Boy, your love can be so vicious
You’re gonna get what you deserve
If Beni had to guess, he’d say that Rick’s first impression of him—assuming there was an impression, assuming Rick had noticed him at all—was probably something vague and faintly ominous. The outlines of a horned viper winding its way down the dunes: a series of rapid, repeated S shapes flickering over the sand, shadows, a tentative tasting of the air with a forked tongue, and then nothing. Beni’s first impression of Rick was just a thought: Nice ass. He can see the tall hard body underneath the trousers and bourgeron very clearly in the glinting sunlight. Eize tusik, beau cul, shou hal tiz el ħelwe. Hao pigu. He thinks it over and over again as they crump across the sand, at first marching with parade sharpness, parade purpose, and then, as the merciless sun beats down on them, beginning to slouch and slump, and sweat, and swear. Beni swears with the best of them, in every language he knows.
Rick just says, “Damn,” slowly, repeatedly, under his breath, swipes the back of his hand over his brow. An American, then. Beni knew he was too damn big to be anything else.
Beni offers his handkerchief, crumpled but usable. “Please, my friend,” he says, and smiles as Rick looks at him uncertainly, eyes so blue against his tawny coloring. Beni thinks of false oases, of bones in the desert. His bones. Rick isn’t wearing his kepi. The hair on his head is longer than regulations allow, plastered to his skull with sweat. Beni shakes the handkerchief. “Go ahead, my friend,” he says.
“Thanks,” Rick says, although he isn’t Rick, yet, just the big nameless American, the one Beni’s going to latch onto, the one Beni knows is going to go places. The one with the nice ass.
First impressions done. Time for last impressions now. Of Beni: a skull in shadow, sweating and grinning with effort. Of Rick: sound and fury, bellowing, whites all around his big blue eyes, mouth wide, Don’t you close that door—don’t you—don’t you—while the stone wall grinds shut between them, entombing Beni in cool black silence. A temporary resting place for Beni Gabor, while Rick O’Connell’s grave will be shallow and eternal, far away from home and lonely amid the scattered bullet-riddled bodies of legionnaires. The Tuareg raiders will ride their horses over his corpse. The desert sun will bake him into leather—
For men are desert camps that soon become ruins.1 Beni shudders in the dark.
Rick is nothing like a ruin, though, when Beni sees him again. So he was wrong about the last resting place of Rick O’Connell, Beni concedes, and he is glad to be wrong, although he wishes there were a heavy stone wall he could slide between them now. The night air rising from the Nile is black and soft and filmy, and Beni is damp and frightened, and Rick’s eyes are flinty with rage.
“I think I’ll kill you,” Rick announces. Beni wonders if he will. He’s seen Rick smile into the daft drooping faces of camels, smile at the stinging sand, smile into the searing light of the unforgiving sun. The cocked pistol means nothing.
“Think of my children,” Beni says, and Rick looks confused.
“You don’t have any children,” he says.
Someday I might, Beni should say, to finish the joke, but he can’t form the words. He thought he was going to fall over dead at the sight of Rick O’Connell, alive and well, striding onto the riverboat like he owned it. Rick O’Connell, washed and shaved, making small talk with Beni’s Americans—Rick O’Connell, back from the dead. And holding onto Beni right now like he owns him.
Rick seems to have taken it for granted that Beni, too, has appeared on the same riverboat, that Beni, too, has survived the desert whole and unharmed, without a scratch on his body or his psyche. He doesn’t even question it. Beni is nothing more than a cockroach to him, small and loathsome and virtually indestructible.
“Bastard,” Beni mumbles.
“What?” Rick is staring at him, becoming more and more bewildered by the second. Should Beni start listing the names of his imaginary children, counting them out one by one on his hands? Little Ricky, of course, and littler Nadine, Minou, and Nour, and how many fingers does he have left—fingers—is Rick’s finger still on the trigger? Beni doubts it. Beni wonders what he sees.
Look at me, Beni thinks, and he grabs Rick by the hair and tries to jam their mouths together. In his desperation, he misses: it becomes more of head-butt than a kiss, the first punch, a bare avoidance of a set of broken noses.
Rick chokes, and Beni pulls his hair; Rick shoves him, and Beni falls backward into some crates.
Rick says, slowly, “—Beni?”
Beni can’t speak. He has a vision of being tossed overboard, a midnight snack for the crocodiles, who may smile winsomely into the sun but who have far fewer compunctions about murder than Rick O’Connell. He kicks Rick in the shin and runs.
He ends up in the river anyway, but only after a hideous and protracted gun battle where Rick’s woman, in an appealing state of deshabille, gouges a man’s eye out with a lit candle. Rick throws the woman, and Beni throws himself. They climb out together, soaked and gasping, onto the wrong side of the river.
The woman looks curiously in his direction. Rick avoids his eyes: good. Beni rejoins the others.
They cross paths at dawn, of course, for their objective is the same: Hamunaptra, the city of the dead, where Rick should have died and Beni stayed for too long in the whispering darkness. Whether this is kismet or torture, Beni hasn’t decided.
Beni’s Americans doze in the shade, under the curious eyes of a dozen Bedouin, and Rick’s friends haggle for camels. Rick’s woman emerges from a tent in native dress and introduces herself to Beni with a matter-of-fact handshake—the same hand that wielded the candlestick and did the gouging—while Rick hovers in the background and tries to pretend that he isn’t listening. Evelyn, she says: Evelyn Carnahan, amateur Egyptologist, professional librarian, reader and writer of ancient Egyptian and Hieratic, decipherer of hieroglyphs, cataloguer of books, disbeliever of curses. The brains to Rick’s brawn, or Rick’s balls, Beni thinks, sullen.
Beni has brains, too, not that Rick seems to remember. It galls him that Rick doesn’t. Their doomed regiment wouldn’t have made it twenty miles past the first trading post without Beni to interpret for them. Rick should fall to his knees and thank God for Beni Gabor, once in a while.
Nasty little fellows such as yourselves—Evelyn should say, to Beni’s pale and scowling face. Instead, she says, clasping Beni’s hand between her soft warm palms, “Rick—Mr. O’Connell, that is—says you can speak seven languages!”
Rick jolts and looks away. Evelyn smiles. She explains her costume—all her worldly possessions are in a suitcase bobbing cheerfully toward the Mediterranean. Beni steals Mr. Burns’ digging tools for her at the first opportunity.
The sun unveils the city, to gasps of joy and wonder from the assembled parties. Beni stumbles under the hands of his Americans, who show their delight by clapping him repeatedly on the back. They race their camels toward its golden structures, for Mr. Henderson has laid a bet: five hundred American dollars for the first to set foot in Hamunaptra. Beni is small and light; his camel surges ahead. Rick fights to reach him, bent low over his own camel’s back until they are neck and neck—Beni turns to grin at him and sees that Rick isn’t looking at Beni at all—his eyes are narrowed against the wind and sand, fixed on the ruined gates of the distant city—
Beni swats him with his whip. Rick yells, head snapping up to stare daggers into Beni’s eyes; Beni, sniggering, does it again. Rick snatches at his arm, trying to tear the whip from his hand, trying to pull Beni from his camel. He misses every time, and Beni pants with laughter. Evelyn outpaces them both, reaches the city, claims the pot.
One of Rick’s friends dies—of apoplexy, they think, but Beni knows better. He learns the dead man wasn’t a friend at all, but Rick’s gaoler, the warden of Cairo. This intelligence hurts Beni, like a blow to the stomach. He once thought Rick was charmed and graced, the archetype of the young hero, before whom all obstacles become mere stepping stones, but now he knows that Rick has spent his life tumbling from one catastrophe to the next, escaping—how is it said in English?—escaping each time by the skin of his teeth. He courts disaster. He smiles into the sun. His is a curse that blights all ventures, and Beni is cursed to know him.
“And here I thought you were born to be hanged, O’Connell,” Beni remarks, sauntering through Rick’s camp on his way back to his own. Rick is sitting cross-legged on the sand, polishing what looks like the contents of an entire armory.
Rick doesn’t reply; he simply reaches out and grabs Beni by the ankle as he passes, bringing him crashing to the ground.
“What’s the scam, Beni?” Rick says, shaking Beni by the collar. “You bring them out in the middle of the desert, and then you leave ’em to rot? Just like our whole damn garrison, huh, Beni?”
“Me? Nothing, never, my friend,” Beni gasps out, while Rick rattles his teeth in his skull. “I bring the Americans to the city, I take them back. Half now, half later. No rotting. No rotting, my friend.”
“Them’s the breaks, huh, Beni,” Rick says, bafflingly. What breaks, Beni thinks. Is Rick going to break his arm?
But the rattling stops. Beni catches his breath. “What about you?”
“What about me,” Rick says, “you weasel.”
A weasel, then: Rick thinks Beni is a weasel. “You never believed in Hamunaptra,” Beni says. “Why did you come back?” He licks his lips, nervous, and notices abruptly that Rick’s angry smile has gone tight and sickly, that Rick’s gaze is darting between Beni’s eyes and mouth.
Beni can’t believe it. “O’Connell—”
Before he can blink, Rick has dropped him back into the sand. “You better watch your step, Beni,” he says. He rolls up his weapons kit, shoulders it, and turns toward the circle of warmth and laughter where his companions are heating tins of food over the fire. “Just—watch it.”
Beni sits there in the dust until Mr. Henderson comes looking for him.
At suppertime, Mr. Burns objects to the theft of his toolkit; Beni protests his innocence, weapons bristle, and Rick points a gun at someone other than Beni, for once. So Beni ends it with his Americans and takes up with his Britishers, with Evelyn and her brother Jonathan, who have nothing to offer him but a place by the fire. The warden’s place, but not, Beni hopes, the warden’s fate.
His hopes are dashed within the hour—the desert people have found them, and they attack again as the moon rises, with ululations and gunshots and the bright metallic rattle of scimitars. Beni remembers in a searing flash the sight of fifty bayonets of the French Foreign Legion glittering in the noonday sun—fifty bayonets, useless against the rifles and downward sweeping scimitars of the Tuaregs. Beni cuts his mouth on the broken lip of a bottle of single malt whisky—bayonets, he thinks again, numbly, while the riders rise in his vision like a black wave, engulfing the camps, engulfing Rick. A howling man on a horse bears down on him and on Evelyn’s brother Jonathan, and Beni spits whisky in a beautiful glowing cloud. He gives up Jonathan for dead, and then he drops the bottle and shatters it: Glenlivet all over the sand.
The mouth of his tomb, his hiding place, is open and black and yawning, ready to swallow him. Beni sprints into the darkness and crouches in the murmuring sand with his eyes squeezed shut, until the tumult subsides, until it is all over. He emerges to the sight of Rick O’Connell taking Evelyn into his arms in the moonlight. You okay? There are wounded screaming horses and dead silent men everywhere. The robes on the corpses flutter and shift in the night breeze, giving every impression of life, of reanimation. Jonathan is alive; he kneels in the sand among the bodies, lamenting his bottle. Beni looks away.
The Americans are shouting about gold and treasure. Rick shakes his head; he talks about water. “Right, Beni?” he says, rough, and he and Evelyn turn as one and wait for Beni’s answer.
Beni says nothing.
“You know, maybe just tonight, we could, uh, combine forces,” Mr. Burns says.
The two camps draw together in the circle of fallen pillars. Jonathan plays poker with the Americans and drinks and talks too much, his high nervous laughter fluting into the night. The Egyptologist shouts at his diggers, alternately haranguing and cajoling, eventually promising fivefold the original sum for their continued service. Beni can hear him clearly—Where else are you going to go? Evelyn, unflappable, returns to her reading. Eventually the book drops from her hand.
Beni, leaning against the broken remnants of an ancient arch, watches Rick retrieve it, watches Rick drape his dirty woolen legionnaire’s blanket over her sleeping body.
“Ever the gentleman,” Beni comments.
Rick turns toward him. The moon is bright in the whites of his eyes.
“O’Connell,” Beni says, wary. The stone is unyielding behind him, the fire blazing before him, Rick, unmoved and immovable: nowhere to go. Beni should bolt, should fly, but he knows he is already where it is safest and most desirable to be.
“That night on the riverboat,” Rick says. Beni can see his throat working. He runs a hand through his hair and looks away. “Why did you—uh—why’d you kiss me?”
“You were about to shoot me,” Beni says. He shrugs. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
Rick swears. “Damn it, Beni.”
“You asked,” Beni says.
“Yeah,” Rick says, advancing. “Yeah, but—” he frowns. “Shit, Beni. You okay? Some guy clock you?”
“What?” Beni says. Clocks?
“I said, did one of those crazy bastards get you?” Rick closes in. “Your mouth—”
Beni’s lower lip is still swollen and sore, just beginning to scab over. Rick presses his thumb to the wound, and Beni becomes a statue, a relief carved into the stone behind him. He is painfully aware, even if Rick isn’t, that their poses recreate the tableau of an hour earlier, Rick solicitous and tender, and Beni in Evelyn’s place, just a step away from the circle of Rick’s arms—
The salt of Rick’s sweat stings the cut. Beni licks at it, unthinking, and catches the edge of Rick’s thumb with his tongue. Rick breathes in sharply, and Beni freezes. He drags his gaze unwillingly upward and meets Rick’s stare. The astonishment in Rick’s face is already resolving into intent. Ever a man of action, Beni thinks; mirroring Rick’s decisiveness, he shuts his eyes. And Rick draws his thumb the rest of the way across the swell of Beni’s lip and follows it with his mouth.
Rick’s breath is foul: too much bad American coffee, boiled into tar, but his mouth and body are so deliciously warm. The fire leaps in front of Beni’s eyelids with a red flash. He grabs Rick by the tails of his untucked shirt and tugs. Rick stumbles; their teeth knock together; Beni’s back hits the pillar.
“Whoa,” Rick says, “whoa, there, Beni, wait a minute—”
“My life,” Beni says, blind, “my soul, my bit of cabbage—”2
Rick pulls away. “Beni,” he says. His voice is hoarse; it sends a shiver of delight down Beni’s spine. “Beni, wait.” He plucks Beni’s stroking fingers from his face.
“Do you want to talk first?” Beni sneers. “What is there to talk about? Enough talk, O’Connell. Talk is cheap. Come here, my angel.”
“Beni!” Rick shouts.
Beni twitches into stillness. Rick’s eyes are wide and staring. Beni becomes aware of the noises of the camp, of the Egyptologist ranting at his diggers, of the crackling fire, of Evelyn snuffling in her sleep. Oh, he thinks. Of course. This is madness. This is—
He looks at the mess his grasping fingers have made of Rick—lips wet, hair tousled, shirt undone, and in his trousers—
“Not here,” Rick says.
They stumble over the sand, moving until they can no longer feel the heat of the fire, and the cacophony of the American poker game—Mr. Daniels has found a card up Jonathan’s sleeve and is less than pleased—fades into an indistinct murmur. Beni can’t keep his hands out of Rick’s hair, which is admittedly disgusting, sticky with an unholy mixture of grease and pomade and dust. His own hair is shorn, fuzzy against the back of his neck. It doesn’t stop Rick from gripping Beni’s skull with his hand as they kiss, thumb rubbing over Beni’s ear, sending another long tingling shiver down the left side of his spine.
There are scorpions and snakes in the sand, Beni thinks, and stones, bits of ancient glass, shards of pottery, but when Rick lies down, Beni follows him readily enough. Rick is nothing more than a silhouette in the sand, and Beni thinks he must look the same, a creature of pure shadow, as he undoes his suspenders and belt with trembling hands and throws them aside, pulling his shirt over his head. Rick’s hands are on him immediately, sliding upward along his ribs, thumbs scraping over Beni’s nipples and under his arms, burning hot. Beni lies beside him, face to face, and unfastens their trousers.
“Shush, my darling,” Beni says, squeezing the naked curve of Rick’s ass, every bit as nice as he has always suspected. He rolls Rick’s balls in his palm, feeling the sudden puff of Rick’s shocked exhalation against his ear.
“Beni,” Rick groans. Beni spits into his other hand, reaches down, and starts to stroke him: long twisting motions, rubbing the heel of his hand against the spongy cockhead, already so wet for him. Rick shudders and mouths at Beni’s jaw, and his cock jumps in Beni’s fist as Beni bends to kiss him again.
“Love of my heart,” Beni says. He circles a finger around Rick’s asshole and presses in, and Rick stiffens for a moment, then arches into Beni’s stroking hand, straining, thighs already beginning to tighten while his kisses grow loose and sloppy.
“Beni, Beni,” Rick pants. He clenches around Beni’s finger and comes all over his stomach. The wet patch glistens a bit in the moonlight, and Beni, transfixed, bends to lick it, to lick the salt and bitterness from his skin, and then swipe his tongue across Rick’s twitching cock, curious, hungry, crooking his finger as he does, still buried in the tight heat of Rick’s body.
Rick gasps and curses him, and then he drags Beni roughly away and flips them, forcing Beni into the sand.
“You’re gonna get yours, Beni,” he says, and Beni snorts.
“Oh, please,” he says, trying for sarcasm. Like I’ve never heard that before. Rick’s thigh rubs against him, and his voice cracks. “Please,” Beni says, wavering, “please, O’Connell,” and Rick grins like the very devil and closes his hand around Beni’s cock.
The next morning, Rick brings Beni coffee in a tin mug, stirred with enough sugar to turn him into a toothless horror. Beni spits the first mouthful onto the sand, cursing. When he straightens up, wiping at his chin, he sees Rick looking at him with a strange and somewhat unwelcome softness in his expression. Beni chokes the rest of the coffee down, staring into the black depths of the cup as he gulps, just to avoid Rick’s eyes. Not good, he thinks.
A few hours later, Jonathan discovers a sarcophagus. The mummy within reveals itself, glistening and barely decomposed, a gruesome spectacle. Beni and Evelyn scream, Beni in terror, Evelyn in delight. Rick shakes his head at them both, and also at the mummy. On the other side of the city, four diggers die in an accident involving pressurized salt acid, and the Americans find a black book and a chest.
Night falls. The desert people have warned them, have told them to leave or die. They do not leave.
The moon rises again. Jonathan mumbles in his sleep about signs and wonders upon pharaoh, about keys and gems. The Americans snore; the Egyptologist dozes. Hidden from view behind the toppled pillars, Beni crouches over Rick O’Connell’s sprawled-out body, sliding his hands up Rick’s thighs and licking the groan from his lips.
Evelyn Carnahan awakens in the darkness and smiles at the legionnaire’s blanket draped over her shoulders. Alone, sipping at a cup of strong coffee, she reads from a different book and raises the dead.
Evelyn and Rick are shouting at each other, pacing the same circle in the center of Evelyn’s cramped little bedroom within the British enclave, Fort Brydon. Rick shovels her garments into a suitcase; she shovels them right back out again onto the floor. Rick dumps her books in next, in armfuls; she removes them. Beni watches from his perch in the corner, bewildered; can’t they see they are retracing each other’s steps? Don’t they realize how much time they are wasting, enacting this comedy? His heart is still pounding, from the sight of the walking dead, from the panicked starlit flight across the desert, riding hell-for-leather, as he once heard a British cavalry officer say.3 Rick may be here, but that means nothing; nowhere is safe. The locusts and scarabs of the undead priest, and the undead priest himself, a creature no mortal weapons can kill, are even now swooping on a dark wind toward Cairo.
“When I signed on, I agreed to take you out there and to bring you back,” Rick bellows. “And I have done that. End of job, end of story. Contract terminated!”
Evelyn scowls. “Is that all I am to you? A contract?”
Beni edges toward the door.
“You can either tag along with me and Beni,” Rick shouts, “or you can stay here and try and save the world!”
Evelyn leans up, squaring her chest against Rick’s jabbing finger, and stares into his face. “I’m staying,” she says, in a voice like steel, and the bayonets reappear, sparkling briefly across the blackness of Beni’s memory, only to be erased by the wailing war cries of Tuaregs on horseback.
“Fine!” Rick is saying, as Beni’s ears stop ringing and his vision clears. “Fine!” he says again, and bangs the door shut, almost removing two of Beni’s fingers.
Evelyn sags into the chair by her desk and blows hair from her face. Her cheeks are flushed.
“That man is the utter limit,” she says, breathless and fond. “Don’t look so worried, Mr. Gabor; he’ll be back. I’m sure of it.”
Beni murmurs something noncommittal. Evelyn looks at him sharply.
They shade jealousy differently, Beni’s languages. The eyes of the monster can be green or yellow or red.4 Beni is a yellow-eyed djinn, staring down at Evelyn Carnahan, so beautiful and well-made as she reaches slender fingers toward one of her many archaeological treatises, pretty as a picture while the world crashes down around them. He excuses himself incoherently and doesn’t slam the door.
The eyes of Evelyn’s monster are also green: Mr. Henderson’s eyes, for he was the first to be devoured, alone and abandoned in the labyrinth beneath Hamunaptra.
Mr. Daniels is next. The waters of Egypt turn to blood; Jonathan quotes Scripture. The sky darkens: an eclipse. The Egyptologist dies in the market, screaming and clutching at the book that doomed him while Beni looks on in mute, trembling dread. They came to save the Egyptologist, to bring him back to the safety of the fort; they failed. The air grows thick with flies. Rick kicks the wooden shutters closed and drags Beni down the stairs from the Egyptologist’s office, which they ransacked in vain: the black book, the Book of the Dead, is in the priest’s hands now. Beni and Rick run to the street where Jonathan is waiting with the car, pursued by a pustulent mob.
“Boils and sores,” Jonathan murmurs, punching the handbrake. “My favorite plague.” They barely escape with their lives.
Fire streaks from the sky, and the fort burns. Rick piles Evelyn and Mr. Burns into the car, and they screech onward to the museum, hoping to find some answers. Instead, Evelyn’s employer reveals himself to be in collusion with the desert people who have failed to murder Beni and Rick on three separate occasions. The leader is there, too, unmasked, handsome and terrible to behold, with Death, warrior, and truth etched in blue ink across his cheekbones and forehead. They claim to be descendants of some secret order, of those who guarded the ancient pharaohs, the Medjai.
Evelyn and the curator speak in raised voices about curses and sacrifices. Beni tries to follow the interwoven threads of conversation in English and ancient Egyptian and fails. He watches the eclipse through the high octagonal window while Evelyn and Rick shout at each other some more. Then the priest, Imhotep, sends the bodies of dead and dying Egyptians pouring into the museum, and they escape in the car again, Jonathan once more at the wheel, driving like a madman down the black streets. Beni cowers in the back seat, Rick throws vicious roundhouse punches, and Evelyn goes for the eyes. The Medjai flail around with the butts of their scimitars, aiming to stun, as though they are determined to shed no more blood. Mr. Burns fights for his life, but the plague-ridden hordes of Imhotep drag him from the car and he, too, is consumed.
“The curse is complete,” intones the handsome Medjai. “It is the beginning: the beginning of the end.”
Their little car is stalled by the sheer crush of bodies. The priest comes for Evelyn, then, and with his fully regenerated hand heavy on her shoulder, meeting Rick’s horrorstruck stare, she interprets the message of her own demise: Come with me, my princess; it is time to make you mine for all eternity.
Take my hand, and I will spare your friends.
“Oh dear,” Evelyn says. Her tone is light, but her voice is trembling. “Have you got any bright ideas?”
“I’m thinking,” Rick bites out. “I’m thinking—”
“You’d better think fast,” Evelyn says. Her mouth droops. “If he turns me into a mummy, you’re the first one I’m coming after.”
“No!” Rick says, wild, going for his gun. Beni grabs his arm. “Fuck you, Beni,” Rick says, a body blow, a shot through his heart.5 “I’m not going to run away—”
“Don’t!” Evelyn says, while the handsome Medjai whispers urgently into Rick’s ear, words Beni can’t catch, and Rick snarls and holsters the pistol.
The priest shouts something, a dark and triumphant syllable. Beni doesn’t need to hear Evelyn’s scream to know what it means.
Another dark hole to hide in: this time, the miasmic mouth of the sewer at his feet. Beni launches himself in headlong and comes to a rolling stop in the muck and slime. He can hear Rick shouting above him, shouting for Evelyn, while the hordes of Imhotep shuffle closer and the Medjai struggle to hold Rick back.
Beni wants to give them all up for dead, but he stays rooted to the spot, while the sewer stinks and drips around him. Jonathan crashes down and Beni helps him to his feet. Rick comes next, trailed by the handsome Medjai; they wait a heartbeat longer, but the older one, the curator, does not follow. The herdsman rounds up the stragglers, Beni thinks, and closes his eyes.6
“Beni,” Rick’s voice says. Like a stone dropping into the center of a dark pond, it sends ripples through Beni’s mind, disturbing his brain’s careening recital of the lament for the dead.
Beni turns from him. “This way,” he says.
By the time they reach the outskirts of the city, navigating the maze of sewers, the sun has risen, banishing the priest’s creatures into the realm of dreams and nightmares. They find another car—Jonathan does something to its engine and starts it right up—and motor beyond the city limits, toward the airfield, where a fat man in a decrepit Royal Flying Corps uniform is sleeping beneath a tasseled umbrella.
He greets Rick with an enthusiasm that seems to know no bounds—until Rick explains why they are here.
“My dear boy,” the fat man says, wiping a tear from his eye, “my dear boy, you’re too late.”
Rick’s smile slips. “What do you mean, Winston?”
His plane has been destroyed, Winston explains, engulfed in a fireball from the heavens, during the same firestorm that set Fort Brydon alight the day before.
“Ashes to ashes,” Winston sighs, leading them past the still-smoldering wreckage. “If only I had been in the cockpit! We could have gone out together, the old girl and I! Oh, well, swings and roundabouts, eh, O’Connell? There are other ways, my boy, other ways.”
He shows them the dirigible in the hangar, with N U L L I S E C U N D U S emblazoned across its goldbeater’s skin in majuscule, as powerful as a spell.7
“A respectable clip at thirty-five knots,” Winston says. “Nothing like my dear departed Dinah, of course—burnt to a cinder, poor thing, poor thing!”
“Thank God for that,” Jonathan mutters, as they clamber into the gondola and Winston flips the switches, bringing the aluminum propellers roaring to life. “I thought we were going to have to strap ourselves to the wings of a bloody biplane!”
The dirigible is as old as the desert and twice as unpredictable. Several times, the steel bottom of the gondola bounces against the dunes, knocking them off their feet. Only Rick manages to keep his balance. Beni falls against him once, twice, three times, a heap of sharp elbows and knees, until Rick, exasperated, grabs him by the belt and hauls him close, ignoring Beni’s shriek of protest.
“Get off me,” Beni says, slapping at him. “Get off me, O’Connell—get off—”
“There!” Jonathan cries.
The priest and Evelyn are two tiny figures in black, straggling across the crest of a dune. Evelyn’s long waving hair has come unbound, streaming behind her liked red-gold in the harsh wind and harsher light.
“Where the hell is he taking her?” Rick says. He is no longer holding Beni by the belt; his arm is around Beni’s hips, fingers tightening as he glares over the edge of the gondola, and Beni’s hand is curled around his forearm—
“Hamunaptra,” the Medjai says. “He must return to the city of the dead in order to finish the ritual, to raise his consort from the dead.”
“Bring us down, Winston,” Rick says, and then, more urgently, as the priest turns toward them and opens his arms, opens his mouth into a roar, “bring us down—”
The sand crashes over them.
Sand in his eyes; sand in his mouth, stopping his tongue. Beni blinks into consciousness upside-down. He’s being carried over Rick’s shoulder, cheek to—cheek. Beni supposes this is better than the alternative, which would be cheek to—
His traitorous memory reminds him that he’s been there before.
“Put me down!” Beni squawks, and Rick obeys with malicious compliance, dropping him abruptly into the sand.
Three faces turn toward him as he picks himself up, spluttering and cursing: Rick’s, streaked with machine grease and blood; the handsome Medjai’s, similarly bloodied but unperturbed; and Jonathan’s, white as a ghost beneath the grime.
“Winston?” Beni says, and Rick shakes his head. “Light turned to ash,” Beni says, under his breath. The Medjai hears him; he nods, solemn.
The ruins of Hamunaptra rise before them, shimmering like water.
When a scarab tries to eat Jonathan alive from the inside out, Rick cuts it from his chest and shoots it into smithereens. When the priest raises a new wave of undead, Rick dynamites them. Beni and Jonathan scrabble in the dirt at the feet of Horus, searching for the golden book that Jonathan and the Medjai claim will have the power to destroy the priest forever.
Jonathan finds it nestled at the base of Horus’ throne. He and Beni draw back the linen wrappings.
Gold, Beni thinks, dazzled. Solid gold.
“The book of Amun-Ra!” Jonathan exclaims. "Give it here," he says, and nudges Beni out of the way. His hands are shaking. Beni sympathizes.
Behind them, Beni hears an unwelcome sound: the click-click-click of Rick’s rifle running out of ammunition. He spins around in time to meet Rick's panicked glance. The dead are still advancing. He sees Rick's throat move—click as he swallows, and—
“Right,” Rick says, squaring his shoulders, and Beni’s heart sinks. Rick thrusts his remaining pistol at Beni’s chest. “Take this."
“No,” Beni says, pushing it away. "No, O'Connell—"
“God damn it, Beni,” Rick shouts. “Don’t pretend you don’t know how to use it, you were a fucking legionnaire too! Take the gun and get out of here. Jonathan, when you get to Evy, tell her you have the golden book, she’ll know what to do—”
Jonathan is nodding, clutching the book in his arms.
“No,” Beni shouts back, voice rising high and desperate over the gurgling cries of the priest’s undead multitudes. “No, I refuse, I will not. I will not. You shit, O’Connell, you son of a dog, ostréipyge, piszkas allat, how about you carry your own damn pistol—”8
Rick’s eyes widen.
"Beni," he says.
Beni stands there, spitting with rage, chest heaving, hands curled into fists. Rick isn't trying to shove the pistol at him anymore; he stares at Beni, slack-jawed. Beni would like to count this as a victory, but the dead are looming over Rick's shoulder. This is the end for Beni. He is cursed; Rick has cursed him. They will die here together.
"Damn you, O'Connell," he says, tired.
The Medjai shoulders his way between them, drawing his scimitar as he goes.
“Go!” he says, in a deadly tone that brooks no argument. “Save the woman. Kill the creature. Go now!” He throws himself at the mass of shambling dead with a wild yell and vanishes beneath their bandaged, withered bodies.
Rick’s hand closes around Beni’s in an iron grip, squeezing to the point of pain.
“Come on!” Rick shouts.
Even when chained to a sacrificial altar, with a dagger suspended above her belly, Evelyn keeps her head. She does indeed know exactly what to do. Working in tandem, while Rick and Beni lead the priest on a merry chase around the mummification chamber, she and Jonathan read the incantation inscribed within the golden book of Amun-Ra.
Nothing happens. Rick, shouting with frustration, shoots the priest in the stomach—once, twice—
The priest grunts. He looks at them, pupils blown, blood pouring from his stomach, and staggers. Then he falls to his knees and dissipates before their eyes, skin and flesh stripping away from the bone, bone shriveling into matchsticks, into dust. Only the bullets remain. Rick reaches down and plucks them from the ground. He stares at them a moment before slipping them into his pocket.
“Bloody hell,” Jonathan says.
“Can your witchcraft tell us who will return?” Beni murmurs, as Rick stands in dumbfounded silence above the remnants of the priest’s tattered black robe. “Neither the witches nor the necromancers know—”9
“What the almighty intends,” Evelyn finishes.
They destroy the Book of the Dead, over Evelyn’s protests, burning it atop the embalming table. Evelyn and Rick bicker in a wide circle around its ashes. Evelyn wants to stay behind to examine the mummification chamber, maybe spend another night in the necropolis, or perhaps another night and day—
Rick wins this argument.
“We can always come back, old mum,” Jonathan says, consolingly, as they frog-march her to the surface. “With a proper expedition. Notebooks and tents and things. Anyway, we have our capital now, don’t we?”
The book of Amun-Ra is clasped securely in Evelyn’s arms, the barest golden sliver peeking out from beneath its linen wrapping.
To Beni's surprise, the Medjai is waiting for them in the sand outside the temple, evidently no worse for wear and grinning from ear to ear. He bows to them, still grinning madly, and bids them farewell. He walks into the desert and is soon swallowed up by the sunset.
“Oh, sure,” Jonathan says. “Just leave us here, that’s all right, then.” He shades his eyes and peers owlishly at the horizon. “Where in God’s name are we, and how do we get back to civilization? I say, Evy, any spells for teleportation in that great big golden thingamajig?"
“I’m afraid not, brother mine,” Evelyn says. “Looks like we’re walking.”
“Well, Christ,” Jonathan says. “Quick! Where’s that fellow gone? We have to follow him. Our lives may depend upon it.”
“Hey, Beni,” Rick says, slowly, and Beni turns to him. Rick is staring at him with his arms folded, head tilted to the side, his blue eyes gleaming and narrowed in thought. “How the hell’d you get out of the desert the first time, anyway?”
Something swoops in Beni's chest, a lightness that rushes through him so suddenly he feels dizzy. The feeling swells into laughter. Rick's mouth stretches into a grin to match.
“My friend," Beni says, "I thought you’d never ask.”
He leads them across the dunes, to the trading hut half buried in the sand, little more than a mile away. He stumbled across the route by accident three years ago, fainted dead across the floor of the hut and awoke to find himself surrounded by murmuring Bedouin. He exchanged his legionnaire’s pistol and a fistful of coin for a drink of water and safe passage to the city. This time, Rick offers up the entirety of his weapons kit, and the traders are more than happy to accept. Five hours later, they are seated at the tail end of a camel caravan, winding their way back toward Cairo under the stars.
Beni finds a spare room within Fort Brydon that no one wants. It’s easy enough to see why: the windows have been blown out, and the majority of the furniture is in charred splinters on the floor, save for a rickety old daybed with moldy-smelling bedlinens. But the clawfooted tub is intact, and the water runs hot when Beni turns the taps. It’ll do. He soaks in the bath as long as he can stand it, washing the dust of Hamunaptra from his skin, from his soul. Then he drags himself to the cot, still dripping wet, and sleeps for an entire day.
When he wakes up, Rick is standing in the broken doorframe, blotting out the light from the corridor.
Beni rubs his eyes, but the outlines of Rick's body don’t waver. “O’Connell?” he says, bleary.
“Seriously, Beni,” Rick says. “After everything we’ve been through, after all this time, I think you could at least try to call me Rick.”
“Prick,” Beni says instead, getting to his feet. It’s been Rick for years. Rick, Rick, Rick, the stupidest of litanies, going around and around in his brain, taking up valuable space normally reserved for verb conjugations. Conjugation, conjugal. It’s not even a name anymore, just a sound. Rick. His heart shakes his chest with the force of its frenzied beats.
“Prickly,” Rick returns, with a twinkle. “Can I come in?” he says, even though he already has and is leaning against the pockmarked plaster of the wall, arms crossed, grinning down at Beni like a maniac.
“Don’t you have a librarian you should be romancing?” Beni says. He flaps his hand. “Egyptologist, scholar, necromancer, whatever.”
“I’m a little too young for her,” Rick says.
Beni frowns. “What are you talking about?” he says.
“I got the feeling you might have been a little jealous,” Rick says. “I’m talking about Evy.”
“I don’t care,” Beni says immediately.
Rick doesn’t exactly swat him, just grips the back of his neck with his big warm hand, and Beni—Beni tingles.
“Don’t be an ass,” Rick says. “I’m trying to tell you she’s way more interested in those three-thousand-year-old dead guys than she is in me. Although she did invite me to go with her,” he adds.
“Go where?” Beni demands.
“So you do care,” Rick says, with a slow curling smile. “Beni—”
“Curse your mother’s father, O’Connell,” Beni says, “go where?”
“To England,” Rick says. “To the ancestral home of the Carnahans. They have one, apparently. Big old house on a hill. Pond, tennis court, high tea in the conservatory. Maybe even a butler. Jonathan gets the title; Evy gets the library. Sorted,” he says, in a passable imitation of Evelyn’s accent. “All thanks to you and the good book. I mean the golden one, that is, not the Bible.”
“I see,” Beni says. He doesn’t.
“I told her maybe some other time,” Rick says.
“Idiot,” Beni cries out. “This was your chance.”
“My chance for what, exactly?” Rick says. “A big empty house on a hill? In a country where it rains all goddamn year? Come on, Beni, you know me better than that.”
“So you’re going to stay,” Beni says, numb. He does know Rick better than that, and he knows that Rick won’t be happy to be trapped in Cairo—in plague-ruined Cairo, with no prospects, with the curfew and the rats and ruins—with Beni—
“Well, I don’t know about that,” Rick says. “When she comes back to dig at Hamunaptra, I’m going to go out there with her. Obviously. Someone’s gotta make sure she doesn’t raise anything else from the dead.” He runs his hand through his hair, the old nervous gesture. Beni’s throat constricts. “But I was thinking, in the meantime—if I decided to go to Alexandria, or Paris, or, hell, China—maybe you’d wanna—you know—come with me. It won’t be too comfortable—I don’t have the cash for first class. Not yet, anyway. But we’ll have each other.”
Beni stares at him.
“Why?” he manages. “Why should I?”
Rick says, “Because my Arabic is crap, and my French is shit, and I don’t speak a word of Chinese. Because you wouldn't leave me, back there in that tomb. You couldn't. Because you’re in love with me. Right?”
Get fucked, Beni should say, I am not, but there’s a lump in his throat, and all that comes out is a thin whistle of air. He can feel his face starting to crumple. He bites his lip.
“Right?” Rick repeats, soft. He looks at Beni with steady eyes—wide open eyes, unflinching, unwavering.
Rick rushes him then, bowling him over, his momentum carrying them backwards until they trip and fall into the daybed.
“Thanks for not leaving me behind this time,” Rick says. The bed groans under his weight. Beni groans too, and ruts against Rick’s hip. Rick drags him closer, hissing between his teeth. “Really—appreciate it—”
“Shut up,” Beni says, panting.
“You shut up,” Rick says. He rubs his thumb across Beni’s cheek. Beni turns his head, fervent, and kisses the palm of Rick’s hand. “Fuck, Beni—”
“Rick.” Beni grabs him around the neck, yanks him down, bites the smile on his lips.
1. From Ange Mlinko's translation of "Lament for Arbad."
2. Hayati, rouhi, mon bout d'chou. Rick has no idea what Beni's saying.
3. "Hell-for-leather" apparently also exists in American vernacular, but I've always thought of it as a British phrase. Rudyard Kipling seems to have used it a fair amount-see "Shillin' A Day," "Story of the Gadsbys"-and I first read the phrase in a novel by Anthony Price, a British writer and author of nearly twenty excellent spy stories.
4. English speakers will be familiar with the 'green-eyed monster.' Chinese: 眼红, yan3hong2 or "red eyes"/"red-eyed." In Egyptian colloquial Arabic, asfar (yellow) seems to connote jealousy. See "A Sociolinguistic Study on the Use of Color Terminology," in Diversity in Language: Contrastive Studies in English and Arabic Theoretical and Applied Linguistics (2000). Yellow also has a shit-ton of other negative connotations, implying fear or poor health-see "The Connotations of Arabic Colour Terms."
5. And you're to blame! You give love a bad name.
6. From "Lament" again.
7. Nulli secundus: Second to none. British Army Dirigible No. 1, which obviously was nowhere near Egypt—and also absolutely ineffective—but shh.
8. French: Ass-oyster.
9. Another verse from "Lament."