Chapter Nineteen

Ibrahim greeted Gaille and Mansoor impatiently when finally they arrived at his villa. “There was a problem at the site,” explained Mansoor. “An intruder.”

“An intruder?”

“Don’t worry. Nowhere near the Macedonian tomb.”

“Did you get him?”

“They’re still looking. He won’t get far.” He held up his cell phone. “They’ll call when they have news.”

“Good. And the site?”

“Sealed. The guards are in place, too. It’ll be fine for the moment. How about our secretary general? Have you notified him yet?”

“He’s in a meeting,” said Ibrahim.

“A meeting?” frowned Mansoor. “Didn’t you have him called out?”

Ibrahim’s cheeks flamed. “You know what he’s like. I’m sure he’ll call back soon.” He turned to Gaille. “May we see your pictures?”

“Of course.”

She transferred her pictures to her laptop and opened them one by one. Nicolas and Elena joined them as they gathered around the kitchen table to look. “Demotic,” muttered Ibrahim gloomily when she showed him the inscription. “Why did it have to be Demotic?”

“Gaille knows Demotic,” volunteered Elena. “She’s working on the Sorbonne dictionary project.”

“Excellent,” beamed Ibrahim. “So you can translate this for us?”

Gaille gave a dry laugh. Demotic was a brute, as Ibrahim had to know full well. Asking her if she could translate this was like asking someone if they spoke English, then jabbering at them in coarse Anglo-Saxon.

Ancient Egypt had had just the one main spoken language, but that language had been written down with a number of different alphabets. The first was hieroglyphics, the stylized pictographs familiar from temples, tombs, and Hollywood movies. These had first appeared around 3100 BC. Pioneering Egyptologists had assumed the language to be pictorial, each symbol representing a single concept. But after the Rosetta Stone was found, with identical text inscribed in hieroglyphics, Demotic, and ancient Greek, Thomas Young and then Jean-Francois Champollion had deduced that these pictographs had had phonetic as well as symbolic value-that they were, in short, letters that could be combined in multiple ways to form words and thus a broad vocabulary, and that this language had its own syntax and grammar, too.

Hieroglyphics, while they looked fantastic on the walls of temples and palaces and formal documents, had been far too elaborate to be practical for everyday use. Almost from the start, therefore, a simpler and quicker alphabet had developed alongside. This was known as Hieratic, and it had become the language of literature, business, and administration in ancient Egypt, which was why it was usually found on cheaper materials like wood, papyrus, and ostraka. Then, around 600 BC, a third written language, called Demotic, had evolved, reducing Hieratic to a series of strokes, dashes, and dots, like Egyptian shorthand. To make matters worse, it had neither vowels nor breaks between words, its vocabulary had been large and vernacular, its alphabet had varied significantly from region to region, and it had evolved massively over the centuries, so that it was really a family of related languages, not just one. Mastery took years of dedication and a set of dictionaries the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. Depending on how mainstream this inscription was, and what resources would be available to her, decipherment could take hours or days, or even weeks. She summed this all up with a wry glance at Ibrahim.

“Yes, I know,” he said, having the grace to blush. “But still.”

Gaille sighed, though in truth she felt exhilarated by the challenge. It had been too dark in the chamber to make much of the inscription earlier. But her camera had astonishing resolution and her photographs had come out crisply, despite the dust and cobwebs, making the Demotic characters clearly legible. She zoomed out again. Something about the inscription was bothering her, but she couldn’t figure out what.

“Well?” asked Ibrahim.

“May I have a minute by myself?”

“Of course.” And he ushered everyone out to give her some peace.

Knox lay absolutely still across the Jeep’s front seats. The chasing pack had gathered directly outside and now were discussing plans and catching their breath. Sweat was cooling all over his body, giving him chills despite the warmth of the day. The Jeep lurched as someone sat on its hood. He heard the rasp of a lighter, cigarettes being lit, people gossiping and bantering, chiding each other for being too slow, too old. The Jeep creaked as someone else leaned against it. Christ! How long before one of them thought to check beneath the covers? But there was nothing he could do but lie still. Nothing except make plans. Yet what plans? Hassan, Nessim, the Dragoumises, the police, and the army were all after him, and Christ knew who else. He couldn’t risk turning on his cell phone to review his photographs lest Nessim trace the signal. Besides, he’d barely be able to see anything on the tiny screen, and anyway he needed them deleted as soon as possible, because if they were found, they would prove he’d been inside the lower chamber and earn him ten years in jail. Ideally, he would have liked to transfer them to his laptop, but that was in the back of Nessim’s Freelander along with the rest of his stuff, and anyway it didn’t have a USB port, so his only way of getting the photos to it was by e-mailing them to himself, then downloading them. But none of that was going to happen while he was lying in his Jeep with his pursuers on his hood.

He turned his thoughts elsewhere: The names Kelonymus and Akylos. The Ptolemaic archives in Mallawi that he and Richard had discovered had included letters, bills, reports, codices, poems, religious texts, and all the other kinds of documents that you would expect in a small town. There had been far too much for them to translate as they went along, so they had conserved them instead, then cataloged them and passed them to the SCA for safekeeping and later study. Their preferred method of cataloging had been to collect the fragments of a particular papyrus together and photograph them, then assign the fragments and the photograph a single file name, based on where they were found or (if too many had been found in one place) a name of a place or a person from the text. And two of the names that had cropped up most during this process, and almost always in tandem, had been Akylos and Kelonymus.

The originals had long ago been taken by Yusuf Abbas of the SCA for “safekeeping,” so God only knew where they were now, but Knox had photographs of them on CDs. Unfortunately, they, too, were in the trunk of Nessim’s Freelander, probably under closed-circuit television surveillance in the parking lot of some high-end Alexandrian hotel; and he wasn’t exactly in a position to go hunting from hotel to hotel in hopes of a smash and grab. No, he needed another way.

The Jeep lurched as the man got off his hood. Footsteps scuffed and faded. Knox waited until there had been silence for a good couple of minutes, then climbed out and stripped off the tarpaulin. He had no time to waste. He had phone calls to make.

Despite staring furiously at the inscription, it still took Gaille several minutes to work out what was bothering her. But finally she got it. The bottom line of text was incomplete, and it was written left to right. Yet Demotic, like Arabic, had been written right to left.

The inscription in the Macedonian tomb had been in Greek. The few words of text in the antechamber paintings had been in Greek. The dedication on the architrave was in Greek. The shield bearers had been Greek. The gods they invoked had been Greek. This looked like Demotic, but it didn’t read that way, not initially at least. And it seemed perverse to switch to Demotic just for the inscription. So maybe it had simply been too sensitive to be written in plain Greek. Maybe the writer had used the Demotic alphabet instead. Codes, after all, hadn’t been unknown to the ancients. Alexander himself had used subterfuge to hide sensitive messages. The Admonitions of the Sons of Dawn, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, had used code for particularly sensitive words. Valerius Probus had written an entire treatise on substitution ciphers. They had been simple things, because people had believed them unbreakable. But Gaille didn’t.

She copied the inscription out onto a pad, checking for patterns as she did so. If this was a simple transliteration cipher, and the same word was encrypted more than once, then it would produce identical sequences every time. It wasn’t long before she had her first strike, then a second and a third. The third looked particularly helpful: ten characters long, and appearing no fewer than four times. That surely had to be a single word-an important one, too. What could it signify? A person’s name, perhaps. Mentally, she ran through all the names they had come across in the upper chamber. Akylos, too short. Likewise Kelonymus and Apelles, Bilip and Timoleum. She had a little surge of excitement when she thought to try Alexander, but that fell short, too. Her spirits sank again. She stood up and walked in brisk circuits around the small room, sensing she was missing something, scowling in an almost physical effort to impel her mind to the answer.

When finally it came, her cheeks flushed and she looked around, worried that her schoolgirl error might have been observed. For “Alexander,” the name by which the world knew him, was in fact a Latin name. To Greeks, he had been known as Alexandros. She sat back down and used the letters in “Alexandros” to begin a transposition alphabet, replacing the Demotic symbols with the matching Greek letters wherever they appeared throughout the text. That gave her enough to guess the word adjacent to the first Alexandros: Macedonia. With half the alphabet now broken, the rest swiftly followed.

Ancient Greek was her thing; she made the translation on her pad, so utterly absorbed in her task that she lost track of time and her surroundings until her name was suddenly called, bringing her back to the real world.

She looked up to see Ibrahim, Nicolas, Mansoor, and Elena standing in a semicircle, looking expectantly at her, as though someone had just asked her a question and they were waiting for her answer.

Ibrahim sighed and said, “I was explaining to Nicolas how difficult Demotic can be. We want as few people as possible to know about this, so we very much want you to work on it by yourself. How long do you think you’ll need? One day? Two? A week?”

It had to be the most gratifying moment of Gaille’s professional life. “Actually,” she said airily, holding up her pad, “it’s already done.”