Friday, 5 November 2010

Chapter 1


Dirk Jones, explorer and adventurer extraordinaire shouted out to his lithe blonde sidekick Joanna Jenson "lay down some suppressing fire!" 

She raised her head over the parapet of the ancient castle walls, spotted the second assassin trying to flank the daring Dirk.  Swiftly she raised her pistol, firing wildly and blindly, forgetting all the lessons that Dirk had taught her and praying that at least one of the wild shots would be on target.  Opening her eyes again she could see the assassin had paused in his creeping, however she had done enough, the brief hesitation had given Dirk time to run across the courtyard and into the tomb, shortly he was followed by the first assassin, the one she recognised as Marcus "Dead Eye" Granby, gentleman killer for hire and she prayed that Dirk would be all right. 

A cry of the muezzin could be heard from the Ketchoua Mosque to the east, shortly accompanied by a chorus of calls to prayer from all corners of the city, the sound making Joanna grimace.  It meant they were at least an hour behind schedule; Dirk only had three hours to recover the dagger and return it to her sister's captives before the deal was forfeit...

Chapter 1

The coffee was cold, if anything could be said to have been the catalyst for the whole situation it would be that simple event.  She replaced it on the table with a sigh; nothing on this holiday was as she hoped.  When she had finished her archaeology degree Joanna Jensen assumed she would shortly be working on a dig in Greece, finding ancient pieces of pottery and marble statues to pore over.  Instead she found herself 18 months out of Oxford University, still without a job, 6 weeks behind on her rent and with a recently broken heart.

As such when the offer came from Dr Charles Masterson of the British Museum to accompany him on a trip to Algiers she felt it would be too great an opportunity to turn down.  The realities of the job however soon overshadowed any excitement she may have initially felt.  4 weeks she had now been in Algiers, 4 weeks of interminable meetings with bureaucrats, politicians and local protest groups, all wary of allowing yet another foreign dig.  After the latest row over the Elgin Marbles and the Rosetta Stone hit the news, with the usual accusations of British imperialism and theft the Algerian government had clamped down on all digs funded and staffed by foreign powers.

So now a month after she should have been admiring the Triumphal Arches to Septimus Severus and Commodus at Lambaesis she was once again sitting in a Starbucks nursing a last Cappucino while Charles attended yet another meeting at the British Embassy, trying to get Her Majesties Government involved.  She felt slightly guilty about sitting in a Starbucks, rather than sitting in an authentic local establishment, but if she was honest with herself she treasured the taste of home and familiarity given by the current location.  And she detested the smell of the Hookahs that too often accompanied the coffee in the local stalls.

Putting aside her newspaper she stood and made her way to the counter, “another one please…” She had no need to state details, the barista knew her order, and after all, she had hardly left the place in a week.  She passed over the money and went to sit down again, when business was quiet, as it was that day, the staff were happy to bring over her drink when it was ready.  Sighing she picked up her newspaper again, her eyes tracking back to where they left off, yet another article about the recent theft from the Musee National des Antiquities of a mid 13th century Arabic text describing the voyages of Ibn Batuta.  That great Muslim explorer who’s travels far surpassed those of his contemporary Marco Polo.  A photograph of the manuscript accompanied the text, showing an ornate page in remarkable condition given it’s age, an illustration of a slave market standing out in vivid colours.

The coffee shop started to fill up as she read, the mid morning lull giving way to lunch, which a mix of western loving locals and homesick foreigners traipsing in from the crowded street to get their caffeine fix.  Joanna shook her head at the insanity of it all, “35 degree weather outside and yet here we are enjoying molten hot coffee…  We must be mad.”  Her eyes drifted around the small shop, casually enquiring as to their stories.  The tall distinguished gentleman in the 3 piece suit looked like a fish out of water, clearly a businessman.  Three local youths, the feet sporting Reebok trainers, their baseball caps screaming their love for Nike and all things American betrayed them.  The two casually dressed men in jeans and t-shirts with backpacks, clearly tourists…  

Then her eyes fell upon the man sitting in the corner, he was a true mystery.  For the last week he had been her silent company in the coffee shop, always taking the same corner table, his fedora placed on the table next to him, a briefcase by his legs and a succession of trashy paperback novels passing through his hands while he sipped at sweet espressos.  He stood around 5’ 8”; dark hair gelled back, impeccably dressed in a pale suit, a poppy sitting in his buttonhole.  Thin faced with a hawk nose and pale eyes Jo had attempted just the once to make his acquaintance, his curt rebuff had sent her scuttling back to her seat and she had not spoken to him since.

Today however as her eyes swept over him she noticed he seemed different, not as relaxed as normal, the paperback in his hands, a Mills and Boone to her surprise, had barely been touched, she was sure he was on the same page as when she last glanced over nearly 20 minutes ago.  Even as she noted this she saw him stiffen and start to his feet. Turning to the door to see what visitor could cause such a reaction Jo saw a vision walk in, a dark raven haired beauty that would have been at home on any catwalk, she was clutching a large handbag and, with one glance around the room walked straight over to where the pale eyed man was starting to his feet.


She didn’t speak much above a whisper yet her voice carried across the room, borne by her self confidence.  It was a voice that got what she wanted and Jo was not surprised to see the man almost collapse back into his chair.  The woman very deliberately turned her back on him, walked slowly over to the counter and ordered a latte, and only then sat down at the table. 

From her table Jo could hear but murmurs of the conversation, shortly the man appeared agitated, and the two started to raise their voices,  Despite herself Jo leant forward, trying to listen in as the mans volume increased    “…was promised last week.  Where is the turtle?”  The woman’s reply was low and lost in the background noise but its effect was not.  The man stiffened, his pale eyes glaring and picking up his briefcase and hat he brushed past the woman and stalked out the door.  The woman raised a hand as if to stop him but then turned back to the table, her body tense.  She reached for her coffee, but her hand seemed clumsy, shaking it knocked the drink over, the liquid over running the table to drip to the floor.  Her body followed it, sliding from the chair, her arm still draped across the table, pulling the cups with it and the discarded paperback with it.

Jo jumped to her feet, and moved across the room reaching the woman before she hit the floor, her hands grasping at the woman’s shoulders, pulling her back into her seat.  Even as she did so a scream escaped her lips.  As the woman’s head rolled back Jo could see the eyes were lifeless and staring.  A small blossom of red staining the woman’s blouse over her left breast. 

Again the coffee was cold; Jo stood up and walked up to the counter.  “Excuse me, can you please heat this up a bit more, it is barely lukewarm.” 

The barista with a muted apology turned to tip the drink down the sink.

“No need, just a bit more steaming please” Jo interjected.  “No need to waste it.”

“Health and safety sorry miss, don’t worry I’ll get you another one.  Piping hot this time.”  Tipping the coffee away the barista poured some coffee into the porter filter and slapped it into place.  Turning she filled a small metal jug with milk and started to steam it.

Jo turned to look around the coffee shop.  Outside the wind blew the grey sleet down the street, hurried pedestrians crouched under umbrellas or free newspapers snatched hurriedly outside the tube station to provide scant cover.  The barista murmured that the coffee was ready and Jo turned to take the fresh cup from the counter, carried it back to her table.  The sight of her hand protruding from her long winter coat produced a small sigh.  The healthy tan she had developed in Algiers had faded swiftly in the three months she had been back in London, a visible representation of her dreams, matching her fading hopes of participating in a genuine dig.

The fact that the she was in a Starbucks again another needle in her mind.  She had avoided Starbucks since that incident in Algiers, the death of the woman and the subsequent interviews with the police, the press and various other bodies had shaken Jo worse than she would have expected.  So many questions that she couldn’t answer, no matter how many times she tried to remember she could never recall any more details of the man, nor at which point the woman’s handbag had disappeared.  All she remembered was the blood and the woman’s dark eyes staring blankly.  After the initial furore the police had not contacted her again, other than a detective Benlis giving her a business card, with the request that if she should remember anything else to be sure to give him a call. 

In fact she learnt more from the newspapers over the next few weeks than she ever did from her own involvement in the incident.  The dead woman was identified as Marcella DeGras initially, a socialite with minor connections to various faded noble families around Europe.  More interestingly subsequent investigations had turned up evidence of several misdeeds in her past, connections with underworld crime figures, and most alarmingly was directly implicated in the theft of the Ibn Batutta manuscript from Algiers.  Her hotel room was found to contain, amongst other more innocent items in her possession, lock picking tools, two false passports and, most damning of all, blueprints detailing the layout of  the Musee National des Antiquities with access points highlighted.  Of the manuscript itself however there was no sign.  Many reporters claimed that the stolen items must have been passed to another party prior to her death, and possibly may have been with her on the day of her assassination, after all, the whereabouts of her handbag were unaccounted for, but apart from conjecture no evidence was forthcoming.

The cause of death itself was deemed to be a stab wound, a thin sharp instrument, around 6 inches deep, only one centimetre wide.  One thrust was delivered straight to the heart, believed to be during the moment she reached out to halt her killer from leaving.  Much was made of the skill and speed with which such a blow was delivered; with the manner of death being linked by some of the more lurid reporters with the rumours of a contract assassin know as “Dead Eye” but these were sharply rebutted by the police who called this an isolated incident.

Of the killer itself nothing was known.  Apart from Jo’s description, along with that of the other customers in the coffee shop nothing was known.  He had been frequenting the coffee shop for 8 days, always taking the same seat, but spoke to no one else.  The paperback book that he left behind was devoid of fingerprints or any other forensic clues, and despite his image being drawn by police artists and dispersed on many a front page no one ever came forward.  Outside of that single coffee shop he may never have existed.

Six weeks Jo had stayed in Algiers, and after yet another delay thanks to bureaucracy the excavation had still not started, the decision was made to start sending people home.  The Museum was not willing to fund ancillary staff indefinitely so Jo, along with 3 other members of the team were dismissed and returned home.

The very thought of it made Jo nearly cry in frustration, she had been so close, all those years of working to be a field archaeologist just to spend 3 months sitting on her heels only to be told she was not needed.  For a while she had closeted herself at home, her sister calling to check in on her daily, filled with worry, but today she had felt the need to get out, to try to pull herself together.  She had chosen a walk along through the middle of London, its familiar sites and sounds comforting her.  Walking through Oxford Street she had grimaced at the lurid Christmas displays already up, 9 weeks to go till Christmas and already shoppers frantically ran in and out of buildings, seeking bargains. 
The site just made Jo realise how broke she was, impelled her toward Covent Garden, to watch the comediennes and street performers, their loud voices and antics calling out to the tourists to pay “just the price of a coffee” in exchange for a diversion from the greyness of the dull city.  For a while she enjoyed the sight of a juggler, standing on stilts and tossing flames, bit the oppressive clouds finally succeeded in drowning out the sum in it’s entirety, the wind started to gust and shortly everyone was rushing for shelter as sleet started to dampen even the best of spirits.

Jo herself fled north, instinctively heading towards the British Museum, a known place of comfort, but as she passed a small Starbucks, nestled away, she felt drawn in.  Her small umbrella struggling against the wind and rain was barely keeping her face dry, but water was seeping through her jeans and coat, impelling her off the street.  Since the murder she had had nightmares, and by stepping foot into the shop she felt she was confronting her fears, forcing the dread away from her conscious mind.  This venue was very different to the one in Algiers, smaller, tidier and emptier, but enough was the same to evoke memories of a dead woman and a broken dream.  Forcing herself to focus on the warmth and the smell of freshly ground coffee she shook the umbrella in the doorway and placed it on a ledge, discarding it as unequal to the realities of the weather. 

And now, sitting by the window, sipping at a latte Jo considered her future.  With the failure of Algiers her debts were mounting, and serious consideration must be given to looking for a 9-5 job.  She knew her father would arrange her a job easily, but her pride and stubbornness held her back, she knew she was meant for more than the drudgery her father would arrange.  A mirror set upon the wall gave Jo a chance to examine herself. 23 years old, long blonde hair hanging loose framed a thin proud face, never a classical beauty she nevertheless had a set to her face that men found attractive.  Despite 3 months without her gym, another victim of economics, her body had lost none of the firmness and curves that she knew were her best asset.  She looked herself in the eyes, vivid green stared back.  “This is not me” she murmured to herself “I’m better than this.”  A small wrinkle grew across her forehead, setting itself into an expression of determination.  “I’m an Oxford graduate for God’s sake!  I can do anything I want.”  And with that thought she set down her coffee, pulled her coat tight around her and walked out into the rain.

Three steps into the rain she remembered the discarded umbrella and turned back to retrieve it, her sudden halt caused the paled eyed man walking along the street to stumble into her.  With a curt “watch yourself” he continued on.  His umbrella held vertical, his bearing making no concession to the rain.  Jo stood in shock, that voice, those pale eyes.  She could see the look in them as he walked past her once before in Algiers.  Umbrella forgotten, Jo’s heart thumped in her chest, after a seconds pause she turned to follow the killer of Marcella DeGras,


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