by Diana Killian
I ducked back into the draperies and kept as still as I could. The heavy folds of dusty brocade blanketed my mouth and nose. I tried not to breathe in. I tried not to breathe at all. I knew, though I couldn't see a thing behind the heavy drapes, that something was right there. Just a few feet away from me. I listened tautly.
....Silence. A living, breathing silence.
....Then, once again, came that peculiar rustling. Or was it more of a dragging sound? I made myself concentrate, try to visualize what was happening. The shuffling came closer.
....I held my breath, kept perfectly motionless. The pulse in my temple counted out the moments. Even thirty seconds is a long time to hold your breath. Pretty soon the blood singing in my ears was all I could hear. About the time I thought I was going to keel over, I sensed the other move away.
....Alone again at last.
....The drapes gusted with the force of my expelled breath.
....After what felt like an Egyptian dynasty or so, I ducked out and crept up the staircase to my rooms where I slept like I was going into hibernation for the winter.
....Morning brought a new maid. Maybe they had one in every flavor? This specimen was named Betsy. She was a plump blonde and not in the least sensible looking. She lugged a breakfast tray, but was quick to inform me the royal treatment was due to my late arrival the night before, and not to get used to it.
....In between life-saving gulps of hot coffee, I tried to draw her out about the murder but she wasn't having any. This is where male investigators have the edge, I think, with skirts like Betsy.
...."I can tell you I had some second thoughts about signing on here after I heard about--"
...."Dr. Beauchamp is waiting to see you," she interrupted, She'd been watching me with mascara-ed eyes as I tucked into bacon and eggs with a growing girl's appetite. "He's in the library. And he doesn't like to be kept waiting."
....That was her exit line. I'd have to have another shot at her later.
....I wriggled back into the nurse's uniform and, getting a gander at myself in the dressing table mirror, wished the Seven Plagues of Egypt on Mr. B. Did he think I was a midget? Did he think I was twelve years old? Not only was the uniform too tight, the wisp of a cap kept sliding off my hair. I looked like Clara Barton after a bender.
....I was still shaking my head (carefully) when I left my room and started downstairs.
....The house was quiet. Not a sign of a minion anywhere. Maybe they did their work at night like the Shoemaker's Elves. Maybe the strange sounds I had overheard last night were the stealthy sounds of honest labor?
....It turned out I had visited the library on my midnight reconnaissance, but that first morning I got a good look at it. There were shelves and shelves of books--lots of gilt-edged, calf-bound volumes, which probably accounted for the weird musty smell. Sunshine spilled in through the garden windows but it was not a cheerful room. In fact, it had all the cozy warmth of a museum exhibit. All that heavy old furniture, I guess.
....A sun-dried old man sat behind an enormous desk. The desk lamp was on despite the watery daylight.
... Spotting me hovering in the doorway, the old gent scowled. "I suppose you're that damn nurse?"
...."That's me," I said cheerfully. This had to be the elder Dr. Beauchamp.
...."Sit down. I'll interview you here."
....I found a chair, pasted on what I hoped was professional smile, and let the old terror give me the third degree. Luckily none of his questions had anything to do with nursing and medicine. It didn't take long to work out that his real concern was that I had showed up to steal his precious mummy.
....Speaking of Her Royal Wrappings, the mummy was decorously concealed in a gigantic and rather fabulous case that filled up a corner of the long room. Tall as a man, the case was inlaid with what had to be a pricey assortment of valuable metals and stones. The enigmatic carved face of Inytef gazed unimpressed at the 20th century.
....I hadn't noticed the mummy case the night before but now I understood the creepy smell that overlay the furniture wax and leather.
....Hoping for a lead, I listened closely as the old man rambled on.
...."These modem misses! I've told my son there's nothing wrong with that gel but nerves. No sense catering to it. Women have been having babies for thousands of years without making a fuss. Why, when my late wife was in the family way, she used to ride a camel! When was the last time you rode a camel?"
...."Not since I left the circus," I began, but he drove right along, not listening. Which was just as well.
...."Hot water vapors and a compound made of the juice of the kheper-wer plant; that's all the Egyptian woman would have to ease her labor. No limousines, no private nurses, no fancy specialists. None of that. A midwife was good enough for the queens of ancient Egypt. Why, even Eliza worked in the sand, slept on the sand and half the time ate sand. Never complained, never said a word."
....Probably couldn't get a word in edgewise, I thought. "Eliza is the name of the mummy?" I inquired just to amuse myself.
....He goggled. "Eliza is--was--my late wife!"
...."Ah," I said wisely. "They sure don't build them like they used to."
....The old man glared suspiciously at me. "Nerves! Bah!"
...."I guess there's plenty to be nervous about," I said. "Wasn't there a murder here on the grounds just a few days ago?"
....His eyes changed, grew devious. "Where did you hear that?"
...."The papers are full of it. The Beauchamps are news."
...."Ha! True enough." He considered this darkly. "Someone tried to steal the Princess Inyotef. Jones--Jones was our butler--must have discovered the plot and tried to raise the alarm."
....Someone tried to snatch the mummy on a Sunday afternoon? In broad daylight? With the place crawling with servants and Beauchamps?
....I stared at the princess. She stared back. Mum's the word.
...."Is there evidence someone tried to steal the mummy? What's the mummy worth?"
....Beauchamp spluttered, "Why, she's priceless!"
...."Uh huh. Would that be the case or the mummy itself?"
...."Either! Both! The sarcophagus is valuable enough in its own right, but it's the princess they were after." His eyes had that fanatical glow you see in zealots and people who compete at dog shows.
...."They? Do you know of some particular person who might try to steal the mummy?"
....The professor said without hesitation, "I suspect Sir Gabriel Grandison of the British museum."
....I didn't let myself get too excited. "Do you have some reason to suspect Sir Grandison? I mean, actual proof?"
....Beauchamp gave me a look from beneath beetling brows. "You ask some odd questions for a nurse, I must say."
....I tried to look like my interest was strictly professional and nurse-like. I don't suppose it worked. During our conversation my cap kept slipping to an unintentionally rakish angle and the top button on my uniform threatened to pop any second.
...."In fact," the famed Egyptologist added reflectively, "You don't look much like a nurse. Too pretty." And with that he winked.
....I think if he had been in pinching distance, he would have given it the old school try.
....We were interrupted by the sound of footsteps. A red-haired woman, somewhat older than myself, burst into the room. The old man and I rose instinctively. Not that the woman noticed; she was sobbing into a balled hanky.
...."Where's David?" she cried.
....I got two things. One, she was beautiful. Inarguably beautiful. Two, she was pregnant. Also inarguably.
...."What the devil is it now, Evadne?" Dr. Beauchamp barked from behind the safety of his desk.
....In answer, Evadne held out her hand. I realized it wasn't a crumpled handkerchief she clutched, it was a dead bird.
....It was unsettling, though I'm not easily unsettled. The old man seemed strangely silent in the face of the woman's hysteria. Somehow the atmosphere of that room, in its own way as quiet and stifling as a crypt, was not quite normal.
...."Bah!" Beauchamp uttered it like a nervous old dog faced with burglars.
...."She's doing this!" Evadne pointed to the mummy case.
....Her finger shook beneath the impassive carved nose.
....For a moment nobody moved, almost as though we were waiting for some sign.
....At last the old man seemed to shrug off his paralysis. He muttered, "Ah hem, ah, Nurse, see if you can do anything with her."
....I realized he was talking to me. As did Evadne. She wheeled to face me. She really was a knock out: copper hair, milky skin, and so-blue eyes. "Nurse! I don't need a nurse!" Her azure eyes looked panicked. She took a couple of steps back like she was going to bolt. I had a mental picture of myself chasing her all over the grounds, and silently put my own curse on Brannigan.
...."It's okay," I told her idiotically. With the nurses' cap askew, I couldn't have painted the most reassuring picture.
...."The doctor thinks--David thinks-" The old man gave me a beseeching sort of look. I felt like beseeching someone myself.
....I said, "Um, righty-o. Mrs. Beauchamp, let's go upstairs."
....She stood there trembling, watching me with those wild eyes.
....It took some doing but I finally coaxed her into letting me help her upstairs. Not that I had any idea what to do with her, but I figured I should check out the birdcage.
...."Why is this happening to me?" she whispered over and over.
....I took the bird from her, feeling the limp body still warm from her hand, the tickle of feathers in my palm. It was sad and kind of creepy. "Don't think about it anymore," I said.
....Her room was swathed in silver net and pink velvet. There was a lot of spindly matching furniture and a clutter of china figurines and lamps and vases. There was a delicate standing birdcage by the tall windows. I went to examine it. Another tiny limp body lay on the floor of the cage. It looked like a toy or a party favor.
....Both birds were dead. I wasn't exactly sure if they'd been poisoned or had their necks broken or what. They were so small and fragile, and I know less about birds than I do pregnant women. But I figured the odds of them kicking off in tandem were high. And despite having written a dandy little fiction called "The Golden Mummy," I don't believe in spirits of ancient Egypt stalking the living.
....I disposed of the birds, and coaxed Evadne drink a glass of cold water. She was calm again; a little too calm, I thought. She told me she had discovered the birds after her morning bath. She said they had been alright before her bath, but then when I tried to pin her down she wasn't sure if she had really noticed them before her bath or not. I reminded myself to question whichever maid had attended her that morning.
....Assuming any maid had. There didn't seem to be sign of one now, and that too was a little odd, given Evadne's nervous condition. Her condition, period.
....Anyway, I spent all that first morning cooped up with Evadne.
....Pretty much a waste of time. Now and again I started to question her about the dead butler but backed off, afraid to send her off the deep end.
...."Nursing," she said dully over our lunch trays. "That must be rewarding work."
...."Yep," I said. "If it just wasn't for all the sick people."
.... She stared at me with leaden eyes.
....After luncheon I read her some depressing French poetry (in English) while she knitted baby booties of an indecisive lilac color.
....When she laid down for her nap, I slipped out and hunted down a phone.
....Ringing the office, I coerced Miss Appleby, the front desk Gorgon, to let me through to the boss.
...."I think it was suicide," I launched before Brannigan got out his crisp hello. "I think the butler shot himself. And I don't blame him."
....He ignored this. "What have you found out?"
...."Nothing! I've been locked in with Rochester's nutty wife all day."
...."Never mind. This place is a nuthouse. Someone knocked off a pair of turtledoves this morning."
...."What the hell are you doing, Kelly? Can you handle this or not?" I could tell by his voice that he was scowling.
...."Of course I can handle it!" I snapped back, though I'd had every intention of begging him to yank me.
...."Then handle it! And keep me posted." Mr. B added irritably, "And for God's sake, be careful."
...."I didn't know you cared."
....The dial tone met my ears.
Entire contents of site copyright 2002-2008
by Diana Killian, exceopt where otherwise noted.