Chapter 17: Into the Desert
Oliver secured a single small room at an inexpensive tourist hotel down the street from the Sofitel and stashed what supplies they weren’t bringing along in a locked case in the closet. He booked the hotel room for two weeks and scattered several bits of laundry and surplus camera gear about the room to make it appear to all but the most observant maid that they were occupying the room. If all went well, Oliver expected them to be back within four or five days. They spent one last night enjoying the fine food and comfortable lodgings of the Hotel Sofitel, then checked out early the next morning.
Sunrise found them in a rented Range Rover, streaking up the Cairo Aswan Road with the Nile on their left and a wide strip of fertile farmland stretching away to the west on their right. They followed that road for three hours, though the time seemed to pass quickly as Oliver regaled Diana with stories about his latest efforts at tracking down the mysterious shards of metal that had become his obsession. For her part, Diana provided Oliver with a detailed summary of the book she was writing based on her research at the Louvre.
Soon enough they arrived at Faiyum, the nearest large city to the expected location of Sephor’s estate. There they refueled the Range Rover, filled several extra containers in the cargo bed with gasoline, and purchased a freshly cooked lunch. Once they had finished eating and walking off the leg cramps of a long drive, they climbed back in the Range Rover and headed southwest along a regional highway with Diana at the wheel, following a path that Oliver had plotted into the GPS.
This course took them through several small towns along the wide loop of highway that encircled Al Fayyum Lake. They followed this loop to its southernmost point, skirting the southern edge of the long lake, then drove off the side of the road and headed out across the desert. Oliver had already loaded maps of the region, supposedly updated within the last two years, into a GPS app on his phone. They also had a collection of printed maps, including the hand-drawn work of the archaeologists who had first discovered the site to which they were traveling and a topographic map of the desert for several hundred miles in every direction. Determining where to look for Sephor’s estate had been difficult, but now that they had selected a location, traveling to it, even across the desert, was proving to be a simple exercise in following the paths worked out by the archaeological expedition that first discovered the site twenty years before.
As Diana drove, Oliver pulled out his phone and posted several updates to his secure Twitter account, letting Amber know where they were and giving instructions on where to find them if they didn’t get back online within three days. She replied almost immediately, wishing them good luck and joking about his prospects of rekindling a romance with Diana in the desiccated remains of an ancient Egyptian temple. He ignored her jokes and slipped the phone back into his pocket.
According to the maps they had examined, the distance from their highway turn-off to the dig site was only about a hundred miles. Their route, however, turned out to be far from a straight line. According to the notes that the previous archeological team had submitted to their university sponsors, the best route would take nearly a hundred and fifty miles of twisting along canyon ledges and around rock piles. That had been twenty years ago, however, and as they drove Oliver had to continually seek out new paths as Diana came across insurmountable sand dunes and unmarked gullies formed by the flash floods that occurred whenever the rare, but violent, rain storms struck this region. It took nearly four hours for them to cross the desert between the last stretch of highway and the mouth of the canyon that Oliver had marked as the likely location of Sephor’s estate.
They drove through the mouth of the canyon and parked the Range Rover in the shadow of a rocky wall. Looking out through the windshield, Oliver could see a long wall of mud brick, about twenty feet high, encircling a compound of ancient stone and brick buildings of obviously Egyptian design. The wall was breached in two places. The first was at the gate house, where stone towers rose on either side of a wide gateway. The gate had long ago given way to time and Oliver could see a paved courtyard within the gateway. The second breach was in a place where the wall had collapsed above and around a dry stream bed.
“Think this is the place?” Diana asked, drumming her fingers on the steering wheel.
Oliver shrugged. “Only one way to find out. There’s still some daylight left. Let’s go take a look.”
They climbed out of the car and both spent several moments stretching before Diana opened the back of the Range Rover and pulled out the spare fuel canisters and her backpack. She deposited the canisters beside the car and checked that the vapor locks were functioning before standing up and shrugging her bag on over her shoulders.
Meanwhile, Oliver pulled his own bag from the car and slipped it on. He checked the water tube that peeked out through a hole in the bag and ran up to a clip on his shoulder strap, verifying that he could draw water from the rubber bladder stowed in a zipper pocket within the pack. He reached back and worked the zipper along the bottom side that would let him slip his hand into the bag and pull out his camera. Even if this little expedition didn’t work out on the relic hunting front, he might be able to get a few photos that he could sell to his contacts at Ars Geographica. Finally, Oliver pulled his Glock out of the side pocket of the pack and checked the chamber indicator, verifying that there was a round in the chamber before slipping the gun into a holster pocket in the side of the pack.
“Expecting trouble?” Diana asked, stepping back from the car and pushing the door shut behind her. She had the GPS in her hands and was tapping the screen, saving the coordinates of their vehicle.
“Not expecting, but preparing. You remember that time Amber and I went to South America?”
“Your first time in the field.”
“That’s right. One thing I’ll never forget about that little jaunt is that I was completely unarmed most of the time, and that’s a big part of the reason Amber and I barely got out alive.”
Diana nodded and slipped the GPS into her bag, then adjusted her own water tube. She turned to face down the canyon and said, “I don’t see anyone else here.”
“Nobody alive,” Oliver agreed.