Thomas lifted his head from the cloak that he had wrapped around himself. Dewdrops lay beaded on the thick black felt, sparkling coldly in the starlight. Around him the flock of sheep and goats slept, their bells silent in the depth of the night.
He rose to his feet, muttering as his pant leg caught on the thorns of a stunted holly oak. Emerging from the shelter of the thicket, he skirted a huge boulder that lay on the hillside as if tossed there and forgotten by a playful giant.
Below him, the road was a ribbon of asphalt wrapping the mountain. He cocked his head, listening. Some sound not normally part of the night had awakened him.
The light breeze shifted and he heard it again, a low grinding roar. The growl of a car laboring up the hill. Glancing at the stars, he estimated that it was an hour before dawn.
A frown tugged his brows together. Cars seldom used the old road any more, with its pot holes and eruptions of weeds from cracked pavement. And certainly not at this hour of the night.
Firmly grasping his shepherd's crook, Thomas started down the path to get a better view.
The car was a large black one. French, he thought. Or German. What did he know of cars? He was a simple man, born and raised on the island. And likely to die here. He had no desire to go anywhere, not even to Athens. His brother had worked in the city for a while and had come back with stories of large department stores and a million cars that scurried through the streets like demented mice, day and night. Thomas had decided he was better off here in his mountains, tending his flock.
Thomas had reached the edge of the pitted asphalt by the time the car came up. He crouched in the shadows, next to a hedge of overgrown oleanders, and watched its laborious ascent. Two people sat in the front seat, a woman driving, a man beside her. The woman's long hair blew in the draft from the open window.
He recognized her. She'd driven into the village square shortly before the siesta hour. He and several of his friends had watched from their table in front of the coffee shop as she stepped out of the black car, shaking the creases from a yellow dress. Her hair was long, the color of sunshine, hanging loose down her back. Used to the dark, sturdy women of his family, Thomas had wondered if she was an angel sprung to life out of the icons in the church of Saint Spiridon.
The man must be the one he'd seen in the morning, arriving on the bus. During the hot, idle afternoon, the strangers had been the subject of avid discussion. Tourists rarely came to the village. Two in one day was unheard of.
The tall, dark stranger had sat in the church garden for most of the day, alternately reading from several thick books and writing on a pad of yellow paper. His absorption in his work and his aura of self-contained solitude were such that no villagers had dared approach him.
Late in the afternoon, as Thomas was going down to relieve his cousin with the flock, he had seen the man and the woman together in the coffee shop.
The man was lucky they'd met, for it meant he didn't have to take the noisy, stinking bus back to Krekyra--or Corfu as the tourists called it--an hour to the north.
Thomas frowned, wrinkling his nose against the acrid smell of exhaust fumes. At the moment, the car was headed away from the city, toward the remote southern tip of the island. What business could they possibly have down there?
He shrugged. Perhaps they'd mistaken the road in the dark. Why should it matter to him what the mad tourists did, driving all over the desolate countryside in the middle of the night?
He was about to return to the flock when he heard another car. It rushed past, headlights boring white tunnels into the night. Thomas saw it clearly, an old Mercedes, steel gray, like the one his brother had driven for years. Unlike the first car, this one seemed to have no trouble maintaining speed on the steep incline. Too much speed.
Sweat breaking out on his skin, Thomas sprang out of the shadows. The curve ahead could be lethal for someone who didn't know the road. Only last month a man on a motorcycle had been killed.
He ran out onto the fragmented pavement, waving his arms frantically. He gave a shrill whistle through his teeth, but the sound was lost in the howl of the powerful engine as the second car accelerated up the crest of the hill.
The first car, slowing prudently, had just entered the curve when the Mercedes caught up to it. Thomas watched in horror as the heavy German car swerved wildly. Its red brake lights flashed, but Thomas knew it wouldn't be able to slow down enough to negotiate the hairpin bend. Not without endangering the black car taking up most of the narrow road ahead of it.
With a shriek of tortured brakes, the Mercedes slammed into the other car. The crash of impact resonated over the valley as the black car skidded out of control on the gravel shoulder.
It careened down the slope, lurching wildly left and right. Two wheels lifted off the ground, and for an instant the car hung suspended, on the point of rolling over. By some miracle, it remained upright, coming to rest at a crazy angle against an outcropping of rock almost hidden in dense shrubbery.
The Mercedes shuddered to a stop off the pavement on the inside of the curve. Dust settled slowly around it as the driver opened the door.
Thomas was about to call out, but the shout died in his throat when he saw the gun in the man's hands, a hunting rifle with a telescopic sight. Heart pounding, he shrank back into the bushes. Something was wrong here, something violent and evil.
The man ran to the edge of the road. Thomas could see his silhouette as he lifted the rifle. The wrecked car's headlights were still on, pointing twin shafts of light toward the sky. The rifle fired, a snarling report that echoed off the mountainside and startled the sheep into a plaintive bleating.
Several more shots followed the first. An explosion shook the ground, and a massive fireball flared into the night sky, briefly eclipsing the stars. The gunman lowered the rifle and stared at the column of black smoke rising from the wrecked car before striding back to the Mercedes. He turned the vehicle and drove down the mountain in the direction from which he'd come.
Cowering in the oleander thicket, Thomas listened through ringing ears until the sound of the engine faded into the distance. Satisfied that it wouldn't return, he stepped out, brushing the fragile petals from his shoulders with shaking hands.
The flock stirred in the brush, bells clinking with a hollow melody. Thomas hesitated, his eyes skittering from the mountainside where the sheep waited to the road that had carried violence into his mundane life.
His sheep dog barked sharply as it brought a couple of strays under control. The bells fell silent. Thomas nodded in satisfaction. The dog would take care of the sheep, settle them down.
Quickly he strode down the road toward the curve. The cliff below was not steep, but the impact of the explosion had driven the car down the sudden drop past the rocks. Thomas crossed himself. Even if the people inside had survived the crash, they wouldn't have survived the further tumble into the deep ravine, or the fire that was consuming the car.
His eyes narrowed as he surveyed the surrounding brush. In a dry season, fire spread quickly. Luckily, it had rained the day before, and the shrubs were green from a wet spring. The damage would remain limited to pungent smoke and blackened wreckage.
He was about to turn away when a movement near the outcropping of boulders caught his eye. Someone from the car? Or only an animal disturbed by the crash? The sky was graying as dawn approached, but it was still too dark to see details.
Thorns tore at his clothes as he scrambled down the slope. He ignored their claws, long used to the hazards of the mountains. Twisted pine trees clung to the meager soil at the edge of the ravine. He prodded the shrubbery with his stick, gently, as he would have in searching for a lost sheep in the dense shadows.
Wait. Was that a groan? He stilled, straining to hear over the renewed sawing of crickets now that the fire had begun to die. He heard it again, a low moan and a rustling of brittle leaves to his right.
Swinging around, he pushed through the prickly scrub, coming upon the man so suddenly he almost tripped over him. He groped in his pocket for a match, lighting it and holding it high between callused fingers. The man had a gash on his forehead that was seeping blood. His mouth moved as he muttered words unintelligible to the shepherd.
Thomas ran his hands quickly but thoroughly over the man's body and limbs. His cotton shirt and jeans were ripped in numerous places, but he didn't seem to be seriously injured. From the broken twigs and trampled grass around him, Thomas surmised he'd crawled away from the car before the explosion.
There was no sign of the woman. She must have been caught in the fire. He crossed himself again.
Squatting back on his heels, Thomas considered his next move. The man was tall, but lean. He could carry him to the village easily, but was that wise? The Mercedes would have reached the village by now. Instinctively, he knew the driver wouldn't want witnesses. The shots had been deliberate, cold-blooded. The gunman had meant for the couple in the car to die.
Thomas's mind slowly digested the problem. He got up, his face set in resolute lines. If he took the old mule track cross-country, he could reach the main highway in twenty minutes. He would leave the injured man at the side of the road. It was well traveled at all hours. Someone would find him almost at once and take him to a hospital.
And no one would know what Thomas had seen.
Every bone in his body ached. As well as every nerve, every joint, and every sinew. He tried to get up and almost screamed with pain as his muscles twisted into knots of agony, refusing to obey him. He lay still, panting, trembling, waiting until his brain was once more capable of registering thought.
How much pain could a man endure and still be alive? He felt as if a squadron of mercenaries in spiked boots had marched drills over his body.
Slowly, with agonizing care, he lifted one eyelid. Needles pierced his brain, and he snapped his eye shut, restoring the darkness that was marginally less painful than the light that lay beyond it.
Light. And silence. New sensations seeped through the pain. Maybe he was dead. How did one tell? His temples throbbed as he struggled to think. Giving up, he tried to turn on his side. If he could find a cool spot to rest his head, the pain would stop.
A soft rustling sound came from somewhere nearby. He struggled to hold on to it, drawn by its nebulous familiarity. The sound came again, and a smell that somehow conjured up an image of a steamy room and hot linen.
Starch. That was it. His mother had starched his father's shirts when he was a child. It had been years since he'd smelled that pungent aroma.
He cautiously forced his eyes open again, millimeter by excruciating millimeter. A blinding light seared his retinas, but as he blinked he could see a shadow between him and the source of the light. Again he heard the familiar rustling, and smelled the starch. Clothing. A voluminous white garment.
Closing his eyes briefly, he fought to dislodge the pain in his head. It remained, a restless dragon unfurling lacerating claws.
He licked his lips, tasting the dry cracked skin.
Progress, he thought. He could make his lips move, though no sound emerged. He opened his eyes again, sheer determination compelling his lids upward. The shadow was still there, surrounded by a nimbus of light, and in its center gleamed a gold cross. I've died, he thought with grim irony, but at least I've gone to the right place.
He should be relieved, he supposed, but a question nagged at him. If he was in heaven, he shouldn't be feeling pain. He would have left his broken body behind and would be soaring on a celestial plane, free of gravity, headaches, and all the other little inconveniences of life.
One inconvenience was making itself an insistent nuisance. He needed to go to the bathroom, and he wasn't at all sure that any of his muscles were in a condition to take him there.
Gritting his teeth, he dragged his hands onto his chest. Both were bandaged, leaving only the fingers and half the palms free. He stared at his fingers and realized he must have been burned. The little hairs above his middle knuckles were singed off, although the skin seemed intact.
He'd obviously been in some kind of accident. Searching his mind, he tried to picture it. Nothing. Only a dense blackness centered with red-hot pain.
He clenched one hand into a fist. The skin felt as if it had shrunk, but his muscles obeyed him. The bite of his nails digging into his palm gave him an inordinate satisfaction. So far, so good. He wasn't paralyzed.
Unless his legs--
He flexed his knee experimentally, throwing it to one side. His foot slid off the mattress and swung above the floor, or at least where he assumed the floor must be.
Before he could follow up on this small victory, two gentle hands tucked up his leg and wrapped the sheet around him. "Hurt," said a low voice in accented English. "No move. Call doctor."
Yes, call the doctor. Sweat wrapped his body in a clammy embrace. He lay on the bed, shaking. His eyes fell closed as exhaustion enfolded him in a woolly blanket that momentarily blocked out the pain.
"Well, Kyrie Minardos, you're awake." The cheerful greeting jolted him.
"It's no pleasure, believe me." His voice sounded alien, grating harshly in his ears.
The doctor lifted each of his eyelids in turn, shining a light into his pupils. He wanted to scream. The beam felt like a skewer. "We'll put you on a medication for the pain," the doctor said soothingly as he picked up his patient's wrist and timed his pulse. "We were waiting for you to regain consciousness. I'm Dr. Nakos. Can you tell me your name?"
His name? "Minardos."
"Come, come, Kyrie Minardos," the doctor said dryly. "You'll have to do better than that. Your Christian name, please, and your place of residence."
"Rob--Robert." Memory flooded back, a confusion of images--airplanes, city buildings, a house with trees and wide green lawns, and, oddly, a newsstand displaying colorful magazines. "I live near London, and I'm a writer."
"Very good, Kyrie Minardos." Turning his head, Dr. Nakos spoke to someone at his side, and a moment later Rob heard a sound that he interpreted as the window blind being adjusted.
Cautiously he opened his eyes once more and found himself staring at a white starched bosom on which rested a gold cross. A wimple framed the woman's round, good-natured face. The angel he'd seen was a nun. Not much difference, he thought tiredly as he swallowed the tablets and sipped the water she held to his lips.
What happened to me? he wanted to ask, but he couldn't summon the strength to form the words.
"Bathroom," he mumbled, although how he would make it there, he didn't know. Nodding, the nurse took care of the problem with matter-of-fact efficiency, without moving him from the bed. Too exhausted to feel embarrassment, he was conscious only of relief and the easing of the pain as sleep overcame him.
When he woke again, it was night. The blind was up, the window dark. A lamp cast a soft light from the corner of the room.
Rob stretched his legs, turning onto his back. Except for his headache, and the pain in his ribs when he moved, he felt almost human again. He ran his hands over his body, lifting the sheet to examine his bare chest. Bruises everywhere, some of them blue, others already turning a lurid greenish yellow. The skin on his back stung in odd places, and he wondered if he had minor burns there, as well.
He was hungry, he realized. An IV tube ran into his arm, feeding a clear liquid into his vein from a plastic bag on a pole. Nourishment? His stomach growled, making its preferences clear.
He groped under the pillow, finding the call button. Pushing the end of it, he waited.
A moment later, the cheerful nun bustled in, carrying a tray covered with a white napkin. The doctor followed close behind her. "Ah, Kyrie Minardos, I see you're looking better." He went through his stethoscope-and-blood-pressure-cuff routine. "How do you feel?"
"Better," Rob managed to say, his throat still dry, and it burned when he talked. "How did I get here?"
"A motorist found you by the side of the road and brought you in. You'd been in an accident."
"In a car?" he asked, forming the words with difficulty.
Rob moved his head slowly back and forth in denial. "I didn't have a car."
"You must have borrowed or rented it."
A new pain stabbed through Rob's head. He didn't remember a car. Blankness filled his mind. It hurt too much to think, and he was too tired to make the effort. It would all come back, in time. "Hungry," he croaked, with a grim economy of words.
Nakos nodded. "That's a good sign." He glanced at the IV pole. "I think we can dispense with that."
Rob winced as the doctor yanked off the tape that held the needle in place. "A quick jerk hurts less than peeling it off slowly," Nakos said with a grin.
"If you say so." His mouth felt like an old sock. He thought longingly of fruit juice, his eyes straying to the tray.
"In a moment," the doctor said. "We'll just crank up the bed a little."
The room spun crazily for a second as the nurse helped Rob to sit up. "Okay?" she asked, her eyes crinkling at the corners.
"Fine." He swallowed down his faint nausea, realizing that the churning in his stomach was doing nothing to diminish his hunger. Lifting the napkin, he stared at the tray. A glass of orange juice, a slice of toast, and a bowl of unadorned rice pudding.
"Soft foods for now," Dr. Nakos said, his smile sympathetic. "If that doesn't cause any problems, we'll get you something more interesting for lunch tomorrow."
To his chagrin Rob could barely keep his upright position long enough to finish the juice, the pudding and half of the toast. With gestures and her limited English vocabulary, the nurse offered to help him, but he pushed the tray away, suddenly too weary to speak, even to tell her he knew her language. He closed his eyes and slept.
His recovery was rapid. The bandages were removed, and the burns, mainly superficial, healed quickly. The cut on his forehead had closed, a thin line bordered by neat stitches that would fade in time. By the third day he could walk the length of the hall without feeling as if his legs were encased in cement.
He'd learned he was in a clinic on the outskirts of Corfu town, run by one doctor with a staff of nursing sisters. The nuns made much of him, enjoying the novelty of caring for a foreigner and admiring his fluency in Greek. They asked him innumerable questions about his work, his home, and his income, questions that he answered or evaded with good humor.
He found out he'd been in the hospital for two days before he'd regained consciousness, which meant he'd lost not one, but three, days of his life. Every time he tried to remember what had happened, his head ached. The doctor assured him none of his symptoms were unusual in the aftermath of concussion and severe trauma.
"But I didn't even have any broken bones," Rob protested. "What severe trauma?"
"The car exploded and burned," Nakos said, in a soothing tone that only increased Rob's frustration.
"Was anyone with me? Anyone else hurt?"
Nakos shook his head. "Apparently not. But you were lucky to escape with your life."
On the morning of his sixth day in the clinic, Robert was seated by the window when a short, slight man dressed in a drab gray suit came into his room.
"Kyrie Minardos, my name is Venetis. I'm with the police. You speak Greek? Good. My English is very bad." He extended his hand. His smile was fleeting, and his dark eyes were watchful.
Rob felt a little chill of apprehension creep up his spine, although the man's handshake was cordial enough. "I suppose this is about the accident. Unfortunately, I don't remember it. Dr. Nakos says it wasn't my car. I went up to the village on the bus. After that everything's a blank."
Opening a small notebook, Venetis pursed his lips. "I can fill in some of the blanks. You spent the day reading and making notes. In the evening you had dinner with a blonde woman, also a visitor to the village. She drove there in a black Peugeot. Just before dawn, the car went off a sharp turn on what they call the old road, exploded, and burned."
Rob closed his eyes as his stomach lurched. "She wasn't in the accident?" he asked, his voice cracking.
Venetis shook his head. "It appears that you were alone. Do you remember borrowing the car?
Rob swallowed, his ears humming nastily. "I don't know. I don't remember." He wet his dry lips with his tongue. "Who was the car registered to? That might tell me something."
Venetis turned a page in the notebook, running the tip of his pen down the lines. "The registered owner is a company called Media Consulting. The company doesn't have an office in Corfu, but they keep the car for employees here on business or vacation. It was kept in a parking facility. The fees were always paid on time."
He looked up. "We haven't been able to trace the woman who met you in the village."
The woman. A black car. A vicious pain stabbed Rob's head. "I don't remember any woman," he said tiredly.
He closed his eyes, then blinked as the policemen touched his shoulder. "Kyrie Minardos, are you all right? Shall I call the doctor?"
An icy chill shuddered through him. Slowly, as if he were in a trance, he rubbed a shaking hand over his face. "No, I'll be okay. Doesn't the parking garage know who took the car?"
"I'm afraid not. The cars aren't closely monitored, especially during the day. Anyone who has a car parked in the garage can take it out at any time."
"What does Media Consulting say? I presume you contacted them."
Venetis consulted the next page in his notebook. "Their office is temporarily closed for holidays."
"In other words, a dead end," Rob said, wishing the man would go away and leave him alone.
"The fact remains that you met a woman in the village," the policeman persisted. "You had dinner. She drove off in the car. You went to the room you'd rented for the night."
"Then how did I end up in the car?"
"A question we'd like the answer to. She must have brought the car back later, when everyone was asleep."
Clawing his fingers through his hair, Rob let out a long breath. "If you say so. I can't remember."
Venetis stared at him so intently that Rob could barely restrain himself from squirming. "Nothing, Kyrie Minardos?"
"Nothing. Why? Are you accusing me of something?"
The man's gaze didn't waver. "Should I be?" The corner of his mouth turned up in a half smile that Rob didn't trust at all. "No, Kyrie Minardos, there's no evidence that the woman was in the car or that the crash was anything but an unfortunate accident, too much speed on a mountain road. And no one has filed a missing-person's report. There's nothing more to be done, at least for now."
He eyed Rob closely. "You're sure you don't remember the woman? The villagers got the impression you knew each other."
Rob clenched his teeth. "I don't know anyone here, except in the most superficial way."
"Nevertheless, many people know you, Kyrie Minardos. Your picture was in the newspaper two days before the accident. You attended a banquet where you received an award for your article on the arson fires that have been devastating Corfu's forests. You must remember that."
"Of course I remember the banquet." Sudden insight flashed through the fuzz in his brain. "Wait a minute."
He groped in the drawer that held his belongings, pulling out his wallet. He extracted a note. "This is why I went to the village. It says to go there on a certain day, the day I went, if I wish to discuss an interesting story. But I can't remember anything."
"Perhaps you'll be contacted again. The story of the accident has also been in the newspapers."
Rob shifted in his chair, his energy dying rapidly. "What did you say this woman looked like?"
Venetis leafed through his notebook once more. "The villagers describe her as tall, beautiful as an angel, with long blonde hair. She wore sunglasses."
Rob's head began to ache again. The pain slicing into his temples sharpened sensations. He could hear Sister Angela singing down the hall, and cutlery clanging against a metal cart as she arranged the lunch trays. Venetis's aftershave surrounded him with a cloying sweetness, although he'd barely noticed it earlier.
The smell changed, becoming the fragrance of hyacinths as a nebulous veil seemed to lift. He was back in the past. Paris in the spring. Diana Taylor.
He shivered as the years peeled away to reveal a mental picture of a tall, vital young woman with short auburn hair and owlish spectacles. There had been promise, even magic, between them during that springtime weekend when they'd met at an art opening in Paris. Scarcely six months later, when reality intruded, they'd known the truth. Wrong time, conflicting goals. Their lives had never truly meshed.
Ten years had gone by since they'd agreed to dissolve their marriage, a brief marriage contracted too soon on a youthful impulse that had quickly died.
After all this time, he rarely thought of her, except for odd moments filled with nostalgic regret. What had reminded him of her now?
Venetis finished writing, closed his notebook and replaced it in his pocket. "If you remember anything, could you contact me, Kyrie Minardos? And please let me know when you leave the island, in case we find anything else that may help us reconstruct the circumstances of the accident. I'm sure that, as a writer, you'll be interested. Good day, Kyrie Minardos."
Good day to you, too, Rob thought bitterly. Venetis had spoiled his, raising more questions than answers.
He slumped back in the comfortable chair they'd provided for him. Who was the woman, and why had she lent him her car?
After lunch, he lay down on his bed, drowsy in the heavy afternoon heat. The blinds were closed, filtering the light to a hazy dimness. Outside his window, even the birds had fallen silent.
He'd dropped into a light doze when he sensed that someone had entered the room. A drift of perfume and the muted click of heels warned him that it wasn't one of the nuns.
He glanced toward the door, his eyes half-closed. A woman dressed in white stood there, half hidden in the shadows.
"Robert Minardos?" she said in a low, husky voice. "I've come for you."