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 (5 page)

BOOK: The Mask of Atreus
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She had hardly moved at all since finding him, her breath coming in slow, even draughts that barely expanded her chest, as if she was trying to share his stillness, his silence. Her eyes swam, the tears welling up silently and finally breaking free and falling so that they pattered like heavy drops of summer rain onto the carpet.

Yet through her silent anguish came a shrill, insistent voice, an official voice, like a policeman pushing through the crowd that gathered at a road accident, a voice of authority and order, a voice that stifled emotion in favor of reason. It said that Richard had been murdered, that this was not just a place of grief, it was a place of horror, even danger, and she needed to act accordingly.

But she couldn't leave, could barely take her streaming eyes off him, off his wounds.

They had bled heavily, but they weren't cuts so much as flat incisions little more than an inch wide, now edged rusty and crimson but a deep and threatening black in the center. The chest was streaked by trickles of dark blood, but the deep pool in which he lay had come from beneath him. Could he have been stabbed so deeply (
six or seven times,
said that insistent, detail-oriented voice which usually commented on potsherds and burial mounds) that the blade had emerged from his back? What kind of weapon would do that? It had to be as close to a sword as a knife.

And then there were the pair of indentations in the skin on either side of each wound: two small bruises an inch or so to the sides of each flat puncture . . .

She turned hurriedly away, overcome with a sudden desperate nausea that made her retch so that her throat stung, but brought nothing up from her stomach. Her eyes, still bleeding 31

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

tears, felt perversely dry and prickly. She clenched them shut, suddenly overwhelmed by the idea that she should wash those wounds, rinse the blood away . . .

But you mustn't disturb the body,
said the voice,
because
the police will need to photograph things exactly as they are.
Someone else will wash him later.

"Oh, Richard. There was so much still to do. To say."

She said it aloud and, as if in answer, her phone rang. For a long moment she didn't look at it, then her hand moved slowly from Richard's, and she raised the phone to her ear, her movements still small and silent, her breathing calm.

"Yes?" she said.

"Did they take the body?"

The same voice. Deborah said nothing, her eyes still fo-cused on Richard's chest, on what had been Richard.

"Did they take it?"

She felt her breathing stop. He spoke again, more insistent this time. Urgent.

"Did they take the body?"

"No," she said. She didn't know why she answered him.

"Wait there," he said. "I'm coming."

The line went dead.

Deborah stared at the phone buzzing in her hand as his words sank in. Suddenly all her numb stillness left her as the implications of those words worked on her like a surge of electric current. She got hurriedly to her feet, turned from the body, and began to call the police.

CHAPTER 7

He had said he was coming. He hadn't said why, what he wanted, or how long it would take to get there. He hadn't said who he was, how he knew of the events at the museum, why he was so anxious to find out if Richard's body had been taken away, or who might have taken it. Nevertheless, it was obvious that whoever he was, whatever he wanted, he was somehow tied to Richard Dixon's death. She had said as much to the emergency operator, a claim which had worked like adrenaline on a conversation which had, to that point, been sluggish, even dubious. Was she
sure
the man was dead?

"He has multiple knife wounds to the chest and abdomen,"

she said. "His . . .
body
was in a kind of secret room. He had made a note about Atreus, and it made me think about Troy, so I tried a copy of
The Iliad,
and the bookcase opened--"

"Slow down, honey," said the operator.

She had started off methodically enough
(multiple knife
wounds . . . )
but it had all gotten away from her. Her voice had cracked and she had started babbling.

"Sorry," Deborah answered, feeling suddenly stupid and alone. "I'm a bit . . . I'm . . ."

She didn't know what she was, or couldn't find words that began to represent what she was.

"It's OK. Just take a breath."

The dispatcher didn't warn Deborah that wasting police time with hoax calls would get her in a world of trouble, despite that remark about the secret room (which was enough to test anyone's credulity) or her jabbering about Atreus. The woman could hear that it was all real, and that meant that 33

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

Deborah had to start getting things together, because she was losing it badly. She cleared her throat.

"I'm sorry," she said again. "Richard was very . . . We were very close."

"That's the man who's hurt?"

"Dead, yes."

She said it quite calmly, her mind blank, the words somehow correct but meaningless. There was a momentary silence.

"Where exactly are you?" said the dispatcher.

"In the bedroom," said Deborah.

"I mean the address."

"Right," said Deborah, feeling numb and stupid again.

"Sorry. It's the Druid Hills Museum, One forty-three Deerborne Street. The house is connected to the museum. You might have to come in that way. Not you, of course. Whoever comes--"

"Uh-huh," said the dispatcher. "You could meet them at the door. Is it close by?"

"Not really," said Deborah.

"OK," said the dispatcher. "And this man who called, you have no idea who he was?"

"No."

"Is there a safe room in the house? Somewhere you can lock yourself in and wait for the police officers?"

"There's a bathroom," she said, feeling again a surge of panic at the seriousness with which the woman was responding to Deborah's mysterious caller.

"And you can lock it? And the door is solid?"

"Yes, but I'll have to hang up. This isn't a cordless phone. I have a cell I could use if--"

"OK, that's good. You OK?"

"I'm OK," she said. "I'm going to hang up."

"You sure you're all right?"

"Yes."

"Just get in the bathroom and lock it up good, OK?"

Deborah nodded, then said yes. Then she hung up and sat 34

A. J. Hartley

on the edge of the bed for a moment looking at the bathroom door. Then she looked away, stood up, took two steps, and peered into the dimly lit chamber behind the bookcase, keeping her eyes from the floor and the body upon it, taking in for the first time the remarkable--no, the
impossible
--collection that lined its walls.

CHAPTER 8

Even without stepping inside Deborah knew that the glassfronted displays contained artifacts that matched the fragment of pottery she had held in her hands moments before. One of the cases on the walls was open, and there was a conspicuous vacancy on the glass shelf inside. Deborah looked down. In the corner shadows, three feet from that central square of light, was a random clutter of ceramic fragments, the remains of a pot, some of whose shards were of the same turquoise as the fragment she had found under the bed. Deborah stayed where she was, staring hard over the body at her feet
(Don't look at him again, whatever you do.)
, her gaze moving slowly around the room's perimeter in a kind of daze which increased as she absorbed the contents of those display cases: a gold, two handled cup she thought was called a kantharos, four decorative plates with stylized lions, and a pair of seal rings, also gold. There was a stone slab carved with the figure of a chariot and driver, possibly a gravestone, a silver bowl overlaid with bulls' heads, strings of glass and polished stone beads, and then more gold: necklaces, pendants, diadems, rings, and pins, all remarkably delicate and rich. There were three cases loaded with ceramics, from finely painted jugs decorated with geometric patterns to elegant kylikes and jars inscribed with warriors and hunting scenes. The last case held spear points, swords, and daggers, inlaid with gold and precious stones, slim and elegantly purposeful, their bronze green with age but remarkably undamaged . . .
If it is all real . . . ?

There was no reason to suggest it wasn't, except the obvious. There were forty or fifty pieces here. If they were what 36

A. J. Hartley

they appeared to be, this had to be the largest, richest collection of Mycenaean or Minoan artifacts outside the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. Its value was impossible to estimate.

So it has to be fake.

A collection of this size and quality just couldn't exist. Most of the Greek sites had been excavated or plundered centuries before. Everything from Mycenae, Tiryns, the Minoan sites in Crete was catalogued, documented, the pictures reproduced in a hundred books devoted to art and history. A collection like this, unknown to modern archaeological science, was unthinkable. But Deborah, rooted to the spot, her eyes still streaming with tears, knew at a glance that what she was looking at were not copies or reproductions of known pieces. True, she wasn't an expert on Grecian antiquities and couldn't identify every pot ever found in Mycenae, but she had seen enough of the famous ones to know that this little room contained objects as large, as richly ornate, as complex as any anywhere else. She also knew that these were
different,
similar enough to mark them out as Mycenaean, but new finds nonetheless. She stared at a bronze dagger held in place on a delicate Perspex stand, leaning into the room to get a closer look. It was adorned with inlaid gold and silver lions chasing deer. It was exquisite. It was three and a half thousand years old, and she was as sure as she could be that no serious archaeologist or historian alive had ever lain eyes on it.
No serious archaeologist.

What did that mean? She forced herself to admit the dull dread that had gathered like ground glass in the base of her stomach. Serious meant
ethical
. If this stuff was real, it had been stolen, kept secret, traded outside the purview of the archaeological community, squirreled away, its lessons and delights hoarded for private consumption only. She felt dread and a disappointment that left her drained and hollow, even stopping her tears with a sudden and emptying weariness.

"Richard." She sighed. "What did you do?"

37

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

And,
whispered a hurt and resentful part of herself she didn't want to listen to right now,
why didn't you tell me?

She remembered Richard's old Indiana Jones-esque righteous indignation:
"This belongs in a museum."
Quite. It should have made her smile, but the hollowness in her bowels was turning into something small and sad. She looked at him again, lying there, pale and unfamiliar, striped and splashed with the garish red of his blood.

You were my friend, my mentor, my . . .

She couldn't bring herself to add
father
. This hiding from her was a betrayal, of her, of her values, of what they had tried to do at the museum.

Unless . . .

Could he have bought this extraordinary collection through black market channels with a view to displaying it in the museum? She caught her breath. He had been distracted of late, secretive. But it had been a wait-and-see kind of secretive. Was this room merely a holding pen for use until the legal paperwork was all in order, and the collection could then be displayed in their humble museum? What a coup that would have been!

But the room didn't look temporary. Her rush of hope and idealism floundered. Richard had been dealing with the worst kind of illegal artifact traffickers, and they had turned on him. What other way was there to read the evidence?

But they had been inside. So why hadn't they taken it all with them? If this had been a botched deal, why leave all these extraordinary treasures behind? Why wouldn't Richard's killers just take the lot? If . . . ?

Deborah spun around. Very slowly, almost noiselessly, the handles of the bedroom door were turning.

CHAPTER 9

Deborah had no more than a second or two to decide, and all options felt like gambles. Then, with the bedroom doors starting to swing slowly inward, she ducked and rolled into the only hiding place in the room: the space under Richard's bed.

For a moment there was silence. Deborah was on her stomach, her legs pointed at the bed head, her face at the foot, only a couple of yards from the door. She held her breath and listened. There was no brash entry, no heavy regulation boots. Whoever was coming in had no business being there. She should have locked herself in the bathroom. Deborah hugged the floor, palms spread. There was an oversized bedspread hanging over the mattress so that it touched the ground along most of the length of the bed. It afforded her childish hiding place a degree of secrecy, but it also made it almost impossible to see anything in the room beyond. Except in one spot. Right at Deborah's waist on the left side, the bedspread was puckered up into a shallow V, created when she had slid under. Slowly she turned her head till she could see through the gap.

Carpet, the leg of an end table, the dim space behind the bookcase. Richard's outstretched hand.

This is crazy. Get out now.

No. She didn't like the stealth with which those doors had opened, the care with which those feet had entered. It was a long moment before Deborah heard anything at all, so long that she had begun to think that the intruder had gone back out, but then it came, clear and distinctive: a long, expelled breath, perhaps a sigh. Deborah shifted fractionally, 39

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

straining for a wider field of vision through the notch of fabric. It made no difference, but then whoever was in the room, only feet from where she lay, took two quick steps, and a pair of shoes came into view: white gym shoes marked with a Nike swoosh on the heel. Women's shoes. They were turned to face the body and the secret room which housed it. As Deborah stared, they rocked forward on the toe, as if craning to see something, but then everything stopped. The feet turned, pivoting sharply back toward the door, and then were gone. Deborah heard the door open and close again, a good deal less stealthily this time, and then dimly, farther away, she heard something else, male voices coming through the lobby downstairs: the police.

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