The Balkan Escape

5 YEARS AGO

Cassiopeia Vitt wasn’t sure if they would kill her now or later. But they would kill her, that much was certain.

Or at least they’d try.

Which meant she needed to do something, but her options were limited. Her hands were bound behind her back with nylon twine, her feet chained to the rock wall that encased her like a dark cocoon. She was deep in the Rila mountains, more than two hundred kilometers south of Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, alone. Worse, no one knew her location, and the deep cirques, sharp peaks, and glacial moraines surrounding her were among the remotest in the Balkans.

She’d arrived yesterday, finding the camp at the base of a forested slope.

A low methodic hum rising from one of the tents, and two black cables snaking a path into the mountain, signaled a generator. She was just about to follow their trail and enter the cave when a man appeared in the entrance. He was short, thick through the shoulders, with tanned features and a thin mustache. He wore sooty blue coveralls with butterfly stains in both armpits. Surprise flooded his face when he spotted his visitor, but it quickly vanished.

He said something to her in Bulgarian. Slavic languages were not her strong point, so she tried English. “I was in the village and learned of your camp. I thought I would have a look.”

He carried a pick and shovel, which he set aside. “Afraid there is not much but archaeologists digging for bones.”

The English was clean and crisp, only a hint of a Russian accent.

“That’s fascinating,” she said, but she thought about how the person in town, who’d pointed her this way, had said the men identified themselves as rock hounds.

“It is cold and dirty in there, and not many bones.” He squatted down and rested his legs. “Feels better out here in fresh air.”

He slipped a pack of cigarettes from a pocket and offered her a smoke. She declined, and he lit one for himself with a disposable lighter. The man said his name was Petar Varga.

“How long have you been here?” she asked.

“Too long. I think this is bad idea. Dry cave, yes?” He enjoyed his cigarette.

“A university sponsoring the dig?”

He stood. “More than one. But this is small project. Exploratory. Just seeing what earth will yield.”

“I have always been fascinated by archaeology,” she said. “Think I could see the dig site?”

He cocked his head and frowned. “Pretty tight space in there.”

She flashed a smile. “I’m not afraid.”

He flicked his cigarette to the ground. “Why not? Come, I show you around.”

“Get up,” she was told.

They’d come for her.

Two men with guns.

She was unchained and led back into the same tunnel that Varga had shown her yesterday. Narrow at first, but fifteen meters into the mountain it opened to nearly two meters wide. Weak bulbs periodically dissolved the darkness, revealing sharp walls, the floor a mixture of sand and gravel. Offshoot tunnels opened into more black chasms. Their level changed twice and rose steadily. The air hung thick and fetid, like a basement flooded after a storm.

Ahead, the passage ended in the same rectangular chamber she’d seen yesterday, about twenty meters long with a low ceiling of jagged rock cast in a bluish tint by steaming halogens. At the far end was what appeared to be an altar—a rectangular slab of blackened stone supported by round pillars, the structure elevated by a platform hewn from the floor’s rock.

Behind the altar were faint wall frescoes.

A hunting scene in which a boar was attacked by a horse-mounted hunter and a naked man wielding a double ax. She