A biting West Country wind whipped like a distant cry along the irregular, serrated edges of Faucille Manors ancient slate roof tiles. Leaning into the wind, a large, leathery man nearly as ancient as the roof slates tottered down the worn stone steps leading from the blocky, windowless outbuilding to the kitchen entrance of the manor house. Tall, barrel-chested and spindly-legged, old Sir William Batt struggled under a small armload of firewood.
"Elizabeth?" he called out in a hoarse, barbed voice. With small steps he felt his way the last few feet to the door set in the crumbling and neglected stone, then cursed as his fingers slipped and the wood clattered to the ground. He reached over and pushed the heavy door inward. He pulled at his stained and moth-eaten gray cardigan, then shouted again down the long, unlit passageway.
"Elizabeth? Arent you back yet, woman?" He squatted in obvious pain and picked up a few sticks of split beech, tucking them under one arm and straightening back up with an effort.
Two hen pheasants skittered across the gravel in front of the manor, drawing Sir Williams bleary, saturnine gaze. Across the stream the cows had bunched up at the low corner of the field and seemed to be gnawing at the flimsy gate that was barely hanging on its rotten hinges. Sir William grunted in disgust.
"Where is that bloody woman?" he muttered, running a square, calloused hand through the few wisps of white hair still clinging to the scalp above his ears. "Cant even make the bloody tea on time. As if I havent better things to do..." And without bothering to fumble for the light switch, Sir William creaked down the hall hed known for eighty-eight years.
He never heard the muffled steps coming up behind him or the sound of the stone coming down.
Rose Sweeney did not travel well. Sleepless all the way from San Francisco to Heathrow, only to be handed the keys to a cramped little Vauxhall with a manual transmission. Her heart was still running a bit too fast after the uncomfortable and nerve-wracking solo drive up to Oxford. Now Rose sat on a carved Georgian chair outside the office of the Acquisitions Curator of the Bodleian Library, trying at least to appear polite.
But Rose waited, determined to make a good first impression. After all, for a lowly untenured associate professor of English from San Francisco State University, this amounted to the chance of a lifetime. The Robert Graves Bibliography papers were in from Majorca and were now somewhere in this very building. For decades historians swore that these documents did not exist. Shed always maintained they had to be somewhere. Now Dean Dechter had picked her to unravel their mysteries. No, she wouldnt get two chances like this.
She sat stiffly but as usual she couldnt keep her hands still. She took her auburn ponytail out of the polished leather barrette, then fussed it back in again. The secretary had been gone an awfully long time. And Rose kept thinking how the secretary was so obviously more formally dressed than she was.
Well, tough, she thought, they hired me for my mind, not my wardrobe. In the next instant, though, she had to suppress her fear that her casual manner might get her in trouble here in Oxford if she wasnt careful. Somehow she couldnt quite shake the notion that shed arrived at the opera in shorts. It irked her that she even cared.