Marius and The Scorpion’s Nest

Illustration to accompany "Marius and the Scorpion's Nest" Copyright (c) 2017 Dan MacKinnon. Used under license.

Story by Jamie Mason/ Illustration by Dan MacKinnon

Twenty years since his last commercial flight and airline food still tasted awful. The flight from Toronto had been dry for some reason so Marius ordered a beer as soon as possible after take-off. Because that’s what you did on Lufthansa – you drank. And, in Marius’ case, opened the false bottom of his carry-on bag and tore surreptitious chunks from the cheese and sausage he’d hidden there as he kept a wary eye on the stews circulating up and down the aisles like Stasi agents. In a former life that false bottom had hidden firearms, fake passports, bundles of currency. Today, a block of Swiss and a Kielbasa.

The Stasi’s out of business now, he chided himself. Much had changed since the old days. But not his ability to smuggle whatever he needed onboard civilian aircraft.

— ♦♦♦ —

Marius and the weapons dealer hunkered together in the back of a rusted van. The forbidding concrete frontage of Sarajevo International Airport filled the windshield as rain dotted the glass.

“Hey, mister, you want AK?” The weapons dealer, all of seventeen and decked out in an armless down vest and gold bling, rummaged in a golf bag. Marius noted a couple of painted wooden stocks jostle where woods and irons would normally be. Eminem pulsed on the stereo system; Marius recognized the soundtrack from EIGHT MILE.

“Smaller.” Marius reached into his breast pocket and palmed a wad of banknotes. “Automatic, perhaps a hundred rounds.”

The young hood appraised the money, slack-mouthed, then dug in one of the pockets of the golf bag. His pale, dirty-nailed hand emerged clutching a slim automatic. “Tokarev. Russian. World War II. Got 500 rounds ammo. Shoot good. Two hundred Amerikanski.”

A Tokarev would do. Marius had packed one in Angola. They were solid weapons, the preferred accessory to their larger Soviet cousin, the AK. “What about grenades?”

“Got GI Joe Pineapples!” The boy held aloft a string bag. “Twenty dollars each piece!”

“Give me six.” Marius paid the boy in worn American twenties. As he was preparing to step out the back of the van, the boy asked:

“Hey, mister, you want? Hash? Coke? Or ..?” He made a cock-sucking gesture.

Marius shook his head no, stepped down onto the pavement and walked out to the street where he flagged a cab. The man behind the wheel – fiftyish, balding, and nervously eyeing his cellphone on the passenger seat every twelve or twenty seconds – obviously had some side business going (Marius figured girls). The radio was pounding Huey Lewis and the News: “Power of Love.” Marius got in, pushed a twenty into the guy’s hand and said the two magic words:

“Holiday Inn.”

Fifteen minutes later he was flat on his back in bed staring up at the ceiling, the Tokarev under the pillow. Remembering …

— ♦♦♦ —

“It’s Kathleen. Don’t hang up.”

“Kathleen?”

“I didn’t know who else to call.”

“It’s about Jerry.” Marius sat up in bed and checked the clock. Two AM. “What’s happened?”

“Can I meet you?”

“You know I don’t want that. I told you. No more.”

“Jerry’s in trouble. He flew out of the country a few days ago. He’s there all alone …”

“Where?”

When she told him, Marius reluctantly agreed to fly out to Ottawa and meet her.

— ♦♦♦ —

He checked out the next morning and took a cab to a neighborhood near the river. Following directions from a NATO chum, Marius found the address he was looking for. He would have recognized it anyway: there were houses just like it in every country he had ever visited, caring for the down-at-heel veterans of every flag under which Marius had fought. An old Bosniak sat in a wheelchair on the crumbling wooden porch, shoveling crackers into his mouth from an orange cardboard box with his right hand, the empty left sleeve of his combat fatigues clothes-pinned to his left shoulder.

Marius took the steps up and leaned against a post. “Speak English?” he asked. “Ruski? Francais?”

Without missing a beat, the old Bosniak cried out: “GAAAAH – ta!” And went right back to shoveling crackers into his mouth. A young woman in jeans and a blouse stepped onto the porch. The Bosniak flung his crumb-stained hand in Marius’ direction.

“I’m Sister Agatha. Can I help you?” Marius noted the Irish brogue, the tiny silver cross at her neck and the earnest, stern expression. A nun for sure.

“I’m looking for a friend. He might have come by this way a few days ago. English speaking. A Canadian, like me.” Marius pulled a picture of Jerry from his coat pocket and showed it to both the nun and the Bosniak. Neither gave the slightest flicker of recognition. They’re hiding something, Marius thought. Until Sister Agatha flicked her eyes to the Bosniak and back and he amended it to:

She’s hiding something…

The nun spoke to the old Bosnia, who replied sharply. Marius, who knew only a handful of useful phrases in a smattering of tongues, did not recognize the language although it sounded vaguely Russian to him. After an angry back and forth, the one-armed Bosnia pirouetted his chair with alarming nimbleness and vanished indoors.

“What was that about?” Marius watched her carefully. “He used that one word a couple of times. What was it? Neo ..?”

“Neosveštan. It means ‘unholy.'”

— ♦♦♦ —

“Thank you for coming.”

“I didn’t want to. But when you said Jerry was in trouble …”

“So I mean nothing to you? WE mean nothing?”

“We were over a long time ago. You’re Jerry’s. Now tell me what’s going on.”

“Did you and Jerry talk about the war?”

“We talked about a lot of wars. War was our business.”

“But about … THE war. The one that changed him.” Kathleen paused long enough to let a passing café customer walk out of earshot before continuing. “Did he ever talk about that one Colonel with you?”

Marius frowned. “No.”

“His name was Kasun. Serbian. Jerry used to talk about him when he got drunk. He said Kasun was the son of the devil. You know Jerry started attending Mass again after he returned?”

“A lot of guys do. Do you know anything about this guy Kasun other than that Jerry didn’t like him?”

“He had a tattoo on the back of his left hand. A scorpion.”

— ♦♦♦ —

“Sit down.” Sister Agatha kicked off her shoes by the back door and padded barefoot to the stove. “How do you take your tea?”

“I take it coffee.”

“We don’t have coffee. Just tea. And …”

“I’ll take something stronger then, thanks.”

Sister Agatha nodded curtly and ducked into a walk-in pantry, returning shortly afterward with a bottle and two glasses. She poured two drinks and passed Marius one.

“Your friend went up into the hills. He was looking for someone.”

He sipped. Slivovitz. “The man with the scorpion tattoo?”

“Lots of Serbian men have them. Particularly those who served in the Special Forces.”

“Like you.” Marius toasted her. “Bride of Christ. God’s Special Forces. Were you here during the war?”

“I was.” She shrugged. “I stayed.”

“Good for you.” Marius drained his slivovitz and poured another. “Most of us just pick up and go when the fighting’s over. Leave the cleaning up to someone else.”

“You fought here?”

“No. My friend did. I fought other places. Angola, Rhodesia, the Philippines, Honduras, El Salvador. A lot of places. But never here.”

“You’re intelligence service?”

“No. A private contractor.”

“A mercenary.”

“I prefer to think of it as being self-employed but yeah.” He raised his glass. “Vive le sacre mercenaire.”

“So who is paying you to come here?”

“No one. I’m here for a friend.”

“The man who went looking for the Scorpion is your friend.”

“He was.” Marius let that dangle. “I thought you said a lot of men had that tattoo.”

“I did.” He saw Sister Agatha’s hand tremble as she poured them both another drink. “The men in the Serbian special forces. There were many scorpions. But only one Scorpion.”

“What does that mean?”

“What do you know about this war?”

“Not much. Just what my friend told me. He was with IFOR.”

“Did he ever talk about Podujevo?”

“No.” Marius frowned. Here was another secret Jerry had withheld from him.

“It was an Albanian enclave.” Sister Agatha gulped down her shot. “The Serbians were engaged in a campaign of what the press called ‘ethnic cleansing’ – a euphemism for mass murder and deportation. There was a mass execution at Podujevo organized by the Scorpions under Mladić which got some media coverage. But what came afterward did not.

“Podujevo was where Kasun set up his headquarters. It was in the house of a deported Albanian family. They called it The Finishing School.” She looked away. “They would bring young girls back there, you see. Young girls. And –”

“Yeah. I get it.” Marius toyed with his glass. “How do I find this guy?”

“He’s not in Kosovo anymore. After the war, he went up into the mountains. He’s in Repulika Srpska – the Serbian Republic. That’s where your friend went.”

“The border’s open?”

“Still. Yes.”

Marius nodded. He was suddenly very tired. He pushed himself to his feet. “Thank you.” He pulled out his wallet. Dropped five twenties on the table. “That’s a donation, Sister. Please take it. For the men.”

“Thank you.” She scooped the bills up with a practiced crispness. “You’re going?”

“Yes.”

“Have you been before? Do you have any idea how to get there or what it’s like?”

Marius shook his head.

Sister Agatha hesitated for a moment then went to the sideboard. Picking up a pencil, she wrote on a notepad then tore off the top sheet and handed it to Marius.

“There’s a church just on the other side of the pass. I’ve written you directions. The priest there is Father Keras, a Greek. He knows the country well. I’ll phone ahead to let him know you’re coming.”

Marius pocketed the paper. “You’d help a mercenary?”

“No. But I’d help a man who’s trying to help a friend.”

— ♦♦♦ —

“Jerry started making a lot of phone calls.”

“When?”

“Not long after he found out about us.”

“You’re not thinking that’s somehow connected-?”

“No, no. But he changed. Became secretive once he started getting the calls. Like he was onto something important.”

“You said making, not getting.”

“He was both making and getting calls. At weird times of the day, like from a different time zone.”

Marius nodded. He was starting to get the picture.

— ♦♦♦ —

He rented a jeep. The road wound up into the hills above Sarajevo, past the ruins of the old Olympic Village. Areas of repair-work were visible, but large sectors of the venue were still torn up and bullet-riddled from when the Serbs had used it as an execution site. Forest had reclaimed the rest, forcing a tangle of trees into wide spaces through which occasional concrete would appear, daubed with graffiti.

That post-apocalyptic sensation only deepened as he climbed further into the mountains. The roadway grew unkempt, broken by pot-holes and shoulder damage. A series of switchbacks wound into frayed hills and soon a faded sign swept past, proclaiming in English and Cyrillic:

WELCOME TO REPUBLIC OF SRPSKA

The forest thickened and the paved road was broken by a series of bridges over steep, narrow canyons. A girl carrying a red backpack – the only other person he encountered – stood hitch-hiking by one. With her long blonde hair, jeans and beaded headband, she looked better suited to the hippie trail than the Serbian Republic. If she stayed on this road, Marius reflected, she was in for some trippy experiences, alright. He drove by her without a second glance.

The church was easy to find. It was one of those classic, onion-domed Orthodox affairs although rendered in miniature, tucked at the far edge of an oval-shaped lot. Marius drove up to the entrance and parked beside a battered red Lada with clerical insignia in the rear window. The front door was unlocked. Marius let himself into a small windowless vestibule. Aside from a faded red carpet, everything else in the room was made of the same kind of wood, and fitted joint-and-peg style, without nails. A vacuum cleaner whirred in the chapel beyond.

The priest, hulking and bearded, pushed a Dyson across the carpeting. He switched off the machine when Marius entered. “Zdravo,” Marius said.

“I speak English.” The priest straightened and locked the vacuum. “Sister Agatha called from the veterans’ home. Told me to expect a Canadian. I am Father Keras.”

“How does a Greek Orthodox priest end up in Serbia?”

“How does a Canadian mercenary end up here?” Father Keras laughed. “Don’t be surprised. I’ve served in war zones most of my life, beginning with the coup-d’état in Athens. Even if Sister Agatha hadn’t called, I’d have recognized you by your broken and vaguely desperate look. Come into the rectory.” Father Keras wheeled the unit up the aisle. “I have wine.”

“Wine sounds good.” Marius followed him.

The priest paused to genuflect at the cross before leading Marius through a small doorway to the right of the altar that led directly into a small kitchen.

“In the olden days, I’m told, it was not unusual for the priest to hold a breakfast party of sorts after Mass. For me, it’s the refuge into which I can duck quickly to be alone. Minus the cat.” He waved distractedly at an obese white tabby in the windowsill. “I’ve been content here since 1989.”

“So like Sister Agatha, you stayed.” Marius settled hooded eyes on the priest.

“Yes.” Father Keras frowned. “I assume you are armed, Mister ..?”

“Jones.”

“Mister Jones. May I open this cabinet? And take out ..?”

“The wine bottle. Fine.” Marius uncurled his fingers from the butt of the Tokarev in his right coat pocket and the grenade in his left. “You’re alone?”

“Aside from Mozart in the window there, yes.” Keras uncorked the bottle. “You’ve come because of your friend. The man who was here in the 1990s. Jerry.”

“You’ve seen him?”

“He came through, yes.” Father Keras poured. “He’s looking for Kasun. So are you.”

“So what if I am?” Marius caressed his weapon. “You know where I can find him?”

“You’re close. Already, even after only a half-hour or so of travel. Our nations are much smaller out here.” Father Keras handed Marius a glass. “Kasun’s house – one he occupies with a handful of his loyal Scorpions – is a few miles up the road. I have never been, but I know somebody who has.”

“Did this person help my friend?”

“No. Your friend went ahead alone. Apparently he had information from some other source that told him where to find the Finisher.”

“The Finisher?”

“The Scorpion. The Finisher. The same man. They call him that because of the Finishing School.” Father Keras sipped his own wine tentatively, noting his guest left his untouched. “No doubt you’ve heard about that place?”

“Sorry.”

“No? Not about the young girls they brought? Not about the Thirteen Archangels?”

“No.”

“Well, Kasun thought th –”

A knock on the kitchen door. Keras moved to the lace curtain and pushed it aside an inch to look out before stepping back and unbolting the lock. A young barefoot woman skipped in and hugged the aged Greek.

“Mr. Jones, this is my niece, Olja. She’s just returned from a fortnight working in Sarajevo.”

And Marius recognized: the blonde hair, the red backpack, the beaded headband. The hitch-hiking girl from the bridge. The same girl twice in the same night? Coincidence? No way. His right hand tightened again around the Tokarev.

— ♦♦♦ —

And yet …

“Olja is going to pack us a lunch and then guide us to a village near the peak. It will be cold tonight. These are The Alps, you know.” Father Keras kept an eye on the girl as she bustled back and forth from the kitchen to the pantry and back again. She had no English. “She will get you close to Kasun. Close to somebody who knows him.”

“Thank you …”

“Olja is from Podujevo.”

Marius wondered at the pause, noted that the priest was studying him. So he played dumb, like about the Finishing School. “Nice place, this Po … Poo …?”

“Podujevo. And it’s nice again now. It was so nice for a long time. Like much of the country.” Father Keras smirked. “I see you haven’t bothered to do your research …”

“I know my friend is with this Kasun.” Marius saw Olja glance at him when he said the name. “This Finisher-guy. And that’s enough.”

“You should take care. This Kasun. He’s a very cruel man.”

“That’s okay.” Marius smiled thinly. “So am I.”

— ♦♦♦ —

And then they were traveling, driving north in Father Keras’ red Lada, rising higher into the stony hills. Olja had insisted they all go in one car. “For safety sake,” Keras translated. Marius sat in the back and watched the last shreds of forest fall away.

“We’re entering wolf country.” Father Keras smiled. “Do you have wolves where you come from in Canada?”

“A few. Most of them work in finance.”

Keras chuckled as he interpreted the joke for Olja, who turned to address Marius directly.

“Olja is curious to know if you have a wife or any children?”

Marius smiled at her and shook his head. Olja’s answering frown was a tiny, feminine mirror of her uncle’s and, as she spoke, Marius felt discomfort rock his gut.

“Olga says she is disappointed to hear this because she thinks children are very important. Responsible adults, she says, have an obligation to produce kids and raise them in a way that continues and protects their way of life. She asks if you agree.”

Marius shrugged. “I would never call myself a responsible adult.”

Olga didn’t seem satisfied with this. No sooner had Keras finished than she was off again, her tone hardening. Marius’ discomfort deepened.

“Olga doesn’t understand why you think this is funny. She says you make a lot of jokes so as to avoid speaking about things that are important.”

“Perhaps we have different opinions about what is important. Has she thought of that?”

“Olga says –” Keras broke off to remonstrate with his niece in Greek. Olga, tight-lipped and obviously impatient, listened respectfully before resuming her line of thought. Keras glowered at her but translated anyway. “She says part of the problem with the world today is that people are selfish. Not having children is selfish. Not caring about the future of your … people, your tribe –”

“Your … race?” Marius prompted.

Keras sighed. “Yes. Not caring about your own tribe is selfish. She says …” Keras smiled apologetically. “Forgive my niece, Mr. Jones. She is very idealistic …”

“That’s fine.”

“She wants –” Keras paused, listening. Then, after a brief exchange in Greek, translated: “She wants to know if there is anything you do take seriously, anything you don’t find funny. She asked about your friend. The one who went up into the mountains before us. Is he someone you take seriously? Someone you wouldn’t joke about?”

“We made jokes about each other all the time.”

“Is that a joke?”

The car slowed as Keras steered them into the main square of a tiny mountain village. Olga narrated directions. Keras crossed the square, steering a path around the back of a flatbed cart being pulled by some sort of bullock, and then turned up a cobblestone alley. On one side stood a tidy row of shops with neat wooden signs that hung out over the narrow sidewalk. Across from it loomed the fire-blackened, bullet-scored carcass of a warehouse, empty since the war. Keras parked in front of a café, and Olga got out and went inside. Through the window, Marius saw the owner greet her and push a telephone across the counter.

“Up here, they are very careful. Landlines only, no communication by cell. Olga is calling ahead to let her friends know we are coming and that we haven’t been followed.”

“Kasun has people here?” Marius glanced up and down the alley.

“Kasun’s people are everywhere in this part of the mountains.”

Her phone call done, Olga returned, slipping into the passenger seat and resuming her dialogue with Keras. The priest put the Lada into gear and they rolled out of the alley and returned to the main road, climbing ever higher in elevation.

Marius heard his name mentioned. Olga had turned around and was speaking to him directly again.

“Olga is not allowing you off from the fish hook,” Keras grumbled. “She says that she wants you to know she is serious. About wanting to know what’s important to you. Is there something in life that you don’t find worthy of joking about?” Keras’ eyes flicked to snag Marius in the rear-view mirror. “She wants to know what you consider sacred.”

“Nothing.”

Olga sat still for a long moment after Keras translated this. Marius saw a cloud cross behind her eyes. And then Keras was speaking rapidly, struggling to keep up with the rush of words pouring out of Olga as she spat them forth.

“She says you should have a family. She says perhaps if you had children your heart would be touched by compassion. She is saying again that to live as you do – without children, without sacred things – is selfish.” He paused, allowing her to finish. “She says that people living the way you do is part of the reason war came to this land. And she is determined –”

Keras’ words froze in his mouth.

Marius was staring into the barrel of a gun.

— ♦♦♦ —

“I told you. Olga is from Podujevo. She was in the Fini –”

Olga barked a word in Greek and Keras fell silent, clenching and unclenching his fists around the wheel as he focused on the road ahead. Marius saw a muscle flex in Keras’ jaw but the priest kept silent. Meanwhile, the infinitely dark hole of the automatic’s barrel hung lazily in front of his eyes, like some lethal insect waiting to strike.

“Olga says Kasun will make an example of you like he is doing to your friend.”

Olga cocked her head, smiled and then said the single word in two distinct syllables:

“Jerr … y?”

Marius struck with his right hand, knocking the barrel of Olja’s pistol upward. It went off, deafening in the confined space as he opened the door and allowed himself to start falling sideways. He kicked hard with his right leg on the way out and struck Olga in the jaw. Then his shoulder hit gravel and he was rolling, up and running into the trees.

— ♦♦♦ —

Tokarev out, Marius watched as Olga forced her uncle out of the car at gunpoint and made him help her comb the forest. Because she was a cub who knew nothing, she only bothered to shake the bushes behind the car, not reckoning that Marius might double back and end up where he was, one hundred yards ahead of the Lada on the other side of the road.

Didn’t they teach kids anything these days?

After twenty minutes of frenzied searching, Olga called a halt. Then she and her uncle reboarded the Lada, drove past Marius and vanished.

— ♦♦♦ —

He couldn’t hump it like he used to. But twenty minutes at a fast jog brought Marius back to the village where Olga had used the phone. He found a small garage in the same alley as the café and waited until the owner shut down for the day. Marius slipped in through an unlocked window and hot-wired a car. Twenty minutes later, he had pulled back out onto the road and was after them.

— ♦♦♦ —

Darkness fell. Marius fired up the headlights and a cigarette and kept driving, scanning for any sign of Olga and Koras. His road brought him through a succession of stony, unforested passes, yet he saw no sign of the red Lada. Soon the needle on the fuel gauge was dipping to the point at which he would have to turn back. At just about the highest elevation he thought it still possible to find people, Marius rounded a bend and there was the Lada, parked along with a few other battered mountain vehicles in the glare of a single floodlight above the door of a large A-frame.

Perfect.

He drove a mile past the place and turned off, backing into an open space between two pines and further screening the car with fallen branches. He checked the magazines for the Tokarev, distributed the grenades through four different pockets, then closed and locked the car and set off down the moonlit road. His thoughts turned to Jerry.

They’d been close for a while, then not close. It’s always that way with professional soldiers, whether they fight under a flag or just for themselves: travel is part of the game. Marius and Jerry had never served together or – thank God – on opposite sides of any conflict. The only time they’d spent around each other in uniform was in the lounge of an airport on Cyprus where they’d met going in opposite directions: Marius to Beirut for a contract job and, Jerry, home after a tour on the Green Line to return to his new girlfriend, a swell gal named Kathleen that he told Marius all about …

Footsteps in the gravel ahead. Marius froze.

Whoever was in the A-frame felt the need to post a sentry. Marius watched as a kid no older than eighteen paused in his walk up the road from the parking lot to take a piss in the bushes. Must be boring work, Marius reflected, if the kid was more worried about his boss catching him pissing than he was about getting jumped. Tonight he was going to learn the hard way.

Marius waited until the kid had a good steady stream going before moving up lightly on the balls of his feet, his left hand snaking out to cover the boy’s mouth as his right drove a dagger hilt-deep into the kidneys. The kid started, stiffened and fell. Marius felt blood spurt on the palm of his hand as he made sure the boy landed soft, then dragged the body into the waist-high ferns by the roadside.

The kid’s rifle was an AK-103, modern issue. Same basic design as the old Kalashnikov but made of steel-reinforced plastic like the newer NATO assault rifles and modified with a folding stock. Marius bent the stock in and slung the shortened rifle over his right shoulder, switching the Kotare to his left jacket pocket. Then he proceeded up the road toward the A-frame.

Jerry would never have killed that kid, Marius thought. Part of fighting under a flag, part of being a real soldier had to do with following international law and the Geneva Convention. Being a mercenary meant leaving no trace after you were gone, meant you were more or less able to do whatever you want. It worked out that way in war most of the time, although it hadn’t with Kathleen.

From the edge of the lot, the A-frame was quiet. Marius had expected a public house with a raucous bar-room kind of energy but there was a hush over the building despite the number of cars out front. Marius remembered what Father Koras had said about people being cautious in the mountains. Perhaps this also applied to when they drank. Marius, reflecting on the watering holes he knew in Alberta where you could hear the country music pounding inside from across the street, decided it seemed fitting for men from this dark, dour land to drink in priestly silence. Expecting that’s what he’d see, Marius edged around to one side, keeping to the bushes. A long narrow window was set into the A-frame’s side.

Father Keras.

He was seated at the near end of a long table; his back to the window, isolated from a group of half-dozen or so men grouped further down, closer to the door. Everyone was bent over their bowls, spooning soup or stew into their mouths. But not Keras. He sat perfectly still, his bowl untouched before him. The twin kerosene lanterns on the table threw flickering globes at the ceiling.

Keeping to the trees, Marius circumnavigated the building. The rear had a long porch and Marius kept low, sprinting the length of the balcony to the forest on the other side. He moved softly through the undergrowth until he could see through the window there.

Jerry.

They’d worked him over alright. His shirt was torn and his collar hung wide where he sat, knees to chest, left arm elevated, the twinkle of nickel where bracelet met wrist and handcuff met drain-pipe. So. Jerry had come looking for Kasun and been caught.

Softly, a pistol cocked behind Marius’ left ear.

“Mr. Jones, I presuppose.”

Marius knew it was Kasun even without turning. Something in the command of his tone, of the moment. The guy was good. He was smart. And he’d rumbled the fact that, sooner or later, Jerry’s friends would come looking for him.

“Put down machine gun. Turn around.”

Marius dropped the AK and the Kotare then turned, hands in his pockets. Kasun was shorter than expected. A square of light from the A-frame glimmered in the sweat of his bald forehead and Marius could see, despite half his assailant being draped in shadow, that Kasun held himself like a muscular man. The tail of the scorpion inked on the back of the left hand – the one holding the revolver – was just visible in the faint glow. Fisted lips unbunched, moving within the forest of Kasun’s beard.

“This? Land of my grandfathers.” Kasun thrust his free hand toward the forest floor. “You? This? not your land.”

Marius nodded. Kasun leveled the pistol at the bridge of Marius’ nose.

 

“Take your hands out you pockets.”

And Marius slowly withdrew his hands from each of his overcoat pockets, concealing – until the last possible second – the grenade clutched in his right. The moment Kasun’s eyes caught it; Marius opened his fingers and let the dark egg drop to the forest floor. Kasun, from instinct, jerked away.

From a grenade? Anyone would. But of course, the pin was still in.

Marius lunged into Kasun dead center. Wind blew from the Serbian’s lungs as they folded around the tackle. The gun fell with a thump behind them and Marius drove Kasun backward, hoping they’d hit a tree. Instead, the Serb’s ankles twisted and he went down, Marius landing on top. They began clawing for each other’s necks. A wrist passed before Marius’ mouth. He clamped onto it and bit until he tasted blood and Kasun howled and thrashed.

The Serb was scared – Marius could smell it. As Kason twisted to escape, Marius kept his legs cinched around the man’s waist, took the back and sank his fingernails into Kasun’s eyes and clawed. The howl the Serb unleashed split the night. Even before Marius was done blinding Kason, he could hear voices rising inside the A-frame.

They broke apart and stumbled upright.

Marius picked up two large stones from the forest floor, hefting each in a fist. Kasun was blinded but full of fight, growling, hands clawed and swinging this way and that, casting around for Marius, who took his time. The Serb was a killer, and still dangerous.

The voices from inside rose in panic.

Marius twisted and flung a stone into the bushes, causing a rustle that made Kasun turn his bleeding eye-holes that way. When he did, Marius stepped up behind him and buried the other rock, point first, in the back of his skull. Kasun dropped.

Marius grabbed up the AK. In the shredded quadrangles of light from the parking lot, he saw the A-frame’s door fly open. He loosed a burst toward the figures crowding the opening, which had the same design as the church vestibule: a small wooden cube stuck to the building’s entrance, probably all built from the same kind of wood and joined peg and board style. Marius pitched a grenade inside and watched as the wooden box blew apart with a roar. Marius put down the screaming, staggering figures who limped through the ensuing curtain of flame with half the clip from the AK, firing until all lay still.

He went around to the back. The rear door stood open, the remaining gunmen having likely fled. Still, Marius went in cautiously. Hugged the walls. Into the main room with the long table. Bowls abandoned, lamps still glowing, the dining room empty but for a lone figure standing by the window…

“Father Keras?”

“Mr. Jones.” The priest turned. “I thought it was probably you …”

“Let’s get the hell out of here.”

“I am in complete agreement, yes. Let’s go.”

They moved across the hall toward the doorway of the little room Marius had seen Jerry in. No lamps or furniture, just an empty interior lit dimly by a bar of light from outside. Marius leveled the AK and stepped through the door.

“Do you know the story of the Thirteen Archangels?”

Keras translated these words an instant after Olga, standing with her gun at Jerry’s ear, spoke them.

— ♦♦♦ —

Marius squared his jaw but did not lower the assault rifle. Olga was speaking.

“Once,” Keras translated, “there was a great man. He had a dream for his nation, which he called the land of his grandfathers. He dreamed a land filled with children, and he called thirteen of his sacred daughters to him …”

“What was sacred about them?” Marius kept his eyes fixed on hers.

Keras translated his question.

Olga listened to her uncle’s words then laughed. “How can I answer a question like that from a mercenary?” she replied. “You care only for money. To you nothing is sacred. Not women, not children, not patriotism. Not even human life!”

“So true,” replied Marius. And put a bullet through her forehead.

— ♦♦♦ —

Jerry lay unconscious in the back seat for most of the drive down. Father Keras knelt beside him, tending to Jerry’s wounds as Marius chain-smoked and slalomed downward through the switchbacks to the village where Olga had used the phone.

“There is a church.” Father Keras pointed. “If you take the alley again, but turn left onto the street … There.”

Squinting at the hazy shadows in the glare of the old gas street lamps, Marius pulled up before a slender stone building. A ragged wooden door of newer, brightly-colored wood sat unevenly in a lintel of beams chopped, from their appearance, back in the days of Vlad Tepych.

“You wait here. I will get help for your friend.” Keras vanished through the door and around the back of the church.

Marius was checking his cell phone for bars when Jerry came to.

“Where the hell am I?” The Canadian officer growled, smacked his lips and stretched, wincing at the cramps and aches the action prompted.

“Fucking village. In damned Serbia.”

“No shit? Marius? That you?”

“Yeah.”

“How the hell did you get here?”

Marius’ phone chimed with full reception and an incoming text message.

VOICEMAIL FROM KATHLEEN – DIAL VOICEMAIL NOW

Marius stared at the words for a full half-minute before swiping the screen closed, replacing the phone in his pocket and turning to face his friend.

“Yeah.” He smiled. “I came because I thought we should have a talk. About Kathleen.”

— ♦♦♦ —

END


Next Week:

Thumbnail Illustration to accompany "Glitter" Copyright (c) 2017 by John Waltrip. Used under license.Glitter.  By Hannah Froggat, Illustration by John Waltrip

Next week we’ll feature “Glitter” by Hannah Froggatt.  The year was 1849 and people all over London were dying under mysterious circumstances.  Something was definitely afoul.  Will Scotland Yard be able to solve it?  What could connect these deaths?  Read this period crime story and you’ll discover that all that glitters is surely not gold.