Excerpt

The Pharaoh Key

Preston & Child

The following is an exclusive excerpt from The Pharaoh Key, by internationally bestselling duo Preston and Child. In the following passage from their latest collaboration, a terminally ill man teams up with a former coworker to solve a mystery—and to seek revenge.

Gideon Crew sat in the fourteenth-floor waiting room of Lewis Conrad, MD, restlessly drumming the tips of his left fingers against the back of his right wrist, waiting to find out whether he would live or die. An oversize envelope he’d brought with him, currently empty, lay beside his chair. Despite Dr. Conrad being one of the more expensive neurosurgeons in New York City, the magazines in his well-appointed waiting room had a greasy, well-thumbed look that deterred Gideon from touching them. Besides, they were of a subject matter— People, Entertainment Weekly, Us—that held little interest. Why couldn’t a doctor’s waiting room have copies of Harper’s or The New Criterion, or even a damn National Geographic?

A door on the far side of the waiting room opened silently; a nurse with a file in one hand poked her head out, and hope flared within Gideon’s breast.

“Ada Kraus?” the nurse said. An elderly woman rose to her feet with difficulty, walked slowly across the waiting room, and disappeared into the hallway beyond the open door, which immediately closed again.

As Gideon settled back into his chair, he realized it wasn’t restlessness, exactly, that afflicted him. It was a feeling of unsettledness that had kept him in New York City ever since the completion of his last mission for his employer, Effective Engineering Solutions. Normally he would have made a beeline for his cabin in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico, gotten out his fly rod, and gone fishing.

It was so strange. His boss, Eli Glinn, had vanished with no word. The company’s offices in the old Meatpacking District of Lower Manhattan remained open, but the place seemed to be slowly winding down. Two weeks ago, his automatic salary payment had stopped, with no warning, and last week EES ceased paying for his expensive suite in the Gansevoort Hotel, around the corner from EES headquarters. Even so, Gideon had not left New York. He’d stayed on for over two months as his arm healed from the last mission, wandering the streets, visiting museums, reading novels while lounging at the hotel, and drinking far too much in the many hip bars that dotted the Meatpacking District. Finally, he admitted to himself why he’d been hanging around the city: there was something he had to know. The problem was, it was also the last thing he wanted to know. But in the end his need to know had overcome his fear of knowing, and he had made an appointment with Dr. Conrad. And so two days ago, he had been given a cranial MRI and now he was cooling his heels in the doctor’s waiting room, awaiting the results.

No: it wasn’t restlessness. It was a powerful combination of hope and fear pulling him in different directions: hope that something might have happened to him during the past ten months that fixed his condition, known as AVM; and fear that it had gotten worse.

And here he was, waiting, hoping, and fearing, all tangled up in his head like the AVM itself.

The door opened again; the nurse stuck out her head. “Gideon Crew?”

Gideon picked up the empty envelope, rose from his chair, and followed the nurse down the corridor and into a wellappointed doctor’s consultation room. To his surprise, the doctor was already seated behind a desk. On one side of his desk were the beat-up medical records and MRIs that Gideon had been carrying around with him in the envelope for the better part of a year. On the other side was a fresh set of pictures and scans—the ones taken two days before.

Dr. Conrad was about sixty, with a mild expression, gray eyes, and a sheaf of salt-and-pepper hair. He gazed kindly at Gideon through a pair of black-rimmed glasses. “Hello, Gideon,” he said. “May I use your first name?”

“Of course.”

“Please sit down.”

Gideon sat.

There was a moment of silence while the doctor cleared his throat, then looked briefly from the old MRIs to the new. “I take it that you are already apprised of your condition?”

“Yes. It’s known as a vein of Galen malformation. It’s an abnormal knot of arteries and veins deep in my brain, in an area known as the Circle of Willis. It’s usually congenital, and in my case inoperable. Because the arteriovenous walls are steadily weakening, the AVM is expanding in size and will eventually hemorrhage—which will be instantly fatal.”

There was a brief, uncomfortable silence.

“That’s as good a summary as I could have made.” Dr. Conrad propped his palms on the edge of his desk and interlaced his fingers. “When you first learned of your AVM,” he asked, “did the doctor give you a prognosis on how long you might expect to live?”

“Yes.”

“And how long was that?”

“About a year.”

“When was that?”

“Almost ten months ago.”

“You mean . . . I’ve only got two more months to live?”

“I see.” The doctor shuffled through the images on his desk, cleared his throat again. “I’m very sorry to have to tell you, Gideon, but from these tests and everything else I’ve seen, the original prognosis was correct.”

Although he had half expected this—indeed, he’d had no real reason to suppose it would be different—for a moment, Gideon found he couldn’t speak. “You mean . . . I’ve only got two more months to live?”

“Comparing your original MRIs with the ones we just did, the progress of your AVM has been textbook, unfortunately. So yes, I would say that is a likely time frame—give or take a few weeks.”

“There aren’t any new treatments or surgical options?”

“As you probably have learned, most brain AVMs can be treated with surgery, radiation, or embolization, but the location of your AVM and its size make it impossible to be treated with those methods. Anything we did, either surgical or radiological, would almost certainly cause severe brain damage, if you survived at all.”

Gideon leaned back in his chair. All the anxiety and uncertainty that had been hovering around him the last several weeks now settled down like a deadweight. He could hardly breathe.

Dr. Conrad leaned forward. “It’s tough, son. There’s nothing I can say to make it otherwise. It may not help to hear this, but: you know how much time is allotted you. Most of us don’t have that luxury.”

“Luxury,” Gideon groaned. “Two months, a luxury. Please.

“When Warren Zevon, the rock star, knew he was dying of cancer, someone asked him how he was coping with that knowledge. His reply? Enjoy every sandwich. My advice to you is similar: don’t become miserable and paralyzed with grief and fear. Instead, do something worthwhile and engaging with the time you have left.”

Gideon said nothing; he merely shook his head. He felt sick. Two months. But why did he expect anything different?

“You’re strong and mobile, and will remain so . . . until the end. That’s the nature of AVM. So I’ll tell you what I tell my other patients facing the same situation: live every minute the best way you can.”

A long moment passed while Gideon sat in the chair, motionless. Dr. Conrad smiled at him from across the desk with the same kindly expression. When he started gathering together the various reports and scans, Gideon realized the conference was at an end. He stood up.

“Thank you,” he said. The neurosurgeon stood as well, handed him the paperwork, then shook his hand. “God bless you, Gideon. And remember what I said.”

***

The chill March sun, streaming down 50th Street, struck Gideon full in the face as he stepped out of the building and into the afternoon rush of Midtown, blaring horns and exhaust mingling with the smell of a street vendor’s roasting kebabs. He felt stunned, hardly able to walk. Two months. Despite knowing better, he realized he’d held out a crazy hope that his AVM had been cured—or at least arrested.

A feeling of self-pity swept over him as he turned the corner onto Madison Avenue. Glinn had vanished. He was, it seemed, without a friend in the world. While he had more than enough money to last a couple of months, what good would it ultimately do him? Was he really going to go back to New Mexico and live in an isolated cabin all by himself, fishing and running out the clock?

His cell phone dinged and he glanced at it: a text from Manuel Garza, second in command at EES. It read: Come to the office right away.

Garza. He had long had a difficult relationship with the man, a brilliant engineer who could be both prickly and cold-blooded. But the two had developed a rapport of sorts on their most recent assignment; he’d found that Garza wasn’t quite the ruthless human being he’d assumed. Underneath that brushed-steel veneer, he did in fact have a heart.

Right away. Gideon decided to walk down the sunny side of the avenue, hoping a brisk, two-mile hike would help clear away the shock of what he had just learned. Two months. Jesus.

Half an hour later, he arrived at the ugly loading dock entrance to EES’s corporate headquarters on Little West 12th Street. He hadn’t been there since they stopped his salary two weeks before, but he found that his card and key code still worked. As he entered the vast, cavernous space of the company’s main working area, he was surprised by what he saw. The huge space, once filled with models of various engineering projects, whiteboards covered with scribbled equations, and people in lab coats scurrying about, was now almost empty. The floor was strewn with papers and other detritus: evidence of a hasty breakdown and removal. The worktables and desks were empty, with dead computer monitors, some draped in plastic, and snakes of cabling leading nowhere.

A dark, muscular figure came out of the gloom, lumpy computer bag slung over his shoulder, and Gideon recognized Garza. The man looked furious.

“It’s about time. What did you do, walk?” he said loudly, even before he had reached Gideon. “Can you believe this shit?”

“What shit?”

He swept his hand around. “This!”

“Looks like they’re shutting the place down.”

“Did they cut you off, too? Last week I didn’t get my salary deposit. No note, no explanation, no dismissal notice. Nada.”

“Same here.”

“And now this. After all those dangerous ops, after risking our lives half a dozen times, after all those years of hard work, this is the thanks I get? What do I have to show for it? Nothing but this.” And he raised his wristwatch to Gideon—a black-faced Rolex with a gold band—and shook it in his face. “I don’t know about you, but I am pissed.”

“Pissed” seemed like an understatement. As for Gideon, he felt more stunned than anything else. What did it really matter, when he had only two months to live? “He did pay us well.”

“After all those dangerous ops, after risking our lives half a dozen times, after all those years of hard work, this is the thanks I get?”

“For all that I did for him, I should be worth seven figures. As it is, I’ve hardly saved up anything. Life is expensive, especially here in New York City, and I’d planned on a steady revenue stream for years to come. But it’s not just the money—it’s the way he did it. I haven’t been able to reach him in almost six weeks. No response to emails, cell phone messages, nothing. I don’t even know where the son of a bitch is. And now we’ve got until five o’clock to clear out our stuff. That’s in ten minutes, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

“Um, I hadn’t noticed.”

At this point Garza paused and looked closely at him. “Hey— are you all right?”

Gideon tried to answer, but something seemed to be stopping up his throat, preventing him from talking. Garza took a step closer, comprehension dawning on his face. He already knew of Gideon’s earlier diagnosis, and now he seemed to be putting it together. “You hear some bad news?”

Gideon nodded. There was a long silence before Gideon finally found his voice. “Two months.”

It was Garza’s turn to look stunned. “Aw, shit. Shit. I’m so sorry. There’s no possibility, experimental treatment, something?”

Gideon waved his hand. “Nothing.”

Garza took a deep breath. “That pisses me off even more. Glinn knew you only had a year to live when he hired you . . . and look how he’s treated you since! You should be even angrier than I am. We should have had a big score—a really big score— long ago. That’s why I joined EES when we left the military, took all those crazy risks. Eli promised that we’d all have just such a payday. And we did—that’s almost the worst part. Because just when we really, finally struck it rich, he went and funneled every dime back into that white-whale project of his! That was a success, too, of course—thanks to us—but it cost everything and left us high and dry. And now he’s fired us and is shutting down the company!”

It was hard for Gideon to get exercised about Eli Glinn. He mumbled his agreement.

“Well,” Garza said, “I’ve got all my stuff in here—” he raised his computer bag—“so clear out your desk and let’s head over to the Spice Market and get ourselves righteously shitfaced.”

“Now, that’s a good idea. But I don’t really have anything to collect.”

“So much the better. Let’s go.”

Gideon paused to take a moment and look out over the vast, dead, silent space of half-completed projects and dark electronics. Garza paused as well, finally shaking his head.

In that moment Gideon heard, from a distant corner, an electronic chime. A small computer screen woke underneath a clear plastic shroud, creating a glow.

Garza saw it, too. “Looks like somebody forgot to turn off their monitor.” He walked toward the computer and Gideon followed. Taking the corner of the tarp, Garza jerked it away.

A message stood against a white background:

Phaistos Project

TASK COMPLETED

Time elapsed: 43412 hrs 34.12 minutes

Solution Follows

Garza stared at it. “What the hell?”

“Forty-three thousand hours . . . ” Gideon did a quick calculation. “That’s almost five years. You think this computer’s been working on some problem for five years?”

Garza started to laugh, his voice echoing. “It’s just the sort of thing Glinn would do: give a computer some impossible task and let it grind away, day in, day out, just to see if it could come up with a solution. And look here—it finally did! A little late, but what the hell.”

Gideon squinted at the screen. The “solution” following the message was a long listing in hexadecimal. “What’s the Phaistos Project?”

Before Garza could answer, a voice rang out from the far side of the room. “Five o’clock, gentlemen! Sorry, but it’s time to leave. We’re locking the place down.”

Gideon turned to see two security guards at the main door. He glanced back to find Garza bending over the computer, inserting a USB stick into the computer.

“What are you doing?”

“Downloading this data.”

“What for?”

But Garza was busy tapping on the keyboard.

“Gentlemen?” The guards were starting to walk across the room.

“We’ll be there in a sec, just clearing out our stuff!” Garza shouted from a bent position.

“Sorry, but we’re under orders to shut down at five o’clock sharp.” Garza pulled the USB stick out and slipped it in his sock.

“Wish I had time to fuck this machine up,” he muttered. “That would serve old Eli right.”

Now the guards had arrived. “You’re not supposed to be using any of the electronics,” the taller one said.

“Sorry,” said Garza, straightening up. “We’ll go.” The guards escorted them to the entrance hall and then paused. “Sir,” the taller one said to Garza, “I’m afraid I have to look through your bag.”

“Bullshit,” said Garza, “this is my stuff.”

“We’re under orders,” said the guard. He reached for the bag and, after hesitating, Garza let him take it.

The guard opened it up, and his blunt fingers sorted through everything. There was no laptop in it, but his busy fingers selected a small hard drive. “I have to take this.”

Garza stared at him. “It’s my data.”

“When you leave this company, nothing is yours anymore,” said the guard.

“Bullshit.”

The guard took the hard drive and dropped it into a slot, where there was a sudden grinding noise from an e-waste shredder.

“Hey! What the fuck?”

“Sorry,” the guard said in a tone that was anything but sorry as he stepped forward, one hand coming to rest on the butt of a holstered Glock. “Time to leave.”

Garza stared at him.

“Let’s go,” said Gideon.

They turned and left without a word, the two guards following them out. Once they reached the loading dock, the massive steel door to EES slid shut with a clang and Gideon heard the automatic bolts shooting home.

Garza turned to him. “Time for that drink.”

__________________________________

Excerpted from the book The Pharaoh Key by Preston and Child. Copyright © 2018 by Splendide Mendax, Inc. and Lincoln Child. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved. 




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