As a consequence, Rachel rarely left Rome to visit her family in rural Castel Gandolfo, where their family had settled after World War II, in the shadow of the pope’s summer residence. Only her grandmother understood her. The two had shared a love of antiquities and firearms. While growing up, Rachel had listened avidly to her stories of the war: gruesome tales laced with graveyard humor. Her nonna even kept a Nazi P-08 Luger in her bedside table, oiled and polished, a relic stolen from a border guard during her family’s flight. There was no knitting booties for that old woman.

“It’s just up ahead,” the professor said. She splashed forward toward a glowing doorway. “My students are keeping watch on the site.”

Rachel proceeded after her guide, reached the low doorway, and ducked through. She straightened into a cavelike room. Illuminated by carbide lanterns and flashlights, the vault of the roof arched overhead, constructed of hewn blocks of volcanic tufa sealed crudely with plaster. A man-made grotto. Plainly a Roman temple.

As Rachel waded into the room, she was all too conscious of the weight of the basilica overhead. Dedicated to Saint Clement in the twelfth century, the church had been built over an earlier basilica, one constructed back in the fourth century. But even this ancient church hid a deeper mystery: the ruins of a first-century courtyard of Roman buildings, including this pagan temple. Such overbuilding was not uncommon, one religion burying another, a stratification of Roman history.

Rachel felt a familiar thrill course through her, sensing the press of time as solidly as the weight of stone. Though one century buried another, it was still here. Mankind’s earliest history preserved in stone and silence. Here was a cathedral as rich as the one above.

“These are my two students from the university,” the professor said. “Tia and Roberto.”

In the semidarkness, Rachel followed the professor’s gaze and looked down, discovering the crouching forms of the young man and woman, both dark haired and similarly attired in soiled coveralls. They had been tagging bits of broken pottery and now rose to greet them. Still grasping her shoes in one hand, Rachel shook their hands. While of university age, the two appeared no older than fifteen. Then again, maybe it was because she’d just celebrated her thirtieth birthday, and everyone seemed to be growing younger except her.

“Over here,” the professor said, and led Rachel to an alcove in the far wall. “The thieves must have struck during last night’s storm.”

Professor Giovanna pointed her flashlight at a marble figure standing in a far niche. It stood a meter tall—or would have if the head weren’t missing. All that remained was a torso, legs, and a protruding stone phallus. A Roman fertility god.

The professor shook her head. “A tragedy. It was the only piece of intact statuary discovered here.”

Rachel understood the woman’s frustration. Reaching out, she ran her free hand over the stump of the statue’s neck. Her fingers felt a familiar roughness. “Hacksaw,” she mumbled.

It was the tool of the modern-day graverobber, easy to conceal and wield. With just such a simple instrument, thieves had stolen, damaged, and vandalized artwork across Rome. It took only moments for the theft to occur, done many times in plain sight, often while a curator’s back was turned. And the reward was well worth the risk. Trafficking in stolen antiquities had proved a lucrative business, surpassed only by narcotics, money laundering, and arms dealing. As such, the military had formed the Comando Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale, the Cultural Heritage Police, back in 1992. Working alongside Interpol, they sought to stem this tide.

Rachel crouched before the statue and felt a familiar burn in the pit of her stomach. By bits and pieces, Roman history was being erased. It was a crime against time itself.

“Ars longa, vita brevis,” she whispered, a quote from Hippocrates. One of her favorites. Life is short, art eternal.

“Indeed,” the professor said in a pained voice. “It was a magnificent find. The chisel work, the fine detail, the work of a master artisan. To mar it so savagely…”

“Why didn’t the bastards just steal the whole statue?” asked Tia. “At least it would’ve been preserved intact.”

Rachel tapped the statue’s phallic protuberance with one of her shoes. “Despite the convenient handle here, the artifact is too large. The thief must already have an international buyer. The bust alone would be easier to smuggle across the border.”

“Is there any hope of recovery?” Professor Giovanna asked.

Rachel did not offer any false promises. Of the six thousand pieces of antiquity stolen last year, only a handful had been recovered. “I’ll need photographs of the intact statue to post with Interpol, preferably concentrating on the bust.”

“We have a digital database,” Professor Giovanna said. “I can forward pictures by e-mail.”

Rachel nodded and kept her focus on the beheaded statue. “Or Roberto over there could just tell us what he did with the head.”

The professor’s eyes darted to the young man.

Roberto took a step back. “Wh-what?” His gaze traveled around the room, settling again on his teacher. “Professore…truly, I know nothing. This is crazy.”

Rachel kept staring at the beheaded statue—and at the one clue available to her. She had weighed the odds of playing her hand now or back at the station. But that would’ve meant interviewing everyone, taking statements, a mountain of paperwork. She closed her eyes, thinking of the lunch to which she was already late. Besides, if she had any hope of recovering the piece, speed could prove essential.

Opening her eyes, she spoke to the statue. “Did you know that sixty-four percent of archaeological thefts are abetted by workers at the site?” She turned to the trio.

Professor Giovanna frowned. “Truly you don’t think Roberto—”

“When did you discover the statue?” Rachel asked.

“T-two days ago. But I posted our discovery on the University of Naples website. Many people knew.”

“But how many people knew the site would be unguarded during last night’s storm?” Rachel kept her focus on one person. “Roberto, do you have anything to say?”

His face was a frozen mask of disbelief. “I…no…I had nothing to do with this.”

Rachel unsnapped her radio from her belt. “Then you won’t mind if we search your garret. Perhaps to turn up a hacksaw, something with enough trace marble in its teeth to match the statue here.”

Source: www.StudyNovels.com
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