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Authors: Ellis Shuman

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Valley of Thracians

BOOK: Valley of Thracians
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Valley of Thracians

 

A Novel of Bulgaria

By Ellis Shuman

 

Kindle Edition.

All Rights Reserved.

Copyright 2013 Ellis Shuman

Cover Design by Shiran Waldman

 

The
characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to
real persons, living or
dead,
is coincidental and not
intended by the author.

 

No
part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means,
graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping,
or by any information storage or retrieval system, without the permission in
writing from the author.

 

This
ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be
re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book
with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient.
Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 
 

For
Jodie, who lived the Bulgarian adventure with
me

 
 

Part
One: The Unintentional Tourist

 
 

Chapter
1

 
 

“Is this your first visit to Bulgaria?”
asked the passport control clerk at Sofia International Airport.

“Yes.” He looked through the smudged
glass at the woman as she flipped the pages of his passport. She glanced up to
compare the weary-looking, gray-haired man standing in front of her with the
much younger version that smiled reservedly from the faded photograph. Today he
had little in common with that self-assured academic who had enthusiastically
traveled the world giving lectures and attending international conferences. It
was almost as if they weren’t even related.

“Welcome, Simon Matthews,” she said,
stamping his passport with Sofia Airport’s inky signature before sliding it
back under the glass.

He smiled at her, but she was already
beckoning the next traveler to the booth. As he placed his passport into his
travel bag, his shoulders drooped with the weight of what he planned to do in
the days ahead. Executing his self-appointed mission in a foreign country would
not be easy.

Waiting for the baggage carousel to
spring to life, he reminisced with surprise that he had managed to come this
far. “Maybe this is all a mistake,” he murmured to himself for the hundredth
time since leaving Chicago. Hadn’t his son warned him against traveling to
Bulgaria on his own, arguing that due to his advanced years, Simon was no
longer capable of coping with strange situations and unfamiliar environment? Perhaps
that was part of the reason he had come—to prove Daniel wrong. Couldn’t his son
see the importance of this trip?

Simon fidgeted nervously, hoping that he
would be able to recognize his suitcase before it passed from view on the
moving belt—and not feeling fully confident that he would be able to retrieve
it by himself if he did. His leg was aching again, his muscles contracting
painfully after the long hours of cramped flight. He should sit down, he told
himself, but he didn’t want to lose his place near the carousel. The other
passengers, speaking amongst themselves in their foreign-sounding language,
nonchalantly passed the time as if delays in airports were the most common
thing in the world. Well, actually they were.

Getting to Bulgaria hadn’t been a simple
task. Maybe someone was trying to tell him something.

Minutes later, with his suitcase
dragging behind him on its shaky plastic wheels, he limped past customs to the
small arrivals hall. As local residents greeted family members and friends, he
went over to an ATM to withdraw local currency with his credit card. The
blue-tinted bills were freshly printed; he had to work at them with his thumbs
to make sure that he hadn’t been shortchanged. How much was a twenty leva bill
worth in dollars, anyway? He had done some calculations in the days preceding
his hastily arranged departure, but like so many other things recently, the
details slipped his mind.

“You want ride into Sofia?”

He turned to face a short, stocky man
wearing a bulky leather jacket that appeared inappropriate on the warm June
afternoon. “Do you know where the Hilton is?”

“Hilton hotel?” the man asked,
pronouncing each ‘h’ with a harsh, grating tone.

“Yes, the Hilton.”

“Sure, I take you.
My
taxi outside.”

The taxi sped toward the city, traveling
on a bumpy divided roadway shadowed by colorful billboards advertising luxury
shopping and computer products. The slogans reminded him that, like Russian,
Bulgarian was a language that used the Cyrillic alphabet. Much of the
information he saw posted was totally incomprehensible. A telecomm company’s
banner, which used English to welcome arriving tourists with promises of
constant connectivity, made him feel a bit more secure. Advertisements
announcing Internet deals and mobile phone service were signs of Bulgaria’s
modernity, dispelling his preconceived notion that he was traveling to an
isolated third-world country.

The weathered tenements he passed on the
road looked just like those he had imagined Eastern Europe would have, with
laundry drooping from metal-railed balconies and faded, chipped paint barely
concealing the aging cement bricks of the structures. Graffiti sketched in
oversized letters and psychedelic hues shouted at him from the concrete walls,
as unintelligible here as such statements of protest were in any urban setting.
Simon assumed not much had changed since the country’s communist era, but he
really knew nothing about this city, its history, or its people. He stared out
the window, taking in the passing scenery with wonder, like the unintentional
tourist that he was.

“How much?” he asked with a sigh of
relief when they pulled to a stop in front of the very modern Hilton in its
park-like setting.

“Eighty leva,” the driver said, flashing
an array of golden fillings.

“Eighty levs?”
Simon replied, trying to calculate the cost in his mind. That was more than
fifty dollars for what had been barely a twenty-five minute ride. Nothing had
prepared him for such an expense.

“Standard cost,” the driver shrugged as
he pocketed the four blue bills.

Simon immediately realized he had been
tricked. The taxi driver had taken advantage of him, seeing easy prey in an
elderly foreigner. Frustrated, he went into the hotel to check into his room.

Set up in his seventh-floor room a short
while later, Simon eagerly switched on his laptop, connected the retractable
mouse, and followed the hotel’s instructions to log on to the Internet. Perhaps
there was a message from Daniel. He half hoped that there would be other
important emails demanding his attention, although since his retirement nothing
urgent came looking for him anymore.

He waded through the unexciting
messages.
“You’re missed at the university,”
wrote one former colleague.
“Have you started on that book project?”
asked another.
“Wishing you
a wonderful time in Bulgaria,”
said a third.

A
wonderful
time
in Bulgaria?
He wasn’t exactly here on a vacation!

Before signing off, he opened up his
Skype program and glimpsed at the list of his contacts. The names of some
friends and family members around the world appeared online while others were
not. Daniel was offline, which was expected because Bulgaria was ten hours
ahead of Los Angeles, where his son lived. What time would his son
be
getting up? Had he perhaps misjudged and missed his son’s
early-morning computer time? He couldn’t keep track of time differences.

Near the bottom of the program window,
one moniker drew his attention more than the others, despite being marked with
a faded status icon. He moved his laptop mouse, hovering over the name for many
seconds, but the gray failed to switch to active green. Simon closed his eyes,
took a deep breath, and then quickly returned his gaze to the screen. The
contact was still offline, and there was no indication when this particular
Skype user would be available.


I will find him,” Simon
vowed under his breath. “I will find him,” he whispered again, the power of the
mantra growing with each repetition.

 
 

Chapter
2

 
 

“Your grandson is dead.”

Those words never failed to strike at
his core, cutting into him as sharply now as they had when he heard them for
the first time. He held his head in his hands for a moment, trying to ease his
emotions, and then he lifted his tear-filled eyes to face the embassy’s deputy
consul sitting across the table.

“I am not sure,” he started, wondering
where to begin. “I’m not sure that this is really true.”

“The case has been closed for three
years,” the official stated in a manner that precluded possible arguments.

“I know,” Simon sighed, his hands
shaking as he spoke. “But it’s not closed for me.”

“Look at all the evidence we have,” the
official continued, glancing for a moment at his associate, a young female
employee of the United States Consular Service. “The wallet and passport of
twenty-three-year-old Scott Matthews were discovered on a beach at a resort
north of Varna three years ago. The Bulgarian police investigated, and your
grandson was never found. Possibly he was washed out to sea; it’s not clear.”

“But you never found his body,” Simon
said, his voice almost pleading for the officials to give him something that he
knew they could not provide.

“We never found the body,” the female
associate admitted.

“They searched up and down the coast,”
the deputy consul continued, stating the basic facts, things that Simon already
knew. “We were in constant liaison with our counterparts in the Bulgarian
National Police. In addition, we contacted the police forces in Romania and
Turkey. They searched for him everywhere along the Black Sea coast. The beaches
in Varna and at Golden Sands, well, they were combed very thoroughly. No body
was recovered; no unidentified body was ever found matching the description of
your grandson.”

“Was there money in his wallet?” Simon
asked.

“Yes, there was money in the wallet.
There was no evidence of foul play, Mr. Matthews,” the woman pitched in. “No
suspicion of a kidnapping or anything of that nature.”

“It’s Professor. Professor Matthews.” He
had avoided using the title during his years of academia, but ever since his
retirement he had latched onto it as a vainglorious reminder of his former
standing.

“Professor Matthews,” she apologized.

“And what about his
laptop?
Did you ever find his laptop computer?”

“No, his laptop was never found,” the
woman said quietly.

“We all know why your grandson came to
Bulgaria,” the deputy consul stated, clearing his throat as if to indicate that
he wanted to change the direction of this discussion. “We know all about that,
but the circumstances leading to his arrival in the Varna area are unclear to
us.”

Yes, Simon thought to himself, he also
knew why Scott had traveled to Bulgaria, but what had occurred during his
grandson’s sojourn in the country remained a mystery. According to the American
officials, there was no connection between Scott’s original purpose in visiting
Bulgaria and his later disappearance. Unfamiliar with what his grandson had
experienced during his stay, where he had traveled, and whom he had befriended,
Simon lacked the evidence that would lead to a similar conclusion.

“Your son, Daniel Matthews, came here
shortly after your grandson’s, um, disappearance,” the deputy consul continued.
“He concurred with our findings. There is no reason to doubt the fact that your
grandson is dead,” he concluded.

Simon winced at that statement. The
Americans, along with their Bulgarian counterparts, had tried to find Scott’s
body but had failed. Perhaps that was because there was no body to be found. In
their failure, Simon felt hope; hope that Scott was alive. Why couldn’t the
embassy staff share some of this hope?

“What brought you to Bulgaria at this
time, Professor?” the female official asked.

Why had he come now? That was the very
question his son had raised during their heated long-distance arguments in the
days before the flight.

“Don’t go to Bulgaria,” Daniel said over
the phone line. “There is nothing for you there.”

Daniel had come to terms with the fact
that his only child was dead, that his body had gone missing somewhere on a
Bulgarian beach. Scott’s mother, Susan, had been heartbroken, more devastated
than any of them. She was unable to bear the pain and suffered from
overwhelming outbursts of grief even three years later. But Daniel kept his
sorrow buried deep inside, as he had from the very first when he bore the
devastating news as if he was immune from expressing his feelings. Daniel had
returned to Los Angeles with no coffin or ability to conduct a real Jewish
funeral. They held their memorial service, mourned the loss of the young adult
who had departed from their lives, and then Daniel moved on, distancing himself
from other family members and their effusive emotions.

“Dad, don’t you see what you’re doing?”
Daniel pleaded, his voice rising. “You’re reopening all the wounds, bringing
back the pain. Why do you want to hurt Susan and me more than necessary? Why
are you doing this to yourself? Don’t you see it’s useless—that anything you
uncover in Bulgaria will only result in more bad memories? Scott is gone, and
we can’t change that fact. Nothing you can do in Bulgaria will ever bring Scott
back.”

Why had Simon come to Bulgaria, a
country he had never visited and of which he had absolutely no knowledge? He
could not respond to Daniel with clarity any more than he could now explain his
reasoning and determination to the American embassy officials. It was a feeling
he had—a gut feeling that was burning inside him and growing in intensity from
day to day.

But there was more, and this he could
barely explain to himself. There had been a sign recently, a nearly physical
sign, and he truly believed that this proved his grandson was not dead. What he
had witnessed suggested that Scott was living somewhere in Bulgaria, where he
had last been seen three years before. It was not an illusion that Simon had
seen, but something quite clear that commanded his attention and dictated his
actions. The sign had been there, he repeatedly told himself, convinced that it
was real.

He couldn’t bring himself to tell Daniel
what he had seen nor could he offer proof that it had been something real and
not imagined. He couldn’t explain what he felt deep in his heart because Daniel
would argue that his convictions were but prayers for what could never be.
Simon had faith that Scott was still alive, and that was what had brought him
to undertake this trip.

He had hoped for Daniel’s blessing for
this trip, some indication that his son approved of his mission—or at least
gave it the benefit of the doubt. Despite Daniel’s dismissals, he had booked
his flights. He had flown to Bulgaria not for Daniel’s sake, for Daniel’s heart
had already cemented the pains of the past. He had come to Bulgaria for his own
sake, to find closure for something that he believed should not be closed.

More importantly, he had come to
Bulgaria for Scott’s sake, to find him and to save him if at all possible. That
of course meant proving, somehow—and against all odds—that it was not too late
to find his grandson.

“Why are you in Bulgaria now?” the
deputy consul said, repeating his associate’s question.

“You have no proof, no absolute proof
that my grandson is dead. I believe him to be alive. I intend to find him. I
really do.”

“We want to help you,” the woman
official said, reaching forward with her hand as if she could comfort him with
her touch. “But, realistically, Professor Matthews, it’s been three years, and
there is little more that we can do.”

“I know, I know,” he sighed. “Thank you
for your time.”

The deputy consul gave Simon his
business card, the name Brett Thompson printed on it next to the U.S. embassy
logo, assuring him that he would be available if the professor came up with any
new information, anything that would warrant reopening a closed investigation.

I will find him.
For Simon, the case was anything but closed.

 
 
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