Authors: Richard Scrimger
“Whom are you addressing, sir?” The professor’s expression is exactly right: puzzled and apologetic.
Libby takes out a sheet of paper and reads from it: “Simon Peter Malchus, also known as Professor Malchus, Brother Malchus, Dr. Malchus, and, once, Detective Sergeant Malchus – tut-tut, impersonating a police officer.” The special agent smiles broadly. “Known to intimates as Earless after a regrettable incident in his youth – a knife fight under the shadow of the Great Pyramid.”
Frieda and I stare at each other.
Earless will be happy to see him
. I shiver, thinking back to the scene in the alley with Slouchy.
“Born Biddeford, Maine. Master’s degree in Egyptology from NYU. Noted collector of art and artifacts. Dealer in same. Convicted smuggler.” He stops. “Nice varied profile here, Earless.”
“I’m sorry, sir, but I really don’t see why you’re here. My name is Malchus, that’s true. Not a common name – but not unique. You’ve got me mixed up with this Peter Malchus. Some kind of a clerical error.”
The special agent smiles. “Perhaps.” Then, suddenly, he takes two strides forward and grabs the professor by the hair. “Do you mind?” he says, lifting his hand.
I gasp. Frieda gasps. The rest of the Tutankhamen Society gasps.
The professor has no outer ear. Just a little rim of cartilage. The side of his head is flat. He sighs. “I don’t think that proves anything.”
“No, Earless, it doesn’t prove anything, but I think it’s a good indicator, don’t you? You happen to be missing most of one ear, and your name happens to be Malchus. And you happen to be addressing the Tutankhamen Society in a posh house here on the Upper West Side. You might even have mentioned your most recent acquisition. A good luck charm, supposedly representing the weeping Horus.”
The professor sniffs disdainfully. “You may choose to call it a good luck charm, sir. The correct term is
Horus? Frieda’s hand reaches up instinctively to touch her earrings.
Some members of the society are looking perturbed. Is the professor sweating? I can’t tell. He sounds calm and cultured, like an advertisement for tonic water.
The sharp-eyed lieutenant takes over now. “Ladies and gentlemen, Malchus here really knows his Ancient Egypt.
He’s a bit of a fanatic on the subject of the pyramids. But he’s a fraud. He’s not a real professor. He’s an avid collector and a smuggler and a criminal, and we’ve been on his trail – and this Ushabti Horus – for months.” She points at the sarcophagus. “Very nice piece. Middle Kingdom, Earless? Maybe Eighteenth Dynasty?”
The professor sniffs again. “As anyone here in the room could tell you, Lieutenant Aylmer, the Middle Kingdom ended long before the Eighteenth Dynasty,” he says.
The lieutenant doesn’t seem embarrassed – in fact she looks pleased – and then it occurs to me that she’s got the professor to answer to the name Earless. And, you know, it’s getting harder to think of him as the “professor” and easier to think of him as Earless.
Special Agent Libby tells us how the Ushabti moved from Egypt to New York. A complicated story. My favorite part was when it was carried through the streets of Antwerp by a schoolgirl who thought it was a box of chocolates. And talk about thorough: Libby even knows the schoolgirl’s name. He tries to check his facts – “Then, by boat from Belgium to Canada, right, Earless?” – but the professor doesn’t say anything. “And finally, today, to New York by plane. And we’re executing a search and seizure warrant on the 37th Street gallery right now.”
Earless looks up. Libby smiles at him. “Yes, if there’s anything incriminating at Amphora Jones, we’ll find it.”
“Excuse me!” cries the fat man who fainted before. He’s alert now. “Are you saying that New York galleries
like Amphora Jones are dealing in stolen property? That Professor Malchus’ Ushabti is not really his to sell?
“Do you have the Ushabti, sir?” Agent Libby asks eagerly. “Did you see it? We have every link in the chain of evidence, except proof of the artifact in Malchus’ hands.”
The fat man shakes his head. His jowls wobble. “He was going to show it to us when … Norberto interrupted.”
The special agent frowns.
“I have a question,” says the purple lady. “Before the police arrived, we all witnessed a truly strange encounter. A messenger of a god was in this room, sir.”
The law enforcement agents look at one another.
“I just want to know if Professor Malchus thinks it was real, or if that, too, was a part of his scheme,” she adds.
I understand what Lieutenant Aylmer meant about Earless being a fanatic. His eyes are round and dark, and as wide-open as bear traps. I feel I can’t look away. The eyes seem to absorb the light, as if it can’t get away either. Fanatic’s eyes.
He has all our attention. “In my opinion, the encounter was real. We were fortunate. I never thought I would have the privilege of conversation with an immortal.”
“Huh?” says Libby.
“The messenger of Anubis is in this room. He promised to tell me about the building of the pyramids, knowledge I would give anything –
The Tutankhamen Society nods collectively. They believe Earless. I’d be tempted to believe him myself, if I
didn’t know that the immortal he’s talking about is a dog with an alien from Jupiter in its nose.
Agent Libby doesn’t believe him. He blinks. “Sure, Earless,” he says. “You can tell it all to the judge. Encounter with a god’s messenger. Diminished capacity might be a good defence, at that.”
“Norberto understands me,” says Earless. “Norberto will direct me. My faith is sure.”
And, at that precise moment, a gigantic peal of thunder rocks the house. The lights go out.
“Nobody move!” cries Libby from the middle of the darkness.
I don’t move, but someone does. I hear a clatter and clash, and a squeaky voice saying –
Hey, beat it! Go on, now! Get him, Sally!
The lights come on a few seconds later.
The police officer – Culverhouse – is still standing by the doors. Sally is on the floor, shaking herself.
Earless is gone.
The next quarter of an hour is very busy. Lieutenant Aylmer races after Earless. Special Agent Libby shouts alternately into a walkie-talkie and a cell phone. Officer Culverhouse, looking embarrassed, starts asking everyone their names and addresses, and writing down the information in a notebook. He even asks us.
“Cobourg?” he says to me. “Where’s that?” I tell him.
He asks me to wait around. “Agent Libby may want to talk to you himself,” he adds.
Bird’s address is harder to pinpoint. He takes Culverhouse to a window and gestures.
“What’ll we tell them?” I ask Frieda. She has her eyes shut, hugging the dog.
“You know. About the kidnapping. About Slouchy and Skinny and Veronica.”
“Oh.” She opens her eyes, frowns. “I don’t know. I’m not thinking about that. I just can’t get over what Norbert said. Do you think my mom is afraid of me? Is that why she doesn’t pay any attention to me?”
“I don’t know,” I say.
The Tutankhamen Society is finally allowed to leave. Everyone looks upset on their way out the door. No one thanks Frieda’s mom for a lovely time. Now it’s only us and the law. Beatrice is making coffee in the kitchen. Mrs. Miller shudders when she notices Frieda playing with Sally.
“You know, I’ve never really liked dogs,” she says.
“Where’d this one come from?” asks Agent Libby.
“I don’t know. I’m … afraid to ask.”
“But it is yours, isn’t it?”
“I …” Sally races around Frieda’s wheelchair like an out-of-control satellite, whirling off from under the marble table, then coming back and racing around the other way.
“Isn’t it your dog, ma’am?”
Sally jumps up on her hind legs to put her front paws on the arms of Frieda’s chair. For a second she looks like something out of a book on Ancient Egypt. It’s her ears, so wide and pointed, and her long body. For a second she looks like a dog-headed human. Like – Anubis.
Mrs. Miller covers her eyes. And nods.
“Sure it is,” says Frieda, grabbing Sally by both ears and wagging her head up and down. Sally slips back onto all fours. “Aren’t you, sweetie?” Sally yawns.
Libby’s walkie-talkie crackles. He answers it at once. “Did you get him?” he asks.
Apparently not. The special agent sighs. The pinches and folds of his cheeks look like wrinkles in a bedsheet.
Frieda takes us to her room. It’s a big one, with two windows. Neat as a pin. No papers or unlabeled computer discs lying around. No sign of her dirty clothes. No chairs, not even in front of the desk. Bird goes over to the nearer window and stares out. I sit on the tightly made-up bed.
“What’ll I tell the police?” I say. “They’re going to ask how I came here. It’s all going to come out. What’ll I say, Frieda? What’ll we both say?”
“I don’t know.” She doesn’t look at me. She has eyes only for Sally, curled up beside me on the bed. Norbert coughs.
You might just tell the truth
, he says.
Bird looks around, smiles, then goes back to the window.
“But … I promised the slouchy guy I wouldn’t tell. I promised.”
I just want to know if this is the same boy who promised his mother that he would tidy his room every day “Do you promise, Alan?” she asked, and you said, “Yes, Mom, I promise.”
I don’t say anything.
The same boy who promised a certain girl in Cobourg … now, what was her name?
“Hey, shut up!” I say.
, says Norbert.
Frieda looks over. She’s blushing. I’m blushing too. Sally yawns. It looks like she’s sticking out her tongue at me.
I join Bird at the window. Frieda rolls herself over to the bed to stroke Sally. “You’re my dog, now. Do you hear, Sally?”
The dog whines.
“We’ll have to take you to the vet’s,” she says. “And get you a proper collar. This one is too rough.”
Sally gets down from the bed and whines again.
“Oh, dear. Maybe she has to go to the bathroom,” Frieda says.
We all stare at the dog.
, says Norbert.
“You sure she doesn’t want to go outside?” I ask. My friend Miranda – that’s the certain girl Norbert was talking
about – has a dog named Gracie who has to go outside so often that her doggie door never shuts. Miranda’s dad is a kind of scientist; he wonders if it’s theoretically possible for Gracie, on her way back inside, to collide with herself going out again.
No, she’s fine
, says Norbert.
That’s why she was in the bathtub thing. She’s hungry, I tell you
“What?” says Frieda. “Sally pooped in my mother’s prize sarcophagus?”
Hey, I didn’t choose the spot. It was Sally’s idea.
“Norbert!” I say.
Don’t look at me. I’m civilized. I’ve got indoor plumbing here
Sally is still whining.
“Food’s in the kitchen,” says Bird, sensibly.
Sally likes leftover stew, we discover. Also, cheese biscuits and ladyfingers and bread crusts. And peanut butter. And raw broccoli. Not a picky eater. I want to offer her some weird smelly meat spread we find in the fridge, but Frieda says no.
, says Norbert.
Through the open door of the kitchen we hear Mrs. Miller’s voice. She’s in the library with Special Agent Libby.
“It’s hard to believe,” she says. “Professor Malchus is such a gentleman. And so knowledgeable. We were all looking forward to seeing his new Ushabti. He was convinced it had a pyramid connection.”
“So he did have it with him. Did he show you?”
“We didn’t get that far,” she said. “He described it for us. Horus – he’s the hawk-faced Sky god, you know – is shown weeping. A very rare form.”
“Hawkface,” I say out loud. “Remember, Frieda?”
Frieda looks at me. It’s the look my friend Victor gives me during math class.
, says the look.
You know, he left something in the sarcophagus
, says Norbert.
He dropped it in when the police came in the room, and then tried to get it back on his way out. He spoke to me very nicely. I think he really believes in Norberto
“What happened when he tried to get it back?” I ask.
Sally bit him.
The dog whines.
, says Norbert.
But you think that about every thing
“What?” I ask.
Oh, nothing. She says it smelled funny. Don’t ask me. She thinks everything smells funny. She’s a dog, for heaven’s sake
The agent is asking Airs. Miller about Sally. “This messenger, now. There are a number of conflicting statements. Did you see the, um, creature?”
“A dog? Now, I saw a dog here myself. A family dog, I assume. Is she yours, ma’am?”
“She’s … with my daughter.”
“Several statements claim that the dog was speaking to
, ma’am. To you directly, I mean. Did you hear it?”
Mrs. Miller clears her throat. “Oh, yes. Yes, I heard it plainly.”
Mrs. Miller doesn’t say anything.
I get an idea. “The sarcophagus,” I whisper to Frieda.
She’s already rolling herself into the library. Sally looks up at me from the floor.
. Victor, Frieda, now Sally – everyone seems to look at me the same way.
“Do you think this Horus thing is in the sarcophagus?” I ask Bird.
“Shew-ah,” he says. “But I don’t want to fish it out.”
We follow Frieda and Sally into the library.
Special Agent Libby doesn’t have to do the dirty work himself, of course. Officer Culverhouse roots around in the sarcophagus. He uses tongs.
“Got something else!” The officer holds up another small dirt-covered lump. It’s about as thick as my thumb, and not much longer. I’m all set to say yuck again, but on closer inspection I can see that it’s a small statue – about three thousand years older than the first dirt-covered lump he fished out.
So that’s an Ushabti.
“Careful,” says the special agent. It’s an automatic response. He sounds like your parents do when you’re walking near the edge of a cliff.
Culverhouse places the Ushabti in a clear plastic bag, sticks a tag on it, and goes to wash his hands.
Libby frowns down at Frieda. “You are a very smart young lady,” he says. “How did you know that was here?”
“Norberto told her!” cries Mrs. Miller, clapping her hand over her mouth, like teenagers do on TV commercials when they’re worried about bad breath.
“There there,” says the special agent. He takes her by the hand and leads her to a chair. “You’re all upset, ma’am. You should rest a bit. I’m afraid this has all been a shock to you.”
Sally jumps up on her hind legs to sniff energetically at the bundle on the table. Libby pushes it away from her. “Down, boy,” he says.
“It’s a girl dog,” says Frieda. “Her name is Sally.”
“I thought it was Norberto,” he says.
I can’t help noticing the way Mrs. Miller keeps staring at her daughter. When we first came into the house, she didn’t pay any attention to her at all. Now she’ll look away for a bit, then sneak a peek out of the corner of her eye.
“What’s that smell?” says Culverhouse, when he comes back from washing his hands.
“No, no,” says Culverhouse. “I got a dog at home; I know that smell. This is like tar.”
“Oh, that.” Libby explains. “That’s creosote. The Ushabti would probably have been wrapped in waterproof paper for transport overseas. The smell lingers.”
Waterproof paper. I find myself staring at Sally. She cocks her head on one side. I remember the scene in the alley – Norbert telling her to
put it down, Sally. It stinks
. I remember reaching down to pick up the paper and put it in my …
. Did I say that, or did Norbert? I reach into my pocket and pull out the piece of brown paper. It still stinks.
“Where’d you get that?” asks Libby.
I don’t know what to say.
He stares at me. “Young man, we’re going to have a talk,” he says.
The dog puts her head in Frieda’s lap. Mrs. Miller shudders.