Her greatest fear was that the vertigo induced by the stench and the nausea would cause her to fall, and she was sure to land on one of the bloated corpses. She had found a treelimb which she used as a lever to roll them over. Thank God she always had surgical gloves handy. It was impossible to recognize faces when the features were distorted by two days in the hot sun. And no matter how often you kicked them, the damn vultures never stopped their grim work. She applied herself diligently to the task at hand, but the bodies stretched to the horizon...
Katia came awake with a gasp. After more than a week, the nightmare occurred every evening. All for nothing. None of the bodies looked like the digital photo of Jan van der Hoek, but then few of them resembled anything human. None of the rucksacks or pockets she searched among the nine corpses turned up the GPS monitor. Its recovery was more than a matter of losing an expensive piece of equipment. Few people had access to such technology and it would be a simple matter to trace it back to Joop's source. He made a big show of the loss being unacceptable, but she was smart enough to craft an excuse that would relieve them both of as much of the blame as possible. For Katia had through a variety of sources and minor slips on Joop's part pieced together the nature of his relationship with his sponsor. She knew the degree of power and influence with which she was dealing even if she only guessed at his identity.
Despite being temporarily in the clear and in many ways more valuable to Joop than ever, her sense of personal insecurity had never been worse. She was for her own reasons concerned that she couldn't verify Jan's death and recover the tracking device. Why hadn't she made a point of remember the number of men involved in the assault? The quantity of bodies being an odd number disturbed her. Worse still, the recent unpleasantness had spoiled anything exciting about her assignment. At this point she wasn't enjoying the danger and fear in the least. And she didn't have the faintest idea of how to reclaim the sense of adventure.
Matt was gratified by the good news that Prof Hamisi had recovered the jewel less than a week after their departure from Great Zimbabwe. It turned out to be a beautiful blue and white agate that represented Manassah. The Professor took this to be a good omen and talisman for the Lembas, as the half-tribes of Ephraim and Mannassah were often used scripturally to represent the exiled Jews as a whole. But before he got to see it for himself, Tim sent a text message announcing that Ms Arcy Nieujoux found a promising reference in one of Menasseh ben Israel's letters to Antonio Carvajal about another correspondent in Thessaloniki, or as it was known in the Ladino dialect, Salonika. He was to catch a flight to Athens immediately, with detailed instructions to follow.
He downloaded some email waiting in Athens for his connecting flight to Thessaloniki. On the first leg of the flight he had time to put the Zimbabwe incident in perspective. After the fight in London, it was clear that they were being tailed. But the surveillance effort that would have been needed to track them undetected to Great Zimbabwe would have been a stretch for even a first-rate intelligence organization. Their own communications were based on a 1024 bit encryption algorithm, and it was considered uncrackable under the current technology. The other possibilities were even more disturbing. He, Tim and Melchizedek were the only ones with a "need to know" on the details of their overall operation, and it would be ridiculous for either to be the source of a leak, at least intentionally. It was conceivable that Shaka and/or Ennio were moles, but practically that didn't make sense either. That left the possibility of some tracking device that had been planted. This too seemed logistically unlikely, but he planned to go through his belongings as soon as he checked in.
Tim informed him of his reservation at the Electra Palace in Aristotelous Sq, and a detailed information packet had been overnighted and was waiting for him at the front desk. Ms Nieujoux suggested that he get in touch with a colleague of hers. Psyche Zorochimedes, a researcher at the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki is considered the pre-eminent authority on the Ladino community in Salonika. Although born into the Greek Orthodox tradition, her interest in the Sephardim began when she discovered as a young girl that her maternal grandmother belonged to the Benveniste family. If anyone could confirm the existence of one of the Hoshen stones in Salonika, it was her.
The problem now was that if their security had been compromised, direct contact with Psyche would be both endangering her and adding a security risk to the operation. She would be provided a special phone number that would secure the line on her end and they would use that as their sole means of communication. As instructed she called an hour after his plane was scheduled to arrive.
"Hello? Ms. Zorochimedes?"
"Oh, Psyche, please! You're British!"
"Uh, yes I am."
"I'm sorry, I just assumed with a name like Mustang...anyways, I trust you arrived with no problems?"
"Yes, thank you, everything is perfect. Let me just say Ms...ah, Psyche that Ms Nieujoux has told us marvelous things about you and the work you've done on behalf of the Jewish community here is greatly appreciated."
"Oh please...Mustang. It's a labor of love."
"Quite. And I hope after speaking to her and seeing the information that we forwarded that you have some idea of what we are interested in. Please understand that you are under no obligation or pressure even to decide right now. We want to give you time to sleep on it. But I have to warn you there is some risk. Although we are not sure of the exact nature of that which the search involves, it is entirely likely that may be considered an ancient artifact. And you are aware I'm sure of your government's position on antiquities being taken out of the country."
"It could pose a problem."
"Exactly. But you can be sure that by all rights this would be a Jewish artifact, it's just that we can't count on the officials taking the same view, particular in the current political climate."
"So one precaution that we must insist on for your own benefit, if you decide to help us, is that we can, under no circumstances have any direct contact. We wouldn't want this to cause you any problems with your career or otherwise..."
"Well Mustang I must admit, I have always been fascinated by puzzles and mysteries..."
"No, no, Psyche, please don't say anything at the moment. We really want you to consider this carefully. I'd ask that you take a day or so and get back to me at the earliest by tomorrow morning."
"Well, I suppose it wouldn't hurt. I'll call you tomorrow morning, Mustang"
"Tomorrow it is then. Thanks ever so much Psyche"
The Electra turned out to be a 5 star hotel and his room directly overlooked the square.
The only problem he found upon checking in was that he had been assigned a smoking room. It was the combination of the smell of the smoke and the lack of sleep to which he attributed the faint dizziness and nausea he was experiencing so he opened his balcony to let in a harbor-scented breeze. He decided to relax for a while and catch up on the information that was sent, then search his luggage before turning in. He awoke on the large comfortable bed still dressed and surrounded by manuscripts as the dawn light streamed in through the open window
He quickly showered and dressed an popped down to the café for a coffee and crescent roll. He then returned to his room and began methodically to check his personal effects, starting with his clothes.
The tedious search left him contemplating the sinister looking black lozenge that he found in the lining of the suitcase. He pondered for a moment and then threw his clothes and shoes in the suitcase. He would dispose of everything in case there was another chip that he had overlooked, but the problem was leaving luggage unattended or surreptitiously disposing of it could cause alarm. He hurried downstairs and took a cab to a decrepit neighborhood near the industrial district adjoining the port facilities. He found a cheap hotel and checked in under an assumed name backed by a passport with a throw-away legend. He left the suitcase in the room. At the desk he asked the clerks to post a letter to the customer support address in Sao Paulo Brazil of a major computer manufacturer . The chip would soon be on it's way to South America. In the cab he checked flights to the nearest airposts and reserved one back to Athens departing in 3 hours. By now his shirt was drenched in sweat, yet felt so cold his teeth chattered.
When Psyche called he would inform her that his trip was canceled and request if they could meet at some later date. He used that time to call the Electra and cancel the rest of his reservation blaming the smoking room. He instructed the cabbie to take him around the city. Perhaps it was the wild driving and his poor sleep schedule since South Africa, but he soon felt car-sick and asked the driver to drop him off near the White Tower, where he hoped a stroll along the ocean would clear his head. He was still queasy when the phone finally rang.
"Hello, Mustang? This is Psyche"
Matt struggled to give her a coherent explanation of the change of plans. His head was now pounding and he seemed to be having trouble keeping the details between the real situation and the cover story separate in his mind.
"Are you sure everything is all right?" This wasn't going well. Her tone had changed from polite disappointment to genuine concern. Best to end it before he really mucked it up. Unfortunately he missed the last question, a persistent buzz had started in that ear. He switched the phone to the other side and asked her to repeat herself. The words entered his mind, all of them familiar but they seemed to have no relationship to one another. Matt apologized again, at a complete loss as how to re-establish the connection. His sense of purpose was rapidly slipping away, to the point that he couldn't remember what he was supposed to be doing at all. The buzzing sound had become a roaring crescendo in both ears. Mustering his last strength he reached out for the only certainty he had left and gasped, "Psyche!". The phone fell from his hand and the sidewalk came up in a rush.
He woke up in a sunlit room with white walls and white gauze curtains. The breeze from the open windows made them flutter and carried the sound and smell of the ocean. The sea smell brought a olfactory clarity, other vivid odors were attached to vague memories that were also associated with mental states. The scents of disinfectant and rubbing alcohol were connected with distress and a blurry glimpse of shiny floors. The smell of strong plain cake soap brought with it a recollection of helpless infantile annoyance and security and the more definite remembrance of a black clad figure administering a merciless towel bath with strong wrinkled hands. Finally there was an alchemically mysterious blend of lemons, nicotine and lavender that was most the most comforting of all. His ring tone ended the reverie abruptly. Matt stared at the impertinent device and was loathe to answer. It finally stopped but started up again almost immediately. No use.
"Matt, it's Psyche"
"Where are you?"
Her laugh was familiar, but when had he heard it before?
"Don't you want to know where you
It was a retreat center of the Greek Orthodox monks, not far from Mt Athos. It had been a week since he collapsed. He had been mostly unconscious. He didn't remember the Greek doctor's diagnosis of a nasty African virus. A crack team of Psyche's relatives had been taking care of him. As the pieces came together Matt became agitated.
"Psyche, we were very explicit that there was to be no contact. I don't think you realize what you've done, but now you and probably your family are in horrible danger..."
"I think I do understand, and we've taken some precautions, we'll talk about that later..."
"How did you find me?"
"I called back and someone in the crowd that gathered after you fainted answered. They were very helpful and told me that you were being taken to the AHEPA hospital. It wasn't hard to track you from there. My family has friends on the hospital board, so we were able to convince them we were taking you home with us. But I decided the retreat was safer. The monks would make sure of that."
"But you can't possibly understand..."
"Matt, while you were out of it...well you said things. A lot of things."
"Oh bloody hell."
"Matt, it's ok. I take full responsibility for everything, and I swear I'll never tell a soul. Even at the beginning I knew this was...delicate. I just want you to know I believe in what you are doing. And while you were not yourself, I think I found some of the answers you're looking for."