New York City, NY 1925
She leaned across the desk, playing with the chain around her neck. The night guard visibly gulped. It was a quiet night at The Met. Most of the staff had already left for the day, leaving behind the few on night rotation. Unfortunately for the guard, his evening was about to take a turn for the worse.
Fortunately for her, she knew how to adapt.
“Oh, come on, Gregory. You promised you’d take me through the newest exhibit.” Gregory, whose face currently resembled a tomato, tugged at his collar. He glanced behind him as if someone was there to provide back up.
“Ms. Scarlett, I know I told you that but if the curator finds out we were in there after hours─” He faltered at the crushing look of disappointment on her face. He had always been a sucker for blondes with big brown eyes. “Oh… alright, if we’re quick about it no one has to know.”
Gregory extended his arm to the now ecstatic lady and escorted her to the newest exhibit. He did not pay much attention to her chatter. The pleasant smell of her perfume and the feel of her delicate hand on his arm was enough distraction for him.
“Oh gee, this is amazing!” She gasped. The Egyptian exhibit was noteworthy, featuring a wide array of artifacts from the excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb. Tutmania had thoroughly swept the city, bringing many visitors to the museum.
Gregory gestured to a case with a gallant sweep of his arm. “I knew you’d love it. Ole’ King Tut was loaded.”
She stepped forward and looked closely at an elaborate, wide-collared necklace encrusted with rubies and amethysts. It was safely tucked inside a case with the light hitting just so, making the precious gems sparkle. Gregory thought, absentmindedly, that a necklace like that would look beautiful around Ms. Scarlett’s neck.
“Do you suppose this was his wife’s?” She inched closer to the case. In her excitement, she dropped her bag. “Oh, for heaven’s sake… ”
“Let me help you with that!” Gregory rushed forward, ever the gentleman. He leaned down to pick up her bag, wondering why women needed to carry such large purses to begin with. “Wow, are you carrying a toolkit in here?” He joked before looking up.
His last sight before unconsciousness was Ms. Scarlett with a baton in her hand.
Joanna shook her head as she dragged Gregory to the far corner of the room. For such a slight man, he weighed more than he looked. She reached for his belt and removed the key ring attached to it. Glancing up, she patted his face apologetically.
She also made a mental note to never go by, “Scarlett,” again.
“Nothing personal, Greg.” She stepped over his form and returned to the case she had previously bee n admiring. “Now, which key is going to unlock this? Eeny, meeny, miny, moe… “ As she tried various keys, Joanna kept a mental count of the minutes ticking by. “Aha!”
Upon inserting the fifth key into the lock, the drawer beneath the artifacts slid open. Carefully, Joanna reached a gloved hand inside the case and removed the necklace. She took one short moment to admire it again before placing it inside a hidden section of her purse.
Footsteps echoing from down the hall caused Joanna’s head to jerk to the side. Cursing under her breath, she removed her heels and placed them inside her purse as well. Within seconds, the case was closed again and the keys were returned to Gregory.
Joanna rolled underneath a table as the second guard walked past the Egyptian section. Sweat beaded on her forehead as he paused at the entryway.
It would be just her luck if she had to knock out another guard. Judging by the sound of his steps, he was far heftier than poor Gregory.
The guard resumed his steps a second later. She let out a shaky breath after his steps faded around the corner. Quietly, she rolled out from under the table and slipped into the main hallway. She clutched her purse tightly to herself as she silently padded towards the main entrance.
“Hey! What are you doing here?” Joanna tugged the hood of her jacket over her head and took off at a dead run. She far outpaced the guard trying to catch her but he had the advantage of a longer stride. Cursing once again, she shoved the double doors open and bolted down a side alley.
The guard was catching up to her.
The bottom rung of a fire escape ladder hung just out of her reach. Searching her surroundings, Joanna yanked a trashcan to her, took a wobbly stand atop it and jumped for the fire escape. The trashcan crashed, scaring a stray cat and causing far too much noise than she wanted.
Pulling herself up the ladder, she was suddenly grateful for all the exercise her employer had put her through as a teenager. The guard turned into the alleyway and skidded to a stop.
Joanna was long gone.
Albany, NY 1925
The stonework, Grecian-style mansion was perched at the end of a circular driveway. An elaborately carved fountain sat in the middle of the circle and tall, pine trees surrounded the entire area like a security fence.
When one glanced at the manor it looked rather out of place in the upper New York countryside. Looking inside was even stranger. There were museum cases filled with artifacts, masterful works of art, and even rows of suits of armor lining the walls. It was beautiful, all in all. The atmosphere, unfortunately, held no warmth.
In the lower east wing was a drawing room. A large, polished wooden desk was situated across from a high-backed chair that offset the décor inside.
“Excellent job, Joanna.” Her employer, Mr. Banning, appraised the necklace in his hands. She liked the sound of that tone. It usually meant a bonus on top of their agreed wages for this particular job. “Our client will be very pleased with this.”
If she was lucky, the reward would pay her rent for the next year.
“Darn right they will be. The thing has more jewels on it than the Queen of England’s ceremonial crown.”
Joanna was the picture of irreverence, with her legs slung over the armrest of the chair she was currently occupying. She had long abandoned her evening dress in exchange for a cut down pair of trousers and a men’s shirt tucked into the waistband. A simple leather belt that clashed with her dusty boots completed the ensemble. Her short, blonde hair had lost its curl, mostly due to her habit of tucking it behind her ears.
This was how she preferred to be. If people never took her seriously, it made it easier to pull the wool over their eyes.
“Now, about the pay we agreed on… “ Mr. Banning reached underneath his desk and produced a briefcase. He tossed it to her. She glared in his direction when the corner of the briefcase jabbed her in the stomach. “You could have just handed it to me, you know.”
“You could also sit up properly. It’s as if they taught you nothing at the school we sent you to.” Joanna rolled her eyes. He knew as well as she did that her schooling was nothing more than a ruse. The skills in manipulation she learned there were far more valuable than Home Economics.
Besides, they had gotten her in with no tuition fees. Was she supposed to fall to her knees and thank her lucky stars?
She opened the briefcase and quickly counted the stacks of bills inside. In her field of employment, she was often reminded that there was no honor amongst thieves. “Always a pleasure, Mr. Banning, I hope you have a good evening.”
He held up a hand as Joanna moved to stand. “Hold on. I have a job that may interest you.” She settled into her former position, swinging both legs lazily. The slight tick in his cheek brought a smile to her face.
It was the simple joys in life.
“I specifically remember stating on May 10th, 1925 in this very room that I am taking an extended leave of absence. I’ve been working constantly for the past two years.” She glanced upward as she calculated the average hour work week that entailed. “Get someone else to take it on.”
“You’re our best in the field. Besides,” He gazed at her as his glasses slid down his long nose. “This job will easily pay triple what you just earned.”
Joanna finally sat up straight, plopping her feet on the floor. Triple?
She could do a lot with that much money.
“We have a prospective client that is interested in a number of Egyptian artifacts.” What was it with people and their obsession with Egypt? “Because of the amount they are asking for and the travelling involved, they are willing to wait at least a year for the product to be in their hands.”
“Wait… travelling?” She narrowed her eyes. “Where exactly are these artifacts located?”
“They are safely tucked away in the Cairo Museum of Antiquities, for now.”
“Cairo? As in Egypt? You have to be kidding me.” Joanna stood up and began to pace. “You want to send me to the other side of the world, all for the sake of a few shiny things?”
“It’s more than, ‘shiny things,’ as you so eloquently put it. Weren’t you complaining not long ago that you don’t get to travel very far?” She stopped and pointed a finger in his direction.
“I meant a place like London. A place where I actually speak the language,” She threw her hands in the air. “I don’t even speak a lick of Arabic, for God’s sake!”
“The British have a strong presence in Egypt. You will be able to make do.” Joanna resumed pacing.
Was the money worth it? Working on the other side of world was a bigger job than she’d ever taken on before. Then again… it would be nice to be so far removed from Banning’s reach, even if for a short while.
Joanna turned back towards him and placed both hands on the desk. Leaning forward, she regarded her boss with a pleasant smile. “Quadruple, or you can find another girl.”
It was Banning’s turn to stand up and pace. Joana knew him well enough to recognize bluster.
“That is ridiculous. You’re getting greedy, Joanna.”
“Not greedy, Mr. Banning, I’m just aware of what a job like this is worth. You’ll make, what, a two-hundred percent return when you sell the items? Besides,” Her tone sweetened. “I am the best in the field.”
Banning continued to pace before he moved around the desk. He easily towered over her 5’3” form but Joanna was not afraid.
“If I agree to this, you will pay your own travel expenses. I won’t have you rob me blind.”
“Huh, it’s as if you think I’m a thief.”
“Joanna.” He exhaled slowly and she knew then that she had won. “Fine. I will expect regular updates on your progress. You will also have to get a job and blend in with the surroundings. Make the people there like you, somehow.” Joanna retrieved her briefcase and waved it lightly.
“Don’t worry, Boss. It’s not my first rodeo.” She exited the room with a light, carefree step. “Besides, what could go wrong?”
Little did she know how those words would come back to haunt her.
Cairo, Egypt 1925
Joanna weaved through the streets of Cairo, clutching her hat to the top of her head and cursing at the state of her skirts. This was the part of her job that she hated the most: the interview.
It didn’t always happen like this. In the past she was able to visit several museums and find some unsuspecting guard to flirt with, visit them after hours, and then take the item she was looking for. On her first visit to the Cairo Museum of Antiquities Joanna realized this method was not going to work.
The museum curator, Dr. Terence Bey, was a no-nonsense sort. She knew upon her first encounter with him that if he caught some irritating, American tourist interfering with the operation of the place he would probably have her kicked out; making her job that much harder. Also, all the guards were married.
She had a deeply personal problem with affairs.
This led to the predicament she was now in: charming the disagreeable curator into hiring her. As she approached the museum she took in the towering statues flanking the entrance. Even with their eyes staring straight ahead, Joanna felt almost as if they were silently judging her.
She entered the building and jumped to the side as a woman ran past her. Her sobs echoed off of the high ceilings, giving Joanna a sinking feeling in her stomach. Perhaps this wasn’t going to come as easily as she originally thought.
Dr. Bey followed shortly after, muttering curses under his breath and failing to take notice of Joanna standing awkwardly off to the side. When he finally noticed she was there she waved in what she hoped was a friendly, open manner.
“Dr. Bey? I’m Joanna Harper. I was hoping to see if you were hiring?”
The man barely glanced at her and she kept her smile in place. As always, most men failed to take her seriously due to her small stature. It didn’t help that she looked younger than her twenty-two years either.
“Ya Allah, I do not have time for this. My secretary just quit because of personal problems and I won’t be able to find a suitable replacement for… “ He trailed off, regarding her fully for the first time. “You are looking for a job, you say?”
“Yes sir.” Dr. Bey gestured for her to follow him to his office, located not far from a substantial library where Joanna heard a distinct thud and an exclamation of, ‘Oh, bother.’
She found herself seated across from Dr. Bey as he scanned over the resume she typed up back in the States. This was the first time in a while that it had been useful to her.
“It says here that you are experienced in typing, managing schedules, booking appointments and… lock repair?” Joanna fought a wince. Maybe she should have left that part out.
“Yes, I have some… family members that were locksmiths back home.” It wasn’t exactly a lie, if you thought highly of your coworkers and had to repair as many locks as you picked for the sake of practice. “It came in handy in my previous job when a museum case refused to open.”
He responded with a noncommittal, “Hmm,” as he continued to read. Joanna discreetly surveyed the office while he was distracted. The walls were furnished with wooden panels. The desk itself was piled high with books, a number of lit candles, and what looked to be a page of hieroglyphics Dr. Bey was in the middle of translating.
All the bookcases were filled to the brim and the room was slightly stuffy, even with the open window behind them. An empty fireplace was located to their right and she wondered what point the chimney tunnel led to.
“Miss Harper,” She met her gaze with his and situated her hands on her lap. “You do seem to have decent secretarial skills but I wonder about your historical knowledge.” Joanna opened her mouth to respond but was interrupted. “Then again, who is going to ask a secretary about her knowledge of ancient history?” He added as an afterthought.
Joanna reminded herself that she wasn’t being paid to be offended.
“I assure you, Dr. Bey, that I am excellent at what I do. You will not be disappointed with my work ethic.” He set the resume down, slid off his glasses, and narrowed his eyes for a moment. She held his gaze briefly before looking from side to side. It wouldn’t do if she had a stare down with her potential new boss.
You know, before she robbed him blind and all.
“I suppose you will do.” He stood up and straightened the lapels of his jacket. “I will introduce you to Miss Carnahan,” Carnahan… why did that name sound familiar? “She will give you a tour of the museum and a thorough education of the history contained between these walls.”
“Thank you, Dr. Bey... does that mean you want me to start now?”
“Yes.” He replied. Joanna shook her head at the sudden change. If she had known it would go this way, she could have at least packed a lunch.
They entered the library where Joanna heard the previous commotion. A slender brunette was perched on the lower half of a ladder that was propped against a bookshelf. She startled when Dr. Bey cleared his throat. “Oh! Good morning, Dr. Bey.”
The man sighed as she stepped off of the ladder. Glancing between the two of them, Joanna sensed an underlying frustration from both parties.
“Miss Carnahan, this is Miss Harper. She will be my new secretary moving forward and I need you to give her a tour of the grounds.” Miss Carnahan blinked and then turned to Joanna who responded in kind. “Now, then, I shall return to my translations. When you are finished with the tour, Miss Harper, see me in my office.”
Dr. Bey about-faced, exiting the room as swiftly as he had entered. The two women watched him leave in silence. Joanna felt that she would likely have to be the one to break the ice.
“Is… is he always like that, Miss Carnahan?”
“Oh, he is only slightly put out at the departure of Harriet. She lasted three months, which is a new record for anyone that has worked with him in the past, I’ve been told.” She reached forward and shook Joanna’s hand. “Please, call me Evelyn. Miss Carnahan is rather too formal.”
“Alright, Evelyn, if you will call me Joanna.” Evelyn smiled, lighting up her face. Joanna wondered if the woman knew how pretty she really was, or if she was blissfully unaware.
“It is nice to meet you Joanna.”
Before the day was finished, Joanna was certain of one very important thing.
Evelyn Carnahan was not to be underestimated.