5 – Athens

A half hour later they passed over docks of Pireus, a former port packed with refugee tents and sprawling tin shacks.  After twenty minutes, a silvery smog coiled like a snake around their helicopter as they first spotted Athens.  The pilots strapped on then passed back cotton face-masks as the suburbs gave out to a sweltering downtown. Corpses smoked inside tin-shielded lots manned by masked workers in filthy aprons. Families scrambled on squatted rooftops, raising empty cups, or pails for water, waving handkerchiefs, some held up babies, others brandished knives, pipes or pistols. Men coughed up blood, singing demented anthems, jumping to the congested streets, to their death.  Small arms fire bombs rocked the taxicab mountains erected to pull the poor above streetlevel to breathe. Their own engines blocked out the noise and their blades cut the hanging smoke like black cheese.

They descended after spotting the Acropolis, fortified with anti-aircraft batteries and a ring of machine gun nests. Tire and cement walls had been erected and flaming crude oil poured down its slopes, worsening the heavy pall over the city. As they circled the Acropolis the anti-aircraft batteries swiveled to lock in on them until the pilots identified themselves on radio as “Iago II”.  Several red flares began pluming from a painted  “X” and trucks rolled away from the landing area.

After the copter eased down they first saw the Parthenon, now a powder magazine wrapped in plastic sheets secured by rope. Industrial fans were erected nearby to cut the tear gas and smog.  Blades slowing, they stepped out, and Rupert and Aloysius were allowed to stretch their legs and walk, and with evil fumes blowing, they quickly threaded past milling guns to the far side of the fans, to breathe and see.

Along the opposite slope, they saw an elaborate operation festering below.  A long, snaking line from neighborhoods at the hill’s base reached nearly to the crest: a cement outpost built with a rut dug into its side sequestered by tires, cement walls and burning oil.  Guns were trained on two lines: one with thousands holding baskets of goods ascending; the other, separated by heavy chains, descended, the suppliants holding precious bags to their chests, prodded by machine-guns back. At the bottom the first crowd milled around in two barbed wire holding pens to be searched or expelled.  Yet this did not discourage many from scaling the hill, nor scraping up a human anthill under barbed wire, using the dead as props or battering rams to try to reach the defended high-ground — to be shot like cattle. The hill had been turned into a heroin and cocaine trading post to shake out the last bit of wealth still privately held in Athens.

Neither Rupert and Aloysius really knew of the site’s historic importance.  It was clear, however, that one had to operate on a hill in a city without water, electricity, or breathable air, and without room to move following the flood of immigrants from Turkey and Macedonia where the Collapse slammed earlier and famine hit first.

They could only see the result of right-wing anti-immigrant riots, ethnic assassination squads, government crackdowns, troops occupying the capital, martial law, then the disappearance of a money economy, and the succession of powerless councils as the law’s reach shrunk to Athen’s city limits, then to privately guarded enclaves.  Food riots, the breakdown of sanitation — the rages of diphtheria, typhus, tuberculosis were all part of an Athens which, if the pilots bothered to land in the streets, would argue for Neb’s crucifixion.  Neb had set up shop backed by guns, at first on the outskirts then with city-wide paramilitary death squads — The Atavists — and established a drug bazaar which, for some, eased the horror through suicidal overdoses.   Neb himself came to Athens to organize the drug trade, donating just enough food from expropriation to become legendary, and adored by the city’s poor — before moving North — leaving the addicted city to rot, occupying Rome for three years, and now, Prague.

The pilot’s contact sent a boy over to fetch Rupert and Aloysius back and escort them into a plastic hut with a map of Greece, the islands, and the extent of Nebuchadnezzar’s empire spread out over a drafting table.  Neb had moved from Afghanistan, Turkey and Georgia, then up from Tunisia and Libya to Greece swallowing up the Balkans, Austria, Bavaria, Slovakia and the Czech state.  Landing strips were marked by a red “X”, recommended altitudes by blue, little explosions symbolized still-operating enemy anti-aircraft, and troop movements by black arrows — all movement pointed toward Paris.

“We’re Iago.”  The American pilot smiled, stoking a coke pipe with his left hand, still wearing flight goggles, presenting his callused free hand to them both: “You will explain everything to us.  Marcel is listening. ‘Full account for full payment’  So Neb said. You beat the mark, right?”

‘We killed him.” Rupert answered directly, watching the pilots sweating in the lantern light of the plastic hut.  The contact, Marcel, was sitting down in a corner chair, but only the cherry of his cigarette notified them where he sat, and where he listened in the dark.

“Marcel over there will dispatch inspectors from Prague in a heavier transport to search Santorini.  You are to report to Neb yourself, in a week.  You better have done it.”

“We did him.  And the one he traveled with.”  Aloysius snapped.

Marcel leaned forward, they could hear his steel chair creak.

“A week?  That’s too long!”  Rupert glanced behind him, considering what the American pilot said, seeing only Marcel’s cigarette cherry being snuffed under his shoe.

“Too long? You agreed!”  The pilot shouted, slapping down his pipe. “You requested a break in one of Neb’s resorts near Thessaloniki.”

“We want to leave sooner.”

“You can’t break an agreement with Neb!  Marcel, talk to this crazy bitch, will you?  I’m gone.  C’mon Eugene.” The other pilot, who said nothing, pocketed the pipe as they left.

“Are you Marcel?  Can they fly us tonight?”

“They cannot.”  The voice in darkness spoke up with a rather heavy French accent, “The question is … are you Russian?  Are you women?”

“What?”  Aloysius asked, trying out a woman’s voice.

Marcel flicked his lighter open and lit his cigarette and they glimpsed a wry expression spread across an elegant but dissipated face, a veteran of many decadent campaigns.  Rupert reflected that if anything would save them it was his vanity or greed.  “We traded with Grabmalaire before this kid killed him, you know, not in Santorini … Paris.  I saw Grabmalaire once.  Grabmaler — excuse my English — of course, was old world, a businessman really.  Some say they sorry to see him die … he delivered on time.  But he always took heavy cut for himself.  So we’re not sorry we say ‘By By’.  No.  When we heard his adopted son keel him, and the young man had noting to do wit Tombstone, word came down.  Neb ordered assassination — and wasted jet on little bastard.”

“We didn’t get to know him.  We just dumped the jet.”

“Yes … a waste.”

“Yet, one obeys an … emperor.”   Aloysius forced himself to say.

“Emperor? Oh, oui!”  The Frenchman snorted.  Finally he rose and examined them, in the light.  Aloysius moved away, lifting a vent to watch the hill-slaves filing up and down the Acropolis, the chains rising and lowering, the machine guns waving, and a shiver of bold revulsion surfaced through his made-up face.  “Yes,” Marcel smiled,  “you did important work with risk …  so we discuss payment.  We agreed three kilos by fax through Vera.  You still with us?”

“Three kilos?”  Rupert swallowed.

“You received fax!  You agreed!  We no need re-negotiate dat, do we?”

“Yes.”  Aloysius spoke up, still peering through the vent, “We want to re-negotiate.”

“What he means … we don’t need three kilos.  We need safe passage through to Paris.”

“You must stop in Prague!  What?  You not want three kilos of pure heroin, in this day and age?  Better than gold!  You could bribe your way three times around world now, if you want — if anyone still want to see — the world — on THREE KILOS!”  The Frenchman reflected, revolving his finger at his temple, then thinking he could keep the stash for himself if these transvestites so badly wanted Paris.

Three kilos for Marcel could only provide an incentive to forget his doubts, Rupert thought.  He and Aloysius only had to register the right mix of cupidity and false savvy to bribe him.

“Look,” Rupert pleaded, “we just went through a very trying experience — why don’t you keep the shit yourself?   See that we get to Paris after Prague.  Do it yourself.  We want to go to Paris.  You must understand that.”

“You want to see it fall?  It’s not going to be pretty.  Do you agree to tat Dora?”  Marcel asked.  Aloysius thought he might be trying to test them and decided it best to correct him.

“No, my name is Alexandra.  We just want you to get a sweet deal so we make Prague, ’cause we must go, and a flight for Paris thus arranged after we report to Neb gives you the heroin.”

“O.K.  Sealed, as they say, no?  As they say?”

“Absolument!”  Rupert said with a cheesy French accent, and shook Marcel’s unwilling hand which squished like jellified trout.

“Sealed.” Aloysius whispered watching the two Americans pilots outside making fun of their size to several armed guards.

“Have you ever been to Athens before?”  Marcel asked, stepping over to join Aloysius in peering outside, “They tell me this is where all the wisdom once was.”

“Wisdom has migrated.”  Rupert mused.

“Yes, completely off the map.”  Marcel smiled wryly, then thought, “You know, I get you tonight to Prague but I never guarantee what Nebuchadnezzar will do.  And why Paris?  You are not French. You don’t really speak French, no?”   Marcel knew that Neb wanted to seize Paris before month’s end.

“Un peu.”  Rupert replied, wondering whether Dora and Alex may have met Marcel before in Athens.  The whole thing might be a charade.  Perhaps he knew they were fakes.  Perhaps they had slipped and Marcel was carrying them.  Rupert’s countenance fell, then he worked on collecting himself, and looked down at the floor until he had mastered his fears.

Aloysius, meanwhile, watched the cloud of dismal, thick smog hover over Athens, and let the nightmare of the city seep into his bones.  Athens looked like a death head to him and they sat on its crown, or like an asphyxiating cowl too heavy to lift.  He was sniffing funeral smudge.

“You must report to Prague.  Remember Neb must see you.  He ordered expressly.”  Marcel reemphasized, severely.

“If we must, let us go now — then be assured transport to Paris.”

“We must change pilots.”

“Is that necessary?”  Rupert asked, wistfully.

“Yes, these Americains,”  Marcel watched the two Americans lighting up a crack pipe, “They flew from Tangier today, oh là là!  You think Athens is  mort!  Wow!”  He smiled at his cheap Americanism.

“Can they speak English?”  Rupert asked, then re-considered.  If they could not communicate with the flight crew less embarrassing questions might be asked.

Marcel opened the door to the hut when a bomb exploded in one of the former main thoroughfares.  A squatted bus upended in a thunderous blast shattering the few remaining windowpanes in the empty buildings lining the street.  Far away, concussion rocked the Acropolis itself, dislodging one of the stones already crushed by anti-aircraft guns as two men fell — the stone shattering the middle of what was left of a Parthenon wing.  Marcel dismissed it with a wave of his hand, as concrete dust smoked, mixing with smog rolling up the hill.  Instead of seeing after the men, Marcel ordered a fan brought before the plastic hut so that they wouldn’t be discomfited at his perch.

Their speech was nearly drowned out by the roaring fan and they watched it together, sucking the lantern’s flame from its glass.

“Look, we cannot fly you from here by anything but helicopter, and it’s clearly impossible to fly non-stop to Paris. You can’t land in Belgrade!  Ha! Ha!  But seeing you’ve been so nice about payment …,”  Marcel glanced at the three bags of pure heroin which he held, “We’ll make an arrangement … ”

“An arrangement?”

“Trust me, as they say.”  Marcel sniffed the bag, tasted the powder with his pinkie, then walked to the corner, crouched and snorted deep until it plastered his rather pointed nose.  A silly grin spread over his thin lips; his eye whites fluttering back.  Slouching, he slinked outside to two other men who had been watching the street-explosions arm-in-arm, shoved a palmful beneath their nostrils and they also snorted.  They giggled then nodded, dreamily, then, pawed Marcel’s forearm.

Marcel, elbow languidly resting on hip, thin hair blown back, whispered in French to the two, as Rupert and Aloysius came out and examined their savage, pock-marked faces.

“O.K. We got a helicopter for you.”  Marcel smiled, after returning.

“Much obliged.”  Aloysius curtseyed clumsily.

“And, here they are!  Your pilot and co-pilot!  Greetings!  They’re not smart — but they’re ready to roll — if you are.”

“Merci.”  Rupert and Aloysius chimed in, together.