Istanbul - Present Day
Leave now or wind up dead like the other two.
Delivered hours earlier by his terrified friend, the grim warning continued to spook Marco Arrigoni as he scrambled to plot an escape route across a crumpled map of northern Turkey he had managed to smooth out to the edges of the wobbly kitchen table. It was supposed to be a day he wanted to remember, not one he wanted to forget, but remembering or forgetting this day paled in importance to surviving it, and there was no guarantee he would—all because he had pinched a holy relic from a sacred tomb he probably shouldn’t have more than two weeks ago.
And now he found himself holed up in his apartment like a common fugitive, hiding from a vicious killer who hungered after the stolen relic he was safeguarding. Hungered after it badly enough to gun down two innocent men last night, one of whom had been his friend’s lover. A definite sign the killer was close on his heels.
Or maybe he was a tad paranoid.
Perhaps. But paranoia didn’t waste those two men last night, Marco reminded himself as he struggled to concentrate on the map.
If nothing else, he now understood how a fugitive must feel—an understanding he would gladly give away in charity if he could, generous soul that he was. Beyond that, Marco knew nothing more, and not knowing so unnerved him he couldn’t stop himself from flinching at every ominous thump and creak while he studied the map in the confines of his tiny kitchen which seemed more alive than usual. Time was short—a private courier was expected to collect the packaged relic at any moment. Then he would skedaddle; hopefully before the shooting started.
Funny thing how the passing years had changed him. Back in the day, he had cut a broad swathe through his feral Bronx neighborhood cracking skulls and breaking bones, but twenty-plus years of shilling sermons on turning the other cheek had dulled his fighting edge. It was some guilty consolation to him. Guilty because he earned his daily bread preaching a philosophy of life totally at odds with his less-than-stoic behavior of the moment. But so what? Failing to walk the walk wasn’t the end of the world. A desperate killer was stalking him after all. So his friend had warned. Reason enough to excuse this minor episode of backsliding and cut himself some slack. Besides, practicing what he preached wasn’t his strong suit. Never had been. Especially the practicing part.
Done justifying his skittish behavior to himself, Marco tore his eyes away from the map and flicked a nervous glance at the clock suspended high on the opposite wall. He did a double-take and swallowed hard. Fear and anger soared in tandem. The blasted courier was late. The odds of the relic falling into the hands of the gunman shot higher.
His mind in turmoil, Marco sat gaping at the timepiece while the rotating second hand ratcheted up his sense of doom, when a horrible awareness rocked him.
If you’re killed, the secret in the package will die with you.
His senses reeled.
That can’t happen. Too much is at stake!
Not one to lose his head at the first sign of disaster, Marco showed anxiety the door and rallied himself. When you get out of this jam alive, you’re going to buy that backstreet courier the biggest damn clock in the city and chain him to it. Let him then dare lose track of time again. In spite of his mood, a sly grin stole over his face.
Doubt if the courier will find it funny.
As much as he wanted to flee, running from danger wasn’t listed in the code that governed his conduct. (He had double-checked to make sure.) His conscience would plague him like an incurable itch if he did. Nah, he’d rather grapple with a psychotic cage fighter than tangle with his nag of a conscience. He had promised to deliver the package, so despite the potential threat to life and limb, deliver it he would.
This wasn’t the first time Marco’s take-it-to-the-mat sense of moral obligation had placed his life in jeopardy. He just yearned for it to be the last. It had better be. At forty-eight, “Dead Hero” wasn’t an epitaph he hankered after, but it might come to that since he wasn’t packing a weapon.
He flexed his scarred ball peen-knuckled hands and examined them as though seeing them for the very first time…Nails could stand a trim…Not solid enough to stop bullets but strong enough to break bones. Better than nothing, he conceded. Marco hadn’t clobbered anyone since becoming a priest over two decades ago. But that’s not to say the impulse had vanished altogether. Uh, uh. He had lost count of the number of times he felt like hurtling himself through the flimsy divider in the confessional to knock some sense into the heads of wayward congregants who persisted in committing the same debaucheries again and again and then possessed the gall to ask why the outcomes were no different than the last. The insanity of it all. Lucky for them he feared prison more than he loathed the priesthood. Retirement couldn’t come soon enough.
Marco’s lapses of compassion aside, his hands and hard-earned street smarts had rescued him from countless scrapes in his past. And then some. He possessed the scars to prove it. Scars or no, the wary voice in his head, the one that had kept him alive in the mean streets of his youth, reminded him he was going to need his hands and his smarts if he expected to outwit the killer. Once more, consequences be damned, he’d trust in his weapons fashioned from flesh and bone to live beyond the end of today. What else could an unarmed man do?
How about run?
He mentally shook himself and turned his restless attention to the bulky package positioned at the edge of the map. It drew him as a wave drawn to the shore. Unable to look away, he regarded it with awe, and his head buzzed. The truth was alive in there. That much was certain. Unbidden, his hand whispered across the map to the package and awarded it a gentle pat.
So many innocents slaughtered across so many centuries for the sake of some well-spun lies. Never again! he vowed. The message in this package will expose the biggest hoax ever foisted upon huma—
“Enough!” He glared at the window, and if looks could shatter, the glass would’ve burst.
Shrill for the time of day, unusual since rush hour hadn’t yet slipped its straining leash, the din of traffic flaring up from four stories below sprang him from his chair, sending it crashing across the linoleum floor into the fridge, and he stomped to the window to investigate.…
Lined up bumper to bumper, cars crawled past his building in horn-blaring protest. Then he noticed further along the road a double-parked car, its taillights flashing.
“Way to go, buddy,” he yelled into the noise. “Those flashers will speed things up real fast.” He ducked in and slammed shut the window. “Takes just one selfish jerk to cause a stretch of chaos.”
A might too preoccupied with the fix he was in to latch on to the illegally parked vehicle as a harbinger of something more than a mere case of bad manners, Marco spun away from the window, none the wiser.
Damn natives have got nothing better to do than pound on their horns,” he griped as he went to retrieve his chair. If he had the time, he’d pound on the drivers just to hear them wail.
He shoved the chair home with his foot and plunked himself down in it. Powerless to stop the manic traffic noise, he rubbed his hands through his wavy jet hair and let them flop onto the table, and another glimpse at the burning clock did little to cool his annoyance.
He grunted in frustration. Needing to distract himself, he ranged through the rudimentary plan he had devised from start to finish. He could find no hiccup in it. Must be perfect. He stole a final look at the map, thinking, Should be a quiet place to hunker down in until things blow over. No one will think of searching for me there. Any place is better, not to mention safer, than this apartment. And if it isn’t, well, I’ll find out soon enough.
The escape route Marco would travel to reach a secluded Greek monastery in the northeast part of the country memorized, he gathered the crumpled map, refolded it after several maddening attempts and rammed it into his back pocket for future retrieval.
A futile expectation he would later discover.
With nothing left to do, he stared out the filmy kitchen window at the Hagia Sophia, its massive brick-and-mortar dome seemingly propping up the leaden sky like a giant umbrella, while his fingers probed the jagged scars on his knuckles, the crude braille of a troubled past etched in his flesh, if not in his soul.
His gaze turned inward. My wounds run deep. Woe to me. Time to grow a thicker skin. He became serious again.
How did the shooter hear of the relic? he asked himself and not for the first time today. Only three other people know about it. Two of them are trustworthy. They wouldn’t say a word. But the third. Could he have informed the gunman from jail…? But how?
He would give much for the answers to these questions. Even your vows…? Let me get back to you. Too overwrought to think straight, he let the matter drop. The answers probably wouldn’t change his predicament anyway.
The horns continued to blare but Marco’s gaze did not waver.
Doing his best to ignore the shrill protest percolating up from the traffic-snarled street thirty-feet below, and suppressing his gut instinct to lay down some shoe leather and beat a path to safety, he sat tight and willed the courier to materialize. Only then would he put feet to pavement and disappear. And with no trail to follow, so might the unknown killer.
That was the plan. Such as i—
The door buzzer detonated the tense atmosphere in the apartment. Marco bolted upright in his chair.
Must be the courier. So he deigned to show up. About damn time.
Hurrying toward the front door, relief overcame him.
It didn’t last.
An obvious question rattled his brain.
What if it’s not him?
Marco froze and time with him, and the living room seemed to shrink and fade away until he was aware of nothing but the front door, looming before him. Perhaps if he remained still, the caller might give up and leave.
The buzzer detonated again, he jumped out of his skin.
Caught in the amber of indecision, Marco fixated on the door, knowing there was no going back once he opened it.
His senses on full alert, he found his courage and reached for the deadbolt with utmost effort, like in a nightmare, and at that moment a shudder ripped through him—the fuse on the most explosive secret in history was about to be lit.
Marco didn’t know how wrong he was.