“Where do you go, my son?” the woman asked the youth, who was making a habit in recent days of disappearing for hours after lunch into the hills above the city. Not that he ever shirked his chores, which were considerable now that he’d grown into manhood and stood a full hand taller than she. But though he remained ever diligent about his duties, tending to their animals, fetching water from the well, and honing his carpentry skills as apprentice to his father, this newfound reticence was worrying.
“I will tell you all, and soon,” he promised her, “perhaps even this evening.” As though sensing her concern, he kissed her on the cheek and gave her a reassuring smile before he departed with a heavy goatskin of water slung over one shoulder.
She waited several seconds, then rose from her chair by the hearth and crept to the doorway, more curious than ever to know what he was up to. Rarely had she seen such mischief in his dark eyes. Perhaps she would follow him and watch him from a distance. Could it be that he was meeting a girl, away from her parents’ prying eyes? He was of that age, to be sure; most in their village were expected to take a wife by eighteen, though he’d as yet shown little interest in such things.
He was not in sight, either on the pitted road to the village or the hillside opposite, which had to mean he was in the rear outbuilding that served a dual purpose as his father’s workshop and the family stable. She reached the corner of their one-room home just in time to see him emerge from the doorway with something in his hands—fairly large and rectangular in shape and concealed in a dirty scrap of linen. Whatever it was, he’d taken great care to hide it from her and take advantage of the fact that his father was away in Tiberias on business. This deliberate secrecy only increased her sense of alarm. He’d always been such an open, guileless young man, devoted to her and a rapt pupil of the Torah and tenets of their Jewish traditions. And he had a maturity that few his age could match.
Should she confront him now? Demand to see what he was hiding from her? She watched him stride purposefully toward the rolling hills that towered over the city, his sandals kicking up a wake of fine dust. One more day, she decided. She would keep the faith a while longer.
Throughout the rest of the afternoon, as she baked bread for the week ahead, she returned to the doorway time and again to see if she could catch a glimpse of his return. Finally, his lean figure materialized on the distant slope, hurrying toward her. He was much later than usual—it was nearly dinnertime and dusk was fast approaching—and by the time he reached the house, he was out of breath.
“Forgive me, Mother. I wanted so to finish that I lost track of the time.” When he set the empty goatskin flask and canvas bag on the table, she received her first clue about what he’d been up to. The distinctive sound of metal against metal from the bag told her he’d taken along his woodworking tools.
He held out the linen parcel, watching her expectantly. “I made you something. I hope you like it.”
“I am certain I will, my son.” Over the years, he’d crafted a myriad of gifts for her: small pottery jars and clay animal figurines, mostly. But the weight of this offering was much more substantial. She smoothed one hand lightly over the linen covering, fingers tracing the curves and depressions in the object beneath. A carving of some kind. Until now, he’d confined his carpentry skills to the usual furniture and building materials. She began to unwrap it.
“Wait! Not yet!” He ignited a thin reed from the fireplace and lit one of the oil lamps to help her see better in the fading twilight.
She folded back the linen and tilted the tablet of wood toward the light, gasping in delight when she saw what it was. “Oh, my!”
“Do you like it?”
He’d carved a portrait of her in quiet repose, capturing well the nuances of her high cheekbones, thin nose, oval chin. Even the unusual arch of her eyebrows. Though somewhat crudely done, it clearly revealed the affection of the artist for his subject. And he’d painstakingly sanded the hardwood until it was as smooth as pebbles on a beach.
“It is wonderful, my son. A gift that I will treasure always.” She clasped it to her heart. “You are an artist with your chisels.”
He laughed. “I think you would not have said the same about my first try. Or second. But I am very happy you like it.”
June 15, 2014
Konstantinos “Kostas” Lykourgos was grateful that his guest, Theodora Rothschild, wasn’t an early riser. He didn’t dare offend the woman—he needed her help, and he’d heard stories of how ruthless she could be over the most minor perceived infractions—but he cherished the opportunity for a quiet breakfast alone with Ariadne. He’d missed his daughter terribly while she was away at Oxford, then soon gone again for several more weeks island-hopping with her friends. The time they had together recently was too often scheduled time, devoted to business, but being on the yacht was helping to change that.
His family loved the sleek, long Fincantiere superyacht, the largest ever built in Italy, nearly as much as he did. A floating palace, the Pegasus had seven decks, two helicopter landing pads, a fifty-foot indoor seawater swimming pool, and storage for a large submarine, not to mention the latest state-of-the-art technological advancements.
And the yacht’s huge ultra-luxurious interior was more impressive than any five-star hotel. Twelve elite cabins could accommodate twenty-four guests in extreme comfort, while additional living space below housed the ship’s fifty-two-person crew. A theater, spa, wine cellar, and other specialty areas were all housed within a ship larger than a football field.
Not that such luxury could easily impress his current visitor. Kostas might have billions from his shipping empire, but Rothschild was a powerful businesswoman in her own right, accruing many millions annually from her legal and illegal enterprises. And he’d heard that TQ, or The Broker, as she was more commonly known, had an impressive and priceless collection of stolen artifacts and treasures from around the world.
“When are your friends coming?” he asked his daughter as a pair of stewards poured them more fresh-squeezed orange juice and strong Greek coffee. Around them, side tables with freshly pressed linen tablecloths held the type of fare the family enjoyed: fresh fruit, cheeses, croissants, and honeyed yogurt. His guest preferred a more American-style breakfast, so sterling- silver warming trays had also been set up nearby, awaiting the eggs Benedict, Florentine crepes,
and other dishes she’d requested.
The other members of his family were also aboard the yacht, but both were sleeping in this morning. His wife Christine had been up late again playing biriba with her friends, and his son Nikolaos had partied with his twenty or so young guests until the wee hours. Kostas was grateful that the lounge and onboard casino were so far from the guest quarters there was no chance the noise would disturb Rothschild.
“Don’t worry. I plan to leave you entirely on your own today, as you requested,” Ariadne replied as she reached for another croissant. “Though I still wish you’d tell me what possible business you could have with that woman and why you wish to take this meeting alone.”
He sought an answer that would satisfy her. Ariadne was exceptionally bright and perceptive, and he had been including her in all major business decisions since her recent graduation. “It’s not necessary, that’s all. A minor affair. I know you haven’t warmed up to her, and it’s too splendid a day not to take advantage of it with your friends.”
In that respect, he wished that he, too, could do nothing more today than enjoy the perfect weather and splendid panoramic views as they cruised the rich blue waters of the Aegean. But if he wished to spend many more years with his loved ones, he had to strike a deal with the devil.
As though on cue, his guest headed toward them, dressed in a flowing printed kaftan and with a broad sun hat concealing most of her perfectly coiffed white hair. Rothschild was not unattractive for a middle-aged woman. In fact, many men would consider her beautiful, but Kostas found her coal-black eyes disconcerting.
“Kalimera, Theodora.” He stood and pulled out a chair for her. “I hope you slept well.”
“Good morning.” Rothschild looked from Kostas to Ariadne.
“I was just leaving,” his daughter replied as she got up. Her English was as perfect as his, but she spoke it with a very slight British accent from her years at Oxford. “Enjoy your morning. My friends will be picking me up shortly.” She kissed her father’s head and disappeared inside.
“May I assume the promised land isn’t far off?” Rothschild asked as a steward poured her coffee.
When he’d invited The Broker aboard his yacht, Kostas had told her only that he wished to discuss an important business proposition. And so far, he’d continued to sidestep her urgings for particulars with the promise that all would be revealed by today’s destination. “Agio Oros,” he replied. “Mount Athos. The most splendid view in Halkidiki, and home to some of the world’s most magnificent ancient treasures.” The description received her rapt attention, as he knew it would.
“What kind of treasures?” she asked.
“There are twenty monasteries on the Holy Mountain,” he said, “the oldest dating back more than a thousand years. They contain an abundance of medieval art, richly drawn icons, ancient manuscripts, and religious objects such as chalices, holy relics, and elaborate codices. Some of the icons are believed to work miracles. An effort to catalogue and preserve the treasures has been underway for some thirty years or more, but the sheer magnitude of the collection is so vast that it will take many more decades to complete.”
“I can’t wait to see some of them,” Rothschild replied.
“That will be impossible, I’m afraid.” Kostas frowned apologetically. “Women are prohibited from entering the mountain. Even for men, it is difficult and requires a special visa, signed by four of the secretaries of the leading monasteries. Although part of the Greek state, Agio Oros is self-governed, with its own rules.”
“Surely an exception can be made.” Rothschild sipped her coffee. “We merely need to provide the good monks with the proper incentive.”
Kostas laughed. “I have heard that you do not take no for an answer, Theodora. But I assure you, even my money can’t get you in.”
“I doubt there’s anything money can’t do, but that aside, why are you taking me to a place I’m not allowed to enter?” She was clearly irritated. Kostas suspected she was not able to immediately obtain whatever she desired on very few occasions.
“Come.” He extended his hand. “We’re getting close now. Let me show you.”
They started forward but were momentarily distracted by the approach of a much smaller but also luxurious yacht.
“Ariadne, your friends are here,” he called out.
His daughter reemerged from below, wearing a new turquoise bikini that matched her eyes. Not for the first time, he marveled at what a beautiful young woman she’d become.
“Watch yourself, Father. I don’t trust her,” Ariadne told him in Greek. She paused momentarily to give their guest an icy glare before making her way to the lower-deck stairs. From there, she jumped into the water and swam to the waiting yacht, where a group of young women waited for her.
“She is my most precious achievement,” Kostas said. A coughing fit came on, and he did his best to stifle it with his napkin.
“She looks very much like you,” Rothschild replied.
“Only on the outside. She’s sharper and tougher than I’ll ever be. She’s already thriving in the company.”
“Good for her.” Rothschild shrugged. “Now, back to what interests me.”
He led her forward, six levels up via elevator, to the sundeck. There they had a 360-degree view, but the sight ahead demanded their full attention.
Mount Athos rose dramatically from the sea, a mammoth, sharp-peaked pinnacle that appeared a deep, dark blue against the azure Aegean. A magnificent spectacle all on its own, it made the sight of a lifetime with the addition of the sprawling monastery perched atop an enormous stone cliff just ahead. It towered over them, more than a thousand feet in the air.
“Once, three hundred monasteries existed on the Holy Mountain,” he told her. “This is the Simonopetra Monastery, or Simon’s Rock. It was founded in the thirteenth century by Simon the Athonite and is still in use. Its choir is world renowned.”
He could have spent the entire day absorbed by the grandeur of the sight, but even the magnificence of the monastery was not enough to keep Rothschild’s mind off business for very long.
“Tell me why we’re here,” she said, not bothering to hide her growing impatience.
“This sacred and very secretive monastery possesses some of the world’s most priceless antiquities.”
“Everyone knows, or at least suspects, that the monastery hides and protects artifacts the world has never heard of nor considers missing.”
“Yes, yes,” Rothschild replied eagerly. “I own similar relics.”
“A high-ranking monk of another monastery is a close friend who has had the honor of acquainting himself with some of these missing relics.”
She turned her full attention to him, her black eyes boring into his with interest and excitement. “Which? I’m sure I’ve heard of them.”
“A solid-gold icon that dates back to the twelfth century,” he replied, “and depicts—”
“The Theotokos!” She nearly yelped. “The mother of Christ.”
He nodded and tried not to show his surprise. “Not many are aware of the existence of this icon.”
“I’m not many.”
“Are you a religious woman, Theodora?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she replied. “Such asinine beliefs are for the simple masses.”
“I happen to have such asinine beliefs,” he said quietly, “but that’s another matter.”
“One I’m sure will bore me.”
“It is said that, aside from being priceless, the icon possesses the power to heal.”
“Pish posh. But if the idea thrills you…” She shrugged.
“I want that icon,” he said.
“May I ask why? I’m sure you have plenty of priceless goods already decorating your walls or in a safety-deposit box.”
“I’m ill,” he replied. “And the best doctors in the world can’t do anything more than they already have.”
“And you think the icon will heal you.”
“I do, Theodora.”
“I’m willing to pay five hundred million euros.”
Rothschild laughed. “I hardly think money will convince these God-fearing pathological worshippers.”
“No one, Theodora, is immune to money, as you know. These people, however, cover their greed very convincingly.”
“If you think you can bribe the robes, I’m sure the amount you mentioned will do the trick, especially since this country’s economy is beyond repair.”
He had thought the same. Money had always paved the way for whatever he sought, and these days in Greece you could get virtually anything for a few euros. Bribery had enabled him to bypass the usual red tape and visit the Holy Mountain on several occasions to pray before another miraculous icon, but no monk he’d chatted with would even acknowledge the existence of the Theotokos. Legend had it that the icon’s healing properties would work only if one of pure faith touched the relic. “The monks will never feel the economic or social hit Greece has taken. They are a country of their own, and a very wealthy one at that, very much like the Vatican. The amount I mentioned is for you.”
Rothschild pulled at the brim of her sun hat to shield her eyes from the glare. “Do explain,” she said coquettishly.
“Your track record of acquisitions speaks for itself. If anyone can…get it, it’s you.” Kostas didn’t dare resort to violence to obtain the icon. He feared such a move would prevent any chance that the Virgin Mother would bless and heal him. But Rothschild’s methods of persuasion had no boundaries.
“I’m flattered that you estimate me accordingly, but my reputation is based on the fact I have always known the precise location of the object I’m after.”
“I know where they hide it,” he said.
“You have a renowned reputation in very private circles for trading in appropriated, priceless artifacts. I can lead you to it. In return, I will give you—”
But Rothschild had apparently heard enough. “We have a deal,” she said, staring up at the monastery with an almost feral smile of anticipation.
Agio Oros, Halkidiki
Twelve days later
Father Antonis paced along the rocky shore beneath the monastery, peering out into the darkness. Despite the cooling breeze, his heavy black cassock clung to his upper torso, drenched in the sweat of his growing anxiety. Would he go to hell for this? In his panic to save his parents and sister from bankruptcy, poverty, and the threat of death, Antonis had somehow found the courage to turn his back on the church that had been his home and refuge for more than two decades. But that courage had since abandoned him, and he wasn’t at all certain he could go through with this.
A week ago, Antonis had gathered with other monks as the daily visitor ferry from Ouranoupolis landed at Dafni, the first stop on its journey southward along the peninsula. When one of the men getting off approached Antonis and asked him to act as guide through the Holy Mountain, he readily agreed. One of the duties his abbot had assigned to him was to share the history of Agio Oros with the one hundred Orthodox and ten non-Orthodox pilgrims permitted to visit each day. When he learned that the man was most interested in seeing the very monastery Antonis called home—Simonopetra—he considered their companionship for the day especially fortuitous, perhaps even of holy design. As one of the most senior members of the cliff-side monastic enclave, he could provide the best possible experience for the man.
But as they made their way south through the thick chestnut forest that dominated the peninsula, it quickly became apparent that the stranger was no ordinary pilgrim in search of religious enlightenment, nor a tourist interested in the mountain’s history and wild beauty. The man asked none of the usual questions as they explored the first three monasteries they reached and appeared bored with the insights Antonis shared at each stop. Instead, he seemed oddly more preoccupied with the other visitors, secular laborers, and monks that they frequently encountered on their trek.
Antonis discovered the man’s true motivation during their visit to Xenofontos, the fourth monastery on the march south. The monks living there were in vespers when they arrived and no other visitors were about, so it was as though they had the place to themselves.
As they strolled the grounds, the man started to talk to Antonis about family. His family. He casually offered more details about Antonis’s life than even his brethren monks knew: particulars about his parents and sister, his past, and even the dire financial straits his family was battling that threatened to leave them homeless. Surprised, Antonis initially thought the man had been sent by a friend or family member, or was perhaps an old school chum he didn’t recognize.
The truth was revealed when they reached a secluded shed by the gardens and the stranger pulled him roughly behind it, out of view of the monastery. He planned to give Antonis the generous sum of one hundred thousand euros to save his family, he informed the monk, and in return, Antonis would help him obtain the Theotokos.
Antonis couldn’t hide his shock. Few outside the Holy Mountain even knew of the icon’s existence, let alone that he was one of the five elder monks charged with its safekeeping. He pulled away and stammered that he had no knowledge of any such icon.
But the man clearly wasn’t buying his denials. He reached into his coat and pulled out two photos of Antonis’s family: an old Christmas picture taken when he was about five and another from an Easter gathering a few years later. “If I can get into your house while your mother is cooking, find the family albums, and leave unnoticed, can you fathom what else I can do in there and go unnoticed?” The stranger’s menacing smirk was chilling. “Give me what I want, I’ll give you money in return, and it’s a win-win for all.”
“But the icon, it’s…” Antonis looked around in desperation, praying in vain for divine intervention. “I can’t. Even if I wanted to.”
“I’m sure you can find out where it’s kept.”
Antonis shook his head. “It’s too well protected. You need both a code and a key, and there are cameras everywhere.”
“You get me the key,” the stranger replied, “and a map to the easiest way in, and I’ll take care of the security system.
“You don’t understand. Even then, it’s…it’s just impossible.”
“What the hell does that even mean?”
“The icon can’t leave the Holy Mountain. Bad things will come to whomever tries.”
The man laughed. “You let me worry about that. The only bad thing you need to worry about is what I can do to your parents and sister.” He held up the family pictures. “And besides,” he shrugged, “think of what they’ll be able to do with all that cash.”
“Listen, man, I don’t care what choice you make.” He tore the pictures into pieces and they fluttered to the ground. “I get paid either way. Murder, map. It’s all the same to me.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a cell phone. “Here.” He pressed it to Antonis’s chest. “You’re going to get a phone call in about…” He checked his watch. “Five minutes. Give your final answer to that person. Meanwhile, I’ll be waiting for instructions, you know? Which direction to drive in—toward your family’s home or mine.”
“Just make sure you answer, ’cause if you don’t, then…” He looked at the torn photos scattered on the cobblestones. “You get the picture.”
The man walked away without looking back, and Antonis stood staring at the phone in his hand. “I can’t do this…” he whispered to himself when it rang. It took two more rings before he could muster the courage to answer. “Hello?”
“Good morning, Father Antonis,” a woman said. He’d never before heard such an undercurrent of menace in a simple greeting. “Do you speak English?”
“Have you made your decision?”
The voice was so cold and ominous Antonis made the sign of the cross. “I…I don’t know.”
“Hmm.” Silence. “I don’t know is not an answer, or at least not one I can deal with,” the woman said. “So, that leaves me with no other choice other than to—”
“Yes,” Antonis blurted out, afraid to hear the rest.
“I’ll…I’ll do it.”
“Excellent. Now, here’s what’s going to happen.”
Her instructions had been brief and to the point. Someone would rendezvous with Antonis in one week on the rocky shoreline beneath his monastery, and he would provide the contact with whatever was necessary to obtain the icon. So now, here he was in the middle of the night, looking out over the dark sea. He himself had determined the timing of the rendezvous: one a.m. worldly time, which would get the thief into the monastery during the brief three hours that the monks were sleeping. The Athonite monks remained the only entity in the world to live on Byzantine time. Their clocks began a new day every evening at sunset.
From somewhere up on the Holy Mountain, a wolf howled, and the mule behind him brayed in alarm. He set a calming hand on the beast’s neck as a dark figure came into view, slowly rowing a small boat toward shore.
As soon as the figure—a tall man—stepped out onto the rocks, Antonis silently handed over a clean black robe and pillar-box hat. Despite the circumstances, it suddenly struck him as almost amusing that he’d thought it necessary to wash his already clean cassock before lending it to the thief. It’s what his mother had taught him, and even after so many years of monastic life, Antonis often felt her presence, telling him what to do.
He missed his family and especially his sister, though twenty years had passed since he’d left them for the Holy Mountain. They’d always been poor, but very close and religious. When he’d announced his decision at the age of twenty to join the monastic life, his parents fell on their knees and thanked God for choosing their son, but Antonis had done it because he knew they couldn’t afford to further school and provide for him.
Without an advanced degree, he had limited options. He wasn’t cut out to be a waiter, cab driver, or construction worker. If sacrificing sex meant he could at least have a place to eat, sleep, and live without burdening his family, then that was fine with him. Here, all that was expected of him was to do some gardening work, help with visitors, and dedicate the rest of his day to prayer. The prayer part was easy—he’d perfected that even before he ever left home. But now, although he had enough to eat, a roof over his head, and was no longer a financial drain, his family was eating out of trashcans.
Monks were supposed to cut all ties with family once they were ordained, and he’d managed to comply with that rule until a few months ago. When he’d heard about how the deteriorating economy had driven thousands to ruin and utter paucity, he’d called home to learn the worst. He had to do something to save them, and desperation mixed with fear had brought him to this unfathomable decision. Would he be damned for it? Maybe, but at least he’d go knowing that he had saved his family.
The man finished buttoning the robe and placed the hat on his head. “Map and key,” the stranger said in English.
Reluctantly, Antonis handed both over. He’d spent hours on the map. The first version was a detailed layout of the entire tunnel maze beneath the monastery, but he’d scaled that down significantly in the version he gave the man, which contained just enough information to lead the thief to the secret underground chapel that held the icon.
“He take you.” Antonis pointed to the donkey.
The man pocketed the map and key and jumped on the donkey. He looked up at the stony, steep incline for several seconds but didn’t seem at all concerned, or at least didn’t show it if he was. “You get your money when I get back,” he said in a low voice, still staring up at his destination, then kicked the donkey forward.
Antonis understood he’d have to wait there until the man returned with the promised treasure.
What would happen to his family if the man got caught or couldn’t find it?
The cool night breeze off the sea brought a chill to his sweat-soaked torso, and he hugged himself to keep warm. Forty-five minutes passed and still the stranger did not return. The monks would be up in another hour or so to gather for the eight-hour liturgical service that began their day. “I should give myself up,” Antonis mumbled to himself. “So wrong. What have I done? God would have protected and eventually provided for my family.” He grasped his hair in frustration with one hand. “What have I done?” There had to be a way to stop this. He paced some more, then stood and stared out at the sea, mesmerized by the sound of the waves against the rocks.
“Your key,” the man whispered in his ear.
Father Antonis had never heard the mule or the thief’s approach. He closed his eyes. “Did you find it?” he asked without turning around.
The man dangled a satchel at the monk’s side. “Let’s go.”
“To get you your money. It’s in the boat.”
“No…I…I don’t want it,” he stuttered. “I don’t want the money. I don’t want any part in this. I need you to give me the Theotokos.”
The man laughed. “Yeah, that’s gonna happen.” He poked something hard between the monk’s shoulder blades. “Move.”
“No. I said, I—”
“In case you hadn’t noticed, this is a gun in your back, stupid.”
Antonis froze. “I…no…” He was pushed forward so roughly he stumbled on the rocks.
“Move, for fuck’s sake.” The thief grabbed Antonis by the back of his robe and dragged him to the boat. “Get in.”
The thief sighed loudly. “Just get the fuck in.” He pushed Antonis so hard he practically landed headfirst in the boat. “I hope that hurt, black-robe motherfucker.” He untied the small craft and pushed it away from the rocks before he jumped in.
Antonis rubbed his head as he sat up. “What are you doing?”
“Taking you for a ride.”
“This wasn’t the deal.”
The man shrugged. “So?” He grabbed the oars and pulled them away from shore, the boat rocking unsteadily in the choppy waves.
Father Antonis tried to stand up. “I—”
The last thing he saw was the oar coming at his head.
He didn’t know how long he’d been out, but when he woke, his hands and feet were tied and the Holy Mountain was a mere dark outline in the far distance. He wanted to struggle but knew there was no point. Death was near and he deserved it. Antonis looked up at the stars. “Bad will come to those who try to move the Theotokos, and…” He looked at the satchel. “And all this is my fault, so I must die.”
“Them’s the breaks, Father.” The man grabbed and pulled him over to the side of the boat.
The monk lifted his head to the sky. “I’m sorry. Please, forgive me.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’m sure there’s a special hell for priests and shit.”