Read The Mask of Atreus Online

Authors: A. J. Hartley

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Detective, #Fiction - Mystery, #Thrillers, #Mystery & Detective - Women Sleuths, #Antiquities, #Theft from museums, #Greece, #Museum curators

The Mask of Atreus (4 page)

"Keep pretending you aren't a museum, and eventually you won't be," he would say. "Use your bells and whistles to get them in the door, but then give them something they'll learn from, something they'll take away for the rest of their lives . . ."

His phone was still ringing.

21

T h e M a s k o f A t r e u s

Deborah began to walk again. She never told Richard, but the taxidermy collection didn't just offend her as a museum curator, it scared her. Now, in the dim greenish glow of the overhead lamps, she felt the presence of the long-dead, musty animal corpses like gargoyles in the shadows of a cathedral, dead but somehow watchful. She moved a little faster, suddenly sure that the great curving gallery was getting a hint brighter. She felt first relief, then doubt and swelling panic. There was only one light source up ahead, and for it to be filtering into the gallery now could not be good news. She began to run, past the stiff and moldering lions with their bared teeth and hard yellow eyes, past the rigid gulls and their frozen chicks, the great blackness of the water buffalo, its head lowered, horns spread, and began to murmur under her breath as the surreal greenish tinge paled with each step.

"No. No. No."

And then there it was, the door between the motionless penguins and the seals thrown wide open, its light bleeding into the corridor, the only door at this end of the building. As she saw it, she became aware that she could hear something too, distant and regular, a ringing. Realizing what it was, she hung up her cell phone. The sound stopped.

Richard lived here, or in the adjoining building, at least, and had since the museum had been founded. Indeed, though everyone assumed the opposite, his house had preexisted the museum, the latter being built at his behest thirty-five years ago as his gift to the city. For almost two decades he ran the museum himself, but his considerable fortune and his equally considerable enthusiasm had not been enough, and in recent years he had handed the reins to a series of trained curators. Deborah was the third, the one he liked, the one he trusted, the one, perhaps, he loved as a daughter.

"The body."

Deborah went through the door, the door that kept his private world from the museum, the door he guarded like an aging pit bull, the door that was never--ever--left open in any circumstances, her heart hammering.

22

A. J. Hartley

"Richard!" she called.

She went through the living room, the kitchen, the library, the dining room: nothing. She leapt up the great central staircase with its long, slender twists of mahogany for handrails, still shouting. She tried his study: nothing; the spare bedroom, the hall bathroom, the room he talked about turning into a library but which was full of the detritus from his married life. His wife had been dead nine years, but Deborah doubted he'd thrown a single thing of hers away. She checked an upper sitting room she had never been in before, and a kind of pantry linked to the service elevator which Tonya used to bring him food when he was "under the weather" (he had been under the weather a lot lately), stopping only outside his bedroom. There were large double doors, heavily paneled in oak. She knocked on them, loud, insistent rappings with her knuckles.

"Richard," she called. "It's me. Open the door, or I'm coming in."

She sounded quite calm. Louder than usual, perhaps, but not shrill, not panicked.

Then she tried the door. It opened.

CHAPTER 4

The bedroom was empty, the bed unslept in. There was no sign of Richard. She checked the bathroom, then went back out onto the landing, calling his name. She had just invaded his private sanctuary for the first time since taking the job; skulking around no longer seemed necessary or appropriate. She paused on the landing, then drifted back into his bedroom at a loss. There was absolutely no sign of him.
Given what you had been afraid of finding,
she thought,
you should be comforted by finding nothing
. She wasn't.

She sat on his hard bed and glanced around the room. It was, thanks to Tonya, immaculate as ever. There was a pad of paper on the bedside table by the phone, and Richard had scribbled something on it in his spidery handwriting, but other than that, everything was neat and orderly, the furniture carefully aligned, the vast bookcase which lined the wall perfectly stacked and dust-free. Deborah bit her lip and leaned over to peer at the scribbling on the nightstand pad. It was a single word, circled several times and punctuated with a brace of question marks:
Atreus??

Deborah stared at it, feeling the dim stirring of an old memory, a literary memory; then she brushed it away.
Where the hell is he?

She put her head in her hands and saw something on the floor, half concealed by the oversized bedspread, as if accidentally kicked under the bed. She reached down and picked it up. It was a fragment of pottery, tightly concave like part of a very round jug, and it was painted. On a soft turquoise 24

A. J. Hartley

background was a fragment of a female head in profile, the eye large and almond-shaped, the hair in dark ringlets. It looked like a cartoon or a sketch but was full of a casual--

almost flippant--grace and energy. She held it up to the light and rubbed the surface between her fingers, suddenly sure that it was not just some broken knickknack: It was old. Nothing from any period in North America's history looked like this, she was almost certain. It looked familiar, but familiar in a way that said she had seen
comparable
pottery before, not identical. Ancient Egyptian? No, it was too alive, the face too coquettish. It might be that old but . . . She couldn't be sure. Mesopotamian? Assyrian? No. And anyway, if it really was old, what was it doing there? The museum had no classical antiquities. She looked at it again. Greek maybe?

The word on the pad, circled and dotted with question marks, popped back into her head:
Atreus
. That was Greek too.

Atreus was one the descendents of Tantalus in Greek mythology, right? His brother . . . There was something to do with his brother, or his children . . . She couldn't remember. She moved to the vast bookcase across the south wall of the bedroom and considered the book spines. Maybe there would be something in there on Greek mythology.

There was. In fact, as she moved across the face of the shelves, she let out a half whistle of bewildered amazement. Every one of what probably numbered four hundred volumes was somehow about ancient Greece: mythology, history, archaeology, politics, poetry, culture, art, philosophy. She pulled a heavy volume claiming to be
An Encyclopedia of
Ancient Greece
and flicked to the Atreus entry, reading dreamily, unsure of exactly what she was doing, what she was looking for.

Richard. You're looking for Richard.

It was no wonder she had remembered the name. Atreus was the head of the ruling line of Mycenae, the great citadel of Bronze Age Greece, from whose lion-carved gate, said 25

T h e M a s k o f A t r e u s

legend, Agamemnon had led the army which laid siege to Troy for ten years. It was his cursed house that had torn apart generation after generation in bloody feuds, dividing brothers, children, spouses, exacting the most terrible of vengeances in acts too appalling to be spoken: fratricide, patricide, matricide, human sacrifice, incest, cannibalism. Deborah closed the book and stared at the fragment of ceramic in her hand as other student memories of Bronze Age history and archaeology surfaced and slotted into place, overwriting the lurid mythology. There was no doubt in her mind. The face on the potsherd was Greek, specifically Mycenaean. But where was the rest of it, and what could it and that ancient mythical name mean?

Richard was missing. This was no time for ancient puzzles and archaeological riddles . . .

Unless they are connected.

She sat on the floor at the foot of the bookcase to read the titles on the bottom shelf more clearly, and it was while she was squatting there that she became aware of a red spot on the carpet. She touched her fingers to it, and they came away tacky. She knew before she had smelled it that it was blood. CHAPTER 5

Her heart suddenly racing, Deborah got down even lower so that her cheek was against the floor inches from the crimson smear, and she could see that the carpet was flattened into a narrow track as if something had trodden upon it. No, not trodden:
rolled
. Something heavy had rolled over it, and though the drop of blood was not smeared, she thought there was a thin track of something else in the flattened fibers, something brownish and viscous: oil.

She returned to that speck of crimson. Some dark, hollow, hopeless part of her knew that it was Richard's blood. She tried to focus to keep the implications of what she was seeing at arm's length. She went back to her previous thought. Something had rolled into the bookcase? No, the oil hadn't been tracked into the wall with the bookcase, it had been tracked
out
. In the center of the room it faded to nothing. Back in the other direction it led straight into the wall, or rather into the bookcase which lined the wall. So something had rolled out of the wall, which was impossible, unless . . . Deborah got up and began running her hands over the bookshelves, her mind stumbling to keep up with her pulse. She found nothing. She started pulling at the books themselves, but they slid undramatically out. There were hundreds of them.

Stop,
she told herself.
Think. If one of these books was . . .
Which would it be?

Atreus. Mycenae.

Something bound to Richard's old obsession with the Trojan War? Richard loved to tell her that the Homeric legends, the stories of gods and heroes, were based on real events. His 27

T h e M a s k o f A t r e u s

boyish enthusiasm was infectious, however dubious his archaeological science. Richard was no archaeologist. He was an enthusiast: less kindly, a dilettante. He didn't want social history out of archaeology; he wanted legend and the confirmation that all those junior high tales of adventure and glory were real. He didn't read archaeology to see what new principles or facts it could reveal. He read archaeology to prove what he hoped was already true. He was like Yigael Yadin wandering around the Negev and Mount Sinai with a spade in one hand and a copy of the Old Testament in the other. He knew what he believed in and wanted to make archaeology confirm it. He was like Schliemann, who had excavated Mycenae and Troy to prove that Homer's tales of Agamemnon and Helen, Achilles and Hector, Ajax and Odysseus were not poetic legend but documentary fact.

Deborah stepped back from the shelves and ran her eyes over the book spines.

In the right-hand corner, four shelves up, was a single heavy black volume bound in gilded leather.
The Iliad,
by Homer. The supreme tale of the Trojan War.

She reached for it, pulled it, felt it catch, tip forward, and stop. The bookcase swung silently toward her. Deborah stared. The space behind the bookcase was deep, a little over half the size of the bedroom itself, and it took her eyes a moment to scan the interior. It took her mind rather longer to grasp what she was seeing.

The momentary blackness behind the bookcase had flickered into a soft glow from wall displays and a single shaft of light from up in the middle of the vaulted ceiling which cast a long, pale square on the floor. It was here, right beside a recessed power outlet, that the trail of blood began. She sank slowly to her knees as the dread she had worn like a heavy cloak turned into something else, something which emptied her heart and mind in a crushing wash of despair. Richard was lying on his back, arms spread wide, a loose 28

A. J. Hartley

cruciform attitude, one hand open, the other closed. He was bare-chested, his body thin, his limbs spindly, frail. He looked impossibly old, and his pale skin had a bluish translucence that made the thick, clotting wounds in his chest and abdomen all the more dreadful. His eyes, mercifully, were closed.

Deborah took his cold, outstretched hand and raised it to her lips. Eyes shut tight, all breath squeezed out of her chest, she began to sob.

CHAPTER 6

Deborah had no idea how long she had been sitting there: squatting, in fact, half kneeling, like a supplicant at an altar. She had knelt by her bedside like that for seven nights after the services of her father's shiva, replaying the words of the Kaddish that promised life and continuity and a just, loving God she could no longer see, had not seen since. The two deaths were utterly different, but it felt as if the twenty years that separated them had collapsed into nothing, and she was again thirteen, staring from the doctors to her relatives, to the rabbi who had orchestrated the funeral ceremonies and to whom she had never spoken again. She didn't remember the Aramaic of the Kaddish, but the English translation of one of the graveside prayers had stayed with her like a wound that wouldn't fully heal. A piece of it came back to her now.

O, God, full of compassion, Thou who dwellest on high, grant
perfect rest beneath the shelter of Thy divine presence among
the holy and pure who shine as the brightness of the firma-
ment to the soul of my beloved who has gone to his eternal
home.

Mayest Thou, O God of Mercy, shelter him forever under
the wings of Thy presence, may his soul be bound up in the
bond of life eternal, and grant that the memories of my life
inspire me always to noble and consecrated living. Amen.
It rankled as it always had, bitter not like the Campari of which Richard had been so fond, but bitter as she imagined poison would be, acrid like overbrewed tea.

30

A. J. Hartley

Full of compassion? Try callous, fickle, or perhaps simply
apathetic.

Had the God of her fathers even noticed what had happened tonight? Did He ever?

God, Richard,
she thought.
I'm so sorry. I should have
been here.

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