“I take it the ‘monster’ has horns?” Sully asked.
“Like a bull,” Melissa said, nodding happily. “Yes, it does.”
While they continued to marvel over the tablets and translate certain bits, Drake turned to the other side of the antechamber. A single stone block had given way, but given that each one weighed about fifteen hundred pounds, putting it back in place would be a great deal of work. Sand from above had filled in that corner of the room, and he saw the brushes and other implements that Melissa and Guillermo had been using to free the tablets and other artifacts that had been discovered in this antechamber. The walls were covered with glyphs and paintings here as well, but what drew Drake’s full attention was the vase caught in the packed sand.
Melissa and Guillermo had unearthed about half the vase. It was intricately painted, and he knew that without a doubt, the contents of the labyrinth would constitute one of the greatest historical finds of the modern era—perhaps the greatest. The vase was incredibly well preserved.
He picked up a brush and took a closer look. A figure had been partially revealed—that of the Mistress of the Labyrinth, he thought, since it matched the figure on the base of the altar in the worship chamber. She held a jar or chalice in front of her, proffering it to someone whose hands were visible, though the rest of the other figure was covered with sand.
Drake had a pretty good idea who that other figure must be.
He started to brush at the vase. Some of the sand was tightly packed, and though he was careful, he had to brush a bit more vigorously. He needed a little elbow grease, so he leaned his knees against the piled sand, which had remained undisturbed for thousands of years.
“Hey, dude, get away from there,” the grad student Guillermo said angrily, ducking his head back into the antechamber.
Melissa turned to stare at him in annoyance. Drake smiled and held up his hands.
“No harm done. But I think I found—”
The sand gave way. He started to tumble forward and caught himself by planting his hands on either side of the vase, feeling triumphant because he hadn’t damaged it. Triumphant for half a second before the vase and all the sand around it dropped as if sucked into the floor.
Drake let out a yell as he fell after it, spilling into a shaft.
Hands grabbed his legs, then his belt. As the sand sifted around him, trying to suck him down, whoever had hold of him prevented him from falling into the shaft after the vase and the granite block it had sat on and at least a few other tablets that he glimpsed before they were swallowed by the darkness below. He heard something crack and knew he had just broken a piece of history.
“Whoops!” he said.
“You stupid son of a bitch!” Melissa snapped. “What did you think you were doing?”
The upper half of Drake’s body still hung down inside the shaft. The hands started to pull him out. In the dim reflected light from the bulbs strung in the antechamber, he saw a painting on the wall of a figure that he could not mistake for any other.
“Guys?” he said. “You’re gonna want to take a look at this.”
“What did you find?” Ian Welch asked.
Drake grunted as they dragged him out, and he turned over, lying on the sandy floor, to find them all staring at him. But when he spoke, his focus was on Jada.
Drake looked around for something to lower himself down into the shaft. He glanced at Sully and Jada, saw the gleam of discovery in their eyes, and knew they didn’t have a moment to lose. Henriksen might be there any moment, with the authority to throw them out or even have them arrested. Whatever the dig turned up would be his to do with as he wished. There would be restrictions—the Egyptian government would see to that—but wealth had a way of bypassing rules. If the secrets Luka had sought were here, not to mention treasure, they needed to hurry.
“Welch, I need a rope or a ladder and a light,” he said.
Melissa had been bent over, shining a heavy-duty flashlight into the shaft, examining the painted Minotaur on the interior wall. Now she glanced up sharply, and she and Guillermo exchanged an uncomfortable look.
“Sorry, Professor Merrill,” Melissa said to Drake, shaking her head. “You’re an observer. We can’t allow you to—”
“Guillermo,” Welch interrupted, staring at the shaft. “Run out to the breach and get one of the ladders the workers use.”
Even the photographer, Alan, seemed surprised. “Dr. Welch, you’re not going to let him descend the shaft?”
They were all hesitating. Welch turned toward Guillermo and gestured for him to hurry.
“Go quickly. Come on, move it!”
With a worried look toward Melissa, Guillermo dashed away. They heard his footsteps echoing along the corridor. The tension between Welch and his associate was palpable. Melissa looked as if she wanted to speak to him in private, but there was no privacy to be found in such a cramped space. Even if they went out of the worship chamber and around the first corner, whispers carried in this place like the voices of ghosts.
Alan set up his camera and started to take photos of the open shaft and the paintings in its gullet. Sully had continued to investigate the antechamber, searching for any other secrets the place might hold. Jada gave Melissa an awkward, apologetic look, and Welch only stood, vibrating with anticipation and the need for Guillermo to be swift. The way things had turned out, he would never be able to hide the fact that Jada Hzujak had been here or cover the lie about Sully and Drake being from the Smithsonian. He might be able to pretend he had been duped by them, and if it would help, Drake would be happy to back up the lie. But chances were good that unless they could uncover the truth about Luka and Cheney’s murders, Ian Welch had destroyed his career today. If there were secrets below, he was damn well going to get them before Tyr Henriksen did.
“Listen,” Drake said to Melissa, “we’re not amateurs. Once we’re in the chamber down there, you can pretend we’re shadows on the wall. We won’t get in the way.”
Melissa gave him a look normally reserved for alcoholic circus clowns and reality TV stars with delusions of grandeur. “Really?” she asked. “You’re not amateurs? Then what do you call the crap you just pulled?”
Drake winced, glancing at the shaft and thinking about the vase and other priceless artifacts he’d probably just destroyed. He saw Jada give a single nod as if to say, She’s got you there.
“I call that discovery,” Drake replied, trying for a charming smile, an effort that obviously fell short. “You had no idea the shaft was there. This could be the breakthrough you’ve been waiting for.”
“And we could’ve waited another few days while we explored this chamber properly,” Melissa said, her irritation only growing. She turned to Welch. “Ian, please. I know these people are your friends, but—”
“That’s enough, Melissa,” Welch said coldly.