Standing outside the squat, unassuming structure that formed the entrance to the Basilica Cistern, Emil felt an eerie prickle of déjà vu.
Hagia Sophia stood just up the street, brilliantly illuminated against the night sky. Emil took in their surroundings with fresh eyes. The realization that the ground they’d walked earlier was supported by an underground city made a thrill shiver across his shoulders.
Misha nudged him, then nodded to a yellow building across the street. “Of course this place had to be across from a police station.”
Emil shrugged. “Just act natural.”
Misha scowled. “I always act natural.”
Emil bit back a chuckle, then ambled easily up to the closed doors. He leaned down close. “Patû.”
“Thought you always said Akkadian magic was overkill.”
Emil shrugged again. “Sometimes overkill is easier.” He opened the door just wide enough for him and Misha to slip through. “Come on, before Istanbul’s finest see us.”
The instant the door shut behind them, the small room descended into blackness. Emil heard Misha rummaging through his backpack. Seconds later, a small click echoed around them. The hard beam of Misha’s tactical flashlight cut through the inky darkness.
A long staircase took them into the bowels of the city. The air cooled and thickened as they descended, growing steadily softer with humidity. The smell of water mingled with the mineral, marshy smells of limestone and algae. Silence reigned, broken only by the steady drip of water from arched ceilings wreathed in shadow.
They reached the bottom of the stairs, bypassed the various kitschy stands set up to trap daytime tourists. Misha aimed his flashlight into the darkened void before them. “Holy shit.”
The flashlight’s beam revealed an underground expanse the approximate size of two football fields. Neatly placed columns stretched as far back as the eye could see, a white marble forest of underworld trees. A labyrinth of wooden footpaths wove between them.
Emil moved to the edge of the entrance platform and looked down. Water glimmered in the reflected glow of Misha’s flashlight. Ghostly shapes moved just below the surface. Emil’s peered closer.
Emil retreated to join Misha again. “Whoever Ms. Deniz was meeting, I think we beat them here.”
Misha was on high alert, scanning and rescanning the platform. “We should get out of the open.”
Emil’s snort reverberated around the chamber. “I think we’re about a hundred feet below ‘open’.”
“Underground just means fewer exits.” Misha started towards the nearest footpath. “Come on. We need to get away from the entrance.”
Emil followed him deeper and deeper into the cistern. A falling water droplet landed on his shoulder. He looked up. A second one splashed onto his face.
Gradually, the odd-yet-steady echo of dripping water took on a meditative quality. Ahead of him, Misha formed a familiar outline against the dimly lit walkway. Emil felt some of the knots he’d been carrying inside him loosen.
Things felt different down here. Safer. Like the earth itself was standing guard between them and the rest of the world.
Misha’s voice cut through his thoughts. “Who do you think she was meeting?”
Before Emil could answer, the distant echo of voices froze them both in their tracks. Misha shut off the flashlight, plunging them back into darkness. Emil’s stomach lurched. The earth closed in around him. The beginnings of panic fluttered at the base of his throat.
A warm, firm hand found his, squeezed.
The panic receded again.
They through the gloom until they came to a juncture in the walkway. Gently, Misha tugged him off the straightaway and into a crouch. Emil pressed his lips together. He could feel the heat radiating through Misha’s clothes. He gritted his teeth for good measure. Not the time. Not the time.
Minutes that felt like hours ticked by. Just when Emil was sure whoever was there had left, a bouncing flashlight beam appeared. Misha grew still. Emil could feel his muscles draw tight, like a finely honed bowstring.
The echoed footsteps grew louder. The flashlight beam grew closer. Emil pressed back into the shadows of the adjoining walkway, Misha coiled at his side, waiting.
The flashlight bearer reached the juncture. Misha sprang forward like a lightning strike, knocking the object from its owner’s grasp. It bounced away, light careening off the columns and arches. The unseen owner cried out. There was the sound of rustling fabric, then of flesh hitting flesh.
A second person grabbed Misha from behind, and Emil leaped to his feet. He seized the person’s shoulder and yanked. They both stumbled backward. Emil braced for the inevitable retaliation. A familiar voice made him pause.
“Reverend Stone! Puzzle!”
Misha’s tactical flashlight clicked back on. The light settled on the person in front of Emil.
Dr. Sonay Shah.