Even at 9 in the morning I was sitting with my face in the fan, wishing Cairo was a little closer to Santa Barbara but grateful for the distance from bill collectors, when she walked into my office. I greeted her and waited. Waiting is always useful for observing. In the dim light of my shuttered windows, I was surprised to see that she was white, since she was wearing a chador. Not something you usually see on a white girl. She hadn't wanted to be seen. Why not? And since I'm a fairly recent arrival and don't really advertise my skills to the American community, I knew she must have spent some effort to find me.
Without sitting down, she spoke abruptly. "I want you to help me. You're a woman, and nobody around here pays any attention to what a woman says or does, so I think you'll be better than a man."
In agreement at least as to her opinion of me, I waited. "I asked around at the University of Cairo where I have friends, and Caroline Marquez gave you a good recommendation." Indeed, I had helped Caroline resolve a slight matter involving a stolen doctoral dissertation.
"My professor has disappeared, and no one believes me. They think the Professor has gone back to the States for more publicity, and that WAS supposed to happen. But there were..." she paused as if to pick her words carefully, "certain items left ...of a personal nature...that would never have been left behind." She did not elaborate. "I know there's been a kidnapping, and perhaps murder. And I know who did it." She sat down, now, heavily. She got very quiet, and I could again hear the vendors in the street below waylaying the tourists with cheap imitations of the Sphinx.
"What do you need me for?" I asked. "If you have evidence, the local police must investigate, even if you are a woman."
She got up and went to the window, looking through the lowered slats. "They won't listen to me because of who did it. It would be a huge scandal and bad for the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities." Noticing my expression, she sighed. "I hoped you would know about them, having dealt with Caroline, but I guess I need to start at the beginning."
I agreed that the beginning is always a helpful place to start. I got out my notepad, and she began to talk.
"Last year, Professor Sanders stumbled, literally, across an undiscovered archaeological site, Gebel Hagg. It's been forever since a brand new site was found, and as you can imagine, there was huge buzz. Everyone wants to work a site like that, but for the discoverer it can be particularly lucrative: for their career, as they do publicity appearances, newspaper articles, and of course peer review journals. The increase in scholarly credibility is huge. It can be the difference between tenure at an Ivy League school and teaching on a semester basis at the community college. Of course Professor Sanders immediately applied for permission to survey and excavate. No one expected any obstacles because the concession already belongs to the University that Professor Sanders works from. But Belac couldn't stand it. He had--"
"Belac is a professor who works for the Sorbonne, in France, although he himself isn't French. Early on in their careers, Belac made some assertions which Professor Sanders disproved. Ever since then, Belac has hated the Professor, and never misses an opportunity to harass, criticize, slander, anything he can. Because he's prominent in the field, sometimes he can even get people to listen. He's been a thorn in the side more times than I can count. Anyway, Belac applied to the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities (the group who oversees all archaeological digs in Egypt) for control of the site. He dragged up some old lies about a former dig and stated that the Professor was unprofessional and incompetent. He said that the Professor is a modern-day Belzoni." She paused, looking at me taking notes. "Belzoni was an explorer in the 1800's who was not, shall we say, overly picky in documenting everything he found, or of who paid for his work and where he shipped the things he found. Very much frowned upon by the Egyptian government, so you can see it's a serious accusation. I worked with the Professor writing a letter to the Council refuting the claim. We were able to keep the site, but only because the Professor has maintained really good relations with the local officials and has had tea with the Council Head once or twice. A good reputation can really make a difference sometimes."
I had tons of questions, but first: "What makes you think that Belac would resort to something so desperate?"
She leaned forward, her eyes lighting up. "The site at Gebel Hagg was extraordinary. Nothing like it had been discovered. It's a graveyard, and not only does it cover almost 500 years of a period about which we know very little in Lower Nubia, all the other contemporary sites have been buried under Lake Nasser for 20 years. It covers the period from the start of Egyptian Colonization of Lower Nubia all the way through the Late New Kingdom. It's the find of a lifetime, and the maker of a star if an excavator wishes to put himself in the spotlight. And Belac does!"
She stood up and, leaning forward towards me, placed her hands flat on my desk. "From the beginning Belac's been arguing with the Professor's conclusions about the site. I think that somehow he has gotten hold of the results of our dig this fall proving that the Professor's conclusions are accurate. Belac won't let it be credited to Professor Sanders if he can help it. Not only is this going to make Professor Sanders as well known as Howard Carter to the public, Belac will have lost face and credibility with the entire archaeological community. It's not impossible that the Sorbonne could even stop his funding. Belac still has friends on the Council who think he should have gotten control of the dig, and who've been watching very closely via the Council official who accompanies all digs. As far as he knows, there's only one copy of the report--it just got finished and archaeologists are required to file their findings with the Council before making the information available to anyone else. If Professor Sanders disappears or otherwise "withdraws" and the report is "lost," Belac will gain control of the dig and can "publish" the findings as his own, claiming to have made the analysis of the artifacts that the Professor was "unable" to do. What no one knows is that I have a copy of the report. I'll do anything I have to to keep him from getting it. He doesn't deserve Gebel Hagg!"
By now she was growling, and I almost expected her to bare her teeth. She stood up straight, turned around and began to pace. "Do you know---that jerk actually took a swing at me when we appeared on the Jerry Springer show to talk about new trends in Egyptology and the Gebel Hagg site came up."
Having watched Jerry Springer a time or two, I wondered what the show had REALLY been about, but said nothing.
Still panting, but a little calmer, she looked at me and gave a small, slightly discomfiting smile. "Good thing I know Aikido. He went right off the stage into the camera." The smile disappeared. " Can you believe he actually came to my room later to try and apologize for his unprofessional"--she used her index fingers to frame the word in quotations--"behavior!"
"Sounds like a gem," I said. "Ok, some questions. Where is Belac now? Is he still in the States? Does he have an obvious alibi? I don't want to investigate someone without cause. After all," I paused, "I have my credibility to protect as well."
"No," she said, "he's back here in Egypt. I just ran into him on the street the other day. He wanted to buy me coffee, again apologizing. I tried to beg off, but he was insistent. I think he likes me. I told him I'm involved with someone, but I don't think it helped. Anyway, he was full of questions about the site and what we've found, etc. I didn't tell him too much, but I could tell the wheels were turning. The last thing he said was, 'Well, best of luck. After all, "there's many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip." When I asked him what he meant, he just smiled and said it was an old English phrase. Then he left, and I went on to the dig."
"When did you last see the Professor?" I asked.
"We had dinner two nights ago. We were celebrating the end of the season, and the great stuff we'd got so far. We both know that we'll be working together for a long time, and that's good news for both of us. We've been friends for some years, since I first took a class as an undergraduate. After dinner, we both went to our rooms to finish packing. We were supposed to eat breakfast together and go to the airport, but I ate alone. When I didn't hear anything and it came time to leave, I went upstairs. No one was in the room, but everything was still there, unpacked. I've checked everywhere. No one has seen or talked to, or had any contact from the Professor. I can't think of anyone else to ask," she sighed, and leaned against the wall.
I had been thinking while she talked, and I already had a few people I'd like to ask questions. "Write down the names, titles, addresses and telephones of everyone you can think of related to the dig or who knows the Professor, anyone who might have heard from him. Include family or friends in the States if you know any." After a few minutes, she handed me a surprisingly long list. Seeing my look, she said quickly, "When you work a dig together, everybody gets really close. And as I said, we've been friends for some time."
"Sure, I know how it goes. Leave me a copy of the report and the other paperwork. I have a safe I'll keep them in, so you can put your mind at ease about that. I will make some calls and snoop around and find out what I can. I'll try to give you a call later."
She handed over the papers, and headed to the door. She turned in the doorway, and with tears in her eyes, said, "Please hurry. I don't know if there's a chance it's still just a kidnapping, but I know if too much time goes by, it will be a murder for sure. I don't mean to be melodramatic, but without official help, Professor Hawkins' life is hanging upon you."
"Don't worry," I said. "I will follow up immediately, and as soon as I get anything, we'll go to the police. Go on, now, and let me get to work." She left, and I picked up the final report. What could be so important it would be worth killing for, I wondered? Then I remembered other work I'd done, and knew it could be almost anything, depending on the person. I put it in the safe, and turned to the telephone. I made an emergency appointment with the Council Head (whom I had neglected to state I knew myself). I asked my questions. I got some very enlightening answers, including the name of Belac's hotel. I went and talked to the concierge. For a substantial investment into his son's Student Exchange with the U.S. Fund, I found out that Belac had had a meeting 3 nights earlier with a woman and been overheard. Gebel Hagg had been mentioned numerous times, as had Professor Sanders and how undeserved it was that Belac didn't have the dig.
Next, to the hotel Professor Sanders stayed in, to look at the room. Whatever those things "of a personal nature" were, I didn't see anything fitting the bill. Among other interesting conversation with the desk clerk, I confirmed that the Professor had been seen going upstairs two nights ago, and not since then.
"Oh, shit." I said to myself. Walking out, I hailed a taxi. Holding the report, I directed the taxi to the airport. By the time my chartered plane (boy, was her bill going to be high) landed near Gebel Hagg (near being relative), it was close to sunset. A sense of urgency had grabbed me, and wouldn't let go. If I was right, time was almost up. In the desert, thirst is ever present and one of the ugliest ways to go. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy. Well, ok, maybe on my ex-husband....After asking around, I found a driver to take me to the site.
When I arrived, they were dismantling the last of the camp. Asking to speak with whoever was in charge, I was taken to a short chubby man with bright blue eyes and a cheerful if tired smile, who introduced himself, while wiping his face, as Ass't Professor Adams. Even though twilight was here and dark not far away, it was still hot enough to sweat. The dark brings little relief.
"What can I do for you?" he asked. "I understand it's a matter of some urgency?"
"Yes," I said. "I understand that one of the pyramids you excavated last season is set to be demolished when the road is rebuilt. Is that true?"
He grimaced. "Unfortunately, it is. You would think they would be willing to wait, but oh, no. One season and one season only for that pyramid. We excavated everything, took pictures and video, and sealed it back up. It has a personal interview with a bulldozer tomorrow." He sighed, looking down. "It breaks my heart."
"Could you please take me there? It's extremely important that I see it."
He looked dubious. "It's dark, almost, and the entry is down a passageway. Even with a light, you won't see much. All of our spotlights are packed away."
"I only need to check a few things. It won't take long." I added, "Please, it's important. It could make a huge difference to Professor Sanders."
"Of course, of course. Let me get a flashlight." When we picked our way across the site to the pyramid, I stopped for a moment and just looked at it.
"Not as big as Khufu's, but probably just as impressive to the guy who built it," he said, smiling.
"Yes, they really had a style all of their own, didn't they?" I answered as I hurried down the passageway. At the end, I looked for the marks I was hoping to see. There weren't any. I looked again. I knew they had to be here. There! They had been sanded lightly, not enough to show on the rock, but enough that anyone not REALLY looking would never notice it. "We have to open this tomb. I think the Professor is inside!" I said. "Look at these marks--the seal has been broken and then patched. Please, go get some more help." When the three guys the Professor yelled for came running up, I got out of the way so they could open the door. Inside, on the floor, gagged and bound, was Professor Sanders. "Bring water!" I yelled. Untied and the tape removed, the Professor staggered forward and drank. "Oh, Thank God!" Then she started crying.
The next day, back in Cairo, I called my client. I told her I'd found what we were looking for, and could she come to my office immediately.
"You work fast! I'll be right there." She arrived within 30 minutes. I met her at the door. "Good news," I said as I gestured her toward a chair.
"You found proof Belac did it, didn't you? I knew it! I knew it! Oh, poor Professor Sanders." She made a little moan. "It was too late, wasn't it?"
"Actually, the only person I was too late for is you." She stared at me. "You neglected to tell me a few things. Like the fact that Professor Sanders is a woman. And that you are not only good friends, but have lived together for years. As lovers. You didn't tell me that Professor Sanders had ended the relationship, and that's why you got your own room as of a week ago. " I looked at her, and smiled. "Nothing gets past the desk clerks in Cairo. They don't like lesbians here. Against the religion, you know." I waited, but she said nothing. "You also didn't tell me that you were second in command on the site, and that you would get the concession if something happened to Professor Sanders. Your only competition would be Belac, You couldn't allow the chance that the Council might give control of the site to Belac. After all, you were the only one with a copy of the report. If you could pin Professor Sanders' death on him, you'd be scot free. There was certainly enough hostility that it would be believable. And when the hooplah died down, you could print the findings as if they were your own analysis. YOU invited Belac to your room after the Jerry Springer show--don't you just love concierges--YOU invited Belac to coffee when you 'happened' to run into him, and YOU invited yourself back to his room, talking about Gebel Hagg all the way. He must have thought it was his lucky month! Little did he know you were setting him up as a patsy." I, having had the presence of mind NOT to sit down, leaned back against the wall. "It was actually pretty close to working. Everyone on the site was supposed to be gone already, but there were problems with a truck breaking down. Even so, nobody thought it strange when you were there in the morning, saying you got in after everyone was asleep. Actually, you'd spent the night opening the door and putting the Professor into the pyramid, then resealing the door. Pretty clever. Once the road was regraded, there'd have been no chance of her ever being discovered.
"That's a very nice little story you've concocted," she said. "If there was any proof, I'd be concerned." She leaned down to pick up her purse.
"But there is proof," Helen said, stepping out from behind the closet door.
"Oh, God, you're alive!" What should have been a cry of joy was one of dread instead.
"Yes, I'm here, and whatever you put in my tea didn't kick in 100% until we were in the taxi headed to the site. The driver won't be hard to find. Belac's agreed to give his statement to the police." She paused, and said, "You should have just let me go, Melissa, instead of trying to take me out. I can't help you anymore."
As if finally putting it together, Melissa jumped up and headed to the door. One of Cairo's finest was standing outside the door, blocking her way. As he walked with her downstairs after cuffing her, I could hear him explain to her that she had the right to call the embassy, since she was an American citizen.
Turning back to the Professor, I said, "You'll probably have to testify, you know."
"I know," she said quietly. "Hardest thing I'll ever do, except for those two days in that tomb." Slowly, she crossed the room. At the door, she paused, without turning, "I should thank you. You saved my life. 12 more hours and I'd have been crushed under the rubble, if not dead of thirst already. But I think you'll understand when I say that the life I got back isn't the one I left. It's like I lost my life anyway."
"I do, indeed, understand." I said. And I do. That's why I live in Cairo.