“Ahmed, are you awake?” she whispered as she tapped on his door.
Marjorie didn’t want anyone to see her at her male assistant’s room for fear of offending any conservative onlookers, but her patience wore thin as worry for Kamal’s safety and a nagging sense something was drastically wrong filled her mind. She knocked louder, then reached for the doorknob—it was unlocked. Glancing in both directions down the hallway, she eased the door open and nearly collided with Ahmed as he stumbled toward her, his eyes half-covered with the t-shirt he pulled over his head while walking.
“What is it?” he asked, annoyance etched on his face.
“Kamal. He isn’t at the site, but I can tell he’s been there.”
“He probably had to go to the bathroom. We are still human, you know? We’re not machines.”
“No. He didn’t take the lantern. I called to him and received no answer, and then I checked all the rooms and corridors. Something is wrong. It’s too quiet.”
Marjorie knew neither of her assistants liked taking instructions from a woman, especially a foreigner. Accepting their attitude as primarily cultural, it didn’t bother her much, but she hated the fact they had no respect for her as a professional. While she hadn’t made any significant discoveries in her career, or published many earth-shattering papers, she was thorough and competent. She had good technique and was as capable as any other archeologist—man or woman—of making the next major find. She just needed a bit of luck and a little cooperation.
“I’m sure everything’s fine. Why don’t you go get food while I check on him?”
“No. We’ll look together. Besides, I already bought dinner. I feel responsible for you two. I’m the head of this project, and if anything goes wrong, I’m the one who’s accountable.”
“Why must you Western women always take charge?” he demanded as he turned his back on her and strode into his room, leaving the door open.
How tired she was of her two assistants questioning her on everything. She suspected they criticized her leadership to their Egyptian counterparts. But, they had been good workers, and Marjorie needed them. She only hoped they didn’t realize it, or she would have an even bigger challenge on her hands.
Marjorie fought the urge to give Ahmed a strong shove in the back to get him moving faster. He took so much time splashing water on his face and searching for his shoes that she was certain he was trying to annoy her or stall. Fidgeting, she smoothed an errant strand of her short blonde hair behind her ear, while watching Ahmed slowly lace his shoes. She hated his shoes—the tread on his soles left tiny divots in the sand, reminding her of the holes created by the creepy spiders that had invaded her tent the last time she had worked on a dig in a remote part of the Egyptian desert.
She could tell he wasn’t convinced they had a problem, but at least he quit arguing, though he continued to move slow enough to make thoughts of strangling him with his belt flash through her mind. He meticulously fed the leather strap through each belt loop of his pants. She watched impatiently as he cleaned his glasses on the tail of his shirt and ran his fingers through his unruly mop of dark, curly hair.
“Let’s get this over with, so maybe I can have a couple hours of sleep before relieving Kamal in a few hours,” he said as he grabbed a flashlight and followed Marjorie out into the night.
They hiked the short distance between the guesthouse and the gate to the Sphinx complex in silence. Marjorie’s mind whirled, wondering if she should have gone straight to the authorities. She had no proof anything was wrong, though every nerve in her body sizzled on high alert.
“The guard was here when I arrived, but gone when I left.”
Ahmed ignored her comment and kept walking. They reached the entrance to the chamber and nothing had changed. She waited as Ahmed called out to Kamal half-heartedly and strolled around the corridors she had already checked.
“Are you satisfied? You two always question every word I say. I’m tired of having to prove everything and wasting valuable minutes. I realize you don’t care about the timetable established for the project, but if something has happened to Kamal, your hesitation to my concerns might have—”
Marjorie stopped in mid-sentence and listened. At first, she heard nothing, but after several moments the sound of metal scraping against rock reached her ears. She glanced over at Ahmed and watched his eyes track the sound to the same place as she had—outside the burial preparation chamber, near the Sphinx.
Ahmed flipped off his flashlight and took several silent steps toward the exit. She followed his lead, stowed her light, pulled the hammer from her waistband, and crept after him. As they left the structure and stood on the hard-packed earth facing the monument, the noise grew louder.
“We should go for help. The guard must be here somewhere. He couldn’t have gone far. He probably just went for food.”
“I’ll go. Why don’t you try to get closer and find out what’s going on? If you backtrack through the corridors you can reach a higher vantage point to the left side of the Sphinx,” Ahmed replied as he looked down at the tool clutched in her hand.
Marjorie nodded in agreement, knowing it wasn’t a good plan, but unwilling to risk the safety of another one of her students.
She had to ascertain whether or not someone was damaging the Sphinx, and if Ahmed left the area to search for the guard, he would remain out of harm’s way.
Once Ahmed was out of sight, Marjorie had to fight to hold back the fear. She was alone, scared, and angry. If someone harmed the Sphinx while she stood nearby and did nothing to try and stop the damage, the guilt would be unbearable.
Marjorie gripped the hammer handle, took a deep breath, and crept back toward the entrance of the burial preparation area.
The scraping sounds grew louder as she inched forward. The silhouette of a man appeared. Marjorie froze, squatting low to the ground to minimize her outline. She squinted into the darkness, unable to make out the man’s identity.
The figure knelt near the left paw of the Sphinx, but she couldn’t see what he was doing. Suddenly, the man stood and ran away, scaling the fence separating it from the road. Kamal! Marjorie leapt to her feet, ready to call out, but before the words could be spoken, a massive explosion vaulted her to the side, throwing her into the bottom of the excavated trench in front of the Sphinx.