THE ISLAND OF CRETE, GREECE
THE LOVELY NORTHERN COAST
The resort’s whitewashed taverna and its trellised patio swarmed with elite vacationers and the sycophantic rabble insistent upon aping them. In the cool shade of the vine-canopied latticework, they congregated around blue wooden tables and perched upon cushioned iron chairs. For those who wished to escape entirely the blonde sand and mild June warmth, the taverna’s ocean blue door was cast open in invitation. Elias’s stomach twisted.
The tossing in his gut was not due to the traditionally blue and white Greek color scheme, glaring as it may have been in the dazzling daylight. It also was not a result of the salty smell of the azure Sea of Crete as it blew in from the north and mingled with the taverna’s aromas of oregano, rosemary, olive oil, and wine. What turned his stomach was the crowd: jetsetters, beautiful people, glitterati, and social climbing kiss-ups.
This resort crawled with them all. They were like roaches in the most inoffensive manner. Individually, the majority of them were not inherently awful, but when you clustered them all into close quarters with one another, there was a significant chance they would transform into pests that infested and destroyed everything they touched. And that fact doesn’t even take into consideration their egotistic thoughts or deep-seated feelings of inferiority that gradually crescendoed to one massive droning echo when half the world’s wealthy decided to gather in high concentrations in a relatively compact area. Then, they truly became a headache.
Elias should certainly know; he was one of them, after all. Given, none of them were psychics of any sort, so naturally they would not quite develop the same variety of head pain that he sometimes experienced in these situations. Assuredly, one or two thought they possessed some manner of sixth sense that allowed them to do a parlor trick every now and then, but parlor tricks make not a psychic. Not the real kind anyhow. Not the kind that could tap into the energy to which so many individuals were blind, the energy that enveloped them and radiated from the depths of their psyches as a byproduct of simply being.
Tailored unique to the individual, a wholly personal brand, no two living beings on this world or the next ever emitted the exact same psionic signature. Not parents and children. Not brother and sister. Not even identical twins. Certainly, there could be nearly negligible variances, such as in frequency, scent, hue, or taste for that matter, but an entity’s psionic signature was like a fingerprint of the psychic kind, and it lingered upon the earth long after its source was but dust and dirt.
If Elias tuned out the telepathic chatter and pierced the psionic chaff of his present company, the terror and death throes of Cretan villagers massacred by the Germans in the Second World War cut just as keenly now as it would have twenty-six years ago. Shifting the sands of time that had settled over the island’s millions of psychic imprints, Elias could sense the jubilation of autonomy negotiated from the Ottomans, could hear four hundred years of Venetian rule and tongue, could smell the cinnamon and cardamom of Arabian presence around what must have been 800 AD, could see grainy images of Roman opulence and the invading Dorians and Achaeans before them, could feel tsunami waves pounding the northern coasts and lava ashes burying the beaches. Concealed beneath it all were the soot-coated psionic remnants of the Minoans—saffron trade, reverence of bulls, and all.
Reining his time-wandering mind back in and shaking his head to dislodge the ghosts of civilizations lost long ago, Elias scanned the patio. Seated at five large tables that had clearly been pushed together to accommodate the size of the group, Warhol and a handful of his superstars smoked cigarettes and prattled on about what marvelous things they would do once they returned to The Factory after their Greek holiday. His muse Edie was nowhere to be seen. Elias’s eyes drifted to the opposite side of the cool patio where Bobby and Ethel Kennedy, dressed in their most casual vacationing daywear, were rubbing elbows with an emerald bikinied and sand-dusted Liz Taylor. At the table beside them, Sean Connery dined with an Australian blonde sipping on a screwdriver. Connery was not quite as suave as Elias would have expected a man who portrayed a world-class spy to be, but then again, if Bond was an actual spy—a spy like Natalia, that is, or one in competition with her in the global espionage community—he would probably be a dead spy in minutes, so Elias guessed it was a mite daft to expect much of the actor himself. Elias combated the urge to grin at the thought of the little Slavic spider and James Bond crossing paths; true to her namesake, his comrade would eat the poor fool alive and use his splintered bones to pick her teeth clean after she dined. Mingled among the immediately recognizable in-crowd members were various international politicians and trifling bootlickers and the pampered babes of the next generation.
It was no different than attending a Hellfire function, really—it was the same crowd with the same thoughts and the same problems (if they could even be considered problems when you were as rich as any of the lot present, that is). Such a recognition on Elias’s part did not do much in the way of comforting him, though. Despite being the White King of New England’s branch of the Hellfire Club and enjoying the related luxuries the title offered, Elias genuinely abhorred much about the Club in its current state and had for some time.
Shaw’s claiming of power as the Black King during the chaos of World War II which had demanded Elias’s and his mother’s presence overseas had perverted New England’s Hellfire Club so greatly that by the time they returned, the branch which had at that point been under their combined rule as White royalty for the better part of a century had been almost entirely unrecognizable to them. Certainly, the Hellfire Club had always been a place for libertines, rakes, and deviates of all kinds from the upper echelons of society to participate in acts perceived as immoral by the masses. Whether it be an everyday peccadillo like gaming, drinking, and wenching or a proper pearl-clutching scandal of a sin like perceiving women to be equal to men or embracing the naturalness of sexualities other than heterosexuality, so long as one was well-endowed, the Hellfire Club extended its invitation to them. Shaw’s unopposed reign in the White royalty’s absence and his support within the Club that continued to strengthen with each passing year despite Elias’s and his mother’s pertinacious checking of his influence, however, had transmogrified the New England branch into a distended doppelgänger of its former self.
Shaw, the sex-obsessed and power-hungry little cretin, had been nothing but a nuisance since the onset of his rule as Black King, bringing all kinds of riffraff and aberrations to the Club and tugging on strings that should not be tugged on with his grubby paws. It had been Shaw, after all, that had remodeled during the war the New York Hellfire Club building with all of his personal paraphilias in mind, installing one-way glass mirrors and private viewing rooms in the establishment’s labyrinthine corridors, stocking dens of sybaritic pleasure with the finest psychoactive drugs and the prettiest young girls from all corners of the world, and concealing underground chambers where the spirits of the cruel Marquis de Sade and the obsequious Leopold von Sacher-Masoch held court in heavy darkness and flickering torchlight. It had also been Shaw, aided by his ally Selene Gallio—the Roman witch and millennia-old vampiric mutant he had aggrandized to the station of Black Queen after liberating her from mystical immurement in a Renaissance-era oil on poplar landscape that had fallen into his lap—who had twice nearly caused the mutually assured destruction of both the United States and Soviet Union in the fracas they had engineered in Cuba in October of 1962 and last summer.
In retrospect, Shaw and his allies likely would have been less of a headache now had Elias and his mother exposed the perfidious nature of their enemy’s ascension to power long ago. They could have deposed him from his throne before he had managed to root himself in the international politics of the Hellfire Club at large and had gained enough clout to pose the threat he did today, but they hadn’t. Such a measure would have required them to act after the conclusion of World War II, or rather, after the conclusion of their service in the war for the S.S.R. as the costumed operatives Bedlam and Perfection—Steve hadn’t been the only one running around the Old World in tactical gear and tights, you know; for Elias, that had been six months prior to the armistice of August 14, 1945, when Japan formally surrendered to the Allied forces and soon after for his mother.
Elias hadn’t stuck it out until the bitter end, or rather, Steve’s bitter end when he defeated HYDRA’s mad leader and sank the warhead-laden Valkyrie into the ocean in early March. By that time, Elias had been indisposed for half a month already; the aftermath of Valentine’s Day of 1945 had hit him hard—irreparably broken him, frankly—and he had remained thusly indisposed for… well, it was right hard to say.
It all really depended on how one perceived the duration of his response to the unspeakable event that occurred in the Austrian Alps that cloudy February afternoon. If a person were to consider Elias’s reaction as a whole, he supposed that he would still be in a position of indisposition. Conversely, if one were to take that same whole and break it into numerous segments based upon either time or the psychological and emotional changes he experienced following the death of his darling James on the day so many lovers celebrate as a holiday of their blissful union, then the result would be quite different. Most would consider Elias’s current position to then be merely a state of melancholic survival interspersed with moments of joy and delight. Regardless, Elias had been too devastated at the time to be of much use to Steve, his closest comrade during the war (who hadn’t been his mother or his lover); Captain America’s Invaders, Steve’s wartime top squad that was to be known as the Howling Commandos in the history books; the S.S.R. as an entirety; and his own mother in any throne usurpations within their socialite group.
Elias shook his head to jog his mental wanderings in another direction. The past was too painful, too tantalizing. He shouldn’t reflect on it for much longer. He knew what would happen if he did. The strands of history were all so intricately entangled when it came to that period of his long life, and he could scarcely attempt to single out one thread without snagging five others and being drowned in a wash of emotions he had neither the time nor the fortitude to publicly experience. Maybe someday he would learn that the past was the past. Probably not.
This was survival.
Since nothing could be done to address Elias’s and his mother’s missed opportunity to depose Shaw and thereby Selene years ago, they now had to wait for a future opening to exploit. It was not a simple task. Any current action was complicated by Shaw’s obnoxiously amiable drinking-partner and sex-fiend relation to Sir Gordon Phillips.
A true British gentleman and man of letters, the respectable Sir Gordon Phillips was the Lord Imperial of the Hellfire Club. This simply meant he was the nominal head of the entire organization, the overseer of every single branch of the group, the commander of each branch’s Inner Circle of Club royalty, and a massive impediment to any action against that execrable git Shaw even though Elias and his mother had known the Lord Imperial almost his entire life. Because of their lengthy association with the man, it was with great confidence that they both could say that Sir Gordon Phillips was entirely ignorant to the scheming, blackmailing, and backstabbing that went on in most Inner Circles, New England’s being no exception. Sir Gordon Phillips was a well-meaning man most of the time despite his womanizing tendencies, though perspicacious he was not, which therefore allowed such activities as Shaw’s and that of his allies to occur without superior notice and intervention.
A tragedy on many counts, truly.
Elias squared his shoulders and took a seat at an empty table. Music filtered out of the café’s interior over the chatter of its patrons. It was the caustic kiss-off song about boots and walking by Frank Sinatra’s eldest girl that was taking America—and Crete, apparently—by storm. Elias tapped his own shod feet against the smooth pavers of the patio as he glanced about himself.
Broken threads of thought rose and fell in the sea of voices.
“Say something smart, say something sm—”
“—orders a hot dog in Greece? Uncultured pig…”
“…going to jab my eyes out with this salad fork if she doesn’t shut her goddamn trap about her latest cinema flop.”
Too much clutter. Elias massaged his temples. Variegated tendrils of atmospheric psionic energy hummed at his fingertips and began to silver as it had always been wont to do under his will. Elias was sure that somebody here must have seen the bleeding pillock—
“Good afternoon, sir, would you like our menu?”
Elias looked up at the waiter standing beside his table. A waiter. As good a place to start as any, he supposed.
“Yes, thank you,” Elias smiled as the boy—William, seventeen years of age, resort employee of four months—handed him the taverna menu. “I must admit that this is my first time at this particular resort. What might you recommend?”
William began to rattle off a few choice dishes, and Elias began to do some light reading—Native Cretan. Lives with his parents. Asthmatic. Hopelessly smitten with an heiress four tables down. Thinks her eyes look like the Pacific. He’s never seen the Pacific. He saw a man this morning, a big and ruddy-faced man like the Minoan bull Granddad once took him to see painted on a wall of some ruin in Knossos. Thick accent. Crescent-shaped scar on his forehead. A gangster or mafioso or something. Ugly as sin. Ate like a goat, tipped like a cheapskate.
“Does anything suit your interest, sir?” William took out a notepad and pen.
“Ah, yes, I believe you mentioned dakos, correct? The Cretan rusk with tomato, feta cheese, olives, oregano, and olive oil?”
“Indeed, sir.” William scribbled Greek chicken scratch onto the notepad. “Would you like anything else?”
“A martini,” Elias said. “Dry.”
“Would you like it garnished with one of our resort’s very own pickled pearl onions, sir?” William asked, pen poised.
“Bloody hell, man,” Elias laughed. “Martini with onion is an unpardonable form of perversion.” William blinked. Elias cleared his throat, “Olive will suffice.”
“Of course, sir. Will that be all?”
“I do believe—”
Lukewarm Russian thoughts crystallized into being from amidst the vain brainwaves of Elias’s social peers, and he froze. William’s jaw dropped as his eyes flashed over Elias’s shoulder.
“Make that two dry martinis with olive,” a woman said as she rounded Elias’s chair and sidestepped William.
Had she been standing outside in direct sunlight, her neon yellow mini dress and matching Mary Janes would have burned on the coast like a signal fire. Ships would have steered clear out of fear of running aground on a reef or promontory. She slid into the seat across from Elias, her ebony-dyed hair shifting softly against her shoulders where its ends flipped gently upward and outward. Elias cocked his head. Natalia had revamped her look a bit since the last time he had seen her.
William quickly composed himself and looked to Elias for confirmation. Natalia smiled, took off her chunky yellow-rimmed sunglasses, folded them, and set them neatly on the table before her. Her fingernails were the color of canaries. Elias nodded to William. William darted off, thinking the heiress had nothing on the beauty who had just ordered a second martini.
“Quite the get-up. It is certainly….” Elias struggled to find a suitable word to describe in the most pleasant of ways his thoughts on Natalia’s clothing. “Jaunty. Like a jonquil.”
“It hurts me more to wear this than it hurts you to look at it,” Natalia deadpanned. “Trust me. I’m not sure what my handler was thinking. It’s a far cry from inconspicuous—I feel like I’ve got everyone’s eyes glued to me.”
“It is a far cry from fashion,” Elias snorted, “and you are not entirely wrong; it seems that you have certainly attracted young William’s attention.”
“So, are you relaxing or working in Crete, comrade?”
“I suppose I could ask you the same,” Natalia flicked her hard jade eyes around the taverna before giving Elias a onceover. There wasn’t a hint of her natural Russian accent. “Sweater, tailored blazer, pressed chinos, penny loafers? Very Steve McQueen meets British mod. Do you own a scooter, too?” She held out her hand. “My name’s Laura, by the way. It’s nice to meet you.”
“Laura, eh? Well, the pleasure is all mine, my dear,” Elias took her hand and pressed his lips to her freckled knuckles. He was surprised to find that they were not in rougher shape from her particular line of work. He let go of her hand, and she stacked her forearms upon the blue tabletop. “My name is Elias, and no, I do not own a scooter.”
“I’ve been wondering is it true what they say?” Natalia inquired, her gaze calculating. “About where you’re from, that is—a Massachusetts man? I would personally think South Kensington. Chelsea, maybe, or Westminster.”
Elias chewed on the question for a moment. At best, he and Natalia were frequent acquaintances who were, after their team-up in Cuba a year ago, glad to work together. At worst, well… she was still with the K.G.B.—sort of—and was one of the Red Room’s deadliest assassins, even after Elias had inadvertently cracked her conditioning during their first meeting four years back in West Berlin. He still had the scar on his bicep from around three years ago when she had nearly lopped off his right arm with a scimitar on display in Paris’s Musée de l’Armée after he had done something foolishly scientific like test her capabilities in a display room full of deadly antique weapons. Elias glanced at Natalia, probing. Her mind was open, cool, a pale blossom in spring. Her curiosity was… refreshingly innocuous.
“Massachusetts-bred, Massachusetts-born, and Massachusetts-raised.”
“I—did not expect that,” she admitted as William came by with their martinis and Elias’s dakos and then promptly left for the heiress four tables down. Poor William was torn between two beautiful women, and he felt like a tongue-tied fool around them both. “How’d you pick up the accent? You sound like you’re from one of those silk-stocking districts in England. Did you go to boarding school with all the other rich ankle biters?”
“Think of it as a little something I acquired from my world travels at a formative age.” Elias took a bite of the dakos, flavor bursting on his tongue as he recalled his teenaged encounter with an older telepath in close relation to Queen Victoria that had ended… poorly for the member of the British royal family and had resulted in Elias’s acquisition of a markedly refined English inflection through the unintentional and unskilled psychic assimilation of bits of the other man’s psyche. It had been among one of the closest of close calls in his life, and like Job, he had only managed to scrape by with the skin of his teeth. “I begged my mother to take me with her on a corporate trip under pretensions of ‘learning the ropes’ of the family business. It was the first time I left the country, despite Mum seeing right through my lies; at that age, I had so little interest in the family business that it was laughable. She permitted me to tag along anyway, bless her soul, even though I caused her more grief in the United Kingdom than what she would have felt had she just left me at home in the care of our retinue of staff.” “So, no boarding school, then, by the sounds of it?” Natalia observed him as he spoke of his childhood and adolescence in the same manner a tyke does upon hearing a particularly fabulous fairytale. “I was taught in the privacy of my home by my mother and a few tutors,” Elias soft-pedalled the truth. His Mum had spared no expense on his education, recruiting the finest scholars of the day to teach her only-begotten child in the halls of Snow Valley, their home and great house in the heart of their sprawling estate in the Berkshire Mountains. Elias didn’t want to seem like he was flaunting his privileged childhood and opulent upbringing before Natalia, the orphan girl brainwashed to become an assassin at a clandestine spy school, so he shifted the conversation. “Enough about me. I presume you have a reason for your visit to Crete, then?”
“An ex-K.G.B. handler,” Natalia casually sipped her martini. “He defected and stole an array of compromising top-secret Soviet files to sell on the black market. The K.G.B. wants him dead.” She set down her drink and pitched her voice low: “I want to interrogate him before he’s neutralized, though. I did some digging when the higher-ups weren’t watching, and I think he might know something about my past. My real past. I’ve been stricken lately with an aching to uncover the truth.”
Elias nodded in interest. This was a development. Well, hearing her say it aloud was a development anyhow. He had known she had been plagued with a nagging need to reorganize the contents of her mind, to distinguish the real memories from the artificial, for some time now, and she had known that he had known this for nearly just as long. Following the events in Cuba one summer ago, their psychic exchanges and visits had become more frequent—maybe two or three times a week now—and they had also become more… familiar. Or, perhaps, open was the correct word. Elias didn’t know quite how to characterize it.
Instead, he said, “Boris Popov? Currently using the alias Abraham Schaake and posing as a Dutch insurance broker on a company holiday?”
Natalia raised an eyebrow.
“Soviet intelligence is hardly the only thing he plans on selling,” Elias disclosed around another bite of dakos. “He has also managed to get his hands on a rather singular set of Mycenaean artifacts while he was island-hopping in the Mediterranean. The White Queen and I heard it through the grapevine that he plans to sell the relics to some long-standing political rivals of ours. Let us just say that such a transaction would be… regrettable.”
“He’s going to sell to Shaw?”
“He’s going to sell to Shaw.”
“Did your grapevine happen to say where Boris would be?”
“This Cretan resort was as specific as our sources could get at the time. I just stepped off the jet an hour ago, though, and I have already scoured the minds of the patrons here to determine if they have seen our dear Boris.”
“William served him coffee this morning.”
Natalia cast her gaze back over her shoulder to eye William as the boy poured more vintage Dafnes for the heiress. Natalia hummed thoughtfully and turned back to face Elias.
“My transport couldn’t fly me straight here. Had to land in Heraklion first, but I managed to persuade a few locals into sharing that they’d seen Boris a day or two back as he made his way to this resort.”
“Seems fond of tarrying when he could be seeking shelter, does he not?”
“He knows he’s a dead man,” Natalia shrugged as she finished off her martini. “Might as well enjoy the few hours he has left by becoming a millionaire in seconds and blowing it all on hedonistic pleasures, right?”
“Nouveau riche,” Elias grimaced.
“You look like someone just slipped you an emetic.”
“With good reason. New money are positively vomitous.”
“If you can’t finish your martini, I’d be more than happy to help you out.”
Elias snorted. With a cock of a brow, hoary wisps of psionic energy brushed the stem of his martini glass and telekinetically slid the drink to Natalia across the tabletop: “I appreciate the aid, comrade. Let me finish the rest of this dakos and we can embark on a proper foxhunt, sans horse.”
“We’d be faster on foot anyway,” Natalia offered a small smirk. “A horse would break its ankles on this rock pile in the sea, and where would we be then?”
“Stranded in the wilderness with a lame ungulate,” Elias said as he stabbed the last bite of dakos on his fork. “I would be forced to administer a coup de grâce to the poor beastie since euthanasia requires a delicate and merciful hand, something which personal experience proves to me that you do not often implement.”
“People are awful and often deserve brutality,” Natalia pointed out as she plucked the olive out of Elias’s martini and popped it into her mouth. Her lips puckered at the bitter taste. “Animals are different.”
“That strikes me as a smidgen draconian, but I cannot necessarily fault you for your moral code,” Elias said as he transferred the final morsel of dakos from the tines of his fork to the flat of his tongue. He savored it for a moment before continuing, “But perhaps you should open yourself to a more charitable view of humanity. No one honestly likes a hardnosed cynic, my dear.”
“Perhaps,” Natalia rose to her feet with a contemplative expression upon her face. “I guess we’ll have to put your words to the test when we find Boris, no?”
“I guess we shall," Elias fished his wallet out of his pocket and tossed onto the table a generous sum to cover the appetizer, drinks, and information gleaned from William without his knowledge. “Speaking of which, I want to press some of the resort staff for information about our target since the patrons were useless. Someone here other than William must have seen Boris before he departed.”
“Front desk, valet service, and room cleaning personnel would be a good start.”
Stuffing his wallet back where it belonged, Elias stood and stepped around the table to link Natalia’s arm through his own. As they walked arm-in-arm back out to the waiting blonde sand and June warmth, Elias looked over to the woman who was clearly on her way to becoming something of a friend to him. He chuckled.
In all her lemon-hued brilliance, she shone in the sunlight like the Pharos of Alexandria.
As it turned out, Elias and Natalia did not need a single horse to aid them in their foxhunt; instead, they needed the output of roughly 385 well-bred stallions to whisk them around 40 miles westward along the northern coasts of Crete to Chania, the second largest city on the island and the location where the pair had managed to track Boris through a concerted effort of mindreading and Red Room espionage training.
Luckily, Elias had come prepared. After all, if one was going to take their private jet all the way across the world to an island in the Mediterranean, they might as well bring along a set of wheels to enjoy cruising around said island. Fresh off the assembly line, Elias’s ermine white 1967 Chevrolet Impala SS would have to suffice. While his mother had a soft spot for foreign-built sports cars, Elias was admittedly a bit of a fan of the new American-made muscle car movement that was all the rage back in the United States. James would have appreciated the leaps and bounds the automobile industry had made over the past two decades, Elias sometimes thought to himself, but then again, James had always been more of a motorcyclist at heart; he certainly had looked so much more dashing astride a bike anyway, what with his snug navy peacoat, sniper rifle slung over his shoulder, and windblown chestnut-hued hair.
Leaning back against the front driver side door of his Impala, arms crossed over his chest and tortoiseshell Persol sunglasses resting on the bridge of his nose, Elias stood watch at the edge of a dusty gravel lane about one and a half miles outside Chania as Natalia extracted information from Boris somewhere in a grove of scale-leafed tamarisk trees on the opposite side of the road. All around Elias, the air undulated as if superheated. Hoary wisps of psionic energy danced about, bewitching as a mirage. Late afternoon sunlight slanted down on him and painted the rustic landscape a soft tangerine color. A warm breeze blew inland from the shores of Chania Bay, carrying with it a vaguely saline taste as it ruffled Elias’s quiff. A few unruly honey- and champagne-colored strands sprang loose of the pomade that held his hair up in a tousled wave as he scanned the desolate country way and waited for Natalia to finish her work.
Elias glanced over his shoulder and peered through the window of the rear driver side door. Two durable aluminum attaché cases sat primly on the fine white leather of the backseat. Sealed inside one metal briefcase was a collection of smuggled K.G.B. intel and top-secret Soviet files. While Natalia had hauled a rope-bound and moderately narcotized Boris Popov out of the backseat and had disappeared with him into the tamarisk grove, Elias had psychically studied the psionic imprints attached to the briefcase and the contents it guarded, committing the wealth of information he discovered to memory so that he could transcribe it to paper when he found the free time. Secured in the other attaché case were the stolen Mycenaean artifacts that Shaw, Selene, and the Black Court wanted so desperately: a sacrificial bronze dagger depicting a bull hunt from approximately 1600 B.C. inlaid with gold, silver, and nautilus shells, a hammered gold death mask of a nobleman who died in the fifteenth century B.C., and a thirteenth-century B.C. ceramic crater used for wine.
God only knew what that megalomaniacal fiend and Roman witch planned to do with the relics. Elias’s mother, though, seemed to suggest she had a decent guess and had sent Elias to intercept the artifacts in her stead while she managed more pressing matters back in Boston. Regardless, Elias had been itching for a few tranquil days under the Grecian sun for some time now, so he had been more than eager to fly to the Mediterranean at his mother’s request.
A loud crunch! followed by a stream of raw-throated Russian profanities echoed off the trunks of the tamarisk trees and startled a handful of nesting turtle doves and warblers into flight. Elias returned his gaze to the grove across the gravel lane. His pale blue irises shone silver like twin stars behind his sunglasses, and the glittering psionic energy in the atmosphere flared more brilliantly than before. Just in case. The last thing Elias wanted to deal with was someone overhearing Natalia’s particular woodland activities and allowing their curiosity to make a torture and assassination witness of himself or herself.
For all parties involved, barring Boris, it was boundlessly better this way.
“Allying with some kind of a brain-fucking vedmak like the damned mutánt Charles Xavier?” Boris raised his voice to ensure Elias could hear him from the road. “He’s as much a monster as you are a traitor to Rossiya-Matushka for associating with his kind, suka, blyad!”
Elias frowned. He may have been many things, but a devilish practitioner of the dark arts and a perverse genetic aberration were not on the list. As for the comparison to Charles Xavier, well, is it ever truly a compliment when a person is paralleled to a sanctimonious prat? As Elias prepared to jab the bloody prick’s psyche and make Boris soil himself, Natalia’s snarled rebuttal gave Elias pause.
“You meant to say ‘chudo,’ Citizen Popov.”
Bones popped and snapped like kindling sparking aflame. Boris screamed in agony and promptly retched upon the sprawling roots of a tamarisk. Strategic betting advantages of possessing psychic powers aside, Elias would wager a pretty penny that Natalia had just shattered the ex-K.G.B. handler’s elbow beyond hope of repair or reconstruction. Had Boris actually entered this situation with any serious hope of survival, though, let alone any hope for future healing from wounds sustained from the K.G.B.’s wrath?
Elias uncrossed his arms and let them fall to his sides. He hooked his thumbs in the front pockets of his pressed chinos and whistled a right jolly tune that gradually morphed into a Tchaikovsky number over the anguished wails of a middle-aged man being brutally tortured to reveal whatever knowledge he had of Natalia’s murky history as a child raised in the U.S.S.R.’s enigmatic Red Room Academy and as the K.G.B.’s premier operative. After exactly four minutes and twelve seconds—Elias had been keenly noting the time his watch displayed since he began to whistle—Boris’s screaming abruptly ceased and so too did his brain activity. Elias stopped whistling. Premier operative of the K.G.B., indeed.
Natalia emerged from the tamarisk grove, the skirt of her neon yellow mini dress hitched scandalously high as she sheathed a shoddily cleaned tactical knife in a concealed holster on her strong, pale thigh. Elias cracked a grin and pushed off from the front door of his Impala. As Natalia adjusted her skirt, Elias’s irises became rings of lunar grey light and the swirling silver psionic energy in the air dissipated into oblivion.
“What were you whistling out here?” Natalia asked with a cant of her head as she approached the Impala.
“‘Swan’s Theme,’” Elias said as he turned on his heel, opened the front door, and slipped into his car. Before closing the door behind him, he added, “The famous leitmotif from Swan Lake?”
He watched Natalia walk around his car and slide into the passenger seat beside him. She clicked her seatbelt into place, and as Elias did the same, she said, “Thought so. I performed as Odette several times at the Bolshoi in Moscow back when I was in the Red Room, I’m pretty sure.”
“One of the fuzzier memories?” Elias glanced to the woman out of the corner of his eye.
“If it’s even a memory,” Natalia looked out the window. “A real memory, I mean. It could be one of the false ones they implanted in my mind that you shattered with that psychic whammy back in West Berlin.”
“Do you want me to examine it?”
He already knew what she was going to say.
“No, I… I don’t think I’m ready to share yet. Sorry.”
Despite the increased frequency and closeness of their psionic visits and international conversations, Natalia always deferred and demurred when Elias offered his aid in sorting through her memories. He understood why; they were personal, they were hers. Or, she had once thought them to be. Now they were just one more thing that the Red Room had taken from her.
“There's no need to apologize,” Elias said as he put his keys in the ignition and turned his wrist. The engine purred to life as the chorus of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” came on the radio. “So, I am a chudo, am I?”
“Well, ‘mutant’ has taken on an uncomfortably eugenic connotation in certain circles in the past few years and ‘miracle’ rings closer to the truth.” Natalia explained. “Popov had no right to say what he did about you; it takes a lot more than being born different to make a monster out of a man.”
“Should you ever quit the espionage business or find yourself in need of a pastime, my dear, you should think about becoming a mutant rights activist.” Elias shifted the car into drive, cranked the steering wheel, and pressed his foot to the gas pedal. The Impala whipped on a dime and sped down the gravel country lane back toward Chania. “The intra-communal bickering and harmful rhetoric being exchanged between Charles's and Magneto’s factions are making it all too easy for the collective mutant voice to go unheard by the larger human populace in the U.S. and in other countries around the world.”
“That was…” Natalia turned to face Elias, “That was a really wise thing for a man in his late twenties or early thirties to say.”
“I have my moments, it seems,” Elias deflected coolly, dreading the uncertain territory the conversation was soon to encroach upon. He had his secrets too, after all, and his age was one of them. “Are you satisfied with what information you procured from Boris?”
Natalia pursed her lips in thought for several moments before finally answering: “I suppose I am. I think it raised more questions than it answered.”
“That is how it typically goes.”
Aside from Aretha’s confident serenade, silence stretched on between the pair as they drove through the countryside and into the outskirts of Chania. The gradually setting sun turned the waters of the bay to a vast swath of unbroken scarlet silk and cast long bruise-like purple shadows on the surrounding whitewashed facades of the stone buildings. The traffic grew more congested the further into the city they traveled, the streets inundated with a sea of citizens homeward bound after a long day of work and tourists yearning to experience what the Cretan nightlife had to offer them. They came to a standstill at an intersection flanked by a bustling gas station on the right and a quaint bakery to the left advertising some kind of sweet cheese pastry called kalitsounia.
“What time do you have to report back to your handlers?” Elias asked to fill the silence as he and Natalia waited on the traffic to move again.
“Tomorrow at dawn in Heraklion,” Natalia looked over her shoulder at the aluminum briefcases in the backseat. “My handlers knew nothing of the artifacts when they dispatched me, so it should be safe for you to take them without fear of raising the K.G.B.’s suspicions.”
“I would love to see the K.G.B. try and stop me,” Elias snorted as the cars ahead of them finally began to crawl forward again. “Well, I can only speak for myself, but I plan on doing a lot more in Crete than accomplishing what we just accomplished.”
Natalia's glinting jade eyes shifted from the attaché cases to Elias's profile: “What do you have in mind?”
“Driving across the island and touring some of the ruins dotting the landscape,” Elias said. “History is an academic interest of mine, but so is lounging on any of the innumerable beaches here and sampling the local wines and cuisine. I might even hike the Samariá Gorge—the area was just made into a national park five years ago to ensure the survival of an endangered species of Cretan goat.”
“Sounds like a gas,” Natalia said absently.
“Indeed,” Elias nodded as he turned out of the heavy traffic of the main road and onto an empty side street. He leveled an appraising side-glance on Natalia as they drove ever closer to Chania Bay. After a few seconds and turning onto another side street, he said, “Would you like to accompany me to the old Venetian harbor this evening, Natalia? I hear it is quite the sight at dusk.”
Natalia's thin black eyebrows arched high over the rim of her bright sunglasses. She eyed Elias. He felt her immediate skepticism slowly melt into shock.
“I cannot rightly say,” he shrugged. “I suppose I thought it would be pleasant to do before we made the drive back to the resort...”
Unspoken, the rest of his sentence hung suspended in the air, swinging between them from the Impala’s rearview mirror like a gauche pair of fuzzy dice: “…and don’t get to spend time together until we cross paths again, whenever that will be, and who knows if we’ll be allies then when we do see one another next. I hope we’ll be allies, because I think we somehow became friends along the way.”
Instead, Elias said, “The harbor was built in the fourteenth-century by the Venetians when they claimed Crete as an overseas colony, and the authentic architecture is supposed to be magnificent.”
He could feel the gears turning in Natalia’s head. Elias drew in a breath to admit defeat and rescind the offer when Natalia asked, “Will there be food and drink involved?”
Elias beamed, leaning on the wheel to steer their course toward the historic port: “There are tavernas as far as the eye can see facing the sea and the rebuilt sixteenth-century lighthouse.”
“Say no more,” Natalia grinned, rolling down the window and letting the breeze run through her dark hair. “Let's go to this old harbor."