.”
“Especially if you’re an American. And the man I want you to find is indeed an American.”
“What’s his name?”
Cip backs away from the window, returns to his desk. Only instead of reclaiming his place behind it, he takes a seat on the desk’s edge, left foot dangling off the edge, the right foot planted.
“His name is Dr. Andre Manion. A biblical archeology professor from a small Catholic college in your Midwest. An expert on the historical Jesus of Nazareth and said to have discovered some relics belonging to the Jesus family.”
The name strikes home. So much so that a lesser man would allow the small electrical shock of the name to show on his face. But I’m not a lesser man. Or so I pretend.
“Did you say relics? Jesus relics?”
“Yes I did. Priceless antiquities, which no doubt stir your juices, perhaps more than Mr. Doyle’s wife did last evening. Manion’s over here on a teaching sabbatical at the American University. Or supposed to be here teaching, I should say. Early last month he went missing and hasn’t been seen or heard from since.”
Cip is right. The name Manion when combined with relics and antiquities does indeed stir my juices.
“Fact of the matter is this, Cip: I worked as a sandhog for Manion eight years ago in and around Giza where we were in search of some prized Biblical treasures. Perhaps the most prized Biblical treasure of all. But we never did find much of anything, and truth is, Manion ran out on me, leaving me hopelessly hung over and alone.”
“Sounds very dramatic, Chase,” Cip smiles. “I thank you for your honesty.”
“Don’t mention it. Obviously my life has improved in leaps and bounds since those days.”
“Obviously,” Cip says. “That prize fight performance in the Piazza Del Duomo is proof of that.”
“Very funny,” I say. Then, “Thought you said Manion was in Egypt?”
“That’s the best possible guess based upon what we’ve put together thus far. I didn’t say there weren’t any clues as to his specific whereabouts inside the embattled country. I said, he himself hasn’t been seen, other than on airport security video in both the Florence and Cairo airports.”
“He travelling alone?”
“Don’t know the answer to that.”
“Exactly what relics has Manion uncovered?”
I feel my heart race as I ask the question.
“Don’t know the answer to that either,” he admits. “But I’ve heard a rumor that he uncovered the small tomb that housed the bones of Joseph, Jesus’s father. But that was a while ago now and in any case, finds of this magnitude would naturally be snatched up by the Vatican. That is, the finds can be verified in the first place. Naturally you would be familiar with such a process.”
“Naturally,” I say. “Or at the very least, the relics would go to the highest bidding private collector. Perhaps someone from Moscow. Or maybe one of your richer-than-God friends in Florence, Cip.”
The top cop smokes, glares at me for a moment, like he’s waiting for the stink from my comment to dissipate.
I add, “I assume your support staff has done everything in their power to locate him?”
“And then some. We’ve even gotten Interpol involved. But they too have come up short. Egypt is not the most cooperative of countries since its revolution and the election of a radical Islamist backed government.”
I reach into the right-hand pocket of my bush jacket, pull out a small notebook and a Bic ballpoint that Short, Stocky Guard Sergeant failed to relieve me of before tossing me into the pen with the drunk Peruvians. I click on the back of the pen with my thumb, jot down the name Manion, as if I need to. Then I write the name, Jesus, as if I need to do that also. Finally I scribble in a dollar sign, just for good measure. Makes me smile when I look at it.
“Manion got a wife? A mother? A boyfriend? Someone I can speak with who might help me out here?”
I can’t recall if the professor was married at the time we were digging all over Egypt. I recall him mentioning a woman now and again. But I don’t recall her name.
“His wife is in town. She teaches English at the same college her husband teaches at. She’s been here for a couple of weeks now. She desperately wants to find him. In the meantime, she can be a wealth of information for you, if you play her the right way and keep your dick in your pants.”
“Hey, you know me,” I smile.
“That’s what I’m afraid of.”
“Who would I be working for? You or her?”
“If you take the job, you’ll be working directly for her. She’s independently wealthy I’m told.”
“My kind of client.”
He slides off his desk, goes around it to his top drawer, which he pulls open. He slides out a manila envelope and tosses it across the desk so that it lands on the desk’s edge. I take the package in hand and go to open it when he stops me.
“Take it home,” he insists. “Examine it. Take your time. You should know that this one won’t be easy. It will also be dangerous.”
“You mean I can actually say no for a change?”
“Sure you can, Chase. Under one condition.”
“And that is?”
“You pack up and head back home to the states, since I will personally revoke your temporary work permit and your permit to carry a firearm in Italy.”
“Those are my choices?”
“Take them or leave them.”
I smoke and pretend to think about taking the job.
“Can you perhaps give me a hint about what it is Manion was working on and why he was willing to disappear in order to find it?”
But then, I already know precisely what he’s working on. I just want to hear it from the good detective’s smoky mouth.
“My guess is that Manion is being paid by a private investor to locate something of extreme sensitivity in religious circles.”
“Which means it would be worth a lot of money in people circles,” I say, my eyes no doubt, lit up like the lights on a Christmas tree.
“Watch yourself, Chase,” Cip warns. “If what Manion is in search of is as important as I think it is, more than one person will be willing to die in order to get their hands on it.”
I feel the weight of the package in my hands.
“What the hell is Manion after, Cip?”
I need to hear it, to believe it…
Exhaling, he says, “I don’t know for sure since you will have to speak to his wife. But it’s possible that the professor has stumbled upon something that is liable to shake up the very foundation of Christian belief as the world knows it.”
The words aren’t exactly what I want to hear, but on the other hand, the words can only mean one thing. I stand up, my head feeling a little lightheaded from the cigar and from what Cip is telling me.
“And that is?” I press.
“The bones of Jesus himself.”
There, he said it. Said what I wanted him to say.
For the love of God, the quest for the mortal remains of Jesus begins again.