A Nice Place to Die
"The Parthenon," said Alexander Scott, reading from the tourist brochure, "is the most important monument of the ancient Greek civilization. Built between 447 and 438 B.C., it was dedicated to Athena Parthenos, the patron goddess of Athens."
"Certainly it was," said Kelly Robinson idly. He wasn't even looking at the Parthenon. He'd seen it before. Instead he was surveying the crowd of people milling about atop the Acropolis, the Sacred Rock of Athens.
Scott kept reading. "Built in the Doric order, of Pentelic marble, the Parthenon is peripteral, with seventeen columns on each of the long sides and eight columns on each of the short sides." He glanced up at Robinson. "That's fifty columns in all, by the way."
"Yeah, but who's counting?"
"The cella, or the center of the temple, once contained the famous chryselephantine statute of Athena...."
"You know, I think you read all this the last time we were here."
"Uh huh. But did you remember it?"
"Then pay attention this time."
"You're the know-it-all, right? Then tell me something. Why is it that every sneaky little clandestine-type rendezvous has to be held here, in the most popular place in Athens, in front of God and everybody?"
"Because them's the rules of the game."
Robinson looked askance at his partner. "Rules of what game?"
"The spy game, Man."
"Then I was grievously misled. When they recruited me they promised I wouldn't have to play by any rules."
"They lied. That's also in the rules of the game."
They were walking, aimlessly, heading more or less towards the Temple of Athena Nike and the edge of the Acropolis, from which could be seen the panorama of Athens stretching out in all directions. The sun was at its zenith, a hot hammer on their shoulders. Robinson checked his watch -- again. It was ten minutes past noon. He didn't know who they were supposed to meet, but whoever it was was late.
"Buy a picture, Mister?"
Robinson looked behind him, and then down. A boy, perhaps ten years of age, was standing there, holding out a handful of postcards.
"No thanks, kid."
"Mister, you buy a picture."
"Some other time. Now run along."
The boy took one of the postcards from the bunch and held it out. "You must have this one, Mister."
Robinson sighed and turned to Scott. "Okay. How do you say 'get lost' in Greek?"
Scott looked at the boy and smiled. "Go away."
The boy put the postcard in Robinson's hand and ran away.
"Hey!" Robinson glanced at the front of the card. It was a black-and-white shot of a large building perched atop a rocky promontory. He turned the card over and read the words NOON TOMORROW. He held the card out to Scott, who was gazing out over Athens. "Here ya go, Duke."
"I don't want it."
"Yes, you do."
"No, I don't. I sent my mom a postcard a few days ago."
"You recognize this place?"
Scott took the card, studied the picture. "Sure. That's Agios Stefanos. It's a convent in Meteora."
"Check the back, Sherlock."
Scott looked on the back. Then he looked at Robinson. "Triakin?"
"I just hope he hasn't joined the nunnery. Those mother superiors can be a real pain."
Scott stuck the postcard in a pocket of his jeans and started walking. "There's a train that runs to Kalambaka."
"Wonderful," said Robinson, and followed.
Standing at the base of a sheer cliff and craning his neck to study what he could see of Agios Stefanos, a collection of ancient structures perched at the very brink of the rocky promontory, Kelly Robinson took off his sunglasses, squeezed the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger, and then shook his head.
"I knew I forgot something," he said. "You didn't happen to bring your superspy rocket backpack, did you?"
"Y' know," drawled Scott, "Meteora means 'hovering in the air'."
"Don't start. So how do we get up there?"
"We hike. There's a trail...."
"I have an idea. You hike up there and just toss Triakin down to me."
"You wouldn't catch him, though. See, I know how you operate."
"Ye of little faith." Robinson looked longingly behind him, at the hazy valley which contained the town of Kastraki, from whence they had just come. It was at that point that he saw the shepherd. "Now what have we here?" he murmured.
Scott looked at his partner, then followed his gaze to the man who stood about a hundred yards away, tending a small flock of sheep. The man was clearly more interested in the two Americans standing at the base of the cliff than in his flock, however.
"Think he knows something we don't?" asked Scott.
"I certainly hope so," replied Robinson, and led the way.
The shepherd stood his ground as they approached. Long before they reached him they were sure it wasn't Triakin. He was a tall Greek man, his age indeterminate, his features as craggy as the cliffs of Meteora. He wore the usual garb of a Greek shepherd -- the baggy pants and white shirt, a black vest and cap. Scott spoke to him affably in his native tongue, and the man responded readily. While he waited for the translation, Robinson warily watched the sheep grazing on the sparse but nutritious grass that grew in this rocky soil.
"He says the man we've come to see is up there," Scott told his partner, and pointed at a jumble of boulders and stone spires just to the east of the Agios Stefanos promontory.
"Is that right?" Robinson sighed. "And to think I let you talk me into this."
This time Scott took the lead. A moment later he began hopping on one foot, then on the other. Robinson watched him for a moment.
"What's with the happy dance, Zorba?"
"I've got sheep doodoo on my shoes."
Robinson laughed. Then he thought to check the soles of his own shoes -- and abruptly stopped laughing.
They climbed for thirty minutes, ever higher into the rocks, and it didn't take Robinson long to start lamenting the fact that he'd spent most of the last two months sitting on his duff quaffing Boutari and smoking Turkish cigarettes. They proceeded with caution, aware of the possibility that they could be walking into a trap. In spite of the care they took, though, Triakin surprised them.
He stepped out from behind a jumble of boulders that stood so precariously on the treacherous slope that they seemed to be defying the laws of gravity. The Russian scientist was wearing the same sort of garb as the shepherd below, but Robinson knew him instantly. Still, he didn't lower the pistol that had appeared, as though by some sleight-of-hand, from beneath his windbreaker.
Triakin held his arms out away from his sides. "Once upon a time," he said drily, "your orders were to keep me alive, Kelly Robinson. Have you new orders, then?"
Robinson put the gun away.
Triakin nodded curtly, threw a quick look around. "Come. We are too much in the open."
They followed him another hundred yards up the slope and arrived at a cave. The entrance was small, hidden from view from the valley below by giant slabs of stone jutting up from the ground. Crouching, Triakin entered, Robinson and Scott close behind. They were surprised by the roominess of the cavern. It stretched deeper into the heart of the mountain than the yellow light from a couple of kerosene lanterns could penetrate. There was a field cot there, a stack of crates over here, and a roughhewn table yonder. Several books and a half-full bottle of wine stood on the table. A two-burner kerosene stove was balanced on a cube of rock beside it.
"Welcome to my home," said Triakin. "It is spartan, but sufficient. The first inhabitants of this area were monks who lived in caves like this -- perhaps even this one -- in the 11th century. During the Turkish occupation they moved higher to escape the Turks and the brigands who populated the valley below. Eventually they built their monasteries on the most inaccessible peaks."
"Nice digs," said Scott. Triakin had changed considerably in two months. He had a beard now, and he'd lost some weight. He was no longer the rather portly, rumpled scientist whose brain Scott had picked for three days in Salonika. He was darker, leaner, with haunted eyes.
"No one could find me here -- unless I wanted to be found. The people watch out for me. They bring me food and drink. Newspapers and an occasional book. They think I am on the run from the government. They do not like the government here. They believe I am an important man."
"I can't imagine where they got that idea," said Robinson drily. He'd moved closer to the table, and then the photo caught his eye, a snapshot whose edge protruded from beneath a book. He slid it out and his features turned bleak as he saw that it was a picture of Triakin and Yasmin, standing by a car. It had been taken in Salonika; Triakin had insisted that Robinson snap the picture.
"Put that down," snapped Triakin.
Robinson glanced coldly at him, then let the snapshot slip from his fingers.
"It's all I have left," said the scientist, his voice ragged. "I gave up everything to be with her, you understand? I left my wife, my family, my country. She loved me. She said we would be together in Israel."
"She was doing her job," said Robinson.
"And when you stole her away from me," rasped Triakin, "were you doing your job?"
"Hey," said Scott, "can we save the recriminations for later?" He stepped up, toe to toe, with Triakin which, not incidentally, placed him between the scientist and his partner. "You sent for us. Okay, we're here. What do you want?"
Triakin sighed, looked without pleasure at his surroundings. "I am ready to go to Israel. I cannot go home. They would not kill me -- what I know up here--" he tapped his temple "--is too valuable. But I do not want to face my family, my friends. So I will go to Israel. That is what Yasmin wanted. I will help the Israelis build their bomb. The question remains, can you get me there? That was your job before, and you failed."
"We can try," said Scott gravely. "But it's even more problematic now. You see, the bad guys were watching Kelly, and now they know, generally speaking, where you are. So they'll be waiting for you to break cover."
"And your people send just the two of you?" asked Triakin. He sounded more amused than anxious.
"That's right," said Robinson. "We're it. The whole team. But not to worry. Scotty was All-Eastern in his college days."
"You see," explained Scott, "we've got what we want from you. They're not going to risk an entire network on you now. Not even for the Israelis. And the Mossad won't buy in, either. You're too hot. Positively radioactive, even."
"We're here," added Robinson, "to tie up some loose ends, that's all."
Triakin nodded. "That's what I want. When do we go?"
Scott shrugged, looked around the cave. "How long d'you think it will take you to pack? Five minutes?"
"We've got a car down in Kastraki," said Robinson briskly. "We drive the few miles to Kalambaka and get on the train to Athens. We get you into our embassy there and they'll make arrangements for your transfer to the Israelis."
"You go back to Kastraki. Be in front of the Rex Hotel in two hours. I will meet you there."
Scott glanced at Robinson, who shrugged his indifference.
"Fine," said Scott. "Just don't be late."
"Don't worry," said Triakin. "As you Americans say, I wouldn't miss this for the world."
The car they had rented was an old, battered Sunbeam Alpine convertible with the top down -- it wouldn't go up -- and Scott could only hope that it would make it the few miles to the Kalambaka train station without expiring. It certainly sounded as though it were about to give up the ghost every time they turned it on. He reflected on the rotten luck he and Kelly had had with rental cars over the years -- they always seemed to be breaking down at the most inopportune times. And this would be as inopportune a time as any, because his instincts were telling him -- screaming at him -- that the enemy was near. They had to be, if they were any good at all, and with Ilya Borodov running the show, they'd be better than good.
He and Robinson were waiting, as agreed, in front of the Rex, the only hostelry worthy of the name in the picturesque village of Kastraki, with its quaint cottages and narrow, twisting streets. It was early afternoon and the sun was high in a brass-colored sky and it was very hot; Scott was perspiring, but it wasn't entirely due to the heat. He was keeping one eye out for Triakin and the other out for the KGB, and the whole business was guaranteed to wrack a nerve or two. He noticed that Kelly looked cool as a cucumber, sitting behind the wheel with the door open and his long legs out of the car, smoking a cigarette, and idly watching the passersby. There were local people, in their distinctive garb, and some tourists, too, most of them rock-climbers who had come to test their skill on the surrounding cliffs.
Finally Triakin came -- disguised as a shepherd, and accompanying the man with the flock of sheep who had directed Scott and Robinson to the cave where the scientist had been hiding out the past two months. They were driving the sheep right up the road in front of the Rex, and a few of the tourists, thinking it an awfully quaint scene, were snapping pictures. As Triakin neared the car, Robinson swung his legs in and shut the door and flicked the cigarette away. Scott remained standing on the passenger side until Triakin arrived; then he motioned for the scientist to get into the passenger seat while he vaulted with the agility of a natural athlete into the tight confines of the back. Robinson immediately started the car; the twin Stronberg carburetors coughed, gurgled and then the 1725cc engine gave a throaty roar and they were off, scattering the sheep and a few tourists, too. Scott dared to begin thinking that they might just pull it off.
He changed his mind two blocks later.
Robinson went around a corner like he was driving in the Formula I race at Le Mans and then stomped on the breaks. The Sunbeam Alpine skidded to a halt inches away from an ancient produce truck whose driver was trying to back into an alley and, in the process, was blocking the entire road.
"I've got behind us," said Scott, and scanned the street in the direction from whence they'd come, as well as the buildings, his right hand snaking under his jacket to grip the .45 caliber Colt M1911A1 nestled in its shoulder rig.
"Right," said Robinson curtly. He swung the door open and stood, half out of the car, leaning against the back of his seat, reaching under his windbreaker for the 9mm Walther P38 that was his weapon of choice, using the other hand to motion angrily for the truck's driver to move his vehicle.
The driver did just that, and Robinson quickly but thoroughly surveyed the street in front of him. Nothing out of the ordinary. He was about to drop down behind the wheel again when he did a double take -- and saw her.
She was standing at the corner of a building not thirty yards ahead, watching him.
"Okay," said Scott, "let's go."
Robinson didn't seem to hear him. Entranced, he slowly got out of the car. As he did, Yasmin disappeared behind the building.
"Kel, what are you doing? Let's get out of here!"
Robinson started to run. In seconds he had rounded the corner of the building and was out of sight.
"Kel!" Scott jumped into the driver's seat. A heartbeat later the rearview mirror exploded, disintegrating into a spray of glass shards. "Ambush!" he shouted to Triakin. "Get out!"
Triakin opened his door and Scott gave him a shove, sending the scientist sprawling -- and sprawling on top of him as a second bullet shattered the Alpine's windshield. He was up in an instant, crouching beside the car, pistol drawn, risking a quick look. The shots had come from behind them, and long experience at being shot at suggested to Scott that the shooter's position was above the street. He scanned the rooftops -- saw the sun flash off a barrel an instant before another bullet plowed into the Alpine's carriage work.
"Where is Robinson!" rasped Triakin, hunkered down beside the car next to Scott. "Where the hell did he go?"
"Don't worry about him. Just keep your head down."
The shooter had a rifle and had them pinned down. Scott figured it was a miracle that one or both of them hadn't been hit. He knew he couldn't count on more than one miracle a day.
Worst of all, for the first time in seven years, he couldn't count on Kelly Robinson either.