Dark, hot, and dusty with death was the only way to describe the air that assaulted Brian Vanderpelt's nose. Of course, when one was working his way down a corridor of a tomb that hadn't been opened since around the thirteen century BC, one had to expect all of that and more.
"Bring that light forward," he barked over his shoulder as he paused in his steps. It didn't take a rocket scientist to reason that it would be safer traversing this passageway in the light. A guide, swathed in layers of white linen robes, hurried forward, handed over the lantern, and then dropped back into the ranks of the workers. When breaking into a tomb of a Pharaoh, it was safer to let the white men go first. Let them incur any wrath or curse that was left behind.
To Vanderpelt's way of thinking, using the cover of a curse made the workers much easier to deal with, at least it had until it came time to actually get into the tomb and check stuff out. They didn't tend to pilfer artifacts when a curse was hanging over them, but it was the devil's own time getting them past the first portal. Vanderpelt chuckled to himself when he thought of how he and a couple of other gents had concocted the Curse of Hatshepsut over a couple of bottles of scotch in a bar in Asyut. At that point in time, the reality of them actually finding the tomb of Egypt's only reigning woman pharaoh was pretty slim and now he was about to behold that very burial chamber - a sight unseen for over 1500 years.
Sand sifted down from a thin crack in the ceiling, its path lit by a pencil thin shaft of light and Vanderpelt paused before moving forward, crouching low to the floor. Littering the path before them were several shattered skeletons - mourners, slaves chosen to stay behind as servants to the departed, or perhaps hapless grave robbers struck down as they tried to pillage the tomb? Vanderpelt wasn't taking chances. He'd seen too many sophisticated traps laid by the priests to protect the Pharaohs in their after-life journey. He took the staff that he'd been using and jabbed the air before him experimentally. The murmur of voices behind him led him to believe that his band of workers was either complimenting him on his foresight or wondering if the desert had finally claimed his mind.
Now he slapped the staff against the walls and the floor. Still nothing happened. Yet the curious arrangement of body upon body kept Vanderpelt in his spot. He was unwilling to believe that this many people would voluntarily lie down upon each other and wait for death. Strange how that bit of sun terminated upon the pile of bones before him. Strange, how it was nearly impossible to get through the corridor without breaking its path.
"Get back," he ordered and swung the staff through the shaft of light. He threw himself back as far as he could as a section of the ceiling dropped, effectively smashing the bones against the stone floor. "Ingenious! Those shafts of light litter the place. Who would have thought they would be a trigger?"
"You, Mr. Vanderpelt," his guide spoke up softly. "Otherwise, we would now be part of Hatshepsut's curse. The workers seemed to mirror the same sentiment, a sentiment that boosted Vanderpelt's ego tremendously.
"Funny thing about those curses - there usually isn't much to them. Not once you start taking them apart." The ceiling was slowly resetting itself and as soon as there was crawl space through, Vanderpelt scrambled through, waiting and watching as his band of workers joined him safely. "If you stay close and watch me, we'll get through this thing together."
Twists and turns later deposited them at a dead end and Vanderpelt checked his map. "Okay, we start to dig...here!" He jabbed the wall to his left with the staff and abruptly part of the floor behind him gave way. Two workers dropped from sight, their screams abruptly cut short by an unknown form of death. "My God," muttered Vanderpelt.
"And mine as well," his guide added. He'd been just inches from the two unfortunates. "I recommend we proceed cautiously, Mr. Vanderpelt."
"That is the understatement of the century, Amun." At least the trap was sprung and they could proceed safely. He took a crowbar and jammed it between two stones, wiggling it. Or at least he tried to, years of watching other men work had made him soft. "Amun, you two others, move it," he barked the command and the workers carefully moved forward, watching the floor.
The slab shifted after what seemed an hour when it was actually just minutes. Easing it out took even longer, but Vanderpelt kept control of his impatience. It wouldn't do to annoy the three men who held his future in their hands. Carefully, the stone was removed and lowered to the ground. Watching the sweat glisten on the faces of the workers, Vanderpelt could only imagine what it must have been like to have originally laid that stone. How many thousands had labored on this tomb for their queen king and had, in return, taken her secret to their own journey to the west?
Blackness beckoned and Vanderpelt gestured the men aside. Unhooking a flashlight from his belt, he shone the beam into the hole. Nothing sprang out. In fact, he would have been greatly surprised if it had. It would have been impossible to booby-trap the entire chamber.
He glanced around the edge of the hole and gasped at the face staring back at him. It only took a split second for him to realize he was staring into the face of a statue, but the resulting laughter helped diffuse some of the tension running through the party.
"Amun," Vanderpelt said, waiting for the worker to step forward. "Go back to the surface and let everyone know that we've discovered the waiting hall of the burial tomb. They will know what that means. Go and be very careful returning. Retrace our steps and avoid the traps."
"Yes, I will, most definitely," Amun said and started away. Behind him, he heard Vanderpelt say,
"All right lads, it's time to make this..." The man's voice was cut off, replaced by screams and when Amun turned, Vanderpelt was gone, and the two workers were sprawled dead against the opposite wall. He turned and ran as if Anubis himself were pursuing him.
Napoleon Solo kept all of his concentration focused upon the small black ball that ricocheted off the front wall and hurled itself back at him with break neck speed. He needed this point to win the game and he'd be hanged if he'd let his partner best him. He caught the ball and slammed it back the way it had come. Whether it was luck, probably, or just that he'd finally exhausted his partner, unlikely, or that the Russian was showing pity, equally unlikely, the ball flung itself past the tips of Illya Kuryakin's outstretched hand.
"Game point, old man," Solo gasped and leaned against his knees as he fought to find his breath. He noticed his partner trotted up to him without any signs of fatigue. It was as if he'd been tying his shoes for the past hour.
"Thank your god for that. I was beginning to think this game would never end. We're both just too competitive to play against each other, Napoleon." Illya Kuryakin held his gloved hand out to the dark-haired agent and pulled him upright. "I gave you that one, you know." He dragged his damp blond hair off his forehead and blew out a mouthful of air.
"In your dreams," Napoleon said, bending to pick up a towel and using one end to mop his face. He left it draped around his neck.
"I had to." Illya reached over and tapped the front of the man's soaked tee shirt. "I was afraid your heart would give out. You really should start watching your diet. When a man reaches your age..." Illya broke off as the American caught him in a savage neck hold. Kuryakin struggled to get his weight properly balanced.
"I'll show you old..."
But he never got the chance as a loudspeaker above their heads crackled to life. "Agents Solo and Kuryakin, report immediately to Mr. Waverly's office."
"I wonder if that's immediately immediately or just immediately," Solo said as he released Illya's neck and the Russian straightened.
"You want to shower first?"
"Not so much want as need to." Napoleon looked down at his sweat-stained workout clothes. "You know how Mr. Waverly appreciates tidiness."
"Almost as much as he appreciates punctuality. I go with showing up and letting him send us to the showers. If nothing else, it might cut the meeting short, especially if he is sitting downwind."
"But what if a woman's involved, there's always that first impression."
"Then you can impress her with your pheromones." Illya opened the door to the court and gestured to the agent. "After you, my dear Mr. Solo."
Waverly looked up as they entered his office, then he returned to his task of filling his briar pipe.
"You wanted to see us, sir," Solo asked as he took his accustomed seat at the circular table. Illya slid into the chair beside him and clasped his hands before him, looking like a model student waiting for a favorite teacher. Solo smiled at the thought as Waverly turned back to him. The head of Section One lifted a remote and touched a button. A young woman, smiling, looked back at him, from a photograph. The woman looked fresh and crisp in the yellow sleeveless sundress. Her short brunette hair was neatly held back with a matching kerchief. She was the epitome of cool.
"Mr. Solo, Mr. Kuryakin, I'd like you to meet Estelle Vanderpelt." Waverly spun the table until file folders sat before both of them.
"The Estelle Vanderpelt?" Illya asked. "She led the El Cabal expedition in Mexico. Her methods are a little eccentric, but her recovery rate is brilliant."
Miss Vanderpelt just recently lost her brother, gentlemen," Waverly explained as he toggled forward to another slide. This one was of a man with blazing red hair, an arrogant expression and thick glasses. "Vanderpelt's brother disappeared while on a recent expedition in Egypt. We suspect that THRUSH may have had a hand in that disappearance." At the mention of their organization's enemy, both men were all attention. "May have, sir?" Solo asked as he shifted through the papers in the file.
"How much do either of you know about Egypt?"
It was a strange question for Waverly would already have researched how much each man knew and what his areas of specialization were. The agents exchanged glances and Illya returned to his folder.
"It's hot, sandy and the last time we were there, and the time before that, Illya left a large quantity of blood behind," Napoleon said, his tone causal. He could afford to be that way now - his partner wasn't wandering, lost and injured, in the desert at the moment. "What precisely are you interested in, sir?"
"The rulers, Mr. Solo, the ancient ones."
"The pharaohs? Anyone of them in particular, sir? I mean, Old Dynasty, Middle or New?" He glanced at the photo that accompanied the text.
"Ah...a lesser one." Waverly tapped the sheet in front of him, frowning slightly as he read, "Hatshep...sut?"
"His Majesty herself." Illya's eyes grew distant behind his glasses as if reading an invisible text. "Eighteenth dynasty. The only surviving child of four. Whether that was from convenience or an engineered fate is still a matter for scholastic debate. She was the daughter of Thutmose I, wife of Thutmose II and took control from Thutmose III. If I'm not mistaken, she eventually set herself up as the daughter of Amen-Re, a direct descendent of the god himself. A real forerunner of women's causes, she successfully ruled for many years."
"By passing herself off as a man, complete with a false beard, as I recall." Solo tapped the sheet that he'd been reading. "Where did Vanderpelt find this inscription?"
"At a site he was excavating along the Nile. He'd always held the belief, as do many others, that Hat...shepsut had two tombs built, one to be used as the real tomb, the other as a decoy. Hatshepsut was not held in high regard by the succeeding pharaoh, her stepson. It was supposed that he destroyed anything of hers that he could when he ascended to the throne. Can you read the inscription, Mr. Kuryakin?"
Illya shrugged his shoulders. "It's been a long time and my translation may be a bit shaky." He ran an index finger over the characters. "Daughter of Amen-Re, something of Horus, rain of the gods?" Illya stopped and leaned in to Solo, as he pointed. "Napoleon, what is this?"
Napoleon moved closer to study the sheet until their heads nearly met. "It's a duck, hieroglyphic sign for son - it's son of Horus. And it's not rain of the gods, Illya, reigned as a god. Was the site where he found this close to Punt? That was one of her favorite camps during her reign."
Illya continued, not waiting for an answer. "All who desecrate this holiest of holy sites, death is not a release, pain and suffering await all those whom venture from this point. The Eater of Souls will rip out thy heart, crack thy bones, use thy skin as a cloak...sounds like a standard curse to me."
"A sort of 'Abandon all hope' rhetoric," Solo said, smiling. "Most of those tombs came with something similar. Couldn't have the lower classes digging about and stealing everything."
"Not that it ever stopped the grave robbers," Illya said, tapping the table with his index finger. "The only tombs they didn't desecrate were the ones they didn't find. Look at what they did to Ramses II. His was supposed to have been twice as grand as Tut's. The only difference is that Tut's wasn't pillaged by the early robbers, just the latter ones, like Carter. How do you know so much about the pharaohs, Napoleon?"
"A girl I dated in college was an Egyptology major. I made it my job to find out as much as I could so that I could talk intelligently with her."
"In between all the chats of amore, I should think," Illya muttered, winning the blast of a glare from his partner. He hid his smile as he continued to flip through the material in the file folder.
"And what's your excuse?"
Illya smiling slightly and shrugged his shoulders. "It's very cold and wet in England during the winter."
"As opposed to Russia," Solo murmured.
"As opposed to Russia. One spends a good deal of time inside when one is in England. One of my minors was languages and I liked the challenge that hieroglyphs offered."
"Quantum physics and dead languages, you must have had the women hanging off you," Solo teased softly, his smile reaching all the way to his eyes. Illya's shrug was noncommittal. "How does all of this apply to THRUSH, sir?
"As you noted, Mr. Solo, Hatshepsut's mummy has never been found. The one body that was uncovered is now thought to be that of her nurse."
"I thought she was buried at Deir el Bahri. That's where Senenmut's tomb was found," Napoleon asked, unconsciously smoothing his hair. At Waverly's frown, Solo offered, "Senenmut was her head architect, and some people believe, her one great love. Being of different social classes, they couldn't marry, but that didn't stop Hatshepsut from lavishing titles upon him, among other things. His tomb was a replica of hers, but it was thought that Thutmose III destroyed, really destroyed it, along with Hatshepsut. Neither body was ever found to anyone's satisfaction," Solo said. "Destroy the Ka and you wander the desert forever, according to the ancient text, in a constant state of starvation. Sort of like you, Illya."
Illya closed the file and put away his glasses. "I'm still not seeing the THRUSH angle."
"As you recall, Mr. Kuryakin, as with the discovery of Tut's tomb, quite often there is considerable wealth that is buried with the pharaohs. Brian Vanderpelt apparently assumed that the same would hold true for Hatshepsut. Unfortunately, archaeological digs require quite a bit of capital up front and many of them end in failure. This is the last letter that he was getting ready to send to his sister," Waverly said, setting down a sheet of paper and spinning the table until it was before the agents. "I think you'll find the watermark of interest."
Solo held up the paper to the light in order to make out the bird with its slightly upraised wings. "THRUSH," he reported, handing the sheet over to Illya.
"I think that it would be safe to assume that THRUSH is the organization that has offered its capital," Illya said, studying the sheet without focusing upon the handwriting.
"They have their dirty little fingers in every thing else, why not Egyptian artifacts? A significant find could be worth billions. And you feel they had something to do with Vanderpelt's disappearance?" Solo asked.
"According to the one surviving witness to the attack, it was as if Vanderpelt and the rest of the excavation party were whisked away by the hand of Re himself."
"And that witness would be?"
Waverly consulted a sheet of paper before speaking. "Fortunately for us, one of our own. A Mr. Amun Aten Carter of the Cairo office. You are booked upon a flight for this afternoon." The tone of dismissal in Waverly's voice was firm. "Oh, and the two of you might want to shower beforehand. I think your fellow traveling companions would appreciate the effort."
"See? I told you," Solo said as the two rose and headed for the door. It slid open and then closed, cutting off Kuryakin's reply.
Napoleon Solo returned to his seat and crossed his arms, a half frown playing on his lips. The movement disturbed his Russian seatmate and Kuryakin closed the book he was reading. "What's wrong, Napoleon? No luck trolling?"
"I liked it better when stewardesses were required to be single."
"Flight attendants, Napoleon, don't be boorish."
"And when there wasn't quite so many male stew... flight attendants."
"Times change, old friend, and we must march to the sound of that drummer."
"You know, when Mr. Waverly said we were booked onto a flight, I thought it would be for Cairo, not Panama."
"Yes, well, it was also safe to assume that Miss Vanderpelt wanted her brother found." The change in topics didn't faze the Russian. After many years of practice, he was able to keep up with his partner's train of thought. "It would appear that she couldn't care less whether her brother was found or not, much less whether he's still alive or not."
"If I ever become that competitive with my sister, remind me of this." Napoleon opened a pack of peanuts and tossed a few in his mouth, chewing before saying, "I guess the tone of the letter should have been an indication of the feelings between them."
"And all we have to do is convince her that rescuing her brother might be in her best interests."
"And perhaps end world hunger and establish world peace at the same time."
Napoleon offered the packet to Illya who shook his head. "The latter two might be the easier of the tasks. Her last comment to me on the phone was, "Good, may he rot in eternal damnation."
"Generous to a fault." Napoleon finished the packet and crumpled it. "And loving. How we're going to get her out of that jungle and to Egypt is beyond me."
"Napoleon, you can charm water from a rock. I refuse to believe this would be much of a challenge for you." A change in the pitch of the engines drew his attention and he reached for his seat belt. Napoleon was doing the same. Neither man needed an announcement to tell them that they were on approach and would soon be landing.
"Easy for you to say, for me, it's my reputation on the line. She didn't sound like someone who could be flattered with sweet words. Nor was she tremendously concerned about national security."
"But at the same time, she was willing to leave a dig, abandon one of the most important finds since the mummies of Natsertez to meet with us. That says something."
"Something like The Old Man offering to finance her dig for another year if she'd at least meet with us." Solo flexed his shoulders and then stretched. "Is it my imagination or are these flights getting longer?"
Kuryakin smirked as he tucked his book back into his carryon. "They are the same length as always, you're just not as preoccupied these days."
Customs was not so much a burden as it was a duty. Since both carried international diplomatic passports, they were waved through without so much as a glance.
"Waverly said she would be meeting us at the luggage carousel," Solo said, tucking his passport into a suit pocket.
"I'll just wander behind and make sure no one else is meeting us here. That will give you a chance to turn on that charm of yours and see if she nibbles."
"Agreed." Solo started to walk away and then stopped. "Illya, I know it's... it's crazy, but, just in case she prefers something a bit more..."
"Exotic?" Illya's lips twisted into a faint smirk.
"Not exactly the word I was fishing for, but it will do. You won't discourage her...will you?"
"I will be the epitome of cooperation since I have long since agreed to serve UNCLE to my fullest capacity. That has included prostituting myself in its name."
"Let's not get carried away here. I'm just making sure all the bases are covered."
"Rest assured, Napoleon, they are fully tended. Don't keep our Miss Vanderpelt waiting. I will be along as soon as I am certain all is well in the garden."
Solo nodded absently and started towards the baggage claim area. He stopped and looked back over his shoulder, but the Russian was already invisible, blending into the crush of people with practiced ease.
Spotting the archaeologist wasn't a difficult process. She stood with her arms crossed, tapping her foot, staring at her watch, then up at the sign over the baggage carousel.
"It says the plane has arrived. What is taking so long?"
"You should be in Vegas. It takes them over 45 minutes just to get the carousel moving, another 20 to start unloading," Solo said as he walked up behind her.
The woman spun and Solo had to admit that her photo did her justice that real life didn't. Her hair was carelessly caught up in a piece of twine and tied behind a face devoid of makeup. Her clothes were stained and muddied, as were her hands. "Didn't anyone tell you not to creep up on people?"
"Yes, my uncle, constantly. But I have the wherewithal to ignore him completely. I'm Napoleon Solo." He extended his hand and after a moment's hesitation, she took it. The skin was cool, but rough to the touch, and very strong. This was a woman who made her living a day at a time, he decided.
"I understood there were to be two of you."
"Yes, well, Illya is the cautious sort. He should be along any minute, as soon as he's satisfied that we won't be bothered."
"Good, I don't have any extra time to waste away from the dig. I don't even know why I agreed to this. We're at a very delicate point, any carelessness, any inattention to detail and we might as well fill everything in and go home."
"I refuse to believe you would hire people that incompetent," came the softly accented voice of his partner. Vanderpelt stared and glared.
"Is this creeping up on people a habit with your kind?"
"She doesn't like the way we sneak up on folks," Napoleon said.
"So I ascertained, but might I put forth that we don't sneak. We employ stealth. We are without attention." Illya bowed his head slightly to her. "I am Illya Kuryakin."
"You don't sound Russian. You sound English."
She looked from one to the other. "I suppose you'll do. Either of you had any experience on a dig before?"
Solo looked over at his partner, who slowly shook his head. "I'm afraid not, Miss Vanderpelt. Why?"
"Didn't Mr. Waverly tell you anything?" She ran a hand through her hair, pulling out the twine as she did. "That was the agreement. I talk to you and you help me out. I need strong backs."
"But your brother..."
"Dead is dead, Mr. Solo, I very much doubt he'll get any more dead three days from now. That was the agreement. Take it or leave it."
The two agents exchanged glances and Illya shrugged his shoulders.
"Why not? It's been a long time since I've gotten my hands dirty and the exercise will do you good." The last part was directed to Solo, who frowned, a hand dropping to his waist. Realizing what he'd done, the hand continued to move to brush a bit of invisible dirt from his suit jacket.
"I don't know that I packed anything suitable."
"Don't worry, I'll take care of that." Vanderpelt looked from one to the other and gestured to the exit. "Shall we?"
Napoleon Solo dragged himself into a tent and collapsed upon the cot. It was narrow, hard and smelt musty, but he didn't care. "I have blisters upon my blisters," he said, looking at his hands. "I can't believe how quickly things grow here. I swear I cut the very same vines yesterday that I did today."
"Not to worry, Napoleon, the worst is behind you," Illya Kuryakin muttered from his own cot as he draped an arm over his eyes. "At least you didn't find any snakes in your boots this morning, unlike yesterday."
"That was a bit of an adrenaline rush, I suppose. How is the cataloging coming?"
"Infuriatingly slow. Her methods make no sense, she is meticulous about some things and tosses other artifacts around like they are a dime a dozen."
"But it's my choice to make, isn't it?" Estelle Vanderpelt's voice interrupted him. The flap pulled back and she walked into the tent as Solo struggled into a sitting position. She looked from one man to the other, then walked over to Kuryakin's cot and pushed his legs aside to sit. Illya grunted and dropped the arm that was covering his eyes. For a moment, Solo caught his breath, waiting, but the Russian simply readjusted his position upon the cot to make more room as she settled down onto the cot. "I must say, you two have been as good as your word. You have done what you've been told and you haven't complained...too much." This last bit was directed at the Russian, who had started to recover his eyes with his arm. She caught the limb and looked at it for a long moment. "You're getting chewed up. You are taking your quinine tablets, yes?"
"Yes, I am not a stranger to the jungle." Kuryakin pulled his arm free gently. "You did not come here to inquire after our health and well being."
"No, I think I am at a point where I am ready to talk."
"My brother and his inconvenient alliance." Solo sat up at her admission, but the Russian remained unmoved and apparently unconcerned. If the woman noticed, she ignored it. "I'm not exactly sure why this is such a big deal."
"Normally, we wouldn't concern ourselves, but THRUSH is a world power and if this is indeed the undiscovered tomb of Hatshepsut, it would behoove us to not let any discovered treasure fall into their hands," Solo leaned forward, using his best velvet tones, letting his natural charisma work its charm. The woman locked eyes with him for a moment, and then tapped the Russian's arm with her thumb.
"And what do you think?" The question was directed to Kuryakin.
"If they get their hands on anything of historic or political importance, they will manipulate the situation to best serve their needs." Illya propped himself up on his elbows. "Imagine if you would, the impact of Tut's tomb never being revealed to anyone and those treasures being melted down, dismantled, or put for sale on the open market. What would that mean to the Egyptian people? What would something like that mean to you if suddenly the most important find of the century, like the discovery of Palenque or the drawings of the Nasca plains, never happened, except on the black market?"
"So this is of historical importance to your organization as well as financial? Isn't that just changing teams, but not the outcome?"
"I speak as a fellow scientist, as well as an UNCLE agent. Anything that UNCLE would be likely to uncover would be turned over to the Egyptian authorities as per our current agreements with their government. We have no use for them within our organization. They are just by-products of our mission."
The woman drew her knees up to her chin and leaned against them, staring hard at the blond agent for a long time. Finally she said, "Your candor is refreshing."
"That's not exactly the word I had in mind," Solo said, dryly. "I think UNCLE is very concerned with the historic significance of this find. We just aren't as focused upon the bottom line as THRUSH is."
The blond snorted and dropped back onto the cot. "That's a good capitalist. Just keep telling yourself that."
"However it boils down, Miss Vanderpelt," Solo continued. "We need to go into the dig and we feel you would be our best cover."
"And why is that?"
"The grieving sister, picking up where her poor dead brother left off. The other reality is that he might not be dead, but merely captured."
"Oh, puulease? That maggot? I'd sooner piss on his head than help him out. If they've taken him, they can have him."
"What has your brother done that has instilled such hatred in you?" Illya asked quietly as he sat up again.
"He breathes, that's enough for me."
"Then I take it your cooperation is being withheld," Solo said, looking from the woman to his partner and back.
"I didn't say that. What I want is an assurance."
"It might not be ours to give."
"I want my name on the discovery, not his. I don't care if it's an empty hole in the ground; it's my dig, not his."
"I don't think UNCLE would have a problem arranging that. Even if your brother was discovered alive, he would be in violation of at least a dozen international laws and would quite likely spend time in jail."
"Egyptian jail is very hard on you," Illya murmured. "I have the scars to prove it."
"And you were only there two days before I found you."
"It was two very long days...and two even longer nights."
"I'll let Mr. Waverly know that you have decided to help us out." Napoleon got slowly to his feet and walked to his suitcase, pulling out his communicator. Vanderpelt watched him for a moment, and then returned her attention to the Russian who had fallen back onto the cot and was scratching his chin and the stubble growing there.
"You two have been together a long time."
"I can tell. You have an ease that comes from long association. I'll bet with him around, you never get bored."
"Beaten, shot, stabbed, gassed, poisoned, but never bored," Kuryakin answered. "Why?"
"Just seeing how the site is laid out, that's all. I need to know where I stand."
"Wherever you want to," Solo said, rejoining them. "Mr. Waverly has given me his assurance that you will be given full credit on the dig."
"Then we have a deal, gentlemen, and a lot more work to do here before we can leave. Shall we?"
Solo offered his hand down to his partner and half pulled him from the cot. "You heard the lady, Mr. Kuryakin. You can always sleep on the plane."
"But if you sleep, you miss the meals." Illya got to his feet and stretched his arms high over his head, bones popping with the effort.
"Don't tell me you like airline food," Vanderpelt said, disbelief in her voice
"If you hang around with Illya long enough, you'll discover that he likes all food. The common joke is that when he came to UNCLE they thought it would be cheaper to feed him than pay him. They quickly corrected that misconception. We now know what caused the famine in Russia."
"I'll remember that," Vanderpelt said, smiling at the pair.
The Cairo office was similar in appearance to the New York UNCLE office, but smaller and much warmer. The ceiling fan spun lazily, doing little to move the air.
"Ah, gentlemen, please come in and be seated," Ay Merneptah rose slightly from his chair as the agents walked over to shake hands before taking their seats at the circular table. "When Alexander told me it was the pair of you coming, I knew it could only be trouble." He mopped his face with a damp white handkerchief. "Please excuse the heat, but the air conditioner is on vacation again. You never know how much you rely upon modern conveniences until you don't have them." He laughed gently, seated himself and leaned into the intercom. "Miss Kabal, will you ask Carter to come to my office? And would you bring something to drink too? Thank you." He clicked off the intercom and regarded the two men with a smile. "Just like the last time, no?"
Illya smiled slightly and rubbed his chest. "Hopefully, not exactly like last time. I would prefer to leave this time without spending a week in Intensive Care."
There was a soft chime at the door the moment before it slid open to permit Carter to enter. The agent was reed thin, with a few days worth of beard and mustache clinging precariously to his face. He looked more like a common laborer than an UNCLE agent, an obvious advantage for him. He carried a tray laden with a pot and glasses.
"Amun, I'd like to introduce Mr. Solo and Mr. Kuryakin, from the New York Office. This is one of my top agents, Amun Carter."
Both men stood as he approached the table.
"I've heard a lot about the two of you. Somehow, I expected you both to be much taller," Carter, said, as he poured four glasses of very hot tea and passed them around before bowing to the pair.
"If I had an inch for every time I've heard that," Solo said, grinning and bowing. He continued as Kuryakin followed suit. "I understand you were the only survivor from the dig and that it was your suggestion that we be called in."
"Why?" Illya asked.
"I have nothing against watching out for my country, protecting it from minor looting, protecting its ever shifting borders, but this is way out of my league. If the tomb we've discovered really is Hatshepsut's, it needs to be handled correctly with the authorities. After the dig party vanished, I went through Vanderpelt's things and found that letter. If THRUSH is involved, they aren't likely to permit any intervention by Egyptian authorities. I don't mind telling you that I haven't slept a night since the incident."
"First time you've run up against a major THRUSH infestation?" Illya asked. He had taken a seat and was engaged in a close study of his fellow agent. He sipped the tea carefully as he waited for an answer. It was very sweet and very minty - just what was needed to take the edge off the heat. When he first arrived here, he hadn't seen the sense of drinking something hot to cool off, but it worked.
Carter nodded slowly, his face guarded. "It was frightening. One moment they were there, the next, they had completely vanished. It was only the fact that Vanderpelt sent me back to the surface that I escaped their fate."
"If THRUSH indeed engineered that tragedy," Merneptah interrupted, drawing attention away from the Egyptian agent, "it would be advisable to exercise caution. There are some rather odd aspects to this tale however."
"Surely you don't believe in a curse?" Illya's look, which shifted from Carter to Merneptah and back, was tinged with skepticism and Amun shrugged his shoulders. "This isn't going to be another reenactment of the Tut curse, is it?"
"I was with Vanderpelt when he made up that story about a curse, so I know that part of it is a fairy tale. He thought I was too drunk to understand as I had led him to believe my grasp of English was tentative at best. Yet, he was so careful, so exacting with his actions once inside the tomb. He took us through several traps, but they were traps that made no sense. They were not ancient traps, but ones set recently. Yet, the tomb looked as if it had been undisturbed for centuries. Believe what you will, Mr. Kuryakin, but this is an ancient land. Our civilization thrived for 3000 years before the birth of Christ and continues to do so to this day. While it's true that we don't build pyramids anymore or mummify our dead, we build skyscrapers and embalm bodies, it's not that much different."
"Your point being?" Napoleon asked.
"There're some really strange things that can and do happen here. Don't dismiss anything too quickly."
A slender sand-colored cat paddled quietly into the room, examined the four agents in turn and cut a path to the Russian agent, who started as the cat effortlessly leapt up onto the table beside him.
"Hello, cat," he said offering a hand for inspection. There was a polite smell and then the cat rubbed against it.
"It looks like Bastet favors you, Mr. Kuryakin," Merneptah said. "She's extremely selective. You should be flattered."
Illya scratched her head with his finger. "Believe me, I am."
"She was probably sent by all those strays you feed, Illya." Napoleon said. "They told her what an easy touch you are. Have you gotten our covers all established, Mr. Carter?"
"Amun, please. To you, a professor of Egyptology, I am but a lowly digger and you have possible romantic entanglements with Miss Vanderpelt. To you, Mr. Kuryakin, a grad student of Mr. Solo's, I am a plethora of practical knowledge and someone to get dirty with. In that fashion, I will be able to approach Mr. Kuryakin without attracting undue attention and you can go to Mr. Solo, also without making the workers talk or grow suspicious."
"That sounds reasonable." Illya shook cat fur from his fingers as the cat left him to plop down before Carter, rolling onto her back. Her paws kneaded the air as he stroked her stomach, a cat smile on her lips.
"That's the life, eh, Illya," Solo said as he rose, sliding his chair in.
"In Ancient Egypt, she would have been worshipped as a god," Illya said, also standing and collecting his paperwork.
"As opposed to now, you mean," Solo asked, grinning. "She looks pretty revered to me."
"Do either of you have plans for the evening?" Carter had also risen after giving the cat one final pat. She moved on to Merneptah, butting her head against his hand.
"I've offered to show Miss Vanderpelt around Cairo as this is her first real visit here," Solo said, opening the door before turning back to the table. "I am hoping to extract some additional information regarding her relationship with her brother and gain some additional insight into his character. Would you care to join us, Mr. Merneptah?"
"Thank you, but no, Mr. Solo. Miss Vanderpelt doesn't seem to know much about her brother's work," the Cairo chief said, closing his own file folder. "Or about Egypt. Or even her brother. At least not much that is practical. Her rather descriptive terms, while interesting, are hardly helpful."
"Agreed. Her field of expertise is Central American cultures."
"Be very careful, Mr. Solo. THRUSH may not know the extent of Miss Vanderpelt's knowledge. They may try to approach her as she completes her brother's work. "
"We will exercise extreme caution, sir," Solo promised.
"And you, Mr. Kuryakin?" Carter asked.
The Russian smiled slightly, "I have some light reading to do. It wouldn't do to be an Egyptology major and not know the proper order of the pharaohs. Plus I could stand to brush up on my hieroglyphs. It's been a long time and I don't want to get caught unawares. Some of the rules are pretty arbitrary."
"But first some dinner and drink. We could talk," Amun suggested, gesturing to the door. "I could tell you about the dig...and the tomb."
"Make it a drink and dinner and you've got a deal." He turned back to his partner and smiled slightly. "I'll catch up with you back at the hotel room, Professor."
Illya Kuryakin paused at his hotel room door, waiting for the key to stop jiggling long enough to find the keyhole. He'd forgotten how truly lethal Egyptian beer could be.
"Almost as bad as vodka," he heard himself mutter as he finally negotiated the key into the lock and opened the door. His feeling of warm contentment evaporated as he surveyed the common room he shared with his partner. He didn't remember leaving the door to his sleeping quarters open and his senses instantly began to pick up. At a slight sound, he spun, fists up and ready for a fight.
Instead, a sleek blonde cat crossed the floor to him and began to rub against his leg.
"Bastet? How did you get in here? How did you find me?" Granted the hotel wasn't that far from the Cairo UNCLE office, it struck him as odd that the cat had tracked him down. "You need to get back to your proper owner. He'll be worried about you." The cat arched her head up to his hand as he leaned down towards her and Illya smiled. "Although, I somehow get the impression that you're a lady who can take care of herself."
He straightened slowly, mindful of his floating head and went into his bedroom. His paperwork was where he'd left it, innocuous, scholarly dry stuff that wouldn't draw any thing other than cursory interest should the room be examined by anyone of a feathered persuasion.
Peeling off his jacket, shirt, shoulder holster and shoes, he stretched out on the bed clad merely in his pants and socks and sighed. The alcohol had amplified a sense of weariness in him and more than that, a feeling of complete alienation. This was a culture so old, so wrapped in its own history that it was as if it were a quilt secured about the country and its people. He was raised in an atheistic country, but with a rich Orthodox home life. This was a country of gods and goddesses; antiquated monuments raised to their glory before his country had even started its struggle to emerge. In spite of his extensive traveling, this was one of the few countries that still made him uneasy. Of course, there was the physical trauma he'd suffered the last time he was here. His hand unconsciously moved to the mass of scar tissue he would carry as a reminder of that assignment. It wasn't so different from all the other scars that crisscrossed his body, but still there was an uneasy sensation he associated with it, the reality that he had come much too close to death that time - that he had looked death full in the face and seen his own visage staring back at him.
His head jerked up as the cat joined him upon the bed. She butted against his bare shoulder and he stroked her gently, forestalling the inevitable. Finally, there was nothing to do but do it and he rose, walking over to a briefcase propped open on the desk. He carefully worked the hidden lock until it sprung open and exposed Vanderpelt's notes.
Returning to the bed, he propped himself up against the pillows and began to read. A cool breeze was wafting in from the window, relieving the heat of the day. After a moment, Bastet settled down beside him, purring softly, and Illya's feelings of alienation began to wane.
Napoleon Solo whistled softly as he walked down the hotel corridor. It was still early in his view, but the other guests of the hotel might not share his ideas on nightlife. It had done him good to meet with Estelle, as he now thought of her. It had been years since he'd gotten that deeply involved with a discussion of Egyptology. The last time had been with...what was her name? Merna? Melba? It was funny. He could recite the names, physical descriptions, and preferences of dozens of THRUSH agents, but couldn't remember the names of half of the women he dated in college. When had he gotten this old?
He carefully unlocked the hotel room door and glanced into the room. When all seemed satisfactory, he ventured inside and closed the door behind him.
"Illya?" he called softly as he approached the partially opened shuttered door and stopped, grinning. The Russian was asleep, snoring softly; papers still in hand and his glasses still perched on the end of his nose.
"Pretty boring stuff, I'd venture," he said softly as he paused. From the bed, blue cat eyes studied him and Solo frowned. "How did you get in here, kitty? Did he bring you something to eat?"
The cat rose and stretched as only a cat can stretch, daintily leapt from the bed and walked to the balcony door. She looked over her shoulder and chirped at the American. It didn't take a college degree to figure out what was being asked of him and the agent obligingly opened the door for her. Without a backward glance, she walked out and was swallowed by the night.
"You're welcome," Napoleon murmured and walked over to the nightstand to shut off the light. As he leaned down, he winced and shook his head. He waved a hand before his nose. "Oh, Illya, you are going to have a head tomorrow." Common sense told him to take off Illya's glasses, but experience taught him to never touch the sleeping agent. It could have very painful consequences.
The Russian mumbled something, turned over and Napoleon smiled. Sometimes he forgot how young the man was. "Sleep well tonight, my friend. We are both going to need it."
Illya Kuryakin pulled the sweat-soaked kerchief from his neck and mopped his face with it. The sun was pounding down upon his head like a sledgehammer, making him wince and then feel strangely lightheaded as he straightened and moved to the shade that a rock afforded. He collapsed against the boulder and pulled off his hat. A water cask was set up and he dipped his cup into the lukewarm water. He sipped it slowly, licking the sweat from his top lip as he swallowed. He didn't have as much tolerance for heat as he did for the cold and the hangover from last night wasn't helping. He'd already gulped down as much aspirin as he dared, so instead he squinted out over the wavering sands and tried to think cool thoughts. Even the Egyptians were beginning to come in from the sun as the noon hour approached.
Amun trudged up to Kuryakin and sank down beside him, drawing his own cup of water and sipping it. "Illya, this afternoon we will erect a tent over the excavation site. It will make things easier for you and for us too." Illya poured water into his hand and rubbed it onto his head. "You don't look well. Is it the sun?"
"Partially, but the kvas from last night didn't help. You should have reminded me of its less-than-gentle nature. When can we go inside the tomb?"
"When Professor Solo permits. It was most good of him to take over the dig on such short notice," Amun added as two additional workers joined them. "Ms. Vanderpelt appreciates it, not knowing as much about Egypt as you and I." He looked over his shoulder at the workers and winked at Kuryakin.
"I'm sure it will be Professor Solo who will reap the benefits of this dig, along with Ms. Vanderpelt. In academia circles alone, his name will be synonymous with ...Carter. Are you related or is it merely a coincidence?" The other workers took their water and retreated to the mess tent.
"I'm not really sure to be honest. My mother insists that there is no connection, but when I announced that I was going into this line of work, her response was that it ran in my blood. Take that as you will." A gong interrupted him and Amun stood. "Come, my friend, fill your belly, take a rest and you'll feel good as new."
"Wishful thinking," Illya said, accepting Amun's offered hand. He stood, pausing as the blood pounded in his ears and he steadied himself with one hand against the rock. Nausea rolled through his body and he took several deep breaths to calm his stomach down, at the same time chastising himself for permitting this to have happened.
"Are you sure you don't have heat stroke?" Amun was solicitous, anxious.
The Russian shook his head slowly and began to walk towards the mess tent. "Definitely not heat stroke, not yet, maybe just heat exhaustion. About seven years ago, I was sent into the desert by the Cairo satrap, and if that doesn't equate to a death sentence, nothing does. It was only Napoleon's luck that kept me from winding up a crispy Russian. A couple of years after that, I was wounded and left to die on the Giza Flats. A tourist bus happened upon me a day later, and again I barely escaped death, but I know what the desert can do to a man."
"I've never spoken with anyone who survived being sent into the desert and you survived not once, but twice." Amun took a mouthful of water, swirled it in his mouth and spat it out. "Perhaps that is why Bastet seeks you out."
"She visited me last night at the hotel. I don't know how she found me." Illya paused at the tent flap, holding it back for the Egyptian and then following him in.
"She is a free spirit." They had just joined the food line as a voice floated over the murmur of conversation.
"Ah, so this is where you gadabouts are hiding," Solo said, walking in and looking about.
"Spoken by a man who has spent the morning inside a tent," Illya murmured as he took a pre-offered tray.
"Tut, tut, my boy, think how much closer this will put you to your Ph.D."
"Been there, done that, twice already," Illya muttered as he picked up a cup of coffee and followed Amun to a table. He sat, lifted a fork of meat to his mouth and popped it in, chewing slowly. "Goat?" he asked as Solo sat down beside him.
"Probably, it is the scheduled meat this week," Amun said, as he gathered his robes out of the way to sit.
"I hate to bother you, Illya, but Estelle needs you." Napoleon said softly, for the Russian's ears only.
"Estelle, now, is it?" Illya took another mouthful of food, chewed and swallowed. "You and Miss Vanderpelt have become closer."
"Yes, we became much better...acquainted last night," Napoleon said, with an arch of his eyebrows. "She has some additional glyphs for you to decipher," Solo's voice dropped to a mere whisper. "And I think we've found another entrance. It's pretty small, but it has potential."
"Discovered more curses then?"
"I'm not sure. Some workers found a tablet wedged between two sandstone blocks yesterday. It took them most of the morning to get it out."
"That's what that block and tackle was all about," Amun said. "I wondered..." He took a sip of coffee and nodded. "This is yesterday's coffee, it has to be."
"If you would come to my tent after you finish, Illya, I'd like your opinion on it." Napoleon stood as he spoke, obviously in a hurry to return to his own tent.
"Will do," Illya mumbled around his mouthful of figs. "As soon as I finish."
"Or sunset, whichever comes first. We may need additional funding just to feed you." Solo slapped him upon a shoulder and walked away. Illya winced at the gesture and began to wonder if he was starting to burn through his shirt.
"He's very fond of you" Napoleon heard Amun say as he was exiting the tent. He smiled slightly at Illya's "And I, him, at least, most of the time."
Napoleon paused and shielded his eyes against the sun as he looked out over the dig. Four workmen were erecting a tent over a site where he guessed Illya had spent the morning sifting through accumulated centuries of sand. He adjusted his hat and sauntered back across the encampment to a larger tent, one with open sides that allowed what little hot breeze there was to waft through.
Estelle Vanderpelt was pushing away a barely-touched tray and fanning herself with a map. "And I thought it was hot in Panama," she said as Solo approached and settled onto a canvas stool. "How is your partner holding up? I understand he has no love for the heat."
"He looks a little flushed, but Amun is keeping a close eye on him. Illya doesn't have a good track record when it comes to deserts, especially this one. He'd be much happier in Alaska or the Antarctic. He'll be over as soon as he finishes lunch. I understand there's goat on the menu today."
"Is that what it is? I thought it was funny tasting beef. It doesn't surprise me that Brian would bring along his own chef. It would be beneath him to eat locally prepared food. That's why he was always getting sick. He had no acclimation to the food or drink of a region."
Napoleon sampled the meat, found it more palatable than some C rations he'd eaten and a definite improvement over some of the things he'd been forced to eat. He seated himself to seriously attack the food and watched the woman. Vanderpelt didn't seem to notice as she picked up first one scroll, then another.
"I don't see what Brian found so interesting in all of this." She pulled the loose fabric of her blouse away from her skin and sighed. "I guess it's all a matter of interpretation. He hated Meso-America. Couldn't understand why anyone would want to waste their time with them."
"What are your reasons for studying Meso-American cultures?"
"Mostly because it kept me as far away from my brother as possible," Vanderpelt said as she removed the band from her hair and let it fall. She scooped it back up and replaced the band. "There was no love lost between us, but you already know that."
"You have made that adequately clear, yes. So, why are you really here then?"
"I feel I owed it to the family name to see this project through. Besides, if there really is something to his theory of Hatshepsut's tomb, it would be nice to see it proven, preferably by me rather than someone else."
"Careful, pride goeth before the fall." Napoleon moved to a first aid kit, pulled out some tablets and handed them to her.
"What are these?"
"Saline tablets. I was getting them for Illya, but you look like you could use a couple yourself. Go on, they can't hurt you." He popped two into his mouth to prove his point. "Dehydration is a constant threat here. Not like what you're used to."
"But I'm not the least bit thirsty."
"Good thing - if you were, it would be too late. You'd already be in the beginning stages of dehydration."
"I didn't have all these problems in the jungle. There I understand the people, the procedures. I know what I'm looking for and at."
"I understand. It takes awhile to get used to. You could always go back to Cairo and I could send word when and if we find something."
"Nothing doing. If Brian can do this, then so can I."
"So can I what?" Illya asked as he came into the tent. He took the tablets Solo handed him without even looking at them.
"Ms. Vanderpelt is sharing your love of the desert."
"What love?" Illya asked, smirking. He put the pills into his mouth and swallowed, making a face, rubbing at one eye. "While I'm at it, are there any aspirin in that thing? Most of the camp is settling down for an after-lunch snooze. Where are the inscriptions?"
"Over here." Vanderpelt gestured to a small table. "I couldn't move the tablet, none of us could, so I copied down the text as best I could. They are very different from the Mayan."
"Have they gotten those all deciphered yet?" Kuryakin sat on one of the low canvas stools and pulled a pair of glasses from the pocket of the clean shirt he'd donned. He glanced up as Napoleon approached and smiled slightly as three aspirin tablets were offered. "Thank you," he murmured as he put on the glasses. He dry swallowed the pills and turned his attention to the paper. "How close did you come to copying these? It'll make a difference in the translation."
"I am a very competent artist, Mr. Kuryakin," Vanderpelt said, her tone hard. She sat down at the table some distance from him and Solo joined her. "I figured you could translate these, then verify them if you had to with the original. It's a little cooler in here at least and by the time you finish, the site will be in shadows."
For a long time, the blond head was bent over the papers and finally Vanderpelt whispered, "Napoleon, I think your partner's fallen asleep."
"No, he hasn't" came Illya's reply. The woman looked shocked that the Russian had heard her and glanced at Napoleon, who merely smiled.
'He snores when he's asleep," Napoleon said, returning to the book he was reading.
"Only when I drink too much," Illya protested. "Fine, then I won't bother to tell you what I've translated, except to say that whoever wrote it was certainly taken with Senenmut." He made a motion of rising, but Vanderpelt was off her stool and at his side in a moment.
"What? What do you mean taken?"
"In love. No, more than that, in sheer adoration of him. 'Keeper of my Ka, defeater of the Devourer of the Souls, Treasure of My Majesty, those are pretty strong phrases, considering how the Egyptians felt about their Ka and the Devourer."
"And you think it is Senenmut?" Solo asked, joining them.
"I would say so, yes. There's a reference here to the glory of Amen, so it had to be either before or after Akhetaten."
"Could it be Senenmut speaking of Hatshepsut?"
"Not with the reference of My Majesty. That's how pharaohs referred to themselves."
"Sounds a little egotistical and self-serving," Vanderpelt said, looking at the figures spread over the paper. "And you can get all of that from these little doo-dads?"
"They were considered living gods by their subjects," Solo said. "If that doesn't give you the right to toot your own horn, nothing does."
"Which one died first, do we know?" Illya asked, taking off the glasses and glanced over at his partner.
"Scholars aren't sure, but the general consensus is that Senenmut died first and Hatshepsut followed. They suspected that she died of natural causes. She ruled over 20 years and wasn't exactly a child when she took the throne from Thutmose III. Others think she was assassinated. When Thutmose III came to power, he destroyed everything he could that had to do with Hatshepsut. Senenmut's secret tomb was discovered and utterly smashed into the sands, but we don't know if he was in it or not. Unless we find a mummy, the truth won't be known."
"Thutmose III was very angry," Vanderpelt said, after a long moment.
"Very much so," Solo answered. "And it stands to reason that Hatshepsut previously knew of his anger and decided to build another tomb, more secret than the first for herself and her lover. It had to be some place far away from the Valley of the Kings or Deir el Bahri. Some place where no one could find them. Some place where they could spend eternity together."
Vanderpelt rested her chin on her hand. "It's very...I guess you could say...romantic."
Solo dabbed his face with a linen handkerchief. "It's more than that. If the bodies are destroyed, then the Ka can't go on. The Egyptians would go to great lengths to make sure their bodies were intact when they died."
"Well, that goes all the way back to the resurrectionist myth of Osirus." Illya sat back and worked the kinks out of his neck.
"It would only make sense for Hatshepsut to want to protect her Ka and go elsewhere where she knew she and her Ka would be safe."
"And Senenmut's," Illya said, standing. "He was, after all, the Controller of All Construction Work for the King. It would have been an easy task for him to build a tomb and have her body secreted away when the time came."
"The workers will be resting for the next two hours. I suggest that we do the same," Napoleon said, rolling up the sheets of paper.
"I thought you said we were going into the tomb," Vanderpelt said. "Change of heart, Napoleon?"
"No, standard dig procedure. When one is about to incur a curse, one wants to be surrounded with as many friends as possible. Besides, if this dig were being watched, it would look very suspicious for the three of us to sneak off into the tomb now. It would be better to wait and enter with as much fanfare as we can generate without appearing too obvious."
Illya stood and ran a hand across his forehead. "I want to take a look at the slab that you found. Verify what I've read here."
"No heroics, Mr. Kuryakin," Napoleon said, shaking his head.
"In this heat? I'll be lucky not to sweat to death. See you both in a couple of hours."
His fellow workers asleep, the man crept quietly out of a tent and into the desert. Once he was sure he was far enough away from camp, he settled behind a sand dune and dug a radio out from the folds of his robes.
"This is Rodriguez to camp, over."
"We read you, Rodriguez, what do you have to report?"
"I want to talk to the boss. We've got very big trouble here."
"Hold on, I'll see if he's receptive."
Several moments passed and the man kept darting looks about him nervously. If all the stories he'd heard about U.N.C.L.E. was true, they shot first and then yelled halt. He'd been scared since the moment the two had come into camp with that woman.
"What is it?" The loud British clip of his superior made him jump and drop the radio. He recovered it and folded it into his robe as if to lower the harsh demanding tone that issue from it. "Hello, Rodriguez, are you there?"
"Yes, I am here. I was momentarily distracted."
"What is the news that is so important you had to tell it to me personally."
"U.N.C.L.E. is here.
"What?! How do you know?"
"Two strangers arrived this morning. A dark-haired American and a blond Russian - one is an American professor and the other a graduate student."
"Ye gods, Solo and Kuryakin?"
"I think so, sir, and there's something else."
"I shudder to ask."
"A second opening in the tomb has been found. It's very small and almost 180 degrees behind the first opening."
"Instructions were that only the one opening, our opening, was to be used."
"I agree, but there's a woman with them and she pulled all the workers off that to dig elsewhere."
"A woman? Describe her to me."
"Ah, short, about 5'4" or so, brown hair that she wears pulled back. Doesn't look like there's much to her, but I saw her move something today that a worker couldn't budge. Very stubborn and very used to having her orders followed."
"Ye gods, it's the sister."
"Is that bad news, sir?"
"Very bad news. If anyone can really find Hatshepsut's tomb, it'll be her. She's a demon once she gets her teeth into something. We will have to move very quickly to keep any potential treasure from her."
"She doesn't like the desert very much. She has spent most of the morning complaining."
"Watch her, Rodriguez, and get rid of the UNCLE agents. No, they'll want Solo taken alive. The other is of no consequence. Dispose of him."
"Use your imagination. From what I remember, Kuryakin has a bad track record in the desert. If he were to disappear, Solo would drop everything to look for him and that might give us the edge we need to move in and persuade them to dig elsewhere. Or take what we want before they even know we're there."
"Understood, sir. Rodriguez out."
Illya Kuryakin followed a barely discernible path to the base of a hole. Down a makeshift ladder and he was at the newly discovered opening of the tomb. It probably stood above the sand centuries ago, but as the sand had buried the Sphinx, so had it worked it way with this tomb as well. Unlike the Sphinx, however, which had found its way free from its prison, this place remained undisturbed until now. It almost seemed sacrilege to be here.
The block and tackle held one last block of sandstone, obviously the piece the workers had been moving when lunch was called. He glanced up at it, did a rough calculation of its weight, the strength of the rope and then squatted beneath the stone to examine the large slabs of sandstone which had previously concealed the opening, reaching out to touch the markings upon them, using his fingers to trace the impressions. He hoped that someone had made note of the slabs' positions before moving them. It would be helpful to know if this opening had been accidentally or purposefully lost.
It could have been a moment or an hour that he'd been staring at the hieroglyphs when a blur of motion caught his eye. For a split second, he thought his eyes were playing a trick on him and then he saw her, a mixture of blond fur and blue eyes.
"This is impossible! Bastet, how did you get out here?"
For her part, the cat simply stared at him before wandering back into the tomb from where she'd appeared. She rubbed against a stone there, looked back over her shoulder, and chirping at him.
Illya rose, wincing at the pins and needles in his legs. Obviously, he had been sitting much longer than he realized. "Bastet, you probably shouldn't go in there. It's not the safest place for cats to be." He took a step, grimaced and took another until he was standing just before the narrow opening. In the darkness beyond, he could hear a questioning, "Puraf?"
"Napoleon is not going to like this. Bastet, come here," Illya said as he got down onto his stomach to wiggle through the hole. It took a moment for his eyes to accustom themselves to the darkness and he could just make out a shape beyond his reach. "Psst, psst, psst, c'mon, Bastet, we've got to get out of here. This is not a safe place...for either of us."
She didn't seem to have the same concerns as he did for she moved further away, small chirps coming from her as she did. It was almost as if she wanted Illya to follow her. At the same time, he wasn't inclined to go wandering through a tomb without light. "Bastet, we really need to get out of here."
He took a few more steps before a thought occurred to him and he patted his pants searching for a lighter. The small flame clicked to life, but was hardly an effective tool against the black that surrounded them. Ahead he could see the small cat, sitting and washing a paw, as if passing time until he could join her. He took a step towards her and Bastet's head went up and she was that much further away, coaxing him bit by bit into the corridor.
Suddenly, there was a 'whump' and a cloud of sand spewed into the corridor, choking Illya as well as any light from the outside. The concussion knocked him from his feet and down onto a rubble-filled floor.
"Damn, the block and tackle must have failed," he said. He coughed, gagging on the sand-filled air, and tried to wave the sand away from his face. The fact that he probably would have still been there, studying the hieroglyphs and thereby crushed, flicked through his mind, but his main concern was that his only known source of egress was suddenly blocked off. He sat up and was immediately joined by the cat. "This is all your fault, you know," Illya complained to the feline as she lowered herself onto his lap, rubbing her head against his stomach. "But I would be dead now if it was not for your intervention. For that, I thank you. However, we are both now very trapped, and for that, I blame you. Should we exercise caution and remain here or should we throw caution to the wind and explore?" The cat was up and bounding off, down the corridor, waving her tail as if beckoning to him. "Well, I guess that answers that question." He rose and cautiously began making his way after her, the feeble flame of the lighter quickly disappearing into the darkness.
"Rodriguez here. It is done. Kuryakin is out of the way." He felt much better now that there was one less UNCLE agent. While the American was very clever, it had been the Russian that made him so nervous.
"Good, how did you accomplish it?"
"I dropped a three ton block of sandstone on him."
"Excessive, but effective."
"It also blocked off the other entrance to the tomb. It will take them quite some time to move the stone again. It may be enough to convince them to try elsewhere."
"You have done well, Rodriguez."
"Someone is coming."
"Watch and report to me."
Napoleon Solo pushed back the flap of the tent that his partner shared with the Cairo agent and smiled. "Amun, have you seen Illya? He said he was going to study some slab the workers found, but that was hours ago."
The man was hastily adjusting his robe. "No, the last I saw of Illya was of him entering your tent. I supposed he was still with you."
"He's probably lost all track of time and is still at the site."
"In this heat?"
"Now you see the problem. When Illya sets his mind on something, he forgets about everything else, including personal discomfort."
Amun stood and set his book aside, "In this heat, that could be deadly."
"I agree; perhaps this would be a good time to intervene."
Napoleon led the way back to the site only to stop, causing Carter to nearly run into him.
"Oh, no..." he whispered.
"Napoleon, what is --?" Amun trailed off as he stared at the huge piece of sandstone, the snapped rope still attached to it.
Napoleon ran to the site and began to dig with his hands. "Amun, get the workers!" When the Egyptian remained rooted, Solo snarled, "Now, Amun, now!"
The workers began arriving in groups of two and three and immediately assessed the situation. Estelle appeared, panting from the exertion of running to the site from the tent, a few hundred feet away in the desert heat. "Napoleon, what's wrong?"
"Illya! He was coming here to study the hieroglyphs. The stone fell on him."
Amun reappeared, barking orders in the workers' native tongue. Slowly, excruciatingly slowly, the block of sandstone was raised, and Napoleon slid an arm underneath as soon as enough space permitted it. His expression of concern faded to puzzlement and that puzzlement spread as the stone rose higher to reveal nothing. No crushed and broken body, no carnage, in fact, no Illya at all.
"This is very strange. I know he said he was coming here."
"Where is he, Napoleon," Amun asked. "Or has he also vanished because of the curse of Hatshepsut?"
"I don't know," Napoleon admitted slowly, his eyes upon the opening of the tomb, now nearly choked off with sand. "But knowing my partner as I do, I have a pretty good idea."
"I have another thought for you to dwell upon while you are conjecturing," Amun said and offered up the end of a rope for Napoleon's inspection. "This was what was holding the stone up previously."
"I see what you mean, Amun."
Estelle Vanderpelt looked at the rope, then at Napoleon. "What's wrong with it?"
"Nothing, that's the point. This rope didn't break; it was cut. We have a spy in camp."
Softly, Amun whispered, "Could this explain Kuryakin's disappearance?"
"That he was taken, you mean? Possibly, but even half dead, he would put up a helluva fight and I see no signs of a struggle. Of course, it's hard to tell."
"The only other answer is that he went into the tomb. What would possess him to do that? He knows about the traps, it would be certain death for him to attempt on his own."
"Unless he had a very good reason." Amun held up a tuft of blond hair that was caught upon the stone entrance. "This is a little light for Illya, isn't it?"
"Agreed." Napoleon took the hair and rubbed it between his fingers. "It feels like fur. Search the camp and make sure he's not around and I'll supervise the workers here. Perhaps they can get that entrance opened up enough for us to get inside."
Napoleon Solo tossed the remainder of his coffee into the campfire and looked back over his shoulder at the recently deserted dig site. The workers had secured the final block of stone so that it was no longer a danger and had removed much of the sand that obscured the opening. As soon as electric torches were ready, they would venture into the tomb, hopefully to recover a long concealed queen and her lover as well as a wandering Russian. The more he thought about it, the more he decided that Illya had entered the tomb, although why was still a mystery. Whatever the reason, it must have overridden all his misgivings and it must have been an on-the-spot decision. Otherwise, he would have left a sign. The tuft of fur tugged at his mind. It wasn't the sort of clue Illya would leave, but then how did it get there? It looked suspiciously like cat, but that wasn't likely. Not out here, miles from the nearest town.
Amun appeared out of the night, carrying an electric lantern. "We are ready, Professor Solo." His voice lowered. "And I don't mind telling you, I'm scared out of my wits to go back in there."
"Makes sense, considering what happened to you the last time. I'm just worried about discovering any traps. This isn't exactly what they trained me for in Survival School."
"Nor I, but they did teach us to face death bravely and with honor."
"We who face death salute you," Napoleon paraphrased as he stood. "Let's go find Estelle and do this."
Cautiously, Napoleon squeezed his way through the opening and held the light high. A long corridor stretched into the darkness, its floor covered with rocks, sand and whatever the workers left behind. The area in front of the opening had been blown clear by the collapse of the slab and the sand was smooth, but further in, it looked scuffed. Estelle Vanderpelt pointed to it and Solo nodded.
"I would feel a lot better if you were to stay back at the camp," Napoleon said as he followed the trail. The sand was too soft to hold footprints, but something had recently moved through it.
"I am not some fragile flower, Napoleon. I am well acquainted with danger and I've had done more than my share of entering tombs. Granted they usually aren't this dusty."
"Perhaps she should go first then," Carter suggested, then fell silent at Solo's grimace.
"ILLYA?!" Napoleon tried and waited, but only his own voice echoed back to him. He looked at his companions and shrugged his shoulders. "It was worth a try."
Illya's head jerked up, but what had woken him was a mystery. Why he'd fallen asleep was even more curious. He'd been known to go days with little or no sleep. To just sit down in a tomb and nap made no sense whatsoever. He reached out in the darkness and touched a mass of soft fur. Immediately, it began to vibrate beneath his hand. "Well, you haven't taken off on me. Sorry, I nodded off. It must have been a busier day than I realized." The dusty feeling in his throat made him feel like he'd been sucking on a sock. "We need to get out of here, Bastet. I don't know about you, but we humans don't do well for extended periods without water."
He carefully stood and held up the lighter to illuminate the area around him. A straight, sandstone tunnel lost itself in the darkness. "Well, I guess we go this way." He'd like to stop and study the hieroglyph-lined walls, but he knew he had only a short supply of fuel in the lighter and he didn't want to waste it. What the walls said wouldn't make much difference if he died in here. He clicked off the lighter and moved slowly down the corridor, keeping one hand on the wall. A meow in front of him encouraged him to stumble forward one step, then another.
How long he'd walked, how many turns he'd taken, he couldn't even guess when he suddenly felt a whisper of air against his cheek.
"Bastet, did you feel that?" At the lack of an answer, Illya dug out the lighter and flicked it open. He was alone, with the exception of the breeze that tantalizingly licked at his ear. "Where are you, cat?" An inner voice told him that she was probably ahead of him, already outside in the cool night air. He moved forward, but stopped as something caught his eye. On the floor before him was a gleam of something bright. Kneeling, he brushed the sand aside and lifted the artifact to study it. It was a small golden statue of a seated cat, its bearing regal, its neck decorated with symbols. Dropped here or left behind, an oversight by the burial party. He'd already met some of them further back along the tunnel, their bones arranged carefully as if they'd just dropped off to sleep and died. His own unexplained nap dug at him and he moved forward.
"Bastet," he whispered softly, as his fingers stroked the smooth metal. "Were you even here at all?" Dropping the piece into his pocket, he lurched forward, his feet growing lighter with each step. A sand and rock covered staircase stretched up in front of him, the breeze rolling down off it. He followed the air, growing more and more excited as he scrambled over the debris, only to emerge from the staircase to find another corridor. There was something different though. This corridor was cleaned, cleared of the rock, sand and other trash that littered some of the corridors. He moved eagerly down it. Then, suddenly, a sliver of the night sky appeared to him at the top of a narrow stone staircase.
Illya gingerly moved up it, only to trip on a stair halfway exposed, lose his footing and topple down the staircase. Grit scraped at his exposed flesh and his ankle yelped out a protest, but he kept his jaws clamped tight against any cry of pain, any sound until he knew where he was. He rolled into a sitting position, huddled between a sandstone wall and a pile of rubble that had been cleared from the stair, eyes narrowed against the pain.
"Damnit," he said softly, manipulating the area with his fingers. "It would figure that I'd get this far and then just inches from freedom hurt myself. I'm going to be listening to Napoleon about this for days."
Abruptly his eyes were assaulted by a blast of light and he blinked painfully. Instinctively, he pushed back further into the few shadows remaining.
"Rodriguez, are you sure that this tunnel connects with the new one?"
"Yes, sir, at the juncture of the wall about 200 yards in. Any chances that we might run into anyone, sir?"
"Possible, since we now know that Kuryakin wasn't killed as we intended. He's probably wandering around lost, unless a trap has already gotten him."
At the revelation, Illya pushed back against the wall to make himself as invisible as possible. If these were indeed the ones responsible for trying to drop that block on him, he didn't want to meet them until it was to his benefit.
The red-haired speaker didn't seem to bother with his surroundings. Instead, he kept talking and talking, "The tunnels are lined with them. I deactivated as many as I could before I left. Or else they're all asleep. Flooding that entrance with gas was a good idea. You seem to have a lot of them."
"Thank you. And what do we do with them once we've found them?"
"If there's anything left after THRUSH is done with him, we shall send Solo back to UNCLE as a warning. I wouldn't lose any sleep over that or any of the others, though. Mostly, I just want to get my hands back on that treasure."
Illya quietly pressed closer to the wall and away from the wash of light, thanking whatever providence had tripped him and sent him down here. Otherwise, he would have walked right into the arms of whoever was coming down the stairs and would most likely be dying at this point. Even in the broken light of the corridor, the THRUSH rifles were all too easily distinguishable.
"Rodriguez, lead the way." A man Illya recognized from their own digging party walked past him, the rest following and Illya grimaced as he moved into a crouching position. He was going to need to get out of the tunnel and to some fresh water before heading after them.
He crept up the stairs, slowly, barely breathing as he neared the top. The back of a man stood between him and the freedom of the desert. He arched his eyebrows and smiled thinly. This shouldn't take long, although as with anything, in reality, it did take longer than he expected. The march through the tunnel and lack of fluids slowed down his body just enough to make garroting the guard a challenge. Illya propped the body up behind some rocks. With any luck, anyone seeing the man would think him asleep.
Just as the unknown THRUSH had said, the camp was deserted, everyone was in the tomb entering from one end or the other. A quick visit to the main encampment tent provided water and he hastily cleaned and dressed his various scrapes and wrapped his ankle. Normally, he would ignore both, but in the desert, a wound could turn septic almost as fast as in the jungle. One of Tut's discoverer's neglected a mosquito bite and died three weeks later. The man, Carnarvon, had suffered from poor health previously and since the world lacked antibiotics at that point, it hadn't take as much to kill Carnarvon as it might have someone else. Yet, he died and the legend of Tut's curse began.
Illya stopped and thought for a moment. Yes, that had been the start of the Tut curse, with the press getting carried away and blaming just about any death that occurred either in Egypt or on the continent on the boy king. Except Carter, the expert archaeologist and Egyptologist, who died in England years later, long after having investigated and cataloged the treasure in the tomb. The first one into the tomb, the driving force behind it, he should have been the one to succumb first from the Curse. Instead, he died a bitter and resentful old man
The Russian stood and tested out his ankle. It wasn't perfect, but it would serve for the moment. After glancing around to make sure that he was still alone, Kuryakin crept to his tent, knelt by the bed and slid a hand beneath the mattress. It would be just his luck to have his gun discovered and taken, but his fingers brushed against metal and he pulled the weapon out. Checking the clip, he pulled on his holster and reached for his communicator
"Open Channel D. Napoleon, can you read me?" Silence followed his question. Either the agent had left the communicator in his tent or something was wrong. "Amun, can you read me?" Also silence. With a smirk, Illya tucked the communicator into the pocket of his tee shirt. It looked as if for now, he was on his own. That meant back to the tomb.
"Napoleon, can you see anything," Estelle Vanderpelt whispered, her eyes scanning the walls. A sense of uneasiness had descended upon the party as the entrance had disappeared from view. "I don't even know what I'm looking for." She yawned and blinked her eyes. "Sorry, the heat takes a lot out of me. I've got a touch of the sleepies."
"Not a problem, my dear. I am looking for anything that looks out of the ordinary." Napoleon lifted his lantern, examining the walls in front of him. He yawned and hesitated. He hadn't felt tired at all, the adrenaline pumping through his system had seen to that. Yet, now he was suddenly so tired that keeping his head up was hard. "Do you see anything odd?"
"Can you be a bit more specific? If it isn't covered with dense underbrush or Mayan hieroglyphs, it's unusual to me."
"Take that seam there." Napoleon directed her attention to a crack running down the height of one wall
The woman moved to take a step forward, but both Solo and Amun grabbed her. "What," she snapped at them.
"If you notice, you can't see any other seams. The blocks are fitted together carefully," Amun explained.
"So? That's just like the Aztecs. You can't even get a piece of paper between the rocks," Estelle said, slowly easing back to her original position. She stifled a yawn.
"Exactly," Napoleon said. "So why is that seam so obvious? It may be nothing. It may be something. If Illya passed through here and didn't trigger anything, then there's a good chance that it's visible because the workers constructed it in haste. Does anyone see the broken and/or bloodied body of a Russian around?"
"How can you be so casual about your partner?" Estelle asked, her voice chastising and hard.
"He's just an innocent victim here."
"My dear young lady, Illya Kuryakin is far from an innocent, as he so appropriately points out on occasion to me," Napoleon said, loudly. Softly, he added, "he's also a trained and experienced agent. If he weren't able to take care of himself, I'd have gotten a new partner a long time ago. Our sort of work is unforgiving with mistakes. We just have to follow his path and we should be all right."
"Professor Solo, I see a room off to the left," Amun said loudly, pointing off into the gloom.
"Should we investigate?"
"You take a few men and check it out. The rest of us will see where Illya's tracks lead." He yawned again and shook his head. "Your sleepies are contagious, Estelle." His toes caught something and he looked down. One of the workers had curled up against the wall and was asleep. "We are on the brink of a major discovery and you take a nap? Wake up, my good man, c'mon, wake up." He nudged the man, but the worker was unmoved. "There is something very wrong here." Vanderpelt had sunk into a sitting position and Solo hauled her back up. "Not you too, Estelle, we've got to keep moving."
"But I am so sleepy, Napoleon. Just a short rest."
"No, we have to keep going." He fell to his knees and he tried to command them to raise him. They, on the other hand, weren't interested and remained resting against the sand. "We have to keep... keep...go..." Consciousness was rapidly dwindling away and a small corner of his mind whispered something about gas often being present in tomb corridors, some times noxious, some times deadly. He only hoped that his sleep wouldn't be a permanent one. He saw shadowy figures round a corner, swathed in white; they looked like a gang of renegade mummies. Maybe they would help.
The second group, wearing masks, came around the corner just as the last man was falling to the sand-strewn floor.
"Well, Rodriguez, what have we here?"
"A bunch of lay-abouts to my way of thinking. They should be hung. Or shot. Or both."
"I like your way of thinking, Rodriguez, but we have more important things to do at the moment. I want to get back to the antechambers. How long will the gas be present?"
"It's a large area, so it's hard to say for certain, but it should keep them subdued for two or three more hours."
"Post a guard with orders to shoot anyone that tries to leave." He looked over at the slumbering Estelle, "Especially her."
"Even Solo, but go for his knees. That will incapacitated him, yet leave him capable of answering questions."
"That will incapacitated him, yet leave him capable of answering questions." Illya listened to the conversation while crouched close to the floor, hidden in the shadows cast by enemy lanterns. He had 'borrowed' a mask from a sentry posted just down from the staircase he'd fallen from and now followed the party, keeping low and out of ear shot. His ankle throbbed in time with his heart, but he didn't dare even take anything at the moment. He needed all his faculties working at the moment. There would be plenty of time to rest after this and more than enough time to feel the pain.
The speaker turned and for a moment, his brilliant red hair seemed aflame. Well, Illya thought, whatever happened to Vanderpelt, it wasn't death, although, in the Russian's opinion, belonging to THRUSH seemed a mere rung down in the ladder. Illya flattened himself against the floor as they walked past.
"It is imperative that we get to work on that ante-chamber before anyone else has a chance to stumble upon it."
"Kuryakin." The man, Rodriguez stopped just inches from the Russian's hiding place. "What about him?"
Illya's heart thumped at the mention of his name and he held his breath.
"Kuryakin is either asleep some place, or lost, or dead. I seriously doubt he is going to be a problem to us. If we find him, we'll stuff him into one of those little air tunnels and an archeologist will puzzle over his bones in the years to come. Or maybe Van de Hym will think he's an alien." Orders were exchanged and Vanderpelt moved away, back down the tunnel, followed by the rest of the group, save the one guard. He set a lantern down and assumed a resting position against the wall facing the chamber doorway and set the rifle upon his knees. It was obvious that he wasn't expecting trouble, not judging from his relaxed state or from his lack of attention. In fact, the man had just seconds to register that the white shape moving beside him was not friend, but foe.
Illya didn't have time or the patience for finesse at this point. He took the man out quickly, cleanly and permanently. Glancing left and right to make sure he was alone, Illya studied the sleeping group, eventually picking out the shape of his partner in amongst the others.
"Napoleon, wake up," he said, shaking the man roughly. He slapped a flaccid cheek and shook him again. The dark-haired agent didn't even mumble, didn't even register the activity. "Whatever they are using must be the primo stuff. Vanderpelt is serious about not wanting to be disturbed."
He patted his pockets, searching for a bit of paper, a pencil, anything to write with and on. The only thing he came up with was the small statue of Bastet that he'd found at the foot of the stairs. That would have to do. He pulled off his ring and hung it around her neck and then took Solo's hand and wrapped the fingers around the small statue. He scooped a pile of sand together and drew an arrow in it, an arrow that pointed in the direction he intended to travel. That finished, he returned to the deceased guard, removed the mask from him and confiscated the flashlight. Placing the mask over Solo's mouth and nose, Kuryakin hoped that it would be enough to wake the man.
"Okay, Kuryakin, think, think, think. Senenmut's tomb, the last one, what did it look like," the Russian asked himself, his eyes closed in concentration. "Three subterranean chambers linked by three descending stepped passage ways. Down, tombs always go down." He stopped as his flashlight played over a painting on the wall above Solo's head. It showed a woman being bent over, a man behind her, obviously about to... about to.. Illya hastily shone the light elsewhere, cheeks flaming at the bit of Egyptian pornography. The woman wore a royal headdress, the double crown of Egypt. Hatshepsut? So the man was Senenmut? "It's nice to know graffiti was alive and well even back in your time," he spoke to the walls. None of the bodies around him moved and his lightheadedness made it apparent that it was time to go. He couldn't afford to let THRUSH get ahead of him anymore than necessary. At the last moment, he paused and took Napoleon's hand. He closed the fingers, holding the hand for a moment, and then slid his fingers up the man's wrist. A strong steady pulse and the warm flesh reassured him and he moved on.
Rodriguez said that they had previously discovered the waiting hall of the burial tomb. That would be as good a place to start as any other.
"If you open your eyes, I'll only throb harder," his head promised and for a long moment, Napoleon Solo listened to his head. It was beating in time with his heart, a dull rushing in his ears. There was something wrong, something odd on his face, making it itch. He had to... With his eyes still closed, his hand came up and touched his cheek. Or rather it tried to. There was something in the way. His agile fingers explored the contour of whatever was covering his face and he slowly began to recognize the shape. A gas mask? In an Egyptian tomb? Now he had to open his eyes, to cautiously sit up. There was something else, something smooth and hard in his hand. The electric lantern had fallen to one side. It was that he reached for first, bringing it closer; the beam shone upon the sand at his feet...an arrow? He looked at the object in his hand, a small statue of a cat and something else...a ring? Napoleon set the statue down and looked at the ring, a plain gold band, much like a wedding band that a man would wear...how? He looked around and saw the downed guard, his head sitting at an impossible angle.
"Illya," he said softly, his voice muffled by the mask. "You Russian wolfhound, you are still with us." But there was more than that. Why wasn't he still with them? Why had he gone off? To explore? That wasn't likely; he would have waited for Napoleon to come to. No, it was something, something that made him leave... THRUSH? The agent must have given chase.
His head was considerably better than he'd first thought or else whatever THRUSH was pumping into the corridor was lessening. In either case, they needed to move.
"Estelle, c'mon, Estelle, wake up." He raised her into a sitting position and brushed her hair back out of her face. "C'mon, we need to go."
She murmured, but didn't show any sign of waking. It was going to slow him down, but he stooped, got her over one shoulder and hefted. Grunting, he made it to his feet and shining the light ahead of him, he started to stumble in the direction of the arrow.
"Greatest of the great in all, no, the whole land. Guardian of the secrets of the King. I was one upon whose...his Lord relied, with whose....something...the Mistress of the Two Lands was happy...no, wait, satisfied," Illya Kuryakin, rubbed his fingers against the carved symbols and wished, for the fourth time in as many minutes that his partner was with him. Maybe Napoleon could have helped decipher the figures quicker. This wasn't making any sense. Why would this be in Hatshepsut's tomb? The greatest of the great, yes, but guardian of the secrets...he stopped for a moment and then shook his head.
"It's nice to know that the obvious still eludes you, stupid," he muttered to himself in Russian. "This isn't Hatshepsut's tomb, it's Senenmet's. Of course, he was older than her and she would be as worried about his ka as hers."
Illya rubbed his forehead, his hand coming away damp with perspiration. While much of Hatshepsut's past was mere conjecture, Senenmut's read like a fable, complete with a moral at the end. He was born of peasant parents, a strongly talented and even more ambitious man, he rose first through the ranks of the army, then went on to hold a position of high authority in the civil service. Not content with that, he took a gamble and became Hatshepsut's strongest supporter, a gamble that paid off when she became Pharaoh.
"That wasn't enough for you, though, was it, my friend," Illya asked, his fingers lightly brushing over the sand stone. "You needed more, you wanted more and thought you deserved more." While constructing the royal tomb of Hatshepsut, Senenmut had secretly begun to construct a tomb for himself, even daring to inscribe his name into the walls of Djeser-Djeseru. "The lady was angry and you faced her wrath. And even with all that love, she cast you aside. And in less than two years, without your guidance, His Majesty Herself had fallen from power."
Even if this were Senenmut's tomb and not Hatshepsut's, this would still be a find of great significance. It would still hold riches, but not the kind THRUSH was after. This tomb would hold information, a key to long-held secrets regarding the little known pharaoh.
A soft mrpphh pulled his attention and Illya swung about. A small shape hovered just outside the pool of light.
"Bastet, is that you?" He moved the light, but couldn't quite catch the shape in it. Finally, he returned the beam to the wall. "I suppose I should be happy it's you I met in here and not Sekhmut. That's a lady that could really take the steam out of a man's stride. So, little one, where now? Where are those desecraters of this tomb?"
"If only that was a language I could learn, then I would have accomplished something," he said, turning the flashlight back to again study the wall. He felt a slight pressure against his good ankle. "What was he, Bastet, a man too ambitious or just a fool too sure of his love, too certain of his place in history?"
"Perhaps, like you, he was just a fool in and of itself."
Illya spun at the voice, his ankle screaming in protest; there was a blinding light, a blinding pain, and then nothing.
Napoleon Solo knelt by the woman as she drew her knees up to rest her head on them. "I feel like hell, Napoleon."
"Been there, done that. It'll get better." He offered her some water while studying the corridor as it disappeared into darkness. "We've got to keep going."
"Why? Can't we rest for a little bit?"
"Illya's here somewhere and that means THRUSH is involved... I can't stop now."
"You'd make a wonderful archeologist, Napoleon."
"Why do you say that?"
"You've got that single-minded sense of purpose that you need for it. Something drives you on. Dedication to duty, friendship, or something else?"
Napoleon looked over at her, his handsome face creased. "I don't follow you."
"I've seen how you look at him. How he looks at you. There's something there."
"Okay, you have now slipped from just not making sense to laboring under a severe misconception. Illya and I aren't...like that."
"So you say, but he's never far from your thoughts."
"Neither is my superior, but I have no romantic designs upon him...either."
"Whatever, I'd just hate to be the woman who comes between you and your man." She got up slowly and flashed her light around. "If I remember from my brother's lengthy and boring lectures on the subject, tombs usually head down. Have you gotten the impression that we've been going down?"
"Not really. I feel more like we're heading in circles. I know I've seen this wall before."
"Can you read this?"
"Not as well as Illya, but I can try." He held the flashlight closer. "Keeper of my secrets, guardian of my breast...breathe, sorry...umm, it's an endearment."
"Why would Hatshepsut write that in her own tomb?"
"She considered herself a god."
"No, a god," Solo corrected, looking back at her. "After she took the Pharaoh-ship away from Thutmose III, she recreated herself, showing herself born of Amen, suckled by Hathor. She was a god."
"It must have been a rough time back then, to be a woman in power in a society that didn't acknowledge you."
"I wouldn't wax too much concern, Egyptian women had more power than either Greek or Roman women of the time. Not equals, but not exactly silent partners either. Speaking of partners, we need to move."
"See? I told you."
"I'll discuss it with you later. Preferably some place less...sandy. " A sound, faint, hollow, echoed through the corridor and Napoleon grabbed Vanderpelt, pushing her against the wall, "Turn off your light and get back."
In the darkness, they waited. For a long moment, there was nothing but heavy, dust-filled silence, then, "Is he dead?" The voices wove their way closer and closer to them and the corridor started to fill with wavering light.
"I didn't hit him that hard. From what I heard I thought he was made out of sterner stuff. Of course it didn't help that he was wandering around here lost for hours without any water." Two men came down the corridor, dragging a limp body between them. They dropped the unconscious man on the ground.
"Yeah, but they sent him into the desert, for Christ sake - twice!"
"Bullshit, no one comes back from that - never!"
"Then you ask him. Hey, Kuryakin, Golden Boy, rise and shine." One of the guards kicked the Russian in a kidney and Illya's head came up, a grunt of pain escaping.
Napoleon started to move and then checked his movements. He could feel Vanderpelt tense beside him.
"I thought you were playing possum. Now tell us, did they or did they not send you into the desert."
"I don't remember," came the mumbled answer as Illya struggled to raise himself on his elbows and blew sand out of his mouth.
"Oh, maybe this will help." The guard moved his foot and applied sudden pressure to the Russian's injured ankle. The grunt became a hoarse cry of agony at the sickening sound of bone snapping. "Opps, looks like I broke it now."
"Bastard," Illya groaned as he rolled over to cradle the injured limb. What followed was a stream of Russian that Napoleon could only pick certain words out of, but it was enough to let him know the Russian was not happy.
"So this is the great Illya Kuryakin," said the second guard with a laugh. "What a sniveling little wimp..."
Illya took him out with one powerhouse blow to his chin. The first guard, startled, but just for a moment, started to move, but the Russian spun, grabbed him and pinned him against the wall, his foreman rammed up against the man's larynx. "I could kill you now...easily. Or I could crush your throat and let you choke to death. Do you know what it's like to die that way? Do you want me to tell you? Do you want me to show you? Say yes." He applied more pressure and the guard gagged. "Please..."
"Illya!" Napoleon appeared over his shoulder. "We need him alive."
If he'd surprised the Russian, there was no evidence. Instead Illya merely applied more pressure, his mouth set, his eyes narrow slits. "Use the other one. This one's mine."
"No, I can't, you've already killed that one." Napoleon reached over and touched the trembling forearm. "Let this one go. Illya, release him."
Reluctantly, the Russian suddenly relinquished the pressure and the THRUSH collapsed to the floor gasping, "Your ankle's broken. I heard it snap."
"Adrenaline is a funny thing, my friend." Suddenly exhausted, Illya leaned back against his partner. "I may be broken, but I am still alive, just like I was when I walked out of the desert - twice."
"Not likely." Illya reached out, touching the man's neck. There was a gasp and the man slumped forward. "He won't be out for long, Napoleon."
Illya took a hobbling step away from the enemy agent and slid down the wall, again holding his ankle. Pain creased his forehead. "Tie him up well, old friend, I won't be of much use to you in a fight."
"I wouldn't be too sure of that, Illya. By the way, it's good to see you."
"Is your ankle really broken," Estelle Vanderpelt asked, revulsion, fascination concern all running across her face close at each other's heels as she watched.
"He thinks it is, that's all that matters." Illya examined the area around his ankle, cursing softly to himself in Russian. "Napoleon, I need you to set this."
"He's busy, let me," Vanderpelt said. "What needs to be done?"
"Take it here and...ah, here I think...when I give you the word, pull hard, as hard as you can, and don't stop until I tell you to." Solo bent to his own task, pausing at Illya's hisses of pain and murmured instructions. If this THRUSH were able to break through these bonds, Solo would have to hang up his shingle. When he was finished, the THRUSH agent reminded Solo of a nicely trussed side of beef.
"How are we doing here? Illya, can you travel?" He knelt beside his partner and examined the tightly wrapped ankle.
"Not that the alternative is a choice, but yes, I think I can make it."
"What have you seen? Anything?" Solo readjusted his weight as he helped the Russian to his feet.
"Your brother is alive, Miss Vanderpelt." Illya took Solo's arm and stood, testing the ankle carefully.
"Impossible," she said. "He's dead. They said so."
"No, they said, presumed dead. I have seen him with my own eyes. Unless he is practiced at rising from the dead, he is alive. He was with a THRUSH operative, Rodriguez, one of our diggers. They are keen to find their way back to what he referred to as the waiting hall of the burial tomb. There is no waiting hall here. I think this must have been the secret tomb of Senenmut."
"Then Hatshepsut must be here as well," Solo said, brushing off his white trousers and surveying the area one last time.
"Not necessarily, but her tomb could be close by." Illya spoke directly to the woman. "Whatever your brother is hoping to find here, I don't think it will be the riches he imagines. It certainly won't be enough to equal what THRUSH will do to him if he tries to sequester it for his own use. They do not like to be played as pigeons."
"Good, that will serve him right." She offered him an arm, but he shook his head as he hobbled forward. "How did you get in here?"
"Bastet, the cat from Cairo, she was here." He had anticipated the looks of disbelief. "I followed her in just before the rope broke."
"It was cut," Solo said.
"Why am I not surprised? I had the feeling we were being watched. Anyhow, she led me through the corridor until I came out in camp. There was a stairwell, back behind the encampment. It must be the first entrance, the one your brother originally found."
"Are you armed?"
"Yes, but with only one clip, it will be a very short gun battle."
"The cat was down here?" Vanderpelt looked about the corridor. "Where?"
"She comes and goes. I haven't seen her recently as much as felt her."
"That reminds me, I believe this belongs to you." Napoleon reached into a pocket and drew out the ring. Illya smiled tightly and took it from him, slipping it onto his left ring finger.
"Thank you, my hand felt naked. I may need this later. It already came in handy earlier today."
"It has a garrote in it," Napoleon explained to the woman, who had been eyeing the entire display with amusement. "So, Illya, where do we go from here?"
"I would not be opposed to getting out and placing a call to Cairo. THRUSH may know we're here. Vanderpelt certainly does. On top of everything else, I may have a slight concussion. One day I'm going to wake up with jelly for a brain."
Napoleon took Illya's chin in one hand and shone his light into one eye, then the other.
"Yes, I was afraid of that." He pulled away from the light and blinked furiously.
"Ah, but for how long?" came a strange voice and a large shape detached itself from the shadows. A gun coughed twice and both Solo and Kuryakin dropped in their tracks.
Estelle Vanderpelt screamed and ran to them.
"Oh will you calm down? I only tranquilized them. You always over-react. You are such a girl," Brian Vanderpelt tucked the gun back into his belt and smirked at his sister.
"I am a girl or didn't that ever occur to you, scumwad."
"And so quick with the turn of a phrase. Rodriguez, put our visitors in the vault. I think it's time to make another offering to Anubis."
Napoleon Solo felt fingers against his face and he smiled, then consciousness slammed back into his body and he groaned, not so much from pain, but from memory. Solo opened his eyes to darkness. He reached out and touched something soft.
"Thank the gods you're finally awake," Estelle Vanderpelt whispered. "It's been hours. I've been so worried."
"So my bladder tells me." He rolled over from his back to his hands and knees. "Not tied up? That's odd. Where are we? I can't see a thing."
"I moved around while you were out. We're in some sort of room, I think, but I couldn't find a door. It's not very big."
"Possibly an oubliette?"
"The top is open...I think."
"Here, unfortunately," came a hoarse voice form the darkness. "I have a kink in my neck the size of all outdoors. And I think I'm about to lose all my toys and cookies."
"That's colorful. Where did you learn that?"
"Last time I was out on a drinking binge with Mark."
"I don't believe this," Vanderpelt's voice had taken on an edge of hysteria. "We are trapped by one of the slimest dirtballs I know and you're complaining that you have to puke and you have to take a whiz. Do either of you even care what's going on?"
"That reminds me," Napoleon said. "Excuse me for a minute."
"Of all that's holy..." Vanderpelt muttered and then something bumped into her.
"Ah, Miss Vanderpelt," Illya said, apologetically. "Despite our physical complaints, I can assure you that we are both exceedingly aware of our situation. However, this is not the first time, nor do I care to consider it the last that we will find ourselves in this condition. It is merely easier to register the immediate. Possibly we're in a burial shaft."
"The place where the coffin is lowered into. This looks to be about twenty by ten feet. It shouldn't be too deep, no more than ten or twelve feet."
"Do I heft you or do you heft me?" asked Solo, close by.
"You me, I don't believe my ankle will support your weight as well as mine." There was a rustle, suddenly light burst into the area. Napoleon and Estelle yelled and turned away. "Sorry, I should have warned you." Illya's face hovered just beyond the fringes of the light. "I wasn't sure there was any fluid left in it."
Napoleon blinked to accustom his eyes and looked up. "I can see an edge, Illya. Are you ready?"
"Yes. If you will be the guardian of the flame, Miss Vanderpelt?" Illya handed the lighter to her and moved to join Solo, who had already braced himself against the wall. The woman held the lighter up into the air as if it would give them more strength, but after an exhausting few minutes, Napoleon lowered his partner back to the ground. "It's just beyond my reach," Illya muttered, collapsing to the ground and look up into the darkness. "I'm just not tall enough..." He trailed off, looking up at the woman archaeologist. "Miss Vanderpelt, how tall are you?"
"Umm, about 5'10", I think, maybe 5' 11"."
"Napoleon, that's got me beat by two inches, it might be enough."
"Willing to give it a go, Estelle?"
"Anything to get out of this hole. What do I do?
Illya rolled over and came back to his feet, limping over to lean against the barely visible wall. He crouched down as did Napoleon. "Climb us," Solo said, offering her a hand. "Don't worry about where you put your feet and we'll try to be discreet about where we put our hands. Just think up."
As she climbed, she could feel their muscles work beneath her, rock hard and tense, trembling in some cases as she went up. The hands were strong, certain in their touch, not poised for a quick grope, but purposeful. Slowly, she pulled herself up onto the lip of the pit.
"Can you see anything?" Napoleon's voice was strained.
"No, just more black."
"Probably the burial chamber, but that will have a door in it," Illya said, grunting as he shifted.
"Will you take you hand off my butt, Mr. Solo?"
"That's me," Illya's voice came back to her. "My apologies."
It took several long minutes for her to pull herself from the pit and even longer to collect both UNCLE agents from the pit, but eventually all three sat on the hard stone floor, the room about then barely illuminated by Illya's lighter.
"You know what this means, don't you?" Illya held the lighter above his head.
"That we're not stuck down in a hole any longer?" Vanderpelt decided that the bleeding obvious shouldn't be overlooked. "That now we're stuck in a room with a hole in the floor?"
"The room is empty; it's been pillaged, either by robbers, your brother, THRUSH or a combination thereof. The next option is that it was never used at all." Illya got to his feet and limped to a wall, holding the flame close to the stone. "The tomb is undecorated."
"Wouldn't that mean that it was never used to begin with?"
"Not necessarily, Mr. Dear UNCLE agent," came a faintly familiar voice. "Many burial chambers were undecorated."
"He's right, you know," Illya said, extinguishing the lighter. "It wasn't until Akhetaten that decorating the walls in here really came into vogue. He came after Hatshepsut by about a hundred years."
The room was suddenly brightened by an electric lamp. Brian Vanderpelt stepped into the room, his beefy frame nearly filling the portal. "Hey, sis, have a nice little soiree with your buds?"
"Go screw yourself." She took a threatening step towards the man, but Napoleon held her back. To either side of the man, figures had appeared, each carrying a rifle.
"Ah, charming as ever, I see. You make another move and I will have them shot, this time with real bullets." He pointed his own rifle at one agent, then the other. "You two, over there, assume the position."
Napoleon stared at him for a moment, then over at his partner, who shrugged his shoulders. "A little clarification, if you wouldn't mind?"
"Oh, stop, I am not going to humiliate you by raping you. I just want you to put your hands up."
"That's a relief, thanks. Just not up to some things right now," Illya said, raising his hands and placing them, palms up, on his head.
"Ewww" Estelle groaned. "That's disgusting."
"What?" Napoleon glanced over at his partner.
"You apparently didn't study the same books I did, Napoleon. Rape was a common way of degrading your enemies. By raping them, you humiliated them totally. They carried the shame, not you. When Set raped Horus, Horus was able to catch the semen and throw it aside, thereby thwarting Seth's attempt at degradation." The Russian stood quietly. "It was a real turning point in their relationship. Horus killed him."
"You'll have to give me the name of that book when we get out of here."
"You're not going to get out of here." Vanderpelt motioned with his rifle. "You and my charming sister will be found, alas, all dead, all killed by the Curse of Hatshepsut."
"There is no Curse of Hatshepsut."
"There will be after they find you...if they ever find you. That may be quite unlikely. You see..."
"There are two tombs," Illya suddenly said.
"What? How," Vanderpelt sputtered. "That's impossible. How did you figure it out?"
"It took me awhile, mostly because all I had was a lighter at first. This tomb went on forever and that seemed odd, plus we never seemed to be going down by any great intervals. We've been wandering back and forth between two tombs. That's how you're going to double cross THRUSH. Your entire dig party must have been in on it."
"All except the fool I sent to the surface to spread the rumors of a curse."
"You're handing the empty tomb over to THRUSH and keeping the other for yourself." Solo was starting to understand now. "Of all the devious, conniving plans..."
"Thank you, but the tomb will be far from empty. You'll be here and THRUSH will make the supposition that UNCLE was trying to muscle in on their territory."
"Wouldn't be the first time," Illya said conversationally to his partner.
"But for you, it will be the last." Vanderpelt motioned to one of the guards. "Bring in Anubis."
"Anubis?" Estelle asked.
"God of Death," Solo said,
"God of Embalming," her brother corrected the dark-haired agent. "Osirus is the god of death."
A man entered the room, dressed in a traditional Egyptian kilt, a jackal head mask upon his shoulders. In his hand, he carried a tray of implements.
"Do you know how someone is embalmed, Mr. Solo? Mr. Kuryakin."
"I don't like the direction that this is headed," the Russian said, directly to the archaeologist. "Someone already tried this with me once and I am not about to lie down and have someone scrape my brains out through my nose."
"Oh, God," the woman murmured. "Even you're not that sick, Brian."
"Be quiet, Estelle, you forget that I need a Hatshepsut to go with my Senenmut."
"Oh, God." The protest became a keen.
"So, who will it be? Which one of you might pass, pass temporarily, but pass nonetheless as the consort to a Pharaoh?" Vanderpelt looked from one to the other. "Oh, come on, the other one has to go back to certain death at the hands of THRUSH. At least this will be fast. Anubis will kill you before he proceeds with the embalming process."
"I will," Napoleon and Illya spoke at the same time. They looked at each other.
"Napoleon, you have a better chance of getting out of here," Illya's voice was soft.
"I'm not leaving you to have your innards cut out and stuffed into canopic jars," Napoleon said, just as softly.
"It doesn't matter, I was just messing with you. Take Solo, he's a greater liability for UNCLE to lose than the Russian. Why go with No. 2 when you can have No.1." The guard stepped forward to grab the American. He feigned and began to struggle. "Ut, ut, Mr. Solo, do think about the repercussions of your action."
Napoleon paused at the sight of a rifle being held pressed into the underside of Illya's chin. "Senenmut doesn't need much of a head."
Napoleon stopped, dropped his arms and allowed the guards to hustle him out. Vanderpelt turned to follow and then stopped. "You might want to kill Kuryakin first. Estelle will be much easier to handle with him dead." The Jackal head nodded solemnly in agreement.
"Illya, what are we going to do?" Estelle asked as the party took off, leaving them behind.
"I'm working on that." He took a step back as Anubis took one forward. "Hail to you, Bull of the West - so says Thoth, the King of Eternity, of me. I am the Great God, the protector. I have fought for you, for I am one of those gods of the tribunal, which vindicated Osiris against his foes on that Day of Judgment. I belong in your company, O Osiris, for I am one of those gods who fashioned the Children of Nut, who slew the foes of Osiris and who imprisoned those who rebelled against him."
Estelle looked confusedly from the Russian to the masked man and back. "What? What are you doing?"
"First spell from the Book of the Dead," Kuryakin explained as Anubis paused. "Hail to you, you who descend in power, chief of all secret matters. Behold, my word is spoken; so says the god who was angry with me. Wrong is washed away, and it falls immediately. O Lords of Justice, put an end to the evil harm, which is in me. O you companions of the God of Justice, May this god be gracious with me, may my evil be removed from you. O Lord of Offerings, as mighty ruler, behold I have brought you a propitiation -offering so that you may live on it and that I may live on it; be gracious to me and remove all anger which is in your heart against me." Illya grabbed Estelle's arm and pulled her forward, pushing her towards the masked enemy.
"Are you out of your mind?" She started to struggle and flail against him, pulling away and slamming into Anubis, who stumbled back. Instantly, Illya was upon him.
"I am the soul of Re who issued from the Abyss. That soul of the god who created authority. Wrong doing is my detestation, and I will not see it; I think about righteousness, and I live by it." With a quick twist of his hands, the man's neck popped and Estelle's face went white.
"You know what they say about pay backs. The uninitiated shouldn't go around pretending to be what they aren't."
"I was hoping those would keep him off balance until I could figure out what to do to him. You were good enough to give me the distraction I needed. I was hoping that would be the case."
"Thanks for clueing me in."
"I was just lucky to remember a couple of the spells. It's been a long time since I had to make an offering to Osiris."
"You're scaring me, I want Solo... "
"As do I." Illya pulled the mask from the dead man and began to strip the man's kilt from him. "More than you can know."
"I would ask that you turn your back." Illya eased off his boots and socks, and then pulled off his shirt. "Or not." He began to buckle his belt. "It's entirely your choice."
"What are you doing?" Her face reddened. "You don't wear underwear?" She turned hastily around as Illya stepped out of his trousers and pulled on the kilt.
"In this weather? Not likely." He adjusted the kilt quickly before settling the mask onto his shoulders. "I think Anubis will have much more freedom wandering through this crypt than I will." His voice was muffled. "One more thing." He pulled off the mask and dropped it. Then he dragged the dead operative to the burial pit and tipped him over the edge. "I hate an untidy tomb. No, let's go find Mr. Solo."
"How? We don't even know where they've taken him."
A soft prratt came from the doorway and a small sand colored cat appeared.
"We don't, but I'll wager Bastet does." He knelt slowly in front of the cat and offered his hand. "Let me see." He thought for a moment and then spoke softly, to the cat. "Let me go forth against my enemies, let me be vindicated against them in the tribunal of the Great God in the presence of the Great God. I have lighted on the vertex of Re in the prow of his bark which is in the Abyss." The cat sniffed his fingers and then rubbed against his hand. She ran forward a few steps and then stopped to look back at him.
"What was that all about?'
"It was a spell asking that I be allowed to walk into the day and have revenge upon my enemies. I figured it couldn't hurt, unlike my god-damned ankle. Shall we go? Bastet isn't likely to wait around for us." Vanderpelt moved to his side, offering her arm. This time, the Russian took it, grunting softly as he rose to his feet. He leaned against her for a moment. "If I can't keep up, stay with her. She will take you out of the tomb. Get help."
"You're not staying here."
"I have to find Napoleon. I'm not leaving without him."
"When you find him, ask him to relay a conversation I had with him about the two of you."
"All right, when I find him."
"When you find him."
He released her arm and at her questioning look, said, "It wouldn't look right for you to be helping the enemy."
"There's no one around."
"Just because you can't see anyone doesn't mean that there's no one here. Go, ahead of me, as if you're my prisoner."
Suddenly she clasped his face between her hands and kissed him hard.
"What was that for," he asked softly when she had released him.
"For not being as crazy back there as I thought you were. For a couple of minutes, I wasn't sure."
"Neither was I." He settled the mask upon his shoulders. "Lead the way, please."
The small group walked along quietly for a few minutes and then Solo cleared his throat. "So which tomb is this?"
"As far as we can tell, this belongs to Senenmut. You and your partner haven't given us much time to study the hieroglyphs."
"Matching tombs, side by side. That certainly seems odd." They started up a staircase. "I don't remember ever hearing about twin tombs before."
"Then you didn't study your history well enough, Mr. Solo. Senenmut was fond of matching tombs." Vanderpelt stopped and shone his light around a pillared room. After a moment of searching, he moved to the north wall and felt along it. "This is odd."
"What's wrong," Solo asked casually, as if they were simply out for a walk, not taking him to certain death.
"If you must know, I'm looking for the triggering mechanism," Vanderpelt muttering. "I can't seem to locate it."
"Perhaps it is only on one side."
"Then even more reason to turn this tomb over to THRUSH. It doesn't matter. This is a mirror of the one we were in, we'll just use that as our map out."
"You know what they'll do to you when they find out you double crossed them." Solo said, softly.
"What makes you think they'll find out? They wanted a tomb. I am giving them a tomb. It may not be what they wanted, but it's what they paid for. Sometimes digs are like that. You think you've hit something only to turn up empty handed. Life isn't fair."
"I'll be sure to mention it after you turn me over. I'll have plenty of opportunities to chat with the higher-ups back at THRUSH Central."
Vanderpelt hesitated and then shook his head. "Nice try, Solo, but by the time they realize you're telling the truth, we will have the other tomb emptied, its treasures safely out of the country, and I'll be living on easy street."
"Live fast then. THRUSH has a long reach. What I don't understand is why. Why steal all this history, why deny it to the very people it belongs to?"
"So they can lock it away in some dusty museum? So that only a chosen few can gaze upon it and marvel or worse, have it go on tour like Tut's artifacts? What you see at museum is just the tip of the iceberg. There is so much, so much. They don't need it all." Vanderpelt turned away from the wall and walked back to him. "No, Mr. Solo, the treasures of Hatshepsut are mine."
"How dare you mock the gods," came an eerie voice, echoing off the cool stone walls. "Desecrater! Vile breath of a jackal, your heart will be thrown to Ammit, he will devour it."
"Who?" Vanderpelt spun. It was impossible to tell where the voice was coming from. The room was filled with so much rubble that any pile could have hidden someone. The four supporting pillars were big enough to hide two men behind them. The voice bounced around the room, defying location.
"No, it's Thoth," cried one of the guards and he backed up to a wall. "He's come to take us.
He's come to weigh our hearts."
"Don't be a fool, the gods aren't real," Vanderpelt snapped. "It's a trick."
"No!' The man panicked and ran from the room. There was a scream, then silence. The other guard looked wildly around, then flung his gun from him and prostrated himself. A shadow moved, rippling against the east wall of the chamber.
Illya Kuryakin pulled the mask from his head. "Did you hear that?"
"Yes, it sounded like someone screaming." She grabbed Illya's shoulder. "Napoleon?"
"I've heard him scream enough to know that wasn't him. It looks like there's yet another staircase ahead of us." Bastet had perched upon a bottom step and was studiously cleaning a paw.
"I don't remember there being so many staircases when we came...you know, that's an odd reaction for a cat," Estelle Vanderpelt murmured. Indeed, the cat seemed to not even hear the yelling, the screams.
"Stay here." Illya handed her the mask and moved carefully down the rubble strewn passageway, as it threatened to trip him. Bastet waited until he was nearly upon her before moving up a few steps and looking back at him. He lowered himself to his hands and began to crawl up the stairs, his belly nearly scarping the stone. Bastet ran back down the steps, butted her head against his and ran back up only to disappear into the shadows at the top.
"What do you see?" A whisper came from beside him and it was all Kuryakin could do to keep from yelling.
"I told you to stay back."
"Not likely. In case you've forgotten, I'm in charge of this dig."
"You may be in charge of your own funeral if you don't start listening to me."
"It's my brother. Why should I be afraid of him?"
"An hour ago, he was going to turn you into a mummy, have you forgotten that?" They crested the top step, both on their stomachs. The elder Vanderpelt was standing against the north wall of the room, Solo not far from him. One of the guards was gone and the other was on the ground. "I'd say Napoleon has things under control."
"What is that?" Illya followed her point.
"From the silhouette, I'd say it looks like Sekhmut, the lion-headed goddess of disease and death. She later became the goddess of healing - go figure. That's one lady I wouldn't want to have words with."
"It is time to pay for your villainy, desecrator," the voice threatened. Vanderpelt, for his part, didn't look tremendously worried.
"I'm a scientist, I don't have time for this. You want someone to play with, here, take him." He shoved Solo in the direction of the shadow. Solo tripped over the guard and fell, but came up with the rifle. A blink and he was behind one of the two pillars in the room.
"Napoleon," Illya hissed. "Down here!"
The dark-haired agent looked around and then located his partner. Vanderpelt, for his part, was completely focused upon pounding on the wall. "Open up, damnit, open!"
The figure's shadow touched the guard and he began to scream, writhing in agony. The man's plight built a fire under Vanderpelt, especially as the shadow started in his direction.
"No, no, you're not real, not real!"
"Feel the vengeance of Sekhmut, the anger of Re, the bitter taste of Thoth!"
Abruptly, the wall he was pounding upon swung back and he toppled into the arms of someone. Vanderpelt screamed, obviously terrified.
"We have him, Nesamun," cried a familiar voice. Amun Carter passed his armful of quivering flesh to another agent and stepped through the portal. "Get this bug eater out of here."
Sekhmut's head suddenly detached itself and a man moved forward into the light. He walked past the guard that had been writhing on the ground and offered him a hand up. The guard took it and stood, brushing himself off.
"Obviously, THRUSH wasn't the only ones to have double agents at the dig," Illya said, from his position on the stairs.
"Amun," Solo called, standing. "It's about time. I was about to give you up."
The Egyptian agent picked a path around the pile of rubble in the room. "And I was about to do with the same with you, Mr. Solo. Are Mr. Kuryakin and Mss Vanderpelt with you?"
"We are," the woman piped up, but otherwise remained still, unwilling to leave the safety of the stairs. "How did you know where to find us?"
"We didn't, that's what took us so long. Many of the tunnels are still filled with rock. We had to excavate half of the other tomb to get this far. It doesn't look like this one is in much better shape."
"But from the way my brother talked, it was filled with riches." Vanderpelt helped the Russian to stand and hobble to Solo's side.
"It was filled with sand, mostly. If there's any sort of treasure room, we didn't find it."
"Then this isn't the tomb of Hatshepsut," Solo asked.
"It might be, we don't know yet. It will take time to sort it all out." Carter tucked his gun back into his shoulder holster. "And to get a new archaeologist. Until we've done that, this dig is officially closed. Besides, it looks like Mr. Kuryakin is going to need a doctor."
"Again." Illya grimaced as Napoleon took the woman's place and heaved the Russian up a bit straighter. "Just once I'd like to be able to walk out of Egypt sound of mind and limb."
"Well, one out of two, old friend."
"Once around the block, James, and then straight home." Illya directed as they started to move off in tandem. Estelle Vanderpelt watched them for a long moment and then followed afterwards. She'd had enough of this hellhole to last her for the rest of her life.
Napoleon Solo carefully folded his last remaining shirt and tucked it into his suitcase. That accomplished, he merely needed to close it and they'd be away. It might be London, Singapore or downtown Fallon, Nevada. It was that part of the job he enjoyed the most. It kept the job from getting old, from becoming predictable. He could hear his partner talking from his own hotel room.
Smiling, Napoleon closed the suitcase and left it on the corner of his bed. The bellman could take it from there.
The Russian was buttoning the cuffs of his shirt as he talked into the phone he cradled between his ear and shoulder. He nodded to Solo, absentmindedly.
"Amun, I think it is absolutely the correct decision. Between the two of you, I'm sure you'll get it figured out. Thanks for your help. If you're ever in New York, look us up."
Kuryakin let the phone drop, catching it as it passed his hand. "Amun says that Miss Vanderpelt has agreed to stay on at the dig and is taking him on as an assistant and consultant. Guess Egypt has gotten under her skin."
"So did we or did we not discover the tomb of Hatshepsut?"
"We don't know. It might just be yet another decoy tomb. Yet the two of them together would seem to indicate something. There are no artifacts in either tomb to either deny or confirm it as of yet and no mummies."
"You found this," Solo said, handing him the small Bastet statue.
"I should take that," came a voice from the doorway. Two identical P-38's were drawn and aimed before either man recognized the speaker. Napoleon had dropped to a crouch, while Illya had rolled off the bed, coming up to brace his weapon on top of it. Ay Merneptah held up his hands in mock surrender. "However if you are going to put up that much of a fight, I could see my way clear to let you keep it."
Sheepishly, the weapons were lowered. Had it been anyone else, Napoleon would have launched into a lecture about creeping up on agents, but now he held his tongue.
"How is your foot, Mr. Kuryakin?" The Egyptian lowered his arms and smiled genially. "Did Medical fix you up?"
Illya glanced with distaste down at his plaster-encased ankle. "I'll live, sir. It could have been much worse," Illya said, reholstering his gun and standing. "I would prefer that this." He fingered the statue and then tossed it to the Egyptian. "...stay where it belongs, with the people of Egypt. Now if you could only get that to work on your cat."
"My cat, Mr. Kuryakin? I don't understand." Merneptah dropped the small statue into his jacket pocket.
"Have you read our report, sir?"
"No, not yet."
"Bastet played a very important role in helping us successfully close this affair."
Merneptah smiled and shook his head. "Not my little Bastet, Mr. Kuryakin. I'm afraid that would be quite impossible."
"She was there, sir, I saw her - several times."
"One cat often looks very much like another in Egypt, Mr. Kuryakin."
"Bastet has been at the veterinarian's, Mr. Kuryakin. We decided to make a lady out of her and hopefully remove some of her wanderlust. She was not home until two days ago, well after you finished removing the THRUSH threat from the tombs."
"I see." It was obvious to Solo that the Russian didn't see at all. Nor did he. Illya wouldn't make that sort of a mistake. Yet Solo knew that Kuryakin would just chalk it up to the country of ancient mysteries, the keeper of the sands of time, and like himself, walk bravely and calmly into the West when it was time.