The room was silent as a crypt.
Karen Philips laid the jewelry out on her work table and reflected on the aptness of the metaphor. The items spread out before her had, of course, come from crypts, or more accurately, tombs of Ancient Egyptians who had been well outfitted for their passage to the afterlife. Under the bright fluorescent bulbs, the faience, glass and metal amulets, the beaded necklaces and collars, lost some of their appeal. But she knew that they would look beautiful in a display cabinet, their colors revealed under perfect, golden light.
She felt a little charge of excitement. She had seen wonderful pieces of gold and bead jewelry in Cairo and in New York and Washington, D.C., but this was the first time she had actually handled jewelry from an Ancient Egyptian tomb. The collection was part of a recent donation to the university museum made by a wealthy alumnus with an interest in Egyptian antiquities and everyone, including Karen, was riding the wave of excitement generated by the announcement.
The donation was the result of a carefully planned friendship between Willem Keane, the museum's curator of Ancient Egyptian art, and Arthur Maloof, a financier with a huge personal fortune. Willem had convinced him to hand over a number of items from his excellent collections and he was most excited about the donation of a stunning sheet gold mummy mask that would make the museum's collection of antiquities the envy of most museums in the world. Because of laws forbidding antiquities from leaving Egypt, it was rare that important pieces like the mask came on the market anymore, Karen knew.
There were some other items of interest in the Maloof collection, canopic jars that had held the organs of a mummified king; game boxes and a large number of little shabti figures which had acted as stand-ins for the dead in the next world, meant to do any work they might be called on to do. The jewelry had been kind of an afterthought. There weren't any especially rare or valuable pieces in the cache and she assumed that Maloof wasn't interested in storing them anymore and had decided to let Willem have them along with the mask.
Willem hadn't been particularly excited about the jewelry, but when Karen had asked him if she could inspect it, he'd readily agreed. She was writing her thesis on women's funeral jewelry and thought she might find some additional material amongst the new acquisitions. In any case, she was probably the first scholar to really study them and that gave her a little thrill.
She looked over the files to get some background before inspecting the pieces themselves. First were a series of little amulets in the shapes of animals and deities that had held various meanings for the Ancient Egyptians. There were a huge number of scarabs and eyes of Horus, a few crocodiles, vultures and baboons. The little charms had likely been found amongst the linen wrappings on a mummy, meant to protect the dead in the tomb. The amulets were common and Karen had seen them before. There was no need to pay them much attention. Next were a series of simple beaded bracelets and necklaces, made of gold and glass beads. She was able to date them pretty reliably to the New Kingdom and she took some notes before moving on to the last piece, a beaded falcon collar featuring rows of gold and faience beads interspersed with amulets of many different kinds of stones. The falcons heads at either end of the thick necklace were made of gold, with accents of lapis and carnelian.
Karen sat up a little straighter in her chair. It was a beautiful collar and she hadn't expected to find it. The file on it said it was 18th Dynasty, from a tomb in Giza, but she didn't think that could be right. It looked vaguely familiar to her. Not the necklace itself, but the style. She jotted some notes on a piece of paper and was about to go back to the files when she started at the sound of voices out in the basement gallery. It was against security regulations, but she had left the door to the study room propped open just a bit, to let some fresh air in. She couldn't hear what they were saying, but she assumed they were looking at the displays of Egyptian antiquities, Willem's two sarcophagi and the exhibits of statuary and other items from the collection.
She turned back to the collar, knowing she was lucky that Willem had given her access to it before he'd even had a chance to look through the pieces himself. She was very, very fortunate. Don't forget it, Karen. Don't let yourself forget how lucky you are.
Willem's recommendation would look good when she applied to graduate school, and experience with the jewelry would be helpful if she became a curator. When, she reminded herself, remembering what the speaker at the last meeting of the campus women's group had said about undermining one's own possibilities, When she became a curator.
She sifted through the papers in the file folder, trying to find a document that mentioned the beaded collar. According to the paperwork, the jewelry had been excavated in the Valley of the Kings in 1930 on a dig sponsored by a British collector named Harold Markham. The Markham collection was well known and much of it had gone to places like the Metropolitan Museum and the British Museum, so that was in order.
But she couldn't shake the feeling that the collar wasn't 18th dynasty. In any case, it was so well-preserved it was hard to believe that it was three thousand years old. It was what she loved about Egyptology, the vibrancy of the works of art, the way they seemed so relevant, so modern so many years later. What it must have been like to be one of the first archaeologists to uncover the entrance to a king's tomb, to stand there under the hot Egyptian sun, to hear the men shout suddenly that they had found something, a staircase! She had relived Howard Carter's discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun so many times that she almost felt as though she'd been there.
Ever since she had seen the Tutankhamun exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum in New York on a school trip four years ago, she had known that this was what she wanted to do. She had begun learning about Egypt, about the strange burial customs, and the cult of the afterlife that had so obsessed the ancient Egyptians. She had loved memorizing the names of the Gods and Goddesses, the strange sounding words, and then the hieroglyphs, the secret code that unlocked the secrets of that ancient world. She had done research into which colleges and universities were the best for studying Egyptology and then she had decided that she wanted to study at the University. After that, everything she had done was for the purpose of attaining this goal. It had been easy to keep her grades up, knowing that the prize for doing so was realizing her dream.
After she'd gotten to the University, the dream had become Egypt itself, and during her junior summer, she had finally been able to go, joining a dig at Giza for three months with an expedition from the Hapner Museum that included Willem Keane and some other faculty members, along with a number of graduate students.
She had been disillusioned, of course. There was no way she wouldn't have been disappointed by the reality of Egypt, the hot, dirty poverty of the cities obscuring the fantasy she'd created, the endless sand and drudgery of work on the dig. She had known enough about archaeology at that point to know that she wanted to be an art historian and not an archaeologist, that it wasn't all uncovering intact tombs and treasures, but still she'd been surprised that it had been so different from her expectations. They were digging for tiny pieces of ancient history now, shards and fragments instead of golden statues and alabaster unguent vases, all the things of Karen's dreams.
It had been a sort of relief to return to the university and the museum, with its lovely pieces of antiquity, already cleaned of dust and dirt and grime, already in place behind glass. But then she'd realized that the darkness she'd found in Egypt had followed her home.
It was while she was away that she'd begun to question whether those beautiful things should be behind glass in an American museum at all. She'd met a young Egyptian graduate student working on the dig, who had told her that Egypt's history had been looted by rich white men, nothing more than "pirates," he'd said, who had stolen his country's most valuable assets, leaving nothing behind but empty graves. "Why is it?" he asked, "That I should have to come to American or Britain, to see the art of my own country. You Americans wouldn't stand for it, you'd buy it back or find a way to take it, just as you take everything you want. The white men are nothing more than rapists, taking what they wanted by force when they couldn't seduce my countrymen into giving it willingly."
Since coming home, she'd been different too. It was as though she'd awakened from a fog, she thought. She saw things so differently now. Everything she'd once taken or granted was now as uncertain as the history of the beaded collar.
It was as she was putting the collar into its box that she heard the voices again, out in the gallery. This time, there was something about them that made her pay attention, something about the urgent low tones. It was two men and they seemed to be arguing.
"You're not doing it right," she heard one say. "Like this." Museum goers, she told herself. Looking for the sarcophagi. And then there was a loud crack from outside the door, a violent sound, and then another one. She jumped up, surprised, overturning the metal stool she'd been sitting on, and she heard one of the voices say, "What the fuck?" and then the men were at the door, two of them, dressed in raincoats and carrying hatchets. She saw the hatchets before she took in the details of their plain, almost pleasant faces, and she must have screamed because the shorter of the men yelled, "Shut up!" and crossed the room to her, clapping a hand over her mouth and pushing her to the ground, grinding her face into the musty smelling industrial carpet that lined the floor of the study room. Sitting on her back, she had her arm twisted behind her. Her shoulder throbbed. She struggled to breathe against the carpet, gasping and choking, and tasted stomach acid in her mouth.
"Who the fuck are you?" the man near the door asked in a low, hissing whisper. Karen could hear her own breathing, ragged and uneven. She felt as though she'd run 20 miles. "You weren't supposed to be here, you bitch."
"Give me the tape," the one on top of her said in a similarly low voice. They're afraid of someone hearing, she told herself. They think someone can hear.
There was a slapping sound and then the ripping sound of tape being pulled from a roll. "No one said anything about someone being down here," the guy near the door said.
She felt herself being turned over, saw the man take a strip of silver duct tape from the roll and sever it with his teeth, then slap it over her mouth. She felt her lungs panic, forced herself to slow down and breathe through her nose.
He looked at her then and she knew, from the look on his masklike face, from the almost dreamy fixated look in his eyes, what he meant to do. She shook her head. No. No, knowing her fear would only excite him. His eyes were green, and somehow dead. She could smell his breath, peppermint masking stale beer, and he was sweating. She could smell that too.
"Do her hands and feet," the other guy said.
"Why don't you get the stuff out and I'll be right there." He was still looking into her eyes.
"No, you asshole. Tape up her hands and feet and get out of here."
She saw the dreamy look leave his eyes and then she felt herself turned over again, and her shoulder screamed as he wrapped the tape 'round and 'round her wrists and ankles.
"Be good," he said, giving her a strange little pat, almost reassuring, as he stood, taking the duct tape with him.
"Okay. Let's go. We have to hurry now," the other one said, and she craned her neck around, trying to get a look at them, trying to burn those plain, very average faces on her brain. The guy near the door had eyes that were too close together. The other guy had a weak chin, a slight underbite.
She watched them flip the light switch and open the door and before it swung shut, she saw the plexiglass display cabinet, which must have been split with the hatchet, the statuary inside tipped over, their long noble faces lying face down, in mockery of her own confinement.
The museum is being robbed, she said to herself before the door clicked shut and the storeroom fell dark. That's what they're doing. They're robbing the museum.
Sweeney St. George awakened slowly, aware only of a sense of breathlessness, as though something was interfering with the air getting into her mouth and down into her lungs. She opened her eyes to darkness, darkness, she realized, of a specific texture, composed of individual strands of darkness, soft, and smelling faintly of ... fish.
She rolled over and sat up, displacing the large black cat that had been sleeping nestled up next to her face, her prolific red, curly hair a comfy cat bed. The cat, now sitting up in the dignified iconic pose of his species, blinked a few times and looked indignantly at her as if to say, "I had just gotten comfortable, thank you very much."
Sweeney gently pushed him off the bed and he stretched as he landed gracefully on the floor, then turned and sprang onto the windowsill and out the slightly open bedroom window on to the fire escape. He turned back, gave her a farewell glance through the window and was gone.
"What?" asked the other inhabitant of the bed sleepily. "What's wrong?"
Sweeney curled herself against the long back and whispered into warm skin, faintly scented by the dark brown ovals of soap sent every month from London. "Nothing, just The General. It's okay. Go back to sleep."
She lay there for a few minutes, listening to his deep, even breathing, then got out of bed, slipped into the silk robe on the rocking chair in front of the window and went into the kitchen. It was nearly 6 and the sun was rising above the Somerville skyline, giving everything a clean and optimistic aspect that Sweeney appreciated. She got the coffee maker going and broke two eggs into a frying pan, flipping them out on to a plate when they were just barely set. Two pieces of buttered toast and an orange completed her breakfast and she sat happily munching as she watched her next-door neighbors enjoy their own breakfast on their second story balcony. It was late August and al fresco dining offered a respite from the current heat wave. Through the open kitchen window, Sweeney felt a slight breeze and turned toward it for a moment. As she finished eating and got up to rinse her dishes in the sink, she heard a whoosh and turned to find the General sitting on the kitchen windowsill, watching her.
"What are you doing back here?" she asked him. "I thought you'd gone for the day." The cat, who had been living with Sweeney for ten months now, tended to leave through one of the windows in her apartment early in the morning and return at night for dinner and bed. What he did during the day she had no idea, but the arrangement suited them both.
When she had first brought him home the previous fall, she had tried to get him to use a litter box and be a proper indoor cat, but he had hated using the box as much as she had hated cleaning it and when she accidentally left the bedroom window open one day, they both discovered a routine that suited them. She hadn't wanted a cat in the first place and so she did not want to fuss over him too much. He in turn, did not like being fussed over.
He looked meaningfully at her plate, still smeared with egg yolk, and she set it on the counter for him. In a few seconds, the plate was clean and shiny and The General used one huge paw to wash his whiskers before disappearing again out the window. "Have a nice day," Sweeney called after him.
Once she'd washed up, put on jeans and a linen blouse and tied her hair up and out of her face against the heat, she leaned over the bed and brushed its occupant's dark fall of hair away from his forehead. "Ian?" she whispered. "I'm heading out to the museum. It's 7. I'll see you tonight, okay?"
He opened his eyes and looked up at her, squinting into the sunlight. His glasses were on the bedside table and she knew he saw only the most vague outline of her face. "But it's early," he said. Ian didn't usually get to his office until 9 or 10.
"I know, but the exhibition opens in three weeks and I still have so much to do. The catalogs are done and I have all this text to write. They're still painting the galleries and I need to make sure all the framing is right. I told Fred and Willem I'd get in early."
"Okay, okay, I can take a hint. However ..." He reached up and pulled her back into bed. "I assert that I ought to be allowed to have a small memento of your existence, since I shall have to do without you all day."
"But I have so much to do ..." She ran her hands over his bare chest, trying to decide if she wanted to be seduced. His skin was as warm as sun-baked stone, his arms around her sure and familiar. It had been almost six months since he'd arrived in the states to open a Boston office of his London auction house and Sweeney often found herself surprised at how quickly they'd settled into domesticity. They had known each other for nearly two years now, she supposed, so even though they'd only been in the same city since January, it made sense that there had been no need for prelude. But still ... Sometimes when she came home at night and found him reading the papers on her couch or cooking dinner wrapped in his navy blue, monogrammed bathrobe, she had the sense of having entered someone else's house. She sometimes thought to herself, "Who is this man?" for a moment before she remembered, "Oh, it's Ian."
In any case, she thought, looking at him, he was a very handsome man and a very kind one and at the moment, a very sexy one.
"Just one thing you have to do here, though," he murmured, unbuttoning her blouse. She thought about protesting, then relaxed into his arms.
"Okay," she whispered into his ear. "But only because you're so persuasive."
Reprinted from Still as Death by Sarah Stewart Taylor.
By permission of St. Martins Press.
Copyright © 2006 by Sarah Stewart Taylor.
All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof,
may not be reproduced in any form without permission.