BY: JUNE TROP
Miriam bat Isaac, a budding alchemist and amateur sleuth in first-century CE Alexandria, becomes frantic when her best friend, Phoebe, is kidnapped. At the same time, a brute of a man is stalking Nathaniel ben Ruben, an itinerant potbellied dwarf. Could this brute, the last surviving jewel thief from the Temple of Artemis, be the same man who has kidnapped Phoebe?
Let THE DEADLIEST THIEF take you into the underbelly of first-century CE Roman-occupied Alexandria to help Miriam solve her most baffling case yet.
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In The Deadliest Thief by June Trop, Miriam bat Isaac is investigating the kidnapping of her best friend, Phoebe. Certain that the person who abducted Phoebe is the same brute who has been stalking Miriam’s dwarf friend, Nathaniel ben Ruben, Miriam fears for Phoebe’s life, convinced the man is after the jewels from the Temple of Artemis heist and will use Phoebe as a bargaining tool.
Well written, fast paced, and intense, this one will hold your interest all the way through.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: The Deadliest Thief by June Trop is another mystery for amateur sleuth and budding alchemist Miriam bat Isaac in first-century Alexandria. This time, her best friend, Phoebe, has disappeared, obviously kidnapped. Miriam and Phoebe’s husband, Bion, are hampered in their search for her by the fact that the woman who disappeared might not have actually been Phoebe, but an imposter. So where is Phoebe and who could have taken her?
The Deadliest Thief is an excellent addition to the Miriam Bat Isaac series. Join the adventure as Miriam faces her most baffling case yet. It will keep you on the edge of your seat from beginning to end.
February 26, Thursday, Early Afternoon:
I stood there as if I’d been punched in the chest. The knocking was so frantic that I bolted out of my study, tore across the atrium to the entrance of our townhouse, and opened the door.
It was my Phoebe, a fresh black eye blooming on her left brow, a flame of red encircling her mouth, and an eggplant bruise planted on the right side of her neck.
Clutching the door jamb to recover her balance, gasping for air, she staggered in on rubbery legs until she reached the planters of white chamomiles and yellow field marigolds that edge the skirt of the sunken marble pool.
That’s when, with her back swaying and her arms pinwheeling, her knees gave way, and she plummeted to the floor, a hoarse cry escaping with her shallow exhale.
I swiveled my head and shrieked toward the staircase. “Calisto! Hurry!”
The color was already draining from my dear friend’s face.
I knelt beside her, my arm under her shoulders, the crook cradling her head. “Phoebe, speak to me! What’s happened to you?”
She tried to sit up but could only jiggle her legs.
I dropped my ear to her lips.
“He’s been trying to…”
A guttural mumble.
But she just grabbed at her neck, clawed at her chest, and spurted a rope of vomit. Her face clenched in horror, she turned her bulging eyes toward her satchel and uttered the word “Document—”
“Stay with me, Phoebe.”
—before letting out a ragged gurgle, stiffening convulsively, and passing into eternity.
She was heavy on my arm. I laid her head down, closed her eyes—her lids still warm—and caressed her face. Then I straightened her legs, which were twisted in a grotesque angle as if she’d fallen from a great height.
My eyes blurred with tears. What’s happened to my Phoebe, my intrepid scout, co-conspirator, and stubbornly girlish best friend? Can it be that she’ll never again entertain me with her extravagant tales of Alexandria’s famous and infamous—embellished, of course, with her flair for theatrics—reprove me for failing to follow Roman fashion trends, or comfort me in her lavender-scented embrace? Or that she’ll never again assist me in one of my investigations by volunteering her eyes and ears for the places I could not go? These questions swirled around me like a ghost while, to my astonishment, a shelf of pewter-colored clouds indifferently continued its roll across the sky.
Beginning her life with our family as the day-old, Greek foundling wrapped in the soiled blanket my mother happened upon in the Bruchium quarter, Phoebe became more than our household slave, even more than our beloved servant. Five years my senior, she became the big sister who’d join me in my lessons. What’s more, when my mother died of childbed fever following the birth of my twin brother and me, Phoebe, like a tigress with her cub, became my protector. Still later, she became the unshakable optimist in my uncertain romance with Judah as well as the officious critic of my manners and dress.
Then three years ago, in anticipation of her marriage to Bion, Phoebe at last agreed to her manumission so their children would be free. Bion, also a former slave but owned by the civil authorities, repaired scrolls in the workshop of the Great Library. Now he owns a thriving bibliopōleion in the agora, where he deals in rare classical manuscripts as well as the contemporary work of scholars like Thrasyllus of Mendes and engineers like our very own Hero.
My young housemaid Calisto’s light footfalls roused me from my daze.
“What’s wrong with Miss Phoebe?”
“Tell Orestes and Solon to get the sedan chair ready to take you to Mr. Bion’s bookshop. They’ll know. It’s the bibliopōleion in the stoa just east of Mr. Judah’s. Simply say that Mr. Bion’s wife is ill. Nothing more. And then have them take you both back here.”
Her sloe eyes slid down her coarse, short-sleeved woolen tunic as she bowed her head and left to summon my bearers to take her to Phoebe’s husband.
An eerie silence seeped into the atrium like a noxious gas blanketing me in an unnatural quiet that seemed to muffle even the dull thud of the ever-present soldiers’ hobnail boots. When I gazed around the room as if to find the source of the gas but really to comprehend how my Phoebe’s life could have ended here so abruptly, I saw her satchel in a flash of winter sunlight, its contents arced across the tessellated floor. And so, I remembered the document.
There it was, a cylinder of parchment rolled up and sealed with a puddle of red wax. I picked it up, tore through the seal, and read it as follows:
Statement of Leda of Alexandria, daughter of Ananias
I, Leda of Alexandria, recently of Ephesus and Tarsus, in fear of my life, swear unto Isis that the statement I am about to dictate to Esdras of Pharos is true to the best of my knowledge.
I am the twin sister to Phoebe, who is the wife of Bion, the proprietor of the bibliopōleion near the center of the agora. Thirty-six years ago, my sister and I were born in Alexandria to Ananias, a roustabout along the Great Harbor, and his wife Dorkus (both deceased).
Years ago, my parents told me I had a twin sister they had abandoned in the Bruchium quarter but with the hope that a wealthy woman would find and adopt her. “How can a common laborer like me come up with a dowry for not one but two daughters even as the Romans keep raising my taxes?” That’s what my father said, but infant exposure has been a common practice in our Greek community even among the rich, especially for daughters. So, all these years, I believed my sister must have died as so many other exposed infants continue to do.
At the time, we lived in a tenement near the waterfront of the Great Harbor, but my parents were from Tarsus. After my father was injured loading sacks of grain onto a ship bound for Rome, he brought my mother and me back to Tarsus so we could stay with his brother. There I lived until I married Pytheus, whereupon my husband and I moved to the commercial district of Ephesus so he would have a chance to get work in the warehouses lining the quays there.
Last spring, Pytheus and I were at the local festival of Artemis but got separated in the crush of Ephesians and tourists just as the priests were carrying the sacred statue through the city to her temple. Wrapped in the clamor of the festival and driven by the throng, I could not, despite my efforts, find him. Once I thought I saw him, but a moment later he’d disappeared in a plume of dust. So, I assumed I’d meet up with him at the temple or, if not there, then at home.
But of course, I never did.
It didn’t take me long to realize he must have been involved in the jewel heist and fled on the Thalia, the ship that left so suddenly for Alexandria that afternoon. Pytheus was by nature suspicious and secretive, and all he ever dreamed of was having easy money. Instead his life consisted of one failed scheme after another and then running from the consequences. Sometimes he’d come home with unexplained cash, but that only honed his greed and fueled even more bitterness for the possessions others had acquired. So, I knew what had happened when he didn’t come home.
Still, I missed him. Sensing he might be in trouble and fearing my landlord would sic the slavers on me to recover the unpaid rent, I took what little I had and booked passage straight away on the next ship to Alexandria. Setting out to find him, I asked for him first among the sailors, roustabouts, and deckhands and then at the various inns, cook-shops, kapēleia, and saloons. Eventually, I found him living in an abandoned house on Pharos Island.
At first, he seemed happy to see me. He told me we were rich, that he’d come by a one-third share of the loot from the Temple of Artemis, which he’d fence when the time was right, and in the meantime, we should live modestly. Moreover, he told me he had encountered a woman in the agora, the wife of a shopkeeper there, who looked so much like me that he was certain she was the abandoned twin I’d once told him about. He said he was curious about my sister and asked me to find out more about her. That’s when I started following her to learn her routines and reported the details to him.
He seemed particularly interested in an acquaintance of hers, the wife of the jeweler Judah ben Saul, a Hebrew woman named Miriam bat Isaac, whom my sister would visit in the Jewish quarter every Saturday afternoon. I know I should have been suspicious of his motives, but at the time, I too was curious, eager to glimpse into a life that by chance could have been mine. Besides, I was flattered to be at last in his confidence. But as you will see, I’ve paid dearly for that intimacy.
Later, he told me about his accomplices in the heist: a man named Hamilcar, who was the captain of the Thalia, and another scoundrel named Omar, who’d been posing as a scholar of Greek culture to court the daughter of a rabbi. Both this Hamilcar and Omar are now dead, the former from a heart attack and the latter from rabies.
Most recently—and now I’m getting to the point of this narrative—he ordered me to impersonate my sister to gain access to this Miriam bat Isaac’s home and kill her. Oh, he didn’t tell me that at first. He just said since she’s such a good friend of your sister’s, maybe she could be just as good a friend to you. My husband, though I loathe to call him that now, claimed to have seen this bat Isaac woman visit Omar on the day he died. “Zeus!” he said, the corner of his lip jumping in fear. “Who knows what Omar told this busybody? Being a Roman citizen, she has the connections to get me crucified!” When I refused to go along with his scheme, which included framing my sister for the murder, he beat me until blood poured from my every orifice and my skin flowered with bruises. And I knew the next time he saw me, he would do it again unless I agreed to do what he wanted, even while I begged for death to claim me.
Should anything happen to me before I’ve had a chance to warn Miss bat Isaac, I plead that those attending to me deliver this statement to her without delay, that the matter is most urgent.
With faith that I may merit the protection of Isis here and in the Underworld, where all souls meet, I am
Leda, daughter of Ananias.
I, Esdras of Pharos Island, formerly of Crete, swear by Aletheia that I have faithfully recorded the words of Leda, daughter of Ananias (as she now wishes to be known), that she has in my presence fixed her mark on this document, and I have sealed it here in Alexandria ad Aegyptum on this day, February 25, in the Seventh Year of the Reign of Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus.
Εσδράς Διεθνούς Οργανισμού Μετανάσ-τευσης του νησιού Φάρος
© 2019 by June Trop