Read an Excerpt
DECEMBER 9, 1939
One by one the trucks struggled up the steep road in the predawn light of Salonika. Each went a bit faster at the top; the drivers were anxious to return to the darkness of the descending country road cut out of the surrounding forests.
Yet each of the five drivers in the five trucks had to control his anxiety. None could allow his foot to slip from a brake or press an accelerator beyond a certain point; eyes had to be squinted, sharpening the focus, alert for a sudden stop or an unexpected curve in the darkness.
For it was darkness. No headlights were turned on; the column traveled with only the gray light of the Grecian night, low-flying clouds filtering the spill of the Grecian moon.
The journey was an exercise in discipline. And discipline was not foreign to these drivers, or to the riders beside the drivers.
Each was a priest. A monk. From the Order of Xenope, the harshest monastic brotherhood under the control of the Patriarchate of Constantine. Blind obedience coexisted with self-reliance; they were disciplined to the instant of death.
In the lead truck, the young bearded priest removed his cassock, under which were the clothes of a laborer, a heavy shirt and trousers of thick fabric. He rolled up the cassock and placed it in the well behind the high-backed seat, shoving it down between odd items of canvas and cloth. He spoke to the robed driver beside him.
“It’s no more than a half mile now. The stretch of track parallels the road for about three hundred feet. In the open; it will be sufficient.”
“The train will be there?” asked the middle-aged, powerfully built monk, narrowing his eyes in the darkness.
“Yes. Four freight cars, a single engineer. No stokers. No other men.”
“You’ll be using a shovel, then,” said the older priest, smiling but with no humor in his eyes.
“I’ll be using the shovel,” replied the younger man simply. “Where’s the weapon?”
“In the glove compartment.”
The priest in the laborer’s clothes reached forward and released the catch on the compartment panel. It fell open. He put his hand inside the recess and withdrew a heavy, large-calibered pistol. Deftly, the priest sprung the magazine out of the handle, checked the ammunition, and cracked the thick steel back into the chamber. The metallic sound had a finality to it.
“A powerful instrument. Italian, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” answered the older priest without comment, only the sadness in his voice.
“That’s appropriate. And, I suppose, a blessing.” The younger man shoved the weapon into his belt. “You’ll call his family?”
“I’ve been so ordered—” It was obvious that the driver wanted to say something more, but he controlled himself. Silently he gripped the wheel more firmly than necessary.
For a moment the moonlight broke through the night clouds, illuminating the road cut out of the forest.
“I used to play here as a child,” said the younger man. “I would run through the woods and get wet in the streams … then I would dry off in the mountain caves and pretend I had visions. I was happy in these hills. The Lord God wanted me to see them again. He is merciful. And kind.”
The moon disappeared. There was darkness once more.
The trucks entered a sweeping curve to the west; the woods thinned out and in the distance, barely visible, were the outlines of telegraph poles, black shafts silhouetted against gray night. The road straightened and widened and became one with a clearing that stretched perhaps a hundred yards from forest to forest. A flat, barren area imposed on the myriad hills and woodlands. In the center of the clearing, its hulk obscured by the darkness beyond, was a train.
Immobile but not without movement. From the engine came curls of smoke spiraling up into the night.
“In the old days,” said the young priest, “the farmers would herd their sheep and cart their produce here. There was always a great deal of confusion, my father told me. Fights broke out constantly over what belonged to whom. They were amusing stories.… There he is!”
The beam of a flashlight shot out from the black. It circled twice and then remained stationary, the white shaft directed now at the last freight car. The priest in laborer’s clothes unclipped a pencil light from his shirt pocket, held it forward and pressed the button for precisely two seconds. The reflection off the truck’s windshield briefly illuminated the small enclosure. The younger man’s eyes were drawn swiftly to the face of his brother monk. He saw that his companion had bitten his lip; a rivulet of blood trickled down his chin, matting itself in the close-cropped gray beard.
There was no reason to comment on it.
“Pull up to the third car. The others will turn around and start unloading.”
“I know,” said the driver simply. He swung the wheel gently to the right and headed toward the third freight car.
The engineer, in overalls and a goatskin cap, approached the truck as the young priest opened the door and jumped to the ground. The two men looked at each other and then embraced.
“You look different without your cassock, Petride. I’d forgotten how you looked—”
“Oh, come now. Four years out of twenty-seven is hardly the better part.”
“We don’t see you often enough. Everyone in the family remarks about it.” The engineer removed his large, calloused hands from the priest’s shoulders. The moon broke through the clouds again; the spill lighted the trainman’s face. It was a strong face, nearer fifty than forty, filled with the lines of a man constantly exposing his skin to the wind and the sun.
“How’s mother, Annaxas?”
“Well. A little weaker with each month of age, but alert.”
“And your wife?”
“Pregnant again and not laughing this time. She scolds me.”
“She should. You’re a lustful old dog, my brother. But better to serve the church, I rejoice to say.” The priest laughed.
“I’ll tell her you said that,” said the engineer, smiling.
There was a moment of silence before the young man replied. “Yes. You tell her.” He turned to the activity taking place at the freight cars. The loading doors had been opened and lanterns hung inside, shedding their muted light sufficiently for packing, but not bright enough to be obvious outside. The figures of robed priests began walking swiftly back and forth between the trucks and the doors, carrying crates, boxes of heavy cardboard framed with wood. Prominently displayed on each crate was the crucifix and thorns of the Order of Xenope.
“The food?” inquired the engineer.
“Yes,” answered his brother. “Fruits, vegetables, dried meats, grain. The border patrols will be satisfied.”
“Then where?” It was not necessary to be clearer.
“This vehicle. In the middle section of the carriage, beneath tobacco nets. You have the lookouts posted?”
“On the tracks and the road; both directions for over a mile. Don’t worry. Before daybreak on a Sunday morning, only you priests and novices have work to do and places to go.”
The young priest glanced over at the fourth freight car. The work was progressing rapidly; the crates were being stacked inside. All those hours of practice were showing their value. The monk who was his driver stopped briefly by the muted light of the loading door, a carton in his hands. He exchanged looks with the younger man, then forced his attention away, back to the carton which he swung up into the well of the freight car.
Father Petride turned to his brother. “When you picked up the train, did you speak with anyone?”
“Only the dispatcher. Naturally. We had black tea together.”
“What did he say?”
“Words I wouldn’t offend you with, for the most part. His papers said the cars were to be loaded by the fathers of Xenope in the outlying yards. He didn’t ask any questions.”
Father Petride looked over at the second freight car, on his right. In minutes all would be completed; they would be ready for the third car. “Who prepared the engine?”
“Fuel crews and mechanics. Yesterday afternoon. The orders said it was a standby; that’s normal. Equipment breaks down all the time. We are laughed at in Italy.… Naturally, I checked everything myself several hours ago.”
“Would the dispatcher have any reason to telephone the freight yards? Where supposedly we are loading the cars?”
“He was asleep, or practically so, before I left his tower. The morning schedule won’t start—” the engineer looked up at the gray black sky “—for at least another hour. He’d have no reason to call anyone, unless the wireless reported an accident.