Murder in Megara: A John, the Lord Chamberlain Mystery #11

Murder in Megara: A John, the Lord Chamberlain Mystery #11

John, former Lord Chamberlain to Emperor Justinian, has been exiled from Constantinople to a rustic estate John has long-owned in Greece, not far from where he grew up. But exile ...

About The Author

Mary Reed and Eric Mayer

The husband and wife team of Mary Reed and Eric Mayer published several short stories about John, Lord Chamberlain to ...

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Prologue

“Exiled or not, the emperor’s Lord Chamberlain camped at Megara’s gates means trouble!”

“Former Lord Chamberlain, remember. The way you speak you’d think he’d brought an army with him instead of those two servants.” The speaker nodded at an elderly man and a woman— half her companion’s age—who were inspecting the tuna, mullet, and eels displayed on a marble slab on the opposite side of the marketplace. A cloth awning over the fish merchant’s stall cast a reddish shadow. The woman had tawny skin and black hair. The man maintained a military bearing, but his step was hesitant.

The group of townspeople, partly concealed by stacked cages full of live chickens, had watched the pair as they moved around the square, filling the woman’s wicker basket with figs, a pot of honey, three fist-sized melons. The chickens clucked despondently, already half-boiled by the late August sun of southern Greece.

“Black as a Nubian, isn’t she?” remarked a middle-aged woman, dressed too well for a dusty market in an insignificant city. “And you notice they speak with different accents. The senator’s estate has turned into a regular Tower of Babel.”

“Egyptian, so I hear. And that’s her husband with her,” some- one else said.

“Not her husband. Grandfather, surely!”

The city square smelled of fish, goats, and produce that had gone unsold for too many days. People haggled noisily:

“Ah, there you are. I’m sorry I was detained. Business. Let’s find a quiet spot to talk.”

“Grilled fish, here! Buy your grilled fish! So fresh it’ll leap into your mouth!”

“How much did you say? Is that what you think my fine cloth is worth? Does it look like I stole it off a beggar?”

A dog barked. A baby cried.

The observer, lounging against a column in the colonnade at the edge of the marketplace, couldn’t make out every word of the conversation from beside the chicken cages.

But enough to be of interest.

A man with a beak-like nose and eyes as round and black  as pebbles spat in the dirt. “What do you expect from a bunch of dirty foreigners? Foreigners and pagans, every one of ’em.”

“First you see an invisible army, now you see foreigners. The Lord Chamberlain—John, his name is—grew up hereabouts, as we all know.”

The beaked man turned his dark eyes toward the speaker. “Who are you to be defending him? Do you expect he’ll pay all the back taxes? We don’t need a new landowner, especially one who’ll actually live on his estate, meddling and upsetting things.” “That’s right,” put in a shrunken, clerkish fellow. “What does an official from the court at Constantinople know about how things are in Megara?”

“My oracular fowl refused their feed this morning,” the beaked man continued. “One flew away. That’s a sure sign of disaster.”

This prophesy was met by a general murmur of assent. “You and your oracular fowl! We’ve all had them for dinner.

Once they’re past egg-laying days they predict they’ll bring a good price at market. It’s the only prediction they get right.” The speaker tapped one of the cages, eliciting agitated squawks from within. “That’s what you all sound like, terrified of one miserable exile and a couple of servants.”

A tepid breeze slithered through the shadows in the colonnade, bringing the smell of the sea but no relief from the heat. The chicken seller—and oracle owner—was pointing out  the whole empire knew about Justinian’s fickleness. He’d shown his Lord Chamberlain mercy on a whim and he’d change his mind just as easily. Assassins could well be stepping off a ship at the docks right now.

The observer couldn’t suppress a grim smile at the thought. Before the former Lord Chamberlain’s defender could reply, the clerk barged in, warning that powerful officials have powerful enemies, as if this were something of which he had personal knowledge. Every one of the new arrival’s enemies would be furious he hadn’t been executed, and more than one might decide to rectify the imperial error. Before long the city would be swarming with hired murderers. Innocent people were bound to be caught in the bloodshed. It was intolerable. What were the authorities going to do about it? The clerk’s strident voice rose to a higher pitch.

The two servants under observation turned away from the fish and walked out of the awning’s red shadow into the brightness of the square. Other market-goers kept their distance, eddying around the two, only moving their heads to gawk after they had passed.

The observer barely made out the well-dressed woman’s words. “The chamberlain’s not a proper man, you know.”

The chicken seller spat again.

The woman looked as if she would like to do the same   but instead made an obscene gesture. “Eunuchs! Unnatural creatures! Greedy, scheming, all of them! You can’t trust them. What unhealthy intrigues has he bought from the court? He’ll doubtless be conniving to get back into power, and whatever bloody plan he hatches, we’ll pay for it!”

“What are we going to do about it?” Perhaps the clerk meant to issue a challenge but the effect was ruined by the quaver in his voice.

The observer stepped away from the column and strode toward the group, hearing low cursing from several who had remained silent until then.

“What’s the matter with all of you?” asked the former Lord Chamberlain’s lone defender. “He’s nothing more than a farmer now.”

“Does the crab ever learn to keep his legs straight?” asked the observer.

The two servants came abreast of the stacked cages. The old man made as if to examine them, but the young woman, glancing quickly at the people gathered there, tugged at his arm, and they continued on past instead.

As she looked back over her shoulder a stone flew from behind the cages. The observer couldn’t have said who threw it. He saw the woman step protectively in front of her companion and kept on walking out of the marketplace.

 

Chapter One

Peter limped grimly through the courtyard gates just as John and Cornelia emerged from the house. He might have come straight from a battlefield. Blood speckled his sleeves; a smear of red ran across his forehead.

“Master, Hypatia was attacked by a mob and…and…” Before he could gasp out the rest of the sentence  Hypatia, looking pale, intervened. “Don’t bother the master, Peter. It was just a few stones, most of them wide of the mark. You put yourself in worse danger by trying to catch the perpetrators.” Directing a fond smile at her husband, she continued. “I had to insist we return immediately or he’d still be fighting!”

“I wish I’d had a weapon,” Peter told John. “They crept up on me, the cowards. They hurt Hypatia.” His voice quavered.

“It’s just a lump on the back of my head.”

Cornelia peered at the injury and pursed her lips. “It’s going to be a very big lump, Hypatia. Why would anyone do such a thing?” “The whole town hates us. We’re despised foreigners, if you’ll pardon my saying it, mistress,” Hypatia replied.

“She’s right,” Peter said. “We’re not safe here. I should like to be armed next time we go to market.”

John, who had looked on silently, shook his head. “I don’t want you fighting a war over every basket of melons and turnips. How did this happen?”

Peter gave a colorful description of the visit to the marketplace. Hypatia  stepped in  occasionally,  softening the more lurid details. “Please don’t worry,” she concluded. “As soon as we put these purchases away I’ll make a poultice to take down the swelling.”

She carried her basket off in the direction of the kitchen, with Peter trailing, still looking grim, swinging one arm as if he carried a sword.

John and Cornelia departed for their walk in a somber mood. They followed their already familiar route along the low ridge overlooking the sea. Unkempt meadows ran into fields, and fields became rocky hillsides without any clear demarcation.

They passed through a meadow watched over by a fig tree so massive and gnarled it might have been older than the empire. Their tunics rasped faintly against sharp, stiff blades of tall grass, brown and crisp at the end of the dry summer.

Worried by Peter and Hypatia’s experience, John studied Cornelia. Was she distressed by it all? Had his sentence of exile widened the gray streaks in her dark hair, or was it merely that the unforgiving sunlight called attention to the gray, causing it to glitter like frost when she moved her head to look at the sea or the hills or down at a yellow flower in the grass? When she bent to pick it John took the chance to let his fingers fondly brush her small shoulder.

“Don’t ask me its name,” he said. “Hypatia might know, especially if it has medicinal value.”

Cornelia turned the flower about in her fingers, narrowing her eyes to examine it in the glare, accentuating the fine wrinkles in her deeply tanned skin. She paused thoughtfully, then resumed walking. “I’ll take it back to the house. Back home. And see what Hypatia has to say. Do you know, I had the urge…but then, it would look foolish for me to come back with flowers in my hair like a silly young girl or one of those nymphs the gods were always chasing about, wouldn’t it?”

“When did you stop being a young girl? I hadn’t noticed.” “You are an old silver-tongue!” She strode off through the meadow, the shape of her slender, well-muscled legs outlined under her thin, pale green tunic.

“No, I meant it,” John called after her, immediately realizing he sounded like a feckless, lovestruck boy. He watched her move away. The gray in her hair, like the wrinkles in her face, were nothing more than bits of strange adornment. Cornelia was no different to him than ever.

He caught up to her with a few strides, took the flower from her hand and threaded it, clumsily, into the gray strand that fell across her temple.

She smiled up at him and then said, quite unexpectedly, “John, why can’t you be happy here?”

He withdrew his hand. “It isn’t that I’m unhappy, Cornelia. It’s just that everything is in such disarray.” He nodded in the direction of a field down the slope between where they stood and the sea. “That should have been plowed by now, there’s harness in need of mending, the fish pond requires cleaning and restocking.”

Cornelia beamed and adjusted the flower in her hair. “There speaks the farmer! You’re recalling these tasks from when you were a boy?”

John took her arm and helped her over a dry weed-choked ditch. “As to the fish, at least we can be certain Peter won’t follow the example of the cook who deceived his master, a certain Bithynian king, with slices of boiled turnip shaped like anchovies when none were available.”

“You could have changed the subject more subtly! I know we’re in a difficult situation. Perhaps a dangerous one, judging from what happened to Peter and Hypatia in the marketplace. When the townspeople get to know us they won’t be afraid. They’ll stop hating us.”

John thought it better to say nothing.

They passed along a rutted path leading to a field dotted with sheep. From behind a knoll rose a column of black smoke. “The blacksmith is at work in his forge again,” John observed, “but there’s no evidence of his labors anywhere. There are broken rakes and hoes in the barn. A farm with equipment left in that state has either been neglected for too long or run in a careless fashion. Since there are signs of some work being carried out, I am inclined to suspect the latter.”

“There were worse things than broken rakes lying in wait at the Great Palace, John.”

“But I understood Justinian’s court and its intrigues,” John pointed out.

“Only after spending many years there.”

He squeezed her arm lightly. “I begin to feel guilty for bring- ing you to this place.”

“Oh? Did you force me to accompany you? I recall I came of my own accord. It’s what we’ve both wanted, John. To live in the country and farm.”

They approached the remains of a small temple—several columns, portions of three walls, a part of the roof. It was a place they had visited before. From the slight rise where the ruins stood, the land sloped downward allowing a vista of the sea, enticing them with its offer of relief from the honeyed heat coating the landscape. Between the sea and where they stood lay the vineyards and gardens of a monastery. The buildings of the monastery were near the sea, in the direction they had just come, not quite opposite the temple. Close by the monastery, farther back in the direction of their house, sat the blacksmith’s. The temple occupied the furthest corner of the farm once owned by John’s family. Perhaps the monastery’s founder had purposely drawn the boundary there.

“Is today the day you will finally show me the farmhouse where you grew up?” Cornelia asked.

“Why would you want to see it? It’s like any other farmhouse.”

They walked on to the temple. Heaps of earth lay here and there, evidence of recent excavations.

“It appears that shoring up the foundation has received atten- tion at least,” Cornelia observed.

“Perhaps old beliefs remain stronger than many realize,” John replied. “Rather risk the new owner’s displeasure than the wrath of Demeter. However, I don’t think that man sitting inside is there to worship or wield a spade.”

A figure had moved in the shadowed interior, a gray-haired man seated on a fallen column. He pushed himself to his feet as they neared. Once he had been a big man; now he was merely tall and stooped, with knobby wrists protruding too far from the sleeves of a shabby tunic. He was almost completely bald. Beads of sweat ringed his sunburnt head in a crown-like way and ran down into his watery faded-blue eyes. He gave them a crooked smile, his few remaining teeth all clustered on one side of his mouth.

“John! What’s the matter? Aren’t you happy to see your father again?”

Reviews of

Murder in Megara: A John, the Lord Chamberlain Mystery #11

Long used to solving mysteries for an emperor, a newly powerless man must solve one for himself. John, the former Lord Chamberlain to Emperor Justinian, has been exiled to a small estate he owns in Greece, where he grew up near the town of Megara. His servant, Peter, and Peter’s wife, Hypatia, are attacked on a shopping trip to town. The estate is in complete disarray. And John is unpleasantly surprised by a visit from Theophilus, his hated stepfather. Attempting to maintain some semblance of control, John fires his overseer, Diocles, who has obviously been plundering the estate and is probably involved in a scheme to dig for the treasure that is reputedly buried there. On a trip into Megara, John is warned by Georgios, the City Defender, that it would be prudent to leave the area. When first Theophilus and then Diocles are found stabbed to death, John must investigate before he’s arrested for murder. Fortunately, he gets some support from two boyhood friends, one a worker in the tax office and the other the abbot of the nearby monastery of Saint Stephen. Although John’s wife, Cornelia, is ready to move on, John, who’s solved many mysteries for the emperor in Constantinople (Ten for Dying, 2014, etc.), finds that digging into corruption, past secrets, and misdeeds in a small town is every bit as dangerous as the intrigue of the emperor’s court. John’s 11th case combines historical detail with a cerebral mystery full of surprises.

Kirkus Reviews

In 11 previous books (Ten for Dying), John the Eunuch has served as Lord Chamberlain to the Emperor Justinian in Constantinople. Now, he has retired to an estate in the Greek town of Megara, after Justinian exiles him for his role in uncovering the assassin of the Empress Theodosia. When his truculent stepfather is found murdered in an ancient temple of Demeter, John is powerless to defend himself. Surrounded by suspects, including a wealthy merchant masquerading as a monk, a belligerent pig farmer, a corrupt overseer, and the city defender who regards him with great suspicion, John realizes that searching into his own past may identify the killer. VERDICT Meticulous research makes this historical series set in the Byzantine empire a joy to read. Admirers of Steven Saylor and Lindsey Davis will enjoy exploring this ancient world.

Library Journal

Reed and Mayer’s solid 11th John the Chamberlain mystery (after 2014’s Ten for Dying) finds the sixth-century sleuth no longer serving Emperor Justinian. Now living in exile from Constantinople on his family’s estate near Megara, Greece, John is discomfited to learn that those who have been in charge of managing it have been cheating him. He fires the overseer, Diocles, whom he holds mainly responsible, but Diocles warns him that his time in Megara will be short. When John’s estranged stepfather, who recently asked him for money, is stabbed to death on John’s property, Georgios, the City Defender, suspects John of the murder. Georgios initiates an investigation that John fears is driven by the man’s ambitions. The death of another person John was on bad terms with makes his position even more tenuous. Placing the lead in jeopardy in an unfamiliar setting makes this one of the more distinctive series entries. (Oct.)

Publishers Weekly

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