August, 2006: A Matter of Degrees by Alex Marcoux crosses literary boundaries the same way that it crosses centuries, nations and time and space itself. ...Masterfully told tale, for the author has given us a heart-thumping ride through Jessie's world as she searches for her brother's killer and finds much more than she bargained for. This page-turner will fulfill the fondest wishes of those who like a nice thick, meaty mystery read.Books to Watch Out For
Fans of Marcoux's other books will welcome the return of Jessie Mercer and her lover, Taylor Andrews, from Back to Salem and mentions of Sidney and Anastasia from FaÃ§ades. In addition, the Freemasons, the Sumerians, the Catholic Church, the Trilateral Commission, and other secret societies are all players in this well-researched thriller.Inside Out Hudson Valley
JoAnne Myers: In A Matter of Degrees, author Alex Marcouxâ€”who has been called the "lesbian Dan Brown"â€” trumps The Da Vinci Code because she doesn't just take on the Vatican and the Sacred Feminine, but builds on the anti-Biblical and the seemingly interconnected world of fraternal organizations, including the oldest and largest: the Freemasons... Marcoux does a brilliant job of snagging even the most reluctant reader in the intrigue, in ancient myths and history, in the grand-conspiracy theory of world control that, even after nearly 300 pages, you hate to have her wrap up.
* * *Long before the region was called Iraq—
* * *before the ancient empires of Egypt, Greece, or Rome.
* * *Even before the first ancient civilization of Sumer—
* * *there was E.DIN.
It was Enki’s compassion for the slaves that altered his life, and the lives of humankind. He wanted something more for them. Why couldn’t a select few be given the knowledge of eternal life? Enki pondered, as he verged upon his brother’s sanctuary.
Apart from the sporadic swish caused by sand displaced beneath their sandals, there was silence. Pensively, Enki trekked onward with two guards on his heels. His half-brother, Enlil, had summoned him. Enki suspected that his activities from the previous evening had been exposed. This, he knew, would have infuriated his younger sibling. Considering the possibility, he understood what Enlil was capable of. As the supreme ruler of E.DIN, Enlil had the power to relegate Enki’s status of second-in-command.
Deep in thought, Enki pressed on toward the palace. Since he returned from AB.ZU, where he supervised the mining operation, he had been outraged by Enlil’s mistreatment of the slaves. To Enki it was simple; the slaves fulfilled their purpose. They mined the council’s precious ore, and here in the fertile gardens of E.DIN, they harvested their fruit. Although the slaves served the council well, they had wretched and pitiful lives, ignorant of wisdom, pleasure, or their fundamental essence. Treated like animals, they lived and died toiling for Enlil and the supreme council.
When they reached the palace chamber, he waited silently, towering over the men that had escorted him there. Enki recalled the initiation from the previous evening, and how he had shared with the chosen slaves about elevating their consciousness and finding true light.
“Leave us!” Enlil’s voice bellowed from the entry. As the two guards disappeared into the palace, Enlil emerged and stood before Enki, his powerfully built body adorned with gold trinkets.
“You have done it this time. What were you thinking?” Enlil’s anger glared through his steel gray eyes. “You know that as long as the slaves remain spiritually ignorant we stay in control.”
“Brother, there were—”
“Don’t call me brother.” Enlil cut him off, his voice echoing within the chamber walls. “Your harlot mother was my father’s only weakness. You shouldn’t have been sent here.”
Enki was familiar with Enlil’s acts of aggression toward him, but something was different this time. “Enlil, the workers serve their purpose. I chose a select few to teach our ways.”
“Anu would never approve.”
“Father isn’t here to discuss this.”
“Marduk would never approve.”
“My son is also not here to debate the issue,” Enki said calmly.
“When Marduk arrives, you will never see him.”
“What are you saying?”
“You’ve outdone yourself, Enki.” Enlil retreated to the entryway where he effortlessly grabbed a staff and, with thickset arms, clashed it against a golden disk. The clanging reverberated in the tiny room; guards quickly entered and surrounded Enki.
“What is the meaning of this?” Enki asked evenly.
“You…” Enlil advanced so that the brothers were eye-to-eye. With the exception of their muscular frames, there was little resemblance between the men. “You are banished from E.DIN.”
A smile came to Enki’s lips. “You’re not serious.”
“Oh, but I am. Enki, you are to be exiled! I will spread the word among the slaves that you are a mortal enemy of the supreme council. They will learn that you are responsible for everything bad that happens to them, and that it is your intention to spiritually enslave them.”
“But that’s not true.” Enki’s voice rose. The guards grabbed him and he struggled to free himself, but there were too many of them.
“People will fear you.” Enlil’s voice soared above the resistance. “They will know that you are evil and loathe you.”
For a moment, Enki’s effort ceased. “Why are you doing this?”
“You will never be a leader, Enki. My work will rise above you, and you will be called Abaddon, and from where I will put you—you’ll be the keeper of the bottomless pit.” The evil in Enlil’s eyes flashed, and his laugh would echo in Enki’s ears forever.
* * *
At first his only sense was smell. He was face down in the soggy soil, and the terrain reeked of decaying earth. Enki tasted the foul sludge that had coated his lips. He pulled his partially submerged face from the dank mud, and sat upright. His head throbbed. His sandals were nowhere to be found. The only thing he had been left with was the robe on his back.
Rather than the plentiful gardens that he had become accustomed to in E.DIN, Enki was surrounded by shallow water and tall grass of swampland. It was then that he remembered Enlil’s men tossing him into a pit. He found the bump on the back of his head, the basis of his headache. A quick glance behind him confirmed the wall of earth, almost two men high, from which he had been thrown.
A hiss drew Enki’s attention to the thick reeds that stirred close to him. Then he spotted the black water moccasin slithering within inches. The snake’s head abruptly shot up, flashing its venomous fangs, forked tongue, and white mouth. Hissing angrily, the snake lunged toward his face. Skillfully, Enki seized it within a finger’s length of his eyes. The serpent thrashed about, trying to free itself from Enki’s grasp, but it was no match for the powerful arm. Enki stood. The snake succumbed, and when all resistance was gone, he dropped the snake at his feet. Slowly, it slithered into the shallow water.
Enki studied the surrounding area. On three sides the earth was high above his head, on the fourth face there was an endless marsh. He stepped forward, into the swamps.
* * *
The years passed. At first, his time had been consumed with his own survival. Then one day, movement in the swamp caught Enki’s attention. Upon closer inspection, he saw a man with darker skin than his own. Here, Enki met a slave that had escaped from E.DIN. He discovered that other men and women lived there, choosing freedom in the swamps over their lives of bondage in E.DIN. These people welcomed Enki, and he embraced them.
Against Enlil’s edicts, Enki taught the uninitiated ethics, justice, and how to seek true light. To the chosen ones, he explained the mysteries of life and the great secret of humankind’s creation. It was here, in the snake-filled marshlands of Mesopotamia, that Enki formed the Brotherhood of the Snake.
It was late. If she had been more attentive, Rachel may have noticed the silence in the hallway outside her office door or the absence of sunlight from her window. Perhaps even, if she weren’t so absorbed in her work, she would have become aware of the growl in her stomach from missing dinner. But it was the chime of the clock that drew her attention to the time.
“My God! It’s already ten o’clock.”
Rachel looked back at the cryptic notes that were spread on top of her desk, but her eyes bothered her. She removed her reading glasses then rubbed the base of her skull. As her fingers massaged the deeply rooted knots, her long dark hair fell loosely around her face. She rotated her neck, first from front to back, and then full circles to help relieve the headache that had plagued her that evening.
When her head turned, she caught sight of her reflection in the window. She paused, and then looking past her silhouette, Rachel gazed upon the glitter of the office buildings from her elevated location. She had always admired the view of Manhattan’s skyscrapers from her office. She stood and stretched her arms over her head.
“I should go home,” she whispered to herself. Then her vision returned to the notes sprawled across her desk, and she replaced the glasses to the bridge of her nose. Rachel sat and continued her work, as if a spell had been cast upon her.
As a field reporter for one of the more reputable television news programs, Rachel Addison had become accustomed to the late hours at the network office building. She had worked for Over the Edge going on five years. Presently, she was working on a controversial project connecting secret societies with various politicians. She continued massaging the knots in her neck as she studied notes concerning the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), the Trilateral Commission, and Freemasonry.
Bang! A sudden knock from the hallway outside her office door startled her. Who’s here this late? she wondered, and the door opened abruptly. Instinctively, Rachel sprang to her feet as Steve Mercer barged into her office.
Rachel stared at the other field reporter, then she possessively gathered the notes that had been spread on her desk and stuffed them into a manila folder. “My God, Steve! You scared me,” her voice was more hoarse than usual.
Steve closed her office door. “Good.” He moved closer to Rachel. “Someone needs to put some sense into your head.” It was almost a whisper.
Rachel pulled the reading glasses from her face and stepped away from her desk. “What are you talking about?”
He approached so that they were inches apart. “Drop your story on the secret societies.”
“I will not. It’s a good story. People have a right to know.”
At six-two, Steve towered over her. “If you value your life, Rachel, you’ll drop it and burn your work.” He spoke calmly and softly then turned away.
“Are you threatening me?”
He turned back. “No. But I am warning you.” His exit was as abrupt as his entrance.
* * *
Two weeks later, Rachel received an anonymous tip to meet someone in Nyack about an updated list of CFR members. The CFR is the granddaddy of modern American secret societies. Rachel arrived at the agreed-upon meeting place, The Hudson House, but her contact never showed. She finished her coffee, and headed back to the city.
Opting for a more scenic route, she chose highway 9W for her return trip, a hilly and winding road that ran along the west side of the Hudson River. To her left was a steep embankment with houses perched on the incline leading down to the river. To the right, the embankment continued its rise high above the road. When traffic moved on this one-lane road, it was quicker than the Palisades Parkway. Today, however, she came upon a traveler that was out for a leisurely ride.
Rachel braked as she advanced toward the slower car, but the brakes didn’t respond. “Shit!” She stomped the pedal, but there was no effect. Her pulse quickened as she sped toward the other vehicle.
She honked; hoping the car in front would get moving. Instead, the man braked. With no place to go, Rachel swerved to the left, becoming trapped in the approaching traffic lane. There were no advancing cars. Thank God! Her Saab darted around the slower vehicle. With eyes glued to the road before her, she never saw the man gesture with his finger.
Rachel had traveled this road on many occasions. She needed to manage the next turn, then the grade shifted uphill a short distance. Sixty-five. Seventy. The tires squealed as the vehicle veered around the winding curve. At seventy-five miles per hour and white knuckles clenched to the steering wheel she approached the upward incline. Steadily, the Saab slowed. Sixty…fifty…forty…
Rachel exhaled. With her sleeve, she wiped the perspiration from her brow. But now what? The slope would change soon. She couldn’t continue on the snaky river road without brakes. She spotted the uphill driveway to a stately home on her right. At thirty miles per hour, Rachel veered up the steep grade. The back end of her vehicle fishtailed. She smashed a retaining wall, slamming her head against the door window. Coasting up the driveway, she slowed to fifteen miles per hour at its summit. Given the choice, Rachel collided with a mature tree rather than a garage. The airbag inflated.
Her heart pounded. There was blood on the airbag. Instinctively, she groped her forehead, the source of pain.
During the hours that passed, Rachel’s emotions had fluctuated from fear, to disbelief, to denial, but now she was just pissed off. It was dark, and she fumed as she approached the entrance to Steve Mercer’s Scarsdale home. Faced with a door knocker or a fancy lit doorbell, she hammered the door unkindly. Seconds later the foyer light came on and a shadow appeared through the stained glass window beside the door.
Steve Mercer opened the door slowly. Rachel Addison stood before him. Her silk blouse was bloodstained, and she had a discolored bandage on her forehead. He was speechless.
“Tell me what the hell is going on, or I’m going to the authorities!” she said.
Steve widened the door. “Come in,” he said calmly. Nonchalantly, he glanced around the upper-middle-class neighborhood. Satisfied with what he saw, he closed the door. “This way.” He led her into his kitchen and pointed at a bar stool, “Take a seat.”
Stubbornly, Rachel leaned against the counter.
Steve removed a facecloth and box of bandages from a nearby linen closet. He drenched the cloth at the kitchen sink, and then approached her. “What happened?”
As he attempted to remove the discolored bandage, Rachel pulled away at his touch. “I didn’t come here for a Band-Aid,” she complained. “What’s going on?”
“Rachel,” Steve’s voice softened, “let me help you.” He nudged the bar stool, inviting her to sit again.
“Fine,” she took a seat. “But what the hell have I gotten myself into?”
With a flick of his wrist, Steve removed the bandage, revealing a long gash. “How did this happen?” He washed her forehead.
“I received an anonymous call from a man claiming to have an updated list of CFR members. He suggested that I meet him at a restaurant in Nyack.” Rachel faltered.
“He never showed. But, while I was in the restaurant someone cut my brake lines.” Steve finished applying a new bandage and Rachel grabbed his hand. “What’s going on? Why did you warn me?”
His eyes met Rachel’s and she released her grip. “Before I say anything, what is your investigation uncovering?”
“Are you familiar with the Freemasons?”
“Yes. It’s a brotherhood that has been in existence for centuries.”
“It’s a secret society that has a secret society within it.”
He smiled. “That’s not exactly what I understand.”
“Most Freemasons believe they’re involved in a fellowship where they share camaraderie and participate in humanitarian concerns, like the Shriners. Even in this visible society, though, they take blood oaths to protect their occult secrets. But most Masons are unaware of an invisible society that’s dedicated to protecting an ancient sacred secret.”
“And what is this ancient sacred secret?” Steve asked.
“Well if I knew that, it wouldn’t be secret, now, would it?”
“Where were you going with your story?”
“I was showing that the majority of our presidents were Freemasons, and linking members of the Trilateral Commission and CFR with Freemasonry.”
“There has to be something else. Most of that has been documented before.”
“Certainly in some unread conspiracy magazines and out-of-print books, but why hasn’t a reputable TV newsmagazine like Sixty Minutes done it?”
“It’s not newsworthy,” Steve shrugged his shoulders.
“Don’t insult my intelligence! Why did you warn me?”
“I heard that your investigation was concerning powerful individuals.” Steve’s eyes searched Rachel’s. “I didn’t want to see you lose your career over it.”
“How did you hear this?” When Steve’s unwavering blue eyes wouldn’t leave Rachel’s, she pressed him further. “I’m not asking you to reveal your source, Mercer! How’d you come by this information?”
“I’m a Freemason.”
A lump stuck in Rachel’s throat. “I see.”
“No, you don’t see.” Steve sighed and ran his fingers through his thick brown hair. “I’ve been a Mason since right out of college. I’ve completed the initiations of the Blue Lodge and the Scottish Rite, and for the last two years I’ve been the Junior and Senior Warden, and in a couple of months I’ll be the Worshipful Master of a Blue Lodge in White Plains. In my twenty-three years of being a Mason, I have never seen any behaviors inconsistent with ethical, fraternal, humanitarian, educational, or patriotic concerns.”
“And yet, you heard something. You heard that I was becoming a threat. And look what happens—my brake lines are mysteriously cut!”
“I didn’t say that,” Steve said.
“You didn’t have to. Could you explain the Freemason degrees? Reading about it is very confusing.” When Steve didn’t respond, she pushed for more. “Oh, come on, I’m not asking you to break some ridiculous blood oath. I’m just asking about the structure. Please?”
“Men start in the Blue Lodge. Here there are three degrees: an Apprentice, a Fellowcraft, and a Master Mason. Most never proceed beyond the Master Mason because it’s expensive and time-consuming.”
“What is beyond the Blue Lodge?”
“Two other lodges—the York Rite and Scottish Rite. The Scottish Rite has thirty-three degrees. The York Rite graduates to the equivalent.”
“How do you get to the thirty-third degree?”
“By invitation only.”
“How long have you been involved in the Scottish Rite?”
“Over fifteen years.”
“And you’ve never been invited to the thirty-third degree?”
Steve shook his head. “No. And I wouldn’t. You see, although I’m politically and socially involved in my Blue Lodge, I’m not very involved in the Scottish Rite. I’m also not a Degree Master.”
“What’s a Degree Master?”
“For each degree in the Scottish Rite, each lodge has a Degree Master to perform the ritual or teach it to candidates during an initiation.”
Rachel looked deep into Steve’s blue eyes. “You can change all that.”
“You know the game! Play it to increase your chances of getting an invitation!”
“Now, why would I do that?”
“To satisfy that nagging feeling you have in your gut.”
“You’re very presumptuous.”
“Are you denying it?”
Steve didn’t respond. He wondered if his concerns were that obvious.
“What do I have to do? Impersonate a man and become a Freemason myself to uncover the sacred secret?”
He laughed, but when he realized that she was getting more upset, he shook his head. “I’m sorry. It just wouldn’t work.”
“Why? Women have impersonated men for centuries, to earn what they rightfully deserve. Take a look at Pope Joan.”
“Trust me, unless you have your breasts removed, you’ll never make it through the first three initiations.” He changed the subject. “Drop your story, at least for now.”
Rachel shook her head, clearly frustrated. “I have to get out of here,” she said abruptly, and made her way to the door.
* * *
The following morning, Steve slipped into Rachel’s office. He shut the door behind him and drew near her. “Are you going to drop the story?”
“No! I’ve come this far.”
There must have been a part of him that admired her spunk as remnants of a smile emerged, only he turned his back to hide the grin. His gaze fell upon a collection of pictures on Rachel’s bookshelf. He picked up a portrait of an attractive man in his mid-forties. “Who’s this?” he asked.
Rachel smiled when she saw the picture. “That’s my father.” She reached for another picture of her family, consisting of her father, mother, and herself.
“Is this you?” he pointed to a freckle-faced ten-year-old.
She nodded. “Yes.”
“Where’d the freckles go? You were so cute.” Steve grinned, intensifying his smile lines. He pointed to another picture. “Is this your parents’ wedding picture?”
“Your father ages gracefully.”
“Yes, he did. Other than styles changing, you’d never think my father aged a day. It’s actually spooky, but I keep hoping that I take after my father’s genes.”
Steve’s eyes combed the picture of her parents. “You have a strong resemblance to your father; same dark hair, blue eyes, and cleft chin.” He returned the portrait to its shelf. “I noticed that you spoke of your father in the past tense.”
“You are observant,” Rachel said. She locked her desk drawer then moved to the door. “We have a meeting in two minutes.”
Steve glanced at his watch. “I’ll see you there. I need to go back to my office.”
* * *
Neil Samson, the executive producer of Over the Edge, arrived at the weekly staff meeting a couple minutes late. He was pale.
It was Rachel who noticed. “Are you okay, Neil?”
He sat in a chair. “I just got a phone call from my wife…”
Steve had just entered behind Neil. “What is it?” He asked.
Rachel recognized the name of the CFR member. “What about Albert Robbins?”
“Albert was found last night…dead.”
“How?” Steve asked.
“The strangest thing. The man was poisoned in his own bed…by a snake. A king cobra! His wife found him when she returned from a business trip last night.”
An alarm blasted. The obnoxious noise blared throughout the offices and hallways. “What the hell is that?” Neil demanded. “It sounds like a fire alarm,” Steve said.
“A fire alarm? Oh my God!” Rachel whispered. She bolted to the door, opened it, and smoke seeped into the conference room. Once in the corridor, Rachel saw the smoke coming from her office. She dashed through the thick smoke. At the office threshold, she witnessed her desk engulfed in flames. Neil grabbed Rachel’s arm, stopping her from rescuing her research on secret societies.
Seconds later, Steve brushed past them with a fire extinguisher. It took him a couple minutes to snuff out the flames. By this time, a crowd had gathered in the hallway. All eyes were on Rachel, who couldn’t take her sight off the destroyed desk.
Steve emerged from the office, his clothes coated in soot. Rachel glared at him and then turned on her heels and fled. He followed silently until they were out of sight from the group. He rested his hand on her shoulder.
Abruptly, she turned and snarled. “Get your hand off me! You can tell your friends they won, and I never want to see you again.
Rachel thrust open a nearby restroom door. There was a small lounge with two chairs. She sat. Her mind raced. Prick. He saw me lock my desk. She felt like such a fool. Steve had used her. How could I have been so stupid? Rachel moaned. I’m sorry, Daddy. I won’t give up. I promise. For a moment, she became lost in her past.
* * *
Rachel watched her father, Charles Addison, as he studied the chessboard and deliberated on his next move. Then he picked up his polished-stone bishop and moved it to protect his threatened king.
Rachel was eager to move her rook into place. “Check,” the eleven-year-old said.
A smile came to Charles’s face. “Is this my last move?”
The father and daughter had been playing this game going on two months. It had become customary for them to play five moves a day and Rachel had her father on the run over the past week.
Charles studied the board and moved a pawn into place to sacrifice the piece. “There. I guess our game will have to wait until I return from my trip.”
Rachel didn’t expect the move. “Why would you sacrifice your pawn, Daddy? You know you can just move your king to avoid my attack.”
Charles smiled. “Strategy, Rachel. Pawns are dispensable. You use them to further the king’s purpose.”
Rachel studied the board. She was glad that was their last move, now she had some time to reconsider her own strategy before they played again. “When will you be back from your trip, Daddy?”
“In a few days.”
“Where are you going?”
“DC.” He studied his daughter, and smiled. “You are a very special young lady, you do realize that, don’t you?”
“I know I am special to you, Daddy.”
“You are special to the world, Rachel.”
“I’m sure all fathers think that way about their children, right?”
“I’m sure,” he smiled. “You know I love you, don’t you?”
“Of course, Daddy. Why are you asking?”
Charles became serious. “Chances are I won’t always be in your life, sweetheart. I just hope you’ll always know I love you very much.”
Rachel looked into her father’s eyes. “Daddy, why are you talking this way?”
“Like I said, it’s only natural that I will pass on before you, like your grandfather passed on before your mother.”
“That’s years away. Don’t get me all depressed before you leave on your trip.”
“I’m sorry, Rachel. I just never spoke about this with my parents. It’s something that’s haunted me, over the years, wondering if they truly loved me. Just remember, when the day comes that I pass on…I will always love you and always be with you.” Charles kissed his daughter tenderly on her forehead.
* * *
Rachel shook her head, trying to disconnect from her past. She pulled the polished-granite pawn from her jacket pocket and studied the chess piece. Discoloration revealed where her fingers had worn the stone piece over the twenty-plus years. “I know you love me Daddy,” she sobbed lightly. “Even after all this time, I feel like you’re still with me.”
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