A thin, humorless smile touched Sully’s face. Whatever retort he might have come up with—and Drake had no doubt he had been formulating one—he let it pass and turned to face Jada.
“You done playing Little Miss Sunshine with the flight crew?” Sully muttered.
Jada smiled. “Don’t be such a cantankerous old man. I know you didn’t sleep well, but when you’re trying to travel without anyone knowing you’ve left the country or thinking you’re a terrorist, you take whatever accommodations are available. Maybe if you speak up, they’ll give you a nice soft pillow next time.”
Sully seemed about to bark at her, but then he just muttered something under his breath and marched off toward a small hut outside the cargo terminal. Beads of sweat already had popped out on his skin, and Drake watched him wipe a hand across his forehead.
“He hates Egypt this time of year,” Drake said, hefting his duffel.
“Yeah?” Jada said as they fell into step side by side, leaving the plane behind. “What time of year is better?”
“He doesn’t mind the second week of January. Usually the Wednesday, around three in the afternoon, you can actually breathe for a minute,” Drake said.
Jada laughed. “Actually, I don’t mind the heat. Better this than winter back home.”
“Don’t let Sully hear you say that,” Drake replied.
“What about you?” she asked. “What’s your take on Egypt?”
“Sultry and mysterious. I need a little of that in my life.”
She shook her head. “Listen to you. If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were a romantic instead of a sarcastic.”
“I could be a sarcastic romantic.”
Jada arched an eyebrow. “I like that. I think I’m going to steal it.”
“I give it freely and of my own will.”
“Aw, it’s no fun if it’s not stealing.”
They both faltered then. Drake figured they had taken their flirting to its natural conclusion and any more would be strained and awkward, so he let silence fall between them. Jada didn’t object. Their shared quiet was comfortable, as if their brief encounters years ago had built a foundation for a friendship now. Getting shot at had contributed to their budding friendship, too. Drake knew all too well how quickly a bond could form between people who were in danger.
“So, what is it with you and Uncle Vic?” Jada said, switching gears. “You guys have friends everywhere.”
A pair of cargo trucks rumbled past, their engines almost as loud as the planes coming in and out of the airport.
“Not friends,” Drake said. “Connections. We know who to call when we need something: information, equipment, transport—”
“A new identity,” Jada added.
Drake nodded. “And weapons when we need them. But knowing who will take your money to do something that might not be strictly legal isn’t the same as having friends. A connection who’ll sell information about a treasure hunter to me is just as likely to sell info about me to the competition.”
“I thought you were an ‘antiquities acquisition consultant,’ ” Jada said.
“That, too,” Drake replied.
“So you trust your friends not to sell you out?” she asked. “I mean, everybody has a price, right?”
“Almost everyone. As for friends—I choose carefully.”
Jada nodded, but a cloud seemed to pass over her face, and he knew she must be thinking about her father.
“What is it?” Drake asked.
“My dad always gave advice like that,” she said. Switching the weight of her duffel from one hand to the other, she gazed off into some middle distance, as if she could peer into her own memory. “He always had these great quotes about choosing your friends wisely and all that, but I guess he was a pretty crappy judge of character, considering he married Olivia.”
“I don’t know about that,” Drake said. “Sully may smoke the smelliest cigars in creation—sometimes I think he buys tobacco scented with manure or something just to aggravate me—but I’ve never known anyone more loyal. Luka picked him as a friend, so he had to have at least some idea who to trust.”
“Then why did my father marry the wicked witch?”
“To some men, women are a mystery. We don’t understand how their minds work. Which makes it a lot harder to avoid a knife in the back.”
Jada smiled. “Oscar Wilde said a friend is someone who stabs you in the front. And by the way, women have the same problem with men. We can see the treachery in other women easily enough, but guys might as well be from another planet for all we understand them.”
Drake glanced sidelong at her. “ ‘Treachery’?”
“It’s a good word,” she protested.
“Yeah. I like saying it. ‘Treachery.’ You don’t get to say that word enough in life.” He frowned. “Actually, that’s probably a good thing.”
Up ahead, Sully had reached the little hut on the tarmac. Drake wasn’t sure if it was a security booth or a spot for incoming crews to check in with their cargo manifests, maybe some kind of traffic office. A skinny man in khaki pants and a loose shirt of blue cotton stood leaning against the side of the hut, smoking a cigarette. He wore sunglasses too large for his face, but he smiled as Sully approached him, and the two men shook hands.
“Not a friend?” Jada said, keeping her voice low as they neared the hut.
“A connection,” Drake confirmed.
By the time they reached Sully and the thin Egyptian man, Sully was in the middle of lighting his cigar, which Drake took to mean things were going well. Sully’s cigars were a form of communication all their own, and sometimes lighting up could be a sign of frustration, but not this time. Sully looked pleased.
“This is Chigaru,” he said, and the Egyptian gave a little bow of his head. “Chigaru, meet Jada Hzujak and Nathan Drake, the closest thing I’ve got to a family in this world. I take their health and well-being very personally.”
“Not to mention your own,” Chigaru said in British-accented English.
Sully laughed, and it turned into a short cough. He frowned and looked at his cigar. “Gotta give these damn things up.” Then he leveled his gaze at Chigaru. “Yeah, I take my well-being pretty personally, too.”
“Not to worry, Sully. You have friends in Egypt.”
At “friends,” Drake glanced at Jada and saw her raise her eyebrows at the word.
“The best friends money can buy,” Sully said.
Chigaru grinned and nodded sagely. “Absolutely.” He regarded the three of them, obviously taking note of their meager complement of luggage. “Shall we go?”
“It was a long flight,” Drake said. “And it’s a long ride to Fayoum. We were hoping for something to drink.”
Chigaru’s expression blossomed into a brilliant smile. “My friends, do you think me so poor a host? I have Coca-Cola, beer, and sparkling water on ice in the car. If you like, I will stop at a market and pick up some takeaway food before we leave Cairo.”
“That would be fantastic,” Jada said happily.
Drake couldn’t disagree. Chigaru might only be a connection, but at the moment Drake felt pretty friendly toward him. A meal and a cold Coke sounded like heaven.
Chigaru started to lead the way toward a Volvo station wagon with tinted windows parked between the hut and the cargo terminal. Just before they reached the car, Sully spoke in a low voice so that no one else would hear.
“What about the weapons we talked about?” Sully asked.
“Didn’t I tell you not to worry?” Chigaru said. “Our first stop is for guns.”
He opened the driver’s door and slid behind the wheel. Sully smiled at Drake and Jada like it was Christmas morning.
“That’s more like it. We run into any more trouble, I wanna be able to give some back,” he said before climbing into the passenger seat.
Drake opened the rear door and held it for Jada.
“Looks like we’ve got everything covered,” she said, strained amusement in her voice. The idea of guns and more shooting obviously did not appeal to her any more than it did to Drake.
“For the moment,” Drake agreed.
But even as he climbed into the back of the Volvo with her and heard the clink of ice as she drew a bottle of sparkling water from a cooler, he couldn’t suppress a shiver and the temptation to look back over his shoulder.
He’d just had the strangest feeling they were being watched. It was a sensation he’d had before, and far too often he’d been right.
The Auberge du Lac had been built as a hunting lodge for King Farouk, the last monarch of Egypt. Drake thought it looked more like the kind of place where Sinatra might have appeared in the early days of Las Vegas, with its whitewashed walls and palm trees. The hotel stood on the shore of a lake that was part of the Fayoum Oasis, not far from Fayoum City, which was modern and industrial by local standards.
An hour in any direction and the whole world changed. The Valley of the Whales was within that radius—quiet endless desert where the sand hid fossils of ancient sea life—but so were off-the-tourist-path pyramids, as well as the waterfalls that were a part of the Fayoum Oasis. Some of them had been part of an irrigation plan that went back as far as Ptolemy, diverting water from the Nile for agriculture, but others—the Wadi el Rayan—were part of a modern hydro project. The area had little tourism, but from what he’d learned, it had been growing.
And all of it, the whole damn area, was a part of what had once been called Crocodilopolis. The City of Crocodiles had taken its name from the reptiles that had been plentiful around the lakes in ancient times. Like Kom Ombo, which had come later, Crocodilopolis had been a center of worship for the Egyptian crocodile god, Sobek. The cult of Sobek had built an enormous temple where a single crocodile would be chosen to represent their god and encrusted with gold and gems.
Archaeologists had found the ruins of the Temple of Sobek decades ago. Though legends of a labyrinth in Crocodilopolis persisted, that part of the temple had never been unearthed—until more than a year into the Wadi el Rayan hydro project, when spill-off water from the Fayoum Oasis was being diverted into man-made lakes. Two of the lakes were still in use, but the third had dried up without explanation. Upon investigation, the engineers had discovered that the water had not evaporated; it had drained into the remains of the labyrinth of Sobek.
The final mystery of the cult of Sobek had been located purely by accident. But to learn the secrets of the labyrinth, the archaeological expedition’s first task would be to draw the water back out of the ground. More than a year had passed before the team had been able to begin mapping and doing further excavations, and Luka Hzujak had been consulting with the dig’s director—Hilary Russo—since day one.
All this, Drake and Sully had learned from Jada during the final hours of the flight from Montreal to Cairo. They knew all there was to know, at least until they could make contact with Ian Welch, whose sister Gretchen was the grad student who’d been working with Maynard Cheney on the labyrinth project at the Museum of Natural History in New York. Gretchen had promised to enlist her brother’s help. If she couldn’t deliver on that promise, they had come a very long way for nothing.
For the moment, their most vital task was trying not to melt.
Plumes of dust rose from the tires as Chigaru drove the Volvo up the driveway in front of the Auberge du Lac and pulled the car into a parking space in the small lot beside the hotel.
“You are not as close to downtown Fayoum City as you might wish,” Chigaru said in his mannered accent. “But this is a beautiful hotel. Certainly you would not find a hotel like this in the city.”
Drake thought he detected some slight resentment, as though Chigaru felt put out that they hadn’t arranged their accommodations with him. He wondered if the skinny Egyptian would have gotten a cut of their room fees. He might be able to acquire guns and vehicles and information, which were higher-ticket items, but Drake suspected Chigaru would not have minded taking a commission on just about anything. Like the tour guides who received kickbacks from souvenir shops if they directed tourists there, Chigaru wanted his percentage—a chance, as Sully often put it, to “dip his beak.”
“It looks nice,” Jada agreed, popping open the door. “I’ll be happy just to lie down.”
Drake slid from the backseat and dragged his duffel with him. They had stopped in the middle of nowhere—and nowhere might have been exaggerating its significance—to divvy up the guns Chigaru had acquired for them. Sully and Drake each had tucked Belgian FN Five-sevens in clip holsters at the small of their backs. An armpit holster would have been too conspicuous, and so would a jacket worn in the Egyptian heat. With their shirttails out, the guns would be hidden but easily accessible.
Jada had taken the SIG P250, a smaller, more compact weapon that carried a few rounds less. Her father had taught her to shoot at a range in upstate New York, but she had never even pointed a gun at another human being, so though she reluctantly accepted the weapon, she kept it in her duffel.
With a cold Coke in hand, the glass bottle dripping, Sully climbed out and leaned on the roof, looking over the top as Chigaru got out of the car.
“You know how to romance a guy, Chigaru,” Sully said. “You always take me to the nicest places.”
Chigaru smiled and patted his pockets, digging out his cigarettes and a lighter.
“You are on your own from here, my friends,” he said, glancing around at the three of them. “The car is yours. Leave it at the airport in Cairo when you’re done or text me and let me know where you’ve abandoned it and I’ll send someone to get it. You have my number should you require anything else.”