In the summer of 1938, Jerusalem is in chaos and the atmosphere teems with intrigue. Terrorists roam the countryside. The British are losing control of Palestine as Europe nervously teeters on the brink of World War II.
Against this backdrop of international tensions, Lily Sampson, an American graduate student, is involved in a dig—an important excavation directed by the eminent British archaeologist, Geoffrey Eastbourne, who is murdered on his way to the opening of the Rockefeller Museum. Artifacts from the dig are also missing, one of which is a beautiful blue glass amphoriskos (a vial about three and a half inches long) which Lily herself had excavated. Upset by this loss, she searches for the vial—enlisting the help of the military attaché of the American consulate.
But when she contacts the British police, they seem evasive and offputting—unable or unwilling either to find the murderer or to look into the theft of the amphoriskos. Lily realizes that she will get no help from them and sets out on her own to find the vial. When she finds the victim’s journal in her tent, she assumes he had left it for her because he feared for his life.
Lily’s adventurous search for information about the murder and the theft of the amphoriskos lead into a labyrinth of danger and intrigue.
This impressive historical mystery novel has already won first place in its category at both the Pikes Peak and Southwest Writers Conferences in 2000.
Later, Lily would remember the early morning quiet, the shuttered shops in the narrow lanes of the Old City. She would remember that few people were in the streets — bearded Hassidim in fur-trimmed hats and prayer shawls over long black cloaks returning from morning prayer at the Wailing Wall; an occasional shopkeeper sweeping worn cobbles still damp with dew.
She would remember the empty bazaar, remember that the peddler who usually sold round Greek bread from his cart near Jaffa Gate was gone.
She would remember the crowd of young Arabs, their heads covered with checkered black and white kefiyas, waiting in the shade of the Grand New Hotel, leaning against the façade, sitting on window ledges near the entrance; remember them crowded under Jaffa Gate in a space barely wide enough to drive through with a cart, standing beneath the medieval arches and crenellated ramparts, faces glum, arms crossed against their chests, rifles slung across their backs, revolvers jammed into their belts. One wore a Bedouin knife, its tin scabbard encrusted with bright bits of broken glass. Only their eyes moved as they watched her pass. Lily remembered holding her breath, pushing her way through, feeling their body heat, snaking this way and that to avoid touching the damp sweat on their clothing. No one stepped out of her way.
She would remember the bright Jerusalem air, fresh with the smell of pines and coffee and the faint tang of sheep from the fields near the city wall; the empty fruit market, usually crowded with loaded camels and donkey carts and turbaned fellahin unloading produce, deserted and silent. Vendor’s stalls, looking like boarded shops on a forlorn winter boardwalk, shut; cabs and carriages gone from the taxi stand.
She would remember the pool at the YMCA, warm as tea and green with algae, and the ladies gliding slowly through the water, wearing shower caps and corsets under their bathing suits, scooping water onto their ample bosoms, gathering to gossip at the shallow end. She would remember swimming around them with steady strokes, her legs kicking rhythmically, and the terrible tempered Mrs. Klein, blowing like a whale, ordering Lily to stop splashing. A tiny lady holding onto the side of the pool and dunking herself up and down like a tea bag nodded in agreement; Elsa Stern, the little round pediatrician with curly gray hair, gave Lily a conspiratorial wink and kept swimming laps.
She would remember it all. Everything about that day would haunt her.
Lily Sampson was on her way to the new YMCA on Julian’s Way that morning, to catalogue pottery from the Clarke collection in the little museum being built in the Observation Tower.
She had stayed at the YMCA four years ago when it first opened in 1934 and reveled in its splendor, in its graceful proportions, in its arches and tiled decoration, its tennis courts and gardens, and the grand Moorish lobby paved with Spanish tiles. It had a restaurant, an auditorium where Toscanini played, and a swimming pool — the only one in Jerusalem. Tourists came to ooh and ah and told her this was the most beautiful YMCA in the world. They would climb the Observation Tower for a view of the city and look through telescopes into windows of apartments on Mamilla Street and Jaffa Road.
Lily went there to use the swimming pool three times a week when she was in Jerusalem, walking from the American School through the quiet lanes of the Musrara quarter, or cutting through the Old City.
At five minutes to nine, her hair still damp against her ears, her eyes stinging from chlorine, Lily climbed the six flights to where the little museum would be.
Sheets of glass and wooden shelving for cases were stacked against the wall in the corner of a large, bare room that held only an old table, two wooden chairs, pottery wrapped in newspapers and stowed on the floor in old grocery cartons, and a wall clock that said four minutes before nine.
Eastbourne had said he would be here around nine o’clock. Lily suspected that if Eastbourne agreed to help her today, he had reasons of his own. She was grateful that he recommended her for this job, grateful for the small windfall from cataloguing pottery during the short break in excavations at Tel el Kharub.
Lily stepped onto the balcony that opened off the museum, holding her breath at the sight of Jerusalem, creamy gold in the morning brightness. The great gilded cupola of the Dome of the Rock glinted in the sun. The Old City, its stone walls adorned with towers and battlements, steeples and minarets, loomed behind the King David Hotel.
She could see the crowd of grim-faced young Arabs she had passed this morning at Jaffa Gate, now grown to two hundred or more. The tops of their heads bobbled like so many black and white beach balls.
Smoke twisted from small fires in the Valley of Hinnom. Lily looked through the telescope toward Government House on the crest of the Hill of Evil Council. She could just make out the Union Jack, flopping limply from its tower.
In the street, a dapper American tourist in a Panama hat and seersucker suit came out of the King David across the way.
The ladies left the YMCA one by one — Mrs. Klein, still frowning, her hair pulled back tightly in a bun, marched down the street; Dr. Stern walked toward the corner.
Lily heard Eastbourne enter the museum. “Let’s get to work.” He looked at his watch. “I don’t have much time.”
Full of his usual charm this morning, she thought. “I was watching for you,” Lily told him. “I didn’t see you in the street.”
“I had breakfast downstairs.”
“You actually ate here?”
“I was hungry for some good English cooking and a real breakfast.”
Of course you were, Lily thought. Good British housewives get up early every morning to cool the toast and put lumps in the porridge.
“You don’t have a cook at the British School?”
“He’s an Arab. This morning I had ham and eggs.”
Lily noticed the newspaper under his arm and twisted her head to read the headlines. Eastbourne folded it into a small packet and put it in his pocket.
“I haven’t finished with the paper,” he said, looked out at the street, and checked his watch again.
On the wall clock, it was exactly 9:00 a.m.
The sound of an explosion from somewhere in West Jerusalem rocked the air.
After a tick of silence, a shout of “Allah Akbar” erupted in a fullthroated roar from the crowd gathered at Jaffa Gate.
Lily rushed to the balcony, with Eastbourne close behind her. A mob spewed out of the Old City, propelled by the rhythmic chant, onto Mamilla and around the King David Hotel, and spread in a torrent toward West Jerusalem.
Five or six men carrying rifles ran down Julian’s Way and encircled a truck, rocking it back and forth until it turned over. At first the impassioned madness and destruction seemed strangely distant to Lily, choreographed and rehearsed, like a slow-moving pageant. She watched three men rush from the gas station at the turn of the road with full jerry cans, spilling gasoline on the street as they ran.
Waving fists, brandishing rifles, kefiyas flying in the wind, the horde swarmed into the warren of back streets with old Jewish shops and houses, down Jaffa Road toward Zion Circus. The blare of sirens, scattered shouts and screams carried from the direction of West Jerusalem on wind heavy with smoke.
Lily heard the crash of shattering glass and looked toward Mamilla to see a man with a jerry can splash gasoline through a shop window. A rumble of flames erupted and danced in the currents of heat from the rush of the blaze.
“It’s that bloody Grand Mufti, el Husseini,” Eastbourne said. His nostrils dilated with anger, and he wiped his hand across his mouth. “You can’t trust him. He must be orchestrating this from Syria, with the backing of Hitler and his crowd.”
The tourist from the King David, his back arched in a posture of fear, stood in the middle of the street now, tilted this way and that by rioters who swirled around him as if he were a lamppost. Eastbourne watched from the doorway, looking toward the tourist in the Panama hat, and glanced at his watch again.
Mrs. Klein advanced on the rabble like a tank, shouting and flailing her arms. The mob surrounded her while she punched and kicked and screamed. They pressed against her, pushing her back onto the road. She floated to her knees, her skirt billowing around her, falling to the asphalt, her hair undone and sticky with blood that began to puddle on the pavement.
Dr. Stern turned back, hurrying toward her friend splayed on the sidewalk. A man careened to face Dr. Stern, stepping into her path, thrusting a fist in her direction as if to greet her. Her eyes widened, her mouth opened, and she staggered against him. He pushed her away and slowly, carefully, she plummeted straight down, silent, onto the sidewalk. Lily closed her eyes and turned away from the balcony back to the notebook on the table, back to the comfort of the past to count clay lamps, juglets, burnished bowls with turned-back rims. She picked up a lamp, the nozzle smudged with ancient soot, and put it down again, drawn back to the balcony with a horrified fascination.
The tourist in the seersucker suit, without his Panama hat, disappeared into the revolving door of the hotel.
“Get inside,” Eastbourne said. “This isn’t a peep show.” He looked at the street. “When this is over, they’ll cover the bodies, take them away, and hose down the streets.”
What will be left in two thousand years, Lily wondered? Just a thin layer of charcoal, without memory, without skeletons to mark the day, just one more level in the stratigraphy of Jerusalem?
People hung out the windows of the King David Hotel, one man with field glasses, others leaning against balcony railings, some aghast, some curious. A father led his small daughter inside, shut the door and pulled down the blinds.
The tourist in the seersucker suit was gone now.
Dr. Stern lay on her side in the street. Little rivulets of blood seeped from beneath her, flowing downhill and staining the pale blue cloth of her skirt. The little tea bag lady lay stretched out on the steps of the YMCA as if she were sleeping in the wrong place.
Mrs. Klein lay in a widening dark pool, her hair, beginning to mat with blood, loose and wild against the asphalt. She looked oddly peaceful, her frown gone, her jaw fallen open in death. False teeth lay beside her softened cheek. A man stopped, looked at the teeth on the sticky pavement, picked them up, wiped the blood on his sleeve, and put them in his pocket. He pulled a knife from his belt and, brandishing it, ran on toward Mamilla.
“The name Jerusalem means City of Peace, you know,” Eastbourne said. Shuddering, Lily edged back to the table. The haze of smoke from the fires, the blare of fire trucks, the sounds of sirens from ambulances, of sobs, of wounded and mourners, of shutters ringing down with a clatter, penetrated the room. Lily was drawn to the balcony, and back inside to the table, too mesmerized to stop, too terrified to watch, mourning for the ladies who would never again skim across the green water, for Canaanites and Jebusites, for Israelites and Judeans, for Crusaders and Mamelukes who fought in this city with its twisted streets, its strange mystique and power, its heritage of blood and vengeance.
“Go downstairs and get me a packet of Players,” Eastbourne said, reaching into his pocket. “Here are fifty mils. Bring me the change.”
Lily dropped the money when he held it out. Her fingers numb and shaking, she picked it up slowly. “Sorry. I wasn’t looking,” she said and turned toward the door.
In the lobby, the desk clerk looked at her dumbly, his eyes glazed, his face pale. A bushy mustache hid his mouth and quivered when he spoke.
“Rioting in the streets and you ask for cigarettes,” he said in a hushed monotone. “Cigarettes? Are you mad?”
“Players,” Lily repeated.
“I don’t sell them here. In the dining room.”
Lily went into the dining room. The desk clerk followed and placed himself behind the bar.
“Players,” Lily said again and put the money on the counter. He counted it and pushed back the change. “You cold-blooded English. You have no feelings. Here are your cigarettes.”
“I’m an American.”
“Crazy American. You’re all the same.”
Lily climbed the stairs, catching her breath at the landings, looking down empty halls at laundry carts stacked with fresh linens for unmade beds. She felt heat from hidden pipes radiate through the whitewashed walls, heard the elevator knock and clatter as it moved from floor to floor.
On the sixth floor, the museum was silent. The notebook was still open on the table; the clay lamp was where she had put it down. And Eastbourne was gone.
She taught for twenty years in the Department of Anthropology at California State University, Fullerton, and has conducted many years of fieldwork in the Middle East, including a year at the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem as an NEH scholar and director of the overseas campus of California State Universities at the Hebrew University. She holds degrees from several universities, including the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of California, Riverside.
The first book in the Lily Sampson series, A FLY HAS A HUNDRED EYES, about the murder of a British archaeologist in 1938 in British mandated Palestine, won first place in the mystery category at both the Pikes Peak Writers conference and the SouthWest Writers Conference. THE TORCH OF TANGIER, the second novel in the Lily Sampson series, takes place in Morocco during WW II, when Lily is recruited into the OSS to work on the preparations for the Allied invasion of North Africa, Operation Torch. In THE SCORPION’S BITE, Lily is doing an archaeological survey of Trans-Jordan for the OSS.