Mummy Dearest, стр. 1

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Dedication

To the Facebook gang. You know who you are—and so, happily, do I.

Chapter One

There’s a fine line between coincidence and fate.

The Mummy Returns

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago—in fact, in the Sixth Dynasty, which was way before anyone used the phrase once upon a time—there was a beautiful princess. But like all beautiful princesses, not to mention everyone else on the planet, Princess Merneith fell prey to time and tide, and she eventually wound up in the Lasse Dime Museum in Walsh, Wyoming. Population 1999.

I know what you’re thinking, but there are worse places you could wind up, I guess, including—according to legend—as fuel for the locomotive fires upon which some of the princess’s kinfolk landed when railroads were built across Egypt.

Merneith’s empty eye sockets stared up at me from the browned linen swaddling coyly concealing the rest of her petrified features. I leaned closer, nose nearly pressing the glass lid of the display case. She was so tiny inside that bundle of rags…

“How art the mighty fallen,” a voice murmured from behind me.

I didn’t quite jump, but I did straighten so fast I almost decapitated myself on the strategically placed Indian tomahawk display. I’d thought I was alone in the exhibit room. As it was, it took me a few seconds to locate the source of the voice in the surrounding jumble of shrunken heads, taxidermy and miscellaneous junk. A plump, elderly woman, her gray hair in short braids, regarded me with hopeful expectancy.

“Did you say something?” I asked. I was hoping it was her and not one of the stuffed critters.

She smiled. I was struck by the beauty of her eyes. Despite her evident age, they were a wide and sparkling aquamarine.

“The princess.” She nodded at the display case. “Kind of looks like a piece of driftwood, doesn’t she?”

“Well, I never really th—”

“You’re with the film crew?”

She was so eager, I was sorry to have to disappoint her. “No.” I couldn’t help asking, “What film crew?”

“You’re not with the film crew? Aren’t they coming?”

“I don’t know.” She seemed so anxious I felt like I should apologize. Or at least explain. “I’m Drew Lawson. I wrote Dr. Solvani about examining the princess.”

She looked as uncomprehending as the glassy-eyed stuffed beaver on the pedestal behind her.

“I’m writing a paper on her. The princess.”

“Oh? Babe Jenson.” She offered a hand and pumped mine energetically. “Dr. Solvani is so forgetful these days. Didn’t say a word to me.”

My heart sank. This sounded like a delay in the making—and I was on a tight schedule. Even tighter than usual. “He didn’t?”

She was shaking her head regretfully. “Nope. I’m afraid the doctor must have forgotten all about the mysterious people too.”

“The…mysterious people?”

“That would be me.” The new voice was suave and male. It belonged to a stocky young guy about my age with sandy hair, neatly trimmed beard and long-lashed hazel eyes.

“Oh, thank heavens,” Babe exclaimed. “I was starting to worry about you.”

That seemed to be the looked-for response. The guy gazed at me expectantly.

“Er… Hi.” I nodded politely, convinced by now that everyone in this little shop of horrors was wacko.

“Fraser Fortune,” he prodded.

“Hi,” I repeated.

His confident smile faltered. “Fraser. Fortune. The Mysterious.”

“The mysterious…?”

I thought I was conveying polite inquiry, but maybe I just looked hard of hearing. He repeated forcefully, “THE. MYSTERIOUS.”

“The mysterious what?” Now I was getting impatient too. Anyway, what kind of a name was Fraser Fortune? It sounded like the hero of one of those goofy old 1920s adventure novels. Dick Daring and the Lost City. Dick Daring in the Foreign Legion, Dick Daring and the Secret of the Moldering Museum.

Dick—er, Fraser—was now looking at me with disgust. “The Mysterious. It’s only one of the top-rated documentary series on TV right now.”

I snorted. “You mean that thing where they supposedly investigate ancient, weird or paranormal phenomenon and then wrap it all up in half an hour for the at-home viewers?”

His rosy complexion faded. He drew himself up to his full height—he was just a fraction shorter than me. “Yeah. That long-running, top-rated, award-winning thing that I produce, write and host.”

Babe’s chuckle interrupted our exchange of civilities. “Now, I thought for sure you must be a TV person. You’re so handsome.”

Fraser and I turned as though we’d choreographed our moves. She was beaming at me. I heard Fraser hitch a little breath. I reached in my pocket for my glasses and slipped them on.

“No. I’m a college professor. Do you think I could talk to Dr. Solvani?”

Babe looked apologetic in the face of my mounting desperation. “Dr. Solvani didn’t come in today. The doctor usually doesn’t come in on…” her voice lowered, “…this day.”

“Friday?”

“Halloween,” Fraser supplied irritably. He didn’t actually add dumbshit, but the implication was clear.

I ignored him. Pointedly. “Do you have a way of getting in touch with him? This was all supposed to be arranged—”

Even before I finished speaking, Babe was shaking her head, her braids flying out with the vehemence of her feeling. “No. Oh no. I’m afraid Dr. Solvani can’t be reached.”

Fraser continued to stand there openly listening to our conversation. I gave him a discouraging look. It flew right over his head like a twittering soul departing for the Underworld.

“Well…” I chewed my lip. Fraser and Babe watched me as though waiting for something. “Then may I go ahead and examine the princess? It’s supposed to be all ar—”

“No way,” Fraser interrupted.

“Excuse me?”

“No way.” He met my look with one equally stony. “We’re filming here today. We’re just about to start setting our equipment up.”

“That’s true.” Babe, uncomfortable and apologetic, was suddenly avoiding my gaze. She used the corner of her flowered smock to wipe dust off the edge of a credenza.

“But I’ve got Dr. Solvani’s letter right here.” I unzipped my day planner.

“And I’ve got a signed contract.”

I stared at Fraser. He stared right back, and beneath that cocky, self-satisfied grin was a purpose harder than Egyptian basalt.

It galled me to have to try and conciliate him when the antipathy between us had been instant and instinctive, but I could see from Babe’s unhappy expression that if I wanted to examine the princess, I’d need Fraser’s cooperation.

“It won’t take me very long. Probably no more than an hour at most. If I promise to stay out of everyone’s way—”

He was shaking his head. The look of fake regret on his boyish face made me want to strangle him.

“Look.” I tried for a pleasant, reasonable tone. I think I managed constrained. “I’m only here for the day. I’m flying out tomorrow morning.”

He spread his hands and shrugged in a sorry-no-can-do.

Why?”

He was only too pleased to spell it all out. “Because it’s not practical, for one thing. We’re going to be setting up lights and cameras and reflectors and mics. The crew is going to be moving around. And the focus of all that is Princess Merneith. Okay? So we can’t have you sitting there in the middle of everything with your tape measure and chainsaw.”

“Tape measure and chainsaw?” I remembered that pleasant, reasonable people didn’t shout. “I’m not dismembering her. I just want to examine the mummy and take a few photos.”

“No.”

I turned to Babe. I could see by her expression she wished I hadn’t. “I’m…erm…sorry,” she stammered. “Mr. Fortune does have a contract.”

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