Authors: Vincent Zandri
I’m just about to run when I hear, “Chase,
don’t leave me.” The words painful and desperate.
“Andrea,” I whisper.
She’s alive …
The fire spreads to the back. Putin’s
clothing now catches fire.
“Chase,” she screams, “I’m burning.”
Her words are tortured, full of agony.
Shoving the pistol into my shoulder
holster, the book and the map into my satchel, I go back to the Defender. But
the fire is too hot. The heat slaps me in the face, nearly knocks me onto my
backside. Looking down, I see the puddle of liquid forming at my feet. It’s
pouring out of the damaged fuel line beneath the vehicle.
“Gasoline,” I whisper, as if I need
to say it aloud to believe it.
“Andrea, please forgive me,” I
whisper as I turn and run only seconds before the Defender bursts into a ball
The explosion knocks me onto my chest and face.
Pieces of metal and human body rain
down around me. Fragments of the scattered wreckage and remains are lit on
fire. It’s a grisly sight. Tears in my eyes, I stand and face the hill. Turning
away from a woman I could have loved for life, I climb, on my way to the da
Here’s what I know: The soldiers
who occupied the two pickup trucks will come after me once they realize I didn’t
go up in flames with the Defender. My guess is they are already on my tail.
Their desire to get to me will have little to do with being loyal to the General
or Putin, but it will have everything to do with personal gain. They will want
to locate the cave as much as their previous employers … as much as I do.
I climb the steep hillside, along
the fresh tracks dug out by the Defender’s heavy wheels. The tall trees provide
a canopy against the sun, but the darkness of the woods makes me feel even more
lonely than I already am. In my head, I see the monk who suddenly appeared out
of nowhere. The same monk I’ve been seeing off and on for more than twenty-four
hours. How is it possible he was able to simply appear out of thin air?
My head is spinning and, to be
honest, my heart is breaking. Sure, Andrea betrayed me, used me, stabbed me in
the back where it hurts the most, but since my wife and I split up—and she went
on to marry a successful investment banker in New York City—I have not been one
to easily love. I’ve had my share of women, more than my share of trouble and
flings, but damned if I don’t have trouble finding that elusive true love. And,
for a very brief time, I thought I’d unearthed it with Andrea Gallo. For her to
die like she did is simply too painful to contemplate; it’s too gut wrenching
to know I was useless when it came to recusing her. She died in pain and
afraid, and that’s the worst way anyone of us can go, regardless of our sins to
the world, to God, or to ourselves.
The hike is taking my breath away,
my pulse pounding in my temples, my heart hammering against my ribs. The more I
climb, the more this hill feels like a mountain, its grade so steep it nearly
qualifies for a Class 5 climb. At some points, I’m forced to hike on all fours
or risk tumbling backward, just like the Land Rover Defender did farther down
What I’m most regretting is a lack
of water. I wasn’t prepared for a hike of this uphill extreme. But, as if God
is reading my mind, I spot a small package blocking my path. It’s a bottle of
water and, along with it, a folded note.
For an extended moment or two, I
suck air and stare disbelievingly at the package set on the small, flat
outcropping of rock.
“How is this possible?” I whisper
I pick the note up, unfold it.
I’m exhausted, thirsty, desperate.
But, I do my best to decipher the script in my mind. It takes a few slow beats,
but eventually I recognize it as “Drink for truth.” The man in the robe … the
monk … how is it possible he is not only following me, but guiding me? He
is not like a mortal man at all, but an apparition. Maybe the note, the water,
the robed man who appeared before the speeding Defender, is all a figment of my
imagination. What’s not a figment is the wrecked vehicle at the bottom of the
hill, the lives it destroyed, and my position on this small mountain in the
middle of the Italian wilderness.
I shove the note in my pocket, open
up the bottled figment of my imagination and drink.
I drink until the water is gone,
some of it spilling down my lips onto my shirt. An amazing thing happens, then.
I feel refreshed, energized. Not because of simple rehydration, there’s
something else. Something I can’t begin to explain. I only know that my body no
longer feels beat up, or exhausted, or defeated. I feel younger than I was
Setting the bottle back on the
ground, where I found it, I continue my uphill hike. This time, with spring in
When the tree line ends and the
landscape gives over mostly to granite rock, I know I’ve come to the hilltop.
The air is noticeably cooler, cleaner, crisper. I climb the last few feet to a
summit that contains maybe half a dozen jagged, steeple-like peaks, and I gaze
down upon the valley. It’s difficult to explain the sensation that takes over
inside my body. As I peer down upon the thick, green vegetation that fills the
deep valley and the many birds flying over it as they emerge from their nests
in the surrounding, smaller hillsides, I can’t help but feel as if I have
entered a different dimension altogether. As though, by emerging through the
trees, I’ve stepped into a kind of portal, or time warp, in which all things twenty-first
century have disappeared entirely.
My breathing grows shallow, and my
head spins. The granite beneath me begins to feel like mush and the world gyrates
far too fast. Was I injured in the crash more than I realized? Is the shock
only now wearing off to give way to stroke … or worse, heart failure? I can’t
feel anything in my extremities and the ground seems to disappear entirely
while all strength seeps out of my body. I drop down to my knees and finally to
my side. I peer out onto a pristine valley that seems to go for miles and miles
until it all fades to black.
I see myself flying over the
valley. A pair of wings attached to my back. Glider wings made of wood and
white fabric. They are identical to the ones da Vinci invented more than six
hundred years ago. I’m amazed because they work so well. I use the wings to
dive and then recover, gaining altitude so that I’m once again far above the
forest floor. Circling for a while, I peer down at an area of earth within the
valley that is not forested but, instead, covered only with only dark rock. The
patch of barren ground I’m looking at forms an almost a perfect circle … like
a lake bed that has been drained of its water. It’s not immediately discernable
until I begin a slow descent, but I begin to make out something that occupies
the center of the circle. It’s the figure of a human being. A man with long
hair parted in the middle. The man is naked, his arms outstretched and his feet
spread shoulder width apart.
I’m filled with awe at the scale
of the man carved into the earth, at the sheer size. For certain, the man would
not be discernable at ground level. You would have to be flying in order to
make it out, just like the Nazca Lines in Peru. Whoever created it would have
to be knowledgeable about flight and flying. Or, perhaps, whoever created it
did so as a beacon or a lighthouse. A way of attracting extraterrestrial ships
to this very spot on earth.
I’m circling the Vitruvian Man when
he begins to spin and the earth beneath him opens up …
Opening my eyes, I see feet clad in
old, leather sandals. I gaze up at the robed figure. The same robed figure who
has been following me for a full day now. Following me and giving me notes and sketches.
Or so my built-in shit detector is convinced. Slowly, I stand. Heart in my
throat, I face the monk directly for the first time since he entered my life.
His face is still somewhat hidden beneath
the hood, so all I can make out is his thick, white beard. But when he lifts
his hands, pulls the hood back, he reveals his face. He’s an older man, if not
downright ancient. His beard and mustache white, his nose long and accented with
a distinct peak in the center, lips thin and red. His eyes are big brown pools
and his thick hair, as white as the clouds, spills down onto his shoulders.
My pulse is pounding in my chest
and in my head. My mouth has gone dry, pasty. The cold breeze blows up from the
valley, filling the monk’s robes like a sail, making his white hair tremble. He
smiles at me, but he does not speak a word. Instead, I can almost hear his
voice in my head. It tells me he’s been keeping an eye on me. Helping me.
Because the location of the cave must not fall into the wrong hands or it will
signal the end of humankind. Even now, right this very moment, forces of evil
are threatening me. Threatening us. If they are to overrun us, they could very
well find the cave, and we cannot allow that.
Coming from behind, the sound of
footsteps, and orders shouted out.
I about-face, peer downhill at the
soldiers Soleimani and Putin left behind. There must be a dozen of them, and
they are loaded to the gills with automatic weapons slung over their shoulders,
semi-automatic sidearms, and fighting knives attached to their utility belts .
. . maybe even hand grenades.
The small army is being led by
Mahaz—the giant, broad-shouldered figure looking like a Goliath that’s emerged
from the thick woods. Now I know for sure, he must have been tossed from the
Defender as it rolled down the steep hillside. Lucky him. Lucky me.
He raises his right hand issuing
the hand-signal order for his men to stop. They do, but at the same time they
shoulder their AK47s, plant a direct bead on me and my robed friend.
“It’s over, Chase Baker!” Mahaz
shouts, his deep, baritone voice echoing through the valley. “I want the map
and the sketch book. Do you understand me? I want them both now, or you will
die.” He looks over one shoulder and then the other. “You can’t possibly win.
It’s just you and an old man. Now, do yourself a favor and give me what I want,
and I’ll see to it that you live another day.”
Mahaz waves his men on. Their
weapons still aimed at me and the robed monk, they proceed to climb the granite
hillside toward my position. I could reach for the sidearm I stole off of a
very dead Soleimani, but somehow, I know it would only result in my getting
shot to pieces. What I need is a machine gun. Or artillery. A weapon that can
stop a small army.
That’s when I hear the strange
voice inside my head once more.
“You have your arsenal,” it tells
me. “All you have to do is open your eyes.”
Shifting my gaze from the soldiers,
who are spread out along the hillside to form a solid line of death, to one of
the many scrub bushes that litter the mostly rocky terrain, I spot something
that takes my breath away. How is it I haven’t noticed this machine until now?
It’s a replica of the repeating gun da Vinci invented half a millennium ago. A wheeled
device that supports three separate rows of a dozen guns apiece so that after
firing the first volley, all the operator is required to do is spin the next
row of twelve guns into place. Altogether, it should afford me thirty-six
rapid-fire rounds in less than half a minute. The piece is completely hidden
from Mahaz and his men by the tall brush cover.
Set beside the ancient machine gun
is the piece of heavy artillery I wished for. A mortar that houses what I guess
to be a one-hundred-pound projectile. It, too, appears to be armed and ready to
go. Its white, waxed fuse stands stiff and at the ready. How the hell did this
old man manage to transport a couple tons worth of heavy metal and wood
artillery pieces all the way up here onto this hilltop?
Right now, I’m not interested in
answers so much as I am survival.
Eyes on the enemy soldiers and
their giant leader Mahaz, I realize they are just about in range. If I’m going
to stop them, I must do it now. But first, I need fire. I rummage through my
jacket pocket for my Zippo, pull it out, light a flame.
“Hands up, Chase!” Mahaz shouts. “Hands
up where I can seem them, or we will fire on you!”
“Drop your weapon, Mahaz!” I bark. “Or
face the wrath of God!”
He laughs aloud causing some of his
men to laugh. “What will you do exactly? Spit on us?”
I, too, laugh because the jokes on
him. “I’m going to blow you all back to hell.”
I light the mortar fuse then light
the first fuse on the machine gun. The mortar launches in a blast of black
powder and smoke, the projectile going airborne.
“Incoming!” a suddenly wide-eyed Mahaz
shouts as the first rapid-fire volley from the machine gun bursts forth,
cutting down three men on his left flank.