Authors: Ann Vremont
Altar of Anubis
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Copyright ©2008 Ann Vremont
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Altar of Anubis
Interrupting a burglary, antiquities expert Rene Walker discovers sometimes you have to die to find true love. But a gorgeous male pledging his eternal devotion isn’t all that awaits her on the other side. To enjoy eternity, Rene will have to thwart an ancient enemy who has waited millennia to destroy her and come to terms with an inflexible custom of free love in an immortal society where men outnumber the women ten to one.
Battle not with monsters lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you. --
Rene Walker parked her aging Malibu in front of Stage 7 at Datura Studios. It was Friday, well after sunset, and everyone was either on location or gone for the weekend. Rolling the windows down against the late summer heat, she turned the car off and listened to it tick and shudder as the engine cooled. She waited, sitting, a drop of sweat running a line down her nose, until even the noises of the car were silenced. She closed her eyes, searching for the perfect blank.
The drop of sweat fell, hit her arm, and she opened her eyes. Like her concentration, the bead of moisture was broken, running across the pale, freckled skin in half a dozen directions. She lingered another moment, trying to block the smell of half-melted asphalt before giving up and grabbing a small duffel bag from the back seat. At the studio’s double-glass doors, she dropped her access card trying to slide it through the reader.
Rene picked the card up, leaned her forehead against the door. Air-conditioned on the other side, the glass was cool against her skin. The cold, smooth surface promised relief from the heat and tar-coated air and the scratching need that had been clawing at her all week -- to be alone with the artifacts on loan to the film.
Taking aim a third time, she slid the card through the reader, heard the lock disengage. She slipped inside, the gym bag slung over her shoulder. In the dark, she moved to her left, found the wall and then followed its curve. The wall ended at a single narrow door. She opened it and flipped a switch to turn on the central lights. The interior of an ancient Egyptian temple appeared before her.
She had consulted on at least two dozen movie sets since completing her master’s degree in classical studies, but this was the first one to be dressed with genuine antiquities. Getting a museum’s board of directors and an insurance company to agree at the same time was impossible. But Datura’s marketing director had somehow worked a deal with a private collector, and most of the items borrowed would be part of a fifteen-city tour when the film opened.
There would be security guards then, and velvet ropes. For most of the items, tonight’s only protection was a double padlocked door and sealed crates. But it wasn’t the cat statues and gold scarabs making her hands sweat.
That honor went to the room’s centerpiece -- the Altar of Anubis. Made from polished black basalt, it was almost seven feet long and three feet wide.
And she’d bet her degree it was a fake.
Stopping in front of the altar, she eased the bag onto the floor. The heat had turned her hair into a frizzy mass of copper strands, and she pulled a rubber band from her pants pocket. She secured her hair in a ponytail, then bent down and unzipped the bag. Inside were a small hand drill and bits, a voice recorder, empty glass vials, a laser level and rangefinder and, on loan from the local university, a portable spectrometer. She hooked the voice recorder to her ear and switched it on.
She stood back up and placed her hands palm down on the altar’s cold surface. It certainly felt time-worn, the stone having an almost sensual smoothness to it. Slowly, she ran her hands over it, leaning in and closing her eyes. She wanted to believe it was the real thing, to imagine the hundreds who had been sacrificed or embalmed on it. But the properties were off. For starters, the shipping weight was too heavy, suggesting a density four times what it should have been. And the owner had never allowed its inspection.
“Magnificent, isn’t it, Ms. Walker? It’s the one thing in my collection I’m keeping.”
Rene spun around to find Michael Tajnoor watching her with a sharp smile. Behind him another man carried a black suitcase. Both men were dressed in black all the way down to crepe-soled shoes.
“How’d you get in?” She glanced down at Tajnoor’s hand, wished she hadn’t when she realized he was clutching a black ski mask.
Tajnoor jerked his head in the stranger’s direction. “Mr. Tomsin is a man of many talents -- locks, cameras, aging lot guards.” Casually, Tajnoor tossed the mask at her face, ruthlessly grabbing her by the hair when she made the mistake of trying to catch it.
“I’m sorry, Ms. Walker.” His smile deepened, and Rene heard the snick of a knife opening. “But I have a schedule to follow and you’re fucking it up.”
The stab was quick and sure, delivered dispassionately but with a force that buried the blade. She tried to lift her hands, to grab at his arm and the handle sticking out of her chest. Tajnoor shushed her efforts, pushed her backwards until she was falling onto the altar.
Taking the voice recorder from Rene’s ear, he pocketed it, his gaze never leaving her face. Vision fading, she saw him gesture at Tomsin. “Those linens, bring them to me.”
Tajnoor sounded like he was ordering lunch service. Sightless, she heard the blade withdraw with a wet, sluicing noise, followed by the snap of cloth and the push of air against her face. As the sheet settled over her, she thought about Beth, her intern, and how the woman should have cut the cloth into strips already.
The last sound to reach her was Tajnoor, his words framed on each side by a deep chuckle. “There, let them think it’s one of her props. We’ll have our money before anyone knows she’s dead.”
* * * *
Hands, gentle but unyielding, pressed against Rene’s bare chest. Someone wiped at her skin with a warm, moist cloth, tugging at the dry blood. Cool air fanned her nipples and stomach, and she felt the weight of a sheet pushed down to her hips. The heavy scent of spices filled the air. She tried to open her eyes, tried to speak.
“Relax, Reynar. Let me heal you.”
It was all wrong. There should be pain. And the sounds of machines, the scrape of a scalpel being lifted, nurses talking, sirens… not a lone voice, familiar but unrecognized.
She lifted a leg, attempted to roll to her side. Hands pushed her back down, not so gently this time.
“For once, woman, would you listen to me!”
Was it Phil, the night guard? No, Phil was pushing sixty and his voice shook on the best of days. It was nothing like the deep rumble of this man. And he’d called her “Reynar.” Why?
She was dreaming, had to be. She needed to wake up, to trip the alarm if she could and hope it wasn’t too late. She lifted her hips, fighting the dream. This time the hand came down low on her gut.
“She must sleep.” The voice, deep, soothing, commanded action, and she felt another wet cloth, this time against her face and loaded with the same intoxicating spices.
“Sleep, Reynar. You can fight me when you wake.”
The hand stroked her stomach before cupping her breast, the thumb pressing against the knife wound. He continued speaking, his words reaching her in a jumbled mess but sounding for all the world like he was locked in the rhythm of fervent prayer.
* * * *
Rene woke again, curled in a soft bed, with a heavy sheet anchoring her to the mattress. Eyes still closed, she touched her hand to her chest and listened while, somewhere, a man and woman argued. Her skin was smooth -- no bandage, no scab, not even the dimple of a scar. It didn’t seem possible she’d been out that long.
“They have disturbed your sleep?”
She recognized the voice -- the dream healer. Was she still dreaming, then, or was he real? And his hand along her stomach, beneath her breast -- fantasy or reality? She took a shallow breath and answered, “Yes.”
“Then open your eyes.”
She obeyed with a deliberate slowness, knowing as he came into sight that she had transitioned from one dream into another.
He wore a blue linen kilt. He was bare-chested, his hands casually resting on his lap. The skin was a dark walnut in color with a hint of bronze where the light bounced off him. The nipples were a deep berry red and there was no hint of hair on the powerful chest.
Shocked at the detail her sleeping mind had conjured, she lingered at his sensuously full lips a second before staring into his eyes with their golden brown irises. She willed him to speak again, wanting to feel the deep rumble of his voice vibrate down low in her stomach. He didn’t say anything, just stared back at her until she asked, “What are they fighting about?”
He leaned forward in his chair and rested his arms against the mattress. “You, Reynar.”
“My name isn’t ‘Reynar’.” This close, she could smell his skin, the rich spices of the healing room clinging to him. Thick, dark lashes fringed his eyelids and, together with the sculpted black brows, were the only hair on his head. Another odd detail, she thought.
“It was your name once.” He smiled at her, showing strong white teeth. “It will be again.”
Every nerve cell from the neck down begged her to make the most of this odd dream but she rolled to her side, away from him. She looked at the ceiling, the walls, the floor and found herself in a fantasy carved from alabaster and populated by… she glanced back at him, licked her lips once before looking away again.