Garden of ThornsGarden of Thorns

Garden of Thorns
Book 3, the Ashes to Ashes series

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The house in the photo on the print cover of Garden of Thorns (top) is closer to the description of the house in the story, although the house on the cover of the e-version is actually in Fort Worth. Maybe we can split the difference....

Mark Owen and Hilary Chase, who met at the excavation of a medieval Scottish priory in Dust to Dust, get back together in Fort Worth, Texas, his home town. Hilary is working at a museum, curating a set of medieval artifacts recovered from the Nazis by famous explorer and writer Arthur Coburg. Only when he recently died did the existence of the artifacts come to light. Now his much younger wife, Dolores, wants to sell them to the museum.

Mark is helping British archaeologist Jenny Galliard excavate the Coburgs' eerie Victorian house, Osborne, a place scarred by two unsolved Jack-the-Ripper style murders. The emotional scars of Hilary's past are still healing, much to Mark's sympathy and frustration combined. Putting together a relationship is hard enough without being drawn unwillingly into the dark secrets of the Coburg family. No surprise Osborne is haunted.

But Mark and Hilary are dismayed to find that Jenny Galliard is also haunted, by a mystery that dates not only back to World War II, but into medieval times. A killer is still walking the shadows of Osborne House. Will Mark and Hilary survive long enough to find the solution to crimes both recent and distant, let alone long enough to find each other?


"...An onionskin plot, as layer after layer gets stripped away in new revelations...each little revelation...sends the story in a new direction....Carl creates a fine set of characters with a healthy dose of strengths and weaknesses... she spices up the mixture with a dash of humor and also an interesting piece of realism..."
--Timothy Lane, Fosfax

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Note: Garden of Thorns is a spin-off of Dust to Dust. For once I set a story close to where I live in Texas, which gave me a chance to use a lot of local color in addition to my usual bits and pieces of European history.

Chapter One

The weathered brick of the house was a soft rose-gray, blending with the mist into something not quite real. Appropriate, Mark thought; he’d once had recurring nightmares about the place. His parents had had to turn off the nightly news so that the eleven-year-old boy could sleep without dreaming of knives glittering in the dark.

Come on, Mark told himself. That was fifteen years ago. You’re a man now, no longer a mouse. He walked briskly up the driveway, into the shadow of the live oaks, wishing he’d worn a jacket over his “Don’t Mess with Texas” T-shirt.

Behind him the buildings of the Fort Worth Cultural District were swallowed by the mist, and the noise of the cars along York Boulevard faded away. The Victorian dormers, gables, and gingerbreaded verandas of Osborne House solidified before him. Mark’s unnaturally loud steps slowed and stopped. Although the Coburgs hadn’t lived at Osborne for many years, it had been used for weddings, meetings, and parties until Arthur Coburg died here two years ago. Now the house was silent, emitting an elusive breath of decay.

Something moved inside one of the windows. Mark jerked back. No, that was a step behind him. He spun.

“Good morning! You must be Mr. Owen.”

All he’d seen was a reflection of the woman who faced him. He recognized her voice and hoped she hadn’t noticed his start. “Dr. Galliard? Nice to meet you. Thank you for calling the other day.”

“I needed to put my assistant in the picture before we had a go at the excavation,” she replied, in the beautifully moderated English accent he’d found so appealing on the telephone.

“It’s just Mark,” he told her.

“And I’m Jenny.”

“Short for Jennifer?”

“No, for Guinevere, I’m afraid. But don’t tell anyone.”

Mark smiled and shook her hand. Her grip was surprisingly warm for such a cool March morning. “Your parents were very imaginative.”

“If only they had been.”

Her tone had changed abruptly, going so dry he felt as if he should brush dust from his hand. Was it something I said? he wondered.

The waves of Jenny’s black hair were enlivened, not suppressed, by the damp air. They framed a face as strong and symmetrical as a Norman arch. The laugh lines accentuating her smile, and the crow’s feet defining her keen dark eyes, made her look over forty. But the outdoor work of an archaeologist was hardly ideal for her fair British complexion; she was probably in her late thirties. She was almost as tall as he, a couple of inches shy of six feet, and had what a couturier would call with a sniff, “a full figure”. A figure as firm as her handshake, Mark estimated with an approving glance.

His glance met hers coming the other way, and snicked in a fender bender of perception. She was appraising the attractiveness of his broad shoulders, his brush of brown hair, his tip-tilted gray eyes a friend had once compared to those of a Tolkien elf. But if he saw himself as a fictional character, it was part Holden Caulfield and part Pinocchio.

With an appreciative flick of her dark brows Jenny’s gaze moved innocently up the side of the house to the Tiffany windows in the topmost tower. Mark smothered a grin. He liked older women; they were honest, and not unduly bothered by their honesty.

“I’m glad to see another human being,” Jenny said. “It was very kind of the Coburg Foundation to let me stay in the servants’ quarters, but Osborne is so large and isolated I was feeling like the proverbial last person on earth.”

“The place is kind of spooky, all right.” Mark fell into step beside her. The leaves of the trees stirred fitfully, even though he felt no breeze. “I hate to do this to you on our first day of work, but I’ll have to leave early this afternoon to go out to the airport and pick up a friend who just got a job at the Lloyd Museum.”

Not that “friend” was the right word, he added to himself, but “lover” wasn’t right either, and she certainly wasn’t his prey. . . His jaw tightened with tension, as it always did when he thought of Hilary.

They emerged from the shadow of the trees into watery sunlight. Already the mist was starting to burn off; the day would soon turn warm.  “No problem,” Jenny said. “All we’ll accomplish today is showing the volunteers the way to their own bums. The Lloyd, eh? What will he—she . . .”

“She—Hilary Chase. I met her last summer on that dig in Scotland.”

“Ah yes, the Rudesburn excavation. I just read the results—well done! Will Miss Chase be working with the Coburg Collections at the Lloyd?”

“Actually she’s hoping to reach the rarefied atmosphere of the Regensfeld artifacts. But she’s just starting out in art history, so she’ll probably be conserving, cataloguing, and gophering. But then, that’s where Dolores Coburg began, wasn’t it?”

“Yes it was.” Jenny’s eyes widened into exaggerated caution. She raised her hands and with her extended forefingers made a cross, offering an editorial comment on the second Mrs. Coburg. “I expect our employers to be prominent fixtures of the dig. That means diplomacy will be as important as science. Get it, Mark?”

“Yes, ma’am, I’ve got it.”

“Good.” Shaking her head, Jenny stepped nimbly over the chipped concrete foundations of the old boundary wall and onto a rubble-strewn expanse of dirt.

The bulldozers had done their work. Osborne was no longer surrounded by the assortment of gas stations, small shops, and inexpensive frame houses that during the last forty years had insinuated themselves like cholesterol along the artery of York Boulevard. Now shoals of bricks, concrete chunks, and rusted support rods sketched an appropriate “C” around the house and demarcated stretches of featureless dirt and weeds. A brand new tool shed stood at the edge of the lawn.

Jenny’s tartan flannel shirt shone like a beacon in the strengthening sun. Her Wellington boot drew a line in the earth—the one Mark was expected to toe, no doubt. “I did a little preliminary sampling to define our working areas. The first trench goes there, in the garden, and the second here, where the carriage house and garage used to be. When did they burn—1975?”

“The same night Felicia Coburg was murdered in the house,” said Mark. “Killed the same way her mother-in-law was in 1912, sliced up like a delicatessen tray.”

Jenny darted him a nonplussed look.

“I’m a Fort Worth native,” Mark explained, turning his glance over his shoulder into a shrug. “I remember hearing about the case when I was a kid. You know how morbid kids are—helps them to face their fears, I guess.”

“Right.” Jenny gestured. “There’s our datum point.”

Dutifully Mark pulled a tape measure from his pocket and headed toward a stake fixed like a sacred standing stone in the midst of the desolation.

One puff of wind, and then another, steadied into a breeze that sighed through the branches of the oaks. Mark and Jenny paced out the grid of the excavation and defined its squares with twine stretched between strategically placed pegs.

That task done, Mark put away his Swiss Army knife, mopped at the wind-driven dust gathering in the corners of his eyes, and squinted through the sunshine. From his vantage point he could see the smooth granite planes of the Lloyd, the campanile of Will Rogers Coliseum, and the silver dome of Casa Manana Theatre looking like a stranded spaceship. Beyond the Cultural District the land fell away in a springtime haze of pink, white, and tender green toward the river and the interstate. The warm wind carried a tang of dust and exhaust and the subtle sweetness of honeysuckle. Texas weather being what it was, that same wind could well stiffen into a blue norther and bring snow tomorrow.

Several cars turned into the drive and stopped on the expanse of gravel in front of the garage. A young man who looked more like an NFL linebacker than a scholar led an eclectic assortment of humanity across the rubble. “Hey, Mark!”

“Preston!” Mark called. “I saw your name on the list! How’s it going?” The two men exchanged a gesture that was part handshake and part high-five.

“One more credit in field work and I’ll have that Master’s,” said Preston. “I see you decided a spring dig wouldn’t fry you too bad.”

Mark had more than once estimated the time elapsed on an excavation by the slow transformation of sunburn into tan. “I can’t help it,” he retorted, “if my ancestors evolved in a damp cave in darkest Wales.”

Preston laughed, his teeth gleaming as brightly as his glasses. His ancestors were from sun-drenched Africa. “We should trade specialties. I’ll work outside and you go dig trenches in the library stacks.”

“And to what documentation do we owe the honor of your presence?”

“A deed showing that the farm on this ridge belonged to one Lennart Mortenson—Arthur Coburg’s great-grandfather. How about a dissertation titled ‘From Homestead to Mansion in Three Generations:  The American Dream’?”

“Be sure to mention that the mansion is haunted by Arthur’s mother. The American nightmare, Horatio Alger directed by Hitchcock.”

Preston’s glance at Osborne House, its copper-green roof camouflaged by trees, was considerably less wary than Mark’s. “Do you believe the place is haunted?”

“I did when I was a kid,” Mark replied. “Not any more.”

Jenny stepped forward to greet her acolytes, and Mark took the opportunity to look them over. One gawky teenager’s big eyes and springy ponytail reminded him of Hilary, although Hilary’s moments of awkwardness were charming glosses on her usual sweet soberness. This girl was probably Amy from Texas Wesleyan. He tried to match other faces with the names on his list—Hong from Texas Christian, Paratha from the University of Dallas, Guy from Denton . . . Well, he’d sort them out quickly enough. The hard way, by supervising their work. Except for Preston, they were all rank beginners.

Jenny smoothly segued from welcoming pep talk into lecture. “Visualize archaeological strata as a posh gateau.”

“Fancy layer cake,” Mark translated.

Jenny shot him another of her nonplussed looks and continued. “The bottom sponge—the bottom layer of cake—was laid on the plate first. Then you have icing, then another cake layer. Sometimes there are nuts or fruits in the icing. Perhaps one whacking great cherry has even displaced a bit of the cake. The object is to cut as straight a balk, the side of the trench, as possible. That way the layers can be more easily read. You can’t interpret your finds without proper stratigraphy.”

“How’d you get to be dig assistant?” Preston asked Mark under his breath. “Especially to someone with as good a reputation as Galliard?”

“I applied to the Coburg Foundation, same as she did. Having been on a successful dig last summer didn’t hurt. Since I live here part of the year anyway, I didn’t generate too many travel expenses for them to pay.”

“A real stroke of luck for you.”

“If everything goes well. If it doesn’t, it’ll be the stroke of a guillotine.” Mark drew his forefinger across his throat. “Goodbye career. You’ll have to give me a job sweeping up in the library.”

Preston snorted. “Just keep batting those baby grays at the lady boss. You’ll do all right.”

Mark punched at his friend’s arm. Preston grinned. Jenny’s voice wafted over the field. “. . . remember that by its very nature archaeological excavation destroys the evidence it uncovers. Records must be kept meticulously. Report anything and everything of interest—and by that I mean even changes in the color or texture of the dirt . . .”

Gravel crunched in the driveway. Mark looked around. Among the inexpensive cars of the students a maroon BMW stood out like that archaeologically intrusive piece of fruit. A man slammed the driver’s door and adjusted his broad-brimmed hat, crouching a bit so he could see himself in the side mirror. The hat, his tweed leather-trimmed jacket, and his tooled leather cowboy boots broadcast the state of his bank account better than a check stub. It wasn’t just the boots’ tall, narrow heels that made his walk over the rubble a bandylegged swagger.

A young woman shut the other door and drummed red fingernails on the car’s sleek finish, shooting a venomous glance toward the man’s back. She’d probably expected him to open the door and hand her out. They must be man and wife . . . Mark remembered the grainy photos in the Star-Telegram society pages, the debutante parties six or seven years ago, the charity balls since. The couple was Arthur and Dolores Coburg’s daughter Sharon and her consort, Travis Ward.

  “Diplomatic alert,” he said between his teeth.

“Think I’ll go see a man about a dog,” muttered Preston, and tried to conceal himself among the other students, with as much success as a lion lurking behind a knot of gazelles.

“. . . artifacts from bottle caps to arrowheads. This hill, not far from a river, is a logical place for pre-Columbian hunter-gatherer encampments as well as the farms of 1850’s settlers.” Jenny registered the approach of the Wards with a subtle arch of a brow. “Mr. Baker, I believe you’ve had some dig experience. Would you be kind enough to distribute the hoes and trowels from the stack beside the tool shed?”

Preston led the students away. Jenny strolled to Mark’s side and stood with her hands on her hips, shoulders back, chin up, like a general before a battle. Her face was expressionless; studiedly so, Mark thought, but the woman was still too much of a stranger for him to interpret her moods.

Sharon’s stiletto heels minced across the debris like a Miss America candidate down the runway in Atlantic City. In fact, she looked like a Miss America contestant, her smile so bright she seemed to have Vaseline on her teeth. A ruffled blouse and pink cashmere sweater topped jeans squeezing a body as taut and lean-hipped as an adolescent boy’s. Her hair was a brilliant gold, writhing in an expensive frizzle that made it look as if it hadn’t been combed in a week. Her face was shaded and blushed, her eyes lined, her lips colored with textbook precision. Mark wondered if her cornflower blue eyes were genuine or created by tinted contact lenses.

“Good morning,” Jenny said.

“Howdy,” said Travis. He took off his hat, pumped Jenny’s hand, then Mark’s, and replaced the hat. “So you’re the lady archaeologist! Not what we expected, is she, hon?”

Sharon’s smile never faltered. Her voice was a startling nasal twang. “Dr. Galliard’s credentials are adequate to the situation, darling.”

“Now, honey, I only meant we’d expected someone, well, older.”

What Travis probably meant, Mark thought, was that Jenny wasn’t a stereotypical academic husk.

“Age hardly implies competence,” Sharon told her husband, and looked at Mark. He choked on the musky aroma of her perfume. “And you’re Dr. Owen?”

“Just Mr. Owen,” Mark told her. “No Ph.D. yet.”

Her predatory gaze moved on, unimpressed, seeing nothing beyond the T-shirt and dirty jeans. Thus dismissed, Mark figured he could’ve safely slinked away, but he was much too curious to see how Jenny handled herself.

“Would you like to inspect the layout of the excavation?” she asked.

“Find anything yet?” Sharon returned.

“We haven’t looked for anything. It’s early days yet.”

The students trooped toward the site of the garage. Preston began a sotto voce rendition of “Go Down Moses”. Getting into the spirit, the students brandished their tools and joined the chorus with “Let my people go!”

Travis hiked back his jacket and thrust his hands into his pockets, his mouth hanging open with puzzlement. Perched on the mound of his stomach was a huge belt buckle, a relief sculpture of a man and woman making love. Mark looked down at his shoes, trying not to guffaw.

Jenny explained about the different trenches, about strata and artifacts and meticulous records. Sharon nodded and smiled. “Whew,” said Travis, dragging the word into two syllables. “That’s too boggy a crossing for me. I’m sure glad y’all know what you’re doing.”

“That’s why you hired us,” Jenny said.

“How long will it take you to find everything?” asked Sharon. “The contractors have to start developing Victoria Square in April so we can open next fall. We already have tenants for the shops.”

“Not all the shops, hon,” Travis said. “We’re still negotiating on that jewelry boutique, and the picture gallery fell through . . .”

“What I’m trying to say, darling,” asserted Sharon, “is that this archaeological survey can’t drag on too long. There’s no point in fixing Osborne House up into such a nice restaurant and club if it’s still surrounded by dirt. Makes it a little hard on the valet parking.” Her smile gleamed.

Maybe she took that smile off and put it in a box at night. Mark thought. Maybe she took off her whole face. Without her mask of cosmetics he could pass her on the street and never recognize her.

If the corners of Jenny’s mouth had crimped any tighter, or the corners of her eyes tilted with any more amusement, her courtesy would’ve turned sardonic. “I really can’t predict, Mrs. Ward, just how long the survey will take. It depends on what we find.”

“I understand. You scholars are so lucky not to have to live in the real world. The point is, you see, that pieces of old pottery and stuff won’t provide lots of jobs like Victoria Square will. We have to think of the good of the community.”

Presumably Jenny’s and Mark’s jobs, temporary academic foolishness, didn’t count. “We’ll do the best we can,” Jenny murmured, and turned pointedly toward the group of students.

Preston had them lined up on an unattributed patch of ground, showing them how to use their hoes. “A smooth, slow, scooping motion. You’re not chopping cotton here.”

Travis’s broad, blunt face, a sketch made with a child’s outsized crayon, looked slightly offended. He leaned closer to Mark and muttered, “Think the Rangers will make it into the World Series this year?”

“What? Oh—ah—well, they’ve got Nolan Ryan, don’t they?”

“Yeah, sure, he’s a good pitcher, for an old coot over forty.”

Jenny, approaching forty herself, winced. “The sooner I can get the volunteers to work, the sooner we’ll have the survey finished and you can bring in your shops.”

“Much as we’d like to stay, Dr. Galliard,” Sharon replied with a gracious nod, “we have to be getting on over to the Lloyd. That big reception tomorrow night, you know—honestly, you can’t take your eyes off the caterers and the florists for a minute.”

“You’ve used those same florists for years,” said Travis. “If they haven’t figured out by now how to cram flowers into a jug . . .”

“Let’s go, darling,” Sharon interrupted. “We’ll be seeing you tomorrow night, Dr. Galliard.

“Thank you,” Jenny said.

“And you, too, Mr. Owen, of course. My mother and brother can’t wait to meet the good doctor’s second-in-command.”

Mark said, “Thank you. I’m looking forward to meeting them.”

“Don’t worry,” Travis confided in a stage whisper, “Dolores always serves good booze.”

As the Wards walked back toward the driveway, their voices trailed behind them. “My mother takes great care with her wine list, darling. I’d hardly call it ‘booze’.”

“I said it was good, hon. That’s all I meant.”

They climbed into the BMW. Simultaneously the doors slammed. The car jerked around and roared down the drive in a spatter of gravel.

So that was one of the Coburgs. Despite Sharon’s polite words, Mark was willing to bet the others were hardly holding their breaths waiting to meet him, the hired help.

“The problem with financial backers,” said Jenny, “is that they so seldom stay in back.” Meditatively she unbuttoned and removed her flannel shirt. Beneath it she wore a T-shirt emblazoned with a lurid green Loch Ness Monster. “Did you see that bloke’s belt buckle? Were they having me on?”

“Pulling your leg because you’ve never been in Texas before? No, I’m afraid they’re for real. Local products just as much as I am. Except some of us Texans believe our own publicity.”

“Right.” The focus of her eyes shifted from somewhere beyond Mark’s back to his face. Her level look reminded him of the Duke of Wellington in Goya’s famous portrait—the squared jaw of resolution, the slightly narrowed eyes and flared nostrils of cynicism. She didn’t suffer fools gladly, he thought. Good. Neither did he.

A black bird with the long tail of a B-17 bomber glided into the nearest tree and uttered a rusty, grating squawk. Jenny looked up. “What kind of bird is that?”

“A grackle. Sounds like it needs some oil, doesn’t it?”

“That it does.” Her imperious expression cracked into a smile. With a decisive about-face she turned toward the volunteers. “Let’s get to it.”

Mark followed, wiping his forehead. As he’d predicted, the day was hot, and the warm wind didn’t bring much relief. He’d have to take a few extra minutes to run over to his apartment and shower and change before he went to meet Hilary.

But as Jenny had said, it was early days. He detoured to the tool pile, armed himself with a couple of trowels, and strode into battle.

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