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 (9 page)

BOOK: The Mask of Atreus

"I'm not entirely sure why I want to keep it open so 65

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

badly," she said. "I guess part of me thinks that if I pretend everything is normal, then somehow . . ."

"Yes," said Calvin, sparing her the end of the sentence. Deborah took a breath and tried to shake the thought off.

"I can do a thorough inventory today," she said, "make sure everything is where it should be. Of course, if there was anything missing from that room behind the bookcase in Richard's room, I wouldn't know."

She shrugged and sighed, finding the memory of the place insist itself on her memory like a familiar and unpleasant odor, the body laid out like that under the lights . . .


The pot had come from the open display behind the bookcase, and the other cases all looked complete, so she had assumed nothing had been taken. But then there was the curious lighting in that secret room, the square of light shining down from the ceiling, throwing its chill glow on Richard's ravaged body. But what had been there when his poor corpse was not, which needed such special illumination?

There had been a power outlet in the center of the floor, she remembered.

Yes. There had been another display in the center of the room. It had been large, and it had been special, the centerpiece of the collection, big enough that it had been wheeled out, tracking oil onto the carpet . . . But what could possibly be so much more extraordinary than the pieces stored in the wall cases, that it was worth taking while the rest of that priceless hoard had not been?


"You feel up to a trip to the morgue?"

This from Detective Cerniga. Deborah sat there mute. She had been en route to the office, but he had flagged her down. She couldn't think of anything to say.

"Honestly," she said, "I know you need formal identification and everything, but I don't think I'm ready to look at him again. I know it was Richard. There's no question. Do I have to look at him again?"

She hated saying it, hated sounding weak and emotional, hated the look of confusion in his eyes.

"No," he said, his face clearing. "I didn't mean Mr. Dixon. Your identification of his body is done. I meant the other body. The John Doe. The Greek guy."

Strange, she thought, as she nodded and followed him to his car, that the idea of looking at a dead body could bring such relief. Strange that someone else, this other man's daughter, perhaps, would have felt for this unknown Greek body the same as she did for Richard's. The thought stayed with her as they drove, parked, and walked through the blank, institutional hallways of the county coroner's office. She avoided people's eyes, hung back as Cerniga muttered explanations, followed in silence as they went into the basement with its bare pipes, painted concrete block walls, and its sterile, echoing passages. She had never been inside a morgue before but had seen plenty in movies and TV crime shows, so the place felt strangely familiar in spite of its drawers of corpses. It was so exactly as she had expected that it would be, in fact, that she felt a curious thrill of satisfaction, like she was meeting a 67

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celebrity whose face she had known for years. The feeling evaporated as soon as the young assistant in his rectangular glasses unveiled the body itself.

He was old, seventy perhaps, heavyset, his body mounding under the synthetic sheet. His eyes were closed and sunken, but she knew that if they were to open, they would be bright and intense and would watch her as she crossed the parking lot.

"Yes," she said. "I've seen him around the last few days. Three days, maybe. He spoke, but I didn't understand him, and he wasn't really talking to me. Just, you know . . . muttering."

"I guess you wouldn't understand him if he was speaking Greek," said Cerniga.

"Not Greek," said the guy in the glasses. "Preliminary translation says his effects were in Russian. It uses some of the same letters as Greek, I guess."

"That probably means he's not connected to the treasure,"

said Cerniga, frowning.

"Treasure?" said the assistant, perking up.

Cerniga ignored him for a moment, then said, "Can we see his effects?"

"Sure," said the assistant, giving Deborah a searching look. He was still thinking about that preposterous word that Cerniga had dropped so casually:

"You should check into a hotel," said Cerniga, to fill the silence the assistant left in his wake. "Just to be on the safe side." He let the words hang in the air and then added more gently, "Consider it a holiday."

A holiday.
Like she'd won it. She couldn't imagine anything she wanted less right now. But maybe it was better for her to be away, rather than sitting on the museum's doorstep loitering . . .

. . . powerless . . .

. . . waiting for permission to do her job. Another five seconds of thoughtful silence, and the decision was made.

"OK," she said. "I'll look for somewhere to stay."


A. J. Hartley

"Quietly," he said. She blinked, then nodded, face blank. The assistant returned with a tray of bagged items and a printed list of their contents. He tipped the bags out. There was no wallet or anything resembling official documents. There was a toothbrush which looked new, a lapel pin shaped like a shield, an envelope addressed in Russian, and a single sheet of torn and stained paper, overwritten in a spidery scrawl in black ink. It looked like part of a letter.

"There was more of that," said the assistant. "But it was . . .

He gave Deborah a quick, awkward look, then returned his gaze to the tray.

she thought.
This was all they could save.

"Do we have a translation?" said Cerniga.

"Not yet. There's not much that's still legible," said the assistant, checking the printout. He picked up the badge, which was in red, green, and gold enamel with the image of a soldier with a machine gun and Cyrillic lettering around the edge. At the base of the shield was a dagger overlaid by the Soviet hammer and sickle. "This, apparently, says 'Excellent Border Guard,' or something. It's from the fifties."

"What are those letters at the bottom?" said Deborah.

"MVD," said the assistant, checking the sheet of paper.

"Stands for Ministry of the Interior. Some minor government department, I guess."

"What's an old Soviet soldier doing in Atlanta?" said Deborah.

"Nothing to do with us," said Cerniga, shrugging. "Come on, let's go."

Richard had been up to something; his recent manner, his contact with the museum's lawyers, his phone calls to Greece, even his uncharacteristic enthusiasm for fund-raising all suggested that whatever had happened to him last night, it had not come completely out of the blue. As soon as she got back to the museum, Deborah went into her office and snapped 69

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on the computer. All the house and museum computers were linked via the same network so that, with the right combination of passwords, you could access every file stored on each of the linked machines from any terminal.

The computer came to life slowly. She typed her entry code and pulled up the network but found that most of the other machines--including Richard's--did not appear. She stared at the monitor screen.

The police have taken them.

Then it hit her. The machines were probably still in place, but they were all turned off. The police had done what no one on the museum staff ever did, and shut them all down as they finished copying their contents. She sat there, staring blankly at the useless computer.

Something else had been in that secret room: something large, something Richard had kept secret but which had been the core of some plan. He had been setting something up, a display perhaps, or a sale: something that would have changed the museum forever. It was to be his gift to the people of Atlanta, she felt sure of it. Richard would not hoard his treasures, hugging them to his chest in private. He would lay them out for the world to enjoy.
that was what he had been planning. But it had all gone horribly wrong, and the core exhibit which had sat under that great central light had been taken . . . or been intercepted before it ever arrived. Something flared within her, a defiance, perhaps, a sense of purpose, a desire--no--a
to do something to help reveal the circumstances of Richard's death, bringing the truth to light as if she was digging up and dusting off some priceless artifact, an act which would bring grace and meaning to this empty and meaningless death. She would tell the police whatever she found as soon as she found it, but she would
something. She had to.

The door opened. It was Tonya.

"I'm sorry," she said, starting slightly. "I didn't think you were in here. I would have knocked."

"It's no problem," said Deborah.


A. J. Hartley

"I'll come back later," said the maid, backing out.

"Oh, Tonya," said Deborah quickly, as if she had just thought of it. "Would you mind switching on Richard's computer upstairs? I have to download some receipts from the party last night."

It was a feeble lie, she thought, but a harmless one, though Tonya hesitated a fraction of a second before smiling and saying, "Sure."

The door closed again, and Deborah sat there, waiting. The clock in the bottom corner of the computer screen turned a minute over, then another. Deborah got up, then sat down again. Tonya would tell Keene, and he would come and stand over her with that snide look on his face. Deborah pushed the mouse, pulling up the shut-down menu. But then something flickered into life: a new monitor icon on the network display. One more password, and she had access. She didn't know what she was looking for. She scanned a series of financial statements and spreadsheets, but nothing looked out of place. She opened his documents file and ran her eye over the folders inside. One stopped her cold. It was labeled quite simply: "Atreus."

Hurriedly she double-clicked on it and waited as the infernally slow system flicked the contents up. It contained a single file stored as a JPEG.
A picture?

She clicked on it and waited as the image began to load. The door opened.

It was Calvin Bowers.

Deborah fumbled for the mouse to minimize the picture, but her breath caught in her throat as she saw what it was. The screen was filled with a broad stylized face wrought in gold: a Mycenaean death mask.


"Getting a little work done?" said Calvin Bowers, glancing over her shoulder at the now-blank computer screen. She had closed the file the moment he walked in, but not fast enough to prevent him from seeing the golden face.

"Don't you knock?" she said, her panic getting the better of her.

"I'm sorry," he said with a genial smile. "What was that you were looking at?"

Deborah faltered.

"It was a Greek death mask," she said. "I had been considering using it on the museum Web site."

The embroidery immediately sounded clumsy and stupid.

"Does the museum have one of those?" he said. It wasn't a real question. He knew they didn't.

"A Web site?" she said.

"A Greek mask," he said.

"No," she admitted. "It's just a kind of archaeological icon. A symbol."

He considered this, watching her.

"You're a bad liar, Miss Miller," he said at last. "It's not your style. That's fine by me, but tell the police these kinds of stories, and you could get yourself into serious trouble."

She frowned and looked away. He was right. She had built her adult life on directness, and such an attitude to the world made for a bad liar. Just how ingrained this bullheaded straightforwardness was to her sense of self was evident in the fact that she took his remark as a compliment. Lies weren't her style.


A. J. Hartley

"The mask may be connected to Richard's death," she said. "I don't know. OK?"

"OK," he said. "How?"

"I'm not sure," she said. "I'm just beginning to wonder."


For a long moment she sat there, not weighing how much to tell him so much as gathering what she could remember. Then she started to talk, and he listened, casually at first, then more seriously, leaning forward, his eyes narrow and alive. Mycenaean pots, jewelry, and weapons were one thing, Deborah told him, but a death mask was something entirely different. Archaeologists found artifacts in all manner of places, but death masks were found in one place only: graves. Rich graves, at that: the tombs of kings.

And it's a face.

Yes, there was that too. Weapons and jars, rings and bowls all have their special value, but nothing evokes the grandeur of the past in human terms like the image of the dead man's face, however stylized. Death masks are regal, but they are also personal, even intimate; it's like looking down a tunnel into the past and finding that it ends in a mirror, all the history and legends stripped down to the face of a human being. It was no wonder, Deborah said, that they were so prized by collectors and the hordes of people who filed past museum displays, their eyes lingering on those of the mask and, by implication, the man who once wore it in death. Another reason such masks were especially treasured was that they often didn't stay in the ground all that long. The graves were usually well marked, or people just remembered where those great ceremonial interments took place, and the kind of finery that had gone in there with the corpse. As a rule, then, the grave sites got plundered, sometimes right after the burial, sometimes centuries later when the civilization had died, leaving only folk tales for the grave robbers to follow. By the time legitimate archaeologists got there, the richest 73

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finds were usually long gone. There were exceptions, of course: Carter's discovery of Tutankhamen's gold sarcophagus, for example. And Schliemann in Mycenae. It wasn't just that that the masks were rare. If one was found today, the chances of it getting out of the country where it was discovered were virtually zero. The great powers of the nineteenth century had filled their national museums with treasures lifted from nations once mighty in art and war, then reduced to the ignominy of the colonized. But those days were long gone, and barely a day went by without some nationalist appeal from Greece or Egypt, Iran or India, Colombia or Peru, that the current owners return to their native land the statues and jewelry, paintings or relics filched from them a century or so ago by the agents of European empire. No, the chances of a treasure trove of Mycenaean grave goods being spirited away to America without raising even a blip on the radar of the cultural community in this day and age were slim to none.

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