The Jackal's Headby Elizabeth Peters
Althea Tomlinson's ostensible reason for returning to Egypt is to chaperone a spoiled teenager through this fabulous desert land. The truth is more complex . . . and dangerous. Ten years ago, something that happened here brought about her father's ruin and subsequent death—and Althea intends to clear her disgraced parent's name and finally lay a dark past to rest. But there are some mysteries best left buried in the shifting sands, and a devoted daughter's search for answers is stirring up forgotten memories almost too painful to endure, that propel her onward among ancient tombs, legendary treasures, miraculous discoveries . . . and ever-closer to her own threatened doom.
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"Scarab, lady, ten piasters, very cheap, lucky scarab, come from king's tomb, very old, very cheap! Scarab, lady, lucky scarab... Six piasters?"
The price always comes down if the customer doesn't respond. I kept right on walking, ignoring the peddler who trotted alongside me, his grubby black-and-white-striped robe flapping around his bare heels. It was hard to ignore the scarab, since this very small businessman was waving it right under my nose. But I managed not to look at it. I didn't have to look at it. I knew it wasn't worth six piasters, or even six cents. It didn't come from a king's tomb, it wasn't lucky (what is?), and it wasn't very old. Probably about twenty-four hours old.
"Wait a minute, Althee-a. You're going too fast again. And I wanna look at this stuff."
That awful whine again! For five long days I had been listening to Dee complain. From Idlewild to Orly, through the salons of half the famous couturiers of Paris, from Orly to Fiumicino, through more salons, from Fiumicino to Cairo, from Cairo to Luxor. From there to eternity, it seemed.
I glanced at the girl, and the sight of her did nothing to relieve my annoyance. She was a spoiled mess, from her bleached hair, now wilting into wisps under the impact of Upper Egyptian heat, to her padded figure crammed into clothing that was too new, too expensive, and too tight. There was a jarring note in the general picture of uncouth youth -- the unwieldy plaster cast and the crutches.
I stopped walking, feeling like a heel -- and resenting the poor little wretcheven more because she made me feel like a heel.
"Sorry, Dee. I was just...I'm sorry. Where's your father? Isn't he meeting us?"
Dee shrugged. I gathered that she meant the gesture as a negative reply to my question, but it was hardly necessary. The air-terminal building was emptying rapidly as our fellow passengers from the Cairo-Luxor plane headed for waiting taxis and buses. There was no one present who corresponded to the picture I had formed of Dee's father -- a man of middle age, since Dee admitted to seventeen years, a wealthy man, since he could afford to indulge his daughter in Parisian frocks and a companion -- me -- to nurse the cast and crutches from New York to Egypt. There was nobody there but just us tourists and the horde of insatiable peddlers, swarming like big black-and-white flies over every chunk of human flesh. An unattractive simile, I had to admit. But I was not in an attractive mood. Ever since we touched down on Egyptian soil my insides had been feeling faintly queasy, and the feeling got worse the farther south we came.
I turned back to Dee after my survey of the building to find that her open interest had attracted a particularly insistent crowd of the black-and-white robes.
"Scarab, lady, five piasters! Come from king's tomb, bring much luck..."
Our own original peddler had managed to press his wares into Dee's hands. That, as all good peddlers know, is half the battle. Dee grinned, and held the scarab out for my inspection. It was the usual oval, about an inch and a half long. The dull blue-green surface was roughly cut into the stylized beetle shape, and the underside had some crude scratches which were meant to be hieroglyphic writing.
"It's a fake," I said -- too loudly, too emphatically. With the word the sensation of queasy discomfort that had haunted me coalesced into a stab of almost physical pain.
Surprised by my near-shout, Dee stared at me.
"What's the matter? You look absolutely green. Sun got you already?"
"I guess so... Let's find a taxi before they're all taken. Your father must be meeting us at the hotel."
"Okay, okay." She was good-natured. I had to admit that. She handed the scarab back to its reluctant owner and batted her artificial lashes at him. Sorry, buster. No sale.
"Yes, yes, you buy!" The peddler's voice rose to a heartrending shriek. "Four piasters only! Lady, you buy, you say you buy--"
I wasn't thinking. I cut him short with one curt Arabic phrase. It was almost worth the blunder to hear his outraged shriek fade into a gurgle of surprise. Almost.
"Hotel Winter Palace," I told the taxi driver, and busied myself easing Dee and her cast into the cab. Mentally I was cursing myself, in both English and Arabic. I hadn't been in Luxor for five minutes and already I had made my first mistake. After all the effort I had gone through to turn myself into just another tourist...
As the taxi bumped off down the road in a cloud of dust, I took out my compact. My nose actually did need powdering, but that wasn't what worried me. I needed to reassure myself that my new face looked as different as I meant it to.
It wasn't a disguise -- nothing so crude as that. It was protective coloring, a frightened animal's defense against predatory enemies. Nature helps the hunted animals, but I had to help myself. I had widened my mouth with lipstick, turned my hazel eyes brown through a careful selection of eye makeup. The most effective change of coloration was the one I had applied to my hair I couldn't do much about the style; my hair is too thick and curly for any but the simplest of short cuts. But I had been a brunette for twenty-five years, and the new ash-blond curls looked startling.
Forty dollars worth of peroxide, a new lipstick, and a kit labeled "Eye Magic" -- that was the new Althea Tomlinson. Probably even that small effort had been unnecessary After all, none of them...The Jackal's Head. Copyright © by Elizabeth Peters. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Meet the Author
Elizabeth Peters earned her Ph.D. in Egyptology from the University of Chicago's famed Oriental Institute. She was named Grand Master at the inaugural Anthony Awards in 1986 and Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America in 1998. In 2003, she received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Malice Domestic Convention. She lives in a historic farmhouse in western Maryland.
- A farm in rural Maryland
- Date of Birth:
- September 29, 1927
- Place of Birth:
- Canton, Illinois
- M.A., Ph.D. in Egyptology, Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 1952
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I first read The Jackal's Head many years ago. I had forgotten most of the plot, but I remembered that I had enjoyed it. The story did not disappoint the second time around. Fun characters, an ancient mystery, a lost treasure -- it's all here. Recommended to fans of PC Doherty and Lyn Hamilton.
I'm a huge Peters fan, especially her Amelia Peabody series. But I've also enjoyed her other on offs or mini series. She's a fun author to follow. This particular book may follow familiar Peters' lines but it still is a good read.