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Authors: Roy Lewis

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Goddess of Death

BOOK: Goddess of Death
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Goddess of Death

Roy Lewis

T
HE
SUN
BEAT
down savagely upon the burned landscape, deep in the south of Italy.

The small town had clung for centuries to the hill in the mountains of the Basilicata, east of Naples and to the north of Potenza. The volcanic upheavals about the town were scarred with dried river-beds, brown under the Mediterranean glare, and everywhere there was evidence of the ancient earthquakes that had devastated the region, black rocks heaved up among the baked soil of the narrow, steep-sided valleys. The town reflected its location: sleepy, red-roofed, its streets empty during the afternoon siesta, but the mountain that loomed behind the town gave a threatening backdrop, an outline of black, jagged teeth above dark red rock slopes rising to a volcanic peak thrusting up to more than 3000 metres. But the ancient castle frowning down on the town had retained its own spectacular appearance: once an eleventh century power base for local barons, it had over the centuries escaped the ravages that others had suffered, and the oldest of its three brick towers still remained, overlooking the narrow cobbled streets and, beyond, the fields of wizened, twisted olive trees, scorched by the unrelenting sun.

Although its ancient glories had long since disappeared, the thirteenth-century castle still received regular visits from tourists and museum visitors during the spring and summer seasons. When the castle had been handed over to the state, in
lieu of land taxes accumulated over years, many of the ancient artefacts it held had been retained in the keep, and in due course the small museum established in the nineteenth century had been developed and extended. It contained some items of Etruscan terracotta pottery, a number of 2000-year-old Greek vases brilliantly decorated with classical mythological figures, goddesses, athletes, scenes of dancing, feasting, religious processions. But it also included items that had never been formally catalogued, items which had been forcibly obtained during the Mussolini era, never returned to their original owners, and now held in dusty cases in one of the back rooms, sequestered behind the museum walls.

Colonel Gandolfini had a view about those items. Since he had been in charge of the museum he had pored over them, read books about them, consulted some of his former colleagues who had worked alongside him in the
Carabinieri
, men who still felt that he had been badly dealt with by his superiors. Some of the items, he realized from his studies, were of considerable importance, in spite of their being hidden away here in this second-rate museum. Their value was considerable so it was a surprise that they had not been moved to more respected locations with higher security precautions. A decision taken at high level no doubt: such decisions were, in Colonel Gandolfini’s perhaps jaundiced view, highly suspect.

The colonel also had a view about his appointment to the museum. His superiors could not sack him for there was no evidence of wrongdoing; they could not prosecute him because his hands were clean; but his outspoken views had made him many enemies and, when he had finally felt he was on the track of senior officers who themselves had been involved with the
tombaroli
, the robbers of the ancient Etruscan tombs, albeit at a secretive distance, the colonel had become an embarrassment, particularly to the reputation of one highly placed officer in the
Guardia di Finanza
whom Gandolfini was convinced had spoken
to various politicians, advised certain ministers, contacted a group of well-placed financiers, and businessmen with close relationships with the government and important auction houses. The result had been his sudden posting – on grounds of efficiency, he had been told – as director of security in the castle in the mountains of Basilicata.

Colonel Gandolfini had no illusions about the situation: he was nearing pensionable age, he had no proof against his superiors since his lines of information had been abruptly disconnected, and it was clear he was destined to stay in the mountains and keep his mouth shut. There was no official disgrace attached to the situation, but he well knew the real reasons behind his relocation. And the job bored him. It required little effort, the number of visitors was small, his days were punctuated with no excitements: there was only the
investigation
of the contents of the cases in the back room to relieve the monotony of his job.

He had begun to form a theory about them. And when that theory began to firm up in his mind he made some phone calls to old friends, retired professors, historians of his acquaintance when he was a mere teacher at the University of Naples, before his transition to the
Carabinieri
some thirty years earlier. But worryingly, even those links had suddenly dried up and he felt isolated, unhappy, bored.

Just like the guards who were employed to keep watch at the museum itself. Particularly Ricardo Angeli. The young guard was a man of an outdoors disposition whose main preoccupation was hunting in the hills with his dog. He was well enough rewarded for his work at the museum, and he had no great ambitions with regard to promotion, but the duties of his office did not exercise him greatly, and he was wont, during the long afternoons when he was on guard duty at the museum, to allow himself to drift into a somnolent doze, feet placed at a height against the wall, his wooden chair braced against the table, his
cap discarded and his curly head sunk on his chest. Visitors were normally few; on that particular hot afternoon, there had been none. So Ricardo dozed, even though he was aware that it was on days like this that the colonel liked to make his rounds, almost surreptitiously, to try to catch his guard asleep.

Ricardo had already eaten his lunch, so he was in any event drowsy. He had been reading a book about hunting dogs, but it had fallen from his hands, unnoticed, and lay on the cool stone floor beside him. He was unable to say, later, what had woken him, but when his eyes did flick open it was to see a blurred form, the swift movement of an object that suddenly struck him across the forehead. He fell backwards, the chair skidding away from under him, and as the back of his head struck the edge of the table he was engulfed in a black void of nothingness.

Ricardo had no idea how long he remained unconscious: it was possible it was merely a matter of minutes. When questioned later, he estimated it was certainly no longer than a half-hour. But when he did regain consciousness it was to find he was barely able to move. He was lying on his side on the stony floor, knees bent, hands tied with tape behind his back, ankles tethered with rope, and a rough gag forced between his teeth. His black hair was matted with blood and his eyelashes were sticky, so he could see very little. But he became aware of voices, muttered
imprecations
, and he almost automatically registered the conclusion that there were at least three unknown men in the museum.

He grunted. His mind was spinning and all he could think of for the moment was to wonder how the intruders had managed to obtain entry into the castle unobserved. They would have had to come over the old stone bridge to the main entrance unless they used the sally port at the side, an unlocked entrance known only to the guards and used by them from time to time. Of course they would have known easily enough that at lunchtime the castle usually came almost to a standstill: few visitors braved the heat of the day.

Gradually, as the pain in his head increased beyond a dull ache, so did his eyesight clear. In the guardroom where he lay, he could see one of the men, slim, black-clothed, masked, standing nearby, his task clearly to ensure that Ricardo raised no alarm. The guard could hear the sounds of other men, probably not more than two, moving about behind him, out of sight, hurling objects aside in the back room. He heard the ripping of timber, the shattering of glass, the sounds of vandalism among the crates. And then, a short, guttural laugh of triumph.

Ricardo was no fool. He made no attempt to struggle, to fight against the tape and the rope. He had no real interest in ancient objects, he preferred ranging the hills with his dogs, and when a man stood over him, menacingly, he had no intention of placing himself in further danger. It was enough that his head throbbed and lights still danced and flickered behind his eyes … so he lay still, and suffered silently, and waited.

Colonel Gandolfini had earlier determined he would do a round of the castle that afternoon after lunch: to catch Ricardo Angeli dozing at his post would help break the monotony of his day. Naturally, the colonel knew that there would be no question of dismissing the young man if the colonel caught him in breach of duty. To catch the young man asleep had become almost a game between them: he would admonish Ricardo once again, warn him of his future conduct, but that would be an end to it. But to surprise Ricardo in his slumbers would involve a silent approach down the corridor, a careful peering around the doorway and then a kicking away of the chair so that the guard would tumble to the ground. The colonel would issue a barked warning regarding dereliction of duty, this would suffice. Indeed, the colonel admitted to himself, it had almost become part of his daily life, a sort of challenge, an event that lightened the burdensome weariness of his days. He and Ricardo Angeli played the game between themselves, but it was regarded on neither side as a serious matter. But even so his tread was soft as he came down the corridor.

It was the sound of shattering glass that brought him to an abrupt halt and made him realize something was wrong. The narrow corridor was dog-legged and, as he froze against the wall, he caught a glimpse of a black-clothed figure slipping down the dusty corridor ahead of him heading towards the sally-port entrance. Colonel Gandolfini stood still and remained there
half-hidden
in the shadows for several minutes, shocked, uncertain, and then he became aware that there were other sounds, the noise of something being dragged across the stony floor of the museum.

But he was not a man lacking in courage in spite of his advancing years. Cautiously, finally, he moved forward.

When he entered the room he first caught sight of Ricardo lying on his side, hands bound, black congealing blood in his matted curls. He saw a man dragging a packing case towards the corridor and impulsively, as a red rage rose inside him, the colonel stepped forward, holding up a hand and snarling a warning.

Everything then seemed to happen in a blur. The intruder swore, turned: he also was dressed in black, masked, and his hands fell away from the packing case. He stood for a few moments, staring at Colonel Gandolfini and then he shouted. From the corner of his eye the colonel became aware of a second man, emerging from the storeroom. In his left hand he was carrying a bronze statuette. The colonel recognized it: a bronze of Sarpedon, son of Zeus, oozing blood from his wounds and being raised up by the gods of Sleep and Death. In the robber’s right hand was a snub-nosed automatic pistol.

The muzzle was raised, pointing at the colonel. The man’s voice was low; it held a hint of panic.

‘Stand aside, old man. There is no need for you to get hurt.’

Silence fell around them as the dust swirled in the panicked air of the room. The man who had been hauling the case
hesitated
for a few uncertain moments, then turned back to his task. He continued in his task, dragging the packing case towards the door, shouldering the colonel aside as he came. He entered the
corridor, and turned out of sight in the angle. The colonel remained upright, tense, the blood hammering in his temples as he stared at the muzzle of the pistol.

The robber came forward slowly, his eyes glittering behind the black cotton mask that hid his features, one arm extended slightly, holding the pistol steady. He spoke in a quiet tone, but there was an underlying nervous tension in his voice. ‘We won’t want you raising the alarm during the next few minutes, Colonel. So be sensible. Step forward into the storeroom. I’ll lock you in there. The other guards will eventually come. They will release you in due time. No need for anyone to get hurt.’

Colonel Gandolfini stood rigidly to attention. ‘The alarms—’

‘Have been disconnected. Now please, just co-operate, and all will be well. No one will blame you. An old man, near
retirement
….’

It might have been those particular words; it might have been outraged pride; it might have been sheer rage that suddenly caused the colonel to snap out of his frozen stance. Or it might have been something else, a memory, a familiarity of voice or stance or movement. Ignoring the threat of the gun he stepped forward, reached out, tried to grasp the mask covering the gunman’s features. For a moment the robber failed to react, as though stunned by the colonel’s foolhardiness, but as the fingers clutched at the cotton he flailed at the colonel’s hand, knocking it aside, painfully.

‘Don’t be a fool!’

But the colonel was enraged. He stood there facing the intruder, a man who had broken in to rob the castle that the colonel was employed to protect, and there was something else as well. It was something that for a few seconds Colonel Gandolfini could not quite put his finger on, but when the sudden realization came, in spite of himself the dangerous words escaped his lips.

‘I
know
you!’

The sound of the packing case being dragged down the corridor faded away. The silence grew around the three men left in the museum room. Ricardo lay still and panicked on the stone floor. Colonel Gandolfini, stiff-backed, confronted the robber. The man with the gun stood rigid, arm extended, gun hand unwavering, but there was uncertainty in his stance, as though he was struggling to overcome a desire to flee or react to the obvious danger posed by the colonel’s exclamation.

At last, slowly, the man with the gun edged past the colonel, eased his way forward to the doorway, his eyes fixed on the angry, heavily breathing colonel. Even then, it might not have happened, it might have worked out differently, but the furious colonel spoke again, harshly, loudly his voice echoing from the room into the corridor.

BOOK: Goddess of Death
8.1Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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