On the face of it, it wasn’t a strange request. Oil and mining companies were constantly poking around in back woods and muddy lake bottoms and other spots nobody ever bothered to go, and they sometimes came upon evidence that such places hadn’t always been as deserted as they were now. When they did, it made sense for them to call in an archaeologist to tell them what they’d found – an archaeologist like Dr. Natalie Jones from the University of Dundee. That much was perfectly ordinary.
There were other aspects of the situation, however, that set Nat’s long-dormant spy senses tingling. The company representative who’d called her office had been unusually secretive, hinting at ‘unknown Norman art’ rather than describing any particular object. No photographs had been offered, and rather than meeting her at the site, they’d asked her to come to a warehouse on the edge of Inverness. It was all very cloak-and-dagger, and as Nat headed North around the edge of Cairngorms, with the cold Scottish rain pelting against her windshield, she thought she had a good idea why.
They must, she decided, have found gold. Caches of gold and silver from ages past were not uncommon in the British Isles. There was the Staffordshire Hoard, a mass of gem-encrusted weapons fittings found in the topsoil of a farmer’s field, or the Wickham Market Hoard, a fortune in gold coins that somebody had buried in the first century and then never come back for. Such things were far more valuable for what they could teach about the past than they could ever be as mere treasure, but there was a danger that whoever found them wouldn’t be able to see past the pound signs that lit up in their eyes. If the officials at the Pierce Resources Group didn’t want to tell Nat what they’d found, it was probably because they didn’t want her telling anybody else. If they didn’t want her to look at their find in situ, that meant they were keeping the location a secret. Whatever it was must be very valuable, and that almost certainly meant gold.
That, in turn, meant part of Nat’s job would be to convince them to sell it to a museum or university collection for preservation and study, rather than to a private collector who might offer more money. That would be a difficult task in itself, but fortunately, Nat could be very persuasive.
The warehouse they’d invited her to was at the end of a rather ominously un-used road a bit south of the Holm Mills Shopping Village, not far from the River Ness. There was a little area between the buildings where there was a roof over the road, and a group of men were waiting there out of the rain to greet her. She climbed out of her car, and one of them, a craggy-faced, graying blond in a white turtleneck sweater and a long black coat, stepped forward and offered a hand.
“Sawney Pierce,” he said. “You must be Dr. Jones.”
“That’s me,” she replied, giving his hand a firm shake.
His eyebrows rose at the sound of her voice. “You’re an American,” he observed.
“I was born in New York,” Nat said. “Where’d you think I was from?”
“Based on your name I’d assumed southern England or Wales,” Pierce admitted. “I suppose a lot of people from there live in America.”
“They do, but my ancestors were actually Russian,” Nat said pleasantly. “My grandparents immigrated in the forties, but Russian names weren’t a good way to win friends back then.” The words came out smoothly and naturally. She’d thought her fake past through very carefully, and had been sure to fabricate the appropriate evidence. Anyone who looked would find that Nikolai and Olga Romanov had indeed existed, and had filed for a legal name change from Romanov to the unremarkable Jones in 1949.
“Well, nationality notwithstanding,” Pierce said, “I think you’ll be very interested in what we have to show you today.” He pointed to the warehouse door behind him, and one of his employees got out a set of keys to open it.
“I think I will,” Nat agreed. “I’ve been wondering about it all the way from Dundee. Is it gold?”
Pierce laughed. “No, Dr. Jones,” he said. “No, it’s not gold. It’s stone.”
“Stone?” Natasha hadn’t expected that. What on earth had he found? Stone archaeology tended to be a lot bigger and more unwieldy than the gold kind, and correspondingly harder to excavate and transport? Why had he brought it to this warehouse? Why didn’t he want to say what it was or where he’d found it.
“Yes, stone,” said Pierce. “Basalt, I believe.” The padlock on the door opened, and the employees pushed the door itself, on its creaking metal tracks, out of the way. “Come inside.”
Nat followed him in. If this turned out to be building fragments, she thought, or something else that should have been studied in context, she was going to break his neck, her cover be damned.
The inside of the warehouse was well-lit but chilly and drafty, filled with boxes and crates destined for one of PCR’s expeditions in the North Sea. The place looked like it could easily have the Ark of the Covenant hidden in it somewhere, but when Nat’s eyes caught some of the lables, they turned out to be mostly toiletries – toothpaste, paper towels, or shaving cream. Mr. Pierce hadn’t brought her here to see those.
“How did you come to be working in Scotland, then?” Pierce asked, leading the way past the rows of supplies.
“I wish it were an interesting story, but it’s not,” Nat replied with a shrug. “They had a job opening for an archaeologist specializing in the medieval period, and I applied for it. That’s really all.”
“You must have had an impressive CV,” Pierce observed.
“I guess,” Natasha said, “but I’ve had plenty of time to build one. Ever since I was little, I always knew what I wanted to be.”
Unlike most of ‘Natalie Jones’ past, this was almost true. As children in the Red Room, Natasha and her classmates had watched American movies in order to learn colloquial English, as well as getting an idea of how Americans thought of themselves and their place in the world. Nat had been captivated by the Indiana Jones films. She hadn’t missed the intended lessons, that Americans were underhanded imperialists and that a single person in the right place could do enormous damage – but the movies had also made archaeology look so exciting. Dr. Jones travelled the world, encountered magic and mysteries, and never had to kill a single person who hadn’t tried to kill him first. Though she’d later learned that the reality was, of course, not nearly so romantic, that childhood first impression had played a big part in Nat deciding her cover would be an archaeologist, not to mention her choice of pseudonym.
“I thought perhaps you were looking for your roots,” Pierce said. “I mean, Russian ancestors and red hair, you’re clearly a Viking, and the Vikings are where it all began. The Normans were Vikings, and the Normans brought us our language, our justice system, our navy, our castles… everything that makes Britain British came originally from them,” he said proudly.
“Well, partially,” said Nat. “There is a lot of Norman French in English, but Anglo-Saxon was the basis. Both the Romans and the Abrahamic tradition contributed to medieval law, and then there are the older Celtic cultures it’s all layered on top of…”
“The Vikings brought it all together,” Pierce insisted, and Natasha decided not to argue the point. Laypeople rarely appreciated how complex history really was. Nothing was ever simple where human beings were concerned. There were always layers, and Nat knew that better than most.
Pierce and his four companions let the way right to the back of the warehouse, where a set of metal doors could be opened onto a road that came up from the nearby River Ness. Scrape marks on the floor showed where crates and boxes had been moved aside to make room for what was there now – two irregularly-shaped objects, each a bit over six feet tall and covered with blue tarpaulins. Natasha’s first instinct was that they had to be statues, but the man on the phone had called them Norman. Neither the Normans nor the Anglo-Saxons had made freestanding stone statues. They’d preferred stylized reliefs.
After making sure she was watching, Pierce signalled to his men. They pulled the tarps away with a theatrical flourish. Natasha cocked her head and examined what was underneath, then turned to Pierce with a confused frown on her face.
He was standing tall with his hands in his pockets, smiling. “So what do you think?” he asked.
Nat shook her head. “Who told you they were Norman?” she wanted to know.
“Well, based on the armor…” he began.
“No, no,” Nat cut him off. “These are late eighteenth century at the earliest.”
“The seafloor sediments were dated to the eleventh century!” Pierce insisted.
“Then somebody’s laying a joke on you,” said Nat. “I’m sorry, Mr. Pierce, but these are definitely modern.”
“What makes you so sure?” he demanded.
Natasha stepped back to look at the statues. They were made of black stone – she didn’t see any reason to argue with his identification of basalt – and represented two knights in fighting poses, probably meant to be displayed as if they were fighting each other. Both were over six feet tall, which would have made them giants in the eleventh century. One was clean-shaven and the other bearded, and both were dressed in long coats of chain mail and helmets with nose guards. The bearded knight was raising a shield to defend himself, while the shaved one was about to bring a battleaxe down on it. Their armor and weapons were meant to be eleventh century, but the workmanship and style said otherwise, as did the materials.
“Well, for one thing,” she said, “nobody was making stone statues like this in the eleventh century. The style is Roman revival – but they can’t be Renaissance because, as you pointed out, they’ve gone to the trouble of getting the armor right. Renaissance sculpture would have shown them in either contemporary or Roman armor. Second, basalt is difficult to carve, especially in this kind of detail. Nobody had the tools for that back then. Third, if they’d been underwater for nine hundred years, they’d have marine life growing on them, and fourth, these are mythical figures. The earliest reference we have to these two men is late medieval. They’re not on the Bayeux Tapestry, they’re not in William of Poitiers. They were invented well after the eleventh century.”
Pierce looked shocked. He probably would have been even more so if he’d known Natasha’s true background, but just because her credentials were invented didn’t mean she wasn’t capable of living up to them. Nat had a prodigious memory, enhanced by both medicine and training, and the Red Room had never quite managed to rid her of the urge to show off.
It took him a moment to find his voice, then he said, “who do you think they are?”
Natasha pointed to the clean-shaven knight. “See the skull motif on this one’s helmet?” she asked. “He’s meant to represent Count John, the Red Death. He was called Johann Totenkopf in his homeland. He’s supposed to have been a German ally of William the Conqueror, who turned on him once they reached Dover.” The face on the statue was of a man in his late forties or early fifties, with sharp cheekbones and a long nose, his lips curled back in a snarl.
She then turned to the bearded one. His shield was a circular Anglo-Saxon type, with a star painted around the central boss. He looked younger than the other, with a square jaw and classically handsome features – another indication that the statue couldn’t really be very old. “This one is Sir Stephen of Rogsey, who was actually considered a saint until the popes started clearing out the fictional ones in the thirties. His story is that he was a weak and sickly man who wanted to be a knight, so the Lady of the Lake, from the Arthurian legends, gave him a magical shield that made him invincible. He went to help King Harold defend England from the Normans, but him and his army got distracted by the Red Death and chased him north into Scotland, where the two of them died still locked in mortal combat like Holmes and Moriarty going over the waterfall together. That’s the moment depicted here.” She nodded at the pair.
There was a brief silence, punctuated only by the drumming of the rain on the warehouse roof. Pierce looked deflated, as if he hadn’t thought she’d know all this – but what did he expect when he asked for an expert?
“The version of the story I had read,” Pierce said finally, “was not that they died, but that they were both miraculously turned to stone.”
For a moment Nat wondered if he’d honestly hoped he’d discovered Sir Stephen and the Red Death themselves, but then she dismissed the idea. Alexander Pierce was a grown man who ran a successful business. He had to know better.
“I understand if you’re disappointed,” Nat added. She was disappointed, herself, that it wasn’t a stash of coins or jewelry. There wasn’t nearly so much to be learned from these. “I can assure you, though, that these are still very valuable works of art. I’m sure any museum in the country would be happy to have them once we establish their provenance.” Probably garden ornaments for some wealthy local who thought his house was built on the spot where the two knights died. There were several towns which made that claim.
“Yes, thank you, Dr. Jones,” said Pierce with a sigh. He leaned to his right a little, looking past the statues at the river doors as if expecting somebody to come through them, and Natasha noticed there was a horseshoe nailed up above each. Apparently they hadn’t brought him good luck today. He nodded to his employees, and they began to put the tarps back.
“Actually,” said Nat, holding up a hand, “can I get some photographs? I’m sure there’s somebody at the University who could work on these for you.” The curators of the Scottish Art Collection were probably already drooling, without even knowing why.
“No. No photographs,” said Pierce. He put an arm around Nat’s shoulders to escort her away, and he had to stamp down hard on her urge to throw him through the wall. When she glanced back, she saw the employees carefully arranging the tarps to cover the statues entirely. “We’ll need to get some more data before I let anybody else know about this. I need your word that you won’t go talking to your colleagues, Dr. Jones.”
“Um… if you insist,” said Nat. If he wasn’t going to tell anybody about the statues, how did he expect to learn anything about them? “Have you had anybody else here to look at them, besides me?” she asked.
“I’m afraid that, among other things, must be revealed at the proper time,” said Pierce. “Trust me, when it happens, you’ll hear about it.”
It was still raining outside when Nat returned to her car, with Pierce standing in the still-open door watching her as if he couldn’t wait for her to be gone. He waved to her as she started the car, but she did not wave back. Apparently they were planning on spending more time at the warehouse – maybe they had a couple of other ‘experts’ lined up, looking for one who would tell them what they wanted to hear. If so, he was going to be at that for a while. In the mean time, Nat decided to stop for a snack before heading back to Dundee.
She could have gone to the shopping centre just north of the warehouses, but since she was so close to Inverness, Natasha decided to head into the city proper and go to the Castle Tavern. This was a quaint little brick building on the end of a row of shops. It had an outdoor patio, empty today because of the chilly summer rain, but the inside, decorated in rich warm reds and yellows with wooden railings and wrought iron fixtures, was busy and full of the smells of pub food. Nat ordered a plate of their very good shepherd’s pie and a cup of coffee, and sat down at the bar to eat.
Rain continued to patter against the windows, and a sea of coloured umbrellas went to and fro outside. Nat checked the weather app on her phone, hoping it would clear in the next hour or so, and as she waited for the GPS to figure out where she was, a very strange person entered the pub.
The man was quite short, not even five feet tall, with wild white hair and bushy mutton chops that made him look like a nineteenth century gentleman from an old painting. Equally strange, he was dressed as if he were going to a fancy party, in an impeccable double-breasted suit and silk ascot. These were black, as was his shirt. He stood out sharply in the restaurant full of casually-dressed locals and tourists, and Natasha wasn’t the only one trying not to stare as he crossed the room.
He seemed to know where he was going, though. He came up beside Natasha and gave her an awkward smile and showed some oddly sharp teeth. “Are you Dr. Jones from Dundee?” he asked, in a curious accent.
“Um, yes. That’s me,” said Nat cautiously. She wasn’t used to being recognized by strangers. Was this odd man really looking for Dr. Natalie Jones? Or could he be looking for Natalia Romanova?
“I thought so,” the man said. He pulled out the chair next to her and climbed up to perch on it, his legs swinging above the floor. “I’ve read your work on the knights’ tombs at Stirling. May I join you?”
“Feel free,” said Natasha, seeing as he already had. The paper on the knights’ tombs at Stirling was something she’d put together to flesh out her fake credentials. She’d thought the conclusions she’d come to here obvious, but everybody else had always seemed impressed by it. “And you are?” she tried. That might tell her what he wanted.
“Professor Zola,” he replied. The smile was gone now, and his face was entirely serious but far more relaxed-looking, as if the very act of smiling were unnatural to him.
The name wasn’t familiar, either. “Nice to meet you,” Nat said politely. “I’m afraid I’m not familiar with your work.”
“I’m in a different field,” he said. “So what brings you up north on this beautiful Scottish day?” The words were something a person might say in the attempt to be charming, but Zola’s voice and face were so serious that he sounded almost threatening.
That did, however, suggest another reason for his interest in her. Maybe this man wasn’t looking for an escaped Black Widow in hiding. Maybe he wanted information about Pierce’s find. “I don’t think I’m at liberty to discuss that,” she said.
He nodded. “As I thought. The stone knights.”
So he was already aware of them, then. “Have you had a look at them yet?” Nat asked.
“I haven’t yet had the pleasure,” Zola replied. “Which does rather upset me. He promised to let me know when he got them back to Inverness.”
“Well, don’t get too excited,” Nat warned him. Pierce had been so insistent on secrecy, she wondered if this Zola had told somebody about his own invitation, and Pierce had changed his mind when he found out. “They’re definitely not what he wants to believe they are. They’re beautiful,” she added, “but they’re not medieval.”
“How tragic,” Zola said, although he didn’t sound sad about it. “But they are, in fact, Sir Stephen and the Red Death?”
“I’d be very surprised if they weren’t,” said Nat. “The iconography was very clear. Red skull on the helm, star on the shield.” She wondered belatedly if Pierce’s request that she not talk about the statues was so that Zola couldn’t hear about them. Too late now.
“And the Grail?” asked Zola.
Nat blinked. “I’m sorry?” she asked.
“The Grail!” Zola repeated. “Did he say anything about that?”
“What? You mean… you mean the Holy Grail from the Arthurian story?” asked Nat. That was the only grail she could think of off the top of her head, but it didn’t belong in this context at all. What did the Holy Grail have to do with a couple of eighteenth-century statues of fictional eleventh-century warriors? The Arthurian cycle was French folklore from around a hundred years after the Battle of Hastings, concerning people who were supposed to have lived five or six centuries before it. As far as mythical heroes of the Norman invasion went, it was utterly irrelevant.
But Zola said, “yes!” before taking in the expression on Nat’s face. “No?”
“No,” Nat said, still puzzled. “Did Mr. Pierce say there would be?”
“No, not exactly,” said Zola. He’d been sitting up straight, leaning eagerly forward to hear what she had to say, but now he settled back down, disappointed. “It’s only a theory we had. Never mind. The rain seems to be letting up, so I won’t keep you. Good afternoon, Dr. Jones.” He was already sliding down from his barstool as he spoke, and he waddled out without waiting for Natasha to say goodbye. Maybe he thought he’d embarrassed himself.
“Are you done with your plate?” asked a voice by Nat’s ear.
She jumped, and turned to see the barmaid reaching for the dishes.
“Sorry,” the woman said, “didn’t mean to startle you.”
“Oh, it’s all right,” said Nat. “I’m not usually so easy to startle.” She glanced at the window, but Zola had vanished. “Did you see that guy?”
“The wee goblin-looking fellow? Aye, you weren’t dreaming,” said the Barmaid. “Who was he?”
“Some kind of professor, apparently,” Nat said. He hadn’t given her an answer when she’d prompted him for information about his work. That was strange, too. Most academics were happy to talk about it, at great length, even while their audience tried to escape. He hadn’t even said where he taught.
The pub had wifi, so Nat closed her forgotten weather app and let the Barmaid refill her coffee, and did some preliminary research. A Google search for Professor Zola turned up a couple of people in Switzerland and Liechtenstein who were definitely not the odd little man she’d just met. When that failed, she tried Sir Stephen and the Red Death and Holy Grail. Filtering out results that didn’t contain both took her to a series of conspiracy theory websites, suggesting that the grail was from outer space and the Catholic church had erased all trace of it from the historical record because the existence of aliens would invalidate Christianity.
That certainly didn’t count as academic work, but it did give Natasha a clue who Zola might be. He probably wasn’t a professor of anything. More likely, he was just a crank, something on the order of the treasure-hunters who thought they’d found a flying saucer on the bottom of the Baltic Sea, or the self-styled ‘professor’ who claimed to have discovered pyramids in Bosnia. If Pierce hadn’t invited Zola to see the statues, it was probably because he wanted nothing to do with the man.
Too bad it hadn’t been Norman gold.
When Nat had chosen ‘archaeologist’ as her new career, it had been because it sounded interesting and because unlike Indiana Jones, real archaeologists tended to be quiet academic types who didn’t get a lot of publicity if they didn’t want it. As Natalie Jones she could keep her head down and hide, without dying of boredom. She hadn’t expected that she would come to care so much when people didn’t understand her field, but she did. Pierce’s willful ignorance and this Zola’s conspiracizing actually made her a little angry. There was just no reason for that kind of foolishness.
Maybe it upset her because people ought to know their own history. Maybe it was because the difference between real and invented history had been such an important factor in Natasha’s own life. Or maybe, as her teachers used to accuse her, Nat was simply prone to caring too much. Whatever the reason, this was going to annoy her every time she thought about it for days.
The storm had moved southeast, so as Nat drove back to Dundee she was heading into it. Soon it was raining heavily again. The constant clunk and swish of the wipers helped to calm her down, and Inverness vanished behind her in a gray haze. It wasn’t until the next day when she found out what had happened there after Zola fled from the pub.
Morning found Nat unconcernedly checking her schedule as she walked into the archaeology department offices in one of the grand old stone and brick buildings at Dundee University. It was mid-July and most classes were not in session, but her introductory Latin class was at ten-thirty, and she was going to give a quiz she would have to mark. After that she would have office hours, and she wanted to put in some work on the paper she was planning to present at the Gender and Medieval Mysticism seminar in Mainz next month. Then, in the evenings, she taught a self-defense class to female students. The movies might have made archaeology look exciting, but in real life it was mostly dirt and paperwork.
“Morning, Nat,” said the department secretary, a stocky middle-aged woman with dark hair in a thick braid down her back, and a Scottish accent so strong it sometimes made her difficult to understand.
“Morning, Sue,” Nat replied, tucking her phone back into her jacket pocket. “How’s Brandon?” Sue had been obliged to take a couple of days off recently, after her thirteen-year-old son had broken his collarbone skateboarding.
“He’s all plastered up and complaining constantly,” Sue replied, “but they tell me he’ll recover. Thanks for asking. You have a telephone message, though,” she added. “It was about twenty minutes ago. Somebody in Inverness wants you to ring her back, so I sent her to your voicemail.”
“Okay, thanks,” said Nat, as if she didn’t find this particularly interesting. Actually, the feminine pronoun had caught her attention. The mention of Inverness made her fear that Pierce was asking her to reconsider or that Zola wanted to talk to her again – but it was a woman? “I’ll give it a listen.”
Once in her office, Natasha hung her black Sherpa jacket on its peg and put down her purse, and pressed the button on her landline voicemail.
You have… one… message, the recording informed her, and then a woman’s voice spoke. Good morning, Dr. Jones. This is Detective Inspector Sharon Carter of the Inverness police. I understand you spoke with Mr. Alexander Pierce yesterday, and we were wondering if we could ask you some questions about it.
Nat didn’t know what she’d expected, but it hadn’t been that. Why would the police want to know about Pierce? Had he stolen those statues? Or worse, had something happened to him? Maybe Zola, desperate to gain access and prove whatever his grail theory was, had harmed him either on purpose or by accident. She picked up the handset, and dialled the number DI Carter had left.
By an hour later, she had emailed her students – all five of them – to tell them that class was cancelled for today, and was back on the road to Inverness with the morning sun glaring in her rear view mirror.
The news feeds Natasha subscribed to were mostly international, as she tried to keep tabs on her former masters and anybody else who might present a danger to her new civilian life. To get news from within Scotland she’d had to look up the Inverness Courier, and when she did, Alexander Pierce was the top story. A riverside warehouse just outside the city had burned to the ground. Its owner, the founder and president of the Pierce Resources Group, was missing. There was an enormous amount of blood at the scene and an unidentified corpse in the river, but no witnesses and no evidence of where the fire began. But particularly strange from Nat’s point of view was that, of four articles she skimmed in different papers, there was not a single mention of the two statues, either as something present or as something missing.
Maybe the police hadn’t considered them important. Maybe they’d been taken away as evidence, or had cracked and crumbled in the heat of the fire, or were one of those things the police withheld from the media in order to weed out fake witnesses. Or maybe somebody had taken them. It was entirely possible that Natasha was just too used to thinking like a spy, but she was betting on the latter.