Read The Matador's Crown Online

Authors: Alex Archer

The Matador's Crown

BOOK: The Matador's Crown
12.33Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

A dead man. A stolen artifact.

As something of an expert on the medieval period, archaeologist Annja Creed jumps at the invitation from the Museum of Cadiz to assess its acquisition of Egyptian coins. Andalucia, Spain, is a region rich in Moorish and Roman ruins, and this invite gives Annja the chance to join a dig across the Bay of Cadiz. There she unearths a bronze bull statue that makes the entire trip worth every minute to her. Until the day after her discovery, when she sees the same artifact in the hotel room down the hall from hers, in the possession of a Spaniard killed by the
estocada
, the final sword thrust used by bullfighters to bring down the bull.

Whoever killed the man in the hotel room had left clear signs of having taken something. And yet the bronze bull remained. What was so valuable the murderer ignored a priceless artifact? With few leads and a growing body count, Annja’s investigation takes her through the colorful world of flamenco and bullfighting to a renowned matador and an illegal—and deadly—collection of Visigoth votive crowns.

Earth had been hastily shoveled over the body

“That is not good,” Garin said as he sidled up beside Annja and looked over the scene. “You think it’s the dig supervisor you wanted to talk to?”

“Someone looking for me?”

They turned in unison—Garin with pistol extended and ready to fire—to find Jonathon Crockett holding an AK-47.

“I believe my Kalashnikov trumps your Glock,” Crockett said.

Annja felt Garin’s elbow twitch against her arm. He was the last man Crockett—any man—should issue a challenge like that to.

“You think so?” Garin held the pistol barrel skyward with his finger off the trigger to show he meant to surrender. Annja knew that wasn’t going to happen.

Reaching into the otherwhere for her sword, she clasped the grip and swept the blade across Crockett’s wrist, taking him by surprise. The machine gun dropped to the dusty ground. In an agile move, Garin bent to claim it, as Annja released the sword back to where it had come from.

“Nice,” Garin said. He hooked the Kalashnikov under his arm and held both guns on the whimpering professor. “She’s my backup.”

Titles in this series:

Tear of the Gods
The Oracle’s Message
Cradle of Solitude
Labyrinth
Fury’s Goddess
Magic Lantern
Library of Gold
The Matador’s Crown
Destiny
Solomon’s Jar
The Spider Stone
The Chosen
Forbidden City
The Lost Scrolls
God of Thunder
Secret of the Slaves
Warrior Spirit
Serpent’s Kiss
Provenance
The Soul Stealer
Gabriel’s Horn
The Golden Elephant
Swordsman’s Legacy
Polar Quest
Eternal Journey
Sacrifice
Seeker’s Curse
Footprints
Paradox
The Spirit Banner
Sacred Ground
The Bone Conjurer
Tribal Ways
The Dragon’s Mark
Phantom Prospect
Restless Soul
False Horizon
The Other Crowd

Alex Archer

The Matador’s Crown

The Legend

…The English commander took Joan’s sword and raised it high.

The broadsword, plain and unadorned, gleamed in the firelight. He put the tip against the ground and his foot at the center of the blade. The broadsword shattered, fragments falling into the mud. The crowd surged forward, peasant and soldier, and snatched the shards from the trampled mud. The commander tossed the hilt deep into the crowd. Smoke almost obscured Joan, but she continued praying till the end, until finally the flames climbed her body and she sagged against the restraints.

Joan of Arc died that fateful day in France,
but her legend and sword are reborn….

Special thanks and acknowledgment to Michele Hauf for her contribution to this work.

Prologue

The woman walking thirty strides ahead of him moved like a flamenco dancer. Powerful, forceful, yet graceful. She reminded him of Ava, the dancer in the club where he played guitar.

Ava barely acknowledged his existence and frequently complained he did not keep proper
compas,
marking the beat, which spoiled her dance and made her look bad in front of the audience. As a guitarist, he was attuned to the dancer and singer, but his concentration tended to waver around Ava.

He’d thought her just another dancer when he’d taken the job at the Gato Negra club. But there was a shadow inside Ava and he felt its presence every time she took the stage. Darkness emerged in her footwork, in the aggressive expressions that contorted her face and the fierce control with which she captured the audience nightly.

So he did not hurry his pace to catch up with this other woman. Best to admire from afar.

With the guitar he’d made from German spruce and Spanish cypress strapped across his back, Diego Montera carried the cumbersome wooden crate at stomach level. He had to deliver it at midnight. In a cotton bag tied to his belt loop, he had a change of clothing and enough euros to cover a meal. He also carried the small bronze artifact he had to deliver the following morning. He had seen that much—that it was bronze—as his employer had wrapped it and handed it to him. What was in the crate, he didn’t know. It wasn’t much heavier than his guitar.

His employer had rented him a room in the Hotel Blanca tonight for the first delivery. It was not as if he could complete the transaction on the street, in the open. Or at his home where Diego’s mother would question a stranger’s visit. The buyer preferred a private meeting, valued his privacy.

Diego was excited about tonight. That his employer had trusted him with two jobs within a day of each other meant he was moving up, earning respect. If both exchanges went well, perhaps he’d earn a position as a regular liaison. A guitarist’s wages were nothing to write home about, and he still lived with his mother, who complained when he didn’t help clean around the house. A guitarist shouldn’t do manual labor such as fixing the plumbing! Diego wanted his own apartment so he could entertain friends and bring home women without the curse of his mother’s condemning eye.

Even though he had no information about who would arrive to pick up the wooden crate and its contents tonight, Diego felt confident the meeting would go well. The money would be transferred electronically through a secure service. Then Diego got paid in cash. He knew to go online and verify that his employer had received the transfer before handing over the item. He had one of those fancy cell phones with the internet browser in his jeans pocket. The device, a hand-me-down, had received a pounding from one of Diego’s brothers and was on its last legs.

Tomorrow morning’s handoff would be at a public place—a city fountain—not far from the Museum of Cádiz. What he did when he was not playing in the club wasn’t legal, but it paid too well to pass up. He hadn’t learned the name of the outfit he worked for, but it probably didn’t have one. Most of the deals, if not all, were made under the table.

His mother would never look him in the eye again if she knew who he was involved with. But if Diego wanted to finally attract the eye of Ava, the beautiful flamenco dancer, he had to have money.

Hours earlier, the sun had set in fiery amber ripples on the horizon over the sea. A sharp slice of moonlight glimmered on the waters close to shore. The streets were busy at all hours in Cádiz. The city offered so much to experience in food, music and festivity. And with the bullfights on the mainland in Jerez, Cádiz celebrated with all-night dancing in the streets.

Diego turned a corner into an empty street. Though he’d been a Cádiz resident all his life, the sudden street-to-street changes from festive to silent startled him. He was tired, but the coffee he’d slammed down before leaving the club after tonight’s performance had given him a jolt.

Exiting the momentary solace, he crossed a main street peopled with tourists in jeans, sandals and baseball caps, and entered the Hotel Blanca’s whitewashed stucco facade. Diego smiled at the squat matron behind the front desk who wore black edged with touches of white lace. She was someone’s grandma, surely, and her jet eyes brightened at the sight of him. Yet as he approached, she blew him a kiss that seemed more flirtatious than motherly.

He was always startled to notice a woman’s reaction to his appearance. His mother had called him
ma bonita,
“my pretty,” but his three brothers had pounded him regularly because of his looks…and possibly because of their mother’s affection for him. And because he had no inclinations toward the bullfight. In a family of toreros dating back three generations, Diego had opted to study music.

His hotel room was on the second floor, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, several blocks from the avenue Compo del Sur that fronted the beach. Setting the crate on the small, wobbly table near the bed and untying the cotton bag, he let it slide down to his feet and land on the floor. Sitting on the narrow bed, he pulled the guitar around from his back. Quickly, he loosened the E, A and D strings, and drew them out from the wooden tuning pegs so they sprang like whiskers from the bridge. He slipped his hand inside the guitar’s sound hole.

The small statue had fallen out of the cloth bag and felt cold against his palm as he carefully eased it, and the duct tape he’d used to secure it, from inside the guitar. He shouldn’t have taken it out until morning, but he couldn’t play with it inside the instrument, so he set the shiny piece aside next to the wooden crate. Maybe it wasn’t bronze. Maybe it was gold. He was no expert on metals.

He considered what he could buy if he kept the statue for himself. A lot. But if he didn’t deliver it tomorrow morning, he knew he wouldn’t see tomorrow evening.

Now all he had to do was wait for the first meeting—at midnight. An appropriately menacing time to meet a stranger.

Diego passed the hours strumming his guitar.

* * *

A
S
MIDNIGHT
TOLLED
, the door to Diego’s hotel room creaked open. Diego abruptly stood as a tall stranger in a long black leather coat stepped in. He wore sunglasses and a dark fedora, the crown of it circled with a red ribbon. The brim was tipped low over his eyes. Cordoba leather shoes caught Diego’s eye. Very expensive. His father had once owned a pair.

He flexed his fingers. He couldn’t recall leaving the door open, but he hadn’t locked it.

“You Diego Montera?” the stranger asked in a low tone.

A dreadful chill froze Diego at the end of the bed, his guitar held ready as if it was a weapon.

“Yes. Are you the liaison for—”

“Yes, the liaison. You have it?”

“Yes. Ah! I need to check a message first.” He eyed the corner of the battered cell phone on the floor, which lay half out of the cotton bag. “Verify the transaction before we do this.”

The other man tipped his sunglasses down and looked over the rim at Diego. “You’ve not done this before, have you, Señor Montera?”

Diego rubbed his sweating palms down the sides of his jeans. He didn’t like that his employer had given his full name to the client. “What makes you think that?”

The thin man smirked as he approached the crate. “Do what you must. All my accounts are in order. Is it in here?”

“Yes.” Diego opened up the cell phone and turned it on. The thing was four years old, taped across the cover and slower than an adagio. He waited for the screen to boot up.

The liaison didn’t seem to notice him. He paused to look at the statue of the bull in bronze…or gold… before pushing aside the top of the crate.

“This was nailed down originally. With more rivets?”

“Hmm?” Diego looked down at what he was doing, studying the cell phone in his lap. “Uh, not sure. That’s exactly the way it was when I received it.”

The cell-phone screen flashed and the icon that indicated it was searching for service blinked.

“So…” The stranger exhaled in a heavy sigh. He tapped a rough wood slat of the crate. “You’ve touched what’s inside?”

“Damn.” The battery warning flashed red and the screen flashed to black. Diego scampered to the other side of the bed trying to find an outlet to recharge the device. “Touched it? Oh, well… Yes, the cover came off easily, so I did look at it. I didn’t take it out.” An outlet. Excellent. He plugged in the phone.

“That’s unfortunate.”

Diego straightened and immediately had to take a step backward because the man suddenly stood before him. His brain registered the swing of an arm, a fist soaring in an arc to deliver a punch, but the man moved so rapidly, Diego had no time to duck.

Knuckles bruised the side of his jaw, and his head snapped back sharply. A loud crack could have been the man’s knuckles or Diego’s teeth. His equilibrium faltered, but he managed to stay on his feet.

The liaison emitted a guttural grunt, similar to a workman lifting a bale of hay. His thin, leather-clad body rose before Diego. He propelled himself into the air by stepping onto the bed, knocking the guitar onto the tiled floor.

Not his guitar!

Who was this man?

Searing pain pierced Diego’s spine at the base of his neck. He cried out, but only a gurgling mumble came out of his throat.

He tasted more blood and swallowed it back. He started to choke. He couldn’t catch his breath. Blood bubbled up into his throat. His spine felt numb, but his heart pounded rapidly. His neck and face were on fire.

Grasping for the man who had removed his sunglasses and stood calmly before him, Diego dropped to his knees. Grasping at his chest, he closed his eyes. He choked to death on his own blood.

BOOK: The Matador's Crown
12.33Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

The Yearbook Committee by Sarah Ayoub
Seventy-Two Hours by Stringham, C. P.
The Peter Principle by Peter, Laurence
Only the Brave by Mel Sherratt
The Rembrandt Affair by Daniel Silva