The Wednesday W.Ink offers a glimpse of Digging into Death, a post-WW I mystery set on the island of Crete.
Chapter 1 :: Saturday, October 4, 1919
If ever a maiden needed a hero, Isabella did.
Crete was the famed birthplace of Zeus, the god who granted supplicants’ prayers. Standing on the steps of the Heraklion Hotel, Isabella hoped her hero appeared before a blood sacrifice was necessary.
She plunked down her suitcase on the hotel steps and fanned her wide-brimmed straw hat. In ancient Crete the rulers had offered shelter and protection to strangers. Yet in the closed faces of the passers-by, intent on their errands, she did not see any hospitality offered to a foreign woman alone. She needed a recognizable and friendly face. She didn’t see one.
Men talking, engines sputtering, horns blaring, dogs barking, donkeys braying: after the hotel’s quiet, the cacophony assaulted her ears. Men poured past the steps with scarcely a glance at her. Most wore the dark Cretan jacket and loose breeches, although a few suits testified to modern Europe’s inroads on island culture. A few women in unrelieved black walked along the dusty road, but they ignored the lone foreigner on the hotel steps.
Isabella saw no one familiar and definitely no one who looked like the reincarnation of a protective god and certainly no one who could rescue a stranded governess.
Then a demigod emerged from the hotel.
Like Apollo, god of light and knowledge, his golden hair glinted in the morning light. And Isabella recognized him: Nigel Arkwright, one of the English archaeologists.
Prof. Arkwright had dined with her erstwhile employer on Tuesday night. Last night, in the bar, she’d seen him order one whiskey after another. This morning, though, her panic when the hotel manager confronted her about her bill had cast him from her mind. But he could give her help. Although Isabella despised encroachers, she couldn’t let this god-given opportunity slip away.
As he reached the last step, she dropped her heavy suitcase in his path. “Prof. Arkwright, hello. I’m Isabella Newcombe. We met when the Harcourt-Smythes visited your dig last weekend.”
His mouth compressed, which didn’t bode well for her start. Last evening’s drinking might have been too deep for an appeal to his English gentleman’s code. A hangover this morning wouldn’t help her.
He cleared his throat. “I remember you. You were the governess.” He looked past her, scanning the road. “American governess, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, I was the governess.” She stressed the past tense. She hitched her satchel strap higher on her shoulder. “They discharged me.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Miss, but I’m in a—.”
“No, you’re not sorry. You do not care. Professor, you don’t know me well enough to care. You don’t know me at all. And that is the crux of my problem. Besides my former employers, no one knows me here, and no one cares. I am in a foreign country, surrounded by foreigners, and I do not have enough money for my passage home.”
“Your appeal should go to your employer, not to me.”
“No matter what circumstance, I will not return to him.” She hoped the bright glare hid her flaming cheeks. “Two weeks’ wages and a letter for his bank in Athens were all that Mr. Harcourt-Smythe gave me. I can repay you once I reach Athens. I do have the funds. My problem is here and now.”
“I am completely alone, and I might as well be penniless. Then I saw you. I thought Providence had sent you to be my rescuer.”
“Miss Newcombe,” he settled a pith helmet on his gilded hair, “I don’t believe I qualify as a rescuer.” The narrow brim shaded his eyes.
She hated this intruding role she’d been thrust into, but she played it with the desperate energy that stressed its truth. “Here am I, stranded and virtually penniless. Here are you, an English gentleman in the midst of an important dig. You must have need of a helper. Someone who can catalog items or type notes or—or do something. Surely an extra pair of hands can be useful somewhere.”
A horn honked. Prof. Arkwright looked around. An army truck jolted along the street. He glanced back at her as he stepped down to meet it. “Miss Newcombe, I’m not in charge of this dig. Gawen Tarrant is. I have no power to hire anyone. And he has no liking for tourists who need their hands held.”
“Professor, I am desperate. I will do anything. Please, say you’ll help me. Please don’t abandon me.”
The truck jerked to a stop and bounced when the driver pulled the brake. Leaving the motor running, he jumped out. The professor started to the front of the truck.
“Prof. Arkwright?” Isabella pleaded.
He looked back at her as he dropped a baksheesh into the young man’s hand. Then he dug into his pocket for another coin. “Ari, shove Miss Newcombe’s case into the back.”
Isabella nearly sank with relief, but Prof. Arkwright had already reached the driver’s door. Ari lifted her heavy suitcase and swung it into the back. The professor revved the motor impatiently, and she clambered gracelessly into the passenger seat. He released the parking brake. The truck jolted off. She looked back.
Ari stood waving on the bottom step.
Behind him, the Heraklion Hotel loomed, substantial but unwelcoming to a single, penniless woman.
She wasn’t sure which appeal to the gentleman’s chivalric code had changed Prof. Arkwright’s mind, and she wouldn’t ask. As the truck jounced over furrows and eroded ruts, she worried about her unsecured suitcase bouncing in the back, but she didn’t ask about that either. The roar of the engine hid the grumbles from her days-empty stomach.
Close to Heraklion they had smooth driving, yet a few miles outside the capitol the road had fallen into disrepair, a casualty of the recent war. It became disreputable as they rolled the miles around the north of Mount Dikte.
As he drove, Nigel Arkwright’s jaw jutted pugnaciously. When they left the main road, the way disintegrated into a cart track winding through the eastern foothills of the mountain that guides still claimed had been the birthplace of Zeus. Snow already frosted its heights.
The professor ground the gears as they halted for herds of sheep and workers repairing an eroded irrigation ditch and children playing in the tiny hamlets. The roosters and chickens scattered ahead of the truck. Not once did he speak to her.
Isabella clamped her jaw to keep from biting her tongue. She wanted to ask about the passing landscape or about the dig at Knossos and why Arkwright’s group wasn’t working the famous site. A look at his undimmed frown daunted her.
From the visit last weekend, she knew that Arkwright and his colleagues worked two obscure sites far from the four better-known digs of Knossos, Phaestos, Mallia, and Gurnia. Compared to those, this expedition could hardly carry an official name. Only Zeus’ own mountain gave grace to the sites.
Isabella and the Harcourt-Smythes had arrived at the dig after a pouring rain had collapsed a wall. Muck the flat color of cement had covered everything and everyone. The artist lurking inside Isabella had taken the mud and exposed foundations and imagined a country palace, braced against the bleaching sun and African winds. Her two charges had distracted her from that past. The busy archaeologists had barely acknowledged their unexpected visitors.
As Prof. Arkwright man-handled the truck over the road, Isabella stared at the craggy rocks of Mt. Dikte, scarred with ravines and pocked with tumbled boulders. These English archaeologists might not be the answer to her prayer. Should she have looked for a different rescuer? Should she have waited? She remembered two married ladies at the dig but no single ones. The dig would still be busy, and she was an imposition. Would they welcome her at all? Would they give her a chance to earn her passage to England?
Or had she only delayed the inevitable?
Last night she had wanted to scream with fear and frustration. Instead, she paced through the early hours as she tried to work out a solution to her unexpected unemployment.
This late in the year, few archaeologists remained on Crete. She had planned to search each group out; if they had failed her, she would approach the English construction crew working on the roads or haunt the antiquities museum. Yet a search took money, and she needed to hoard the pittance that was her only protection against the world until she reached Athens. And that was before the hotel manager demanded she pay from Tuesday through Friday.
Nigel Arkwright had seemed a gift from the gods. If he weren’t, she had still gained time to contrive a less desperate solution.
The god Apollo was steering his sun chariot to its westward descent when they arrived at the dig. Arkwright jolted his mundane chariot to a stop. The professor set the hand brake but left the motor running. As she reached for the door handle, he said, “At least you can be silent. After this morning’s deluge, I wasn’t certain.”
“I was desperate, Professor. If I had not convinced you, I don’t know what I would have done. The hotel manager had decided I was a disreputable nuisance once he learned that Mr. Harcourt-Smythe had discharged me. I must thank you once again, Prof. Arkwright.”
“I haven’t helped yet. That’s not in my power. As I said, I’m not in charge here.”
“Yes, you mentioned Professor Tarrant. He wasn’t here last weekend.”
“Gawen Tarrant was at Knossos on a shared week, our fourth this season. You may have seen his brother, although he tried to avoid your party. Tourists are a nuisance who interrupt our work. Your arrival will interrupt us again.”
She sucked in a breath. “Thank you for the warning.”
“Our work requires training and education, Miss Newcombe, so you will not waltz into a position. My wife sorts and catalogs the daily finds at the palace site. Prof. Standings is in charge of the temple site; his wife assists him there. Tarrant handles his own notes, as do I. I don’t know what Standings does. The students will not need a secretary. Unless you can contrive a job before you meet Tarrant, you will soon return to Heraklion. All the chatter in the world won’t change his mind. Indeed, you will find it decides him more quickly. That, too, is a warning.”
Speech delivered, he shoved open the truck door and strode away, shouting to a worker to drive it up to the house.
Isabella slid out as the worker slid behind the wheel. He flashed a grin as she snatched her hat. The truck jerked. She grabbed her satchel and slammed the door, and the truck rattled off. She watched it wind around the cedars on the curving climb to the village. Only when it vanished behind the trees did she remember her suitcase. Yet her possessions were a minor worry. Clothes and a few trinkets would not give her a job on this dig. With her lack of experience, any work she found would likely be at their leased house. Her cooking could not rival the savory dinners a village woman had prepared on Saturday and Sunday. Two other village women took care of cleaning and laundry. Isabella’s prospects looked worse and worse.
Spirits wilting, she trudged after Nigel Arkwright. Then she reached the dig.
The lower site was the ancient palace. From the earlier tour she remembered that the archaeologists had excavated a complex foundation, a well, and a refuse tip, buried for centuries by a mudslide. Farther up the hillside was the second site, a temple tumbled into ruined blocks.
Her employers had not wanted to climb up to the temple and had loitered around the palace site. When Mrs. Harcourt-Smythe complained that it did not look like a grand palace to her, let alone a country manor, Prof. Arkwright had launched into a description of primitive life. Isabella’s charges, the two girls, had immediately lost interest. The entire family had had glazed expressions when the lecture had concluded.
Smiling in remembrance, Isabella meandered around the excavation. This time, no whining twosome distracted her. Each separate chore fascinated her. Diggers cleared out the mud from the earlier wall collapse. Pickmen used their tools to distinguish a wall from centuries of mud. Two English students dropped a plumb line to measure the wall’s height.
Her fingers itched to record the scene. She rummaged in her satchel for sketchbook and pencil. For several breaths she merely watched, then she tried to transfer the energy to the page: the pickmen, the two students, Arkwright gesturing to a worker carrying a brace.
“Well done.” The woman at her shoulder startled Isabella. “In a few minutes you’ve reproduced our dig.”
A wide-brimmed hat preserved the woman’s creamy skin from the intense sun. It also framed the angular bones that gave her a singular beauty. Dust and sweat had not touched her starched blouse and trim tan skirt. With a yellow scarf tied in an ascot, she looked like an advertisement for the chic sporting woman.
Isabella offered a brighter smile than she felt. “Thank you, Mrs. Arkwright. The dig is fascinating. History brought into the present.”
“Say that to Gawen Tarrant, and he may let you stay. Come into the shade, Miss Newcombe, before this sun melts you.”
Isabella stowed her sketchbook then followed Cecilia Arkwright beneath a long tarp.
The woman walked around rough tables covered with sorting trays and settled onto a campstool. She idly fingered the potsherds in the nearest tray. “My husband told me of your straits. What will you do, Miss Newcombe?”
Isabella fanned her hat. “Wilt even more until I collapse under this sun. Mrs. Arkwright, when I saw your husband this morning, I thought I had a brilliant solution. I fear the gods may have blinded me instead of granting my plea.”
“Did you pray for guidance? Well, we shall see if your solution was divinely inspired or not. Bring over a stool, and help me sort these.”
Isabella spilled the story of her dismissal as she sorted broken potsherds from a basket into trays. By the time the sun sank toward the horizon, her gloves were soiled by centuries’ old clay and she’d learned that pottery revealed its age as distinctly as sculpture did.
“It’s like a puzzle, isn’t it? Sorting by the color marks and the thickness and the slip. Are the pieces ever re-assembled? I think that would be incredibly frustrating. A puzzle with no clues as to size or shape, and most of the pieces missing.”
“Hunting a job, Miss Newcombe?”
She stiffened at the unfamiliar voice. Wilted she may have felt, but steel straightened her spine as she stood to confront her next challenge. “Professor Tarrant, I presume?”
The oblique allusion to the great African adventurer earned his grin, a white flash in a face tanned by the fierce sun. Beneath the wide brim of his hat, his startlingly green eyes were a brilliant shock. A tall man, with arms obstinately folded, he loomed over her. “Archaeology is not a treasure hunt but an exploration into our origins.”
“Gawen, Miss Newcombe has had a few difficult days. You shouldn’t bombard her with your favorite lecture.”
“We have all had difficult days, Cecilia. I’ve wasted a week at Knossos, and I return to days lost due to a mudslip and tourists, one of whom won’t leave. Walk with me, Miss Newcombe. Leave that,” he ordered when she lifted her satchel.
“I won’t, Professor. I can’t. My money’s in it.”
“Fool woman. You should have the money on you, not in a bag for any street urchin to wrench away. Hand it over.” He unbuckled his belt. When she stood disbelieving, he snapped, “I won’t steal your money. I’ll keep it safely until you leave tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” She had hoped for a week or more, not just one night.
“Tomorrow unless you convince me otherwise. Now, your money.”
To refuse would further blacken her chances. She handed over her purse. He snapped it open and extracted the folded pound notes. “How much?”
She named her woefully small sum as she returned her purse to the satchel.
His eyebrows lifted then dropped back to a scowl. She was relieved his perpetual frown could break, albeit briefly. “That’s all the Harcourt-Smythes paid for keeping their two screeching girls in line?” He stuffed her folded bills into his money belt.
“You saw us? When?”
“At Knossos on Monday. How often did you want to strangle your charges?”
Isabella primmed her mouth. “Not once, sir. A governess inculcates good behavior as well as knowledge. However much I deplored their shrill voices and reprehensible conduct, I could do no more than remonstrate with them to behave better. My personal preferences as to strangulation remained but a dream.”
Cecilia Arkwright applauded. “Well said. I hear my own governess.”
Tarrant snorted. “If you talked that way, no wonder they misbehaved.” He finished buckling his belt then swept an arm to have her precede him. “Is that a week’s wage? Where are your other wages?”
“Two weeks’ wages. I had other money with me, but I had to pay my hotel bill, an expense I did not expect. Mr. Harcourt-Smythe banked the rest of my salary. In with those bills is a letter from him to his Athens banker, explaining the transfer of my remaining wages.”
“Useless here, isn’t it? Why didn’t you protest? Throw a schoolgirl’s tantrum and let those brats taste their own behavior?” Although he limped, Gawen Tarrant set a rapid pace. “Or are you too much the pattern of propriety? And if you are that proper, why were you dismissed?”
Isabella stumbled on the path he’d chosen away from the site. He steadied her. She forced herself to meet those hard green eyes, even as color flooded her cheeks. “Perhaps I am too much a pattern of propriety, sir. I have several times found it necessary to rebuff Mr. Harcourt-Smythe. I found it necessary to refuse him more vigorously both before and after his wife discovered him in my bedchamber Tuesday night.”
The path angled up the hillside. Spreading oaks gave partial shade. “Before and after, Miss Newcombe? Did his wife not dismiss you on the spot?”
“Mr. Harcourt-Smythe offered a different employment after she dismissed me.”
Gawen Tarrant stopped under an oak’s partial shade. Her severe gray suit offered no armor against his scathing glare. “I trust he offered you considerably more money.”
“I did not give him an opportunity to name a sum, sir.”
“You should ask much, much more.”
The blush burned her cheeks. “I do not know what opinion you have of American women, Prof. Tarrant, but I do not seek that employment. I have never—.”
“You did tell Arkwright that you were desperate enough to do anything.”
“I’m not that desperate,” she spat.
As if her vehemence confirmed a silent question, he nodded and resumed walking. “You are not that desperate yet, Miss Newcombe. If you do not quickly find employment, you will become desperate. You are far from your passage back to England.”
“Yes, I know. I hoped to find work here. I can read ancient Greek and Latin.”
“We are digging earlier than the glorious Greeks. We’ve excavated below the Minoan culture that Arthur Evans uncovered at Knossos. Arkwright’s in his realm. We will soon dig deeper.” At her blank look, he shook his head. “You do not even know what that means.”
“I can learn.”
“We operate on a lean budget, Miss Newcombe, unlike some archaeologists who spend their personal fortunes on a dig. The treasure-hunters focus on Egypt, lusting for a find like Schliemann’s at Troy. Standings and Arkwright won’t fund your salary. Any money you would earn here must come from the Tarrant account, and that is not a rich one. So in the morning you will return to Heraklion. I will ensure your return to the mainland. That expense I can shoulder for you. Then you must seize on some other English gentleman for charity; the British School at Athens is flush with them. Or you may return to Harcourt-Smythe.”
“Never to him? Or to that employment? How many times did he come to your room? How many times did he force himself on you?”
“My father was a fan of American football, Professor. Perhaps you know the game? That taught me all the protection I needed. As for the rest, it is none of your business.” She stalked ahead.
Even with the limp, he quickly caught up to her. Those green eyes blazed, like Zeus preparing a thunderbolt to blast an impertinent mortal. “It’s my business if I make it so. I run a respectable dig, Miss Newcombe.”
“Yet you dare accuse me—.”
“Do I believe you or Harcourt-Smythe, a wealthy businessman?”
“A predator on defenseless women!”
“According to Arkwright, Harcourt-Smythe wants to discuss an antiquities deal with me. He proposed it Tuesday evening, when Arkwright dined with him. Soon, he will return soon.” She gaped at him. He prodded. “And find you here.”
“Do you doubt me, Prof. Tarrant? I do not lie.”
“You misread me, Miss Newcombe. Through the business he wants to contract, I can have a leverage on him. I can force him to re-hire you.”
“Only to have his advances foisted on me again? No. Besides, he would abandon me, perhaps in much more dire circumstances, as soon as he is beyond your sphere. That service from you I will not request, Prof. Tarrant. I and my propriety will find another way home.” She whirled away.
He caught up at the last incline to the village. “My apologies, Miss Newcombe. I did not intend to offend you.”
“That is a lie.” Even though her energy was flagging, she didn’t slow down. “You designed every word to provoke me.”
“Guilty as charged.”
That stopped her.
He grinned, like a little boy who had tricked her. His stern expression melted away, and he looked as young as the apprentice archaeologists. “The house with the blue doors, Miss Newcombe. Tell our housekeeper Dorcas that I sent you, and she will make you welcome.” Then he headed back, skidding a little on the slope before it leveled off.
Isabella watched his hike back, a smooth gait even with a limp. He had accused her twice, to satisfy an inner test she couldn’t divine. He said that she would leave tomorrow and offered the means, then he hinted that she might stay longer. She didn’t understand him. As fickle as Zeus, he flashed punishment then seemed willing to protect a stranger seeking the dig’s hospitality—however briefly he extended the obligatory welcome.
She didn’t dare toss his assistance back, as much as she wanted to. His “guilty as charged” had sapped her anger at his offensive questions. She didn’t know what to do.
The wind picked up. She held her hat in place and surveyed the dig. Not a large excavation, like the one Arthur Evans had conducted at Knossos or Schliemann’s extensive digging at Troy. The quartering ropes in carefully measured sections looked scientific, as had the sorting of potsherds: dark glaze to this tray, earth-red in the other, unmarked bits in the third. A logical method to uncover the site’s secrets. As Gawen Tarrant’s well-chosen shafts had uncovered her secrets.
The professor had reached the dig. He spoke to a dark-haired man she hadn’t met. The other man turned, giving orders to the workmen. They began to stack their tools. Several unrolled a covering for the roped excavation. Gawen Tarrant spoke next to Arkwright and the two younger men before ducking beneath the tarp.
Isabella remembered her money. She would have to speak to Prof. Tarrant to retrieve her wages, but she would refuse to play “Miss Gratitude”.
She resumed her climb to the village.
The path plunged through a stand of cedars before it gained the hill, then it skirted an olive grove as it worked around a large house. From the size and the terra cotta roof tiles, she guessed it was the one leased for the dig. The blue doors confirmed it. She smiled at those doors as she had last Saturday noon as she walked with the Harcourt-Smythes from their camp beyond the village. Blue was an understatement; the paint was a bright Egyptian lapis. The blue was repeated in the tilework of a sparkling pool that centered the inner courtyard. Like an ancient Roman villa, the house surrounded the courtyard. She had wanted to explore, but their visit was confined to the entrance, the courtyard, and a long room that combined the sitting and dining areas. Now she was to have her chance.
She rang the bell. As she waited, she glanced at the village that straggled along the hillside. A half-dozen families could have lived in this house.
The housekeeper Dorcas did not seem surprised at her re-appearance. She left Isabella in the courtyard then bustled away along a covered hallway to the kitchen.
Sinking into a chair near the pool, Isabella trembled as much as the breeze-stirred leaves and water. She had used her last energy of the day. The spurt of anger and frustration that had buttressed her from the dig to the house evanesced. The drone of bees increased. The sun on the white-washed wall looked bright and brighter, then it blackened, and she melted like wax.
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