What readers are saying...
12 August, 30 B.C.E.
The blood was gone, washed away from Mark Antony's pale corpse. Cleopatra's attendants had bound the gaping wound of the sword with linen and fair ointments and dressed him in his finest battle armor. Only the breastplate was missing. The leather gleamed with fresh oil.
The Queen of Egypt reached out to touch her lover for the last time, her grief a hard fist clutching her heart. Why had the gods brought her to this cruel ending? Had she not built temples, made sacrifice and penance? Was she not the earthly incarnation of Isis ? Had she not been a faithful servant to the Sun God, making sure his tomb would never be defiled by the loathsome Octavian?
Her grand dream of ruling in Rome with Antony had vanished quicker than the morning mists on the Nile. Her legions had deserted her, lured away by Octavian's gold. Now she was a prisoner in her own palace, surrounded by Octavian's soldiers.
Two male attendants stood next to Antony's body, castrated slaves who had been with her for many years. The two were devoted to her. Though they appeared soft, both were strong and fit beneath the outer layers of fat.
"Finish his armor," Cleopatra said.
The eunuchs picked up the chiseled breast plate and buckled it onto the corpse. For the last time, she watched them tighten the straps holding the armor in place. It had to be done, though the body was only an empty shell. Anthony's sensual, warrior spirit had fled to the realm of Anubis. Soon she would join him.
Octavian had promised not to violate Antony's corpse. He'd agreed to let them be buried together, but Cleopatra knew he lied. Her spies had told her the truth. He was going to slowly him strangle her after parading her in a golden cage before the jeering crowds of Rome, then burn both their bodies and scatter the ashes into the sea.
Octavian had sent his man Epaphroditus to watch over her, fearing she would kill herself before he could bring her to Rome. It hadn't been difficult to make Epaphroditus believe she was resigned to her fate. She'd convinced him that she hoped to win over Octavian with her famous sexual charms. The man was child's play for the woman who'd seduced Julius Caesar. He'd left her alone with her servants, satisfying himself by posting guards outside her chambers.
Epaphroditus was a fool. He knew nothing of the secret passage that emerged far beyond the ring of soldiers Octavian had placed around her palace.
A dark-haired woman waited nearby, dressed in diaphanous green silks. She was Cleopatra's favorite attendant and occasional lover. Her name was Artemisia.
The wide bed she'd shared so many times with Antony beckoned, the soft cushions and cool sheets indifferent to the harsh reality of her defeat. The bed would no longer know the cries of their passion, but it could serve a final purpose.
As she crossed the room, Cleopatra paused before a mirror of polished brass. She brushed a curl of black hair away from her eyes, casting a final, critical glance at the pale robes of silk that adorned her. One last look at the body that had driven Rome's most powerful men out of their senses with lust.
"Artemisia, is everything prepared for the journey? You know what to do?"
"Yes, Mistress. Everything is ready, as we planned."
"The slave has been prepared?"
"Yes, my queen. It is astounding. If I did not know better, I would swear she was you."
"Did she suspect her fate?"
"No, Mistress, she suspected nothing. She died peacefully."
"Come close, Artemisia. A final kiss."
Artemisia came to Cleopatra's bedside. They held each other for a lingering, last embrace.
"Bring the cup."
Cleopatra's voice was firm. "Bring it. Now."
"And the basket."
Cleopatra lay back against the cushions.
Artemisia returned with a covered basket in one hand and a jeweled goblet in the other. She set the basket down on a table by the bedside.
"The mixture is as I asked?"
"Yes, Mistress. The essence of poppies, hemlock, and the purple flowers from the mountains of Galicia."
Tears ran down Artemisia's face. Cleopatra took her hand, a gentle touch.
"Shhh, don't weep. We all make the journey to the lair of Anubis. You are my sweet companion, Artemisia. We will meet again in the afterlife."
"You must leave within the hour."
"Yes, Mistress. I know."
Cleopatra picked up the cup, held it to her lips. She paused, then drained it. Within seconds she felt the mixture begin its deadly work. She reached for the basket, before the potent drink rendered her unable to move. She lifted the lid and stuck her hand and arm inside, then gasped as she felt a sharp, deep bite. A venomous cobra clung to her by its fangs as she pulled her arm from the basket.
The women in the room cried out in fear. The two eunuchs went to their knees and covered their faces.
Cleopatra lay back and closed her eyes. She had to make sure nothing could bring her back. The bite of the cobra was always fatal, but it was a painful, unpleasant end, one that would disturb her beauty. The mixture she'd drunk ensured a painless death. There would be no ugly contortions, no rigid paralysis.
A terrible feeling of helplessness swept over her as the poisons took effect. Her heart hammered in her chest. It felt as though the world was dropping away beneath her. For just a moment, she felt uncontrolled fear.
"Antony," she said.
The light faded. Minutes later, the Queen of Kings was dead.
Professor Lewis Freeman turned on the lights and emitted a long sigh as he took in the dusty chaos of the storeroom. Rows of shelves filled with relics from ancient Egypt lined the walls. This was one of many similar rooms in New York's Natural History Museum, where objects deemed unsuitable for display were deposited and forgotten. The museum's twenty-five buildings sprawled over four city blocks. No one knew how many artifacts it contained. Over the years, many strange and rare things had been forgotten in rooms like this.
Freeman was collecting research for an academic paper about Egyptian influence on Roman arts and culture during the time of Octavian. He was hunting for a papyrus describing trade between Alexandria and Rome. It was supposed to be somewhere in this room.
Many of the objects on the shelves were damaged. Others were common and of little importance. That explained why they had ended up here, deep in the bowels of the museum. A thick coating of dust lay over everything. No one had been here in years.
Freeman knew the papyrus was stored in a wooden box, but that didn't help much. There were a lot of wooden boxes on the shelves. Compounding the problem, many of the labels identifying contents had faded over the years. Some were illegible. Freeman could eliminate a few boxes by size and shape, but that still left hundreds of possibilities.
He rolled up his sleeves and began the search. Working methodically, he would take a box from the shelves to a worktable, open it, and look through the contents. Two hours later, he still hadn't found what he was looking for.
It was hot and stuffy in the confined space. Freeman sneezed. The fluorescent lights overhead illuminated millions of motes of dust floating in the air. He sneezed again.
He'd worked his way about halfway down one side of the room when he saw a plain, narrow box that was about the right size. It had been pushed behind a damaged bust of one of the pharaohs. Freeman moved the bust to the side and lifted the box away from the shelf. The label identifying the contents was gone. The box itself appeared to be made of dark walnut. The lid was hinged and fastened down by two brass hooks. The construction of the box suggested it had been manufactured sometime in the nineteenth century.
Freeman brought the box to the worktable and set it down, pushed back the hooks and lifted the lid. Inside was a papyrus scroll. A faint, dry odor of age rose from within. Faded writing in ancient Greek was visible. A sense of satisfaction rippled through him.
This must be it. The writing is from the right time period.
Freeman closed the lid. This wasn't the place to unwind the fragile document. He'd have to take it upstairs to his laboratory, where Kalima would help him with the delicate task.
His research assistant was more than another pretty intern working on her doctoral dissertation. She had a sharp mind and the gift of making him feel that his dry, academic world was important and meaningful.
He sneezed again and left the room with the box under his arm, unaware that he had just guaranteed himself an early and unpleasant death.
Elizabeth Harker was at her desk, reading an article about China's push to 5G technology. She was a small woman, barely five feet tall. Her heart-shaped face and milk-white skin gave her an elfin look, accentuated by small, almost pointed ears. An emerald brooch pinned on her black suit jacket matched the brilliant green of her cat-like eyes. She looked up as Nick Carter and Selena Connor came into her office.
Nick's light weight gray sport jacket hung loose over the shoulder holster he favored. Selena had dressed in a dark blue sweater, denim jeans, and high black boots. The sweater brought out the odd violet color of her eyes.
"Morning, Director," Nick said.
Selena reached up to brush a wisp of hair away from her eyes and sat down next to Nick on a long leather couch positioned in front of Elizabeth's desk. A huge, orange tomcat jumped up onto her lap and began purring. The cat was enormous. He had a tattered ear and one long tooth in front. When he purred, it sounded like the rumble of a small engine.
"Burps is drooling again," Nick said.
"They're my old jeans. It doesn't matter. Does it, Burps? We don't care if you drool, do we?"
She scratched the cat under his chin. The rumble got louder. Burps had been with them since Nick and Selena had gotten together. The cat had once saved their lives, distracting an enemy who'd come to kill them. His reward was a life of protected luxury as an honorary member of the team.
For many years Elizabeth Harker had headed up the Project, a covert counter terrorism unit formed under the previous president. The new man in the White House wanted no responsibility for operations that might come back to haunt him if they became public. Not long after he'd been elected, President Hopkins had found an excuse to disband the unit.
No responsibility, but Hopkins wasn't above finding ways to take advantage of the team's expertise without exposing himself to the consequences if something went wrong. He knew Elizabeth's sense of duty would never let her refuse a request from the White House when it involved national security. He would route the request through the CIA, passing responsibility onto Langley. Elizabeth had little respect for Hopkins, but country came first.
When the Project lost its official status, she'd formed the Harker Group. To outward appearances the group was a security consulting firm, but not a lot had changed. Things remained much the same as they'd been before. The difference was that without the protection of a presidential shield, she'd become more cautious about the kind of assignments she'd take on.
The successes of her team were known within a limited circle of influential people. People came to her with situations that required extreme discretion and specialized expertise.
Sometimes clients needed something simple and refreshingly safe, like the request that had come across her desk the day before. For once it looked like no one was going to get shot at or blown up. That seemed to happen with annoying regularity whenever they took something on.
"We have a new client," Elizabeth said. "Someone who needs Selena's help. He's a professor in charge of the Egyptology department at the Natural History Museum in New York. His name is Lewis Freeman. Freeman has a papyrus scroll he wants Selena to translate. Apparently it's written in a combination of ancient Greek and hieroglyphics."
"There are a lot of people who can read ancient Greek and hieroglyphics that live in New York," Selena said. "Why me?"
"Freeman has ties to Langley. He knows about you from your academic reputation and he knows about us through his connections to the intelligence community."
"That still doesn't answer Selena's question," Nick said. "Every time someone wants her to translate something, people start shooting at us."
"You're being paranoid, Nick," Elizabeth said. "This man is an academic. He's not going to start shooting at you."
"Maybe not, but I still don't get why he wants us involved. Not if there are other people who could translate it for him."
Elizabeth looked at her watch. "We'll find out soon. He'll be here in about half an hour."
"You said he has ties to Langley. How about calling Hood and asking about him? How often does a professor turn out to be a spy?"
"We don't know he's a spy. If it makes you feel better, I'll call Clarence and see what I can find out."
"That's all I ask," Nick said. He turned to Selena. "Want to shoot a game while we're waiting?"
A regulation pool table stood in the library, off to the right of Elizabeth's office. They'd lost their former headquarters when the president shut them down. Selena had funded the acquisition of a restored federal mansion near Washington, situated on twenty acres of prime Virginia countryside. They'd taken to calling it Virginia House.
"You're on," Selena said.
Elizabeth watched them get up and go into the other room. She'd never had children. What she did have was Nick and Selena and the rest of the team.
They were all the family she needed.
Professor Lewis Freeman was in his early fifties. His glasses were round, rimmed with gold. They had smudges on them. He was going bald, his scalp encircled with a wreath of wispy brown hair turning gray. He wore a gray jacket with leather patches on the elbows, navy blue trousers, and heavy black shoes. Overall, he was the kind of man people tended to forget soon after they'd met him.
Freeman carried a long, rectangular package wrapped in brown paper. He clutched it to him.
"Thank you for seeing me on such short notice."
"My pleasure," Elizabeth said.
She introduced him to Nick and Selena.
"Doctor Connor, I've been looking forward to meeting you," Freeman said. "The article you wrote for the Egyptology Journal on the evolution of demotic writing a few years ago was most enlightening. When I saw what was on the scroll, I thought of you immediately."
"I'm flattered, professor, but frankly I'm not sure why you sought us out. From what you told Director Harker, there should be people in New York capable of translating the scroll for you."
"I didn't want to reveal what I'd discovered over the phone," Freeman said. "I'm familiar enough with Middle Demotic and hieroglyphics to make a good stab at translation. But this scroll is different. I think when you see it you'll understand why I wanted a second opinion. There's a section I have been unable to translate with any success. I suspect it may be written in code. I've been told that you and your friends might be able to decipher it."
The Langley connection, Nick thought.
"I see. Shall we take a look at it?"
"Certainly." He looked around the room, then at Elizabeth. He held up the package.
"May I put this on your desk?"
"Be my guest," Elizabeth said.
Freeman took the package to Elizabeth's desk. He unwrapped it, revealing the papyrus scroll, framed under glass. It was about three feet long and in good condition. Only the edges showed signs of damage.
Selena and Nick went over to look.
"Looks like something my doctor wrote," Nick said.
Selena laughed. "That's Middle Demotic. It was used in Egypt up to about the time the Romans took over. The rest is in traditional logographic hieroglyphs. Those were mostly used for religious purposes."
"So, what does it say?"
Selena bent down and began reading.
"Oh, my," she said.
"I thought you'd find it interesting, Doctor Connor," Freeman said. He was smiling, barely able to suppress his excitement.
"That's an understatement. Do you realize what you have here, professor?"
"If it's not a fake, it's an astounding document."
"Do you have any reason to think it's a fake?"
"Not necessarily. I found this in one of the storerooms the museum uses as a dumping ground. I was searching for another scroll to assist me with a paper I'm working on and found this one wrapped inside it. The things in that room are considered to be of low value. There's no record of the exact date when it was placed there, but it was definitely back in the nineteenth or early twentieth century. I suppose it could be a forgery, but in my opinion it's genuine."
"I agree, it appears to be genuine," Selena said.
"What does it say?" Nick asked.
"It's an eyewitness account of the death of Cleopatra."
"Cleopatra? As in Antony and Cleopatra? Queen of Egypt?"
"The same. The writer identifies herself as Artemisia and claims to have been a companion to Cleopatra."
"I remember that she let herself be bitten by a snake," Nick said. "But why did Cleopatra kill herself?"
"Because she lost a war with Octavian, the man who became Emperor Augustus," Selena said. "Antony and Octavian were part of a three man alliance that ruled Rome, called the triumvirate. The third man was Lepidus. He ended up in exile when his legions deserted him. Antony and Octavian both wanted to rule alone. Antony went to war with Octavian and Cleopatra backed him. Octavian defeated him in a decisive naval engagement called the Battle of Actium."
"What happened after that?"
"Antony fled to Egypt and his lover. A year later, Octavian landed his legions and surrounded Cleopatra's palace. They both committed suicide."
Selena looked at Professor Freeman, then the others.
"If it's genuine, this papyrus is priceless. There aren't any eyewitness accounts of Cleopatra's death. What we know comes from accounts by Greek historians like Strabo and Plutarch. The main events are known, but not the details. There have been a lot of different descriptions of what happened. Most of them say she killed herself by holding an asp to her breast."
"What does the papyrus say?" Elizabeth asked.
"My demotic is a little rusty, but this is pretty straightforward."
Selena began reading, pausing from time to time as she considered the meaning.
"The person who wrote this identifies herself as Artemisia, a companion of Cleopatra. She says that she will soon join Cleopatra in the afterlife, now that her mistress has gone to the lair of Anubis."
"Anubis?" Nick said.
"Anubis was the god of the underworld who watched over the dead. He had the body of a man and the head of a wolf. Sometimes he just looks like a wolf."
"Keep reading," Elizabeth said.
"She describes Cleopatra finding Antony lying in his blood and her cries of grief. She says Antony had been deceived by false friends, who told him Cleopatra had already killed herself and left him behind."
"That's cold," Elizabeth said. "Go on, Selena."
"Cleopatra ordered her slaves to bring Antony's body to her bedchamber."
Selena paused, studying the ancient writing.
"This is where there's a description of Cleopatra's death. Artemisia prepared a mixture for Cleopatra to drink. Let's see…composed of essence of poppies and hemlock, plus something else."
She traced the script with her finger. "Blue flowers from Galicia. That's in Spain. It might be something like deadly nightshade."
"Hell of a cocktail," Nick said. "What about the snake?"
"That's next," Selena said. "Artemisia describes it. From what she says, it was probably a cobra, not an asp. It looks like the snake part of the story is true, except Artemisia says the snake bit Cleopatra on the arm, not her breast."
"She drank the mixture and let herself be bitten by a poisonous snake?"
"She was determined to die," Selena said. "Between the drink and the snake, she would've been dead in minutes. The essence of poppies is opium. It would have dulled the pain, but it couldn't have been pleasant. Not a death I would choose."
"What a story," Elizabeth said. "It's got it all. A doomed, passionate romance, war and treachery, an empire at stake, then a double suicide by the lovers. It would be hard to make up something like that."
"Even if she hadn't lost Antony, she would have killed herself," Selena said. "Octavian was going to parade her in a cage through the streets of Rome. It's inconceivable she would have allowed herself to be humiliated like that."
Selena looked down at the ancient scroll.
"Artemisia ends her story by condemning Antony for the whole thing. I get the impression she was in love with Cleopatra."
"That would explain why she'd blame him," Nick said.
"Cleopatra was just as responsible as he was," Selena said. "She was the one who funded his war with Octavian."
"What happened to her body?"
"According to reports from the time, Octavian had her cremated, along with Antony."
"That war must have been expensive. Legions, ships, all that," Nick said.
"Very expensive. It was money that kept the legions loyal. There's more here on the scroll, but I can't read it."
"That's the reason I wanted you to look at this," Freeman said.
Selena scanned the ancient papyrus. "I've seen something like this before. I think it's a substitution code."
"What does it say?" Nick asked.
"Well, I don't know, do I? I can't read it yet."
Elizabeth stifled a laugh.
Selena said, "Elizabeth, can I have a piece of paper, please?"
Elizabeth passed her the paper. Selena took out a pen, looked at the parchment, wrote something down, looked again. She made another note.
"I was right. It's a substitution code. Give me a few minutes and we'll know what it says."
They watched in silence as she worked. Freeman was about to say something, but Elizabeth gestured for him to be silent. After a few minutes Selena looked up at them.
"This is really something. According to this, Artemisia substituted the body of a slave for the body of Cleopatra. That's who Octavian must have burned with Antony."
"A double? What happened to Cleopatra?" Nick said.
"Artemisia secretly moved her body to the tomb of the Sun God."
"The Sun God? Who the hell is that?" Nick said.
"It could be Ra. He was the sun god in Egyptian cosmology. Or it could be Osiris. Sometimes Osiris and Ra are the same in Egyptian mythology. But I think she means Alexander the Great."
"What makes you draw that conclusion, Doctor Connor?" Freeman said.
"Ra and Osiris are gods. They're pictured everywhere in ancient Egypt, but they don't have tombs. Think about your Egyptian history, professor. Cleopatra was the last Pharaoh of the Ptolemaic dynasty. Ptolemy I was one of Alexander's generals, the founder of the dynasty. Alexander's body was being transported back to Macedonia for burial, but Ptolemy intercepted the procession it and took it to Egypt. He's supposed to have built Alexander's tomb in Memphis. Later it was said the body was moved to Alexandria. Cleopatra knew where it was. That's where she got the gold to fund her war with Octavian."
"Oh," Freeman said. "I see where you're going."
"Ptolemy needed to get the people's support for his rule as Pharaoh. He started a cult that worshiped Alexander as a God," Selena said. "Cleopatra was a Ptolemy, the last of the dynasty. She was high priestess of the cult."
"So?" Nick said.
"Alexander was called the Sun God."
"You think Cleopatra is buried in the same place as Alexander the great?" Nick asked.
Selena nodded. "That's the logical conclusion, according to this scroll. If this is authentic, it changes history. It will rock the archaeological world."
"I think that's an understatement," Freeman said.
"You are going to be famous, Professor," Selena said.
"Why would the woman who wrote this move Cleopatra's body?" Nick asked.
"Artemisia was her devoted companion. Cleopatra would have told her what to do. She wanted to avoid Octavian's treachery and be buried, and she would have wanted to prevent desecration of her tomb. Remember, this is Egypt two thousand years ago. Tomb robbing was almost a profession. Most of the pharaohs' tombs were broken into and robbed within a few years after they were sealed. Having her body moved to a secret location could have been an effort to protect her from the same fate."
"Why Alexander's tomb?"
"I suppose because he's the sun god and she's his high priestess. Cleopatra was supposed to be an incarnation of Isis. She probably thought she deserved to be buried with him. Two gods, hanging out for eternity."
"With a secret like that, why write it down? It's in code, but codes can be broken. You just proved that."
"There's no way to know what was in Artemisia's mind," Selena said. "Perhaps she wanted a bit of immortality for herself. Or she felt the story wasn't complete without putting it down in writing."
"What about the part that's in hieroglyphics?" Elizabeth said.
"I can't read that yet. I think it's in code as well."
"Another code? Why use a different one?"
"No one has ever found Alexander's tomb. Accounts from the time conflict with one another. No one even knows if Alexander was actually buried in Egypt. A lot of people think his tomb is somewhere in Macedonia. I'm thinking that this section in hieroglyphics might hold clues to the real location."
Professor Freeman looked shocked.
"Oh, my," he said. He opened his mouth to say something else and closed it again.
"I suppose it would be a big deal if it were found," Nick said.
"Oh, yes," Selena said. "More than a big deal. It would rank as one of the great archaeological discoveries in history."
"Do you think you can figure it out?" Elizabeth said.
"Probably. I'll have to study it."
Selena frowned as she looked at the hieroglyphs at the end of the scroll.
"Individually, the glyphs are easy to understand. But the way they're arranged makes no sense."
"That was the conclusion I came to as well," Professor Freeman said.
"Do you know anything about the origin of the scroll, professor?"
"The museum inventory notes an anonymous donation of one Egyptian scroll describing trade exchanges between Alexandria and Rome, contained within a wooden box made of walnut. That would be the scroll I was looking for and the box I found it in. This second scroll was wrapped up inside it."
"Not much help," Nick said.
"No, it's not," Selena said. "Professor, can you leave this with me? I'd like to spend some time studying it."
"Of course, Doctor Connor. It's why I brought it. There's something about the original of an ancient document that isn't conveyed in a copy."
Selena nodded. "I feel the same way. You have copies, of course?"
"I do. I made them before I came down." Freeman looked uneasy. "Ah, will there be a fee for your services? I'm sure the museum will be happy to pay you for your time."
Selena glanced at Elizabeth. "I don't think that will be necessary, professor. It's a privilege to work with something like this."
Elizabeth looked like she was about to say something and then changed her mind.
Freeman looked relieved. "Thank you, I do appreciate that. My budget is somewhat overextended at the moment, and accounting is being difficult."
"Professor, have you told anyone about your find?" Elizabeth asked.
"Only my research assistant, Kalima. I wanted to try and get a full translation and authenticate the scroll before I announced the discovery to the world."
"I think that's a wise course of action," Selena said. "If it does contain the location of Alexander's tomb, it's better not to mention it at this point."
Freeman looked at his watch. "I'd best be going. If I leave now, I can make the early afternoon train back to the city."
"How shall I get in touch when I have something?" Selena said.
Freeman took a business card from his pocket. He wrote two numbers on the back.
"Here's my card. That's my cell and my home phone on the back. In the meantime, I'll continue to work with the scroll as well."
Selena smiled. "Between us, we're bound to come up with something."
After he'd left, Elizabeth looked at Selena.
"You were pretty quick to tell him there was no fee."
"I didn't think it was that important. You heard what he said about his budget."
"Still, it would be nice if we could turn a profit and not rely on your generosity," Elizabeth said.
"You know I have more than enough money. What else am I going to do with it? At least this way I'm contributing to the body of knowledge. Besides, it's a challenge."