March 7, 1936:
Robert Asher wasn’t feeling well. His head was throbbing and his vision was blurred. Every subtle noise would send stabs of pain through his skull. A glass of Alka-Seltzer was foaming beside his hand. He absentmindedly rubbed the welt on the side of his face as he glanced at the morning paper. Last night did not go as planned.
The footsteps screamed at him. Harsh steps echoed down the hall, doing little to alleviate his condition. Two sets of patent leather shoes squeaked and snapped at the hardwood floors outside his office. A third pair was a little more forgiving, stepping lightly behind. The noise wasn’t helping Asher’s mood. It got even worse when the feet stopped at his door.
They hesitated before knocking. Despite the effort to whisper, Asher heard them plainly.
“I don’t know about this, Tom.”
“Don’t be a fool, Patrick. We came all this way to talk to the man.”
“You can’t really believe what they say about him,” said Tom. “About what he can do?”
“Of course not,” said Patrick, “but I’m not going back to Washington empty-handed.”
Asher sat up in his chair and focused his eyes on the door. Washington? This was getting interesting. The men called Tom and Patrick continued to bicker, until the third man intervened.
“Please, let us not stand outside his door,” he said. “I must have this matter settled.”
The guy had an accent. Somewhere Mediterranean, near the Middle East. At his rebuff, the other two quieted down.
Eventually one of them knocked. Asher set aside the newspaper, downed the rest of his Alka-Seltzer, and shouted for them to come in. The door creaked open, revealing a trio of men in expensive suits.
The leader, the one called Tom, was pale and thin, with greasy black hair that clung to his head. Behind him was a short, round man. He had a bulbous face, bloodshot eyes, and buck teeth. At the rear was a distinguished-looking man. Swarthy, he had dark hair and beard with just a hint of gray.
They stood for a moment in the open doorway, before braving the interior of the office. Asher noticed their furtive glances as they took in the surroundings. Confusion and fear were on the first two’s faces, quickly turning to disappointment when they realized it was as pedestrian as any office in the city. Nothing like what they expected an occult detective’s workspace would look like.
It was a typical, boxy kind of room. Shelves lined the walls opposite the door. A few photographs were on the walls. There was a small table across from Asher’s desk with few odd bronze artifacts: the only out-of-place item in the detective’s office.
Asher nodded as the three men stood awkwardly in front of him. He didn’t get up to greet them.
“Sorry for shouting,” he said. “Secretary’s been away for… five years. I guess I should hire a new one.”
The leader broke into a forced smile. “It is quite alright.” He rubbed his hands together before extending one to Asher. “Thomas Guldan, United States Senator from New Hampshire. This is my colleague, Representative Patrick Longville.”
Asher reached over his desk and shook the man’s hand. It was thin and spindly, like shaking a skeleton. “Robert Asher, private detective.” He looked over his shoulder at the third man. “And who might you be?”
Guldan gestured to the man, bowing his head slightly.
“This is Mr. Darius Chandar, Ambassador of Turkey to the United States.”
“Well now,” Asher said, looking at the men. “It’s not every day I get congressmen and an ambassador in my office. You must be in some real trouble.”
Guldan smirked. It reminded Asher of a ghoul. “Believe me, Mr. Asher, had I a choice I would never have stepped foot in your office.”
“That’s one way to ask for help,” Asher said. “Please, don’t leave me in suspense. What do you need?”
The ambassador stepped forward. “Are you familiar with the legend of Saint Jackobus?”
“My knowledge of saints is a little rusty,” Asher said.
“He was a monk,” Guldan said, “who left the order to fight in the Crusades. According to the story, he slew one hundred men in Jerusalem.”
“On his way back to Europe, he traveled through my homeland and killed a dragon,” Chandar said. “The site of his victory is a shrine, revered by many. Until recently.”
Chandar’s voice dropped to almost a whisper. “A rumor is circulating that a ghost haunts the shrine. Fear of it is keeping people away.”
“Uh-huh,” Asher said. “You’d think a ghost would be a big draw.”
“The Turkish people are not like Americans,” the senator said. “They’re not attracted to the macabre as if it were a sideshow.”
“Okay,” Asher said. “So you’re losing money, is that it? This ghost is keeping tourists away.”
“The shrine is a part of our history,” Chandar said. “Our identity. It is a terrible thing for my people to fear it.”
“We came to you because of your reputation as an occult detective,” Guldan said. “Apparently, you have experience with ghosts.”
“Among other things,” Asher said.
“That’s why we want you to get over there and sort this mess out,” Representative Longville interjected. The senator cast him a dark glance. “What? This is taking too long.”
“You want me to go to Turkey? Over rumors?”
“We were hoping you could provide a solution,” Guldan said. “The ambassador came to us personally. We want to do everything in our power to oblige.”
“That’s all well and good, gentlemen,” Asher said. “But a good detective doesn’t take every case that crosses his desk. I need something more to go on than a rumor.”
Chandar took another step toward Asher’s desk. His face was grave. “I have seen the ghost.”
“Mr. Chandar–” Guldan started. The ambassador stopped him with a hand.
“I often visited Saint Jakobus’ shrine as a child,” Chandar said. “When I heard the rumors, I wanted to see for myself. Late at night, I saw it walking among the hills: a lone figure, clothed in ancient armor. I could almost feel his endless sorrow.”
Guldan and Longville were at a loss for words. Longville stared at the floor while the senator faced Chandar, mouth agape. Asher smirked.
“Now we’re talking,” the detective said.
“Please, Mister Asher,” Chandar said, “will you come to Turkey, find Saint Jakobus, and guide him back to the afterlife?”
“That’s quite the order,” Asher said, leaning back in his chair. “Not to mention one hell of a long boat ride.”
Gulden spoke. “My office will be happy to cover the cost of travel. You will, of course, be paid for your time.”
Asher narrowed his eyes at the senator. “Why does Uncle Sam care about a ghost in Turkey so much?”
Gulden smiled as he looked over at Chandar. “The ambassador is a friend to the United States. We… share his concern over the condition of the shrine.”
“I don’t buy it,” Asher said.
The wraith-like senator glanced at Longville, nodding at the door. The other man quickly escorted Chandar into the hall. Gulden stood over Asher’s desk. His pretense fell away and a grave, frightened man looked at the detective.
“I will not lie to you Mister Asher,” he said. “Things are getting bleak in Europe. There may soon come a time when we can count our allies on one hand.”
Asher snorted. “So, the usual.”
“Turkey has not yet decided whom they will trust,” Gulden said. “We must secure their allegiance for the West. Your help in this silly matter can go a long way in doing that.”
“Do you think there’s a ghost in the shrine?”
“I don’t care,” the senator said. “Burn incense, perform a séance, do whatever the hell you want. As long as Turkey’s on our side at the end of the day, I’ll be happy.”
“I’ll have to think about it,” Asher said.
“We’ll pay you fifty dollars a day,” Guldan said.
The congressmen made all of the arrangements. In a matter of days, Asher found himself on a steamer sailing for Casablanca. It was four days across the Atlantic to the African city. From there he boarded a small, bumpy aircraft that crossed the Mediterranean for Istanbul. By the time he reached the Turkish metropolis, barely a week had passed.
Neither congressman joined Asher on the journey. Arriving in Turkey, he met their replacements: two low-ranking members of Senator Gulden’s staff. It was clear the men had drawn the short straws; they looked uncomfortable in the sweltering, exotic surroundings. Asher assumed they were there solely on Guldan’s orders to watch what he did.
Asher was exchanging names with the men, when an enormous creature burst through the crowd. It was a man, by all accounts. Linen covered his rotund body. His hands were twice the size of a normal man’s; a forest of a beard covered his face. Everything was huge about him–including his laugh–except for the bright red fez on his head.
The man introduced himself as Dkhar as he shook Asher’s hand.
“Greetings, effendi, greetings. I have been hired by Ambassador Chandar to escort you through our fine country.”
“Is he not coming?” Asher asked.
Dkhar’s great face frowned. “Sadly, no. He is busy with affairs in America. But fear not. I will be all the guide you need. I grew up all over Turkey and know it very well. You will not go astray, so long as Dkhar is your guide.”
“I’m assuming, then, you know the shrine?” Asher asked.
“Of course. It is a wonderful place,” Dkhar said. “Nestled in majestic cliffs overlooking a rolling countryside.”
“Have you seen the ghost?”
Dkhar shook his head. “But I have seen how it troubles the land. The people grow sick. They die.”
“Hold on,” Asher said. “Who’s dying?”
“You do not know? It is the blood, effendi.”
“The blood of the saint,” Dkhar said. “Jakobus was gravely wounded after his fight with the dragon. He prayed that his sacrifice would not be in vain. The blood that poured from his body entered a poisoned spring. By a miracle, the water was cleansed. The land surrounding has been prosperous ever since. But when the ghost appeared, the poison returned. Perhaps if you can appease the saint, the water will be clean again.”
“I never knew so many Turks revered a Catholic saint,” Asher said. “Dead or alive.”
“There is no denying Jakobus did a good in our land,” Dkhar said. “Who cares what he called himself? My question for you is: can you help us?”
“This is a new one for sure,” Asher said. “But whatever’s going on, I’ll get to the bottom of it.”
Dkhar swept Asher up in an arm and led him from the airport. The man sang as they made their way to the Grand Bazaar. It was a massive marketplace, sprawling through a segment of the city. Shops stretched out in all directions as people buzzed around them like bees. Vendors shouted from all directions, selling almost every good under the sun.
Asher’s guide moved through the commotion with ease. He purchased large amounts of food, equipment, and supplies, as well as hiring men to carry it all. Asher had to fight to get his attention.
“I think we should travel light,” the detective said.
“Trust me, effendi,” Dkhar said, “We will need every last resource. We are going into the wildness. The villages will not welcome us. Fear of the ghost has closed their doors.”
Asher watched as Dkhar orchestrated the symphony of movement. The other Americans already appeared overwhelmed by the noise and heat. They men murmured to themselves as they watched the activity. One seemed to understand what the people around them were saying, but he didn’t share with the detective.
Dkhar corralled the team, over a dozen strong, and led them from the bazaar. A row of cars pulled up for them. Once loaded in, they embarked on a day-long journey into the heart of the country. The paved roads soon gave way to bumpy, rocky tracks. Soon they left civilization behind and all that Asher could see were the occasional dots of houses far in the distance.
When they finally came to a stop, the sky was growing dark. Dkhar ordered the men out of the cars and they proceed to walk on foot. The dusty terrain gave way to rocky, rising lands with signs of green. A few times they crossed roads leading into towns. Asher noticed overturned tables and wooden barricades blocking the way.
“We’re not staying in any of these towns, are we?” he asked Dkhar.
He shook his head. “They will not even let us inside.”
“They think we’re ghosts?”
“Fear is a powerful thing, effendi,” Dkhar said. “To them, we might be illusions sent to trick them. Until the water is clean, they cannot trust strangers.”
It was the first clear sign that the ghost’s presence was more than a rumor. Asher found it encouraging.
Despite the growing darkness, they continued on foot, following a narrow path through the wilderness. It was night when Dkhar finally decided to stop and set camp. The supplies he had acquired at the Bazaar were put to good use. They ate until they were full and sleep in comfortable tents. Morning came and as Dkhar’s men broke camp, Asher looked around.
The desert was far behind them. Rolling hills stretched out ahead, growing progressively higher. In the distance, he could make out the start of mountains. That day they made slow progress over the terrain, Dkhar taking the lead. He seemed to have no trouble climbing, jumping, or running.
By midday, they reached the foot of sheer cliffs. Water splashed down from an unseen height, collecting in a basin and running into the lowlands. At the sight of the water, the hired men ran to dip their faces. Dkhar sprang in front of them, barring his arms. He shouted at the men in Turkish and they backed away.
“Forgive me, my friends,” he said to Asher and the Americans. “This is Saint Jakobus’ spring. The water is unsafe. Please do not even wet your hands.”
He directed the team to set camp a safe distance from the water. Dkhar chose a few of the men to accompany him, Asher, and Guldan’s men. They scaled the cliff, following a steep path that wound back and forth. Once they reached a level shelf, they stopped to catch their breaths. Water dripped through cracks in the stone wall. They men leaned forward to avoid it.
Stunted plants clung to the side of the cliff. Small, white flowers bloomed from the vines. Dkhar plucked a few and tucked them into his lapel.
“Arbutus,” he said to Asher. “For good luck.”
Flat, step-like stones led from the shelf up to a cave near the top of the cliff. Beneath the entrance was a crack, through which a strong channel of the spring water poured. Dkhar approached it first, followed by Asher. The opening was thick with darkness. The guide shouted at one of the Turks, who produced a lantern. Dkhar lit it and held it above his head. Asher retrieved a flashlight and they both entered the cave.
The tunnel led straight into the cliff side, opening onto a domed cavern. Both Turks and Americans filed into the room, looking around uneasily. Holding his lantern out, Dkhar approached the far wall. The stone was smooth, as if shaped by hand. Carved into it were faint letters, no doubt worn by time. Asher approached to get a closer look.
“This is the place where Saint Jakobus slew Isthus the Serpent,” Dkhar said. He ran his hand over the stone.
“Is this Turkish?” Asher asked, pointing to the words.
“Some of it is, effendi,” Dkhar said. “Also Greek, Latin, even Hebrew. Many pilgrims came to this place. They left their prayers on the wall.”
Asher examined one of the lines. “This looks like English. Hell, I could read it if it wasn’t so faded.”
A scream filled the chamber. The two men spun around to see one of the hands drop his lantern and run from the cave. Dkhar shouted at him, but he did not return. One of the Americans stifled a shout. He stumbled back, hyperventilating.
“Damn, kid,” Asher said, “are you okay?”
The man pointed a shaking hand at the wall. A ball of white light danced over their heads. It spread down the wall of prayers in a line to the ground. Asher and Dkhar backed away as it grew into the shape of a man. It stepped off the flat surface and stood in the center of the cave, towering above them.
Saint Jakobus stared at the men. His eyes were cold fire. Ancient armor still clung to him, his tabard a tattered rag. His scabbard hung empty at his side. As he extended a hand, the team screamed. They fled from the cave in a panicked stampede. Only Asher and his guide refused to leave.
“Who disturbs my sanctuary?” Jakobus’ voice was like a trumpet.
Dkhar pressed himself against the wall, trembling. Asher stood before the ghost.
“My name’s Robert Asher,” he said.
“You speak the mother tongue,” the ghost said. “You are not one of the barbarians.”
“Depends on who you ask,” Asher said. “But no, I’m from a land far away.”
“For ages I have slept in this grave,” Jakobus said. “Far from my home. But as of late, something has disturbed my bones.”
“You mean you’re buried in here?” Asher asked. “In this cave?”
“Will you set my bone right?”
“Yeah, I’ll help you,” Asher said.
The ghost nodded his ancient head and disappeared. A tremor went through the chamber. The wall of prayers cracked. A line formed in the middle and the wall separated. A narrow space appeared, leading to a flight of descending stairs. Asher cast his light down the passage, inspecting the steps. He then walked over to Dkhar.
“Wasn’t expecting that, huh?”
Dkhar swallowed. “Were you?”
“Close enough. The cave’s new, though.”
The detective went first into the passage. The steps went down into the heart of the earth, their lights just barely illuminating the way. The air was warm and close. They could feel the weight of ground above them. Eventually, they reached a large, vaulted chamber. It resembled an ancient crypt. Faces of the saints–carved in stone–stared down at them, their unblinking eyes glowering.
At the head of the crypt sat a slab. The body was missing, its bones scattered on the floor around it. Among them was a rusty shield and sword–all that remained of Jakobus’ armor. Wrapped around the ribcage was a chain shirt and scrap of tabard.
The detective let out a low whistle as he looked over the chamber. “Who could’ve built this?”
“The people who found Jakobus’ body, no doubt,” Dkhar said, his voice almost a whisper. “I cannot fathom what power sealed it shut.”
“I guess this is what the old guy was talking about,” Asher said, nodding at the bones. “Putting them back in order should calm him down.” He crossed the crypt toward the slab. “Easy job, all things considered. I wonder what scattered them in the first place?”
Dkhar’s shout sent chills through the detective. From the ceiling descended another apparition. It had a long, scaly body that extended twenty feet. Spectral scales shimmered in their own luminescence. The face was a wreck of fangs and eyes. The dragon Isthus snarled at the intruders. The sound echoed like a sharp bark. Like a flash it lunged at Dkhar. Asher threw himself into the man, pushing Dkhar out of the way. The dragon struck the ground, leaving a gaping hole in the rock.
“What do we do?” Dkhar said, his eyes a sea of panic.
Asher ran across the crypt, drawing the ghost’s attention. The detective threw himself across the floor as the dragon struck. It missed hitting Asher, but the force of the blow sent him rolling end over end into Jakobus’ bones. Instinctively he picked up the saint’s sword and shield. Isthus reared up, its eyes flashing at the sight of Jakobus’ arms.
“You recognize these, don’t ya?” Asher said.
Isthus barked as it fell onto the detective. It crashed against the shield. Asher was unharmed. Jumping forward, he slashed at the ghost with the sword. It cut through it like open air, doing no damage. The dragon whipped its head at Asher before he could raise the shield. The blow sent him flying through the air. He landed painfully, losing the weapons in the darkness.
Before the dragon could strike again, Dkhar’s voice rung out across the crypt. Asher looked up to see the man confronting the dragon. In his hand were the arbutus petals he had plucked from the cliff. In the other was a lit match. As Isthus rushed him, he lit the flowers. White smoke billowed up at the dragon. A sizzling noise filled the room. Isthus shrieked in pain as the smoke enveloped it.
Soon the smoke settled and the dragon was gone.
Asher felt Dkhar help him to his feet.
“You are unbroken I hope, effendi,” he said.
“How’d you know that would work?” Asher asked.
“Old mothers say arbutus is good for getting rid of evil spirits,” Dkhar said. “I always wanted to see if it would work.”
“Hell of chance,” Asher said. “But good work. Now let’s get this over with.”
Asher walked back to the stone slab and started collecting Jakobus’ bones. Dkhar waited by the entrance, apparently still shaken from the ordeal. The detective arranged the bones carefully on the slab. As he reached down to pick up the ribcage, he found it was heavier than it looked. Moving it to the stone, something slid onto the floor by his feet. Asher put the ribcage in place and recovered the object.
It was flat and square-shaped, wrapped in a dry, leather skin. Removing it, Asher discovered a tablet of smooth, black stone. Carved on both sides were intricate characters, inlaid with gold. Asher recognized the Hebrew letters, though he couldn’t read them. On the inside of the leather wrap was English writing, what assumed was the translation.
“The Tablet of Solomon,” Asher said, reading aloud. “Looks like his proverbs. Jakobus must have smuggled this from Jerusalem. Crap, this must be worth a fortune.”
He heard the unmistakable click of a gun. He turned around to see Dkhar standing behind him, a revolver in his right hand.
“Priceless, actually,” Dkhar said. “Though there are those who are willing to set a price. A very high price.”
Asher’s eyes were on the gun. He snorted. “So this is what you wanted all along?”
“You are not as dense as most Americans, effendi,” the guide said. “I had heard stories that Jakobus was guarding a treasure. We didn’t know where it was, but were digging–coming from the North to avoid detection–hoping to find this crypt. You can see the crack in the ceiling where we almost broke through. I guess all the commotion disturbed the bones. We had to stop and deal with him.”
“Is the ambassador in on this?” Asher asked.
Dkhar shrugged. “That I do not know. He may be one of my bidders, but this is my operation.”
“I’m disappointed Dkhar,” the detective said. “And here I thought you cared about the people.”
“The bones are back in place, are they not?” Dkhar said. “The peasants will be fine. You will not be, unless you hand over the tablet.”
“There are things about me I haven’t told you,” Asher said. “One little bullet’s not going to stop me.”
“I have heard of your reputation of defying death, effendi,” Dkhar said. “But even you would like to avoid being riddled with bullets and left in the wilderness. The vultures, they are not kind.”
They stood in silence for a long minute as Asher pondered the prospect of being eaten alive. It didn’t sound great. He extended his hand and gave Dkhar the stone. The man snatched it up greedily, the gun still trained on Asher.
“Can I finish putting Jakobus back together?” he said.
Dkhar glanced at him suspiciously, but nodded. Asher crossed the room and found the saint’s discarded sword and shield. The guide tightened the grip on his gun.
“Don’t try anything,” he warned.
“I’m just giving them back to the old guy,” Asher said.
He returned to the slab and placed the arms beside Jakobus’ hands.
“Come on,” Dkhar said. “Go up the steps ahead of me. You will say nothing about the tablet to the others. Or I will make sure you never make it home.”
Asher nodded, knowing it was unlikely the man would let him leave, either way. As he reached the first steps back to the surface, he heard a moan. The sound echoed across the crypt. It was coming from the slab. Both men turned back to see the bones of Saint Jakobus sit up. The empty skull leered at Dkhar. The man screamed and fired his gun. Jakobus rose as the bullets passed through him.
In two strides it reached Dkhar. The man searched his coat, but the arbutus petals were gone. He dropped his gun and turned to flee. Jakobus’ sword came down like lightning, splitting the man from crown to crotch. The halves of his body flew across the tomb, staining the rocks with blood. Asher hid in the shadow of the doorway as the Tablet of Solomon slid across the floor. He took a step for it. Jakobus groaned in warning.
Asher got the message. He turned and ran up the steps and the burial chamber began to fall apart. The tunnel shook violently as he reached the original cavern. As he jumped through the opening, sprawling across the cave floor, the opening snapped closed behind him.
Only slowly did Robert Asher stand up. The wall of prayers was sealed; there were no signs it had ever opened. He made his way from the cave and into daylight. Below the cliffs on which he stood, he could see the camp. Only a few men still mulled among the tents and supplies. The Americans had fled. Asher sat down at the cave mouth and watched water spill down the rocks. Reaching, he splashed some of it on his neck and face.
It would be a long trip home.