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The MapTHE WAY OF ALL GREAT MEN
By DAVID MURROW
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2010 David Murrow
All right reserved.
Chapter OneOut of the Black
My eyes snapped open, but I saw nothing. I blinked-and paid the price. My eyelids felt as though they were lined with sandpaper. I tried to sit up, but pain shot through my legs. Slowly I rolled onto my back, trying to remember where I was. Through a slit in the roof, I saw a black sky dotted with stars. I knew just two things: I was awake, and I was alive.
I pressed the glow button on my watch: 4:32 a.m. What had wakened me? The rooster. His crowing was like a poorly timed snooze alarm, with just enough of an interval between cock-a-doodle-doos to lull me back to sleep and then jerk me back to consciousness.
Why is there a rooster? I heard something stirring-maybe three meters from my head. I lay very still, trying not to breathe. Something metal scraped against a stone floor. Then I heard the sound of a body shifting its weight, followed by a heavy exhale. I felt as though I was in danger, but I had no idea why.
My thoughts began to clear. I was in a barn. Somewhere in Greece. This was not an American-style barn with a steep, pitched roof and a spacious hayloft. My shelter was a crude, single-story, stone-walled structure that had been built around the time young George Washington was chopping down cherry trees.
I soon realized that the sounds that had frightened me came not from an assassin but from a draft horse, dragging an iron shoe across worn pavement. Moments later my nose was assaulted by the smell of freshly dropped manure. Yes, I'm definitely in a barn, I thought.
I'm not in the habit of sleeping with livestock, but stranded travelers take whatever accommodations they can get. It was coming back to me: I had no transportation, no cell phone, and I couldn't speak a word of Greek. I was hiding from men who were trying to either help me or kill me-I wasn't sure.
I shared my crude accommodations with the horse, a cow, a donkey, and my travel companion-an Anglican priest from Wales who went by the name Benson. The vicar had been snoring proficiently through the night, but at the moment he was silent. If the cock had awakened him, he showed no sign of it. The two of us shared our bed of straw with a number of scurrying creatures, probably mice or rats. Their constant motion had kept me on edge all night.
The barn was located in the tiny Greek monastic state of Mount Athos. The priest and I had journeyed to this backwater in search of a treasure map.
Now, stop laughing. This was no Pirates of the Caribbean treasure map. This particular map led to something even more valuable than gold. I wasn't even sure the map existed. But if the rumor was true, we were on the verge of a discovery so explosive it had the potential to shake the foundations of Christianity-or lead to its rebirth.
I rose stiffly and stumbled out of the barn with two goals: (1) tap a kidney and (2) kill the rooster. As I stood in the barnyard working on my first goal, my eyes scanned the dark countryside. I took a moment to assess my current situation: eight thousand miles from home, searching for a map that may or may not exist-seeking information from a Greek Orthodox monk who may or may not know anything-hiding from men who may or may not be trying to kill me. My life was a bubbling cauldron of uncertainty.
I'm no Indiana Jones. I'm a father of three, whose idea of adventure is booking a hotel on Priceline.com. I was drawn into this expedition because the map supposedly had something to do with Jesus Christ and the path to manhood-topics that I've studied extensively and written on. My goal was to find the map and share it with the world. And what the heck-if the discovery led to me writing an international bestseller, I was sure the Lord wouldn't mind.
By now the rooster had gone silent, so I decided to spare him. Back inside, the barn seemed darker, and the smells were even more pungent. To my left, the priest was snoring again, but it was so dark I couldn't make out his form. One of the animals was stirring in its stall-or was it something else? I held very still, fighting the eerie feeling that someone was watching me. Then a thought occurred: Do roosters suddenly go silent once their morning recital begins?
Meanwhile, Father Nigel Benson began snuffling again. I felt safer with him nearby, even though he was about as threatening as the Pillsbury Dough Boy.
My mind wandered back to the first time I met Benson. We were in Wales. It was about five months ago, on February 1.
* * *
I stepped out of the warm church building into a raw Welsh night. An unkind wind blew off the Atlantic. Rain spattered onto the parking lot under an ebony sky that had surrendered its last ray of light hours ago.
Though the night was chilly, my heart was warmed by the love I had felt that evening, addressing a crowd of about 120 at St. Mary's Parish in Cardiff, Wales. They'd come to hear a lecture titled "Why Men Hate Going to Church," based on a book I'd written a few years before. The lack of men in U.S. churches is a bother, but in the U.K. it's a crippling epidemic. I'd found an enthusiastic group eager for my message. I was just walking out to my rental car when I heard a voice from behind.
"Mr. Murrow?" the voice said.
I turned quickly. "Yes, who's there?"
"I was inside, listening to your address. Very interesting."
"You startled me," I said.
"I apologize. I just had to speak to you. Alone."
A chill ran up my back. It had nothing to do with the breeze. "What is this about?" I asked defensively.
"Can you meet me tomorrow? I have some very important information that I must share with you."
"Who are you?" I asked.
"Apologies. My name is Benson-Nigel Benson-and I am a priest living at the vicarage at Churchstoke, about seventy miles north of here. Like many ministers, I am fascinated by your topic. Over the years, I've had only a wee bit of luck engaging men in the church. I came down to Cardiff to hear you speak."
His voice had the soothing tone of a minister, and my unease began melting into a tentative trust. Benson was a bowling ball of a man, about sixty years old, short, with broad shoulders. Close-cropped gray hair framed a large head. A pair of badly dated eyeglasses perched on his bulbous nose. Large, solid hands sprang from the arms of his mackintosh. He held an Englishman's black umbrella over his head.
"Thank you for coming," I said. "What's this information you spoke of?"
Benson looked down at the wet pavement. "Mr. Murrow, I can't tell you that because I don't know what it is. I was sent by a man named Spiro."
"Why didn't Mr. Spiro come tonight?"
"It's Father Spiro," Benson said. "He is in his nineties and in failing health. I would have brought him along, but he's recovering from pneumonia. He doesn't use a computer and can hardly hear to use the phone. But he has read your book and he's keen to meet you."
We were silent for a moment. I didn't know what to say, so I finally joked, "Well, it's good to know I have a ninety-year-old admirer."
"Oh, he's no admirer," Benson said. "He thinks your conclusions are rubbish."
Rubbish? I felt as though I'd been sucker-punched. After a few seconds, I recovered enough to ask, "If he thinks my book is trash, then why does he want to meet me?"
"Because you're the first writer in a generation to address the subject of the missing men in the church," Benson said. "You have a platform. Spiro wants to show you the real reason men are leaving the church, so you can share it with your readers."
The real reason? My mind was red with indignation. Who does this Spiro think he is? Has he done the research? How dare he call my work rubbish!
Before I could answer, Benson continued. "Mr. Murrow, I checked your itinerary online. You are scheduled to speak tomorrow night in Shrewsbury. That's just twenty miles from the vicarage in Churchstoke. We could easily meet Father Spiro in the morning and have you to Shrewsbury in plenty of time for tea. Now, where are you staying?"
"At the Nag's Head." The words tumbled out before I could stop them.
"Very well. I'll meet you in the lobby at eight o'clock sharp. Good evening, Mr. Murrow." The vicar turned and melted into the night.
* * *
The morning dawned under dripping gray skies. I sat in the hotel restaurant, waiting for my English breakfast to be served. A cold rain fogged the windowpanes that faced the street. In the corner a welcoming fire chased away the last remnants of evening chill.
I had spent the morning trying to decide if I should meet Benson or simply jump in the car and head to Shrewsbury. My left brain cried, He's a nut. It's going to be a colossal waste of time. Stick with the schedule.
Unfortunately, the restaurant was short-staffed, and my breakfast was delayed. A harried waitress finally set my plate down at ten till eight. I shoveled in a few bites of egg, tomato, and sausage and then decided to make my escape before the priest arrived. I paid the check and was headed for the door when a stout man in a black mackintosh walked into the dining room, shaking the water off a large umbrella.
"Good morning, Mr. Murrow," the man said. "Ready to go?" Benson's manner was so insistent that I nodded involuntarily. "Where is your suitcase?" he asked.
"Oh, it's at the front desk," I said. In my attempt to flee, I'd almost forgotten that I'd placed my belongings with the staff during breakfast. "I'll go get it," I said.
"Do you have an umbrella?" Benson asked. I showed him my empty hands.
"Very well. Let me have your key and I'll open the boot for you. No sense in you spending one extra second out in this monsoon," he said.
Against my better judgment, I handed the key to my rental car to a character I barely knew. As I retrieved my luggage, I wondered if I'd ever see the four-cylinder Vauxhall again.
I walked out of the hotel into a punishing rain. Fortunately, I had parked near the door. The trunk (or boot, as it's called in the U.K.) was already open and I tossed in my suitcase, slamming it closed as fast as I could. Since I'm an American, without thinking I ran to the left side of the car and jumped in, expecting to be in the driver's seat. Instead, Benson sat at the wheel, which of course was on the right. The priest turned the key, and the engine roared to life. "No sense in you driving, Mr. Murrow. The weather's dodgy, and you don't know the way. Save your strength for your talk tonight."
Before I could object, Benson had the sedan in gear, and we were barreling down the narrow streets of Cardiff. Well, at least he didn't steal the car, I thought. In the background, BBC radio was carrying a story about a massive accident on the rain-slicked M4 highway.
"So your name is Nigel?" I asked.
"Yes, that's what my mum called me, but ever since primary school I've gone by Benson. There were five Nigels in my year one class, so the headmaster put an end to the madness by referring to us by our last names."
"It's tough being a David too," I said. "One time I was in a history class with four Davids. Our teacher had a glass eye. When he called on 'David,' you could never tell which one of us he was looking at."
Benson snickered. Then the car fell silent, except for the clapping of the wipers and a radio report on a financial scandal in the House of Lords. As we drove, the rain let up somewhat.
I finally broke the silence. "Benson, tell me more about this priest we're going to meet."
"Father Spiro? Well, I think I mentioned that he's quite old and fragile. He's originally from Greece. He fled to England during World War II, just before Greece fell to Hitler. He carried some Jewish blood and feared for his safety. He's well versed in ancient Semitic languages.
"Father Spiro eventually ended up in Wales, where he served as a parish priest for twenty-five years. He continued to be a popular vicar into his eighties. He still lives in the vicarage at Churchstoke and had been quite independent until about a month ago when he got pneumonia."
"How old did you say he is?" I asked.
"Ninety-four. Still sharp minded. A good wit. His sermons were always popular because they were so funny," Benson said.
"And you said that he read my book but didn't think much of it."
"He deeply appreciates what you're trying to do, but he thinks your conclusions are off." Benson tapped the steering wheel nervously and then added, "Father Spiro was never one to hold back an opinion."
I kept a respectful demeanor, but inside I was thinking, What a colossal waste of time this is going to be. A ninety-four-year-old vicar is going to tell me why he thinks men are skipping church. He's probably going to tell me it's too much trouble to hook up the horse and buggy on Sunday morning.
I stared out the passenger side window. Thick hedgerows bisected lush pastures. Rain had been falling for weeks, turning the land impossibly green. After a few minutes of silence, Benson spoke. "Well, this is Churchstoke. We'll be at the vicarage in a few minutes." I was amazed-the U.K. is so small compared to Alaska. I felt as though we had only been driving a few minutes, and already we were nearing our destination.
The vicarage was a converted English public house two blocks from St. Stephen's, the village church. The building housed the church offices and several apartments for priests, both active and retired. The structure looked to be from the mid-1800s, with thick, brown walls and a clay tile roof. Spindly vines grew up the south wall. The windows had been upgraded to energy-efficient double-pane sliders.
The rain had stopped. Benson and I got out and walked across sodden cobbles into the building. The priest led me up the stairs to the parish offices, where a prim secretary sat guard.
"Good morning, Rosalind," Benson said with characteristic English reserve.
Rosalind looked over her glasses without smiling. "Oh, Benson, have you heard the terrible news?"
"No, what is it?" Benson asked.
"Father Spiro is dead."
Benson sat motionless, staring down at a steaming cup of tea. His large hands were folded in his lap. I sat across the table, not knowing what to say.
We were seated at the Long Acre, a pub three blocks from the vicarage. It had been less than sixteen hours since I first laid eyes on this man, but I felt his loss deeply. Maybe God had set me on this wild goose chase to comfort a man who had consoled so many hurting people in the past.
I finally spoke. "You and Father Spiro must have been very close."
"Yes, but there's no time to mourn. I'm trying to figure if Spiro was murdered."
Murdered? You've got to be kidding. Benson was not grieving; he was playing amateur detective! I hid my skepticism enough to ask, "What makes you suspect foul play? He was ninety-four years old, right? He had pneumonia."
Benson was quick to answer: "Spiro was a fastidious man. I visited his apartment yesterday morning, and it was as tidy as the grounds of Windsor Castle. Yet today a number of his books are in disarray. That would indicate that someone went through them."
"Well, what if he was studying at the time of his death?"
"Spiro was bedridden with pneumonia. Rosalind says he spent the day sleeping. It looks to me as though someone pulled his books down, looked at them, and put them back in the wrong order."
I was unconvinced, but I decided to play along. "Will there be a police investigation? Or an autopsy?"
"I doubt it. As you said, he was ninety-four years old."
The lunch crowd was starting to file out of the Long Acre. I was also feeling the need to move along, but I decided to humor the priest a bit longer. "Let's assume for a minute that Spiro's death was not natural. Who on earth would want to kill him?"
"Mr. Murrow, I haven't told you everything Spiro told me. I didn't want to speak for him. But now it's apparent that I'll have to do just that." Benson fixed his gaze on me and lowered his voice. "Spiro appeared to be a humble priest, but he actually had a number of high-level government and religious contacts around the world. It's rumored that he played a role in the formation of the Israeli government after 1948. He used to take long holidays to Greece and the Middle East in the summer, doing unspecified research."
Benson blew over his steaming teacup and took a quick sip. "Spiro had observed the decline of Christianity in Europe over his lifetime, and he thought it was due to the withdrawal of a certain kind of man from religious life. When Spiro was a boy, working men with calloused hands would become priests. But during the twentieth century, seminaries began to attract what he called "eggheads, whelps, and softies." Once the priests went velvety, the men in the pews lost respect for them. Fathers stopped bringing their families to church, and that broke the multigenerational chain of faith.
Excerpted from The Map by DAVID MURROW Copyright © 2010 by David Murrow. Excerpted by permission.
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