All Stories, Historical

Madam Panagoulias and the Pithos by Adam West


“May I?”

The man took a step towards the jar.

“You will be careful with it, won’t you?”

“A closer look, that is all. I know it’s worth a small fortune, what, at least…”

“…At least a jolly large amount I shouldn’t imagine and wouldn’t like to say.”

“Well I will say, Madam Panagoulias. Put my cards on the table so to speak.”

“As you wish.”

“The last time I saw a pithos of this grandeur go at auction, was at Sotheby’s. What, must be ten, no, eleven years back. Indeed it was in oh-three now I come to think of it, because my eldest sister gave birth to her second son, Edward, that year, and I visited her in Kensington not so long after the happy event, and that particular jar, which was somewhat shorter than your specimen here, which must stand at over four feet tall, went for over one hundred thousand pounds. I can reliably date your superior ‘sealed’ specimen at five hundred BC. Cretan. One of a pair in fact.”

“A pair you say?”

“Indeed madam.”

“I never knew. I’m sorry I’ve forgotten your name, Mr.?”

“Umut. Osman Umut. Late of Istanbul. My card.”

Madam Panagoulias studied the ostentatious gold embossed lettering.

Umut & Associates – Dealers in Rare Antiquities.

“My husband indicated you are in possession of first-rate letters both from the university and the Turkish consul.”

“Indeed. He has authenticated my letters of invitation. Naturally, he would not have allowed me to be here today, madam. With you. Alone in your apartment. Were that not the case.”

“Oh I assure you Mr. Umut, we are not alone.”

“No of course not. A maid I assume? Sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“I am quite at my ease, Sir, but curious about your good self nonetheless?”

“Naturally you are curious. Aren’t all women by nature?”

“Herr Freud maintains this… so I am led to believe?”

“And are you not curious about what’s inside the jar?”

Umut made for the sash window framed in a heavy material – satin, he supposed – awaiting a reply that was not forthcoming.

Once there he parted a net curtain feeling vaguely distracted as though an invisible aura had wound itself around him.

He was familiar with the sensation.

Across the street, Osman Umut observed a small café. A young man sat at a table drinking coffee turned hurriedly at the sound of a motor car venturing precariously over the cobbled street through a crowd of people and jumped to his feet.

Umut heard a shot, turned to Madam Panagoulias expectantly.

More shots rang out.

Umut’s host stood with her back to him gazing at the Cretan jar. Unmoved by events. Osman Umut imagined her face; the beguiling smile that unnerved him so.

When he turned back to the street he saw no car. No thronging crowd, only the young man who had been drinking coffee, depart the café in haste.

Perhaps, Umut said to himself, observing a horse-drawn cart disappear around a corner, there is still hope? And yet in essence the ‘echo’ he had witnessed had not diminished but grown stronger; the image more vivid the closer he got to the jar.  A jar: not a box as the legend would have it, due to a mistranslation dating back to the 16th century.

Whatever the origins of the bastardised legend a twin sibling jar was secure. Housed in a Berlin bank vault many fathoms beneath the city surrounded by concrete several feet thick.

Where it could do no harm.

“You look ashen, Mr. Umut. Would you like a drink of tea? Coffee perhaps?”

“Sell me the pithos Madam Panagoulias? I can have a banker’s draft with you before close of business tomorrow for two hundred thousand sterling.”

“I could not conceive of it without my husband’s explicit agreement and as you know he is away on business –”

“–When will he be back?”

“I cannot say for sure.”

“He’s in munitions I understand?”

“Yes Mr. Umut. And at present on a very important business trip with his brother in Vienna. Negotiating an enormously valuable contract with the authorities there.”

“Yes. But when will he be back?”

“My husband advised me he’d be unlikely to return to Sarajevo before the first of July. Tomorrow is the 27th . This coming Wednesday at the earliest then.”

When it will be too late Madam Panagoulias, Umut thought to say, but wisely kept his counsel.

“What do you say Mr. Umut?”

I say, my name is Hope and I lay at the foot of the jar and I am all that remains when the rest of its contents are let loose on this sorry world.

Madam Dora Panagoulias reprised the smile that so unnerved Umut.

Umut bowed.

Finally he said, “Iyi günler Madam Panagoulias.”

“And good day to you Sir.”

An hour after Dora Panagoulias and her maid extinguished all the lights in the Sarajevo apartment she and her husband rented – some time after midnight – Osman Umut, with all the stealth and guile of a night hunter, entered the property via a scullery through a narrow window he jemmied open. In a cloth bag secured under his jacket, a bottle containing ether. Enough to knock out Madam Panagoulias and her maid for several hours. But first, Umut made his way into the living room to observe the pithos.

It wasn’t until he drew alongside the jar that he saw beside it a dresser, and on that dresser a blackened cork stopper with a waxy seal around its perimeter – and sank to his knees.

Too late.

He prayed silently.

Nothing is known of his whereabouts the following day, Saturday, 27th June 1914. The day after that Osman Umut bought a coffee in the café opposite Madam Panagoulias apartment where he sat watching the young man he knew only too well from his recurring premonitions.

Umut carried a gun. Unfortunately, a waiter spotted the weapon, ran out into the street and alerted a soldier. The soldier who had been returning to barracks, apprehended Umut. The nervous young man Umut had thought to assassinate and avert disaster made his way into the street shortly thereafter and at around a quarter to eleven fired several shots at the two back-seat occupants of a passing car.

As Umut suspected, he could not prevent the evil Dora Panagoulias curiosity had unleashed upon the world.

Pandora’s Box was open.


Adam West.

17 thoughts on “Madam Panagoulias and the Pithos by Adam West”

  1. I really enjoy the dialogue in this story and despite sparse description I find it comes to life in the mind’s eye. There’s a great sense of unease in the last third and then we’re hit with that event and left wondering at what followed. Marvellous!


  2. It’s good to read your stuff again, Adam. Good writing. Great setting. Wonderful atmosphere. ( But the world needs someone to get that lid back on)


  3. Rarely do I see historical fiction handled in shorts, and when I do it’s even rarer that it’s done so well. Your writing style always manages to fully populate the page, creating a realised world for its inhabitants. Rich dialogue, skillful blend of history and fiction. Such a great read.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. an entertaining story… what if? Sounds like there was another Pandora’s Box underneath Berlin…. I wonder how much Madam Panagoulias knew…… I like the creating of the fictional world here, building of tension, and Umut’s increased desperation….


  5. Hi Adam,
    Can’t believe this was published on only our second day.
    Seems like a lifetime away.
    But the story is as good as ever.
    All the very best my friend.


    1. Cheers Hugh and Leila too for her endearing… sagacity? Long live creative writers. Long live LS. In good hands indeed.


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