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Dantes' Inferno

A Dr. Sylvia Strange Novel

About The Book

The author of the critically acclaimed novels Dangerous Attachments and Acquired Motives is back with another spellbindingly original thriller featuring forensic psychiatrist Sylvia Strange. Now, in Dantes' Inferno, Sylvia is called to Los Angeles from her New Mexico home when a massive explosion blasts through the J. Paul Getty Museum, endangering children on a field trip and claiming two lives. The police peg notorious bomber John Dantes as the mastermind, even though he's in a maximum-security prison, serving a life sentence for another bombing he claims he didn't commit.
Dr. Strange, a genius at accessing the most tortured psychiatric cases, is called in to evaluate Dantes. The prisoner is said to be unreachable -- and renowned for psychologically terrorizing his every visitor. But Dr. Strange forms a sudden, and unsettling, connection with Dantes. There's something about the enigmatic loner and his obsession with Los Angeles that both confounds and unnerves her. She's not at all convinced he's the man behind the bombs now ripping through the city -- but she is convinced he holds the key to finding the real bomber. The problem remains: how to get at Dantes? The police department's drug-and-interrogation campaign effectively stupefies the patient, and Dr. Strange's inability to "get results" troubles her deeply pragmatic supervisor, who in turn challenges her approach, her ability, and her intuition. As the death toll rises, so does public outcry, and sanctions against the fully demonized prisoner are further tightened. With the clock ticking on a bomb promised to be of epic proportions, Dr. Strange's sovereignty over her patient is slipping away -- along with, seemingly, her sanity.
Dantes' Inferno is a hypnotic, heart-pounding journey to the soul of madness that reveals disturbing and darkly universal truths about human nature. It is Sarah Lovett's best thriller yet.


Chapter 1

INFERNAL MACHINES -- Contrivances made to resemble ordinary harmless objects, but charged with some dangerous explosive. An innocent looking box or similar receptacle is partly filled with dynamite or other explosive, the rest of the space being occupied by some mechanical arrangement, mostly clockwork, which moves inaudibly, and is generally contrived that, when it has run down at the end of a predetermined number of hours or days, it shall cause the explosive substance to explode.

Dick's Encyclopedia, 1891

Another gunpowder plot. A gift of Greek fire for ancient Babylon of the New World. Know each of these missives as infernal machines.

Anonymous letter to the Los Angeles Times, March 2001

April 23 -- 11:14 A.M. Los Angeles was wearing her April best: cerulean sky, whipping cream clouds, rain-washed air that whispered promises of orange blossoms and money. An LA day of sweet nothings.

Wanda Davenport, schoolteacher and amateur painter, expertly gripped the T-shirt of ten-year-old Jason Redding just as he was about to poke a grimy finger between the sculptured buttocks of a 2,500-year-old Icarus. Antiquities were the thing at the Getty Center. And so were toilets. The lack of toilets. Four of her fifth-graders needed to pee, and her assistant was nowhere in sight.

"Line up, guys," Wanda barked with practiced authority. "Jason, you get to hold my hand."

The boy moaned and rolled his eyes, but his face was glowing with excitement. Her class had been planning this trip for six months. Given a choice between Universal Studios and the Getty, they'd gone with art. Fifth-graders! Who woulda thunk?

But then again, Wanda Davenport wasn't your everyday teacher. She was so passionate about Art a wee bit of her passion rubbed off on just about anyone who spent a few weeks under her tutelage. She loved the realists, the impressionists, the dadaists -- from the classical artists to the graffiti artists, she was a devoted fan.

She smiled to herself as she gave the command to march. Jason caused her a lot of grief, but secretly he was one of her favorites. He was smart, hyper, and creative. One of these days he could be a famous artist, architect, inventor, physicist, whatever.

"Turn right!" Wanda should've had a night job as a drill sergeant.

Jason nearly tripped over his own two feet, which were audaciously encased in neon green athletic sneakers, one size too big. Wanda knew that his mother, Molly Redding, was a recovering substance abuser; she was also a single mom supporting her only child by waiting tables. These were rough times in the Redding household, but there was love and hope, and Jason was a terrific kid.

"Turn left!" Wanda ordered her students, watching as Maria Hernandez accepted a fireball from Suzie Brown; the bright pink candy disappeared between white teeth.

Twenty minutes earlier, Wanda had herded her troop of ten- and eleven-year-olds onto the white tram car for transport to the hilltop. The 1.4-mile drive had provided a startling view of Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean. The moneyed view. The new J. Paul Getty Center was situated in Brentwood, nuzzled by Santa Monica, nosed in by mountains.

From the tram and the marble terrace fronting the museum at the hilltop, Wanda had called out city names for her children: Ocean Park, Venice, LA proper (the downtown heart of the metropolitan monster, with its constant halo of smog), San Pedro's south-end industrial shipyards, a tail in the distance...then back to Santa Monica and the ocean pier extending like a neon leg into blue waters...and last but not least, up the coast to movie-star Malibu, which had incorporated just as mud slides devoured great bites of earth and forest fires grazed the landscape down to bare, charred skin.

With that lesson in geographic and economic boundaries, the kids had marched into the reception building; Wanda barely had time to glance at the program provided for the tour; her students demanded 110 percent of her energy. No matter -- she knew this place by heart. In her mind the architectural design was Greek temple married to art deco ocean liner. She'd wandered Robert Irwin's chameleon gardens for hours; each season offered new colors, new scents, new shapes and shades. Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus ran straight to the grounds. She'd lost count of her visits. Nobody had believed Culture could draw a crowd in LA. Well, just look at her kids!

With one expert swipe, Wanda removed a wad of gum from behind the ear of one of her oldest charges while simultaneously comforting the youngest, who was complaining of a stomachache. She couldn't wait to get them into the garden, her very favorite part of the facility. They began the trek across the first exterior courtyard. Water ran like glass between slabs of marble. The children shuffled and slid their shoes across the smooth stones.

"Hey, guys, remember the name of the architect? We covered this in class."

She barely caught Jason's mumbled response: "Meier."

"Richard Meier. That's correct, Mr. Redding."

They were almost to the stairway leading to the museum cafe and the outdoor dining deck. Within seconds, the central garden would rush into view. Lush with primary color and geometric form (chaos and pattern all at once), it overflowed the space between the multilevel museum and the institutes.

Wanda felt a tug at her sleeve and turned in surprise, looking down at the agitated face of another of her kids.

"Please, Miss Davenport, I have to go," a small voice announced.

"Break time, guys," Wanda called out cheerfully. "When we reach the bottom of these stairs, we'll use the rest rooms and regroup for the garden. Carla, hands to yourself. Thank you. No running, Hector."

They turned the corner, only to be welcomed by the sight of bougainvillea, jacaranda, orchid, daisy, iris, wild grasses, each as lovely and as ephemeral as a butterfly.

Wanda Davenport's last view in life consisted of the gardens she loved so much.

Jason Redding discovered the treasure chest beneath the stairwell. He opened it curiously, saw an intricate, whimsical, handmade collage -- an infernal machine constructed of polished wood, ivory, colored wire, and spiked metal pipe filled with black powder.

The puzzled child heard a hissing sound, saw smoke and soft petals, twisting and turning, floating upward: initiation.

One neon green sneaker survived unscathed.

1:03 P.M. Edmond Sweetheart didn't look at the bodies. He had nothing to offer the dead except his ability to focus -- on the living, on an unknown bomber or bombers, on the wreckage that awaited him a hundred yards uphill. If he lost his center at this particular moment in time, his world would shatter.

Swift and surefooted, he moved through the garden on muscles that were taut and flexible, with arms held close, spine erect, with steps measured instinctively. His senses were painfully alert, ears filled with the implacable cry of sirens, dark eyes wide to the brightness reflected from the cloud-covered sky.

Los Angeles has a taste; here at the Getty, between the Santa Monica Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, Sweetheart registered an alkaline palate tinged heavily with carbons. There was comfort in the order of chemical compounds; he took no such comfort in the chaos of human motivation, action, reaction. The destructive evidence -- now just a stone's throw away -- was all too visible.

Out of choice, he rarely attended active crime scenes. Instead, his life was spent poring over printouts, comparing and contrasting data sets -- a day's currency to linguistic morphology, four days to chemical compounds, an entire week to geographic spatial patterns. A dry exchange that made your eyes go red, your vision myopic. Unless it happened to represent both your passion and your sanity.

Sweetheart had spent more than a decade tracking terrorists and consulting with various federal and international agencies -- he maintained research privileges at UCLA; he had an office at Rand Corporation -- but because he was both practical and paranoid, his most delicate jobs were undertaken from his own home in the Hollywood Hills, where he could control the flow of information.

The results of forensic analysis of physical evidence (extortion notes, digitized threat calls, re-creations of bombs and incendiary devices, blood spatter patterns -- a criminal's work product) were far removed from the location of the destructive action.

But this midday in April, Sweetheart was present at a crime scene for personal reasons -- however mentally contained, however psychically encased those reasons might be -- and it was vital that he keep his emotional, if not physical, distance.

He'd left his car parked at the end of the fire road alongside various emergency response vehicles. The half-mile jog hadn't begun to test his lungs. As he navigated the last fifty yards to the scene of the bombing, a familiar-looking man in an FBI jacket passed by, moving swiftly down the path toward a mobile forensic van. The agent glanced with wary suspicion at Sweetheart, who kept his focus on a living, breathing target at the base of the damaged stairwell ahead: a red-haired man named Church, who was wearing an LAPD vest and a fierce expression.

Barely two hours ago, a child and his teacher had died when a pipe bomb exploded. No one had claimed responsibility. No clues to the identity of the terrorist or terrorists. Not yet. Sweetheart knew that much from a telephone message.

Now his heartbeat fluttered dangerously as containment threatened to fail. His pace slowed; he almost faltered. A child had died...

Cleanse the mind of all emotional distractions.

He picked up speed again, shallow breath quickening, inhaling through his nose, exhaling through his mouth, the athlete's nonverbal mantra. When he was ten yards from the stairwell, he willed law enforcement to make eye contact.

LAPD's Detective Frederick "Red" Church gazed intently back at Sweetheart. The detective was one of a cluster of investigators that included FBI and ATF cowboys; they had gathered at the base of the damaged stairwell and were engaged in the early stages of crime scene analysis, a laborious process that included the documentation and collection of forensic evidence. Breaking from the group and cutting quickly downhill over carefully shaped earth, the LAPD detective couldn't mask his discomfiture -- shock, even -- at the sight of Sweetheart.

When he was within tackling range, Church whispered harshly, "You shouldn't be -- " But he didn't finish the sentence, breaking off as he sensed the wild emotions trapped in the other man's eyes.

"My niece called," Sweetheart said distinctly. "I drove straight from LAX."

Twelve hours on Nigeria Airways, most of that time spent on the ground in hundred-degree heat, 90 percent humidity; twenty hours on Japan Airlines, much of that spent in transit, first class, oh-so-fully insulated from the famine, disease, poverty that plagued the rest of the world. Then the emergency phone call as they were circling LA's international airport.

"I need access now. Before all these bastards trample the scene. It's already turning into a circus." Sweetheart's voice was ominously controlled; no expression showed through the mask of his handsome face.

"I heard you were in Africa," Church said, ignoring the declaration, using his body like a closed door. He kept a wary distance from the larger man; there was no way he could head off 280 pounds of solid muscle mass.

"Nigeria was pathetic." Sweetheart was eyeing the scene possessively, as if it were his own private treasure. "Another embassy bombing." Taking one step toward Church, he finished in a quiet voice. "Seventy dead, twice that injured. Nothing but rubble and bodies."

"Bin Laden?" the detective asked, not budging. He was curious. He was adrenalized. He was also stalling. He didn't have the time or the strength for a confrontation -- not with Edmond Sweetheart.

"We should send him a gift -- a couple of Tomahawks." Sweetheart waved one hand abruptly, perhaps deflecting the emotional impact of tragedy past and present -- almost making the detective jump. He was too damn calm, too controlled as he gazed straight at Church. "We should do what we did in Afghanistan six months ago -- turn the rebel camp to dust."

He didn't have to add that the Afghanistan attack -- which, in addition to wiping out a terrorist training camp, had also caused the death of an international fugitive -- had been based on his intelligence. Antiterrorist circles were small and incestuous; players knew one another's business. Just like today, present circumstances, news would be circulating swiftly, Sweetheart thought, anger rising like a tide inside his chest.

Sensing movement, the detective stepped forward just as Sweetheart contracted his muscles. Church said quickly, "You aren't authorized to be here, Professor."

Sweetheart's black-brown eyes glittered with a sheen not unlike compressed metal. His mouth was a flat line against smooth, naturally bronzed skin.

"I'm asking you to leave," Church insisted in a low voice.

"No." Sweetheart might have been a tree or a structural column, so rooted, so embedded was his energy. For all his mass, he was powerfully agile, dauntingly strong, a formidable and athletic opponent. He said, "I'm not going anywhere, Red."

Church heard his nickname used as a warning -- he also heard the hard note that communicated Sweetheart's frightening level of self-control. The detective's blue eyes reflected tiny images of the surrounding world, including this man he knew as a hotshot data junkie, a free agent sought after by federal and international agencies. For the dozen times their paths had crossed, Edmond Holomalia Sweetheart remained a total fucking enigma.

arIf he -- Red Church -- had been in the other man's shoes...

In slow-blink motion Church's eyelids dropped like a curtain, then lifted again. His words, a reluctant gift of information, were expelled with a sighing sound. "We've got the end cap from the pipe -- blew off in most of one piece."

"Show me."

Church turned heel, resigned, his uneasiness channeled into manic movement as he led the other man up the short incline to the damaged stairway, past emergency personnel, past the investigative team. He came to a standstill. Sweetheart stopped a half step behind.

Balanced below the edge of the terrace where the wall had been peppered by shrapnel, both men now stood at the inner perimeter of the scene. Behind them gardens filled the shallow canyon. Sweetheart registered the view, abstractly appreciating its formal symmetry, but his attention was on the twisted cap of metal twelve inches from his shoes. Amid chunks of wood, contorted steel, and other explosive debris, a small orange evidence marker with the numeral 1 had already been placed next to the cap. Sweetheart squatted, his thighs spreading until the linen fabric of his slacks pulled taut over highly developed quadriceps. His fingers contracted, exposing the tension in his body.

The eight-inch-diameter, half-inch-thick metal cap was blackened, the lip stretched back in places as if it were a lid chewed off a can. The force of the blast had left pits and scratches in the surface. Balancing on the balls of his feet, Sweetheart eased closer, eyes intent and straining, mind blocking distractions. His breathing softened; he seemed almost asleep.

Detective Church remained standing, shifting nervously on the balls of his feet. He murmured, "It's scratched to all hell -- but maybe something's there." His watchful stare landed on two ATF agents examining numbered evidence ten feet away. Would Sweetheart's attendance be challenged? Fortunately, the professor's presence was a badge of sorts.

Church squatted down beside the bigger man and said, "The bomb came in a pretty package, but our perp -- or perps -- packed the casing with nails, scraps, made sure there was plenty of effective shrapnel, enough to rip the head off -- "

With horror, Church registered his own words, but he glanced swiftly at Sweetheart and saw no reaction. That blank face was worse than any display of rage, the detective thought, swallowing hard.

After a moment, Church continued: "Until we reconstruct the device, this could be the work of a hundred different scumbags. The closest witnesses were kids -- they're totally freaked out. No usable descriptions, but the Bureau's psychologist is going to keep working with them."

Sweetheart knew Church was talking; he paid scant attention. Instead he studied the rough lines on the cap, fairly certain now that they predated the explosion. He allowed their arrangement to guide his thoughts, noting the associations triggered by familiar configurations that dissolved immediately into unfamiliarity; it was like gazing at the clouds overhead as they created form and identity, then evanesced, all in a matter of seconds. The complexity of communication was on his mind; almost daily he studied symbols as arranged to build language -- from morphology to lexicon to syntax, the process of word formation, meaning, and structure in a larger context.

Deftly, Sweetheart pulled a pencil and a small pad of paper from his jacket pocket. With his large body still perfectly balanced on the soles of his feet, he executed lines very slowly on the page. He reminded Church of a man playing a solitary game of hangman. Marks appeared in a pattern that seemed simultaneously random and ordered.

Why the hell couldn't he get it? Church wondered, looking closely at the end cap, studying the scratches until they did coalesce into a rough language, albeit one he didn't comprehend.

"C -- a -- n -- t -- o -- l -- l," Sweetheart said deliberately.

"Who the hell is Cantoll?"

"Try what."

"I'll bite." Church nodded restlessly. "What the hell is Cantoll?"

"A letter, or a numeral, is missing, here at the end -- where the metal was particularly twisted," Sweetheart said, closing his eyes. "If we take canto, then we..." He ran his index finger through air, marking three strikes.

Church shook his head, expelling frustration with a harsh whisper. "You lost me."

"It's famous poetry, Detective. The third canto," Sweetheart said deliberately, as if speaking to a thick-skulled schoolboy. "'Through me you enter into the woeful city, through me the way into eternal pain...' A work originally composed in fourteenth-century Italian, and posthumously retitled the Divine Comedy. In Commedia, the inscription over the gates to hell."

Sweetheart's jet black hair was pulled back from his face; he fingered the knot with unadorned hands. As he waited, impatient for the obvious connection to be made, he turned to canvass the architecture of the building, in particular the graceful arched gate fronting the damaged terrace. His gaze moved with the linear curves, and the final line of the stanza returned to memory.

"Through me the way to the population of loss."

His mind -- always running, mining data, sorting -- made connections: a pipe bomb as antipersonnel signature device; a pattern of secondary antiproperty explosives capable of massive structural damage; a linguistic clue that would implicate a bomber.

Sweetheart's body stiffened. "The gates of hell," he whispered harshly. He lifted his eyes to the massive columns marking the entrance to the public courtyard. A synthesis of pipe bomb and a more powerful antiproperty device...

He pivoted to face Church. "Have you checked for additional devices?"

"We're still searching the grounds -- "

"The columns? Those pillars," Sweetheart interjected. "Did you check the internal structure for bombs? It's been two hours since the explosion. If there's a second device targeting response personnel -- " Sweetheart broke off, barking out a command: "Move everybody away from the scene. Now."

Church hesitated only an instant, then the decision to act telegraphed across his face, and he wheeled around to head off an ATF agent. The alarm went up. The evacuation of investigative and emergency personnel took less than four minutes.

Sweetheart and the others were five hundred yards away -- at the bottom of the hill -- when detonation occurred. The explosion was deep and sharp, and it shot tons of concrete, rock, steel -- the flesh and bone of the structure -- in a quarter-mile trajectory. Immediately, a cloud of dust debris swirled up, almost as if it were deliberately covering such obscene devastation. The whole thing seemed to occur in an instant, while everyone dropped for cover.

Everyone except Edmond Sweetheart, who stood immovable, staring into the eye of the beast. He didn't even flinch when a thirty-pound marble missile missed his left ear by inches.

Instead he recognized the quickening, the potent cocktail of adrenaline and dread; he'd come to identify it as a chemical threshold, a gateway to the altered state of terror. It was as pungent as the chemicals that make a bomb. It happened on the inside. Outside, all around him, the signs of disaster were familiar: panic on the faces and in the eyes, a heightened surreal atmosphere of smoke, gas, and fumes.

The reverberation of the blast faded as emergency crews and investigators went into high gear for the second time in two hours. The worst of the damage had knocked out three pillars, but the building face was intact. Through the smoke, the cries, the chaos, Sweetheart remembered other words of the great poet.

"Perched above the gates I saw more than a thousand of those whom heaven had cast out like rain, raging: 'Who is this approaching? Who, without death, dares enter the kingdom of the dead?'"

He felt, rather than saw, Detective Church at his side. When he turned to stare at the man, his eyes were dull, unnerving. He spoke in a lifeless monotone. "Six centuries ago, Dante Alighieri wrote the Inferno, the most famous book of the three-part Commedia."

Confusion showed on Church's sunburnt, freckled face. "Are we talking about Dantes' Inferno?" he asked, taking a logical mental leap to the four-hundred-page manifesto written in the 1990s, published in 1999. He was referring to its author, John Dantes, a twenty-first-century fugitive bomber who had claimed responsibility for a dozen crimes spanning more than a decade, causing immense property damage and, most important, taking lives.

Forget long-dead Italian poets, however famous; unless you believe in ghosts, they don't set bombs.

"Yes," Sweetheart said grimly. "We're talking about John Freeman Dantes."

"Maybe." Church looked skeptical. "Dantes has been known to leave a secondary device -- "

"He's killed before."

"It's not his style to target schoolkids -- he hasn't been tied to a bombing for three, almost four years."

"He went underground," Sweetheart said sharply. "Now he's resurfacing." Nodding toward the scene of the destruction, he reached down to scoop up a handful of sandy soil. "He wants everyone to know it."

He gazed past Detective Church to see a young woman staring back at him. She wore a stricken expression, and she looked frail as a crushed honeysuckle blossom. His belly hollowed. His breath disappeared, his mind went blank as slate. It took him several seconds to put a name to her face. Molly Redding. His own niece. She was holding a child's tennis shoe, clutching it against her breasts, swaying on her feet. A thin, keening wail escaped her lips.

A child and his teacher had died in the first blast...

The air stopped. Nothing entered Sweetheart's lungs, and nothing left. For however many seconds in time the tragedy registered, Sweetheart stopped breathing, poised between life and death.

Hakkeyoi -- he commanded himself -- move! -- get going!

The dam holding back his emotions broke suddenly, and all his rage and pain washed through the canyons of his complex psyche. As denial gave way, information flooded the synapses of his brain: the dead child was Jason Redding, his own grandnephew. Molly Redding was Jason's mother.

Sweetheart's honeyed skin blanched white. The dirt in his hand ran through his fingers until only dust remained.

Jikan desu. Time is up.

His burning gaze settled on the detective's face. He said, "Let's bring in John Dantes, or I swear I'll track him down and kill him myself."

Copyright © 2001 by Sarah Lovett

About The Author

Sarah Lovett worked as a researcher at the New Mexico State Penitentiary. She is the author of seven books, including Blowback and Dangerous Attachments. Raised in California, she now makes her home in Santa Fe. Visit her Web site at

Product Details

  • Publisher: Gallery Books (August 23, 2014)
  • Length: 416 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781476798547

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