Just after midnight, under the amber lights of the school parking lot, Dell Ludy sat in his road-grimed Chevy. After turning off the engine, he checked his watch. He should’ve been inside the main library, at the guard’s station some twenty minutes ago. As one of the two men on night security, he was responsible for getting briefed on new exhibits, new floor plans. Dr. Diffley had asked him to come early on account of the Egyptian arrangement.
He fumed at the low, scattered, sand-toned buildings of South Central Arizona Junior College, and its junior college creeps looking down their noses sharpened by scorn. All those well-schooled snobs and book brats made his jaw ache with anger. Maybe it was time again to move, to point the Chevy at the nearest, longest piece of asphalt and go.
Eyes closed, listening to the dashboard radio, he was back on the corner stool, near the jukebox, at the Gila River Inn, polishing off another payday. The Mexican girls dancing. Indians off the reservation, shooting pool for beers.
So he was late. Nothing he could do. But he oughta have some excuse. Something good. Engine trouble? Maybe an accident on the highway? No, engine trouble was better. He sipped vodka from a pint he kept buried among loose shotgun shells in the glove box. Sipping made it last. Dr. Diffley, the curator of the endless exhibits, was easily disgusted by the smell of alcohol breath. Dell screwed the cap back on.
But what harm could Diffley do anyway? Blow the whistle on him? Go whining to Buster Sweeney, the other security guard? Dell slapped the glove box closed and grabbed his uniform cap. Then he slid out of the car and locked the door.
He paused at the little marquee that announced the treasures of Egypt, giving credit to some state and national cultural exchange.
Using his keys, he entered the main library. He passed the checkout desks and the information kiosks, then stopped at the double glass doors leading to the large utilitarian area, a chameleon room which – at the whim of the budget of a progressive state institution – became an art gallery, a small music auditorium, or a museum wing.
Dead trees for books, and, on the other side of the doors, dead Egyptians and tomb paintings. It all made Dell itchy to pack up and move. It hadn’t taken much to wear the excitement off this part of the country. Too many practical jokes, too many unwelcome passes at the jock-teasing coeds, got him sentenced to midnight shift. A sentence to a night-time of quiet, Dell thought, that the old guy, Buster, actually likes. Dr. Diffley doesn’t have the guts to go ahead and fire me, Dell continued to brood, relishing the arithmetic of an old score ripe for revenge. Maybe one really great joke. Give Diffley a heart attack. Nothing fatal. Something to remember the name Dell Ludy by. Then he’d split. Maybe someplace cooler. Oregon. He was sick of the desert.
Pushing through the doors, Dell saw that the multipurpose room had once more been transformed. This time, the high fabric panels had been stored away. The floor filled with the display of ancient objects, sitting in pools of dim light. The center of the room was taken up with a dais of light gray carpeting, upon which were two gleaming granite sarcophagi, the lids propped open by inset steel rods. A third sarcophagus was made of lustrous wood, painted with scenes of Egyptian daily life and cultish visions of heaven and hell. The huge artifacts were laid in a circle, allowing visitors, held at bay by velvet ropes, to peer into the coffins, as they walked the circumference of the dais. Each sarcophagus had a sheet of Plexiglas bolted down over the opening. As Dell walked around, back to the guards’ station, he could see by the mirrors angled against the lid of the sarcophagi, the gilt and painted anthropoid coffins laid within. However, in the wooden sarcophagus, clearly visible, was the mummified corpse. Dell paused, never having seen an actual decayed cadaver. Flower-decked, cosmetic counter death was the closest he’d come, the sleeping remains of relatives.
He edged against the rope, closer, stretching, and looked into the face of the corpse. Its features showed clearly through the nearly transparent strips of fabric. Dell could see by the low security lights the arms lashed to the sides of the body, hip bones protruding, defining where viscera had once been. And the face. Darkened, papery, stretched into a groaning mask. The lids of the eyes bulged, straining to see in a once lightless tomb.
“Here.” Dr. Diffley handed the watch clock to Dell. The black strapped object startled him. “Buster will handle the video board. You can walk the clock.”
“I had engine trouble --”
“Mr. Ludy, I need someone reliable. I asked you to come in a little early.”
“Hey, I can’t help if I got engine --”
“It’s okay, Dr. Diffley. We can still split the watch.” Buster spoke up from the video board at the guards’ station.
“He’ll relieve you for breaks only.” Dr. Diffley said back into the shadowy alcove. He turned again to Dell. “Walking is not sleeping.”
As Dell chilled over in anger, he noticed how, in the distorted fluorescence, Dr. Diffley resembled the dusty stiff in the box. He wanted to stub out those bulging eyes. Or... maybe hand him that heart attack. Nothing fatal. Just some painful bon voyage gift to remember Dell Ludy by.
“I could use a regular stretch --” Buster was still peacemaker, stepping into a familiar breach.
“Only for your breaks.” Dr. Diffley backed away from Dell’s peevish menace and disappeared silently through the glass doors.
Only when he was sure the curator was gone did Dell grouse outloud. “Walking ain’t sleeping. You hear that? He stuck me for no good reason. Me and you always split the watch.”
“It was tough getting it all together, making it all fit in here.”
“Walking ain’t sleeping. Did he tell you I was sleeping? How’s he know?”
“A lot of things going wrong --”
“Then let him walk all night. Babysit some dead rags.”
“These ain’t dead rags. Think of ‘em as time-travelers. Nearly three thousand years old.” Buster didn’t want Dell adding hours to the night in a stew of injustice.
“It looks like an old gunny sack. A little old gunny sack.”
“That’s his job – being small. Don’t you ever read about the stuff they bring in here?”
Dell didn’t mind Buster so much. But he thought the old geez could be a real pest. Jawing off about the useless information he’d picked up around here. Like this mummy.
“Small is what you need,” Buster said, patting the glass cover, “if you’re robbing tombs for a living.” Dell looked up. The morbid criminality reached Dell, which Buster took for genuine interest. “This guy used to dig his way on his belly through these narrow little tunnels, grab what he could carry, and skinny out the way he come. Until he got caught, that is.”
“Caught.” Even ages past, people couldn’t leave you alone.
“Well, he was a tomb-robber. Priests took a dim view of tomb-robbing. Bad for the afterlife.”
“He got caught, so they wrapped him up and buried him?”
“Kinda like. Maybe they killed him first.”
“Like, alive, and being wrapped up, and then nailed into the box?” The malicious torment tantalized Dell.
“Probably not. It took days to wrap somebody. Chant the spells, mix up the resins. See those paintings on the side here? They show how they caught him and made an example of him.” Dell actually stooped to look where Buster pointed. “Also, hieroglyphs here call on him being a talisman against other tomb-robbers. See this strip right here?” He pointed out a narrow length of pictograms. “It says: I am he, called out, now servant of the tomb, Amenupher. This writing here binds him for all eternity. Say, Dell, that’s a job for you, hey?” Night watchman for a tomb? Then if they ask if you were asleep on the job, you could snap to, and say, ‘Yes, sir. All night, sir.’” But Dell, recalling Diffley’s accusation, didn’t laugh with Buster. “Yep, still working for the rich folks, after all these years.”
“Those two?” Dell asked, indicating the stone sarcophagi.
“Yeah. They’re a set.” Maybe he was dispelling the moodiness. “Dr. Diffley said they had the devil’s own time getting them on schedule --”
“They wrap you up, kill you, and still expect you to work for some rich guy – is that their idea of hell or something?”
“Oh, no. He’s doing all right. For a mummy. Look at all the stuff. The gold and jewelry. Rich stuff. That’s their idea of heaven. And it’s not like he’s stuck, really. He can go anywheres he wants, like a bird. That’s what afterlife was to them. Flying around the world. That’s their soul. A bird with a human face. Like this.” Buster pointed to wooden panels covered in faded colors: ancient ideas of idyllic life, of heavens and the distant alternatives of hell. And in motion, between the heavens and the Nile-fed earth, great soaring birds, with almond-eyed faces of handsome men and beautiful women. “He’d just have to return to this body when the sun came up.”
“Don’t even look real. That petrified Indian at Posey’s Roadside Reservation Museum looks realer.”
“Posey carved that thing outta wood. These are the gen-yoo-wine article.”
The burden of the rich man’s curse on the linen-wrapped face seemed to stir the muscles of recognition in Dell, enticing him into admitting Amenupher into his solitary brotherhood dedicated to repining and repaying injustice. “So – is it a curse, like?” An absurd idea of supernatural justice tickled at Dell. “Like Posey’s Indian?”
“You don’t believe in Posey’s curse, do ya?”
“I don’t say I believe nothin’. I’m just asking if it’s a curse on him.”
“I guess it’s a curse. Having to guard his master forever.” Buster patted a detailed paining of bare maidens who were serving a reclining male with platters of stylized foods. “But I’d like to have a slice or two of his curse on my plate.”
“Maybe he’d rather kill a few beers at the Gila River Inn.”
“You could try reading the sacred symbols here. Play a few spooky tunes. Activate his active ingredients and you might have a walking, talking Egyptian mummy shuffling around in his house shoes.” They laughed, and Buster was glad to be shaking Dell loose from the calcified interest in his agenda of wrongs.
“We could run him out to the reservation. Indians believe in stuff like that. They’d swear he walked in.” Buster laughed a little too generously. “We could sit him next to the water cooler in Diffley’s office,” Dell continued. “We could say he was just looking for a drink – a big drink.” Buster pushed the puff of laughter, the humor evaporating. “Or we could stick him behind the wheel of Diffley’s car and shove it out into the sand. Hey, he was just trying to drive home to Egypt.”
Suddenly Buster was no longer laughing. Dell, he realized now, was simply working out his malicious menu, and he wanted no part of such meanness of spirit. “Look, Dell --” he began.
“You believe there’s such a thing as mummy curses?” Dell’s invidiously small mind began tinkering with the mechanics of revenge.
“Nah. I’m a Baptist.”
“You think Diffley believes in ‘em?”
Disappointed, Buster resumed his seniority. “Dr. Diffley ain’t gonna believe some three-thousand year old mummy got a itch to drive his car. He’ll know somebody --” But Dell wasn’t listening to him. “Man, you got a vacuum up there,” he said, tapping his forehead. “Just anything’ll rush in to fill it.” He turned, with a shrug, and went back to the monitors.
“Hey, it’s not like I believe anything.”
But Buster only shook his head. Picking up the clipboard, he gestured Dell to follow. “Come on. Let’s go over the list.”
“I know how to walk the circuit.” Dell clunked the vinyl-clad security clock on the floor.
“You got to keep an eye on the A.C., too.”
“I’m not kidding. Check the ducts outside, for gophers or jackrabbits crawling in to nest or die.”
“The ducts ain’t on the circuit.”
“We got to make sure there’s plenty of fresh air. Some of the powders or spices in these mummies make you go blind, or something. Give you headaches. Just watch the air.”
In response, Dell whirled around and clomped through the gallery, irritation heavy in his shoes. Outside, he leaned against the building, staring out between the walls, to the desert beyond. A sound of unhurried wings came and receded. Owls, thought Dell, looking for kangaroo rats.
He’d decided to grab one of the mummies, sell it to Posey as an ancient Indian chief. That way he’d be having it back on Diffley, on the school, the jock-teasers. And he’d make a few bucks to get him down the road.
Of course he’d have to scram, he thought, maybe to Oregon finally. Another name change. Another job, but next time one with a lot less responsibility, people always on his back.
In the maintenance shed, behind the large air conditioning units, Dell picked up a clear plastic sheet to cover the mummified corpse. Up at Posey’s he might even pretend he was Diffley. But to make that work, he’d have to wear his sports coat. Diffley would be years living it down. They might even fire him. The complex scheme amused Dell. Into his pocket went several socket wrenches. He’d have to wait until Buster took his dinner break at four A.M.
Just at four, Dell tucked the plastic sheet down into his uniform shirt, and he went in to the gallery to relieve Buster. Walking past the dais, past the three time travelers, resting comfortably, Dell checked the line of sight with the guards’ station. Amenupher’s sarcophagus was hidden from direct view. The cameras were set at the wrong angle to see down into the coffin. Dell smiled. He’d be long gone down the Interstate before anyone wised up.
“Ol’ Amenupher’s asleep on the job,” said Dell, taking Buster’s place at the video board.
Buster merely grunted a suggestion of a laugh at Dell. He’d just as soon leave Dell to the venial little miseries that clogged his imagination. Buster felt sorry for Dell, but he was glad to be away from him for a whole thirty minutes. He gathered his things and, with a nod, departed by the side exit.
With a guilty glance about, Dell left the monitors and hurried to Amenupher’s sarcophagus. After laying out the plastic on the floor, he found one of the wrenches to fit the black bolts and began twisting them out. He tucked the last of the bolts in his pocket, and lifted the sheet of Plexiglas. He was assaulted by the odor of languid decay. The unpleasant aroma and Dell’s imagination caused his rising gorge, hard-swallowed away.
Actually reaching into the box wasn’t as revolting, and the corpse lighter, than he’d been prepared for. Awkward, mostly, he struggled to get Amenupher’s remains up where he could cradle them out, and then stretched on the plastic sheet. Once the body was laid out, Dell shivered involuntarily, jerked, and dusted at the places on his clothes where the corpse had shed its tattery bits of fabric. Three swift folds and flip of the corpse had it tucked into a convenient package.
Still uncertain of secrecy, Dell toted the bundle to his car. Anxious fumbling with the keys set his heart to racing, the weight of the night and starlessness carrying an edge of fear. But getting the door open he relaxed, teasing himself at his skittishness. Death wasn’t anything to be scared of.
Striding, slowing, and then striding again, he got back to the video board with less time to spare than he’d have liked. He was still chuffing deeply when Buster returned by the side door.
As he pulled the door shut, there sounded, to Dell, that unhurried flap of wings he’d caught earlier on his rounds.
“Buster, you let that owl in.”
“What owl?” he asked, figuring Dell was on to another joke.
“You let some bird in here,” Dell griped. He was afraid Buster would make him get the ladder and give chase, delaying his headstart. Or worse, that he would discover the theft.
“I didn’t hear no bird.” Buster looked at him, waiting for the punchline. But Dell was listening as the flapping swirled and receded. “Leave it for maintenance.” Buster just wanted Dell to continue walking.
Dell edged away before Buster changed his mind and heard the intruder. Looking back, he watched Buster dial through the cameras. He registered nothing out of place when he looked up at Dell, waving him off. Dell, obliging, left.
With the exhilaration of temerity, he tossed the watch clock in the grass, flipped the wrenches on the front seat of the car, and slid behind the steering wheel. He ground the ignition and roared off, the punctured muffler throbbing. Leaving the pools of mercury-halogen light, he turned onto the access road that led to Interstate 10. In the distance ahead, he could see the lights along the highway, the exit signs lit against the night.
He could also hear the persistent owl, so close and loud, over the drone of the belching muffler. He glanced from the mirror to the road, and out of the headlights the bird slapped against his windshield at his face. Larger than any owl, an eagle almost. Dell ducked, pulling the wheel to the left. The car shimmied to a stop. Swearing and straightening the wheel, he continued, more slowly.
Once more the beating wings, the whisk of feathers cutting air. His heart hammering deep in the silence – then there slammed at the back window the indistinct figure of the bird, punishing the glass, flailing about for entry. Then it was at the side, increasing its furious blasts, hurling itself against the windows.
Dell, cranking madly, shut the window on his left as this avian curiosity slammed suicidally into his view, a pale white face, no beak, and gaping holes for eyes and mouth. Terror written on the face of the bird, features of almost human expression. Dell recoiled backward.
Being afraid made him angry. He reached over onto the floor of the backseat, unracking the shotgun. He eased open the door, listening for the wings, and stepped out a little way from the car, trying to hear over the engine. But there was now only silence. In the distance, the lights of the college. Beyond to his right, the glowing chain of light and the highway.
And then constriction. His chest was gripped in two huge, clasping hands. Dark without stars or moon. He threw himself to the ground. But now there was a light. Small, flickering. Yards away. He had to crawl. He couldn’t breathe. He was closed in. His toes doing the work to inch him along. He couldn’t bring his arms up from his sides to pull himself forward. Palms inchworming through a narrow rock passage, angling downward, but he couldn’t make himself slide. He had to kick along with his toes. If only he could take more air into his strangled lungs.
And then he could. His head swam, eyes lifted out of a swampy murk of shadow and ill-light. Painfully, he rolled over. Curled on his side, he could see the taillights of his car some distance behind him. His head continued to clear. He sat up, then crawled toward the car. Supporting himself on the fender, he drew himself up. He no longer had his shotgun. Looking back out into the sandy ditch from which he’d crawled, he decided to leave it. He got back into the car and locked the doors.
Once more in the familiar, he was confident enough to lean over the backseat and look into the face of his cargo – wrapped as he’d left him. Dell reached over and gave Amenupher a shake, to see if after all these years, he was faking. Just to be certain.
He was going to get rid of this lump. No joke, no great ideas. He’d just drive up to his trailer, pack, and then dump this little tomb-robber at Posey’s. If Posey’d give him money for the stiff, fine. If not, then the wooden Indian would have himself a petrified partner free of charge.
As Dell started down the road, the stench seemed greater. He figured maybe he wouldn’t even try waking Posey. Just dump the corpse on his doorstep and drive off. His heart began it’s tempest throb once more, a heat and burning light in his head. He lost the lights of the highway ahead. The glowing dots danced about him, as he spun the steering wheel frantically to keep the car pointed at the retreating lights.
Through the haze and pain, Dell could not tell if he was any closer to the highway. Was he further? He jammed the gear into park, without braking, coming to a bucking stop, and throwing himself out of the car. He grasped his head.
Again the pug-faced bird swooped on him, wings flashing around his face. He slapped back, windmilling his arms to no effect. He could only scrabble under the car.
The chain of lights ahead were now one, small and flickering. Far away, through the narrow opening. Purpose swept over Dell. The light. If he could only get to the light. He’d have a way out. But out where? He had to crawl. Again the constriction of chest muscle, ribs scraping together. And the light ahead. It seemed closer, or he closer to it. But he had to squirm and wriggle, his arms pinioned by the stone walls that he could feel at his fingertips, now sanding knuckles raw. Where was up? Was he on his back? If he could just make it to the light. With each undulation, abraded by rock, it was nearer, and nearer still. But the air was gone. No air.
In the gallery, Buster sat, now angry and concerned. Dell had not relieved him at six A.M., and it was nearly eight.
Morning sun haloed Dr. Diffley’s arrival through the library to the security alcove, where he greeted Buster.
Buster nodded in reply, certain he could not alibi Dell again.
“Seems stuffy in here. Does it to you?” Dr. Diffley asked, gesturing Buster to follow him into the main area.
“Did Dell keep an eye on the A.C., like I asked?” To which Buster only shrugged, postponing confession.
With a sigh, Dr. Diffley began waving a hand about, searching for dead air.
“If it’s not one thing, it’s another. After this, only local history and Indian artists. I make a deal with the exhibition director for just the stone sarcophagi, and a few items. We sign the papers, and he has a stroke. I go ahead and hire a truck, on my anemic budget, and the driver jams up under the only squatty overpass between here and Idaho.” He’d located the faulty duct. With a versatile picket knife he began unscrewing the grill. “The insurance company and I tremble. They finally send the entire exhibit, we’re squeezed to the walls, and now, no A.C. This just isn’t my semester.”
As the last screw came loose, the grill was pushed from Diffley’s hands. Dell’s head lolled backward, onto the curator – who leapt away from that face, strained, mouth wide, teeth attempting to bite air into starved lungs. Dell’s features were shaded by suffocation, constricted by the ducting, impossibly narrow for his frame sausaged into the conduit.
Dr. Diffley made gurgling, dry heaving sounds, processing this horrid information.
Buster, no less affected, divined an absurd motive, a simple ghastly practical joke, somehow gone nightmarishly wrong. He backed away, casting about the gallery for what could be missing, what might Dell have planned –
The tomb-robber! To be sported about at Dr. Diffley’s expense. He threw himself at the wooden sarcophagus and looked directly into the box.
But Amenupher was there, resting comfortably. Asleep on the job.
Image by Andrew Moore - CC BY-SA 2.0 (image modified from original)
Antique Typewriter photo by Peter Pryharski on Unsplash