THE MEMOIRS OF JONATHON CARNAHAN
Explorer, Archaeologist And Defender Of Mankind
(Part One, 1895-1918)
I'm not sure what it is in a man's life that makes him sit down to write his own memoirs. I knew a fellow once who wrote somebody else's, but then he was the boring sort who never did anything of note, and probably felt that the only flash of glory he'd ever get was through association with a greater name. Writing one's own memoirs, however, is generally inclined to bring on feelings of depression; reminders of one's own mortality; the kind of thing that a fellow like me rather tends to try to avoid, on the whole. Not that I need much reminding about mortality of course. I've seen enough things in my life to know that death can be around every corner, if you're stupid enough to let it wait for you there. Seen enough to know that it's not half as final as it would like to make us think, too - but I'm getting ahead of myself. Like I said, these are my memoirs, and it's traditional with such things to start from the beginning.
My father was an archaeologist of some repute (a bit of a drag, really, since people always rather expected me to follow suit). His name was Howard Carnahan, and he came from a very respectable British family with some considerable money at their disposal. They were somewhat disappointed when he announced that he was not going to follow the family traditions, and enrol in either the army or the church, but that he intended to devote his life to the study of civilisations past and gone. His father was pretty damned angry about it, by all accounts (I never actually met the man, but I've heard a fair few things about him, and I can't say that we'd have taken to each other much). He all but cut dear old dad off from the family money, which didn't bother dad any, since he never thought of money as being particularly important (don't know who I take after, in that case). Anyway, after studying here, there and everywhere, and becoming well respected enough to make his father reconsider, at least on certain grounds, he decided that his future lay in Egypt - plenty to dig up, and nobody at all to stop a fellow, once he gets started with his spade. So off he went. He arrived in the spring of 1888, and threw himself into his work with the kind of gusto that I can only marvel at, and which only one of his children bothered to inherit. Didn't find much, although he was happy enough with what he did uncover - pottery mostly, and a few little knick-knacks that got scholars all over England quite desperately excited. Not my kind of thing at all I'm afraid, but then I always was more of a materialistic sort. Has to be gold to get my pulse racing, if you get my drift.
Anyway, he was doing very well for himself, learning more than anybody else in the business, when he happened to go on a dig just west of Cairo. Last minute thing I believe - all slapdash preparations and half prepared itineraries and all the rest of it. Quite normal with my father. He'd catalogue everything he found with more care than anybody I ever met, but he'd set out on a dig without even remembering to take any food with him. Anyway, I digress. On this particular dig he happened to meet a young local woman - rather beautiful, terribly learned, everything you'd expect. My sister takes after her rather closely, needless to say, but I still don't know where I get my various traits from. She and my father fell in love, as I'm sure you'd already guessed, and there you have it. A true fairy tale romance; or would be, if fairy tales were about dust and relics and ancient dead people, instead of knights and fairies and proud white horses and the like. After that my father shocked his colleagues (and delighted his rather more interesting friends) by marrying his Egyptian lady, and they started up one of the most successful digging partnerships on record. They were so happy that it wasn't for some years that they got around to remembering they'd originally wanted children, and not until 1895 that they finally got around to delivering me into the world. I was a very good looking child of course, which I'm sure doesn't surprise you at all, dear reader. I don't recall much of the experience, but I'm told that it was an extraordinarily hot night, and that I was delivered at some ungodly hour. The start, I'm sure, of my nocturnal adventuring, a trait which has continued to this day.
I don't recall a lot of my early years, save that I seemed to spend much of them strapped onto the backs of a varying assortment of four-legged creatures, as my parents went about their archaeological whatnots. There was a lot of sand, which is something else that I remember quite clearly - and I distinctly remember an incident with a scorpion. Sticks rather strongly in the memory, that, for two reasons - firstly my mother, running towards me screaming very loudly in her native language, and secondly because of the impression that scorpions made upon me much later in my life, when I encountered their alleged king... but once again I seem to be getting ahead of myself. Apparently when I was two I tried to play with a rather large and deadly scorpion that had decided to come over for a quick recce one day at a dig - that's the crux of this particular tale, anyway. Like I say, I don't remember much else. Too busy sleeping, probably.
My sister Evelyn, who is considerably more famous than myself (and with good reason) was born two years after me, on a particularly cool morning and at a very reasonable hour. She was two days late, which was the first and the last time in her life that she has failed to be on time. She came out kicking and screaming, and doesn't seem to have stopped moving since, although she's rather more quiet about it these days. I think she got my share of the family energy as well as her own, which is fine by me. It's quite pleasant to watch her rushing about all over the place, studying this, that and the other, and barely coming up to breathe. Personally I'd rather sunbathe beside a nice pyramid, and offer my advice as required - or, more usually, as not required, since nobody ever really wants my advice anyway.
We settled into a pleasant little routine, my family and I, which was set off quite nicely by Evelyn. She proved to be far less of a handful than yours truly (by which I can only assume that she didn't give our mother any scorpion-inspired heart attacks) and was strangely attentive to everything archaeological from a very early age. All things considered, that's probably the main reason why dear old mum and dad decided to keep us with them on their various expeditions, rather than packing us both off to school back in Blighty, which would have been quite horrible. As it was, we were educated at home; or rather on a succession of camels, and around a hundred campfires right across Egypt. Rather typically our parents taught us to read Ancient Egyptian long before they thought to teach us English, with the unusual effect that we could translate the tombs of the pharaohs, but proved singularly useless at deciphering the cricket scores for Dad, whenever the newspapers arrived from England. They filled in the holes eventually though, not that I paid much attention when they did. For me, school was never as interesting as the streams of Egyptian traders that flowed through the streets of Cairo, or through the night near to the camps around our digs. Amongst these people I met pickpockets and magicians; gamblers, drinkers and thieves; con-men, deserters and smugglers; and more besides. After that nothing that my parents did ever had quite the same attraction for me again, and I was rather inclined to slip out as soon as it got dark, to see what I could learn from the array of unsuitable acquaintances that were always waiting to introduce themselves.
And so we got older, my sister and I - her with alacrity, and me at my leisure. Evelyn toiled away like a proper chip off the old block, and I impressed myself by learning rather different skills - such as how to pick pockets, how to empty a wallet and put it back in the owner's coat unnoticed, and how to deal a pack of cards whilst staying certain of where all the aces are buried. I was as proud of my achievements as Evelyn was of hers, and fortunately our parents were rather too absent minded to notice - otherwise I feel sure that they would have posted me back to England with more haste than they ever did anything else in their lives. Goodness knows my father's parents offered frequently enough, which is enough to make me shudder even now. Just think how I might have turned out, had I been forced to actually do some work - to study something at such an early and impressionable age. I might even have turned out like my sister, and been a Bembridge Scholar, and a respected man, and... Dear Lord. It's enough to make one quite faint with horror.
But anyway - for reasons of his own, my father always turned down my grandparents' offers to take Evelyn and myself into their care; and given that they were killed in a car crash just weeks after their last offer, and would no doubt have taken us both with them, had we been delivered over, I'm even more glad that Dad refused. Wouldn't be much fun being dead, although there are those that insist otherwise. I've always resisted the temptation, so far, to ask the many people I've met who have actually been dead just what it's like. Not that it matters much, for I've no particular desire to be dead, thank you very much. Far too many people waiting on the other side who have scores to settle. At any rate, the paternal grandparents were killed by the first motorised vehicle that they ever set eyes upon, when they accepted the offer of a ride from a friend who had decided to splash out on a brand new Ford. There's a moral in this tale somewhere, I'm sure, and it certainly says a lot about the state of the family luck that two people who never even rode something as modern as a steam engine could be killed the first time they got into a car, simply because the fool driving it took a corner at the grand old speed of twenty miles an hour. A sad old tale, but there you go. Can't say as I feel at all sorry for the pair, as I was fated never to meet either of them. They were particularly uncomplimentary about my mother by all accounts, which is never likely to inspire a fellow to warm and pleasant feelings. I wonder if the four of them ever get together in the Underworld, or in Heaven, or wherever it is that you like to call the various hereafters, and whether they still argue about how my dad should have joined the army? Probably not. From what I've seen of dead people, they seem more inclined to try to destroy the world than to sit around chatting about past mistakes. What is it about dead people? I mean, I know that it probably isn't very nice being dead, but is that really any reason to try murdering everybody who has the good fortune still to be alive? Yet again I'm wandering off topic, and skipping several decades of my narrative, but my reasoning is sure to become clear eventually. Or not. I'm not the most straightforward of people, and my memoirs are showing every sign of following suit. Not bad, given that they haven't even reached beyond my earliest years as yet. No doubt my sister's autobiography will be fully indexed, and filled with neatly arranged chapters and headings, but you'll have to wait a while before she gets around to finishing hers. The last I'd heard she was busy working on a translation of some ancient scrolls young Alex dug up somewhere near Thebes. (He did tell me where, but me and details never did mix, unless there's gold involved somewhere). At any rate, you'll have to make do with my story if you want to find out anything at all about what happened. Some of it you'll know of course. Most of it you won't. Even the National Geographic doesn't tell the tale as fully as it would like to have you think. I'm sorry, is there a rule somewhere about how long a paragraph is allowed to be? I should probably look that up.
One thing led to another, anyway, and when I turned twelve my parents decided that it was time I had something approaching a sensible education. Something involving Latin and mathematics. They held great store by geometry and nineteenth century poetry, and all those other things that parents and teachers always seem to think that children need to learn. At least they did then. These days there's less of the Latin, which is actually rather a shame. Nothing gives one quite such a sense of satisfaction as learning to swear in a language that everybody else considers eminently respectable.
My parents chose Rugby school for me, partly because it was so well-respected, and partly because they misguidedly thought that the sporting regime would suit me. I spend rather a lot of my time outside, especially when I'm in Egypt, so I suppose they thought that it possible I was the active type. What they had clearly failed to notice is that when I do spend time out of doors, that time is usually spent stretched out in a nice patch of sun, feeling delightfully sleepy. Needless to say, therefore, Rugby and I failed to get along in the manner in which my parents had hoped, and after two terms there I was expelled for sneaking back to bed when the rest of the school were slogging it out on the playing fields during a thunder storm. Not the saddest day of my life, as you can probably imagine. My parents weren't in the slightest bit bothered, since they had been intending to pull me out of school for a bit anyway - they had just got wind of a tomb some distance out of Cairo, and were planning on an extended trip to excavate it. Off they set, therefore, with my sister and I in grateful attendance; she armed with her first proper set of archaeologist's tools, and I with the kind of enthusiasm only possible amongst the truly nefarious. I had recently made the acquaintance of a dealer in fake tomb treasures, and he was delighted to discover that I knew enough hieroglyphs to make his copies look nicely authentic. We formed a delightfully dastardly partnership, and when I started my new school - Eton - just after Christmas, I went with my pockets filled with my ill-gotten gains. It was the start of something wonderful, and I was as sure of that as I was of the snow that so impeded my progress as I tried (not particularly hard) to find my way to Eton. You'd never believe that one of the most famous schools in the world could be so bloody hard to find, but to be fair I did get on the wrong train. Not my fault I hasten to add. There were these two bigger boys who suddenly realised that I had been... shall we say 'economical with my sense of fair play' in a game of poker we had been playing at the train station. I was forced to make a hasty getaway, and in the end wound up rather closer to old Rugby than to Eton. I found my way there in the end though, and was greeted by a dour looking fellow who told me that he was my house master, and that I was expected for dinner on the dot of eight, dressed appropriately. That didn't seem especially likely since at the time it was nearly eight-fifteen, but I played along anyway, and got all doled up in my frock coat and white tie, only to get completely lost in all those blasted corridors. I wound up wandering around the cricket pitch at half-past nine, without a clue which way to turn, and only found my way back to my dormitory when some helpful groundsman pointed me in the right direction. Nobody seemed to mind, which was fortunate really, because after that I got lost on a regular basis.
Eton was very different to Rugby. There was far less determination to turn us all into athletes for one thing, which definitely lifted it in my opinion. The pace was entirely different, and nobody seemed to mind my complete unwillingness to learn. In fact it almost seemed expected of me. Since the place was within easy reach of some quite charming London haunts, I soon had a nice little system going, with regular trips into the seedier parts of the capital to be sure that the less reputable side of my education was kept up to date. Well, you never know when a little pocket-picking is going to come in useful - and as it turned out, I was going to be very grateful for the assistance of those dubious skills more than once during the course of my later life. Some might say, I suppose, that it was my skills at thievery that got me into all that trouble with the mummies, at least the first time, but I still maintain that it would have happened anyway. Not to me, admittedly, but it would probably still have happened. Maybe it's destiny, or maybe it's just chance, but it's always seemed to me that Eton has a lot to answer for, when it comes to me and my illicit education.
In the end I got on remarkably well with my schooling. I was something of a celebrity amongst my classmates, being half-Egyptian, and having spent much of my life ferreting away amongst the ancient tombs. We all thought that there was something wonderfully exciting about mummies - something vaguely glamorous and rather exciting. Well, we were ignorant of many matters, and the blessed things weren't coming back to life quite so often in those days. Predictably my parent's rather haphazard attempts to educate me proved entirely unhelpful to me in this latest stage of my childhood, but I struggled along regardless. Even learnt some geometry and some nineteenth century poetry. Whole generations of us were sent out into adulthood with the certainty that knowing The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner in its entirety would prepare us fully for the rest of our lives. I only got as far as learning the first verse myself. Sheer laziness of course.
It wasn't until I had been at Eton for around eighteen months that things started to turn towards talk of discipline and possible trouble. For a dissolute fellow like myself that's something of a record - I've been thrown out of establishments after less than eighteen minutes in the past, so eighteen months is pretty respectable. These days the trouble is more likely to involve alcohol or cards, but back then it was a scorpion. Little blighters like getting me into trouble, obviously. I had a friend you see - Toby Fletcher his name was, and he was quite enthralled by the prospect of being friends with somebody who came from Egypt. He was something of an amateur zoologist, and begged me to find him a scorpion the next time I returned home for a visit. Being a helpful sort of chap (and Toby having promised me the use of his bicycle to aid my frequent escapes from school property) I set about finding this new pet during the very next holidays, and returned with it in an old cigarette box that my father had been keeping dead scarab beetles in. Quite why he would want to keep dead scarab beetles is anybody's guess of course, but such things often seem important to a dedicated Egyptologist. Anyway, Toby got his scorpion, which he named Henry, and he kept it in a little wooden box that he made specially. Henry went undiscovered for some time, and we were getting to be quite cocky about our ability to hide him during room inspections, when we were let down one day, quite unexpectedly, by the weather. It had been cold and wet and typically British for so long that a day of sudden heat caught us completely by surprise, when Henry, bored of his box and seeking some warmth in which to bathe his cold Egyptian bones - or whatever the scorpion equivalent - decided to escape. He was discovered basking on the windowsill by the house master, which might have been alright had he not been a man of rather a nervous disposition, bothered by an unfortunate incident some years before when he had been stationed, with his regiment, in the African desert. It seems that a scorpion took a fancy to the inside of his trouser leg, and damn near killed him, although I don't see that that was reason enough to try to crush poor Henry with a copy of The Sonnets of Shakespeare. Henry escaped under the nearest bed, where he took up a determined residence and refused to come out, and I, as the most likely culprit, was duly summoned to the offices of my head of year. He was in a fine old rage, and in a mind to write to my parents about my attempts to murder the house master, but he saw sense eventually. After all, it's a pretty slim case with which to try to convict someone of murder, when the weapon's a sulky scorpion enjoying a bit of sunshine. Eton would never have wanted the adverse publicity besides.
The next problem was dealing with Henry. Nobody especially wanted him living under the beds in the dormitory, and most of the teachers wanted to call in the rat exterminators to deal with him. It took some considerable persuasion from one of the more sensible members of staff to convince them that rat exterminators are not terribly well equipped to exterminate scorpions, which to the best of my knowledge don't like eating poisoned slivers of cheese; and at any rate, it was damned unfair to poor Henry, who had only ever wanted to escape the monotony of the English weather. Happily Toby was able to gain access to a telephone, and got in touch with his father, who insisted in no uncertain terms that any pet of his son's was a member of his family, and was therefore damn well not going to be exterminated, even if it did have six legs and a deadly sting. Old man Fletcher was held in some regard, so the school adhered to his wishes, and gave Toby and myself several days off school, in which to concentrate our efforts on capturing our stubborn little friend. To our utmost joy we were able to return him to his box after only ten minutes, and spent the next three days sunbathing on the ledge outside our dormitory window, enjoying an impromptu and quite delightful holiday courtesy of Henry. It was a simple affair to roll back in through the window and pretend to be searching, if ever it sounded as though somebody was approaching. At the end of three days, much sun-tanned and feeling greatly refreshed, we declared success. Henry had to spend the last few days of term locked safely in a cupboard, and I was ordered to return him to Egypt post haste, but on the whole we got off rather lightly. I was a little nervous about returning to Eton the following term, though. Happily I was saved by my parents, who decided, as was their way, that it was time for the four of us to make yet another protracted journey into the desert. We were looking for the tomb of a pharaoh named Casis, apparently, although I've not heard of him before or since. Obviously wasn't rich, in that case. He probably didn't exist, either, since we never saw an inkling of him. That was, however, the trip when I met a young camel thief called Abdul. He was eighteen, and I was an impressionable young fellow of fourteen, eager to learn anything he could teach me, so long as it didn't involve camels. He introduced me to a remarkable local drink made from fermented dates, which is guaranteed to leave you feeling like you've just gone six rounds with an undead mummy suffering an ancient curse (and I should know). Try it some time. You'll see what I mean.
I learnt a lot from Abdul. He had a little gun, no bigger than the palm of his hand, which he had stolen from some American visitor, and I remember being quite impressed by it. In the true spirit of what was rapidly becoming my profession, I relieved him of it shortly afterwards, and spent the rest of the holidays trying to learn to shoot the dratted thing. I wasn't very good at it, since it handled rather differently to the guns that my parents possessed, and on one occasion I nearly shot my father's camel when I was aiming at my hat some twelve feet away. I picked it up eventually though, and it was a skill that was later to save my life. There seem to have been an awful lot of people over the years who have been strangely anxious to kill me, and although I've never been able to work out why, I suppose that I owe their continued lack of success to young Abdul, and the American tourist that he stole that gun from. Funny how these things turn out, isn't it. Ardeth Bay believes that it's all destiny of course, and who am I to disagree with a man appointed to defend mankind from evil armies escaped from the Underworld?
The rest of my adolescence passed by in relative peace, disturbed only by an encounter with some pirates, which I don't feel inclined to go into much detail about. Suffice to say that there were some pirates, there was some gold, and there was rather a beautiful young local girl named Kashmira. It ended happily, and I still maintain that there was no need to summon the Foreign Legion. Most of the damage was only superficial, and I was perfectly healthy when it became time to return to Eton. There weren't even any scars, which I always thought was a something of a shame. Nothing interests the girls like a scar or two. Just ask my brother-in-law; he has several.
And so I progressed into something approaching adulthood, with no further incident to complicate matters (except that occasion with the slave traders, but I'm not including that here because it was absolutely not my fault. I know what you've heard - Evelyn always tells the story, and no doubt it will be in her memoirs. You have to remember that she does tend to over-simplify matters though. Usually by telling the truth). At any rate, to nobody's surprise as much as my own, I left Eton having done well enough to guarantee me a place at Oxford, where I went eventually to read Classics. It seemed to me to be the best way to spend several years doing very little at all, and in fact I proceeded to spend the next two years sunbathing in Greece, where I had gone ostensibly to study the local culture, and pretend to use some of the archaeological skills that I had pretended to learn from my parents. I then spent my final year having a wonderful time amongst the vineyards of Il Mezzo Giorno, sending a string of quite wonderfully imaginative telegrams back to my tutors, about the marvels of Latin culture, and how much I was learning. I have no doubt that I would have failed spectacularly, had I not been joined at that point by my rather strict younger sister, who was studying nearby at the time. She locked me into my room for the next three weeks, refused to allow me out until I had done some work, and saw to it that I eventually emerged having completed the last truly useful creation of my entire life. Consequently I obtained a rather respectable second from the redoubtable - and rather gullible - gentlemen of Oxford, and returned to Egypt almost straight away. Things were a mite hairy at that time, for I was a healthy young fellow of twenty-two, and you should well remember the state of world politics in 1917. England had been at war for three years already, and although some brilliant foresight on the part of my father had seen the entire family registered as Egyptian, and therefore freed me of any obligation to gallantly throw my life away, it was becoming increasingly hard to avoid the dreaded call-up. Most of my contemporaries at Oxford signed up upon graduating, which seemed to me to be a terrible waste of a degree, particularly since only one of them ever returned. He was a gigantic chap called Maximillian, who I suspect managed to survive only because the Germans were too scared to shoot him. They certainly can't have tried, because there is no way that they could possibly have missed him. The man was seven feet tall and practically as wide. He was taken on by Intelligence, to do something covert behind enemy lines - although how a man of seven feet can do anything covertly is anybody's guess. He really was quite a magnificent sort of fellow, with a moustache that made him look just like a walrus (that wasn't the only thing about him that was reminiscent of a walrus as I recall), and a taste for wild dancing which tended to leave his partners, and everybody else on the dance-floor, with feet flatter than flatfish. Strange but true. Anyway, once again I digress.
I returned to Egypt with a vague intention of making a living as a gambler, or at the very least as a con-man of some ilk. I made the mistake of going home first, however, largely to find some money from somewhere, and ran full tilt into my parents, who I rather suspect were missing their delightful daughter - for they immediately enlisted me into their latest venture. The idea was to mount an excursion cross country to the remains of an old oasis in the south, where an army had supposedly once come to grief. There we met with a not-so-young camel thief called Abdul, who proceeded to steal all our camels, and left us stranded in the middle of the desert with nothing but a pack horse for company. I think he thought it was funny; or possibly he intended it as revenge for that blessed gun. At any rate, my good parents decided that they would take the horse, being required back in Cairo for an important engagement, and that they would send supplies back to me, faithfully guarding their recent discoveries from possible lootings.
And so there I spent the closing months of 1917, as the better part of my generation was being slaughtered in the fields of France, and the second revolution within a year was shaping Russia into something new. I did nothing so interesting or dangerous, and instead spent the time avoiding cataloguing my parents' finds, and steadfastly refusing to dig out any more. I met three deserters from the British Army who were on their way to greater things (they hoped) on the west coast of Africa, and we sung loud songs to the moon whilst under the influence of their copious supplies of Irish whiskey. I remember it only hazily, for I was still commendably drunk when my parents returned, accompanied by five camels, several horses, and two professors of high renown - or was it several professors, five horses and two camels of high renown? To be honest my recollections of the occasion are still a little hazy. At any rate, I was loudly informed either by the scholars or by the camels (the former I believe) that I was a useless and slovenly drunk who would amount to nothing, and I'm happy to report that they were right. That is, of course, provided that somebody who has helped to save the world on numerous occasions can honestly be said to have amounted to nothing. Personally I think it's quite an achievement, even if I have tended to hang around in the background rather a lot, and let my brother-in-law do most of the world-saving stuff. He seems to like it, after all.
Their precious findings safe and secure, and their three learned colleagues having had their fill of insulting yours truly, my parents departed for Cairo two days after their arrival at my homely little oasis. I had become much enamoured of the place, not least because of the striking lack of people there, attempting to make me do some work. In Cairo the world was full of friends of my parents, all anxious to push me into a worthy career traipsing along in their collective footsteps. It's not that I wasn't interested, you understand. Nothing I like more than an archaeological dig - well, except for a nice snooze and a bottle of Glenmorangie - it's just that they were all so determined to take the fun out of it. Now you see, my kind of a dig is one where I stumble to my feet at around ten o'clock in the morning, poke around in some tunnels, have a spot of lunch, a quick nap; maybe even spend the evening working; before heading off to the nearest night spot for a bit of gambling, a few drinks, and a little cheer. I get the work done, really I do. It takes a while, granted, and I do confess to a slight inability to tell the important discoveries from the less important ones - but I know a damn sight more about the subject than most people. How many ordinary layabouts do you know who can speak Ancient Egyptian? Can list the ruling dynasties of the Upper and Lower Kingdoms? But spending dawn to dusk scraping gently away at blocks of stone, taking a layer of dust away at a time, toiling away at a rate of half an inch a fortnight just in the hope that there'll be something exciting behind the next giant boulder... that's just not my scene. Henceforth, I decided, my way would be the way of my three deserters. A place to call home, perhaps, but otherwise a roving existence of romance and adventure. If there's such a thing as a rogue archaeologist, then that's precisely what I decided to be. No catalogues of discoveries, no neatly wrapped bundles of alphabetically arranged tools; no luck, either, as it turned out. Just me, my horse and a deck of cards to get me going. It sounded wonderful, at least under the full heat of a blazing sun, with a head still full of that Irish whiskey.
I set out upon my new life on the morning of the 12th January 1918. I was twenty-two years-old and eager for adventure, so I set my horse's head towards Thebes, a place that, to me at least, had always seemed filled with the glory of excitements past. My horse, named Napoleon for no particular reason other than I had bought him from a Frenchman, chose not to share my pioneer spirit, and died rather suddenly after attempting to bite a sleeping scorpion. Quite what it was hoping to achieve from such a course of action is anyone's guess, since there isn't much about a scorpion to make your average horse lick its lips and start feeling hungry. Napoleon had always been a little short-sighted though, and I can only assume that he thought he was being confronted by a six-legged black sugar cube that bit back. Poor blighter died quite quickly, anyway, which I confess left me feeling rather subdued - and not merely because I was now left without transport. I bade him a sorrowful farewell and, taking up his former load myself, struck out across a stretch of desert that had seemed to me, just a day earlier, to be the best route to my new life. These days of course I'm used to being wrong, and to being cut down by bad luck at every twist and turn; but in those days I was new to it all, and not a little lowered in spirit. Fortunately I still had half a bottle of Irish whiskey, given to me in parting by one of my deserter friends, before he had galloped off to pastures anew after spying the dust of my parents' approaching party. A man can walk a long way on half a bottle, and I was happy to find out just how far I could get. The trick is to drink so much that you don't notice how far you're travelling, or so that you don't notice when the desert heat begins to kill you. After half a bottle of the stuff that I was drinking during that trek, I could have walked up Mount Everest and not known I was doing it, which probably explains how I managed to miss Thebes altogether, and wind up in an intriguing little town that wasn't even on the map. Not that I actually had a map. It was a small place, with buildings made of mud baked hard, separated by alleys thin and dark enough to excite any cut-throat. Of the thirty-eight buildings, four sold alcohol in copious amounts, and my limited supplies of cash couldn't have been more welcome if they'd had naked young ladies on the front, instead of a picture of the king. I liked that town.
The trouble started on my second day there. Some would say that it was my fault, but then I'd remind you that those are the same people who say that the business with Imhotep was my dear sister's fault. I mean, okay so she read from the book, and that was what resurrected him, and gave him the wherewithal to wreak havoc; not to mention sucking the bodily fluids out of a group of unfortunate Americans and an Egyptian archaeology professor. But that doesn't mean that it was her fault. Likewise it wasn't my fault when I cheated in a game of poker, and the subsequent fight turned into a street battle, which turned into a riot - a small one, I grant you, but a riot nonetheless - which eventually resulted in a sizeable detachment of the local armed forces coming in to put down what they perceived as an uprising. Actually when I put it that way it does sound rather as though it was my fault, but I still maintain that it wasn't.
I had been doing rather well in the poker game. I'd just got a royal flush (without cheating), and then a full house in another hand almost immediately afterwards, and filled with the joy of success I started to bet figures that I couldn't really afford to lose. What happened next was predictable of course; namely that I started to lose in a serious way. I remembered the lessons of my youth; practising dealing weighted hands, leading my Eton fellows astray with decidedly crooked games played long into the night - and I started to cheat, with enthusiasm. Once I'd started I didn't especially want to stop, and things rapidly got out of hand. Next thing I really remember clearly was flying backwards through the air as a two hundred pound 'gentleman' finally put two and two together, and decided to break my jaw. Happily he didn't succeed, although he did manage to break two chairs instead, by throwing me at them. I can't speak for the chairs, but I was in a lot of pain by that point, and the gang of three additional men - all considerably larger than me - threatening to join in the fun certainly didn't improve the outlook any. I know that I crawled under a table; I vaguely remember engaging in a valiant battle with a pair of irate young men more or less my own age; and am almost positive that it wasn't me who tripped over at around that point and knocked a guttering oil lamp onto the floor. It was me who made matters distinctly worse by dropping a gun during a rather alarming moment, causing it to fall into the rapidly spreading fire. It was also me who caused the fire to spread even further still, when I discovered that my jacket had caught alight, and decided that the best thing to do would be to pull it off and get it as far away from me as possible. To cut a long story short, I threw it, it wrapped itself around a chair on the far side of the room, and the dry wood caught rather suddenly. It was about then that the gun I had dropped decided to explode in the heat of the flames, causing much of the building to collapse around my ears. There was considerable anger. I ran. So did everybody else. Sadly however, particularly for me, it was my poor self that they were running after, and I seemed destined to meet an ignominious end at the hands of an angry and slightly singed mob. You tell me, dear reader - do these things happen to everybody, or am I just fated to a particular kind of luck? Perhaps we make our own luck. Certainly I've heard it said, and I admit that it's a maxim that neatly fits.
So there I am, anyway, hurtling down alleyways and waiting to be murdered, when salvation offered its unlikely hand from the window of a jail cell that I happened to run past. The prisoner - a somewhat sheepish camel thief named Abdul - suggested somewhere where I might be able to hide. With little else in the way of options, I took his advice; which was absolutely the last time that I trusted old Abdul (or it very nearly was, anyway). No sooner had I slipped into his proposed hidey-hole, when the mob was upon me. Unpleasant scene; lots of shouting; and an awful lot of talk of lynching. Goodness knows how it would have turned out if I hadn't been able to crawl under the legs of the unsavoury fellow who had been threatening to slit my throat - fortunately he had been distracted by another fellow who had insisted that he had a prior claim to that honour - and therefore make my escape once again. It's not even as though I had relieved the town's gambling elite of all that much money, so I really don't know why they made such a fuss, but once they realised that they were not going to be able to take out their frustrations on my poor undeserving hide they became a little riled. Next thing I knew it was home-made bombs flying through the air, gunfire destroying every window, fires turning the night sky into a glow more reminiscent of the height of day. I wasn't sure whether to feel impressed or slightly guilty. Armed with my hard-earned currency, as well as my trusty little gun, I took refuge in an empty stable hoping to avoid the worst of the violence. I have to say, actually - one adventurer to another so to speak - but if you should ever be trapped in a city under siege, dear reader, take a tip from me and don't take a quick kip. Don't know how I managed to drop off to be honest, given the noise and the danger and all, but I suppose I was rather tired. Anyway, all of a sudden my shoes are cracking and my trousers are starting to singe. Ouch. Fortunately I was able to crawl into a convenient cellar, where I spent the rest of the riot drinking a collection of wines stored in my strangely comfortable quarters. I remember little else of the time spent in my cellar, save for the moment when I heard the cries of the approaching regiment, followed by the practised fusillades of well trained soldiers. I climbed out of the cellar, through the burnt-out ruin of the abandoned stable, and found the rioters being subdued by a greater force of numbers. The solders were surprised to see me, and despite the rather furious attempts of the locals to blame everything on me, agreed to give me an escort on to Thebes. Hurrah for the British Army and all that. Turned out that the people of my out-of-the-way little town had been looking for an excuse to riot in a long time. Angry about the bulk of the wealth being in the hands of the British, probably. I sympathise actually - or at least I do when I'm not the particular British fellow that they've decided to point their frustrations at. Anyway, the army fellows were very understanding about it all, and nicely sympathetic - and next thing I know I've a horse again, and a good load of stores, and a map pointing me merrily on my way forward (or possibly backward. Left, according to the map) to Thebes. Perhaps I should start riots more often. Then again...
It was in the middle of May that I met up with my deserters once again - a scorching month, beyond anybody's expectations. I was used to Egypt's weather of course, having spent so much of my life there, but my three deserters were barely able to stay in the saddle. We had intended to make our way westwards, perhaps to Tunisia or Morocco, but they proved incapable of completing the journey beyond Cairo. It was good to be back home, and I enjoyed seeing the familiar sights, and smelling the familiar smells of a city that had been my home for so much of my childhood - but for my friends it was not such a welcome sight. There were many soldiers stationed in and around Cairo, and far too many of them knew that this disreputable - but entertaining - trio were wanted for leaving their regiment. In their ragged uniforms, and on their army issue horses, it was too obvious what they were - and we were forced to go to ground in one of the city's most seedy boarding houses. This towering testimony to mud, brick and straw was built on the city's west side, where the alleys were thin and dark, and the neighbours were as deadly as the scorpions that so frequently invaded the guest rooms. The air was thick with the smell of a tobacco rather more powerful than that used in the cigars and pipes of the tourists and businessmen - hashish, as I was well aware, was cheap in these parts, and many of the locals enjoyed smoking it as they watched the sun go down. The drawback with this particular substance of course is that anybody seated within a few yards of the smoker gets almost the full effect just through the usual necessity of breathing. Sort of like getting drunk by breathing in somebody else's whisky fumes. I've heard of that happening actually, although with nothing like the speed with which one becomes befuddled through the breathing of hashish smoke. My three deserters were very impressed with the stuff, and I was soon dispatched to the nearest dealer, to fetch several pounds of it for later consumption. It went very well with the local fermented dates, and turned out to be an excellent accompaniment to sticky rice and steamed vegetables, the only diet we could afford in our west side hovel.
The days that I spent with my deserters were varied and colourful - exciting without the drawback of involving any real danger, yet by no means as humdrum as my time might have been had I spent it elsewhere. We held long gambling sessions in our tiny apartment - sixteen or more locals, all that we could manage to cram into the limited space, all puffing on their hashish and drinking whisky and wine. We gambled with anything - money when we had it, but otherwise with hashish or food, or even with camels and blankets and things that could later be sold. The nights were a curious time, as we played poker in that dark little room; for we could not see the passage of the moon, nor even of the sun when it eventually rose; so sometimes our 'nights' would last for very much longer. It became almost impossible to see amidst the thick smoke, and the air was filled with the stench of spilt alcohol and sweet hashish. The conversation, at first stilted and awkward - the gruff words of men about to gamble with all that they owned in the world - became fast and free-flowing as the hashish took effect; and soon this disparate group of deserters and traders; beggars and thieves; became friends through the powers of the smoke and the drink. It never ceased to amaze me how quickly this phenomenon occurred, as feuds between rival traders were thrown aside, and those who would generally never so much as share the time of day became as chummy as a crowd of old Etonians meeting for a drink in the Club.
Strangely enough my friends and I did rather well out of our gambling sessions in that dreadful old building. Following the rather unpleasant events in my little town near Thebes, I refrained from cheating - usually anyway - but my colleagues were not nearly so circumspect. Goodness knows the others around the table were cheating frequently enough, with varying degrees of subtlety and skill, and it was a marvel that anybody was able to win anything at all. The pots grew larger and larger; everybody would become more and more free with their riches; and the little piles of coins would grow into teetering columns, alongside bottles of home-brewed wine, and relics picked up in the desert. I impressed my parents more than once by presenting them with some interesting piece that I had won (although naturally I told them that I had dug them up in some imaginary dig somewhere distant). They would get terribly excited about something, and insist that I tell them where I had found it, then go dashing off to make their own excavations in a place that I had thought up off the top of my head. I should probably have felt guilty about that, but somehow I could never summon up the energy. After all, parents are so enjoyably easy to deceive.
The stay in Cairo was a happy one, by and large, although not entirely free from chaos and disaster. In what was one of my favourite incidents, Evelyn, returning during a break from her studies, shocked half of the population of the city by turning up for a visit in the midst of one of our marathon poker games. She stalked into the room like a queen, pushing sleeping drunks and stoned gamblers out of the way like obstacles encountered in some labyrinth underground; the same expression upon her face as that which she wore when delicately removing thick cobwebs from her path in the vaults of the dead. She waved a little silk handkerchief to clear away some of the hashish smoke, seated herself on a chair near to me, and proceeded to chatter in her usual cheery fashion about the boat trip over from England. She didn't seem to notice that everybody was staring, and was completely oblivious to the threats and air of violence when she declared that the poker game seemed to have gone on for long enough, and that it was time for something a little less distasteful. Dear old Evie has been trying to reform me for as long as I can remember, and I doubt that she'll ever give up. That night she shooed my poker friends out into the night, ignoring the curses heaped upon her in six different languages - although I've no doubt that she understood every one. She smiled brightly into the face of a cut-throat renowned throughout Northern Africa for his violence and ruthlessness, and told him that there would be no more poker tonight in just the same way that a nanny might tell her young charges that they can have no more bread and jam. My three deserters were watching with their mouths wide, and did not even complain when my sweet sister ordered them off to bed, so that she and I could have the room to ourselves. She became quite a celebrity on the poor side of town following that night; but my parent's circle of friends did not stop gasping in shock at the horror of it all for months afterwards. Unfortunately, however, they were not the only ones to discuss my ever surprising sister in such detail - and as it turned out, this entertaining incident that I had enjoyed so much was to lead to one of the most unpleasant of all the time that I spent in Egypt - at least until the mummies started to become a problem.
We had been spending quite some time together, Evelyn and I - her attempting to persuade me to do something respectable, and me attempting to persuade her to let her hair down, so to speak. It has always been like that between us - for we lead two separate lifestyles that share no real common ground save a lingering hope each of us carries, to eventually succeed in convincing the other of the joys of our own path. In the end, when I had been unable to turn Evie into a incorrigible wastrel, and she had been equally unable to turn me into a diligent and industrious worker, the time came for us to part company. Evelyn was returning to England, to report back to her college on the results of her roving studies before the end of term, and I was returning to the cycles of poker games in the slum. The English summer would soon be upon us, and there were rich pickings to be had when the college professors left their studies for the wonders of field work, and I was looking forward to some easy money amongst the street gamblers and con-men. Perhaps it was time to resurrect the old counterfeiting scheme, or perhaps it was worth the extra energy required to offer my services as a guide. Some of the largest sums of money were readily available to anybody who could claim convincingly enough that they knew where an undisturbed grave of some long-ago king lay waiting to be excavated by a passing professor. Inspired by my talk of easy riches, my three deserters, by now well in the grip of cabin fever, decided that it was time to emerge blinking into the daylight, and perhaps try to find themselves enough money to pay for passage to somewhere a little less full to brimming with former colleagues. We had a friendly farewell on the docks, in the anonymous crush of which their largely agreeable leader, Sergeant Hawkins, hoped to embark upon a programme of pocket-picking. It was at this point that I left them to their own devices, having an appointment in the more well-to-do part of town with an amateur archaeologist who was gullible enough to believe that I was an expert in my field. Now I can hear you laughing already, dear reader, but don't forget that I know considerably more than the average man in the street - and certainly enough to fool an overly-enthusiastic young fellow some good way my junior, who knew nothing more of Egypt than was written in his school books. In those days, before the Bembridge scholars and their various colleagues made their many studies of the lives of the pharaohs, the average schoolboy learnt nothing of Egypt save the age of the pyramids, and the names of those few kings already discovered. It was still 1918, and Tutenkamen was still buried beneath the sand; Hamanaptra was still just a myth; and I could easily pass myself off as one of the greatest authorities on anything Egyptian. It seemed to me to be a perfect plan, and maybe it would have been just that, had I been given the chance to try it.
Things started going wrong on the docks. I had turned my back on my deserters and was nearly back on firm ground when I heard an almighty shout behind me. Now perhaps I am a little over-sensitive about such things, but when there is nefarious work afoot, and somebody begins shouting loudly, I can only ever assume that the dastardly deed in question has been discovered. Ordinarily of course that means trouble - usually for me, since the nefarious work in question is generally mine - and even at the tender age of twenty-three I had learnt to make myself scarce at such times with a speed at which I rarely did anything else. I did not see, therefore, the army captain in the midst of the throng on the docks; and neither did I see him recognise my three deserters. It was his shout that I heard, and moments later his cry of alarm as he attempted to summon some of his men. I also heard, although at the time I did not know it for what it was, the gunshot that killed him. Alarmed by his feat of recognition - remarkable by now given the new local clothing worn by the three, and the thick beards they had cultivated during their stay in our grotty apartment - Sergeant Hawkins had attacked the captain, and had shot him with his own service revolver. The effect upon the crowd on the dock was catastrophic, for they stampeded in a great mass away from the water's edge, leaving Hawkins and his friends alone with their sorry victim. Exposed, in full view of the many other soldiers in the area, the trio panicked and fled, shooting several other people in their desperation to escape. By now, spurred on by the sounds of gunfire, I had almost reached the relative safety of a bar of which I was particularly fond; but my attempts to lose myself were soon thwarted by the wretched Sergeant Hawkins. He caught up with me just yards from the entrance to the bar, and waving the now empty revolver around like some deadly snake poised to bite, he insisted that I give him the advance money paid to me by my young employer, so that the three of them could make their escape. Sadly, however, I could not oblige for, having developed a furious thirst some hours earlier, I had already drunk a good deal of the money; in fact in the very bar to which I had just been hastening. Hawkins was not impressed, and began to make all kinds of angry demands, concluding with the decision that we would go together, the four of us, to my young employer, and force him to finance an escape. Having no desire to be shot - yes, I know the gun was empty, but one's mind does not always work so logically when one has three desperate men shouting very loudly in one's ears - I did not need much persuading. We set off, therefore, at a scuttling, shadow-hugging run, towards the spacious apartments favoured by the rich foreigners, who dwelt so far from the little apartment that we had rented for so long.
We arrived just before noon, to the news that there had been a murder on the docks, and that a young army captain was the unfortunate victim. This was the first that I had heard of Hawkins' crime, and I was not at all happy to be a party to it. I'm not a terribly moral sort of chap, and am often the first to involve myself in theft and trickery of all kinds; but murder is a particularly distasteful crime that I try to avoid at all costs. Hawkins was not in a mood to let me escape though, and having reloaded his purloined weapon, demanded with some force that I take him to young Masson, my employer. We went straight to his building, only to find when we got there that the place was crawling with soldiers. Why they were there is anybody's guess. Perhaps they had been stationed there, or perhaps it was where the captain himself had been staying. Perhaps they were there just by chance. Either way my three deserters became even more panicked than before, and began attempting to make all kinds of frankly daft plans to negotiate this latest obstacle. All the while Hawkins became increasingly irritable, and the presence of so many soldiers was turning him into something of a loose cannon. I was somewhat surprised, then, when he asked me quite calmly, and even politely, to take him to the building where my sister was staying. Assuming that he meant to get the money for their escape from her, I decided to agree. There was a fair chance at least that she would have it, and it seemed a better idea to play along and avoid getting anybody else shot - particularly me.
It was easy to reach Evelyn's apartment, situated as it was quite close by, but in a secluded area where the milling soldiers were not likely to go. There was a back entrance, with a set of steps that led straight up to her rooms, avoiding the front lobby altogether - even better, therefore, for three frantic deserters and their hugely nervous companion. Hawkins had lost his courteous fašade and was becoming a good deal more threatening with his gun, and before we mounted the flight of steps to Evie's rooms he relieved me of my own weapon. The loss of the little gun was quite a shock to the system, and left me feeling unpleasantly vulnerable; it is always a greater shock, somehow, when such threats and endangerments come courtesy of those that we consider to be our friends. By now I was beginning to think that I was in a far greater danger than that posed by Hawkins' irritability, or by the possibility of random gunfire should my three companions be recognised or suspected. I even began to feel a little guilty about having brought the three of them to Evie's home - and it takes a lot to make me admit to feelings of guilt. Now that we had come so far though, it was impossible not to go further; so in a close knit group, with my own gun pressed against my skull, we walked up the stairs to Evie's rooms.
The windows to the apartment were standing open, which is how Evie has always liked to sleep. Drives Rick crazy when they're staying in London. She has the windows wide open, with the curtains flapping, and he swears blind that he's in serious danger of pneumonia. Anyway, that day in Cairo was no different, and it really couldn't have been easier for us to get into the building. Evie was packing for her imminent return to England, with a great chest open at the foot of the bed, and mounds of linen all over the floor. Always was a messy packer, old Evie. Books and clothes all over the place. Cat hair everywhere too; she never could seem to exist without profusions of pussy cats. Great white fluffy things mainly, like cuddly snowballs. I always preferred the tabby kind myself.
Evie was sitting at her desk when we walked in. Writing up her diaries most likely - it's something of a ritual for her. Heaven knows where she keeps the things these days. There must be hundreds of them. Still, it's no wonder she keeps telling me that her own memoirs will be rather more accurate than mine; presumably every little incident throughout her life has been carefully noted and recorded, ready for future publication... which leads me to think that I must find out where she keeps those diaries, and see about losing a few. Certain volumes could very likely be a mite incriminating.
She started to turn around when we came in through the windows. She was surprised at first I suppose; and pleased, I think, to see me. She looked a bit taken aback to see her other guests though. Not the way that most friendly people enter a person's apartment, although she was quite used to me using the sneakiest of entrances. Always was a dubious type, me. Can't seem to help it. I suppose I must have looked a little bit sheepish, but she'd have guessed the truth anyway soon enough, given the gun pressed so close against my neatly oiled scalp. She asked me what was going on, and I offered her one of my rather foolish grins; endearing, I like to think of them as; daft, everybody else says. Still, it was the best I could come up with at the time. My companions were a little less speechless.
They told us that they wanted money; enough to get them away from Cairo, and preferably away from Africa. There was talk of America as I recall. Odd choice, but probably the last place that the army would go looking for a bunch of murdering deserters. Evie, being Evie, lacked the sense to be at all worried about what was going on, and instead started to look rather cross. Being the more practical of the pair of us, I took this as a good time to get very scared. Mind you, I was the one with the gun pressed against my head, so I suppose I did have a prior claim to being terrified.
They told us that they were going to take Evelyn's money; everything that they could find in the place. I suppose they had latched upon her as the nearest likely victim, having heard of her often, and knowing that she would have money on her. My family was not rich, but going peacefully to Evie was better than ransacking a house at random. I confess that I'd have been happier if they'd demanded to be taken to Masson, since that would undoubtedly have saved my sister and I from the indignities and awkwardnesses that followed; but then such slips and chances are the stuff of which adventures are made. Plus I always did have lousy luck.
Evie didn't have much money; she'd probably spent most of what she had buying her ticket home, and most of the rest was tied up in fees for her education back in England. Our parents were somewhere in Egypt at the time, but they had even less money than she did, most of their earnings being plowed straight into a succession of museums and libraries dedicated to furthering public knowledge. The takings, then, were pitifully small given the risks our three deserters had taken in order to reach my indignant sister. Hawkins was not at all pleased.
He started by making threats; suggesting acts of physical violence, and threatening ransom - not that the latter would have done him any good, since there was nobody to pay up. The mater and pater were as easily contactable at that time as were the kings they so frequently excavated, and the family friends were the stubborn old English type, more inclined to walk to the moon and back than pay up at the demand of anything untoward. Hawkins seemed to realise this even as he suggested it - he was, after all, English himself. Either that or he knew some of the family friends, and realised that they wouldn't pay anything to anybody; unless, perhaps, some important discovery concerning the history of Egypt was involved. It's never nice to know that one's welfare is placed firmly beneath that of a man who's already been dead for thousands of years. Still, such is the way of things in the world my parents inhabited. Evie tried to explain as much to Hawkins, who became very angry very quickly, and looked inclined to blow my brains out at that very instant. I seem to remember making some protest along those very lines, the nature of which escapes me now. There might well have been an 'eek' or an 'ook' involved. Something in the region of a yelp, at any rate. I'm almost certain that I considered fainting, but it turned out that I didn't have the constitution for it. Either I'm braver than I generally give myself credit for, or at that particular moment in time I was too afraid to be properly cowardly. Even now, when I've been extremely terrified on so many separate occasions, I still can't be sure. Naturally I prefer the first option, but then I would say that, wouldn't I.
In the event, Hawkins didn't shoot me dead (which should, one would hope, be very obvious to all of you - or at the very least to those of you who are reading this book, rather than just looking at the pictures). Instead, after much pacing, and conferring in hushed voices with his increasingly desperate looking friends - my friends, until an alarmingly short time before - he grabbed Evie by the arm and stormed over to the window. My dear sister, never the shrinking violet that members of her gender had a habit of being back in those days, began to protest rather loudly, and attempted to inflict bodily harm on her captor with the nearest object to hand - a book she had apparently been in the act of packing, entitled Studies In Classical Myth. Fortunately it was a sizeable volume, leather-bound and of much the same weight as a brick, and Hawkins began swearing violently, letting go of my whirlwind sister and sinking to his knees in pain. His curses impressed me with their vehemence and originality, but my sister was not the woman that any other British father of the period might have raised, and instead of throwing up her hands, or fainting, or doing any of the other things that were expected of her, she aimed an impressive kick at Hawkins' bowed head, before making a dash for the window. Grinning stupidly from ear to ear in that lamentable manner of mine which so very much annoys old Rick, I threw myself after her, shouting encouragement in a voice rather higher and more squeaky than I would have liked - had I taken the time to think about it, which I didn't.
"Stop!" I remember the word very clearly, and particularly the fact that it was Corporal Stevens who shouted it. Ordinarily I have no real memory of the actual dialogue that was exchanged during such moments, but I have an especially clear recollection of that word, since it was accompanied by a ringing gunshot that took out a large section of the window frame disturbingly close to Evie's left ear. She ducked, which saved her life given the trajectory of a second bullet that came seconds after the first. The glass in the wide open window broke into pieces and fell to the courtyard below. Somebody who was obviously down there gave a squeal of outrage, and there was a burst of insults and imprecations in the local language. Evie became very still.
"I wouldn't move if I was you." Those may not have been Hawkins' precise words, but certainly they were something very similar. He sounded very pleased with himself, despite the fact that his sudden restoration to the top of the situation was absolutely nothing to do with him. My third deserter - a very tall, very thin chap named Smith (no, really) - shepherded us both back into the middle of the room, and tried not to look too unnerved by Evie's fierce glare. (Apparently my own obvious quakes were not nearly so worrying). We were pressured into a close group, told to put our hands on our heads, and then watched our three captors pacing about and arguing amongst themselves. The general gist of the argument seemed to be our immediate fate, and whether they would be able to get any amount of money worth having by trying to sell Evie to the captain of one of the Tunisian ships in harbour at that time. To my credit (or so I like to think) I made an objection at this point, but my three former friends no longer seemed to have any pleasant feelings towards me, and I wound up being pretty heartily threatened. I think that it was at this point that Smith tried suggesting they simply scurry off down to the harbour and try to stow away on a boat going in an optimistic direction. A simple and quite feasible idea you might think. Hawkins was less impressed, and after threatening to throw Smith out of the window he finally decided upon a plan. We were to go down to the docks, to the boat upon which Evie had booked her passage to England, and walk confidently onboard in her company. The captain would assume that we were helping with her luggage, and that I was there to bid my sister farewell, and would probably pay us no mind until the ship got underway, Strictly speaking we should have been alright even beyond this point, since the second officer of the vessel in question was the younger brother of a museum curator with whom my parents were on particularly good terms; an Egyptian fellow named Bey for whom my sister sometimes did some small library work when she was in Cairo. Unwilling to take any peaceable option, however, my three deserters had hit upon a plan to hijack the ship, no doubt using my sister's fair personage to compel the sailors to take them somewhere else instead of England. It was at this point that I fear their plan began to fall upon even more unlikely ground than before, for it is extremely unlikely that any vessel prepared for a (relatively) short hop from Cairo to England should even attempt to consider going all the way to America instead - for that was where my three former companions had set their hearts upon going. I was even less thrilled with the notion than was my sister, but then I had good reason to be. Interestingly I'd never even been to America at that point in my life, and yet I was almost one hundred percent certain that I was wanted over there. A small incident - no more than a mere trifle, all things considered - which involved a famous American politician, his rather attractive daughter, and the tomb of a lesser pharaoh. I would have gone into more detail earlier on in my narrative, but unfortunately the rules of etiquette - to say nothing of international diplomacy - bid me remain silent on the matter. All that I shall say is that it was in no way my fault, I barely knew the girl, and I have no idea why the famous politician in question - who wasn't really all that famous, anyway, so I don't know what all the fuss was about - should have taken such umbrage. Declaring me persona non grata with the passport office was a quite unnecessary step, and one which took some considerable unravelling of red tape to sort out, when I eventually decided to take a trip over to the New World some years later. Anyway, I seem to have wavered from the point somewhat, but I won't apologise, since I shall do whatever I damn well please with my own memoirs. Forgotten what I was talking about anyway. Ah yes. My three deserters. They had hit upon a quite obviously unworkable plan to get them away from Cairo, scene of their inadvisable crimes, and had decided that both Evie and I were to be instrumental in their success. I made no small amount of fuss at this point, insisting that they should reconsider their plans, but once again they chose to pay me no attention. Evie merely sighed and rolled her eyes, muttering something to me about my friends, the circles in which I moved, and the very great likelihood of my being hanged before I reached twenty-five. I had to agree with her on that point, actually, but as you can see she was happily wrong. At least I'm happy that she was wrong. Certain others might have different opinions. A certain famous American politician for one, and various reincarnated ancient spirits of evil might also have views on the matter. A man makes a fascinating array of enemies in his lifetime, doesn't he. (Sorry, still haven't checked up on that paragraph length thing).
We made an awkward procession heading down to the docks. Smith led the way, looking about as furtive as it's at all possible for a man to look, particularly when he is trying to be inconspicuous. In this latter he did not even begin to succeed, but fortunately there were no longer any soldiers in the vicinity. Smith, for all his attempts to be nonchalant, would have been arrested on sight, I'm sure. It's quite some achievement for a man to look that sneaky and nervous whilst lugging a large steamer trunk, but believe me old Smith managed it to perfection.
Next in the procession, painfully conscious of Stevens' lurking presence no more than a foot behind, came yours truly. The gun of the unfortunate murdered captain was close enough to my decidedly nervous back to discourage any action beyond those which had been explicitly directed to me; even had not Evie's predicament already been reason enough to behave. My younger sister, Hawkins' arm thrust aggressively through hers, brought up the rear of the company, my little gambler's gun pressed into her side under the cover of Hawkins' thick coat and her own fluffy, frilled dress. If ever there was reason enough for anybody to suspect foul play it lay in this bizarre accoutrement of my sister's, for she was well known for her tendency to wear clothes likely to shock a more sensitive society - meaning that she liked to wear trousers a lot of the time - and for her to choose such a dress as that during daylight hours was a clear indication that something was amiss. Nobody seemed to understand this coded message, however, and when we reached the ship we were welcomed aboard as though we were holidaying tourists having slipped ashore for a few minutes during a pleasure cruise. It was terribly frustrating.
We were met by the captain when we were halfway to Evie's cabin, and were appropriately beamed at, slapped on the back, and wished good day. Hawkins, playing the part as only a fine actor could, played up to the spirit of the occasion, laughing and joking with this large, sunburned bear of a man as though they had been friends all of their lives. We shared casual greetings, Hawkins explained in a loud voice that we were here to see Evie safely underway, and then the large, trusting captain strode away to look after some pressing business - knots to tie, no doubt, or cabin boys to berate. Decks to swab, all that sort of thing. Evie and I shared a look of considerable disappointment, before we were once again ushered forward, this time below decks.
Smith dumped the trunk in front of the door, creating a sizeable barrier to any hurried attempt to gain entrance - or exit - and we all stood very still and quiet for some moments. Hawkins broke the silence by telling us to sit down, which we did. There was a sizeable bed in the cabin, solidly made from some sturdy wood, and my sister and I sat upon that, very close together, wondering what the weather was like in the mid-Atlantic at this time of year, and whether or not we would most likely be sunk by an iceberg or shot by our captors. Certainly escape did not seem very likely. I vaguely recall remembering the early hours of the morning, when I had still been on laughing terms with my three deserters, and we had shared a rather-too-early morning whisky before agreeing that it was time to part company. Times such as that, and our many poker games in our dingy little apartment, seemed a very long way away, as indeed did any form of good humour or relaxation. Evie attempted to engage lanky Smith in conversation, perhaps under the impression that this elevated beanpole of a man was the lesser threat of three, but she was swiftly discouraged by his dark glare and almost toothless scowl. Less dangerous than Hawkins, Smith might have been - but only because he was considerably less intelligent. I was beginning to suspect that desertion had been the least of this merry group's crimes even before they had met up with me. I had been for some time under the happy delusion that I was leading them astray with my poker-playing and hashish-smoking, but quite clearly it had been the other way around.
We had arrived onboard ship particularly early, Hawkins having wanted to get things underway as soon as possible, and we were faced with a long wait until the time came to leave. I suggested a game of cards; Evie suggested a little sing-song (although I suspect that by that point she was being facetious); and Stevens started to demand alcohol. Evie insisted that there was a large bottle of whisky in her trunk, but although this inspired Stevens to begin moving the thing so that he could get into it, Hawkins saw through this thin tale, and demanded that the door-stop be left where it was. Apparently he had taken more notice of Evie's packing than had his cohort. Smith suggested that they send one of the sailors for some rum, but this idea was soon dismissed as stupid. The last thing that they wanted was to draw attention to themselves, and certainly Hawkins did not want his men drunk. The conversation soon petered out again, therefore, and soon there was no sound save that of the men up on the deck, going about their urgent preparations for departure.
It was some time after this, when the growing heat of the day was making the flowers placed in the cabin by some anonymous steward look decidedly faint, that Evie's hand suddenly touched mine, and I saw that her bright eyes had taken on a rather intense gleam. I wondered what she could be trying to draw my attention to, but could see nothing of immediate note. Our three captors were just as tense and on edge as before, there was no sign of the approach of outsiders, and there were certainly no likely weapons within reach. I was beginning to think that the strain of the situation was starting to get to her, when I realised that she had begun to sing a little ditty under her breath; a casual, bouncing little song such as we used to sing as children - something about sunflowers and the like, I seem to remember the words being. A happy little tune at any rate, and one calculated, perhaps, to help her pass the time. I felt like joining in, until I realised that she was singing the words in Ancient Egyptian. I recognised enough of them to know that this was no translation that she was singing. She had completely altered the words. Moreover she was looking at me as though I was supposed to understand every word, and therefore catch the message she was so obviously trying to pass me over the heads of our attentive friends. I could have strangled her. Had she forgotten who I was? Did she think that I had suddenly swapped minds with somebody who had been a responsible student for the last twenty years? I am what I am, and unfortunately - or at least it was unfortunate at that moment - I am not all that great at what I do. I'm not even nearly great.
She sung on for some time, contriving to look as innocent as possible, in that way that Alex has so definitely inherited. He was like that when he was a kid, and he had been playing with relics that he knew he wasn't supposed to touch, and he's the same now, when he's up to something. She was starting to sound a little less innocent, though, as she began to sing louder in her frustration. Apparently she was expecting me to acknowledge the message in some way, perhaps even by singing a reply in a similar fashion, but instead she was meeting with silence. I tried to mime helplessness, and she rolled her eyes in faint disgust. After that she started to sing a little more slowly and more pointedly, and I began to translate her words at the best speed I could manage.
Something about sticks. Heavy sticks? Oh, guns. Right. Heavy thunder sticks. My sister, the poet. Mind you, the Ancient Egyptians had no need for nice, simple little words like 'gun', so I suppose she did quite well on that count. Something else, too, which I assume was in reference to her trunk against the door. What, she had big thunder sticks in her belongings box? No, that wasn't right. Then there was something else, about three criminals, followed by something that I got very clearly, which involved something very sharp and a vital piece of my anatomy if I didn't start getting the hang of this very quickly. I tried singing a verse back to her, but from her confused expression I must have muffed it pretty badly. (I had, she informed me later, sung something about roasted locusts (which I still deny) and something else which would have been a physical impossibility for us, and would certainly have been illegal anyway, given that we are brother and sister). I got the message across eventually though, telling her that as far as I could see our best plan was to disarm Hawkins first, and then hope for the best. Our problem was that Hawkins was a big man, and definitely stronger than both of us. I was fairly well practised at brawling, and had acquired no small amount of skill in the art, but Evie had concentrated on learning things of a more academic nature, and would be of little use in an fight. At least so she claimed at the time - I've since seen her fighting all manner of mummies and monsters, and I can assure you that she handles herself admirably, even if she did manage to avoid learning it all at a more tender age. One thing that I hoped would work in our favour was that, whilst Hawkins was a big man, he was armed only with my little gun. The bigger and more deadly weapon was in the hands of Stevens, a far less imposing character known more for his skill at drawing dirty pictures than his ability to shoot straight. I had no idea what his fists were like, but he could certainly be no worse than Hawkins. All this we were attempting to convey to each other through the body of the song, but my Ancient Egyptian failed me completely, and Evie sighed and tried switching to Latin.
Now Latin, as those of you who have learnt it will know, is not the most poetical of languages, and whilst Ancient Egyptian requires a feat greater than those assigned to poor old Hercules in order to let it fit to a bouncy and inconsequential little tune, Latin requires very much more. Attempting to fit sentences in this stubborn language into neat little verses such as the ones that my sister had chosen is no mean feat I can assure you - and it is even worse when you are simultaneously trying to make yourself understood to a steaming great dunderhead of an older brother. Why she didn't just give up and tell Hawkins to shoot me is anybody's guess, but I can only assume that she has some lingering fondness for me. Needless to say she denies it now, but I still have my suspicions.
I have to confess that my Latin, rather than being better than my Ancient Egyptian, is inclined to be much worse - but with much repetition and a smattering of Greek to bolster (or confuse) things even more, my remarkably astute and talented sister was able to convey the body of her plan. Fortunately our three captors had had even less of an education than I, and had not been able to follow any of our impromptu singing session. No doubt they thought that it was nerves on our part that had led to this curious exchange of song snatches, and they showed no suspicion at all as to what we were up to. Happily Evelyn had chosen a tune too inconsequential and bubbly to possibly attract any attention, and we therefore sounded merely like a pair of vaguely inane toffs burbling crazily whilst in the grip of nervous tension. Well it's not my fault that they didn't pay more attention in school.
The song came to its natural end after a somewhat protracted period, necessary for my limited understanding. Evelyn had managed to convey to me the importance of making a move rather quickly, for a steward would be around to check the rooms before departure, and he would be sure to kick up a fuss when he found that he could not open her door. Hawkins would be sure to kill the poor fellow if he knew that he was coming; and if he didn't know, and the steward's knocking came as a surprise, he was sure to feel equally inclined to end the hapless gentleman's life. Therefore it seemed necessary that we do something as soon as possible, in order to hopefully save a steward, and perhaps draw some attention to our plight. My part in the plan was simple; namely to leap for Hawkins and hold him down whilst my sister, doing as sisters were generally expected to act, even though such things are not in her nature, would pretend to go into a faint at the shock of it all. Smith having been assigned to both listen at the door and watch at the porthole, Stevens would then be sure to rush over to her; and if luck was on her side she would be able to clobber him with something. I favoured my hip flask, a heavy little object made of metal, and currently even heavier due to its full load of liquid. Evelyn, on the other hand, feared that such a weapon would draw too much attention, and prove too difficult to get hold of and then conceal - and she elected in the end to use one of her own shoes. It seemed a natural enough movement for her to remove them now, for they were not the most comfortable of garments, being formalwear that she had put on to go with the dress. Nobody looked up when she slid the shoes off, and nobody seemed to notice that she retained one in her hand, toying with it as though considering whether or not it required repair. I remember being quite impressed with it at this point, having assumed that it would be no more than a slipper; for instead it was a large, heavy looking object with a surprisingly sharp-looking heel and toe, either one of which could do somebody some serious damage when wielded in an appropriate fashion. Wondering why a lady of such obvious breeding should require a shoe more sturdy than any footwear a man such as myself had ever worn in his life, outside the desert, I confirmed this plan in one of our song's closing stanzas, hoping that I had correctly remembered the Ancient Egyptian for 'yes, certainly' and hadn't just offered to sleep with the pharaoh's daughter or something. Evelyn nodded, clutching her shoe in a manner which made me feel very sorry for poor old Stevens, and doubly so for his head. Now all that remained of course was to choose the right moment to go for it, so to speak, and put our hastily contrived plan into action. I was for putting things off for as long as possible, but Evie insisted on being fairly immediate. Apparently she liked the steward, and had no desire to see him parted from this life. The fact that she was willing to risk her own dear brother's life in order to save the life of this anonymous worthy was hardly heartening, but one learns to live with these things. After all, a brother is only a brother, but one should never attempt to do harm to the man who takes care of a lady's cabin.
It's never easy to sit beside someone who is in the grip of a definite sense of expectation. Evie, having decided upon the plan, was very anxious to put it into motion, and was practically vibrating with anticipation now, eager for me to make the first move. It's a wonder that my three little deserters didn't pick up on it, but by that time they were so wrapped up in their own plans and worries that they probably wouldn't have noticed if the marching band of the local regiment had formed a procession through the middle of the cabin. I eyed Hawkins, wondering if there wasn't a rather better plan to be had instead. He looked even larger and more powerfully built now that I had been assigned the task of bringing him down, and my many remarkable successes in pub brawls and battles across the country seemed suddenly a long way distant. Evie was jogging at my arm, however, her message very clear. Time to do something, or let her try instead. I tried not to sigh too sorrowfully. Sisters. You can never argue with them. I'd say 'can't live with them, can't live without them', but for the obvious fact that you can live without them - and very well too. Having said that, some sisters are probably the sweet kind, that you wouldn't want to live without. Knew a bloke once, at Eton, who had three sisters, each more beautiful than the last; every one of them willing to bring a chap a cup of tea in the morning, or pull off his boots after a hard day's... well, not work, obviously. Not in my case. The point is that they weren't the kind to suggest taking on a gang of soldiers when armed with a pair of unwilling fists and a rather heavy shoe. But then of course they were somebody else's sisters. I, on the other hand, have Evie - which is why I'm not allowed to cower in corners nearly as often as I'd like.
Hawkins seemed to suspect that something was wrong. I hadn't moved yet; not outwardly. Inside I was tensing myself up, ready to move; letting each muscle do something appropriately elasticky. Outwardly I was as still and as slouchy as I had been before. Hawkins was looking at me differently though, and for a moment I had a terrible suspicion that he might actually speak Ancient Egyptian, or Latin, or Greek; that he had finally managed to translate the song Evie had spent so much time impatiently drumming into my thick, under-educated skull. There was no understanding in his eyes, however; no clarity of purpose. Just faint suspicion, like something you're looking at through a pair of binoculars, when you can't quite get into focus. He frowned. Evie's hand brushed mine. I saw Hawkins' hand twitch around its grip on my gun.
I leapt at him so fast, so suddenly, that I almost took myself by surprise. I remember very clearly the moment when I struck him; when my body slammed into his and we both went crashing to the ground. I felt solid muscle meet my attack; knew that I had done no more than shock him, and that my strength compared to his was little more than pitiful. Behind me I could hear Evie's movements, mingled with my own. I heard a roar, a gasp, a thud; knew even though I couldn't see anything that my sister had done her work with her shoe. By the sound of it Stevens was still conscious, although he didn't appear to be ready to go back into battle. Smith was hovering, indecisive; I could hear his breathing, easily identifiable by its faint hoarseness, like the desert was whipping up a sand storm in the back of his throat. Evie must have Stevens' gun then, by now. Why wasn't she doing anything with it? A shot to bring Hawkins under control, or just to give a warning to the rest of the ship? One gunshot would bring everybody running, and that trunk in front of the door wouldn't keep them out for long. She didn't fire though. She didn't even speak.
"Get off me." Hawkins' voice was just a shapeless growl; a deep, rough sound close to my ear. I tried to hold him down, even though he was so much stronger than me, trying to use my two hands to wrestle my little gun away from his one meaty fist. He had seized hold of the back of my collar with his other hand, and was trying to haul me off by the scruff of my neck, like one of my sister's beloved cats dealing with its misbehaving kittens. I struggled harder, feeling one of his knees coming up, pushing easily past the apparently negligible obstacle of my body. The gun moved. I thought that I had it. The knee was riding up close to my chest.
"Evie!" I was worried about her now. What the hell was she playing at? Why was it taking her so long to realise that she could use Stevens' gun? She'd fired them before. I'd seen her do it, a hundred times. Our father was very keen to be sure that she knew how to shoot, and had taught us both during long evenings out in the desert, on archaeological digs when we were kids. Evie had never been all that enthusiastic about it - she'd rather have been deciphering doodles in dusty burial chambers - but she had been good at it. Better with a rifle than a handgun perhaps; but she certainly knew how to fire the damn thing. Was it empty? No, it couldn't be. Hawkins at least wasn't the type to fail to reload. He was far too much of a professional.
"Gotcha." The dull growl of Hawkins' voice; a hot, dry breath across my face; dragged my mind back from its wanderings. The knee was pressed hard against my ribcage now, and I could feel my grip on his hands loosening. The breath caught in my lungs. If he managed to get a shot off - just one - Evie could be dead before the sound of the shot had finished ringing about in the little cabin. Hawkins was a crack shot. He had told me that often enough; boasted about it during our evenings together, in the desert when we had first met, and in our dingy little apartment since. He'd told me about his scores on the firing range; how he was better than the useless officers, with all their fancy training at Sandhurst. Better than the ragamuffin members of the French Foreign Legion, the only other armed force in the area. He could shoot anything, from any distance; small or large, moving or still. Evie would be an easy target. He couldn't miss. Desperate and shaking, I changed my grip and latched my tired fingers around the tiny gun, just visible inside Hawkins' huge hand. The knee braced against me. I felt his muscles contract.
I was aware of little as I flew threw the air, propelled by a mighty shove that made my stomach soar across the room, at least three feet behind the rest of me. Hawkins let out a yell of rage, and I was aware then, only distantly, that my grip on the gun had been just good enough. Hawkins had thrown me aside; but I was still holding the gun, for his own strength had worked against him, and he had torn the weapon from his own hand. I didn't have much time for triumph, however, for I hit the floor hard. I felt my shoulders slam against wood; felt something bounce; felt my head crash into the timbers with enough force to make the whole world go black. Light returned almost instantly, but it was a strange kind of light. Too bright; too hard. Everything was shifting, like a whole world being viewed through a zoŰtrope. I knew that I didn't have time to indulge the injury though. Even if my brain really was leaping out through my eyes - it certainly felt like it was - I couldn't let Hawkins get the gun back. I lifted the little weapon, managed to get myself halfway to an upright position, and glared back at the glowering sergeant. I could almost see the sparks dancing in his eyes.
"Evie?" I couldn't see her, because I didn't dare take my eyes off Hawkins. She answered almost immediately.
"You did it, Jonathon!" She sounded excited; jubilant, just as she had been when I had won her that stupid doll at a fair over in England once, when I was no more than about ten years old. I didn't think that I had honestly given her any reason since then to be genuinely proud of me, and it was quite a revelation to realise just how much I liked to hear her respect. Not enough to feel like doing anything else, ever again, to win such admiration, but it was certainly nice whilst it lasted. I managed a breathless smile.
"Of course I did. Nothing to it old thing. How are you?"
"Alright." She didn't sound quite alright, and I wondered if I could risk stealing a glance in her direction. Had Stevens got the upper hand after all; had it not been him that I had heard hitting the ground? Things had been pretty confused at that moment, and I had interpreted the sounds only as I had wanted to, rather than through any kind of evidence or information.
"Fine. Good." Deciding not to take any risks with Hawkins, and not to assume that Evie had been captured by Stevens, I narrowed my eyes and switched into my best sarcastic voice. "Then next time a bit of support might not go amiss. I was nearly killed, Evie."
"Sorry about that." She didn't sound sorry. Knowing that I was risking a lot, I flicked her half a glance, out of half an eyeball, trying to see if she really was still in one piece. She was. In point of fact she was standing in the middle of the floor, legs slightly apart, gleaming black gun pointed directly at an almost comatose Stevens, and a very nervous Smith. Even in her frilly dress, slightly lopsided due to the removal of one thick-soled shoe, she looked a determined and lethal figure. She was certainly holding the gun as though she knew how to use it. I'd have been scared of her myself, so I could certainly understand poor Smithy's concern.
"Feel like calling for help?" Evie didn't look back at me, but remained where she was, not moving so much as a muscle. I considered the options. Shouting wouldn't work, and I didn't think that I was up to it anyway. Firing a gun would probably be just as unpleasant for my poor, ringing head, but at least it had more chance of success. I pointed the little barrel up at the ceiling, hoped that there was nobody standing directly above, and squeezed the miniature trigger. The sound echoed about; a furious explosion of powder and lead that roared about inside my already ringing skull. Hawkins made as though to come after me, but I swung the gun back down to point at him. I'd have shaken my head, or warned him vocally not to make any move, if I'd have thought that I could manage it. I couldn't. I could barely even see him anymore. His eyes flickered about between me and my sister, latching on the big black gun to which the latter was so furiously attached. Slowly he backed down.
"Miss Carnahan!" There was a hammering on the door, and a voice shouting loud, ringing with alarm. "Are you alright in there, Miss Carnahan?"
"Not really." She sounded so wonderfully calm; so perfectly capable and cool. "I'm afraid that I can't open the door. Do you think you can force it?"
"Just a moment, miss." There was the sound of echoing footsteps; of all manner of men, all eager to play their part in giving assistance to a lady. Something groaned, and there was a rattle and a creak of straining wood. The steamer trunk in front of the door began to move.
"I'll get you for this." Hawkins was glaring at Evie with all the hatred and fury that I've seen since in the eyes of a hundred servants of evil. Quite something, to remind one of a monster that has spent thousands of years warping slowly in the horrors of hell, but then Hawkins always was a colourful chap. Evie favoured him with one of those sweet little smiles that she gives, whenever she knows that she has the upper hand. Not scared of anything, my sister. Or anyone.
"Nearly there, miss. Are you near the door?" The voice outside sounded well educated, and English. I thought that I recognised it, which probably meant that it belonged to somebody from the Cairo party circuit. Somebody well-to-do, and very well connected. Probably the captain. It usually worked out that way. I tried to remember his name, but it didn't want to come. Hardly surprising, given that my head was still trying to escape. I kept having to remind it who was boss, but it didn't seem to care for such trifling rules of anatomy anymore. Neither did I, to be honest. I'd have been quite happy to see it sneak away out of the porthole. At least then it would have taken my headache with it.
"Nobody's near the door." She sounded as though she had been doing this all of her life, even though it was usually me getting into these frustrating little situations. She was the one who was supposed to know more about books than danger; more about the ancient world than the one she actually lived in. It didn't work out that way though. Never has with Evie. Every time you think she's found her way into something that she'd never going to be able to deal with, suddenly she's handling it like a pro. Like those ghosts on Bodmin Moor, and the malevolent spirits that... somebody... accidentally awakened in the middle of that weird African exhibit at the history museum in Berlin. She was still not sounding quite herself though, this time. There was definitely something slightly tense about her voice. It reminded me of the time when we were both very small, and we'd wandered off into the market place, and a gang of cut-throats had seemed ready to swoop on a pair of such easy targets. Evie had tried out some bluff, but she had obviously not believed it herself. She sounded like that now, in the cabin, in a way that only I could detect. The door shook again, and this time the steamer trunk moved noticeably. Evie looked hugely relieved.
"Miss Carnahan?" A hand pushed its way through the crack in the door, widening the gap, pushing harder. Seconds later there was a head there; then a pair of large, thrusting shoulders. The steamer trunk shunted forward again, taking the cabin's single, woven rug with it. A large scuff mark drew itself across the dusky planking, before finally the door opened wide. The head and shoulders became a body; became a large, inquisitive man; became, finally, a person with a name. Cunningham, the son of a pleasantly batty couple that my parents had dinner with every so often. Geoffrey Cunningham. Had been in the Navy. Left for some reason. About thirty, very tall, ramrod straight. Girls loved him. Right then, so did I.
"Is everybody alright?" He was a bit of a blur, but I could see him looking around, taking in the vista. Three men held at gunpoint; my sister with a gun; me sprawled on the floor looking like half of Egypt had jumped on my head. I felt a bit sorry for him really. Poor old Cunningham was a good sort, but it usually took everything quite some time to sink into his brain. Give him a compass and a nautical map and he could take you anywhere in the world, but give him anything else and he'd look as lost as a camel in Leicester Square. He drew his gun though, clearly realising that there was somebody here who needed arresting.
"These people kidnapped my brother and I." Evie was fumbling with the gun in her hands, backing away to let Cunningham take up her place.
"Yeah." Feeling like I often did after far too much whisky, I let her begin helping me to my feet. "And they also killed an army captain down by the docks. Just a few hours ago."
"That was them?" Cunningham's eyes were wide in insulted outrage. The expression seemed to suit him, although admittedly I couldn't see very well. He smiled at us, with both of his shifting, wobbling heads. That was the point when I decided that it was well past time for me to pass out. I didn't though. I just remained there, swaying slightly, hoping that Evie didn't decide to let go.
"We'll be going." Evie glanced about at her little cabin. "I'll be back soon if I may. For the voyage. I think I should get my brother back home though."
"Of course." Cunningham's voice was soft, and filled with understanding. "We'll deal with these miscreants." Yes, he really did say 'miscreants'. People do, you know. Rarely, but they do say it. I felt Evie's hand tighten on my arms, and obediently followed as my legs started to lead me in search of a bed. Or anywhere else appropriately horizontal. By then I didn't really care.
"Evie?" We were making our way through the port, I think. Somewhere with lots of water on one side, and lots of people on the other. Either a port, then, or a public swimming pool; and I can't really see why we would have walked through the latter in order to get me back home. She mumbled a distant response to her name, clearly concentrating on making sure that I didn't fall. She didn't really need to bother - my feet were very used to getting me home in a largely incapacitated state, so her help wasn't entirely required. I liked her there, though, so I didn't tell her that.
"Why didn't you fire the gun? Distract Hawkins? Bring help sooner?" The words sounded very clear as I was saying them, but afterwards I wasn't sure that they had been clear at all. More mumbled and confused than I had hoped; again, very like when I had had rather too much whisky. She hesitated.
"Ah ha." I'd expected as much. "With the gun?"
"With the gun."
"Couldn't work out how to use it?" It was a bit different to the weapons she was used to; maybe she really was more of a scholar than a fighter, no matter how capable she always seemed in either field.
"Not quite, no." She sounded faintly embarrassed. "When I pulled it away from that man..."
"... it sort of... fell apart. He must have been playing with it, or he'd reloaded it, and hadn't closed the chamber properly. When I took the damn thing, it fell apart in my hands."
"It fell apart?" Had she really been standing there all that time, threatening a group of desperate killers with a broken gun? Of course she had. She is, after all, my sister.
"The chamber dropped out completely." She sounded terribly apologetic, as though having been in such a potentially lethal situation was no more a set back than running out of tea when all of the shops were shut. "That's why I was holding the gun in both hands. I wanted to make sure that the barrel was hidden properly. I think the chamber fell down my sleeve."
"You realise what would have happened if they'd seen?"
"It needn't have been that bad. You got your little gun back from that big chap. Eventually I mean. After that it didn't matter so much."
"Evie..." I fumbled to lift up my little gun, still held in my somewhat wobbly hand. "This gun takes .22 calibre bullets."
"So have you ever tried buying .22 calibre bullets in this town? The store owner has to order them specially every few months, because he has so few requests for them. I've been running low on ammunition for six weeks now, since I got caught up in a... little contretemps in a bar not far from here." At least I think it was not far from there. By then I had absolutely no idea where we were. "The bullet I fired into the ceiling was the only shot in the chamber. The only bullet I had. Hawkins must have known that, after having had the gun for so long. It was your gun that he was really worried about, not mine."
"Oh." She sounded more thoughtful than shocked. "Just as well we didn't have to shoot anybody then."
"Wasn't it just." We had reached my little building by then; the mass of dark, dilapidated dwellings on the poor side of town, where I had spent so many happy hours with my three deserters. "Look, I er... I can manage by myself from here. You should get back. You can't miss that boat now that your luggage is onboard."
"Yes." She fingered her unwieldy dress. "I should change into something more comfortable. Write up my diary. Finish that paper for Professor Stanley."
"Haven't finished your homework yet, sis? Tsk tsk."
"I'm slacking." She smiled. "Your influence of course."
"Of course. That's what I'm here for." I glanced up at the dirty windows of my building, and remembered climbing in through the rather brighter ones, at her apartment. "Um... look. About what happened."
"Don't worry about it, Jonathon." She gave me one of her little hugs. "I gave up expecting you to bring respectable guests home for tea a long time ago."
"But I nearly got you killed." I felt a bizarre need to apologise, which I mercifully haven't felt since. She smiled.
"Nearly. Maybe next time you'll think a little harder. Be a little more careful about who you hook up with." She didn't sound too optimistic, but I couldn't really blame her for that. I shrugged.
"All the same..."
"You're sorry. I can see that." She smiled at me, and I could see the forgiveness in her eyes, along with the exasperation and the frustration, and all the other things she felt where I was concerned. I'm sure that she felt I was going to get myself killed one of these days. She might still turn out to be right about that. These things do keep happening to me even now. Funny how she always manages to seem like my older sister at these moments; and I like some recalcitrant younger brother, infuriating and incorrigible. Always going out to play in the mud in my Sunday best.
"I'll write to you from England." She was getting all businesslike again; ready to be off. "Do try to stay out of trouble until then. Please?"
"I'll be as good as gold. I might even have a job when you get back."
"A respectable one. One that pays a salary, and isn't at all illegal." She straightened my jacket, and shot my useless little gun a significant glare. I slipped it into my pocket, where it chinked reassuringly against an (obviously pretty sturdy) bottle of Irish whiskey. Just the thing for my headache.
"A respectable job. With a salary." I really did consider it for a bit. No, honestly. Not for a very big bit, but for a bit nonetheless. She smiled again.
"I'll expect to hear all about it."
"Oh you will, sis." And undoubtedly she did, when she next returned from England and found out everything that I'd been up to whilst she'd been away. (I don't remember the exact details, but I'm fairly certain that that was the year of the counterfeit treasure map. And the whisky racket. And very possibly also the casino). She smiled at me.
"I'll be going then. See you soon."
"Yes. Very soon. Have a good trip."
"I will." She took a few steps away, then stopped and turned back. "You will stay out of trouble, won't you Jonathon?"
"Of course I will." I offered her one of my best smiles and she nodded, then carried on walking. I watched her for some while; saw her vanishing into the throngs of people, heading off back to England, our alleged, but never real, home. I meant to keep my promise, too. I really, honestly did. I fully intended to be good, and to do something constructive and sensible with my time. To earn an honest living. To make my family proud. And, in honour of my dear, sensible sister, absolutely to stay out of trouble.
Naturally enough though, that's not quite the way it worked out.