When Andrew arrived at seven thirty on Monday morning, he found that his world had changed while he’d been absent from it. Rachel would be here for lunch. Well, that wasn’t such a massive change. Alex had gone to Paris for two weeks. It must have been incredibly short notice or she would have said something. What he found surprising was that there were not one but two guests staying ‘for a while’ – Anna Cowley and Murray Snowden. He knew of Anna – Anna of the strange phone call. Andrew might reasonably have anticipated that one, but who was Murray Snowden? He had presumably popped out of the woodwork. And Nick had moved back to the island, alone.
Andrew wondered about that – it was the most shocking note pinned on the board. It was in Nick’s own handwriting. It did say that hopefully it was only temporary but it still said he was back. Alone. Peri had not returned with him.
I like my life away from this island, Andrew thought. I like seeing my friends at the weekend. But sometimes I really wish I was here. It all goes from nothing to everything in the blink of an eye.
Five minutes later, Nick came in. He looked worn out but he managed a grin.
“What happened?” Andrew asked, flapping the note. Like Joseph before him, Andrew was protective of the people in the house.
“We had a fight. She kicked me out. Nah, that isn’t strictly true. I walked an’ now Peri won’t let me back. But we’re working on it. I’m taking her out to dinner tonight. Derek leave you any messages?”
“Alex has gone to Paris – ”
“Knew that one.”
“Rachel will be here for lunch. There are two guests in residence – ”
“Two? Anna an’ ..?” Nick probed.
“Someone called Murray Snowden,” Andrew replied. “It was on the board. Didn’t you see it when you pinned your note right next to it?”
“I was half dead on my feet,” Nick commented. “Sleeping in your car does that to you. I didn’t see much of anything when I eventually got here.”
The steward of the house cast a stern glance at him. “When I left on Friday, I left behind a happy house. Everything was in its proper place – people and items. I come back to organized chaos.” Andrew sighed. “By now, I should have learned to expect it.” He raised an eyebrow. “I suppose you’ll be wanting breakfast? In your usual quantities?”
“I might have been living elsewhere, but I haven’t changed, Andrew,” Nick replied with a grin.
“And .. these domestic problems you’re having are only temporary, right?”
“God, I hope so,” Nick admitted. “I miss having her around.”
“So do I,” Andrew responded.
Nick’s next port of call was Derek’s bedroom. He halted before the door and braced himself for a reprimand. Taking a deep breath, he knocked and waited.
“Come in, Nick.”
Oh boy, I am really in for it now, he thought as he opened the door.
Derek was just finishing his preparations to face the day. He put down his hairbrush and adjusted his tie a fraction of an inch. Then he turned to regard his second in command.
“You look terrible,” he began. “I expect you feel terrible as well. Did you sleep in your car?”
“It shows, huh?”
Derek nodded briskly. “I take it you and Peri did not sort out your differences.”
“We’re working on it. For the time being, though, I’m living here.”
Derek frowned. “It’s that serious?”
Nick shrugged helplessly. “I lost it, overreacted way over the top. She doesn’t trust me anymore. But I’ll get her back. I’m sorry, Derek. I broke my promise. But, for once, the Legacy came second.”
“You do?” Nick sounded surprised, even startled.
“I’m not an unfeeling monster, Nick. The Legacy would suck the lifeblood from us if we let it. There are times, yes, when it must come first. Yesterday was not one of them. You can make up the time today.”
“Whatever needs to be done,” Nick agreed.
“Sit down, I’ll bring you up to speed.” He waited for Nick to sit on the edge of the bed. “When I went to meet Anna off the ferry yesterday, I met someone else as well. Someone who was also on the dig in Guatemala. Dr Murray Snowden. I’ve known him for some years. Worked with him on some excavations. We’ve experienced certain incidents together, let’s leave it at that. Suffice it to say, he knows me and has an idea of what I do. He was recently in Egypt, assisting at another excavation. The four others in the team have since died. Murray is convinced it’s a curse and that he is next.”
“He came here for help?”
“Ostensibly, yes, although I also believe he came here for sanctuary.” Derek straightened. “The entire situation has to be dismantled and checked thoroughly. Rachel will look into the circumstances surrounding the deaths and manage Murray’s treatment.”
“Is he sick?”
“No, just exhausted and traumatized. He knew Professor Daly and his wife and the two research assistants very well. To lose four friends in less than a month … ” Derek shrugged slightly and Nick nodded his understanding. “So Rachel will be wearing two hats. Counselor and medical doctor. She may require your assistance with her part of the investigation. Anna and I will be examining Professor Daly’s findings, double checking his interpretation of what he found. And you will project manage the entire thing. I’m putting you in the lead on this one.”
Nick blinked. “But I don’t know the first – ”
“Exactly. Anna and I knew George Daly. Murray is too close to be objective. Rachel will be doing the scientific, twenty first century legwork. Anna and I will be covering the ancient history aspect. With Alex absent, you’ll be pulling a double workload on the computer, assisting Rachel, me and Anna as we all need, but also able to view everything with an objective eye. Spot the coincidences and the discrepancies, point them out to us. You’re bridging the two parts of this investigation. It makes sense for you to take the lead.”
“Okay,” Nick agreed.
“Nick, it means your personal life must take second place until all this is resolved. I can’t grant you any leeway on that. I’m sorry.”
“It will also mean a trip overseas. You, me, Rachel, and Anna. Arrange the flights, make them via London and Paris. Contact Alex, put her on standby. We’ll pick her up on the way thru.”
“Sure. You have any idea when we’re leaving?”
“That’s for you to decide. I would say .. a few days yet. I don’t want to risk anything until I know what George Daly did and said and found. That will take a little time.”
“You’re the boss,” Nick commented.
“And you’re the lead,” Derek confirmed.
Merlin opened the door to Profelis. “What is it, Evan?”
“Where were you?” he demanded. “Nick asked me to look for you. He was very agitated. I looked, I couldn’t find. Where were you?”
“Sitting on the dock of the Bay,” she replied. “You want coffee?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Come inside an’ stop making a horse’s ass of yourself.”
His eyes darkened.
“Please,” she requested. “I’ll explain.”
“You had a fight. You threw him out,” Profelis said as he followed her into the small lounge.
“No, I didn’t. He walked out, then he tried coming back. Evan, it’s a mess.” She folded up into an armchair. “I’m pregnant.”
Profelis sat down abruptly. “But … ”
“I know. I struck a deal, okay? I’ve been switched off. I’m not a Flamefall right now. Aquila is isolated, cut off. That’s why you couldn’t find me. My baby will be a normal child, not like us. I haven’t told Nick yet so I don’t want you telling him or anyone. It’s my business. We don’t have divorce so Nick will always be my husband but .. it’s difficult. He scared me. Before, when he lost his temper, I didn’t care. I knew he couldn’t hurt me. Now he could. He told me, way back, that he’d never had any lasting success with his relationships because they couldn’t handle his temper. And .. the most important thing to me, to any of us, is trust. We have to know we can rely on each other, against the whole world if we have to. An’ I don’t trust him anymore. At least, I don’t think I do. I don’t know. It’s a mess, Evan. I’m confused an’ I have a heap of doubt if I’m even doing the right thing.”
“I think I will have that coffee after all. You want some?”
She nodded slowly. “I haven’t slept so, sure, why not?”
He was back within five minutes. “What can I do to help?” he asked.
“Take over training week for me. Contact Jon, get him over here. He’ll have to cover for me. I’ll be outta action for .. at least nine months.”
“You have to tell Nick. You have to talk with him, Aqu – Peri. He deserves to know. Everything. Not just about the baby but how you feel. He really was agitated last night.”
“We’re supposed to be having dinner tonight. I’ll tell him then.”
“Will you work things out with him?”
“He was .. very anxious yesterday. He said nothing to me but he didn’t have to. He was in torment. Tortured. A man doesn’t feel like that if he doesn’t have good reason.”
A phone began ringing and Merlin got up. “I won’t be long.”
She went thru to the kitchen. “Yeah.”
“Babe, it’s me. I said I’d call.”
“Yeah, you did.”
“I have to cancel tonight.”
She nodded. “Any particular reason?”
“I’m drowning. The situation I told you about, Derek’s made me lead. Alex isn’t here so I’m pulling double shift. No other reason.”
Merlin bit at her lip. “You want some help?”
There was the slightest pause. “You mean that?”
“Sure. I may not be able to do much in the way of enforcing but I can work a computer. Just say.”
“Get over here. I miss you. I love you.”
“I’m on my way,” she said and hung up.
Profelis was pacing when she got back. “Who was it?”
“Nick. He needs my help. Data input, an’ that I can still do. He’s swamped an’ cancelled dinner.”
He put his hands on her shoulders. “If you need me, I’m here.”
“You’ll work it out. He knows what he stands to lose. And so do you.”
Derek was another one taking a call. “Good morning, Rachel.”
“How’s Murray?” she asked.
“I’m just going to check on him now. Shall I call you back?”
“I’ll hold,” she replied.
Derek went to Murray’s room and softly knocked on the door. Receiving no answer, he carefully opened it and crept inside. Murray was sprawled on his back, breathing steadily, completely out of it. Derek inspected him from a cautious distance and noted that his color was improved and he seemed calm. Just as carefully, he crept out again and eased the door shut.
“He seems much better,” he reported. “Fast asleep and showing no signs of waking.”
“That’s good,” Rachel said. “Okay, I’ll be over around noon, twelve thirty.”
“We’ll hold lunch till one.”
“Thank you. Later.”
He ended the call and replaced the phone on the stand in the hall. He heard a door opening behind him and turned.
“Hi, Derek,” Anna yawned. “Sleep well?”
“Eventually. I didn’t have much luck with my friend in London. Turns out he’s in Algiers.” She shrugged. “Cell phones, huh? These global networks are great .. an’ frustrating.”
“Hmm. Unfortunate. However, I have contacts in London too. I’ll try them. Breakfast?”
“Sounds good. How’s Murray doing?” she asked as they headed for the stairs.
“Out for the count.”
“That’s great! Really, it is. He was one of the reasons I couldn’t sleep at first. I was thinking an’ laying there, listening … I never heard a sound from his room.” She started down the steps. “Did Nick get back?”
“Eventually. I’ve made him lead on this investigation.”
“Is that wise? I’m not judging the guy, I don’t know him to be able to judge, but he did say he doesn’t have much knowledge about archeology.”
“Does he need to?” Derek queried. “He has two experts at his command. He has Rachel working the other side. Nick is best placed to oversee both halves. You go on,” he told her. “I’ll call London and then join you.”
“Okay,” she smiled.
Derek hurried to the control room. “You’re looking better,” he commented.
“Peri’s coming over to help,” Nick replied. “It’s a step in the right direction.”
“Yes, it is. At least you’re talking, sharing the same space. Make it work to your advantage, Nick. I do not want to lose her.”
“Makes two of us.” Nick did appear more perky and alert.
“I’m calling Paul in London. We need George’s research from the National Institute. Paul can go over there if he must and ensure it’s sent to us.”
“I should do a background check on Murray,” the younger man announced.
Derek halted. “Do you feel it’s necessary?”
“Standing orders. No one comes in without a background check, no matter how sorry their story. We’ve been caught out before, Derek. I’m not saying the guy’s lying but – ”
“You’re absolutely right. We have been caught out before, more than once. Make a start now then go to breakfast. Keep Anna company.”
“Yes, boss,” he said and turned back to the keyboard.
Derek went into his office and the door slid silently shut behind him. He’d told Anna that he’d slept well and he had .. like her, eventually. His mind liked nothing better than a mystery, supernatural or not. Right now, Derek wasn’t sure which one this was, but Murray’s account had rattled around his head, rebounding and ricocheting off other random facts and snippets of knowledge. He was intrigued by the translation of the curse. Superficially, it sounded like a warning to grave robbers. Go any farther, you’ll die. About standard. No one believed it would happen, not now, not then. People had been robbing graves since Ancient Egyptian times – one reason why they stopped building pyramids and starting digging chambers in the ground, or even burying their dead in cracks in the cliffs. Pyramids were big. They advertised that here was a tomb. Chambers underground were less obvious publicity. Less obvious everything. It was very strange. The death rituals and the afterlife were as much a part of every day life in Ancient Egypt as life itself. Yet some people just didn’t care. They broke in before the seals were even dry to plunder the tomb of treasure.
So, on the surface, a curse on those who stole from the dead. But was there another, deeper meaning?
He picked up the phone and called the London Legacy house. Derek needed to see the drawings, the photographs, the video recording of the chamber’s interior. He needed to set aside what Murray had told him and, indeed, what George Daly had done, and translate the hieroglyphs for himself, see it all for himself .. as if he were the first setting foot inside.
“Hello, it’s Derek Rayne for Paul Emery.”
Derek needed to examine the wall paintings. Murray hadn’t said if George had ever determined who was buried in the tomb but Murray had left after only nine days. He knew a lot but he didn’t know everything.
“Yes, Derek. Made your selection yet or do you want to interview all five?”
The question momentarily derailed his thoughts and he had to drag them back. “I haven’t had much of an opportunity to study the files, Paul. Something’s come up and I would like to request your assistance.”
“Sure! Anything. Just name it.”
Quickly, Derek explained the situation. “I need to get access to George Daly’s work – his research notes, his presentation material, the text of the article he was writing. Photographs, drawings, a video if one was made. He was receiving funding from the National Institute in London. Can you contact them, have the material faxed to me?”
“I’ll apply some strategic pressure,” Paul agreed.
“Rachel is going to look into the deaths of the four victims – ”
“So you’ll want the autopsy reports, medical records, that kinda stuff too.”
“Please. Being so far away makes it difficult for one of us to just stroll down there and collect it.”
“No problem. Leave it all with me. I’ll do what I can.”
“The two assistants may have family whose permission will need to be sought. But George and Gayle had no children, no family at all to survive them.”
“Noted. I’ll get a team on it.”
“Thank you, Paul. I appreciate it.”
“And you’ll call in on your way thru, I hope.”
Derek smiled. “Why do you say that?”
“Because I know you of old, my friend. This will mean a trip to Cairo at the very least. You’ll fly via London so you can mop up any loose ends over here. I hope you’ll call in to say hi while you’re in town.”
“Of course I will.”
“Great. I’d best get things moving. Nice speaking with you, Derek.”
“And with you. Goodbye, for now.”
He hung up before Paul could remind him, even mildly, of the five folders in his room. Right now, they were way down his list of priorities.
Merlin arrived around ten thirty and was ambushed before she got anywhere near to the control room.
“How long is this likely to last?” Andrew inquired.
“Excuse me?” she queried.
“Nick, living here. How long?”
“I don’t know. Andrew, do you need to have an answer? It’s kinda personal.”
He flushed and took a step back. “Oh! Well, obviously, I care about your personal happiness .. and his, but I don’t want you to think I’m intruding. I’m not. God, no! That isn’t why I’m asking. Nick being here disrupts my planning. I have to buy in extra supplies. Different supplies. I ask only from a .. supplies point of view.”
“Oh .. I see. I can’t answer you. It’s still too early.”
“It is temporary, though.”
“I don’t know. I really don’t. Maybe .. but I can’t promise.”
He shook his head. “It must’ve been on hell of a fight,” he remarked and went back to the kitchen.
“Oh yeah,” Merlin sighed.
She went on and walked into a second ambush. “Peri, what do you know of Ancient Egypt?” Derek asked.
“Specifically ..?” she probed.
“Usually, they’re only empty words. A little like you saying that you’re gonna kill the guy who cut in front of you in traffic. You don’t mean it, you say it only to feel better an’ to cope with a burst of angry frustration. But, occasionally, rarely, they have legs.” She watched him. “Is that your .. situation?”
“Part of it. Four people are dead, possibly from a curse. My friend Murray is here and he believes he’ll be next.”
“Then he probably will be,” she remarked.
“Even though it’s potentially empty words.”
“The actual words used don’t mean anything, Derek. It’s the word ‘curse’ which does it. If he believes he’ll be next, he buys in. He’ll make it happen. He can think himself to death.”
“Rachel’s working with him. Can you talk with him as well? See if you can break his belief?”
“I can try. Where is he?”
“He’s still sleeping right now. He was exhausted when he arrived yesterday. He’s been running for four days.”
She considered. “Breaking that kinda conditioning won’t be easy, Derek, but I’ll work with him an’ Rachel. Is she here yet?”
Merlin nodded. “Then I’ll make a start helping Nick.”
Derek paused. “I don’t like seeing either of you unhappy,” he commented.
She shrugged. “Then look the other way.”
Merlin went on. Last night, on the pier, her head resting on Nick’s shoulder, she had wanted nothing more than to have him sleep beside her. Yet something had prevented it. She’d gone home alone and, in the darkness, the gaping wound he’d torn in her heart had driven sleep away and widened the distance which had begun to close. As dawn had started to banish the night, Merlin had admitted to herself that she thought it very unlikely that he would ever come back.
At last, she reached the control room and the big test. “Hi.”
Nick twisted right round and a warm smile lit his eyes. “Hi yourself. Thanks for offering to help out.”
“I need to talk with you an’ I was gonna do it over dinner tonight but, as you’ve had to cancel, I’ll do it now. Has to be face to face, Nick.”
Every time she used that name, a tiny sliver of icy fear dug into his heart. Yes, she called him Nick but only in company. Alone, it was always Nicky .. or had been. ‘Nick’ was a signal that the distance he’d begun to imagine was gone now lay between them again.
“Okay. What is it?” he asked, masking the fear and the sense of rejection.
Merlin took a deep breath. “I’m pregnant. An’, no, I’m not letting you come back.”
Nick swallowed. “Merli .. that isn’t fair.”
“No, it isn’t, not for you, not for me, not for our baby. But you said, you promised, you’d be with me from the get go an’ you walked out. Nothing’s changed, Nick. I was pregnant when we had the fight. An’ the fact you didn’t know doesn’t change anything either. As an Enforcer,” she went on, “I have to trust my backup to be there for me. Okay, I’m not fighting at the moment but I still need that trust. I don’t have it anymore.” She paused, steadily meeting his anguished eyes. “As an Enforcer, I could deal with your temper. It didn’t bother me. I knew, no matter how punchy you got, you couldn’t hurt me. Now you could .. an’ that scares me. I wanted normal an’ I’ve been given it in spades. An’ just like all the other women you’ve known in your life, I can’t deal with your temper.”
Merlin shrugged stiffly. “So I’ll help you out an’ then I’ll go home, alone. I’ll cope with being pregnant on my own. I was self sufficient for years before I met you. I’ll do it again. I’ll learn how to go it alone again. And, maybe, when it’s time for this baby to be born, I’ll call you an’ see if you want to be there. After that .. well, we’ll see what happens. Just because we’re having this .. situation doesn’t mean you won’t be able to see your child.”
Nick swallowed. “Don’t you love me anymore? You’re cutting me outta your life completely.”
“Yeah, I do love you, Nick, but .. right now that isn’t enough. You have to understand that. You hurt me. I have to heal my wounds. Maybe I’ll go away. Travel while I can still fly. Visit friends.”
“They’re the only ones I have.”
“An’ you trust them.”
“Implicitly, unshakably, no matter what.”
He nodded, stabbed in the heart. Yesterday, he’d been mad enough to spit bullets and now it was coming back to bite him hard.
“In the meantime ..? What about our wedding vows?”
Merlin looked away, then back. “There is no divorce, but .. I won’t hold you to your vows. You can see other woman, sleep with ’em, whatever you want.”
“You don’t care?” he asked, his voice hard.
“I’ve never split with my husband before so I don’t know.”
“I don’t want this, Merli,” he argued. “You know I don’t.”
“You should’ve thought of that yesterday,” she replied, her voice sad with resignation. “What do you need me to do?”
“Take me back.”
“Isn’t gonna happen.”
“Ever?” he demanded.
She sat down at Alex’s workstation. “I don’t know.”
By the time Rachel arrived, the fax had come to life, spitting out pages and pages of notes. The article and presentation material were sent by email and Derek had already printed them so he and Anna could pore over them in the study. Nick had made a start on the research notes, reading them thru, looking for inconsistencies. Merlin was finishing the background check on Murray Snowden.
“No paperwork for me?” Rachel queried.
“Er .. I think some forms came thru,” Merlin replied. “Try the office.”
As Rachel moved past her, she caught sight of what was on the screen. “Murray,” she commented.
“He’s a smart guy,” Merlin said, nodding. “He’s done a lot with his life. He’s had some strange encounters in the past – has a Legacy file to show for it.”
“Is he still sleeping?” Rachel inquired next.
“Haven’t seen him.” Merlin swiveled round. “Derek’s asked me to work with you to break his conditioning. Tell me how you want me to play it. You’re the doc an’ the expert. I’ll follow orders.”
“Great. I’m glad of your help. Murray’s self belief has been battered an’ so he’s buying into the whole idea of being the next victim. He wants to fight it, he just doesn’t believe he can. Let’s grab some lunch an’ talk tactics.”
Rachel glanced at Nick. “Wanna join us?”
“Later,” he said quietly.
Rachel’s gaze traveled back to Merlin. “We can wait … ”
“I’m hungry now. C’mon. I’ll give you as much time as I can but I can’t waste it waiting.”
Belatedly, Rachel felt the frost in the control room. “Okay,” she warily agreed. “Murray is the priority. I can start off the session then leave you with him while I get to work on the autopsy results.”
“It seems to be exactly as Murray described it,” Anna commented. “George has a certain dryness and paucity when it comes to writing but, there again, the journals we tend to read are rather dry an’ lacking in imagination. Flowery language would stand out a mile an’ be considered a waste of paper an’ ink. We just like the straight facts.”
Derek didn’t respond for a moment, then he glanced up. “So it’s likely then that all of Murray’s account is true.”
Anna hesitated. “Derek .. I am not deliberately trashing his account. It stands up to scrutiny an’ questioning. What I am querying is whether people have died as a result of a curse, not that they’re dead nor that they died soon after returning from the excavation.”
“Do you believe in God?” he asked suddenly.
“Of course I do. I’ve studied too many temple complexes not to believe.”
“An’ the Devil?”
She angled her head. “I’m not sure on that one.”
“You can’t believe in one and not in the other. Good and evil exist in the world, Anna. It is possible for a curse to be real and to work.”
“I want proof. So far, I haven’t seen any,” she stated. “How’re you getting on?”
“My grasp of hieroglyphs is not what I’d call brilliant. It’s slow going .. but that isn’t a bad thing. I’m being extremely careful and thorough.”
“Yes,” he nodded.
“But George has already – ”
“I know. George Daly was an expert. But experts with long familiarity with their subject may make errors simply because they are experts. I speak from experience. I want to be sure of this translation. I need to know so I’ll translate it again. The wording which Murray gave us was not so much a curse as a warning.”
She watched him, her eyes widening slowly. “You do believe it’s a curse, don’t you? You don’t want it to be just a warning.”
“People are dead,” Derek responded. “They don’t die from being warned, especially after a warning thousands of years old.”
“My grasp of hieroglyphs isn’t brilliant either,” Anna said, “but I’ll help. Two heads an’ all that.”
“Much appreciated,” Derek smiled.
Murray woke at almost three in the afternoon to find Rachel and a stranger in his room. He gazed at Merlin for several long seconds but didn’t panic.
“How do you feel?” Rachel asked.
“A million times better. How long was I out?”
“Around eighteen hours.”
“You’re kidding!” Murray exclaimed.
“No,” she smiled. “You were exhausted. Now you have some reserves built up. This is Peri. She works here too, on an’ off. She’s going to help us with your therapy.”
“I’m not sure I need therapy, Rachel. I’m not a raving madman.”
“If you can say that, I’d have to agree. However, Peri has certain insights which can help you. In fact, I’m going to leave the two of you alone to talk while I get on with other, related things. Then I’ll come back an’ we’ll talk. Okay?” she asked brightly.
“Okay,” he nodded, rather bemused.
Rachel went out and Murray slid from under the blankets. “Could I clean up first?”
“Sure. No rush.”
“I must look awful,” he went on as he padded barefoot into the bathroom. “I feel so much better though. A bit more with it, y’know?”
“Yeah. Amazing how great an effect it can have when you clear out all the crap from your mind.”
Murray looked around the half open door, a toothbrush held to his mouth, his eyes puzzled. “Are we talking about me or you?”
“Both. You’re not the only one with problems, Murray. An’ running isn’t the answer. The problem just .. sits there an’ waits for you to come back. It’s grown an’ it has resentment mixed in. No, you gotta deal with it, there an’ then.”
She heard gargling and water being spit. Then Murray glanced around the door a second time. “Well .. thanks for the advice.”
Merlin met his gaze. “What?”
“Your insight. Thank you.”
“No! I was .. just making a comment. We haven’t started yet.” Her gaze dropped. “I was just thinking that, sure, you have to take a step back, a step away, just so you can clear your head. One step back is not a thousand steps running. Then you can focus on what’s important, what means everything to you an’ what you can afford to throw aside an’ forget.”
“Mm hmm,” Murray responded. She heard the careful scraping of a razor.
“Look, I have to make a very quick call. I’ll just be outside the door. Okay? We’ll start when I get back.”
“Mm hmm,” he repeated.
Merlin went out and pulled her cell phone from her pocket. She pressed one number – the number one. That, in itself, was significant. It began to ring. Several seconds passed, then a voice said, “Hit me.”
“I won’t, not now, but I may in the future. Nicky, I can’t do this. I can’t cut you loose. When Derek an’ I were in limbo, we talked about major regrets. I said I didn’t have any. If I walk away from you, I would have. I’m sorry. I was mad, an’ I was hurt. You’re right, we have too many good things in the past to end this .. unless you want to.”
“Where are you?”
“Outside Murray’s room. Talking with him made me realize he an’ I have something in common. Running solves nothing an’ it’s unnecessary. All you need to do is .. take a step back an’ refocus.”
“Remind me to buy him dinner when this is over.”
“Okay,” she smiled.
“I love you, Merli. When this thing is done, can I come home?”
“You’ll have to. This baby deserves both its parents from the get go. Nicky, I have to stop now. I think Murray’s ready for me.”
“Good luck,” he said and she heard the warmth in his voice.
Merlin put the phone back in her pocket and eased open the door. Murray was just zipping the fly on his pants. “You look better too,” she decided. “Ready to start?”
“I think so.”
“Wrong answer. You believe so. Think offers an element of doubt. Believe indicates faith. Ready to start?”
“I believe so,” he corrected.
“Good. Now, the question is do you believe in the curse or do you think you do?”
He hesitated. “I don’t know how to answer that. I feel like I’m split down the middle.”
Merlin nodded. “Rachel has told you all about the hindbrain an’ the primitive side of deep an’ dark. It explains it very scientifically .. an’ I want you to forget all about it. You’re Murray Snowden, one guy. Not Jekyll an’ Hyde, not Murray, Dr Scientist an’ Murray, Mr Neanderthal. Answer the question an’ be very honest about it. Do you believe or think you do?”
“I believe in the curse,” he admitted.
“Okay.” She looked at him, carefully searching his face, his eyes. “Do you believe in yourself?”
“Do you believe in yourself?” she repeated. “Do you believe in your rights? The right to be happy, to be healthy, to live your life as you want .. within the law?”
“Yes, of course I do.”
“Or do you think you do?” she queried. “Let me explain. Curses are a big deal. I wave my two pieces of animal bone in your face an’ say I curse you, Murray Snowden, to whatever. Or I write it down so you can find it. Your reaction is, invariably, to think my God, I’ve been cursed. The operative parts of it are someone says or writes, an’ the word curse. We as human beings tend to believe what we hear, or read. We don’t like the idea that someone’s lying to us or deliberately deceiving us. Your mind believes. Belief indicates faith. You buy in. You make it happen. But, if your belief in yourself is greater, you can work a special kinda magic. You take a step back. You look at the situation, really look at it. Something strange happens. One, you see a person or a bit of script. Two, you realize it’s only words. Words can be analyzed, stripped of their power, have the heart torn out an’ then, when you see what’s left, you can toss it aside. I would say that you’ve bought in, albeit reluctantly, because your friends have died. Now, I’m not saying to you that it is only coincidence. It may not be. They could’ve bought in as well, or they could’ve died for some other reason disguised as a curse. What we’re gonna do this afternoon is give you the mental armor to defend yourself against this an’ every other curse you come across in your very long life. Ready to work with me?”
“Yes, I believe I am,” Murray smiled.
“You seem a little happier,” Rachel remarked. “No, actually, you seem a lot happier.”
Nick shrugged and, despite the grim nature of his research topic, couldn’t wipe the grin from his face.
“The home fires have settled down to a steady blaze instead of a raging conflagration?” Rachel idly mused.
“Yep,” he confirmed. “An’ I’m gonna be a Daddy.”
Rachel blinked and looked round. “That was fast! Oh, but I suppose you had help.”
Nick didn’t respond to that. “It seems right, y’know? A new life to be celebrated to balance this investigation.”
She had to agree. “These autopsy results are baffling. The first to die, Phil Bateman, was as fit as you. He was up to date on all his shots. Right weight for his height. No evidence of harmful substances in his blood. No evidence of previously undiscovered genetic abnormalities. Yet, for some reason, he died. They’ve put cardiac arrest as the cause of death but .. what caused it is open to speculation. The same goes for Rebekka Staleygate an’ George Daly. Gayle Daly is different, but not by much. Cause of death in her case is systematic organ failure. Kidneys, liver, lungs, heart, even brain. But they can’t find out why it happened. Did the medical records come thru?”
Nick shook his head. “They won’t release them outta the UK. You wanna look, you gotta go there.”
“Then .. we’d better make some reservations,” she decided.
“I’m on it,” he confirmed.
“I don’t recognize this image,” Anna breathed, frowning. “It’s beautifully rendered. I should be able to identify it easily but I can’t.”
Derek looked across from his translation. “Why?”
She sat back and scraped both hands thru her hair. “Think about every other tomb decorations you’ve seen,” she invited. “They depict scenes from the deceased’s life, an’ the main painting is of the journey to the afterlife. Whoever being met by Anubis, being judged by Ma’at, being welcomed by Osiris. The hieroglyphs surrounding these paintings are a commentary. Translating them identifies the deceased person. These pictures aren’t typical, Derek. They don’t show any images of the journey or the judging. In fact, there are no scenes showing any of the familiar gods. An’ very few hieroglyphs to act as commentary.” She leaned forward again. “George stumbled on something unique. It’s a tomb unlike any other in Ancient Egyptian history.”
“Hmm,” he said. “Would you say George knew it was unique and was therefore excited?”
“Hell, I would’ve been,” Anna commented.
“He was a professional – ”
“So am I,” she pointed out.
“What I mean is, he knew enough not to get overly excited. He might have suspected it was unique but there’s the verification process. He knew he had to still be painstaking in his research and to be exact in his translation .. yet he made a mistake.”
“What? You’re kidding!” Anna scrambled around the table to stare. “We went thru this over twenty times. His translation was perfect. How can there be an error?”
Derek’s eyes narrowed. “You’re right. My choice of words was imprecise. George’s interpretation of his translation has an error.”
“Where?” Anna demanded.
“Here and here. These two words. This hieroglyph means ‘protect’, but it also means ‘secure’. And this isn’t ‘must not’, it’s ‘never’. This door they broke down to reach the chamber was there to secure something, not to protect it. George Daly .. released it into the world, and it killed him.”
Anna started to laugh but saw that Derek was serious. “You can’t believe … ” she began.
“These words are both a warning and a curse,” Derek concluded.
“The door’s there to keep people out,” she said.
“Yes, that’s true. But a door can also be there to keep something in,” he commented. “Now we have to find out what has been freed .. and how we can put it back.”