The Demon Crown

James Rollins

The Demon Crown

DEDICATION

For Mama Carol,

For all she gave to those around her,

selflessly and lovingly throughout her life

EPIGRAPH

I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae [parasitic wasps] with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars.…

— CHARLES DARWIN,

in a letter written May 22, 1860, to botanist Asa Gray

They’re seriously misunderstood creatures.

— J. K. ROWLING,

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

MAPS

NOTES FROM THE HISTORICAL RECORD

Sigma Force has its roots buried beneath the Smithsonian Castle, a massive and turreted red sandstone structure built in 1849 at the edge of the National Mall. From that one venerable building, the sprawling complex of museums, research facilities, and laboratories of the Smithsonian Institution was born. But before all that and throughout the Civil War, this single building housed the entirety of the Smithsonian’s collections.

But where did this shining testament to science get its true start?

Oddly enough, it wasn’t an American who founded the institution, but rather an eccentric British chemist and mineralogist named James Smithson. Upon his death in 1829, he bequeathed a half-million dollars to the United States (about twelve million in today’s value, or roughly 1/66th of the federal budget at the time) to found “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.”

Still, to this day, there remains a cloud of mystery surrounding this benefactor. For one, James Smithson never set foot on American soil, yet he left his fortune and a substantial mineral collection to this new nation. Furthermore, during his life, Smithson never spoke of his intention to bequeath such a largesse upon the United States, and oddly after his death, his nephew buried him in Genoa, Italy, rather than in England. One of the reasons little is known about the man today is that near the end of the Civil War, in 1865, a devastating fire broke out at the Castle. While the lower levels were spared (only sustaining water damage), the upper levels were torched. Most of Smithson’s handwritten papers — including his diaries and research journals — were destroyed. In that one fiery act, the man’s lifelong work was forever lost to history.

But the intrigue surrounding Smithson didn’t end with his death. In the winter of 1903, the famous American inventor Alexander Graham Bell traveled to Italy against the expressed wishes of the Smithsonian Board of Regents and broke into Smithson’s grave in Genoa. He collected the man’s bones into a zinc coffin and fled back to the United States aboard a steamship. Upon his return, Bell interred Smithson’s remains at the Castle, where they remain today.

So why did the inventor of the telephone defy the wishes of his fellow Smithsonian board members to secure Smithson’s body in such a harried manner? Was it merely, as claimed by most, that Smithson’s grave was being threatened by the expansion of a neighboring Italian quarry? Or was there something more going on concerning the eccentric James Smithson — first, his out-of-the-blue donation, then the mysterious fire that destroyed his heritage, and finally the strange journey by Alexander Graham Bell to secure his bones?

For the shocking truth about a dark American secret, keep reading…

NOTES FROM THE SCIENTIFIC RECORD

Palaeovespa florissantia, a paper wasp that lived 34 million years ago. Image credit: National Park Service

What’s the deadliest animal on the planet? Let’s take score. Sharks kill about six people a year, while lions account for roughly twenty-two deaths. Surprisingly, attacks from elephants cause five hundred fatalities each year. Snakebites double that number with a thousand deaths annually. We humans, of course, outdo that considerably by slaughtering four hundred thousand of one another every year. But the true assassin of the animal world is much smaller and far deadlier. Namely, the lowly mosquito. As vectors for a slew of diseases — malaria, yellow fever, West Nile, and now Zika — these flying bloodsuckers alone account for more than a million deaths each year. In fact, mosquito bites are the leading cause of mortality in children under five.

Still, other tiny beasts also vie with the mosquito for this deadly crown. Tsetse flies cause ten thousand deaths each year. The aptly named assassin bug (Reduviidae) does a bit better with twelve thousand. Ultimately, some insect will kill one person out of sixty every year.

Why is this important? It serves as a cautionary reminder that we are not living in the Age of Man, but rather — as has been true for more than 400 million years — in the Age of Insects. While humans have been on this planet for a paltry 300,000 years, insects existed eons before the dinosaurs, multiplying and spreading, filling every environmental niche. In fact, it is now hypothesized that insects contributed — if not led — to the extinction of the dinosaurs. How? From analysis of recent fossil records, it has been discovered that these tiny predators attacked those lumbering saurians while they were compromised and weakened by the climatic changes at the end of the Cretaceous Period, contributing significantly to their demise through predation, disease transmission, and sickness. At that opportune moment in prehistory, insects took advantage to finally rid the planet of their main competitor for all those new plants and flowers — and in one fell swoop, ended the Age of Dinosaurs.

Which, of course, begs the question concerning the insect’s latest competitor for the earth’s dwindling natural resources: Could we be their next target?

Prologue

11:07 A.M. CET

December 31, 1903

Genoa, Italy

With time weighing heavily upon its passengers, the carriage climbed recklessly up from the snow-swept city of Genoa. It jolted hard around a sharp twist in the narrow street.

Seated in the back, Alexander Graham Bell groaned. He was still recuperating from a fever following the transatlantic voyage with his wife. To make matters worse, upon arriving in Italy two weeks ago, nothing had gone smoothly. At every turn, Italian authorities thwarted his plans to secure the remains of James Smithson, the man who had founded the Smithsonian Institution. To facilitate this bit of grave robbing, he had been forced to act as both spy and ambassador, doling out bribes and deceit in equal measure. It was a game for a much younger fellow, not a man in his midfifties. The stress had taken its toll.

His wife clutched his wrist. “Alec, perhaps we should ask the driver to slow down.”

He patted her hand. “No, Mabel, the weather is turning. And the French are breathing hotly down our necks. It’s now or never.”

Three days ago, just as he had secured all the proper permits, some distant French relatives of Smithson had wormed out of the woodwork to stake a claim on his body, little knowing what truly was at stake. Before this French roadblock could become entrenched, he had argued with Italian authorities that since Smithson had left the entirety of his estate to the United States, such an endowment must surely encompass his very body. He solidified his position with fistfuls of lire plied into the right hands, while at the same time categorically declaring — falsely — that President Theodore Roosevelt supported his mission.

Though he had prevailed in this subterfuge, he could not count on it lasting much longer.

It’s indeed now or never.

He placed a palm over his breast pocket, where a fragment of paper was folded, its edges still charred.

Mabel noted his hand. “Do you believe it could still be there? In his grave, buried with his body?”

“We have to be sure. Someone came close to destroying this secret half a century ago. We can’t let the Italians finish the job.”

In 1829, James Smithson was buried by his nephew in a small cemetery atop a seaside promontory in Genoa. At the time, the graveyard was owned by the British, but the Italians had retained a claim to the ground beneath it. Over the past few years, a neighboring quarry had been slowly eating its way through this hill, and now the company wanted to take it all down, including the cemetery.

Upon learning of the threat to the bones of the founder of the Smithsonian, the museum’s board of regents had debated whether to rescue those remains before they were blasted into the sea. It was during that time that ...

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