There was a tap at the window. Commissaire Pierre Rousseau looked up and found himself staring into the two unblinking eyes of a Little Owl. The small brown bird stared back at him through yellow-circled pupils for a full minute, shuffled from one leg to the other on the narrow windowsill, cocked its head on one side, turned, spread its wings and glided silently away into the night sky.
What on earth, Pierre wondered, was an owl doing on my windowsill in the middle of Lyon? Unless … the ring on his mobile broke into his thoughts.
“Antonia! You’ll never guess, but a moment ago an owl landed on ….”
“Pierre – listen!” Inspector Antonia Antoniarchis, of the Athens Art Fraud Squad, interrupted. “Can you come to Athens? I need you here fast.”
“Tell me … ”
“I’d rather not talk about it over the phone; just let me know when you’ll be arriving. I’ll meet you at the airport. I’ve cleared it with your superiors already – it’s an official Interpol request.”
“Then I can hardly refuse, Inspector!” replied Pierre, the warmth in his voice betraying the smile on his face.
« À bientôt, Inspecteur. »
« Antío, Commissaire. »
Pierre Rousseau was grinning broadly as he put down the receiver. The prospect of teaming up again with his Greek colleague more than made up for the fact he was still feeling hassled after the upheaval of the move he had recently made from his former home in Paris. He regretted leaving the flat, but the break-up with his wife and the offer of a new posting which followed almost immediately after the divorce, had been the perfect opportunity to start a new phase in his life.
He was on official secondment to Interpol with an office on the fourth floor of the organisation’s headquarters, the Cîté internationale in Lyon. He already missed what Paris had to offer, but admitted to himself that the appointment meant he had made a cleaner break than would have been possible otherwise. His divorce papers had finally come through, so leaving the capital for a while would allow him to get used to his new status as a bachelor.
At the end of their last investigation together the previous summer, he and Antonia parted with regret, unsure of the next stage in their relationship. Had it just been a ‘working romance’ or would their feelings for each other withstand a separation? Now Antonia was requesting his help again, but as he packed his case and made arrangements to join her in Athens, he felt apprehensive at the thought of their first meeting after the break – two months and twenty-one days to be exact, he realised.
He had no idea what this case involved. When he checked with his superiors, they gave nothing away, only saying he would be fully briefed when he got to Athens and that it was a delicate mission.
The flight from Lyon to Athens was nearing its end. Pierre had tried to sleep, raking back his seat, but he never had mastered the art of sleeping on his back and the air conditioning in the cabin made his nose and throat dry. He must have dozed off briefly however as when the bustle of the other passengers around him getting ready for the landing woke him up, his mind was full of images of the Little Owl sitting on his windowsill. How strange that the symbol of the goddess Athena should have made its appearance in that way seconds before Antonia phoned. It was ridiculous to imagine there could be a connection – all his training told him firmly he was being an incurable romantic to even entertain the possibility. But his instincts told him he couldn’t rule out a link completely.
The flight attendants were going round checking that seats were upright and trays firmly up and when he looked out of the window he could see the lights of Athens spread out below him. The traffic was moving slowly along the main arteries of the city and the floodlights on the Parthenon – temple to the virgin goddess Athena – came into view. It would not be long now.
Despite the late hour the warmth of the evening air hit him as he stepped out onto the metal staircase leading down to the tarmac and walked across to the bus waiting to take them to the terminal. He was carrying just a smallish bag on a shoulder strap, which he had taken on board as hand luggage to avoid having to wait for the baggage to appear on the carousel.
In the terminal building, thanks to his Interpol pass, he was able to go through passport control without waiting in line and walked straight through the luggage hall out into the main foyer. He looked in vain for Antonia as he came through the final barrier, but spotted a man, wearing a chauffeur’s uniform and peaked cap, holding up a sign with his name on it. Pierre smiled inwardly and went across to identify himself to the driver. He followed him through the crowds to the waiting car outside and got in. There was another man inside who greeted him and explained that Inspector Antoniarchis was expecting him at the police headquarters and that the journey would take about twenty minutes depending on the traffic.
Just as the car pulled away from the forecourt Pierre thought he caught sight through the glass doors of a figure running towards the exit he had just come through, her hand clamped to her ear shouting into a phone. The image was distorted by the reflections on the glass doors, but for a second he imagined it was Antonia. He must have been mistaken, but his senses were re-alerted and he looked at his surroundings in more detail. The car was not as new as he had first thought and there was less communications equipment at the front than he would have expected in an official car. The upholstery in the back was showing signs of wear. Just as he was coming to the realisation that something was seriously wrong, his companion turned towards him and said matter of factually:
“I’m sorry we may have misled you, Commissaire, but we must make a short detour first. There is someone who would very much like to speak with you.”
Pierre cursed himself for failing to check the credentials of the driver properly and for falling into the trap like an innocent rookie on his first mission. He had been kidnapped! He went over in his mind again the picture he had of the figure running towards the exit. It was Antonia.
“Merde et remerde!”
The car turned off the main thoroughfare and headed fast out into the countryside. The man beside him was curious about the calm reaction, or rather lack of overt reaction of this foreign policeman to the realisation he had been hijacked. He turned again to face Pierre:
“I hope you won’t try anything stupid, Commissaire. You would do well to listen to what your host is going to tell you – it’s not far now.”
Pierre sat back and looked out of the side window taking in the details of the terrain and of any landmarks that might be useful later. This was not the first time he had experienced such a situation and he knew that now was not the moment to make a move. The car passed through an olive grove and turned sharply up a stony track leading to a traditional low farmhouse. It came to a stop outside the front door, where two armed men wearing balaclavas stood on either side of the entrance. No-one needed to say anything. Pierre got out of the car, carrying his bag and was about to enter the farmhouse when one of the armed men stopped him. He frisked him roughly, but with a thoroughness which Pierre recognised as being the result of a trained and practised routine, while the other guard took his bag and checked the contents. Ex-army, or even former policemen, he thought.
“I never carry a gun,” said Pierre unnecessarily, as the two men silently searched him. They looked at each other, nodded and waved him through.
Inside, the air smelled of goat droppings and it was clear the old farmhouse was used as a stable not a dwelling. A third guard led him to a chair and motioned him to sit. The guard strapped his ankles to the legs of the chair and a rope around his neck attached to the back of the chair kept him sitting upright. He shuffled on the chair and realised that it was firmly anchored to the floor. The guards left the room and he heard a padlock snap shut. The neck strap prevented him from bending forward to release his ankles, so he resignedly reached inside his pocket and drew out a crumpled packet of cigarettes. He took one out in that typical way the French have of tapping on the bottom of the packet. As he lit it and drew the smoke slowly into his lungs, he looked carefully around him, curious about what would happen next. There was no clue in the room to indicate who owned it or of how long it had been abandoned to the animals. It was not in his nature to become emotional during an emergency; that would come later when it was all over.
He sat there for a good ten minutes, waiting for whoever it was who wanted so much to meet him, finished the cigarette and was about to light another when the silence outside was interrupted by the sound of shouting and gunfire. The door was flung open and two Greek policemen entered the room in armed response fashion covering the angles and each other with their guns. They gave the all clear signal to someone outside the door and Antonia entered the room.
“I thought you gave up smoking last summer, Commissaire!” she said looking down at him, her arms folded in disapproval.
Pierre stood in the shower in Antonia’s flat enjoying the sensation of washing away the events of the previous few hours and letting the hot water relax the tension he could still feel in the muscles in his neck. After his rescue from the farmhouse he was driven immediately to the main police station in Athens and debriefed on exactly what had happened. He felt very foolish at having been taken in so easily, but the Greek officers had been equally embarrassed at having allowed it to happen under their noses. The plane had landed twenty minutes before the scheduled time and he walked straight through with his hand luggage more quickly than expected. Antonia arrived just in time to see him get into the car and alerted the counter terrorist section. A spotter helicopter was sent up and within minutes they knew exactly where he was being taken.
Unfortunately they only caught the lower ranks of the terrorist cell, if that is what they were. The leader had not shown up. The group called itself the September 30 Brigade, but it had not been heard of before and no-one knew what they wanted. The police were confident the men they had captured would soon talk, but at the same time doubted they knew very much.
Pierre stepped out of the shower, a towel wrapped round him and walked into the bedroom. He remembered with approval that it was unsentimentally decorated, but was nonetheless warm and inviting. There were pictures on the walls of icons but mostly of stills from the film presentations Antonia had done for Greek television.
Antonia was sitting on the bed watching his reaction and obvious approval as his eyes roamed around the walls and back to her.
“Right, Commissaire. Take off that wet towel and lie on the bed face down.”
Pierre was about to say something, when she added:
“Down boy, it’s only a good massage you’re getting.”
He let the towel drop and stretched out on his front across the bed. Antonia started to work with expert hands on his neck and shoulders and moved slowly down his spine. He felt himself relaxing under the effects of her probing fingers.
“So tell me,” said Pierre, his voice muffled by the pillow, “what was that all about? It was quite a welcome, even if it wasn’t the one I was expecting. And of course you still haven’t told me what I’m doing here in the first place.”
“All in good time, chéri. We need a good meal first and I have just the menu to revive you if my memory serves me right.”
Pierre groaned in mock pain as she attacked his shoulders again and finally, to show it was over, smacked him on the cheeks of his buttocks, pale against the darker remains of the tan he still had from the summer when they were last together. She laughed and slipped quickly from the room before he could turn over and seize her hand.
As he watched her leave, he reflected that he need not have worried; Antonia clearly wanted to continue from where they had left off. Feeling much more relaxed, he slowly got up from the bed and searched in his case for some clothes. Pulling on a sweat-shirt and some jeans, he went out into the kitchen to see Antonia pouring white wine into two tall glasses by a dish of oysters. He put his arms around her waist from behind and buried his face in her hair, pulling her tight against him. He felt a gentle answering movement coming from her hips.
The mobile on the counter shrilled out its ring-tone and she broke free to pick it up muttering, with a glance in his direction, “Ciel, mon mari!” Pierre grinned back and listened without understanding much as she responded to the caller.
“We have a rendez-vous at the National Archaeological Museum tomorrow at ten,” she said putting the phone down. “Till then we’re free.”
“Et ton mari?”
Antonia ignored him and went back to the counter to hand him a glass of wine.
“Santé! Be patient and I’ll tell you what this is all about. But first let’s have these oysters and then I’ll cook you a tónnos psitós. Tuna is in season now. But,” she wagged a finger at him, “tomorrow you cook.”
After they had eaten and drunk a strong Turkish-style coffee, they sat facing each other across the table and Pierre tried again.
“So, what brings me here? What crime has been committed that requires Interpol cooperation? Not that I’m complaining, despite the reception committee!”
Antonia looked mildly embarrassed and leant towards him, her elbows on the table and hands together under her chin. She looked him directly in the eye and said:
“That’s why you are here, Pierre. I don’t know what crime has been committed.”
She paused, watching his expression of surprise. But he said nothing, waiting for her to finish, more occupied after the relaxation of the meal with relearning her face, looking into her deep brown eyes and her jet black hair which had partially fallen across her cheek. He resisted the impulse to lean across and brush it back behind her ear.
“In the Mycenae Room of the Museum one of the guards found a blood-soaked handkerchief on the floor. At first he thought it was no more than something a visitor had dropped after having a nose bleed, but he noticed that on one of the cabinets there was a crack in the corner of the glass top and the wooden frame showed signs of having been forced. Nothing was missing from the cabinet, but it was clear someone had attempted to break it open.”
“Did you test the blood for ADN – je veux dire 'DNA'?” asked Pierre.
“That’s the odd part – yes we did and got a match on the data base. The blood is that of Paul Lacroix, a French jewel thief you arrested a few years back.”
“But he’s in jail in Lyon!”
“Exactly. That’s why we didn’t believe the results and did all the tests and analyses again to be sure...”
“...and the results were the same?”
She nodded: “Now you know why you are here.”
“So,” he said slowly, “either the data base is wrong or the man we have in jail is not who we thought he was. Well that’s easily settled: I’ll get Patrick to order a fresh DNA check on the prisoner we have – I can do that tonight to save time if you like,” said Pierre.
“No need, we’ve already put in the request. We should have the results here tomorrow.”
“O.K. We’ll wait and see what they say, but I may have to go back to Lyon to interview the man we’re holding if it isn’t Paul Lacroix.”
“Are you in such a hurry already to leave, Commissaire?” Before he could lamely protest, she went on:
“First, I want you to take a look at the scene of the attempted break-in. Something puzzles me about it”.
“No problem. But there must be more to all this than a simple break-in and a DNA coincidence – you’ve already got that covered. You wouldn’t have called me here just for that.”
“No, you’re right. There have been other strange goings on. Our intelligence is that some of the Italian tombaroli gang who stole Achilles’ helmet from the tomb in Turkey last summer are here in Athens. As you know the helmet is displayed here in the museum and I am worried that Lucca, who is still in charge, is planning to steal it back.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they thought it was rightfully theirs – especially after Samborini betrayed Lucca and sold it to the London dealers direct,” said Pierre, thinking back to their last case.
“Are you also thinking Lucca was behind my being hijacked right under your nose as a warning not to get involved this time? He must still be furious at being betrayed by his own leader and outwitted by us.”
“Again I don’t know,” Antonia sighed. “I really am sorry about that; it shouldn’t have happened.”
“No harm done – something to tell my grandchildren! Perhaps you’ll get some information out of the men you arrested. My kidnapping could turn out to be the best lead we have, assuming there is a link between the two events.”
“Maybe,” she replied thoughtfully. “But I don’t really think the small fry we hold will know much.”
“So, there is nothing more we can do tonight, but tomorrow we work. The helmet is still safely in the museum at least for now I assume and has not been stolen yet, so we can relax.”
“Oh yes! It’s still there alright – in fact it has become one of the biggest attractions to the museum, so I am always welcome there.”
“I should hope so – that was a clever trick you pulled to have a duplicate made and to switch the two. So now you can tell me everything you’ve been doing since the summer. How, for your next trick, you sent that owl over to my office. I’ve heard of – how do you say pigeons voyageurs, carrier pigeons? – but a carrier owl is new to me.”
Antonia laughed: “What on earth are you rambling on about, Pierre? The oysters must have gone to your head.”
Pierre smiled, stood up from the table and took her hand. Leading her over to the sofa, he said:
“Make yourself comfortable, Inspecteur. It may take some time for me to explain.”
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