CONTINUED FROM PAGE ONE
Ibrahim continued his stroll around the Egyptian exhibit. Somehow being here cleared his thoughts, gave them focus. He had mentally written three emails he would have to send that night. First, to the Vice Chancellor, rejecting another suggested assistant as unsuitable. Another was to Doctor Smith, who as ever, offered some intriguing suggestions, and the final one was to Carra Wilton. The email to Carra would be the most enjoyable. She was only a few years younger than Ibrahim and a spectacular flirt with a wicked sense of humour. She was also the professor who had uncovered the Tomb of the Three Princes a few years earlier. Many of the pieces in the room hailed from that find, the first time they had ever been allowed to leave Egypt.
Dozens of the large glass cases that filled the room, contained an artefact from that most recently discovered tomb in Egypt’s legendary Valley of the Kings. Sarcophagi, golden death masks, canopic jars, statues and intricate works of art were all stored in the glass cases. All of the air inside the cases had either been removed to leave a vacuum or replaced with inert gases to protect the precious items from decay. After three and a half thousand years in which they had lain undisturbed by tomb robbers and untouched by weather or the wars that had raged near them, the artefacts needed protection from the minute bacteria that lived in the air, and which could attack and destroy anything organic in the collection. Pressure pads, lasers and any number of other security measures were also in place to ensure that the collection was protected from modern tomb robbers who could make tens of millions on the black market by selling the pieces to collectors.
Ibrahim stopped to look at the large frieze which had been so carefully excavated from the tomb. In the traditional ancient Egyptian style it showed three young men - obviously princes from the gold and crowns they wore, following a Pharaoh. There was nothing unusual in that, except that the Pharaoh depicted was young and from the size in relation to the three princes, as well as the definite swell at the chest and the feminine styling of the face, the pharaoh was obviously female. Even then there was nothing actually extraordinary in that. It was unusual, certainly. The majority of pharaohs had been men but history had noted a number of female Pharaohs. Hatchepsut and Smenkhare, for instance. The odd thing about this female Pharaoh was that she was completely unknown to history. She was a mystery.
She was his mystery.
He had been intrigued by the tomb’s discovery, sucked in by the enigma as so many people around the world had been. The difference was that unlike all of those others around the world, Ibrahim had the chance to observe the objects up close every day.
And more or less every day that’s exactly what he did.
Ibrahim started the walk back to the door. He did the same circuit of the room every day. Was he becoming predictable? He checked his watch. Time to go. He was on supper duty and there would be hell to pay if Helena got home from a late shift at the hospital and he hadn’t got supper ready. And picking up a pizza or fish and chips wasn’t an option. Not with Helena. The downside of being in a relationship with a doctor was that she could point out the health risks in every piece of fast food Ibrahim could pick up on the way home. Of course, that wouldn’t stop her tucking into whatever he bought but somewhere there would be a lecture on health. Best to save takeaways for a treat and cook something himself.
As he always did, Ibrahim stopped and stared into a glass case containing a large stone tablet. The hieroglyphs were ornate and beautifully carved - and like everyone else on the planet, Ibrahim had absolutely no idea what they said. They were an entirely separate pictographic language, similar to hieroglyphics in style but in an alphabet of characters utterly lost to the centuries. Ibrahim stared at the tablet for a few moments, willing the symbols to slide into place, to make some connection in his mind so that he could begin to understand what they said… nothing. The same as every other day. Someone would decipher it one day. One day… And Ibrahim didn’t mind that it wouldn’t be him. Just sharing in the discovery would be enough.
He had taken a couple of steps towards the door when the overhead lights flickered. They dimmed for a moment then returned to their full strength. That would have to be reported to the caretakers again before he left. As with any old building, the museum’s electrics were prone to occasional… eccentricities was a polite way to put it. There had been occasional flickering lights and power dips for the past few months. The electricians assured them that there was nothing to worry about. But the artefacts in the exhibit - in all of the museum’s exhibits - were utterly priceless and Ibrahim wasn’t ready to gamble them on the promise of an electrician who was probably overworked and underpaid. He would demand that electrics be properly investigated. If not, he could always say that he would have to recommend that the Egyptian pieces be returned to Cairo. Regretfully, of course. And, of course, the Vice Chancellor would know that Ibrahim would do nothing of the sort - but it would be enough to get the board to stump up the money for the electrics to be properly repaired.
Already beginning to compose the email to the Vice Chancellor in his head, Ibrahim headed for the door. He had taken half a dozen steps when the lights died completely, throwing the room into near total darkness. Ibrahim stopped dead still. The last thing he wanted to do was to blindly barge into one of the exhibits. He waited for his eyes to become accustomed to the dim light. As he did so, he became aware of an unusual smell. Something sharp and tangy that caught at the back of his throat. It reminded him of something. Old fairground rides. The sparks from the electric dodgems. Was that ozone?
And what the hell was producing that light that had thrown a pale blue glow around the room? What on Earth was going on? Ibrahim reached into him pocket for his mobile phone…
A flash of electricity, as brilliant as a bolt of lightning, shot across the room. Tendrils of bright blue electricity spat off in a dozen directions, arcing between the hanging light fittings and wall switches, and flashing along the fine metal borders of the display cases, dancing back and forth between any pieces of bare metal and sources of electricity. A row of lightbulbs exploded above his head and Ibrahim threw himself flat onto the floor, wrapping his arms over his head, waiting for the electricity to pass. The storm of electricity took less than fifteen second to reach its peak and then abate. To Ibrahim, it felt a lot longer. Every second he waited for the electricity to crash into his body, or the sound of one of the display cases cracking under the onslaught. He wasn’t sure which would have been worse. He curled into a ball. Even when the electricity sounded like it was fading he didn’t move until he was absolutely certain it had gone. Finally, Ibrahim did move, tentatively looking out into the room. A thin smoke hung in the atmosphere, there was still a strong smell of ozone and the short hairs on the back of his neck and hands were standing on end. Short bursts of residual electricity still crackled at the nearest light switch in the wall but as far as he could see none of the display cases had been damaged. It verged on a miracle and he wondered if, perhaps, some ancient Egyptian spirit had been watching over them. Naturally, he didn’t believe in any of the old gods - he didn’t believe in any new ones either - but he was happy to hedge his bets and offered a quick thank you to whatever deity or good fortune had protected both himself and the collection.
For the second time in a few minutes, Ibrahim reached for his mobile phone, and for the second time he was stopped. This time by a low moan from the far side of the display case he had taken refuge beside. For a fleeting moment, he had thoughts of the legends of curses and mummies but he threw them aside quickly, and hurried around the case.
A girl lay face down in the aisle between the cases. She was trying to push herself up but she couldn’t seem to co-ordinate her body or her arms. She reminded him of a fawn trying to stand for the first time.
“Are you all right?” Ibrahim asked.
The girl’s head swung round. She couldn’t control her head either. Her eyes were glassy and unfocused, her mouth loose. She choked out a few gutteral sounds and swayed. She looked stoned. Ibrahim had seen it often enough. Which student hadn’t? He thought of calling the police, but her expression changed. Her eyes focused on him for a few moments before she clamped them tightly shut in concentration. She clenched her fists until the knuckles were white and she began to control her breathing, inhaling and exhaling slowly and rhythmically.
Ibrahim guessed she was around twenty-three or twenty-four. She had the same light coffee skin-tone that he did and he guessed she was from a similar part of North Africa as himself. Her hair was long, straight and black but it was tidy, and her clothes… well, he was no expert on what girls were wearing these days but this looked like a cross between a robe and a long skirt with britches underneath. She would have been pretty, perhaps even beautiful if her face wasn’t twisted in concentration.
“Are you all right?” he repeated.
The girl’s dark brown eyes snapped open. “Of course I am not all right, idiot. What have you done to me? What is this place?”
“I haven’t done anything to you. I just found you here. Are you hurt?”
“Of course I am hurt, fool. It feels as if a hippopotamus is trying to burst out of my head. My stomach is on fire and churning and I think I am going to…” She clutched her stomach and jack-knifed forward. She retched and threw up. It was mostly water and bile. She retched again and spat the last of the liquid from her mouth onto the floor before pulling a cloth from a pocket and wiping it across her mouth. She was still in pain but her eyes had cleared. She certainly wasn’t stoned. She just looked like she had been through a hell of a shock.
Ibrahim hunkered down beside the girl. “Can I get you something? Water?”
She grimaced, looking at the pool she had just deposited on the floor. “That is probably not the wisest thing for me now.” Her voice was clipped and precise. Intelligent and articulate. And definitely not a junkie, Ibrahim thought sourly. He should have known better than to make assumptions. Had she been hit by electricity or affected by it in some way?
“Do you feel well enough to stand?” Ibrahim asked.
The girl thought for a moment before answering. “No,” she said simply. “But I cannot sit here all day.” She extended a hand regally to Ibrahim. He stared at it dumbly. “You may help me stand.” Her voice wasn’t unkind but there was no doubt she expected Ibrahim to help her. He took her fore-arm and held gently as the girl pulled herself to her feet. She swayed woozily for a second before her balance returned. “Thank you.” She smiled and the smile transformed her face. The anger and frustration had gone, quickly replaced by an intense curiosity, as she started to look around and take in her surroundings. “Where am I?” she asked.
Ibrahim answered, “The London Museum of History and Antiquities. The displays are…”
He didn’t finish. The girl’s voice cut across him, sharp and angry. “Why are these objects here?” she demanded, staring at the precious historical articles in the glass cases. “Why are they not in the tombs where they belong?”
The question explained a good deal. Many of his fellow Egyptians had been against sending the precious artefacts out of Egypt, especially for such a long time. The girl must have been one of the protestors. “Given how much was stolen by our own people when they raided the tombs, I think this is as safe a place as any for these beautiful objects,” he said. “I make sure they are treated with respect and care.”
The girl’s dark brown eyes bored into Ibrahim, gauging whether he was telling the truth or not. Finally she nodded a little. “That is good,” she said. “But if you are lying, I swear I will cut the tongue from your mouth and feed it to the jackals.”
“What?” Ibrahim choked. She was serious. He could see it in her face. She meant every word of her threat. “Who are you?”
The girl’s mouth snapped open to answer… but then she stopped. No words would come. Her mouth moved for a few seconds as she looked more and more confused. “I do not know,” she answered finally.
“You don’t know you own name?”
“My mind is clouded,” the girl said sharply. “My memory is hidden from me.”
“Really?” Maybe he had been too quick to dismiss the idea of drugs after all.
She glared at him and Ibrahim took an involuntary step backwards. “Do not mock me, old man.”
“Old?” Ibrahim was indignant. “I’m only thirty-six.” It was the damned suit that made him look older.
The girl seemed to find strength in her anger, as if it focused her. “That is what I said. Old!” She swept a hand around the room and began to inspect the glass cases. “What else did you find with these objects?”
“It’s a magnificent collection, isn’t it?” Whether she was a student or a protestor, the girl was certainly entranced by the collection. She couldn‘t be all bad. “It was nearly all found in an undisturbed tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Everything in the tomb had been untouched since the tomb was sealed. It’s called it the Tomb of the Three Princes and…”
“This was not in that tomb.” The girl had stopped by the case containing the large stone with the mysterious pictographic writing on it.
“No,” Ibrahim agreed. “That was found about twenty years ago in a cave…” He stopped. Exact details of the stone’s discovery had been kept secret for fear of sending thousands of treasure hunters off into places where they would almost certainly destroy anything of historical value they might accidentally find. There had been an assumption that the stone was somehow found near or in the Tomb of the Three Princes and the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities had simply never corrected that assumption. “How did you know it wasn’t found in the tomb?”
Her eyes flickered across the stone. Almost as if she recognised it. “It was in a cave on the western ridge,” she said. “It was protected by many traps.”
A student certainly wouldn’t have known any of that. Ibrahim doubted if anyone outside of the Ministry knew the truth about the stone’s discovery. After all, three American tourists had died at the hands of the traps in the cave. If they hadn’t hushed that up, it would have been a disaster for the tourist industry. “Are you from the Ministry?”
She shook her head. “No.”
“Then how can you know all that?”
The girl looked at Ibrahim as if he was a very simple child unable to grasp even the simplest idea. “Because it is written on the stone.”
And as she began to read, Ibrahim Hadmani’s jaw dropped open.
“Only those who have passed the great desert with life intact in their bodies and whose spirit has the nobility and wisdom to survive the tests of Pharaoh will find light and darkness carved in this stone.”
“You can read that?” Ibrahim breathed, utterly shocked.
The girl looked back at him with irritation. “I just did, did I not? Part of it, anyway.”
“But no-one can read that,” Ibrahim protested. “How can you just appear here out of nowhere and…”
The girl interrupted, reading more from the stone tablet. “Heed the warning of Mighty Pharaoh. The darkness the God-King bled to send into the far abyss shall use the power of night to rise. If it rises the land will be cast into shadow and all flesh shall wither to dust on the bone.”
It wasn’t possible. She couldn’t be reading the tablet. Could she? “But the language on that tablet has been dead for thousands of years,” Ibrahim said. “How can you read it?”
She opened her mouth to speak but again no words would come. Her delicate, pretty face creased into a frown. “I do not know.”
She had to be having a joke at his expense. Playing a trick to avoid getting into trouble for being in the museum after hours. Maybe she had been the one who made the electrics go haywire. “You don’t know?”
Her eyes snapped up, blazing with anger at the disbelieving tone in Ibrahim’s voice. “I don’t know,” she repeated harshly. “I don’t know…” her voice faltered, becoming uncertain. “I do not know… I do not know how I can read that. I do not know where I am. I do not know where I have come from. I do not know my name… I do not know… I do not know anything!”
Ibrahim looked at the girl. Her clothes were unusual but clean. Her eyes were confused but they had none of the tell-tale signs of alcohol or drugs. They were focused and clear and had moved intelligently, surveying the room and taking in her surroundings. She was disoriented and had definitely been in pain.
And she had read the stone… hadn’t she?
Her translation fit the rhythms and speech patterns Ibrahim would have expected from that period of Egyptian history. And the repeated characters within the mysterious hieroglyphs matched her translation as best as he could tell.
And there was something else… something familiar about her. No, more than that. He wasn’t sure why, but Ibrahim trusted the girl. He held out a hand. “Come with me.”
“Why?” She looked at his hand suspiciously and made no attempt to take it. “Where will you take me?”
“We need to find out who you are.” Ibrahim swung his arm in an arc, indicating the room around them. “And how you can read a dead language that no-one else in the world has been able to decode.”
“These things are familiar to me,” she said softly, pressing her forehead against the glass of a display case, as if getting closer would release her trapped memories.
“They’re from the most famous tomb of recent years,” Ibrahim said. “There were three royal brothers buried together. There was a fourth chamber in the tomb, which was full of great treasures but the Pharaoh who should have been there was missing. And the remarkable thing was…”
“I know this mask.” The girl cut across Ibrahim’s lecture. She was standing by the golden death mask. The mask which had always so intrigued Ibrahim.
“It’s the mask of the Pharaoh whose tomb was empty,” Ibrahim answered. “As I was saying, it’s…” Ibrahim’s voice tailed off. His mouth felt suddenly dry.
It was impossible.
It couldn’t be.
And yet the proof was in front of him. Staring at him, dark brown eyes full of questions.
“It’s you,” he breathed.
The girl looked at Ibrahim in confusion and then turned back to the Death Mask.
The golden face staring blankly back at the girl was her own.
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