Chapters:

Winter Comes

Suleski, Julie        THE ABSENT SUN        

CHAPTER ONE

Gdansk, Poland

Nie Badz Bezpieczny. Do Not Feel Safe.

Marek Tallon mindlessly recited the macabre inscription at the base of the Monument to Fallen Shipbuilders as he stood alone in the Gdansk shipyard, waiting. He looked up at the huge anchors hung crucifixion style on the monument and decided they were destined to become the find of a lifetime for some other relic-hunter, probably a thousand years from now. Tonight they were little more than a landmark to Marek. The prize he came here to claim was yet to arrive.

He looked around for any sign of the man he was supposed to meet as he sought refuge from the water-born wind behind one of the monument’s iron towers. People didn’t wander around Solidarity Square at this hour, and he wasn’t thrilled with this setup. He’d been told his seller was eccentric though, and a long line of uncomfortable encounters in dark corners had gained Marek an impressive collection at the university, so he didn’t consider himself above it. This wasn’t the pretty side of his profession, but it was necessary.

Bubbling laughter erupted in the distance and Marek shifted to see past the army of cranes left frozen at awkward angles from the day-shift. His contact was supposed to be a middle aged Pole, male and alone. If this was him, he had a woman in tow.

Within minutes a tall man with a portly build came into view. Hanging off of his arm was a girl, with dark blonde hair and red shoes. Based on her half-clothed appearance and rapt attention, it was clear her time had been bought and paid for.

“Dr. Marek Tallon,” the man said as they approached. He had a wide-toothed smile and a heavy Polish accent. “I have heard much about you, and I see from your appearance most of it must be true, yes?”

Marek assumed he was referring to the brown leather jacket and backpack he wore, something akin to quintessential archeologist-wear. There was a reason people in his profession dressed this way, and it wasn’t some misplaced affinity for Indiana Jones. “I guess I’m at a disadvantage, since I don’t even know your name.”

The man laughed, and the stench of cheap vodka carried on his breath. “You can call me…Good-time Charlie. We are friends, no?”

The man’s personality instantly grated on his nerves, and there was no place on Earth outside of a black-market antiquity deal where they would ever be friends. “Yeah, sure, Charlie.” From what he’d heard, this dealer was well-connected. A good first meeting was important.

“Now that we’re all friends, why don’t we take the party back to town?” the girl said as she sidled up to him and slapped on a fresh coat of lipstick. Her accent was thick, but her English was clear. “It’s cold here and I want another drink.”

Marek made the suggestion to go to his hotel as soon as they were in the dealer’s waiting Volvo. It was easier to do business there. No crowds and he could examine the merchandise in better light to make sure he wasn’t purchasing a crafty fake. But two blocks away from his hotel, the driver made a turn in a different direction.

“My room is at the Vincet,” he reminded the man.

“No, no,” the dealer replied dismissively. “I have a room at the Isabel. The artifact is there.”

Marek frowned as he tried to recall what he knew of the Hotel Isabel, realizing he had no choice but to go to the man’s room. It was a post-war building that was a few stars short of luxury, but not bad enough to be considered shady. If the artifact turned out to be what he was told, the payoff would be worth accommodating the dealer, so he didn’t balk at the plans.

Once they were settled in the man’s room, Marek declined a drink from the girl, who didn’t seem to mind or notice his lack of interest in her. The place was decorated much as he’d expected it to be, with outdated upholstery and flowered wallpaper. Anxious to have a look at the artifact, he took a seat on the worn sofa and said, “I don’t mind if we skip the little party and get down to business.”

“As you wish.” The man smiled and swallowed a fresh glass of vodka the girl handed him, then abruptly got up from his seat and walked to the room’s wall safe. “Tell me, how does a college professor come up with 5,000 Euros for a Polish artifact?”

Marek leaned back on the couch. “Did we agree on 5,000?”

The man looked over his shoulder and laughed. He turned around to reveal a small fish-shaped object. As he drew closer, intricately carved scenes of hunts and animals came into view.

 “Scythian,” Marek commented as he eagerly fingered the piece and examined it front and back. “Dates from the sixth century. Where did you get it?”

The location would confirm its authenticity. “It was found near Kozów years ago. The collector who asked me to sell it doesn’t know its value, or even if it’s real.”

“No question that it’s genuine,” he commented, but the dealer had already turned to fetch another drink. As Marek continued to examine the piece, he noticed an iron pin tucked inside the lattice work of the fish. He carefully freed it and studied it with some confusion, wondering what a Russian Pekshevo artifact was doing with its very distant Polish cousin.

“We have a deal, then?” the man asked from the built-in wet bar.

Marek clasped his hand shut before the man noticed the pin, not wanting to renegotiate the price if the dealer saw the extra piece. He gave the fish another look, his curiosity piqued. “We do.”

Still focused on the artifact, Marek didn’t pay any attention when the man turned around. But when he looked up, he let out a sharp curse as he found himself looking down the barrel of a gleaming pistol.

“If you will please step away from the artifact, Dr. Tallon.”

This wouldn’t be the first time a greedy antiquities trader had pulled a gun on him, but four years in the service had given Marek a healthy respect for firearms, and as much as he loathed it, he knew he’d let this piece go without a fight. A Scythian fish was nothing to die over.

“If you wanted a better price, you could have asked.” Marek set the artifact down. “Hell, I would have thrown in another 500 just to get you to wipe that damn smirk off your face.”

“No hard feelings, Dr. Tallon.” He widened his smile. “I was offered something more valuable than money this time. You should have had that drink. I’m afraid it’s going to be a long night for you.”

Just then the girl stepped towards him and pulled a pair of handcuffs from her bag. “Policja. Police. You are under arrest for illegal antiquities trading.”

Marek cringed. This night was going to cost him a lot more than a few thousand Euros. It wasn’t going to be a total loss though. He still held the Russian piece in his left hand, and as she pulled his arms back to snap on the handcuffs, he slid it into his pocket as a consolation prize.

Ten hours later Marek was sitting outside at a café two blocks from the police station. Philip Davis, the head of his department at Ohio State sat across from him, having just driven in from their field site in Odry to post his bail.

“You look like hell,” Davis said as soon as a young waiter gave him a once-over and deposited their coffees. “The president of the university wants you out. They’re preparing your dismissal as we speak.”

Usually Davis made some pretence at small talk, a trait Marek chalked up to his being British, but not today. “So Bill’s suddenly developed a conscience, has he?”

Davis pursed his lips. “The whole escapade is on CNN. Do you think they can let it look like the university condones this sort of thing?”

Marek sat back in his chair and tried to rub the lack of sleep from his face. He’d been arrested at a half dozen little fishing villages from here to Vladivostok, and nobody ever gave a damn. “So it was a slow news day. I’ll bring home something special for Bill to make up for it.”

Davis didn’t crack a smile. “You’re always snubbing your nose at academia, Marek. When was the last time you even made an appearance at a conference?”

“Jesus, Davis. Excuse me for having better things to do than stand around with a bunch of archeologists comparing the size of our digs.”

Davis dropped a sugar cube in his coffee and gave it a brusque stir. “You see, it’s that attitude that rubs everyone the wrong way.” His fatherly gaze made Marek turn away. “You’re a good scientist. Despite your unorthodox methods, I believe your head, and your heart, are in the right place, but the ends don’t justify your means.”

“Put me out in the field until this blows over,” he suggested, then with a smile added, “Preferably somewhere in Eastern Europe. Maggie still needs to finish her post-doc work.”

At his words, Davis pinned him with a hard look. “They didn’t tell you, I take it. Maggie was arrested, too. I’m sorry to say, I have not been as successful in managing her release yet.”