Augustin and Knox headed into the site first thing, eager to get started, hopeful that the pump would have won them enough headroom to explore. They both knew all too well that pumping out an antiquity in Alexandria wasn’t easy. The limestone bedrock was extremely porous, holding water like a giant sponge. As soon as they started pumping, this sponge would start releasing its reservoir, replacing what they were taking out until equilibrium was restored. They couldn’t hope to beat it, not with the resources they had available. They could only buy a little time.
It was obvious from the moment they arrived on-site, however, that something was seriously wrong. The pump engine was wheezing like a chronic smoker chasing after a bus. They hurried down to find that a seal had evidently failed. Water spilled and sprayed down the camber of the rotunda floor into the Macedonian tomb, where lamps gleamed like pool lights beneath the murky water.
Augustin sprinted back up the stairwell to kill the pump engine. Knox unplugged the power cables, plunging the place into temporary darkness, then turned on his flashlight, removed his shoes and trousers, and collected all the lamps and coiled them up on the steps, safely out of the water. The electrical equipment was supposedly waterproof, because flooding and humidity were always a risk on Alexandrian sites, but better to be safe than sorry.
Augustin had evidently turned off the pump engine, for the contents of the pipes were gurgling and retreating. Knox waited for silence, then plugged the power cables back in and shed light on the mess. Augustin joined him on the top step, shaking his head in dismay. “Merde! Mansoor will have my testicles.”
“Can we bring the pump in here?”
“I only arranged for the beast,” grumbled Augustin. “I don’t know how it works.” But a look of inspiration then crossed his face. He vanished and returned with four excavation baskets, tossing two to Knox, then used the others to scoop up water.
“You can’t be serious!” protested Knox.
“You have a better idea?” retorted Augustin, already hustling off down the corridor to the water table. Knox did likewise. The heavy baskets strained his shoulder and elbow joints and left red welts across his fingers. They grinned at each other as they dumped the loads and jogged back up. After a few trips, other excavators began trickling in. They saw what had happened, and grabbed baskets for themselves. Soon, a whole crew of them were at it.
After a dozen trips, Knox’s legs were like rubber. He took a breather in the main chamber, out of the way of the ongoing effort. Despite his initial skepticism, Augustin’s idea was working well. The water level had already fallen so far that the high steps between the forecourt and the antechamber, and between the antechamber and the main chamber, were now acting as dam walls, creating three separate reservoirs. Down on his haunches to bathe his throbbing palms and fingers in the cool water, he noticed something curious. The water level in the main chamber was lower than in the antechamber-and lower than the step that separated them, too.
He frowned, his weariness forgotten, then went out into the forecourt. “Has anyone got any matches?” he asked.
Gaille arrived to find the site in bedlam. She hadn’t finished photographing the main chamber, yet, so her first reaction was anxiety that she might have missed her chance. She kicked off her shoes, rolled up her trousers, and waded in to take a closer look. Her dinner companion from the night before was already in there, throwing broken matchsticks into the corners. “Avoiding the heavy lifting, huh?” she asked.
“Look!” he said, pointing at the antechamber. “See how the water level’s higher in there?”
Gaille got the significance at once. “So where’s it draining to?”
“Exactly,” agreed Knox keenly. “This place is supposed to be quarried out of solid rock.” He threw the last of his matchsticks into the corners; then they watched raptly together as they slowly converged.
“I had a really good time last night,” murmured Gaille.
“I did, too.”
“Maybe we could do it again some time.”
“I’d like that,” he said. But then he pulled a face. “Listen, Gaille, there’s something I need to tell you first.”
“It’s about Knox, isn’t it?” she said. “He’s your friend, isn’t he?”
“This really isn’t the place to discuss it. Can I come by the Vicomte later?”
She smiled eagerly. “We’ll go out afterwards. My treat this time.”
There was splashing in the antechamber; then Mansoor appeared, bringing Elena with him. “What’s going on?” demanded Mansoor angrily. Gaille turned to her companion, expecting him to explain, but he only ducked his head, grabbed his baskets, and fled, leaving Elena and Mansoor staring openmouthed after him. “Who the hell was that?” asked Mansoor.
“Augustin’s dive buddy,” explained Gaille. “I think the pump might have been partly his idea.”
“Ah!” said Mansoor. “I hope he doesn’t think I’m angry at him. It’s that damned Augustin I want a word with.” He shook his head with a mix of amusement and exasperation. “What are the matchsticks for?” he asked.
“No one’s been emptying from here,” explained Gaille, pointing out the discrepancy in water levels. “We just wanted to know where it was draining.”
“They seem to be converging on the plinth.” They crouched around it, their flashlights illuminating the dozens of silver trails of air bubbles escaping from beneath. “Akylos of the thirty-three,” murmured Gaille, struck by a sudden thought. “To be the best and honored above the rest.”
“The inscription from above the doorway?” frowned Mansoor. “What about it?”
“The Greeks loved their puns, you know.”
“Spit it out, girl,” said Elena.
Gaille pulled a face, worried they might think her crazy. “It’s just, you don’t think the inscription could mean that the rest-the other thirty-two, that is-are honored below Akylos.”
Mansoor laughed and squinted oddly at her. “You’re a photographer?”
She blushed, aware of Elena’s burning stare. “Languages, really.”
“I’ll get Ibrahim down here,” said Mansoor. “He needs to see this for himself.”
Knox found Augustin by the water table, putting on his wet suit. “Did Elena recognize you?” he asked Knox.
“I don’t think so. Did Mansoor catch you?”
“Not quite.” Augustin flapped his hand as though it had been scalded. “A close thing, though. Houf! I think for sure I am lobster bisque.” He nodded at the water. “A wise man would stay out of the way for a little while. You want to explore?”
“Let’s do it,” agreed Knox.
Despite the pump’s failure, it had made good progress during the night, so that the water came up only to their chins. They soon discovered what a maze it was, such an interconnected complex of passages and chambers that it made them even more aware of their luck at getting out alive the day before. In one chamber, the far wall had been painted with the outlines of loculi but hadn’t been cut. It took Knox a moment to work out why. There was a ragged hole in the ceiling, as though the workmen had accidentally broken through into another space. “Hey, mate,” he said, shining up his flashlight. “Look at this.”
Augustin came to join him. “What the hell?” he frowned.
“Give me a leg up.”
Augustin made a stirrup of his hands, hoisting Knox up into the new chamber. It was just high enough for him to stand without banging his head. He put his hand on the facing wall, built of limestone blocks, the mortar between them now crumbled to dust.
“Help me up, damn you,” said Augustin. “I want to see for myself.”
Knox reached down for his companion. When they were both up, they set about exploring. A narrow lane led right. There was a narrow gap at its end into a parallel lane flanked by a second block wall, then into a third with an outer wall of solid rock. So: a single chamber, some six meters square and two meters high, divided by internal walls into three lanes connected at one end, forming a capital “E.” They went together to the end of the central aisle. A flight of five steps led upward, then turned at right angles into a second flight, which vanished into the ceiling. Dull thumps sounded from above, shaking dust from the walls. “Jesus!” muttered Knox. “What was that?”
Augustin banged his fist against the ceiling. A smile of understanding broke on his face. “The rotunda,” he said. “This must be the original staircase. Yes. The Macedonians dug too far; they reached the water table. So? They built these limestone walls for support, they laid a new floor; they covered it with a mosaic. Parfait! The builders of the necropolis simply broke in here by accident five centuries later.”
The main chamber had drained completely by the time Ibrahim arrived on site. Bringing heavy-lifting equipment down here wasn’t easy, so Mansoor had recruited Mohammed instead. The two men worked the tips of crowbars beneath one end of the plinth and levered it up. It made cracking, popping sounds as it gave, protesting after all those centuries of being bonded to the floor. They raised it a few inches, their chests and arms bulging, crowbars flexing beneath the strain.
Ibrahim and Elena went down onto their knees to shine their lights beneath. There was a round, black hole in the floor, perhaps a meter in diameter. The plinth was too heavy for even Mohammed and Mansoor to hold long. Mansoor went first, giving a warning cry, then Mohammed, too, letting it crash back down, throwing up dust, which caught in Ibrahim’s nostrils and throat, sending him into a coughing fit.
“Well?” asked Mansoor, slapping his hands together.
“There’s a shaft,” said Ibrahim.
“You want us to move the plinth?” asked Mohammed.
“Is that possible?”
“I’ll need some help and some more equipment, but yes.”
Ibrahim felt all eyes expectantly upon him, but still he hesitated. Nicolas had promised twenty thousand dollars, but they’d received only half so far, the rest due upon satisfactory completion. Katerina had laid great emphasis on the word “satisfactory,” making it abundantly clear that failure to report a find like this would be considered highly unsatisfactory. And it wasn’t as if he could keep it secret, not now that Elena knew. He had a sudden mental image of Mohammed’s daughter, her life hanging by a thread. “Give me a moment,” he said. “I need to make a call.” He beckoned Elena to follow him up the stairwell, then called the Dragoumis Group, clamping a hand over his ear to shut out the din of the building works. Tinny folk music played as he waited to be connected. He rubbed the bridge of his nose fretfully.
The music stopped abruptly. “Yes? This is Nicolas.”
“It’s Ibrahim. From Alexandria. You said to call if we found anything.”
“There’s something beneath the Macedonian tomb. Perhaps a shaft.”
“A shaft?” Ibrahim could hear the excitement in Nicolas’s voice. “Where does it lead?”
“Almost certainly nowhere. These things rarely do. But we’ll need to move the plinth to make sure. It’s just, you made it clear that you wanted to be informed at once.”
“I’m going to have the plinth moved now. I’ll call you back as soon as we-“
“No,” said Nicolas emphatically. “I need to be there for this.”
“This is an emergency excavation,” protested Ibrahim. “We don’t have time for-“
“Tomorrow afternoon,” insisted Nicolas. “I’ll be with you by one. Do nothing before then. Understand?”
“Yes, but really, it’s almost certainly nothing. You’ll come all this way and there’ll be nothing and-“
“I’m going to be there,” snapped Nicolas. “That’s final. In the meantime, no one goes in there. I want guards. I want a steel gate.”
“Just do it. Send Katerina the bill. And I want to speak to Elena. Is she there?”
“Put her on.”
Ibrahim shrugged helplessly. “He wants to speak to you.” She nodded and took his phone and walked off a little distance, making a wall of her back so that she couldn’t be overheard.
Nicolas put down the phone and sat back in his chair, breathing a little heavily. Well, that was a phone call. Elena had been certain she recognized Daniel Knox! And on his site, too! At this most sensitive of times. He stood and walked to his window, rubbing his lower back hard with his hands, which had suddenly become unaccountably stiff.
His office door opened. Katerina came in with a stack of papers. She smiled when she saw him working his spine. “What’s the matter?” she joked. “Have you heard from Daniel Knox or something?” He gave her a look that would have peeled onions. “Oh!” she said, putting the papers down on his desk and quickly withdrawing.
Nicolas sat back down. Few people had ever managed to get under his skin like Knox had. For six weeks, ten years ago, the man had made a series of outrageous slanders against his father and his company, and they’d all stood around and done… precisely nothing. His father had granted the man immunity, and his father’s word was law; but Nicolas still burned with the humiliation. He rocked forward and buzzed Katerina. “I’m sorry, sir,” she blurted out before he could speak. “I didn’t mean to-“
“Forget about it,” he said curtly. “I need to be in Alexandria tomorrow afternoon. Is our plane free?”
“I believe so. I’ll check.”
“Thank you. And that Egyptian man we bought those papyri through-he arranges other kinds of business, too, doesn’t he?” He didn’t need to spell out for Katerina what kinds of business he was referring to.
“Mr. Mounim? Yes.”
“Good. Get me his number, please. I have a job for him.”