The first thing that Evy does, upon coming out of the desert, is sleep for what feels like a week.
The first thing she tried to do was more fully catalog the remarkable selection of artifacts they'd discovered in the camels' saddlebags after fleeing Hamunaptra, but O'Connell - Rick, she had to remind herself - managed to convince her to take a brief nap with her cat instead, and by the time she woke, it was nearly evening again.
The second thing Evy does is get married.
They go to Fort Stack and find an Australian chaplain who looks like he's been hiding under the bar, sampling its wares, since the plagues began to strike Cairo. The fort as a whole has seen better days, what with the damage caused by the falling meteors and the maddened crowds, but it's still standing.
They're married in the hot dusty courtyard, Jonathan their only witness. Evy is fortunate enough to count a few singular women as friends in Cairo, and she doesn't reach out to any of them. All eminently sensible, they would try to talk her out of this, and there's nothing she wants less.
Evy beams under her favourite wide-brimmed hat, her hand tucked into the crook of Rick's arm and his warm hand covering hers. The chaplain stumbles over their vows, syllables slurring til barely recognisable. Someone is hammering nearby. Men are shouting in Arabic. The air reeks of the camels that someone has allowed to wander at will through the courtyard.
Evy peeks a sidelong look at Rick, and finds him watching her, his face soft, and she feels perfectly happy.
"You're doing this whole thing backwards, you know," Jonathan calls. The souq is packed to the gills and teeming with life today, as it is most days - sellers hawking their wares at the stalls lining the street, shoppers jostling for the most economical cuts of meat, the freshest spices. A woman in an unusually bright galabeyya walks past leading three goats.
It is, Evy is rapidly learning, rather easier to walk through the souq at market time when one has a husband (a husband!) on one's arm who is quite happy to elbow his way through the crowd like a bull in a china shop.
"First the ring, then the wedding," Jonathan says, sounding out of breath, and then he yelps, "Oof!" almost immediately afterward. When Evy looks back, she finds him struggling to slip between a wheeled cart and a man carrying tall armloads of baskets, rubbing his head and trying to complain at the man in his dreadful Arabic.
Rick winces. He shoulders aside a particularly large, pushy seller as if it's nothing. "Your brother have any idea what he just said to that guy?"
"Not a clue," Evy confirms, on the verge of a horrified laugh as voices rise behind them. She looks at Rick, interest shining bright. "Do you speak the language?"
She can hear her friends now - Mrs Williams, an American divorcée who took a shine to Evy upon her arrival in Cairo last year, aghast: 'Evelyn, honey' (Mrs Williams calls everyone 'honey' and 'sweetie' and 'pal'; she smokes cigarillos and has much-younger boyfriends and throws the city's expat community into a tizzy), 'you don't even know what languages the fella speaks?"
Mrs-Williams-in-Evy's-head may have a point.
"Barely," Rick says. "I can barter and I can swear."
"So ... the important vocabulary," Evy says, raising an arch eyebrow, almost smiling.
"You bet your طيز," Rick says, grinning broadly.
Evy laughs, but then a shop selling rows of gorgeous, hand-crafted wooden animals catches her eye, and she cries, "Oh, look!" and hauls Rick over to look.
"You've got quite a grip on you," he says, rubbing his arm.
"You like it," she tells him confidently, grinning up at him, and then her attention is caught by the seller's wares again.
They move from stall to stall, Evy running her hands along thick brocade fabric, sniffing goat milk (gone rancid, she's afraid), marveling at the craftsmanship of a set of bowls, scolding a bounder who's selling cheap gold trinkets as 'straight from the Pharaoh's tomb.' Rick tries to put on a show of being a shrewd bargainer, but it's all over the moment that the merchants realise that he will buy anything and everything that catches Evy's eye. It's sweet, and almost bashful.
Finally, she spots the man who's here every week with a stall full of repurposed jewelry. "Aha!" she says, and she points to a small selection of engagement bands among the jumble on the table.
"Wow," says Rick. "Somebody's been busy in Garden City." He lightly taps his jacket over the right breast, where she knows his wallet is hanging in an inside pocket.
"I would rather think that they were given up freely, if it's all the same to you." She studies the stall's wares. "That one was probably sold by a widow in her time of need; it will carry decades of love and history with it," she decides.
"Yeah huh," says Rick. "Yep. A legitimate business transaction. That is definitely what happened." Evy only laughs at his show of cynicism - Rick is a poor actor. He's a far more romantic soul than he'd like to admit he is.
He smiles warmly at her, though, making her toes curl inside her boots, so perhaps he doesn't mind showing some romanticism after all. He flags down the seller, and asks, in Arabic that may actually be worse than Jonathan's, "بكم هذه؟"
(Where Jonathan himself is, Evy doesn't know. He has either decided to give the newlyweds some time to themselves or has gotten himself into yet another scrape. There hasn't been any distant shouting yet, so he's likely all right.)
The seller raises his eyebrows, and says in English, "£20."
Rick throws his head back and laughs. His reaction isn't off the mark - it's an absolutely ludicrous price. Twenty pounds! "Oh, really," Evy says. "They're used engagement rings, not the Hope Diamond!"
"I thought they were full of history," says Rick, eyebrow arched.
"They're also tarnished," Evy says practically. She turns to the seller and switches into Arabic: "£2, and not a farthing more."
It takes five minutes of firm bargaining, but she knocks the price down to £4 - still a princely sum for a used ring from the souq, but one in particular has caught her eye so intently that she's unwilling to risk losing it. It's simple, a pearl surrounded by two gold curves set with smaller pearls. The effect is modern but with a faintly ancient Egyptian flare to it. It reminds Evy of the plain, beautiful jewelry that her mother favoured.
"We'll take it," Rick says after her last round of bartering, apparently trying to cut her off before she can start again. He counts out the notes from his wallet and hands them to the seller.
"Well, I-" she starts to protest, and then she stops abruptly when he picks up her hand. His hands are warm and rough, but so careful when he touches her; she shivers to think of those hands on her later tonight. They both watch as he slides the ring on her finger.
It fits perfectly. Evy can't believe it. She looks up, smiling. "It's beautiful," she says.
"Yeah," says Rick, lightly touching her chin. "Beautiful."
Western Desert, 1926
"Oh honey?" Rick calls. Evy has a vague idea that he's standing off to her left somewhere. He says something else.
"Oh, really?" Evy says absently. She has perched on one of their trunks and is poring over the notes she'd made on the excavation site, all spread across her lap. Her hair is tumbling loose around her shoulders and keeps falling into her eyes - she needs to braid it back.
"We've got company," says Rick, and then he holds her chin between thumb and forefinger and turns her head toward the approaching cloud of dust on the horizon.
Her heart sinks. "Oh, damn," she says, setting aside her notes. "Grave robbers?"
Rick kicks open his gunnysack, revealing its usual array of hunting knives, revolvers, ammunition, and carefully-wrapped sticks of dynamite. He starts grabbing guns and ammunition. "It's not the neighbours coming to borrow a cup of sugar, that's for sure."
It had seemed romantic - take a break for a few weeks from the bustle of Cairo and from Evy's feverish, wonderful work as the Museum of Antiquities' new curator, search out a fabled ancient tomb near the Libyan border, study Middle Kingdom burial rituals in the field, make love under the stars. They practically met on camelback, after all; Evy first began to fall in love when they traveled to Hamunaptra by night, when Rick kept tilting her back up onto her camel while she dozed and he couldn't keep his eyes off her while she was awake.
Now, though, standing in their tiny half-constructed camp, Evy nearly regrets agreeing to a one-man, one-woman expedition. As confident as she is in their abilities, a full-sized team would be a comfort at the moment. Beside her, Rick slams several oversized shells home in the elephant gun. Evy holds out an expectant hand, and Rick passes her a revolver and a handful of cartridges. Her hands fumble momentarily, but she knows how to load it and she feels calmer than she might have expected - rather easy, after facing off against the undead.
There's next to no cover. They're standing with their camels and supplies; the tent is barely up. The horizon is sand dunes as far as the eye can see. The ruins of the tomb stand behind them; several broken pillars and ancient sand-weathered stones, standing guard over the cool, dry hole they haven't stepped into yet.
The approaching dust cloud resolves itself into four men on horseback. They're wearing the familiar uniform of white American and European men in the desert - chinos, dusty shirts and boots, hats, guns. They have a lot of guns, and very little in the way of supplies. This is not an archaeological dig or party of locals.
"Two choices," Rick says. "We can take cover in the tomb, without knowing what's down there, and risk running into something real ugly, or we can see what these fine gentlemen want."
"I believe I've had my fill of ugly in Egyptian tombs, for the time being," says Evy.
"Yeah, me too," says Rick. "You ready?"
She draws back her revolver's hammer, the sound loud in the stillness, then looks up at him and nods firmly.
The four men pull up on horseback. "Well, look here," says the one who's clearly their leader. He's an ugly man with an American accent, face pockmarked and nose clearly broken at least a half a dozen times. "Somebody's been keeping the tomb warm for us, boys."
The 'boys' - the youngest of whom has to be at least 35 - all laugh.
Rick laughs along with them, exaggerated, then stops so he can shoot them an unimpressed look. "We were here first," he says. "Scram."
"Finders keepers?" laughs one of the others. "That ain't how this works."
"I'm afraid it is," Evy says, lifting her chin. She's aware of Rick's twitch of surprise beside her; hopefully he'll play along, if these men are actually fool enough to believe her. "You see, we work with the Egyptian government, which has claimed this site on behalf of the Egyptian people. In fact, our team of diggers is inside excavating even now. Along with our full escort, of course."
At least two of them fall for it. "Escort?" asks one, while the other looks distinctly uneasy.
"Soldiers," says Evy. She speaks crisply, tilting her head to regard the four men. "Protecting King Fouad's interests, you understand."
"Bullshit," says the leader. "Look at the size of their camp, there's no one down there." He jumps down off his horse and lands hard with the jangle of spurs (honestly, who wears spurs in the Western Desert?), his hands hovering over the guns at his belt. "It's four against one, buddy. Give it up."
"Try four against two, pal," says Rick. "Personally, I like our odds."
"Yeah," says Evy, her eyes narrowed.
The grave robbers laugh, the other three climbing down off their horses. Their leader raises his gun toward Rick and starts to say something but Evy doesn't hear it; all she hears is a roaring in her ears, rage rising up.
She shoots him, the revolver bucking in her hands.
The man falls back, gasping and clutching at the bloodstain spreading across his shoulder; he shrieks, "Fuck!" and drops his pistol.
The other three shout and Evy takes a few more shots at them - wincing at the revolver's recoil but steady, her feet planted - before they've rushed the two of them. Rick sets the elephant gun stock against his shoulder and squeezes off a shot that drops one of them, and then he swings it like a club at the enormous one wearing a cowboy hat who's trying to tackle him.
Cowboy hats and spurs, Evy thinks wildly. Fools who think they can come to Africa and play cowboy.
The man who is coming after her looks furious, his two friends still screaming and writhing in the sand. Evy ducks backward, just in time to see Rick go flying, yelling, out of the corner of her eye, and then the grave robber makes a grab for her.
"Don't touch me," she warns, dodging and squeezing the trigger of the revolver again, but the barrel clicks empty. The man laughs and steps forward, still chuckling.
Evy knees him between the legs as hard as she can. He shrieks and drops like a stone.
Rick is having rather less success with his opponent - he's flat on his back in the sand, trying to grapple with an opponent who has a weight advantage of at least five stone. The man has his enormous hands wrapped around Rick's neck, and the blows that Rick is raining down on the man look weak.
Her furious heart in her throat, Evy sees Rick's elephant gun lying in the sand. She snatches it up, ejects the spent shell, and pulls the trigger with a thunderous bang.
It feels like being hit by a running horse - the recoil kicks her right off her feet. She slams into the sand and lies there, utterly out of breath, for several long seconds before she finally manages to roll onto her side, rifle still in hand. She finds Rick standing up over the bleeding, shouting cowboy, who she apparently shot in the arse.
"That was the sexiest thing I have ever seen," Rick says raspily, helping her up onto her feet. "But we have got to teach you how to shoot that thing. You okay?"
He's unhurt. They've successfully fought off a band of ruffians who were going to desecrate the tomb.
Evy smiles enormously at him, her face bright with satisfaction, and she wheezes, "Never better."
They rope the would-be grave robbers to their horses - in the case of the sorry fellow who Evy shot with the elephant gun, they mercifully tie him across the saddle on his stomach rather than sitting up - and send them on their merry way with a single shot fired in the air. As the horses take off into the fading twilight, Evy steps in close and slings her free arm behind Rick, and he puts his arm around her in return. They watch until the horses are distant dots on the horizon.
The sun is setting fast, outlining the wadis and the sandy hills in red and orange and gold. The temperature is already beginning to drop, but Evy feels warm pressed against his side. She's still holding the elephant gun in her other hand, while Rick has a pistol in his.
"Right. Rifle lesson?" he murmurs into her hair.
"I had rather a different sort of lesson in mind," Evy says, low and husky.
Rick says, strangled, "Have I told you lately that you're the perfect woman?" and they're kissing long before she pulls him into their tent.
"Rick!" Evy shouts. It takes three tries to get his attention over the sound of the diggers' pickaxes, but he finally turns away from the stela that his crew is excavating - a gorgeous figure of the pharaoh Akhenaton, carved straight into the rock face of the hill - and lowers his neckerchief from his face as he looks down at her.
"Have you seen Alex?"
Even ten feet above her, Evy can see his frown. "I thought he was with you!"
"Don't worry, I'll fetch him!" she shouts back.
It's easier said than done. Amarna is easily the largest dig that Evy has ever seen, spreading across the entirety of the ancient city's remains - a warren of half-standing walls, bunkers, and tombs, teeming with archaeologists and diggers working under the auspices of the the Egypt Exploration Society. The city was first discovered by European explorers in the early eighteenth century (the locals, of course, knew it was there all along), and 200 years of excavation has yet to unlock all of its secrets. Even now, it's an Egyptologist's dream.
It's a seven-year-old boy's dream, too, but luckily, Evy's son carries far fewer secrets than the ancient city.
The electric floodlights are beginning to switch on over the work that will continue through the night. Evy makes her way around several pits being carefully dug out under the direction of EES members. Roger Wilson calls out to her, beckoning her over, but she waves him off - it's bedtime.
She finds Alex in his favourite hidey-hole: the Tomb of Ipy, the high steward of Amarna. It's small and unfinished, tucked around a bend in the cliff face, and it's often where Alex can be found if he's not in the thick of the action and has managed to escape his parents' watchful eye. He's crouched down in the entrance to the tomb now, and, under the light cast by the nearest floodlight, is eyeing a horned viper with fascination. He has kept several feet of sand between himself and the snake, but it has curled into C-shaped coils that are rubbing together, producing a warning crackle.
"Alex, for goodness' sake!" Evy says, grabbing Alex under the arms and hauling him backward.
He yelps, then complains, "Mu-um! I wasn't doing anything!"
"Weren't doing anything, eh?" she asks crisply, carrying him back out into the open air and then setting him down on his feet. She turns him around and crouches at his eye level. "You know as well as I do that horned vipers are calm little things; why was it all angry like that?"
"I don't know!" he insists.
"Alex," she says, warning.
He scuffs his shoe. "I might have thrown a rock," he admits. "Only a little one! I wanted to see what it would do!"
"Alexander Rupert O'Connell," she says firmly. "I know I've taught you better than that." He's grimacing but also hanging his head, so Evy thinks her point is taken. She adds, "It could have bitten you, and your father and I never would have known."
"You would've known," Alex tells her. "I would have screamed, a lot."
Suddenly, Evy has to fight not to laugh. "Be that as it may," she says, as severely as she can manage, "what are the rules for snakes?"
"Stay away, yell for you and Dad," Alex recites, sighing heavily. He wrinkles his nose. "Sorry, Mum."
"It's all right," she says, tugging at the rolled-up sleeve of his shirt. "Now: it's time for bed and you know it."
"Ughhhh," Alex complains, but he allows himself to be taken by the hand and led to their campsite. He's uncharacteristically quiet along the way, even when she tries to engage him in discussion about the newest relief found in the Tomb of Tutu, featuring Akhenaton's throne atop his subjugated enemies.
Alex loves Egyptian history but is his father's son through and through and is always the most interested in bloodthirsty tales of battle, so Evy knows there's something on his mind when he only mumbles, "Huh, neat," and keeps trudging along past groups of fellahin digging and archaeologists conferring over maps and plans.
"Alex," she says, and she squeezes his hand, "is something the matter?"
He looks up at her plaintively. "Are you mad at me?"
Evy's heart clenches. She stops walking, scoops him up, and sets him atop a boulder. "No, darling," she tells him, smoothing his wild hair down. He needs a haircut soon. "Only a little bit frightened, that's all."
He gives her the single most dubious face she has ever received from a child. "But you're not scared of anything."
"I'm glad you think that, but I am quite scared, of a few things."
Alex still looks doubtful, but he holds his arms out to her and complains, "My feet hurt."
Evy laughs. "You're getting far too big to be carried," she says, but she lifts him up onto her hip anyway, and lets him bury his little face in her neck.
"What're you scared of, Mum?" he asks, muffled.
He really is growing heavy for her - it takes her a moment to get her knees under her. It's hard to believe that he once fit in the crook of her elbow and didn't run around getting into mischief all day. Soon, he'll have to go to boarding school. He should rightfully be at day school with other boys even now, but Evy wants him with them for as long as they can have him. He's getting an education the likes of which no other child his age will experience, tormenting his poor tutors while they're at home in Oxfordshire and traveling the world several times a year with her and Rick. School can wait until he's 10.
"Hmm," she says, pretending to give it great thought, as she picks her way through camp. "I'm scared of ... poor book reviews, and the way your socks smell," she grips his knee tighter and he laughs, "and I must admit I don't particularly care for mummies."
"You're wrong; mummies are brilliant," Alex says, winding his arms around her neck, and Evy laughs.
Once settled into his pyjamas and tucked into his camp bed inside their little tent, Alex sleepily insists that he's wide awake and can't go to sleep without a story.
Evy turns down the paraffin lamp and comes to kneel by his bedside. "No? You couldn't possibly sleep?" she asks softly, teasing, and he shakes his head.
"Well, then. What shall it be tonight? The Nubian prince who bargained with the witch?" she asks. "Alexander the Great and Hannibal?"
He yawns. "I want to hear about Grandma and Grandpa."
"Oh," says Evy, and her mouth curves into a smile. "That old story?" When Alex rolls his eyes and nods again, she smiles more broadly.
"Your grandfather met your grandmother at a party in Cairo," she says, settling in more comfortably on her knees. "Your grandfather, my father, he was a very famous English explorer, and the governor threw a great big party to welcome him upon his arrival in Egypt."
Alex snuggles under his heavy blankets, face lit by the flickering lamplight, eyes half-lidded but intent on Evy.
"All of the most important families in Cairo were there," Evy says. "Egyptian society was different in those days, you see - aristocratic women wore full veils, so nearly every woman in attendance was covered from head to toe. Your grandmother Safia, however, was the daughter of a wealthy merchant family. She was of a lower social class, so she wore only the hijab. Your grandfather used to say that he saw her face instantly among the crowd and fell in love just as swiftly. She was very beautiful."
Alex really must be sleepy; he's not complaining about all the mushy stuff yet. "Did she look like Dr El Masry?" he asks.
That's a new question - Dr El Masry is an archaeologist working with the EES on the excavation of the tomb of Akhenaton. Evy had been delighted to meet him; in addition to having read his treatises on ancient Egyptian royal hierarchy, it was tremendous to reach a dig and find that one of the distinguished leading figures was Egyptian himself. Dr El Masry has enormous patience for Alex's boundless questions and has never treated Evy with anything less than the respect owed an accomplished contemporary, unlike some of his colleagues. She likes him immensely.
"No," Evy says, "your grandmother's skin was rather darker than Dr El Masry's, and she didn't have a mustache." She lightly pokes his upper lip as she says it, and Alex giggles sleepily. She pulls her locket out from under the collar of her shirt, and she opens it for Alex to have a look. "Remember? She was brilliant, and your grandfather Howard cut quite a dashing figure himself."
"What about their adventures?" he asks stubbornly.
"Well, your grandmother was educated overseas and was quite a traveler - she climbed mountains in the Alps before returning to Egypt. Once they were married, they settled in Cairo and they made a number of important archaeological discoveries together. They found temples and tombs, and even a few mummies."
"Mummies, brilliant," Alex mumbles, and his eyes flutter shut.
Evy remembers her father sitting at her bedside in their Cairo home, still trailing sand and grit from yet another trek across the desert, telling her what must have been sanitised stories of the scrapes that he and her mother had gotten into and out of together. Each time, she'd beg to go with them on their next dig, and each time, right up through the final excavation that had preceded their deaths in a plane crash, she was told that it was too dangerous.
Evy lightly strokes Alex's hair. He doesn't object and he doesn't demand more detailed Grandma and Grandpa stories, which he must know by heart after so many re-tellings. Instead, he breathes slow and even for a moment, and then starts snoring. Evy smiles to herself and kisses the top of his head before she finally turns off the lamp.
Cairo, July 1942
The British forces gave their Cairo HQ the hefty title of "General Headquarters Middle East," but really, it's a block of commandeered flats behind barbed wire in the wealthy district of Garden City.
It's also, as General Rommel and the Deutsches Afrika Korps advance on Cairo, an absolute madhouse. The latest reports that Evy has heard place the Germans within 150 miles of Cairo. Clearly, the entire city knows about it.
"Benjamin, please!" Evy calls, practically chasing Benjamin Fry down the hall. The entire building reeks of smoke - everywhere she looks, officers and clerks are rushing around and burning top secret files. It's like something out of cinema. "We've been back in the city for nearly a week; is there really not another assignment available?"
Benjamin dumps his armload of files into the bin fire that two enlisted men are monitoring and turns back toward her. He's a scrupulously unmemorable dark-haired man, always dressed in a military uniform - without rank insignia - despite the fact that he isn't actually a member of the military at all. "Evelyn, I understand your frustration, but this is a very difficult time for - for anything apart from-" he grunts as he picks up another enormous stack of folders off a nearby desk and throws them into the fire, "-disposing of secure information."
"And I - well, yes, I understand that," Evy says, finding herself following Benjamin along the hall again. It's a good thing Rick stayed behind; he would have lost patience with this painfully polite conversation at least 15 minutes ago. Evy is on the verge herself. "But Benjamin-" He's about to duck into a file room again. She grabs his elbow and plants her feet in the doorway. "Mr Fry."
He stops, finally, and looks at her. He looks quite startled to have been waylaid so forcefully.
"Rick and I came here to serve," Evy says, steady, her eyes on his. "Let us serve."
"Well..." says Benjamin, and she beams immediately: she has him. "Don't smile yet; it's an incredibly dangerous assignment."
"We'll take it," she says firmly, and after a touch more hemming and hawing, Evy finally leaves with a file that she has been instructed to memorise and then burn to cinders.
Back out on the street, the cloud hanging over Cairo is obvious. She's sweating as soon as she steps outside, what with the July temperature, but there's a literal cloud of smoke filtering the sun through its haze, thanks to the sheer amount of material that is being burned across the city.
Personnel rush to and fro, shouting jumbled instructions to each other. The 8th Army has been fully entrenched in Cairo for years, possibly to the point of too entrenched. Evy has certainly met more than her fair share of officers who enjoy the city's charms and wouldn't dream of leaving its comforts for the desert, where the actual fighting is happening. That was all well and good when their foe was the hapless Italian 10th Army, but the Desert Fox is an entirely different matter.
The file feels hot tucked under Evy's arm. She makes her way through the chaos to where she parked the car off the street. She finds it still under the guard of the two young boys she'd employed to keep an eye on it. They're sitting in the meagre shade created by the car, playing some sort of game.
She calls to them, and, as their heads come up, says, "شكرا," and hands them the rest of their promised payment. They scramble off together, counting their riches, and she climbs into the driver's seat. After a moment's consideration, she sits on the file. She can't think of a safer place for it.
Rick would likely cut his eyes at her and make a remark about how he can't think of a shapelier place for it, either - Evy warms and laughs just thinking of it.
The car is a dusty white Duesenberg convertible. It's not the same vehicle that her parents left to her and Jonathan that was badly damaged on the run from Imhotep through Cairo years ago, but a comfortingly familiar hunk of metal all the same. The gears grind for a moment, but with a toot of the horn to clear several pedestrians out of the way, Evy pulls out into the street.
The trip through the British Residency passes abysmally slowly. Garden City is packed to the gills with panicked expatriates packing everything they can fit into vans on the street and burning the rest, and they don't give a damn how many times one honks the horn at them.
The queue at the military branch of Barclays is remarkable, snaking all the way around the corner and stretching down the street. For this, the officers have finally left the Gezira Sporting Club. Battered trucks and soldiers and equipment have poured into the city in a barely-orderly panicked retreat. Driving past the Cairo Railway Station alone takes nearly 20 minutes, trying to get through the crowds of expatriates fleeing to Luxor or Palestine or the Sudan.
One doesn't get anywhere in so many of the places that Evy has lived and traveled without being a pushy, rude driver, and she can stomp the pedal and the horn with the best of them, but if people won't be moved, they won't be moved. It's likely a breach of protocol, but she and Rick have never been the most orthodox of government agents - she starts to read the file in the car while trapped behind camels and masses of people. She has finished the entire thing by the time she pulls in through the gates at the house.
Evy loves this house. When her parents died, they left the bulk of their collection to the Museum of Antiquities, and the original Duesenberg, a small yearly allowance, and this house to Evy and Jonathan. It's small, by the standards of the the Tudor manor that has become the O'Connell home in Oxfordshire, but light and warm, largely open to the air. Evy grew up here before being sent to boarding school in England at age nine, and she happily returned to Cairo every summer. She remembers reading in the library, tucked behind the thick red curtains so no one could find her and make her come to dinner. She remembers games of hide and seek with Jonathan, when Omar the cook would scold them for running through the kitchen and then give them small bowls of fragrant keshk seasoned with fried onions to keep them out from under his feet. The Carnahans weren't fabulously wealthy, not after her father's family disowned him for marrying an Egyptian woman and certainly not after they chose to give most of their finds to museums and universities, but this home has always been filled with love. It's where she and Jonathan built their adult lives; where Evy lived with Rick in their first days as husband and wife, and where Alex took his first steps and spoke his first words. She can't stand to think of the dear old place taken over by some German colonel and his mistress.
File tucked securely under her arm, Evy pushes open the front doors and finds a scene of pure chaos. They keep minimal staff, primarily to watch over the house while it goes vacant for lengthy periods of time; servitude has never sat well with Evy after growing out of a sheltered childhood and realising that many of her contemporaries had mistaken her mother for the maid. However, every single member of their small, well-compensated staff is frantically packing away portraits, vases, books, and - she stares after young Pierre as he rushes past with an open box - cutlery?
Rick leans over the bannister, above the stairs. "There you are! I was starting to think the Germans got you," he says with black humour; with Rommel 150 miles yet from the city, they both felt that the strength of the panic was a bit overblown.
Or so Evy thought, until she returned to find her home gripped in the throes of the same panic. "Rick, what is this?" she asks, climbing the stairs and swiftly ducking out of the path of a houseboy.
Rick is dressed for the desert, leather holsters criss-crossing his chest, green kerchief tied around his neck and offsetting the sharp blue of his eyes. Polishing a revolver, he looks every inch the man who went to Hamunaptra and decapitated mummy soldiers 15 years ago, if older and wiser.
"This?" he says. "This is Abdulrahim. Do you know how many times I've had to talk him out've burning stuff this morning? A lot. A lot of times."
Evy presses a hand to her mouth to try to contain the laugh that threatens, at the thought of Rick trying to go toe to toe with the house's devoted elderly caretaker, but Rick sees it and his wild eyes soften.
"Please," he says, setting the revolver and the cloth down on the end table behind him, and reaching for her, "tell me Fry had something for us, Evy." He draws her up onto the top step, and then he goes down a step and looks up at her hopefully, his hands warm on her waist.
Evy cups his face in her hands and looks at him for a few seconds, letting it draw out, and then she smiles with the promise of mischief. "Fry had something for us."
Rick laughs with delight and kisses her full on the mouth. She leans down to make the angle easier on him - his back isn't what it once was - and kisses him back, letting him wrap his arms around her and pull her close. The old heat runs through her, even now.
"So," he says conversationally, when they've finally stopped, their foreheads resting against each other. "Where we goin'?" He steps up on her level without letting go of her.
"Luxor," she says. "It seems a number of suspected German spies have fled along with the civilians."
"Ooh, Luxor," he says, low, and they sway back and forth together. "Haven't been there in a while."
"I doubt there'll be time for a second honeymoon," she says, smiling.
"A guy can dream, right?" he says, pressing a lingering kiss to the hinge of her jaw, just below her ear. She lets herself bask in the moment for a few more seconds, then she lightly pats his chest.
"Now come on, we'll have to leave within the hour to have any chance of making our rendezvous."
"I love it when you talk French to me," Rick says, kissing her cheek and stepping back to pick up the gun he'd discarded.
"And read this, then burn it," she instructs, passing him the file.
"Wow, actual written information? Benjamin is really warming up to us!"
"He'll warm up more if we can actually carry out the mission," she points out.
"Hey, I've got reading material for you, too," Rick says, catching her arm before she can step past him. He pulls two battered envelopes from his back pocket. "Mail finally caught up with us."
Evy grabs the letters gratefully and presses them close to her heart. Rick looks rather grim, though, so she says, "Oh God, Alex didn't get kicked out of another school, did he?"
"Surprisingly, no," says Rick. "He did try to get on a boat to the States to enlist in the Air Force, though."
"What?" Evy asks, aghast.
"Didn't say a word about that in his letter, the little stinker," says Rick. "They caught him before they left Sydney. He tried to bluff his way on board, but you and I both know the kid looks like he's 12. They sent him back to school and called Jonathan."
"He's only 16 - what does he think he's doing?!"
"What does that kid ever think he's doing?" Rick says, and then he slings his arm around her. "Hey. He's okay. But we've gotta go."
"I know," she says, leaning against his shoulder.
Edge of the Great Sand Sea, August 1942
They come across an abandoned encampment as night begins to fall. The former occupants had dug in with their backs to a sandstone cliff, the entire camp a warren of connected trenches. The only structure left above ground is a badly tattered tent, more holes than canvas at this point, with the red cross atop it - the medical tent.
"Sorry bastards got the hell shelled out of them," Rick says, easing the battered car in as best he can, but the whole undercarriage still jolts as he hits the edge of a mortar crater.
"I think this looks as likely a place as any to stop for the night," says Evy, looking around. Desolate as it is, it's miles yet from the current front and ought to provide adequate cover.
"I miss camels," says Rick, switching off the engine. "You could ride camels all night without worrying they were gonna hit a bad bump in the dark and wreck us. No headlights for bad guys to see, either."
"They were sweeter than the car, too." She climbs out of the car. She hears the wind; the soft sound of insects.
"You're still the only person I've ever met who thinks camels are cute," he says. "Think that looks like a good spot for the car?"
She follows his point. "I think it looks perfect," she says. It's a pit on a steep incline carved into the earth, its walls lined with sandbags. The soldiers who held this ground - and Evy isn't entirely sure who they may have been, whether British, Australian, French, German, or Italian, not to mention one of the African armies - must have dug it for one of their own vehicles.
By the time they've managed to ease the car down the ramp, shore up its hood with sandbags, and cover it with a bit of discarded camouflage netting, the sun has gone down. Even under her warm coat, Evy shivers. Her eyes feel gritty from lack of sleep.
They traverse the maze of tunnels before they find the likeliest dugout. It probably belonged to an officer. Its inhabitant left behind a camp bed and a little trunk that was clearly being used as a desk, with a few books spread across it.
Rick gives Evy a hand down into the excavated hole. It's only waist-deep and four feet wide, perhaps ten feet long. It'll be a squeeze for the two of them, but they've never minded that.
"I can't imagine living in this space for weeks on end," says Evy, picking up one of the books that were left behind. La Fin de la nuit, by François Mauriac - these were Free French troops, then.
"Eh, you get used to it," says Rick, jumping down. The stars overhead are still the brightest Evy has ever seen anywhere in the world, shining silver in the black sky. If the moon were full they could have turned off the headlights and driven on by moonlight, but it's a weak crescent tonight.
The troops here must have evacuated in a hurry. The man who lived in this dugout left behind a journal. When Evy opens it, she finds it filled with thin, spidery handwriting; it falls open to a page marked by a photo of a woman holding a toddler and smiling for the camera. Whoever she is, Evy hopes her husband or brother returned to her.
"For dinner tonight, you've got your choice of spam, hard tack, or spam and hard tack," Rick says behind her, rummaging through their pack.
"Rick," she says, turning back toward him. She leans against the trunk. "Did we do the right thing? Evacuating Alex?"
Perched on the edge of the camp bed, Rick looks up from the pack. "What else were we gonna do?" he says. "He got kicked out of half the boarding schools in England and Scotland, London's getting bombed, France went full Nazi - and who knows what the hell's gonna happen here."
"I know," she says, pressing a hand to her temple, "I know, we wanted to get him as far from the possibility of invasion as possible."
"Honey, he couldn't have come with us," Rick says, reassuringly steady. "We got shot at three hours ago."
"I know," Evy says again. She still has last month's three-month-old letters from Jonathan and Alex tucked away. They feel as though they're burning a hole in her pocket - one a chatty missive from Jonathan full of praise for his new club in Sydney, where he tried to slip in the news about Alex's latest escapade right at the end, and one a terse neutral message from Alex himself which tells her nothing except that he's still furious about having been shipped off to Australia. "I only worry that he'll never understand."
"It's not his job to understand; he's a kid," says Rick. "We still get to make the call on what's best for him."
"Rick, what if he never forgives us?"
He looks at her for a moment, and then he holds out his hand. She takes it and lets him pull her down to sit beside him on the camp bed, which creaks ominously under their weight but holds up. He wraps his arm around her. "He's a good kid, Evy. He will," he says. "And we'll keep making the world a safer place for him to be in."
They're both quiet. It's positively frigid in the dugout - even once they draw the canvas across the top, it's going to be another miserably cold night. Evy's hands already feel like blocks of ice. There are dull whumps, very faint, somewhere in the distance. The lights of tracer fire or explosions aren't showing, so the fighting is still miles away.
Evy settles her head against Rick's shoulder. He flinches and sucks a breath in through his teeth.
She sits bolt upright and says, "Were you shot earlier?" already reaching for his jacket.
"I mean, I didn't think so, but - ow," he complains.
The routine is all too familiar: draw the canvas over top of the dugout, turn on the portable lamp, pull the first aid kit out of their gear. They may work in espionage for the Foreign Office, but Rick's strengths lie in many areas, and certainly not in stealth. Guns blazing is far more his style (their style, Evy can admit). He has a truly remarkable ability to get banged up in every encounter they seem to stumble into.
"Aw, Evy, no," he says, as she uses the last of the whiskey to disinfect what is, in fact, a bullet graze. "I was gonna drink that."
She tapes a piece of gauze over the wound and then looks down at her bloody hands. "Promise me something," she says. When she glances up, Rick is looking at her, at the ready. She draws back and looks him dead in the eye. "When the war is over, we'll fetch Alex, and we'll settle down."
"Deal," he says immediately. "Absolutely, deal. I've always wondered what it would be like to be, you know, a proper English gentleman. I can join the hunt, take up fishing." His plummy English accent is just as ghastly as it has always been.
"Beastly man," she chastises, laughing and gently patting down the edges of the tape. "But I suppose I do want to catch up with my writing."
"We're gonna be regular joes, honey," he says, and the idea is so ludicrous, taping up her husband's bullet wound in a dugout on their way into the Libyan desert, that Evy laughs again. Rick picks up the cleaner of her hands, and kisses her knuckle. "I promise."
She squeezes his hand. "I'll settle for joes who live in one place for a while."
It takes some doing to arrange it so they both fit on the camp bed and don't jar Rick's shoulder, buried under piles of blankets and the lovely thick burnoose they'd bartered from a group of Bedouin several weeks ago. Evy tucks her cold nose against Rick's neck and he doesn't complain; he only strokes a hand into her hair. She falls asleep to the sound of distant mortar fire, miles and miles off, and to the promise of Rick's chest steadily rising and falling beneath her ear.
Near Tacna, Peru, 1950
"It's incredible!" Evy shouts as she runs through a patch of sunlight streaming from gaps in the cave's rock ceiling. "All signs point to the Chinchorro beginning to mummify their dead nearly 4,000 years before the Egyptians!"
"Did you see that last one?" Alex shouts back. "I know they removed the head and the limbs from the trunk so they could treat everything before reassembling the corpse, but I don't think his head ever got reattached!"
"Yeah, fascinating, hey!" Rick hollers from somewhere behind them. "How the hell do I kill these things?!" He roars something unintelligible and there are several loud gunshots.
From the shouting that is rapidly growing louder - one voice swearing fluently in Mandarin, the other wailing about family histories and mummies - Evy's daughter-in-law and Jonathan, respectively, are making their way through the adjacent cavern.
"I've never seen anything like that paste they used to fill i-" Alex starts, and then he yelps, "Whoa!" as Evy lunges for his jacket collar and wrenches him to a stop just short of running facefirst into a new group of red mummies. She lifts her shotgun and fires (plant feet, press the barrel into the shoulder, lead the target, squeeze the trigger) in quick succession. All three mummies fall, still as eerily silent as they've all been, but she doesn't wait to see if they get back up again.
She ejects the spent shells and yanks Alex by the collar again. "Come on, Alex, quickly, quickly!" They break into a run. "Rick, mummies!" she shouts over her shoulder.
"Ya think?" Rick hollers back, but almost immediately, he yells, "Whoa!" and there are three gunshots just behind them. He catches up to Evy and Alex quickly, a pistol in each hand. "You weren't kidding!"
"Darling, I never joke about mummies," Evy says, and Rick laughs breathlessly as she beams at him, sprinting up the incline together. Her lungs are bursting and her knees burn, and at this moment, she wouldn't dream of being anywhere else.