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The Alexander Affair

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Having managed to secure his preferred spot directly beneath the ceiling fan, Athos was frowning over a two-week out of date Times crossword when the door to the coffeehouse was shoved open so hard it banged against his table, making him jump.

A young man, apparently in high dudgeon strode in and threw a dusty canvas satchel to the floor as if it had personally offended him.

“God damn it!”

“Which one?” Athos murmured, mostly to himself, but the newcomer spun round and glared at him.

“Excuse me?”

“Which God? I mean – we are in Egypt. There’s quite a lot to choose from.” Athos looked amused, which earned him a poisonous look as the young man assumed he was being laughed at.

“I’m glad you think it’s funny.”

“Sorry I spoke,” Athos muttered, and went back to his crossword.

“Hang on. I know you.”

Athos looked up again warily. “Then you have me at a disadvantage.”

“Your name’s Athos right? British Museum?”

“Indeed. I’m sorry, I don’t know - ”

“D’Artagnan. Oxford University.” He was looking more cheerful now, and the two men shook hands.

Athos was sure they’d never met, but the name still rang faint bells.

“Oh. I think I knew your father. I was sorry to read he’d passed away last year.”

D’Artagnan’s smile faded again. “At least he didn’t live long enough for me to be a disappointment to him.”

“Whatever do you mean?”

“Long story.” D’Artagnan sighed, and Athos gestured to the chair opposite him.

“I’m in no rush?”

D’Artagnan took the offered seat gratefully while Athos beckoned the proprietor over and ordered Turkish coffees for both of them.

“Thank you.” D’Artagnan finally relaxed a little, slumping back into his seat and scrubbing his hands through his hair. “It’s been a bad day already, and it’s only eleven o’clock.”

“What happened?” Athos asked solicitously.

“I’ve been robbed!”

Athos raised his eyebrows. “Did you lose much? They really should try and do something about the number of pickpockets in this city, they’re a public menace.”

D’Artagnan shook his head emphatically. “I’m not talking about a handful of coins. I’m talking about six months’ worth of artefacts from Abydos.”

“Good heavens.”

“I said something a bit stronger than that when I realised, I don’t mind telling you.”

Athos hid a smile. “You’ve been excavating?”

D’Artagnan nodded. “Been out there, on and off most of the year. We’d broken through into a new vault, beneath the Temple of Seti?” He waited for Athos’ nod to indicate he was at least passingly familiar with the works going on at the site, and continued.

“Well, it was just astounding some of the things we were bringing up. The wall paintings alone down there are enough to keep a whole team of scholars occupied for years. But there were whole rooms full of furniture, statures, offerings, practically pristine condition. I was shipping the first consignment back.” D’Artagnan sighed, shaking his head regretfully. “I’m a damned fool.”

“You’ve lost something?”

“I’ve lost everything.” D’Artagnan stared mournfully into his coffee cup, then pulled himself together a little. “Well, not everything. But the chests containing the most interesting items. Or should I say the most valuable? Gold plate, jewelled statuary, that sort of thing.”

“Have you told the police?” Athos asked curiously. He could see why d’Artagnan was agitated, but at the same time he seemed oddly fatalistic about it all.

“What’s the point?” D’Artagnan groaned. “I mean yes, I will, I’ll have to file a report in any case, but I don’t hold out much hope of ever seeing any of it again. We’ve been a week on the river, and it must have been switched before we boarded. They’ll be long gone.”

“You didn’t check on it during the trip?”

D’Artagnan glared at him, stung. “Of course I did! It was under lock and key!” He subsided again, looking sheepish. “I checked the chests were safe, twice a day. I just never thought to look inside them. When we unloaded at the quay early this morning, two of the dockers accidentally dropped one. I was about to chew them out for being careless, when all that spilled out of it was sand.”

“So someone actually swapped the contents, rather than just making off with the artefacts? Presumably hoping if the weight was the same you wouldn’t notice for a while, so giving them a head start? That’s quite smart.” Athos sounded vaguely impressed, and d’Artagnan gave him a dirty look.

“Yeah, you wouldn’t be so enthusiastic if it was you that had just lost months’ worth of work. What am I going to tell my sponsors? The University’s probably going to kick me out now.”

“Oh, don’t be so pessimistic,” Athos told him. “You’ve still got something left, haven’t you?”

“A couple of crates of inscribed tablets, yes. He obviously couldn’t be bothered taking those. No re-sale value I suppose.”

“You talk as if you know who it was,” Athos noted curiously.

“Oh, I’ve got a pretty good idea,” said d’Artagnan grimly. “The man who organised the transport to the boat. I thought he was too good to be true, and I reckon I was right, but at the time I was in a bind. We had a truck but it had broken down, and then this guy comes along with a bunch of camels. Offered the use of them for a pittance.”

“You mean you paid him as well?” Athos asked, only just managing to keep a straight face when d’Artagnan looked daggers at him.

“At the time I thought he was the answer to my prayers, we’d have missed the boat otherwise. Now I suspect he had a hand in the truck problems in the first place. He gave his name as Nassar, but I don’t think he was any more Egyptian than I am.”

“Hindsight’s a wonderful thing,” said Athos dryly. "Still, there's a chance things might still turn up. The authorities here are getting pretty hot on the black market trade in antiquities since the public interest in Egypt has gone through the roof. I assume you have a full catalogue of what was taken?"

D'Artagnan nodded gloomily. "Yes, descriptions and preliminary sketches in most cases. I was bringing them back for further study, we've got an office allocated in the museum here."

Athos clicked his fingers, belatedly making a connection. "Constance Bonacieux?"

"Yes, that's her. She started after I'd left for Abydos, so I've not met her yet. How do you know her?"

"My office is just down the corridor from hers," Athos explained. "We've had lunch together a few times."

"That's very charitable of you."

Athos looked surprised. "Why do you say that?"

"Well, I heard she was a widow. I suppose I've been picturing a little old lady," d'Artagnan admitted.

Athos smiled to himself. "I think in that case you might be surprised," he murmured.

"So are you based here full time now?" d'Artagnan asked, changing the subject when Athos infuriatingly refused to be drawn further on Constance. "I read your site reports from Abu Ghurab, will there be further excavations?"

"There's still a team out there," Athos nodded, "but as for myself, I'll be leaving for Alexandria shortly, I've been asked to head up another project."

"Can you say what?" d'Artagnan pressed eagerly, and Athos smiled at his enthusiasm.

"I shouldn't really. You work for the opposition," he declared, and d'Artagnan looked indignant for a moment until he realised Athos was joking.

"Oh go on. Who am I going to tell? Right now I don't even know anyone else in Cairo."

Athos leaned back and crossed his ankles. "Fine, but if I get there to find a team from Oxford there ahead of me..." he broke off and held up a hand in apology as he saw d'Artagnan was taking it personally. "I'm teasing. But one can't be too careful, as you've already discovered. I suppose I'm worried less about professional espionage and more about looters. Have you finished your coffee? Walk with me back to the museum, and I'll tell you on the way."

Outside, the heat of the day was oppressive in the narrow street, and d'Artagnan was soon wiping sweat out of his eyes as they made their way through the crowds.

"How does it feel hotter here than out in the desert?" he complained, eyeing Athos' hat with a certain amount of jealousy. "I'm starting to wish I was still on the river. I liked it out there. At least there was a breeze." And he'd still been in blissful ignorance about the theft of his artefacts, d'Artagnan reflected ruefully. What a difference a day made.

"So go on," he pressed, keen for a distraction from his troubles. "What's the big secret in Alexandria?"

"Alexander himself," said Athos. "More specifically, his tomb. The historical record mostly concurs it's there somewhere. I'm going to find it." He said this with a quiet confidence and without a trace of arrogance, but d'Artagnan burst out laughing.

"You're serious?" he spluttered, when Athos just looked at him. "Alexander the Great? Do you know how many people have looked for it before?"

"I'm quite aware, yes," Athos said calmly.

"What are you going to do for an encore, find the tomb of Genghis Khan?"

"Well if you're not interested." Athos folded his arms and d'Artagnan realised that despite his offhand manner Athos was actually mildly offended and immediately apologised.

"I'm sorry. It's just - a wild goose chase. Surely. Isn't it?" he asked curiously, slowly realising that if Athos had the backing of the British Museum he must have more to go on than ancient hearsay.

Athos gave him a level stare, seemingly weighing up whether to confide in him. "We think we know where to look," he admitted. "There are several accounts of various historical personages going to visit it, comparison of those narrows it down to a specific geographical area within the old city. Say within a couple of square miles."

"Yes, okay," d'Artagnan conceded. "That's still a needle in a haystack though, surely?"

"It was, until February." Athos gave him the kind of sideways look that suggested he had an ace up his sleeve. "Last year the British Museum received as a bequest the contents of a private library that included a considerable collection of manuscripts in Arabic, dating back in some cases several centuries. One of our research students, Samara Alaman, was translating these as part of her doctorate studies."

"And one of them mentioned the tomb?" d'Artagnan guessed.

"Exactly. We now know - or think we do - more of less where it is, thanks to a Moroccan merchant in the thirteenth century who wrote about visiting the tomb as a footnote to detailing his commercial interests in Alexandria. That's way later than all the other accounts, and it sounds like the place was still famous at least locally for what it held."

D'Artagnan shrugged. "That's all well and good but I guarantee you I could find you twenty men in the marketplace right here willing to show a gullible tourist the ancient basement of the pharaohs for a very reasonable price."

"You think he was taken for a ride? It's a possibility. But the manuscript got enough people excited enough to finance the dig." Athos smiled. "And I for one am not complaining."

By now they'd reached the Museum of Antiquities and entered the coolness of the lobby with some relief. D'Artagnan never tired of coming here, although his visits to date had mostly been brief. He enjoyed fieldwork, but the thought of perhaps one day having his own office here was a tantalising thrill.

There was high international interest in Egypt at the moment, stemming mostly from the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb a few years earlier. The Egyptian Antiquities Department consequently found themselves having to wrangle representatives of museums and universities from all over Europe, and had stuck most of them on the same corridor on the first floor at the back of the building.

Having reached his own office, Athos shook d'Artagnan's hand once more and nodded to a door a little further on. "Well, nice to have met you. That's the Oxford set up down there. Say hello to Constance for me."

D'Artagnan ventured into the room Athos had indicated, feeling unaccustomedly nervous. There were several packing crates on the floor near the door, and he realised with some relief that his remaining finds had at least arrived safely ahead of him.

"Hello?" he called out. "Anyone here?"

A movement in the corner of the room made him turn, and to his surprise found a striking young woman had emerged from behind a bookcase and was looking at him with considerable disfavour.

"Can I help you?" she asked icily. D'Artagnan abruptly wished he'd gone to his hotel first to change his clothes and maybe have a bath. Or at least comb his hair. He'd been travelling for a week, and catching sight of his reflection in a mirror over the desk he suddenly realised he looked like a tramp.

"Um. I, er. I'm d'Artagnan? I'm expected. Er. I hope."

"You're d'Artagnan?" she asked dubiously. "Do you mind if I see some proof of that?"

D'Artagnan bristled, but he had to concede she had a point. He searched through his bag for his papers, and handed her passport and visa, which she scrutinised with what he felt was rather insulting attention.

"Hmmn." She still looked unconvinced, but handed them back with a nod. "I guess you are then. I'm Constance Bonacieux."

D'Artagnan blinked. "You are?"

"Is there a problem?" Constance asked sternly.

"No! No. Absolutely not. I was just expecting someone - er - well, older."

Constance glared at him. "Yes, well I was expecting someone cleaner."

D'Artagnan cleared his throat. "It's been a long trip. I'm not normally this scruffy," he protested, wishing obscurely that Athos had commented on his appearance, and drawn his attention to how bad it was. Then he remembered Athos' comment about taking Constance to lunch and wondered if he'd let him walk in here like this on purpose, to create a bad first impression.

"Are you alright?" Constance asked curiously. "You look really - fierce, all of a sudden."

"I'm having a bad day," d'Artagnan sighed. "Still, looks like my cases arrived okay?"

"Yes, these turned up about half an hour ago. I was expecting a few more of them though?"

D'Artagnan coughed. "Ah. Yes. About that..."

--

The hotel suite was richly appointed, with exquisite furnishings and tall windows opening onto the cool shade of an inner courtyard garden.

In front of the windows a man was seated at a card table, examining in minute detail a number of artefacts arranged before him.

Watching him in turn, Porthos stood waiting with a faint air of resentful deference. He had not been offered a chair.

"Well?" he blurted finally, unable to stand the silence any longer.

The man seated before him was Armand du Plessis Richelieu, one of France's richest men, well known patron of the arts, and less well known owner of one of the largest private collections of looted artefacts in the world.

"Acceptable," Richelieu pronounced finally, carefully setting an electrum chalice back on the baize table cover. He eyed a chipped alabaster shabti and made a moue of distaste. "Mostly." A deliberate movement of his hand sent the statuette toppling to the tiled floor, where it shattered into fragments.

Porthos couldn't prevent the instinctive jerk he'd made to try and catch it before checking himself, the fingers of his left hand clenching convulsively in frustration. His reaction had not gone unnoticed by Richelieu, who gave him an arch look.

"Oh, I'm terribly sorry," he drawled in mock remorse. "Does that hurt your sensibilities as an historian?" He sat up, holding Porthos' resentful gaze with eyes full of steel. "You forget yourself. You gave up all claim to the finer feelings of academia the day you became my man. You're nothing but a common thief. And if we are to continue with this - mutually beneficial relationship - you will do well to remember that."

Richelieu watched the warring expressions on Porthos' face for a second, then nodded to himself when the man held his tongue. "Do we understand each other?"

"Yes sir." Porthos ground the words out reluctantly but he'd clearly given in, and Richelieu gave a brisk nod.

"Excellent. In which case I have another task for you. Word has reached me that the British Museum are financing an excavation to find the lost tomb of Alexander."

Porthos looked surprised. "Alexander the Great?"

"No, Alexander the Mildly Irritating, who do you suppose?" Richelieu snapped. "I don't care how you do it but I need you to get yourself on that excavation."

"Who's running it?"

"Athos de la Fere. You know him?"

Porthos shook his head. "I've heard the name. All those British Museum types are the same though. All stuffy starched collars and pince-nez. Trust me, he won't pose a problem."

"Good. Take any measures you feel necessary."

Porthos nodded slowly. "If he does manage to locate the tomb, it'll be the find of the century."

"Yes well I don't care about that. I want you to secure me the sarcophagus."

"Just the sarcophagus? What's so special about that?" Porthos asked, surprised.

Richelieu gave him a slow, cat-like smile. "Legend has it, Alexander's coffin was made entirely from beaten gold."

--