Edmund Peabody ran through the Egyptian tomb, hurtling through a darkness three thousand years old. His grandfather ran with him down the passageway. Chander, his brother, ran with him. The huge Frenchman named Lothair ran with him. Their bouncing electric torch beams cut brilliant yellow swaths back-and-forth, illuminating water-damaged pillars, walls of faded red, green and blue hieroglyphs and stacked funerary objects glimmering with ivory and gold.
Edmund’s heart hammered inside his chest. He was afraid. What was the purpose of that? Fifteen-year-old boys weren’t supposed to be afraid of anything. Booby trap triggers—knobs of petrified wood and odd configurations of stones—laced the floor and walls, but he wasn’t afraid of those. The heavy, atrophied air threatened to suffocate him but he wasn’t afraid of that either.
Edmund was afraid of the tomb raiders. The raiders wearing the swirling robes of the desert nomads and carrying submachine guns. And the raiders were coming.
“Hurry, lads!” Edmund’s grandfather gasped with the honeyed accent of the British upper-cruster. “Only a few steps further! And mind where you put your feet!”
Edmund’s electric torch light haloed in his spectacles and lit up the khaki-clad back of his grandfather, the honorable Colonel Percival Peabody, a man who had seen much of the world and fought its dragons. The Colonel’s red silk flying scarf fluttered at the edges of the light beam that jerked as Edmund ran. They all had electric torches tucked into leather hammocks on their pith helmets, a device designed by the Colonel himself for keeping the hands free during tomb exploration.
“We’ve cleared the antechamber!” Chander yelled from behind Edmund. “Do not brush against the statues outside the burial chamber! Remember the triggers!” Lothair, the heavily-muscled Frenchman who rarely spoke—which was odd for a Frenchman— brought up the rear, gripping a large crowbar.
Two jackal-headed statues of Anubis emerged from the void, guarding each flank of the burial chamber doorway. Their black faces were stern, their obsidian eyes furious inside teardrop swirls of blue pigment.
“Ah! Anubis, the protector of the dead!” the Colonel cried in passing. “I fear we must violate your trust!”
They hurried into the large rectangular burial chamber. Edmund fought off a sense of vertigo upon entering. The walls with their riots of hieroglyphs made the eyes drift, one’s balance uncertain. This sensation was offset, once inside, by the immensity of the sarcophagus, a massive block of yellow quartzite looming up from the limestone floor which anchored the space. A life-size statue of princess Neferu in a white dress and wearing a golden ankh pendant stood against the right-hand wall. The wood of the statue was old and cracked but it was still lovely.
The Colonel scrambled around the opposite side of the sarcophagus. The quartzite glowed like liquid amber under his torch as if it were illuminated from within, the reflecting light making the Colonel’s unkempt silver eyebrows look like hawk wings. “Over here with me, lads,” he said with the authority of a man accustomed to ordering around other men. “This isn’t going to be very scientific, but it must be done. Hurry!”
“This is grave robbing, really,” Edmund said as he shifted alongside the Colonel.
“Emergency artifact rescue is more like it, old chap,” Chander added; Chander was probably fifteen years old—the same age as Edmund—and adopted, with the chestnut-brown skin and dark-chocolate eyes of the Himalayas. Though his frame was thin he was still considerably burlier than Edmund.
“Ready to push on three, lads! We’ll give it the old heave-ho!” the Colonel shouted.
Edmund pressed his hands against the smooth edge of the quartzite lid. The stone was cool to the touch. The tomb air was less oppressive than the blazing Egyptian heat outside and it thickened the sweat on his skin, adding stickiness to his shirt which was soaked through and clung to him.
“Three, two …” the Colonel counted down rapidly.
Lothair slipped into the narrow space between the tomb wall and the sarcophagus, his mountainous shoulder pressed up against Edmund’s narrow one. They crouched in preparation for the big push. Edmund tensed his muscles and took a deep breath, suddenly aware of the air and the last men to breathe it, the acolyte priests of the dead royal princess, Neferu. Edmund smelled traces of the fig palm unguents the priests had applied to their bald heads, the scent still clinging to the oxygen molecules.
“One. Heave!” the Colonel shouted.
Edmund threw every ounce of his strength against the slab. He heard the Colonel and Chander grunting. He realized that he was grunting too. The lid shuddered on its moorings but it did not give.
“We must!” the Colonel commanded. “The outcome of the war could depend upon us opening this sarcophagus, boys! Arrrr—throw your backs into it! Heave!”
Edmund planted his boot on the wall and pushed with such intensity that he feared his spine might snap. Beside him Lothair roared, his swarthy face puffed near to bursting, his forehead sparkling with perspiration.
The slab shifted with a dull pop as the seal broke.
“Aha!” the Colonel shouted. “Victory! We have it, lads! Heave! Heave! Heave!”
Edmund pushed with new energy. The locks of dust and time, thirty centuries old, had given way. The momentum was with them. His arm muscles shook.
The quartzite slab slid back and dropped over the opposite side of the sarcophagus, crashing to the limestone floor. The rock split with a resounding crack that left Edmund’s ears ringing.
Everyone swung their torches into the sarcophagus. The beams revealed a large mummy case gilded with gold in the form of an Egyptian girl, her face delicate and stern, her eyes cut from crystal that danced in the light. But there was no time to admire the handiwork of the ancient coffin-makers.
“Take hold!” the Colonel urged, reaching down. “This is an outer coffin, likely the first of two. Lift! Lift!”
Edmund jammed his hands into the rough-edged gap. He located the seam between the top and bottom pieces of the coffin and hooked his fingers under it. Lothair angled his big black crowbar alongside, his gloved hands clamped on the stem.
With a howl, the four raised the lid.
Beneath, exquisite in the jerking light, emerged the second coffin. It was a masterpiece, a glittering mosaic of gilded wood inlaid with scarlet, purple, emerald-green, blue, orange, amber glass and black obsidian. Delicate fingers had created it.
“Again!” the Colonel cried, with despair in his voice. It hurt him to mistreat such things, Edmund knew.
Crowbar and muscle leveraged the second coffin lid up and over. The sour odor of decayed fabric and resin-oxidized human flesh burst up and assaulted the nostrils. Edmund choked. Mummy dust was suffocating. Inside lay the linen-wrapped princess, a slender, sunken and fragile form. She had one hand, the right, placed on her chest. She had small feet. But the sight which stunned Edmund was her life-size, burnished mask, a masterfully hammered golden face of unearthly female beauty inlaid with multicolored glass.
The Colonel lifted the mask, handing it to Lothair. “We shall use this as a diversion,” the Colonel breathed. “It will work if the raiders don’t know what to look for.”
Edmund’s torchlight fell upon the exposed face of the mummy. Its linen wrappings had partially fallen away, exposing brown-gray flesh shrunken across the skull, dark sockets curtained behind papery lids, teeth white but jagged in the leathery-bacon strips of the lips that held them to the jaw. It was ghastly, yes—but it was breathtaking.
“Neferu …” Chander whispered, also captivated at the sight of the long-dead princess. Somehow, some way, a terrible beauty still clung to the dried-out corpse.
There was another smell under the stink of the ancient embalming fluids and fossilized flesh; a deep, rich, drowsy smell of a flower which lingered in the nostrils. Edmund suspected it was the lotus—especially because the cartouches lining Neferu’s tomb were rich with the Nile flower hieroglyph.
“Steady, boys.” the Colonel muttered, moving to the head of the nested coffins. “Curses! There’s no time!” He drew a knife from his belt. “Damn these wretched fools who force our hand!” He sliced the linen at Neferu’s ribcage and stripped the wrappings down to the wrists.
Neferu’s skeletal right hand, folded on the chest, lay exposed. The finger bones stuck out of the collapsed skin and clutched a metal scarab. The metal was black but iridescent, its glossy skin a shimmering prism under the light of the torches. A lotus hieroglyph, painted in gold, showed prominently on its upper thorax. In the middle of the abdomen, glittering under the partially unfolded wings, rested a huge, sapphire-blue gemstone.
—the blue scarab of Hatshepsut!” The Colonel whispered with barely-contained awe. “Neferu holds the sacred scarab of her pharaoh mother, Hatshepsut! This is most unusual!” He tried to jiggle the scarab loose but the dead fingers held tight. “Blast it!” He sank the knife into the gap between the scarab and the mummy’s hand and tore the artifact free. “My most profound apologies, princess,” he muttered.
“Oui, Princess, forgive us,” Lothair rumbled with his French accent, his eyes glowing green in the battery-powered light. It always startled Edmund when Lothair, the old Foreign Legionnaire, spoke, it was so rare. Lothair’s voice was deep and profound as if his throat had weighed the wisdom of his words for years before releasing them.
“Why is she buried with her mother’s scarab?” Edmund asked quickly. “Where is her own?”
The Colonel thoughtfully hefted the lotus scarab in his hand. “I don’t know,” he said. “It is perplexingly odd.”
“Why are not both of her hands folded on her chest?” Chander asked. “Did one crumble away?”
“Neferu was not a pharaoh, Chander,” the Colonel answered. “Only pharaohs had both hands crossed on the chest. She was a princess, a royal, and royalty only had one hand on the chest.” His eyes suddenly lit up. “Wait!” He dug down the side of the coffin, ripping away linen with his knife, exposing the left hand.
A gorgeous purple stone gleamed between the yellow-white finger bones. This scarab bore another golden hieroglyph on its upper back—an ankh.
“The purple scarab of Neferu! Two scarabs! She was entombed with two, hers and her mother’s. Never would I have suspected.” The Colonel sank his blade into the hand and pried the purple scarab loose. The dry bones of the pinky finger snapped off and fell away into the coffin, rattling down between petrified folds of linen and skin.
“I hate this, this shredding!” the Colonel growled as he stuffed the two scarabs into his coat pockets and signaled towards the doorway. “Quickly now, lads. The enemy is upon us. We must flee. Lothair, lead the way.”
Lothair leapt down from the sarcophagus, the beam of his electric torch advancing back through the doorway and into the pitch black corridor beyond. Edmund and Chander were immediately upon his heels. The grand gallery was long and narrow, the largest chamber in the tomb complex. They scrambled the length of it, passing funerary boats with hulls of reeds drawn from the Nile, painted figurines and stacks upon stacks of priceless treasures.
In the anteroom doorway stood Moustapha, the Colonel’s right-hand man. A hot breeze was up, howling in through the tomb entrance, billowing the folds of Moustapha’s pale gray-yellow kaftan. Sunlight silhouetted his fluttering outline and hurt Edmund’s dark-accustomed pupils. Moustapha was a tall, lanky Egyptian with red-brown skin and sun-narrowed eyes. He and the Colonel, like most everyone else on the expedition, had a long history. Edmund didn’t like Moustapha overmuch; he was resourceful and an expert in all things ancient but he was also a little shifty. Edmund couldn’t put his finger on exactly how or why—but the man was shifty.
“Strasser is here,” Moustapha gasped with the thick accent of the Egyptians. Sweat gleamed on his forehead and he looked as if he had just sprinted a hundred yards. Moustapha was a quiet academic sort who disliked violence but now he had a pistol clenched in his right hand.
Edmund’s stomach muscles seized up. Strasser was the Colonel’s arch nemesis, his competitor in the race for the ancient treasures of the world. But there was more to it than just business; the Colonel and Strasser knew each other well—they had been close friends once—but something terrible had happened between them long ago and it had made Strasser dangerous.
“Blast the mortal heel of Achilles!” the Colonel blurted. “Of course he is!”
“We set up a roadblock but he did not come in trucks,” Moustapha said. “He has Bedouins with him. Finnegan is radioing the British outpost at Abydos. But the devils are already upon us, Colonel.”
“Out! Out!” the Colonel shouted, planting a hand on Edmund and Chander’s backs. “And Moustapha—put that wretched revolver away!”
Edmund removed the torch from his helmet, clicking it off before he shoved it into his pocket. The afternoon sun blinded him as he emerged from the tomb and stumbled through the digging debris in the work trench. Neferu’s golden mask gleamed with a cruel brilliance as Lothair carried it alongside. The air, harsh with the burnt-mineral odor of hot sand, boiled Edmund’s nostrils. Summer had come early to the desert this year. Early and hot. Egypt hosted only two seasons: winter and summer. Mild and murderous. Nothing in between.
Edmund heard the grunts of nervous camels and the shouts of frightened men.
“Strasser has brought the desert vermin with him!” Velvet Carpenter raged. Edmund, with his mostly-shut eyes, couldn’t see Velvet, though he could tell she was standing on the embankment above him on the right. Velvet was a former Army nurse and the expedition’s cataloguer. Her voice, normally birdlike and gentle as the Norfolk hills from which she hailed, was now shaking with anger. “Oh, why can’t Strasser leave us alone?”
The Colonel grabbed Edmund and Chander each by the shoulder and spun them around. He pulled the two scarabs out of his jacket and thrust one into the palm of each boy. Blinking, Edmund peered at the sun-shimmering bulk of the Colonel: he was a small man but he was barrel-chested and ferocious. Even though he was retired from the service his clothes were military in style, all khaki, with puttees wrapped around his calves. His face was dominated by his moustache, a silver and brown masterpiece that ran from cheek-to-cheek in a well-groomed sweep that made even his prodigious eyebrows seem paltry.
Edmund clamped his fingers around the metal scarab and its purple stone; it felt as if it weighed a hundred pounds.
“Listen, boys. Strasser is here for the scarab, but he would expect only one.” The Colonel spoke quickly, with a dead seriousness Edmund had never witnessed before. “The burial mask will absorb his curiosity for a moment but you must keep the scarabs away from him until the Tommies get here. Now, split up and run! Run!”
Courage swelled in Edmund’s throat. He hated intense action but he loved that feeling. “They shan’t capture both of us,” he declared.
“By the beard of Nelson’s goat, we shall make the pharaohs proud,” Chander added.
“Stop blabbering and run!” the Colonel gruffed, propelling the boys down the trench with a shove.
Launched as they were, Edmund and Chander bolted, half-out-of-control over the loose rocks and gravel. They emerged from the trench onto a barren, dusty brown hillside in the Valley of the Kings. Everything in Egypt was dusty and brown. The access road was fifteen yards down the slope. Moustapha had parked the big equipment truck sideways across the middle of the track. The white canopies of the expedition’s tents crowded a shallow ravine on the left.
“You cut right!” Edmund said. “I’ll cut left!”
“Run fast, brother!” Chander replied. “For they shall never catch me!” Chander angled right and sprinted away.
Edmund turned left and ran as fast as his gangly legs could carry him. Jumbled rocks littered the sand, making it difficult to find good landing points for the feet. He stumbled but caught himself, though his pith helmet fell off and bounced away with hollow thumps of cork. The only safety lay in escaping to the desert. He would cut through the encampment and vanish into the endless dunes on the other side. Bending low, he scrambled between the dust-coated supply trucks and ducked under the tethers of the supply camels who sputtered with agitation. He passed handfuls of worried-looking Egyptian diggers who peered down the road.
Edmund reached the horses and snatched the reins of a big white Arabian, throwing himself up into the saddle. He kicked the horse and guided it between the tents towards the safety of the sand dunes.
Someone snatched Edmund by the collar, yanking him out of the saddle. He landed on his back in the hard-packed sand and it knocked the wind out of him. He looked up to see Finnegan Baird, a blond Irishman and ex-Army private who usually smelled like whiskey. Finnegan was another member of the Colonel’s entourage from the old days.
“No, boy!” Finnegan whispered as he dragged Edmund inside the mess tent with its lingering scent of bully beef and eggs. Finnegan dropped Edmund between the tables and crouched beside the radio set, slapping the headset on his ears and gripping the microphone.
Edmund staggered to his feet, squeezing his hands against his bruised ribs and looking at the back tent flap—partly open, it beckoned to him.
“Forget it, laddie. There’s a host of nomads out there,” Finnegan whispered over the crackle of static in his headgear. “Look up. They must have trekked in overland. They have us surrounded. Don’t be goin’ and gettin’ yourself shot all to pieces, there.”
Scanning the slopes of the dunes, Edmund saw a line of white-robed Bedouins approaching. They all held submachine guns. Edmund ducked back, fright humming in his throat. He had to find a place to hide.
“Peabody expedition, do you still read me?” a British voice filtered through the static on the radio headset.
Finnegan turned back to the microphone. “Aye. But from the looks of things I won’t for very much longer.”
“Fifth battalion is on its way—should be there in fifteen minutes,” the British radioman said. “Hold on as best you can until then, old boy.”
“Holding on, aye,” Finnegan replied
“I have to get out of here,” Edmund said.
“What have you got there, lad?” Finnegan asked, eyeing the purple scarab clutched in Edmund’s hand.
“It’s the artifact we came for. We can’t let Strasser have it,” Edmund answered. He saw Finnegan’s eyes flash.
“It’ll be alright, lad,” Finnegan whispered, placing his hand on Edmund’s shoulder. “Let me ponder our situation, eh?”
Edmund calculated that it was pointless to try to control his adrenalin—but he could try to regulate his breathing, which was coming in fits and gasps. Finnegan was many things but he wasn’t much of a thinker. Edmund would have to find his own way out of this one.
“Give it to me,” Finnegan said, motioning for Edmund to place the scarab in his hand. “I’ll bury it under the ovens.”
Edmund shook his head. There were better hiding places than that. Shouts boomed in the near distance, in Arabic, coming from what seemed like every direction. A raft of wind chimes hanging outside the tent jangled loudly—the Canadian cook, McVey, loved wind chimes and he had built these ones out of old copper pipes. The wind was up and the air seemed thicker, hotter, more difficult to breathe than it had been just moments before.
Edmund plunged the scarab into his coat pocket, sinking it as deep as the folds of the fabric allowed, then buttoned the flap shut. “I’ll take care of it,” he said.
“We are all here to take care of it, Edmund,” Finnegan urged. “Give it to me. Hurry!”
Still, Edmund did not move. It wasn’t right. It was not about Finnegan—he had always trusted the Irishman. Somehow Edmund knew that burying the scarab would be the wrong move.
The sounds of feet punching across sand came on, louder and louder. Crouching, Edmund saw Bedouin boots swishing along the gap between the base of the tent and the ground.
“Edmund!” Finnegan hissed, waving his fingers. “Now, boy!”
Edmund bolted past Finnegan and ducked out the front of the tent.
Half-blinded by the outside light—the sky seemed like it was burning, so brightly did the clouds glow—Edmund heard shouts behind him. The voices were unfamiliar and very Arab: “Hands up, Englishman! Hands up!”
“No reason to get your ire up there, my desert friends,” Edmund heard Finnegan reply loudly. “And I’m green-blooded Irish, by the way.”
Edmund slipped into a narrow gap between two sleeping tents. He was hidden for the moment but it was no good. The Bedouins were everywhere, in all directions. For an instant he considered jumping on one of the camels and attempting to escape that way. Nix that. A bad-tempered, goofy-footed camel was not built as a fast-escape vehicle.
A Bedouin, his flowing Arab robes streaked with dust, strode past the tents, passing mere inches from Edmund’s nose. Edmund froze in a crouch until the man passed. He could not stay where he was. Slowly, carefully, he crept up to the cab of the water truck, a heavy, oversized vehicle carrying a steel reservoir tank. Gently lifting the passenger-side door handle, he clambered into the cab. His canteen, sloshing loudly because it was not full, clinked against the doorframe. He shoved the canteen around on his belt and into the middle of his back. The cab was as hot as an oven. He felt his flesh start to cook as he pulled himself onto the frying-pan hot leather seat. Drawing his legs in, he nursed the door shut with a low click.
The atmosphere was unbearable. Edmund couldn’t breathe. His lungs couldn’t draw any oxygen from the superheated air. Rotating the window handle, he rolled the squeaking window down a few inches. The wind whistled through the crack but it was just as hot as everything else. He hunched down into the grimy foot well where the air felt even hotter.
“Keep your hands on your heads! Do not move!” a Turkish-flavored voice trumpeted outside with a nasty strain of authority.
“I can’t very well put my hands on my hat, sir,” the Colonel answered, sounding annoyed. “Or would you prefer I drop this priceless masterpiece in the gravel?”
Edmund raised his head, slowly, just enough to be able to see out through the dust-grimed windshield. The truck was facing the access road where dozens of Bedouins stood, white and tan robed, draped with bullet-packed bandoliers, feet planted wide as they held the reins of their camels. The white Arabian trotted around, reins trailing in the sand, but they ignored the horse.
The Colonel, holding Neferu’s burial mask, stood before a cold-eyed Turk who looked strangely out of place in his rust-orange robes and red fez. Velvet Carpenter and Moustapha, no longer carrying the pistol, flanked the Colonel. The Egyptian workers, streams of burly fellows in long white galabiyas, were being rapidly rounded up along with the regular members of the Colonel’s staff: Gerhard Dengler, Barclay Rathbone, Orlanda Padilla, Dermot Harper, Ian McVey and the black American named Ridley Jones. They were a patchwork group from the lost generation, an unusual but tightly-knit team of Brits, ex-patriots and lost travellers.
Three Bedouins marched past Edmund’s truck, hauling Finnegan, who was still wearing the radio headset and holding the microphone, wires trailing. “This man call on radio,” one of the Bedouins shouted in rough English.
“Unfortunate,” a voice with an Austrian accent replied. “But the difficult work has already been done for us.”
A man in expensive black desert robes appeared, marching through the ranks of Bedouins who stepped aside obediently as he passed. Edmund hunched lower. There was something unsettling about the black-robed man, an elegantly-edged menace. He was older, perhaps close to the Colonel’s age, and he wasn’t an Arab: his handsome face was bordered with short blonde hair edged with silver-white above the ears. Strasser—it had to be Strasser. Edmund noticed that although the man walked with a fine military precision there was a glitch in his stride, a limp, a hint of unevenness in the line of his body which warped motions that should have been smooth.
Edmund jerked. His chin had touched the metal dashboard and it was so hot it scalded him. Sweat poured into his eyes with the effect of molten lava. He was being cooked alive. A human Yorkshire pudding.
Strasser stopped in front of the Colonel and smiled, offering his hand. “Good afternoon, Percival. It appears that we meet under strained circumstances once again.”
The Colonel did not move to shake Strasser’s hand. “I heard that you are working for the German Army now, Oberst
Strasser. I am sure you must have made quite an impression upon the Third Reich.”
“As you did upon your Queen, Colonel
Peabody,” Strasser replied, withdrawing his hand.
The Colonel nodded, then gave Strasser a piercing look. “This is my prize, Hector. My work. You have no right to take it.”
A smile rose on Strasser’s lips, a cruel, wounded smile. “I am a genius in many ways, Percival, as you know. At logistics. At stratagems. At chess. If you remember, you never defeated me in chess.”
“I vaguely recall many draws,” the Colonel said.
“But you never won, Percival. Never,” Strasser replied. “But, alas, in the end, I have proven to be a poor archaeologist and an even poorer judge of character. I am, however, a very good thief. But even in thievery you have outplayed me, for never shall I steal from you anything as precious as what you stole from me.”
“One cannot steal what is willingly given, Hector,” the Colonel said.
Strasser’s eyes flashed. “Enough idle chatter. What have you so kindly dug up for me here in the Valley of the Kings?”
“By the rules of the Gladstone International Antiquities Agreement, what I have found here belongs to myself, the Egyptian Government and the British Museum.” The Colonel said.
“Rules?” Strasser laughed. “There are no rules in war, Percival. In war, the strong take from the weak. Please do not test me. You know that would go badly for you and your associates.” He thrust his hand out again, palm up. “Since you managed to radio the British at Abydos, I must assume that I have very little time. Ten minutes, perhaps.”
The Colonel displayed the mask. “We have this, a burial mask of gold. The tomb is royal, but not of a pharaoh. We have yet to discover a name. Sadly, ancient grave robbers stripped most of the precious items in antiquity. Unfortunate in many ways.” He offered the mask to Strasser. “I presume you wish to add this to the Gestapo’s collection?”
Strasser grinned. “Really, Percival? The robbers took everything and left the mask behind? I am surprised you have so little faith in me. This is the tomb of Neferu. I must congratulate you on finding it since it has eluded us all for so long. But, as I said, you were always a far more talented archaeologist than I.” His face shifted to sternness. “Where is the scarab?”
The Colonel shook his head. “There is no scarab, Hector. This is not the tomb of a pharaoh.”
Edmund saw Chander being led onto the road, a Bedouin hauling him along by the collar of his jacket. Edmund gasped, covering his mouth with the cuff of his sleeve. The Bedouin held Hatshepsut’s blue scarab in his free hand.
Edmund’s tongue was now muffled with dust. His sleeve had been coated with sand. But he had no way to spit it out. His saliva had evaporated.
“Ah!” Strasser enthused. “Using your grandsons as runners, Percival? That could prove a dangerous tactic, for them.” The Bedouin handed the blue scarab to Strasser, who scrutinized it with the eye of a jeweler. “The lotus scarab of Hatshepsut,” he said. “Glorious.”
“You have what you came for, Hector,” the Colonel said, his face fallen. “Now take your thieves and go. After all, the British are coming.”
“Where is the other one?” Strasser snapped.
The Colonel raised an eyebrow. “What other one? You have the only one.”
“Quit stalling, Percival. You were always a pathetic liar. It is unusual that Neferu would be buried with her mother’s scarab but surely Neferu was also buried with her own. Where is it?”
“There was only one,” the Colonel answered.
Dark fury flashed in Strasser’s eyes. “Do not play me for the fool, Percival! You did once and I shall never allow it again!” He spun on his heel, raising his hand as he shouted to his men. “There is another scarab! Find the other boy! Find him and bring him to me! Tear the camp apart! Quickly!”
The small army of Bedouin—there must have been at least fifty of them—scattered immediately, swarming through the camp. Edmund hunched low in the foot well but there were too many gangly parts of him to hide properly there. The space stank of old leather shoes and petrol. A crusty blob lay in the accumulated sand, the remains of what might have once been a sausage sandwich.
A tall Bedouin strode past, glancing at the dust-caked window, but he did not see Edmund.
The cogs and gears in Edmund’s brain whirled. If he opened the door and ran he would most surely be caught. If he remained where he was they would find him or he would bake like a bespectacled muffin. Something brushed his head with a jingle. Looking up, he saw a set of keys dangling in the ignition.
Edmund swung up into the driver’s seat. Keeping his head low, he eased the cranky emergency brake lever down.
The Bedouins were all over the camp, ghostly robed forms passing the dirty windows, shouting as they knocked over stacked crates and ripped the fabric tents apart. Edmund tried to swallow but managed nothing more than a cough. There was no moisture left in his throat. He shoved the gear shift into neutral, jammed the clutch down with his left foot, turned the keys in the ignition and stomped on the gas pedal. The engine roared to life with a shuddering growl. It backfired, which surely gave the Bedouins a bit of a start.
The fat was in the fire now.
Sweat poured into Edmund’s eyes. With one hand on the leather-wrapped steering wheel, he slapped the stick into first gear and eased his foot up and off the clutch.
The water truck lunged forward, tires whizzing in the sand, engine screaming at a high pitch as if everything was spinning at the wrong revolution. Bouncing up and down and back and forth, Edmund could barely keep a grip on the wheel. The lurch flung him forward so hard that his head hit the roof.
The Bedouins shouted, charging the truck, pointing their gun muzzles. Edmund stomped on the clutch and threw the truck into second gear. The big vehicle accelerated, back end weaving, its tires throwing waves of gravel in every direction. Edmund worried that he had not locked the doors—the passenger side window was rolled down, for mercy’s sake—but there was nothing for it now.
The truck barreled straight down the middle of the access road. Edmund saw Bedouins and Egyptian workers diving away. He stood on the gas pedal. He couldn’t breathe.
“The lad!” Edmund heard Strasser bellow. “The other lad is in the truck!”
Edmund saw a rapid succession of flashes in front of him. A line of holes ripped high across the windshield from right to left. The glass collapsed in a wave of shards. Double drat, Edmund thought, hunching low. The Bedouins, armed to the teeth, would now turn the truck—and him—into Swiss cheese. He was suddenly all wet. The bullets had broken the rear window of the cab and punctured the reservoir tank behind; streams of hot water gushed down upon him as if he were sitting in a fountain.
Outside, Strasser screamed. “No shooting! I want the young fool alive! Bring him to me alive!”
Edmund pushed the gear stick into third. The truck bounced and rattled, angry at his poor handling of the clutch. Edmund lifted his head. He was about to crash into the side of the equipment truck which still blocked the road. He spun the wheel to the left, aiming for the gap between the rear of the equipment truck and the access road embankment. The gap was not quite big enough. The front right corner of the water truck slammed into the tail end of the equipment truck, launching it sideways in a shower of flying crates and shovels.
The hood of the water truck popped and flipped up. Now Edmund could not see anything but metal.
Thrown forward, Edmund hauled himself back into his seat. For all of the fishtailing and bumping into things, the truck was moving faster now. He hunched down so he could see through the gap between the hood and the windshield frame and swung the truck back onto the road. Fourth gear took up him to a higher speed. He rejoiced at the prospect of escape—but his hope was instantly dashed.
Hurtling around a bend in the track, Edmund saw a line of Bedouins on camels and—far more disconcerting—two old trucks with mounted machine guns, blocking the only road out of the Valley of the Kings. The machine guns, old water-cooled relics from the Great War, swung towards him.
In that instant the world felt all wrong to Edmund. It was midday but the sky was strangely dark. The air was too dense, too overheated. But he had no time to do more than instinctively sense these things. He hit the brake and wound the wheel. The water truck staggered and wheezed. He managed to depress the clutch pedal just before the engine cut out. He pulled the gear back into its first position and slowly turned the truck around, accelerating back up the road. Peering into the rear view mirror, he saw that the Bedouins were not chasing him.
His first escape attempt thwarted, Edmund formulated another plan. He would blow through the encampment and race out into the desert—there were several gullies on the outskirts wide and smooth enough to accommodate the truck—and he would escape into the waste. He did have some water in his canteen and a compass in his pocket. The truck wouldn’t make it far over the rough terrain but he figured he could abandon it and trek back once the British soldiers had arrived.
Edmund was now waist deep in water—the streams from the bullet-riddled tank were pouring in relentlessly. He pressed the submerged accelerator to the floor and took a firm grip on the wheel as he raced back towards the equipment truck, which was now blocking the way diagonally. He hugged the left side of the track, so close to the boulders of the steep embankment that he scraped off the left side view mirror and the wooden runner panel. Bedouins and Egyptians, howling, scattered again.
Suddenly Edmund couldn’t see anything. The world disappeared in a tidal wave of orange-black sand. Sandstorm. Europeans called it the sirocco
but to the Egyptians it was the khamsin
. Bouncing along at fifty kilometers an hour, Edmund shouted—he did not even know what he shouted—and glimpsed the shadow of the equipment truck as he rocketed past it
Edmund cleared the gap. But then he lost control of everything. Thundering into stacks of digging debris, the truck’s wheels lost traction. The vehicle skidded to the left and launched into a teeth-rattling spin. The steering wheel wrenched out of his hands and nearly broke off his thumbs in the process. Outside, through the roar of the torrent, he heard the snapping of wood and rope. Tent fabric ripped away across the open windshield. Sand whipped in as if driven by a lash, stinging his face and eyes. Water surged around him, almost up to the top of the dashboard. Just grand
, Edmund thought. Buried at sea in a desert.
The truck righted itself for an instant, then veered right and slammed into a wall of rock. Edmund banged his forehead on the steering wheel. The door popped open and Edmund fell out in a great cascade of water. The rocky ground hit him hard. He lay stunned, half-drowned, half-sand choked, battling to regain his senses in the murk. The air was fire, slashing his face, incinerating his lungs. He pressed his fingers against his aching forehead and they came back dark, coated with something redder and thicker than water. Snap out of it, Edmund!
A voice shouted from the fog inside his head. He forced himself up on his hands and knees.
A camel emerged from the sandstorm, bawling, its eyelids encrusted with sand. It passed Edmund as if in slow motion, an apparition, a galumphing monster trailing its loose tethering ropes. And then it vanished, swallowed up in the churn.
Edmund crouched, trying to shield his eyes with the collar of his shirt. He had to get to cover. The blasting sand could rip a man’s skin away from his bones, given the opportunity. He saw a dark rectangle not far on his right; he was sitting at the mouth of the trench leading into Neferu’s tomb.
A line of hooded figures, goggled and wrapped in Arab robes, slowly emerged from the storm. Strasser appeared at the head of the group, his black robes rippling about him.
“There he is!” Strasser shouted. “Half-drowned in the desert, lad? There’s a pill for you. Spit the water out of your lungs and hand over the scarab!”
Edmund staggered to his feet. He could barely see. The sand burned his eyes. Hot coals seared his lungs. His limbs felt heavy, soaked, saturated. His boots were full of water and they sloshed. Someone grabbed his arm. It was the Turk, looming out of the swirling sand.
Edmund spun and, with all of his might, punched the man in the stomach. The Turk doubled over. Edmund tore free of his grasp and ran down the trench, straight into the tomb of Neferu.
“Get him!” Strasser howled. “Now!”
The air inside the tomb was cool and clear. Edmund gasped, violently sucking in oxygen, expelling puffs of sand in deep, agonizing, bronchial coughs. It was dark and he staggered, careening off of the wall. He couldn’t see. He groped at his glasses, wiping gluey wet sand from the lenses.
Strasser and the Bedouins were right behind him. But they would be slow, unfamiliar with the tomb. They had him trapped like a rat in a hole, yes, but they didn’t have much time.
Plunging into the black tunnel of the grand gallery, Edmund snatched his electric torch out of his pocket and snapped it on. He was lucky it still worked after being doused in water.
“Hand it over, Edmund Peabody!” Strasser shouted from the entranceway. “You are finished!”
Edmund ran, following his light beam down the treasure-strewn corridor. He stomped the booby trap triggers—the wooden posts and slotted stones his grandfather had identified in the floor—and they pulverized under his boots.
Edmund hoped that the booby traps still worked.
They still did, and very well.
Gigantic blocks of granite dropped from the ceiling. Moving as fast as he could, Edmund cleared the last one by a hair. The blocks crashed to the floor, displacing huge blasts of air that launched Edmund deeper and deeper into the depths of the tomb.
Deafened, running headlong with only his slashing torchlight beam to see with, Edmund watched the floor stones fall away ahead of him, creating a pit ten feet across. He timed his jump and launched himself up and over the trap. He made it, landing on the other side and rolling through the burial chamber doorway just before another massive slab dropped, blocking the passageway in twenty-ton thump of limestone.
Edmund rolled across the floor and sprawled against a big piece of the sarcophagus lid. Choking, he fought to breathe. The ancient traps had lifted an immeasurable amount of dust into the air. He pressed his hands to his face, which was coated with gooey blood and sweat-caked sand. Every muscle and bone ached. Fire burned in his eyes, the swollen lids taking on the quality of sandpaper when he blinked.
His electric torch had rolled free of his grip and lay on the floor. The beam pointed at the white base of the wall where millions of dust motes floated in its glow, reflecting the light. Edmund lay still, fighting panic, waiting until the air settled and he was able to breathe again. Things were blurry. He realized that he had lost his spectacles. Clawing around in the dark, his hands brushing the sand-coated floor, he found the glasses only a few feet to his left. He placed them on his nose and the frame’s familiar pinch gave him a sense of encouragement. The left lens was cracked like a spider web but he could still see through it fairly well.
Suddenly, Edmund was fearful that he had lost the purple scarab. There didn’t seem to be enough weight in his pocket. He patted it and felt no lump. Quickly he unbuttoned the flap and dug his hand in. He felt the cool metal and stone and relief washed over him. He drew the artifact out and looked at it, the purple gem and its golden ankh shivering in the light.
The purple scarab of Neferu was saved, Edmund rejoiced. And he was alive. But he was trapped, trapped in an ancient tomb, breathing air forgotten by both sun and time, sealed in by tons of limestone and granite. But he had saved the Scarab of Neferu. With the British soldiers on their way, Strasser and his goons would have to now retreat and be satisfied with Hatshepsut’s scarab. It would then be up to the Colonel and his team, surely with the help of the Tommies, to dig Edmund and Neferu’s scarab out of their grave. Even with the soldiers’ help it would probably take some time to crack the tomb. The scarab, old and patient, could wait forever. Edmund would only last until the air ran out or he died of thirst.
Edmund reached behind his back and unclipped his canteen. He shook it under his nose, the hollow gurgle of the water within reporting that it was about half full. He desperately wanted to drink it all, to soothe his parched throat and flush his hurting eyes, but he restrained himself.
The electric torch flickered. Edmund tensed. Was the battery that low? Would he be plunged into utter darkness so soon? The torch flickered again. Curses
, Edmund thought.
A sharp pain struck Edmund’s right hand, a raking slash. He croaked and dropped the scarab. Lifting his hand in the weak light, he saw a set of deep red cuts across the palm —seven of them—running with blood. He heard something skitter across the floor. It took him a moment to realize what it was. It was the scarab, running like a living beetle, the purple stone on its back eerily reflecting the torch light.
Edmund dropped the canteen. It hit the limestone floor with a half-hollow clunk
. The scarab was made of metal—it was impossible for it to crawl. This was not science. This was not real. He was half-suffocated. It was logical that he might be hallucinating.
But it felt real. A shivering knot rose in his throat.
The electric torch died. Utter blackness. The sounds of the scarab moving continued, the metal legs clicking across the dusty stones. The purple jewel on its back began to glow.
Edmund shook so hard he couldn’t breathe. The scarab sped up the side of the sarcophagus and disappeared over the edge.
Edmund went still, as still as the tomb around him. He could hear
his heart hammering. The electric torch fluttered awake, the battery at its last gasp. His hand hurt terribly and he gripped it at the wrist, which somehow eased the pain a little.
Edmund heard the rustle of brittle, crumpling linen as something moved. There was also another sound, like the twisting of old, sunburnt leather.
In that moment Edmund realized.
The mummy had just sat up.