What do you get when you pair 11 of the top female thriller writers with their male counterparts? MatchUp (Simon & Schuster, $27), a thrilling collection of short stories that includes such greats as Kathy Reichs, Lee Child, Lisa Scottoline and Nelson DeMille. To whet your appetite, here's an exclusive excerpt from J.A. Jance and Eric Van Lustbader's story "Taking the Veil."
BLACK HILLS, ARIZONA
FRA IGNACIO WAS TIRED--EXHAUSTED, REALLY. HE AND HIS FIVE fellow Jesuits had been on the run for the better part of a year. They had started in the Holy Land, where they had been sent on a secret mission by Pope Clement VIII to bring back to Rome the fabled Sudarium--the Veil of Saint Veronica--the cloth used to wipe the blood and sweat from the brow of Jesus on his way to the Crucifixion, imprinting his face on the fabric. He had been told that it had been unearthed in the Sinai by tomb raiders who had no idea of its significance to the Holy See, to the church itself.
Clement VIII had bought the holy relic from a merchant in the Levant. Fra Ignacio and his group had been dispatched from Rome to fetch it since the Holy Father trusted no one other than his beloved Jesuits to ensure that this Veronica, as it was sometimes called, was the genuine article as, over the years, any number of fakes had been foisted upon the Vatican.
He made contact with the merchant and the judicious biblical scholar, who had authenticated the Veronica for Clement VIII. He never saw the veil itself, for it was already housed in a quiverlike cylinder made of zinc, clad in three layers of copper, with a watertight seal at one end. Twelve days after arriving in the Levant, they made their way back to the ship Clement VIII had provided for them.
But luck was not with them.
Before they could board their ship with the treasure, they were ambushed and attacked by a band of thieves who had stolen the veil and boarded a waiting pirate ship. Fra Ignacio's ship had pursued the pirate vessel across the full length of the Mediterranean, out into the Atlantic through the Straits of Gibraltar, and all the way to the pirates' base in Honduras where his crew had retrieved the veil in a daring nighttime raid. With the veil in hand and their ship resupplied they had set off for home, only to be blown off course by a hurricane and left shipwrecked off the coast of Texas.
Stranded off the coast of the vast New World, he took the veil along with the few surviving members of his crew and headed north through the Rio Grande Valley. Turned away by the priests at the mission in Albuquerque but now reprovisioned and with horses and pack mules, they turned westward toward California.
Days later, after crossing through a red-rock-lined valley and in the face of an early winter storm, they had holed up for several days in a limestone cavern under a thick canopy of ponderosa pines. Late in the day, they said their prayers, then ate a meager dinner. Afterward, Fra Ignacio left the others, moving deeper into the cavern where he had buried the Veronica case upon arriving. It took all his strength to move aside the protective boulder he had used to conceal the treasure. Then, as he did every evening at this time, he placed his trembling hands around the cool copper protecting the relic.
It was at that precise moment he heard screams and pleas for mercy coming from the men he had left behind near the cavern's mouth. He heard the soft whir of shot arrows, the clink of obsidian against rock, and knew a band of marauding Apaches had found them.
Returning the veil to its hiding place and rolling the boulder back into position, he kissed the rock before retreating deeper into the cavern. His torch guttered, and the way grew dim. Eventually utter blackness engulfed him. He slowed his pace and paused, waiting for his eyes to adjust.
Suddenly, without warning, he was grabbed from behind.
His throat was slit with the blade of a hunting knife.
BLACK HILLS, ARIZONA
MARTIN PRICE LOVED AMERICAN INDIAN ARROWHEADS. OVER THE years he'd amassed an impressive collection. One were more beautiful than the Apache obsidian arrowheads, masterfully chipped and honed to razor sharpness. So it was no surprise when he saw the glint of chipped obsidian on the floor of the limestone cavern adjacent to an abandoned glory hole. The hopeful miners from years past who'd dug the test hole must have left the place empty-handed and disappointed.
Seeing the almost perfect arrowhead and slipping it into his pants pocket lifted his spirits. They needed lifting because he and his two fellow Gnostic Observatines had been up here in the wilds of the Black Hills, high above Sedona and Jerome, for over a week now without finding what had purportedly been hidden here since the beginning of the seventeenth century.
The veil of Saint Veronica.
So many fakes had surfaced over the centuries that the Vatican had given up all hope that the Veronica still existed. But Bravo Shaw, the head of the Gnostic Observatines, a lay splinter sect of the Franciscan Observatines, had received information from one of his many worldwide sources not only that the Veronica existed, but that it was hidden in a limestone cave somewhere in Arizona's high desert country. A diary entry found in the Vatican, purportedly written by the sole survivor of Fra Ignatio's doomed expedition verified that fact. But the story of the Veronica ending up in Arizona had seemed far too preposterous to be believed.
By everyone, but Bravo.
He'd dispatched Price and his companions to go in search of both the cave and the veil. It was early November, about the same time of year when, according to the diary, Fra Ignatio and his men had been slaughtered. It was cold, and after weeks of rough living and of finding nothing, Price's companions were growing restless, itching to get back to the warmth and comfort of their San Francisco headquarters.
But Price's luck had changed when he had asked a group of elk hunters about the existence of a limestone cavern, and they'd directed them here. There were plenty of signs of human presence. Empty beer cans, tobacco cans, paper wrappers, a fire pit. And yet the arrow had somehow escaped everyone else's notice.
Was it a sign that had been meant for him alone?
Thoughtfully, Price stood where he was and used his Maglite to examine his surroundings, looking for something to speak to him, but there was nothing. If the solid limestone walls around him held a secret, they weren't telling. Moving deeper in the cavern, he heard the steady drip of water and saw the ghostly forms of looming stalactites and stalagmites. Looking at them rather than watching his feet, he stumbled over a boulder. As he struggled to regain his balance, the boulder moved. The movement was minuscule, but it was enough to tell him that the rock wasn't a natural part of the cavern itself.
It seemed separate.
Had it been put there deliberately and for a reason?
Was that even possible?
With his heart rate climbing, he dropped to his knees and shoved against the rock with all his strength. With that much pressure exerted the boulder moved with surprising ease, revealing a hand-dug depression below. The beam of his flashlight illuminated the verdigrised surface of a metallic curved object. He had been told that the Veronica was preserved in a copper-clad cylinder. On the ground next to the cylinder lay a pile of beads and an ivory crucifix. He scooped up the crucifix and slid in in his pocket.
Two screams resounded through the cavern.