Authors: Tess Gerritsen
To Adam and Joshua,
for whom the sun doth shine
Every mummy is an exploration, an undiscovered continent that you’re visiting for the very first time.
He is coming for me.
I feel it in my bones. I sniff it in the air, as recognizable as the scent of hot sand and savory spices and the sweat of a hundred men toiling in the sun. These are the smells of Egypt’s western desert, and they are still vivid to me, although that country is nearly half a globe away from the dark bedroom where I now lie. Fifteen years have passed since I walked that desert, but when I close my eyes, in an instant I am there again, standing at the edge of the tent camp, looking toward the Libyan border, and the sunset. The wind moaned like a woman when it swept down the wadi. I still hear the thuds of pickaxes and the scrape of shovels, can picture the army of Egyptian diggers, busy as ants as they swarmed the excavation site, hauling their gufa baskets filled with soil. It seemed to me then, when I stood in that desert fifteen years ago, as if I were an actress in a film about someone else’s adventure. Not mine. Certainly it was not an adventure that a quiet girl from Indio, California, ever expected to live.
The lights of a passing car glimmer through my closed eyelids. When I open my eyes, Egypt vanishes. No longer am I standing in the desert gazing at a sky smeared by sunset the color of bruises. Instead I am once again half a world away, lying in my dark San Diego bedroom.
I climb out of bed and walk barefoot to the window to look out at the street. It is a tired neighborhood of stucco tract homes built in the 1950s, before the American dream meant mini mansions and three-car garages. There is honesty in the modest but sturdy houses, built not to impress but to shelter, and I feel safely anonymous here. Just another single mother struggling to raise a recalcitrant teenage daughter.
Peeking through the curtains at the street, I see a dark-colored sedan slow down half a block away. It pulls over to the curb, and the headlights turn off. I watch, waiting for the driver to step out, but no one does. For a long time the driver sits there. Perhaps he’s listening to the radio, or maybe he’s had a fight with his wife and is afraid to face her. Perhaps there are lovers in that car with nowhere else to go. I can formulate so many explanations, none of them alarming, yet my skin is prickling with hot dread.
A moment later the sedan’s taillights come back on, and the car pulls away and continues down the street.
Even after it vanishes around the corner, I am still jittery, clutching the curtains in my damp hand. I return to bed and lie sweating on top of the covers, but I cannot sleep. Although it’s a warm July night, I keep my bedroom window latched, and insist that my daughter, Tari, keeps hers latched as well. But Tari does not always listen to me.
Every day, she listens to me less.
I close my eyes and, as always, the visions of Egypt come back. It’s always to Egypt that my thoughts return. Even before I stood on its soil, I’d dreamed about it. At six years old, I spotted a photograph of the Valley of the Kings on the cover of
feeling instant recognition, as though I were looking at a familiar, much-beloved face that I had almost forgotten. That was what the land meant to me, a beloved face I longed to see again.
And as the years progressed, I laid the foundations for my return. I worked and studied. A full scholarship brought me to Stanford, and to the attention of a professor who enthusiastically recommended me for a summer job at an excavation in Egypt’s western desert.
In June, at the end of my junior year, I boarded a flight to Cairo.
Even now, in the darkness of my California bedroom, I remember how my eyes ached from the sunlight glaring on white-hot sand. I smell the sunscreen on my skin and feel the sting of the wind peppering my face with desert grit. These memories make me happy. With a trowel in my hand and the sun on my shoulders, this was the culmination of a young girl’s dreams.
How quickly dreams become nightmares. I’d boarded the plane to Cairo as a happy college student. Three months later, I returned home a changed woman.
I did not come back from the desert alone. A monster followed me.
In the dark, my eyelids spring open. Was that a footfall? A door creaking open? I lie on damp sheets, heart battering itself against my chest. I am afraid to get out of bed, and afraid not to.
Something is not right in this house.
After years of hiding, I know better than to ignore the warning whispers in my head. Those urgent whispers are the only reason I am still alive. I’ve learned to pay heed to every anomaly, every tremor of disquiet. I notice unfamiliar cars driving up my street. I snap to attention if a co-worker mentions that someone was asking about me. I make elaborate escape plans long before I ever need them. My next move is already planned out. In two hours, my daughter and I can be over the border and in Mexico with new identities. Our passports, with new names, are already tucked away in my suitcase.
We should have left by now. We should not have waited this long.
But how do you convince a fourteen-year-old girl to move away from her friends? Tari is the problem; she does not understand the danger we’re in.
I pull open the nightstand drawer and take out the gun. It is not legally registered, and it makes me nervous, keeping a firearm under the same roof with my daughter. But after six weekends at the shooting range, I know how to use it.
My bare feet are silent as I step out of my room and move down the hall, past my daughter’s closed door. I conduct the same inspection that I have made a thousand times before, always in the dark. Like any prey, I feel safest in the dark.
In the kitchen, I check the windows and the door. In the living room, I do the same. Everything is secure. I come back up the hall and pause outside my daughter’s bedroom. Tari has become fanatical about her privacy, but there is no lock on her door, and I will never allow there to be one. I need to be able to look in, to confirm that she is safe.
The door gives a loud squeak as I open it, but it won’t wake her. As with most teenagers, her sleep is akin to a coma. The first thing I notice is the breeze, and I give a sigh. Once again, Tari has ignored my wishes and left her window wide open, as she has so many times before.
It feels like sacrilege, bringing the gun into my daughter’s bedroom, but I need to close that window. I step inside and pause beside the bed, watching her sleep, listening to the steady rhythm of her breathing. I remember the first time I laid eyes on her, red-faced and crying in the obstetrician’s hands. I had been in labor eighteen hours, and was so exhausted I could barely lift my head from the pillow. But after one glimpse of my baby, I would have risen from bed and fought a legion of attackers to protect her. That was the moment I knew what her name would be. I thought of the words carved into the great temple at Abu Simbel, words chosen by Ramses the Great to proclaim his love for his wife.
EFERTARI, FOR WHOM THE SUN DOTH SHINE
My daughter, Nefertari, is the one and only treasure that I brought back with me from Egypt. And I am terrified of losing her.
Tari is so much like me. It’s as if I am watching myself sleeping. When she was ten years old, she could already read hieroglyphs. At twelve, she could recite all the dynasties down to the Ptolemys. She spends her weekends haunting the Museum of Man. She is a clone of me in every way, and as the years pass there is no obvious trace of her father in her face or her voice or, most important of all, her soul. She is my daughter, mine alone, untainted by the evil that fathered her.
But she is also a normal fourteen-year-old girl, and this has been a source of frustration these past weeks as I’ve felt darkness closing in around us, as I lie awake every night, listening for a monster’s footsteps. My daughter is oblivious to the danger because I have hidden the truth from her. I want her to grow up strong and fearless, a warrior woman who is unafraid of shadows. She does not understand why I pace the house late at night, why I latch the windows and double-check the doors. She thinks I am a worrywart, and it’s true: I do all the worrying for both of us, to preserve the illusion that all is right with the world.
That is what Tari believes. She likes San Diego and she looks forward to her first year in high school. She’s managed to make friends here, and heaven help the parent who tries to come between a teenager and her friends. She is as strong-willed as I am, and were it not for her resistance, we would have left town weeks ago.
A breeze blows in the window, chilling the sweat on my skin.
I set the gun down on the nightstand and cross to the window to close it. For a moment I linger, breathing in cool air. Outside, the night has fallen silent, except for a mosquito’s whine. A prick stings my cheek. The significance of that mosquito bite does not strike me until I reach up to slide the window shut. I feel the icy breath of panic rush up my spine.
There is no screen over the window.
Where is the screen?
Only then do I sense the malevolent presence. While I stood lovingly watching my daughter,
was watching me. It has always been watching, biding its time, waiting for its chance to spring. Now it has found us.
I turn and face the evil.
Dr. Maura Isles could not decide whether to stay or to flee.
She lingered in the shadows of the Pilgrim Hospital parking lot, well beyond the glare of the klieg lights, beyond the circle of TV cameras. She had no wish to be spotted, and most local reporters would recognize the striking woman whose pale face and bluntly cut black hair had earned her the nickname Queen of the Dead. As yet no one had noticed Maura’s arrival, and not a single camera was turned in her direction. Instead, the dozen reporters were fully focused on a white van that had just pulled up at the hospital’s lobby entrance to unload its famous passenger. The van’s rear doors swung open and a lightning storm of camera flashes lit up the night as the celebrity patient was gently lifted out of the van and placed onto a hospital gurney. This patient was a media star whose newfound fame far outshone any mere medical examiner’s. Tonight Maura was merely part of the awestruck audience, drawn here for the same reason the reporters had converged like frenzied groupies outside the hospital on a warm Sunday night.
All were eager to catch a glimpse of Madam X.
Maura had faced reporters many times before, but the rabid hunger of this mob alarmed her. She knew that if some new prey wandered into their field of vision, their attention could shift in an instant, and tonight she was already feeling emotionally bruised and vulnerable. She considered escaping the scrum by turning around and climbing back into her car. But all that awaited her at home was a silent house and perhaps a few too many glasses of wine to keep her company on a night when Daniel Brophy could not. Lately there were far too many such nights, but that was the bargain she had struck by falling in love with him. The heart makes its choices without weighing the consequences. It doesn’t look ahead to the lonely nights that follow.
The gurney carrying Madam X rolled into the hospital, and the wolf pack of reporters chased after it. Through the glass lobby doors, Maura saw bright lights and excited faces, while outside in the parking lot she stood alone.
She followed the entourage into the building.
The gurney rolled through the lobby, past hospital visitors who stared in astonishment, past excited hospital staff waiting with their camera phones to snap photos. The parade moved on, turning down the hallway and toward Diagnostic Imaging. But at an inner doorway, only the gurney was allowed through. A hospital official in suit and tie stepped forward and blocked the reporters from going any farther.
“I’m afraid we’ll have to stop you right here,” he said. “I know you all want to watch this, but the room’s very small.” He raised his hands to silence the disappointed grumbles. “My name is Phil Lord. I’m the public relations officer for Pilgrim Hospital, and we’re thrilled to be part of this study, since a patient like Madam X comes along only every, well, two thousand years.” He smiled at the expected laughter. “The CT scan won’t take long, so if you’re willing to wait, one of the archaeologists will come out immediately afterward to announce the results.” He turned to a pale man of about forty who’d retreated into a corner, as though hoping he would not be noticed. “Dr. Robinson, before we start, would you like to say a few words?”
Addressing this crowd was clearly the last thing the bespectacled man wanted to do, but he gamely took a breath and stepped forward, nudging his drooping glasses back up the bridge of his beakish nose. This archaeologist bore no resemblance at all to Indiana Jones. With his receding hairline and studious squint, he looked more like an accountant caught in the unwelcome glare of the cameras. “I’m Dr. Nicholas Robinson,” he said. “I’m curator at—”
“Could you speak up, Doctor?” one of the reporters called out.
“Oh, sorry.” Dr. Robinson cleared his throat. “I’m curator at the Crispin Museum here in Boston. We are immensely grateful that Pilgrim Hospital has so generously offered to perform this CT scan of Madam X. It’s an extraordinary opportunity to catch an intimate glimpse into the past, and judging by the size of this crowd, you’re all as excited as we are. My colleague Dr. Josephine Pulcillo, who is an Egyptologist, will come out to speak to you after the scan is completed. She’ll announce the results and answer any questions then.”
“When will Madam X go on display for the public?” a reporter called out.
“Within the week, I expect,” said Robinson. “The new exhibit’s already been built and—”
“Any clues to her identity?”
“Why hasn’t she been on display before?”
“Could she be royal?”
“I don’t know,” said Robinson, blinking rapidly under the assault of so many questions. “We still need to confirm it’s a female.”
“You found it six months ago, and you still don’t know the sex?”
“These analyses take time.”
“One glance oughta do it,” a reporter said, and the crowd laughed.
“It’s not as simple as you think,” said Robinson, his glasses slipping down his nose again. “At two thousand years old, she’s extremely fragile and she must be handled with great care. I found it nerve-racking enough just transporting her here tonight, in that van. Our first priority as a museum is preservation. I consider myself her guardian, and it’s my duty to protect her. That’s why we’ve taken our time coordinating this scan with the hospital. We move slowly, and we move with care.”
“What do you hope to learn from this CT scan tonight, Dr. Robinson?”
Robinson’s face suddenly lit up with enthusiasm. “Learn? Why, everything! Her age, her health. The method of her preservation. If we’re fortunate, we may even discover the cause of her death.”
“Is that why the medical examiner’s here?”
The whole group turned like a multieyed creature and stared at Maura, who had been standing at the back of the room. She felt the familiar urge to back away as the TV cameras swung her way.
“Dr. Isles,” a reporter called out, “are you here to make a diagnosis?”
“Why is the ME’s office involved?” another asked.
That last question needed an immediate answer, before the issue got twisted by the press.
Maura said, firmly: “The medical examiner’s office is not involved. It’s certainly not paying me to be here tonight.”
“But you are here,” said Channel 5’s blond hunk, whom Maura had never liked.
“At the invitation of the Crispin Museum. Dr. Robinson thought it might be helpful to have a medical examiner’s perspective on this case. So he called me last week to ask if I wanted to observe the scan. Believe me, any pathologist would jump at this chance. I’m as fascinated by Madam X as you are, and I can’t wait to meet her.” She looked pointedly at the curator. “Isn’t it about time to begin, Dr. Robinson?”
She’d just tossed him an escape line, and he grabbed it. “Yes. Yes, it’s time. If you’ll come with me, Dr. Isles.”
She cut through the crowd and followed him into the Imaging Department. As the door closed behind them, shutting them off from the press, Robinson blew out a long sigh.
“God, I’m terrible at public speaking,” he said. “Thank you for ending that ordeal.”
“I’ve had practice. Way too much of it.”
They shook hands, and he said: “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Dr. Isles. Mr. Crispin wanted to meet you as well, but he had hip surgery a few months ago and he still can’t stand for long periods of time. He asked me to say hello.”
“When you invited me, you didn’t warn me I’d have to walk through that mob.”
“The press?” Robinson gave a pained look. “They’re a necessary evil.”
“Necessary for whom?”
“Our survival as a museum. Since the article about Madam X, our ticket sales have gone through the roof. And we haven’t even put her on display yet.”
Robinson led her into a warren of hallways. On this Sunday night, the Diagnostic Imaging Department was quiet and the rooms they passed were dark and empty.
“It’s going to get a little crowded in there,” said Robinson.
“There’s hardly space for even a small group.”
“Who else is watching?”
“My colleague Josephine Pulcillo; the radiologist, Dr. Brier; and a CT tech. Oh, and there’ll be a camera crew.”
“Someone you hired?”
“No. They’re from the Discovery Channel.”
She gave a startled laugh. “Now I’m
“It does mean, though, that we have to watch our language.” He stopped outside the door labeled
and said softly: “I think they may be already filming.”
They quietly slipped into the CT viewing room, where the camera crew was, indeed, recording as Dr. Brier explained the technology they were about to use.
is short for ‘computed tomography.’ Our machine shoots X-rays at the subject from thousands of different angles. The computer then processes that information and generates a three-dimensional image of the internal anatomy. You’ll see it on this monitor. It’ll look like a series of cross sections, as if we’re actually cutting the body into slices.”
As the taping continued, Maura edged her way to the viewing window. There, peering through the glass, she saw Madam X for the first time.
In the rarefied world of museums, Egyptian mummies were the undisputed rock stars. Their display cases were where you’d usually find the schoolchildren gathered, faces up to the glass, every one of them fascinated by a rare glimpse of death. Seldom did modern eyes encounter a human corpse on display, unless it wore the acceptable countenance of a mummy. The public loved mummies, and Maura was no exception. She stared, transfixed, even though what she actually saw was nothing more than a human-shaped bundle resting in an open crate, its flesh concealed beneath ancient strips of linen. Mounted over the face was a cartonnage mask—the painted face of a woman with haunting dark eyes.
But then another woman in the CT room caught Maura’s attention. Wearing cotton gloves, the young woman leaned into the crate, removing layers of Ethafoam packing from around the mummy. Ringlets of black hair fell around her face. She straightened and shoved her hair back, revealing eyes as dark and striking as those painted on the mask. Her Mediterranean features could well have appeared on any Egyptian temple painting, but her clothes were thoroughly modern: skinny blue jeans and a Live Aid T-shirt.
“Beautiful, isn’t she?” murmured Dr. Robinson. He’d moved beside Maura, and for a moment she wondered if he was referring to Madam X or to the young woman. “She appears to be in excellent condition. I just hope the body inside is as well preserved as those wrappings.”
“How old do you think she is? Do you have an estimate?”
“We sent off a swatch of the outer wrapping for carbon fourteen analysis. It just about killed our budget to do it, but Josephine insisted. The results came back as second century
“That’s the Ptolemaic period, isn’t it?”
He responded with a pleased smile. “You know your Egyptian dynasties.”
“I was an anthropology major in college, but I’m afraid I don’t remember much beyond that and the Yanomamo tribe.”
“Still, I’m impressed.”
She stared at the wrapped body, marveling that what lay in that crate was more than two thousand years old. What a journey it had taken, across an ocean, across millennia, all to end up lying on a CT table in a Boston hospital, gawked at by the curious. “Are you going to leave her in the crate for the scan?” she asked.
“We want to handle her as little as possible. The crate won’t get in the way. We’ll still get a good look at what lies under that linen.”
“So you haven’t taken even a little peek?”
“You mean have I
part of her?” His mild eyes widened in horror. “God, no. Archaeologists would have done that a hundred years ago, maybe, and that’s exactly how they ended up damaging so many specimens. There are probably layers of resin under those outer wrappings, so you can’t just peel it all away. You might have to chip through it. It’s not only destructive, it’s disrespectful. I’d never do that.” He looked through the window at the dark-haired young woman. “And Josephine would kill me if I did.”
“That’s your colleague?”
“Yes. Dr. Pulcillo.”
“She looks like she’s about sixteen.”
“Doesn’t she? But she’s smart as a whip. She’s the one who arranged this scan. And when the hospital attorneys tried to put a stop to it, Josephine managed to push it through anyway.”
“Why would the attorneys object?”
“Seriously? Because this patient couldn’t give the hospital her informed consent.”
Maura laughed in disbelief. “They wanted informed consent from a
“When you’re a lawyer, every
must be dotted. Even when the patient’s been dead for a few thousand years.”
Dr. Pulcillo had removed all the packing materials, and she joined them in the viewing room and shut the connecting door. The mummy now lay exposed in its crate, awaiting the first barrage of X-rays.
“Dr. Robinson?” said the CT tech, fingers poised over the computer keyboard. “We need to provide the required patient information before we can start the scan. What shall I use as the birth date?”
The curator frowned. “Oh, gosh. Do you really need a birth date?”
“I can’t start the scan until I fill in these blanks. I tried the year zero, and the computer wouldn’t take it.”
“Why don’t we use yesterday’s date? Make it one day old.”
“Okay. Now the program insists on knowing the sex. Male, female, or other?”
Robinson blinked. “There’s a category for
The tech grinned. “I’ve never had the chance to check that particular box.”
“Well then, let’s use it tonight. There’s a woman’s face on the mask, but you never know. We can’t be sure of the gender until we scan it.”
“Okay,” said Dr. Brier, the radiologist. “We’re ready to go.”
Dr. Robinson nodded. “Let’s do it.”
They gathered around the computer monitor, waiting for the first images to appear. Through the window, they could see the table feed Madam X’s head into the doughnut-shaped opening, where she was bombarded by X-rays from multiple angles. Computerized tomography was not new medical technology, but its use as an archaeological tool was relatively recent. No one in that room had ever before watched a live CT scan of a mummy, and as they all crowded in, Maura was aware of the TV camera trained on their faces, ready to capture their reactions. Standing beside her, Nicholas Robinson rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet, radiating enough nervous energy to infect everyone in the room. Maura felt her own pulse quicken as she craned for a better view of the monitor. The first image that appeared drew only impatient sighs.