MY ONLY thought, as I watched two of my employer’s guards become fodder for an incredibly large creature with perhaps fifty tentacles was that once I might have found such a sight odd. Now, however, the sound of men screaming and of flesh and bone rending seemed commonplace.
I should have, perhaps, begun at the beginning. The season of 1924 was unlike any I had ever attended. Thanks to the events of the previous years, the ones involving Carter and Carnarvon, Cairo proved even more difficult to navigate than usual. The Mena House seemed a veritable oasis of calm, and luckily for me, my employer had an invitation to stay there. Indeed, Mr. Alexander Royale, lately of New York, seemed to have an in to all of the correct places.
The saffragi lugged Mr. Royale’s trunks up to his suite while I played valet. I opened one case and pulled out my employer’s evening wear, for supper was to be a formal affair. Sighing at the wrinkles, I shook my head and began the arduous task of smoothing them out.
I had found, not long after joining Mr. Royale’s employ, that his idea of the duties assigned to a dig organizer and my ideas were not, in fact, the same. His ideas constituted duties as social secretary, interpreter, haggler, and indeed, dresser. Only the astonishing salary of X pounds per diem kept me from throwing the job back at Mr. Royale’s protruding proboscis. That, and the opportunity to see Egypt again, which I had not done in three years.
“Be sure to shine my shoes, Christian,” Royale said, appearing in the doorway. “Really, the dust here is insidious.”
“Yes,” I replied, unable to keep the sigh from my voice. “We’re in the desert.”
Mr. Royale’s booming laugh rang out, and he clapped me on the back hard enough to rock me forward onto my toes. “So we are, boy. So we are.”
With the sum of my experience with Americans being tied up in my employer, I could not say I found them all boorish and insensitive. Only him. One could only hope the rest were a better sort. If they were all like him, I daresay I would be forced to admit I did not like them.
I ran downstairs not long after to procure a newspaper at Mr. Royale’s demand. No, the saffragi could not do it, he asserted. The lazy fellow would require a tip, whereas I would not.
My impression of Americans did not improve a bit on my expedition. As I entered the lounge, I endured the indignity of being knocked from my feet and onto my backside by a ruffian with no sense of decorum and an unseemly need for speed.
“Oh, beggin’ your pardon, mister,” the uncouth monster of a man said, his accent proclaiming his country of origin as loudly as Mr. Royale’s did. “Didn’t see you.”
“Clearly,” I returned, grunting as he hauled me up so violently that my feet dangled for a moment before he set me down.
“Well, now, ain’t you a snooty one? I apologized.”
“My backside accepts,” I told him. “My affronted dignity does not.”
Rubbing said backside, I looked him over. The man represented the very picture of the penny-dreadful American. A long coat and a felt hat barely concealed skin as dark as an Egyptian’s. His grayish eyes had fine lines cut around them, as did his mouth. They all crinkled up as the fellow smiled.
“Oh sure,” he said. “You folks are all het up about your dignity, aintcha?”
“Indeed. Where yours are all about the brute force, hmm?”
Instead of taking offense as I might have hoped, the man burst out laughing, the sound booming and utterly good-natured. “You betcha. How’s about we let your dignity stew on it a bit while I buy you a drink?” he asked.
In all honesty, I would have enjoyed something wet just then, so it was with true regret that I declined. “Alas, I am at work at the moment.”
His eyebrows went up. “Not here, are ya? I’ve seen nothing but natives.”
“No, I fear my American employer is staying here. And he will no doubt bellow for me any moment if I do not carry on. Good day, sir.”
I made to leave him, but the fellow seized my arm in a firm grip.
“At least tell me your name so I can look you up and buy you that drink later. Make up with your dignity, so to speak.”
Standing so close, I could see his eyes were not just grayish, but an unusual true gray, the ring around the iris so dark that it appeared larger than it should. His lashes, by contrast, were a dark blond. Much darker than my own silver-gilt hair that went so well with my blue eyes and the scorching Egyptian sun.
“Christian Hewler,” I said. “With the Royale party.”
“And I’m Eric Lawless.” His hand slid down my arm to grasp and pump my own hand with a hearty shake. “I’m with Zavigny.”
I had heard of Zavigny, a French excavation master known for his unconventional methods and rather crazed religious zeal. Fitting, I thought, that he should have a man named Lawless on his team.
“Pleased, I am sure.” I took my hand back. “Good day, Mr. Lawless.”
The man simply grinned at me, his smile wide and white against his tanned face. “See you around,” he said. “Christian.”