The whole world was white. It was impossible to tell sky from sand. And when the sun finally set, it left a red line across the horizon like a cut across his eye. Imhotep had been walking for days, weeks. The professor thought they were done, thought this was over, but Imhotep kept walking. He had crossed the ocean, following them. Trailing ragged bandages, scarab beetles, coyotes and vultures behind him, he would cross the salt flat. He would walk across the world to claim what was his.
'My love,' he thought. 'Ankhessenamun.'
Ostensibly investigating ancient Egyptian influences on the pre-Columbian New World, Sir Joseph Whemple and his son, Frank, had brought Helen Grosvenor to America to help her forget what Sir Joseph referred to as “that ghastly business back in Cairo.” Their locomotive journey to Utah had been uneventful, although Helen had been plagued by strange dreams.
'These records are fascinating!' Sir Joseph expostulated. 'Who would ever have imagined that ancient Egyptians had visited the New World.'
'I see your nose is back in that dusty, old book again, Sir Joseph,' Helen teased as she entered what the professor referred to as his study. He had claimed the cramped parlor of a nearly abandoned hotel, covering it with his books and papers, scattering ashtrays with half-smoked cigars throughout the room.
'How many times must I tell you to call me “father,” my dear? And The Book of Mormon is hardly a “dusty old book,” I daresay, if even a minute fraction of it is factual, the implications for archaeology alone are astonishing!'
'Are you boring my bride-to-be again, father?' Frank said from behind the evening newspaper.
'Science is never boring,' Sir Joseph retorted.
Imhotep pushed his way into the saloon. He stood in the doorway, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness. Two men were drinking at a table in the back. Another man slouched against the bar, squinting toward the stranger.
Imhotep walked up to the bar; sagged against it for a moment. As he did, the bartender commenced speaking with hardly a pause.
'You’re not from around here, are you?'
Imhotep watched dollops of sweat gather and fall from the man's forehead.
'Nobody ever is,' the bartender laughed nervously. He was the kind of man who laughed at his own jokes. Imhotep had seen his kind a thousand times in as many years.
'So where you from, stranger?'
Imhotep jerked his thumb back towards the door.
'From back east, I reckon.'
'Yes. Back east.' The words tore their way from Imhotep’s throat.
The bartender paled and poured Imhotep a shot. 'We got rot gut and rot gut. The water’s harder on your gut than the whiskey and the whiskey’s strong enough to raise the dead.'
The joke raised the bartender’s spirits again, so he continued, 'I’m from Tennessee myself. Came west to make my fortune. Thought it would be gold. Tried silver and settled for whiskey.' The man laughed and poured himself a shot. 'But I do miss Memphis.'
'Memphis,' Imhotep repeated and laughed. His laugh was even worse than his voice.
'You from Memphis? You don’t sound like it. No sir, not at all. But I guess travelling wears the edges off a man.' Even as he said it, the bartender knew the haggard, rag-wrapped man leaning against the bar still held his edge.
Helen cried out. 'Oh!'
'Darling!' Frank cried as he caught her in his arms. 'What’s the matter?'
'Oh, please don’t fuss. I’m just a little tired, that’s all,' she said as Frank led her to one of the brocade couches in the hotel parlor, then sat beside her.
'You can tell us—is it... the dreams?'
'Yes. It is. All around is a terrible white and from within it, I hear a sort of shuffling, like cloth being dragged across sand, and then a voice.'
'A voice?' Sir Joseph asked. 'What does this voice say?'
'Just one word: Ankhessenamun. And then I see a terrible red eye boring into me.' Helen shuddered. 'He is coming—He is coming for me!'
'Who, my dear?” Sir Joseph asked kindly.
“That’s impossible. Imhotep is dead. Do you hear? Dust!' Frank shook Helen until she began sobbing.
Sir Joseph removed a syringe of morphine from his travelling case, then gently rolled up Helen’s sleeve. 'Here, my dear, this will help you sleep.'
Imhotep followed them through the desert.
He made better time than the Whemple-Grosvenor Expedition did, with their porters and heavy luggage. Utah was strange to him, but the desert was not. The tracking was easy under the full moon and the endless stars. Soon he would be reunited with his eternal love. He walked all night and all day thinking of her.
'At last!' Sir Joseph shouted as he rounded the final bend in Devil’s Canyon. 'Using the acrostic I discovered concealed within The Book of Mormon, we have found the Lost City of Osiris. And just as I predicted, it is here in Utah, At the Temple of Nephi, we can free Helen from the Curse of the Mummy at last!' A vast colonnade of lotus-shaped pillars led to a limestone city, shimmering in the distance. At its center, they could see the red rock pyramid that must be the Temple of Nephi.
'But, father, you said yourself, that the Lost City of Osiris will be a place of power for Imhotep!' Frank interjected.
'My dear, dear boy, when will you learn to trust me?' Sir Joseph sighed and shifted in his saddle. 'Who defeated Imhotep in Cairo? Who outwitted the Risen Lenin in Moscow? In London, who saved our Helen from the dread horror of Jeremy Bentham's Auto-Icon? And in the Yucatán, who drove off Popoca, the Aztec mummy who believed Helen to be his reincarnated bride?'
'You’re right, father. I’m sorry I doubted you.'
Helen, riding behind them, said nothing.
A broad avenue led to the Temple of Nephi. The horses were nervous, flicking their ears and shying away from the heavily inscribed and intricately carved columns that lined the way. Frank craned curiously at the hieroglyphs, but restrained himself for Helen’s sake.
Sir Joseph arrived at the Temple portal first. He called back, 'Look—the sacred formulas which protect the soul in its journey to the underworld have been chipped away. So Imhotep was sentenced to death not only in Cairo, but here, too. He was completely cut off from any hope of life in the next world.' Frank grinned back at Helen, 'Maybe he really did get too gay with the vestal virgins in the temple.
'Possibly,' Sir Joseph muttered.
The streets of Osiris were barren, but Imhotep knew the city was not empty. She was here. He could feel her presence and he knew she could feel his. 'Ankhessenamun, I have come for you.'
'I guess we have a problem then, amigo. I, too, have come to find my love..' In the shattered sandstone columns in the Temple courtyard there was the shadow of a man where there had not been one before. The stranger’s hair lay long and lank around his desiccated face. His clothing was in shreds, but his boots were new. Around his neck he wore a jade breastplate. His hand toyed carelessly with a revolver hanging from a leather cord tied to his wrist.
The stranger looked down at his chest and said, 'Remember to aim for the heart, amigo. Only a shot to the heart kills.' Then he laughed.
'I am Popoca. Helen Grosvenor is my bride. She is Xochitl, reborn.'
Entranced since they had entered the city, Helen did not respond. She stared ahead of her, her face a ghastly white. But standing beneath the carved lintel of the Temple of Nephi, Frank could take no more. He dashed towards the courtyard, and stopped halfway down the temple stairs. 'She is not! She is my bride—Mrs. Frank Whemple!'
Without taking his gaze from Imhotep's impassive face, Popoca shot Whemple. 'Pendejo, it is not polite to interrupt a conversation.'
As Frank crumpled on the temple stairs, Popoca continued . 'What was I saying?'
Imhotep didn’t bother answering; he just pushed his poncho aside. If there were any more talking, he reckoned his revolver would be doing it.
Above them they heard the sound of a vulture’s wings. The first to arrive.
Sir Joseph’s chanting was interrupted by the sound of gunfire echoing through the gilded vaults of the Temple of Nephi. Shaking off the trance that had overtaken her, Helen followed Sir Joseph through the temple's corridors until they stood above the duelling mummies and Whemple’s prone body.
Holding aloft The Book of Mormon, Sir Joseph returned to his incantations: 'And the Rebellious Part were slain and driven out of the Land!'
There was a strange buzzing throughout the courtyard. The air felt heavy and smelled of ozone. All around them, the wind rose with the sound of a thousand locusts. Above the din, Sir Joseph shouted the ancient verses. A dust devil formed at the center of the courtyard. It swirled with terrible purpose and the wind turned to shrieking. They looked up to see two vultures fall from the lurid red sky. The birds were already dead, drawn somehow into the vortex Sir Joseph had loosed. Then the whirlwind began to draw something ineffable out of the mummies. A terrible groan rose out of Popoca and it seemed the earth groaned with him. Imhotep fell to his knees.
Helen snatched the book from Sir Joseph’s hand and hurled it beyond the courtyard's broken columns. Sir Joseph and Popoca turned to stare at Helen. Imhotep lurched to his feet.
In the silence, Helen strode down the steps and around Frank, who did not stir as she passed. Helen stood between the two mummies. Imhotep on one side, Popoca on the other. Helen right in the middle. And Frank, flopped behind her. She surveyed her would-be grooms.
'Gentlemen,' Helen said. 'It’s time for a new arrangement.'
Carol Borden is a writer and purveyor of crazy talk, maker of weird artsy things and a bringer of the wrong. You can read another of her recent stories in Fox Spirit's anthology, Drag Noir, and keep up with her shenanigans at her website.
This is the first publication of this story. "The Lost City of Osiris" will also appear in Fox Spirit's upcoming anthology, Piercing the Vale.
Image credit: Monument Valley by Herve de Brandere