Chapter 1—Riddle from the Sand
On the edge of Cairo, when the night wind blows, you can hear the desert’s sand grains bounce against the museum’s front wooden door, and you can smell the scent of camel dung seeping through cracks in the museum’s wall plaster. It doesn’t make for a good dinner setting, but I’m used to it, living in my parent’s museum and all.
“Okay boys, tonight we dine on falafel and goat cheese and for…” my mum said, setting the dinner tray on the glass display case we used as a table and pointing at the Egyptian sword off to the right side of my plate. “Stanford Carter Bresden! What is that?!”
“It’s a khopesh,” I said, knowing that Mum knew exactly what it was and that I was again in trouble for playing with the artifacts. It’s hard keeping my hands off all the amazing history, especially when I’m cooped up in the museum all summer.
“For the last time, Stat,” Mum continued with her scolding. “That belongs in the sarcophagus with Tupset. Now take it back and leave it there!” With her last word, to show that she meant business, she gave the glass display case a sharp smack with her hand.
“Katherine, the Stone!” My dad said, moving her hand to see if she had cracked the case glass. Any other case in the museum and Dad probably wouldn’t have batted an eye, but this display case—our makeshift dining table—held an exact replica of the Rosetta Stone, Dad’s favorite piece. Even during meals I can’t escape the ace artifacts in this place.
“Katherine, what did you want the boy to do all day?” Dad said. “You never let him out of this place. He’s twelve and he’s a boy, for Pete’s sake.”
“Radcliffe, we’re only two weeks into the summer holiday—our busiest season!—and already he’s taken the Tupset sword out at least a dozen times, he’s hidden in the empty sarcophagus twice so he can jump out and scare me half to death, he’s played chess on the floor tiles with the canopic jars, and he’s chased the cat around with the charioteer spear.”
Well, at least she hadn’t seen me playing in the chariot, I thought.
“Stat, your mother has told you over and over again to leave the artifacts alone,” Dad said. “You know the rules and we expect you to follow them.”
“Yes sir,” I said, trying to hide my eyes behind the brown hair hanging over my forehead.
“Truman!” Mum called to my uncle, who was also at the table looking over his excavation maps, but trying to ignore our family spat.
“Yes?” Uncle Tru said, looking up at Mum.
“Please take Stat with you on the camels tomorrow. And then keep him out at the dig for the summer. He doesn’t need to be here under my feet all day.”
“Did you hear that, Stat?” Said Uncle Tru. “Looks like you’re adventuring with me all summer.”
“Do you really mean it, Mum?” Mum hadn’t let me help lead the camel tours or dig with Uncle Tru since last summer when I lost our best camel, Florence, while guiding rich tourists at the Sphinx and the Giza pyramids. Uncle Tru and I spent nearly the whole day looking for her. One of our tourists had to walk and refused to pay, claiming we were “irresponsible” and “reprehensible,” which I gathered wasn’t any good.
That he didn’t pay for his tour wasn’t any good either. Camel tours essentially kept my parents’ small museum—The Egyptorium—open and functioning. Without the tours and the small amount of income they bring in, the likewise-small museum sponsor—Rusterns University—would close us up for good, even after twelve years of dedicated service. Fortunately, Rusterns put a lot of faith in my parents as the museum curators and in my Uncle Tru as the museum archaeologist. They figured that if my parents and uncle could keep the museum going on minuscule university funding and camel tours, then that was all right with them.
“Yes,” she replied, “but I don’t want to hear about you losing any more camels or picking up any artifacts and messing up your uncle’s excavation. Now hurry and put that sword back so we can eat.”
But before I could grab the sword and get up from the table, something other than sand grains pounded on the museum’s front door. It was late and we never had visitors after the museum closed at 6:00 pm.
“Were you expecting anyone, Radcliffe?” Mum asked Dad.
“No,” Dad said. “You Tru?”
“No,” said Uncle Tru, shaking his head.
The pounding continued until Dad answered the door.
A mustached Egyptian man wearing a grey robe and white turban staggered over the threshold, partly pushed in with the wind and blowing sand. His left hand clutched at a large blood stain soaking into his robe over his belly.
“Sir?” Dad said, moving to help the man come inside. Mum, Uncle Tru, and I were on our feet watching from the table. Before Dad could reach him, the man collapsed, pushing the door further open as he fell forward onto the floor. Papers from the museum front desk scattered over the floor as the wind swept inside and blew them about. Dad dropped to his knees on the man’s right and turned the man over on his back, cradling the man’s head with his left hand. Uncle Tru ran to close the door and offer help.
“Kathrine, telephone Doctor Sarouk and see if you can contact the police!” Dad yelled. Mum hurried from the table toward the phone but stopped when the man spoke.
“No!” the man yelled with a mild Arabic accent, gasping for air and wincing with pain. “No doctor. No authorities.”
“But sir, you have a serious wound that needs medical attention,” Dad pleaded with the man.
“There is no time,” said the man, still gasping.
Uncle Tru was trying to examine the wound and stop the bleeding. “I think he’s been stabbed,” he said.
“The blade was…” the man paused to breathe, “…poisoned…cobra venom.” I had left the table and was standing next to Uncle Tru and looking down at the man. Mum had also approached and knelt by Dad. The man’s face was deathly pale and covered in sweat. Blood kept oozing from the wound in his belly and he shook uncontrollably.
“We have to call for help…” began Mum, but the man interrupted.
“No! They’re coming…the Sanderine…”
“The Sanderine?” asked Uncle Tru, but the man kept talking, his words slurring and his eyes fluttering between opened and closed.
“…find the runes…Rah-man…haten-weep…Goshen…”
“Katherine, telephone the police,” Dad said. Mum stood up and hurried to the phone. The man was dying, his breathing punctuated with choking gasps and growing shallower by the second. His shaking also worsened, but he managed to raise the clenched fist of his right hand up to Uncle Tru, who was kneeling to the man’s left. I watched the man’s eyes trying to focus on Uncle Tru and then noticed something poking out of the man’s fist.
“Uncle Tru, he’s holding something.” Uncle Tru reached for the man’s hand and it unclenched, leaving a crumpled parchment in Uncle Tru’s palm.
“Hurry, Katherine!” Dad yelled.
“I can’t get through to the operator,” Mum replied.
A couple of feeble coughs escaped the man’s mouth and the man spoke again “Truman…Bres …den… map…follow…moon…lines…” And then the man’s eyes rolled back in his head and the convulsions and breathing stopped.
Dad bent over from where he was kneeling, drawing closer to the man to listen for a heartbeat. But as his ear touched the man’s chest, the man’s clothes deflated, his body turning to sand! Uncle Tru and Dad jumped back, both of them yelping in surprise. I fell backward landing on my bottom but keeping my eyes fixed on the sand and deflated clothes. I heard Mum drop the phone and the faint voice of the operator repeatedly calling “Hello” in the receiver.
Before any of us could move another inch, a wind that seemed to come from within the man’s deflated clothes picked up the sand and carried it under the closed front door. It slipped through the tiny crack with a loud “Woomp,” leaving the clothes empty on the floor. As soon as the sand escaped, Uncle Tru jumped to his feet, ripped open the front door, and ran outside into the early grey of night, scanning the street and sidewalk. Dad followed Uncle Tru, and Mum came and helped me up off the floor. I could see through the doorway that the desert’s wind continued to blow and thought Uncle Tru and Dad would never be able to track the mysterious sand.
I was headed toward the door to join Dad and Uncle Tru in the street when Mum caught my shoulders.
“I’m going to try and contact the police again. You stay here inside,” she said, and then went toward the phone.
Ignoring Mum’s instructions, I took a couple more steps toward the door and was about to exit when, from the corner of my eye, I saw the man’s empty clothes stir on the floor.
“Wha…?” I gasped and then jumped, turning toward the movement. The blood stain on the robe slowly lifted from the fabric in a small stream of red sand grains blowing toward the front door. I raced outside after it and found several drops of blood on the sidewalk likewise dissolving into the red windblown sand. The vanishing blood trailed toward the driver side of a green and black automobile parked askew with its spoked right front tire on the curb, its headlights on and engine running. My head was down as I followed the blood around the front end of the car, so I didn’t see what clobbered me on the crown causing me to fall on my side with a grunt. Reflexively I yelled, “Hey!” and looked up to see what hit me. The driver’s door was open; I had apparently run into it with my head. But what caught my attention was the half hand print of blood lifting off the door and sweeping into a swirling mass of red, black, and tan sand swarming above the car.
“Uncle Tru! Dad!”
“Rad, there it is!” Uncle Tru yelled from the street behind me. I could hear them running toward me and was about to get up when the sand, unaffected by the wind, shot skyward and disappeared.
“Did you see that?” I said when Dad and Uncle Tru reached me.
“We saw it, Stat,” said Dad, crouching down beside me. “You okay? What happened?”
“Yeah, I’m okay…Dad, I think that man was driving this car. I watched a trail of blood turn into sand from his robe to here at this open door,” I said, pointing to the car door. “All of it got sucked up in that sand swarm that flew away.”
“I think you might be right,” said Uncle Tru. “The car’s still running and the lights are on.” He leaned into the cab, examining the seats and steering wheel. “I don’t see any blood, but if it disappeared with that sand then there’s probably none left.” And then he shut off the car’s lights and engine.
“I finally reached the police,” Mum said from the museum front door. “They’re on their way. Is Stat out here?”
“Yes, he’s here,” Dad said, pulling me to my feet. When I came into Mum’s view she glowered at me with her hands on her hips.
“Sorry, Mum, but I found a clue and had to follow it.”
“He’s all right, Katherine,” said Dad, “but let’s get inside and sort this out.”
We were again gathered at the display case table, Mum’s meal still on the serving tray, the falafel now cold and slices of goat cheese hardened. No one reached to eat it, hunger long vanished with the evening’s strange events.
The parchment the man handed to Uncle Tru was now spread out in front of us. Mum stared into the air between her and the map, her hands cupped over her mouth and nose and her elbows resting on the display case table. I was fingering the tarnished edge of Tupset’s khopesh (I still hadn’t returned it to the sarcophagus), trying to listen to Dad and Uncle Tru decipher the map.
“The parchment is papyrus, but I don’t think it’s very old,” said Uncle Tru, squinting at the edges and middle material of the small page. “At least I don’t think it’s as old as the ones we have here.” It didn’t look old to me either, not quite as tattered or brittle as the ones Dad and Mum put on display last year.
“It sure is small,” I said as I moved behind Dad and Uncle Tru, hoping for a closer look.
“Yes, it isn’t very big, is it?” Dad agreed. I’d guess the parchment was as wide as three playing cards placed side-by-side and as tall as one playing card from top to bottom.
“What are those circles in the middle? And the symbols around them?” I asked, pointing over their shoulders between their nearly connected heads.
In the middle of the parchment there were two circles, one inside the other. Strange symbols followed the outside edge of each circle. I recognized a couple of the symbols lining the left and right side of the parchment—Egyptian hieroglyphics—but neither my parents nor Uncle Tru had ever shown me anything like the circles or the symbols around them.
“Well, circles, even circles inside of circles, are common enough in Egyptian symbology,” Dad said. “But these symbols around the circles…I’ve never seen them on anything Egyptian.”
“Me either,” said Uncle Tru. “I want to say that they look European…but that’s not really up my street.”
Mum, still sitting on the other side of the table opposite Uncle Tru and Dad, cleared her throat, sighed, and let her arms plop down onto the display case. It was one of her subtle attempts to get everyone’s attention, but I only heard it in passing, like a fly bugging me in the middle of a good book. It didn’t even register with Uncle Tru. He just kept going. And I followed.
“I think it will take me a while to decipher the message of the Egyptian glyphs, but the symbols around the circles…I know someone…” Uncle Tru said before Dad interrupted.
“Tru, Stat—I think Katherine has something to say.” Both Uncle Tru and I looked up into Mum’s surprised eyes.
“I don’t believe you three,” Mum said, gearing up for a lecture. “A man died…or turned into sand…or whatever happened to him…here tonight. And you’re worried about deciphering that parchment like it’s some kind of treasure map?”
I tried to divert my eyes and I suspect Dad and Uncle Tru were trying to do the same, given their shifting heads.
“I’m sorry, Katherine. We…,” Dad started.
“Don’t you think this could be dangerous?” Mum continued. “He called you by name, Truman.” She directed her gaze at Uncle Tru, catching his wandering eyes like a snake charmer hypnotizing a cobra. “Did you even know the man?”
“No, I’ve never seen him before,” Uncle Tru replied.
“And this…this Sanderine…Who or what is that?” Mum was really cooking now. “He didn’t make it sound very friendly.” Uncle Tru looked to Dad and Dad looked to Uncle Tru, both of them shrugging their shoulders.
“Katherine, we don’t know who or what the Sanderine is,” Dad said, “or what the man meant by runes or Rah-man…Rah-man…”
“…haten-weep,” I finished for Dad.
“Thanks,” Dad gave me a nod. “And you’re right, it could be dangerous…it’s probably dangerous. I guess we got caught up in the…the supernatural of what happened.” He paused for a second and then added, “Tru, Stat—wouldn’t you agree?”
“Yes sir,” I replied. Mum was right. What happened tonight certainly didn’t make our home any safer. I thought surely Uncle Tru would agree, but his reply surprised me. Judging by their looks, Mum and Dad were no less shocked.
“I don’t think we should tell the police about the parchment or our dead visitor’s mysterious riddle,” Uncle Tru said.
“Truman! The man was murdered! Given that, and your history chasing off tomb raiders with the police, I would think you’d be the first to want their help,” Mum said, surprised that Uncle Tru would suggest leaving the police out of this. I knew Uncle Tru’s digs were often hit by tomb raiders and the police frequently visited the museum and his camps, trying to help him track down the bandits. But I also knew they hadn’t caught any of them.
“Katherine’s right. I think we should tell the police, Tru,” Dad added. “This could be dangerous.”
“Look, I’m not saying we shouldn’t involve the police. But the man came to us—came to me—for a reason,” argued Uncle Tru. “He could’ve gone straight to the authorities but he came here, obviously trusting us with this important information.” Mum and Dad weren’t buying Uncle Tru’s argument and it was written all over their faces.
“Why would he come to you, Uncle Tru?” I asked, bringing myself into the conversation. As yet, no one had thought to discuss why the man had shown up on our museum’s doorstep.
“I don’t know,” Uncle Tru responded. “I haven’t been able to think that through yet. But I know there’s a reason and my gut’s telling me that we shouldn’t tell the police about the parchment or what the man said.”
“I’m with Uncle Tru,” I said, but before I could say anything else, Mum cut me off.
“Stat, you stay out of this.”
“But Mum, I was there. I saw the whole thing. The message was intended for Uncle Tru.”
“Okay! Okay!” Dad jumped in. “Even if we don’t tell the police about the parchment or explain what the man said, how are we going to explain the hard evidence—the Studebaker, the empty clothes?” Dad asked Uncle Tru. “We can’t hide that.”
“Let’s tell them about the car and even show them the man’s clothes,” said Uncle Tru. “For that matter, we can even tell them that the man died from a stab wound, that his body and blood turned into sand and blew away, and that his clothes—and maybe his Studebaker—are the only things left of him.” Uncle Tru paused for a moment to let that strategy sink in.
“I don’t know,” Mum said. “It sounds far-fetched, but that is what happened. Perhaps the police could help solve the mystery of this parchment and the man’s message.”
“I don’t think so,” replied Uncle Tru. “The police will take the evidence and we’ll never hear from them again. It’s the same way for every theft out on the digs. And we have yet to solve a single one of those mysteries.”
“Tru, we…” Dad said, sighing.
“Okay,” Uncle Tru interrupted. “Just give me three days to research this on my own and then we can tell the police the whole story. Deal?” Uncle Tru turned to Mum and Dad to see if they were in agreement. Neither of them said anything and I couldn’t tell from their expressions whether or not they would tell the police despite Uncle Tru’s argument. By then, however, it was too late for any more discussion. A loud knock sounded from the front door followed by a muffled voice.
“Mr. and Mrs. Bresden, it’s the police.”
Dad left the table first and the rest of us followed him to the door. I was in the rear next to Uncle Tru and behind Mum. As I came around the left side of the man’s empty clothes—which were still on the floor where he’d left them—a sharp, fleeting glint near the end of the man’s left robe sleeve caught my eye.
It was a ring.
Light from the museum’s inside entrance lighting must have hit a jewel mounted on the ring or a flat spot on the ring’s metal just right for me to notice it. But, instead of reaching for it, I kicked it, sending it sliding under a display case to the left of the door. I heard its soft chime as it struck the edge of the wall under the case just as dad turned the doorknob to let in the police. I looked at Mum to see if she had noticed what I’d done. She hadn’t. When I looked over at Uncle Tru though, he gave me a quick nod of his head and a wink with his left eye.
I thought the ring might be another clue, but I wasn’t sure how. It was probably just a piece of the man’s jewelry. But I didn’t want the police to see it before we got a good look at it. I had a feeling Uncle Tru felt the same.
Dad swung the door open and invited the police to enter. Now it was up to Mum and Dad to either tell the whole story or leave out the bit about the parchment and a dead man’s message. Both Uncle Tru and I held our right hands behind our backs, fingers crossed.