“Oh my God,” Alex whispered, her voice awestruck. “There they are.”
There they were indeed. Towering into the sky. Dominating the countryside around them. If Alex hadn’t known it before, the view of the Giza pyramids from her hotel window confirmed she was in Egypt.
Reluctantly, she tore her gaze away and turned, blushing, to face Derek. “I’ve seen them so many times in pictures but …”
“It’s quite all right,” Derek smiled, his gaze still riveted on the spectacle. “They are magnificent. I think your reaction is perfectly understandable. We’ll be heading south on Monday so, by all means, be a tourist.”
“Would you mind?” Alex begged. “I realize I should be working, going with you to the Cairo house or .. doing something else. An’ I will, gladly. But .. I really would like to see them close up. To come all this way and not do that … ”
“Rachel feels the same way so you will have company. Nick and I have already seen them close up so we’ll deal with the practicalities. You could do me a favor?”
“Take Anna with you.”
Alex instantly nodded her agreement. “Sure. She’ll know what we should be looking at. She’ll make it an educational experience .. and you’ll be free to speak what’s on your mind.”
“Thank you. I’m sure Anna will be happy to act as your guide.”
Friday had been a washout. The weather had been cold and dreary, with the occasional heavy downpour but they hadn’t really noticed. Alex had but only briefly. She’d been trying to dig out more information on a demon with a name like Azimanthet, and failing to get anywhere. The others had literally dropped where they stood. Body clocks had been scrambled and they needed time to reset them or they’d be zombies when push came to shove.
Derek hadn’t ordered a day’s timeout because he, like the others, had slept thru most of it. They’d missed their Friday flight because of it and hasty rescheduling was done late Friday evening to get seats early the next day. And then they’d flown on again, from Orly to Cairo, from the gray dampness to the heat and brilliant blue of a vast sky.
He smiled as Alex turned back to the window. “There are pharaohs at the bottom of the garden,” he remarked and she half groaned, half laughed. “Rachel is next door, Nick and I are opposite. Anna is on the other side of Rachel. We’ll meet up, back here, at .. seven? That should give everyone enough time.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” she murmured. “But we’ll be here.” Alex flashed a grin back over her shoulder. “I can always go back tomorrow.”
“Of course. But I’d also recommend a visit to the Cairo Museum. Well worth a look.”
There was a knock on the door and Derek answered it. “Yes, Nick.”
“I’m unpacked an’ ready to hit the road.”
“Excellent. Enjoy your afternoon, Alex.”
He left her alone to gaze and marvel at the last remaining example of the Seven Wonders of the World.
“Cairo house?” Nick questioned.
“I think so,” Derek agreed. “Let’s see if our expedition has been approved.”
“Isn’t it amazing?” Rachel said a half hour later as they sat on the terrace. “I see it an’ yet there’s a part of me saying ‘I don’t believe I’m here’.”
“Me too,” Alex smiled.
“Hi,” Anna greeted as she strolled to their table. “Where’re the guys?”
“Had to go visit some contacts,” Alex said. “Derek suggested that you’d be a great tour guide. Rachel an’ I really want to get up close and personal with those,” she pointed.
“This isn’t a vacation,” Anna responded.
Rachel frowned. “We know that, Anna. We’re flying south again on Monday – ”
“Monday? Why the delay? Why not tomorrow, or later today?” Anna demanded. “Are there problems with the authorities? Have they refused our permits?”
“There are several reasons why Nick an’ Derek chose Monday,” Rachel said calmly but she watched the other woman with careful eyes. “Murray is arriving today an’ he’ll need to recover from his jet lag.”
“He’ll want to be brought up to speed,” Alex added.
“Alex an’ I have never been to Egypt, an’ we all need to acclimatize to the heat,” Rachel went on. “Nick has to gather together all the supplies we’ll need. Derek has to learn the latest position – ”
“Why couldn’t I go with him?” Anna cut in. “I’ve worked in Egypt before. I have contacts of my own.”
Alex rose gracefully. “It’s okay. We can go visit the pyramids on our own and you can wait for Derek an’ Nick to come back. You don’t have to feel you’re playing nursemaid to us, Anna. I’d hoped, an’ I’m sure Rachel did too, that you’d share some of your expertise with us. Show us things the average sightseer would miss. But you don’t have to. Derek said we’d meet up here again at seven so we’ll see you then. Rachel?”
Anna watched them head toward the open doors leading to the dining salon and swore under her breath. “Hey, wait up!” she called and ran after them. “I’m sorry. I tend to get so focused on the task that … ” She shook her head. “Sure, I’d be happy to share my expertise.”
“Happy? Really?” Rachel queried.
Anna’s shoulders fell. “Look, to be honest with you, I’m feeling like an intruder. The unwanted addition to a well organized unit. I feel .. like you’re making allowances for me, an’ I feel that way because I still don’t totally buy in to the curse story. I’m disappointed that Derek has left me high an’ dry because I have more in common with him than I do with you two or Nick. You’re nice people, I like you, but .. I’m on edge with you.” She shrugged. “I don’t know you well enough, okay? But, yeah, I’d be .. willing to share my expertise with you. An’ I wouldn’t feel like I’m being a nursemaid.”
“Okay,” Rachel smiled. “Alex an’ I relate to honesty. We value the truth. We don’t know you well enough either .. but doesn’t today give us that opportunity?”
“To be honest in turn,” Alex continued, “we feel a little guilty that we’re doing this. We should be working but Derek gave us the chance an’ I want to grab it. Who knows when I’ll next be able to do this?”
“You’re right, both of you,” Anna agreed. “Okay. Got your water supply?”
They patted their tote bags.
“Then let’s go.”
“Ah, Derek, my old friend. Welcome to Cairo.”
“Mohammed,” Derek nodded. “You know Nick, of course.”
“Of course. It’s good to see you again.”
“You too,” Nick responded with an easy grin.
“Your call gave us something to chew on,” Mohammed commented. “A curse from the ancient days. Is it real?”
“It’s starting to look that way,” Derek replied. “Although, it must be said, it is no .. ordinary curse.”
“It’s more a curse on mankind kinda deal,” Nick explained. “We’re still gathering data but it seems that the tomb was more a trap. Professor Daly let something out.”
“Ah … ” Mohammed slowly nodded. “As far fetched as that sounds, it is more believable that mummies walking to kill those who disturb their rest. When do you intend heading south?”
“Monday. We’re waiting for someone to join us today, then he has to recover from the flight. We broke ours in London and Paris. He’s coming direct with only a refueling stop.”
“It should be enough time,” Mohammed remarked as they went into his office. “Well, before we start, can I offer you refreshments? Coffee, perhaps?”
“Sure,” Nick accepted.
“Here is the file we have put together for you so far,” Mohammed said, handing a dossier across the table. “I won’t be a moment.”
Nick opened the folder and Derek leaned closer to read it as well. They hadn’t gotten very far when the Precept of the Cairo house returned.
“I am not sure how we can battle this creature,” he began, handing round cups. “A curse on mankind … Consider the vast scale of eradicating every flea on every rat on the planet and thus ending the threat of bubonic plague. The most we can do is fight it with medication.”
Derek’s gaze grew distant. “Perhaps that is why this entity was merely trapped. It could not be eradicated so they removed it and thus its threat. Rats are endemic. This entity is only one. The odds must be better.”
“It’s killed a lot of people. All Professor Daly’s native help has died. Dr al-Nasat at the Cairo Department of Antiquities. There have been other deaths too but we’re not sure if they’re linked to the curse.”
“Natural causes?” Nick queried.
“As near as can be established,” Mohammed confirmed.
“Where were they?” Nick asked, frowning. “Near the dig site?”
“Strangely, no. They were here, in Cairo. The Giza Sheraton. Room staff. A receptionist.”
Nick dug out the master file and went to the professor’s research notes. “He never stayed there … Inbound, they were at the Ramada. Outbound .. they stayed near the airport.” He shook his head. “This is getting weird. The links are tight .. yet now they’re falling apart.”
“George Daly was a victim. It’s the only link we need,” Derek stated.
“Yeah but .. if he never stayed there, how were those people affected? Why not all the people in Cairo? Why is this thing so selective?”
Derek lifted his shoulders in a shrug. “I don’t know. We don’t know yet if the hotel staff are anything to do with this. Mohammed, in your house database, are there any references to a blue skinned .. man, for want of a better description? Man shaped anyway. Nick, let Mohammed see the printout.”
Mohammed studied the image, frowning. “It isn’t familiar to me but, like you, I’m not totally conversant with everything on the database. Let me take it to the control room, let Abdullah scan it and run a comparison. A blue skinned individual should be easy enough to trace. Certainly, no more than an hour.”
Derek nodded. “We’ll wait then.”
“This is incredible,” Rachel breathed, shading her eyes and tipping back her head.
“It certainly is,” Anna agreed. “It’s made of two point five million blocks of limestone, each with an average weight of two point five tons. Each block was hand cut. We still don’t know how they did it with such accuracy. Nor how they positioned them so .. cleanly. They’re all just put together, no mortar to hold them. The Great Pyramid covers an area of over fifty three thousand square yards at its base an’ has a perimeter of over a half mile. It is four hundred, eighty one feet high. It is aligned to the cardinal points of the compass with an astonishing accuracy. There is an error of only around five inches in the north, south alignment and just over two inches east, west. The variance is less than eight inches between the shortest and longest sides and the accuracy of the right angled corners is just about perfect. It slopes inward toward the apex at an angle of around fifty two degrees. Plus, just to completely amaze you, this pyramid is situated almost exactly on the thirty degree latitude line. Those guys were some mathematicians.”
The Great Pyramid of Khufu was, quite simply, breathtaking. Big from a distance, close up it was phenomenal. Until the building of the Eiffel Tower in Paris in the late nineteenth century, the Great Pyramid had been the tallest manmade building in the world. Thousands of years, it had stood here. Time had moved on yet this was somehow beyond time. It was legendary. Rachel felt humbled to stand next to it.
“The outside has been plundered,” Anna went on. “Once it was fully covered with a polished limestone sheath, making it smooth, but that was taken away to decorate homes. Only the top section remains untouched to give an idea of how it must have looked once.”
“I can’t begin to … There are no words,” Alex whispered.
“If someone ever invents a time machine, I would love to go back an’ see this being built,” Anna declared softly. “It would answer so many questions. Not just how but why. An’ .. just to see it on the day it was finished … Can you imagine?” She shook her head. “I’ve been here more than a few times an’ it makes absolutely no difference. It’s always a magical experience.”
“I have to bring Kat to see this,” Rachel decided.
“You should,” Anna agreed. “Everyone should see this.”
They lapsed into silence because there were no words left to say. They simply .. experienced.
“Abdullah’s working on it,” Mohammed announced. “By the way, Nick, I’ve had my team put together some typical expedition equipment suitable for an unknown stay in the desert. I’ve also made inquiries, Derek, with the Antiquities Department on your behalf. They’re wary of granting permits. I told them you’re investigating why people are dead rather than continuing Daly’s work but that’s why they’re wary. People dying – of any cause – hurts the tourist industry. Let’s face it – when people talk about Egypt, they don’t see a modern country in the twenty first century. They see pharaohs and pyramids, tombs, temples, obelisks with hieroglyphs and dhows on the Nile. Tourism is a big thing. It has to be protected.”
“All the more reason for us to get down there and stop this entity before it kills any more people,” Derek pointed out.
“Oh, I agree with you, my friend. I, however and unfortunately, do not process the permits. There’s one thing in you favor. No, actually there are two things – one, you’re going out of season. There won’t be many around you. Two, you’re Derek Rayne. They’ve heard of you, and your father.”
“Good things, I hope,” Derek commented.
“Of course,” Mohammed smiled, a flash of white against his olive skin. “I get the feeling they’re wavering. If you pay them a visit, in person, it may tip the balance. Ask for Dr Mehmet.”
“As soon as we finish here,” Derek decided, putting a hand to his nose. It came away spotted with blood.
“An’ this is the Great Sphinx,” Anna said. “There are disputes politely raging between Egyptologists and the pyramidiots – ”
“The who?” Alex queried.
“The alternative Egyptologists,” Anna explained, went to say more and stopped while she thought. “I’m middle ground on this argument. The established archeologists who have made it their life’s work to study this civilization are the Egyptologists an’ they say the accepted timeline is the only possible truth. The pyramidiots – the Egyptologists’ rather derogatory name for the more modern thinkers – say Egypt had a highly developed civilization long before the accepted timeline. How else can you explain the building of all this? Like I said, I’m middle ground. Haven’t decided yet. Anyway, the disputes are politely raging as to the date this was built. Some say three thousand, three thousand five hundred years BC to roughly coincide with the building of Khafra’s pyramid – the middle sized one. Others says it’s more like ten thousand, five hundred. Y’see the .. scoring down the flanks?”
They looked and nodded.
“It’s indicative of rain damage. The Sphinx’s body is limestone blocks. Rain can carve channels in limestone. The last rain of that intensity to fall here .. around ten thousand, five hundred years BC. The purists say no way, civilization wasn’t evolved enough that long ago to create something like this. It’d predate the pyramids. The alternative thinkers say why shouldn’t it? Who’s to say the Sphinx was here first an’ they built the pyramids near it, rather than the other way around. Who’s right? Who the hell knows. I don’t. Maybe the Egyptians way back when had a sense of humor. Let’s build a damn great stone lion and these three huge structures, let’s build ’em to last, an’ then, from the afterlife, we can sit back an’ watch all those dumb suckers trying to figure out why.”
They laughed, imagining the scene.
“Didn’t Tuthmose the third .. excavate it?” Alex asked.
“Yeah. Come with me.”
They followed Anna to the Sphinx Stela, the inscribed stone plaque set up between its paws.
“For much of the Sphinx’s history, it was buried up to the neck in sand. That’s probably why the head is so obviously smaller than the body. Someone came along one day an’ thought I’ll just change this from being a .. probably lion’s head to that of the current ruler, make a few bucks, get in his good books. Never realized there was a damned great lion’s body under the head. Anyhow, this stela tells how Tuthmose was out riding one day, came over all sleepy an’ took a nap in the shade cast by the head .. which was all that was showing. He dreamed the Sphinx spoke to him an’ told him to dig it free of the sand an’ he would be made pharaoh. He dug it out an’ .. yeah, became pharaoh. Whether the Sphinx intervened .. I couldn’t say. It could simply be justification for murdering the competition.”
Anna shrugged philosophically. “It’s common practice all thru history, an’ prehistory. All too mortal man wants something real bad an’ he murders to get it, then says .. the gods spoke to me or I saw it in a dream.”
Rachel shifted, suddenly uncomfortable. These words struck a chord because Derek had told them more or less precisely that. He hadn’t murdered anyone but .. could he want to prove the existence of an entity so badly that he’d make it up? No, Rachel knew Derek and she knew his visions were real. He wouldn’t lie. He’d been under hypnosis. Lying was not impossible but very unlikely. Besides, the evidence was being gathered from a number of sources by different people, and it all bore out Murray’s story.
“Struck a nerve, Rachel?” Anna ventured. “You must come across that a lot in your work. People hearing voices.”
“Occasionally, but schizophrenia isn’t as common as people believe. More often than not, the voice they hear is their own. And, yes, we all talk to ourselves an’ justify our actions. I know I do, just before I make a big splash with my credit card.”
Anna laughed brightly. “Me too. The places I go, I’m often alone an’ I talk to myself to keep from going crazy. It’s the only way to get an intelligent conversation.”
Alex smiled. “I think I .. think aloud. It helps me reason things out, y’know? If A equals B and B is X then A has to be X as well. Some of the investigations I do .. it’s the only way. So much of the information is fragments, traces, scraps. Putting it out there puts it in some kinda order.”
“Know what you mean,” Anna nodded. “I do the same thing.” She glanced at Rachel. “I’m not crazy .. am I?”
“If you are, most of the world is too.”
“I’ve often thought so,” Anna grinned.
“It’s just a nosebleed. There. Over already.” Derek smiled but, inwardly, he was embarrassed. Children got nosebleeds. Adults didn’t.
“Most people suffer gastroenteritis when they come to Egypt,” Mohammed remarked cheerfully. “The true curse of the mummy. But, if anyone deserves to have high blood pressure, it has to be Legacy Precepts.”
“Most certainly,” Derek laughed.
“What can you tell us about Dr al-Nasat?” Nick asked.
Mohammed stared up at the ceiling for a long moment. “A well respected man who will be very much missed. He had .. passion, enthusiasm. He loved this country’s heritage and he loved to share it. Some of my countrymen do not feel the same way. It is our history, they say. Let the tourists come and admire our past greatness. Dr al-Nasat wanted more than that. He saw the monuments as belonging to the world. He welcomed foreign archeologists. He enjoyed working with them as a member of their team. Yes, he was a government man but he was fair in his dealings. Because of that, the archeologists were fair in return. He was popular, often requested. His death was particularly felt.”
“What did he die of?” Nick inquired next.
“It’s in the file,” Mohammed shrugged. “A copy of the autopsy result for Dr Corrigan to examine. Basically, heart attack. They don’t know why. They suspected some kind of latent defect – a faulty valve or something – but his heart was fine. It shouldn’t have stopped but it did.”
Nick nodded and sat back, frowning. “Y’see, that’s what I don’t understand.”
“What?” Derek asked.
“This thing, whatever it is – a blue skinned guy, a dark cloud – killed Dr al-Nasat here in Cairo and, at more or less the same time, killed Rebekka Staleygate in London. How could it do that? How could it be in two places at once?”
Derek hesitated. “In my vision, I saw the darkness entering each of them.”
“Not Dr al-Nasat – he wasn’t there,” Nick pointed out.
Mohammed rose from behind his desk. “I’ll go see how Abdullah is getting on.”
Nick opened the file again. “It’s starting to piss me off. All things point to an entity .. an’ then it starts to fall apart. People near the dig site .. okay, they were there the day the seal was broken. But a receptionist an’ room staff at a Cairo hotel? What connection do they have to all this? Dr al-Nasat, not there at the time, but there later .. he’s dead. All Professor Daly’s team are dead.”
“Not all,” Derek commented. “Murray’s still alive.”
Murray Snowden was asleep. He was on an airplane heading over Europe toward Egypt, he was going to face his fear and beat it, and he was calm about doing this because, in some strange way, he felt safe with his escort.
Alopex sat next to him, alert and watchful. There’d been another nosebleed attack, a heavy one, on the way to the airport, but Alopex had stopped it. There had been nothing since.
Since making his remark to Merlin, Alopex and Profelis had checked out several things and made some alarming discoveries. The entity – they still weren’t sure if it was the same high ranking devil Merlin had mentioned – was inside Murray Snowden like some parasite. They weren’t sure what the nosebleeds meant but Alopex didn’t think they were attacks. That made no sense. Yes, some parasites ended up killing the host and it was entirely possible in this case .. but not yet. The entity was still too weak. It needed Murray. Therefore, possibly the nosebleeds were only a side effect, his body’s reaction to having this thing inside him. It appeared to be in a dormant state just now and Alopex had been given strict orders.
After Colorado Springs, Merlin had learned a lesson which she had passed on. Don’t kill Murray unless there is no choice. We may be able to extract this creature without causing a lethal amount of damage to the host. Watch him, closely, but be patient. All the time it’s dormant, it isn’t dangerous. If that changes, do what you must. Not even the Legacy can complain about a strategy like that.
Alopex wasn’t completely sure about the wisdom of this ‘wait and see’ course of action. It went against all his training. Taking down a devil while it was sleeping was a lot less dangerous than when it was awake and able to fight back. But, as Merlin – and Profelis – had said, Murray had no idea it was there. Murray was resisting, struggling to ignore ‘the curse’. It wasn’t Murray who was killing anything. This wasn’t possession. It was a unique experience. Therefore, they had to tread carefully. This was getting very close indeed to the line they dared not cross.
It could be that proximity to its old hunting ground would stir the creature to life. Alopex might have to kill Murray in front of all the people trying to get to the bottom of this mystery. And it was a mystery. One thing was sure, though. Guaranteed. If it came to it, Alopex would do the job.
Mohammed invited Derek and Nick to the control room to view the results of the search. Abdullah had dug up several references to blue skinned creatures but none matched the painting in the tomb. It was another dead end.
“I wish you luck, Derek, my friend,” he said, shaking Derek’s hand. “If we can assist, in any way, please call upon us.”
“I will. Thank you, Mohammed, for everything you’ve done. Nick?”
Nick waved a hand in farewell and they stepped into the searing heat of the afternoon. “So .. why is Murray still alive?”
“I don’t know. If I said he was .. being protected in some way, it suggests that he is in collusion with the creature and I don’t believe he is. Murray was too scared when he came to me. He liked George Daly. They’d worked together before. Both are consummate professionals. But it is clear that Murray has .. some degree of immunity. Possibly some factor in his blood or his genetic structure. When he gets here, I’ll have Rachel run some tests.”
“Do we have time for that?” Nick queried.
“We’ll make time. Consider – if there is something in Murray’s blood, it could be transferred to us, give us the same degree of immunity. That has to be worthwhile.”
“An’ if there isn’t?”
Derek shrugged uneasily. “We start again at the beginning.”
They walked on in silence for a moment. Around them, the roads were solid with vehicles, the sidewalks busy. The air stank of exhaust fumes. There was no breeze to shift the smell, no rain to dampen it down. Then Nick slowly shook his head.
“I checked the dates.”
“And?” Derek asked.
“They’d all flown back to the UK weeks before. They weren’t even in the country. Why were the hotel staff affected? How does it tie in? Is this thing on the move? An’, if it is, how come there have been so few deaths? A city this size .. there should be thousands. Hospital morgues overflowing.”
“I don’t know, Nick. We don’t have all the information yet.”
“Well, it’s getting pretty close to the wire, Derek,” Nick muttered.
They entered the blessed cool of the Department of Antiquities.
“Good afternoon, I’m Dr Derek Rayne. I’m here to discuss the matter of some permits with Dr Mehmet.”
Twenty minutes later, they sat in an office. “I understand you want to continue the work Professor Daly began in the area between the Valley of the Kings and Deir al-Bahari.”
“Not strictly speaking, no,” Derek replied. “We’re here to investigate why George Daly died and see if it is linked in some way to his discovery of the tomb. I believe you also lost someone who’d worked on the project.”
Dr Mehmet hesitated. “Yes, that is true. I’ve heard rumors of a curse.”
“Do you believe they’re warranted?”
“Yes,” Derek said bluntly. “Maybe not a curse in the way Hollywood would have us believe, but something malign is at work. I want to find out what and stop it.”
“So you intend not to pursue the excavation.”
Derek eased back. “It depends. If we can learn what is behind the eastern wall of the first chamber without breaking it down, then I see no reason to excavate. If we cannot discover what’s on the other side, then we may have to excavate. Dr Snowden was one of the original team. He’s joining us today. He conducted the resonance tests for Professor Daly. Murray will be able to lend his expertise. We may be able to drill a small hole and use fiber optics or a larger hole and send in a robot mounted camera.”
“What do you think is behind the wall?”
“I don’t know. A passageway, certainly. What it leads to, however … I would be guessing and that doesn’t help anyone. Whatever I do, I need the permits. People have died, Dr Mehmet. More people could die. If there is some .. virus or bacterium in that chamber, possibly in the paint on the finished wall, we need to know, not just to satisfy our questions on why Professor Daly and his team died, but also to stop a potential epidemic.”
He leaned forward again. “You know my reputation. I also have Dr Anna Cowley with me. The other members of my team are Murray Snowden, Dr Rachel Corrigan who is a medical doctor, Alex Moreau, our computer researcher, and Nick here who is our mechanic and electronics expert. We’re also bringing in our own security to keep out innocent passersby and thus prevent any more running unnecessary risks.”
Dr Mehmet opened a drawer in his desk. “Does your security intend bringing firearms into the country?”
Derek shook his head. “They are merely a boundary patrol. Extra bodies to deal with questions so we can concentrate.”
“Very well. How long do you intend to be there? It’s outside the season. I believe the site is some distance from the road so tourists traveling to Deir al-Bahari won’t stop. You shouldn’t be overly disturbed but the temperature is climbing every day and facilities there are less than basic.”
“I can’t answer with any degree of accuracy. I hope to be finished as soon as possible but .. how long that is, I don’t know. Let’s say .. a week. I trust there will be no objection if we have to extend the period.”
“None. Call this number, ask for me. I’ll be your contact in Cairo, although I do not intend visiting the site. There are various conditions attached to this permit,” he went on. “No artifacts are to be removed from the site although they may be removed from the tomb for examination once they have been photographed in situ and their position drawn on a chart. No extensive damage is to be done to the eastern wall without my express permission. You may drill holes for fiber optic cables. Call me if you intend drilling larger holes for robotic devices.”
“Your security is not to harass any local citizens. This is their country, not yours.”
Dr Mehmet stamped the form and scrawled a signature. Then he handed it over. “Good luck.”
“This is gonna be some expedition,” Nick remarked later. He looked up from his list. “Dr Mehmet said facilities there are less than basic so we’ll have to take it all with us. Mohammed’s put together a lot of the gear – tents, camp beds, blankets, food, water, flashlights an’ batteries, cooking gear an’ fuel – but we’ll need more. A generator an’ fuel. All the electronics – fiber optics, monitors, cameras. A robotic device. Any idea where I can get one of those at short notice?”
“They don’t sell them in the local hardware store?” Derek asked innocently.
Nick didn’t bite. He merely stared back.
“We won’t need a robotic device. We’ll have Peri – ”
“She won’t be coming. Alopex will be.”
“Then Alopex can .. go thru the wall and tell us what is on the other side. Why is Peri not coming?”
“I don’t want her here.”
Derek regarded him. “Is this a continuation of your fight?”
“No. It’s because she’s pregnant. I don’t wanna put my baby in harm’s way.”
“Oh … Oh, I see. Well .. congratulations, Nick. That’s wonderful news.”
“Yeah. It’s still sinking in for me too. But yeah. It’s what we both want.”
“I’m pleased for you.”
“Thanks. Anyway, that’s why Alopex is flying out with Murray.” He looked at his watch. “They should be here soon. As for us .. I can get the gear together. Getting it down there could be tough going. We’ll need a big truck or several trips by helicopter. A truck could do it in one journey, less fuel, but take longer. What’s the priority?”
“Time. While Rachel gets the result of her tests, you could have flown down with Alex and Anna and some of the equipment. They can begin putting the camp together while you return for me and more of the equipment. A final trip will be .. everyone and everything else.”
“Okay. I’ll go hit the stores an’ get things ready for an early start Monday. You put Alex an’ Anna on standby. Early means early.”
“Aye, skipper,” Derek said, smiling.
“Well, I have to say, Rachel, you were right. Today has been fun. We did need the chance to get to know each other an’ now we’ve done it,” Anna said as they strolled into the hotel foyer. “I’m glad I wasn’t a miserable cow an’ came with you guys instead.”
Rachel began to smile and agree that it’d been a fantastic day but her smile fractured and her eyes grew concerned. “Oh, Anna, are you okay? You got a nosebleed.”
Anna’s hand was already on its way to her face. “Great timing, huh?”
“The heat didn’t help,” Alex commiserated, digging in her bag for a Kleenex. “Rachel ..? You too?”
“Oh my ..!” Rachel blushed, hugely embarrassed. “Coincidence.”
“I think we’d best get upstairs and get some cold water on those noses,” Alex decided.
“I think you’re right,” Rachel said, nodding carefully. “It’s too much in too short a time an’ then coming into a completely new culture, strange food, everything. Throws the body a curve ball.”
“What a way to end a fabulous day,” Anna laughed. “You gonna join us, Alex?”
“I seem to be fine,” Alex replied. “So .. I’ll play nursemaid.”
Ninety minutes after Nick had gone out to mop up the extra supplies the Cairo house hadn’t already procured, and some twenty minutes before the seven o’clock deadline, Derek looked round at the quiet knock on his door. He checked the time then went to answer.
“Alopex! Murray! Profelis … Peri? Andrew ..?” He stepped back. “Why are you all here?”
“We didn’t have any choice, Derek,” Merlin said. “Can we come in?”
“Of course.” Derek moved aside. “Nick is not going to be happy about this. He was very specific about wanting you to stay home.”
“Yeah, I know, an’ I promised him that I would.” She shook her head. “I hate breaking promises. But I meant it – we didn’t have any choice. Where’s Alex?”
“In her room, I think, just across the hall.”
Profelis turned and went out again.
“Peri, what’s going on?” Murray asked.
“Sit down, Murray. Alopex, go fetch Rachel an’ Anna. Where’s Nick?”
“He’s out, gathering the last of the equipment. He shouldn’t be much longer,” Derek cautiously answered.
“Peri, I really must insist you answer me,” Murray persisted.
“I will. I just need to get the others in here so I don’t .. duplicate effort.” She sank into a chair. “There you go, Andrew,” Merlin sighed. “You got to see ’em on the way in. Big, huh? Just like I told you.”
“Oh yeah. Enormous.” Andrew sounded tired and fed up. “I really would have preferred other circumstances though.”
“Wouldn’t we all? Nick is gonna lose it, Derek. He’ll see me here, think I ignored him, go up like a volcano. Help me when it happens?”
Frowning, he nodded. Merlin looked as tired as Andrew sounded, more drained than he’d ever seen her. Andrew was leaning against the wall, his arms folded, the strain of something showing in his eyes.
The door opened again and everyone looked toward it. Nick’s face went blank then his eyes went hard.
“Nick, there was no choice,” Derek said sternly.
“There’s always a choice,” Nick retorted.
“Not this time, sailor,” Merlin replied, rising to her feet. “If I’d stayed, like I promised .. well, you wouldn’t have had a happy homecoming.” She took his arm and steered him back toward the door. “Where’s your room?”
“Next one along.”
“Would you go there? Wait for me. I’ll be .. ten minutes. Please. It’s crucial you get out now.”
The hardness in his eyes was replaced by puzzlement and she smiled quickly. “Okay,” he said, “but you’re gonna explain this to me.”
“I’m first in line,” Murray cut in.
“I promise,” Merlin breathed.
Nick passed Rachel and Anna on their way in. “Nick, what’s going on?” Rachel asked.
“Beats the hell outta me,” he muttered.
Alopex nodded at him. “There was no choice, Nick. Come along, ladies.”
Nick watched them being escorted into Derek’s room and the door close firmly behind them. He shook his head slowly, went into his own room, shut the door and leaned against it.
Why had Merlin broken her word to him ..? Enforcer promises were like carved in stone. Why had she put their baby in deliberate danger? It made no sense. Not right now.
He checked the time. Ten minutes. Maybe it’d make sense then.