Book extract

According to Luke

by Rosanne Dingli




Jana left the restaurant anxious. Had she done the right thing? She would find out eventually, she supposed.

‘Someone’s following us.’ Rob looked into the rear view mirror of Father Cauchi’s car. They drove through a small village whose houses were all in darkness. ‘Do you think it’s one of the archbishop’s men? What have you done, Jana? Did you do something? What did you do to that panel?’

Jana looked back, to be blinded by the bright headlamps of the car behind theirs. ‘Nothing, I did nothing to it.’

‘Hold on!’ The young priest slammed his foot down and the old Escort shot out underneath them, rendering both incredulous that it could perform so well. They sped forward, overtaking three or four other vehicles, and wound at speed down the hill towards the St Paul’s Bay valley.

‘I wish I knew my way around here.’ He took a quick right hand turn, faced by an incline that felt as if it was perpendicular.

‘Shit!’ If Jana had been driving, she would have stalled. She apologized, remembering he was a priest.

‘That’s all right.’ He took off up the hill, gears clashing, then turned left as soon as he could into a tight alley bounded by rubble walls on both sides. ‘Is he still behind us?’


He sped forward once more, coming suddenly to the shallow steps at the forecourt of an ancient chapel. Circling it fully, he turned back down the sharp incline and out onto the main road once more, gunning the engine and taking a left turn whose sign said Marfa.

‘What’s Marfa – what’s at Marfa?’ She was as breathless as if they were being pursued on foot.

‘Dunno – hold on!’

The country road was in pitch darkness, except for widely spaced yellow lamps, fixed to the walls of now a wayside chapel, now a crumbling rubble wall, now the stone fence of some newly erected villa. Inadequate and mildly incandescent, the lighting tapered off and started again after a new roundabout. They screeched round it, coming to another dark area, which served them well when Rob brought them to a screeching halt underneath a bank of hawthorn that hid them from the road.

‘Did you see who it was?’

‘First I thought it was a small car. But it’s white van. Large and ... ’

‘Did you see the driver?

Rob put a finger to his lips.


‘Hush! We should stay here as long as we can. Don’t make any noise. They’re after the panel. But we don’t have it, do we?’

‘No.’ A beam of light wavered behind them. ‘Oh, no! There he is! Drive – go! We can’t stay here. He’ll see us. Drive on.’ Panic was in Jana’s voice.

They drove forward along a straight road. Another blue sign said Cirkewwa Terminal.

‘Terminal? What kind of terminal? I can see ... no – it’s too dark. Is that the sea?’ The cloth bag was near her feet. She nudged it with her heel, but this was no time to tell Rob what she had done.

‘Oh, no!’ He groaned as they came to the end of the road. Around them, bright lights glowed yellow, their reflection on the black water appearing menacing. The place was deserted. On their right, all its windows dark, a large ferry stood alongside, moored for the night. Rob stopped the engine. There was no more road: they came to a complete stop at the end of a wide concrete jetty.

At that same instant, a van screeched to a halt behind them. Footsteps sounded in the empty night.

The door on Jana’s side was wrenched open. The man standing there had a menacing face, black hooded jacket and a hand stuck in his pocket, which said everything.

‘Get out please.’ It was not politeness that kept his voice low.

Without a word they got out and stood shock still.

He pulled his right hand out of his pocket and pointed a small handgun in their direction.

‘Did you think you could run from us?’ His accent was neutral, impossible to place, a mismatch with his appearance: brown skin, dark glasses, and a moustache that hid his upper lip. The hood covered all but a forelock of black hair that swept his glasses as he padded forward on sneakers.

Neither of them could answer.

‘Tell me where to find it – that’s all.’ He paused. ‘Get it? Tell me where it is, and there will be nothing to regret. Bin ’L Maknun will see to that.’

They looked at each other in silence.

‘You don’t get it.’ The gun went off, cracking loudly, a small projectile whistling between them, perfectly aimed to miss, and hitting the passenger door of the car with a crack. ‘Now do you get it? There’s two of you. One will die, the other will tell.’

Their breathing was now audible. The man’s feet shifted, his hand rose slightly to take aim once more, this time further to the left.

Jana gasped. ‘Listen…’

‘I was listening before. No more listening. Now we…’

Footsteps behind him made him turn his head. Another black hooded figure – identical except for the black fringe – stepped out of the shadows. His authority was without doubt. It was in his presence, rather than any word or movement. ‘I’ll take it from here, Hassan. Go – they will do as I say.’

Jana groaned. Although Rob was taller than either of the men, he was powerless without a weapon.

‘Away from the car!’ The newcomer was confident they would do exactly as he said. The way he kept his hand in his right pocket left no doubt he too was armed.

They walked a measured distance in front of him, and he urged them forward. They reached a white van, where Hassan was waiting. ‘Give Hassan your car keys, please.’ The ominous politeness felt more threatening than his collaborator’s.

Rob was reluctant.

‘Give them to him. Rob, please – do what he says!’

Hassan opened the sliding side door and pushed Rob inside.

The second man wrenched away the new fabric bag Jana carried, slung from one shoulder.


There was a tense split second. Jana tightened up, expecting a violent sudden movement. But the man took the bag roughly, tucked it under one arm and pushed her bodily into the front passenger seat of the van. They drove in the dark, in perfect silence, for some time. Dread felt like a physical knot in her stomach when they drew up at an old flat-roofed building.

She was pulled along by the upper arm, turning her head to see where they took Rob. Where was he? She was pushed into a small room, and her bag was thrown in after her.

‘There! Nothing we want in that.’ Her captor had realised the bag was as good as empty.

The room was bare except for some cleaning materials in a bucket on the floor; the only opening was a fanlight over the door that stood between her and her captors, and Rob. The instant she was alone, she shouted and screamed. The words just surged out of her. ‘Let me out! Who do you think you are! Let me out of here!’ Banging on the door hurt her fists. She had to think. She had to think fast. She felt extremely vulnerable, and knew these men would get exactly what they wanted if they tried hard enough.

There was a name mentioned. She racked her brains to remember. Yes: Bin ’L Maknun. Who was he – and why was the double icon so important to him? What was going to happen now? She had no idea what lengths they would go to: no idea how long she would resist. They had searched her bag and found nothing. Now they would pressure them for the location of the panel.

Sitting in a corner, as far as she could get from the door, Jana put her head in her arms, rested on her knees. It was uncomfortable, but she had to stay alert. She had to think about what had happened from the moment she had ‘weighed’ the panel, to when they were chased, and now, captured and separated. At which point had these men realised she had the panel? It was impossible to know.

A few tears of frustration and fear threatened to make their way to the crook of her elbow, but she brushed them away. What she had done was absolutely necessary, but she never saw this coming.

All they had was a little picture. One little picture with an unknown story. She would not let it be destroyed: her work was not really over. There had to be more to do. The Catholics wanted to destroy it, of that she was sure. But who were these men who seemed bent on obtaining it for themselves? They could not be Rovere’s men.

Jana stressed, rubbing her eyes, finding it hard to think. One was called Hassan. Could they be Palestinians? What would Palestinians want with a Christian icon? Perhaps they thought it was stolen from a Jerusalem shrine. Jana shook her head – perhaps they had all lied to her and she had restored an icon from the Holy Land. Was it so impossible? But why would they lie to her: what was so important about the little picture, besides being hidden underneath another?

La Madonna del Segreto, the bishop had muttered, pulling himself up a touch too late, Our Lady of the Secret. There had to be a bigger secret than she guessed.

She stretched her arms out in front of her, her back aching from her position on the cold floor. Thinking, retracing her thoughts, reformulating what she had guessed, distracted her from the predicament. Their captors would not find the portrait. It was not on her, it was not in the car, and neither was it on Rob, who had no idea at all that she had taken it from right under the Archbishop’s nose. If Rovere was going to be obtuse with her and lie, if all he had in mind was to destroy something so unique and irreplaceable, then she had to lie and cheat and steal too.

The door of the room burst open. A shaft of light blinded her. Hassan shone a torch in her eyes. ‘Up ... out!’

He led her to a room where Rob was sitting on a metal chair. He looked up at her, and motioned with his eyes. She looked on the far side of the room. The man she understood was Bin ’L Maknun leaned against the wall, still holding his gun.

‘We found nothing in your bag or the car.’ His polite voice held traces of a European education. ‘And your friend here will tell us nothing.’

‘Perhaps with you here, he will talk, eh?’ Hassan had nothing of the polish his leader tried to hide.

Maknun hissed. He said something in Arabic to silence his man. He turned to Jana. ‘You can see that Hassan here is impulsive. Is that the word?’ He did not expect an answer. ‘He is capable of hurting people, because he is impulsive, yes. He is also very committed to what we do. He is capable of anything.’ He turned to Hassan. ‘Aren’t you?’

Hassan aimed a backhanded strike that got Rob on the side of the face.

Jana screamed. ‘No!’

‘Where is the icon?’

Rob flinched. ‘I told you – we left it at the Priory. The Archbishop has ... ’

Another well-aimed blow caught him on the neck. He lurched sideways and righted himself before he could fall off the chair. Trying to stand, he lurched again. Jana saw his hands were tied.

‘It was me ... ’ She had to stop this.

‘Ah – you are now ready to talk?’

Rob turned to look at her. ‘No, Jana – what are you doing?’

‘Rob, I took it.’

Disbelief was etched on his face. ‘You took it! How do these guys know? Where is it?’

‘Quiet!’ Maknun’s voice was like a gunshot. ‘Do you think we are stupid? There is chaos at the Priory. We watched and laughed.’ He addressed Jana. ‘You are clever, miss – but not clever enough.’ He stood up straight from his casual lolling position.

Hassan straightened too, waiting for orders.

‘Hassan, this lady will tell us where the icon is. If not, you can be as impulsive as you like.’

Hassan kicked Rob’s chair, which made him jolt forward.

‘Not now, you imbecile. She might tell us.’ He looked pointedly at Jana.

‘I ... only I can get it.’ The words she chose were deliberate.


She repeated. ‘I’m the only one who can get it back.’

‘Can you take us to it?’


‘No!’ Rob’s exclamation only made sure his chair was kicked again.

In a matter of minutes, they were back in the white van, both thrown in the back this time. Between gulps and tears, Jana told Rob how she had taken the panel.

‘How did you do that? We were both watching you the whole time!’

‘Not all the time. I just left a chopping board instead, wrapped in the same paper.’


She nodded in the dark. Seeking his hands, she undid the short length of plastic twine that held his wrists together.

‘And now we’re heading back to the restaurant. Is that where you hid it?’

‘Yes. We’re going to have to let them have it.’

Rob gave an angry guffaw. ‘Not if I can help it!’

‘There’s nothing we can do.’

The van rocked to a sudden stop, crunching on gravel. Jana was pulled out without ceremony. Rob crawled forward.

‘Not you! Stay there.’ Hassan twisted his hand in his pocket. ‘You know what I have in here,’ he growled. ‘She don’t come back – you got no chance.’ He looked at Jana, ‘Get it?’

Bin ’L Maknun stood to one side. ‘Please miss – go back in there and return with the icon. If you do not, I will not be able to control this man.’ He smiled with malice in his eyes.

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