Miller sat back in his chair and looked away. There was a window with a view of the old city of Turin. In the distance, could be seen the church known as “Granma,” a weird round-shaped edifice about which many strange tales were told. Turin was where Nietzsche went insane. It was also, briefly, a town where the French sage Nostradamus resided.

“Kutulu,” he whispered, half to himself. “I didn’t catch that before. I saw all those consonants and my eyes just passed over the word.”

“Lovecraft himself suggested that the sound made by the letters was a sort of blurting noise rather than a word we could pronounce using human speech apparatus, but the link between Cthulhu and the word chthonic is so close that …”

“I heard that word. Not that long ago. In a different context.” Not understanding, Eco plowed on.

“But that is what I am trying to tell you! There is no Cthulhu. There never was. It was a fictional device, an invention!”

Miller looked away from the window and directly at the philosopher.

“And the book?”

“The book! Another fabrication! It doesn’t exist, Cthulhu doesn’t exist

…”

“The book,” Miller insisted. “Where is it? What is it? What was it called?”

Eco sighed in frustration.

“You are wasting your time, and your government’s time. The book doesn’t exist. The Necronomicon doesn’t exist!”

Miller paused, and looked down at his shoes. His heart was racing, and he felt half-in, half-out of the room he was in, the city, the country, and the world. Without realizing it or intending it, Umberto Eco had just put the pieces together for him.

He had just fallen down the rabbit hole.

In Iran, Miller opened his eyes.

“Zaranj,” he said to himself. “They’re going to Zaranj.”

CHAPTER NINETEEN

KAFIRISTAN

They call it Kafiristan. By my reckoning it’s the top right-hand corner of Afghanistan, not more than three hundred miles from Peshawar. They have two and thirty heathen idols there, and we’ll be the thirty-third.

—Rudyard Kipling, The Man Who Would Be King

They stopped short of the Afghan border.

They were outside the village of Milak, on route A-71. They could look across the border from where they stood. They parked by the side of the road to consider their next move.

Adnan and Sangar got out first, telling Angell to sit back and wait. The two men walked up and down outside the car, talking in low voices and glancing over at the crossing at Zaranj.

“This could get hairy,” said Sangar.

Adnan nodded, slightly, with a look back at Angell still sitting in the car. “We’ll be met once we get through.”

“It’s the getting through that’ll be tough. I don’t like it.”

“There is a US Marine base, FOB Delaram, up a little ways north of Zaranj.”

“Used to be. After the Afghan elections they’re ready to redeploy Stateside. They may have already gone. Even if they left a small contingent here you know they’d pretty much stay on base. And the smugglers practically run the place under the noses of the Afghan security forces—the ANA—and the Marines. I can’t see anyone coming out here to save your ass.”

“If we can manage to get to the Zaranj airfield we might be able to hitch a ride to Kamdesh. It’s just north of the town.”

“Seriously? Look around you.”

The area was pure desert. It was hot, dusty and dry, with a temperature north of 90 degrees F. The land was flat, and a paved road led the way to the checkpoint with a caravan of trucks and cars choking it: the pride of the brand-new Highway 606. From a distance the city of Zaranj looked like something you would see on an Etch-a-Sketch, faint straight lines that would be erased if you just shook the sand a little.

“The Zaranj airfield is a major terrorist target. The ANA has to patrol the tarmac every day to make sure there are no IEDs. Getting past the guards and hopping a flight to Kamdesh … man, there is no such thing, anyway. You’d be lucky to get a ride to Kabul, and from there you’re pretty much fucked. There’s no one you can trust to get you the rest of the way to Kafiristan.”

As they stood there talking, they could see a plume of dust about three kilometers from their position.

“You see that? It’s nothing. A car, a truck. But you can see them from miles away. Just like they’d see you. The ANA won’t give a shit until you get close enough to border control, but the Taliban and the smugglers will.”

Sangar looked up and around, as if he couldn’t believe what he had to say.

“Man, we have a job to do here in Iran. It’s what we’re trained for, and what we know. This … this is not in our job description. You know what I’m saying? This is a suicide mission. And not in a good way.”

“We came all this way, and you’re just now telling me not to go?”

“I did my part, man. I got you this far. I wanted you to see what you were up against. If the smugglers don’t kill you, the desert will. This place makes Yazd look like Vegas. You see what I mean? Just look. The land past Zaranj is all desert. Pure desert. It’s isolated and desolate. Taliban nation, man. They bring bodies out there and leave them to die. They don’t have to kill them. They just leave them there, dug halfway into the ground. They aren’t found again for years, and when they are they’re just rags and bones.”

The plume of dust was getting closer. Adnan could just about see the silhouette of the car that was causing it. It was headed their way. Probably an Iranian making his way to the border town to trade bootleg CDs, or something.

“If we don’t go now, Bahadur and Firooz would have died for nothing.” “This is war, man. People die in war. They knew what they were getting

into when they signed up.”

“Yeah, well, then I guess I do too.”

Adnan was irritated, but not at Sangar. He knew his friend was right. Sangar had spent three years in the States getting his master’s degree in engineering and learning to speak English like a surfer from the beaches south of LA. But there was no way he could abandon the mission at this point. His orders from Aubrey were clear, and when you talked to Aubrey you were talking to the highest levels of the American intelligence “community.” You might as well be talking to the President. Even better: presidents come and go, but people like Aubrey remained from administration to administration and got things done.

The approaching car appeared to slow down as they were arguing. Angell noticed it in the rear view mirror and then turned to watch it. He saw the car slow but it didn’t stop. He caught a glimpse of the driver who did not seem to take notice of them at all. The car continued on and joined the line behind the traffic heading into Afghanistan.

Angell turned back around to face Adnan and Sangar who were still talking by the edge of the road.

WHUMP!

A flash of light preceded by microseconds the sound of the explosion as the car that had just passed them detonated on the highway into Zaranj.

Adnan and Sangar hit the ground as a reflex and Angell simply stared out the windshield at the plume of dark smoke that erupted near the border control point.

This is where we are going? he asked himself.

“This could work in our favor,” said Adnan when he got back in the car. “The border guards are probably cowering somewhere and not watching who comes in. There’s chaos at the checkpoint, damaged vehicles, broken bodies. Small fires. All their attention is focused on survival right now.”

“You still have to get through that mess,” offered Sangar, getting behind the wheel. “You could probably walk through, if you can sidestep the blast site. But the road looks completely torn up there. No vehicle is going to make it through now, not until they clear that away and do some repairs. Could be days. If you’re going to go, it had better be now while everyone is still shaken up.”

“Agreed,” Adnan replied. He looked over the backseat at Angell. “You ready to go?”

Angell looked out at the devastation caused by the suicide bomber, and could only nod.

The look on his face caused both Adnan and Sangar to laugh out loud.

Sangar drove them as close as he dared, then stopped the car. With the engine still idling, he held out his hand to Adnan.

“Good hunting, my friend.”

“Give my best to everyone. I plan to be back here in seventy-two hours. After Kamdesh we should be able to hop a military transport back to Zaranj or maybe a ticket out of here. I’ll keep you informed along the way.”

Angell and Adnan got out of the car, carrying nothing but the clothes on their backs. Sangar waited until he saw them get onto the highway and make their way towards the border, then made a U-turn in the sand and drove away, back towards the heart of Iran. He would hole up in one of the towns they had passed and wait for a signal from Adnan.

Or, failing that, news of his death or capture.

New Orleans Same day

Half a world away, in the devastated Ninth Ward of New Orleans, police officers make a gruesome discovery.

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 left many parts of the city under water and destroyed homes, shops and churches. The Ninth Ward was disproportionately affected, and a number of condemned structures still dot the Lower Ninth all these years later. When a Vietnamese real estate developer decided to build an Asian supermarket and restaurant on one block, he hired a bulldozer to come in and level one such structure.

As the dozer rolled over the building, wood planks and sheetrock shattered under its massive tracks while people from the neighborhood stood on the streets and watched. When the dozer was finished and pulled away from the debris, workers came in and started breaking up the larger pieces and piling the refuse into dumpsters.

When they reached the ground level, a scream was heard that penetrated the hearing of anyone within a two block radius of the site.

An iron trapdoor was discovered that workers thought was part of a safe that was left behind. Thinking they would find a treasure, or at least some water-damaged currency, they lifted the door whose lock was long since smashed by the bulldozer rolling over it. But it wasn’t a safe.

The door was pulled open with some effort, and all anyone could see for the first minute was what looked like a pipe pointing straight up to the sky. Shining a flashlight down the open entrance and around the pipe that seemed to be lodged in a concrete slab they found the remains of two human bodies. They had been shackled to the pipe with heavy chains.

The stench of dead flesh billowed out of the open hole like a cloud of damnation.

The pipe was ten feet high. The basement of the doomed building had been reinforced with concrete slabs for floors and walls. New Orleans has a water table that defies most attempts at building basements or cellars; the people who build this one must have had professional assistance and support. Once police officials were able to get down into the underground area, they found a kind of temple. There were strange symbols painted onto the walls and floors, and experts in Afro-Caribbean religions pronounced them a kind of veve: the symbols used in Haitian voudon; except these symbols had nothing in common with traditional Haitian veves. It was obvious that the two human beings who had been chained to the pipe were sacrifices of some sort, and the word began to spread throughout the community that an evil poteau mitan had been discovered in the Lower Ninth as the centerpiece of a hounfort that was dedicated to some very evil, very ancient gods.

In Haitian religion, the hounfort is the temple area and the poteau mitan is the central column that rises from the center of the hounfort. It provides a channel whereby the loa—the African gods—ascend from the earth to the surface in order to communicate with the worshippers. The gods are

said to come from Guinee, i.e., Africa itself, through the center of the earth and up the poteau mitan.

An underground central column, however, in an underground temple was anathema to Haitian voudon. Someone went to a great deal of trouble to reverse the usual architecture.

If, as one local expert opined, the traditional arrangement is to call the loa up from Guinee to visit the worshippers, then placing the entire temple underground must have had the opposite intention: to call something else down from the stars.

The police detective in charge of what had become a homicide investigation with cult overtones stood in the basement after they had installed a ladder to enable access. He couldn’t see how those who created the temple had gone in and out, since the underground chamber was nothing more than an airless concrete block. His officers had hung electric lights from a generator on the street and the photographer and coroner had completed their work, removing the bodies finally and taking them off in a mortuary van to be identified at some later date. Somehow.

The detective made note of all the drawings and symbols, carefully copying them down in a notebook. He knew the photographer already had a complete still and video record, but he liked to do his own work whenever possible. Sometimes the human eye saw something that the equipment missed. Now that the bodies had been removed he could get a better idea of the layout of the place.

It looked like a perfect square, a cube really. He was inside a cube made out of concrete except for the ceiling which was lath and plaster. At first it looked like concrete and was probably intended to match the rest of the structure. He wondered how it had withstood the weight of the bulldozer.

Shining a pocket flashlight up towards the ceiling and walking slowly around the poteau mitan he saw that there were steel rods running the length of the ceiling, like narrow beams, criss-crossing. That might account for the strength of the ceiling as well as provide a solid platform for the heavy iron trapdoor.

As he followed the line of the steel rods across the ceiling he saw how they connected to the walls on either side. This was intriguing.