He had been almost aware for some time. Nothingness had shattered when they removed him from the chamber long concealed behind the centuries empty tomb of a forgotten priest. The final layer of the binding spell had been written on the rock wall smashed to gain access and, with that gone, the spell itself had begun to fray.
Every movement frayed it further. The surrounding ka, more souls than had been near him in millennia, called him to feed. Slowly, he reached for memory.
Then, just as he brushed against self and had only to reach out and grasp it and draw home the key to his freedom, the movement stopped and the lives went away. But the nothingness didn't quite return.
And that was the worst of all.
Sixteenth Dynasty, thought Dr. Rax running his finger lightly along the upper surface of the plain, unadorned rectangle of black basalt. Strange, when the rest of the collection was Eighteenth. He could now, however, understand why the British were willing to let the artifact go; although it was a splendid example of its type, it was neither going to bring new visitors flocking to the galleries nor was it likely to shed much light on the past.
Besides, thanks to the acquisitiveness of aristocracy with more money than brains, Great Britain has all the Egyptian antiquities it can hope to use. Dr. Rax was careful not to let that thought show on his face, as a member of said aristocracy, albeit of a more recent vintage, fidgeted at his shoulder.
Too well bred to actually ask, the fourteenth Baron Montclair leaned forward, hands shoved into the pockets of his crested blazer.
Dr. Rax, unsure if the younger man was looking worried or merely vacant, attempted to ignore him. And I thought Monty Python created the concept of the upper-class twit, he mused as he continued his inspection. How foolish of me.
Unlike most sarcophagi, the artifact Dr. Rax examined had no lid but rather a sliding stone panel in one narrow end. Briefly, he wondered why that feature alone hadn't been enough to interest the British museums. As far as he knew the design survived on only one other sarcophagus, an alabaster beauty found by Zakaria Goneim in the unfinished step pyramid of Sekhem-khet.
Behind him, the fourteenth baron cleared his throat.
Dr. Rax continued to ignore him.
Although one corner had been chipped, the sarcophagus was in very good condition. Tucked away in one of the lower cellars of the Monclairs' ancestral home for almost a hundred years, it seemed to have been ignored by everything including time.
And excluding spiders. He brushed aside a dusty curtain of webbing, frowned, and with fingers that wanted to tremble, pulled a penlight out of his suit pocket.
"I say, is something wrong?" The fourteenth baron had an excuse for sounding a little frantic. The very exclusive remodeling firm would be arriving in a little under a month to turn the ancestral pile into a very exclusive health club and that great bloody stone box was sitting right where he'd planned to put the women's sauna.
The thudding of Dr. Rax's heart almost drowned out the question. He managed to mutter, "Nothing." Then he knelt and very carefully played the narrow beam of light over the lower edge of the sliding plate. Centered on the mortared seam, six inches above the base of the sarcophagus, was an oval of clay-a nearly perfect intact clay seal stamped with, as far as Dr. Rax could tell through the dust and the spider webs, the cartouche of Thoth, the ancient Egyptian god of wisdom.
Just for a moment, he forgot to breathe. An intact seal could mean only one thing. The sarcophagus wasn't-as everyone had assumed-empty.
For a dozen heartbeats, he stared at the seal and struggled with his conscience. The Brits had already said they didn't want the artifact. He was under no obligation to let them know what they were giving away. On the other hand? He sighed, switched off the penlight, and stood. "I need to make a call," he told the anxious peer. "If you could show me to a phone."
'Dr. Rax, what a pleasant surprise. Still out at Haversted Hall are you? Get a look at his lordship's 'bloody-great-black-stone-box'?"
'As a matter of fact, yes. And that's why I've called." He took a deep breath; best to get it over with quickly, the loss might hurt less. "Dr. Davis, did you actually send one of your people out here to look at the sarcophagus."
'Why?" The British Egyptologist snorted. "Need some help identifying it?"
Abruptly, Dr. Rax remembered why, and how much, he disliked the other man. "I think I can manage to classify it, thank you. I was just wondering if any of your people had seen the artifact."
'No need. We saw the rest of the junk Montclair dragged out of his nooks and crannies. You'd think that with all the precious bits and pieces leaving Egypt at the time, his Lordship's ancestor could have brought home something worthwhile, even by accident, wouldn't you?"
Professional ethics warred with desire. Ethics won. "About the sarcophagus?"
'Look, Dr. Rax?" On the other end of the line, Dr. Davis sighed explosively. "? this sarcophagus might be a big thing for you, but trust me, we've got all we need. We have storerooms of important, historically significant artifacts we may never have time to study." And you don't, was the not too subtly implied message. "I think we can allow one unadorned hunk of basalt to go to the colonies."
'So I can send for my preparators and start packing it up?" Dr. Rax asked quietly, his tone in severe contrast to the white-knuckled grip that twisted the phone cord.
'If you're sure you don't want to use a couple of my people?"
Not if my only other option was to carry the sarcophagus on my lap all the way home. "No, thank you. I'm sure all your people have plenty of historically significant things to do."
'Well, if that's the way you want it, be my guest. I'll have the paperwork done up and sent down to you at the Hall. You'll be able to get your artifact out of the country as easily as if it were a plaster statue of Big Ben." Which, his tone said clearly, is about its equivalent value.
'Thank you, Dr. Davis." You pompous, egocentric asshole. Dr. Rax added silently as he hung up. Oh, well, he soothed his lacerated conscience, no one can say I didn't try.
He straightened his jacket and turned to face the hovering baron, smiling reassuringly. "I believe you said that 50,000 pounds was your asking price??"
'Uh, Dr. Rax?" Karen Lahey stood and dusted off her knees. "Are you sure the Brits don't want this?"