Ancient Egypt: The leader of the royal guard slammed the butt of his spear into the old farmer’s jaw and sent him to the ground. The other people in the mob shook angry fists but kept their distance when the phalanx of guards pointed the tips of spears at them, threatening that the next blow would be fatal.
Frustrated, the leader of the guards turned to the man on his left. “Tell the priests to hurry.”
The younger man, Nepham, nodded his head and sprinted for the temple. He ran past the row of gods looking down from the gallery on either side of the plaza and took the dirt path that lead to the top of the temple. Already half buried, the entire complex was being sealed away forever.
He reached the skylight above the main chamber and shouted down to the priests, “Seal it now or be sealed inside with her.”
An old priest looked up at him. “The rites must be done.”
“I don’t think the mob cares much for the rites,” replied Nepham.
The priest shook his head. “They must understand…”
“They’re hungry and their fields are bare.” He pointed to the sarcophagus below. “They blame her.”
“You took an oath to protect,” replied the priest as he pushed two servants to affix a seal.
“And I did.” He paused and added, “As well as to her family. And now they’re all gone. We’re to see that she’s left unmolested, then move on.”
The old priest climbed the ladder with the help of a servant on the last rungs. He turned and watched the other priests leave the chamber, then motioned for the workers to move the massive stone blocks into place, sealing it forever.
Satisfied that the temple would at least withstand the mob for the night, he turned to Nepham. “It’s a shame to rush such things.”
“It’s a shame to desecrate the names of the innocent.”
The priest gave him a long look. “We were all innocent once.”
The priest nodded and walked toward the path that lead down from the mound. “Yes, even her. Poison gets us all in the end. Sometimes it’s in a potion. Other times it’s in our hearts. Hers was the acid of vanity. A long, slow death that tears you apart from the inside until you’re nothing more than a shell.”
Nepham cast a glance back at the workers covering the tomb with earth and shook his head. The sooner it was buried and forgotten, the better.
Greek by ancestry, he’d lived in Egypt all his life but thought of it as a dead place where even the ghosts had long vanished, replaced by foreigners like himself play-acting a history buried thousands of years before.
$10 million per breast, or at least that’s what one of the snarky Hollywood bloggers said about her asking price. When she breaks the surface of the water I get a free glimpse. The sun is low in the sky, completing the effect of the golden hour, that perfect time for shooting perfume ads and romantic scenes on the beach. Only I can’t focus on her. As soon as she emerges, I notice something beyond her flawless breasts and the marble colonnades that line the pool.
I stand up and try to get a look over the hedge in the back of the estate. “Is that Harold Lloyd’s old place?”
Her assistant, a Mediterranean-looking young man in a suit that costs more than my car, drops the edge of her bathrobe in the pool as he hands it to her. I think he’s upset the Theresa effect isn’t working on me.
All the big stars have their way of impressing you with their celebrity. It might be a portrait in their likeness by a famous painter standing in the entrance, although that’s kind of hack now. Or they’ll use a handful of assistants hovering around them to show you how goddamn busy and important they are.
Older stars have all their awards for you to see and giant posters of the movies they appeared in (at least the good ones). They also insist they’re always working on big projects. The more times they stress that, the less likely they are.
For Theresa White, the show is herself. Her mansion is filled with a collection of paintings and sculptures, a nice mixture of traditional pieces and recent works that reflect her art school background. Everything screams that she has taste and that she’s classy with a capital ‘C.’
I walk around the marble tile surrounding the pool to step onto the grass by the tall hedge. Through a small gap I spot the tall trees and columns that caught my eye. Theresa steps out of the pool and crosses the grass behind me to see what I’m staring at.
“See something interesting?” Her voice is confident. There’s a hint of sarcasm.
“Yeah, sorry. Roman World.” I step back and let her have a look.
She pushes a leafy hedge aside. The robe is clinging to her wet skin. I can see the outline of her designer swim briefs. I think they’re the same ones she’s wearing in the billboard over Melrose Avenue.
“Interesting…” her voice trails off.
I explain what I saw. “That’s where the robots went berserk and killed all the theme park guests. A kind of slave revolt. I’m not sure if he meant it to be ironic or not.”
“Westworld,” replies Theresa.
“Yes. They used one of the Lloyd gardens to shoot some of the Rome scenes. I didn’t realize your place was this close.”
Theresa steps back down from the embankment and turns toward me. “1973. Directed by Michael Crichton. I think it grossed $4 million. Is it one of your favorite films?” The questions is like an adult asking a child if the Spider-Man action figure is his favorite toy.
“Not really. Just a bit of a hobby. Kind of distracting.” I follow her back to the couches in the open living room.
“In this town, I imagine so.” She gives me a long glance before sitting down in the white leather couch across from me. A table covered with books of Egyptian hieroglyphs lies between us. “I thought you were him when I first saw you. The likeness is incredible.”
She’s talking about Alex Race, the movie actor with my face. Technically his face, since he’s three years older than me. But I still think of it as mine.
I can feel her eyes scrutinizing me, trying to spot the differences. Sitting still, it’s kind of hard. We move differently and have very different expressions.
A small smile forms in the corner of her mouth. “I see the difference.”
“So do I.”
“I’m sure.” She points a long, tan arm at the mirror behind her. “You haven’t looked at yourself once. I’m sure Alex wouldn’t be able to control himself. I’m sure few of us could. We’re like vampires that crave our own reflection.”
My gaze flickers to the pool and the entrance she just tried to make until I get distracted by the movie location. Theresa raises her eyebrows and flashes her perfect small teeth. “I know. I’m no different.”
“I doubt many of them are as self-aware as you are.” I try to compliment her for at least being self-aware.
“What’s it like having the face of one of the most famous men in the world?” She scoots to the edge of the couch and leans her chin on a fist attentively.
It’s her eyes. Forget the flash of cleavage or the clinging wet robe. Her eyes are fierce. Intelligent. Off-balancing. There was nothing condescending in her tone, but her eyes tell another story.
“It’s a pain in the ass.” I didn’t mean to give her my honest answer. It’s her damn eyes.
“It must have its advantages.” The eyes flash at the suggestion.
“You mean do I ever try to get laid because of it? I’m not that kind of guy. A girl has to be in for the sad reality and not the fantasy. Besides, when someone finds out that I’m not him, no matter how much I’ve insisted, it’s like the scene in The Crying Game where Stephen Rhea finds out he just slept with the dude from Stargate.”
“I doubt that, Michael.”
She uses my first name informally. I can understand her charm. Attractive and smart, it’s easy to see how she can talk her way around a bunch of middle-age producers. She’s flirty without being desperate. The topless show is her way of saying she’s a sexual being; but the art says she has culture. I don’t doubt this. I get the feeling a lot of her taste may come from her immaculately dressed assistant watching me from the corner, but at least she has the sense to hire someone like him. I’d bet anything he’s from an Ivy League school and never thought about working in the film industry until he met her.
She waves her assistant over to us. He picks an iPad off the table and sits down on the couch next to me. I can smell his cologne. It’s the male counterpart to her designer fragrance.
“Show him the necklace, Jacob.”
He taps open a photo album to a photograph of a necklace with long gold rectangles spaced between blue teardrop gems. The gold resembles rays of the sun, while the blue suggests the sky.
I’ve been told repeatedly my taste in jewelry is on par with the people who make Cracker Jack prizes, but this thing is stunning. It’s the kind of art that a snob and cretin can appreciate. The symbolism is obvious. Amid all the glittering gold and blue gems, the wearer of the necklace would be the center of the universe.
The image of the necklace on the screen is faded. The edges have creases. It’s a scan of a very old photograph.
“I want that necklace,” says Theresa. “It was a gift from a Macedonian general to an Egyptian princess. At least that’s what it was in the film.”
I don’t recognize the necklace or the reference.
“Sands of the Nile. 1954. It was Amanda Gray’s last starring role. Hugo Harrison’s last production before he got out of the film business entirely and focused on taking over Las Vegas and telecommunications. The film sat on the shelf for two years. It was one of the most expensive productions ever. Only Harrison didn’t want anyone to know this.”
“And you want the necklace?”
Theresa nods. “Jacob thinks it’s one of the most authentic pieces to ever have appeared in a film and may be a genuine necklace that Harrison bought as a gift for Amanda Gray. I’m considering a role in a film about the first Macedonian princess in Egypt. I’d like to have this necklace for the Academy Awards next week, where I’ll be presenting.” Her hand touches the place between her breasts where the necklace would lie.
I shake my head. “I’m not sure I understand.”
“Alex says you used to be a cop. He insists that you’re quite resourceful. I want you to find the necklace for me.”
“I’m not a gopher. I think you have the wrong guy. Try a private detective.” The words are a reaction and not well thought out.
“I wanted to ask you first. Time is very important.”
I’ve been dying to get out from underneath Alex’s thumb. Going to work for another crazy celebrity wasn’t exactly my escape plan. Not that I have one.
“Do you like living in a guesthouse?”
The words cut like a knife. I’ve been staying the past few months in a small house in the back of an estate of one of Alex’s producer pals.
She holds her hands up apologetically. “I don’t mean to offend you. I spent more time sleeping on friends’ couches and in my car than I wanted.”
Pretty girls like her don’t have to do that in this town. Not if they’re willing to put up with a rich older boyfriend who’s a bit of a bore. I can tell she’s different. Theresa isn’t the type to suffer fools. Despite her exhibitionist streak, I think the rumors about her conservative mores are probably true.
“No offense taken. It’s not all bad. Rent’s cheap.”
“This is a job where you’d be doing what you were meant to do. Not parading around to fool the paparazzi. I’ll pay you $10,000 up front and another $25,000 if you find the necklace.”
That’s a lot of cash. Not exactly fuck-you money, but enough for me to tell Alex ‘no’ for a few months if he asks me to do something harebrained like stand in for him in a Japanese beer commercial while he gets laid in some Tokyo penthouse.
Theresa can tell I’m thinking it over. “Michael, it would mean a lot to me.” There’s something sincere in her voice. She’s making a request, not ordering around a lesser.
“Why so much? I’m sure there are a hundred private dicks in this town that would do it for a fraction.”
“I’m sure there are. But we don’t have much time and I don’t need them stirring things up. I need this handled quickly and discreetly. Alex says you’re the man.”
I don’t have a choice. “I’ll take a look.”
Her lips part and reveal her smile. “Great. Can Jacob write you a check? Or would you like cash?”
I’m broke. I’ve got six hundred dollars shoved under my mattress at home and about thirty bucks in my pocket that I’ll end up using to put a half-tank of gas in my beat-up Toyota. I can’t tell you how hard it is for me to say what I tell her. But I got pride. “Let me just look into it for a day or so before I take your money.”
“That’s a kindness, Michael. Alex spoke well of your character.”
Alex? I’m surprised to hear he’d say anything positive to a woman like Theresa about me. Unless it’s some angle for him to get laid.
Theresa bids me goodbye to take a phone call. Jacob follows me out to my car. He tries hard not to notice the dirty windows and the banged-up side door. It probably gave him a heart attack at the thought of anyone seeing the car parked in the driveway.
“Can I…” He pauses for a moment, trying not to look at the car. “Can we give you some kind of fee for expenses?”
It’s his way of giving me a discreet chance to say ‘yes’ to money away from Theresa.
I shake my head. “I’m not a parasite.”
“I wouldn’t have let you in the door if I thought you were.”
“I appreciate it. I’ll let you guys know in a day if I get a good lead.”
He watches with a pained expression as I type in his number on my ancient phone. I’ve had it for years, back before Alex ruined my life.
Jacob steps closer to me. “She understands the value of money. So didn’t think she was throwing the money in your face.”
“I’m sure.” I’m sure the rug I walked on when I stepped inside cost more.
“Just be careful…” His voice trails off.
“Careful? We’re only tracking down a necklace. It’s not like I’m going up against the Russian mafia.”
Jacob gives me a faint smile.
As it would turn out, the Russian mafia has nothing on the Estonians in ingenuity or the Nevada mob in persistence.