Treasure. It was there, waiting for him in the darkness. A trove greater than the trinkets they'd found at Hamunaptra. A pile of glittery golden jewellery with his name written all over it. Enough wealth to pay off his debts for the next year. It was right there waiting for him, and all he had to do was fetch it.
Jonathan knelt on the uneven ridge of sand and peered beneath the gigantic stone kilt of His Majesty Pharaoh Senwosret III. The mighty statue had fallen over onto its side at some point in the past couple of millennia and had been lost to mankind until Evie, bless her stubborn mind, had decided to look for it. Hamunaptra hadn't been enough to put her off excavations for the rest of her life, and her forthcoming nuptials to O'Connell hadn't dampened her ardour for digging up mouldering bits of bone. No, she insisted on carrying on with her work in order to prove her worth to those damnable Bembridge Scholars, who still refused to consider her a serious academic.
So she'd tracked down some obscure reference books and made a few clever calculations, and before you could say `The prices at Mena House are an absolute scandal', she'd found the statue of old Senwosret III.
Jonathan had found out about the treasure allegedly buried beneath the statue when he'd accidentally read Evie's diary. It wasn't his fault she kept it in plain sight underneath her bed where anybody could read it. He'd been doing her a favour, putting it in a safe place away from prying eyes. Not that there was anything very edifying in the diary, of course, just some romantic nonsense about O'Connell's manly embraces. Jonathan had flicked past those entries. No, the only thing of interest in his sister's diary was the mention of Senwosret III's treasure.
That's why he'd come out here into the desert, all alone except for his smelly camel. No point in alerting Evie or O'Connell to his intentions, after all. They wouldn't approve. Evie would only tell him not to be greedy. But Jonathan couldn't help himself. Avarice was part of his psyche. A terrible, shameful part, but he wasn't going to deny his true nature.
He lay flat on his belly and eased forward, alert for the glint of gold. Of course, it wouldn't be hidden so close to the edge of the statue. It would be further back in the shallow depression beneath the stone giant. Jonathan wished he'd brought a flashlight, or even a long stick he could poke beneath the kilt. He didn't want to encounter scorpions or snakes when he crawled underneath the statue.
Taking a deep breath, he squirmed headfirst beneath the extremely low overhang of the pharaoh's kilt. The dune sloped away rather more sharply than he'd anticipated, and he found himself sliding a short distance before he came to a sudden stop. The sand levelled out, placing his body at a most peculiar and undignified position. In front of him, the sand seemed to be packed solid. Perhaps the treasure was buried inside it.
Jonathan started digging, scooping out the harder sand and shoving it to either side. After what seemed like an eternity of sweating and swearing, he realised he'd got managed to dig himself deeper. He was trapped: no way forward, and certainly no way back.
"Blast." He tried to wriggle free, but the sand shifted around him and made it impossible for him to move more than a few inches in any direction. He kicked his feet, which were the only things not beneath the statue, but only managed to scare himself silly with the hopelessness of his situation.
He rested for a while, gathering his strength for another attempt. He'd been in worse scrapes than this. He just had to use his head. Jerking upright, he cracked his skull on the stone above him. "Bugger!"
Jonathan sank down into the sand with a groan of defeat. This was it. He was going to die here, trapped under a giant statue of Senwosret III, whoever he was.
There seemed to be something spectacularly unfair about dying beneath an ancient Egyptian statue, especially when he'd survived flesh-eating scarabs, a regenerating cursed mummy and a horde of his skeletal pals, and the collapse of Hamunaptra, not to mention the plane ride from hell and a bone-shaking camel race and the sinking of a Nile steamer.
Thinking of his past glories made Jonathan feel more cheerful. A very clever notion struck him, and he chuckled. Really, he was a genius! He laughed, the sound echoing weirdly beneath the statue.
The sand hissed and trickled. Jonathan stopped laughing and listened, nerves strung taut, waiting to hear the ominous creak of stone above him that would signal Senwosret III's intention of rolling over and crushing him like an insect.
Instead, he heard a familiar voice. "Are you in need of assistance?"
Like warm treacle, that voice was. Or maybe like hot coffee, Egyptian style, cooked over a slow fire, served with more sugar than a man could sensibly take, thick and syrupy and potent enough to blow one's head off...
Jonathan decided he'd spent too much time flat on his face underneath Senwosret III. It was only Ardeth Bey, after all, and Ardeth had a perfectly normal voice. A shade deep, a touch mellifluous, but otherwise perfectly normal. Certainly it wasn't the kind of voice to get a man excited. No, it was simply the thought of escaping from Senwosret III's clutches that had caused an unfortunate response in the trouser region. Jonathan gave thanks that he was facedown in sand rather than on some harder, more uncomfortable surface.
He managed to shuffle sideways enough to turn his head and look up along the slope of the dune to the gap between the sand and the kilt. He blinked, making out the dusty black boots and dark blue robes of the Medjai. As he watched, Ardeth crouched and peered in at him.
"Hello, old chap. Fancy seeing you here." Jonathan beamed with as much assurance as if they were in the dining room at Shepheard's. Not that the staff would allow a Medjai into the dining room at Shepheard's, but that was neither here nor there. He continued, "As you can see, old chum, I'm in a spot of bother."
Ardeth looked past him, scanning the shadows beneath the statue as if he could see in the dark. Perhaps he could. One never knew with those Medjai fellows. As he returned his gaze to Jonathan, Ardeth wore an expression of doubt. That was good. Jonathan could work with doubt. Suspicion might be pushing it, but doubt he could handle.
"What are you doing?"
"I dropped something." Jonathan winced at the fatuousness of his lie. When he told porkies, he told big, fat whoppers. His lies were so extravagant people tended to believe him. If he told small lies, white lies, inevitably he was caught out. Usually by Evie. He'd learned the hard way that sisters were good at detecting fibs.
"I dropped my, ah, watch. Yes. My pocket watch." Jonathan nodded and got an earful of sand.
"Your watch." Ardeth folded his hands together. Long, tanned, elegant fingers; neat nails, rough skin. Jonathan crushed himself further into the sand and tried to think of something else.
"Yes, my watch, that's what I'm telling you," he babbled. "I dropped it and it rolled underneath this blasted statue. The watch is very dear to me, you know. A family heirloom. From my father."
"Then this is not the watch you seek?" Ardeth held up a cheap timepiece in a scratched brass fob. He read aloud the inscription on its back. "`To Philip, may the hours pass swiftly until we can be united again, with love from your Dolores.'" A long pause. "These are the sentiments of your mother?"
"Not exactly." It probably wasn't a good time to admit that he'd lifted the watch in revenge from a drunk who'd beaten him at poker in one of the more disreputable cafes in Cairo. He edged his left hand up and back towards Ardeth's boot. "But since you've found the bally thing, I'll take it now. Thanks very much."
Ardeth reached beneath the pharaoh's kilt and dropped the watch into Jonathan's outstretched hand. A frown marred Ardeth's features. "You are trapped beneath a very large statue of an ancient pharaoh. Why is it so important to consult your watch?"
Jonathan heaved a sigh and inhaled some sand. Once he'd finished coughing, he said, "I need my watch so I can tell how much time has passed since my last meal. I make it four hours so far. Soon I'll be getting hungry."
"Ah. You think hunger will give you the impetus to free yourself."
"No, I think if I stay here long enough I'll start starving to death and then I'll be thin enough to get out."
Ardeth turned his head but wasn't quick enough to hide his smile. "A fine plan."
"Thank you. I thought of it all by myself."
They fell silent. Jonathan managed to bring the pocket watch close to his face. It slid a bit too close - his eyes crossed as he tried to read the numerals, so he shuffled again until he had a clearer view.
"How long do you think it will take for your plan to succeed?" Ardeth asked after four minutes and twenty-eight seconds had elapsed.
"I calculate that I'll be out of here in a jiffy."
"How long is a jiffy?"
Why were Medjai always so literal? Jonathan huffed. "Tomorrow evening."
"I think you will be dead by then."
The certainty in Ardeth's voice niggled at him, but Jonathan managed to inject the right amount of nonchalance into his own voice as he replied, "Oh? Why?"
Ardeth grinned. "Because there is a sandstorm headed this way. By tomorrow evening, the statue will be covered. No trace will remain of it... or of you."
"Ah." Jonathan gave this information some serious thought. Roughly six seconds later, he said, "I say, do you think you could maybe, perhaps, just possibly... could you pull me out?"
"Fantastic." Relief swept through him. "You can start whenever you're ready."
Ardeth didn't move.
"Any time at all," Jonathan said, keeping his tone light-hearted despite his desire to shriek and beg. "Take your time. Don't rush."
"Don't worry. I will rescue you." Still Ardeth made no effort to help. "But I want something in exchange."
"You're not having Senwosret III's treasure," Jonathan snapped. "Not that there is any treasure, actually, but even if I had found it, I don't like sharing. Finders keepers, you see. And I got here first."
Ardeth nodded. His dark eyes held a gleam of something that looked suspiciously like amusement. "I always knew you were a man after my own heart, Jonathan Carnahan. I, too, do not like to share what I claim as mine."
"Jolly good." Jonathan had a sudden thought. "Er, Ardeth, old man... just what are you saying?"
Ardeth clamped his hands around Jonathan's ankles. "I claim you."
Jonathan squawked. "What!"
"I rescue you; you belong to me. Maybe for one night: maybe for longer. We will see if we suit. It's as you said: `Finders keepers'." Ardeth tilted his head, black curls caressing his tattooed cheeks. "Are we agreed?"
Jonathan stared. The sand grew uncomfortably hot beneath him. "Bloody hell," he muttered, his body responding to Ardeth's offer with indecent eagerness. "Talk about being trapped between a rock and a hard place."
"What was that? I didn't quite catch your reply."
"I said yes. I agree." Jonathan hoped his voice was steady. "Now pull me out."
It seemed to take almost no effort at all for Ardeth to haul Jonathan out from beneath Senwosret III's kilt. As the Medjai set him on his feet and carefully brushed him down, Jonathan had a thought.
"How did you know I'd be here?"
Ardeth gave him another amused look. "Is it not obvious? Your sister told me."
"Evie? But how..." Jonathan remembered the diary and its mention of treasure. "That sneaky minx! I've been had!"
"Not yet, you haven't," Ardeth said, and pulled Jonathan against him.