WILL ADAMS The Exodus Quest
In fond memory
of my friend and cousin
The southern shore of Lake Mariut, AD 415
The plaster had dried at last. Marcus scooped up handfuls of dirt and sand from the floor, smeared them across the fresh white surface until it was dulled and dark and virtually indistinguishable from the rest of the wall. He held his oil lamp close to examine it, added more dirt where needed until satisfied, though in truth it needed the eyes of a younger man. A last walk through the old, familiar passages and chambers, bidding farewell to his comrades and ancestors in the catacombs, to a lifetime of memories, then up the steps and out.
Late afternoon already. No time to waste.
He closed the wooden hatch, shovelled sand and stone down on it. The crash and scatter as it landed, the swish of robes, the crunch of his iron-shod spade. He began to hear in these noises the distant chanting of a mob. It grew so strong, so convincing, he paused to listen. But now there was only silence, save for his heavy breathing, the hammer of his heart, the trickle of settling sand.
Nothing but the fears of a solitary old man.
The sun was low in the west, tinting orange. They usually came by night, as evildoers will, though they were growing bolder all the time. He’d seen strange faces in the harbour that morning. One-time friends muttering amongst themselves. People whose diseases he’d treated without thought for his own safety looking at him like contagion.
He began to shovel again, faster and faster, to quell the panic before it could overwhelm him.
He’d thought they’d be able to ride it out. Their community had survived many previous pogroms and wars, after all. He’d imagined, foolishly, that their ideas would prevail in the end because they were so much stronger and more rational than the pious cruel nonsense of the so-called right-thinking. But he’d been wrong. It was human nature, when fears were stirred, that reason lost all power.
Poor Hypatia! That beautiful, wise and gentle woman. They said her lynching had been ordered by Pope Cyril himself. Epiphanes had witnessed the whole thing. A mere boy; too young for such a sight. The mob led by that sanctimonious monster Peter the Reader. No surprise there. They’d torn her from her chariot, stripped her naked, dragged her to their church, cut her flesh from her bones with oyster-shells, then burned her remains.
Men of God they called themselves. How was it possible they couldn’t see what they truly were?
The sun had set. The night began to cool. His pace slowed. He was far from the prime of youth. But he didn’t stop altogether. The quicker he finished, the quicker he could set off, catch up his family and fellows in their quest for sanctuary near Hermopolis or perhaps even Chenoboskion, depending on how far this madness had spread. He’d sent them on ahead with all the scrolls and other treasured possessions they’d been able to carry, the accumulated wisdom of centuries. But he himself had stayed behind. They’d grown lax these past few years. It was no secret they had an underground complex here, he knew; not least because absurd rumours about their wealth and hidden treasures had found their way back to him. If these villains looked hard and long enough, they’d every chance of finding these steps, however well he buried them. That was why he’d plastered up the entrance to the baptism chamber, so that some small fraction of their knowledge might survive even if the underground complex itself was discovered. And maybe one day sanity would return, and they could too. If not himself, then his children or grandchildren. And if not them, then perhaps the people of a future age. A more rational, enlightened age. Maybe they’d appreciate the wisdom of the walls, not hate and vilify it.
He finished filling in the shaft, trod it down until it was hard to see. Time to go. The prospect dismayed him. He was too old for such adventures, too old to start again. All he’d ever sought in life was the peace in which to study his texts, learn the nature of the world. But that was now denied him by these swaggering cruel bullies who’d made it a sin even to think. You could see it in their eyes, the pleasure they took in the wanton exercise of their power. They wallowed in their villainy. They raised their hands up high as though the blood on them shone like virtue.
He was travelling light, just his robes, a small sack of provisions, a few coins in his purse. But he hadn’t walked ten minutes before he saw a glow over the ridge ahead. It meant nothing to him at first, too lost in private thoughts. But then he realized. Torches. Approaching from the harbour. The direction of the breeze changed and then he heard them. Men and women shouting, singing, jubilant in the anticipation of another lynching.
He hurried back the way he’d come, his heart pounding. Their settlement was on a gentle hill overlooking the lake. He reached the crown and saw the glow on every side, like a pyre just lit, flames licking up the tinder. A cry to his right. A rooftop began to blaze. A second and then a third. Their homes! Their lives! The clamour grew louder, closer. That hateful bayinhe clafulg! How these people loved their work. He turned this way and that, seeking a path out, but everywhere he went, torches forced him back, penning him into an ever-smaller space.
The cry went up at last. He’d been seen. He turned and fled, but his old legs weren’t up to it, even though he knew the penalty of capture. And then they were all around him, their faces enflamed with bloodlust, and there was nothing more he could do save go with dignity and courage, try to shame them into compassion. Or, failing that, perhaps when they woke in the morning, they’d look back on their work this night with such horror and revulsion that others might be spared.
That would be something.
He fell to his knees on the rocky ground, his whole body...
Bab Sedra Street, Alexandria
Daniel Knox was walking north along Sharia Bab Sedra when he saw the earthenware bowl on the street-trader’s flapped-out tablecloth. It was filled with matchbooks and packets of white napkins, and it was propping up one end of a line of battered Arabic schoolbooks. His heart gave a little flutter; he suffered a moment’s vu. He’d seen one like it before, he was sure of it. Somewhere interesting, too. For a few seconds he almost had the answer, but then it eluded him, and the feeling slowly faded, leaving him merely uneasy, unsure whether his mind was playing tricks.
He paused, crouched, picked up a garish plastic vase with wilting artificial yellow flowers, then a ragged geography textbook with all its pages falling out, so that out-of-date maps of Egypt’s topography and demographics fanned out over the tablecloth like a deck of cards swept by a magician’s hand.
Salaam alekum, nodded the trader. He couldn’t have been more than fifteen years old, made to look even younger by hand-me-down clothes at least two sizes too big.
Wa alekum es salaam, replied Knox.
You like this book, mister? You want to buy?
Knox shrugged and put it back, then glanced around as though uninterested in anything he saw. But the young hawker only gave a crooked-toothed smile. He wasn’t a fool. Knox grinned self-deprecatingly and touched the earthenware bowl with his finger. What’s this? he asked.
Sir has a fine eye, he said. A wonderful antique from Alexandria’s rich history. The fruit bowl of Alexander the Great himself! Yes! Alexander the Great! No word of a lie.
Alexander the Great? said Knox. Surely not?
No word of a lie, insisted the young man. They find his body, you know. They find this in his tomb! Yes! The man who find Alexander, he is a man called Daniel Knox, he is my very good friend, he give this to me himself!
Knox laughed. Since that particular adventure, he’d been everyone’s very good friend. And you’re selling it out here on the street? he teased. Surely if it belonged to Alexander, its worthy of the Cairo Museum itself! He picked it up, again felt that reprise of vu, a curious tingling in his chest, a dryness at the back of his mouth, a slighchest, a t pressure at the base of his cranium.
He turned the bowl around in his hands, enjoying the sensation of touch. He was no expert on ceramics, but all field archaeologists had a certain knowledge, not least because about nine out of every ten artefacts on any given site were some kind of pottery, a fragment from a plate, cup or jar, a shard from an oil lamp or perfume flask, perhaps even an ostracon, if it was your lucky day.
But this wasn’t broken. It was some seven inches in diameter and three inches deep, with a flat base and curved sides and no rim to speak of, so that you could hold it in both hands and drink directly from it. From the smooth texture, the clay had evidently been well sieved for grit and pebbles before it had been hard-fired. It was pinkish-grey, though coated with a paler wash that gave it a swirling texture, like cream just stirred into coffee. Maybe local provenance; maybe not. He’d need an expert to determine that. He had little more success with the dating. Fine-ware like oil lamps and expensive crockery had changed constantly with prevailing fashions, if only to show off the wealth of their owners; but coarse-ware like this had tended to keep its form, sometimes for centuries. Circa AD 50 at a guess, plus or minus a couple of hundred years. Or a couple of thousand. He put it back down, intending to walk away, but it just wouldn’t let him go. He squatted there, staring at it, rubbing his jaw, trying to read its message, work out how it had put its hook in him.
Knox knew how rare it was to find valuable artefacts in a street market. The hawkers were too shrewd to sell high-quality pieces that way, the antiquities police too observant. And there were artisans in the back streets of Alexandria and Cairo who could knock out convincing replicas in a heartbeat, if they thought they could fool a gullible tourist into parting with their cash. But this particular bowl seemed too dowdy to be worth the effort. How much? he asked finally.
One thousand US, replied the young man without blinking.
Knox laughed again. Egyptians were expert at pricing the buyer, not the piece. Clearly he was looking unusually wealthy today. Wealthy and stupid. Again he made to walk away; again something stopped him. He touched it with his fingertip, reluctant to be drawn into a haggle. Once you started, it was rude not to finish, and Knox wasn’t at all sure he wanted this piece, even if he could get it cheap. If it was a genuine antiquity, after all, then buying it was illegal. If it was fake, then he’d feel annoyed with himself for days at being taken in, especially if his friends and colleagues ever got to hear about it. He shook his head decisively, and this time he did stand up.
Five hundred, said the young hawker hurriedly, sensing his fat fish slipping through his fingers. I see you before. You a good man. I make you special price. Very special price.
Knox shook his head. Where did you get it? he asked.
It is from the tomb of Alexander the Great, I assure you! My friend give it to me because he is a very good.
The truth, said Knox. Or I walk away now.
The boy’s eyes narrowed shrewdly. Why I tell you this? he asked. So you call the police?
Knox fished in his back pocket for some cash, letting him see the banknotes. How can I be confident it’s genuine unless you tell me where you got it? he asked.
The trader pulled a face, looked around to make sure he couldn’t be overhe lookebe ard. A friend of my cousin works on an excavation, he murmured.
Which excavation? frowned Knox. ˜Who runs it?
What kind of foreigners?
He shrugged indifferently. Foreigners.
South, he waved vaguely. South of Mariut.
Knox nodded. It made sense. Lake Mariut had been hemmed around by farms and settlements in ancient times, before the inflows from the Nile had silted up and the lake had started to shrink. He counted his money slowly. If this bowl had indeed come from an archaeological site, he had a duty to return it, or at least to let someone there know that they had a security problem. Thirty-five Egyptian pounds. He folded them between his thumb and forefinger. South of the lake, you say? he frowned. Where, exactly? I’ll need to know precisely if I am to buy.
The young man’s eyes refocused reluctantly from the money to Knox. A bitter expression soured his face, as though he realized he’d said too much already. He muttered an obscenity, gathered the four corners of his tablecloth, hoisted it up so that all his wares clattered together, hurried away. Knox made to follow, but a colossus of a man appeared from nowhere, stepped across his path. Knox tried to go around him, but the man simply moved sideways to block him, arms folded across his chest, a dry smile on his lips, inviting Knox to try something. And then it was too late anyway, the youngster swallowed up by crowds, taking his earthenware bowl with him.
Knox shrugged and let it go. It was almost certainly nothing.
Yes. Almost certainly.
The Eastern Desert, Middle Egypt
Police Inspector Naguib Hussein watched the hospital pathologist pull back a flap of the blue tarpaulin to reveal the desiccated body of the girl within. At least, Naguib assumed it was a girl, judging by her diminutive size, long hair, cheap jewellery and clothes, but in truth he couldn’t be sure. She’d been dead too long, buried out here in the baking hot sands of the Eastern Desert, mummified as she’d putrefied, the back of her head broken open and stuck fast by congealed gore to the tarpaulin.
Who found her? asked the pathologist.
One of the guides, said Naguib. Apparently some tourists wanted a taste of the real desert. He gave an amused grunt. They’d got that, all right.
And she was just lying here?
They saw the tarpaulin first. Then her foot. The rest of her was still hidden.
Last night windstorm must have uncovered her.
And covered any tracks, too, agreed Naguib. He watched with folded arms as the pathologist continued his preliminary assessment, examining her scalp, her eyes, her cheeks and her ears, manipulating her lower jaw back and forth to open her mouth, probing a spatula deep inside, scraping froth and grit and sand from the dried-out membrane of her tongue, cheeks and throat. He closed her mouth again, studied her neck, her collarbones, the bulging, dislocated right shoulder and her arms, folded awkwardly, almost coyly, down by her sides.
How old is ht="0pw oshe? asked Naguib.
Wait for my report.
Please. I need something to work on.
The pathologist sighed. Thirteen, fourteen. Something like that. And her right shoulder shows signs of post-mortem dislocation.
Yes, agreed Naguib. Out of professional vanity, he wanted the pathologist to know he’d spotted this himself, so he said: â€˜I thought perhaps that rigor set in before she could be buried. Perhaps it set in with her arm thrown up above her head. Perhaps whoever buried her dislocated it when they were trying to wrap her up in the tarpaulin.â€™
â€˜Perhaps,â€™ agreed the pathologist. Evidently not a man for uninformed speculation.
â€˜What time would that give us after death?â€™
â€˜That depends,â€™ said the pathologist. â€˜The hotter it is, the quicker rigor sets in, but the quicker it passes, too. And if sheâ€™d been running, say, or fighting, then it would be quicker.â€™
Naguib breathed in deep to quell any hint of impatience. â€˜Approximately.â€™
â€˜Shoulders are typically the last muscle groups to develop rigor. Onset takes at least three hours, often six or seven. After that â€¦â€™ He shook his head. â€˜It can last for anything from another six hours to two days.â€™
â€˜But a minimum of three hours, yes?â€™
â€˜Usually. Though there are cases.â€™
â€˜There are always cases,â€™ said Naguib.
â€˜Yes.â€™ With his finger, the pathologist tickled out the fragile links of a chain around her neck, a silver charm hanging from it. A Coptic cross. He glanced around at Naguib, the two men no doubt sharing a single thought. Another dead Copt girl. That was all this region needed right now.
â€˜Itâ€™s a nice enough piece,â€™ muttered the pathologist.
â€˜Yes,â€™ agreed Naguib. Which argued against robbery. The pathologist lifted the girlâ€™s skirts, but her underclothes, while ragged, were intact. No sign of sexual assault. No sign of any assault, indeed; except, of course, that the back of her skull had been smashed in. â€˜Any indication how long sheâ€™s been here?â€™ he asked.
The pathologist shrugged. â€˜Iâ€™d be guessing. Iâ€™ll need to get her back to base.â€™
Naguib nodded. That was fair enough. Desert corpses were notoriously tough. A month, a year, a decade; out here they all looked the same. â€˜And the cause of death? The blow to her head, yes?â€™
â€˜Too early to say.â€™
Naguib pulled a face. â€˜Come on. I wonâ€™t hold you to it.â€™
â€˜Everyone tells me that. And then they hold me to it.â€™
â€˜Okay. If not the blow to her head, maybe her neck was broken?â€™
The pathologist tapped his thumb against his knee, debating with himself whether to say anything or keep quiet. â€˜You really want my best guess?â€™ he asked finally.
â€˜You wonâ€™t like it.â€™
The pathologist stood up. Hands on his hips, he looked around at the arid yellow sands of thes, he ds Eastern Desert stretching away as far as the eye could see, shimmering with heat, broken only by the rugged Amarna cliffs. â€˜Very well, then,â€™ he smiled, as though aware opportunities like this wouldnâ€™t come his way too often. â€˜I rather suspect she drowned.â€™
Knox found Omar Tawfiq kneeling on his office floor, the casing and innards of a computer spread out in front of him, a screwdriver in his hand, a smudge of grease on his cheek. â€˜Donâ€™t you already have enough to do?â€™ he asked.
â€˜Our computer people wonâ€™t come out until tomorrow.â€™
â€˜So hire new ones.â€™
â€˜New ones will charge more.â€™
â€˜Yes. Because theyâ€™ll come out when you need them.â€™
Omar shrugged, as if to accept the truth of this, though Knox doubted heâ€™d act upon it. A young man who looked even younger, heâ€™d recently been promoted interim head of the Supreme Council for Antiquities in Alexandria; but everyone knew that heâ€™d got the job because Yusuf Abbas, the Cairo-based secretary general, wanted someone pliable and disposable he could bully while he manoeuvred one of his own trusted lieutenants into the permanent role. Even Omar knew this, but he was too diffident to resent it. Instead, he spent his time hiding from his bemused staff in his old office, filling his time with comfort-zone tasks like these. He stood, wiped his hands. â€˜So what can I do for you, my friend?â€™
Knox hesitated. â€˜I saw an old bowl in the market. Hard-fired. Well-levigated. Pinkish-grey with a white slip. Maybe seven inches in diameter.â€™
â€˜That could be anything.â€™
â€˜Yes. But it gave me that feeling, you know?â€™
Omar nodded seriously, as though he had respect for Knoxâ€™s feelings. â€˜Youâ€™re here to check our database?â€™
â€˜If thatâ€™s possible.â€™
â€˜Of course.â€™ Omar was proud of his database. Building it had been his main responsibility before his unexpected promotion. â€˜Use Mahaâ€™s office. Sheâ€™s away today.â€™
They walked through together. Omar sat at her desk. â€˜Give me a minute,â€™ he said.
Knox nodded and walked to the window, looked down at his Jeep. It had cost him a fortune to have it repaired after the Alexander business, but it had been good to him over the years, and he was glad of his decision.
â€˜Any word from Gaille?â€™ asked Omar.
â€˜Do you know whenâ€™s she coming back?â€™
â€˜When sheâ€™s finished, I imagine.â€™
Omarâ€™s cheeks reddened. â€˜All set,â€™ he said.
â€˜Iâ€™m sorry,â€™ sighed Knox. â€˜I didnâ€™t mean to snap.â€™
â€˜Itâ€™s just, everyone keeps asking, you know?â€™
â€˜Thatâ€™s because we like her so much. Because we like you both.â€™
â€˜Thanks,â€™ said Knox. He began working his way through the database, colour and black-and-white photos of cups, plates, figurines, funerary lamps. Mostly, he flipped past them without a second glance, the old computer groaning andhout aani sighing as it strained to keep up. But every so often an image would catch his eye. Yet nothing quite matched. Ancient artefacts were like this. The closer you looked, the more potential points of difference you found.
Omar came back in with a jug of water and two glasses on a tray. â€˜Any luck?â€™
â€˜Not yet.â€™ He finished the database. â€˜Is that it?â€™
â€˜Of local provenance, yes.â€™
â€˜And non local?â€™
Omar sighed. â€˜I wrote to a number of museums and universities when I was setting this up. I didnâ€™t get much of a response at the time. Since my recent appointment, however â€¦â€™
Knox laughed. â€˜What a surprise.â€™
â€˜But we havenâ€™t entered the data yet. All we have are CDs and paperwork.â€™
â€˜May I see?â€™
Omar opened the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet, pulled out a cardboard box of CDs. â€˜Theyâ€™re not in any order,â€™ he warned.
â€˜Thatâ€™s okay,â€™ said Knox. He slid one into the computer. The chuntering grew louder. A page of thumbnails appeared. Fragments of papyrus and linen cloth. He clicked to the next page, and then the third. The ceramics, when he found them, were colourful and patterned, nothing like what he was looking for.
â€˜Iâ€™ll leave you to it, then,â€™ said Omar.
â€˜Thanks.â€™ The second CD was of Roman-era statuary, the third of jewellery, the fourth corrupt. Knoxâ€™s mind began to wander, triggered perhaps by Omarâ€™s earlier question. A sudden memory of Gaille, taking breakfast one morning on the Nile Corniche in Minya: the way she licked her upper lip free of the slight glaze from her pastry, her dark hair spilled forwards, her smile as she caught him watching.
The eighth CD was an anatomy lecture demonstrating how to distinguish manual labourers from the idle rich by bone thickness and spine curvature.
Gailleâ€™s mobile had rung that morning in Minya. Sheâ€™d checked the number, shifted in her seat, turning herself away from him to hold a stilted conversation that sheâ€™d quickly ended by promising to call back later.
â€˜Who was that?â€™ heâ€™d asked.
â€˜You want to get on to your service provider, if you keep getting calls from people who donâ€™t exist.â€™
A reluctant sigh. â€˜Fatima.â€™
â€˜Fatima?â€™ An unexpected stab of jealousy. Fatima was his friend. Heâ€™d introduced the two of them barely a week before. â€˜What did she want?â€™
â€˜I guess sheâ€™d heard about Siwa being postponed.â€™
â€˜Fine. Sheâ€™d heard about it.â€™
â€˜And she rang to commiserate, did she?â€™
â€˜You remember how interested she was in my image software?â€™
The eleventh CD was of Islamic artefacts. The twelfth was of silver and golden coins.
â€˜She wants you to go and work for her?â€™
â€˜Siwaâ€™s not exactly about to happen, is it?â€™ Gaille had said. â€˜And I hate doing nothing, especiaille h, elly on a salary. I hate being a drain.â€™
â€˜Youâ€™re not a drain,â€™ heâ€™d said bleakly. â€˜How could you think yourself a drain?â€™
â€˜Itâ€™s how I feel.â€™
The thirteenth CD was of pre-dynastic tomb paintings. He started checking the fourteenth on autopilot. Heâ€™d got halfway through when he sensed heâ€™d missed something. He paged back to the previous screen, then the one before. And there it was, top right, the twin of the bowl heâ€™d seen, only upside down, resting on its rim. Same shape, same colour, same texture, same patterning. But there was no description of it, only reference numbers.
He fetched Omar, who pulled a ring binder from the filing cabinet. Knox read out the reference numbers while he flipped through the pages, ran his finger down the entries, came to the right one, frowned in puzzlement. â€˜But that canâ€™t be right,â€™ he said. â€˜Itâ€™s not even a bowl.â€™
â€˜What is it, then?â€™
â€˜A lid. A storage jar lid.â€™
Knox grunted. Obvious, now that Omar pointed it out. Not that it helped much. Egypt had been the breadbasket of the ancient world. Huge quantities of produce had passed through Alexandriaâ€™s multiple harbours. Making jars to store and transport it had been a vast industry. â€˜My mistake,â€™ he agreed.
His admission did little to mollify Omar. â€˜But itâ€™s not from anywhere near here,â€™ he said. â€˜Itâ€™s not even from Egypt.â€™