Chapter 5 of The Holy Lance, a fantasy thriller

Been away on pressing family business for the past five days without any time to write or edit. Back at it now that I'm home in Napa, and glad of it for many, many reasons. As always, comments are welcome.

Chapter 5

As Higgins types his report the man who burgled his office makes his way on foot along the side of a dusty road to a lonely checkpoint that marks the border between the area of Iraq under direct British control and what the West is still referring to as Persia. The scorching heat has the four British soldiers who man the rarely-used crossing taking turns standing in the shade of the small white-washed guard house on the British/Iraqi side of the border. Two horses are tied up behind the guard house, and next to the horses sits a Model T Ford modified by the British Army as a platform for a Lewis machine gun. A red and white striped crossing arm blocks passage on the dirt road just beyond the guard house. Twenty meters beyond the guardhouse is a nearly identical structure manned by two Iranian soldiers of the Artesh. Rolls of barbed wire extend out for more than two hundred meters on either side of the crossing. The barbed wire is overkill as few ever try to cross into the British Mandate from the west. Indeed, the checkpoint rarely sees more than 20 people a day moving in both directions. The soldiers on both sides of the border are quite certain that the only reason the checkpoint is manned is so that the British and Iranian Armies will have one more way to abuse their lowest ranking enlisted men.

The burglar, now wearing the traditional black cassock and crucifix of a Russian Orthodox Priest, stops at the guardhouse.

“Papers, sir,” comes the request from one of the Brits standing in the guardhouse.

As the priest reaches under his cassock to pull out his identification and transit papers, the soldier grabs a ledger off the guardhouse’s only shelf and opens it. The burglar hands his papers to the soldier. The soldier inspects the papers, looks over the priest, and looks at his watch. He writes the date, time, and identification information from the papers in the ledger before returning the papers.

“Weren’t you just through here?” the soldier asks nonchalantly.

“Your memory is perfect. Four days ago. This very spot,” the priest responds in English tinged with a heavy Russian accent.

“Tending the flock, father?”

“My work here is done, and I long to go home,” is his mildly cryptic response.

“Can’t blame you for that, eh? Wouldn’t mind going home myself.”

The soldier flips back through the ledger a few pages, stops, and reads an entry.

“Right! There you are. Well, that’s it then. On your way.”

The soldier comes out of the guardhouse and opens the crossing arm by pressing down on the arm’s counterweight. The priest walks across the border, and the soldier lets the crossing arm down behind him.

←↔↔↔↔↔→

A man stands on a small dock jutting into the Black Sea, 20 kilometers south of Kerch near the far eastern end of the Crimean Peninsula. A small, unlit kerosene lamp sits on the dock next to him. He pulls out a pocket watch, pops it open, and tries to make out the time in the darkness. He returns the watch to the right pocket of his well-worn vest.

A moment later he hears the low-pitched hum of a small outboard motor. He scans the horizon and is just able to make out the silhouette of a small launch. He takes a match from behind his ear, strikes it against the lantern’s housing, lifts the glass chimney to expose the wick, and lights the lamp. He lets the chimney down, flicks the match into the water, and, as prearranged swing the lantern to guide the small launch approaching from the south.

Within moments the launch is alongside the pier. The man places the lantern on the dock and readies himself to secure the launch’s bow line. The helmsman puts the engine in neutral, sets its speed to idle, and allows the launch to drift until it brushes against a piling supporting the dock. The bow line is tossed by the launch’s passenger who is standing just aft of the bow. The launch comes to a full, gentle stop when the man on the dock secures the bow line to horn cleat.

The passenger, still dressed as a Russian Orthodox priest as he has been since beginning his two-week journey by foot, train, cart, and boat from Baghdad, steps out of the boat and onto the dock. The man on the dock shines the lantern in the passenger’s face. Having satisfied himself of the passenger’s identity, he puts the lantern down, and welcomes the passenger home.

“Success?” he asks the priest simply.

The priest refuses to answer. Instead, he releases the line from the cleat and tosses it onto the launch. With his foot he shoves the bow of the boat away from the dock. The helmsman engages the engine and opens the throttle sufficiently to get the launch underway. He is shortly out of hearing distance.

The two men walk towards a wagon hitched to two horses at the land end of the dock. Before they reach the wagon, the priest stops. His companion stops, too.

“Success,” the priest ominously proclaims.