Brimstone Kiss (Delilah Street #2)

Chapter 24

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The entryway consisted of a double row of massive black pillars that squeezed out all the Las Vegas sunlight and made you feel your way inward. You felt like an archeologist exploring a lost temple in the noonday sun that drove Englishmen and dogs mad. Vegas could vie with Egypt for that.

As I moved between the close-set columns, my hands started out dancing off the hot stone, and then jerking away from the flash-frozen inner row of pillars that had turned icy cold from the interior air-conditioning.

I never encountered an actual set of doors, but soon stepped into a vast echoing chamber too wide and high to be called a mere lobby. It was more a gigantic reception hall, anchored at the far end by a thirty-foot high statue of Anubis, the jackal-headed god of the dead. Nope, my attacking canines had not been jackals, which had a leaner and less hungry look.

Egyptian figures painted on tomb and temple walls were usually pretty lean and mean and lithe. Their art style of showing bodies facing front and heads in profile made shoulders wide and hips slim, a posture savvy female fashion models adopt today.

The towering statue portrayed Anubis striding forward, a broad-shouldered, slim-hipped hunk of black stone surmounted by a sharp-eared and sharp-muzzled canine head wearing a golden headdress. He carried a gold staff, wore a golden kilt, and matching, uh, accessories and had pointed ears the Big Bad Wolf would envy.

Given the importance of burial rituals to the Egyptians, I shouldn't have been surprised that the Karnak was a massive tomb of a place. Tourists scurried like ants from the gilded reception desk through various painted and hieroglyph-incised interior pillars to the elevators, the Pyramid Tomb Trail, the Sphinx Theater, the Nile Barge Ride, the Valley of the Kings Shopping Mall and the Necropolis Casino.

I edged along the hall's hedging pillars until a steady ching-bah-ching of slot machines overpowered the constant echo of shuffling shoes and raised voices. Hermie had told me not to miss the hall leading to an adjacent high-roller high-rise that was off-limits to the public and the regular staff.

It was lined, he said, by mummy cases-supposedly real mummy cases with real mummies inside-and ended at a chariot of solid gold that was rumored to descend and whisk special guests to a secret lower level crammed with authentic tomb treasure.

What intrigued an ex-reporter the most was the off-limits part, not the glitz and the gold. Not so my silver familiar. Just the thought of treasure had the silver slithering restlessly over my skin, gathering and spreading thin to cover my chest with a wide, cold Egyptian collar, front and back. Like me and the CinSymbs, the thing had an uncanny urge to dress for the proper period surroundings.

There were no mirrors in the corridor except the polished black granite behind the parade of mummy cases on either side. No mirrors meant no mirror magic to use for a quick exit, if I had the ability to use it here and now which, after my talk with Madrigal, I thought iffy anyway.

I eyed the giant coffins on either side. These mummy cases were an awesome seven feet high, many gilded and brightly painted with fantastic creatures and mysterious, to me anyway, hieroglyphs.

At the far end, the golden chariot gleamed, a delicate yet useful object attached to a rearing pair of black marble horses. I couldn't see an exit from the charmed circle where down lights from above made the chariot look like it was constructed from liquid fire.

A nasty series of creaks and rustles kicked up behind me, flowing after me in a distant wave. I was getting close to the chariot and didn't want to turn back to look.

And then something stepped out from around the steed statues, backing its confrontational stance with a basso growl and a hideous laugh that echoed into a roar down the corridor and back again. The laugh would have been Boris Karloff-corny in an old horror movie, but here it was utterly spine-chilling.

This was no indignant high roller upset by some nobody approaching his elite retreat. This was one of the beasts that had attacked me outside the Dead Zone. In the glaring light I could study its powerful, hunched shoulders and fang-filled jaws.

Behind me the rustle and creak had escalated to a constant murmur of oncoming motion. I should be panicking at that eerie flood of sound, like an oncoming infestation of locusts, but I'd been studying more than the chariot in the nearing niche where Toothy might soon floss his fangs with my bones. I'd been analyzing the entire vignette.

Toothy lowered his brutish head, reminding me of a mythical hellhound who guards the gates to horror and despair and eternal torment. I started loping, making my strides long, and then even longer.

With that momentum, I vaulted up and over Toothy's gnashing fangs and into the golden chariot. It shivered on its wheels, but I leaped again, touching the front guardrail with one foot, and pounced onto the back of the nearest stone horse. I was content to balance there for a moment, then slide down to cling, arms and legs braced on the broad back, hands wrapped around the gold leather harness.

Meanwhile, the hellish hyena-hound beneath me was hurtling its powerful but awkward body at the smooth stone stomach of my eight-foot-high mount. Only then did I look over my shoulder, and shudder.

All along the corridor I'd passed, every painted coffin lid had swung open. Talk about unhinged! A mummy had stepped out of each to inspect me. They now stood at attention in two lines that narrowed at the other end, like a vee of flying geese, making a return escape impossible.

I was sealed in by a double line of animated mummies, their age-browned cerements coming undone enough to offer a peek-a-boo look at the dry bones and desiccated skin beneath.

It was a stalemate unless the mummies decided to rush me. Their wrappings were old and frail. I could unravel them quite a bit before they could return the favor with my own plump, moist and firmly attached skin, although I didn't fancy the clawlike look of the hands that had escaped their bindings.

I figured Toothy below me was all muscle and no brain and wouldn't find a way up my mountain of marble horseflesh.

So all I needed was for a human high roller to amble along and pick me up as a good luck piece. No one came, and the mummies remained in formation, not attacking but forbidding retreat. And rescue.

This was beginning to feel disturbingly like house arrest. I couldn't go anywhere and they wouldn't. I propped my feet on the other horse's back and waited, feeling the stone warm to my body heat beneath, even under my aching back. What were the odds that I was the only truly living thing in here?

There is a weird Zen-like feeling you can tap into when it's too late to panic and too early to whine. A treed possum must feel like that. We'd all settled into our assigned places. Even the hyena had stopped filing its nails on marble horsehide and sat quietly below, rather like Quicksilver, waiting.

I supposed I'd ultimately fall asleep and fall off in a couple days, but doubted I'd get that relaxed about my situation. I'd tried my cell phone to contact Ric the minute I was ensconced on the horses, but this stone mausoleum was an "out of service area." No surprise there.

I distracted myself from a panic attack by studying the hyena, which was an odd combination of the canine and the feline. The Egyptians worshipped cats, I knew, and probably liked dogs since their jackal-headed god of the dead, Anubis, was canine. It was hands-down the most fascinating ancient empire on earth and the first great civilization to fall in love with life, death and the afterworld, and the trappings of all. The Egyptians devoted great resources to continue their existence just as it had been before death.

Then I recalled Hector Nightwine's amazing statement about the Egyptians, or about zombies, rather. He said the mystery of how the Egyptians built the pyramids was solved not by huge numbers of slaves or stunning engineering, but by zombie labor.

I eyed my tightly-wrapped honor guard. Really, weren't these mummies just zombies by another name? They were both the walking dead, no matter the culture or time that spawned them. Was one of those embalmed forms down the hall that much different from one of Cicereau's desert-dried hit victims from the forties, give or take a few thousand years?

They were all human remnants who, revived and linked by magic, could pull a barge-sized block of stone as well as anyone alive. I doubted the Egyptians used their embalmed and dressed-for-the-afterlife mummies as grunt labor, though. It would be the bodies of slain enemy armies and never embalmed at all. Zombies weren't good for much else than cannon fodder and stoop labor and mindless rampaging, were they?

All those old forties movies, though, featured an embalmed and disappointed-in-love mummy who awakened to find his lost princess mummy-love and avenge himself on those who'd done him wrong millennia before. He hadn't struck me as the smartest roll of gauze in the sarcophagus. Okay, it was linen.

My mummy guard of honor, though, got the bitumen and bandage treatment; they were a step up from mindless stone-pushers, but not by much.

These specimens were the sad-sack sort, the Scarecrow in multiple just waiting for some Dorothy to come along and liberate them. So who turned them off and on, and released the hyenas? I was being allowed to ride bareback on the chariot horses with limbs intact for a reason.

Something made the hyena perk up its ears, stand up, and then back away. I wasn't sure I wanted to see anything that backed off this mad dog a couple of millennia removed.

From around my steeds' noble chests shuffled a nondescript, pale little man in a baggy white suit, perhaps five feet tall. His hair receded as much as his chin, and with his protruding eyes, it all added up to the look of a deadly snake.

The hyena began a low cackling that made the hairs on my neck, head, and not-recently-enough shaved legs stand up. That'll teach a girl to neglect personal beauty routines, Irma whispered, just as the snaky little guy spoke.

Why was I not surprised that he used a soft lisp that slithered over the marble walls in a sibilant echo?

"You're trespassing on private hotel areas, miss. You are also mocking and defacing a sacred tomb fixture."

"I'm saving my ankles for leaving as soon as I can." I said, nodded at the cackling hyena.

"Tut," the little man said.

"I'm serious. That thing was ready to chop me off at the kneecaps."

"Tut," he repeated, regarding the spotted hyena. "Stand down."

The creature burst out in eerie, ugly laughter and then stepped back against the wall, on guard with the mummies.

The man regarded me with large, sorrowful eyes drowning in upper and lower bags. His gaze was as intense as Perry Mason's, but chillingly regretful. "I'm afraid I'll have to take you to the reception hall, even though you are not an invited guest."

Now I knew him! The reflected amber glow of the golden chariot had bathed his pale complexion and clothes in its glory. He was a CinSim, but one of such a monochromatic ashen gray that his borrowed 24 karat tan had made him look warm-complexioned and human. My vintage fan mania makes me nothing but a quick study when it comes to CinSims.

"Mr. Ugarte, I presume," I said, naming his character from the film, Casablanca, in which he'd worn the same white, sweat-stained tropical suit he wore now. I didn't forget that Peter Lorre's other iconic film role-another Bogart classic-had been as the greedy thief, Joel Cairo, in The Maltese Falcon. And that title bird was a black figurine that, despite its fictional sixteenth century origins, looked very much like a depiction of the Egyptian god Horus, the falcon.

Of course Peter Lorre would be here at the Karnak in CinSim form! He was a natural. And he veered from playing truly creepy villains to effete, slimy losers. Luckily, Ugarte had been the latter.

"Let me help you down, miss." He extended a small, soft hand.

I hesitated. The Lorre/Ugarte hand was eons better than a blackened claw, but I was still freaked from taking Dracula's cold, cold hand not long ago.

"I won't bite," he lisped like a back alley seducer.

"No, but Tut will."

"Not now. Come down."

The trouble with wanting to go where you're not supposed to go is not being able to leave when you're found out. I braced my hands on my horse's broad hindquarters and slid down its swelling side to the floor, grabbing onto the real leather harness to ease the impact.

"This chariot is the biggest funerary item I've ever seen, even on PBS."

"You should see the hundred-and-fifty-foot-long funeral barges. The Karnak contains much that is fabulous and rare and beyond price," Ugarte spoke with the limpid lust of a small-time thief, "but most of that is not open to the public."

"I saw a big sign for an artifact exhibition off the, er, lobby."

"That is open to the public at twenty dollars a head"- he surveyed mine as if referring to literally detached heads-"but you will have a private audience. A pity. The management is quite severe with tomb robbers."

"I wasn't going to take anything!"

"Even memories can be stolen, alas."

"I forget a lot. I've already forgotten most of my childhood and school years."

"Is that true?" Those glassy eyes stared at me without blinking. "I'll mention that to the twined godheads, but you are hardly able to swear that your adult experiences are as forgettable as your youthful ones."

"No," I agreed, thinking of all the dangerous, dead- and therefore memorable-individuals and circumstances I'd encountered here in post-Millennium Revelation Las Vegas in just a few weeks. "I can't."

I watched Lorre pull down on one of the horse's reins. A soft whirr of gears had the chariot and its horses sinking like a stage effect-in fact, Las Vegas was full of stage effects that lowered much more extensive scenery to the regions below. I doubted we were headed for a simple backstage area.

I was glad to see Tut's drool-slavered snout snapping fruitlessly above as the animal peered down into the pit our departure created. Lucky I'd left Quicksilver home. He was a mighty dog, but the Karnak hyena was creepily supernatural, and that was even without knowing whether it was a shapeshifter or not.

Lorre stopped to light a torch on the wall with a pack of matches impressed with the name Karnak in bold type. Matches?

Grab 'em, Irma advised. Might come in handy in this low-tech dungeon.

Irma usually didn't come out to advise me unless the situation was erotically dangerous or physically perilous, I'd come to realize. Call her a foul weather friend.

A stroll by torchlight with a Peter Lorre CinSim through the innards of a reconstructed ancient Egyptian temple was definitely not hot, so I slipped a hand into his baggy jacket pocket and snagged the matchbook for a souvenir.

The yellow stone road was a smooth ramp that led upward. The passage was narrow and harrowing to anyone with a smidge of claustrophobia. I'd never had an opportunity to test my score on that, but was beginning to pay attention to my breathing rate.

"You see, miss," Ugarte was droning like a bored tour guide, "this is a true pathway of the dead. No civilization since the Egyptians has quite given the afterlife its due. That is why the modern world is so fascinated by all things Egyptian.

"And now you will see what few humans have, the last and most glorious embodiments of the gods honored in the temple of Karnak."

    

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