Excerpt: Nefertiti's Heart

Excerpt: Nefertiti's Heart

Book 1: Artifact Hunters

Sunday, June 23

There was something cathartic about wielding a crowbar. Cara used one end to loosen the tacks, before ripping up the expensive, patterned carpet. She tossed the strip in a growing pile by the wall. She never intended to remove all the carpet, but with the cool metal bar in her hand, she lost herself in the rhythm of tearing away a layer from her father’s sanctuary. Pushing a deep auburn spike of hair from her forehead, she took a moment’s break from the dusty work. As spring gave way to summer, Cara found the air inside the narrow terrace house stuffy and oppressive, a situation exacerbated by her current labour. She flung open the second-storey window, took a large breath of London air, and coughed. Coal smoke and steam belched from the horseless carriages below and spiralled past her window. The combination of the narrow street and tall buildings forced the vehicle emissions skyward.

She blinked the stinging smog from her eyes and leaned on the casement as she surveyed her work. She had taken up most of the library carpet, the floor underneath finally revealed. Coated in several years of dust and grime, the boards appeared dull in the morning light. Pacing the floor, she knew she was close; a spot to one side called to her. The hairs on the backs of her arms rose as she walked the bare boards. Ah. There. She saw wooden planks stained a slightly darker colour. A maid spent hours on her knees there. With a scrubbing brush and bleach, she had tried to wash away the blood before the new carpets were laid.

There was an old saying: blood will out. Cara wondered if this was what her grandmother meant. You can scrub as hard as you want, but you can never remove the taint, not once it leached into the porous fibres of the wood. The stain became a permanent reminder of the violence committed.

Cara remembered as she lay on the floor; unaware her blood soaked the carpet and seeped into the floor beneath. Darkness crept over the floor and surrounded her numb body. Oblivion wove tendrils around her; sight the last sense she relinquished. Her vision turned black as her fourteen-year-old self watched her father. He took a book from the shelf and pressed the hidden lever, before the waiting darkness swept her into blessed unconsciousness.

Twenty-one-year-old Cara fixed her line of sight and walked to the bookcase. The book in question was Justine by the Marquis de Sade. She snorted at the irony. She and Justine shared a similar experience at a young age, but Cara was grateful she never followed the unfortunate literary heroine’s sad path. She removed the book and balanced it in her hand. The leather was a dark red, soft and supple from years of hands caressing its surface. The book was a valuable first edition, as were all the volumes in the library. Her father had expensive tastes and a love for the finer things in life. He valued his material possessions above all else. Even his only child.

She hadn’t been back to the house since that day seven years ago. She refused to return until he was dead. Otherwise, she would have been tempted to help him shuffle off his mortal coil.

She placed de Sade’s book on the desk and peered in the gap on the shelf. Not seeing anything remarkable, she inserted her hand and pressed the wall beyond in an experimental fashion. The panelling shifted under her fingers. She pressed harder and heard a soft pop. Brushing the brown suede ends of her morning coat out of the way, she folded her long legs, resting on the balls of her feet to see what the lever activated.

A part of the bottom shelf jutted up and yielded its opening fully to her slender fingers. The shelf hid a small compartment, otherwise impossible to discern. Cara could have demolished all the shelving with the crowbar and still would have been lucky to stumble upon it. She briefly toyed with doing it anyway, simply for the satisfaction of destroying her father’s sanctuary.

Crowbars are great for working out parental issues.

She tentatively reached into the cavity. She felt something square and squat. Withdrawing her hand, she held a small, fat notebook. The book bulged with extra inserts and cards, tightly tied with brown string. She had found her father’s catalogue of antiquities. The book detailed everything he acquired and, more importantly, contained the vital details of where he secreted them. He had never been a man to share, and ensured he was the only person to touch his treasures. The notebook would tell her which bank vaults she needed to visit, and the required passwords and access codes for the safety deposit boxes.

“I’ll take that, thanks,” a husky voice announced from behind her.

Cara stood and placed the notebook on a shelf. She cursed herself for being preoccupied and not hearing the intruder. Composing herself, she turned and gave the stranger a deadly smile.

“I don’t think so. This is my house, and you’re trespassing.” Her fingers went to the leather holster at her hip. She popped the metal dome and drew her pistol. Her arm was straight and unwavering as she aimed directly at the thug. “My friend here, Mr Smith, also wants you to leave.”

“My master is very interested in that little book. And to make sure I get it, I brought my friend.”

A second man stepped out from behind the first, a metal pipe dangling from his fingers.

The two men looked similar. Tall, with the muscular, powerful builds of those who spend a lot of time pounding and lifting heavy things for fun. They both dressed well, with fine pinstripe suits, custom made to wrap around their broad torsos, and black felt bowlers pulled low on their foreheads.

Not your average burglars. And judging by those arms, they could bend metal with their bare hands.

Cara’s smile never wavered. “I’ve got you both covered.” She drew another pistol from the holster under her arm. “Mr Smith has his own friend, Wesson.”

The first man chuckled and raised his hands in amusement.

“Look, Bruce, the pretty lady has a couple of popguns. What are you going to do with those toys, darling?” He edged closer to Cara as he spoke.

She didn’t have time for his conversation; she had other things to do. She moved her line of sight and fired. The man cried out as the bullet penetrated the centre of his palm, rendering his left hand useless. He swore under his breath as he shook a handkerchief from his pocket. He wrapped the square of fabric around the injured hand. He blocked the hole and stemmed the trickle of blood down his arm, but not before droplets landed on the pile of discarded carpet.

I see the library is up to its old tricks of demanding blood payment.

Cara adjusted her line of sight. “Get out of my house or the next bullet goes through your forehead and ruins that lovely bowler.”

“Well, we have a problem then,” he said between gritted teeth as he continued to fumble with the handkerchief. “‘Cause if we don’t return with that book, our master is going to kill us anyway.”

“Who’s your master?” Curiosity niggled at Cara; she didn’t think anything could be more compelling than a hole in one hand and a pistol aimed at the head.

“Lyons,” he grunted. He pulled the ends of the cloth tight with his teeth, sealing the wound.

Lord Lyons, the villainous viscount.

“You do have a problem.” Failure and no were two words that didn’t exist in Lyons’ vocabulary. He also had the emotional range of a slab of granite. His underlings wouldn’t receive any sympathy when they returned empty-handed.

“I’ll help you out with your dilemma.” While smiling at the first man, she shot the second in the shoulder.

He cried out as the impact spun him sideways; the iron pipe fell from his hand as he dropped to one knee. He keened to himself as blood splashed onto the floor. The library demanded a heavy toll today from so many unwelcome intruders.

“Lyons might be less inclined to kill you now you’re both injured, or amused when you tell him a girl did it. And you can give him a message for me.”

The two men exchanged looks. The second man groaned and swore in pain, as he bled heavily from the shoulder wound. His fingers scrabbled at his neckerchief, pulling it from around his neck to wedge between jacket and torn flesh.

“Tell your master I may be open to a business proposition, but he won’t be taking anything from me.” Cara’s tone was flat, deadly serious, and bored.

The two men wavered. She cocked the pistols and lined them up with two foreheads, to help the thugs reach a decision.

“We’ll deliver your message. Then we’ll be back to wipe the smile off your face.” The first man promised, helping his friend to his feet.

“I’ll be waiting.” She kept her pistols aimed on them as they backed out of the library. She stood immobile until she heard the front door slam. Going to the window, she checked they were indeed winding down the road before she relaxed her guard. Watching them weave haphazardly down the street, she fed the pistols an extra bullet each from her belt before returning them to their holsters.

The library timepiece chose to interrupt her thoughts with a single piercing peal. The ornate clock had been commissioned to commemorate Victoria’s ascension to the throne almost twenty-five years earlier. Tiny mechanical people stood around the edge, each waving a Union Jack flag as a royal carriage appeared from the back and revolved around the central clock tower. Cara hated it. It sat on its shelf, haughtily looking down at her. From her recollection, it only ever chimed when she was in trouble or being beaten.

She picked up the fallen crowbar and smashed the dome. Glass shattered, raining over the shelf and the floor. The whirring sound trailed off, and the mechanism fell silent. With a grin, she tossed the crowbar to the ground and stepped over the glass.

Moving to the small liquor cabinet, she poured a finger of whisky from the crystal decanter, retrieved the notebook, and then seated herself at the desk. Cara stared at the notebook, the formidable rival for her father’s affections.

She took a swallow of whisky, letting the alcoholic warmth radiate through her. Brown string yielded to a tug from her fingers, and the notebook fell open. Lord Devon spent a lifetime, and a fortune, in pursuit of unusual antiquities from around the world. Cara flipped the pages as details of her father’s adventures spilled forth. He was meticulous in recording his travels, where he found items, and how he acquired them. He often utilised illegal or immoral methods, which in part added to his paranoia about protecting his acquisitions. And vitally, the notebook revealed where each priceless treasure lay hidden.

Lord Devon never liked to share, but he occasionally held private viewings of his latest acquisitions. Showing off his latest treasures sparked a corresponding greed and envy within Lord Clayton. Clayton painstakingly collected her father’s gambling chits until he held sufficient of them to demand either full payment or the artifacts. He underestimated her father’s affection for his collection. He offered up to the cruel lord an item of lesser value. One he had no use for; his fourteen-year-old daughter.

A loud clanging alerted Cara to someone at the front door.

Don’t tell me they’re back and ringing the bell?

She walked to the window and then leaned out. She looked down on the top of a brown bowler hat and the shoulders of a plaid overcoat standing on the top step.

“What do you want?” Cara yelled down.

The bowler hat looked up at the sound from above. Gold frame spectacles regarded her, the light reflecting off them, hiding the eyes behind.

“Miss Devon?” He had a clipped accent, achieved through years at public boarding school.

“Yes. What do you want?” Cara repeated.

A hand reached into a jacket pocket and extracted a silver and gold badge, which he held up. Cara couldn’t make out the detail from the second-storey window, but she recognised the shape and colour. The centre of the badge held the letters H, M, and E in blue enamel and entwined around each other.

“I’m Inspector Fraser of Her Majesty’s Enforcers, and I require a moment of your time.” He tried to keep his tone low, so the neighbours on either side wouldn’t hear the exchange.

Cara gave a long-suffering sigh. “I’ll be right down.”

Darting out the library door, she skipped the stairs. Despite her father’s repeated punishment, she rarely exhibited ladylike behaviour; she balanced on the balustrade and slid down the railing. With a practiced move, she jumped to the floor before she hit the ornate end post, and flung open the front door.

“I suppose you’d better come in.” Cara ignored the offered hand, and waved the inspector into the foyer, then ushered him into the front room. He doffed his bowler to reveal sandy brown hair, an open, honest face, and grey eyes behind his spectacles.

Cute, for a copper. Shame he’s wearing the coat. I can’t check out the rear view.

Deep red paint covered the walls of the parlour. Cara thought it made the room look moody, although benign compared to the blood-drenched library upstairs. She stood by the window. She had no intention of sitting and letting him get comfortable. She watched him take up a spot next to the cold fireplace.

“What can I do for you, Inspector?” Cara had a pretty good idea, but wanted to see how the policeman broached the subject.

His hands played with the brim of his hat, rotating it through his fingers. “It’s about your father’s death.”

She noticed he didn’t offer condolences. She waited for him to continue.

“Your father’s death was . . . unusual. We don’t see many Egyptian asps in London.”

Cara knew a snake inflicted the fatal bite, but the exact reptile had been kept from public knowledge.

“Are you implying some form of foul play?” She assumed someone else shared her hatred for Lord Devon and did her a favour. The snake was an exotic touch; a bullet would have performed equally well.

“We have interviewed the staff. Your father was alone the entire week preceding the unfortunate event. He received no visitors or unusual packages. And, as I am sure you are aware, his bedchamber is on the second floor, with no obvious means of access to his window.”

She took that as Enforcer speak for the chances of somebody bowling up, pulling an asp out of a pocket, then lobbing it into Lord Devon’s bedroom were considered remarkably slim. And no doubt, they were out of likely suspects.

“And we know where you were.” He held eye contact with her.

She wondered how long it would take him to hint they considered her involvement in Lord Devon’s untimely demise. “So it occurred to you the long-lost, and estranged daughter might have taken it upon herself to resolve her daddy issues.”

He smiled; small dimples at the corner of his mouth made him even cuter. She couldn’t find anything to dislike about the man; from his appearance to his manner, he radiated casual charm. All topped off with good breeding and education, but not so much of either to make him unapproachable or stiff. There was just the tiny fact of him being an Enforcer, and Cara’s loathing for the way the force failed her.

“We like to be thorough. But in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, the doctor has ruled it accidental.”

Cara nearly laughed aloud. “I’m sure he was bitten accidentally. It doesn’t answer the underlying question, though, does it?”

She returned his smile.

He held out his hands in a gesture of helplessness. “You can see my dilemma.”

“Let me guess. You’ll be watching me?”

“I see we understand each other, Miss Devon. The case will remain open. You never know when new information may come to light.”

He moved out of the parlour to the front door, saving Cara from telling him to leave. He nodded and replaced his bowler.

She closed the front door behind him and then leaned against it. Thoughts churned and jostled around her brain, like hungry fish after chum.

The sooner I clean up here and sell a few things, the sooner I can get the hell out of London.