We found the secondary security system next to a thin door hidden behind an upright wooden sarcophagus. Not exactly high tech for the modern era, but I’m sure the early 80s keypad seemed pretty impressive in this neighbourhood. Whoever had been through the Doc’s stuff hadn’t been too thorough, I guessed. Or the keypad didn’t look tampered with at least. For our purposes, Bruce’s fist took care of all the tampering necessary. His foot dealt with the door in a similar manner, and just as effectively.
“Very nicely done, Bruce.” Always give compliments where and when they’re due. In Bruce’s case, I also enjoyed the bashful ‘aw shucks’ look on someone his size.
I groped inside the door for a light switch, finding it at about the right level on my left. The room blazed back like standing next to the sun. For a moment, I wished Witkinstein had installed a dimmer switch. The effect would have been nearly as impressive, just less blinding. “Wow. How much ancient Egyptian bling does one man need?” Tablets, statues, jewellery, urns and pots and tools I couldn’t even begin to identify, all carved from gold and all polished to within a millimetre of being hazardous to vision. The collection’s centrepiece lay in the middle of the floor. Yeah, King Tut big all right, but he’d already found it. Still, the old man wasn’t known for field work. His reputation was as someone people brought stuff to so he could work things out. He never went out looking himself.
“Um, maybe we should think about the curse a little more. This guy looks like he was kind of rich to me.”
Even with a twinge of guilt in my gut, I had a hard time tearing my eyes away from the sarcophagus to look at my assistant. “I’m sorry, Bruce. I was just teasing you about the curse. Every one of the famous mummies has had a curse attached, but nothing has ever come from any of them, despite what some Egyptophile conspiracy nut might tell you. You’re right, though. This guy looks pretty rich.” Rich like a king. King Tut? Somewhere out there, someone was looting the tomb of an undiscovered pharaoh and bringing the stuff to the Doc. Either my informant held out on me or there was a lot more going on here than an old archaeology professor taking up artefact collecting in his retirement. Where had he gotten the money to cover the goods in this room?
“There’s no curse, boss?”
“No such thing. Never has been.” I took a couple of steps forward and put a hand on the sarcophagus. My fingers trailed up the side as I moved to look into the face of a king. Cool to the touch, I marvelled at the hundreds of hours that must have gone into its working. The blue and gold design with black lines and highlights reminded me very much of the King Tut death mask, but whoever had modelled for this face was much older, much more experienced, much more a king. Killed or murdered as a teenager, Tutankhamen never had a chance to rule. Whoever lay in this sarcophagus reigned over his world absolutely, had been good at it, and knew it. Just a few inches under my hand lay the wrapped remains of a divine king of Egypt, chosen of the gods, lord of all he surveyed. You could see that even in the gold carving. Well, I could see it. Bruce wouldn’t come close enough to look.
“But you said—”
“I’m sorry, Bruce. I know what I said and I shouldn’t tease you. It’s not very nice.” Not that I’m always, or even often, very nice, but it’s better to keep Bruce happy. Sulking, he’s less alert. “Everything you’ve ever heard about a mummy’s curse has been made up by someone, right down to anything written on the tomb itself. That was just to try scaring away superstitious grave robbers, or find a way to make money.”
I tore my eyes away from the sarcophagus to look back at my sidekick. Worry lines creased his face and eyes that normally seemed just a little too small for his head didn’t suffer from that problem right now. He’d folded his arms across his broad chest, tucking fists into his armpits and dropping his chin until it almost touched his ribs. Bruce actually looked scared and that worried me a little. As far as I remembered, Bruce had never been scared of anything, ever, but some tiny memory of something must have pulled the strings of childhood fear. Did he watch a bad horror movie at a very young age? Read a scary novel involving mummies? Buy into a campfire story?
Wrong time to dwell on that. I was sure I’d hear all about it later, anyway. “Of course I’m sure.” I smiled, trying to be comforting. “It’s pretty well documented. Mould spores, bad air, primitive medicine, that sort of thing.” I didn’t really feel like making up some references he wouldn’t remember, but I needed him to be Bruce not some giant cowering child. I needed him to watch my back so I could figure out why old Witkinstein hadn’t announced his discovery, whatever it was, to the world. It was only a matter of time until one of his contacts or suppliers showed up with something to share with him, or, knowing how fast word travelled, looking to take something back and sell it to someone else.
A muffled thud out in the warehouse told us that time might already be up.
The flash of fear on Bruce’s face worried me for a split second, but he clenched his jaw and unfolded his arms, turning for the door. I opened my mouth but he nodded. “I know, boss. No permanent damage. You need info.” How had I ever gotten along without him? And he moved so quietly, had such a light step when he needed it. Thinking about it always made me glad I hadn’t met him by chance somewhere dark and secluded. The man could sneak up behind you and rip your arms off before you knew he was there.
But it seemed a sensible precaution to hide, at least. If there happened to be more than one intruder and one of them got by Bruce for a moment, however unlikely that was, it would be safer for me to be hidden for at least a few seconds when they came into the room, give Bruce that little bit of time to catch up and take care of business. Too late to turn off the light, I squeezed into the shadow beside the sarcophagus and took off my fedora, keeping one eye high enough to see the door in case anyone came through.