All great plans take time. Those words had become a mantra for Etan Vlessel. He repeated them now as he stood at his bathroom mirror, inserting a color contact lens.
All great plans take time.
Since birth, complete heterochromia had colored his left eye brown, his right one green. His mother, whom he barely remembered, once said the green was a transplant. Oftentimes she forced him to close his eyelid, and to keep it closed. Because, she said, she didn’t trust the stranger inside him.
Over the years, Etan had learned to use a color lens to make one eye match. Which eye depended on the occasion. Green, for example, helped seduce a target--perhaps for its feline aloofness and pride--whereas brown better suited business deals.
Tonight, he had scheduled a meeting at the Allier Café; so tonight the eyes of his mirror-self would be brown.
On at least three occasions, Etan had studied the Allier Café from across the street, but had never stepped foot inside. A full house of customers kept the staff so busy that, by closing time, he would be just another dirty cup to clean.
Hopefully the same would be true of the man he was meeting; not a single crumb for the police.
“Patience is a virtue,” his father had often said. Of course the old man had no patience, especially for Etan.
What his father would have thought of his occupation, he never could decide. At the very least, the old man would have admired his business acumen and unholy patience.
Nearly two years ago, Etan, a foreigner, had leased a house in a little French town practically in the shadow of the basilica in Nice. Two years on the dot, because he needed ample time to learn the culture, time to infiltrate the black market as an artifacts dealer.
Now, with that term elapsed, he could almost smell the vellum of the relic he sought.
He arrived one hour before the meeting to secure his parking space in a sanitation lane near the café. The alley served a row of stores, all of which had closed for the evening. Etan had staked out the area previously and had discovered that poor lighting and the stink of trash discouraged thru traffic.
He parked in the alley and snuffed the only light.
“SCREW HIM. LIKE HE'S SOME FASHION PLATE TO BE TALKING ABOUT ME.”
Fifteen minutes till the meeting, he entered the café. The hostess seated him on the patio near the wrought-iron railing, and he did not protest, nor request anything special.
On the sidewalk, beyond the foliate and floral ironwork and rails, troubadours--local street musicians--stopped at the Allier to sing a pop song for tips.
Etan ordered a cappuccino and resisted the itch in his eye. He couldn’t displace the contact, for even partial heterochromia creeped people out.
The man with whom Etan was meeting, Carlo Venova, worked as a travel agent, although not in the business of getaways. He specialized in moving ancient contraband from one country to another.
The black market in ancient artifacts grossed billions of dollars per year, but as with any illegal trade the problem was shipping and handling. Recently, many countries had beefed up their customs department, hiring more inspectors at airports and other checkpoints across the map.
According to his reputation, Carlo Venova had worked as a travel agent in the black market for nearly two decades.
Being the shrewd businessman that he was, Carlo had checked Etan’s connections before agreeing to meet at the café. Obviously those connections had checked out: Carlo had finally arrived, and only a few minutes late.
Etan waved him over.
Earlier, when they first spoke on the phone, Etan had introduced himself as Paul Seeger, which had been his alias since relocating to France. So when Carlo shook his hand and asked if he were Paul, Etan said yes, he was, and they were no longer strangers.
Carlo sat and took up more than his fair share of the table. “How did you know it was me?” he asked with an Italian accent, thick as the leather of his shoes.
Etan said, “Oliver Neumann described you. You know Oliver, yes?”
“How did he describe me?”
Etan smiled and appraised Carlo’s ruffled suit jacket and comb-over, and the deep, dark eye sockets with mere shallows of sleep. They looked like the eyes of a fish not long for the ice.
“He said you would be the one who looked like an unmade bed.”
Carlo stifled a laugh, and then said, “Screw him. Like he’s some fashion plate to be talking about me.”
He ordered an espresso and watched the troubadours pack up and move to the next café.
“I checked on you,” Carlo said. “You’ve moved some pretty heavy-duty trinkets. You should have come to me before; I could have given you a better rate.”
“I didn’t know you then,” Etan said, then took a sip from his cappuccino.
“What kind of stuff do you have?”
“A gilded wood pharaoh. Looted from a dig in Cairo.”
“How big? How heavy?”
“Not heavy at all. It would be the same size as a Barbie doll... if Barbie weren’t anorexic.”
“Piece of cake.”
“Yeah? Good. So far no problems with this item. We slipped it out of the country from the same man-made tunnels Palestinians use to smuggle weapons into Gaza. Getting it into Israel was the only hairy leg.”
“You have it now?” Carlo asked.
Etan raised his cup in a toast. He also winked involuntarily. Cursed lens.
The travel agent didn’t seem to notice. “Okay, so where do you want to move it?”
Etan said, “We have a buyer over in New York.”
The waiter served Carlo an espresso, which he downed in a single gulp. Etan observed that he gripped the tiny cup with his thumb and middle finger; half of his forefinger was gone, but none of its hair.
“I have a source who will get it to Washington, D.C., no problem,” Carlo said after the waiter had wandered off. “You get it to New York from there. What else do you have?”
“Why don’t we start with this and see how it goes.”
“What’s your price?”
Etan pretended to be appalled by Carlo’s initial quote, and he spent twenty minutes negotiating, making Carlo really work to justify his cost. Etan knew the more he dickered over money, the more legitimate he would seem.
“Okay, so take me to the goods,” Carlo said after they had closed the deal.
Etan paid for the drinks with cash, and led the travel agent toward the sanitation lane. At first, Carlo expressed surprise that Etan had trusted the item to a parked van, but Etan assured him that a business associate was guarding the artifact.
At the dark opening of the alleyway, Etan stopped. So did Carlo.
“Ah, hell,” Etan said, “the streetlight must have burned out.”
“Where’s your car?”
“It’s the van. You see it?”
“Yeah, yeah, I see it now.”
Etan whistled but no passenger emerged from the vehicle. “He better not be asleep or he’s fired. If he’s out getting coffee and he left the statue unattended, he’s a dead man.” He turned to Carlo. “You want to wait here while I get your money and the item?”
“No, too exposed. I’ll come with you, no problem.”
At the van, Etan moved to the driver’s side and saw what he already knew: no one sat inside. “He’s a dead man,” he announced.
“Do you think he ripped you off?”
“I guess we shall find out.”
He pressed the unlock button on his key fob, then threw open the back doors. The van’s interior light illuminated the carpeted cargo hold, which accommodated a leather suitcase and a small object wrapped and taped up in a green towel. Both men breathed a sigh of relief.
“So my business associate is an idiot but not a thief,” Etan said. He opened the suitcase. Amongst some papers and leather-bound books sat several stacks of bundled cash.
Carlo smiled and pretended to smell the money from where he stood.
Etan pointed to the towel. “While I count out your share, why don’t you check out the statue, tell me if you’ve seen anything more beautiful?”
As Carlo peeled the masking tape from the cloth, Etan reached into the suitcase and withdrew a syringe.
“This isn’t a pharaoh,” Carlo said as he unwrapped the small idol. “It’s a f--”
Etan injected him in the neck.
Instantly, the Italian collapsed into his arms. Etan lifted him into the back of the van and rested the body atop the object in the towel, which really was a Barbie doll.
He latched the suitcase and prepared to shut the back doors when he heard footsteps and voices echoing behind him.
A group of figures walked into the alley, talking and laughing and carrying musical instruments.
The troubadours from the café.
They were using the lane to get to their next gig.
Etan shut the back doors. Without a glance behind him, he climbed into the driver’s seat, fired up the engine, and turned his head to back up--and to hide his face as the musicians passed him by.
“I WILLPOINT OUT TO YOU THAT THIS KIND OF SACRIFICE WAS CONSIDERED A VERY HONORABLE DEATH.”
Carlo Venova opened his eyes. For a split second he thought he was still in the dark alley--but then someone struck a match on the other side of the basement; Carlo sat duct-taped to a chair.
The man, whoever he was, stood at a tiered table, lighting candles: votives, pillars, white and black, over two dozen in all, and each cluster elevated differently on the tiers.
One by one, the flames illuminated the man. Carlo recognized him, though “Paul Seeger” had changed out of his business clothes into a simple black T-shirt and jeans.
“What are you doing?” Carlo asked.
Etan lit the last few candles, then shook out the match. Sulfur lingered in the air, but one of the candles quickly overpowered it with the essences of frankincense and myrrh. Etan breathed in the scents.
“Is this about money?” Carlo asked. “Fine. I will give you money. Let’s talk about this. How much do you want?”
“It is not about money,” Etan said. “It’s about history.”
“History?!” Carlo noticed something dangling from a silver chain around his captor’s neck, but he couldn’t quite make out what it was.
“Yes,” Etan said, “history. Medieval specifically. Recent history as well. And if you don’t answer me truthfully, my thieving Italian friend, you’re history.”
One corner of the basement, far from the candles, harbored pure darkness. Etan disappeared into it, and Carlo heard him rummaging for something.
“I don’t know why you’re doing this,” the travel agent said, raising his voice and hoping it wouldn’t crack. “I thought we had a deal. Don’t you think I can be of better service working for you rather than... this?”
Etan reappeared with a wooden side table, handcrafted and at least two hundred years old. He placed the table in front of Carlo. Then, on top of it, he set two human skulls.
Carlo’s gut tightened. He had transported enough bones that he could authenticate the ones staring at him now.
Each had something engraved into its forehead. Carlo knew Latin, but couldn’t concentrate; he had other things on his mind. Yet for some reason, he managed to register the grammatical declension of the phrase, which made it a sentence fragment.
Etan petted one of the skulls as if it were a cat. “Carlo, I want you to say hello to your black market friend Oliver Neumann.”
He moved his hand to the other skull. “And this gentleman... I believe you know him as Samir Droeger, the trader who hired you to move a very special item. Do you recognize these two men?”
Although any familiar feature had been boiled off of the bone, Carlo certainly knew Neumann and Droeger. He wanted to believe the skulls were props, part of Etan’s act, but he couldn’t. So he nodded. Yes, he had known these men.
“That’s the answer I expected,” Etan said. “Ours is practically a family business, is it not?” He bent so that his face hovered just inches from the travel agent. Carlo could now see what hung on the chain around Etan’s neck. A rooster claw. He also noticed Etan’s one green eye.
“The Devil’s Bible,” Etan said. “Know of it?”
Immediately Carlo nodded. No sense in lying. Lying got you killed.
“Good,” Etan said. “That’s the part of medieval history I want to talk about. Now, let’s jump to recent history. In your capacity as a travel agent, did you or did you not move something related to the Devil’s Bible? Eight missing pages, say?”
“Yes, the Black Pages,” Carlo said. “I used my source to get them into the United States two days ago.”
Etan did not let his disappointment show; not a single tic. He had hoped the pages were still in France. “Who is your source?” he asked.
Carlo didn’t hesitate: “Arnaud Tottone.”
“Tottone, Tottone... The French ambassador to America?”
“He doesn’t have to go through customs,” Carlo said. “I give him the merchandise. He gets it into the country, no problem.”
“Very good,” Etan said, smiling pleasantly. He knew from experience that Carlo would be more forthcoming if he believed he would live. “Okay, last question: do you know who Arnaud Tottone sold the merchandise to?”
“No, I have no idea. Samier paid me my fee and I made the transfer--that’s it. That’s all I did. I have no idea who he’s selling the artifact to. And that’s the truth, I swear!”
Etan nodded. He disappeared again into the dark part of the room, but this time he continued to talk to Carlo. “I know you have been involved in this trade for two decades. And I know you have become a student of history like I have. I can’t tell you how much I respect that about you, Carlo. So I’m curious: do you know anything about Mesopotamia?”
Tears began to stream down the travel agent’s cheeks. He wouldn’t survive this. Neumann and Droeger hadn’t, and obviously they’d told the truth about Carlo. “No, I don’t. I don’t know much about it,” he said.
“Well, until recently, historians believed the royal palace attendants willingly ingested poison to join their king and queen in death...”
Etan fell silent. Carlo had the uncanny feeling that he’d moved. He glanced around the basement, straining against the duct tape.
Candlelight and shadow danced around the concrete space. One of the shades seemed darker, and stood very still; Carlo kept his eye on it--and jumped when Etan appeared behind him.
“But it wasn’t poison,” Etan said, a whisper above a whisper. “They know that now. Turns out these royal handmaidens and warriors were sacrificed with an instrument driven into their heads. A very sharp instrument... like a pike.”
“Please...” Carlo said.
“And I will point out to you that this kind of sacrifice was considered a very honorable death.”
“Please... I don’t know anything!”
Etan held out his hands to show Carlo a steel pike in one, a large hammer in the other.
The travel agent started to scream.
It interested Etan that the Italian’s heavy accent vanished in the scream, the same way the accents of British rock singers vanished when they sang.
He stopped Carlo’s screaming when he hammered the steel pike into the middle of his head.
After three blows, he stepped away and admired his handiwork. He picked up one of the skulls from the table and ran his thumb over the engraving in the bone, letting the blood on his hands illuminate the text.
Soon, Carlo’s skull would bear the same inscription--the words Angelum Lucis, which English Bibles translate as “Angel of Light.”