Contents Chap­ter Thir­ty-​Eight The southern shore of Lake Mariut, ad 415



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He paused, looked around to make sure no one could see him,...

Pe­ter­son had no in­ten­tion of let­ting his God down. He had one night to com­plete his sa­cred mis­sion. He in­tend­ed to make the most of it.

I

‘The ground­break­ing bit?’ asked Gaille.



Stafford hes­itat­ed, but he was clear­ly proud of his ideas and want­ed to im­press her: the mav­er­ick his­to­ri­an show­ing up the es­tab­lish­ment aca­dem­ic. ‘I’ll not tell you ev­ery­thing,’ he said. ‘But I’ll say this much. Yes, near­ly ev­ery mod­ern work on Akhen­at­en men­tions the pos­si­bil­ity of some dis­ease or oth­er. But as an ad­junct, you know. A side­bar. They get it out of the way and then move on. But I don’t think you can get it out the way and move on. If it’s true, af­ter all, it would have had the most pro­found im­pact. Think about it. A young man sud­den­ly de­vel­op­ing a be­wil­der­ing, dis­fig­ur­ing and in­cur­able dis­ease. And no or­di­nary young man, but one of al­most un­lim­it­ed pow­er, viewed as a liv­ing God by his syco­phan­tic court. Can’t you see how that would be a cat­alyst for all kinds of new think­ing? Priests de­vis­ing new the­olo­gies to ex­plain his rav­ages as bless­ings not curs­es; artists striv­ing to rep­re­sent dis­fig­ure­ment as beau­ty. Akhen­at­en was con­stant­ly pledg­ing nev­er to leave Amar­na be­cause it was the spir­itu­al home of his new God, the At­en. But ac­tu­al­ly his vows sound much more like the wheedling of a fright­ened young man find­ing ex­cus­es to stay home. Amar­na was sanc­tu­ary. Peo­ple here knew bet­ter than to make him feel a freak.’

‘Maybe,’ said Gaille.

‘There’s no maybe about it,’ said Stafford. ‘Dis­ease ex­plains so much. His chil­dren all died young, you know.’

They’d reached the last of the cul­ti­vat­ed fields, and now passed be­tween a thin line of trees out shock­ing­ly in­to the raw desert, noth­ing but dunes be­tween them and the high ridge of sand­stone cliffs ahead. ‘Christ!’ mut­tered Lily from the back.

‘Quite a sight, is­n’t it,’ agreed Gaille. It felt like true bor­der ter­ri­to­ry this, the tall grey wa­ter tow­ers ev­ery kilo­me­tre or two re­sem­bling noth­ing quite so much as guard-​posts strug­gling to keep the hos­tile desert at bay. She point­ed through her wind­screen. ‘See that walled com­pound with the trees in front? That’s where we’re go­ing. It used to be the lo­cal pow­er sta­tion, but they aban­doned it for a new one fur­ther south, so Fa­ti­ma took it over. It’s al­most ex­act­ly halfway be­tween Her­mopo­lis and Tu­na el-​Gabel, which puts us right in the—’

‘I’m sor­ry you find my the­ories so bor­ing,’ said Stafford.

‘I don’t at all,’ protest­ed Gaille. ‘You were telling us about how all Akhen­aten’s chil­dren died young.’

‘Yes,’ said Stafford, a lit­tle mol­li­fied. ‘His six daugh­ters cer­tain­ly, and Smenkhkare and the fa­mous Tu­tankhamun too, if they were his sons, as some schol­ars sug­gest. Mar­fan’s Syn­drome dras­ti­cal­ly re­duces life ex­pectan­cy. Aor­tic dis­sec­tion most­ly. Preg­nan­cy is a par­tic­ular­ly dan­ger­ous time be­cause of the ad­di­tion­al pres­sures on the heart. At least two of Akhen­aten’s daugh­ters died in child­birth.’

‘So did a lot of wom­en back then,’ point­ed out Gaille. Life ex­pectan­cy for wom­en had been less than thir­ty years, sig­nif­icant­ly less than for men, large­ly be­cause of the dan­gers of preg­nan­cy.

‘And Akhen­at­en is of­ten crit­icized for let­ting his em­pire fall apart while he lazed around wor­ship­ping the At­en. Mar­fan’s caus­es ex­treme fa­tigue. Maybe that’s why he’s nev­er por­trayed do­ing any­thing en­er­get­ic, ex­cept rid­ing his char­iot. And it would ex­plain his love of the sun too. Mar­fan’s suf­fer­ers re­al­ly feel the cold, you know. And their eye­sight is af­flict­ed, so that they need good light to see any­thing.’

‘Quite a risk, is­n’t it? Bas­ing your whole the­sis on such a spec­ula­tion.’

‘You aca­demics!’ snort­ed Stafford. ‘Al­ways so fright­ened of be­ing proved wrong. You’ve lost your nerve; you hedge ev­ery­thing. But I’m not wrong. My the­ory ex­plains Akhen­at­en per­fect­ly. Can you of­fer an­oth­er the­ory that even comes close?’

‘How about the opi­um-​den the­ory?’

Stafford slid her a glance. ‘I beg your par­don?’

Gaille nod­ded. ‘You know they’ve got the mum­my of Akhen­aten’s fa­ther, Amen­hotep III, in the vaults of the Cairo Mu­se­um?’

‘So?’

‘It’s been ex­am­ined by palaeopathol­ogists. His teeth were in a wretched state, ap­par­ent­ly.’ She glanced around at Lily. ‘They used to grind up their grain with stone,’ she said. ‘Lit­tle bits of grit were al­ways get­ting in the mix. Like eat­ing sand­pa­per. All Egyp­tians of a cer­tain age had worn-​down teeth, but Amen­hotep par­tic­ular­ly so. He must have been con­stant­ly plagued by ab­scess­es. Have you ev­er had a tooth ab­scess?’

Lily winced sym­pa­thet­ical­ly, touched a hand to her cheek. ‘Once,’ she said.

‘Then you’ll know just how much pain he’d have been in. No an­tibi­otics, of course. You just had to wait it out. He’d al­most cer­tain­ly have drunk to numb the pain. Wine, most­ly, though the Egyp­tians loved their beer. But there’s an­oth­er pos­si­bil­ity. Ac­cord­ing to some­thing called the Ebers Pa­pyrus, opi­um was well known to Eigh­teenth Dy­nasty medics. They im­port­ed it from Cyprus, made it in­to a paste and spread it as an anal­gesic over the sore area: the gums in Amen­hotep’s case. Is it er thee. re­al­ly too much of a stretch to imag­ine doc­tors pre­scrib­ing opi­um for Akhen­at­en too, par­tic­ular­ly if he was suf­fer­ing from some dis­ease, as you claim?’

They reached the out­side of Fa­ti­ma’s com­pound. The gates were closed, so Gaille gave a short squirt of horn. ‘Maybe he got the taste for it. Opi­um was cer­tain­ly used at Amar­na. We’ve found pop­py-​shaped ju­glets there, with traces of opi­ates in­side. The Mi­noans used opi­um to in­duce re­li­gious ec­sta­sy and in­spire their art. Is­n’t it pos­si­ble that Akhen­at­en and his courtiers did the same? I mean, there’s some­thing rather hal­lu­cino­genic about the whole Amar­na pe­ri­od, is­n’t there? The art, the court, the re­li­gion, the hap­less for­eign pol­icy?’

Lily laughed. ‘You’re say­ing Akhen­at­en was a junkie?’

‘I’m say­ing it’s a the­ory that ex­plains the Amar­na era. One of sev­er­al. As to whether it’s right or not …’

‘I’ve nev­er heard it be­fore,’ said Stafford. ‘Has any­one pub­lished on it?’

‘A cou­ple of ar­ti­cles in the jour­nals,’ said Gaille, as the front gates fi­nal­ly swung open. ‘But noth­ing ma­jor.’

‘In­ter­est­ing,’ mur­mured Stafford. ‘Most in­ter­est­ing.’

II

‘They’ve found some­thing,’ said Knox, as he drove away from the Texas So­ci­ety site. ‘They’re hid­ing it from us.’



‘What makes you think that?’ frowned Omar.

‘Did­n’t you no­tice how their hair was mat­ted with cob­webs and dust? You on­ly get that when you’ve found some­thing un­der­ground.’

‘Oh,’ said Omar gloomi­ly. ‘But they’re ar­chae­ol­ogists. They would­n’t have been award­ed the con­ces­sion if they could­n’t be trust­ed.’

Knox gave an elo­quent snort. ‘Sure! Be­cause no one ev­er took bak­sheesh in this coun­try. Be­sides, did­n’t you see the way that preach­er glared at me?’

‘It was like he knew you from some­where,’ nod­ded Omar. ‘Have you met him be­fore?’

‘Not that I can re­mem­ber. But I rec­og­nize that look. You re­mem­ber Richard Mitchell, my old men­tor?’

‘Gaille’s fa­ther?’ asked Omar. ‘Of course. I nev­er got to meet him, but I heard plen­ty of sto­ries.’

‘I’ll bet,’ laughed Knox. ‘You heard he was ho­mo­sex­ual?’

Omar coloured. ‘I as­sumed that was just ma­li­cious gos­sip. I mean, he was Gaille’s fa­ther, af­ter all.’

‘The two aren’t in­com­pat­ible, you know. And just be­cause gos­sip is ma­li­cious, does­n’t make it wrong.’

‘Oh.’

‘The thing is, be­cause I worked with him so close­ly, lots of peo­ple as­sumed I was his boy, you know. I nev­er both­ered to put them right. Let them think what they want, right? Any­way, most peo­ple in our busi­ness don’t much care. But a few do. You soon get to rec­og­nize a cer­tain look in their eye.’

‘You think Pe­ter­son’s like that?’

‘The Bible’s pret­ty in­tol­er­ant of ho­mo­sex­ual­ity,’ nod­ded Knox. ‘Peo­ple try to gloss it over, but it’s there all right. And some Chris­tians ex­ult in the op­por­tu­ni­ty to be spite­ful in the name of God. That’s fine, up to a point. They’re en­ti­tled to their opin­ion. It’s just,point.€™s if I’ve learned one thing in ar­chae­ol­ogy, it’s nev­er to en­trust a sen­si­tive site to any­one who’s con­vinced of the truth be­fore they start. It’s too easy for them to fit the ev­idence to their the­ories, rather than the oth­er way around.’

‘I’ll call Cairo first thing in the morn­ing. We’ll come straight back out.’

‘That will still leave them all night.’

‘Then what do you sug­gest?’

‘We go back now. We look around.’

‘Are you crazy?’ protest­ed Omar. ‘I’m head of the SCA in Alexan­dria! I can’t go sneak­ing around ar­chae­olog­ical sites at night. How would it look if we were caught?’

‘Like you were do­ing your job.’

Omar’s cheeks flamed, but then he sighed and bowed his head. ‘I hate this kind of thing! I’m no damned good at it. Why on earth did Yusuf Ab­bas ap­point me?’

‘Maybe be­cause he knew you would­n’t cause him any trou­ble,’ said Knox ruth­less­ly.

A dark scowl flick­ered like a pass­ing cloud across Omar’s face. ‘Very well,’ he said. ‘Let’s do it.’

III


Gaille showed Stafford and Lily to their rooms, then went in search of Fa­ti­ma. No sur­prise, she was at her desk, swad­dled in blan­kets, look­ing ca­dav­er­ous with ex­haus­tion be­neath her shawl. It was some­times hard for Gaille to be­lieve that so frail and shrunk­en a frame could house so formidable an in­tel­lect. Born just east of here, she’d dis­cov­ered her pas­sion for An­cient Egypt young, had won a schol­ar­ship to Lei­den Uni­ver­si­ty in Hol­land be­fore be­com­ing a lec­tur­er there, re­turn­ing to Egypt each year to ex­ca­vate at Berenike. But her ill­ness had drawn her back here, close to her fam­ily, her roots. ‘I saw you were back,’ she smiled. ‘Thank you.’

Gaille put her hand up­on her shoul­der. ‘I was glad to help.’

‘What did you make of our friend Mis­ter Stafford?’

‘Oh. I re­al­ly did­n’t have much of a chance to get to know him.’

Fa­ti­ma al­lowed her­self a rare laugh. ‘That bad?’

‘He’s not my kind of his­to­ri­an.’

‘Mine, nei­ther.’

‘Then why in­vite him?’

‘Be­cause we need funds, my dear,’ said Fa­ti­ma. ‘And, for that, we first need pub­lic­ity.’ She clenched her eyes and pro­duced a blood-​red hand­ker­chief, the in­evitable pre­lude to one of her vi­olent cough­ing fits.

Gaille wait­ed pa­tient­ly un­til she was re­cov­ered. ‘There must be oth­er ways,’ she said, as the hand­ker­chief van­ished once more be­neath Fa­ti­ma’s robes.

‘I wish there were.’ But they both knew the re­al­ity. Most of the SCA’s con­strained bud­get went to Giza, Saqqara, Lux­or and the oth­er land­mark sites. So few peo­ple ev­er vis­it­ed this stretch of Mid­dle Egypt, it was­n’t con­sid­ered an at­trac­tive in­vest­ment, de­spite its beau­ty, friend­li­ness and his­tor­ical sig­nif­icance.

‘I don’t see how hav­ing Stafford here will help,’ said Gaille mul­ish­ly.

‘Peo­ple read his books,’ replied Fa­ti­ma.

‘His books are non­sense.’

‘I know they are. But peo­ple still read them. And they watch his pro­grammes too. And some of them will no doubt be prompt­ed to learn more, maybe even come here to find the truth for them­selves. All we need is enough traf­fic to sup­port a tourist in­fras­truc­ture.’

‘They said some­thing about me go­ing with them to Amar­na to­mor­row.’

Fa­ti­ma nod­ded. ‘I’m sor­ry to land that on you,’ she said. ‘But my doc­tor came to­day. He’s not hap­py with my … prog­no­sis.’

‘Oh, no,’ said Gaille wretched­ly. ‘Oh, Fa­ti­ma.’

‘I’m not look­ing for sym­pa­thy,’ she said sharply. ‘I’m ex­plain­ing the sit­ua­tion. He’s or­dered me to hos­pi­tal to­mor­row for tests. So I won’t be able to ac­com­pa­ny Stafford as I’d promised. Some­one must take my place. I’ve al­ready banked my fee and I as­sure you I’m not pay­ing it back.’

‘Why not one of the oth­ers?’ asked Gaille. ‘They know more than I do.’

‘No they don’t. You spent two sea­sons ex­ca­vat­ing Amar­na with your fa­ther, did­n’t you?’

‘I was on­ly a teenag­er. It was over a decade ago.’

‘So? None of my peo­ple have spent any­thing like that much time there. And you stud­ied the Eigh­teenth Dy­nasty at the Sor­bonne, did­n’t you? And haven’t you just been back there with Knox? Be­sides, we both know that West­ern au­di­ences will re­spond more pos­itive­ly to a West­ern face, a West­ern voice.’

‘He’ll make it seem like I’m en­dors­ing his ideas.’

‘You won’t be.’

‘I know I won’t be. But that’s how he’ll make it look. He’ll take what he needs and ig­nore ev­ery­thing else. He’ll make me a laugh­ing stock.’

‘Please.’ Fa­ti­ma touched her wrist. ‘You don’t know how tight our bud­get is. Once I’m gone—’

Gaille winced. ‘Don’t talk like that.’

‘It’s the truth, my dear. I need to leave this project in good fi­nan­cial health. It’s my lega­cy. And that means rais­ing the pro­file of this re­gion. I’m ask­ing you to help. If you feel you can’t, I sup­pose I could al­ways post­pone my tests.’

Gaille blinked and clenched her jaw. ‘That’s un­fair, Fa­ti­ma.’

‘Yes,’ she agreed.

The wall-​clock ticked away the sec­onds. Gaille fi­nal­ly let out her breath. ‘Fine,’ she sighed. ‘You win. What ex­act­ly do you want me to do?’

‘Just be help­ful. That’s all. Help them make a good pro­gramme. And I want you to show them the ta­latat too.’

‘No!’ cried Gaille. ‘You can’t be se­ri­ous.’

‘Can you think of a bet­ter way to gen­er­ate pub­lic­ity?’

‘It’s too ear­ly. We can’t be any­thing like sure. If it turns out we’re wrong—’



Fatima nodded. ‘Just show them the place, then. Explain...

SEV­EN


I

Night fell as Knox and Omar head­ed back to­wards the ex­ca­va­tion site, avoid­ing the route they’d tak­en be­fore, wary of be­ing spot­ted. They took farm tracks in­stead, cross­ing a wood­en bridge over an­oth­er ir­ri­ga­tion chan­nel in­to a field, then nav­igat­ing by moon­light un­til their fur­ther progress was balked by a high stone wall. By his reck­on­ing, the Texas So­ci­ety site lay across a lane just the oth­er side. He trun­dled on a short dis­tance un­til he spot­ted a pad­locked steel gate, rolled to a stop.

His white shirt glowed treach­er­ous­ly in the moon­light when he got out of the Jeep, so he rum­maged in the back for a dark po­lo-​neck jer­sey for him­self, found a jack­et for Omar too. Then he pat­ted his pock­ets to make sure he had his cam­era-​phone, and set off. A bird hoot­ed and flapped lazi­ly away as they climbed the gate. They crossed the lane, reached the ir­ri­ga­tion chan­nel. Knox grinned at Omar, en­joy­ing him­self, but Omar on­ly gri­maced in re­sponse, his dis­com­fort clear.

Knox clam­bered down the near bank, tak­ing a cas­cade of earth and stone with him, stepped across the dank rib­bon of wa­ter at its foot, scram­bled up the far bank on his palms and knees, peered cau­tious­ly over the top. The land­scape was flat and fea­ture­less, mak­ing it hard to get a fix. He wait­ed for Omar to ar­rive then crouched low and head­ed on in. He’d bare­ly gone fifty me­tres be­fore he trod on a fat stone and turned his an­kle, stum­bling to the ground. There were many such stones, he now saw, pale-​grey and round­ed, some even ar­ranged in rough cairns, all aligned in the same di­rec­tion. He came across a tent of translu­cent plas­tic sheet­ing, pulled it back to ex­pose a pit be­neath, a crum­bled wall of an­cient bricks at its foot, fil­tered moon­light glow­ing on a domed skull, thin curved ribs and long bones. ‘Neat rows of white stones,’ he mur­mured, tak­ing a pho­to­graph, though with­out his flash at­tach­ment he was­n’t sure quite what would show up. ‘Just like the ceme­tery at Qum­ran. Skele­tons point­ing south, their faces turned to the ris­ing sun. And see how the bones are tint­ed slight­ly pur­ple?’

‘So?’

‘The Es­senes used to drink a juice made from mad­der root. It stains bones red, if you drink enough of it. And did­n’t Grif­fin say they used to grow mad­der around here?’

‘You think your lid came from one of these graves?’

‘It’s pos­si­ble.’

‘Then can we leave now?’

‘Not yet. We still need to see—’

A snarl be­hind them. Knox whirled around to see a mangy dog, ribs show­ing through its flanks, moon­light re­flect­ing bright­ly from its black eyes and sil­very slob­ber. An­cient Egyp­tian ceme­ter­ies had typ­ical­ly been sit­ed on desert fringes; good qual­ity farm­land had been too valu­able to waste. They’d con­se­quent­ly be­come the haunts of scav­engers, one rea­son why the jack­al-​god Anu­bis had been so close­ly as­so­ci­at­ed with death. Knox hissed and waved. But it on­ly growled loud­er, bared its fangs, its ter­ri­to­ry in­fringed.

‘Make it go away,’ said Omar.

‘I’m try­ing,’ said Knox.

Torch­light flared away to their left, van­ished then came back, stronger and near­er. A se­cu­ri­ty guard on his rounds, swing­ing his torch back and forth, paint­ing yel­low el­lipses on the ground that came per­ilous­ly close. They ducked down be­hind the plas­tic tent, al­low­ing the dog to ap­proach to with­in a few feet, snarling ow­ing snaand sniff­ing. Omar jabbed a fin­ger back the way they’d come, but it was too late, the se­cu­ri­ty guard was al­most up­on them. Knox ges­tured for Omar to crouch low, hold his nerve.

The guard heard the dog, picked it out with his torch, then stooped for a stone that he hurled hard. It missed its tar­get but pro­voked a fu­ri­ous bark­ing. The guard came clos­er. Knox could see dots of moon­light gleam­ing on his pol­ished black boots. His sec­ond shot caught the dog a glanc­ing blow on its hind leg. It yelped and bound­ed away. The guard laughed hearti­ly then turned and walked off.

‘Let’s get out of here,’ plead­ed Omar, once he’d van­ished from sight.

‘Just a lit­tle fur­ther,’ said Knox, dust­ing him­self down. He hat­ed play­ing the bul­ly, but this place need­ed check­ing out. They soon came to a sandy em­bank­ment, a yel­low glow on the oth­er side. Knox crawled up on his el­bows and knees, that fa­mil­iar metal­lic tang at the back of his mouth as he peered over the top. Grif­fin and a young man with buzz-​cut blond hair were stand­ing by the rear of a pick-​up backed against the open door of a squat brick build­ing, its in­te­ri­or light on. Two more young men emerged with a crate that they lugged on­to the flatbed. Their hair was cropped short too, and they were wear­ing iden­ti­cal corn­flow­er blue shirts and kha­ki trousers.

‘That’ll do for now,’ said Grif­fin. ‘We’ll have to come back any­how.’ He locked up the build­ing, got in­to the pick-​up, the three young men climb­ing up on­to the back.

‘What are they do­ing?’ whis­pered Omar as the truck drove off.

‘Clear­ing out their mag­azine. So that we won’t find any­thing in­crim­inat­ing to­mor­row.’

‘Let’s go to the po­lice. We’ll tell them ev­ery­thing.’

‘They’ll have hid­den it all by the time we get back.’

‘Please, Daniel. I hate this kind of busi­ness.’

Knox took out the keys to his Jeep, closed Omar’s hand around them. ‘Go wait for me,’ he said. ‘If I’m not back in an hour, go get the po­lice.’

Omar pulled a face. ‘Please come with me.’

‘We need to find out where they’re putting this stuff, Omar. You must see that.’ And be­fore Omar could protest, Knox got to his feet and jogged across the bro­ken ground af­ter the pick-​up, its rear lights shin­ing like a de­mon’s eyes in the dark­ness.

II

Lily felt a lit­tle sheep­ish as she emerged from Stafford’s room. ‘He has some ur­gent phone calls to make,’ she told Gaille, wait­ing out­side. ‘Is it es­sen­tial that he comes with us?’



‘It’s your doc­umen­tary,’ shrugged Gaille. ‘Fa­ti­ma just thought you might be in­ter­est­ed, that’s all.’

‘And we are. Don’t think we don’t ap­pre­ci­ate it. It’s just …’

‘He has phone calls to make,’ sug­gest­ed Gaille.

‘Yes,’ said Lily, drop­ping her eyes. Stafford had dis­cov­ered the In­ter­net con­nec­tion in his room, was now hap­pi­ly catch­ing up with his email, check­ing out his lat­est sales fig­ures and run­ning search­es of his own name to see if any­one had writ­ten any­thing nice about him re­cent­ly.

She fol­lowed Gaille out of the com­pound’s back gate straight in­to the desert. Her feet sank in­to the soft dry sand, mak­ing her cam­era equip­meet sara ent feel twice as heavy.

‘You want help with that?’ asked Gaille.

‘If you would­n’t mind.’

‘So you’re Stafford’s cam­era-​wom­an, are you?’ said Gaille, tak­ing a bag.

‘And pro­duc­er,’ nod­ded Lily rue­ful­ly. ‘As well as sound en­gi­neer, gofer, run­ner – ev­ery­thing else you can think of.’ Stafford had ap­par­ent­ly been all for lux­ury and large crews while he’d been work­ing on some­one else’s dime. But he’d grown in­creas­ing­ly af­front­ed at the thought of any­one else mak­ing mon­ey from his work, so he’d set up his own pro­duc­tion com­pa­ny, in­tend­ing to hawk the fin­ished prod­uct to broad­cast­ers. He’d du­ly cut costs to the bone, hir­ing in­ex­pe­ri­enced staff like her­self and bul­ly­ing them so mer­ci­less­ly that her three col­leagues had walked out just a week be­fore, land­ing this whole night­mare of a trip on her shoul­ders. She’d hoped to be able to re­ly on lo­cal help, but Stafford’s high-​hand­ed man­ner had driv­en even those away. ‘Not that I get to do as much cam­er­awork as I’d like. Charles does his own when­ev­er he can.’ She al­lowed her­self a small smile. ‘I think he has this im­age of him­self as an in­trepid so­lo desert ad­ven­tur­er. He likes to keep ad­just­ing the set­tings while talk­ing to cam­era, so that view­ers will think him out here on his own. I just film when he’s in­ter­view­ing peo­ple, or if we need a pan or zoom.’ They reached the en­trance to the site. Gaille un­locked the wood­en door, turned on the gen­er­ator, gave it a few mo­ments to warm up be­fore flip­ping switch­es and lead­ing Lily down eerie cor­ri­dors of crum­bling sand­stone to a cav­ernous new space. ‘Wow!’ mur­mured Lily. ‘What is this place?’

‘The in­side of a py­lon of a Nine­teenth Dy­nasty Tem­ple of Amun.’ She point­ed to a mound of bricks in the far cor­ner. ‘And these are what I brought you to see. They’re An­cient Egyp­tian bricks called ta­latat. They were used by—’

‘Whoa, whoa,’ in­ter­ject­ed Lily. ‘I can film this, yes?’

‘If it’s light enough in here, sure.’

Lily pat­ted the side of her Sony VX2000. ‘This thing’s a mar­vel, be­lieve me. It’ll look won­der­ful­ly at­mo­spher­ic.’ She’d grown to love cam­eras. It had­n’t al­ways been that way. When she’d first en­coun­tered them, at chil­dren’s par­ties and at school, she’d feared and hat­ed them. It was bad enough hav­ing oth­er chil­dren stare at her birth­mark in her pres­ence, but at least she’d been there to make sure they did­n’t say any­thing too cru­el. Cam­eras had al­lowed them to take her ug­li­ness away with them, to look at it when­ev­er they chose, to poke fun at her and laugh and in­sult her to their heart’s con­tent, with no way for her to de­fend her­self against it.

She’d been cursed with a run­away imag­ina­tion, Lily. At times the thought of what the oth­er chil­dren were say­ing about her had tor­ment­ed her so severe­ly that her on­ly way of sooth­ing it had been to imag­ine the mo­ment of her own death, the sweet­ness of re­lease. She’d start­ed de­lib­er­ate­ly hurt­ing her­self, slap­ping her­self across her cheek, jab­bing scis­sors in­to her arm. But then one day her un­cle had al­most neg­li­gent­ly giv­en her his cast-​off cam­corder. She still shiv­ered at the mem­ory. Just hold­ing the viewfind­er to her eye con­cealed her birth­mark, which had been won­der­ful in it­self. But it was the pow­er that it had giv­en her that had been trans­form­ing. The pow­er to make oth­ers look good or bad as she chose. The pow­er to make them look gra­cious or sullen, ug­ly or beau­ti­ful. And she’d used that pow­er too. She’d dis­cov­ered a re­al tal­ent in her­self. It had giv­en her iden­ti­ty and self-​es­teem. Most of all, it had giv­en her a path.

She un­packed and set up the equip­ment, plugged in and put on her head­phones, checked sound and light lev­els, hoist­ed the cam­era to her shoul­der, turned it on Gaille. ‘You were say­ing?’ she asked.

‘Oh,’ said Gaille, tak­en aback. ‘I thought you’d be film­ing the ta­latat, not me.’

‘I want both,’ said Lily, well ac­cus­tomed to sooth­ing stage fright. ‘But don’t wor­ry. Charles al­ready has his script. He’s high­ly un­like­ly to make changes this late, be­lieve me. And you’d need to sign a re­lease any­way, so if you don’t like it …’

‘Okay.’

‘Thanks. Now crouch down. That’s it. Straight­en your back and look up at me. No, not like that. Lift your chin. A lit­tle more. That’s it. Per­fect. Now rest your right hand on the bricks.’

‘Are you sure? It feels very odd.’

‘But it looks great,’ smiled Lily. ‘Trust me. I’m good at this. Now start at the be­gin­ning. As­sume I know noth­ing. Which is, I’m afraid, shame­ful­ly close to the truth. So, then. What is this place? And what ex­act­ly are ta­latat?’

III


The pick-​up’s brake lights flared red and then van­ished over a ridge. Knox kept his eyes fixed up­on the spot and slowed to a gen­tler jog to gath­er his breath. He reached the ridge, crouched down to peer over it, but there was noth­ing the oth­er side. He wan­dered the dark­ness for a while, was be­gin­ning to give up hope, when he heard a clang away to his right. He climbed an­oth­er ridge to find the pick-​up parked in a slight hol­low on the oth­er side, its en­gine off, lights out, no sign of life ex­cept for a gen­tle yel­low glow em­anat­ing from a pit next to it.

With any kind of GPS, he’d sim­ply have logged the co­or­di­nates and head­ed off to fetch the po­lice. But with­out GPS, get­ting a fix was vir­tu­al­ly im­pos­si­ble. The sky­line was fea­ture­less ex­cept for the dis­tant or­ange flame of nat­ural gas burn off, the dark out­line of twin pow­er-​sta­tion chim­neys. He crept for­wards. The pit proved to be a flight of steps lead­ing down through a hatch­way to some kind of atri­um, a gen­er­ator mut­ter­ing away in­side. He went over to the pick-​up, just three box­es left on the flatbed. There was an earth­en­ware stat­ue in­side the first, a young boy with a fin­ger to his lips. Har­pocrates, a de­ity pop­ular among Egyp­tians, Greeks and Ro­mans. He pho­tographed it, was about to open the sec­ond box when he heard foot­steps. He dropped in­stant­ly to the ground, slith­ered be­neath the pick-​up. The three young men emerged, came over, their boots by Knox’s face, kick­ing up dry dust that made his throat tick­le. They picked up the last box­es and went back down. But they passed Grif­fin on the steps, and he emerged a mo­ment lat­er, breath­ing hard. He came over and sat heav­ily on the flatbed, mak­ing its sus­pen­sion creak, trap­ping Knox un­der­neath. A minute passed. Two. The young men reap­peared.

‘Let’s get that last load then,’ mut­tered Grif­fin. They all climbed aboard and set off, leav­ing Knox ex­posed. He tucked his hands be­neath his stom­ach, pressed his face in­to the hard earth, ex­pect­ing to be spot­ted at any mo­ment. But they van­ished over the ridge with­out in­ci­dent. Knox picked him­self up, went back to the mouth of the pit. The light was still on at its foot, the hatch­way open. Too good a chance to miss, even though Omar would doubt­less be go­ing fran­tic by now. He tip­toed down to the atri­um, his heart in his mouth. No one in­side, on­ly a gen­er­ator chunter­ing away in the cor­ner. It sud­den­ly start­ed stut­ter­ing and cough­ing, send­ing vi­bra­tions through the floor, the lights dim­ming for a mo­ment be­fore hrought bthey picked up again. He wait­ed for his heart to re­set­tle, checked his watch. Grif­fin would sure­ly be at least fif­teen min­utes. He could al­low him­self ten.

Arched pas­sages led left and right. He went left. The pas­sage snaked this way and that, fol­low­ing the path of least re­sis­tance through the lime­stone. Lamps were strung out ev­ery few paces on or­ange elec­tri­cal flex, their light coax­ing night­mar­ish shad­ows from the rough-​cut bedrock. The pas­sage opened abrupt­ly in­to a large cat­acomb, its walls cut with columns of square-​mouthed lo­culi, an is­land of crates and box­es stacked in the cen­tre. He pho­tographed a skele­ton in one of the buri­al nich­es, eye-​sock­ets star­ing blind­ly up­wards. The Es­senes had con­sid­ered death un­clean; buri­al in­side a com­mu­nal area like this would have been un­think­able. It was a big blow to his Ther­apeu­tae the­ory.


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