Sunday / Monday
Anna was pleased that a fire burned brightly in the lounge hearth. The cheerfully dancing flames kept her rooted in the here and now, and she needed that because she was listening to a tale of utter madness. Murray seemed to welcome the fire as well. He sat almost on top of it, shivering with a blanket draped around his shoulders, a brandy glass cupped in his hands. Derek sat opposite him, leaning forward and paying close attention.
“You believe all this?” Anna demanded.
“I’m listening to what Murray has to say,” Derek responded in a level voice yet his eyes sparked a warning at her.
“I believe it. George Daly’s dead,” Murray announced in a flat voice. “You can’t argue with a fact like that. It makes it real. Very real.”
“George? When?” Anna exclaimed.
“A few days ago, I think. I’m sorry. I’m not making much sense. I haven’t slept much recently and I’ve just flown fifteen hours from Rio.”
“Murray, in your own time, tell us from the beginning,” Derek requested. “Try to relate the facts in the order they happened.”
“All right. My trip to Borneo was a disaster. It never really began so I headed on to Sumatra for a while then on to, um, Cambodia. After a month, six weeks there, I went to Egypt as arranged to meet up with George Daly, his wife Gayle, Phil and Rebekka, his two assistants. I was with them at the site for nine days. No more than that. That was just over six weeks ago. We were south of the Valley of the Kings, excavating a promising area and George hit pay dirt. He’d been in that area for several years but had found nothing yet he was sure he was onto something. Then he found it – a previously undiscovered tomb. Naturally, we tried not to let our hopes skyrocket but it was there in the back of all our minds. This could be the Tutankhamun of the twenty first century. The tomb of Imhotep has never been located – not Imhotep of The Mummy, the real one. Who knew what was inside George’s discovery? George was almost out of funding at that point but he really didn’t want to leave without taking some information back with him to the National Institute. You know what they’re like for being mean with the cash and they’d financed a few years of nothing to show for it. We delayed notifying the Antiquities Department in Cairo, just until we’d dug out the stairwell and learned what was at the base. It was a sealed door. And .. it had a curse on it. Hieroglyphs beneath a painting of what looked like Sekhmet. A guardian goddess.”
“Could you read the hieroglyphs?” Derek cut in.
“Not immediately. Gayle drew them for later translation. Then George broke the seals and began making a hole in the door. Not enough for anyone to get inside, just enough to shine a flashlight thru so we could see. It was an empty but decorated chamber. So fantastic, Derek. So fresh. Like it had just been painted.” His eyes kindled briefly with the memory. “We left it, set a guard on it, and retired to the camp. George and Rebekka translated the hieroglyphs that night. We had a good laugh about it, I remember … Basically,” Murray went on, “in modern English, it said ‘Don’t go on, you’ll regret it’.”
“Hmm,” Derek frowned. “What did it say in .. old English? What was the exact translation?”
“The bulk standard ‘death will come on swift wings an’ slay those who disturb the sleep of the Pharaoh’?” Anna suggested. She sounded more serious now. People dying made it serious, no matter what the cause. For Anna, that was still open to debate and interpretation.
“No,” Murray replied, swiftly shaking his head. Despite his obvious exhaustion, he was becoming more articulate as he put it all in order and shared it with his friends. “No, it wasn’t standard at all. It said, as best I can recall, ‘This door is sealed to protect and must not be opened. Proceed and death will follow.’”
The fire crackled, spit sparks and shifted with a long sigh. Anna jumped and swore under her breath.
“Interesting,” Derek murmured and nodded. “Go on, Murray.”
Murray took a large sip of brandy. “In the morning, we called Cairo and notified the authorities of our find. We gave them a full description and asked permission to remove the door so we could access the empty chamber beyond. We would go no farther than that. We hoped the wall paintings would indicate who was buried there, whether he or she had been important. By the time we’d cataloged and photographed, someone from the Antiquities Department would have arrived to oversee the next stage. They gave us the go ahead. We broke down the door and entered the chamber.”
“Was it empty?” Anna queried.
“Nothing in there at all,” Murray confirmed. “Not even a broken pot or a discarded reed basket. It was just walls, ceiling and floor. Gayle and Phil started recording the images on the finished wall. Rebekka and George began translating the hieroglyphs. I was engaged in resonance tests, seeing which were solids walls and which were only barriers. I located a passage behind the eastern wall. Phil was all for drilling a small hole at the base and inserting an optical probe but George was determined to wait, to go by the book. The last thing he wanted was for the authorities to throw him out of the country for breaking the rules. His funding was almost gone and he was hoping that, by such a display of following the procedures to the letter, the Egyptian government would help fund the excavation. They did but only for a few weeks. I’d left after nine days, returning to London to start lobbying the Institute for support. In the time I was in Egypt, we never went beyond the chamber. The representative from the Antiquities Department wanted the eastern wall fully recorded before we broke it down. In a way, it was a shame because it was the most richly decorated of them all. So .. I came back to London.”
“When was this again?” Derek queried.
“Only five weeks ago. I hadn’t been home three days when Gayle flew home too to get ready for George’s arrival. He planned to make a big presentation to the Institute to get extra funding so he could complete his work. Gayle was going to work on the visuals. She collapsed in the middle of preparing dinner. She was taken to the hospital and put on full life support. Tests were run, extensive tests, but they couldn’t find a cause for her illness. I learned yesterday that she’d died. She was the first to become ill but the last to die. Phil Bateman was the first to die. He’d flown home with George when Gayle became sick. He was in the pub. With his friends, catching up .. and he died. No warning. Just dropped. Rebekka had remained in Egypt to tidy up the loose ends, close down the camp temporarily, pay off the native help. She flew home and learned of Phil’s death. She thought it strange – we all did – and tragic. Phil was only twenty eight. Less than a week later, Rebekka keeled over while working on the article George was going to publish. Died at the computer. Again, no warning. Finally, only last Thursday, I heard George had collapsed and died in the middle of his presentation to the Institute. Mid-sentence. Bang! Gone. Now Gayle’s dead too, and that only leaves me. And I don’t know what to do.”
“What about the native help?” Anna asked.
“What of the representative from the Antiquities Department?” Derek added.
“I don’t know,” Murray replied, a flaring hope in his eye. “The natives never went into the tomb but .. the other guy did.”
“We have to find out,” Anna decided. “I don’t deny it’s a terrible story, Murray, but it could be entirely natural. The timing might be unfortunate but there’s no evidence as such that it was a result of any curse.” She shrugged. “You might be putting yourself thru hell for no reason.”
“Oh God, I hope so,” he sighed.
Derek rose. “Murray, you’re safe here. I’ll call my team together and we’ll investigate everything, from the tomb to the deaths. While we do that, you will get some sleep.”
“Shall I fix up the room next to mine?” Anna offered.
“That would be much appreciated, thank you,” he accepted and she went out. “Murray, do you know if any of George’s presentation is available to outside parties?”
“I’m sure the Institute would make it available. They’d like George’s death explained. Him dying on the premises in front of an audience has left a bad taste.”
Derek nodded. “Then I’ll contact them directly. Get some rest.”
“Sleeping’s difficult, Derek,” Murray admitted.
“Trust me. You’re safe here. This house .. has protection.”
“You believe me then, that it’s a curse?”
“I believe you believe it. And I am always open to the possibilities of such things. It’s why you came to me, isn’t it? Why you thought of me?”
“After Guatemala .. and that wasn’t the first time … ”
“Exactly. So .. trust me. You’re safe. Get some sleep. You need it. When you wake, you’ll be in a much better frame of mind to help us.”
“A priest has blessed this place?” Murray persisted.
“Something like that, yes,” Derek smiled.
Rachel was alone and idly entertaining the idea of a long, relaxing soak in the tub. She considered some candles, some gentle and uplifting music … She got the ringing of the phone instead.
“Hello?” she said, expecting it to be Kat with some explanation why she wasn’t home yet. As a consequence, her voice was a little strict.
“Rachel, it’s Derek. I’m sorry, but I need you back here.”
She hesitated, not because she was thinking of refusing – that never occurred to her – it was more that Rachel was trying to guess what had happened by the tone of his voice. Derek didn’t seem panicked by anything. He certainly wasn’t hysterical. But there was an underlying tension in there. She tried to fit it with the situation on the island as she knew it .. and it wouldn’t go. A round peg in a suddenly square hole.
“Of course. Do I need to bring anything?” she asked.
“Possibly some sedatives, if you have them.”
Rachel frowned at that. “Is it Anna ..?” she ventured.
“No. I’ll explain when you get here. Someone needs your help and I need your expertise. As soon as you can, Rachel.”
“Okay,” she said simply and she heard the line click dead. “Sedatives,” she echoed and shrugged quickly. “Okay. Sedatives it is.”
Merlin had looked a lot better when Nick got home. She had changed into her painting clothes and was busy attacking one of the guest rooms on the second floor.
“Anna get back okay?” she’d asked.
“I left her at the ferry dock an’ called Derek. He said he was leaving at once so I guess she got back okay.” He’d studied her. “Merli ..?”
“What?” she’d wondered, grinning back at him.
This was yet another change of temperament. He’d been thru the mill with her the last few months but this .. this was almost back to the very beginning. Playful. Mischievous.
“Did something happen while I wasn’t here?” Nick had asked.
“You’re not to get mad at me. Please. I am armed with a paintbrush an’ a loaded paint kettle. You really shouldn’t push your luck.”
He’d slowly nodded. “Okay. What happened?”
“Rafe called by.”
“Uh huh,” he’d said.
“They’ve taken pity on me.”
“What have you done?” Nick had asked in a painfully controlled voice.
“Nothing. Well .. yeah. I’ve done nothing.”
His lips had twitched. A warning muscle jumped on his jaw. “What did you let them do?” he’d amended.
“Not very much. Look,” she’d said, her voice serious, “it won’t affect our baby. At least – ”
“I’ve heard enough,” Nick had interrupted, shaking his head. “You just couldn’t last out, could you? Couldn’t even give it a chance.”
Merlin had stepped back, her face flushing.
“I told you that you had strength, an’ you give in after not even forty eight hours ..?” He had regarded her and saw a stranger.
“Nicky, you don’t understand. Listen to me – ”
“I don’t wanna listen to your excuses.”
“I felt stifled, crushed. I couldn’t live like that. I needed .. something.”
“So you did it without asking me. Without thinking of the consequences, the long term effect. Do I have a part to play in any of this? Do I really matter, deep down inside?”
“If you’re not prepared to listen then I wonder if we’re both guilty of lying.”
Nick had stepped back too. “You’ve put me thru hell, more than once. I believed … I really believed we’d gotten closer, stronger. Maybe I was lying to myself.” He’d shaken his head. “If we can’t even talk about what’s really important, if you just decide an’ act .. I don’t see a point in going on.”
She’d said nothing, only stared at him.
Nick had taken another step back then turned and walked out.
Merlin had not moved since. She’d listened to the front door slam, the sound of a car engine starting, roaring, the noise of tires squealing and fading away. She hadn’t moved. It seemed she hadn’t even breathed. Suddenly, she gasped as the shock truly hit her.
What the hell just happened? What have I done that’s so terrible? He wouldn’t even listen! He said he was with me in this .. and now he’s gone ..?
Her legs buckled and she half fell, half folded up, her hand to her mouth to stifle a scream of pure agony. The paintbrush fell from nerveless fingers, splashing paint on the new carpet, ruining it. The tears came, hot and furious, draining her, leaving her feeling ill. Eventually, they subsided and dwindled into a drear, empty silence. Merlin wiped her cheeks and slowly stood.
Well. So this is how it’s going to be, is it? Fine. I don’t need him. Anna was more right than she thought. I am used to being independent. Sure, being with Nick has been a lot of fun. I learned to share. Now I’ll learn how not to share, how to go it alone again. I’ve put him thru hell? Swings both ways, mister.
She smiled slowly.
When I was a Flamefall, we weren’t allowed to hold grudges or to get revenge. It was too much of a temptation. Can’t strike at an innocent, no matter how mad we feel because that means crossing the line. But I’m not a Flamefall right now. I don’t have weapons, but my teeth haven’t been pulled. My claws haven’t been clipped. I can still fight .. just in another way, and you do not want me as an enemy, Nick Boyle. We don’t have divorce but there’s nothing, nothing, which says we have to stay together.
Merlin took off her wedding band.
Guess he’s just cut me loose. Guess he wasn’t ‘the one’ after all.
So what do I do about this baby ..?
Nick drove without thinking or really seeing the road ahead. His eyes were burning. His head was a mess. He wanted to put miles between him and the blazing pile of frustration his marriage had become, just get away, be alone somewhere to figure it out, figure what to do next. Instead, his cell phone began to beep.
Swearing viciously, he swung the Mustang to the side of the road and skidded to a rocking halt.
“Yeah?” he snapped.
“Nick, it’s Derek. I need you here, as soon as you can.”
“It isn’t convenient right now.”
“I’m sorry but something’s happened. You’ll have to change your plans.”
The line clicked dead before Nick had a chance to draw breath to argue. He closed his eyes and slumped back. And it hit him, what he’d done. What he’d said. The promises he’d made and just broken.
What the hell just happened? She was in a really great mood and I … I don’t even know what she was going to say. I just lost it. Totally. Would it be so terrible to have a child and raise it to be an Enforcer? We’d have a child, we’d be together. But that isn’t right … Something which she’s let happen and which might affect our baby … Might, not will. It can’t be that she’s gone back to how she was. Have I gotten used to Merli leaning on me? For a while now, I’ve been the strong one. Do I like it that way? Is that why I blew up with no warning – because I don’t want her to be strong again and not need me? It was never a problem before … What is wrong with me?
And now I can’t go back and make it right because Derek has a situation. Fuck.
He twisted the ignition key but let the engine idle.
I can’t go back but I can call.
Nick hurriedly pressed the quick dial number.
“C’mon, pick up,” he urged.
It rang for a long time then Merlin said, “What is it?”
“Merli – ”
“My name’s Merlin. Merlin Gabrielli. No more Peri Boyle. You’ve made your choice, Nick. Live with it.”
“But, listen – ”
“Oh, you want me to listen while you couldn’t be bothered? I don’t think so. You don’t want me, fine. I’ll go it alone, just like I did before I made the biggest mistake of my life. Thanks for helping me figure that one out.”
She cut him off. Nick went icy cold all over. Carefully, he put the Mustang in drive and headed for the ferry.
Okay, I can do this. I’ll sort out Derek’s situation and then go home. But I’ll stop for flowers on the way.
“So .. do you believe him?” Anna wondered quietly.
“What I believe is not important.”
“Oh, come on!”
They’d seen Murray to his room and left him to sleep. Now they were on their way back to the lounge.
“An Ancient Egyptian curse?” Anna continued. “Derek, it’s impossible. It’s just .. bad timing, ill health an’ sheer coincidence. There is no such thing as the mummy’s curse. Murray’s hysterical. He’ll get some sleep an’ wake up an’ be fine.”
“Possibly. There again, the basilisk was a creature of legend .. yet it existed. You saw it.”
Anna shivered at the memory. “Legend has some base in truth. The curse is fiction. Nothing’s ever been proven.” She looked at him. “An’ now you’ll tell me there’s always a first time.”
“What I believe isn’t important,” he repeated. “As yet, I have formed no opinion. However, four people are dead. That cannot be disputed. How they died and when they died could be bad timing and coincidence. But we’ll investigate it. Check the facts, form some theories. And, if all else fails, accept that Murray’s fear is genuine because his story is true. There is a curse.”
“An ‘event’?” she queried.
“There are more of them than you can imagine. Anna, I’m sorry this has happened but I cannot refuse a cry for help, especially from an old friend.”
“Sure, Derek, I can go for that. It is very clear that Murray’s gotten himself in a corner over something. I just think, because that’s how I am, that it can’t be a curse. I look for the logical, the rational .. an’, yeah, I saw the giant snake which was impossible too. Okay.” She straightened, her chin lifting. “I will try to be as open minded as you. I’ll hold fire on a verdict until all the evidence is in.”
“That’s good,” he smiled, “because I’ll need your help as well. You can review Professor Daly’s presentation, his research notes, his findings, and you can do it with an objective eye. You’re coming at it fresh. Murray, because he was present during the crucial part of the excavation, can only be a source of .. explanation or guidance. He is too close to it to be objective. And your expert assistance will be invaluable on site.”
Anna was nodding during this and she continued to nod for several seconds after Derek had finished, then her startled eyes rose to his face.
“On site? Do you mean .. fly to Egypt?”
“Of course. Via London so we authenticate the facts there. We have to go to the excavation, Anna. We can’t investigate this properly without examining the site.”
“Of course,” she agreed in a faint voice. “I realized you meant that.”
Derek paused. “You’re not afraid, are you?”
“No, I’m not! I don’t believe in curses,” Anna said stoutly.
“Excellent,” he briskly remarked. “You should be fine then.”
Nick was the first to arrive simply because he’d been nearer to the ferry point than Rachel. He located Derek in the study and not the control room, and stood before the desk with a belligerent expression.
“I really don’t have time for this right now,” he began.
“I understand, Nick, but – ”
“A situation has arisen, yeah, I heard. Let me help you out then I have to get back.”
Derek raised an eyebrow. “It may not be that simple. I can’t put a timeframe to it. It may be an hour but it probably will be a lot of hours. It could even be days, or weeks, and it will definitely necessitate a trip overseas for some of us.”
Nick stared. For the first time ever, his loyalty to the Legacy was in direct conflict with his personal life.
“I .. I can’t.”
“Has something happened, Nick?”
“You could say that. Peri an’ I had a major argument. I mean .. big. I have to get back there, Derek. Smooth things over. It has to take priority or I’ll have nothing left to salvage. Then I’ll come back. I promise.”
Derek’s eyes narrowed. “Very well. I will expect you back by nightfall. Don’t delay.”
Nick passed Rachel as she came upstairs. “What’s going on?” she asked.
“Situation,” he answered, reaching the foyer.
“What kind of situation ..?” Rachel called but he’d gone. “One of those situations I see.”
She quickened her pace and, like Nick, found Derek in the study. “Ah, good,” he greeted. “You have a patient.”
“In need of sedatives.”
“Possibly, yes. Let me fill you in on the details as I know them, then I’ll hand care of the patient over to you and ask that you do what you can for him – as a medical doctor and as a psychiatrist. He could very well need both kinds of treatment.”
Rachel nodded and sat down on the sofa.
“An old friend of mine – who, coincidentally, was also at the dig site in Guatemala – turned up earlier this afternoon. He’s exhausted, finds it difficult to sleep, has been running for several days now, because he believes he’ll be the next victim of an Ancient Egyptian curse.”
“I see,” Rachel nodded. “And does he have any reason to feel his belief is warranted?”
“The other four members present at the excavation have died within the last month,” Derek replied. “That’s where I need your expertise, Rachel. Those deaths could have been natural but I don’t know what to look for. I want you to check medical histories, the autopsy results, lifestyles. See if you can find a logical, rational explanation.”
“I’ll give you the names of the victims. Murray will be able to supply places, dates and times .. but be careful how you question him.” He smiled quickly. “But, naturally, you will. I don’t mean to tell you how to do your job.”
“You’re concerned about your friend. It’s okay,” she replied. “Where’s Anna?”
“Trying to contact an associate in London who can get Professor Daly’s research faxed to us. She and I will be undertaking that part of the investigation.”
“And from two different angles, I bet,” Rachel commented. “You believe a curse is at least possible. Anna doesn’t. She has her roots firmly in the scientific, Derek, an’ you straddle the divide.”
“She has told me she will try to keep an open mind .. until all the evidence is in.”
“Where is Murray?” Rachel asked next.
“The guest room next to Anna’s. We left him to sleep, if he can.”
She took the slip of paper he handed her. “The victims?”
“Yes. Professor Daly, his wife, and his two research assistants. Phil Bateman was twenty eight, Rebekka even younger.”
Rachel frowned. “That’s tragic. There might be genuine medical reasons but .. I’m already suspicious.”
“Why?” Derek asked, leaning back.
“Existing medical conditions of that severity would have precluded flying anywhere, let alone a place like Egypt for strenuous physical activity. It’s very hot an’ bone dry. An’ people that young .. it’s rare that they get sick an’ die that fast. They could have been bitten while they were out there, that’s a possibility. I’ll look into it very carefully, Derek, an’ get back to you. Where was Nick going in such a hurry?”
“He has something to deal with at home,” Derek answered. “He’ll be back by nightfall.”
Nick couldn’t believe how fast things had moved since he stormed out less than four hours previously. A ‘For Sale’ sign had sprouted at the front boundary of the house. He pulled it up and tossed it aside. The lock on the front door had been changed. He tried banging on the door but there was no answer. Merlin’s Mustang was still in the garage but the 4x4 had gone.
Dispirited, angry and frustrated, he tried the old house. Profelis opened the door and regarded him with a politely puzzled air.
“What do you know about training week?” he asked.
“What?” Nick queried, caught off balance.
“I figured, as you’re going to miss it this year, Aquila might have said something to you.”
“What’re you talking about? Have you seen her?” Nick ventured.
“A couple of hours ago. She brought your clothes over for some reason an’ she said .. you were going to miss the big adventure. I assumed she was referring to training week.” He frowned too. “But then she was silent for a moment an’ said she’d miss it too .. so maybe I got it wrong.”
Nick was busy putting two and two together. The big adventure … He’d talked about having a baby as being the biggest adventure of their lives. Merlin had said Rafe had come to visit. Had he told her she was pregnant? He must have done. His heart lifted and then dropped like a stone. She was pregnant and he’d walked out on her. He’d said he’d be with her from start to finish … Was it any wonder that she’d cut him off? Then his heart dropped even further and froze into a solid lump. If she was going to miss the adventure too …
“You know where she was going?” he asked urgently.
Profelis shook his head. “She didn’t say.”
“Was that all she said, what you told me?”
“Pretty much, yeah.”
“Think carefully, Profelis. This is important.”
Profelis let his gaze drift away from Nick’s face. “She’d had enough of painting an’ deserved a night off. Something about .. a hotel.” His gaze snapped back. “Have you two had a fight?”
“Nothing gets by you guys, does it?” Nick was estimating the time it would take to drive into town and search all the hotels, drive back and get to the island. He wouldn’t make it by nightfall but he might be able to cut it back a little. “Can you help me find her?”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Profelis replied. “Aquila in a good mood is okay. A bad mood .. she’s something else.”
“I don’t care what you think. I need your help, Profelis. Go look an’ call me on my cell. Do it now!”
Profelis retreated and closed the door in Nick’s face. Well, he had to hope Profelis would do as he asked, because, if he didn’t, Merlin would get rid of his baby and he’d have no one to blame but himself. His jaw jumping, Nick set off for San Francisco like the Devil himself was on his tail.
“Come in … ”
Rachel opened the door and carefully eased over the threshold.
A wild eyed, disheveled man sat on the bed which was otherwise undisturbed. He stared at her.
“Who are you?”
“I’m Rachel Corrigan. I work with Derek. I’m a medical doctor.”
“Oh .. yes. I – I think I recall him mentioning you.” He rose to his feet and held out a hand. “Murray Snowden. Dr Murray Snowden .. just to confirm I do have some marbles in my head. Or I did.”
“I never doubted it for a second,” she smiled. “Derek’s very concerned about you, Murray, an’ he’s asked me to check you over. You do look in a bad way,” she admitted, “but that’s probably down to sleep deprivation. That can make a difficult situation seem an’ feel a thousand times worse than it actually is. We need to sleep, to dream, to maintain mental health an’ also to heal our bodies.”
“I’m scared, Rachel.”
“I know.” She hesitated. “I’m also a board registered psychiatrist. And, before you start thinking the worst, that the men in white jackets are on their way, let me finish. Whatever the cause, you’ve been thru an incredible ordeal. Mental trauma. Derek doesn’t believe for a moment that you’re crazy, an’ neither do I. I’m here to help you thru this an’ come out the other side. Okay?”
He watched her. “Do you believe I’ve been cursed?”
“Let’s sit down,” she suggested. “I have to be honest with you, Murray. My experience of Ancient Egypt is rather limited. There’s been one strange occurrence here which involved my daughter and a princess named Senefra. Apart from that .. well, I’ve seen Cleopatra a couple of times an’ any number of older movies. Curses, however, that all depends. I know that you have to buy into them to make them work. It’s a very old concept which plays on our deepest fears. The power of words. On the surface, we’re .. modern people living in the twenty first century. On the surface, we can say ‘I don’t believe in it’. Deep down, however, we’re still primitives an’, if we even suspect we’re the subject of a curse, the hindbrain grabs hold an’ it believes for all it’s worth. We buy into it an’ our fear of the unknown makes us a victim, even if there isn’t a curse. The secret is knowing about them. If we don’t know we’ve been cursed, how can it affect us? So the question has to be not if I believe it but do you?”
“Yes,” he said simply. “Deep down, yes. On the surface, no. I don’t believe in the mummy’s curse. That’s Hollywood. Even Caernarvon … That was a very strange coincidence, but not a curse .. despite the tablet found near or in the tomb. The proof there is that Howard Carter didn’t die.” He sighed miserably. “When we translated the hieroglyphs, none of us really believed. We laughed about it. But, now, they’re all dead.”
Rachel nodded. “The mind likes order. It joins up lines. It sees patterns. I’m not trying to say you’re wrong an’ that there is no curse. It’s still very early days on that one. Derek’s investigation is wide ranging an’ he’ll look into every aspect .. which is why I’m here. I have to check you over, make sure you’re in good health, an’ talk with you, offer you counseling, an’ I also have to look into these four mysterious deaths. Your mind, Murray, has joined up the line between the curse you laughed about and your friends dying. It may have been right to do that – in which case coming here was a very smart move – or it may be completely wrong. We’ll find out, okay?”
“Okay,” Murray agreed. “Thank you.”
“Not writing me off as a raving nutcase.”
Rachel smiled reassuringly. “First order of priority is to check you over. I think you know that you really need to get some sleep. I have sedatives which can help.”
He began to shake his head.
“You’re safe here. Nothing bad can get in,” she assured him.
“But what if I brought it in with me?” he asked.
Nick’s cell phone began to beep and he scooped it up without slowing down. “Talk to me.”
“I can’t find Aquila,” Profelis said. “I’ve looked everywhere. Could she be in limbo again?”
If Nick had needed confirmation that Merlin hadn’t gone back to being an Enforcer, he’d just gotten it. Aquila was cut off for the duration.
“Maybe,” he lied. “Profelis, thanks for looking. Appreciate it.”
There was a studied pause while the other man considered the import of Nick’s lie. “Keep me informed,” he said and it wasn’t a request. “I don’t like it when she goes missing like this.”
“Sure thing.” Nick cut the call off.
Okay. He had no leads to check out. He would have to go by intuition and knowing his wife. Where would she go? Nick had a sick feeling in his stomach. Had she said hotel, or had she said hospital? Where should he try looking first?
The Mustang crossed the Golden Gate and entered the city streets. It was going to be a long night …
Derek and Anna both looked round as the door opened but it was Derek who spoke.
“How is he?”
Rachel answered with a cautious shrug. “Murray is extremely agitated, highly nervous an’ suspicious .. and, if I were in his position, I would be too. But he is rational. These aren’t paranoid delusions. He was able to tell me in clear words what had happened, to him an’ to his associates. He spoke of his fear, recognized that, in so many ways, it is completely irrational, and he told me what efforts he’d made to confront it while acknowledging that he was so scared of being the next victim that he was practically paralyzed.”
“So you believe his story,” Anna hesitantly inquired.
Rachel paused before replying. “I wouldn’t describe it as a story. It’s too real to be fiction. It’s recent history and, as there are provable facts – as in deaths – not in any way embellished recent history. Murray hasn’t, for example, said anything about the form this curse is taking. He hasn’t imagined anything. If you’re asking if I believe in the curse .. I don’t know. He believes it, an’ that’s what’s important here. Derek, I’ve given him a mild sedative, after a lot of persuasion, and that, coupled with his exhaustion, should knock him out till morning. Maybe till lunchtime. When he wakes, I’ll talk with him again, see if his account has changed in any way. I’m betting that it won’t but he may recall extra information. Even if he doesn’t, the sleep will help clear his mind of suspicion. Murray should be more ready to work with us to figure this out.”
Derek nodded. “Thank you, Rachel. You’ll be here around noon tomorrow?”
“Yeah. I can’t reschedule my morning appointment but I’ll call first thing. See how Murray is, okay?”
“Here’s another dose of medication should he waken. It is mild. An extra dose won’t hurt him.”
Derek nodded again. “We should have some paperwork for you by the afternoon.”
“Great,” she smiled. “In one way, I am so hoping that someone’s missed something, that these deaths can be explained an’ Murray will get peace of mind. And, in another, a very small part of me is hoping that we have a mystery to solve. An Ancient Egyptian curse. It’d be good if we could prove it to be just a genuine warning to grave robbers, wouldn’t it?”
“Yes, it would,” Derek agreed and Anna nodded her support but Rachel knew Derek’s various tones of voice better than Anna Cowley. He was agreeing but with a qualification which hinted that Rachel’s comment was only wishful thinking.
Rachel shrugged. “I’d better get going. Is Nick back? It’s way past nightfall.”
Derek frowned. “No, and he hasn’t called. It must have been worse than he thought.”
Midnight came, and went. Still Nick drove the streets, trying to track down one woman in all the thousands enjoying the city’s nightlife. He’d visited the clubs he knew she liked. He’d gone to the hotels they’d stayed in before, and a few they hadn’t. Nothing. He’d tried calling her cell phone again, but it was switched off.
C’mon .. give me a break, he prayed. Just a sign, a hint. Something I can work with. I know I screwed up and I’m sorry. All I want is to make it right. Is that so much to ask?
An idea occurred to him and Nick wasn’t sure if it had come from him or was the answer to his prayer. Maybe Merlin wasn’t frequenting her old haunts but visiting some of his.
Ten minutes later, as the hour edged closer to one, Nick was driving along the Embarcadero, heading for one of the piers. Five minutes after that, he spotted the 4x4.
Thanks. I owe you one.
The night was cold but Merlin sat on the edge of the pier, swinging her legs, gazing over the water toward Alameda. Every so often, the tip of her cigarette glowed in the darkness.
“Kinda late to be out alone,” he said carefully. “Can I join you? Please?”
She shrugged, a mere twitch of her shoulders.
Nick sat down next to her but kept a small gap between them. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry about a lotta things. I messed up big time. I’ve broken promises which mean so much to me. I left you when I said I wouldn’t. I said I wouldn’t get mad an’ I did. I wouldn’t listen. I’ve been a jerk. I wanted you to hear me say that.”
“I’m listening now if you still want to tell me.”
Merlin exhaled smoke. “I wanted to throw this in the Bay .. an’ I couldn’t.”
Light glinted softly on the gold of her wedding band.
“The promises I made .. can’t be broken, period. I don’t like lying, to anyone but mostly I hate lying to myself. I said you weren’t the one. You are.” She paused, pitching the cigarette into the black, oily water. “You hurt me, Nick. Stabbed me in the heart. I told Rafe that, if it meant my baby would need special training, I didn’t want whatever he was going to offer. I told him that. He said my baby may not inherit anything at all but it might get some kinda psychic gift. Be like Derek or Kat. I figured that was okay. We could cope with that so I let him give me a trickle of psychic energy. Just enough to take the edge off being normal. He doesn’t know how it’ll kick in. Could be visions, telepathy, empathy, just premonitions, a feeling something’s off somewhere. I didn’t think it could hurt .. but it did. It hurt us. Wounded us .. an’ I don’t know if we can survive.”
She looked at him. “I love you, Nick. I always will, but I don’t know if I can ever trust you again. I know, right now, I can’t be with you. I hurt too much. Seeing you .. I’d be always asking myself how long you plan to stick around this time.”
He nodded. “Then I’ll win it back. I’ll prove you can trust me. I’ll fight to get back in your life. Merli, we have three years of sharing, of shared memories, all of ’em too good to be over. I’m not gonna ask for a second chance, I’ll work to show I’m worthy of it.” He took her hand and she didn’t pull it away. “I won’t put pressure on you. I’ll move back to the island. But I’ll call you every day, just to talk. We’ll go back to how it was in the beginning, an’ I’ll win you all over again. You know I can be very persuasive.”
Merlin smiled fleetingly. “Yeah.”
Nick gazed over the water. “Derek’s gonna be mad at me.”
“Some situation’s blown up in his face an’ he wants me there. I promised I’d be back by nightfall .. an’ I broke my word. I had to find you. You came before everything else.”
A tear glimmered in her eye. “You did that for me?”
“The Legacy is nothing compared to you. If you asked, I’d give it up in an instant. Just say. I’ll call him now, tell him I won’t be coming back, ever.”
His voice was fierce with passionate belief. His eyes shone with it. His hold on her hand was crushing.
Merlin leant her head against his shoulder. “Maybe we can survive after all.”