Read an Excerpt
DEATH OF A TOURIST
The body lay facedown in the sand beside the giant stone blocks of the great pyramid of Khafre. Overhead, the blue sky flickered dimly through a haze born on the khamsin winds whistling relentlessly from the desert. The morning air was still cool and very dry, but full of the promise of heat to come. Men wearing head cloths and flowing tunics ran back and forth like ants, shouting in Arabic, while camel drivers stood beside their indifferent animals, craning their necks and talking excitedly. Policemen carrying automatic rifles guarded the perimeter of the crowd, looking alert and dangerous, when only a few minutes before they had been sleepy and bored.
Our tour group stood huddled together in a little knot a few yards from a brightly colored heap of clothes that had once been Millie Owens. Every few seconds, one of us broke from the herd, caught a glimpse of the body, and hurried back to the safety of the circle. It seemed impossible that the body was really there, that it wasn’t some horrible mistake, and that Millie wasn’t really just resting and would soon bounce up and start annoying us again. I wished she would.
Almost, anyway. I’m a high school history teacher, and I’m well acquainted with the full range of human behavior, but I’d never seen anyone who grated on the nerves of an entire group like Millie Owens, not even in PTA meetings. To be honest, the sight of her dead body lying at the base of the pyramid was not nearly as disturbing as it should have been. I glanced around at the faces of my traveling companions of the last two days. Everyone looked worried, but no one was crying, unless you counted a pair I called the ditz duo, who were wailing and whirling around like the dervishes we were supposed to see at dinner tonight. Our guide, Anni, was halfheartedly trying to calm them. The rest of us stood in shocked silence. Shocked, yes, but not grieving.
What bothered me the most was that it seemed that no one had seen what had happened, or at least no one was admitting it. Granted, the morning light was barely kissing the stones of the pyramids and the inevitable tourist hordes had not yet descended, but literally scores of people milled about. The hawkers with their postcards and plaster statues of Horus. The dozen or more carriage drivers with their unenthusiastic horses. The tourist police, managing to look both incompetent and frightening at the same time. Our own group of twenty-two, now down by one.
So how was it that no one had seen a fifty-five-year-old woman climb onto a pyramid and fall to her death? Our group could probably be excused because most of us spent a good deal of effort staying away from Millie. A buffer of twenty paces was the minimum required to avoid interaction. Just last night, I’d been scouring through my Egyptian phrase book for the correct phrase for “pepper spray.” Not that I’d have really used it on the old bat, but it would be nice to have, just in case I could take no more. Millie was one of those intense, pushy women who seemed to be in constant motion. Her mouth moved in an unending stream of fatuous observations, idiotic questions, and catty gossip. While the rest of us were still making introductions, she somehow knew everyone’s names, and a great deal more. She had a way of weaseling out details and then making rather shrewd guesses to fill in the gaps, and she wasn’t above snooping. I’d caught her going through my backpack on the bus during the very short trip from the hotel to the pyramids, less than an hour ago, and she’d just gazed unblushingly at me and handed it back.
“Diarrhea already or just playing it safe?” she’d asked loudly, an embarrassing reference to my Imodium.
I’d glared at her, unable to think of a snappy retort quickly enough. I suppose I should be grateful I hadn’t been carrying anything worse. And I was pretty sure she’d stolen the new strawberry lip balm I’d bought the day before at the hotel gift shop.
Millie was … or had been … living proof that no one ever really changed after high school. In a school the size of the one in which I taught, I saw a dozen Millies every day. She was the kid who bounded into a group of pretty, popular girls like a slobbering stray, oblivious to the discomfort she caused, clueless to the social cues that might have allowed her to join in. The nicer girls tolerated her for a few moments before suddenly remembering homework or prior commitments. The meaner girls were openly rude, cutting her with razor-sharp tongues before flouncing away in disgust in the face of her hurt incomprehension. The Millies of the high school world broke my heart, but that didn’t make them any easier to tolerate in the adult world.
Not surprisingly, our Millie had been traveling alone. She had droned on at great length about her traveling companion’s attack of appendicitis striking only hours before their plane was scheduled to take off. I decided that this “traveling companion” was either fictitious or had burst her own appendix with an ice pick. My own traveling companion, my cousin Kyla, backed the former because she contended that no one would have agreed to come with Millie in the first place. My money was on the latter because, as I pointed out, there’s no explaining how one chooses one’s roommates. It took her only a second.
“Bitch,” she said admiringly.
But that was all yesterday. Today, the March sun was brilliant even through the haze, and poor, sad Millie Owens was dead, which no one could have wished for her. And something had gone seriously wrong with our beautiful trip to Egypt.
I leaned against the stones of the pyramid, cool in the morning air, and wondered how many others had done so throughout the millennia since they had been carved. Maybe not many. Had the Egyptians spent much time in their cities of the dead after the pharaohs had been laid to rest? The huge necropolis had been a thriving community, almost a small city during construction, but what about afterward when the work was finished and the new pharaoh was far away fighting wars or building new monuments? I imagined an unearthly silence enveloping everything as the wind pushed the sand higher around the stones until they were all but swallowed by the desert.
Pretty much the opposite of what was going on now. The police were now moving among the vendors. I’d never heard so much shouting to so little purpose. Even after two months with my Pimsleur CDs, I could not understand more than two or three words of Arabic, but I could tell that they were getting nothing out of the bystanders. Wild gestures, head shakes, points and shrugs, but not one coherent statement as far as I could tell. Somehow, impossibly, Millie had climbed up onto one of the gigantic blocks of the pyramid and then fallen to her death.
It just made no sense. Large though the blocks were—and they were far too big for an out-of-shape tourist to climb without help—they just weren’t that tall. A fall of five or six feet at most. Far enough to break an arm, or a hip, I thought, glancing at the wizened, ancient figures of Charlie and Yvonne de Vance, but a neck? Maybe if she’d managed to get up to the second layer and somehow bounced off the first.
One of the policemen beckoned to our tour guide, Anni, who joined him a few paces away. Anni was a lovely and interesting mixture of traditional and modern Egyptian. A little younger than me, probably in her midtwenties, she had large dark eyes made to seem even larger by kohl eyeliner and thick mascara. She wore a lightweight turtleneck shirt carefully pinned to her headscarf to ensure that no part of her neck or hair showed, but over that she wore a t-shirt with an I ♥ WorldPal logo. Jeans and tennis shoes completed the outfit. In one hand, she held a pink Hello Kitty umbrella, which she used, not for protection from nonexistent rain, but as a beacon for gathering her small flock around her. Everywhere we went, we followed Hello Kitty like a row of ducklings following their mother.
Now she began a rapid torrent of Arabic with the policeman. The only word I understood was “la,” which meant “no.” She said it a lot.
My cousin Kyla joined me beside the stone, looking worried. She is far too careful about her clothes to lean against a dusty pyramid, but today she stood stiffly upright a pace away, looking striking as always. Her long dark hair, the exact color and texture of mine, was pulled into an elegant twist, gleaming in the sun. I’m not sure how she managed it, but her tan slacks and lemon shirt still looked crisp and pressed. And now, while the rest of us fretted, she looked perfectly cool and composed.
A façade. I could tell she was as worried as anyone.
“What do you think is going on?” she asked under her breath.
“I think they’re going to arrest us all and throw us into Turkish prison.”
She gave me a look. Kyla may look slim and elegant from a distance, but she is basically a pit bull without the fur. Back home in Austin, she leads a team of software developers with a great deal of organization, energy, and blunt speech. She also deeply believes that she is fully capable of handling any situation at any time, which I am happily and constantly pointing out to her is just not true. In return, I’m pretty sure she considers me weak and cowardly, mostly because she has called me both to my face. Still, there was no one I would rather have with me on any kind of adventure, and when I invited her to join me on a tour of Egypt, she said yes almost before the words were out of my mouth. Of course, she then spent the next six weeks trying to talk me into skipping the tour group and going about on our own, which was completely crazy. I’d wanted to go to Egypt my whole life. The pyramids, the mummies, the Nile. A dream trip, the fulfillment of a childhood desire. But go without the protection of a group and a guide who at least spoke the language? In a country where guards with machine guns stood on every corner and escorted every busload of tourists? No way. And if Kyla thought I was a coward, I could live with that. Of course, it seemed that even tour groups couldn’t protect you from everything. Millie’s death could hardly be considered part of the normal WorldPal package, but I knew if it interfered with our trip, Kyla was never going to let me hear the end of it.
I turned my thoughts back to the accident. The whole thing bothered me, and not just because a lonely middle-aged woman was dead.
“How do you think she got up there?” I wondered aloud.
She glanced behind me at the huge blocks. The top of her head barely cleared the upper rim of the stone. “I could get up there if I wanted to,” she announced.
“So could I, if a lion was chasing me. But not any other way. And she was a lot older than we are.”
Kyla considered. “She was pretty wiry,” she said doubtfully. “I mean, look at Flora and Fiona. They must be about a hundred, but I’ve seen Fiona tossing suitcases like a teamster.”
I ignored this. “And even if she did climb up and fall, how could that kill her?” I eyed the sad little heap from where we stood, but there was no way I was going over to check.
“Stranger things have happened,” she answered.
Maybe, I thought. But I couldn’t think of any.
One by one, the rest of the group joined us against the side of the pyramid. The youngest members of the group, two teenage boys called Chris and David Peterson, gave a hop and hoisted themselves onto the blocks, demonstrating how easy it was if you were a teenage boy. I could see their plump little mother open her mouth to call them back and then think better of it.
A few paces away, the Australian woman, Lydia Carpenter, dug in her purse for cigarettes and moved downwind to light up. Her husband, Ben, joined her, and the two of them stood with their heads together, conversing quietly. I watched them with interest. Lydia always carried a little metal box into which she dropped her ashes, even here in the desert, with nothing but sand and dust at her feet. Which didn’t seem to be good enough for some people. Jerry Morrison, a lawyer from somewhere in California, gave a snort of disgust and muttered something about a “filthy habit” in a stage whisper. He was traveling with his adult daughter, who joined him in moving away and turning their backs. Lydia and Ben stared at them with contempt.
One of the men in our group, a dark-haired giant with a booming voice, began talking about Millie a few paces away, and Kyla and I both perked up our ears and moved forward a step or two to listen.
“No, she is definitely dead,” he said, speaking to a young Asian couple, who were looking worried. Noticing our interest, he gave a small shrug. “I’m a doctor. I checked her pulse before the police pushed me away.”
“I don’t understand how she could die from a fall like that,” I said.
He nodded. “She may have caught her head on the stone and broken her neck. They wouldn’t let me examine her more thoroughly, but there was blood on the back of her neck, at the base of the skull. A tragic accident.”
I wished I could remember his name. Subdued now, he was ordinarily an exuberant personality with the dark skin of his Indian ancestors and the kind of voice that needed no microphone. He could easily have been obnoxious, but somehow instead managed to be extraordinarily likable.
Kyla held out her hand. “Kyla Shore. Sorry, I’ve forgotten your name.”
He beamed at her, forgetting to be somber. “DJ.” His huge hand swallowed hers. “DJ Gavaskar from Los Angeles. And this is my wife, Nimmi.” He beckoned enthusiastically and his wife joined him.
Nimmi was a small woman, slim and catlike. Gold gleamed from her ears and throat, her shirt was of beautiful raw silk, and her bag was a large Louis Vuitton that probably cost two week’s salary—mine, not hers. Dressed to impress. She was the kind of woman it might be fun to dislike at first glance, but her eyes and smile were as warm as her husband’s, and I found myself returning her smile. She held out her hand and gave me a ladylike fingertip handshake. Her fingers were cool and small, like a little bird. I instantly felt large and clumsy.
“Of course we have met, but it is difficult to learn so many names at once,” she said with a smile.
“Jocelyn Shore,” I told her.
She smiled and glanced from me to Kyla. “And are you twins?”
I didn’t dare look at Kyla, although I could sense the sudden arctic chill coming from her direction.
“No. Actually we’re not even sisters. We’re first cousins.”
“Really? Well, the family resemblance is striking. You are both beautiful girls.”
I gave a polite smile, feeling my face redden a little. It always puzzled me how people could say such extraordinarily embarrassing and personal things right to your face without a hint of self-consciousness. And Nimmi was not nearly old enough to get away with calling me a girl.
DJ broke in. “I was just telling Keith and Dawn that I’d examined the body.”
Nimmi gave a delicate shudder. “So tragic.”
I glanced at the other couple. I didn’t know much about the Kims yet, other than they were from Seattle and either one or both of them worked in a lab researching food additives. I liked the way they held hands whenever possible, and kept their eyes on each other when it wasn’t. I suspected they had not been married very long.
Another half hour slipped away and the group attitude changed subtly from horrified shock to annoyed boredom. I’ve noticed it often, the development of a group personality, completely independent of the personalities of any of the members. I saw it in my classes. Somehow one period of world history became fascinating and enjoyable, while the next was complete agony and I struggled to keep the kids awake. A group of adults is the same. After only a few hours together, we’d already gelled into a single entity with its own needs and agenda. Looking around, I could see that while any one of us would claim we were filled with concern and sorrow, the group as a whole was tired and bored and wanted to get on with the day. After all, we had only a week in Egypt, and no one was exactly brokenhearted that Millie Owens wouldn’t be monopolizing our guide’s attention, snooping through bags that didn’t belong to her, and asking the most painfully brainless questions ever asked in the history of human speech. The group was ready to move on.
At last, Anni rejoined us, looking appropriately somber and concerned. She did a quick head count in Arabic under her breath.
“Where are Flora and Fiona? Does anyone see them?” she asked.
We gave a collective sigh and glanced around unenthusiastically. The ditz duo had never yet been on time for a rendezvous. During our meet and greet yesterday, they’d said they were sisters, but they didn’t look alike at all. Flora had short gray hair, cropped like a man’s on the sides, but with a ridiculous fluffy puff on top. She had a way of staring through her glasses as though they were fogged, and she couldn’t focus very well. Fiona was tall and thin, with impossibly black wispy hair, worn long and untamed as God intended. Unlikely bits of it stood at attention at different times, making it hard to concentrate on anything else. Her glasses were racy cat’s-eye horn-rims, her hands large and clawlike. I admit I’d searched surreptitiously for a hint of an Adam’s apple when we’d first met.
DJ spotted them at last near a police officer on a camel. Both camel and officer appeared to be watching them somewhat incredulously. They were looking at a map, which was flapping in the wind, and gesturing to each other wildly. DJ shouted at them and waved Hello Kitty, while Anni hurried forward to retrieve them.
They rejoined the group all in a dither. “We couldn’t find you. We were afraid you’d left,” said Fiona breathlessly.
“Yes, we were hiding behind the big pink umbrella,” said Kyla under her breath.
“Well, we are all here now,” said Anni. “And Mohammad is coming,” she said, referring to her counterpart who had met most of us at the airport and whisked us through customs with speed and efficiency. “He is going to handle everything about…” she hesitated.
I could tell she didn’t know how to refer to the body. She went on gamely, “… about Millie. I have told the police that we know nothing at all about how the accident happened, and we are free to go. Now, what does everyone want to do? We can return to the hotel and rest,” she suggested.
The group howled a protest. We were in Cairo. We were standing against the sun-drenched side of the four-thousand-year-old pyramid of the great pharaoh Khafre. Twenty paces away, a deep and mysterious tunnel guarded by dark men clad in flowing tunics plunged sharply downward into the heart of the pyramid itself. Nearby, just upwind in fact, waited a caravan of camels led by enigmatic denizens of the desert who had delved the secrets of point and click digital cameras. Go to the hotel? The only dead body that could have made that seem attractive was my own.
Alan Stratton spoke up. “I think we’d all like to carry on as planned,” he said firmly.
I looked at him speculatively, noting again the absence of a wedding ring. He was tall, in his early thirties, and traveling alone, which by itself would have made him the most interesting person on the trip, even if he hadn’t also been very nice looking. Kyla and I had noticed him right away and were dying to learn his story and figure out why he was by himself, but so far we hadn’t had a chance. He seemed to linger quietly on the edge of the group, but was never quite part of the group, which was actually something of a feat in itself. While the rest of us huddled together in shock, he’d been one of the few to hurry to Millie’s side after the initial discovery, and I’d seen him talking to the police and then to Anni. Now he was acting as our spokesman, saying aloud what we were all thinking.
Anni looked around at the rest of us, who were nodding like bobblehead dolls on the dashboard of a semi.
“Then that is what we shall do. Now, who said that they wanted to go inside the pyramid?” she asked, spreading a stack of colorful tickets like a deck of cards.
* * *
Half an hour later, we hopped back on the bus and took a very short drive around to the western side of the pyramids, where a veritable herd of camels waited for us. This was one of the advantages of being on a tour—we never had to walk very far and we didn’t have to haggle for our own camels. Anni kept us on the bus an extra moment to give instructions about tipping while we pressed our noses to the windows like a pack of Pomeranians.
The scene outside was chaos. Dozens of camels lay in the sand, long bony legs folded beneath them. Small patches of brilliant green fodder were sprinkled through the herd and contrasted sharply with the barren ground. The camels’ humps were covered by the kind of quilted pads used by movers to protect furniture, and those in turn were covered by enormous saddles with very high horns in front and back. Patterned multicolored blankets covered the saddles. These wild desert camels wore coats that were almost white, instead of the sandy color preferred by ordinary city camels in zoos, and managed to looked sleepy and mildly annoyed at the same time.
On the edge of the camel herd stood about ten horses in a variety of colors, looking oddly small and almost apologetic by comparison. It was obvious to all concerned that real men rode camels and only pathetic losers or possibly elderly nuns would stoop to riding around on mere horses. The camel drivers were as exotic as their charges. They wore the traditional Egyptian galabia, a long-sleeved blue, gray, or black tunic that fell to the ankles, and most of them also wore white or red-and-white scarves wrapped about their heads to protect themselves from the sun.
We spilled off the bus in great excitement, only to be met by a squadron of shouting camel drivers. The front-runners shied like startled deer. Dawn Kim actually turned and tried to get back on the bus, but she was blocked by rickety Charlie de Vance, who was still trying to bend his knee replacement far enough to make it down that last step. Anni smoothly turned us over to the one driver with whom she had an arrangement, and the others shuffled off dejectedly.
We followed our camel driver eagerly. The redheaded Peterson boys raced ahead while their mother shouted warnings about staying away from the camels. Fiona and Flora clutched each others arms like hens and kept repeating that they wanted to share a camel. Jerry Morrison held back with his daughter, looking disdainful.
“Filthy,” he said. “I bet they’ve got fleas.”
“Oh, Daddy,” said the daughter. I was pretty sure her name was Kathy, and I was absolutely sure she was way too old to call her father “Daddy.”
I hoped they were just experiencing some temporary culture shock and weren’t intending to complain or bicker the entire trip. I also hoped Jerry was wrong about the fleas.
I stooped to tighten my shoelaces, willing to be one of the last to board a camel rather than be too close to the Morrisons. Or the ditz duo.
“Hurry up,” said Kyla impatiently, tapping one polished leather shoe in the sand. It was already covered with a light coating of dust, which did not entirely displease me. I rose and joined her.
The camel driver beckoned to us impatiently, and we followed, picking our way gingerly past a few recumbent cud-chewing camels to join him. Our driver was immensely fat, the giant beach ball of his stomach making a tent of his galabia. I imagined dozens of small desert creatures sheltering under the folds and then gave a little shudder. One of his front teeth was gold, the other missing, and his swarthy skin was covered with a light sheen of sweat.
“Here, you two ladies. On this camel, please.” He gestured to a bored creature. I had to admit, up close they did look a little flea-bitten.
“Oh no,” said Kyla. “I want my own camel.”
“No, no. Very strong. No problem for two,” he nodded emphatically.
Kyla shot him a glance that should have made him stagger back. “I want my own camel,” she repeated.
He appealed to me with a look, but I just raised my eyebrows and stared coldly. It worked on seventeen-year-olds and it worked on him. His shoulders slumped a little. “This way.” And he led Kyla to another camel.
The young man who held the lead rein of my camel gave a small private smile, then helped me into the saddle.
“Hold here very hard and lean back very far,” he said and waited for me to obey.
It was good advice. I gripped the saddle horn and leaned back just in time as the camel’s back half rose sharply in the air, throwing me forward. Then the front half rose, throwing me sharply back. I settled back into the saddle some eight feet off the ground, pleased not to have fallen.
Alan Stratton came and stood beside my camel, looking up at me and shading his eyes with his hands against the brilliant morning sun. His eyes were the most remarkable color, a soft green that changed subtly from sage to gray depending on the light. His hair, cut short and therefore clearly not as curly as it could have been, was a soft golden brown that had probably once been blond. It made a very attractive little swirl at the crown of his head.
“Having fun?” he asked. His voice was as attractive as the rest of him, deep and ever so slightly gravelly.
I realized I was staring like an idiot. “I had no idea they were so tall,” I said inanely and immediately wanted to kick myself.
He gave a little grin. “Ever ridden one before?”
“Me, either. You look like a natural.”
I was trying to think of something devastatingly witty to say when a different camel herder beckoned to Alan and led him away to one of the larger camels. I watched as the animal lifted its hind end straight up and tossed Alan forward like a rag doll. He held on gamely and then gave me a little wave of triumph. I waved back.
The fat camel driver gave a shout, and we were off. Camels take huge, slow strides, swaying from one side to another. Ahead of me, the rest of the group, singly and in pairs, plodded forward across the sand toward the pyramids. I could not believe I was actually here. I wanted to shout with excitement, to grab someone and jump up and down laughing. Kyla was too far ahead to share my exhilaration, but she would have understood. We hadn’t grown up together as kids, but my family moved to Austin for my high school years, and except for one or two quarrels, Kyla and I had been inseparable ever since. During our sophomore year, we’d both become obsessed with Egypt in the way that only teenage girls can obsess about anything. We saw every Discovery Channel special and conned our parents into driving us four hours each way to a special exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Saturdays were spent renting every mummy movie ever made. Of course, obsessions don’t last forever, and we’d eventually moved on to boys and clothes, but when the King Tut exhibit arrived in Dallas a couple of years ago, Kyla and I had attended the opening weekend, waiting in line for what seemed like forever in quivering anticipation.
Now I was actually here, on a camel, riding across the sands of the Sahara toward the great pyramids of Giza. Directly in front of me, Kathy Morrison perched stiffly in the saddle, but I didn’t think I could share my excitement with her. I glanced back. Alan Stratton rode the last camel in line, a pensive look on his face. I gave him a huge grin. He met my eyes and relaxed into a smile.
“This is the best!” I called, and he started laughing.
Behind him, the camel herd dotted the sand like toys scattered by a child while the immense desert rolled away to the horizon until it blended seamlessly into the hazy sky. It was a perfect picture and without thinking I raised my little camera and snapped. For an instant, I thought his smile faltered. I wondered if I should apologize, but the next moment he was smiling again.
“You look good on a camel,” he said teasingly.
“Likewise,” I answered, then turned around quickly before he could see any signs of the warmth I felt rising in my cheeks.
What was wrong with me? I was as bad as any high school student, feeling all hot and bothered just because an attractive man was being pleasant. To distract myself, I began wondering why he hadn’t been pleased to have his picture taken. Maybe he had a hidden past. Maybe he was hiding from the law. Or from a crazed wife. Or from the mafia. Or he was a spy. Or maybe he was just camera shy, I told myself sternly. More importantly, did I really look good on a camel? How good?
Fortunately, before my own thoughts could drive me crazy, the boy leading my camel stopped and reached up for my camera. It was my turn to have my picture taken. On a camel. In front of the pyramids of Giza. With a great-looking guy just out of frame who might or might not have been flirting a little. If it wasn’t for that pesky woman’s terrible death, it would have been a perfect morning.
* * *
The Sphinx was another two-minute bus ride away. We rode in air-conditioned lumbering comfort around the far side of the pyramids and came out on a road that sloped downward, running along the Sphinx’s left. We all craned our necks to get a view, those lucky enough to be on the right side of the bus pressing against the windows like kids at Christmas. Above their heads, I caught a glimpse of the battered, enigmatic face, noseless but serene. Just as the pamphlet said, the massive figure truly rose from the sands in majestic splendor, but what the pamphlet could not convey was its sheer size. The tourists standing behind the barricades at its base looked like tiny dolls.
The bus pulled to the side of the road. We all jumped to our feet, waiting for the doors to open, but Anni waved us down again to give us our instructions.
“As you can see, the authorities do not allow us to approach too closely anymore. Restoration is still ongoing and there has been too much damage done over the years by tourists as well as invading armies. So we stop here. And I will tell you that this is the best place to take your photographs. Even though you will go closer, you will not have as good an angle when we go down the hill. We’ll stay here just a very few minutes and then walk together down to the front so that you can see that I am right.” She gave a little smile. “The bus will meet us down below in the parking lot. Ordinarily, we would have some free time here, but since we are running a little later than planned, I will ask you to stay with me throughout the visit.”
We all nodded our complete understanding and pledge of cooperation. Anni made a gesture to Achmed, our bus driver, who obligingly opened the doors. The Peterson family was off the bus first. By the time the rest of us had streamed off, the boys were halfway down the path and their plump little mother was puffing along behind them, yelling futilely for them to come back. Their father resignedly put the lens cap back on his huge camera and prepared to follow.
Kyla watched their figures getting smaller in the distance. “Dear God. Is that what you put up with day after day?”
“What was that line about tigers eating their young?”
I grinned and took a perfectly framed picture of the Sphinx. “Those are pretty good kids. You watch, they’ll be the first ones on the bus at the other side.”
She just shook her head. “What a nightmare. And look—there go those batty old ladies.”
I turned. Sure enough, Fiona and Flora were now tottering down the path in the Petersons’ wake, apparently confused about whom they were supposed to follow. Fiona’s wispy black hair was sticking straight out in back. Anni caught up with them after a few paces and gently steered them back, helping them with their cameras and pointing them in the direction of the Sphinx, which they had apparently not noticed up until then, because they lit up and started pointing excitedly.
“A hundred bucks says Anni loses it before we get to the ship,” said Kyla.
“That’s what, three more days?” I considered. “I think she can hold out until then. Make it fifty and you’ve got a bet.”
“Fine. I win if she snaps during the first half. You win if she snaps during the second half. And if she doesn’t snap at all, we’ll put an extra twenty-five each in her tip envelope.”
I nodded agreement. Casually, I looked around to see where Alan was and if he was possibly looking for me, but he stood several paces to the right, taking a photograph of Charlie and Yvonne with a camera that looked almost as old as they were. Charlie kept stepping forward to give Alan pointers on focusing.
Kyla and I took turns taking pictures with the Sphinx in the background and then followed the group down the sloping road. Anni led the way, the pink Hello Kitty umbrella open and held high.
Nimmi Gavaskar passed us to catch up to the Australians, Ben and Lydia Carpenter.
“I meant to ask you earlier,” she said to them in her pleasant singsong accent. “How is your niece feeling this morning? Is she any better?”
“Not bloody much,” said Ben. He and Lydia were in their early forties, open and funny. His hair was a little long and thinning on top, his scalp very brown beneath the blond wisps. “She looked like she’d been rode hard and put away wet.”
“Ben!” snapped Lydia, but without any real annoyance. “She had an unpleasant night. That’s all you need to say.” Lydia had sandy blond hair, bright blue eyes, and the creased leathery skin of a devout smoker.
“Sorry, love,” he answered, unrepentant. “She’s got your basic Mummy’s Revenge, that’s for sure.”
“That must have come up suddenly,” I said without thinking. “She looked so great at the airport.”
Ben gave a little jump. “You saw us at the airport?” he asked.
I nodded. “Our plane was a bit ahead of yours. We were just going to our car when you were heading to the baggage carousel. She’s very pretty,” I added a little uncertainly. I wasn’t sure why he was staring at me.
“You should let DJ examine her. He would be very glad,” Nimmi offered. “He specializes in pediatrics, but he is fully qualified to look at adults too. He would be most happy to be of service.”
“That’s very kind of you,” said Ben. “I’m sure she’ll be feeling better in a day or so, but we’ll take you up on that if she’s not.”
“Please don’t feel it would be an imposition. These things are better caught early. DJ could come to see her when we get back to the hotel.”
Ben shot Lydia a questioning look, and she gave a quick negative shake of the head. I’m not sure Nimmi even noticed, but I did. Personally, I would have taken Nimmi up on the offer if I were sick so far from home, but maybe this young woman was a private person.
They hurried on, and we dropped back. Kyla gave me a puzzled glance. “What was that about? Did you really see them in the airport?”
“Yes. I only noticed them because their niece looks just like a student I had last year.”
“Hmph. Well, it’s too bad she’s missing all this today. She must have been sick when she landed, since she missed dinner last night, too. At least that means the rest of us are probably all right. Nothing wrong with the food.” Kyla seemed satisfied.
“No, the food’s great,” I agreed.
“Well, I’m still not going to eat the salad, no matter what they say.”
“You wouldn’t have eaten that anyway,” I pointed out. Although you couldn’t tell by her perfect figure, Kyla was strictly a meat, dessert, potatoes, dessert, and dessert kind of girl.
She just grinned at me. “Yes, but now I have an excuse.”
We reached the bottom of the hill and rounded the corner. To our left, a row of makeshift stalls full of brightly colored scarves, shirts, and assorted knickknacks were manned by dozens of Egyptian men, all clad in the traditional long tunics. Tourists who approached too closely were quickly swarmed, sort of like one of those Animal Planet specials where the foolish cricket ventures too close to the ant mound. Kyla and I veered away before they could spot us.
As we started walking back toward the Sphinx, we realized Anni was right about the angles. We had been closer and higher where the bus let us off beside the road. It didn’t matter though. I heard zoom lenses whirring into action. My own tiny Canon only had a 3x zoom, which was better than nothing, but I admit to a strong feeling of lens envy when Tom Peterson pulled out his big Nikon again. That baby could capture the crow’s-feet around the Sphinx’s eyes.
Nimmi caught up with DJ, and both of them handed their camera to Keith Kim, who obligingly snapped their photo, then handed his camera over for them to return the favor. The small electronic click was still hanging in the air as DJ made a beeline for the row of shops that lined the street, Nimmi trailing reluctantly in his wake. I watched him a little incredulously, but within seconds he was haggling for all he was worth, appearing to enjoy the shouting and commotion. I don’t know how he could even see what he was attempting to buy.
Not that I was watching, but Alan Stratton was the last one down the hill. He’d been the last off the bus, lingering a moment to talk to Achmed, our driver, and hadn’t hurried on his way down. Now, he strolled up behind Kyla and me.
“Picture, ladies?” he offered, holding up his camera.
Kyla gave him a blinding smile, and he blinked a little in the professionally whitened glare.
Have I mentioned that I’m just a little jealous of Kyla? People say we look alike, and we do, to an extent, because both of us resemble our fathers, who are identical twins. My eyes are brown, hers are blue, but they have the same shape, and we both have dark wavy hair and the Shore nose, thank goodness, small and straight. My own mother’s nose looks like a little potato in the middle of her face. Kyla and I are often mistaken for sisters, although no one would seriously take us for twins, regardless of Nimmi’s comment. Like me, Kyla was slender, but she was also fine-boned, whereas I had the sturdier build of some distant farm-working peasant ancestor. I could open my own peanut butter jars, but that was cold comfort compared to being asked to the prom. Not that I was all that bad. On most days, I could even admit that I probably wouldn’t shatter mirrors, but Kyla transcended basic prettiness into real beauty. Going to the same high school with her had been wonderful, and we’d been closer than sisters, but every once in a while things had gone south in a hurry. The current situation was a perfect example. In the presence of a single, attractive man, Kyla transformed from a fun-loving, foul-mouthed buddy into Princess Siren. She couldn’t help it, and neither I nor Alan Stratton had a prayer in hell. I sighed and prepared to become invisible.
“Hard to believe that thing was once buried up to its neck in sand,” Alan was saying, as he snapped our picture.
“Would you mind taking one of us with my camera?” I asked, holding it out. Everyone promised to share pictures at the end of a tour, but most of them did not follow through.
“Oh, let’s mix it up,” said Kyla. “Alan, you come stand by me, and Jocelyn can take the picture.”
I almost laughed out loud. Alan bemusedly followed orders, and I took a very good picture of the two of them, Kyla’s dark hair streaming in the wind, her head resting on his shoulder, her arm linked casually through his.
Even before I lowered the camera, she was strolling away with him, arms still linked, chattering away. To my surprise, he looked back at me over his shoulder, his expression a perfect mixture of embarrassment and guilty pride. He almost seemed to be pleading with me to rescue him, but I decided that was just wishful thinking on my part.
I looked around to see where the rest of the group had scattered. Tom and Susan Peterson had finally caught up with their boys and were taking pictures directly in front of the Sphinx. The boys’ bright red hair exactly matched their mother’s in the sunlight, and they were laughing and making rabbit ears behind each other’s head. Near the street, the enormous figure of DJ Gavaskar still stood outside a tiny stall, surrounded by hawkers—none of whom even reached his chin—who were pushing a variety of goods in his face and all talking at the same time. He was laughing and gesturing wildly, in his element, while his wife, Nimmi, stood a few paces away with an indulgent look on her face. To my right, father and daughter Jerry and Kathy Morrison had found a low rock wall where Kathy was posing suggestively while her father took a few unenthusiastic pictures of her. I suspected she was trying to look like some sort of international supermodel posing for a fashion photographer in front of a fabulous international location, but she mainly came across as a cheap porn wannabe. Her father kept glancing around as though hoping no one was watching. For a minute, I felt almost sorry for him.
I walked slowly, taking a few pictures, but mostly thinking about Millie. Here, undistracted by camels or handsome men, the tragedy of it all began to hit me. Millie was dead, laying on a stretcher or in a drawer somewhere, covered by a sheet, never to open her eyes again, while the rest of us were carrying on as though nothing had happened. Our scheduled time at the Sphinx would be cut short by a few minutes, but that was all. The show must go on. I took a deep breath of cool air, aware of the sun on my face and the breeze in my hair, very grateful to be alive. It was a little chilling to think that it could so easily have been me instead. Well, not really, because I wasn’t foolish enough to climb onto a high place and fall, but if I had died, the tour group would have gone on just as it was doing now. Maybe Kyla would have dropped out. But the rest of them would be doing what they were doing now. And then what? A call to my parents and to my school to let them know I wouldn’t be back. A few people would be sorry. My mom would probably claim my fat little poodle from the kennel. And that would be that. Life would go on, just not with me. I wondered who would be mourning Millie and hoped there was someone. Feeling sorry for Millie and maybe a little for myself, I turned around, looking for Kyla, who never, ever, had morbid thoughts and who would provide a much needed kick in the pants.
Kyla was still strolling with Alan, but our guide, Anni, held court a few yards away, talking about the Sphinx and its long and mysterious past, so I decided to join the group. Anni was far more than the average tour group leader. She was, in fact, a legitimate Egyptologist with a degree from Alexandria University. She had a lovely carrying voice, and she was talking about the Turks using the Sphinx as target practice in the late 1700s to a riveted audience consisting of Ben and Lydia Carpenter, Dawn and Keith Kim, and the octogenarians Charlie and Yvonne de Vance. Charlie had one hand cupped around his ear and was leaning forward at a precarious angle.
“The facts about the Sphinx are fascinating enough, but there is a mystery told as well. Some archaeologists have said that the erosion that you see, particularly on the body, was not caused by wind and sand, but by water. It is true that Egypt was not always a desert land. This would mean that the Sphinx is far, far older than the pyramids themselves and was not built as a guardian of the tombs, but rather that the pyramids were built here because of the protection offered by the Sphinx.” Anni looked at us with a sparkle in her eye.
“But you don’t believe that, surely?” asked Charlie, not quite certain whether she was joking or not.
“No, of course not, but it is still interesting, is it not? And it is true that for many hundreds of years, the body of the Sphinx was buried by the desert where it could not have been eroded by either water or wind, so how did it become so worn?”
We all looked up in silence at the enormous, weather-beaten figure, with its high cheekbones, stiff headdress, and serene expression. The face was pockmarked with bullet holes, the cheeks crumbling and scarred, but it still exuded the power its creators originally intended.
Anni smiled, then glanced at her watch. “And now, we should return to the bus.” Running her eyes over our group, she handed Hello Kitty to Keith Kim. “Will you hold this and stand just over there? I will try to gather the others.”
As soon as the pink umbrella unfolded in the crisp air, the group began gathering. Which meant Anni only needed to round up Flora and Fiona, who were nowhere to be seen. As I’d predicted, the Peterson boys were the first on the bus, happy and out of breath from racing each other to the steps. Kyla was one of the last on the bus, and she flopped down beside me with a pensive look on her face. I followed her fixed gaze and saw that Alan had stopped to speak with Anni. I’d fully expected to have the seat to myself while she joined Alan in his. Had he purposely given her the slip at the last minute, or had random circumstances separated the two of them? I began digging through my purse when he finally climbed the steps of the bus. For some reason, I didn’t think I could bear seeing him staring like a faithful puppy at Kyla.
Copyright © 2011 by Janice Hamrick