“Fuck, it’s hot,” I complained as I slipped through the tent flap. I took off my broad-brimmed straw hat and slapped it against my hip. Dust puffed into the thick air. Whew. It was probably two degrees cooler inside, and only then because of the single wobbly electric fan running at full power.
I looked at my assistant, Dove. She sat cross-legged on her cot, making notes and sketching some of our recent finds. She was a slight young thing with a severe haircut that highlighted the kind of face that belonged on either a heroin addict or a supermodel. She was cranky as hell, unrepentant about her bad attitude, and probably the most saturnine person alive. I found her two years ago. Well, I found her scholarship application in a mountainous discard pile. She’d been slated for a rejection letter, but after I read her app and her essay, I told the scholarship committee to reconsider her application. And by “reconsider,” I really meant “accept that magnificent bitch as a student or die at my hands.”
I tended to get what I wanted.
I stared at Dove, who was ignoring the hell out of me. “Did I not give an inspiring lecture last night about saving our solar-powered fuel cells?”
“Absolutely riveting, Moira,” she agreed in her patented monotone. Her sarcasm was so well honed you were bleeding before you knew you’d been cut. “When the sun burns out in a billion years, I’m sure we will all thank you for inspiring us to save every drop of sunshine possible.”
I rolled my eyes. “Ax said you needed something. Otherwise, I need to get back to sweltering while I dust sand off three-thousand-year-old pottery.”
She peeked at me through the hair angled across her face. “There’s something weird about one of the ushabtis you found.” She picked up the little clay statue lying next to her and handed it to me. “It has fangs.”
I stared at the figure. She was right. The ushabti’s face was delicately carved, an ornate, beautiful piece, and yep, those were definitely fangs jutting from the dude’s mouth. “Okay. It’s weird, but . . . well, you know, those crazy ancient Egyptians.” I did a frenetic version of “jazz hands” to indicate super-crazy.
Dove arched one brow. “Read the glyphs,” she said. If I hadn’t known any better, I’d have said that Dove sounded freaked out. Um, what? She never got freaked out.
I peered at the symbols carved around the base of the statue. “‘Whom he finds in his way, him he devours bit by bit.’”
“That’s from ‘The Cannibal Hymn,’” said Dove.
I shrugged. “It’s not exactly uncommon to see it echoed in royal burials after Pharaoh Unis.”
“And the fangs were put there to reinforce the point?”
“Maybe this is a tribute to Sekhmet. She was the known blood drinker in the ancient Egyptian pantheon.”
“Then why doesn’t it have a lioness head? Or the sun disk?” Dove put a finger on each side of her mouth to emulate fangs. “If it was Kali, it would make sense.”
“Sure. Because finding the effigy of an Indian goddess here would be oh so logical.” I handed her the ushabti. “It’s interesting and rare, so lock it up.”
“Okay, fine.” Dove sucked in a breath. “I’m just gonna say it. ’Cause it has to be said.”
Her serious tone gave me pause. “All right, then. Sing it, sister.”
I stared at her. She stared back. Dove wasn’t a chickenshit, I’d give her that. Do you how many grad students quaked at the mere sight of me? Or how many members of the college administration mapped out their routes so they wouldn’t chance running into me on campus? Mwuhahahaha. Dove could care less if I terrified lesser mortals. She had never cowered before me. Not even when I was the only person standing between her and a full ride to one of the most prestigious private colleges in the United States. Dove was Dove no matter what. She didn’t allow people or rules or stupidity to dictate her behavior. She was a noble, cantankerous soul, and a rare human being—nearly as rare as a vampireushabti found in a desert wasteland.
I sighed in mock disappointment. “Dove, Dove, Dove. Oh, sweet little Dove. I liked you better when you were a cynical realist.”
“Don’t make me kill you,” she responded. “You’re the only human I can actually stand to be around for more than five minutes.”
“Aw. I’m all twitterpated now.”
“Bambi references are a death sentence,” she intoned.
I knew that. I also know that the only time Dove had ever been known to cry was when Bambi’s mother bit it in the forest.
“An ancient Egyptian vampire cult,” she went on stoically, as though she hadn’t threatened to end my existence twice in the last sixty seconds. “Maybe they worshiped Sekhmet, but they also thought they’d come to back to this world.Maybe when they died, they all had little fanged ushabtis put in their burial chambers so that their ka would be undead.”
Because I respected Dove, I studied the ushabti and thought about her theory.Undead ka? Hmm. Well, that was certainly an out-of-the-box hypothesis. I glanced at her. “You’ve thought a lot about this.”
“Either I think up outrageous, but possibly true theories or I stare at the sand while my sanity slips away.”
“I love it when you alliterate.” I handed the statue to Dove. For once, she looked like the young grad student she was, the way they all looked before mundane work, hostile environments, and hard-to-please, egomaniacal archaeologists (that would be me) stomped all over their hopes and dreams. Honestly, this version of Dove was far more disturbing than the mouthy brat who tried my patience forty-two times before breakfast. I forgot sometimes that she was vulnerable. She was broken, much like I was, and broken people viewed the world differently. Our perspective was jagged, like trying to watch a sunset in the shards of a mirror. Reflected beauty had sharp edges. “Tell you what. Go back over the ushabtis we’ve found so far. If you find any more fanged ones, or anything else that supports a Sekhmet blood-drinking cult, we’ll talk about your theory again.”
“Fair,” she said. Then she stood up, clutching the ushabti like it might try to leap out of her hands. She eyed me with the hostility I’d come to know and love. “Don’t you have pottery to dust?”
Ax was the best campfire cook, and he was punished for it nightly by having to make delicious meals for all of us (his cooking tasted good even with the sand that got in it—sand got into everything). I enjoyed tormenting my grad students, so I made them clean up. Again. Hey, at least I didn’t laugh maniacally while wielding a cat-o’-nine-tails.
I only did that on Tuesdays.
I was sitting on a canvas chair staring at the fire. Already the heat of the day was giving way to the chill of night. Ax eased down to sit next to my chair. He was a big man, well aware of his height and girth, and generally a gentle soul. But I’d seen him riled a time or two, and he definitely had the kind of mean a female archaeologist needed in the South Sudan. He looked like the leader of a biker gang, but my grandfather had seen his potential years ago and put him through college. Ax was ten years older than I was, and he’d befriended me when I was an angry fourteen-year-old, ready to tear down the world with my bare hands.
“You turning in soon?” asked Ax.
“Dawn to dusk, that’s the glamorous life of an archaeologist,” I said.
“Quit being so bitter about Indiana Jones.”
“It’s directed more at Lara Croft.”
“Permit will be up in three days,” I said with a sigh. “I need another two weeks, at least.”
“You’re lucky you got any sand time at all in these parts,” said Ax. He reached into his shirt pocket, the place where his cigarettes had once rested, and withdrew his stash of peppermint toothpicks. He put one of the toothpicks into the side of his mouth and chewed. “Can’t believe you talked me into doing this shit again. It’s not safe here.”
“It’s not safe anywhere,” I responded automatically. Ax liked to bitch about dropping his whole life—which was running a series of successful businesses, including a very popular bar—to be my muscle. We toiled away the days in hopes of finding a grand truth about humankind’s past before the season was over and we had to leave our beloved sites. It could be boring as hell, but passion for my job drove me forward relentlessly. I liked delving into the lives of long-dead cultures. Ax suggested that the reason I put so much energy into archaeological endeavors was to avoid seeking the truth about my own past. He was probably right. But even so, I loved it. No matter how mind-numbing the work got, it still held a magnificence that resonated in my soul. And hell, getting a pass to explore this part of the desert had taken a lot of money, and a lot more ego-stroking of officials—from border guards to country leaders. I’d been trying to get back here for years, to the place where my grandfather had poured out his own passion and energy. He’d been trying to save me—the granddaughter who’d imploded emotionally and returned from the brink with nothing but a fierce, pulsing rage. My grandfather probably should’ve left me in the loony bin, but instead he put me on a plane, dragged me halfway around the world, and gave me a purpose. He gifted me with the archaeological need to connect with our ancestors, to find the core of our truths, to embrace the past in hopes of gaining insight into the present.
No one came here. Too much desert, too much danger, too much digging. My grandfather thought there was a very important temple complex out here, one devoted to Set, the god of chaos. The killer of Osiris. Grandfather may not have found the site, but he’d never lost his belief in it. He’d known something grand was out here, something that could potentially change history, change the world.
And I wanted to find it.
Granted, trying to extract ancient history from the desert while war raged around our perimeter was certainly more dangerous than trying to cross the street in Manhattan.
But not by much.
“You going to therapy once we hit Stateside?” asked Ax.
Ugh. Ax kept asking me this question—no doubt hoping to get a different answer. He didn’t like my usual response. I looked at the dancing flames of the fire and pretended he wasn’t staring at me. “Nope.”
“Aw, Moira. You gotta do something.”
“I was thinking about a mani-pedi and a shopping spree at Louis Vuitton.”
“You’re too fucking stubborn,” he said. “You want your brain to melt again?”
“That was twenty years ago,” I said.
“I take my meds, all right?” I looked at him and twirled my forefinger near my temple. “Two pills a day keeps the crazy away.”
“You need to get off that antipsychotic bullshit. Give the head shrinkers another shot.”
No, I didn’t. I had yet to find a psychiatrist who didn’t drive me crazy. Talking about the past didn’t help. Not at all. Ever. “I’d rather sit on hot coals and eat broken glass while listening to you screech the wrong lyrics to ‘Material Girl.’”
“And that’s why I stopped serving half-price shooters on karaoke nights.”
“The video got a lot of YouTube hits,” I said sweetly. After all, I was the one who’d posted two full minutes of Ax’s Madonna-induced shame. Actions such as those probably explained why I didn’t have a lot of friends. That, and my rep for being a total nut job. Honestly, you de-pant one senator’s son at the country club and you get a bad rap forever. Of course, I did shove him into the pool after yanking down his swim trunks and revealing his rather small penis to the party in progress. If he hadn’t tried to stick his tongue down my throat while making an awkward grab for my breasts, he would’ve remained clothed and dry. I was sixteen, my reputation tainted by my stint in the whacky hut, and according to the senator, I had relapsed. Years later, that same son was arrested for soliciting a prostitute, and when they searched his car, they found a shit ton of cocaine. He went to jail, the wife went to Italy, and the senator went to hell. Who was holding the handbasket then, I ask you?
“Nightmares still bothering you?” Ax asked quietly.
The question ended our moment of levity. I could hardly begrudge him, though. Real worry weighted his tone. “Nah,” I said. “The corporate pill mills also make excellent sleeping drugs, which are far better than therapy.”
Ax had been there the day I’d lost my mind. I don’t remember much about it, other than rage, the utter, blinding rage. Years later, when I could at least talk about that part of it, Grandfather told me that Ax was the one who got to me before—well, anyway. He got me, and in some ways he’d never really let go. And that was also why he felt it was perfectly acceptable to harangue me about psychiatric treatments.
“You’re one of the most fearless people I’ve ever met,” said Ax. He looked up and caught my gaze. “Except when you gotta look backward into your own life. Your mother—”
“Is dead. And so is this conversation,” I said, getting up. “See you in the a.m.”
He sighed, then shook his head. His disappointment in me stung. I was thirty-four years old, damn it. Argh! How annoying that someone still existed on the planet capable of making me feel like an errant child. I put my hands on my hips. “I hear you, okay?” I sucked in a steadying breath and held up my hand with palm out as a proper vow-making gesture. “I hereby swear that I won’t go crazy again.” I swiped a finger over my heart in a cross. “Promise.”
“What do you mean again? You never stopped being cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.” He smiled at me, and I could see the shadows in his gaze. After all this time, I knew that he wondered if it would happen again. I did, too. Making a promise to keep my marbles intact wasn’t exactly one I could keep. But so far, my sanity was intact. Mostly.
Ax patted my arm. “I’ll make the java.”
I grimaced. Ax could cook like Martha Stewart, but his coffee had driven otherwise hardened souls to attempt suicide. “Don’t you dare, you miscreant. Your sludge tastes like ass-flavored gelatin.”
He grinned, and the wicked gleam in his eye forced a laugh out of me. He knew I wouldn’t let him make the damned coffee. “G’night, Moira.”
“Yeah, yeah.” I waved at him.
Dove was already tucked into her cot, snoring away. Ah, the sweet sleep of ornery bitches.
Exhaustion weighed on me like the Great Pyramid.
I considered the rucksack sitting like an accusation next to my cot. Within its leathery confines were prescription bottles, including one with the magic pills that kept nightmares from manifesting. But I was exhausted, and also feeling stubborn. I didn’t want to rely on a pill. I couldn’t really choose not to take the others. Me without meds was like the Hulk without Bruce Banner.
I sat on the cot, my shoulders sagging. I put my hand on the rucksack’s clasp, and hesitated. I blamed Ax for this sudden need to delve into dreamland unencumbered. Ax loved me, which was why he still prodded me about going to therapy and dealing with my shit. Maybe one day I would. Probably the same day I discovered Egyptian vampires . . . on the twelfth of never.
I let go of the bag, went vertical on the cot, and pulled up the scratchy blanket. I fell asleep before the discomfort of my crappy sleeping arrangements had the chance to annoy me.