Annja Creed dragged herself out of the narrow, lumpy bed mumbling, "Must find a new place to stay."
Her regular morning routine found her rising, showering and fitting in a jog before the first glint of sunshine hit the rooftops. But today? Six o'clock was absolutely torturous after spending the night at a hostel populated with more partying teenagers than she could shake a fist at.
But after nearly two months straight of traveling, she teetered close to an edge no one wanted to see her step over. She powered up her laptop and located a hotel by the sea. She was financing this trip to Andalusia herself, so had initially thought to go cheap. She'd been invited by James Harlow, the head of acquisitions and curations at the Museum of Cadiz, to view their recently acquired collection of Greek coins featuring Hercules's twelve labors, found in Egypt. He must've discovered that she was writing an article on coins depicting mythological heroes. She'd jumped at the opportunity. The collection was pristine, and she'd taken some excellent pictures yesterday. Today, she planned to take notes and make pencil rubbings of both the obverse and reverse of each coin.
Two days previously she'd been in Puerto Real, across the Bay of Cadiz, squatting alongside Professor Jonathan Crockett on a small dig she'd learned about while researching the area for hotels. The bay area was made up of tiny villages dotted with small white houses and was rich with Moorish and Roman remains. So she'd planned a few extra days to dig in the dirt. Frankly, it had been months since she'd participated in a dig. She'd been unable to resist.
The Cadiz website featured a list of recommended hotels, most bordering the Atlantic Ocean. Annja made a reservation, hoping for less of a party atmosphere. A touristy hotel was fine with her.
She swept her chestnut hair into a ponytail, stuffed her few articles of clothing and essential tools into her backpacklaptop, flash drives, camera, trowel and dental pick, latex gloves, passports and SPF 30 sunscreenand headed out to find the Hotel Blanca.
On the sidewalk outside of the hotel, she splashed through a puddle, evidence of an early-morning rain shower. Her sure strides scattered a clowder of feral cats sprawled around the furry remains of what must have been a rat.
Set by the sea, Cadiz was a cosmopolitan Spanish city. Yet being one of the oldest cities in Europe, it clung to its heritage, steeped as it was in Gypsy culture and the art of flamenco dance and music. Farther inland, the province was covered with national parks and mountains. She'd once backpacked through Moorish villages to study an ancient fortress believed to have been Ferdinand Il's stronghold.
Founded by the Phoenicians in or around 1100 BC, Cadiz was interesting to Annja in that no archaeological strata on the site could be dated earlier than the ninth century BC. Historians decided Cadiz, or Gadir as the Spaniards called it, had once been a shipping stop instead of an actual port, which may be reason for the lacking pre-ninth-century archaeological finds.
Nothing of major importance had been found at the dig site until yesterday when she'd turned up a bronze bull statue. Possibly an effigy to Baal, the bull god, she had decided. Baal was associated with thunder and rain, and had been killed annually by Mot, the god of summer heat. Killing Baal stopped the summer rains so Mot could scorch the earth. Baal's sister, Anath, brought him back in the fall, and he renewed plant life and allowed the earth to once again be plowed.
Annja figured Mot had worked his alchemy this week. The thermometer was rising, and out on the dig, the earth had been hard, which made for easy brushing, but challenging trowel work.
She'd taken photos of the bronze statue in situ and then again after digging it out and placing it on the finds table. After being cataloged, it would be sent to a local university. She'd shown James Harlow at the Cadiz museum the photos, and he'd been fascinated.
Annja dodged as a toddler, chasing a red rubber ball, with no mind for obstacles, zoomed toward her. His parents, exasperated tourists, apologized as they ran past her calling out in what she recognized as German.
A beam of sun glinted in her eye, magnified by the silver waves ridging the sea to her left. The water was clear and the sand on the beach bright and clean-looking. After a few hours at the museum, she intended to walk down to the shore. A perfect way to end the trip before her flight back home.
Much as she enjoyed travel, she was looking forward to returning to her apartment in Brooklyn and stealing some writing time. Annja had collected notes from digs in Austria and Turkey and wanted to translate them onto the computer and see if she could wrangle a worthy story in the mix. She loved writing, and had published a few books on archaeology, but found writing time spare because, more than pounding away at the keyboard, she loved actual digs, searching for new discoveries. Generally being outdoors. Adventure ran through her veins.
The Hotel Blanca's white-tiled lobby was filled with potted palm trees, and the overhead latticework created crisscross patterns of sunlight. The elderly receptionist wore a severely tight bun of salt-and-pepper hair and gave Annja a rote welcome to the beautiful city of Cadiz. She looked Annja up and downtaking in the hiking boots sorely in need of new laces, her khaki cargo pants sorely in need of an iron and her T-shirt that featured a fading Women for Women logothen took her credit-card information and handed her a key.
Annja thanked the receptionist and took the concrete stairs featuring brightly colored paintings along the risers two at a time. Not authentic Spanish design, but the entire city couldn't be authentic, she figured.
She had always been curious about Spanish culture and artifactsokay, artifacts from any culture and time period. She'd spent two summers interning on digs in Granada during her college years and had fallen in love with this country. The Andalusians were proud of their history, which began with the Phoenicians, and over the centuries incorporated influences from the Visigoths to the Islamic empire. They were most famous for Christopher Columbus's journeys and Ferdinand and Isabella's rule. Not to mention their monopoly of the sea trade in the eighteenth century.
Annja found her room, and as she slid the key card through the lock, she noticed the door next to hers at the end of a hallway move inside a few inches, creaking.
With little more than a bend forward, she peered inside and noted the edge of a neatly made bed, and then two booted feet, facing down, hanging off the side.
"Must have partied over at the hostel," she muttered. "Hello?" she called softly and moved to pull the door shut to give the guy some privacy.
But the sight of an acoustic guitar facedown on the floor instead prompted her to push the door open.
A stale, meaty odor assaulted her senses.
Clenching her fists, Annja stepped around the guitar and looked over the man sprawled on the bed. Blood stained the back of his blue shirt and had soaked the shirt through and puddled on the faded yellow bedspread.
Clasping her hands together to keep from inadvertently touching anything, Annja looked back to the door she'd left open.
"What went on here?" she wondered as she again studied the body of what appeared to be a young man. Long, dark hair covered his face. There were no signs of drug paraphernalia, no needles or spoons.
"Drugs usually don't result in bleeding out," she whispered. "He's been attacked."
The largest bloodstain was over the left side of his back, directly over his heart. He could have been shot in the back or stabbed. She'd call the reception desk to alert the police immediately.
Just as she was about to leave to do that, her gaze fell onto the bronze statue on the table next to a wooden crate that spilled out brown paper packing strips. A very familiar bronze statue in the shape of a bull, about the size of her fist. She knew that because she had held the statue not a day earlier.
Annja dodged around the dead man's feet and tugged a pair of latex gloves out of her backpack. She put them on before picking up the bull statue.
"I just dug this out of the ground yesterday."
It had been coupled with a bent silver platter she and Jonathan Crockett had assumed had been part of thieves' booty. Probably nineteenth century, to judge from the strata layers where it had been found. Yet the actual statue and platter could possibly date to the eleventh century. That was her guess.
She turned it over now, noting bits of dirt were still embedded in the creases that outlined the bull's head. It had to be the same statue. Wasn't every day a person stumbled on something like this, though it certainly wasn't remarkable. The bull was a symbol and totem used throughout the ages. Baal, the bull god? Maybe. Or perhaps a simple study of a bull.
No matter what it was, she knew without doubt this was the same piece she'd dug up yesterday. How had this gotten into a small seaside hotel in the hands of a dead man in less than twenty-four hours?
The impressions in the paper packing strands of the crate indicated a round object had been inside, about three times the size of the statue, perhaps a ring like a halo. Something else could have been in the crate. Maybe the bull had been set in the center with something bigger around it.
No, it didn't look as though the packing paper had been disturbed in the center.
Had the man on the bed been transporting stolen artifacts? It made sickening sense. Port-side cities like Cadiz were rife with small operations that trafficked in stolen and looted artifacts. Annja wanted to string them all up and force them to understand they were robbing an entire culture.
"Who was here before me?" she asked the dead man. "And what did he take from the crate?"
She was no...