In the bottom of the earthen pit, two skulls lay side by side, their foreheads touching, eyeless sockets gazing eternally into eyeless sockets. A hand of bone lay across a forearm, and bony fingers rested on what had once been the cheek of a beloved. From above, faces stared down at the unique find, most definitely unexpected in this part of the world. Here one was more likely to discover swords and knives, perhaps the bronze or silver sidepiece of a horse’s bridle. In some graves, a beloved horse had been buried with its rider. But lovers buried together, still locked in an embrace, that was a find.
“Have you ever seen anything like this, Dr. McGowan?” Sayyed Kasraian, the excavation director on the dig high in Iran’s Zagros Mountains, crouched at the side of the opening.
“Never.” Daria McGowan carefully knelt beside the top of the pit, shining a flashlight on the skeletal remains four feet below. “Not just the positioning of the two figures, but the artifacts that were buried with them . . . it takes my breath away.”
She moved the light as a pointer.
“Look there, the one is wearing some type of diadem, from here it looks like gold and lapis, see how blue? And the breastplates, also gold . . . rings on the fingers of all four hands, so we’re looking at the remains of some very prominent lovers.” She looked up at the Kurdish laborers who’d accompanied them, and said, “Gentlemen, we may even be in the presence of royalty.”
Two of the men smiled; the third shifted uneasily and looked away, afraid, no doubt, of attracting the notice of any spirits that might still be lurking within the grave.
“And over here, see, glass bottles, dozens of them. They must have held water or wine or some type of oil that the dead would have wanted to take with them on their journey into the next world. And there, at the feet, see the bones?” She hopped into the pit, careful to land on the excavated area around the remains. “These appear to be canine.”
She directed the light onto the skull, and her companion studied it from above for several minutes.
“It does look like a dog, doesn’t it?” He smiled. “Well, that would be something new. I haven’t seen that before. Not in this area, at any rate.”
She knelt as carefully as she could to more closely examine the human remains.
“These two must have had a long and happy life together,” she murmured. “The teeth are quite worn. They were elderly—for their time—when they died. Definitely a man and a woman, judging from the pelvic bones.” She glanced up at the man whose face loomed above hers. “We’re so accustomed to finding the bones of battle-scarred warriors, that when something like this is uncovered, well, it just melts your heart, doesn’t it?”
The sound of a car engine drew her attention to the road behind the dig, and she climbed out of the grave as the vehicle pulled up and stopped.
She brushed off her hands on her pants and called to the man who had just arrived by Jeep.
“Dr. Parishan, come look! See what was found while you were back in Tehran at the museum having tea with your friends!” she teased the longtime friend of her father’s.
“I heard there was a find and got here as soon as I could. Daria, thank you for coming.” Under other circumstances the elderly man, the project director, would have offered a more gracious greeting to the American, whom he had personally requested join them on the dig, but he was eager to examine the contents of the grave. He reached the edge and stared down. “Oh, look at them . . . look at them . . .” he murmured reverentially. “Perfect . . . they are perfect . . .”
“So, Dr. McGowan, what is your feeling?” An obviously pleased Korush Parishan stood and brushed the sand from his knees. “On the site, overall?”
“I concur completely with Dr. Karaian’s assessment,” Daria said without hesitation. “The artifacts he’s already unearthed show such a vast mix of cultures, I can’t imagine that these people were anything but nomadic. We’ve seen the Indian river goddesses on the vases, golden goblets in the style of Bactria. The pottery bowls with the horned dragon, the god Marduk—definitely Babylonian. So here we have clear influences from India, Afghanistan, Mesopotamia. They all came together here in the mountains.” She pointed off to the east, then drew a line across the horizon with her index finger. “The Silk Road passed through this region. You’d have had travelers from China, India, Anatolia, Greece. Their cultures all intermingled through the centuries, which would account for the fact that some of the artifacts are of a different age from the others.”
She turned to the others and smiled. “This could be an amazing find. The rise off to your left looks as if it might be a likely spot to start. I cannot wait to see what else you might discover here.”
“Unfortunately, Dr. McGowan, you may have to postpone your participation,” Dr. Parishan told her. “As I was leaving the museum, I was handed an urgent fax to deliver to you, as well as a phone message from a Dr. Burnette. Forgive me, but I could not help but note that the message says it is imperative that you contact her as soon as possible.”
He removed a folded sheet of paper from his shirt pocket and handed it to her.
Frowning, she opened it and began to read.
“Dr. Burnette is the president of Howe University back in the States.” Daria continued to read, then looked up and asked, “Dr. Kasraian, may I use your computer?”
“Of course. It’s on the table in the main tent. Please, whatever you need. . . .” He gestured toward the area where the shelters had been erected.
Daria went directly to the tent, her mind on the fax and its request that she return to the States immediately. Having to leave so soon was not what she’d had in mind when she arrived in Iran late last week. That the Iranians had invited a well-regarded foreign authority—and a woman, at that—to this newly discovered site was evidence of their desire to participate in the international archaeological society. It was of particular importance to Dr. Parishan that the rest of the world understood how seriously the Iranian archaeological community was taking its obligation to not only protect but to share and showcase their distinct cultural heritage. Like those of its neighbors Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran’s cultural treasures had been finding their way out of the country for years, legally and illegally. They were now determined to locate and safeguard whatever remained, and do whatever was necessary to recover those items that had, over the years, been lost due to an active black market in stolen antiquities.
Dr. Parishan had handpicked the team to work on this new find. He’d been unable to secure the services of Daria McGowan, a well-known expert in Middle Eastern archaeology, to participate in the initial excavation, but she had offered to come on board as a consultant as soon as her work in the Gobi Desert had been completed. To Parishan, that she was internationally recognized was the cake; that she was the daughter of an old and esteemed friend and colleague, Samuel McGowan, was the icing.
Daria returned to the others an hour later.
“I’m so terribly sorry,” she explained, “but I’m going to have to leave right away. Dr. Kasraian, could I impose upon you for a car?”
“No imposition at all,” he assured her. “I’ll have a driver take you wherever you need to go. But your family . . . there is bad news?”
“No, no. Nothing like that.” She dropped her duffel bag on the ground and slid a hijab around her shoulders. Once they neared the airport, she would use the scarf to cover her head to conform to Iranian law.
“Dr. Parishan, I feel awful about this.”
“As long as everyone is well. When I heard ‘doctor,’ I feared perhaps . . .”
She smiled to reassure him. “Everything is fine with my family. Apparently Dr. Burnette has been trying to track me down for several weeks. Dr. Parishan, did my father ever speak to you of his grandfather who was also an archaeologist?”
“Alistair McGowan, of course.” He nodded. “The man who found the city of Shandihar when no one believed it had ever existed. Your father told me his grandfather’s journal inspired him to follow in his footsteps to become the great archaeologist that he is.”
“Then perhaps he also mentioned that the backing for Alistair’s expeditions had come from Howe University?”
“Yes, I believe so. Your father has lectured there, correct?”
“Yes, Dad lectured often at Howe before he retired. When my great-grandfather returned to the States following his discovery at Shandihar, he went directly to Howe and brought all the artifacts he’d found with him. The university had supplied the funding, so the spoils belonged to them. At least, that’s how it worked at the turn of the century. My great-grandfather spent years cataloging the artifacts to display in the museum that Howe was building. Unfortunately, he died before construction was completed.”
“Yes, yes, this I have heard.” Parishan nodded. “But what does this have to do with you?”
“Apparently the university wants to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Alistair’s discovery. They want to put his findings on display, after all these years. Dr. Burnette has asked me to take charge of the entire project.”
Parishan’s eyes lit up.
“You would be designing the exhibits?”
“Everything, Dr. Parishan.” She smiled with dazed pleasure. “They want me to do everything. . . .”
“Everything?” Samuel McGowan asked incredulously.
“Everything, Dad,” Daria replied. “I can hardly believe it myself. I’m still pinching and pinching but I don’t seem to be waking up.”
“Well, that’s wonderful, sweetheart. Just wonderful! Wait till I tell your mother.” He put his hand over the phone. “Margarite! Pick up the phone! It’s Daria! She has the most amazing news!”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Samuel, you don’t have to shout. I’m not deaf.” Margarite McGowan lifted the extension. “Daria? Is that you?”
“I’m here, Mom.”
“Where is here?”
“I thought you were in the Zagros Mountains with Korush Parishan.” Her mother paused. “How is he? He’s well?”
“Yes.” Daria opened the French doors that led out to the balcony off her hotel room. She pulled a chair close to the railing and sat.
“You’ve left Korush’s dig? We were so pleased when he invited you.”
“Yes, I was very honored.” Daria raised her legs, rested them on the rail, and crossed her ankles.
“So why did you leave so soon?”
“For heaven’s sake, Margarite, will you let her tell her story?” Daria’s father sighed. “Go ahead, sweetheart. Tell her.”
“Right now, I’m in Essaouira. At the Villa, just for an overnight. I’ll be flying out tomorrow and I’ll be—”
“You’re coming home tomorrow?” Her mother’s delight was apparent.
“I’m flying to London, then to New York, then to Myrtle Beach. I expect I’ll be there at the island by the weekend, but only for a few days.”
“So where are you going?” her mother asked. “And what was so important that you had to leave Korush’s dig?”
“I have an appointment on Tuesday morning at Howe University,” Daria told her. “With Dr. Burnette, the president.”
“Louise Burnette?” her mother asked.
“Yes. Do you know her?”
“I know of her. She has a fine reputation. Has she offered you a position?” Daria could all but hear the frown in her mother’s voice. “Are you thinking about going into teaching? Because if you are, you know, any of the major universities would be more than happy to have you. You don’t have to settle for such a small school.”
“I’m not going to be teaching, Mom.” Daria took a deep breath and explained to her mother what the trustees of Howe University had in mind.
“That’s . . . amazing. And I’m so envious I could weep.”
“Mom, you’re an anthropologist, not an archaeologist,” Daria reminded her gently.
“I know, darling, but I’ve always wanted to do something fun and exciting like that.”
“You’ve had your fun, Mom. Didn’t you have a bestselling book last year?”
“Well, yes, but that was—”
“And another the year before that?”
“Wasn’t that fun?”
“Oh, of course it was. Part of the fun in living as long as I have, and traveling and studying cultures in all parts of the world, is getting to relive it all by writing books about it when you retire. But this, this is huge. You’ll get to open all those dusty old crates and take out those artifacts that haven’t seen the light of day in a hundred years. You’ll be the first person to handle them since your great-grandfather packed them away while he completed his inventory. Isn’t that what happened, Samuel?”
“What? Oh, yes, yes. My grandfather supervised the packing of every piece in the field, then unpacked each piece himself when he returned to Howe—of course, it was Benjamin Howe College, back then. Named for your great-great-grandfather. And my grandmother, Iliana Howe, was actually Benjamin Howe’s only daughter.”
“Where did the money come from?” Daria asked.
“Old Ben was quite the tycoon,” Samuel said. “Owned a bunch of munitions factories, around the time of the Civil War. Later, he invested in railroads and several other highly profitable ventures. Then, while some of his contemporaries were building mansions in Newport and New York City, he built a college on land he owned in Pennsylvania, named it after himself, then waited for the school to catch on. Well, when it didn’t, he knew he had to do something spectacular to draw attention to it. So he sent out two archaeological teams— archaeology was quite popular back in the day. Alistair went to Asia Minor—Turkey, now. The other fellow, Oliver Jacobs, went to Mesopotamia, now Iraq. It took Alistair four years to find and excavate his site. Took Jacobs slightly more. Alistair spent another eighteen months cataloging the artifacts, but the museum still wasn’t ready. He died from a lung infection in 1910, I think it was. Jacobs’s findings were placed in the opening exhibit, and my grandfather’s were left in the crates where he’d kept them while he completed his inventory. Years later my grandfather died, then in the 1930s, my grandmother. By that time, her children were grown and had set out on their own paths.”
“I don’t understand how a treasure like the one he reportedly found could have been forgotten like that,” Daria said.
“Oh, not so mysterious,” Samuel responded.
Daria heard the sound of a match being struck softly.
“Samuel, I heard that!” her mother snapped. “Put the damned pipe away.”
Ignoring his wife, Samuel continued. “Trustees change. Faculty come and go. Crates get pushed farther and farther back into the recesses of the basement as other items are obtained. Having served my time in academia, I understand completely how such things occur.” He puffed softly on his pipe. “Out of sight, out of mind. Over the years, the story is forgotten; the items, unseen for all these years, lose their allure. And there’s the tide of popularity. In one year, out the next. Back in the early twenties, Egypt became all the rage after Tutankhamen’s tomb was discovered. Every museum was after mummies for quite some time.”
“Well, something’s brought Shandihar back into the foreground,” Daria said.
“The anniversary, I suppose,” Margarite suggested. “Did Dr. Burnette say when that would be? When they were planning to open the exhibit?”
“I’m sure I’ll find out on Tuesday.”
“You’ll call us when you arrive in the States?” her father asked.
“Of course, Mom. But right now I’m going to have a long hot bath and a fabulous dinner, and my first night’s sleep on a real mattress, on a real bed, in almost nine weeks.” Daria stood and shielded her eyes from the sun, which had begun its afternoon shift lower in the sky. She said good-bye to her parents and hung up the phone.
She went into her room and found her sunglasses and put them on. Returning to the balcony, she leaned on the railing and stared out at the boats in the blue Atlantic. Blue skies, blue water. It was all very restful. She regretted she wouldn’t be staying longer. But there would be time for that bath, and there would be the wonderful dinner promised by Magda, who with her husband Cyrus owned the Villa. And later, maybe, when the sun went down and the evening stole in, there’d be music in the courtyard.
Daria went into her bathroom and turned on the water in the tub, adding some of the sweetly scented bath crystals Magda had left for her. She stripped off her travel clothes and sank into the deliciously luxuriant bath and closed her eyes. It would take more than one bath to wash the desert sand from her pores, but for now, she was as content as she could be.
She idly wondered what Magda’s chef was preparing for dinner, and thought back to her last stay at the Villa and smiled. For more than a year, Magda had been trying to set her up with a man Magda had assured her was “perfect for you.” They’d finally met, months ago, and had shared a lovely evening in Magda’s courtyard.
He’d been everything her hostess had promised, tall and lean with dark hair cropped very short and dark blue eyes. And very handsome. Not the kind of man who generally noticed women like her, but he was gracious about dining with her at Magda’s insistence. He’d been very attentive throughout the meal and had seemed more interested in her and her work than in talking about himself, but, that was the polite thing to do. Magda had said he was well mannered for an American—which, as an American herself, had made Daria smile—and that he was one of her favorite guests.
Daria remembered that night as one of the best nights of her life.
“Hi,” he’d said when he approached the table.
“Hello.” She turned her face up to his, and her heart all but stopped beating.
“Mind if I join you?”
“Please.” She’d gestured to the chair opposite hers. “Magda said I might have a compatriot at my table tonight. Daria McGowan.”
She’d been acutely aware of how she must have looked to him, in her plain white shirt and khaki pants. No makeup, and her hair chopped short by her own hand.
“Connor Shields,” the beautiful man had introduced himself.
“I know. Magda brings up your name every time I’m here.”
“Nothing bad, I trust,” he said as he pulled out the chair.
“No, no. Just, ‘Daria, you really must meet Connor Shields. He’s American, like you.’ ”
He laughed. “I admit she’s used the same line on me.”
“So where are you from?” She nervously sipped her drink, bottled water and lemon juice.
“I was brought up in Virginia.”
“Ah, another Southerner. I’m from South Carolina. At least, that’s where my family home is now.”
“Where did you grow up?”
“Oh, let’s see.” She tilted her head to one side and pretended to think, then began to count on her fingers. “The Gobi Desert. Greece. Syria. Turkey. Afghanistan . . .”
“You have to be kidding.”
“Not so much. My parents both worked in the field a lot, so we traveled a lot. Stateside, we lived in Texas, Georgia, New Jersey—we stayed there the longest, actually had a house there. I went to school there. For a while, anyway. My parents both taught at Princeton. Mom, anthropology; Dad, archaeology. We never knew where we’d be, come summer.”
“Did you like that, traveling around so much?” He signaled for the waiter, then ordered a drink when one appeared.
“Are you kidding? We had adventures that other kids couldn’t even begin to dream about. We saw places most people have never even heard of. We loved it.”
The waiter appeared with Connor’s drink—bottled water with lime and mint, the local Muslim laws regarding alcohol being strictly enforced this time of the evening—and went over the evening’s dinner offerings. They both ordered baked sea bass, the chef’s special.
“You were telling me what it was like to have been a kid on the go,” he said, urging her to continue.
“It was tons of fun. There were four of us. My brothers, Sam and Jack, and my sister, Iona. We were a really tight band of four. How about you? Siblings?”
“I have . . . had . . . two brothers,” he told her.
“One of them died.”
“I’m so sorry.” She paused to study his face, and recognized the sadness in his eyes. “It’s very difficult, isn’t it, to lose a brother. He’s always there in the past, in your memories, but the present is just a big blank, as far as he’s concerned.”
“One of your brothers . . . ?” he asked cautiously.
“Jack. Disappeared. He was on an expedition into the Amazon and just, poof! Vanished. My parents have sent trackers in to search for him at least a half-dozen times, but it’s as if he didn’t exist. As if he hadn’t been there at all.”
“How long ago?”
“Ten years. He’s been gone since 1997. I miss him every day. Think about him every day. Wonder if he’s dead or alive. My parents never give up. Every other year or so, my parents hire someone to go down there to look for him.”
“I have some connections in South America,” Connor said thoughtfully. “Maybe I can have someone look into it.”
“That’s really very nice of you, but I don’t want to waste anyone’s time.”
“You think he’s dead?”
“You send teams of professional trackers into the jungle where he supposedly had gone, and they come out with no more information than they went in with, you have to suspect that—”
“That he may well have gone somewhere else.”
She’d stared at him. When the waiter arrived to serve their dinners, she leaned back from the table silently.
“You’re not going to tell me that no one considered that possibility, are you?” Connor asked.
“Yes. I mean, no, no one did. He’d been with a group, and all the investigators followed the trail the members of the group had given them. To the camp, then to the ruins . . .”
“So maybe for some reason your brother—Jack, was it? Maybe he took off on his own, or joined another group, or got lost and is out there somewhere.”
“I’d like to think that. That somehow he’s out there and that someday we’ll see him again.”
“I’d be happy to make some inquiries. Really. It’s no trouble. I have some contacts in the area.”
“That would be very kind of you. Thank you. I’ll get you all of the information—when and where and with whom.”
She tasted the fish, and smiled. “This is so good. Is there a better chef in all North Africa than Claude?”
“Not for my money, no.” He appeared thoughtful for a moment before asking, “Have you ever taken an evening horseback ride on the beach?”
“Several times. You?”
“Yes, but the camel rides are more fun.”
“Ugh.” She wrinkled her nose. “I spend enough of my time on camels.”
“Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. There’s nothing like watch- ing the sun set on the Atlantic from the back of one of those large, swaying—”
“Mr. Shields?” A man had appeared at his elbow. “You are Mr. Shields?”
“Yes.” Connor nodded.
“The Madame asked me to give this to you. It was dropped off at the front desk.”
He handed Connor an envelope bearing his name.
“Thank you,” Connor told him. To Daria, he said, “Excuse me, I just need to . . .”
“Go right ahead.”
Connor had opened the envelope and read the note that had been tucked inside. When he was finished, he folded it, returned it to the envelope, and slid it into the inside pocket of his jacket.
“Daria, I really hate to cut this short,” he said. “I’ve been enjoying this evening more than I can say, but I’m going to have to make my apologies.”
“I hope it’s nothing serious?”
“No, no. This is business.” He stood. “I’m really sorry. Maybe tomorrow?”
“I’m leaving in the morning.” She smiled to hide her disappointment. “It’s all right, if you have to go. I understand. We all have those emergencies to deal with from time to time.”
“Look, let me give you my card. When you’re back in the States, maybe you’ll give me a call and we can get together.” He took a card from his wallet and wrote something on the back before he handed it to her. “Assuming I’m there at the same time. Or maybe, before you come back here next time, you’ll get in touch. I can get all the info about your brother . . .”
Daria glanced at the card.
“That’s the number for my office, back in the States.”
“There’s no company name on it.” She looked at both sides of the card.
He lowered his voice. “I’m with the FBI. I don’t advertise that around here, though of course Magda and Cyrus know. Call that number and leave a message, it will get to me. Anytime. Day or night. I’ll get the message.”
“Thanks.” She half turned in her chair and offered her hand to him. “I’m happy to have finally met you. I hope we meet again.”
“So do I, Daria.” Then he leaned down and kissed her cheek. “As a matter of fact, I’m counting on it.”
And with that, he’d disappeared, and her perfect evening ended.
She yawned and sank lower into the hot water, her eyes still closed. Certainly if Connor were here at the Villa tonight, Magda would have wasted no time letting her know. Maybe it was just as well, Daria thought. If he’d been there, she’d have been tempted to dress for dinner, to sit at the table for two in the corner of the courtyard, hoping he’d join her, hoping he’d invite her for a camel ride on the beach later that night. She smiled wryly. She’d even be happy with a camelback ride.
As it was, she’d call for dinner in her room, dine alone, and get the first good night’s sleep she’d had in months.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Last Breath by Mariah Stewart. Copyright © 2007 by Mariah Stewart. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.