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The Bent Pyramid

by

Hugh McLeave


Chapter 1

 

 

Hell must be something like this. A claustrophobic museum basement where lost souls (like him) separated from their material bodies moved among artifacts from immemorial burial chambers.  Chisholm tried desperately to concentrate on his work, but the buttery, dust-laden light wavered before his eyes as he broke open the crate borrowed from the Cairo Museum and unwrapped several scarab amulets and the small, sculpted ushabti figures which were buried with pharaohs and eminent Egyptians to serve them in the hereafter.

If only they would act as his apprentice sorcerer and hold his hand, for he felt like death himself.

In that stifling basement, he alternately sweated and shivered; for eight eternal days and nights he had not touched alcohol, not even through his skin with after-shave lotion. Now he had the shakes and his tongue felt too big for his parched mouth.  But he must hold out.  Hadn’t he promised Danny Inglis, his Alcoholics Anonymous confidant, that he’d stay sober this time and break the habit for good?

So, he toiled on, cursing Sheldon Wright, Director of the Aspenwall Foundation, who had wished this job on him. Nine months hence, the Foundation museum upstairs would hold an exhibition entitled The Great Pharaohs, and  Chisholm was cataloguing exhibits from six different foreign museums and writing captions for them. In two weeks, he had listed more than a thousand scarab seals, papyrus scrolls, hieroglyphic panels and cuneiform tablets; he had spent so long in this purgatorial hole he had almost forgotten what life upstairs looked like.

For a moment, he paused at the wooden sculpture of an Egyptian chariot purportedly found in Ramses II’s tomb.  A phony if he had ever smelled one. And this faience head of Nefertiti he dated no further back than twenty years, its providence most likely Cairo’s Khan el Khalili bazaar. Yet, he catalogued them faithfully. Sheldon Wright wouldn’t know a junk-shop chariot and a flea-market Nephertiti from a sacred bull’s foot.

As he bent over the crate something hard hit him on the shoulder and he spun round as though he had seen a ghost.  Sheldon Wright’s secretary, Jenny, was standing grinning at him, a flask and two cups in her hands

“Jenny, you scared the shit out of me creeping up like that. It’s spooky down here.”

“My, but you are jittery, Ewan.  What did you think I was—something out of a sarcophagus?”

“No—Beelzebub himself.”

Jenny looked at him quizzically then laughed. “But you know Beelzebub, in the skin of Seldom Right lives aloft, and he sent me down here because he wants to see you pronto.”  As she spoke, she unscrewed the flask top, handed him a cup then poured them both milky coffee and dropped two sugar cubes into each steaming cup.  “That’s to wash the pharaonic dust down,” she said.

Jenny  knew his problems. Who in the Aspenwall didn’t?  However, she never referred to them, even when he guessed she wanted to offer her shoulder, or her mouth or herself. Well, she wasn’t to be spurned, he thought, looking at her as he sipped the tarry, bitter coffee. She was blonde, nubile, eager and still the right side of thirty.

“What does Seldom want?”

Jenny shrugged her ignorance.  “All I know is that he took a call from a Mrs. Seagram, genuflecting and licking the handset mouthpiece, then sent me into this nether world to fetch you.”

Seagram?   As he finished his coffee and accompanied her upstairs, he tried the name on his memory, but it meant nothing.

Sheldon Wright had his nose in a bulky, yellowing file which exuded dust that spangled in the sunbeams and had triggered his allergy.  His nose and eyes streamed and he was snorting into his handkerchief; but he kept his head down and his eye on the script seemingly oblivious of Chisholm, who was waiting respectfully. 

He knew what Wright was thinking: Why shouldn’t I keep this drunk on the balls of his feet to make him aware of the immense favor I’ve done him by hiring him—a man without a formal archaeological degree who has just come out of prison?

Finally, Sheldon Wright raised his head and fixed Chisholm with those eyes the color of stone-washed jeans.

“Chisholm, I want you to drop Ancient Egypt and go and crate Garfield Tate’s papers and his bits and pieces.”

“Garfield Tate—but hasn’t he been dead for twenty-odd years?”

“He has, and we’re well aware of it.  But his widow died eight months ago, they’ve just settled the estate and they’re selling her house and clearing everything out.  Which explains why we’re at panic stations.”  Sheldon Wright banged his file shut, scribbled an address on a slip of paper and handed it to Chisholm. “Just go there and see the stuff’s crated and stacked in a corner of our morgue. We’ll catalogue it later.”

Chisholm glanced at the Barnes address on the chit.  “You mean, they’ve been lying there for more than twenty years?”

Wright nodded.  “Everything was left to Lady Garfield Tate, but she refused all our offers to part with the papers until after her death—and don’t ask me why.”

Sir William Garfield Tate ranked with Schliemann, Flinders Petrie, Howard Carter, Woolley and the really great archaeologists and Egyptologists; in the Aspenwall he had a room named after him and several hundred square feet of space there and in the basement housing some of his finds.

Many of his expeditions to Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Turkey had been financed by the Foundation, including the last one, twenty-five years ago to Egypt where he had met his death in a car crash. His white marble bust sat in the museum entrance above a case recording his most famous ‘digs’.

“Why don’t you do a special exhibition on him...a sort of life story?” Chisholm suggested.  “You’ve already got most of his stuff and it wouldn’t cost much.”

Sheldon Wright rose and walked to the window overlooking Kensington Gore. He pointed to the people passing the museum and the park crowd beyond.  “Can you see any of them remembering who GT was and what he did. And if they remembered would they bother to come and look at his Pharaonic scarabs and sarchopaghi, his Hittite and Assyrian trinkets and the rest of the crap?...”

“But there’s a lot of good material, and if it was properly publicized...”

Sheldon Wright rejected that idea with a toss of his graying head which threw bits of dandruff into the shaft of sunlight.  He emphasized his refusal by the way he screwed his cigarette butt into the jade ashtray on his desk.

Chisholm knew better than to argue.  Sheldon Wright had a cynical approach to the art and treasures in his Foundation and museum.  His philosophy was that anything he did not want or could not buy or otherwise procure, the Louvre, the British Museum or the Met in New York could have willingly; he had little judgment of art, ancient or modern, and  paid high prices for mediocre painting, sculpture or archaeological pieces because this earned his museum publicity and drew the public.

He never tired of reminding Chisholm and others that more people queued in a week at the Louvre in 1911 to gawp at the vacant space where the stolen Mona Lisa had hung than had bothered to look at the painting itself in ten years.  But then, Seldom Right was carrying on the brave traditions of the Aspenwall.  Hadn’t Sir Henry, the tea merchant who started the Foundation, quietly lifted anything that came to hand—from Ming Dynasty sculpture to worthless Indian temple idols—on his travels?  His present foundation director had the same sticky-fingered attitude, stopping at nothing to acquire what he wanted without questioning its provenance.

“Look Chisholm, just go and crate the old bastard and shove him where I said.”  He scribbled two more addresses, of the removal firm and estate agents who were handling the house sale and returned to his knee hole desk and his files.

Yet, a few minutes later, he took post by the window to watch Chisholm leave the building.  There were two pubs on the way to the bus-stop.  Would Chisholm’s no-drink pledge get him past them?   Sheldon Wright knew the Scotsman now had to rely on buses, for he had lost his license when he tested above the legal alcohol limit for the second time in three months. Wright’s mouth curled at a clever thought:  why, with so little blood in his alcohol stream, the man would have tested positive before breakfast!  Though now they said he was trying to stay on the wagon. He wouldn’t have taken a thousand to one on that. 

Why did he employ him?  Well, Chisholm might not have had any formal training outside his engineering degree from some Scottish technical college, but he had a  brilliant, synoptic grasp of archaeology; not only could he leave most academics standing, he had done brilliant field work in four continents and had several valuable discoveries to his credit. It was the man’s bad luck and the Foundation’s good luck that he was a psychic cripple.

To Sheldon Wright’s astonishment, Chisholm walked past both pubs without so much as a glance.

 

Relieved to be liberated from his airless dungeon, Chisholm left the bus at Rock’s Lane and walked through the drizzling rain the half mile to Garfield Tate’s old house in Ranelagh Crescent.   A high railing and beech hedge hid all but the slate roof and the chimney pots from the road.

A car sat by the drive gate and out of it climbed a young man who came to greet him, saying he was David Bliss from Benton’s, the estate agents in Richmond.  Button-down shirt, bow tie, hair slicked and so waterproofed with perfumed grease the rain ricocheted off it.  They were selling the house for Lady Garfield’s niece, he said.

“Would that be Mrs. Seagram,” Chisholm asked, and got a head twitch for an answer.

Looking at the house, Chisholm’s first thought was: Why does a childless widow live for twenty-odd years in a vast, faceless barrack like this?  No charm, no character. A Victorian eyesore.  Yellow brickwork overlaid with a thick patina of London soot and sulfur.  Nine rooms and four basement rooms, the estate agent droned.  Four upstairs and two downstairs shut, for the old lady used only the ground floor. 

Chisholm sniffed the air in the upstairs room.  In his trade you became an expert in stale air and especially dust: Pharaonic, Sumerian, Hittite, Assyrian, down to the stuff in the vacuum-cleaner bag.  This dust and air had hardly been stirred in half a century if his nose, allergy buds and index finger had kept their hand in.  Dingy, moth-eaten chintz curtains and four books with brittle, sere pages.

Lady Garfield Tate had lived in the front room and a bedroom at the rear; her maid occupied one of the other rooms and a handyman, who had been with the family for twenty-five years had two basement rooms.

In the other two basement rooms, the archaeologist’s papers were stacked. Enough to fill a small van, Chisholm reckoned.

His first thought came back to him: Why did the old dame hoard this junk for twenty-odd years instead of handing it over to the Foundation?  It evidently had never been touched, and he could not remember any important biography of Garfield Tate, or anyone having had access to this memorabilia.

What happened to the furniture when Lady Garfield Tate died?”  Chisholm asked.

“Oh, that!  Sold at auction with quite a few mementoes from the great man’s collection.  Everything but her Rolls.”

“She had a Rolls!”

“Yeah, a beauty...a Silver Wraith that she used only for shopping.”  Bliss flapped his leather wallet at the two basement rooms. “If this is all that interests you, I’ll shut up the other rooms.  You can do the front door and the gate when you’re through here.”  Before handing over the keys, he paused and looked dubiously at Chisholm.  “You’ll make sure the door and gate are locked, won’t you?  We don’t want squatters.”

Chisholm took the keys and followed the scrawny figure as it retreated down the drive and out of sight.  Turning, he stared at his reflection in the dingy basement window.  There, he saw the reason for Bliss’s question about his reliability.  Had there been a pub within half a mile, he might have broken his pledge.  Here, they had even cut off the water.

To distract his mind from drink of any kind, he began to move the cartons of papers stacked against the wall.  Damp had rotted the bottom cartons.  But something else had attacked them.  Rats.  They had gnawed their way into four of the bottom cartons and their paper entrails had extruded under the weight of the others.  Rising damp or rainwater had soiled the bottom six inches of the boxes.

Cursing his luck, he walked to the nearest phone box and rang the removal firm for half a dozen cardboard boxes. When he returned, he detached the damaged cartons.  Two of them even had BOAC airline stickers from Cairo and the date they had been flown home, October 16, 1975.   Chisholm took his knife and cut off the customs declarations which listed the contents and put these in his pocket to check that nothing had gone missing when he repacked the boxes.

A van arrived with a dozen cartons and Chisholm began to empty the damaged boxes and repack the papers.  Everything seemed as Garfield Tate had left it—the files and photographs of his ‘digs’ and the objects he had recovered from them; there were the diaries he kept and the thick, cardboard-bound logbooks in which he described progress on excavation sites. In the Egyptian boxes, half a dozen of these logbooks had been soiled by water and had gone brittle in drying.  Their dates indicated they covered Garfield Tate’s last explorations.

Studying the damage, Chisholm noticed an impression on the fly leaf of one logbook—a fudged, oblong shadow with the deeper impression of something in the center. An identical mark appeared on the paper glued to the cardboard cover to hold the logbook together.  Humidity and the weight pressing on the notebook had made these indentations.

To examine the logbook in raw daylight, he took it upstairs. Now, he could see that someone had evidently hidden an envelope between the paper and the cardboard cover.  Returning to the basement, he examined the archive box and noticed what he would have missed but for the discovery of the hidden envelope: someone had opened then resealed these Egyptian boxes before placing them at the bottom of the archives.

Who?

Hardly Garfield Tate, for he was almost certainly dead and buried when these boxes arrived from his last Egyptian expeditions. His widow?  If the boxes had been opened here, she must have given her permission. However, they might easily have been searched by Egyptian customs. 

Archaeologists had little standing with countries like Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Iraq; for the most impeccably honest among them, men who never fiddled their taxes or dreamed of stealing a library book, could be tempted to walk away with some national treasure in the form of pottery, coins, sculpture, even jewels.  How well he knew the syndrome, having been tempted himself!

What were they looking for, the people who had opened these boxes?  This envelope?

Chisholm stared at it, mesmerized Ethically, he should report such a matter to Sheldon Wright, now responsible for the Garfield Tate archives.  But his instinct to probe the mystery was too strong. What lay in that oblong shape beneath the paper?  He had to know.

To remove it without leaving a trace, he needed a solvent which he didn’t have. He’d have to use his knife and somehow camouflage the slits along the seams.  Anyway, from what Sheldon Wright had hinted, it wasn’t likely the archives would be disturbed for a long time, if ever.

Upstairs, in the better light, he ran his knife point cautiously along the rectangular shape, inserted the blade between the paper and the hidden object and levered them gently apart. 

It was an envelope. A buff envelope of the kind used by government offices. As he eased it free, he realized someone had taken time and trouble to gouge out a space for it in the cardboard cover.

Chisholm had forgotten his thirst and his craving, though his mouth had gone even drier as he slit the envelope open and pulled out the contents—two bits of drawing paper glued together over a flat key. He had run across that sort of key, though not in Britain. Somewhere abroad. As he pondered where, he noticed there were three rectangles of paper; he slit the third part open and out fell a smaller, transparent envelope.  When he opened this, he was looking at a set of negatives. He ran them through his fingers. Twenty-four in all.

To view these negatives in the best light, he opened the front door and stood on the steps. They were black-and-white negatives and had been taken with a fixed-focus camera, probably one of those small Kodaks they made in the sixties.   Chisholm turned them this way and that against the light, searching for the best viewpoint.  To him, those first shots seemed fudged as though out of focus or perhaps developed with amateur equipment.

Nine of them showed pyramids.  Not the famous Giza trio, but those further south in Saqqara, Dahshur and down to Faiyum, about sixty miles along the Nile from Cairo.  Chisholm knew most of the thirty-odd important pyramids like the inside of his pocket and had explored many of the other fifty ruined pyramids. Here, he recognized some of those that the photographer had snapped. 

Garfield Tate, if it was he, had obviously selected these pyramids with a purpose.  He had omitted the Giza complex and the famous Step Pyramid at Saqqara, but had photographed the Bent Pyramid and its Dahshur neighbours, and that great rubble-strewn monolith at Meydum, thirty miles further south. Why?  And why would Garfield Tate go to the trouble of concealing shots like these when almost every visitor to Egypt had a wallet full of them in Technicolor?

That question was answered when he looked at the next set of negatives bunched together in a separate wrapper.

Fifteen of them.  All showing jewels. Pharaonic jewels.  Of the kind buried with pharaohs, princes, and the Egyptian élite in pyramids and tombs over a period of three thousand years. They had been taken, evidently with flashlight, in some sort of funerary vault, for Chisholm could identify a granite sarcophagus, its lid askew, and even discern some of the inscriptions on the side.

When he looked at the negatives, he had to sit down on the front steps, his legs felt so wobbly and his mind was spinning with dozens of questions.

Holding the pictures up to the light, he studied them again.  Garfield Tate had photographed most of the jewels on the sarcophagus lid, though he had caught some other parts of the tomb. Unfortunately, his camera lacked definition and Chisholm realized he would need to blow up these crude negative images to read the inscriptions and the wall reliefs.

Why had the man used black-and-white?  Why, when the beauty of pharaonic jewelry lay in the colors?  Rich golds clashing with blue-green turquoise, blood-red carnelian and iridescent, deep-blue lapis lazuli?

Yet, even in those dark, fudged negatives, he could picture that jewel hoard; he could imagine those scores of small gold rosettes with their turquoise, amethyst and lapis lazuli inlays. One piece looked as good as the jewels recovered from the ruined pyramid of Amenemhet I at Lisht just north of Meydum on the west bank of the Nile.

From what he could make out, most of the jewels were Twelfth Dynasty pieces, not unlike the marvelous finds of de Morgan and Flinders Petrie at Dahshur and El Lahun; those two archaeologists had unearthed the jewels of two princesses at the pyramids of Senusert II and III.

Here, in Garfield Tate’s collection were arm and ankle amulets of gold beads and precious stones, thick chokers of beads strung on gold thread, circlets with serpent heads, signifying royalty, a dozen types of scarab necklace and amulet, girdles and even a belt-and-bead apron, a rarity in anybody’s collection; there were shell pectorals of a type he had never seen in Cairo, New York or London, the three main repositories of Pharaonic jewels.  A necklace of gold flies and a falcon collar would break auction records everywhere if put on the market.

Several of the negatives threw up puzzles in his mind. That heavy bracelet of twelve rows of gold beads was at least a thousand years older than Twelfth-Dynasty; and the necklace of forty-five gold beetles might have come from the same Fourth-Dynasty tomb.  Garfield Tate had also photographed a tray of scarab earrings, ornaments unknown in Egypt during the Old and Middle Kingdoms.  As well as that Pharaoh’s collar of five different types of precious stone with sold-gold falcon heads.  Alone, that was worth probably a millions pounds.

Chisholm knew that almost every pyramid, every tomb, every temple had been despoiled and pillaged in the Nile Valley and the Valley of the Kings; only rare tombs like Tutankhamen’s had escaped the grave robbers and survived reasonably intact. He could remember most of the jewels that had been recovered over the past two hundred years.

But nowhere had he seen objects like these. Nowhere had he heard that such a find had been made. Had these jewels been put on display they would have created a sensation in the world of Egyptology and art.

Scanning the negatives once more threw up more questions that tangled in his mind.  Where had Garfield Tate unearthed these jewels?  They were not all of a piece, old Archaic Period ornaments mixed with Fourth and Twelfth Dynasty relics.  Were they plunder hidden by some robber and rediscovered by Garfield Tate?  Or—an unthinkable idea—had Garfield Tate uncovered them over the years and hidden them in order to smuggle them out of Egypt and sell them to the highest bidder?  After all, they were worth at least ten million pounds. Any museum would have looked the other way and paid that.  Even Garfield Tate’s own, the Aspenwall.

He looked at the dilapidated Victorian barrack where the archaeologist and his widow had lived. From their house and life-style, it hardly appeared that either had managed to turn this treasure trove into hard cash. But of course, Garfield Tate might have been killed in the accident before putting his plan into effect?

If so, those jewels were still lying in that funerary vault, or somewhere else in Egypt.

Chisholm’s mind was grappling with another, more pressing problem; What did he, Ewan Burns Chisholm, do with these negatives and the information they contained?

Of course, he should report everything to Sheldon Wright since the archives now belonged to the Aspenwall Foundation.  But what would that idiot do?  Probably start a general hunt for the mystery jewel hoard and see it snapped up by someone else. What a coup that would be if he could unearth that treasure, wherever it was!

Before packing and sealing the carton where he had found the envelope, he searched the other logbooks to ensure nothing else was concealed in them.  He found nothing more.

Chisholm shut and locked the basement and front doors and walked to Church Road where he found a photocopy shop and copied the twenty-odd pages of Garfield Tate’s last logbook; he bought a tube of glue, several sheets of paper and a cheap magnifying glass.  Back in the Ranelagh Crescent house, he cut a sheet of paper the size of the fly leaf and pasted it over the space from which the hidden envelope had come.

By the time the removal men arrived with their small van, he had repacked the Egyptian boxes.  When they had loaded the van, he accompanied the removal men to the museum where they stored the archives in a corner of the basement.

Chisholm made sure the Egyptian boxes went to the bottom of the pile.

He rang Sheldon Wright to report that the archives had been recovered and stacked in the basement and, on the director’s order, went back to cataloguing the pharaonic exhibits and writing captions for them.

Only half of Chisholm was in that basement, perspiring in the still atmosphere as he handled Ancient Egyptian artifacts like a robot—his physical half.  His mental and spiritual half were already in Egypt exploring sites which might hide those marvelous jewels.

END OF SAMPLE



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