THE WESTERN DESERT, EGYPT
MONDAY, JUNE 21
THE SUN HAD BARELY BROKEN the horizon, but Alex was wide-awake and strapped into her safety harness. She had dreamed of this moment her entire life, and now that it was becoming reality, she could hardly believe it. Here she was at the age of forty and leading her first archaeological dig in Egypt’s Western Desert. Even more incredible was the fact that she and her team were on the brink of a monumental discovery.
They had detected a manmade tunnel that ran thirty-five feet beneath the ground and over 3,600 feet to the east. Where the tunnel ended, there was in a large open space that the ground-penetrating radar couldn’t identify.
Alex stood at the opening of the hole with her site foreman, Jeff Webb; a hieroglyphics expert named Jasper Blair; and two of four laborers, Seth and Timal. They would be responsible for lowering her down.
She took a deep breath, preparing her mind for the descent and the cramped space. Her team had only dug out a well of about four feet in diameter. The position she was in when she went down would be the way she’d stay, as there would be no room to flip over.
She wiped the back of her arm across her forehead to wick away the sweat that kept dripping down her face. She pinched her eyes shut, wishing she had her favorite blue sweatband from high school, when wearing one had been all the rage—back around the time when belonging to a Tape of the Month Club was the thing to do.
She let her long, blond hair down from the ponytail she’d had it in and redid it, tighter this time, pulling it into a messy bun. Back home in northern Michigan, she rarely put her hair up, reserving that for times when she was focused on her work or studies, but in this part of the world, she often wore it up. Even a warm breeze on the back of her neck was better than none at all.
“Good thing you skipped the second course last night,” Jeff teased her.
Not that size was an issue for either of them. She was lean and athletic, and while Jeff had a solid build, he was trim with narrow shoulders.
“Same goes for you,” she tossed back with a smile. She’d known him for years and worked on several digs with him. He’d been the one who had removed two of the stone bricks from the tunnel’s ceiling to create the small opening through which they could descend. He’d been down there to set up a radio module and transmitting antenna that enabled communication between whoever was underground and whoever was on the surface.
Jeff moved behind her and tightened her harness. “Ah!” She sucked air in through gritted teeth. “Maybe just leave enough room for me to breathe.”
He loosened the restraints slightly. “Good?”
She managed to slip her fingers between the straps and her rib cage. “It’ll do.”
He turned to face her again. “Here’s your radio.” Jeff handed her an earpiece that worked with the radio he’d put in place.
“Talk into it for me,” he told her.
She tapped a button on the earpiece and said, “Hello, hello, hello.” She smirked at her mock echo.
Jeff laughed. “I heard you loud and clear. In surround sound, actually. All right, one more thing.” He popped a miner hat on her head, and she fastened the chin strap. “I think it’s best if we lower you feetfirst so that you can be positioned upright in the tunnel.” Jeff’s demeanor became serious.
Alex nodded and looked down again. It was a good thing that she wasn’t claustrophobic or afraid of being suspended by a rope and lowered helplessly into the ground. And while she might not battle with many fears, part of her was as terrified as she was excited about the prospect of setting foot where no one—besides Jeff briefly—had likely been in thousands of years. But this was just meant to be a brief look-see, and she’d be going solo. When she set out in earnest to explore the tunnel, she’d take members of her team with her.
She reached for the gold chain around her neck and pinched the tiny pendant that dangled from it. The Eye of Horus, also known as the Eye of Ra, was an ancient Egyptian symbol of protection. Out here in the desert, she needed all the help she could get. She kissed it and tucked it back beneath her shirt.
“Are you ready?” Jeff asked.
She met Jeff’s eyes and flicked on the headlamp. “I’m ready.”
Jeff pulled an LED flare from his back pocket, turned it on, and tossed it into the hole. Watching the light descend emphasized just how far down it was to the tunnel.
Once it hit the ground, Jeff rolled his hand toward Seth and Timal. “You heard her. Down she goes.”
More sweat dripped from her brow, and she wiped her forehead again. And things were just heating up out here—if you could call already being a hundred degrees “just heating up.” As it was, waves of heat were cutting through the air like ribbons on the horizon, and it was only eight o’clock in the morning.
She looked around at her crew, steadying her thoughts and locking on to her resolve to make history. Great men and women made a habit of stepping outside their comfort zones, living on the edge, and testing out unchartered waters. And she wanted to be among them, to make a difference in the world by unearthing what remained of long gone great empires. Sometimes that required delving into the unknown.
She shook her fanciful musings aside. After all, they may not have discovered anything more than an empty tunnel.
She sat on the ledge, dangling her legs inside the hole. She tugged on the rope secured to her harness, which was connected to a rigging system that Seth and Timal would use to lower her. She glanced at Seth and Timal, confident in their abilities to guide her safely down and back up again. And with one more look at Jeff, she pushed off, letting herself become suspended.
Her heart thumped against her rib cage as she was lowered. She reached out and touched the makeshift walls that her men had put in place to prevent a cave-in. Her fingertips brushed against some sand, and it was slightly cool to the touch, but the air around her was still hot. A few of the granules sprinkled down the shaft.
About six feet beneath the ground, she felt incredibly alone. Although, it was also quiet and peaceful.
As Jeff’s form continued to become smaller above her and the space she was in became more shadowed, brief apprehension lanced through her. But the allure of what lie ahead silenced her anxiety.
“Looks like you’re almost to the bottom,” Jeff said to her over the radio.
She looked down. “There are probably only a few more feet to go.”
“Press the button,” Jeff shouted into the hole. “I can’t hear you.”
She rectified her oversight before repeating herself.
Seth and Timal slowed the speed of the rope they were giving her. Seconds later, she was extending her feet so the tips of her boots met with the stone blocks at the sides of the opening. Straddling it, she looked down again. “I’m about five feet from the bottom,” she said into her radio.
Jeff’s voice carried down the hole as an incoherent mumble. Into the radio, he said, “They’re just going to lower you the rest of the way nice and easy. Extra slow.”
Alex closed her eyes briefly and replayed the ritual with her necklace in her mind. She took a deep breath, stepped back into the air, and was lowered the rest of the way.
Her feet touched the floor of the tunnel. “I’m here.” Her gaze followed the light from the flare until it met with darkness, about thirty feet or so into the tunnel. The radio module was there, and the transmitting antenna was looped and laid out on the floor.
She felt the hair rise on the back of her neck, and her sweat suddenly felt like ice pellets on her skin. She pulled out her necklace and squeezed the pendant between her fingers.
Alex drew her eyes back to the area immediately in front of her. Letting go of her pendant, she pressed her fingertips to the stone bricks that formed the walls. She pulled her hand back, looking at the sand on it before wiping it off on her pants. The walls were made of the same stone bricks as the ceiling, just as Jeff had reported. And the tunnel was about five feet high.
What was beyond the light? She crept forward without thinking, angling her head to the side so as not to hit the ceiling. Images of a pharaoh’s tomb and great treasure filling her mind. She pictured the media coverage the discovery would attract, the flashing lights of cameras. Her name would go down in history books, and her career would really take off.
“Alex, are you all right?”
Jeff’s voice plucked her from her daydream long enough to say, “Give me forty feet of slack.” She had to find out where this tunnel led. Exploring was in her blood.
“Don’t do anything careless.” Jeff sounded like a father warning his child, but he was only eleven years older than she was. His personal roles as a husband and father to two daughters must have been creeping in.
“I know what I’m doing, Jeff,” she replied curtly.
“This was only to be a brief evaluation of the tunnel,” Jeff added. He was nothing if not stubborn.
“I’m aware of that.” She didn’t want to pull out the fact that she was his boss, but she would if she had to. She had no intention of returning to the surface right now.
Jeff didn’t respond, but more rope fell to the floor of the tunnel.
“That’s forty. Let me know if you need more,” he said through the radio.
“Will do.” She walked hunched over toward the edge of darkness, letting her hand trail along the wall, her fingertips gathering dust and sand as she went. She was about five feet from where the light from the flare’s reach ended when she ran out of rope. Maybe it was a sign to turn around, but she’d never been good at heeding caution. “I need at least ten or fifteen more feet.”
She felt the rope go slack and turned back to see more coming into the tunnel. Jeff hadn’t even bothered to verbally acknowledge her request the second time, which meant he might be in a bit of a snit.
Still, she pressed on. In the light cast from her hat, she saw something on the wall about ten feet ahead of her. There was a texture to the area. Carvings, perhaps?
She picked up her speed. “I think I found something.”
“What are you doing, Alex?”
She was panting. The limited oxygen underground didn’t facilitate moving quickly. “I think I—” She reached the spot and stared. There was definitely something marked on the wall. She wiped the sand away, revealing hieroglyphics inside an oval frame. She started laughing.
“Alex?” Jeff pressed in her ear.
“I found a cartouche!” Her eyes trailed over the inscription, and even though her ability to read hieroglyphics was limited, she recognized part of this one from history books.
Her heart hammered in her chest. Khufu was an Egyptian pharaoh who had ruled during the Fourth Dynasty. But his tomb had already been found, and it was located hundreds of miles from her dig, beneath the Great Pyramid of Giza. So why would his name be in this tunnel?
The clue was probably in the lettering above and below his name, but that would require Jasper’s expertise to decipher.
She walked farther down the tunnel as if something was magnetically drawing her forward. Tremors quaked through her as doubt flooded her. But then she spotted more hieroglyphics.
“I’m going to need Jasper down here right now,” she said.
“What for?” Jeff’s words were tight and clipped.
A wave of anger crashed over her at his questioning. “Just send him down.”
Jeff’s end of the radio went silent, and she imagined him pacing with formed fists and a clamped jaw. That was his typical reaction when she did something that he considered to be going off the rails.
“Jeff?” she prompted.
“We’re getting him rigged up. Give us a few minutes.”
She waited for what seemed much longer than mere minutes and then heard a scuffle in the tunnel behind her. She turned, putting her back to the darkness, and saw Jasper coming toward her.
“This way.” She waved him on, hoping that he’d hustle. But given his six-foot frame and the constraints of the tunnel, she’d probably be out of luck with getting too much speed from him.
“This must be good if you couldn’t wait.” Jasper walked with his neck craned to the side and knees bent. He reached where she was standing next to the cartouche.
“This says Khufu from my knowledge, but what is this?” She pointed to the symbols she didn’t recognize.
Jasper leaned in. “The top part says ‘son of.’”
She stared at him blankly. “‘Son of Khufu?’ But he had nine sons. Are you sure it doesn’t give the name of which one?”
Jasper stared at her, not about to dignify her question with an answer. “Well, these lines at the top and bottom—”
“Indicate the name enclosed within them is royalty,” she finished.
“Uh-huh.” His tone was terse at her interruption.
She gave him a small apologetic smile but continued anyway. “So this son of Khufu ruled as pharaoh at one time.” Her heart fluttered, followed by her stomach. “But only two of Khufu’s sons were believed to have been successors to the throne, and the pyramids housing their tombs have been found…”
“I’m just telling you what it says.”
“What does the bottom part say?”
“It indicates that his tomb is nearby.”
She grinned and her eyes beaded with tears. “You’re positive?”
Jasper’s mouth turned downward, indicating he wasn’t about to reconfirm.
“Wow.” She stood there, basking in Jasper’s interpretation. It seemed certain now that she was on the verge of finding a lost pharaoh’s tomb. Just wow. “There’s something else I need you to see.” She hurried toward the second set of hieroglyphics, then turned around to gesture Jasper forward. But she came face-to-face with him. She stepped back. “You move pretty quickly, considering.” She smiled awkwardly. Her entire body was shaking with excitement, and the only thing that would calm her down would be getting some answers.
Jasper looked away from her to the hieroglyphics, and he started reading.
Waiting on him was doing little to quell her nerves. “Even if you can’t make out all of it, anything would help.” She was all but tapping a foot.
Jasper drew his gaze from the wall. His mouth was set in a straight line at first but transformed into a genuine smile. “If I tell you what it says, you won’t believe me anyway.”
“Try me.” Exhilaration rushed through her, stealing her breath.
“It mentions the Emerald Tablets and says that this tunnel is the path to great enlightenment.”
“The Emerald—” She slapped a hand over her mouth, her eyes scanning his. She lowered her hand. “Are you kidding me? As in the tablets that are rumored to possess the ability to turn base metal into gold? To give man the ability to traverse Heaven and Earth?”
He raised an eyebrow. “I’m not sure if there are any other Emerald Tablets.”
She swallowed, uneasy. She’d always clung to reason in the past, and it had served her well. “There’s no way they can be real.”
“Well, according to this—” Jasper pointed toward the hieroglyphics “—they are real and we’re on our way to finding them.”
“Whoa.” Alex took a few steps and looped back. “But if they are real and we find them, and they fall into the wrong hands, it could mean the end of the world as we know it. And terrorists, world powers, they’d all be clamoring to get ahold of them. Their discovery could destroy the global economy.” She paused, the enormity of this find sinking in with a sickening swirl in her gut. She locked eyes with Jasper. “If all this is true, then the fate of the world could be at stake.”
“Not to make too dramatic a statement, but yes, it could be.”
She stood there, her gaze going through him. This was certainly a case of “Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it”—and then some.
“You look like you’re going to be sick,” Jasper said.
“Probably because I feel like I’m going to be sick.”
“You find the Tablets, and you will make history.”
“I’ll make history all right,” she mumbled. “But will there be anyone around to learn about it?”
“As you said, if they fall into the wrong hands…”
The risks were great, but the reward—if managed properly—could be, too. Her thoughts went back to the cartouche and what else it could mean. “The open space that didn’t read properly on the ground-penetrating radar could be a tomb, then.”
“It could be.”
Her breathing shallowed. It seemed the prospect of finding a lost tomb was paired with a legend that, if found, could destroy the world. But could she give herself over to accepting the implausible? That these tablets did exist and that they actually contained the knowledge of the universe? She’d always sided with the indisputable, the scientific, the logical. But the Emerald Tablets were attested to in the hieroglyphics mere feet away from her… Surely, that alone should be enough for her to consider the possibility of their existence. And legend did associate the Tablets with Khufu. In fact, it was believed by some that they lay hidden in a chamber beneath the Great Pyramid—the construction of which Khufu had allegedly commissioned. But hiding them out here, miles from his burial site, would be a far safer location to store something of such great value. Regardless of whether there was merit to the Tablets’ existence or not, though, she couldn’t just walk away from an unnamed pharaoh’s tomb.
She looked thoughtfully at Jasper, her mind going over the possible repercussions if she were to find them. Worst case, there’d be global annihilation. Best case, she could save the world. After all, it was better that they wind up in her hands than someone else’s. And she expected that the private party funding her dig would be ecstatic. Her pulse began to speed up again, the promise of what lay ahead stealing her breath.
And while it would be best to keep her team to a close few, she knew just the man who would love to join her. It had been at least five years since she’d worked with him, but they’d become fast friends, and he’d had a fascination with the Emerald Tablets even then. From what she understood, he now made it his business to uncover legends and myths. In fact, just less than a year ago, she’d read about him finding the Incas’ lost City of Gold.
“How are you making out down there?” Jeff asked in her earpiece.
“We’re just about to come up,” Alex answered, not wanting to disclose everything over the radio, just in case an outside party picked up on their frequency. But once she got to the surface, she’d call Matthew Connor from a secured line and invite him to join her for the discovery of a lifetime.