There’s a tremendous amount of money to be made in ancient Egyptian artifacts. There’s a tremendous amount of danger involved in curses if you believe in them, and sometimes even if you don’t. Upsetting a resurrected ancient pharaoh holds a terror all its own.
Through the ages, so many horrible things have sprung from those two small words. The darkest imaginings and depravities of mankind all began with that simple question. A multitude of sins and evil events. This is one of them.
When I began my quest, so many years ago, I had in mind certain experiments to test the validity of legends of and relating to
Bruce nodded twice, his shaggy hair bouncing between. “Except for the blood smear. Did you want to see?” He held out the journal, open to the last entry, the only entry. I waved him off.
Geez, who kept a paper journal anymore? Hadn’t old Doc Witkinstein heard of computers? “Blood smears are nothing exciting.” And they didn’t really tell us anything, anyway. Witkinstein had been dead for days. We’d already seen what was left of the body and a few dull red smears wouldn’t bother either of us.READ MORE
“What legends do you suppose he meant?” Bruce squinted at the journal as if that might make the meaning sink into his brain.
I sighed. “Sorry, was that you in the next room or do you have a twin brother I should know about?”
“Oh, the mummies then.”
I had to stop myself from mimicking him. Bruce was not on my payroll to be smart. That was my job. His was to open doors, break legs, remove obstacles, and as frequently as possible tell me how brilliant I was. Some things you just had to let go. “Yes, the mummies. Archaeologists may have tried for a couple of centuries to strip Egypt bare, but the country is still lousy with mummies. Thousands of years of embalming your dead can cause a bit of build up. Still a pretty good black market, I guess. Doesn’t tell us how he could afford several dozen of them, though.”
Bruce put the journal back down in the splintered remains of the desk, as close as he could manage to the spot he’d picked it up from. “But what good are they?”
I shrugged, pushing at some spilled paper with one foot. Paper! Sure we were in Egypt, but paper? I’m not asking for the twenty-first century, but join the 1990s at least, Doc. “Depends on who you ask. Cultural and historical research, Egyptian heritage, and so on. Lots of things.” Something sparked in my memory and I snorted.
“Up to a couple of hundred years ago, doctors used to prescribe powdered mummy for everything from head colds to a severe case of limp dick.”
“How would you use a mummy to cure anything?”
I tried not to laugh. Sometimes it wasn’t easy to get him to accept serious explanations. If he thought I thought it was a joke, the words would just bounce off his forehead. “They’d pulverize them, sell it to doctors for medicine, and the doctors would prescribe it to make a tea that would supposedly cure pretty much anything they thought the patient had.”
“Tea?” Bruce wrinkled his fat, several-times-broken nose. “That’s gross.”
“Yeah, well, I won’t tell you how they stretched the supply when actual mummies were harder to come by. Ground mummy would be better for you, in spite of the embalming fluids. Couldn’t let a whole industry fail, though.” I sighed again, a different kind of frustration. Some things never changed. “What was the old man working on that could possibly have been worth killing him over?”
Bruce shrugged. “Guess we’ll have to look.” He leaned down toward the desk debris then straightened and glanced nervously from side to side. “You don’t suppose it was a curse, do you?”
I closed my eyes and pinched the bridge of my nose. He made it so easy, I just couldn’t help myself. “Well, pretty much only royalty or really rich people could afford curses. We’ll have to go through things in the loading bay to see if anyone here qualifies.” Or to see if anything obviously important is missing. Or not missing. Or not obviously. Careful or you’ll think yourself into a corner. Experiments, whatever they were, notwithstanding, my information said the old guy was onto something really, really big. Big like King Tut big. Maybe even worth killing over. There had to be some clue lying around.
We found the secondary security system next to a thin door hidden behind an upright wooden sarcophagus. Not exactly high tech for the modern era, but I’m sure the early 80s keypad seemed pretty impressive in this neighbourhood. Whoever had been through the Doc’s stuff hadn’t been too thorough, I guessed. Or the keypad didn’t look tampered with at least. For our purposes, Bruce’s fist took care of all the tampering necessary. His foot dealt with the door in a similar manner, and just as effectively.
“Very nicely done, Bruce.” Always give compliments where and when they’re due. In Bruce’s case, I also enjoyed the bashful ‘aw shucks’ look on someone his size.
I groped inside the door for a light switch, finding it at about the right level on my left. The room blazed back like standing next to the sun. For a moment, I wished Witkinstein had installed a dimmer switch. The effect would have been nearly as impressive, just less blinding. “Wow. How much ancient Egyptian bling does one man need?” Tablets, statues, jewellery, urns and pots and tools I couldn’t even begin to identify, all carved from gold and all polished to within a millimetre of being hazardous to vision. The collection’s centrepiece lay in the middle of the floor. Yeah, King Tut big all right, but he’d already found it. Still, the old man wasn’t known for field work. His reputation was as someone people brought stuff to so he could work things out. He never went out looking himself.
“Um, maybe we should think about the curse a little more. This guy looks like he was kind of rich to me.”
Even with a twinge of guilt in my gut, I had a hard time tearing my eyes away from the sarcophagus to look at my assistant. “I’m sorry, Bruce. I was just teasing you about the curse. Every one of the famous mummies has had a curse attached, but nothing has ever come from any of them, despite what some Egyptophile conspiracy nut might tell you. You’re right, though. This guy looks pretty rich.” Rich like a king. King Tut? Somewhere out there, someone was looting the tomb of an undiscovered pharaoh and bringing the stuff to the Doc. Either my informant held out on me or there was a lot more going on here than an old archaeology professor taking up artefact collecting in his retirement. Where had he gotten the money to cover the goods in this room?
“There’s no curse, boss?”
“No such thing. Never has been.” I took a couple of steps forward and put a hand on the sarcophagus. My fingers trailed up the side as I moved to look into the face of a king. Cool to the touch, I marvelled at the hundreds of hours that must have gone into its working. The blue and gold design with black lines and highlights reminded me very much of the King Tut death mask, but whoever had modelled for this face was much older, much more experienced, much more a king. Killed or murdered as a teenager, Tutankhamen never had a chance to rule. Whoever lay in this sarcophagus reigned over his world absolutely, had been good at it, and knew it. Just a few inches under my hand lay the wrapped remains of a divine king of Egypt, chosen of the gods, lord of all he surveyed. You could see that even in the gold carving. Well, I could see it. Bruce wouldn’t come close enough to look.
“But you said—”
“I’m sorry, Bruce. I know what I said, and I shouldn’t tease you. It’s not very nice.” Not that I’m always, or even often, very nice, but it’s better to keep Bruce happy. Sulking, he’s less alert. “Everything you’ve ever heard about a mummy’s curse has been made up by someone, right down to anything written on the tomb itself. That was just to try scaring away superstitious grave robbers or find a way to make money.”
I tore my eyes away from the sarcophagus to look back at my sidekick. Worry lines creased his face and eyes that normally seemed just a little too small for his head didn’t suffer from that problem right now. He’d folded his arms across his broad chest, tucking fists into his armpits and dropping his chin until it almost touched his ribs. Bruce actually looked scared and that worried me a little. As far as I remembered, Bruce had never been scared of anything, ever, but some tiny memory of something must have pulled the strings of childhood fear. Did he watch a bad horror movie at a very young age? Read a scary novel involving mummies? Buy into a campfire story?
Wrong time to dwell on that. I was sure I’d hear all about it later, anyway. “Of course I’m sure.” I smiled, trying to be comforting. “It’s pretty well documented. Mould spores, bad air, primitive medicine, that sort of thing.” I didn’t really feel like making up some references he wouldn’t remember, but I needed him to be Bruce not some giant cowering child. I needed him to watch my back so I could figure out why old Witkinstein hadn’t announced his discovery, whatever it was, to the world. It was only a matter of time until one of his contacts or suppliers showed up with something to share with him, or, knowing how fast word travelled, looking to take something back and sell it to someone else.
A muffled thud out in the warehouse told us that time might already be up.COLLAPSE