Houston, Texas – June 17th, 2004
The hotel lobby was quiet, mostly deserted except for the desk clerks and one jet-lagged businessman hunched over his laptop in a far corner of the lounge. The bartender was wiping down the tables in the lounge, preparing to close, when three very late arrivals came in the front doors, hauling their luggage behind them.
Diane looked around at the spacious hotel lobby, the vaguely Texas-themed decor, the scattered leather sofas, tables, and carefully cultivated greenery. “Your contact lives in a Hilton hotel?”
“Well, no, he doesn’t live here,” Charles explained. “Actually he lives in Hong Kong, but as luck would have it, he happens to be in Houston on some business, so he asked if we could meet him here. Splitting the difference, as it were.”
“Technically speaking, halfway between Madison and Hong Kong would be more like Hawaii,” TJ felt obliged to point out. “But I don’t think the department’s travel budget would go that far.”
“Sadly, no,” Charles agreed. “Ah, there he is. Right on time.”
The two graduate students looked across the lobby to the man approaching them from the bank of elevators. He was of average height, middle aged, wearing a well-tailored suit in dark green. But what set him apart was his hair, red-brown and oddly long, combed back away from his pale face. Too long for an ordinary businessman, Diane thought, although a wealthy collector and broker in arts and antiquities might tend towards the eccentric side. And from his pallor, he certainly didn’t look like he did much actual field work.
He offered a polite little smile as he approached them, and held out his hand to Charles. “Dr. Hewitt. Good evening, it’s been far too long.”
Charles’s smile was much broader and more open, as he shook the outstretched hand with great enthusiasm. “Mr. Copperfield, a pleasure to see you again. So kind of you to make time in your schedule—oh, let me introduce my graduate assistants—“
Copperfield held up his hand. “A moment—if you don’t mind, let’s not do our business in the lobby. I’ve a private suite reserved upstairs, then we can observe all the proprieties.”
“Oh. Of course, as you prefer—do lead on.” Charles picked up his carry-on bag again, and the extended handle of his suitcase. The carry-on was heavy, but he hadn’t let it get out of his reach during their entire trip. Given what it contained, Diane certainly didn’t blame him.
Diane and TJ fell in behind their professor as he followed their host back towards the elevators, pulling their own luggage behind them. Diane checked her watch and did her best to suppress a yawn. She already knew Dr. Hewitt was a night owl, but clearly Copperfield was worse, if he was the one setting the time of this meeting. Who the hell scheduled professional consultations at three-fifteen in the morning? There had better be coffee, that’s all I can say.
Mr. Copperfield led them to a corner suite on the 18th floor. He unlocked the door, and flipped on the light switch. “Fiat lux,” he said, dryly. “Come in and be welcome.”
Diane smiled. At least he seemed to have a sense of humor.
“Now,” Copperfield said, after he carefully closed and locked the door behind them. “Would you be so kind as to introduce me to these young assistants of yours—“
“Oh. Yes, of course—“ Charles laid his free hand on TJ’s shoulder, who happened to be closest. “This is Thomas Greer, and Ms. Diane Webster—they’re my graduate assistants this term.”
Handshakes were exchanged. Diane noticed that Copperfield seemed to be gentler with her hand than with TJ’s. She was also gratified to see that their host had not only provided a generous assortment of muffins and pastries, but there was also a pot of hot coffee ready to pour, as well as hot water for tea.
“So,” Copperfield continued, as they settled with the beverages and muffins around the table, “before we begin, perhaps you could tell me what studies Ms. Webster and Mr. Greer are pursuing—have you managed to seduce them into Egyptology, or—?”
“Well, Ms. Webster is working on a masters’ degree in archaeology, specializing in ancient Middle-Eastern Cultures—the Fertile Crescent, Babylon, and so on, though she’s also quite knowledgeable in Ancient Egypt as well,” Charles replied. “And Mr. Greer is our is our archaeological engineering specialist, and he’s currently researching for his dissertation on Egyptian architectural engineering.”
He smiled at them, proudly. “Meanwhile, they’re also helping me keep my schedule straight and carry my luggage, with first dibs on getting to dust anything I discover.”
“Archeology and architecture?” Copperfield echoed. “You’ll have to excuse me, I’m not on the dusty end of the business….”
TJ had started buttering a muffin, but he put it down quickly enough at the chance to talk shop. “It’s figuring out how they built it, based on the archaeological evidence present at a work site,” he said. “Tools, signs of rope marks, footprints in the sand, places where scaffolding was built and so on. How the stone was moved, and how far away the quarries were, which tells us a great deal about the level of transportation networks, and—“
“That’s enough for now, Thomas—“ Charles interjected, before their host’s eyes had a chance to glaze over. Diane smiled. She knew only too well how long TJ could talk once he got started on something he was really interested in.
“Yes, I think I see the basic idea. It sounds fascinating,” Mr. Copperfield agreed. “Still, the professor is right to bring us back to…well, to our business.” He glanced over at Charles. “And I confess, I am very interested in seeing this script you mentioned.”
Charles set his tea aside, and lifted the carry-on bag up to the table. “Well. Perhaps I should first show you the catalog images,” he began. “Diane, if you would be so kind—“
Diane unzipped the side pocket of her suitcase and brought out a pair of folders, passing one to Mr. Copperfield, and opening the other on the table between herself and Dr. Hewitt.
“As part of the mummification rites as practiced in the New Kingdom period,” Diane explained, “the internal organs of the deceased, the liver, lungs, stomach and intestines, were removed and placed in four canopic jars. Each jar was dedicated to one of the four Sons of Horus, and the lid for each jar had the appropriate god’s head. Those four jars were then sealed and placed in a specially designed chest, which was buried in the main tomb chamber along with the sarcophagus.”
“The liver, lungs, stomach and intestines—“ Mr. Copperfield opened the folder, which contained a series of large 8-by-10 photographs in protective plastic sleeves. The first sleeve held a series of generic line drawings showing the four canopic jars and the chest they were typically stored in. “What about the heart? Didn’t that go in something too?”
“No,” Charles replied. “The Egyptians believed the heart was the source of thought and emotions, where the soul itself was centered. That was left in the body, protected by scarab charms, so it could be weighed on the scales of Ma’at—the Egyptian version of final judgment. But it was necessary to have the organs preserved in the jars, so the deceased would have them to use in Du’at, the afterlife, for eating and drinking, and so on.”
Copperfield turned to the next page; this photo was of the alabaster chest, on which the figures of Egyptian goddesses and hieroglyphic writing can be just made out. “So this is the canopic chest you were telling me about?”
“Yes,” Charles nodded. “It’s a fake—that is, it’s a very skillfully made replica of what a real chest would look like, but it only dates back to the 1920s. I knew it was a replica when I purchased it, of course. But it is still a work of art in itself, and very well done—useful as an example to show aspiring Egyptologists. However, when we opened it up and took a better look at the jars themselves, we discovered something very unusual. Three of the jars are replicas; they are a good match for the alabaster of the chest itself, and can be dated to the same time period.
“However, the fourth jar—the Imseti jar of the set—was different. As you’ll see in the next few photos….”
Copperfield turned the pages, studying the jars shot at different angles. “The differences must be subtle indeed,” he said at last. “I don’t see them.”
“Nor did I, in the photographs alone,” Charles agreed. “Do you see the extra raised section, around the base of the heads? That’s a feature I haven’t seen on other jars, either in modern replicas, or in any authentic artifact from the New Kingdom period. It’s quite unusual.”
“Yes, it is…” Copperfield frowned. “Though it also looks familiar.” He reached for his own briefcase, and withdrew a slim folder, opening it up to compare the photos contained within to the ones Diane had provided.
Diane sat up, trying to see the new photos without being too obvious about it. She couldn’t quite see all the details, but she could make out the shape of the falcon head that formed its lid. “Qebehsenuef,” she murmured. “The falcon-headed jar.”
“Yes,” Copperfield nodded. “This is the jar you wrote to me about, Hewitt. The one you thought would match yours.” He pulled one photo out of the folder and slid it across the table where Diane and Charles could see it.
TJ stood up and leaned closer for a better look as well. “Same extra lip,” he says. “Looks like the same grade of stone, too, though that’s hard to tell in a photo.”
“But does it have the additional script?” Diane asked.
“Additional script?” Copperfield echoed. “What additional script?”
“Yes,” Charles said. “Well. That’s the other reason we wanted to meet with you in person—“ He pulled on a pair of gloves, unlatched the travel case, and very carefully brought out a box, which he set on the table. With great care, he opened the box, setting aside foam and bubble wrap packing materials, and an inner layer of quilted white silk. Nestled in the foam was the mysterious Imseti jar from the Drayer canopic chest, with its lid sculpted to look like a man’s head in a typical pharaoh headdress.
Diane spread out the white silk on the table surface, and Charles lifted the jar out and set it upright on the table.
Around the extra raised lip at the base of the head, they could make out a double row of characters carved into the alabaster, in a fashion similar to the hieroglyphs carved into the body of the jar below.
“Those… do not look like hieroglyphics,” Copperfield murmured, coming around for a better look. “I’m not exactly sure what those characters even are—“
“Neither am I,” Charles admitted. “I’ve never seen anything quite like them. They’re not hieratic, they’re not Phoenician, they’re not Demotic, they’re obviously not Cuneiform, or anything else we have been able to identify.”
“Hmmm—“ Copperfield studied the jar and its mysterious inscription. “Do you have another pair of gloves, by any chance?”
“Oh, yes, of course—“ Charles reached into the travel case and brought out another pair, still in their plastic wrapping.
“There’s some similarity to Phoenician, in that they appear to be a set of abjad characters, and there may be some connection to ancient Aramaic,” Diane commented. “But it also uses character shapes I’ve not seen before, and they don’t appear to be any kind of pictogram system.”
Copperfield pulled the gloves on over his hands, though he didn’t try to pick the jar up. Instead he let his hands float over and around the jar without quite touching it. A puzzled frown crossed his face.
“May I see the photo again—“ he asked, and Diane moved out of the way so he could look at her copy of the folder. He stared at the photo of the Imseti jar and then looked at the artifact itself again. “Now that is very odd. Are these photos touched up? Modified at all?”
“No, not at all,” Charles assured him. “Other than being enlarged to show detail… at least, that was the original intent of the enlargements. As you can see, the results were… “
“Interesting, to say the least,” Copperfield said. “There is something carved on the lip—but it looks more like some kind of repetitive decorative pattern. Lotus blossoms, perhaps…”
“Exactly.” Charles said. “That’s why I want to examine the Qebehsenuef jar—the one you outbid me on back in—what was it, 1997? I think it was ’97. I’m almost certain it had that same lip design. I checked the catalog of that auction, it was part of another mixed lot of pieces from a number of different tombs, but it was definitely the same period. I’d like to compare the scripts on the lip. It’s even possible that they’re part of the same original set—“
Copperfield reached across the table and pulled over the photograph of the falcon-headed jar. “But this jar doesn’t have the same script on it…. “
“Actually,” Charles said. “Yes, it does.”
“Really? Are you certain?” Copperfield picked up the two photos and studied them more closely.
“But it does—“ Diane started to say. “You have to look carefully, but if you do—“
“Oh my heavens,” Charles interrupted her suddenly. “Would you look at the time? I had no idea it had gotten so late—it’s a wonder we’re all not positively falling over from weariness.“
Across the table, TJ half-sat, half-collapsed back into his seat again and yawned, covering his mouth up with one hand.
“TJ—stop that,” Diane mumbled, at first fighting the yawn, and then finally succumbing. It felt like the lateness of the hour was hitting her all at once, regardless of the coffee she’d drunk, and her personal fascination with the topic being discussed. Her body felt heavy and slow, almost too tired to move, and keeping her eyes open was suddenly a real struggle.
“Oh, dear,” Charles said, sounding quite concerned. “Mr. Copperfield, I hate to impose, but might you have a spare room where my young assistants can get a bit of rest? They’ve had a very long day.”
Copperfield looked up from his perusal of the photos. “Oh, of course. I reserved the entire suite—why don’t they take that room through there? Unless the young lady would prefer a room of her own, of course, I’m sure that can be arranged.”
Diane took off her glasses and rubbed at her eyes. “Sorry, Charles,” she managed. “I guess it really has been a long day—“
“Oh, no need to apologize,” Charles assured her. “It’s all my fault, we should have taken an earlier flight. Why don’t you and Thomas get some rest now. Don’t worry, these artifacts have been around for a long, long time—they can wait for you to be at your best!”
“Yeah, I guess we’d better—“ Diane agreed. “Thank you, Mr. Copperfield. I guess one room is fine, so long as there’s two beds.”
She grabbed the handle of her overnight bag with one hand, and with the other, she steered TJ in the right direction. “Come on, TJ, you’re practically sleepwalking. And I’m not going to carry you or your luggage.”
The two grad students made their way to the bedroom door, that Mr. Copperfield was kindly holding open for them. “I’ll put the card keys right here on the dresser for you, in case you need them later,“ he said. “Good night to you.”
“G’night, Charles—“ TJ mumbles as he followed Diane inside.
“Good night, Thomas, Diane.” Charles said, smiling. “Sleep well.”
The door closed, and Mr. Copperfield came back to the table. “That was rather sudden, wasn’t it?” he asked in a low voice, studying Dr. Hewitt carefully.
“Well, it really has been a long day for them,” Charles said, not meeting his eyes. “Can’t expect them to be up at all hours. They’re only human, after all.”
“Indeed they are,” Copperfield agreed. “So I take it that means there’s something here you did not wish them to see—or hear discussed?”
Charles glanced back towards the closed door. “Oh, they can see it just fine—that odd script on the jar, I mean. But you’re right—it isn’t visible in the photographs. And my colleague back at the University, she couldn’t see the writing even when she was looking directly at the jar itself. Couldn’t understand why I was getting so excited about a—a lotus pattern. I suppose that explains why that detail wasn’t mentioned in the description, either.”
Copperfield’s face took on a new intensity; clearly his curiosity has now been fully engaged. “Ah. How very interesting….” He stared at the jar again, letting his eyes go a bit unfocused, as if he was seeing something normal eyes could not perceive.
“It’s most unusual, don’t you think?” Charles asked, watching him a bit warily.
“It is indeed,” Copperfield said at last. “More than unusual, in fact. It appears to be masked by some form of thaumaturgy.”
“Thaumaturgy?” Charles echoed.
“Blood sorcery,” Copperfield replied. “In simplest terms—magic.”
To be continued…..