©2019 by Murder At Sunset Crater by Renee Louise Johnson. Proudly created with Wix.com

CHAPTER ONE

Akrotiri, October 30, 1974      

The Devil’s Claw

 

Professor Vassos Stamatopoulous did not take his next step. He did not breathe. He froze, a living statue with one foot raised in ,idair. His sixty-eight-year-old mind exploded with disbelief. Ten seconds of eternity passed. Lowering the elevated shoe to the ground, Vassos paid scant attention to the puff of ghostly gray, which swirled upward. The ash from the ancient volcano settled back quickly. Another layer of dust covered the shoe’s scuffed and worn brown leather.

“What the hell…? Hidden inside…? No, no, not possible!” He thought he heard a faint buzzing sound emanating from the same spot as the unimaginable glitter of light.

Gnarled from years of painstaking digging, his left hand cupped, rotated upward, and covered his eye. The right hand held a quivering flashlight. It shot a tunnel of light onto his footprint in the ash. His eyes glazed over and began to sting. Vassos blinked. Nine seconds snaked down his spine. He begged his heart to stop racing. Take a breath. Think.

This ancient village, cloaked and hidden from mankind for thousands of years, splayed one’s consciousness. Acutely aware of this, Professor of Archaeology Vassos counted himself among those charged with providing a proper accounting of this Greek island’s history and culture. Too many conundrums existed in every aspect of the lives of its former Bronze-Age inhabitants. Too few artifacts presented themselves to mitigate the hot pursuit of truth.

Something in that…?

The past took flight and fluttered in front of his eyes. Like the mythical Phoenix, the ruins of Akrotiri on the island of Thera rose from the ashes  for  the entire world to  see after  Professor Stamatopoulous followed his educated instincts. In victory, he held aloft a potsherd of antiquity in Bronos’ field, as he exuberated over this physical validation of his theories. A venerable Minoan society had existed on this island, and met its demise at the hands of one of the most horrific volcanic eruptions in the annals of human existence. Decades of frustration instantly scurried away from him that spring day. The excavation would attract the world’s stage of academics. Scientific documentation of his postulations would sound their trumpet as the examination  and preservation  of  whatever  silently awaited beneath his feet marched into history. The displacement of all that stood between the weeds of this island — known to be christened through the ages as Santorini (from a Venetian chapel dedicated to St. Irene in a 14th century mooring bay), Thera (from Theras, son of the Spartan Autesion), Kalliste (the most beautiful) and Stronghyle (the round one) —and the city locked in time would soon commence. He often wondered what the Bronze-Age inhabitants of Thera called their island. No way to know.

Focus, Vassos! He chided himself silently. “Old man, your eyes are playing tricks on you.” The syllables clicked as the  words compressed and tightened.

The sharp eyes of Professor Stamatopoulous, covered by a thick tangle of salt and pepper eyebrows, reflected a rich and glorious testimony to his many decades of brushing and scraping and probing. A penetrating eye stood proud among the attributes of critical importance to Vassos. Often the minute details yielded the greatest basis for supposition. With an arduous jerking motion, the wiry-haired sexagenarian turned his head to the left. He stood in what was known as Room 2 of Zeta Building, one of the smallest complexes in the ruins of Akrotiri. Excavations in Zeta Building, essentially complete and with the original structure intact, revealed but four rooms. On most days, Vassos could be found working in adjacent Xeste 3, positioned just to the east of Zeta. Zeta and Xeste 3 loomed on the southwest tip of the grid of excavations.

Is Minos outside the door? Vassos thought he heard someone approaching. He cranked his head around. No one appeared. With a few mundane tasks to perform, the professor and his associate Minos assigned just an hour to this relatively unimportant undertaking armed with a coal scoop, a trowel, a small graduated screen, and assorted brushes. Minos packed and carried this equipment in his usual portable canvas gear case, with its ragged leather shoulder straps. A few brushes peered out of Vassos’ pocket. Earlier that morning, the two surveyed Xeste 3 and Zeta for any damage sustained by a predawn shaker, an earthquake.

My imagination? A flicker of gold? Eight seconds disappeared as Vassos’ body chilled rigid. Pinpoint the source! He willed himself to obey his own command.

Rectangles of artificial incandescence glared from the tin canopy that covered the excavations. The illumination from light sources in the confines of this dig diffused as it traveled downward. A metal roof denied the radiance of direct sun. Winter flooding via an underground ravine and manual excavations through preserving layers of tephra only added to the original bedlam produced by ancient earthquakes and volcanic eruption. A jumble of crumbling rock, collapsed walls, fractured staircases, jugs, vases, walkways, and the metal lattice of Dexion pillars; the excavation in Akrotiri produced an unnatural and bizarre juxtaposition of dusty archaic upheaval and futuristic geometric metal. This day, the Professor’s electric torch, with a random movement of his arm, cast a beam in a unique way upon a familiar place. A brief, tawny glimmer sucked the very breath out of the man.

Evaluate the possibility! How could this be? How could there be anything of gold? Within the confines of the current dig, sickles of flint, low conical cups, loom weights, ostrich-egg rhyta, a red marble jar, and discoid balance weights of lead emerged, but never an object of gold. The occupants of these houses most assuredly took their valuables along for what was to be their final flight from the one thing they cherished above all else, their island paradise. The spark of yellow metal was gone. “Damn!” The golden quiver jabbed into the Professor’s pupils. Then it vanished in a flash. The intoxicating glint emanated from a particular breasted ewer. Vassos internalized one bit of certainty. Seven seconds of futile scanning reverberated without a whimper.

What about the ewer? The professor considered the piece from afar, searching his knowledge for a possible explanation. The Cycladic ewer, made locally with buff-color calcareous clay, brush- coated with an organic mixture of white talc before firing at a temperature about 750 degrees centigrade, beckoned Vassos to approach. The dark ornamentation of red and light-brown, iron-rich clay adorned a fragile piece, which came from a period that predated even the residents to whom Zeta Building was home 3600 years ago. Family heirloom? Why was it left behind? Six seconds of reflection swirled behind hooded lids.

Look closely! He effaced the surface of the ewer with the stream emanating from the flashlight. He examined the jug visually, but not for the first time. The smooth and soapy texture of the thin and uneven surface held an orange cast. Damaged due to the burnishing and the relatively low temperature employed for sintering, the exterior conveyed femininity. Two raised dark nipples encircled by dabs resembled breasts, the archaeologist’s identifying feature of this type of vessel. A ring of dots encircled the re-curved neck of the spout like a necklace. Three swallows embellished the belly of the jug.

“Hiding treasure from me, old girl?” The pot, previously thought to contain but a smattering of obsidian flakes, did not reply.

A wide v-shaped crack had appeared at some point in time in the ewer. The fracture jagged from the tail of one bird. The outstretched wings of this feathered creature stretched below the nipples of the vase.  The  bird,  common  to  the  time,  told  of  the  painters  fluid trokes as it flapped its way endlessly to the right around the pot.

The earthquake earlier that day sent sound shock waves throughout the whole area. Did the crack in the ewer widen today? The trembling educator in scruffy khaki pants and a faded red-checked flannel shirt continued to stare fixedly at the container. He began to move toward the object slowly and carefully. With alternating creaks and groans, the Professor dropped to all fours. He faced the vessel. “Something under the crack?” The professor put the flashlight on the ground. He slid his right foot under him. Down on one knee, he supported his weight with his left elbow. Steady in this lower position directly in front of the vase, he thrust his right hand in his pocket and retrieved a small brush. Through stretched lips, he took a long, deep breath. He flicked off the idea of sating the trivial need for water.

Careful! Careful! With a touch still delicate, Vassos stroked the disturbed area of the fracture with short sweeps. It must be easier to remove a stone from a dog’s swollen paw, he speculated, as he gingerly removed tiny bits of pottery. He needed to suppress the excitement beginning to pound and expand inside his chest. He stopped, clumsily dabbed at his sweating brow, took another breath, and began anew. Feeling a little dizzy all morning, he didn’t spend his mental coinage on the cause. Finally, after multiple machinations, a new miniscule area in the ewer’s crack exposed the underlying layer. Eureka! Something gleamed within the thickness of clay. And it looks for all the world to be made of…

“Gold!” he yelled, with a thunderous projectile of oxygen. He tensed his stomach muscles. The exclamation detonated, catapulting reverberations through every cell of Vassos’ body. A thousand questions sprang from his mind, like the myriad of sparkling flashes that light up the sky on a dark night, the product of popping fireworks in celebration. A piece of gold embedded in the ewer? Jewelry? Who hid the jewelry? Vassos’ mind spit out a barrage of possibilities, none of them accurate.

In his exuberant mutterings about the ewer, the practical and dogmatic Professor knew what must be his first priority. The gold represented something of inestimable value. Vassos knew he must employ safeguarding procedures. He must do it now. The excavation was full of visitors today. Protect! Call for backup! Is Minos still in Room Zeta Four? Or is he already here? Was it Minos outside the door earlier? Vassos could already visualize the look of shock and sheer happiness playing across his former student’s face when Vassos planned to stand and point to the breasted ewer. Vassos would wait for him to spot the gold piece within the ancient clay. Minos would explode with excitement. Then they would both do their favorite Greek jig like irrepressible schoolboys behind the back of their stern schoolmaster.

Minos planned and made arrangements for a lunch of tzatziki, salata, octopus, squid, feta in  filo with lamb,  and  chloro cheese savored with a glass of Vinsanto Vin De Liquer at their favorite cafe atop the sheer cliff. They planned to dine after leaving Akrotiri. I don’t think we will be lunching today, old friend. Visions of raucous celebrations over  this golden treasure bubbled  up inside  him.  It would be a miracle if they remembered to eat or drink for weeks.

As the Professor marshaled his strength to regain his upright position, he shouted for Minos. His voice lacked its usual vigor. The waves of dizziness intensified. Vassos decided he needed to gather his strength and regain his composure. Five seconds marched by in quiet resolve. Neurotransmitters commanded his  limbs to move. The aged Greek jerked on his reserves. Bundles of muscle fibers gave protest. Seventy-year-old tissue chose not to respond in a proper fashion, reminding him instead of his lengthy and awkward kneeling position.

“Goddamn it!” Vassos became irritated and impatient with his own advancing years. “Why so weak, today of all days?” He cursed his watch, which refused to cease ticking away the precious years. He cursed Poseidon, because the mythological God’s image appeared in front of him. He cursed the surprisingly beefy stray cat who appeared out of thin air, eyed him with caution, and scurried away in stupid feral indifference. It crossed his mind that the cat was the source of the earlier rustlings of someone approaching. He cursed the light, which for the entire world seemed to be dimming. Four seconds jazzed by encased in double the force of gravity.

Then, out of nowhere, Vassos rocked back with a violent headache. “What the hell?” He anguished in the midst of a new effort to mobilize. The Professor rescinded those previous set of instructions to his muscular system. The archeologist recoiled on his hands and knees. The man moaned. Three seconds of utter agony slowly scraped the tender back of his neck. With the same shocking abruptness, the sexagenarian recognized the absence of the headache. It simply disappeared. Numbness replaced the searing hammering in his head. The area of bizarre paralysis spread, a dark and sinister infusion foreign to Vassos. The void seeped like black ink over white paper, leaving him confused and disoriented.

In the haze of his dizziness, an ominous epiphany became a well-lit billboard. Saliva dripped down his chin from the corners of his mouth. The Professor bit his tongue and recognized the lack of sensation. He froze as physical efforts denied by something other than age, his arthritic joints, and muscle tissue, continued to elude him. For the first time the possibility of a stroke invaded his psyche, a hostile invader. Vassos thought of his deceased father felled by a stroke. Two seconds of disbelief ticked in slow motion.

“Oh no!” Family history gave him a strong frame and a handsome face. His DNA endowed him with an abundance of intellect. But heredity conspired not in his favor in this specific regard. “A stroke? No, no, no, no, no!” One second of time lit a watch fire.

But wait! Help is here! Vassos became aware of a hand pressing on his back, an honest physical sensation and not the imagination of a terrified man in a medical crisis. Relieved by the presence of the hand, he craned his neck with much difficulty to see. “Minos?” The room continued to darken. He so desperately yearned to hear that familiar vocal rumble in reply from Minos. Minos would get help and  quickly,  of  that  the  Professor  breathed  absolute  certainty. 

Vassos’ thick hair, matted with sweat and dust, shifted into his eyes, prickling like the unexpected sweep of a donkey’s tail.

The reply was inaudible. The cold hand on his back remained oddly rigid. It did not help him to his feet. The hand exerted pressure. Am I hallucinating? His situation sank to an even deeper level of fear, as his relief from the presence of the hand transformed into horror. Whoever the hand belonged to revealed an evil intention. This can’t be! “No, goddamnit, no! Son-of-a-bitch!” He tried to buck. Pushed down? Not here to help! This bastard wants to take me down!

Why? Why? Vassos searched the far reaches of his brain for some explanation. “Oh God, oh no!” In an instant, the second, even more ghastly, epiphany struck the Professor with a hammer. The gold piece! Bastard! Anger grabbed him and twisted his gut. “No, I won’t let you! You cannot have it!”

The warrior, the survivor, within the Professor clicked like the revolver of a gun. With little success, Vassos tried to break the hold of the unrelenting hand. Five fingers and the palm on the Professor’s back gave one quick and decisive downward push. In less than a flap of a swallow’s wing, Vassos Stamatopoulous went down, 167 pounds of masculine body mass. A wild and messy dark mustache under an ample Athenian nose in a weakened state did not topple directly into the dust. The head rocked forward. With his full weight, the Professor’s uppermost torso slammed into one of the best-preserved masterpieces from Bronze-Age Thera. For all outward appearances, a woozy and confused fighter just made a desperate attempt to head butt his opponent, which was but a defenseless ewer.

“Oh!” Pain shot throughout the portions of his frame not yet devoid of sensation. Veins bulged. Nerve endings screamed. Blood dripped off his chin. Ruby fluid seeped from gashes of odd geometric designs on his deeply-wrinkled throat. A fresh scarlet stream from the corner of his mouth washed away sweat and dirt in the crinkled passageways leaving shards of pottery still embedded in the flesh. The body of the man who stood in Bronos' field, who cherished each and every artifact left by the Minoans, sprawled and twitched over fragments of a pot (the survivor of more than one jolt of an earthquake and the horrendous eruption of 1636 BC.)  A vessel, embedded with some of the most exquisite jewelry  ever made, lay in ruin under his body.

The frightened gold starfish, previously trapped in  the ewer, stopped shining and buzzing for attention from the Professor. Am I in danger once again?

The Professor managed to roll slightly to the left, positioning askew on one side. A remote voice shattered the  stillness  from somewhere. Vassos’ blurred vision caught a shadowy human form silently staring at him from the doorway. Two pant legs belonging to a human nightmare turned, as though surveying their surroundings, the back of shoes making deep, uneven circles in the dirt beneath them. The despicable hand tapped one of the two pant legs attached to its body. The entire gray mass vanished into the billowing specks of swirling small debris in muted light beyond the doorway. Who was that? Minos? Can’t be…

The boxer in Vassos jolted back to a marginally heightened state of consciousness. What did the voice say? His blue-gray eyes fluttered. He focused on a human outline silhouetted against the light. Did the monster with the claw stand before him, or was it someone else? The Professor’s world made giant concentric circles. Did the human try to tell him something? Vassos could not tell. The Professor’s mind descended toward a vast void of nothingness. Only one word ricocheted through his mind. This word terrified Vassos beyond all others.

“Gold!”