There's a fine line between coincidence and fate.
The Mummy Returns
Once upon a time, a long, long time ago--in fact, in the Sixth Dynasty, which was way before anyone used the phrase once upon a time--there was a beautiful princess. But like all beautiful princesses, not to mention everyone else on the planet, Princess Merneith fell prey to time and tide, and she eventually wound up in the Lasse Dime Museum in Walsh, Wyoming. Population 1999.
I know what you're thinking, but there are worse places you could wind up, I guess, including--according to legend--as fuel for the locomotive fires upon which some of the princess's kinfolk landed when railroads were built across Egypt.
Merneith's empty eye sockets stared up at me from the browned linen swaddling coyly concealing the rest of her petrified features. I leaned closer, nose nearly pressing the glass lid of the display case. She was so tiny inside that bundle of rags...
"How art the mighty fallen," a voice murmured from behind me.
I didn't quite jump, but I did straighten so fast I almost decapitated myself on the strategically placed Indian tomahawk display. I'd thought I was alone in the exhibit room. As it was, it took me a few seconds to locate the source of the voice in the surrounding jumble of shrunken heads, taxidermy and miscellaneous junk. A plump, elderly woman, her gray hair in short braids, regarded me with hopeful expectancy.
"Did you say something?" I asked. I was hoping it was her and not one of the stuffed critters.
She smiled. I was struck by the beauty of her eyes. Despite her evident age, they were a wide and sparkling aquamarine.
"The princess." She nodded at the display case. "Kind of looks like a piece of driftwood, doesn't she?"
"Well, I never really th--"
"You're with the film crew?"
She was so eager, I was sorry to have to disappoint her. "No." I couldn't help asking, "What film crew?"
"You're not with the film crew? Aren't they coming?"
"I don't know." She seemed so anxious I felt like I should apologize. Or at least explain. "I'm Drew Lawson. I wrote Dr. Solvani about examining the princess."
She looked as uncomprehending as the glassy-eyed stuffed beaver on the pedestal behind her.
"I'm writing a paper on her. The princess."
"Oh? Babe Jenson." She offered a hand and pumped mine energetically. "Dr. Solvani is so forgetful these days. Didn't say a word to me."
My heart sank. This sounded like a delay in the making--and I was on a tight schedule. Even tighter than usual. "He didn't?"
She was shaking her head regretfully. "Nope. I'm afraid the doctor must have forgotten all about the mysterious people too."
"That would be me." The new voice was suave and male. It belonged to a stocky young guy about my age with sandy hair, neatly trimmed beard and long-lashed hazel eyes.
"Oh, thank heavens," Babe exclaimed. "I was starting to worry about you."
That seemed to be the looked-for response. The guy gazed at me expectantly.
"Er... Hi." I nodded politely, convinced by now that everyone in this little shop of horrors was wacko.
"Fraser Fortune," he prodded.
"Hi," I repeated.
His confident smile faltered. "Fraser. Fortune. The Mysterious."
I thought I was conveying polite inquiry, but maybe I just looked hard of hearing. He repeated forcefully, "THE. MYSTERIOUS."
"The mysterious what?" Now I was getting impatient too. Anyway, what kind of a name was Fraser Fortune? It sounded like the hero of one of those goofy old 1920s adventure novels. Dick Daring and the Lost City. Dick Daring in the Foreign Legion, Dick Daring and the Secret of the Moldering Museum.
Dick--er, Fraser--was now looking at me with disgust. "The Mysterious. It's only one of the top-rated documentary series on TV right now."
I snorted. "You mean that thing where they supposedly investigate ancient, weird or paranormal phenomenon and then wrap it all up in half an hour for the at-home viewers?"
His rosy complexion faded. He drew himself up to his full height--he was just a fraction shorter than me. "Yeah. That long-running, top-rated, award-winning thing that I produce, write and host."
Babe's chuckle interrupted our exchange of civilities. "Now, I thought for sure you must be a TV person. You're so handsome."
Fraser and I turned as though we'd choreographed our moves. She was beaming at me. I heard Fraser hitch a little breath. I reached in my pocket for my glasses and slipped them on.
"No. I'm a college professor. Do you think I could talk to Dr. Solvani?"
Babe looked apologetic in the face of my mounting desperation. "Dr. Solvani didn't come in today. The doctor usually doesn't come in on..." her voice lowered, "...this day."
"Halloween," Fraser supplied irritably. He didn't actually add dumbshit, but the implication was clear.
I ignored him. Pointedly. "Do you have a way of getting in touch with him? This was all supposed to be arranged--"
Even before I finished speaking, Babe was shaking her head, her braids flying out with the vehemence of her feeling. "No. Oh no. I'm afraid Dr. Solvani can't be reached."
Fraser continued to stand there openly listening to our conversation. I gave him a discouraging look. It flew right over his head like a twittering soul departing for the Underworld.
"Well..." I chewed my lip. Fraser and Babe watched me as though waiting for something. "Then may I go ahead and examine the princess? It's supposed to be all ar--"
"No way," Fraser interrupted.
"No way." He met my look with one equally stony. "We're filming here today. We're just about to start setting our equipment up."
"That's true." Babe, uncomfortable and apologetic, was suddenly avoiding my gaze. She used the corner of her flowered smock to wipe dust off the edge of a credenza.
"But I've got Dr. Solvani's letter right here." I unzipped my day planner.
"And I've got a signed contract."
I stared at Fraser. He stared right back, and beneath that cocky, self-satisfied grin was a purpose harder than Egyptian basalt.
It galled me to have to try and conciliate him when the antipathy between us had been instant and instinctive, but I could see from Babe's unhappy expression that if I wanted to examine the princess, I'd need Fraser's cooperation.
"It won't take me very long. Probably no more than an hour at most. If I promise to stay out of everyone's way--"
He was shaking his head. The look of fake regret on his boyish face made me want to strangle him.
"Look." I tried for a pleasant, reasonable tone. I think I managed constrained. "I'm only here for the day. I'm flying out tomorrow morning."
He spread his hands and shrugged in a sorry-no-can-do.
He was only too pleased to spell it all out. "Because it's not practical, for one thing. We're going to be setting up lights and cameras and reflectors and mics. The crew is going to be moving around. And the focus of all that is Princess Merneith. Okay? So we can't have you sitting there in the middle of everything with your tape measure and chainsaw."
"Tape measure and chainsaw?" I remembered that pleasant, reasonable people didn't shout. "I'm not dismembering her. I just want to examine the mummy and take a few photos."
I turned to Babe. I could see by her expression she wished I hadn't. "I'm...erm...sorry," she stammered. "Mr. Fortune does have a contract."
"And I have a letter and permission from Dr. Solvani." I knew I was wasting my breath, but on top of my genuine frustration with not being able to accomplish what I'd traveled a thousand miles to do, I really, really hated to let that arrogant prick, Fraser Fortune, win this bout.
"You could come back Sunday," Babe offered. "You can have the museum all to yourself."
Like that would be an issue? The place was a tomb. Literally.
"I'll be in San Francisco on Sunday. I have a garden party to attend." I winced inwardly even as their expressions altered. I didn't mean it to come out sounding like Lord Whipplesniffle looking down his long nose at the serfs. As a matter of fact, the last thing I wanted was to go to this fucking garden party. But Noah had basically made it an ultimatum.
"Of course you do," Fraser drawled.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Actually I had a pretty good idea what it was supposed to mean.
He smirked, and I reminded myself that pleasant, reasonable people do not punch each other either, even if one of them was totally begging for it. The funny thing was, I'd sort of had the impression that he might be gay. It seemed the old gaydar was on the blink.
If a shrug could be insolent, Fraser's was. "Just that you look like the kind of guy who would spend an afternoon at a garden party and then go home and watch PBS while you sip sherry in your smoking jacket and ascot."
Oh yeah, I'd've dearly loved to smack him in that rosebud-shaped mouth of his. He had perfectly straight little white teeth. Almost like baby teeth. They were too cute--like I imagined he was, hosting his god-awful TV show. Now that I thought about it, I did sort of recognize him from the obnoxious ads for his stupid show.
Oh sweet mystery of life! That was their idiot slogan. Usually flung from the grinning lips of Mr. Fortune as he was hanging upside down or falling off a mountain or leaping out of range of something potentially poisonous.
"Now, now," Babe said nervously, reading my expression correctly. "I'm sure no one needs to get nasty. Mr. Fortune, maybe you could let Mr. Lawson--"
"Doctor Lawson, I mean." She turned pink, and I felt like more of an ass than ever. I honestly wasn't the kind of guy who felt he needed to impress people with his title. I think maybe I said it because I knew it would irritate Fraser--and I could see by the mulish set of his jaw that it did.
But that really didn't do me any good because it just made him all the more determined to thwart me. "Sorry," he was saying, shaking his head. "Can't help you. Nothing personal."
I stared at him. He stared right back. Enjoying his moment of triumph.
"Fine." I said to Babe, "If Dr. Solvani should call--"
But she was shaking her head too.
I left them in the shadowy bowels of the museum like two bobblehead dolls commiserating with each other.
The princess slept on in her glass coffin.
Swell. Now what?
I left the museum and stalked out to the small shady parking lot. There were a total of five vehicles including a battered white van at the far end which looked like it hadn't moved in a decade, a small blue Prius, and my rental car. My rental was nearly boxed in by a large black van which had the words The Mysterious and a website URL painted in silver and purple with sparkly wingdings. Three guys were unloading gear down a ramp and carrying it to the ivy-covered front porch of the museum. The fifth car was a vintage station wagon. It was parked near the van. Two lanky, long-haired blonde girls in bell-bottoms were exchanging clipboards and laughing. Everybody seemed to be in very good humor, which made me feel all the more morose.
What the hell was I supposed to do with myself for the next twenty-two hours? Walsh seemed pretty limited in its entertainment options. My motel didn't even offer pay-per-view.
I stared across the street at the feed-store sign swinging lazily in the autumn breeze. On the other side of the museum was a small park. Through the wall of trees I could hear childish voices shrieking something that could have been pleasure or could have been outrage.
If it wasn't for Noah's mother's garden party, I'd change my flight reservation, but missing that shindig was not an option. Not if I wanted to save my relationship with Noah--and I certainly did. How could Noah doubt it?
In fact, if anyone should be feeling insecure--
But neither of us should feel insecure because we loved each other. We were just going through a rough patch, and the disapproval of his family and the doubts of some of our colleagues didn't help.
One of the girls standing by the van smiled at me. I smiled back automatically. She perked up.
Oops. Enough of that. I hunted for my keys and continued briskly on to my car. Maybe I could use my stay in Purgatory to catch up on some other work. I'd go back to the hotel, treat myself to a decent lunch, maybe have a nap, and then I'd see if I could get any work done. It seemed like I was always running behind on some project or other these days.
And this evening I'd find something to entertain myself. I'd noticed on my drive through town that their little theater was showing a vintage double feature of Boris Karloff in The Mummy and Bela Lugosi in Dracula. That might be fun. A refreshing change from Rocky Horror Picture Show, anyway.
And, yes, it was a drag to have wasted the money and time on a flight to Wyoming when Noah and I could have spent this weekend together and gone to a couple of the Halloween faculty parties we'd been invited to--or even stayed home with the lights off. We didn't have many home-alone nights lately. Not together anyway.
I climbed in the rental, turned the key in the ignition and began the slow process of maneuvering my way out from behind the equipment van. No way in hell was I asking them to move for me, although I wasn't sure why since it would have inconvenienced them nicely, but it was a matter of pride to be able to angle my way out of that slot.
The girl who had smiled at me came around and mimed asking the truck to move. I shook my head decidedly. No way. Everything under control.
She chewed nervously on her pen as I continued to edge past the immaculate paint job and gleaming chrome.
At last I was clear. I threw one last reluctant look back at the ivy-draped front of the museum. Fraser Fortune stood on the porch beneath the faded sign that proclaimed Lasse Dime Museum in letters the color of dried blood. He seemed to be looking for something in the parking lot, and apparently it was me.
He put his hand up in unspoken command, came down the steps and started briskly across the shady lot. He passed his crew, and they called out various smart-aleck comments. He grinned good-humoredly and tossed back equally unflattering observations.
As Fraser reached my car, I pressed the button and the automatic window rolled down. He leaned into the car, resting his hands on the window frame, his head level with mine.
"Uh, look," he said.
I looked. His lashes were very long and gold-tipped, his skin smooth and lightly tanned. His beard was the color of ripe wheat. He smelled surprisingly nice, although I couldn't quite place the scent. White tea and lemon blossom and sunlit ocean? Clean.
"Maybe we can help each other."
"How's that?" I asked warily.
"It just occurred to me..."
I watched him narrowly. He was right in my personal space. His lashes flicked up, he met my eyes, his lashes flicked down. My unease grew.
"She's right. Babe, I mean. You're...probably pretty photogenic. You've got that cheekbone thing. Assuming you don't turn into a total dweeb on camera, we could use you. We like to interview experts for each segment, and you clearly think you're an expert."
Gee, what a people pleaser this guy was. "What is it you'd want from me?"
His cheeks got a little pinker. "I just told you. You can examine the princess, but we'll film you doing it. Then I'll interview you."
He looked straight at me. "No, I'm not kidding. Why not?"
What was he doing leaning in my car window? He was practically in my face, practically close enough to rub noses.
A bizarre thought. I talked myself away from it. "Do you know what publish or perish means?"
He shrugged--or would have had there been enough space. "Yeah. Of course. It's the code you sheltered academic types live by. You have to publish enough books and scholarly articles in whatever your field is so your department heads think you're worth keeping around."
"Ha. Well, you're right. Sort of. Getting enough articles published in the right places can make a difference between getting tenure and not getting tenure. But all the scholarly academic articles in the world won't help me get tenure if I turn up on your monster-of-the-week show."
Far from insulted, Fraser smiled complacently. "I knew you'd seen the show."
"I've seen enough to know what your show is about." I mimicked him on those stupid ads. "Oooh. Sweet mystery of life!"
His eyes narrowed. "You don't have to strike a pose. I'm not ashamed of what I do. I'm offering you a big opportunity."
"Well, thanks. But no thanks."
He rose too fast and banged his head on the roof of the car. "Ouch." He rubbed the back of his head. "God, you are such an arrogant ass."
That stung. I didn't care what he thought of me, but I wasn't arrogant. "I am not. All I'm saying is that your show is not exactly about scholarship."
"How would you know? According to you, you've never actually watched it." He stopped rubbing his head and glared at me.
It wasn't so much that he was right, it was the fact that just for a second he looked genuinely hurt.
I said, "Answer me this. Why are you here?"
"To do a segment on the princess."
He looked uncomfortable. It was fleeting, but I knew I didn't imagine it. "Because she's interesting."
"She's four thousand years old. She's not Princess Diana. She's a mummy."
"So's Princess Diana by now."
That time I didn't bother to hide my distaste, although I was vaguely surprised to hear my tongue cluck in the exact same sound Noah made when he disapproved of something. "You're doing a segment on the princess's mummy because of that idiotic story about a curse."
His hazel eyes kindled with the light of the true fanatic. "What if it's not just a story?"
"Oh come on."
Fraser said with every appearance of sincerity, "It might not be just a story. We've got a number of eyewitness accounts."
"Of what?" I curled my lip. "What do these supposed eyewitnesses say?"
"They say that every October thirty-first, the princess rises from her grave."