Andrew sat on the cliff below the castle wall and watched the sky. Far below, the Aegean was a deep rust in the setting sun. Wind gusted against his back. At his feet barley and rockroses, a cushion of yellow vetch growing in the ruins, small red and white flowers whose names Melissa would know.
Down on the beach men moved, dark shapes against the sand. A small boat rode at anchor. Stiffly, Andrew shifted position. From the corner of his eye he saw a stocky, dark-haired man standing a bottle of retsina down on a rock, wiping it carefully with a handkerchief. He nodded a greeting.
Then, to his left, another movement -
Two men looked down at him. One pushed at his body with a foot. 'He's out cold, no problem. Do it.' The other spun the cap from the bottle, poured the contents over Andrew, put the bottle between the sleeping fingers. Then they both rolled him over the edge.
A rattle of falling scree, then silence.
'I should have known I'd find you here.'
The cool voice cut through the beat of straining wings. Gulls, oystercatchers and sanderling were exploding from an English estuary, darkening the ice-blue March sky. Katherine Hopkins had just marched straight across the sands, disturbing hundreds of birds roosting on the beach.
'And a good day to you, too,' Melissa said dryly, squinting up at the tall figure. Freezing and cramped after lying motionless behind a breakwater for hours, she had just lost a shot: a vital consideration since nature photography was part of her living.
'You're full of surprises, Katherine,' she observed now through chill-flayed lips. 'I thought you only liked your animals stuffed or sautéed.'
'Always so sure of yourself,' answered Katherine, 'Always so right.' She ignored the sights and sounds of alarm around them: birds did not buy anything. Coming to look the site over in private, she had been intensely irritated to realise that Melissa Haye was there first.
'But you've never actually beaten me. I always win in the end. Don't I?'
Melissa shrugged and snapped the cap onto her 600mm lens, fingers tingling with returning life. Unlike her own windswept hair, not a strand of Katherine's dark chignon stirred in the crisp air. Looking over business-dynamo Katherine Hopkins, the trousers tailored to those sleek legs, the scarlet jacket and silken cravat, Melissa wondered why an intelligent woman should find it so hard to accept that anyone was different from her.
What was done was done. Because of local opposition and a campaign spearheaded by Melissa herself, Katherine had failed to build one of her Total Woman Centres on this estuary. To Katherine the horseshoe of cliffs, the closer profile of river and sea, sands and reedbeds, mudflats and marsh, was a barren landscape, evocative as the moon but unproductive.
'Remember the paper which "no longer required" you?' Katherine continued, grinding a razorshell under one green boot. 'Remember the "lost" photo commissions? That was down to me. A couple of phone calls in the right places was all it took.'
'Now you've reminded me...' Melissa scooped a beanbag camera-support, hat and veiling into jacket pockets, her back icy where Katherine's shadow fell. It would be great, she thought, if Katherine could let the past alone, but, on and off, Kate Hopkins had been trying a long time to block her career. Looking back, Melissa acknowledged that Katherine's vindictiveness had actually spurred her on by making her do more, try harder. She laughed softly.
'I never thanked you for that, did I?' She glanced up again at her nemesis. They both knew why Katherine detested her. It had nothing to do with Melissa's work.
Katherine's patrician cheekbones turned a delicate pink. 'What is your problem?' she demanded. 'Total Woman Centres provide a service for thousands.'
At fifty pounds an entry ticket, Melissa wondered how many thousands were being favoured. Katherine though was a woman with a mission: already, at thirty-four, one of the wealthiest women in Britain, with her 24-hour shopping and healthcare stores established in every major city in Europe. Her business didn't need more expansion, but Katherine was greedy.
'A pity, then, that the people here voted to leave things as they are.' Cradling her camera, sweeping a rapid look over the area she had been stalking to make sure she would forget none of her photo gear, Melissa rose stiffly to her feet. The waders would not settle now until she and Katherine were gone.
'You can't possibly pretend it ends now,' snapped Katherine. 'This is a prime site...'
'I know.' The estuary was a focal point for local families. In summer, these sands rang with children's voices. In winter, mudflats and saltings upstream tingled to the cries of curlew.
Melissa smiled, then frowned, the taste of sea-salt catching for an instant in her throat. 'We should go.' Accustomed to numbness in her legs after a photo-shoot, she started to limp briskly towards the dunes.
'....perfect for the sensitive development I had proposed -'
Abruptly Katherine broke off, instinctively shying away as a storm of Brent geese flew in overhead. Melissa stopped, throwing back her blonde head to track the birds gossiping and grunting in flight: an everyday miracle. 'Amazing!' she murmured, thirst and cold forgotten.
The dark chattering swarm sharpened her responses to the estuary. Andrew should have been here to see this, she thought, hands tightening on the camera.
Memories, too strong to be denied, welled in her. As grief threatened to break out again, it helped Melissa to know that Andrew's favourite place was safe: that she and the local people who had once been Andrew's neighbours had made it safe.
'Wide-eyed enthusiasm doesn't work with me. Is that how you won the locals over, turning on the little girl charm?' Pausing when she did, Katherine was looking at her sidelong.
Melissa clicked her tongue and chuckled: she was actually grateful for Katherine's presence and sharp comments. 'You'll never know. Meetings are over, and so is the voting. People like their sand and "mud" as it is.'
'So it would seem.' Green eyes showed gold for an instant as Katherine acknowledged that unpalatable fact. Dismissing the estuary development from her immediate calculations with a brisk shake of her head, Katherine moved when Melissa did, keeping pace with her opponent as they left the beach and began to thread through the tall, twisting corridors of dunes.
As they walked, Melissa moving sure as a skier over soft dry sand and clumps of tough marram grass, Katherine's green eyes flashed up her sand-coloured fatigues and gloves, flitted over the younger woman's delicate complexion, gold brows and lashes, shoulder length silky blonde hair. Her rival would probably have to diet to stop those soft body curves, the round lines of an open face, neat nose, from blurring into flab.
Katherine's lips twitched with satisfaction. Those who thwarted her always paid. Melissa Haye had lost before, but it seemed she had still not learned her lesson. Throughout the last decade, their paths had crossed too often, both professionally and personally.
Andrew Thornhill had been Katherine's personal assistant and occasional lover. Recognising how his attractively-uneven, maturing looks and ready enthusiasm could be a foil to her poised, subtle fire, she had given him the chance of a great career. Yet he had been a disappointment, preferring the safe Melissa Haye.
Katherine's lips tensed, umber sculptured eyebrows drawing together as she negotiated a litter of pebbles and feathers on the narrowing dune path. Although it had piqued her to be rejected for some romping teenager, it had cost her nothing. Andrew had been young, and so could be excused his choice. She had wished him well, and it seemed he had been happy - he had lived with Melissa Haye until his sudden death in Rhodes, two years ago.
Old history. Katherine shook herself, consigning Andrew Thornhill to oblivion, and returned to her present enemy now peeling off her gloves, that prying long lens nestled in the crook of an arm.
'I'm watching you, Melissa Haye. One day you're going to make a serious mistake.'
The threat: always a good sign she was doing her job, reflected Melissa wryly. Behind, the distant tide hissed in her ears like an indrawn breath.
'Then we'll see who pays.'
There it was, a gold-plated promise of revenge. Melissa was surprised at how little she felt.
'Nothing to say?' Katherine liked proof of attention.
Melissa sighed. 'Can't we call a truce for once, Katherine?' Fishing into a trouser pocket for her favourite silver seahorse earrings, she hooked them deftly into her ears whilst cresting a dune-top and dipping down the other side. These silver seahorses were special: Andrew had bought them for her on Rhodes...
Katherine was coming at her again, leaning forward as she kicked through rabbit-marked sand. Her wide, up-tilting eyes were sharp.
'You disgust me,' she said, scornful of any olive branch. Her rapid gaze, fixing on Melissa's silver seahorse jewellery, became dismissive. 'Everything you are. Everything you stand for. Cross me again and I'll finish you for good.'
Katherine pushed past Melissa, striding on towards the track and her black four-wheel drive, towards civilisation and her plans for revenge.
Clutching her camera, Melissa stared out to sea. She no longer thought of Katherine's threats. The past had returned.
Andrew Thornhill, with his straight brown hair, craggy nose and keen smile. Six-one in his stockinged feet, and broadening. He had blushed when he first saw her at the local wildlife group meeting at Wells-next-the-Sea. Later, walking with Melissa by the sea shore, Andrew had asked her out. He was twenty then, Melissa seventeen.
They had lived together for eight years.
Still the memories flowed. His walk, his voice, his scent. His lethal sloe gin. His listening face. His hilarious imitation of a love-struck diplomat. The way he double-knotted his shoelaces. The way he liked 'messing about' round rock-pools. The way he made love -
'Stop this!' The heavy camera trembled on Melissa's arm. Andrew had died two years ago, and still she was struggling to come to terms with it. She had to get away, find a different direction. But there was something she had to do first: a secret, private mission behind her next assignment.
Her bags were always packed. She loved roving - new places, new people. She was due to go to Greece in April, the peak time for the amazing spring flowering and bird migration in the region, stay on the remote eastern island of Asteri, just off the coast from Turkey, whilst she researched her latest travel series: 'Paradise under Threat.' She could bring that trip forward, fly to Rhodes, take the light airplane to Asteri.
It would be expedient to drop out of circulation in England until a certain brunette forgot her. Kate Hopkins had a spiteful memory and a long business arm.
Melissa laid her camera down and sat on the shadowed side of the dunes, nimble fingers digging into the cold sand. The ebbing, mournful cry of a curlew dragged at her insides as she swallowed, faintly nauseated.
Two years ago, due to join Andrew on Rhodes for a holiday, she had been summoned instead to identify his body.
It had been the hardest thing she had ever done: to enter that cold sterile chamber and wait for the fluorescent lights to flicker into hard white brilliance over long grey metal drawers.
Nothing in her twenty-five years of life had prepared her for the moment when the drawer glided open and she must look.
Melissa's father, a merchant sailor, had been lost at sea. At twelve years, when her uncle had met her from school to tell her, Melissa thought she had known the worst. But she was wrong.
Andrew's head was encased in bandages, his face smashed down one side. Staring at the carefully-washed, ruined features, Melissa longed to touch, make him whole; run her fingers through his thick brown hair. She had always loved Andrew's hair.
A fall, the police said. A tragic accident.
'No!' murmured Melissa. Andrew had telephoned from Rhodes the day before he died. With a stab of guilt, Melissa remembered how irritated she'd been at the phone call: unlike some people, she was still working, she had told Andrew. She had not been due to join him on Rhodes, a holiday, for another three days.
Full of news, Andrew had persisted. Forgetting her warning about mosquitoes in early May, he had been first wakened by a biting mosquito, then kept awake by several more insects' buzzing passes next to his ear. Hunting and swatting with a rolled up 'Rodos News,' he had finally given up on sleep and gone walkabout in the deserted streets of the Old Town.
Five in the morning and nothing had been moving except for prowling cats, no sounds except for the occasional twitter of swallows. Until, walking into a square dominated by a derelict mosque encased in scaffolding, Andrew had seen something strange.
'It was really peculiar, Mel: four men dressed as your salt of the earth Greek fishermen, but not really real - too smooth somehow, and not a smoker amongst them.
'They were struggling with this crate, transferring it from one three wheel truck to another and having to hump it up some steps between the two trucks. There was a dog inside - it started barking like a mad thing - but you have to understand how large this crate was... I mean seriously big. And they were treating it with kid gloves; not letting it bump or jostle, though they were obviously in a hurry. I'd the feeling there'd been a serious cock-up in communication, that those two trucks should have met in the square or in the road above the square, but not with the steps between them...'
The 'fishermen' had spotted Andrew watching. One had lowered his part of the load onto a step leading out of the square into the narrow alleyway above, and approached.
Thankful he had been using his pencil torch, Andrew had pulled out a map and shone his light on that. After a measuring look at the Englishman, the 'fisherman' had swung round and returned to the others.
'They didn't stir again until I did.' Andrew had said, his voice crackling on the bad line. 'The whole thing was so weird I made sure they weren't following me here.'
Without her being aware of it, Melissa's left foot flexed slightly as she remembered. She had been indignant, but not for Andrew's sake. She had thought he was safe. She had accepted his assurance that he would be careful - anyway, he was driving out that morning from Rhodes Town to look over the south of the island - and, yes, he had reported the incident to the police. Melissa's anger had been for the plight of the crate's 'cargo'.
'Smugglers, Andrew. Not of guns or drugs, but of live animals. The dog would be a cover for whatever else was in that box, crammed in some disgusting secret compartment, half-starved and suffocated almost to death. Oh! I hope the police catch those men: it's a revolting trade!'
Melissa winced at the memory of those words. The conspiracy Andrew had stumbled upon in that small Rhodes street was more vicious than either of them realised. By the time Melissa found out more it was too late. Andrew was already dead.
A fall from a sheer pinnacle, an outcrop in the south of the island near to a deserted crusader castle. No one with him. That haunted Melissa most of all - Andrew had died alone.
The police had found no evidence of foul play. No money or cards were removed from Andrew's wallet. Perhaps the thief or thieves had panicked, suggested Melissa.
The police thought mugging unlikely in so remote a region. As for these strange sightings in the Old Town - none of the Rhodes police had received a report from a tourist about smugglers. Perhaps the Englishman had decided he was mistaken and so done nothing.
Again, the police repeated that they had found no signs of any kind of struggle; no wounds but those consistent with a fall.
The police also revealed that Andrew could have been intoxicated when he was killed - the front of his shirt was stiff with dried-in retsina. Melissa's statement that Andrew disliked retsina was noted, but a significant amount of alcohol had been found in his bloodstream.
'That's impossible,' said Melissa, when told of the autopsy. 'Andrew hates being drunk - he never has more than a single beer, or glass of wine. One of his friends died on his eighteenth birthday pub crawl. Andrew told me about it, how horrible and tragic it all was...'
The police had let her talk before observing, tactfully, that Mr Thornhill was no longer eighteen, and that on the day he had died it had been very hot.
He had been seen drinking at the local taverna, two kilometres from the castle.
She could not accept his death as an accident. That Andrew had simply fallen seemed impossible - she knew him. He had the balance and skill of a cat. After a childhood spent scrambling round the West Country cliffs he had a head for heights. For all his zest and interest he was steady, not someone to take foolish risks, least of all round wild, exposed ruins.
And he would never drink to excess.
Throughout the time of their supposed holiday, Melissa kept combing the site where Andrew had fallen, tracking in and around the tiny chapel within the castle walls. She refused to admit he was gone forever. Something of him must remain, some trace.
She had found nothing. When she talked to the owners of the local taverna, they recalled the tall Englishman drinking a glass of wine, possibly retsina, possibly more than one glass: they could not remember exactly.
Andrew's family had wanted him buried and remembered as the living, lovable young man he had been - who had accepted and defended Melissa's wanderlust by referring to his own 'Viking genes'. Andrew's parents had no sense of unfinished business.
Melissa had. Why had Andrew never gone to the authorities with what he had seen in Rhodes Town? Why the retsina on his clothes, a wine he detested? It did not make sense.
The questions haunted her. Forced to return to England, to her work at home and abroad, Melissa had slogged through life for the next year. She had packed Andrew's collection of varnished driftwood into the attic, given away his clothes.
Then, five months ago, Melissa heard from a cousin in Piraeus that an Athenian had been caught in Rhodes Old Town trying to sell a juvenile Eleonora's falcon. Under questioning, he had begun to divulge new information - including mention of a wildlife smuggling ring which, he claimed, had murdered a foreign tourist in the south of Rhodes over a year before. The tourist had 'seen something down there' and so had been disposed of, the Athenian said, although he knew of it only through hearsay...
Before he had finished telling all he knew, the Athenian had died in prison of a ruptured appendix. No more details had emerged, but Melissa was certain that the murdered tourist was Andrew. What had he seen in the south? What had tipped the smugglers into action there, when in Rhodes Town they had left him alone?
Unfinished business, reflected Melissa, squeezing dune-sand through her fingers, listening to the piping calls of the waders, watching the grey wave-caps Andrew had loved. She wanted to expose the cruel, secret illegal trade which she was sure had cost Andrew his life. To know who had killed him, and why.
The Rhodian police had already admitted, after several lengthy telephone calls by Melissa, that they were reopening Andrew's file and making new enquires. Melissa meanwhile had started some of her own.
Rhodes island itself was a dead end, she had decided. After the Athenian had been taken trying to sell a rare bird of prey, no doubt the smugglers would lie low in that part of the Dodecanese for a while. She herself was also too well-known to the local police, who were beginning their new enquiries and who would naturally resent an amateur. On Rhodes she must let the customs and police do their job.
Melissa reached for her camera and rose to her feet. Time to go, she thought, turning her back on Andrew's estuary. She was to telephone Jonathan Saunders at eight tonight. A wildlife investigator who had been working undercover in the Dodecanese, Jonathan had promised sensational news....
Melissa caught the receiver back and rammed it tight to her ear. 'You're sure, Jonathan? Asteri?'
'That's where "Spiro" first made contact with me. And where he told me to go to pick up my shipment of orchid bulbs.'
'But the place is practically next door to Turkey! And it's tiny: fourteen miles end to end. The population must be less than two thousand; there's no proper airport, nor a decent-sized harbour...'
Melissa stopped, struck by the fact that everything she had mentioned - it's smallness, its seclusion, its lack of international airport or harbour security, its closeness to Turkey - made Asteri an ideal stepping stone for smugglers wishing to trade from the Far East and Turkey through to Europe and America. And Asteri had no full-time police, only a mayor, Nicholas Stephanides, with whom she had exchanged formal letters of introduction.
'Sorry, I'm babbling,' she said after a deep breath. 'It's just so big a coincidence I can't really get hold of it yet. You know I'm going to Asteri next month?'
'To do those features on bauxite mining, yes. Well, someone needs to draw attention to it before a real mess is made of the place.'
Even whilst trying to concentrate on Jonathan's answer, Melissa's mind went charging ahead. Wildlife smugglers on Asteri. The type of men she was convinced had murdered Andrew. Her fingers tightened further on the receiver.
'Yes, yes, that's right.' I know what I'm doing, Jonathan: get to the point. Phone jammed under her chin, Melissa launched herself off the hotel bed to scrabble amongst her worknotes for pen and paper. 'What happened between you and "Spiro"?'
Now she listened intently. After six weeks of posing as an unscrupulous plant collector, shuttling between the Greek islands and the Turkish mainland, Jonathan had been approached on tiny Asteri by a man who introduced himself as "Spiro". Spiro had offered to supply Jonathan with over a thousand very rare plants and bulbs, stolen from five Greek island and two Turkish mainland sites, and package them for Jonathan to fly out with them from Asteri to a private airstrip in Northern Greece and then to Germany.
'But I did not confirm the order, and instead called that deal off,' Jonathan said, in his slow deliberate way that made Melissa want to put her hand down the phone line and give his beard a tweak. 'Spiro kept chattering about other "special items" he could obtain. I decided to call his bluff. As you know, Asteri's a breeding site for the Eleonora's falcon....'
It was an Eleonora's that Athenian was trying to sell when the Rhodes police caught him. 'Is that what you asked Spiro for, a falcon?' Melissa asked.
'I raised the stakes.' Jonathan's voice was suddenly harsh. 'Said I was after them and golden eagles: ten of each if Spiro could supply them.'
For an icy shocked instant Melissa was speechless, then - 'Are you mad?' she hurled down the phone line. 'Ten Eleonoras when there are less than a thousand left anywhere in the wild? You know what your "order" means - for every falcon successfully captured, there'll be another nine that don't survive... and you go and ask for ten!' Anger gave way to horror and disgust. 'That's sick, Jonathan.'
'It would be, Melissa, if I'd done what you're suggesting. But if you'd allow me to explain...'
Breathing in heavily, Melissa listened as Jonathan corrected her first impassioned hasty impression. He had not agreed a price with Spiro, and until that first vital part of the deal was concluded, nothing would be set in motion. Spiro it turned out had been 'burnt' before by non-payment and so had determined a simple rule: half-payment first, and only then were the 'goods' obtained, the trappers and middlemen paid for their time and labour.
'We've arranged to meet back on Asteri next week to agree a price,' Jonathan concluded steadily. 'I'm to stay at the Villa Elysion.'
'I see,' said Melissa quietly, feeling somewhat foolish at her earlier flare-up. Asteri was favoured by the super-rich, she now recalled. From her research she knew there were three luxury villas available for hire on the island. One, owned by Asteri's mayor, Nicholas Stephanides, was the Villa Elysion.
'Spiro wouldn't tell me the final date and any pickup point for my "special items". I'm to wait to be contacted at the villa - naturally with sufficient funds to provide down payment for the transaction.'
There was a moment's silence, then: 'It's a shame, you going there yourself next month. A few weeks earlier and we could have flown out together.'
Melissa's heart began beating faster again. 'Let's do that,' she suggested, with a calmness she did not feel. 'I'll bring my trip forward.' She had been planning to do that anyway, because of Katherine. 'If you want, you can tell Spiro when you meet that I adore seahorses. Maybe he'll offer to smuggle those, too.'
Melissa smiled grimly into the receiver as her warm brown eyes fixed on the laughing photograph of Andrew on the otherwise impersonal bedside cabinet. Jonathan didn't know her suspicions about Andrew's death. No one knew.
'I'd be glad to help in any way,' she stressed, sensing hesitation.
Jonathan cleared his throat. 'I know Nicholas Stephanides won't agree but if we posed as a couple I think Spiro might be less wary of me. And more likely to, you know, to answer questions, to show off -'
'What's Stephanides to do with this?'
'Nick Stephanides is my local contact, Melissa. I have to consider what he says,' Jonathan answered - reasonably enough, although recalling the terse letter of acknowledgement she had received from the mayor of Asteri, Melissa was still annoyed.
Her irritation increased when Jonathan admitted, 'I'm afraid though that Mr Stephanides and I don't exactly get on. Whenever I went to see him he wasn't exactly forthcoming about what Spiro and his group might be doing on Asteri. Seemed to resent what he called foreign interference in Greek affairs.'
Melissa was irritated at the thought of idealistic, hard-working Jonathan subjected to such a pious little speech. She opened her mouth to respond when Jonathan added anxiously, 'So you think it's a good idea to pose as a couple?'
'I certainly do - and to hell with Stephanides.' Quickly, without giving Jonathan chance to reconsider, Melissa extracted from him the date of his flight. He was due to go out next Wednesday to meet Spiro the following Friday, only ten days away.
Melissa phoned the airline, then redialled Jonathan's number.
'See you at Gatwick next Wednesday,' she said.
The evening after, with only a week to go, Jonathan phoned her at home in Norfolk. 'It's off,' he said flatly. 'I've cancelled my flight and told Nick Stephanides and the Villa Elysion we can't make it. Travis is out of the country, so he can't stand in for me...'
Travis was Jonathan's fellow wildlife investigator, running their office from his tiny flat in London.
'Of course, even if Travis had been able to get to Asteri, there's no guarantee that Spiro would have dealt with him -'
'Jonathan, you're not making sense,' Melissa broke in. 'What's happened?' Anger made her blunt. 'And what right had you to do anything without asking me? I changed not only my flight but my entire schedule for you.'
Jonathan sighed. 'Without wishing to be over-dramatic about it, Melissa, I can't move; I'm in plaster. Right now, I'm phoning from the hospital, courtesy of a hit-and-run driver this morning. I'll be in and out of doctors' surgeries for weeks.'
'Oh, Jonathan, I'm so sorry,' Melissa was appalled. 'You should have said straight away. Which hospital are you in? I'll come and see you.'
Jonathan told her, ending gloomily: 'Sorry to have messed it up for you, Melissa.'
'You haven't, because I'm still going,' Melissa said. She thought of something to cheer Jonathan up. 'And just remember you have the taped conversations and film of Spiro: probably enough for the Greek customs and police to arrest him.' Jonathan was a careful investigator: he would have met Spiro carrying not only a hidden tape recorder, but a hidden camera as well.
Another sigh gushed down the phone line.
'Sorry again, Melissa. The tapes and films went west in the accident: the car ran over them too.'
Melissa's left foot jerked in an angry frustrated twitch. The thought that perhaps Jonathan's 'accidental' encounter with the car had been nothing of the kind chilled her gut and made her snatch back other reflex questions. She reminded herself she was speaking to a man in hospital, in pain.
'It doesn't matter,' she said. 'The Spiros of the world always make mistakes through greed: you'll have another chance to expose his filthy trade. Perhaps the mayor of Asteri can do something: the island is small, everyone is known...'
'Without pictures I've nothing to separate Spiro from a hundred other island Greeks of the same name. The man I met was somewhere between thirty and forty-five, average height, bit stocky, deep tan, black wavy hair, bushy moustache, black sunspecs. Absolutely no distinguishing features - Oh! Except one: he didn't smoke...'
Not a smoker amongst them, Andrew had said, when describing the men he had seen in Rhodes town. Melissa said nothing, but inside her head was buzzing. Coincidence? Possibly. But this new information only made her the more determined to track Spiro down.
'Nick Stephanides was furious when I told him. Said that my identikit picture of Spiro, if produced, would fit half the adult male population of Asteri and that the only good thing to come out of the entire affair was that my "idiot scheme" to involve you in catching the smugglers had fallen through.'
Idiot scheme was it? thought Melissa, feeling the burn of anger sear through her. The chauvinistic old fool...
'Forget Mr Stephanides: he's not worth your attention,' she told Jonathan briskly. 'Tell me what you like to read. I'll bring you books when I come.'
By the time she arrived at the hospital Jonathan was more comfortable and chatted happily. One of a large family, he was never without visitors. By the end of the week, when Melissa was due to leave, she had no qualms in leaving Jonathan to the loving attention of his sisters, brothers and friends.
'Have you told Stephanides?' Jonathan asked.
Melissa shrugged. 'He should know: my passage to Asteri's not been cancelled.' Her warm brown eyes flashed. 'If the mayor doesn't know, then I'll be a surprise for him.'
'You won't do anything rash?' Jonathan asked anxiously.
Melissa smiled. 'Of course not,' she chuckled, hiding her eyes behind a flick of her blonde fringe. 'You and Mr Stephanides are the wildlife investigators, not me! I'm going to Asteri alone.'
And no mayor of Asteri was going to stop her.
'Apó tin Anglía? No English tourist has such cameras!' Since the last of his regulars had disembarked at Karpathos, Manoli the ferryman had been bursting with questions. In sight of his final port, his home island, he could no longer stand it.
Melissa grinned. 'But I do this for a living,' she called back in Greek, without taking her eye from the viewfinder. She was enthusiastically soaking in impressions, camera ready.
Already in her long lens, Asteri was more than the smudge that Manoli would see drifting up to them from the sea. It had a dark central mountain and green hills, sharp ridges running down from its single peak, grey and tawny cultivated land.
'What's your name?' Manoli yelled over the engine noise.
'Melissa Haye!' Leaning against a crate and sitting on a box of fruit, Melissa waved a greeting to Manoli in the cabin behind her. Spray and flare would make shots difficult, but she braced her arms to hold her camera steady, keenly aware of the fabric of her Barbour draped over the crate.
Keenly aware of the stranger watching.
A man with a shaggy, charming rag-bag of a dog, sheltering under his legs. Throughout the long boat-trip, Melissa had been tempted to whistle the collie-cross bitch out to fuss her, but wasn't sure how her owner would react.
Considering the man, Melissa reckoned him to be in his thirties and, by the dark shirt and socks - worn in the masculine delusion that these would need less attention than lighter, dye-fast items - probably unattached. In jeans and baggy brown sweater, he sported a blue cap which had plainly seen better days. Like Melissa, he had been on the boat since Rhodes, making himself comfortable amongst the spare bus tyres piled in the bows. Now the man was working with needle and thread on part of a denim jacket but, when he was convinced that Melissa was occupied, he stared at her instead.
Melissa was aware of his eyes the instant she boarded the boat. Like her, the stranger had been obliged to take Manoli's ancient ferry after the scheduled light aircraft flight to Asteri had been cancelled due to the sudden illness of the only available pilot. The man's interest had increased when she, like him, had remained on board through every port of call visited by Asteri One.
Melissa laughed softly. Interest was great, it made her feel good, but she was aware that this man could be Spiro: the wildlife smuggler whom Jonathan had arranged to meet two days from today at the Villa Elysion on Asteri.
Stocky, tanned, blunt-nosed, black-browed and with a Cretan moustache, the stranger glanced up from ripping a clasp-knife through a section of the jacket: at this rate there would be nothing of it left. Adjusting her camera, Melissa felt his eyes quickly fix on her, then withdraw.
'Why are you going to Asteri, Melissa Haye?' Manoli's vigorous call interrupted her thoughts. 'Are you married?'
Straight brown hair and double-knotted shoelaces. Melissa tried for more but Andrew-in-memory vanished. Since setting out from England she had decided to speak of Andrew - not his name, though, nor the time or place of his death - to see if there was any queer reaction from the questioner. It was for Andrew that she took her eye away from the viewfinder and turned her head, wind snagging her fine hair.
'Single. My partner was killed falling from a cliff.' It was easier to admit this in a language not her own.
Farther along the boat Melissa sensed the stranger trying to listen above the pounding engines. She wished she had the eyes of a hare, to watch everywhere at once. Straining to hear through the strikes of the water and roaring chug of the boat, she sensed no sudden intakes of breath, heard only the tear of cloth ripped by strong hands and a keen knife.
'No children,' she added, anticipating the question.
'Ah!' Steering his ramshackle craft one-handed, Manoli rubbed his unshaven jowls in sympathy. His wind-blown features were guileless yet sharply interested. Making a rapid sign against bad luck he again looked over the pure blonde, nicely rounded young woman with her practical yet delicate shoes, her crisp white top and wool cardigan tucked into orange oilskin overalls similar to those worn by fishermen. Her glowing face and nimble hands were becoming sunburnt: astonishing for March.
With a glance towards the looming island coastline, the sea, the bows, Manoli returned to the woman. 'Are your parents dead too? Do you have brothers? Sisters?'
Most of the Greeks she talked to were like Manoli. Melissa loved the sudden conversational veering off and the absolute directness. 'My father drowned at sea. My mother remarried and lives with my stepfather and my two brothers and three sisters in England. A place called York.'
'Cousins?' shouted Manoli, sucking on a home-made cigarette.
'Lots of cousins, all over the world!' At this rate, Melissa thought, laughing, she was going to be hoarse. 'I've a Greek second cousin in Piraeus: he works in a shipping office.'
They had reached the westernmost tip of the island, one of the five promontories which gave Asteri the rough star shape for which it was named. Panning with her camera, Melissa refocused on the cliffs ahead, searching, stalking -
In the bows the man was shifting. Melissa did not hear but imagined the squeak of a trainer on damp timber as she felt the deck flex underfoot. Her whirling hair cut her sideways vision to the port bows as a limber body prowled sternwards.
To turn away meant a missed shot.
Melissa was looking for more than photographic images. Asteri had an airstrip, a few seaward hamlets and the village port of Khora, the island 'capital,' but these were too public for the quarry she had in mind. Small coves, sheltered beaches were what she was after. Places a team of smugglers might put in secretly and safely.
Asteri: Star Island, thought Melissa. Already its mountain peak enticed her, already the evergreen blaze of its woods - luxuriant for a small Mediterranean island - excited her. Yet there was sharpness amongst the sweet. It was here Jonathan had tracked down Spiro, the leader of the smugglers who had quite probably murdered her lover.
The silver seahorse earrings were cold against her neck. Melissa's gold eyebrows drew together then flicked apart. Andrew's death made her angry and the anger focused her. Hoping for a glimpse of the smaller islet of Antasteri, the lesser star, she scanned the western rim of the growing island.
In all this she had not forgotten the stranger, but could not hear his approach over the slap of water against the hull.
'Why are you coming to Asteri?' Manoli had recalled an earlier unanswered question.
'I want to photograph the island. To write about it, too. I'm doing a series of newspaper and magazine reports.' As the wind faltered, Melissa heard the footsteps stop.
'How much are they paying you?'
Melissa clicked her tongue and laughed: only the Greeks asked you what everyone else wanted to know. 'Around three thousand pounds. I'm not sure what that'll be in drachmai.'
From the corner of her left eye Melissa watched Manoli let the boat butt its own way on a course parallel to the cliffs as he jerked up both hands to make a 'crazy' gesture. In the eye of the lens, a long steep rocky shoreline replaced the cliffs.
No safe anchorage here in a storm. The thought snapped through Melissa's mind, rapid as a camera shutter. Melissa swept the lens higher, towards the central forest before Asteri's bare mountain peak, and gasped.
Wonderful. No other word encompassed it. Mature, unspoilt Mediterranean forest such as is rarely seen in the islands. Glorious tall pines. Great oaks allowed to reach their full height and spread. Cypress stands, not sad or elegiac but vigorous. And beneath, no doubt, although too far for her long lens, the shrubs and flowers: juniper, honeysuckle, cyclamen -
'Amazing!' Melissa exclaimed, colouring with excitement, ears buzzing with heat.
Suddenly a cap - hewn from a blue denim jacket - was dropped onto her head. The stranger straightened the robin-hood style brim over her forehead. 'You're too fair to go without a hat,' he said gruffly, in American-accented English. 'Down, Chloe!' This last in Greek to his dog, bouncing round Melissa's legs.
Surprised - she'd been on the receiving end of some unusual male approaches before now, but this was the most original - Melissa bent and patted Chloe. 'I'll bear that in mind,' she remarked dryly.
'Even old hands can be caught by the spring light,' the man went on, touching his own faded blue cap. 'It's very deceptive.'
He had a gruff, seaman-loud voice. Coupled with fiery light eyes, that luxuriant moustache and the rapid-fire approach of many Greeks, he tended towards benevolent dictatorship. 'People have been sent to hospital with heat exhaustion, and there isn't any hospital on Asteri.' His New England accent broadened. 'Sorry if this seems pushy.'
He was so openly bossy that Melissa couldn't help but be amused. 'Thanks,' she said, laughing, face pink from the sun.
'No problem,' the stranger said - she was sure he was suppressing a grin behind his moustache. Suddenly he thrust out a hand. 'I'm Nick Stephanides, the mayor of Asteri.'
Her free hand disappeared into his, his warm hard grip making his introduction even more incredible. Here was her anticipated adversary, thought Melissa, amazed. Not an old, crusty misogynist, but a smiling man in the prime of life and the peak of fitness. She felt her jawbone go and caught it back.
'Melissa - Pleased to meet you,' she said, amused at her own confusion. The element of surprise had been his after all.
'Pardon me - you've a leaf caught in your hair.' The man dived forward, and by a nimble of sleight of hand unseen by Manoli tucked the dried spear of an olive leaf close to her left ear. As he deftly cupped the leaf to draw it out again, he brought his face close to hers.
'What the hell are you doing here now? Jonathan told me you'd cancelled.'
'I've still my own work!' Melissa hissed back. 'Besides, Spiro's due at your place on -'
The hand in her hair tightened. 'Manoli speaks English,' came the warning whisper. Abruptly she was released.
'Glad to have you with us, Melissa,' said Nicholas loudly. 'I hope you enjoy your stay.'
The moustache made it hard to tell if he was being serious or not, but Melissa was absolutely certain that the mayor of Asteri was furious and that he would one day apologise for pulling her hair.
'Excuse me now, please: we'll be landing in a moment.' Turning abruptly away, Nicholas started to heave together sacks of potatoes, ready for unloading.
Melissa started as Manoli sounded the horn. Heeling round the southernmost tip of the island, Asteri One steamed towards Khora, passing a small private harbour.
The private harbour's natural horseshoe shape reminded Melissa sharply of Andrew's estuary. Throwing off the memory of Katherine Hopkins' threats, she focused on the rambling oaks and run-wild olive and citrus trees at the side of the house, on the drifts of dark purple periwinkles. A sweet scent from narcissi growing near a small stand of trees drifted across the water as Melissa lowered her camera.
Nicholas caught her questioning look. 'My Elysion,' he said laconically, jerking a thumb past the scudding waves to the whitewashed villa at the head of the bay. Manoli revved the engine, ready to strike out for the bigger harbour of Khora.
In another few moments the ship had docked alongside the harbour's central stone jetty and the islanders were swarming aboard to unload the cargo. Slipping the Nikon round her neck, Melissa rapidly retrieved her rucksack and gear. As she squeezed through a crush of dark-garbed women haggling for vegetables on the wide gang plank, Melissa noticed the mayor of Asteri pounding two at a time up a long series of white steps leading from the main jetty into Khora itself, a sack of potatoes slung over one shoulder.
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