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The Museum Mystery: Fiftyseven

...“Hathor has denied you the satisfaction of taking us alive, Waheeb. You have hunted us a lifetime. It became your obsession. But mortal lives are very short, worthless and you’ve achieved nothing. We have everything, for our time is yet to come.”...

Inspector Hartley and his Egyptian colleague finally confront Whitcliff in the temple chamber.

John Waddington-Feather's novel moves towards a dramatic conclusion.

It was midnight when they set out. A cloudless night with the sky like velvet. Stars studded the sky thickly, glittering like Hartley had never seen before. The moon, the merest fingernail crescent, hung cradled in a necklace of light, which swung from one horn to the other. All the light came from the stars. Their intensity was incredible.

They went on foot to the entrance, keeping to the shadows and moving stealthily across desert behind the main ruins. They had difficulty finding it at first. The mouth was overhung with dense creeper and when they pulled it aside there seemed only a solid face of rock. Waheeb looked at his map.

Like the vault at Pithon Hall, a hidden catch operated a slab of stone at the entrance. It slid back and a long low tunnel faced them. As in the temple, the walls were carved with figures of the gods, sentinels staring down at every step. Animal and bird-headed deities, which fixed them with beady evil eyes.
The tunnel was long. A mile at least. The air thick was with dust at the entrance, but as they penetrated deeper a current of clearer air came up to meet them and they began to smell incense. The same smell Hartley had noticed in Kathy Burton’s flat, and the first thing he saw as he peered with Colonel Waheeb through the observation opening were the same black candles on the altar. But neither of them expected what they saw next.

The whole chamber was richly furnished with furniture and vessels of gold. The floor was a colourful mosaic of arcane patterns in marble. The ceiling was inlaid with jewels which glittered like the stars outside. Behind the altar was a huge granite statue of Hathor. Treasures like those of Tutankhamen’s tomb were there. So were long rows of sarcophagi, ranged round the chamber like they’d seen on the wall-carvings, and like those they held the mummified remains of women sacrificed for centuries to Hathor. But the one nearest the altar completing the row stood open, empty, awaiting some final rite, it seemed.

Most amazing of all were the silent priests seated before the altar, behind which sat the high priest. Motionless like the rest, his head was bowed. One priest had slipped from his chair to the floor. He lay sprawled, still. They were all dead!
They were still staring fascinated, when the figure before the altar raised his head and called out in a hollow voice. It was Jason Whitcliff! He looked ghastly, all colour drained from his swarthy face. His voice was faint, quite different from the confident, truimphant voice of their last encounter.

“Welcome, Colonel Waheeb. Welcome, Inspector Hartley,” he said slowly. “Why don’t you join me while there’s still time…before I enter the company of the blessed. You’re quite safe. I assure you. There’s a small door to your left…at the end of the corridor. It will let you in to the main chamber here. Only hurry. There isn’t much time.”

Waheeb pulled out a pistol from his pocket and they made their way to the end of the corridor. The door was stiff. It hadn’t been opened in ages, and needed their combined weight to force it. Beyond was a flight of steps leading down into the temple chamber.

They descended warily keeping their eyes skinned all the way. But nothing stirred. Only the eerie flickerings and sputterings of the candles in the sconces on the walls and altar gave any movement or noise.

They had to pass the silent lines of priests to reach Whitcliff. They were all dead, and by each was an empty gold chalice. They’d been poisoned. Whitcliff still held his, though he’d consumed its contents. He watched them in silence all the way. Not until they’d reached him did he speak again.

“So Dr Saniyya Misha didn’t come?” he began. He nodded to the empty sarcophagi to his left. “We’d prepared for her. She was to complete the retinue of Hathor. But that must wait now. You’ll recognise the divine princess.” He stared at the coffin next to the empty one. It was the mummy from Keighworth Museum. Hartley nodded. Whitcliff smiled weakly.

“I knew you’d come,” said Whitcliff. “That’s why I delayed joining my brother priests.” He smiled wanly and pointed to Waheeb’s pistol. “You can put that toy away, colonel. You’re quite safe among the dead.” He began to breathe in shallow gasps, and clutched his chest. When he spoke again it was more rapidly.

“Hathor has denied you the satisfaction of taking us alive, Waheeb. You have hunted us a lifetime. It became your obsession. But mortal lives are very short, worthless and you’ve achieved nothing. We have everything, for our time is yet to come.” He paused for breath. “You were both recognised today. We could have taken you when we wished. Dr Misha, too…”

“But it didn’t quite work out like that, did it?” interrupted Hartley. “Your gods let you down, Whitcliff. Our God didn’t.”

Whitcliff ignored him. Life was slipping away, fast. “Killing you would merely have led to the desecration of this temple, Hathor’s sanctuary. Imagine what would have happened had your men stormed this holy place. Worse than grave-robbers. Its sanctity would have been violated.”

“Sanctified for what?” said Hartley. “Death?”

For a moment anger flickered in the other’s eyes. “No! Life! Life! The only life. Life beyond this one in eternity. Life with the gods. But my time here is short. I have something to ask of you…as religious men who value the past…”

“What?” asked Colonel Waheeb.

“A pledge. A pledge for sparing Saniyya Misha’s life. Oh, yes, we rumbled her. But she was to be destined for higher things here.” He nodded again at the empty coffin.

“So?” said Waheeb.

“I want you to leave us as you found us. In peace. Undisturbed. You will be well rewarded by the gods. Look around you, Waheeb. Look around you, Hartley. Here is all you have cherished. The past. And the future. Do you really want all this to be violated? To be taken apart and housed on display for the vulgar to see. Are there not enough spoils already taken for the so-called experts to squabble over and the greedy to covet? Keep faith with us and you will be the last of mortal men to see this…standing in the presence of the gods.”

A dull rumble echoed down the tunnel startling them. The candles and sconces began to splutter and go out in a strange wind which blew through the chamber. In the growing darkness, Whitcliff’s eyes seemed to blaze as he stared at Hartley, but the inspector held his gaze unflinchingly. As he looked on him, he began to feel pity for the dying man.

“You die as sick in spirit as in mind, Jason Whitcliff. I commend your soul to Almighty God,” he said quietly.

“To Allah, the All-merciful,” echoed Waheeb.

And even as they spoke the light faded from Whitcliff’s eyes. His head lolled forward and he keeled over in his chair, dead, propped against the high arm-rests. The afuet he wore fell off and as it hit the marble floor, the gold cobra on it broke in two.
Another loud rumble roared down the tunnel and rolled round and round the chamber. A rush of wind blew out the candles on the altar and one by one the sconces started to go out. The room was filled with thick smoke and would soon be in darkness.

“Let’s get out of here while we can still see,” said Mordecai Waheeb. Hartley agreed. He was shivering and found himself praying silently.

They hurried back the way they’d come. At the entrance, Mordecai Waheeb slid the heavy stone neatly into place. To all intents it was again part of the rock-face. The two stood silently a while gazing into the night and at the silhouettes around the temple site. It was deserted now. Gone were the guards and beggars.

The night was fresh after the choking atmosphere they’d just left. They spoke of the thunder they’d heard. Wondered where it had come from. Doubtless there was an answer but it was a mystery they never solved. And they left another for the future.

“Just think,” mused Inspector Hartley as they walked back to their car, “if ever they uncover that place, I wonder what they’ll make of it. Whitcliff and the others sat waiting the final call. Not to mention a Pharaoic mummy with a twentieth century homing device still ticking away inside!”


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