“What’s wrong?” said Louis. He watched Vasily dejectedly move the rubble at his feet with the toe of his boot. When Vasily shrugged, Louis insisted. “Tell me what makes you so pensive."
“That.” Vasily pointed to a small s ection of wall still standing among the debris of what once had been a significant villa near the Adriatic shore.
Louis struggled with a few larger pieces of wood and concrete shoving them aside and then tripping over smaller pieces of mortar and bricks. The older portion of the building had been built with brick. This remnant of wall, standing only a few feet above the surrounding devastation, must have been in the oldest room of the house.
“So what, Vasily? Everything else is flattened. It is a triumph of your skill.”
“An incomplete triumph, then,” said Vasily. “There should be nothing standing. I will examine my calculations again.”
Misha reached them, wiping plaster dust from his face. “Is there a problem?”
Louis indicated the miscreant piece of wall with a tilt of his head. “That wall has refused to obey Vasily’s mathematics.”
Misha’s royal-blue eyes widened. “Vasily, everything is destroyed and the terrorists are dead. I counted body parts. We are undamaged and the fee will be exceptional. There is no reason to be unhappy about a small section of wall.”
Vasily looked up at his friends. “There should be nothing standing. Do you understand? Why is it standing?”
Louis snorted in exasperation and struggled up the small mound of no larger than bocce ball-sized detritus to inspect it. It was an ordinary brick wall. The blast had denuded it of plaster, much of which still hung in the air as a choking dust. This remnant stretched no more that two meters and stood only a meter and a half above the rubble that buried its base. Louis’s long spidery legs crunched and slipped as he circled this errant testament to the builders of antiquity.
He caught his breath.
“What is it?” asked Misha.
Louis did not answer. He stood staring at the other side of the wall. Misha scrambled up toward him. Vasily sighed and followed.
"So?" said Vasily.
The three men stared into a wall niche. It contained an ancient wine pitcher, an oenochoe, whole and undamaged except by time.
"So," said Louis, "it is at least two thousand years old. It is lucky. You never miss, Vasily, but you missed this. We must keep it."
Vasily shook his head. "How can we do that? It was treacherous getting here. We are on foot and it is almost winter in the mountains. How do you propose to carry that thing? It will shatter during the first slide down a shale-covered incline."
"It will not. It is lucky."
Louis raised a dark eyebrow at Misha, waiting for his opinion.
"Louis, I have never known you to be superstitious."
"I am not being superstitious. This is evidence." Louis swept his arm over the devastation around them. "Some things, especially some ancient things, set an example of survival."
Vasily snorted. "Don’t ask me to help you carry it."
Louis carefully lifted the artifact from its niche and cradled it in his arms as the three men slithered down the pile of rubble. He took extra care and was the last to reach firm ground.
"How will you carry it and be able to draw your weapon at the same time?" asked Vasily. "If you cannot draw your gun when necessary, The Example will not have helped you survive. It will not fit in your rucksack with the MP5s and I have no room for them in mine."
Misha pre-empted a nascent argument when he saw the flash of temper in Louis’s black eyes. "You must find a sack to carry it in until we reach the mountains. Then we can sling the MP5s over our shoulders. It will fit in your rucksack.
Vasily was not to be deprived of a chance to goad his friend. "If you fall, be sure to land face down or you will ruin two thousand years of Example."
Louis fought an urge to cuff him. "You are very funny and have no taste."
"But I know how not to behave in a brothel. If you were not wanted by the Italian police after that fracas in Naples, we would not have to cross the worst of these mountains to get out of here. We could simply take a train from Trieste. You are too hot-headed."
Louis ground his teeth and looked to Misha in hope of support. He found no quarter there.
"When you find a sack, be sure to carry it in your left hand to keep your right hand free," said Misha.
It took an hour to locate a large enough bag for the pitcher. Louis spotted a burlap feed sack half buried in manure behind a cow barn. It was not long before the smell permeated his skin, but it was an improvement over carrying his find cradled in his arms. Vasily made faces at him, holding his nose and grinning.
Misha spied a clothesline at another farm and cut out a portion of it, leaving the ends dangling and the drying clothes on the ground. After they evaded the farm hands and scrambled a significant distance up the first real slopes away from the coast, he called a halt and fashioned a sling for the sack.
"I am perfectly content to carry it all the way in my left hand, Misha."
"I am not content to pick you up when you tumble down a mountain because you cannot crawl. Some of these passes are treacherous in snow."
"It is not so very far." Louis was conscious of a whiny note in his voice.
"We are not eagles. Half the distance we travel will be on the inclines."
"Remind me to explain the hypotenuse if we get home," said Vasily.
Louis snorted. "Spare me your mathematical superiority, Vasily. I know the Pythagorean Theorem."
"Our feet will know it intimately in twenty-four hours."
The sack gained weight over the next half-day, but Louis kept silence. They were approaching a steep wilderness where they each could carry their own MP5. He did not need any more of Vasily’s teasing before then.
"Misha," said Vasily, "the jug has general magical powers of stoicism as well as survivability. Louis has not complained once in at least two kilometers.
Louis did not speak to him as they ate their afternoon rations. He struggled to fit the pitcher in his rucksack when they had shouldered the submachine guns. Vasily helped him stuff some dirty shirts around it to make the shape less awkward and unstable across his back. Louis was delighted to lose the stinking sack and said a sheepish thank you to his friend for the help.
Misha divided the boxes of 5mm ammunition equally among them. Louis’s share fit snugly around the neck of the artifact. He hoped the boxes would not shift and crack it.
The snow began within an hour after they set out again. "I have an uneasy feeling," Vasily said as they toiled up a particularly steep trail.
Louis’s teasing jibe died on his lips when Misha answered, "So do I." Vasily responded to life generally with suspicion and paranoia, but if Misha felt uneasy, there must be a reason. Louis took his MP5 off his shoulder and held it in his right hand. The slope here was even more steep and slippery with snow and he now had only his left hand to support his scramble upward. He noticed Misha doing the same.
Vasily spotted it first. He had cautiously peered around the side of a boulder, his sandy hair plastered to his head by wet snow, making it blend with the color of the surrounding rocks. They were on all fours now, staying low on a severe gradient topped by the boulder. Vasily signaled for a stop and told them with hand signals that he had seen a muzzle. He peered again, his left hand telling them one, two, three muzzles — waiting. Waiting for what?
Bandits? signaled Louis.
Ambush, said Misha’s hand.
Louis watched his eyes sweep the terrain, taking in the details of their situation. The snow had dampened sound and was accumulating quickly. Their enemies most certainly had notice of their approach but might not know how near they had come. He and Misha joined Vasily under the shadow of the boulder and quietly put down their rucksacks under a short overhanging ledge. They stuffed extra magazines into every pocket.
Misha made his dispositions. He sent Louis to the left, Vasily to the right and allowed the enemy to give the order to begin the fight by showing himself boldly in the center. The three enemy snipers were dead in thirty seconds. Their leader took a few potshots at Misha with a revolver before Louis ended his career from behind.
Despite his hunger and fatigue, Louis agreed with Misha’s decision to climb into the night. The enemy’s shallow cave would make a commodious shelter, but he did not relish sharing it with the corpses they had hidden there.
"You see, the wine pitcher has helped our survival," he said as he shifted his rucksack, trying to ease a sore spot on his shoulder.
"No," said Vasily, "our intuition did that."
"Intuition is just as mysterious a force as a lucky ancient relic," retorted Louis.
Misha kept his voice low. "There was nothing mysterious about Vasily’s eyesight, Louis. He spied the muzzle. And we were able to surprise them because we had been quiet as we climbed. I suggest we continue that practice."
Exposed beside a snow-covered rock, they ate in silence at midnight, then shouldered their burdens and stumbled on. Misha called a welcome halt as the sky lightened. The wind had exposed most of the larger rocks, but left indeterminate drifts on their lee sides. He used his knife to cut a twisted branch, two meters long, from a tenacious tree growing out of a rocky incline.
"This tree is an Example of survival," he said, grinning. "My new staff is a worthy artifact."
Louis narrowed his eyes at him as Misha poked the drifts that crossed what once might have been a path. Most of the drifts were no more than knee deep, but when the stick sank completely up to Misha’s hand, he looked at Louis. "Which artifact gets the credit for this, the jug or the stick?"
"Your intuition gets all the credit, Misha. As always." Louis felt suddenly too weary to maintain his usual resentment.
They huddled on an eastern slope with a spectacular view of mountain shadows running from the dawn. The wind blasted them, unobstructed by significant boulders or brush, but it cleared the snow away from the body heat that would otherwise melt it and make them wet.Louis decided he should be grateful for this. He hated being both cold and wet. One discomfort at a time was enough.
They dozed, sitting up, two at a time, with the third man responsible for watching.
"We have sufficient food for only one more meal," said Misha a few hours later.
They stood looking down the crevice his stick had warned them about that dark morning. By noon, the wind revealed its length and depth. It took half an hour to find a spot narrow enough to jump over.
Vasily grabbed Louis by his jacket when he teetered on the edge, overbalanced by his heavy rucksack. "The jug is setting a bad example of survival, Louis. Do not follow it." he said, impish mischief in his light eyes.
Louis was still too intent on his rumbling stomach to care about Vasily’s jibes. At this point, he would have consumed the pitcher itself had it been edible.
When they sat down at last in a pine forest, sheltered for once from the wind on this side of the mountain, Misha’s next announcement was as welcome as the stale rations he handed out.
"We will cross the border in an hour. I know a place that will be safe, but we should not have weapons visible, just in case."
Louis saw the wisdom in this, but he knew the disappearing food supply had not left sufficient room for three MP5s. He waited. Misha and Vasily said nothing, apparently unconcerned. He sighed. "Will there be farms on our way where I may find another feed sack?"
Misha grinned. "And clotheslines? Yes."
They had blown up a terrorist cell, killed a four-man ambush that awaited them, crossed a mountain in the snow and evaded a plunge down an unexpected crevice, but a conductor on the train from Villach threatened them most of all as they made their way home. Louis could not keep a sneer from showing on his face. The little man was so full of his own importance, questioning their lack of credentials (they never carried any on such excursions), their disheveled appearance (not worse than usual, in Louis’s estimation) and the origin of the cash with which they bought their tickets (in gold, as provided under the agreement with the government that had hired them). What the man really objected to, Louis knew, was the smell coming from the feed sack-wrapped artifact. People stood at the other end of the crowded car to evade it, allowing them to lounge over more than their share of seats.
When the officious man threatened to put them off the train at the next station, Louis’s hand became drawn to the inside of his coat, reaching toward the holster there.
"You see, Sir," said Vasily with exaggerated politeness. "We are archeologists returning from a dig near the Adriatic. We bring an important artifact and have not had time to clean up, we are so excited to have found it."
Louis raised an eyebrow and arrested his hand before it reached his weapon. Vasily was faking a Polish accent. The only language he normally spoke with an accent was English. He spoke German like an Austrian.
The conductor wore a skeptical look. Vasily reached for the clothesline draped over Louis’s shoulder and removed the sack. He opened it, releasing a waft of redolent barnyard that permeated the car. Drawing out the oenochoe, he displayed it for the conductor, dusty, substantial and surviving. Louis allowed his face to show his pride in finding it.
Their interrogator could not apologize enough, calling them each 'professor' and 'doktor' and asking them to please, please resume their seats and enjoy their ride home. They thanked him with smiles.
Once home, rested and washed, Louis looked forward to dinner. Cook had a special genius for preparing grilled fresh trout in a light cream sauce. She also invariably added something French to the menu just for him ever since his regular visits as a boy. She spoiled him still, even after he came to live in Misha’s house. Every evening he was home he enjoyed a special treat. It helped, of course, that the others in the household also liked French food, but he knew she did it for him. He walked into the dining room with high expectations; his starched shirt and dinner jacket needed filling after several days of meager rations.
He nodded to the old man sitting across the table. "Good evening, Professor." Louis’s mood could not be dampened. So what if Misha insisted on giving the old tutor a comfortable retirement. It had nothing to do with him and would not spoil an excellent meal. Even the memory of the canings the Professor had applied to his backside when he did not fully memorize the monarchs of England in their proper order faded when he thought about the trout. Monarchs. Pfah! Parvenues, especially the Saxons.
"I see you have returned with an artifact," the Professor said to Misha as the soup was served. "I am anxious to see it."
"It is Louis’s find," Misha replied."
The Professor looked at him with surprise. Louis knew the man did not think him capable of any intellectual sensibility let alone the capacity to spot an ancient artifact. He did his best not to allow his smile to be overly smug. A little bit smug, yes, but not excessively so.
Forced to conceal the exact location and circumstances of the find, Misha artfully steered the conversation away from the oenochoe each time the Professor brought it up. Louis busied himself with the superb meal before him and heard none of the old tutor’s disquisition on the rarity of such a find of that size.
When the cloth was drawn and an excellent port served, Vasily brought Louis’s find to the Professor. Louis had eaten too well to listen much until he heard the word, 'reproduction'.
"What?" he said, arresting his glass midway to his lips.
"It is a reproduction. Don’t you see?" said the Professor, turning the pitcher on its side. "Here. I must say the quality of Japanese manufacturing has greatly improved."
Louis had left his seat and peered over the tutor’s shoulder at the bottom of the jug. Vasily’s eyebrows rose with surprise and delight. No one spoke as Louis read the words printed there. "Made in Japan!"
Perhaps it was the excellent port enjoyed on a full stomach that made him treat them all to the heartiest and most joyous laughter in his extensive repertoire. He slapped the Professor on the back in gratitude and congratulations for the joke.
The episode of the jug became Louis’s most popular story. People especially enjoyed the way he mimicked Vasily telling the conductor, in an impossible Polish accent, "It is most definitely the very vessel from which they poured a special wine made just for Socrates himself!" <END>