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The Red Pyramid, Page 2

Rick Riordan

  Dad stiffened. He glanced at me like he was wondering how much we’d overheard.

  “It’s nothing,” he said, trying to sound upbeat. “I have a wonderful evening planned. Who’d like a private tour of the British Museum?”

  Sadie slumped in the back of the taxi between Dad and me.

  “I can’t believe it,” she grumbled. “One evening together, and you want to do research.”

  Dad tried for a smile. “Sweetheart, it’ll be fun. The curator of the Egyptian collection personally invited—”

  “Right, big surprise.” Sadie blew a strand of red-streaked hair out of her face. “Christmas Eve, and we’re going to see some moldy old relics from Egypt. Do you ever think about anything else?”

  Dad didn’t get mad. He never gets mad at Sadie. He just stared out the window at the darkening sky and the rain.

  “Yes,” he said quietly. “I do.”

  Whenever Dad got quiet like that and stared off into nowhere, I knew he was thinking about our mom. The last few months, it had been happening a lot. I’d walk into our hotel room and find him with his cell phone in his hands, Mom’s picture smiling up at him from the screen—her hair tucked under a headscarf, her blue eyes startlingly bright against the desert backdrop.

  Or we’d be at some dig site. I’d see Dad staring at the horizon, and I’d know he was remembering how he’d met her—two young scientists in the Valley of the Kings, on a dig to discover a lost tomb. Dad was an Egyptologist. Mom was an anthropologist looking for ancient DNA. He’d told me the story a thousand times.

  Our taxi snaked its way along the banks of the Thames. Just past Waterloo Bridge, my dad tensed.

  “Driver,” he said. “Stop here a moment.”

  The cabbie pulled over on the Victoria Embankment.

  “What is it, Dad?” I asked.

  He got out of the cab like he hadn’t heard me. When Sadie and I joined him on the sidewalk, he was staring up at Cleopatra’s Needle.

  In case you’ve never seen it: the Needle is an obelisk, not a needle, and it doesn’t have anything to do with Cleopatra. I guess the British just thought the name sounded cool when they brought it to London. It’s about seventy feet tall, which would’ve been really impressive back in Ancient Egypt, but on the Thames, with all the tall buildings around, it looks small and sad. You could drive right by it and not even realize you’d just passed something that was a thousand years older than the city of London.

  “God.” Sadie walked around in a frustrated circle. “Do we have to stop for every monument?”

  My dad stared at the top of the obelisk. “I had to see it again,” he murmured. “Where it happened...”

  A freezing wind blew off the river. I wanted to get back in the cab, but my dad was really starting to worry me. I’d never seen him so distracted.

  “What, Dad?” I asked. “What happened here?”

  “The last place I saw her.”

  Sadie stopped pacing. She scowled at me uncertainly, then back at Dad. “Hang on. Do you mean Mum?”

  Dad brushed Sadie’s hair behind her ear, and she was so surprised, she didn’t even push him away.

  I felt like the rain had frozen me solid. Mom’s death had always been a forbidden subject. I knew she’d died in an accident in London. I knew my grandparents blamed my dad. But no one would ever tell us the details. I’d given up asking my dad, partly because it made him so sad, partly because he absolutely refused to tell me anything. “When you’re older” was all he would say, which was the most frustrating response ever.

  “You’re telling us she died here,” I said. “At Cleopatra’s Needle? What happened?”

  He lowered his head.

  “Dad!” Sadie protested. “I go past this every day, and you mean to say—all this time—and I didn’t even know?”

  “Do you still have your cat?” Dad asked her, which seemed like a really stupid question.

  “Of course I’ve still got the cat!” she said. “What does that have to do with anything?”

  “And your amulet?”

  Sadie’s hand went to her neck. When we were little, right before Sadie went to live with our grandparents, Dad had given us both Egyptian amulets. Mine was an Eye of Horus, which was a popular protection symbol in Ancient Egypt.

  In fact my dad says the modern pharmacist’s symbol is a simplified version of the Eye of Horus, because medicine is supposed to protect you.

  Anyway, I always wore my amulet under my shirt, but I figured Sadie would’ve lost hers or thrown it away.

  To my surprise, she nodded. “’Course I have it, Dad, but don’t change the subject. Gran’s always going on about how you caused Mum’s death. That’s not true, is it?”

  We waited. For once, Sadie and I wanted exactly the same thing—the truth.

  “The night your mother died,” my father started, “here at the Needle—”

  A sudden flash illuminated the embankment. I turned, half blind, and just for a moment I glimpsed two figures: a tall pale man with a forked beard and wearing cream-colored robes, and a coppery-skinned girl in dark blue robes and a headscarf—the kind of clothes I’d seen hundreds of times in Egypt. They were just standing there side by side, not twenty feet away, watching us. Then the light faded. The figures melted into a fuzzy afterimage. When my eyes readjusted to the darkness, they were gone.

  “Um...” Sadie said nervously. “Did you just see that?”

  “Get in the cab,” my dad said, pushing us toward the curb. “We’re out of time.”

  From that point on, Dad clammed up.

  “This isn’t the place to talk,” he said, glancing behind us. He’d promised the cabbie an extra ten pounds if he got us to the museum in under five minutes, and the cabbie was doing his best.

  “Dad,” I tried, “those people at the river—”

  “And the other bloke, Amos,” Sadie said. “Are they Egyptian police or something?”

  “Look, both of you,” Dad said, “I’m going to need your help tonight. I know it’s hard, but you have to be patient. I’ll explain everything, I promise, after we get to the museum. I’m going to make everything right again.”

  “What do you mean?” Sadie insisted. “Make what right?”

  Dad’s expression was more than sad. It was almost guilty. With a chill, I thought about what Sadie had said: about our grandparents blaming him for Mom’s death. That couldn’t be what he was talking about, could it?

  The cabbie swerved onto Great Russell Street and screeched to a halt in front of the museum’s main gates.

  “Just follow my lead,” Dad told us. “When we meet the curator, act normal.”

  I was thinking that Sadie never acted normal, but I decided not to say anything.

  We climbed out of the cab. I got our luggage while Dad paid the driver with a big wad of cash. Then he did something strange. He threw a handful of small objects into the backseat—they looked like stones, but it was too dark for me to be sure. “Keep driving,” he told the cabbie. “Take us to Chelsea.”

  That made no sense since we were already out of the cab, but the driver sped off. I glanced at Dad, then back at the cab, and before it turned the corner and disappeared in the dark, I caught a weird glimpse of three passengers in the backseat: a man and two kids.

  I blinked. There was no way the cab could’ve picked up another fare so fast. “Dad—”

  “London cabs don’t stay empty very long,” he said matter-of-factly. “Come along, kids.”

  He marched off through the wrought iron gates. For a second, Sadie and I hesitated.

  “Carter, what is going on?”

  I shook my head. “I’m not sure I want to know.”

  “Well, stay out here in the cold if you want, but I’m not leaving without an explanation.” She turned and marched after our dad.

  Looking back on it, I should’ve run. I should’ve dragged Sadie out of there and gotten as far away as possible. Instead I followed her through the gates.

  C A

  2. An Explosion for Christmas

  I’D BEEN TO THE BRITISH MUSEM BEFORE. In fact I’ve been in more museums than I like to admit—it makes me sound like a total geek.

  [That’s Sadie in the background, yelling that I am a total geek. Thanks, Sis.]

  Anyway, the museum was closed and completely dark, but the curator and two security guards were waiting for us on the front steps.

  “Dr. Kane!” The curator was a greasy little dude in a cheap suit. I’d seen mummies with more hair and better teeth. He shook my dad’s hand like he was meeting a rock star. “Your last paper on Imhotep—brilliant! I don’t know how you translated those spells!”

  “Im-ho-who?” Sadie muttered to me.

  “Imhotep,” I said. “High priest, architect. Some say he was a magician. Designed the first step pyramid. You know.”

  “Don’t know,” Sadie said. “Don’t care. But thanks.”

  Dad expressed his gratitude to the curator for hosting us on a holiday. Then he put his hand on my shoulder. “Dr. Martin, I’d like you to meet Carter and Sadie.”

  “Ah! Your son, obviously, and—” The curator looked hesitantly at Sadie. “And this young lady?”

  “My daughter,” Dad said.

  Dr. Martin’s stare went temporarily blank. Doesn’t matter how open-minded or polite people think they are, there’s always that moment of confusion that flashes across their faces when they realize Sadie is part of our family. I hate it, but over the years I’ve come to expect it.

  The curator regained his smile. “Yes, yes, of course. Right this way, Dr. Kane. We’re very honored!”

  The security guards locked the doors behind us. They took our luggage, then one of them reached for Dad’s workbag.

  “Ah, no,” Dad said with a tight smile. “I’ll keep this one.”

  The guards stayed in the foyer as we followed the curator into the Great Court. It was ominous at night. Dim light from the glass-domed ceiling cast crosshatched shadows across the walls like a giant spiderweb. Our footsteps clicked on the white marble floor.

  “So,” Dad said, “the stone.”

  “Yes!” the curator said. “Though I can’t imagine what new information you could glean from it. It’s been studied to death—our most famous artifact, of course.”

  “Of course,” Dad said. “But you may be surprised.”

  “What’s he on about now?” Sadie whispered to me.

  I didn’t answer. I had a sneaking suspicion what stone they were talking about, but I couldn’t figure out why Dad would drag us out on Christmas Eve to see it.

  I wondered what he’d been about to tell us at Cleopatra’s Needle—something about our mother and the night she died. And why did he keep glancing around as if he expected those strange people we’d seen at the Needle to pop up again? We were locked in a museum surrounded by guards and high-tech security. Nobody could bother us in here—I hoped.

  We turned left into the Egyptian wing. The walls were lined with massive statues of the pharaohs and gods, but my dad bypassed them all and went straight for the main attraction in the middle of the room.

  “Beautiful,” my father murmured. “And it’s not a replica?”

  “No, no,” the curator promised. “We don’t always keep the actual stone on display, but for you—this is quite real.”

  We were staring at a slab of dark gray rock about three feet tall and two feet wide. It sat on a pedestal, encased in a glass box. The flat surface of the stone was chiseled with three distinct bands of writing. The top part was Ancient Egyptian picture writing: hieroglyphics. The middle section...I had to rack my brain to remember what my dad called it: Demotic, a kind of writing from the period when the Greeks controlled Egypt and a lot of Greek words got mixed into Egyptian. The last lines were in Greek.

  “The Rosetta Stone,” I said.

  “Isn’t that a computer program?” Sadie asked.

  I wanted to tell her how stupid she was, but the curator cut me off with a nervous laugh. “Young lady, the Rosetta Stone was the key to deciphering hieroglyphics! It was discovered by Napoleon’s army in 1799 and—”

  “Oh, right,” Sadie said. “I remember now.”

  I knew she was just saying that to shut him up, but my dad wouldn’t let it go.

  “Sadie,” he said, “until this stone was discovered, regular, I mean, no one had been able to read hieroglyphics for centuries. The written language of Egypt had been completely forgotten. Then an Englishman named Thomas Young proved that the Rosetta Stone’s three languages all conveyed the same message. A Frenchman named Champollion took up the work and cracked the code of hieroglyphics.”

  Sadie chewed her gum, unimpressed. “What’s it say, then?”

  Dad shrugged. “Nothing important. It’s basically a thank-you letter from some priests to King Ptolemy V. When it was first carved, the stone was no big deal. But over the centuries...over the centuries it has become a powerful symbol. Perhaps the most important connection between Ancient Egypt and the modern world. I was a fool not to realize its potential sooner.”

  He’d lost me, and apparently the curator too.

  “Dr. Kane?” he asked. “Are you quite all right?”

  Dad breathed deeply. “My apologies, Dr. Martin. I was just...thinking aloud. If I could have the glass removed? And if you could bring me the papers I asked for from your archives.”

  Dr. Martin nodded. He pressed a code into a small remote control, and the front of the glass box clicked open.

  “It will take a few minutes to retrieve the notes,” Dr. Martin said. “For anyone else, I would hesitate to grant unguarded access to the stone, as you’ve requested. I trust you’ll be careful.”

  He glanced at us kids like we were troublemakers.

  “We’ll be careful,” Dad promised.

  As soon as Dr. Martin’s steps receded, Dad turned to us with a frantic look in his eyes. “Children, this is very important. You have to stay out of this room.”

  He slipped his workbag off his shoulder and unzipped it just enough to pull out a bike chain and padlock. “Follow Dr. Martin. You’ll find his office at the end of the Great Court on the left. There’s only one entrance. Once he’s inside, wrap this around the door handles and lock it tight. We need to delay him.”

  “You want us to lock him in?” Sadie asked, suddenly interested. “Brilliant!”

  “Dad,” I said, “what’s going on?”

  “We don’t have time for explanations,” he said. “This will be our only chance. They’re coming.”

  “Who’s coming?” Sadie asked.

  He took Sadie by the shoulders. “Sweetheart, I love you. And I’m sorry...I’m sorry for many things, but there’s no time now. If this works, I promise I’ll make everything better for all of us. Carter, you’re my brave man. You have to trust me. Remember, lock up Dr. Martin. Then stay out of this room!”

  Chaining the curator’s door was easy. But as soon as we’d finished, we looked back the way we’d come and saw blue light streaming from the Egyptian gallery, as if our dad had installed a giant glowing aquarium.

  Sadie locked eyes with me. “Honestly, do you have any idea what he’s up to?”

  “None,” I said. “But he’s been acting strange lately. Thinking a lot about Mom. He keeps her picture...”

  I didn’t want to say more. Fortunately Sadie nodded like she understood.

  “What’s in his workbag?” she asked.

  “I don’t know. He told me never to look.”

  Sadie raised an eyebrow. “And you never did? God, that is so like you, Carter. You’re hopeless.”

  I wanted to defend myself, but just then a tremor shook the floor.

  Startled, Sadie grabbed my arm. “He told us to stay put. I suppose you’re going to follow that order too?”

  Actually, that order was sounding pretty good to me, but Sadie sprinted down the hall, and after a moment’s hesitation, I ran after her.

  When we reached the
entrance of the Egyptian gallery, we stopped dead in our tracks. Our dad stood in front of the Rosetta Stone with his back to us. A blue circle glowed on the floor around him, as if someone had switched on hidden neon tubes in the floor.

  My dad had thrown off his overcoat. His workbag lay open at his feet, revealing a wooden box about two feet long, painted with Egyptian images.

  “What’s he holding?” Sadie whispered to me. “Is that a boomerang?”

  Sure enough, when Dad raised his hand, he was brandishing a curved white stick. It did look like a boomerang. But instead of throwing the stick, he touched it to the Rosetta Stone. Sadie caught her breath. Dad was writing on the stone. Wherever the boomerang made contact, glowing blue lines appeared on the granite. Hieroglyphs.

  It made no sense. How could he write glowing words with a stick? But the image was bright and clear: ram’s horns above a box and an X.

  “Open,” Sadie murmured. I stared at her, because it sounded like she had just translated the word, but that was impossible. I’d been hanging around Dad for years, and even I could read only a few hieroglyphs. They are seriously hard to learn.

  Dad raised his arms. He chanted: “Wo-seer, i-ei.” And two more hieroglyphic symbols burned blue against the surface of the Rosetta Stone.

  As stunned as I was, I recognized the first symbol. It was the name of the Egyptian god of the dead.

  “Wo-seer,” I whispered. I’d never heard it pronounced that way, but I knew what it meant. “Osiris.”

  “Osiris, come,” Sadie said, as if in a trance. Then her eyes widened. “No!” she shouted. “Dad, no!”

  Our father turned in surprise. He started to say, “Children—” but it was too late. The ground rumbled. The blue light turned to searing white, and the Rosetta Stone exploded.

  When I regained consciousness, the first thing I heard was laughter—horrible, gleeful laughter mixed with the blare of the museum’s security alarms.