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Authors: Neil Olson

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BOOK: The Icon
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The old Greek priest, whom Kessler allowed to see the work years before, had told him that the magic had gone out of it. Of course, he didn’t call it magic. Energy, perhaps, or spirit, yes, the spirit had gone out of it, the old fraud announced, close enough to kiss the paint, gray head shaking. Apparently, he had known the icon before the war, had prayed before it in the sacred stone church of that little village in Epiros. He had recognized it as being far older than the locals guessed and possessed of powers older still, had sensed—how had he described it?—a living presence in the wood. Despite himself, Kessler had felt his breath catch at that description. Gone, the priest insisted, dismissing the spell he had cast in an instant. Something had happened, some desecration, some strange devaluation, perhaps stemming from the icon’s removal from its native soil—those damn Greeks. Whatever the case, the magic was gone. The work’s value was now strictly artistic, granting, of course, the power of art to inspire the faithful.

Kessler had suspected some attempt to delegitimize the icon in his eyes and compel him to part with it. Nevertheless, it had wounded him, so deeply that he was not even able to think about the encounter for a long time afterward. Perhaps on some level he came to believe what the old man had said. Yet things had happened, things written of in the past that found a place in his life, bracing up his ever-shaky faith. He had lived long, too long, maybe, yet he had outlived countless dangers, illnesses, injuries. Longevity was one of the powers attributed to the icon. Stories existed of men who owned it, or dedicated their worship to it, living 120 years, fathering children in their eighties. In Kessler’s case, long life had seemed a kind of mockery. He’d defeated illness but had never been completely free of it. There had been only the one child, the son whom he had lost. What was the purpose, the gain of such an old age?

At some point it had occurred to him that his reward might come in the next world, not this one, and that proved a difficult change in thinking. Because he was not sure he believed in a next world, was not even sure he believed in the Almighty. It was conceivable to him that there was such an entity, and such a place, but one did not arrive there without a deep, abiding faith. No hellfire was necessary for the rest. The contemplation of a black abyss, utter nothingness, was more than sufficiently terrifying. Then he had begun to see Her. And what unexpected joy that had caused. And fear, too, for she would not be there without a purpose, but he was hopeful that she intended him some good. She had ever been the source of mercy in all the tales that he knew, and if she could not save his enfeebled body, perhaps she could save that thing that was more important, if it was real: his soul. He thought of all these things in a moment as the figure hovered at the edge of his vision, waiting. Shame overwhelmed him, suddenly, sickeningly. Belief came from the heart, not the eyes. He had no right to demand proof, he, the worst sinner on earth. And yet, had it not been so with Paul? With all the disciples? And countless others since. Might not the eyes persuade the heart? Who was he to decide?

He had never yet been able to face the figure. Having tried the first time it appeared to him, years before, and been met with an empty doorway, he’d decided the time was not right. Since then, he had been content simply to sense the presence near him. More content, he suspected, than he would have been with the actual laying on of sight, for there would be a reason for it when that time came, and his craven heart feared the reason. But this was wrong, he must steel himself; he could not escape his fate, only face it bravely and with an open heart. He had never been brave about anything in his life; now was the time. She was forgiveness. His fingers hovered over the chair controls.

She was forgiveness. Like his mother, who had protected him from his father. A dark study, rain-soaked gusts outside the window, the man in his familiar suit, his familiar smell, tobacco and shaving cream, taller than God, the smile of a fiend, the heavy hand falling over and over again. He hated his father, a mortal sin; he was damned. Fresh tears rushed to his blind eyes. He shook his head. No, she would understand, she was forgiveness. He hesitated.

What if he were completely mistaken? If what he felt was simply Diana standing there, unwilling to enter his sanctum, waiting for him to finish his prayers to false gods? What if his doubting intellect had been right the whole time? Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Mother Mercy, all spinning away from him into the void, a fantasy, no salvation. Mother, wife, and betrayed son all spinning away, no reunion, no forgiveness. The hand fell again and again. All his life he’d feared punishment for his wrongs. Here, at the end, he feared judgment far less than its absence. If the end was the absolute end? He could not accept it.

Enough. His vision swam. The rain had increased to a roar. Enough, be a man, look. His numb fingertips manipulated the controls and the chair made a quarter turn toward the archway.

Intense, cramping pain in his chest and down his arm collapsed his mental processes for a moment. He either could not see or could not understand what he was seeing, and the small part of his consciousness that was neither afraid nor in pain was able to look on this condition with curiosity. Then something in his head popped and the pain diffused, though his heart still felt like a clenched fist, and his vision was too silky to make out anything. The figure had remained in the doorway, but he had not been able to really see it before his eyes failed. No, be true, he had seen it for a moment. A man, not a woman. Neither his father nor his son, but a young man, lean and bearded, face half discolored, the eyes wide with fear or rapture. Not anger; Kessler did not think it was anger. A man, not a woman. The Son, not the Mother, dear God help him, the heavier judge. He felt his useless torso slumping forward as the figure approached. The stilled terror within him leaped up once more, then was transformed in an instant into something else, a new emotion, hard to encompass. Sadness, perhaps, broad and profound, but that too was transitory, for sadness melted into wonder, wonder into understanding, then all was light.

A
ndreas clutched the narrow armrests and prayed for the earth to leap up and catch him. The plane seemed to have dropped out from underneath, sucking his internal organs along with it and leaving the empty shell of his body floating in the ether. Yet when he opened his eyes he found himself intact, still squeezed into the cramped coach seat, the aisle to his right, the fat, constantly shifting businessman to his left. A world of trouble awaited, and he could have used the disconnected hours above the Atlantic to compose his mind, but he had found concentration impossible. It had been years since he’d flown, and he was distressed to learn how fully age had caught up with him. His ears rang, his neck ached, his legs were cold. He could no longer filter distractions. No matter. He would not truly know the situation until he was on the ground, and anyway, he often functioned better on instinct.

The plane dipped again, and Jamaica Bay loomed up below. Twenty seconds later they touched down at JFK. The businessman smiled at Andreas.

“Welcome to Gomorrah.”

 

His suitcase was the first out of the chute—an omen, surely. He retrieved it from the carousel and went to look for Matthew at the arrival area, eyes casually searching every face for potential mischief. Old habits. He had long ago ceased to be worth anyone’s troubling over.

“Father?”

He turned, despite his caution; the voice was so clearly directed at him. Three meters distant, a young man, square-faced, powerful. The cheap dress jacket fit awkwardly, and Andreas sensed more than saw a concealed weapon.

“Andreas Spyridis,” the younger man said, more uncertainly.

Would it be now? How many moments like this had there been in the last fifty years, when he had to wonder if some old debt had caught up with him? His body tensed but his mind was calm, ready for whatever would happen.

“I am Spyridis.”

“Mr. Dragoumis sends me to meet you.”

Andreas uncoiled partway. He doubted that Fotis would have him shot at the airport.

“What’s your name?”

It was always the last question they expected, these couriers. It was important to surprise them, and to show no surprise on your own part. He had not told Dragoumis he was coming, but that was no matter. Fotis simply knew things.

“Nicholas. I work for Mr. Dragoumis, he waits for you now.” Serviceable English. Neither man was speaking his native tongue, though Andreas could not quite catch the other’s inflection. Not Greek, but a language he knew. “I am to bring you directly. For dinner.”

“I’m supposed to meet someone.”

“Mr. Dragoumis has telephoned your grandson. He will also be there.”

Russian, almost certainly.

“I see. Well, it seems everything is arranged.”

Nicholas nodded eagerly.

“Follow me please.”

A huge jet roared overhead as they made their way across the parking lot to a big blue sedan; American, of course. Nicholas held open the right rear door, but Andreas hesitated.

“I would prefer to ride in front.”

The Russian scowled. The request clearly offended his sense of professionalism, but he closed the rear door firmly and opened the passenger side. Andreas removed his gray fedora and slid carefully into the deep, comfortable leather seat. Queens always depressed him. The thick tangle of highways, warehouses, and tenements; cars rotting into the broken pavement. Only the season improved the ride, with the dirty slush or poisonous smog of previous visits replaced by clean air and banks of yellow forsythia, pressing through chain-link fences up and down the blocks of brick row houses.

“You live around here?” Andreas asked.

“Further out. Little Odessa, they call it.”

“You like this country?”

Nicholas shrugged. “Better than where I come from.”

“How long have you been here?”

“Two years.”

“You learned English before you came?”

“A little. Mostly here.”

“You speak Greek?”

“Not so good.” He swung onto Astoria Boulevard. “Not really. No.”

“Mr. Dragoumis likes it better if you don’t speak Greek, yes?”

Nicholas conceded a brief smile.

They turned onto Twenty-first Street, then a quick left and the car pulled up before a white clapboard house. The place was unremarkable, but for the profusion of rosebushes in the narrow strip of soil in front. The house appeared small, though in fact it ran quite deeply back from the street. A warehouse bracketed the building on one side, a semi-famous restaurant on the other. Fotis owned both. Andreas had been here before. He examined the roses, not even in bud yet, then followed Nicholas up the concrete steps into the house. A barrel-chested man came out of the parlor and met them in the narrow hall, crowding Andreas against the wall. The younger men exchanged a few words in their native tongue, then the new man led Andreas down the dim corridor. Black beard, black eyes, full of suppressed violence. There would be no pleasant conversation with this one. A soft knock at the door, a word, and they were in the study, Fotis’ inner sanctum. The man himself, gray as a ghost and sporting a huge white mustache, stood to greet them, covering the plush oriental carpet in great strides. The effort cost him, Andreas could see at once.

“My friend,” Fotis said with real warmth, “my old, dear friend.” They squeezed hands, rights over lefts, shaking their intertwined fists like happy children, like palsied old men. Andreas was always surprised by the affection he received from his old boss, ally, adversary. There was dampness in the corner of Fotis’ eyes, and he grinned a huge smile of expensive false teeth, looking his comrade up and down. Then his face turned stern, and he swiveled a fierce gaze on the young Russian. “You donkey, you couldn’t take his coat?”

Blackbeard murmured an apology and helped Andreas out of the heavy gray fabric. Fotis appraised the black suit and white shirt buttoned to the collar, and laughed, a short, barking exhalation.

“You look like a priest.”

“Your man seemed to think I was one.”

“Well, no wonder, dressed like that. Sit, sit. Coffee? Cognac?”

“Just water.”

Without instruction, Blackbeard slipped out the rear door of the study. Fotis clasped his hands before him and leaned back in the creaking chair, a satisfied look on his face. Andreas took him in properly now. An elaborate maroon smoking jacket, stitched with abstract designs, hiding his too-lean frame. Slippers on his long feet, a box of Turkish cigarettes on the table by his elbow. Behind him, a stack of large, framed canvases leaned face-away against the wall. In fact, there appeared to be more paintings hanging about the room than Andreas had remembered previously, and despite the poor light and his imperfect knowledge of art, he guessed that some were quite valuable. A winter landscape. A small, very old-looking religious work, the Annunciation or some such. Gold leaf from what could only be an Orthodox icon threw reflected light from a dark corner. His old friend had many identities, many roles he liked to play. Fotis the spy, Fotis the exiled politician, Fotis the respectable businessman. Now it appeared to be Fotis the collector.

“How was your flight?” Dragoumis asked, switching from English to their native tongue.

Andreas shrugged. “I’m here.”

“It’s hard on old men, and you are younger than me. Even once a year I find too much now. I may not see Greece this spring.”

“Oh, I think you will go.”

Blackbeard returned with a glass of tepid water, which was how Andreas preferred it.

“That is all, Anton,” said Fotis, and the young Russian left the room again.

“How is the restaurant?” Andreas asked.

“The restaurant,” the other groaned. “Quite successful. We have our loyal customers, you know, from the neighborhood, and now we are getting young people from Manhattan. Apparently, we have been written up somewhere as the best Greek food in Astoria.”

“Congratulations.”

Fotis waved a hand. “What the hell do those people know about food? Anyway, I am not involved much with the restaurant these days.”

“No?”

“I have an excellent manager, who doesn’t even steal. And I have other concerns.”

It was an invitation, but Andreas was not interested. He knew about his friend’s various activities, and if there were some new ones, it was no matter. Ambition did not impress him, nor even audacity in the pursuit of it. There was a sort of sad desperation in Fotis’ extralegal dealings—the desperation of a dying man trying to stave off fate with accomplishment.

“My son is ill,” Andreas said.

Fotis looked at him hard, sympathy vying with annoyance at the change in subject.

“I know.”

Of course he knew. Matthew, Andreas’ grandson, was also Fotis’ godson. Irini, Matthew’s mother, was Fotis’ niece. The two old men were hopelessly entangled. There was no chance of escaping each other.

“Matthew tells me that it’s bad,” Andreas went on, needing to speak. “Alekos is not responding to the treatment.”

“Maybe he needs better doctors.”

“They are supposed to be the best at that place. Mount Sinai.”

“There are better ones in Boston. But then, science can only do so much.”

“We do not have such illnesses in my family.”

“You must have faith.”

Was it a taunt? Spoken with such gentleness, it was more likely an old man’s forgetfulness.

“I do not think I am likely to acquire it so late in life.”

Fotis stared at him, unreadable, the ever-present jade worry beads clacking in his hand.

“My poor Andreou.”

They sat in silence for a minute or two, comfortable with it. Andreas sipped his water and finally decided to indulge the other man.

“Some of these paintings are new.”

Fotis’ eyes lit up. “I have become more involved in collecting the last few years,” he said eagerly. “I think it is my true calling.”

“Ah.”

“Never mind that, I know what you’re thinking. Only a fool would collect art for money. Too unstable. I enjoy it. I enjoy pursuing my own peculiar tastes, and I enjoy being surrounded by beautiful things.”

“This landscape?”

Fotis shifted to look. “Dutch. A student of Bruegel, I’m told. Beautiful, yes?”

“Very beautiful. And I see you have an icon.”

“A few of them. Not very old, or valuable. They have been greatly overproduced in recent centuries. This one is Russian.”

“You would like to collect some authentic Byzantine examples, no doubt.”

Dragoumis turned back around, a smile both cold and satisfied on his long, regal face.

“There is no real trade in Byzantine icons. Not enough of them in private hands. It’s all museums and churches, so it is hard to set a price. Their true value is spiritual.” Fotis the pious.

“Of course.”

“You know that Kessler is dead.”

Andreas sighed. It had occurred to him from the start that Kessler and the icon were behind this forced visit.

“I had heard.”

“Keeping up those contacts. Good.”

Andreas shrugged. Why bother saying he’d read it in the
New York Times
? Fotis assumed that all information must come through intelligence channels. Let him think that Andreas was still plugged into the network.

“So,” Fotis continued, “what does our fine government of Greece think of this development?”

“What should they think? All they would know of Kessler is what you told them.”

“You believe so? In that case the file is empty, because I told them absolutely nothing about Kessler. Why would I?”

“Neither did I. Perhaps they have other sources. You won’t learn anything from me.”

They became quiet again. Andreas wondered where the bathroom was.

“The granddaughter is executor.” Dragoumis slid a long brown cigarette from the pack and lit it. “She is looking to have the whole collection appraised.”

“Have you offered your services?”

Fotis laughed, blowing swirling orbs of smoke.

“I’m a small-time collector. I assumed she would go to one of the auction houses.”

“Logical.”

“But it seems she has loftier goals. Her lawyer has been speaking to some of the major museums. I can see it now, the Kessler Wing of the Metropolitan.”

Andreas’ radar began sounding.

“Why the Metropolitan?”

“Just an example, but it’s the most obvious choice. Kessler concentrated on medieval. There aren’t many places in this country that could do justice to that. None of the other New York museums.”

“Why New York? Why not Europe?”

“Perhaps they will try Europe. New York was his home, though. Bad history across the Atlantic. The Swiss wouldn’t touch him. Probably not the Germans, either. Anyway, you’ll never guess whom the Met is sending over to look at a few things.”

He did not have to guess.

“Your grandson,” Fotis continued. “The world is small, my friend, no?”

Andreas managed not to show alarm, but he was unnerved. Dragoumis was older, sicker, self-deluding, but here was why he had always been better at these games. He was relentless, and he constantly found new ways to unbalance you.

“Fotis,” he said quietly, without either threat or plea, “leave Matthew out of this.”

“My dearest Andreou, what have I to do with it? You think they consult me?”

“How do you know about it?”

“Matthew told me. Look now, the chief medievalist is an old man, not young and handsome like our boy. Byzantine is his specialty; that’s your doing, not mine. All those years taking him to churches and museums. Of course they would send Matthew. The girl will love him, the museum will get the icon, and our boy gets the credit. Where is the harm?”

“No harm. If that is all there is to the story.”

“Truthfully? I begin to wonder.” The old man waved his cigarette around casually. “Because here you are.”

“My son is ill.”

“Your son has been ill for months. Kessler died ten days ago.”

Andreas leaned back in his chair, desperately wanting to be out of this place, to be anywhere else but in the lair of this sad, scheming creature. “You have lived too long, Foti, you see plots everywhere. I came to see my son, no other reason.” He stood. “Have your man take me to my hotel. I can never find a taxi in this neighborhood.”

BOOK: The Icon
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