By: Wilber Smith
A fading papyrus, nearly four thousand years old. Within it lie the
clues to a fabulous treasure from an almost forgotten time. … a riddle
that becomes a savage battle across the unforgiving terain of North
Africa. When her husband is brutally murdered , Beautiful half-English,
half-Egyptian Royan Al Simmu is forced to seek refuge in England. With
eminent archaeologist Nicholas Quenton-Harper she can pick up the pieces
of her shattered life and find the courage to return to Ethiopia. For
Duraid. For the long dead slave Taita. And for the dreams of an ancient
Pharaoh … Because others will stop at nothing to claim the prize as
This edition published 1996 by Pan Books
ISBN 0 330 34415 3
Copyright ( Wilbur Smith 1995
Printed and bound in Great Britain
Once more this book is for my wife Danielle.
Despite all the happy loving years we have spent together I feel that we
are only just beginning.
There is so much more to come.
The dusk crept in from the desert, and shaded the dunes with purple.
Like a thick velvet cloak it muted all sounds, so that the evening was
tranquil and hushed.
From where they stood on the crest of the dune they looked out over the
oasis and the complex of small villages that surrounded it. The
buildings were white with flat roofs and the date palms stood higher
than any of them except the Islamic mosque and the Coptic Christian
These bastions of faith opposed each other across the lake.
The waters of the lake were sparkling. A flight of duck slanted down on
quick wings to land with a small splash of white close in against the
The man and the woman made a disparate couple. He was tall, though
slightly bowed, his silvering hair catching the last of the sunlight.
She was young, in her early thirties, slim, alert and vibrant. Her hair
was thick and curling, restrained now by a thong at the nape of her
“Time to go down now. Alia will be waiting.” He smiled down at her
fondly. She was his second wife. When his first wife died he thought
that she had taken the sunlight with her. He had not expected this last
period of happiness in his life. Now he had her and his work. He was a
man happy and contented.
Suddenly she broke away from him, and pulled the thong from her hair.
She shook it out, dense and dark, and she laughed. It was a pretty
sound. Then she plunged down the steep slip-face of the dune, her long
skirts billowing around her flying legs. They were shapely and brown.
She kept her balance until halfway down, when gravity overwhelmed her
and she tumbled.
From the top he smiled down on her indulgently.
Sometimes she was still a child. At others she was a grave and dignified
woman. He was not certain which he preferred, but he loved her in both
moods. She rolled to a halt at the bottom of the dune and sat up, still
laughing, shaking the sand out of her hair. “Your turn!” she called up
at him. He followed her down sedately, moving with the slight stiffness
of advancing age, keeping his balance until he reached the bottom.
He lifted her to her feet. He did not kiss her, although the temptation
to do so was strong. It was not the Arab way to show public affection,
even to a beloved wife.
She “straightened her clothing and retied her hair before they set off
towards the village. They skirted the reed beds of the oasis, crossing
the rickety bridges over the irrigation canals. As they passed, the
peasants returning from the fields greeted him with deep respect.
“Salaam aleikum, Doktari! Peace be with you, doctor.” They honoured all
men of learning, but him especially for his kindness to them and their
families over the years.
Many of them had worked for his father before him. It mattered little
that most of them were Moslem, while he was a Christian.
When they reached the villa, Alia, the old housekeeper, greeted them
with mumbles and scowls. “You are late. You are always late. Why do you
not keep regular hours, like decent folk? We have a position to
“Old mother, you are always right,” he teased her gently. “What would we
do without you to care for us?” He sent her away, still scowling to
cover her love and concern for him.
They ate the simple meat on the terrace together, dates and olives and
unleavened bread and goat’s milk cheese. It was dark when they finished,
but the desert stars were bright as candles.
“Royan, -my flower.” He reached across the table and touched her hand.
“It is time to begin work.” He stood up from the table and led the way
to his study that opened out on to the terrace.
Royan Al Simma went directly to the tall steel safe against the far wall
and tumbled the combination. The safe was out of place in this room,
amongst the old books and scrolls, amongst the ancient statues and
artefacts and grave goods that were the collection of his lifetime.
When the heavy steel door swung open, Royan stood back for a moment. She
always felt this prickle of awe whenever she first looked upon this
relic of the ages, even after an interval of only a few short hours.
“The seventh scroll,” she whispered, and steeled herself to touch it. It
was nearly four thousand years old, written by a genius out of time with
history, a man who had been dust for all these millennia, but whom she
had come to know and respect as she did her own husband. His words were
eternal, and they spoke to her clearly from beyond the grave, from the
fields of paradise, from the presence of the great trinity, Osiris and
Isis and Horus, in whom he had believed so devoutly. As devoutly as she
believed in another more recent Trinity.
She carried the scroll to the long table at which Duraid, her husband,
was already at work. He looked up as she laid it on the tabletop before
him, and for a moment she saw the same mystical mood in his eyes that
had affected her. He always wanted the scroll there on the table, even
when there was no real call for it. He had the photographs and the
microfilm to work with. It was as though he needed the unseen presence
of the ancient author close to him as he studied the texts.
Then he threw off the mood and was the dispassionate scientist once
more. “Your eyes are better than mine, my flower,” he said. “What do you
make of this character?”
She leaned over his shoulder and studied the hieroglyph on the
photograph of the scroll that he pointed out to her. She puzzled over
the character for a moment before she took the magnifying glass from
Duraid’s hand and peered through it again.
“It looks as though Taita has thrown in another cryptogram of his own
creation just to bedevil us.” She spoke of the ancient author as though
he were a dear, but sometimes exasperating, friend who still lived and
breathed, and played tricks upon them.
“We’ll just have to puzzle it out, then,” Duraid declared with obvious
relish. He loved the ancient game. It was his life’s work.
The two of them laboured on into the cool of the night. This was when
they did their best work. Sometimes they spoke Arabic and sometimes
English; for them the two languages were as one. Less often they used
French, which was their third common language. They had both received
their education at universities in England and the United States, so far
from this very Egypt of theirs. Royan loved the expression “This very
Egypt’ that Taita used so often in the scrolls.
She felt a peculiar affinity in so many ways with this ancient Egyptian.
After all, she was his direct descendant.
She was a Coptic Christian, not of the Arab line that had so recently
conquered Egypt, less than fourteen centuries ago. The Arabs were
newcomers in this very Egypt of hers, while her own blood line ran back
to the time of the pharaohs and the great pyramids.
At ten ‘clock Royan made coffee for them, heating it on the charcoal
stove that Alia had prepared for them before she went off to her own
family in the villa . They drank the 9 sweet, strong brew from thin cups
that were half-filled with the heavy grounds. While they sipped, they
talked as old friends.
.. For Royan that was their relationship, old friends. She had known
Duraid ever since she had returned from England with her doctorate in
archaeology and won her job with the Department of Antiquities, of which
he was the director.
She had been his assistant when he had opened the tomb in the Valley of
the Nobles, the tomb of Queen Lostris, the tomb that dated from about
She had shared his disappointment when they had discovered that the tomb
had been robbed in ancient times and all its treasures plundered. All
that remained were the marvelous murals that covered the walls and the
ceilings of the tomb.
It was Royan herself who had been working at the wall behind the plinth
on which the sarcophagus had once stood, photographing the murals, when
a section of the plaster had fallen away to reveal in their niche the
ten alabaster jars. Each of the jars had contained a papyrus scroll.
Every one of them had been written and placed there by Taita, the stave
of the queen.
Since then their lives, Duraid’s and her own, seemed to have revolved
around those scraps of papyrus. Although there was some damage and
deterioration, in the main they had survived nearly four thousand years
What a fascinating story they contained, of a nation attacked by a
superior enemy, armed with horse and chariot that were still alien to
the Egyptians of that time. Crushed by the Hyksos hordes, the people of
the Nile were forced to flee. Led by their queen, Lostris of the tomb,
they followed the great river southwards almost to its source amongst
the brutal mountains of the Ethiopian highlands.
Here amongst those forbidding mountains, Lostris had entombed the
mummified body of her husband, the Pharaoh Mamose, who had been slain in
battle against the Hyksos.
Long afterwards Queen Lostris had led her people back northwards to this
very Egypt. Armed now with their own horses and chariots, forged into
hard warriors in the African wilderness, they had come storming back
down the cataracts of the great river to challenge once more the Hyksos
invader, and in the end to triumph over him and wrest the double crown
of upper and lower Egypt from his grasp.
It was a story that appealed to every fibre of her being, and that had
fascinated her as they had unravelled each hieroglyph that the old slave
had penned on the papyrus’
It had taken them all these years, working at night here in the villa on
the oasis after their daily routine work at the museum in Cairo was
done, but at last the ten scrolls had been deciphered – all except the
seventh scroll. This was the one that was the enigma, the one which the
author had cloaked in layers of esoteric shorthand and allusions so
obscure that they were unfathomable at this remove of time. Some of the
symbols he used had never figured before in all the thousands of texts
that they had studied in their combined working lives. It was obvious to
them both that Taita had not intended that the scrolls should be read by
any eyes other than those of his beloved queen. These were his last gift
for her to take with her beyond the grave.
It had taken all their combined skills, all their imagination and
ingenuity, but at last they were approaching the conclusion of the task.
There were still many gaps in the translation and many areas where they
were uncertain whether or not they had captured the true meaning, but
they had laid out the bones of the manuscript in such order that they
were able to discern the outline of the creature it represented.
Now Duraid sipped his coffee and shook his head as he had done so often
before. “It frightens me,” he said. “The responsibility. What to do with
this knowledge we have gleaned. If it should fall into the wrong hands
He sipped and sighed before he spoke again. “Even if we take it to the
right people, will they believe this material that is nearly four
thousand years old?”
“Why must we bring in others?” Royan asked with an edge of exasperation
in her voice. “Why can we not do alone what has to be done?” At times
like these the differences between them were most apparent. His was the
caution of age, while hers was the impetuosity of youth.
“You do not understand,” he said. It always annoyed her when he said
that, when he treated her as the Arabs treated their women in a totally
masculine world. She had known the other world where women demanded and
received the right to be treated as equals. She was a creature caught
between those worlds, the Western world and the Arab world.
Royan’s mother was an English woman who had worked at the British
Embassy in Cairo in the troubled times after World War II. She had met
and married Royan’s father, who had been a young Egyptian officer on the
staff of Colonel Nasser. It was an unlikely union and had not persisted
into Royan’s adolescence.
Her mother had insisted upon returning to England, to her home town of
York, for Royan’s birth. She wanted her child to have British
citizenship. After her parents had separated, Royan, again at her
mother’s insistence, had been sent back to England for her schooling,
but all her holidays had been spent with her father in Cairo. Her
father’s career had prospered exceedingly, and in the end he had
attained ministerial rank in the Mubarak government. Through her love
for him she came to look upon herself as more Egyptian than English.
It was her father who had arranged her marriage to Duraid Al Simma. It
was the last thing that he had done for her before his death. She had
known he was dying at the time, and she had not found it in her heart to
defy him. All her modern training made her want to resist the
old-fashioned Coptic tradition of the arranged marriage, but her
breeding and her family and her Church were against her. She had
Her marriage to Duraid had not proved as insufferable as she had dreaded
it might be. It might even have been entirely comfortable and satisfying
if she had never been introduced to romantic love. However, there had
been her liaison with David while she was up at university. He had swept
her up in the hurly-burly, in the heady delirium, and, in the end, the
heartache, when he had left her to marry a blonde English rose approved
of by his parents.
She respected and liked Duraid, but sometimes in the night she still
burned for the feel of a body as firm and young as her own on top of
Duraid was still speaking and she had not been listening to him. She
gave him her full attention once more. “I have spoken to the minister
again, but I do not think he believes in me. I think that Nahoot has
convinced him that I am a little mad.” He smiled sadly. Nahoot Guddabi
was his ambitious and well-connected deputy. “At any rate the minister
says that there are no government funds available, and that I will have
to seek outside finance.
So, I have been over the list of possible sponsors again, and have
narrowed it down to four. There is the Getty Museum of course, but I
never like to work with a big impersonal institution. I prefer to have a
single man to answer to.
Decisions are always easier to reach.”None of this was new to her, but
she listened dutifully.
“Then there is Herr von Schiller. He has the money and the interest in
the subject, but I do not know him well enough to trust him entirely.”
He paused, and Royan had listened to these musings so often before that
she could anticipate him.
“What about the American? He is a famous collector,” she forestalled
“Peter Walsh is a difficult man to work with. His passion to accumulate
makes him unscrupulous. He frightens me a little.”
“So who does that leave?” she asked.
He did not reply, for they both knew the answer to her question.
Instead, he turned his attention back to the material that littered the
“It looks so innocent, so mundane. An old papyrus scroll, a few
photographs and notebooks, a computer printout. It is difficult to
believe how dangerous these might be in the wrong hands.” He sighed
again. “You might almost say that they are deadly dangerous.”
Then he laughed. “I am being fanciful. Perhaps it is the late hour.
Shall we get back to work? We can worry about these other matters once
we have worked out all the conundrums set for us by this old rogue,
Taita, and completed the translation.”
He picked up the top photograph from the pile in front of him. It was an
extract from the central section of the scroll. “It is the worst luck
that the damaged piece of papyrus falls where it does.” He picked up his
reading glasses and placed them on his nose before he read aloud.
“‘There are many steps to ascend on the staircase to the abode of Hapi.
With much hardship and endeavour we reached the second step and
proceeded no further, for it was here that the prince received a divine
revelation. In a dream his father, the dead god pharaoh, visited him and
commanded him, “I have travelled far and I am grown weary. It is here
that I will rest for all eternity.”” Duraid removed his glasses and
looked across at Royan, “‘The second step”. It is a very precise
description for once. Taita is not being his usual devious self.”
“Let’s go back to the satellite. photographs,” Royan suggested, and drew
the glossy sheet towards her. Duraid came around the table to stand
“To me it seems most logical that the natural feature that would
obstruct them in the gorge would be something like a set of rapids or a
waterfall. If it were the second waterfall, that would put them here-‘
Royan placed her finger on a spot on the satellite photograph where the
narrow snake of the river threaded itself through the dark massifs of
the mountains on either hand.
At that moment she was distracted and she lifted her head. “Listen!” Her
voice changed, sharpening with alarm.
“What is it?” Duraid looked up also.
“The dog,” she answered.
“That damn mongrel,” he agreed. “It is always making the night hideous
with its yapping. I have promised myself to get rid of him.”
At that moment the lights went out.
They froze with surprise in the darkness. The soft thudding of the
decrepit diesel generator in its shed at the back of the palm grove had
ceased. It was so much a part of the oasis night that they noticed it
only when it was silent.
Their eyes adjusted to the faint starlight that came in through the
terrace doors. Duraid crossed the room and took the oil lamp down from
the shelf beside the door where it waited for just such a contingency.
He lit it, and looked across at Royan with an expression of comical
“I will have to go down-‘
Duraid,” she interrupted him, “the dog!’
He listened for a moment, and his expression changed to mild concern.
The dog was silent out there in the night.
“I am sure it is nothing to be alarmed about.” He went to the door, and
for no good reason she suddenly called after him.
“Duraid, be careful!” He shrugged dismissively and stepped out on to the
She thought for an instant that it was the shadow of the vine over the
trellis moving in the night breeze off the desert, but the night was
still. Then she realized that it was a human figure crossing the
flagstones silently and swiftly, coming in behind Duraid as he skirted
the fishpond in the centre of the paved terrace.
“Duraid!” She screamed a warning and he spun round, lifting the lamp
“Who are you?” he shouted. “What do you want here?” The intruder closed
with him silently. The traditional full-length dishdasha robe swirled
around his legs, and the white ghutrah headcloth covered his head. In
the light of the lamp Duraid saw that he had drawn the corner of the
headcloth over his face to mask his features.
The intruder’s back was turned towards her so Royan did not see the
knife in his right hand, but she could not mistake the upward stabbing
motion that he aimed at Duraid’s stomach. Duraid grunted with pain and
doubled up at the blow, and his attacker drew the blade free and stabbed
again, but this time Duraid dropped the lamp and seized the knife arm.
The flame of the fallen oil lamp was guttering and flaring. The two men
struggled in the gloom, but Royan saw a dark stain spreading over her
husband’s white shirt front.
“Run!” he bellowed at her. “Go! Fetch help! I cannot hold him!” The
Duraid she knew was a gentle person, a soft man of books and learning.
She could see that he was outmatched by his assailant.
“Go! Please! Save yourself, my flower!” She could hear by his tone that
he was weakening, but he still clung desperately to his attacker’s knife
She had been paralysed with shock and indecision these few fatal
seconds, but now she broke free of the spell and ran to the door.
Spurred by her terror and her need to bring help to Duraid she crossed
the terrace, swift as a cat, and he held the intruder from blocking her
She vaulted over the low stone wall into the grove, and almost into the
arms of the second man. She screamed and twisted away from him as his
outstretched fingers raked across her face, and almost broke free, but
his fingers hooked in the thin cotton stuff of her blouse.
This time she saw the knife in his hand, a long silvery flash in the
starlight, and it goaded her to fresh effort. The cotton tore in his
grip and she was free, but not quickly enough to escape the blade. She
felt the sting of it across her upper arm, and she kicked out at him
with all the strength of panic and her hard young body behind it. She
felt her foot slam into the softness of his lower body with a shock that
jarred her knee and ankle, and her attacker cried out and fell to his
Then she was away and running through the palm grove. At first she ran
without purpose or direction. She ran simply to get as far from them as
her flying legs would carry her. Then gradually she brought her panic
under control. She glanced back, but saw nobody following her.
As she reached the edge of the lake she slowed her run to conserve her
strength, and she became aware of the warm trickle of her own blood down
her arm and then dripping from her finger-tips.
She stopped.and rested her back against the rough hole of one of the
palms while she tore a strip of cloth from her ripped blouse and
hurriedly bound up her arm. She was shaking so much from shock and
exertion that even her uninjured hand was fumbling and clumsy. She
knotted the crude bandage with her teeth and left hand, and the bleeding
She was uncertain of which way to run, and then she saw the dim
lamplight. in the window of Alia’s shack across the nearest irrigation
canal. She pushed herself away from the palm trunk and started towards
it. She had covered less than a hundred paces when a voice called from
the grove behind her, speaking in Arabic, “Yusuf, has the woman come
immediately an electric torch flashed from the darkness ahead of her and
another voice called back, “No, I have not seen her.”
Another few seconds and Royan would have run full into him. She crouched
down and looked around her desperately. There was another torch coming
through the grove behind her, following the path she had taken. It must
be the man she had kicked, but she could tell by the motion of the torch
beam that he had recovered and was moving swiftly and easily again.
She was blocked on two sides, so she turned back along the edge of the
trail. The road lay that way. She might be able to meet a late vehicle
travelling on it. She lost her footing on the rough ground and went
down, bruising and scraping her knees, but she jumped up again and
hurried on. The second time she stumbled, her outthrust left hand landed
on a round, smooth stone the size of an orange. When she went on she
carried the stone with her; as a weapon it gave her a glimmer of
Her wounded arm was beginning to hurt, and she was driven by worry for
Duraid. She knew he was badly wounded, for she had seen the direction
and force of the knife thrust. She had to find help for him. Behind her
the two men with torches were sweeping the grove and she could not keep
her lead ahead of them. They were gaining on her – she could hear them
calling to each other.
She reached the road at last, and with a small whimper of relief climbed
out of the drainage ditch on to the pale gravel surface. Her legs were
shaking under her so that they could hardly carry her weight, but she
turned in the direction of the village.
She had not reached the first bend before she saw a set of headlights
coming slowly towards her, flickering through the palm trees. She broke
into a run down the centre of the road.
“Help me!” she screamed in Arabic. “Please help me!’
The car came through the bend and before the headlights dazzled her she
saw that it was a small, darkcoloured Fiat. She stood in the centre of
the road waving her arms to halt the driver, lit by the headlights as
though she were on a theatre stage. The Fiat stopped in front of her,
and she ran round to the driver’s door and tugged at the handle.
“Please, you must help me.”
The door was opened from within, and then was thrown back with such
force that she staggered off-balance.
The driver leapt out into the roadway and caught her by the wrist of the
injured arm. He dragged her to the Fiat and pulled open the back door.
“Yusuf! Bacheed’ he shouted into the dark grove. “I have her.” And she
heard the answering cries and saw the torches turn in their direction.
The driver was forcing her head down and trying to push her into the
back seat, but she realized then that she still had the stone in her
good hand. She turned slightly and braced herself, and then swung her
fist with the stone still clenched in it against the side of his head.
It caught him squarely on the temple.
Without another sound he dropped to the gravel surface and lay
Royan dropped the stone and pelted away down the road, but she found
that she was running straight down the path of the headlights, and they
lit her every movement.
The two men in the grove shouted again and came up on to the gravel
roadway behind her, almost shoulder to shoulder.
Glancing back, she saw them gaining on her swiftly, and she realized
that her only chance was to get off the road and back into the darkness.
She turned and plunged down the bank. Immediately she found herself
waist-deep in the waters of the lake.
In the darkness and the confusion she had become disorientated. She had
not realized that she had reached the point where the road skirted the
embankment at the water’s edge. She knew that she did not have time to
climb back on to the road, and she knew also that there were thick
clumps of papyrus and reeds ahead of her, that might give her shelter.
She waded out until the bottom sloped away steeply under her feet, and
she found herself forced to swim. She broke into an awkward
breast-stroke, hampered by her skirts and her injured arm. However, her
slow and stealthy movements created almost no disturbance on the
surface, and before the men on the road had reached the point where she
had descended the bank, she reached a dense stand of reeds.
. She eased her way into the thick of them and let herself sink. Before
the water covered her nostrils she felt her toes touch the soft ooze of
the lake bottom. She stood there quietly, with just the top of her head
above the surface and her face turned away from the bank. She knew her
dark hair would not reflect the light of a probing torch.
Though the water covered her ears, she could make out the excited voices
of the men on the road. They had turned their torches down towards the
water and were shining them into the reeds, searching for her. For a
moment one of the beams played full on her head, and she drew a deep
breath ready to submerge, but the beam moved on and she realized that
they had not picked her out.
The fact that she had not been seen even in the direct torchlight
emboldened her to raise her head slightly until one ear was clear and
she could make out their voices.
They were speaking Arabic, and she recognized the voice of the one named
Bacheet. He appeared to be the leader, for he was giving the orders.
“Go in there, Yusuf, and bring the whore out.”
She heard Yusuf slipping and sliding down the bank and the splash as he
hit the water.
“Further out,” Bacheet ordered him. “In those reeds there, where I am
shining the torch.”
“It is too deep. You know well I cannot swim. It will be over my head.”
“There! Right in front of you. In those reeds. I can see her head.”
Bacheet encouraged him, and Royan dreaded that they had spotted her. She
sank down as far as she could below the surface.
Yusuf splashed around heavily, moving towards where she cowered in the
reeds, when suddenly there was a thunderous commotion that startled even
Yusuf, so that he shouted aloud, “Djinns! God protect meV as the flock
of roosting duck exploded from the water and launched into the dark sky
on noisy wings.
Yusuf started back to the bank and not any of Bacheet’s threats could
persuade him to continue the hunt.
“The woman is not as important as the scroll,” he protested, as he
climbed back on to the roadway. “Without the scroll there will be no
money. We always know where to find her later.”
Turning her head slightly, Royan saw the torches move back down the road
towards the parked Fiat whose headlights still burned. She heard the
doors of the car slam, and then the engine revved and pulled away
towards the villa.
She was too shaken and terrified to make any attempt to leave her
hiding-place. She feared that they had left one of their number on the
road to wait for her to show herself.
She stood on tiptoe with the water lapping her lips, shivering more with
shock than with cold, determined to wait for the safety of the sunrise
before she moved.
It was only much later when she saw the glow of the fire lighting the
sky, and the flames flickering through the trunks of the palm trees,
that she forgot her own safety and dragged herself back to the bank.
She knelt in the mud at the water’s edge, shuddering and shaking and
gasping, weak with loss of blood and shock and the reaction from fear,
and peered at the flames through the veil of her wet hair -and the lake
water that streamed into her eyes.
“The villa! she whispered. “Duraid! Oh please God, no! No!
She pushed herself to her feet and began to stagger towards her burning
acheet switched off both the headlights and the engine of the Fiat
before they reached the turning into the driveway of the villa and let
the car coast down and stop below the terrace.
All three of them left the Fiat and climbed the stone steps to the
flagged terrace. Duraid’s body still lay where Bacheet had left it
beside the fishpond. They passed him without a glance and went into the
Bacheet placed the cheap nylon tote bag he carried on the tabletop.
“We have wasted too much time already. We must work quickly now.”
“It is Yusuf’s fault,” protested the driver of the Fiat. “He let the
“You had a chance on the road,” Yusuf snarled at him, “and you did no
“Enough!” Bacheet told them both. “If you want to get paid, then there
had better be no more mistakes.”
With the torch beam Bacheet picked out the scroll that still lay on the
tabletop. “That is the one.” He was certain, for he had been shown a
photograph of it so that there would be no mistake. “They want
everything – the maps and photographs. Also the books and papers,
everything on the table that they were using in their work.
Quickly they bundled everything into the tote bag and Bacheet zipped it
“Now the Doktari. Bring him in here.”
The other two went out on to the terrace and stooped over the body. Each
of them seized an ankle and dragged Duraid back across the terrace and
into the study. The back of Duraid’s head bounced loosely on the stone
step at the threshold and his blood painted a long wet skid mark across
the tiles that glistened in the torchlight.
“Get the lamp!” Bacheet ordered, and Yusuf went back to the terrace and
fetched the oil lamp from where Duraid had dropped it. The flame was
extinguished. Bacheet held the lamp to his ear and shook it.
“Full,” he said with satisfaction, and unscrewed the filler cap. “All
right,” he told the other two, take the bag out to the car.”
As they hurried out Bacheet sprinkled paraffin from the lamp over
Duraid’s shirt and trousers, and then he went to the shelves and
splashed the remainder of the fuel over the books and manuscripts that
He dropped the empty lamp and reached under the skirts of his dishdasha
for a box of matches. He struck one of them and held it to the wet run
of paraffin oil down the bookcase. It caught immediately, and flames
spread upwards and curled and blackened the edges of the manuscripts. He
turned away and went back to where Duraid lay. He struck another match
and dropped it on to his blood- and paraffindrenched shirt.
A mantle of blue flames danced over Duraid’s chest.
The flames changed colour as they burned into the cotton material and
the flesh beneath it. They turned orange, and sooty smoke spiralled up
from their flickering crests.
Bacheet ran to the door, across the terrace and down the steps. As he
clambered into the rear seat of the Fiat, the driver gunned the engine
and pulled away down the driveway.
Durid drifted. He groaned. The first thing he was aware of as he
regained consciousness was the smell of his own flesh burning, and then
the agony struck him with full force. A violent tremor shook his whole
body and he opened his eyes and looked down at himself.
His clothing was blackening and smouldering, and the pain was as nothing
he had ever experienced in his entire life. He realized in a vague way
that the room was on fire all around him. Smoke and waves of heat washed
over him so that he could barely make out the shape of the doorway
The pain was so terrible that he wanted it to end. He wanted to die then
and not to have to endure it further.
Then he remembered Royan. He tried to say her name through his scorched
and blackened lips, but no sound came. Only the thought of her gave him
the strength to move. He rolled over once, and the heat attacked his
back that up until that moment had been shielded. He groaned aloud and
rolled again, just a little nearer to the doorway.
Each movement was a mighty effort and evoked fresh paroxysms of agony,
but when he rolled on to his back again he realized that a gale of fresh
air was being sucked through the open doorway to feed the flames. A
lungful Of the sweet desert air revived him and gave him just sufficient
strength to lunge down the step on to the cool stones of the terrace.
His clothes and his body were still on fire. He beat feebly at his chest
to try to extinguish the flames, but his hands were black burning claws.
Then he remembered the fishpond. The thought of plunging his tortured
body into that cold water spurred him he pain roused Duraid. It had to
be that intense to bring him back from that far place on the very edge
of life to which he had to one last effort, and he wriggled and wormed
his way across the flags like a snake with a crushed spine.
The pungent smoke from his still cremating flesh choked him and he
coughed weakly, but kept doggedly on.
He left slabs of his own grilled skin on the stone coping as he rolled
across it and flopped into the pond. There was a hiss of steam, and a
pale cloud of it obscured his vision so that for a moment he thought he
was blinded. The agony of cold water on his raw burned flesh was so
intense that he slid back over the edge of consciousness.
When he came back to reality through the dark clouds he raised his
dripping head and saw a figure staggering up the steps at the far end of
the terrace, coming from the garden.
For a moment he thought it was a phantom of his agony, but when the
light of the burning villa fell full upon her, he recognized Royan. Her
wet hair hung in tangled disarray over her face, and her clothing was
torn and running with lake water and stained with mud and green algae.
Her right arm was wrapped in muddy rags and her blood oozed through,
diluted pink by the dirty water.
She did not see him. She stopped in the centre of the terrace and stared
in horror into the burning room. Was Duraid in there? She started
forward, but the heat was like a solid wall and it stopped her dead. At
that moment the roof collapsed, sending a roaring column of sparks and
flames high into the night sky. She backed away from it, shielding her
face with a raised arm.
Duraid tried to call to her, but no sound issued from his smoke-scorched
throat. Royan turned away and started down the steps. He realized that
she must be going to call for help. Duraid made a supreme effort and a
crow-like croak came out between his black and blistered lips.
Royan spun round and stared at him, and then she screamed. His head was
not human. His hair was gone, frizzled away, and his skin hung in
tatters from his cheeks and chin. Patches of raw meat showed through the
black crusted mask. She backed away from him as though he were some
“Royan,” he croaked, and his voice was just recognizable. He lifted one
hand towards her in appeal, and she ran to the pond and seized the
“In the name of the Virgin, what have they done to you?” she sobbed, but
when she tried to pull him from the pond the skin of his hand came away
in hers in a single piece, like some horrible surgical rubber glove,
leaving the bleeding claw naked and raw.
Royan fell on her knees beside the coping and leaned over the pond to
take him in her arms. She knew that she did not have the strength to
lift him out without doing him further dreadful injury. All she could do
was hold him and try to comfort him. She realized that he was dying no
man could survive such fearsome injury.
“They will come soon to help us,” she whispered to him in Arabic.
“Someone must see the flames. Be brave, my husband, help will come very
He was twitching and convulsing in her arms, tortured by his mortal
injuries and racked by the effort to speak.
“The scroll?” His voice was barely intelligible. Royan looked up at the
holocaust that enveloped their home, and she shook her head.
“It’s gone,” she said. “Burned or stolen.”
“Don’t give it up,” he mumbled. “All our work-‘
“It’s gone,” she repeated. “No one will believe us without-‘
“No!” His voice was faint but fierce. “For me, my last—2 “Don’t say
that,” she pleaded. “You will be all right.”
“Promise,” he demanded. “Promise me!”
“We have no sponsor. I am alone. I cannot do it alone.”
“Harper!” he said. Royan leaned closer so that her ear touched his
fire-ravaged lips. “Harper,” he repeated. “Strong hard – clever man-‘
and she understood then. Harper, Of course, was the fourth and last name
on the list of sponsors that he had drawn up. Although he was the last
on the list, somehow she had always known that Duraid’s order of
preference was inverted. Nicholas Quenton Harper was his first choice.
He had spoken so often of this man with respect and warmth, and
sometimes even with awe.
“But what do I tell him? He does not know me. How will I convince him?
The seventh scroll is gone.”
“Trust him,” he whispered. “Good man. Trust him-‘ There was a terrible
appeal in his “Promise me!’
Then she remembered the notebook in their flat at Giza in the Cairo
suburbs, and the Taita material on the hard drive on her PC. Not
everything was gone. “Yes,” she agreed, “I promise you, my husband, I
Though those mutilated features could show no human expression there was
a faint echo of satisfaction in his voice as he whispered, “My flower!”
Then his head dropped forward, and he died in her arms.
The peasants from the village found Royan still kneeling beside the
pond, holding him, whispering to him. By that time the flames were
abating, and the faint light of dawn was stronger than their fading
The staff from the museum and the Antiquities were at the funeral the
church of the oasis. Even Atalan Abou Sin, the Minister of Culture and
Tourism and Duraid’s superior, had come out from Cairo in his official
black air-conditioned Mercedes.
He stood behind Royan and, though he was a Moslem, joined in the
responses. Nahoot Guddabi stood beside his uncle. Nahoot’s mother was
the minister’s youngest sister, which, as Duraid had sarcastically
pointed out, fully made up for the nephew’s lack of qualifications and
experience in archaeology anj for his ineptitude as an administrator.
The day was sweltering. Outside, the temperature stood at over thirty
degrees, and even in the dim cloisters of the Coptic church it was
oppressive. In the thick clouds of incense smoke and the drone of the
black-clad priest intoning the ancient order of service Royan felt
herself suffocating. The stitches in her right arm pulled and burned,
and every time she looked at the long black coffin that stood in front
of the ornate and gilded altar, the dreadful vision of Duraid’s bald and
scorched head rose before her eyes and she swayed’in her seat and had to
catch herself before she fell.
At last it was over and she could escape into the open air and the
desert sunlight. Even then her duties were not at an end. As principal
mourner, her place was directly behind the coffin as they walked in
procession to the cemetery amongst the palm groves, where Duraid’s
relatives awaited him in the family mausoleum.
Before he returned to Cairo, Atalan Abou Sin came to shake her hand and
offer her a few words of condolence.
“What a terrible business, Royan. I have personally spoken to the
Minister of the Interior. They will catch the animals responsible for
this outrage, believe me. Please take as long as you need before you
return to the museum,” he told her.
“I will be in my office again on Monday,” she replied, and he drew a
pocket diary from inside the jacket of his dark double-breasted suit. He
consulted it and made a note, before he looked up at her again.
“Then come to see me at the Ministry in the afternoon.
Four ‘clock,” he told her. He went to the waiting Mercedes, while Nahoot
Guddabi came forward to shake hands. Though his skin was sallow and
there were coffeecoloured stains beneath his dark eyes, he was tall and
elegant with thick wavy hair and very white teeth. His suit was
impeccably tailored and he smelt faintly of an expensive cologne. His
expression was grave and sad.
“He was a good man. I held Duraid in the highest esteem,” he told Royan,
and she nodded without replying to this blatant untruth. There had been
little affection between Duraid and his deputy. He had never allowed
Nahoot to work on the Taita scrolls; in particular he had never given
him access to the seventh scroll, and this had been a point of bitter
antagonism between them.
“I hope you will be applying for the post of director, Royan,” he told
her. “You are well qualified for the job.”
“Thank you, Nahoot, you are very kind. I haven’t had a chance to think
about the future yet, but won’t you be applying?”
“Of course,” he nodded. “But that doesn’t mean that no one else should.
Perhaps you will take the job out from in front of my nose.” His smile
was complacent. She was a woman in an Arab world, and he was the nephew
of the minister. Nahoot knew just how heavily the odds favoured him.
“Friendly rivals?”he asked.
Royan smiled sadly. “Friends, at least. I will need all of those I can
find in the future.”
“You know you have many friends. Everyone in the department likes you,
Royan.” That at least was true, she supposed. He went on smoothly, “May
I offer you a lift back to Cairo? I am certain my uncle will not
“Thank you, Nahoot, but I have my own car here, and I must stay over at
the oasis tonight to see to some of Duraid’s affairs.”This was not true.
Royan planned to travel back to the flat in Giza that evening but, for
reasons that she was not very sure of herself, she did not want Nahoot
to know of her plans.
“Then we shall see you at the museum on Monday.” Royan left the oasis as
soon as she was able to escape from the relations and family friends and
peasants, so many of whom had worked for Duraid’s family most of their
She felt numbed and isolated, so that all their condolences and
exhortations were meaningless and Without comfort.
Even at this late hour the tarmac road back through the desert was busy,
with files of vehicles moving steadily in both directions, for tomorrow
was Friday and the sabbath. She slipped her injured right arm out of the
sling, and it did not hamper her driving too much. She was able to make
reasonably good time. Nevertheless, it was after five in the afternoon
when she made out the green line against the tawny desolation of the
desert that marked the start of the narrow strip of irrigated and
cultivated land along the Nile which was the great artery of Egypt.
As always the traffic became denser the nearer she came to the capital,
and it was almost fully dark by the time she reached the apartment block
in Giza that overlooked both the river and those great monuments of
stone which stood so tall and massive against the evening sky, and which
for her epitomized the heart and history of her land.
She left Duraid’s old green Renault in the underground garage of the
building and rode up in the elevator to the top floor.
She let herself into the flat and then froze in the doorway. The sitting
room had been ransacked – even the rugs had been pulled up and the
paintings ripped from the walls. In a daze she picked her way through
the litter of broken furniture and smashed ornaments. She glanced into
the bedroom as she went down the passage, and saw that it had not
escaped. Her clothes and those of Duraid were strewn over the floor, and
the doors of the cupboards stood ajar. One of these was smashed off its
hinges. The bed was overturned, and the sheets and bolsters had been
She could smell the reek of broken cosmetic and perfume bottles from the
bathroom, but she could not yet bring herself to go in there. She knew
what she would find.
Instead she continued down the passage to the large room that they had
used as a study and workshop.
In the chaos the first thing that she noticed and mourried was the
antique chess set that Duraid had given her as a wedding present. The
board of jet and ivory squares was broken in half and the pieces had
been thrown about the room with vindictive and unnecessary violence. She
stooped and picked up the white queen. Her head had been snapped off.
Holding the queen in her good hand she moved like a sleepwalker to her
desk below the window. Her PC was wrecked. They had shattered the screen
and hacked the mainframe with what must have been an axe. She could tell
at a glance that there was no information left on the hard drive; it was
She glanced down at the drawer in which she kept her floppy disks. That
and all the other drawers had been pulled out and thrown on the floor.
They were empty, of course; along with the disks, all her notebooks and
photographs were missing. Her last connections with the seventh scroll
were lost. After three years of work, gone was the proof that it had
She stumped down on the floor, feeling beaten and exhausted. Her arm
started to ache again, and she was alone and vulnerable as she had never
been in her life before. She had never thought that she would miss
Duraid so desperately. Her shoulders began to shake and she felt the
tears welling up from deep within her. She tried to hold them back, but
they scalded her eyelids and she let them flow. She sat amongst the
wreckage of her life and wept until there was nothing more left within
her, and then she curled up on the littered carpet and fell, into the
sleep of exhaustion and despair.
the Monday morning she had managed to restore some order into her life.
The police had come to the flat and taken her statement, and she had
tidied up most of the disarray. She had even glued the head back on her
white queen. When she left the flat and climbed into the green Renault
her arm was feeling easier, and, if not cheerful, she was at least a
great deal more optimistic, and sure of what she had to do.
When she reached the museum she went first to Duraid’s office and was
annoyed to find that Nahoot was there before her. He was supervising two
of the security guards as they cleared out all Duraid’s personal
“You might have had the consideration to let me do that,” she told him
coldly, and he gave her his most winning smile.
“I am sorry, Royan. I thought I would help.” He was smoking one of his
fat Turkish cigarettes. She loathed the heavy, musky odour.
She crossed to Duraid’s desk, and opened the top right hand drawer. “My
husband’s day book was in here. It’s gone now. Have you seen it?”
“No, there was nothing in that drawer.”Nahoot looked at the two guards
for confirmation, and they shuffled their feet and shook their heads. It
did not really matter, she thought. The book had not contained much of
vital interest. Duraid had always relied on her to record and store all
data of importance, and most of it had been on her PC.
“Thank you, Nahoot,” she dismissed him. “I will do whatever remains to
be done. I don’t want to keep you from your work.”
“Any help you need, Royan, please let me know.” He bowed slightly as he
It did not take her long to finish in Duraid’s office. She had the
guards take the boxes of his possessions down the corridor to her own
office and pile them against the wall.
She worked through the lunch-hour tidying up all her own affairs, and
when she had finished there was still an hour until her appointment with
Atalan Abou Sin.
If she was to make good her promise to Duraid, then she was going to be
absent for some time. Wanting to take leave of all her favoUrite
treasures, she went down into the public section of the huge building.
Monday was a busy day, and the exhibition halls of the museum were
thronged with groups of tourists. They flocked behind their guides,
sheep following the shepherd.
They crowded around the most famous of the displays.
They listened to the guides reciting their well-rehearsed spiels in all
the tongues of Babel.
Those rooms on the second floor that contained the treasures of
Tutankhamen were so crowded that she spent little time there. She
managed to reach the display cabinet that contained the great golden
death’mask of the child pharaoh. As always, the splendour and the
romance of it quickened her breathing and made her heart beat faster.
Yet as she stood before it, jostled by a pair of big-busted and sweaty
middle-aged female tourists, she pondered, as she had so often before,
that if an insignificant weakling king could have gone to his tomb with
such a miraculous creation covering his mummified features, in what
state must the great Ramessids have lain in their funeral temples.
Ramesses II, the greatest of them all, had reigned sixty-seven years and
had spent those decades accumulating his funerary treasure from all the
vast territories that he had conquered.
Royan went next to pay her respects to the old king.
After thirty centuries Ramesses II slept on with a rapt and serene
expression on his gaunt features. His skin had a light, marble-like
sheen to it. The sparse strands of his hair were blond and dyed with
henna. His hands, dyed with the same stuff, were long and thin and
elegant. However, he was clad only in a rag of linen. The grave robbers
had even unwrapped his mummy to reach the amulets and scarabs beneath
the linen bandages, so that his body was almost naked. When these
remains had been discovered in 1881 in the cache of royal mummies in the
cliff cave at Deir El Bahari, only a scrap of papyrus parchment attached
to his breast had proclaimed his lineage.
There was a moral in that, she supposed, but as she stood before these
pathetic remains she wondered again, as she and Duraid had done so often
before, whether Taita the scribe had told the truth, whether somewhere
in the far-off, savage mountains of Africa another great pharaoh slept
on undisturbed with all his treasures intact about him.
The very thought of it made her shiver with excitement, and goose
pimples prickled her skin and raised the fine dark hair at the nape of
“I have given you my promise, my husband,” she whispered in Arabic.
“This will be for you and your memory, for it was you who led the way.”
She glanced at her “Wrist-watch as she went down the main staircase. She
had fifteen minutes before she must leave for her appointment with the
minister, and she knew, exactly how she would spend that time. What she
was going to visit was in one of the less-frequented side halls.
The tour guides very seldom led their charges this way, except as a
short-cut to see the statue of Amenhotep.
Royan stopped in front of the glass-fronted display case that reached
from floor to ceiling of the narrow room. It was packed with small
artefacts, tools and weapons, amulets and vessels and utensils, the
latest of them dating from the twentieth dynasty of the New Kingdom,
1100 BC, whilst the oldest survived from the dim ages of the Old Kingdom
almost five thousand years ago. The cataloguing of this accumulation was
only rudimentary. Many of the items were not described.
At the furthest end, on the bottom shelf, was a display of jewellery and
finger rings and seals. Beside each of the seals was a wax impression
made from it.
Royan went down on her knees to examine one of these artefacts more
closely. The tiny blue seal of lapis lazuli in the centre of the display
was beautifully carved.
Lapis was a rare and precious material for the ancients, as it had not
occurred naturally in the Egyptian Empire. The wax imprint cut from it
depicted a hawk with a broken wing, and the simple legend beneath it was
clear for Royan to read: “TAITA, THE SCRIBE OF THE GREAT QUEEN’.
She knew it was the same man, for he had used the maimed hawk as his
autograph in the scrolls. She wondered who had found this trifle and
where. Perhaps some peasant had plundered it from the lost tomb of the
old slave and scribe, but she would never know.
“Are you teasing me, Taita? Is it all some elaborate hoax? Are you
laughing at me even now from your tomb, wherever it may be?” She leaned
even closer, until her forehead touched the cool glass. “Are you my
friend, Taita, or are you my implacable adversary?” She stood up and
dusted off the front of her skirt. “We shall see. I will-play the game
with you, and we shall see who outwits whom,” she promised.
The minister kept her waiting only a few minutes before his male
secretary ushered her into his presence. Atalan Abou Sin wore a dark,
shiny silk suit and sat at his desk, although Royan knew that he
preferred a more comfortable robe and a cushion on the rugs of the
floor. He noticed her glance and smiled deprecatingly. “I have a meeting
with some Americans this afternoon.” .. She liked him. He had always
been kind to her, and she owed him her job at the museum. Most other men
in his position would have refused. Duraid’s request for a female
assistant, especially his own wife.
He asked after her health and she showed him her bandaged arm. “The
stitches will come out in ten days.”
They chatted for a while in a polite manner. Only Westerners would have
the gaucherie to come -directly to the main business to be discussed.
However, to save him embarrassment Royan took the first opportunity he
gave her to tell him, “I feel that I need some time to myself. I need to
recover from my loss and to decide what I am to do with the rest of my
life, now that I am a widow. I would be grateful if you would consider
my request for at least six months’ unpaid leave of absence. I want to
go to stay with my mother in England.”
Atalan showed real concern and urged her, “Please do not leave us for
too long. The work you have done has been invaluable. We need you to
help carry on from where Duraid left off.” But he could not entirely
conceal his relief She knew that he had expected her to put before him
her application for the directorship. He must have discussed it with his
nephew. However, he was too kind a man to relish having to tell her that
she would not be selected for the job. Things in Egypt were changing,
women were emerging from their traditional roles, but not that much or
that swiftly. They both knew that the directorship must go to Nahoot
Atalan walked with her to the door of his office and shook her hand in
parting, and as she rode down in the lift she felt a sense of release
She had left the Renault standing in the sun in the Ministry car park.
When she opened the door the interior was hot enough to bake bread. She
opened all the windows and fanned the driver’s door to force out the
heated air, but still the surface of the driver’s seat burned the backs
of her thighs when she slid in behind the wheel.
As soon as she drove through the gates she was engulfed in the swarm of
Cairo traffic. She crawled along behind an overloaded bus that belched a
steady blue cloud of diesel fumes over the Renault. The traffic problem
was one that seemed to have no solution. There was so little parking
available that vehicles lined the verge of the road three and four
deep,” choking the flow in the centre to a trickle.
As the bus in front of her braked and forced her to a halt, Royan smiled
as she recalled the old joke that some drivers who had parked at the
kerb had to abandon their cars there, for they were never able to
extricate them from the tangle. Perhaps there was a little truth in
this, for some of those vehicles she could see had not been moved for
weeks. Their windscreens were completely obscured with dust and many of
them had flat tyres.
She glanced in the rear-view mirror. There was a taxi stopped only
inches from her back bumper, and behind that the traffic was backed up
solidly. Only the motorcyclists had freedom of movement. As she watched
in the mirror, one of these came weaving through the congestion with
suicidal abandon. It was a battered red 200 cc Honda so covered with
dust that the colour was hardly recognizable. There was a passenger
perched on the pillion, and both he and the driver had covered the lower
half of their faces with the corners of their white headcloths as
protection against the exhaust fumes and dust.
Passing on the wrong side, the Honda skimmed through the narrow gap
between the taxi and the cars parked at the kerb with nothing to spare
on either side.
The taxi-driver made an obscene gesture with thumb and forefinger, and
called on Allah to witness that the driver was both mad and stupid.
The Honda slowed slightly as it drew level with Royan’s Renault, and
the’ pillion passenger leaned out and dropped something through the open
window on to the passenger seat beside her, Immediately the driver
accelerated so abruptly that for a moment the front wheel was lifted off
the ground. He put the motorcycle over into a tight turn and sped away
down the narrow alleyway that opened off the main thoroughfare, narrowly
avoiding hitting an old woman in his path.
As the pillion passenger looked back at her the wind blew the fold of ck
she recognized the man she had last seen in the headlights of the Fiat
on the road beside the oasis.
“Yusuf!” As the Honda disappeared she looked down at the object that he
had dropped on to the seat beside her.
It was egg-shaped and the segmented metallic surface was painted
military green. She had seen the same thing so often on old TV war
movies that she recognized it instantly as a fragmentation grenade, and
at the same moment she realized that the priming handle had flown off
and the weapon was set to explode within seconds.
Without thinking, she grabbed the door handle beside her and flung all
her weight against the door. It burst open and she tumbled out in the
road. Her foot slipped off the clutch and the Renault bounded forward
and crashed into the back of the stationary bus.
As Royan sprawled in the road under the wheels of the following taxi,
the grenade exploded. Through the open driver’s door blew a sheet of
flame and smoke and debris. The back window burst outwards and sprayed
her with diamond chips of glass, and the detonation drove painfully into
A stunned silence followed the shock of the explosion, broken only by
the tinkle of falling glass shards, and then immediately there was a
hubbub of groans and screams.
Royan sat up and clasped her injured arm to her chest. She had fallen
heavily upon it and the stitches were agony.
The Renault was wrecked, but she saw that her leather sling bag had been
blown out of the door and lay in the street close at hand. She pushed
herself unsteadily to her feet and hobbled over to pick it up. All
around her was confusion. A few of the passengers in the bus had been
injured, and a piece of shrapnel or wreckage had wounded a little girl
on the sidewalk. Her mother was screaming and mopping at the child’s
bloody face with her scarf The girl struggled in her mother’s grip,
Nobody was taking any notice of Royan, but she knew the police would
arrive within minutes. They were geared up to respond swiftly to
fundamentalist terror attacks. She knew that if they found her here she
would be tied up in days of interrogation. She slung the bag over her
shoulder and walked as swiftly as her bruised leg would allow her to the
alleyway down which the Honda had disappeared.
At the end of the street was a public lavatory. She locked herself in
one of the cubicles and leaned against the door with her eyes closed,
trying to recover from the shock and to get her confused thoughts in
In the horror and desolation of Duraid’s murder she had not until now
considered her own safety. The realization of danger had been forced
upon her in the most savage manner. She remembered the words of one of
the assassins spoken in the darkness beside the oasis “We always know
where to find her later!’
The attempt on her life had failed only narrowly. She had to believe
that there would be another.
I can’t go back to the flat,” she realized. “The villa is gone, and
anyway they would look for me there.”
Despite the unsavoury atmosphere she remained locked in the cubicle for
over an hour while she thought out her next movements. At last she left
the toilet and went to the row of stained and cracked washbasins. She
splashed her face under the tap. Then in the mirror she combed her hair,
touched up her make-up, and straightened and tidied her clothing as best
she was able.
She walked a few blocks, doubling back on her tracks and watching behind
her to make sure she -was not being followed, before she hailed a taxi
in the street.
She made the driver drop her in the street behind her bank, and walked
the rest of the way. It was only minutes before closing time when she
was ” shown into the cubicle office of one of the sub-accountants. She
withdrew what money was in her account, which amounted to less than five
thousand Egyptian pounds. It was not a great sum, but she had a little
more in her Lloyds Bank account in York, and then she had her
“You should have given us notice to withdraw an article from safe
deposit,” the bank official told her severely.
She apologized meekly and played the helpless little-girllost so
convincingly that he relented. He handed over to her the package that
contained her British passport and her Lloyds banking papers.
Duraid had numerous relatives and friends who would have been pleased to
have her to stay with them, but she wanted to remain out of sight, away
from her usual haunts.
She chose one of the two-star tourist hotels away from the river where
she hoped she could remain anonymous amongst the multitudes of the tour
groups. At this type of hotel there was a high turnover of guests, for
most of them stayed only for a few nights before moving on up to Luxor
and Aswan to view the monuments.
As soon as she was alone in her single room she phoned British Airways
reservations. There was a flight to Heathrow the following morning at
ten ‘clock. She booked a one-way economy seat and gave them the number
of her Mastercard.
It was after six ‘clock by then, but the time difference between Egypt
and the UK meant that it would still be office hours there. She looked
up the number in her notebook. Leeds University was where she had
completed her studies. Her call was answered on the third ring.
“Archaeology Department. Professor Dixon’s office,” said a prim English
:Is that you, Miss Higgins?”
Yes, it is. To whom am I speaking?”
“It’s Royan. Royan Al Simma, who used to be Royan Said :, Royan! We
haven’t heard from you for an absolute age. How are your They chatted
for a short while, but Royan was aware of the cost of the call. “Is the
Prof in?” she cut it short.
Professor Percival Dixon was over seventy and should have retired years
ago. “Royan, is it really you? My favourite student.” She smiled. Even
at his age he was still the randy old goat. All the pretty ones were his
“This is an international call, Prof. I just want to know if the offer
is still open.”
“My goodness, I thought you said that you couldn’t fit us in, whatr
“Change of circumstances. I’ll tell you about it when I see you, if I
“Of course, we’ love to have you come and talk to us.
When can you manage to get awayr
“I’ll be in England tomorrow.”
‘my goodness, that’s a bit sudden. Don’t know if we can arrange it that
“I will be staying with my mother near York. Put me back to Miss Higgins
and I will give her the telephone number.” He was one of the most
brilliant men she knew, but she didn’t trust him to write down a
telephone number correctly. “I’ll call you in a few days’ time.”
She hung up and lay back on the bed. She was exhausted and her arm was
still hurting, but she tried to lay her plans to cover all
Two months ago Prof Dixon had invited her to lecture on the discovery
and excavation of the tomb of Queen Lostris,. and the discovery of the
scrolls. It was that book, of course, and more especially the footnote
at the end of it, that had alerted him. Its publication had caused a
great deal of interest. They had received enquiries from Egyptologists,
both amateur and professional, all around the world, some from as far
afield as Tokyo and Nairobi, all of them questioning the authenticity of
the novel and the factual basis behind it.
At the time she had opposed letting a writer of fiction have access to
the transcriptions, especially as they had not been completed. She felt
that the whole thing had reduced what should have been an important and
serious academic subject to the level of popular entertainment, rather
like what Spielberg had done to palaeontology with his park full of
In the end her voice had been over-ruled. Even Duraid had sided against
her. It had been the money, of course. The department was always short
of funds to conduct its less spectacular work. When it came to some
grandiose scheme like moving the entire Temple of Abu Simbel to a new
site above the flood waters of the Aswan High Dam, then the nations of
the world had poured in tens of millions of dollars. However, the
day-to’day operational expenses of the department attracted no such
Their half share of the royalties from River God, for that was the
book’s title, had financed almost a year of research and exploration,
but that was not enough to allay Royan’s personal misgivings. The author
had taken too many liberties with the facts contained in the scrolls,
and had embroidered historical characters with personalities and foibles
for which there was not the least evidence. In particular she felt he
had portrayed Taita, the ancient scribe, as a braggart and a
vainglorious poseur. She resented that.
in fairness she was forced to concede that the author’s brief had been
to make the facts as palatable and readable as possible to a wide lay
public, and she reluctantly agreed that he had succeeded in doing so.
However, all her scientific training revolted against such a
popularization of something so unique and wonderful.
But she sighed and put these thoughts out of her head.
The damage was done, and thinking about it only served to irritate her.
She turned her thoughts to more pressing problems. If she was to do the
lecture that the Prof had invited her to deliver, then she would need
her slides and these were still at her office in the museum. While she
was still working out the best way to get hold of them without fetching
them in Person, exhaustion overtook her and she fell asleep, still fully
clothed, on top of the bed.
the end the solution to her problem was simplicity itself. She merely
phoned the administration office and arranged for them to collect the
box of slides from her office and send it out to the airport in a taxi
with one of the secretaries.
When the secretary handed them over to her at the British Airways
check’in desk, he told her, “The police were at the Museum when we
opened this morning. They wanted to speak to you, Doctor.”
Obviously they had traced the registration of the wrecked Renault. She
was pleased that she had her British Passport. If she had tried to leave
the country with her Egyptian papers she might have run into delays: the
police would probably have placed a restriction order on all passport
control points. As it was, she passed through the checkpoint with no
difficulty and, once she was in.the final departure lounge, she went to
the news-stand and studied the array of newspapers.
All the local newspapers carried the story of the bombing of her car,
and most of them had resurrected the story of Duraid’s murder and linked
the two events. One of them hinted at fundamentalist religious
involvement. El Arab had a front-page photograph of herself and Duraid,
which had been taken the previous month at a reception for a group of
visiting French tour operators.
It gave her a pang to see the photograph of her husband looking so
handsome and distinguished, with herself on his arm smiling up at him.
She purchased copies of all the papers and took them on board the
British Airways flight.
During the flight she passed the time by writing down in her notebook
everything she could remember from what Duraid had told her of the man
that she was going to find..
She headed the page: “Sir Nicholas Quenton-Harper (Bart).” Duraid had
told her that Nicholas’s great-grand, father had been awarded the title
of baronet for his work as a career officer in the British colonial
service. For three generations the family had maintained the strongest
of ties with Africa, and especially with the British colonies and
spheres of influence in North Africa: Egypt and the Sudan, Uganda and
According to Duraid, Sir Nicholas himself had served in Africa and the
Gulf States with the British army. He was a fluent Arabic and Swahili
speaker and a noted amateur archaeologist and zoologist. Like his
father, grandfather and great-grandfather before him, he had made
numerous expeditions to North Africa to collect specimens and to explore
the more remote regions. He had written a number of articles for various
scientific journals and had even lectured at the Royal Geographical
When his elder brother died childless, Sir Nicholas had inherited the
title and the family estate at Quenton Park. He had resigned from the
army to run the estate, but more especially to supervise the family
museum that had been started in 1885 by his great-grandfather, the first
baronet. It housed one of the largest collections of African fauna in
private hands, and its ancient Egyptian and Middle Eastern collection of
artefacts was equally famous.
However, from Duraid’s accounts she concluded that there must be a wild,
and even lawless, streak in Sir Nicholas’s nature. It was obvious that
he was not afraid to take some extraordinary risks to add to the
collection at Quenton Park.
Duraid had first met him a number of years previously, when Sir Nicholas
had recruited him to act as an intelligence officer for an illicit
expedition to “liberate’ a number of Punic bronze castings from
Gadaffi’s Libya. Sir Nicholas had sold some of these to defray the
expenses of the expedition, but had kept the best of them for his
More recently there had been another expedition, this time involving an
illegal crossing of the Iraqi border to bring out a pair of stone
has-relief friezes from under Saddam Hussein’s nose. Duraid had told her
that Sir Nicholas had sold one of the pair for a huge amount of money;
he had mentioned the sum of five million US dollars. Duraid said that he
had used the money for the running of the museum, but that the second
frieze, the finest of the pair, was still in Sir Nicholas’s possession.
Both these expeditions had taken place years before Royan had met
Duraid, and she wondered idly at Duraid’s readiness to commit himself to
the Englishman in this way.
Sir Nicholas must have had unique powers of persuasion, for if they had
been apprehended in the act there was no doubt that it would have meant
summary execution for both of them.
As Duraid had explained to her, on each occasion it was only Nicholas’s
resourcefulness and his network of friends and admirers across the
Middle East and North Africa, which he had been able to call on for
help, that had seen them through.
“He is a bit of a devil,” Duraid had shaken his head with evident
nostalgia at the memory, “but the man to have with you when things are
tough. Those days were all very exciting, but when I look back on it now
I shudder at the risks we took.”
She had often pondered on the risks that a true inthe-blood collector
was prepared to take to slake his passion. The risk seemed to be out of
proportion to the reward, when it came to adding to his accumulations;
and then she smiled at her own pious sentiments. The venture that she
hoped to lead Sir Nicholas into was not exactly without risk, and she
supposed that a circumlocution of lawyers might debate the legality of
Still smiling, she fell asleep, for the strain of these last few days
had taken their toll. The air hostess woke her with an admonition to
fasten her seat-belt for the landing at Heathrow.
an phoned her mother from the airport.
ello, Mummy. It’s me.”
“Yes, I know that. Where are you, love?” Her mother sounded as
unflappable as ever. -‘At Heathrow. I am coming up to stay with you for
a while. Is that all right?”
“Lumley’s and ,” her mother chuckled. “I’ll go and make your bed. What
train will you be coming up on?”
“I had a look at the timetable. There is one from King’s Cross that will
get me into York at seven this evening.”
“I’ll meet you at the station. What happened? Did you and Duraid have a
tiff? Old enough to be your father. I said it wouldn’t work.”
Royan was silent for a moment. This was hardly the time for
explanations. “I’ll tell you all about it when I see you this evening.”
Georgina Lumley, her mother, was waiting on the platform in the gloom
and cold of the November evening, bulky and solid in her old green
Barbour coat with Magic, her cocker spaniel, sitting obediently at her
feet. The two of them made an inseparable pair, even when they were not
winning field trials cups. For Royan they painted a comforting and
familiar picture of the English side of her lineage.
Georgina kissed Royan’s cheek in a perfunctory manner. “Never was one
for all that sentimental fiddle, faddle,” she often said with
satisfaction, and she took one of Royan’s bags and led the way to the
old mud-splattered Land Rover in the car park.
Magic sniffed Royan’s hand and wagged his tail in recognition. Then in a
dignified and condescending manner he allowed her to pat his head, but
like his mistress he was no great sentimentalist either.
. They drove in silence for a while and Georgina lit a cigarette. “So
what happened to Duraid, then?”
For a minute Royan could not reply, and then the floodgates within her
burst and she let it all come pouring out. It was a twenty-minute drive
north of York to the little village of Brandsbury, and Royan talked all
Her mother made only small sounds of encouragement and comfort, and when
Royan wept as she related the details of Duraid’s death and funeral,
Georgina reached across and patted her daughter’s hand.
It was all over by the time they reached her mother’s cottage in the
village. Royan had cried it out and was dryeyed and rational again as
they ate the dinner that her mother had prepared and left in the oven
for them. Royan could not remember when last she had tasted steak and
“So what are you going to do now?” Georgina asked as she poured what
remained in the black bottle of Guinness into her own glass.
“To tell the truth, I don’t know.” As she said it, Royan wondered
ruefully why so many people used that particular phrase to introduce a
lie. “I have six months’ leave from the museum, and Prof Dixon has
arranged for me to give a lecture at the university. That is as far as
it goes for the moment.”
“Well,” said Georgina as she stood up, “there is a hotwater bottle in
your bed and your room is there for as long as you wish to stay.” From
her that was as good as a passionate declaration of maternal love.
Over the next few days Royan arranged her slides and notes for the
lectures, and each afternoon she accompanied Georgina and Magic on their
long walks over the surrounding countryside.
“Do you know Quenton Park?” she asked her mother during one of these
“Rather,” Georgina replied enthusiastically. “Magic and I pick up there
four or five times a season. First-class shoot. Some of the best
pheasant and woodcock in Yorkshire. One drive there called the High
Larches which is notorious. Birds so high they baffle the best shots in
“Do you know the owner, Sir Nicholas Quenton Harper?” Royan asked.
“Seen him at the shoots. Don’t know him. Good shot, though,” Georgina
replied. “Knew his papa in the old days before I married your father.”
She smiled in a suggestive way that startled Royan. “Good dancer. We
danced a few jigs together, not only on the dance floor.”
“Mummy, you are outrageous!’Royan laughed.
“Used to be,” Georgina agreed readily. “Don’t get many opportunities
“When are you and Magic going to Quenton Park again?”
“Two weeks’ time.”
“May I come with you?”
“Of course – the keeper is always looking for beaters.
Twenty quid and lunch with a bottle of beer for the day.” She stopped
and looked at her daughter quizzically. “What is all this about, then?”
“I hear there is a private museum on the estate. They have a
world-renowned Egyptian collection. I wanted to get a look at it.”
“Not open to the public any more. Invitation only. Sir Nicholas is an
odd chap, secretive and all that.”
“Couldn’t you get an invitation for me?” Royan asked, but Georgina shook
“Why don’t you ask Prof Dixon? He is often one of the guns at Quenton
Park. Great chum of Quenton-Harper.”
It was ten days before Prof Dixon was ready for her. She borrowed her
mother’s Land Rover and drove to Leeds. The Prof folded her in a bear
hug and then took her through to his office for tea.
It was nostalgic of her days as a student to be back in the cluttered
room filled with books and papers and ancient artefacts. Royan told him
about Duraid’s murder, and Dixon was shocked and distressed, but she
quickly changed the subject to the slides that she had prepared for the
lecture. He was fascinated by’everything she had to show him.
It was almost time for her to leave before she had an opportunity to
broach the subject of the Quenton Park museum, but he responded
“I am amazed that you never visited it while you were a student here.
It’s a very impressive collection. The family has been at it for over a
hundred years. As a matter of fact, I am shooting on the estate next
Thursday. I’ll have a word with Nicholas. However, the poor chap isn’t
up to much at the moment. Last year he suffered a terrible “personal
tragedy. Lost his wife and two little girls in a motor accident on the
MU He shook his head. “Awful business. Nicholas was driving. I think he
blames himself’ He walked her out to the Land Rover.
“So we will see you on the twenty-third,” he told Royan as they parted.
“I expect that you will have an audience of at least a hundred, and I
have even had a reporter from the Yorkshire Post on to me. They have
heard about your lectures and they want to do an interview with you.
jolly good publicity for the department. You’ll do it, of course. Could
you come a couple of hours early to speak to them?”
“Actually I will probably see you before the twenty-third,” she told
him. “Mummy and her dog are picking up at Quenton Park on Thursday, and
she has got me a job as a beater for the day.”
“I’ll keep an eye open for you,” he promised, and waved to her as she
pulled away in a cloud of exhaust smoke.
The wind was searing cold out of the north.
The clouds tumbled over each other, heavy 6- and blue and grey, so close
to earth that they brushed the crests of the hills as they hurried ahead
of the gale.
Royan wore three layers of clothing under the old green Barbour jacket
that Georgina had lent her, but still she shivered as they came up over
the brow of the hills in the line of beaters. Her blood had thinned in
the heat of the Nile valley. Two pairs of fisherman’s socks were not
enough to save her toes from turning numb.
For this drive, the last of the day, the head keeper had moved Georgina
from her usual position behind the line of guns, where she and Magic
were expected to pick up the crippled birds that came through to them,
into the line of beaters.
Keeping the best for last, they were beating the High Larches. The
keeper needed every man and woman he could get into the line to bring in
the pheasant from the huge piece of ground on top of the hills and to
push them off the brow, out over the valley where the guns waited at
their pegs far below.
It seemed to Royan a supreme piece of illogical behaviour to rear and
nurture the pheasants from chicks I and then, when they were mature, go
to such lengths to make them as difficult to shoot as the keeper could
However, Georgina had explained to her that the higher and harder to hit
the birds passed over the guns, the more pleased the Sportsmen were, and
the more they were willing to pay for the privilege of firing at them.
“You cannot believe what they will pay for a day’s shooting,, Georgina
had told her. “Today will bring in almost 14,000 to the estate. They
will shoot twenty days this season. Work that out and you will see that
the shoot is a major part of the estate’s income. Quite apart from the
fun of working the dogs and beating, it gives a lot of us local people a
very useful bit of extra money.”
At this stage of the day, Royan was not too certain just how much fun
there was to he had from the job of beating. The walking was difficult
in the thick brambles, and Royan had slipped more than once. There was
mud on her knees and elbows. The ditch ahead of her was half filled with
water and there was a thin skin of ice across the surface. She
approached it gingerly, using her walking-stick to balance herself. She
was tired, for there had already been five drives, all as onerous as
this one. She glanced across at her mother and marvelled at how she
seemed to be enjoying this torture. Georgina strode along happily,
controlling Magic with her whistle and hand signals.
She grinned at Royan now, “Last lap, over.” love. early Royan was
humiliated that her distress had-been so obvious, and she used her stick
to help her vault the muddy ditch. However, she miscalculated the width
and fell short of the far bank. She landed knee-deep in the frozen water
and it poured in over the top of her Wellington boots.
Georgina laughed at her and offered her the end of her Own stick to pull
her out of the glutinous mud. Royan could not hold up the line by
stopping to empty her flooded boots, so she went on, squelching loudly
with each pace.
“Steady on the left! the order from the head keeper was relayed over the
walkie-talkie radio, and the line halted obediently.
The art and skill of the keeper was to flush the birds from the tangled
undergrowth, not in one massed covey, but in a steady trickle that would
pass over the waiting guns in singles and pairs, giving them the chance,
after they had fired two barrels, to take their second gun from the
loader and be ready for the next bird to appear in the sky high above
them. The size of the keeper’s tip and his reputation depended on the
way he “showed’ the birds to the waiting guns.
During this respite Royan was able to regain her breath, and to look
around her. Through a break in the branches that gave the drive its
name, she could see down into the valley.
There was an open meadow at the foot of the hills, the expanse of smooth
green grass broken up by patches of dirty grey snow from the previous
week’s fall. Down this meadow the keeper had set a line of numbered
pegs. At the beginning of the day’s sport the guns had drawn lots to
decide the peg number from which each of them would shoot.
Now each man stood “at his allotted peg, with his loader holding his
second gun ready behind him, ready to pass it over when the first gun
was empty. They were all looking up expectantly to the high ground from
which the pheasant would appear.
“Which is Sir Nicholas?” Royan called to her mother, and Georgina
pointed to the far end of the line of guns.
“The tall one,” she said, and at that moment the keeper’s voice on the
radio ordered, “Gently on the left.
Start tapping again.” Obediently the beaters tapped their sticks. There
was no shouting or hallooing in this delicate and strictly controlled
“Forward slowly. Halt to the flush of birds.”
A step at a time the line moved ahead, and in the brambles and bracken
in front of her Royan could hear the stealthy scuffle of a number of
pheasants moving forward, reluctant to take to the air until they were
forced to do so.
There was another ditch in their path, this one choked with an almost
impenetrable, thicket of brambles. Some of the larger dogs, like the
Labradors, balked at entering such a thorny barrier. Georgina whistled
sharply and Magic’s ears went up. He was soaked and his coat was a
matted mess of mud and buffs and thorns. His pink tongue lolled from the
corner of his grinning mouth and the sodden stump of his tail was
wagging merrily. At that moment he was the happiest dog in England. He
was doing the work that he had been bred for.
“Come on, Magic,” Georgina ordered. “Get in there.
Get them out.”
Magic dived into the thickest and thorniest patch, and disappeared
completely from view. There was a minute of snuffling and rooting around
in the depths of the ditch, and then a fierce cackle and flurry of
A pair of birds exploded out of the bushes. The hen led the way. She was
a drab, nondescript creature the size of a domestic fowl, but the cock
bird that followed her closely was magnificent. His head was capped with
iridescent green and his cheeks and wattles were scarlet. His tail,
barred in cinnamon and black, was almost as long again as his body and
the rest of his plumage was a riot of gorgeous colour.
As he climbed he sparkled against the lowering grey sky like a priceless
jewel thrown from an emperor’s hand.
Royan gasped with the beauty of the sight.
“Just look at them go!’Georgina’s voice was thick with excitement. “What
a pair of crackerjacks. The best pair today. My bet is that not one of
the guns will touch a feather on either of them.”
Up, and then on up, the two birds climbed, the hen drawing the cock
after her, until suddenly the wind boiling over the hills like
overheated milk caught them both and flung them away, out over the
The line of beaters enjoyed the moment. They had worked hard for it.
Their voices were tiny and faint on the wind as they urged the birds on.
They loved to see a pheasant so high and fast that it could beat the
“Forward!” they exulted. “over! and this time the line came
involuntarily to a halt as they followed the flight of the pair that
were twisting away on the wind.
In the valley bottom the faces of the guns were turned upwards, pale
specks against the green background. Their trepidation was almost
palpable as they watched the pheasant reach their maximum speed, so that
they could no longer beat their wings, but locked them into a back-swept
profile as they began to drop down into the valley.
This was the most difficult shot that any gun would face. A high pair of
pheasant with a half gale quartering from behind, dropping into the shot
at their terminal rate of flight, set to pass over the line at the
extreme effective range of a twelve-bore shotgun. For the men below it
was a calculation of speed “and lead in all three dimensions of space.
The best of shots might hope to take one of them, but who would dare to
think of both?
“A pound on it!” Georgina called. “A pound that they both get through.”
But none of the beaters who heard her accepted the wager.
The wind was pushing the birds gently sideways. They started off aimed
at the centre of the line, but they were drifting towards the far end.
As the angle changed, Royan could see the men at the pegs below her
brace themselves in turn as the birds appeared to be heading straight
for them, and then relax as the wind moved them on. Their relief was
evident as, one after the other, each of them was absolved from the
challenge of having to make such an impossible shot with all eyes
fastened upon him.
In the end only the tall figure at the extreme end of the line stood in
their flight path.
“Your bird, sir,” one of the other guns called mockingly, and Royan
found that instinctively she was holding her breath with anticipation.
Nicholas Quenton-Harper seemed unaware of the approach of the pair of
pheasant. He stood completely relaxed, his tall frame slouching
slightly, his shotgun tucked under his right arm with the muzzles
pointing at the ground.
At the moment that the leading hen bird reached a point in the sky sixty
degrees ut ahead of him he moved for the first time. With casual grace
he swung the shotgun up in a sweeping arc. At the instant that the butt
touched I I his cheek and shoulder he fired, but the gun never stopped
moving and went on to describe the rest of the arc.
The distance delayed the sound of the shot reaching I Royan. She saw the
barrels kick with the recoil, and a pale spurt of blue smoke from the
muzzle. Then Nicholas lowered the gun as the hen suddenly threw back her
head and closed her wings. There was no burst of feathers from her body,
for she had been hit cleanly in the head and killed instantly. As she
began the long plummet to earth Royan heard the thud of the shot.
By then the cock was high over Nicholas’s head. This time as he mounted
the gun in that casual sweeping gesture he arched his back to point
upwards, his long frame bending from the waist like a drawn bow. Once
again at the apex of the swing the weapon kicked in his grasp.
“He has missed!” Royan thought with a mixture of satisfaction and
disappointment, as the cock sailed on seemingly unscathed. Part of her
wanted the beautiful bird to escape, while part of her wanted the man to
Gradually the profile of the high cock altered as the wings folded back
and it rolled over in flight. Royan had no way of knowing that his heart
had been struck through, until seconds later he died in mid-air and the
locked wings lost their rigid set.
As the cock tumbled to earth, a spontaneous chorus of heers ran down
the line of beaters, faint but enthusiastic on the icy north wind. Even
the other guns added their voices with cries of, “Oh, good shot, sir!’
Royan did not join in the cheering, but for the moment her fatigue and
cold were forgotten. She could only vaguely appreciate the skill that
those two shots had called for, but she was impressed, even a little
awed. Her very first glimpse of the man had fulfilled all the
expectations that Duraid’s stories about him had raised in her.
By the time the last drive ended it was almost dark.
An old army truck came mbling down the track through ru the forest along
which the tired beaters and their dogs waited. As it slowed they
scrambled up into the back.
Georgina gave Royan a boost from behind before she and Magic followed
her up. They settled thankfully on one of the long hard benches, and
Georgina lit a cigarette as she joined, in the chat and banter of the
under-keepers and beaters around her.
Royan sat silently at the end of the bench, enjoying the sense of
achievement at having come through such a strenuous day. She felt tired
and relaxed, and strangely contented. For one whole day she had not
thought either of the theft of the scroll or of Duraid’s murder and the
unknown and unseen enemy who threatened her with aviolent death.
The truck ground down the hill and slowed as it reached the bottom,
pulling in to the verge to let a green Range Rover pass. As the two
vehicles drew level, Royan turned her head and looked down into the open
driver’s window of the expensive estate car, and into the eyes of
Nicholas Quenton Harper at the wheel.
This was the first time she had been close enough to him to see his
features. She was surprised at how young he was. She had expected him to
be a man of Duraid’s age.
She saw now that he was no older than forty, for there were only the
first strands of silver in the wings of his thick, rumpled hair. His
features were tanned and weatherbeaten, those of an outdoors man. His
eyes were green and penetrating under dark, beetling brows. His mouth
was wide and expressive, and he was smiling now at some witticism that
the driver of the truck called to him in a thick Yorkshire accent, but
there was a sense of sadness and tragedy in the eyes. Royan remembered
what the Prof had told her of his recent bereavement, and she felt her
heart go out to him. She was not alone in her loss and her mourning.
He looked directly into her eyes and she saw his expression change. She
was an attractive woman, and she could tell when a man recognized that.
She had made an impression on him, but she did not enjoy the fact. Her
sorrow for Duraid was still too raw and painful. She looked away and the
Range Rover drove on.
Her lecture at the university went off extremely well. Royan was a good
speaker and she knew her subject intimately. She held them fascinated
with her account of the opening of the tomb_of Queen Lostris and of the
subsequent discovery of the scrolls. Many of her audience had read the
book, and during question time they pestered her to know how much of it
was the truth. She had to tread very carefully here, so as not to deal
too harshly with the author.
Afterwards Prof Dixon took Royan and Georgina to dinner. He was
delighted with her success, and ordered the most expensive bottle of
claret on the wine list to celebrate.
He was only mildly disconcerted when she refused a glass of it.
“Oh, dear me, I forgot that you were a Moslem,” he apologized.
“A Copt,” she corrected him, “and it’s not on religious grounds. I just
don’t like the taste.”
“Don’t worry,” Georgina counselled him, “I don’t have the same odd
compulsion to masochism as my daughter.
She must get it from her father’s side. I’ll give you a hand to finish
the good stuff.”
Under the benign influence of the claret the Prof became expansive, and
entertained them with the accounts of the archaeological digs he had
been on over the decades.
It was only over the coffee that he turned to Royan.
“Goodness me, I almost forgot to tell you. I have arranged for you to
visit the museum at Quenton Park any afternoon this week. just ring Mrs.
Street the day before, and she will be waiting to let you in. She is
Ryan remembered the way to Quenton Park when Georgina had driven them
to the shoot, but now she was alone in the Land Rover. The massive main
gates to the estate were made of ornate cast iron. A little further on,
the road divided and a cluster of road signs pointed the way to the
various destinations: “Quenton Hall, Private’, “Estate Office’ and
The road to the museum curved through the deer park where herds of
fallow deer grazed under the winter’bare oaks. Through the misty
landscape she had glimpses of the big house. According to the guidebook
that the Prof had given her, Sir Christopher Wren had designed the house
in 1693, and the master landscapist, Capability Brown, had created the
gardens sixty years later. The results were perfection.
The museum was set in a grove of copper beech trees half a mile beyond
the house. It was a sprawling building that had obviously been added to
more than once over the years. Mrs. Street was waiting for her at the
side door, and introduced herself as she let Royan in. She was middle
aged, grey-haired and self-assured. “I was at your lecture on Monday
evening. Fascinating! I have a guidebook for you, but you will find the
exhibits well catalogued and described.
I have spent almost twenty years at the job. There are no other visitors
today. You will have the place to yourself.
You must just wander around and please yourself. I shall not leave until
five this evening, so you have all afternoon.
If I can help you in any way my office is at the end of the passage.
Please don’t hesitate.”
From the first moment that Royan walked into the display of African
mammals she was enthralled. The primate room housed a complete
collection of every single species of ape and monkey from that
continent: from the great ilver-backed male gorilla to the delicate
colobus in his long flowing mantle of black and white fur, they were all
Although some of the exhibits were over a hundred years old, they were
beautifully preserved and presented, set in painted dioramas of their
natural habitat. It was obvious that the museum must employ a staff of
skilled artists and taxidermists. She could guess what this must have
cost. Wryly she decided that the five million’dollars from the sale of
the plundered treasure had been well spent.
She went through to the antelope room and stared around her in wonder at
the magnificent beasts preserved here. She stopped before a diorama of a
family group of the giant sable antelope of the now extinct Angolan
variety, Hippotragus niger variant. While she admired the jet black and
snowy-chested bull with his long, back-swept horns, she mourned his
death at the hand of one of the Quenton, Harper family. Then she checked
herself. Without the strange dedication and passion of the
hunter-collector who had killed him, future generations might never have
been able to look upon this regal presence.
She passed on into the next hall which was given over to displays of the
African elephant, and paused in the centre of the room before a pair of
ivory tusks so large that she could not believe they had ever been
carried by a living animal. They seemed more like the marble columns of
some Hellenic temple to Diana, the goddess of the chase.
She stooped to read the printed catalogue card:
Tusks of the African Elephant, Loxodonta africana.
Shot in the Lado Enclave in 1899 by Sir Jonathan Quenton-Harper. Left
tusk 289 lb. Right tusk 301 lb. Length of larger tusk 11′ 4′. Girth 32″.
The largest pair of tusks ever taken by a European hunter.
They stood twice as high as she was tall, and they were half as thick
again as her waist. As she passed on into the Egyptian room
she-marvelled at the size and strength of the creature that had carried
She came up short as her eyes fell upon the figure in the centre of the
room. It was a fifteen-foot-high figure of Rarnesses 11, depicted as the
god Osiris in polished red granite. The god-emperor strode out on
muscular legs, wearing only sandals on his feet and a short kilt. In his
left hand he carried the remains of a warlbow, with both the upper and
lower limbs of the weapon broken off. This was the only damage that the
statue had suffered in all those thousands of years. The rest of it was
perfect – the plinth even bore the marks of the mason’s chisel. In his
right fist Pharaoh carried a seal embossed with his royal cartouche.
Upon his majestic head he wore the tall double crown of the upper and
lower kingdoms. His expression was calm and enigmatic.
Royan recognized the statue instantly, for its twin i stood in the grand
hall of the Cairo museum. She passed it every day on her way to her
She felt anger rising in her. This was one of the major treasures of her
very Egypt. It had been plundered and stolen from one of her country’s
sacred sites. It did not belong here. It belonged on the banks of the
great river Nile. She felt herself shaking with the strength of her
emotion as she went forward to examine the statue more closely and to
read the hieroglyphic inscription on the base.
The royal cartouche stood out in the centre of the arrogant warning: “I
am the divine Ramesses, master of ten thousand chariots – Fear me, of ye
enemies of Egypt.”
Royan had not read the translation aloud; it was a soft, deep voice
close behind her that spoke, startling her. She had not heard anyone
approaching. She spun round to find him standing close enough to touch.
His hands were thrust into the pockets of a shapeless blue cardigan.
There was a hole in one elbow. He wore faded denim jeans over well’worn
but monogrammed velvet carpet slippers – the type of genteel shabbiness
that certain Englishmen often cultivate, for it would never do to seem
too concerned with one’s appearance.
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to startle you,” He smiled eazy.
‘le of apology, and his teeth were very white but slightly “t smi
crooked. Suddenly his expression changed as he recognized her.
“Oh, it’s you.” She should have been flattered that he remembered her
from so fleeting a contact, but there was that flash of something in his
eyes again that offended her.
Nevertheless, she could not refuse the hand he offered her.
“Nick Quenton-Harper,” he introduced himself. “You must be Percival
Dixon’s old student. I think I saw you at the shoot last Thursday.
Weren’t you beating for us?”
His manner was friendly and forthright, so she felt her hackles
subsiding as she responded, “Yes. I am Royan Al Simma. I think you knew
my husband, Duraid Al Simma.”
“Duraid! Of course, I know him. Grand old fellow. We spent a lot of time
in the desert together. One of the very best. How is he?”
“He’s dead.” She had not meant it to sound so bald and heartless, but
then there was no other reply she could think of.
“I am so terribly sorry. I didn’t know. When and how did it happen?”
“Very recently, three weeks ago. He was murdered.
“Oh, my God.” She saw the sympathy in his eyes, and she remembered that
he also had suffered. “I telephoned him in Cairo not more than four
months ago. He was his old charming self Have they found the person who
She shook her head and looked around the hall to avoid having to -face
him and let him see that her eyes were wet. “You have an extraordinary
He accepted the change of subject at once. Thanks mostly to my
grandfather. He was on the staff of Evelyn Baring – Over Bearing, as his
numerous enemies called him. He was the British man in . Cairo during-‘
She cut him short. “Yes, I have heard of Evelyn Baring, the first Earl
of Cromer, British Consul-General of Egypt from 1883 to 1907. With his
plenipotentiary powers he was the unchallenged dictator of my country
for all that period. Numerous enemies, as you say.”
Nicholas’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Percival warned me you were one of
his best students. He didn’t, however, warn me of your strong
nationalistic feelings. It is clear that you didn’t need me to translate
the Ramesses inscription for you.”
“My own father was on the staff of Gama! Abdel Nasser,” she murmured.
Nasser was the man who had toppled the puppet King Farouk and finally
broken the British power in Egypt. As president he had nationalized the
Suez Canal in the face of British outrage.
“HaV he chuckled. “Different sides of the track. But things have
changed. I hope we don’t have to be enemies?”
“Not at all,” she agreed. “Duraid held you in the highest esteem.”
“As I did him.” He changed the subject again. “We ar very proud of our
collection of royal ushabd Examples from the tomb of every pharaoh from
the old Kingdom onwards, right up to the last of the Ptolemys. Please
let me show it to you.” She followed him to the huge display case that
occupied one complete wall of the hall. It was lined with shelf after
shelf of the doll-like figures which had been placed in the tombs to act
as servants and slaves for the dead kings in the shadow world.
With his own key Nicholas opened the glazed doors of the case and
reached up to bring down the most interesting of the exhibits. “This is
the ushabd of Maya who served under three pharaohs, Tutankhamen, Ay and
It is from the -tomb of Ay who died in 1343 Bc.”
He handed the doll to her and she read aloud the three thousand-year-old
hieroglyphics as easily as though they had been the headlines of that
“I am Maya, Treasurer of the two Kingdoms. I will answer for the divine
Pharaoh Ay. May he live for ever!” She spoke in Arabic to test him, and
his reply in the same language was fluent and colloquial, “It seems that
Percival Dixon told me the truth. You must have been an exceptional
Engrossed now in their common interest, speaking alternately Arabic and
English, the initial sharp prickles.of antagonism between them were
dulled. They moved slowly round the hall, lingering before each display
case to handle and examine minutely each object that it contained.
It was as though they were transported back over the millennia. Hours
and days seemed of no consequence in the face of such antiquity, and so
it startled both of them when Mrs. Street returned to interrupt them, “I
am off now, Sir Nicholas. Can I leave it to you to lock up and set the
alarm? The security guards are on duty already.”
“What time is it?”Nicholas answered his own question by glancing at the
stainless steel Rolex Submariner on his wrist. “Five-forty already, what
on earth happened to the day?” He sighed theatrically. “Off you go, Mrs.
Street. Sorry we kept you so long.”
“Don’t forget to set the alarm,” she warned him, and then to Royan, “He
can be so absent-minded when he is off on one of his hobby-horses.” Her
fondness towards her employer was obviously that of an indulgent aunt.
“You’ve given me enough orders for one day. Off you go,” Nicholas
grinned, as he turned back to Royan. “Can’t let you go without showing
you something that Duraid.”was in on with me. Can you stay for a few
minutes longer?” She nodded and he reached out as if to take her arm,
and then dropped his hand. In the Arab world it is insulting to touch a
woman, even in such a casual manner. She was aware of the courtesy, and
she warmed to his good manners and easy style a little more.
He led her out of the exhibition halls through a door marked “Private.
Staff Only’, and down a long corridor to the room at the end.
The inner sanctum.” He ushered her in. “Excuse the mess’. I must really
get around to tidying up in here one of these years. My wife used to-‘
He broke off abruptly, and he glanced at the silver-framed photograph of
a family group on his desk. Nicholas and a beautiful dark-haired woman
sat on a picnic rug under the spreading branches of an oak. There were
two little girls with them and the family resemblance to the mother was
strong in both of them. The youngest child sat on Nicholas’s lap while
the elder girl stood behind them, holding the reins of her Shetland
pony. Royan glanced sideways at him and saw the devastating sorrow in
So as not to embarrass him she looked around the rest of the room, which
was obviously his study and workshop.
It was spacious and comfortable, a man’s room, but it illustrated the
contradictions of his character – the bookish scholar set against the
man of action. Amongst the muddle of books and museum specimens lay
fishing reels and a Hardy split cane salmon rod. On a row of wall hooks
hung a Barbour jacket, a canvas shotgun slip and a leather cartridge bag
embossed with the initials ..-.
She recognized some of the framed pictures on the walls. They were
original nineteenth-century watercolours by the Scottish traveller David
Roberts, and others by Vivant Denon who had accompanied Napoleon’s
L’armie de I’Orient to Egypt. They were fascinating views of the
monuments drawn before the excavations and restorations of more modern
Nicholas went to the fireplace and threw a log on the fading coals. He
kicked it until it flared up brightly and then beckoned her to stand in
front of the floor-to-ceiling curtains that covered half of one wall.
With a conjuror’s flourish he pulled the tasselled cord that opened the
curtains and exclaimed with satisfaction, ”
“What do you make of that, then?”
She studied the magnificent has-relief frieze that was mounted on the
wall. The detail was beautiful and the rendition magnificent, but she
did not let her admiration show. Instead she gave her opinion in offhand
“Sixth King of the Amorite dynasty, Hammurabi, about 1780 Bc,” she said,
pretending to study the finely chiselled features of the ancient monarch
before she went on, “Yes, probably from his palace site south-west of
the ziggurat at Ashur. There should have been a pair of these friezes.
They are worth in the region of five million US dollars each. My guess
is that they were stolen from the saintly ruler of modern Mesopotamia,
Saddam Hussein, by two unprincipled rogues. I hear that the other one of
the pair is at present in the collection of a certain Mr Peter Walsh in
He stared at her in astonishment, and then burst out laughing. “Damn it!
I swore’Duraid to secrecy but he must have told you about our naughty
little escapade.” It was the first time she had heard him laugh. It
seemed to come naturally to his lips and she -liked the sound of it,
hearty and unaffected.
“You are right about the present owner of the second frieze,” he told
her, still laughing. “But the price was six million, not five.”
“Duraid also told me about your visit to the Tibesti Massif in Chad and
southern Libya,” she remarked, and he shook his head in mock contrition.
‘it seems I have no secrets from you.” He went to a tall armoire against
the opposite wall. It was a magnificent piece of marquetry furniture,
probably seventeenth-century French. He opened the double doors and
said, “This is what Duraid and I brought back from Libya, without the
consent of Colonel Muammar al Gadaffi.”He took down one of the exquisite
little bronzes and handed it to her. It was the figure of a mother
nursing her infant, and it had a green patina of age.
“Hannibal, son of Hamilcar Barca,” he said, “about 203 BC. These were
found by a band of Tuareg at one of his old camps on the Bagradas river
in North Africa.
Hannibal must have cached them there before his defeat by the Roman
general Scipio. There were over two hundred bronzes in the hoard, and I
still have fifty of the best of them.”
“You sold the rest of them?” she asked, as she admired the statuette.
There was disapproval in her tone as she went on, “How could you bear to
part with something so beautiful?”
He sighed unhappily, “Had to, I am afraid. Very sad, but the expedition
to retrieve them cost me a fortune. Had to cover expenses by selling
some of the booty.”
He went to his desk and brought out a bottle of Laphroaig malt whisky
from the bottom drawer. He placed the bottle on the desk top and set two
glasses beside it.
“Can I tempt you?” he asked, but she shook her head.
“Don’t blame you. Even the Scots themselves admit that this brew should
only be drunk in sub-zeiro weather on The Hill, in a forty-knot gale,
after stalking and shooting a ten-point stag. May I offer you something
a little more ladylike?”
Do you have a Coke?” she suggested.
Yes, but that is really bad for you, even worse than Laphroaig. It’s all
that sugar. Absolute poison.”
She took the glass he brought to her and returned his toast with it.
“To life!” she agreed, and then she went on, “You are right. Duraid did
tell me about these.” She replaced the Punic bronze in the armoire, then
came to face him at the desk. “It was also Duraid who sent me to see
you. It was his dying instruction to me.”
“Aha! So none of this is coincidence then. It seems I am the unwitting
pawn in some deep and nefarious plot.” He pointed to the chair facing
his desk. “Sit!” he ordered “Tell!’
He perched above her on the corner of the desk, with the whisky glass in
his right hand and with one long, denim-clad leg swinging lazily as the
tail of a resting leopard. Though he was smiling quizzically, he watched
her face with a penetrating green gaze. She thought that it would be
difficult to lie to this man.
She took a deep breath, “Have you heard of an ancient Egyptian queen
called Lostris, of the second intermediate period, coexistent with the
first Hyksos invasions?”
He laughed a little derisively and stood up, “Oh! Now we are talking
about the book River God, are we?” He went to the bookcase and brought
down a copy. Although well thumbed, it was still in its dust-jacket, and
the cover illustration was a dreamy surrealistic view in pastel shades
of green and rose purple of the pyramids seen over water.
He dropped it on the desk in front of her.
“Have you read it?” she asked.
“Yes,” he nodded. “I read most of Wilbur Smith’s stuff.
He amuses me. He has shot here at Quenton Park a couple of times.”
“You like lots of sex and violence in your reading, obviously?” She
pulled a face. “What did you think of this particular book?”
“I must admit that he had me fooled. Whilst I was reading it, I sort of
wished that it might be based on fact.
That was why I phoned Duraid.” Nicholas picked up the book again and
flipped to the end of it. “The author’s note was convincing, but what I
couldn’t get out of my mind was the last sentence.” He read it aloud.
“‘Sanwwhere in the Abyssinian mountains near the source of the Blue
Nile, the mummy of Tenus still lies in the unviolated tomb of Pharaoh
Almost angrily Nicholas threw the book down on the desk. “My God! You
will never know how much I wanted it to be true. You will never know how
much I wanted a shot at Pharaoh Mamose’s tomb. I had to speak to Duraid.
When he assured me it was all a load of bunkum, I felt cheated. I had
built up my expectations so high that I was bitterly disappointed.”
“It’s not bunkum,” she contradicted him, and then corrected herself
quickly, “well, at least not all of it.”
“I see. Duraid was lying to me, was he?”
“Not lying,” she defended him hotly. “Just delaying the truth a little.
He wasn’t ready to tell you the whole story then. He didn’t have the
answers to all the questions that he knew you would ask. He was going to
come to you when he was ready. Your name was at the top of the list of
potential sponsors that he had drawn up.”
“Duraid did not have the answers, but I suppose you do?” He was smiling
sceptically. was caught once. I am not likely to fall for the same cock
and bull a second time.”
“The scrolls exist. Nine of them are still in the, vaults at the Cairo
museum. I was the one who discovered them in the tomb of Queen Lostris.”
Royan opened her leather sling bag and rummaged around in it until she
brought out a thin sheaf of glossy 6 4 colour photographs. She selected
one and passed it to him. That is a shot of the rear wall of the tomb.
You can just make out the alabaster jars in the niche. That was taken
before we removed them.”
“Nice picture, but it could have been taken anywhere.” She ignored the
remark and passed him another photograph. The ten scrolls in Duraid’s
workroom at the museum. You recognize the two men standing behind the
He nodded. “Duraid and Wilbur Smith.” His sceptical expression had
turned to one of doubt and bemusement.
“What the hell are you trying to tell me?”
“What the hell I am trying to tell you is that, apart from a wide poetic
licence that the author took unto himself, all that he- wrote in the
book has at least some foundation in the truth. However, the scroll that
most concerns us is the seventh, the one that was stolen by the men who
murdered my husband.”
Nicholas stood up and went to the fireplace. He threw on another log and
bashed it viciously with the poker, as if to give release to his
emotions. He spoke without “turning “What was the significance of that
particular scroll around, as opposed to the other nine?”
“It was the one that contained the account of Pharaoh Mamose’s burial
and, we believe, directions that might enable us to find the site of the
“You believe, but you aren’t certain?” He swung around to face her with
the poker gripped like a weapon. In this mood he was frightening. His
mouth was set in a tight hard line and his eyes glittered.
“Large parts of the seventh scroll are written in some sort of code, a
series of cryptic verses. Duraid and I were in the process of
deciphering these when-‘ she broke off and drew a long breath, “when he
“You must have a copy of something so valuable?” He glared at her, so
that she felt intimidated. She shook her head.
“All the microfilm, all our notes, all of it was stolen along with the
original scroll. Then whoever killed Duraid went back to our flat in
Cairo and destroyed my PC on to which I had transposed all our
He threw the poker into the coal scuttle with a clatter, and came back
to the desk. “So you have no evidence at all? Nothing to prove that any
of this is true?”
“Nothing,” she agreed, “except what I have here.” With a long slim
forefinger she tapped her forehead. “I have a good memory.”
He frowned and ran his fingers through his thick curling hair. “And so
why did you come to me?”
“I have come to give you a shot at the tomb of Pharaoh Mamose, she told
him simply. “Do you want it?”