At the 50th anniversary ceremony of the introduction of Greece and Turkey to NATO, a Greek friend of the Chief confided to him that they had learned that a US Air Force officer of NATO was illegally selling DU (depleted uranium) weapons to the Croatian Mafia. Should the leak of toxic DU become known, NATO would be in huge trouble. For the Greek official, the Chief was the best person to consult, because disclosure would aggravate the already visible confrontation over the issue of DU weapons between the coalition of US and GB vs. the rest of the members. Back in Bonn, the Chief ordered the reluctant Major von dem Eberbach to take care of the case secretly. The US would leave the matter with no clear-cut resolution, whereas the Greek authorities might use the scandal for anti-America campaigns. Iron Klaus was needed to protect the unity of NATO by dealing with the crime in secret.
A Greek informant's report guided Klaus, A and B to the Lake Aliakmon, Kozani, where the US Lieutenant Colonel in question came to fish every other week with his subordinates. Evidently the Americans had hidden DU penetrators somewhere around the lake. The Major's mission was to find and confiscate the weapons. which seemed like a cinch to him.
There's many a slip twixt the cup and the lip. The quick subterfuge Klaus invented to evade the questions of a nosy Greek Orthodox Church priest of Agios Dimitrios of Thessaloniki, where he had met his informant, was to cause him unexpected trouble. Klaus introduced himself to the venerable priest as an investigator from a German insurance company: a German billionaire had been kidnapped and held for ransom in Greece, and he had been sent to negotiate with the abductor on behalf of the rich man's family, etc. Only later would the Major realize that he had made a mistake.
Dorian was vacationing in Rome at Volovolonte's home. The two Italians, whom James had become acquainted in the previous side story, and Bonham saw shocking messages posted on "the Keyhole Channel", an underground internet community run by criminals. On the real-time chat board, villains boasted about their recent undertakings to each other.
Dorian flew into a rage. It didn't take long for him to figure out what the metaphoric "Byzantine treasury suspended midair" meant; it must be Meteora in Greece ("meteora" is "suspended in air" in Greek). He had to forestall the outrageous scheme of his imposter...and, if there was a chance, obtain the sixteenth century frescos and icons of the monasteries. He left Italy for Greece, taking Bonham and James with him.
"Meteora, situated in the district of Thessaly, was named on the World Heritage List in 1988 for the monasteries built on the 400m high, massive rock pinnacles, housing precious Byzantine antiquities.
During the 15th and 16th centuries, twenty-four monasteries flourished as sanctuaries for Greeks persecuted by Muslims in the late Byzantine and the Ottoman Empire periods. Today, only five of them survive.
The surrealistic view comprised of the strange rocks and monasteries attracts and fascinates tourists from all over the world."
-- Source: The Greek National Tourism Organization
The director of the GNTO (Greek National Tourism Organization) received a threat from the person calling himself "Eroica the Great", both by letter and phone: pay him 500 million Euros, or Meteora would be blasted. The mail contained a digitally processed photo of what Meteora would look like if the explosion were to take place. Eroica the Great told him to go to Meteora next morning, when he would show them his threat was not a hoax; there would be a preview at ten. After the demonstration, Eroica the Great would contact the Tourism Organization and UNESCO at a hotel in Kalambaka. The director should discuss the matter with UNESCO, the blackmailer said and hung up.
In no time, the director received a call from a UNESCO official. Half suspecting it might be only a bluff, the two agreed that they would go to Meteora just in case. The Greek Orthodox Church ought to be informed, as their monasteries would be in danger if the threat turned out to be real.
Next morning found Dorian, Bonham and James in a hotel in Kalambaka at the foot of the huge eternal rocks of Meteora. They spotted a strange party of three men: two sullen men in suits and an old Greek Orthodox Church priest. Dorian approached to eavesdrop on their conversation. The priest was mentioning the necessity of evacuating the monks and treasures from the monasteries. One of the men in suits commented that they were still not sure if the bomb threat was true or not.
On hearing the word "bomb," Dorian stepped forward, introduced himself as a British newspaper reporter, and joined in the conversation. The three assumed that Eroica the Great had sent notices to the media as well. Dorian learned from them that the villain was to show them a preview at ten to demonstrate that he was serious about blowing up the cultural heritage. And at ten o'clock sharp, there was in fact a small explosion near the top of a rocky pillar. The three hurried back to the hotel to wait for the wrongdoer to contact them.
Dorian angrily looked up at the hole gouged by the explosion on the precipice. Eroica the Great had to be quite skilled in rock-climbing to set an explosive in a place like that. It was absolutely unforgivable that this villain assumed his name, yet showed no remorse for destruction of the Byzantine legacy; Dorian wouldn't be satisfied until he caught the culprit and confronted him face to face.
At the hotel, the director of the Tourism Organization answered the predicted call on a speakerphone. Eroica the Great repeated his demand of EUR500 million for five monasteries; or else, Meteora would become what they had seen in the photo. He ordered them to prepare money and evacuate all the clergy living in the monasteries in two days. The three from the Tourism Organization, UNESCO and the Orthodox Church hurried to gather the money, and the hotel became HQ of the police investigation. One more thing: a specialist in hostage cases should be recruited, too.
The priest made a call to another high-ranking Greek Orthodox Church member in Agios Dimitrios of Thessaloniki and explained the sudden need of a large sum of money. The venerable priest at Agios Dimitorios recalled the professional ransom negotiator he had met only three days before: the agent of a German insurance company who was working on the case of a kidnapped billionaire. The priest took it that it was divine guidance that he had met the man. "The negotiator said he was to search around the Lake Aliakmon. Let us look for him in the hotels of that area," suggested the priest in Thessaloniki. The two priests and two officials hurried to Kozani to find the man and ask for his professional assistance.
Agent D, E, and P, looking for the DU weapon, found a storage basement in a deserted lakeside house at Aliakmon, and called the Major at his hotel in Kozani before breaking in. Klaus and Agent A were going to join the search, but they were stopped in the hotel lobby by two old priests and two other men. Klaus was baffled by an abrupt request to work for the Greek government, UNESCO and the Orthodox Church as a ransom negotiator of the Meteora case. At his flat refusal, the director of the Tourism Organization offered the government's help to mobilize the local police for the thorough search of the German billionaire (that Klaus had made up, using the Chief's picture which he happened to be carrying) around the lake. The Major flinched inwardly; he must avoid any chance of having his real mission and the existence of the DU weapon exposed. His cell phone rang, and he and A excused themselves to a distance out of the other men's earshot. It was a call from Agent E: the storage basement was empty. The suspect must have abandoned it because it was too dilapidated for his purposes. Klaus snapped a short order to discover the stuff without him while he was taken hostage by the Tourism Organization and UNESCO. The alphabets took the order in bewilderment, not quite understanding what the Major was talking about.
Klaus and A went back and told the waiting four that the billionaire in question had been found in Athens and taken into protective custody by the police; therefore he could assist them in protecting the cultural heritage. It took a load off the four men's minds to have the seemingly dependable professional on their side. Then, the Major was informed that the culprit, who called himself "Eroica the Great", would contact them at the hotel in Kalambaka. Klaus and Agent A went pale.
In the car heading for Kalambaka, Klaus and A speculated that "Eroica the Great" might not be Lord Gloria himself, because such a violent scheme was uncharacteristic of him. But they couldn't shake off a strong presentiment that something weird was waiting for them at Meteora.
At the hotel in Kalambaka, Dorian was watching through field glasses as the monks descended from the monasteries on top of the rock pillar, when Bonham told him that a ransom negotiator had just arrived at the lobby. Dorian went to take a look at the man. He went into raptures at the sight of the tall man studying the big map of Meteora on the wall. A Meteora miracle, he thought to himself, and ran toward the man, who reflexively guarded his behind, sensing an approaching danger. Dorian introduced himself as Blair, a reporter from a British newspaper. "I heard you're the negotiator on this case. May I ask your name, please?"
"Hans Schmidt, twenty-five, married," answered the German, crossly.
"I thought you worked for NATO, did you not?" asked Blair. "I was laid off," was the Major's reply. "Is this your doing, Eroica the Great?"
Miffed, Dorian told the Major that he was here to catch his imposter. Klaus suggested that the Earl should work as the negotiator instead of him. He was about to go to the officials to recommend Dorian for the role. Dorian stopped him.
"I can't possibly protect the world cultural heritage by myself. Do you know that there is a nunnery on the summit, too? Doesn't it concern you that helpless nuns are in peril?"
The Major became very serious. "That oughtn't to happen. They must be protected."
Dorian was peeved, but the Major's appearance certainly made this unpleasant business exciting to him.
The call from Eroica the Great came. Klaus sat in front of the speakerphone, while every concerned person listened anxiously to the conversation.
The connection was cut. Dorian angrily whispered to the Major that he was too soft on the villain. Klaus reminded him that it was a negotiation, not an interrogation.
A large quantity of explosives and an engineering brigade is required just to demolish one rock pillar. This was not religious terrorism at a national level, but a threat for ransom. Klaus explained to the others that it was likely that there was only one bomb. The priest asked the negotiator's opinion as to which monastery was their target.
Klaus: "Probably the most valuable place in Meteora."
The director, the priest and the UNESCO official started arguing which building was the most precious, and therefore the most likely target of the blackmailer. Megalo Meteoro, Varlaam, or Agios Stephanos? The German negotiator patted Dorian's shoulder, grinning.
"Mr. Blair, supposing that you were Eroica the Great, which monastery would you choose?"
Dorian frowned at the sarcastic question. Klaus lowered his voice, "If you want to make them pay, I'll let you lead this case."
Dorian contemplated momentarily and nodded. "If Eroica were to pick one, it would be Agia Triada -- Holy Trinity -- the most famous monastery in Meteora."
It didn't take long for James to be inspired by the ransom of EUR500 million and decide that he should join the villains, cooperate with them, and get a share of the ransom. Bonham hurried to tell the Earl about James's shameless plan. Dorian hit on an idea for taking advantage of James's treachery. They made a 2 Euro coin with a built-in bug and gave it to James right before he left the hotel in his usual begger's attire.
James walked around the small town, holding a placard on which "Eroica the Great, please contact me," was written in big letters. He attracted as much attention as he could possibly get.
Klaus the negotiator was exasperated by the slow progress of the affair. The information on the visiting tourists hadn't been gathered, and the government, UNESCO and the Greek Orthodox Church were still arguing over their share of the ransom. Agent E called the Major from Lake Aliakmon about some DU weapons they had discovered inside a cave. At that moment, Dorian popped up in his room and said something about James. Klaus yelled at him to piss off because he was busy. The Major ordered Agent E to carry the stuff out in extreme caution lest the Greek authorities learn about it. Klaus threatened them in an undertone, "I believe my capable subordinates will accomplish the mission in my absence." The pressure from Meteora was heavier than DU weapons for the alphabets.
Klaus turned his attention to the Earl, who had already left the hotel, leaving an audio record picked up from the bug that James was carrying. "James was captured by Eroica the Great, sir," Agent A told the Major.
The recorded conversation went:
The sound stopped there.
Evidently James had been captured by the Eroica the Great gang. Dorian and Bonham looked for James everywhere, and found his dirty hat, a straw mat, and the broken bug in the guise of a 2 Euro coin left on the ground on the outskirts of town. Dorian pinned his hopes on the chance that someone who called himself Eroica the Great might not take human lives.
James was put in an open cave high up on the side of one of the rock pillars. In the past, the cave was used to imprison depraved monks. The fate of the poor monks were: either starve to death or fall to death. James's wails feebly echoed in the sky.
Eroica the Great and his gang's take on it was that the German negotiator dispatched James to put them off-guard. Alarmed by the unpredictable tactic, they decided to finish their business quickly, before the bomb was found by the authorities.
Next morning at the hotel: the phone rang as everyone waited in a tense atmosphere. Klaus talked through the speakerphone.
He hung up. The three parties and the police got into a real flap. Klaus demanded that they collect EUR500 million anyhow, and that the police keep guard around the five rocks of Meteora. "And leave the rest to us pros."
Eroica the Great and his crew sounded as if it consisted of three men: 1) the man who spoke on the phone, 2) the one who grabbed James by his ankles and shook him upside-down, and 3) an old man. Dorian and Klaus worked out a plan to infiltrate Agia Triada. There were two routes to reach the monastery: one was to descend from the road a few hundred meters to the doorway at the base of the rock, then walk up 140 steps cut into the rock to another door guarding the monastery, and the other was to reach it by an open cable car which connected the clifftop monastery with the road on the other rock. Klaus was to take the former route and Dorian the latter.
A while later, a man down in the valley observed a tall, dark-haired priest heading to the entrance of Agia Triada. The observer whispered to someone on the other side of the cell phone that the monk might go up to take the remaining monk out of the monastery.
Looking up at the square entrance of the stairs, Klaus in a cassock and a riasa (the hat worn by Orthodox Church priests), wearing false beard, muttered to himself that he looked like Rasputin. Dorian, also disguised as an Orthodox Church priest and accompanied by Bonham and Agent A, communicated with the Major through the microphone hidden in his false beard. Bonham thought the Earl looked like Santa in black.
Daredevil Dorian sat on the small, exposed cable car, which was barely large enough to carry one person, and Bonham started running the cable. There was another man at the foot of the rock who looked up through field glasses at the blond monk, who was enjoying the thrilling ride over the chasm. A doubt crossed the observer's mind: two monks wouldn't be necessary to bring back one senile priest...
Eroica the Great called the hotel, where the director of the Tourism Organization responded to his call and couldn't come up with a convincing reason that the German negotiator wasn't available at the moment. Eroica the Great cut the connection.
(The face of Eroica the Great is revealed to the readers for the first time in this scene.) Eroica the Great turned out to be a seventy-something, cross-dressed man with makeup and pearl earrings and a necklace. His long hair was coiffed in an upswept hairdo. On the phone, he told one of his accomplices, "The two entering into the monastery may be undercover cops searching for the bomb! Get rid of them!" He started running toward the entrance of the stairs.
"Alright!" replied another seventy-something, yet sturdily-built man. He was the one who had watched the Major entering the stairs leading to the monastery. He dashed to chase the dark monk, who was ascending the stone stairs complaining to himself about the stuffy costume of Greek Orthodox priests. "Stop!" Klaus turned back at the voice, and saw an old man in jeans running up toward him. "You must be the negotiator disguised as a priest! You can't enter the monastery!"
The Major was taken aback by the appearance of the aged man. "Are you the Eroica the Great!?"
The man pointed toward the person climbing up the stairs after him. "It wasn't my voice you heard on the phone, was it? He's Eroica the Great."
"What!?" Klaus watched the colorful figure in disbelief. "That old woman... can't be..."
"Call me a fair old queen, man. I'm the Eroica the Great!" said the one.
Klaus's eyes constricted into two dots. The man in denim seized the opportunity: he grabbed Klaus's cassock and threw him down the stairs. Klaus tumbled down to the nearest landing, and stared up at the two ascending people, stunned speechless for a moment. Then, collecting himself, he fixed the position of the microphone and contacted Dorian. "Watch out! Eroica the Great and an old man are heading for you!"
At the warning, Dorian, who was wandering about the interdicted area of the monastery hunting for precious icons, took off the cumbersome priest costume and got ready to confront his imposter. He heard feet pattering across the corridor and voices, and peeked out from the corner. The moment he did a double take to see if he really saw an old woman, the subject looked back, and their eyes met.
"My goodness! What a lovely man!" the old woman shrieked, which froze Dorian, making him lose the chance to dash off.
"You talk faggish when you see good-looking young men," ridiculed the elderly hunk. His company retorted, "Eroica the Great likes beautiful things."
Dorian was flabbergasted, and his hair stood on end. "Is...is this old man in drag Eroica the Great!?"
"You're rude to look so disgusted!" he criticized Dorian. Flurried, Dorian replied, "I... I had a different image for Eroica the Great..."
"You are a layman," snorted the Great, "You haven't heard of the gorgeous thief called Eroica, have you? If your beauty is gold, Eroica's is platinum. That charismatic thief can disguise himself as a woman of peerless beauty. He's just like me in his taste and the way he does his job. If I were fifty years younger, we would have been soul mates..." Oblivious of his hypothetical offer firmly rejected by the subject, Eroica the Great continued, blushing, "I borrowed his name for my last work. 'The Great' is only a joke, you know. He's my idol."
Dorian was so fazed that his mind had ceased to function at all when his rescuer rushed to the site in his usual attire of a suit and tie. "Don't just remain dumbfounded, Lord Gloria! We must catch 'em and make them tell us where they hid the bomb!"
The old hunk in denim cracked his finger joints and readied himself for a tussle with the German. "Knock him down!" urged Eroica the Great. Klaus raised a hand to offer a peaceful solution. "Don't resist. I don't want to harm senior citizens." The macho one snorted, "Watch your tongue, cub! I've been in the same great shape since I was young. Come on!" Klaus wondered if the man was modeling for fitness machines. "Then, I won't be easy on you!" Klaus punched right into the man's stomach. The old man panted for a moment, and hit the Major on his head with a fist, scolding him, "How dare you do such a thing to the elderly! Idiot!"
While the Major was struggling with the old hunk, Dorian followed Eroica the Great and tried to get him to reveal where they had planted the bomb. Eroica the Great pretended to be too senile to remember. They heard the sounds of the Major and the old man engaging in fisticuffs. Eroica the Great yelled at them, "Do it outside! You'll break the art pieces!" Scandalized, Eroica the Original accused him, "How can you say that, after you planted a bomb in this monastery?" Unruffled, Eroica the Great was humming and collecting the icons on the walls into his bag. He told Dorian that the monastery would remain intact if they got EUR500 million. Dorian was incensed when he saw the Great put his hand on the icon he had had his eyes on.
"Don't touch that! It's mine" Dorian snatched the small piece from the old man.
"Give it back to me! Thief!" screamed the Great. Dorian was adamant. The icon was something that Dorian wouldn't give up even if it meant he had to ignore his manners to the elderly.
"Are you going to steal from a thief!? You're pretty, but I won't allow you to imitate my Eroica!!" yelled the old thief.
Meanwhile, Agent A and Bonham, on top of the other rock, were anxiously trying to contact the Major and Dorian on the microphones, to no avail. They took notice of an old man wearing thick reading glasses and holding a cell phone to his ear, walking toward them and leaning on a cane. "That must be the one in charge of the detonator," whispered Bonham to A. The man, who had been trying to get Eroica the Great on the phone in vain, gave up and slowly sat on a small mound near the edge of the cliff looking over the rock with the monastery on top. He admired the spectacular view in front and opened a tourist guidebook of Meteora to kill time.
Agent A sneaked up behind the old man and grabbed his shoulders. In an attempt to make his escape, the old man dropped the detonator on the ground, which Bonham picked up and activated by mistake. Bonham cursed.
"That's why you shouldn't treat old people roughly," mumbled the old man. "The monastery will be blown up in thirty minutes."
"Can't you deactivate it!?" panted A.
"Well, I can, but...," the old man rubbed his strained arm. Bonham pleaded with him to do it immediately.
"Look for my glasses. I can't see anything small without them," grumbled the old man. The bad news was that his glasses fell off the cliff when A assaulted him. Bonham asked him for an oral instruction, but the aged techie refused crossly, claiming that no one could handle the controller other than himself. With urgency, Bonham, Agent A, and the old man started calling the other side of the radios and phone once more.
This time, Dorian, the Major, and Eroica the Great responded to the respective calls, and were sobered at the gravity of the situation. They stopped quarreling.
Eroica the Great, holding his macho partner's hands, told him that it was time for them to give up and retire. "I thought we could mark the end of our long career with this big job, but failed at the critical moment. Guess we have to admit we've gotten too old for this. But the three of us have worked together nicely last fifty years, haven't we?" The old hunk nodded and confessed that retirement would be the only option now that he had a tough time getting a stripling like Klaus out of their way. After observing the heart-warning scene for a while, Klaus came to his senses and urged the two to produce the bomb quickly, as time was running out.
The explosive was buried in the raised bed of a small tree in the yard. The old hunk handed the heavy box holding the bomb over to the Major. There were only fifteen minutes left. Leaving the two young people to take care of the rest, the aged pair took to their heels. "Hey, geezers, stop!" From the habit of chasing after running culprits, Klaus foisted the box on Dorian and was about to run after them.
"Don't force this bloody thing on me!" yelled Dorian.
"Oops, right." Klaus took the box from Dorian, and put it in the small car of the cable. He used the cable to suspend the bomb in midair right above the valley, between the two rocks; thus, even though the explosion couldn't be prevented, the damage would be limited to the cable. Klaus radioed to Agent A that they must evacuate from the rock. They were already descending, with Bonham carrying the old man on his back.
Dorian and Klaus looked for the escaped pair. Klaus was going to turn them over to the police. Dorian was appalled to find that the icon he was going to steal was gone. "That old fairy took it!" he exclaimed. Then the decrepit old monk who had refused to leave the monastery appeared and showed them where Eroica the Great and his partner had gone. The two had escaped from a window and were now climbing down the ropes at a giddy height.
"The young German reminded me of myself in my younger days!" yelled the aged macho to Eroica the Great.
"I liked the pretty young man, though he was no match for Eroica," replied the Great. They continued descending merrily, telling each other that their last job was fun, even though they didn't make any money.
Standing by the window, Klaus and Dorian gazed down at them in disbelief.
"What extraordinary vitality," muttered Klaus, impressed.
"Bloody unbelievable," added Dorian.
Klaus asked him why he wouldn't go after them to retrieve the icons. "Thought you were going to get even with them."
"I'm no match for the extraordinary elderly like them," Dorian admitted surlily. "I'm defeated."
Klaus laughed and said, "Tell him that you're Eroica the Authentic, and he'll go down on all fours."
Dorian retorted that he couldn't possibly do that. " -- Even if I did, he wouldn't believe me. He has his own image of Platinum Eroica in his mind, which is not me at all. I may have to settle for the idea."
"Oh, really," said Klaus indifferently, and urged Dorian to leave the monastery as quickly as possible, so that they could slip away and disappear without getting involved in the fuss that would follow the explosion.
Running down the stairs after Dorian, Klaus reminded him to retrieve the living refuse from Meteora before they left town. Dorian turned back and beamed at him.
"Thank you for being concerned about Mr. James. The collaboration with you will most certainly be a cherished memory."
"Want me to kick your ass into next week?" threatened Klaus.
"My love for you will remain unchanged even when you become an old hunk like him, Major!" continued Dorian.
Klaus started chasing Dorian, yelling, "I'll be a decent old man! You're the one who'll become a creepy geezer in drag! I'll forget Meteora in three minutes, bastard!"
Klaus stopped, huffing, and answered the radio that beeped in his chest pocket. Agent D reported that their mission was completed. "Gut! I'll be right there!" The moment D asked if the Major's job at Meteora was finished, the huge explosion shook the air, and startled D on the other end of the radio. The Major explained that the sound was the sign of case closing.
Agent A came running to him, reporting that Bonham and the old man escaped in different directions. The job of Schmidt the negotiator was over. The NATO two left Meteora without being noticed.
Up in Agia Triada, the authorities were utterly bewildered, because there were no traces of Eroica the Great, the German negotiator or the British newspaper reporter around. The only witness, the senile monk, forgot everything he had seen at the shock of the sound of explosion. After the hullabaloo, both EUR500 million and Meteora remained intact, except for one destroyed cable. They had to be satisfied with no tidy answer, because it could have been much worse.
Dorian and Bonham were looking for James, who was still imprisoned in a crack high above on the side of a cliff. Bonham learned the location of the cave from the old man.
"What was Eroica the Great like, me lord?" asked Bonham.
"...I'd rather not talk about it now," said Eroica, avoiding Bonham's eyes.
"Suffice it to say that he was an unearthly existence."
The feeble, pathetic wail of James reached to their ears. They called loudly to the accountant: "Mr. James! Where're you!?" "Help is 'ere!"
James, driven half mad from the fear of being confined in the cave high up in the air with the remains of long perished monks, heard the cheerful chorus and burst into tears.
"The Earl and Bonham were in cahoots with each other again, leaving me in this hideous place! You'll regret this! Curse you both!"
These were the Meteoric days of miracle and illusions, hard to forget, yet better to forget fast.