Dead Letters, Forensic Handwriting series
Release date: August 3, 2021
Publisher: Write Choice Ink
Content advisory: Some profanity
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Behind the book
Since childhood, I have been fascinated with Ancient Egypt, and I looked for a good story to tell that I could set thereand some other places I love.
Dead Letters, Forensic Handwriting series
Sometimes, there is a moment when everything that comes afterward—the excitement that fizzes up and bubbles over, the fear that threatens to overwhelm, even the pain—when every decision, every act, feels as though it were pre-ordained.
The journey may have begun with the Mortuary Temple, but looking back, Monica realized that the magic had been in the air at the Crocodile the previous evening—the thrill of celebrating dig season’s opening day. The lively chatter of people having a good time. Traditional Egyptian folk music, passed down two thousand years, sounding alien and exotic to young American ears.
And across the restaurant, Colin Vine.
Colin must have felt it, too—the moment. As if divining her thoughts, his eyes strayed from the group of female grad students hovering around him—giggly satellites orbiting a bright planet—and turned in Monica’s direction, his gaze locking on hers. Considering all that happened later, it seemed trite to think of it that way—‘their gazes locked’—and yet, there was something undeniably magnetic in the glance that passed between them.
For the space of a breath, Monica was as dizzy as if she stood at the edge of a deep ravine. The silent exchange had unsettled her, left her asking what it was about him that had drawn her notice. On any other man, that wild burgundy topknot might have drawn her scorn. Maybe it was the easy self-confidence she sensed. He was less handsome than ruggedly appealing, but in his open-neck shirt worn loose over jeans, sleeves rolled to the elbow, showing tanned, ropy forearms, there was no disputing Colin’s hotitude.
Archaeologists were not the creaky old fossils they used to be.
Monica’s hands itched for her sketchbook. Would anyone notice if she took it out of her bag and—her roommate, who had apparently noticed her noticing Colin, chose that moment to slide into the chair next to her.
“Don’t bother; he’s a man ho,” said McKenna Ryan.
Monica choked a little on the karkadP she was drinking. “Seriously? Man ho?”
“Colin’s the type who ‘lays women like bricks.’”
“I got that from ‘man ho.’ Are you speaking from experience?”
“He’s hot and he’s super-talented, and he’s a screwup.”
With her long black hair and blue eyes, McKenna Ryan might easily attract Colin Vine, or any man, but she hadn’t answered the question.
“That doesn’t make him a—what you called him,” Monica pointed out.
McKenna leaned close, lowering her voice so Monica had to listen hard to hear her above the din around them. “Ask me why he nearly got himself kicked off the dig last season.”
A furtive glance at the object of this scandalous piece of gossip showed Colin throwing back his head, laughing at something one of the women had said. Could he really have jeopardized his place on a team that required such a lot of study and dedication to get accepted? Not that Monica had earned her way in as the others had. But she was infinitely grateful to be there, and willing to work day and night to show her appreciation.
While she was telling herself that it was not cool to be disappointed in someone she hadn’t even met, curiosity pushed her to take the bait. “Okay, why?”
“He was hanging out with a gang of tomb robbers.” McKenna’s mouth pursed into a smug moue. “It’s not exactly a secret. Supposedly, they ‘found’ some artifacts and got caught selling them on the black market. What kind of archaeologist does that?”
“He admitted it?”
“Pfft. Swore he didn’t know a thing about what they were doing. Professor Hawkins-Whyte let the whole thing go with a warning because he’s such a fan. Pretty obvious to me, he didn’t want to know the truth.” McKenna flicked a glance at the women talking to Colin. “Look at them drooling over him.”
Taking a sip of the traditional hibiscus tea to avoid looking, Monica shrugged. “Not a problem for me. I’m here to work, not party.”
And yet, when she noticed that Colin Vine had abandoned his fan club and was wending through the crowd toward them, her Spidey senses started tingling. McKenna got up as he closed in on their table, then leaned back down. “You should listen to the voice of wisdom. I’d hate to see you get hurt.” Brushing past Colin, she disappeared in the direction of the Ladies room.
The tingling didn’t stop when Colin dropped into the newly-vacated chair and stuck out his hand with a warm smile. “We haven’t met. Colin Vine with the Hawkins-Whyte project.”
The firm pressure of his hand closing around Monica’s softened her resolve to be cautious, but her reply brightened her smile more than any ability of Colin Vine’s to charm ever could: “I’m with Frank Booth’s dig.”
He responded with a good-natured grin. “Do you have a name? Or is it ‘Ms. Frank Booth’s dig?’”
She grinned back. “It’s Monica. Monica Bennett.”
“From your accent, I’d say you’re a long way from home, Monica Bennett. The States, is it?”
They were all a long way from home. The dig teams were an international community made up mainly of graduate students years older than Monica. As uncommon as it was for someone recently out of high school to be accepted to a dig like this one, the Booth group had welcomed her as kindly if she were the team mascot.
“I live in Los Angeles,” she said. “I’ve wanted to see Egypt forever.”
“Then I’m happy to say, you’re in the right place. The last time I checked, Luxor was in Egypt. And look, here we are in Luxor.”
Monica couldn’t help noticing that Colin’s smile went all the way to his eyes. And she couldn’t stop beaming. “Yes, we are.”
She could say it a hundred times and it wouldn’t feel any more real. Perhaps by the end of her stay it would grow old, but she doubted it. Everywhere she turned was both foreign and wonderful. Spice shops and bazaars. Enticing dishes named koshari, kofta and balah el sham. She couldn’t wait to try them all. Everything looked and smelled incredible—well, except for the camels. But that was part of the adventure, too, and she intended to ride one while she was here.
Even the noisy streets were different from home, with the honking horns of a marriage caravan late at night, and people always out in the streets having a good time.
“I had to twist my dad’s arm to let me come,” Monica added, then immediately kicked herself for sounding like an eight-year-old who had to ask permission, rather than an adult who could plan her own trip across the world.
Colin appeared not to notice her chagrin. “Good dads want to protect their daughters.”
She smiled. “I have a very good dad.”
The truth was, by the time she had convinced Pete Bennett that she was going to Egypt one way or another, Monica had begun to feel as much a captive as Rapunzel, locked away in her ivory tower. It had taken all of her persuasive skills for Pete to squash his dad fears.
“Well, now that you are in Egypt, what are you going to do first?” Colin asked, giving the impression that he was genuinely interested in her answer.
“That’s easy. Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple.”
“Ah, the queen who ruled Egypt as king. Good choice.”
“My Aunt Claudia gave me a book about Egyptian queens when I was a little kid. I always thought Hatshepsut was the most awesome.”
“Well done Aunty.” Colin contemplated her with a teasing smile. “Did you know that your eyes are all shiny? I’m dead chuffed that you’re in love with archaeology.”
Monica, who had a terrible habit of blushing as bright red as a tomato at the most inconvenient times, felt the hot blood rush to her cheeks. “I know, I’m a dork.”
“And such a lovely dork.”
An amused giggle escaped her. “It sounds funny when you say it with your British accent. ‘Dawk.’”
“Now you’re making fun of me. I’m mortally wounded.”
“Oh, too bad; I think you’ll get over it.”
“Never!” His faux remorse lasted all of two seconds, replaced by an approving nod. “I must say, Monica Bennett, you’re really fit.”
“Fit. You know: pretty. Sexy. Pretty sexy. Must be a British thing.”
She couldn’t find a response that didn’t sound even dorkier. McKenna wasn’t kidding about him being a flirt.
“When are you thinking of going to the Mortuary Temple, then?” Colin went on as though he hadn’t flustered her.
“First thing tomorrow. After that, we’ll be working all the time.”
“Has anyone warned you about all the guides who’ll be running after you for a fee, and the children begging for baksheesh? They’re relentless.”
“I’ve heard you’re supposed to ignore them.” The prospect of dismissing beggars and others who might badger her for money had been bothering her a lot—the girl who her aunt said had the kindest heart in the world. She couldn’t imagine turning away children.
Colin was reaching for his phone. “Your team is at Petrie House, isn’t it?” Leaving her no time to nod, he said, “I’ve been to Hatshepsut’s Temple dozens of times. Give me your mobile number; I’ll fetch you in the morning and show you ‘round.”
And just like that, McKenna’s warning was forgotten.
Monica’s first view of the soaring cliffs of Deir el-Bahri stole her breath.
Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple, more imposing than any modern building, was tucked protectively into a natural bay at the base of the cliffs. Each of its three levels boasted a grand colonnaded terrace, where magnificent statues had stood in ancient times. They walked along the vast avenue that led up to the temple complex.
“Most of the statues were stolen or destroyed,” Colin said, stepping smoothly into the role of tour guide and painting a vivid portrait of the edifice as it had been in 1470 BC. “In the nineteen-sixties, they reinstalled the nine statues of Hatshepsut as the god Osiris, but only the top tier is close to being completely restored.”
“It must have been incredibly beautiful. You make it easy to imagine—the pools and the gardens.”
Colin looked pleased by the praise. “They were once surrounded by frankincense trees for medicine, and myrrh for incense.”
Enthralled by everything she saw, Monica wanted details. “Hatshepsut was such a great queen. Or should that be king because she was a pharaoh? Which is weird since she was a woman dressing as a man, though that’s no big deal anymore.” She couldn’t stop prattling, but Colin seemed amused by it.
“Hatshepsut was a brilliant pharaoh for twenty years. She commissioned the most fantastic monuments and temples ever built. And, she famously sent an expedition to the land of Punt, where her granny was from.”
“‘The mysterious land of Punt,’” Monica quoted.
“You’ve done your homework, I see. Do you know where Punt is thought to be now?”
“It’s Somalia, right?”
He rewarded her with two thumbs up. “Monica Bennett wins the grand prize. As a woman, she wasn’t able to lead her troops into battle, so that expedition really boosted her rep. They brought back all sorts of exotic animals and gold and—”
“Oh!” Monica came to a halt with a gasp, no longer listening. They had arrived at the foot of the first flight of temple steps. Impossible not to gape open-mouthed at the structure towering above them.
“A bit much to take in, isn’t it?” said Colin softly.
“The Djeser Djeseru. Did I say it right?”
“You did, indeed; the name Hatshepsut gave her temple. It translates to ‘Holy of Holies.’”
They climbed the steps and he showed her the Night Sun Chapel, the Solar Altar Court and the Anubis Shrine, explaining the significance of the scenes painted on the walls and ceilings.
She knew the names and noses had been chiseled away on the great pharaoh’s statues, but seeing it in person saddened Monica. “Was it because female pharaohs were looked down on?” she asked.
“Hatshepsut’s stepson, Thutmose the third, had it done after she died, most likely to cement his right to the throne and let everyone know what a mighty ruler he was.”
“Why the nose?”
Colin tapped her nose gently, sending a delicious secret shiver coursing through her. “You need your nose to breathe,” he said. “Removing it symbolically killed the person for all eternity.”
She hadn’t expected to need a break, but after four hours of walking through the vast temple complex, Monica’s senses were on overload and she was starved. Colin, as nonchalant about treading the ancient stones and peering thousands of years into the past as if it were an everyday occurrence, suggested lunch. Oh. For him, she reminded herself, it was an everyday occurrence.
He took her to the Sunflower, a charming restaurant situated next to the Nile, where they could watch the lazy progress of feluccas and launches on the river. They ordered chicken shawarma and Moroccan fish tagine, and shared pieces of flatbread and tidbits about their lives as they ate.
Between bites of pita-wrapped chicken, Colin asked questions.
“Last night, you said it was your aunt who got you going on Ancient Egypt?”
“She’s a graphologist, so she’s interested in hieroglyphics.”
His head tilted to one side like a curious bird. “She’s a what?”
“A graphologist—she’s famous.”
“You’ll have to explain that one.”
“She studies handwriting. It tells your personality traits.”
“Bloody hell, I wouldn’t her to see my scrawl.” The look of dismay on Colin’s face made him look like a little boy caught stealing.
Monica laughed. “That’s what everyone says.”
“What’s graph—what did you say—graphology? got to do with hieroglyphics?”
“She can analyze the hieratic texts.” He would know that she was referring to the ancient cursive form of writing.
“Does it not matter that it’s not in English?”
“She analyzes handwriting in lots of languages she doesn’t speak.”
More food arrived and they dug in. She gave Colin time to swallow a mouthful, then asked where he was from, and wondered what caused the shadow that crossed his face as he answered.
“Born on the Isle of Wight—it’s off the South of England. Between Uni and digging, I don’t get home much.”
“Where do you go to university?”
“Oxford,” he said, then deftly switched the topic back to her. “You’re from L.A.?”
“Born next to the Pacific Ocean, which makes me a native daughter of the Golden West.”
He reached over to stroke her arm with his index finger, tracing a shivery trail down her skin. “No wonder you have such a lovely tan.”
The blush blazed on her cheeks, and it was all she could do not to fidget. “You must get your tan from working in the desert.”
When he smiled, his eyes crinkled at the edges. “As much as I can. Now, tell me about this marvelous aunty of yours.”
“Claudia? She’s my dad’s sister. She’s been kind of a second mother since my mom died.”
He winced as if he had made a faux pas. “Ouch. I’m sorry, luv, I didn’t mean to—”
“It’s totally fine. Claudia’s great. I’m so happy she got me interested in all of this—” Monica waved her arms, encompassing the Nile and everything it stood for.
“I’m happy about that, too.” He hesitated. “Do you mind if I ask what happened to your mum?”
Six years later, the pain still lurked, ready to engulf her. She took a deep, steadying breath. “She went to buy some ice cream for me. On the way home, she got broadsided by a drunk driver.” For an instant, the great river, the launches and feluccas, the dense city on the other side, fell away and she was twelve years old again, trying to comfort her grief-stricken father. Colin’s voice brought her back.
“God, that’s horrible.”
Monica could feel him searching for something to say, the way people did when there was nothing adequate. She had learned that it was easier to talk about anything other than her own pain.
“What about you? Are you close to your parents?”
His answer, when it came, reminded Monica of Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak—a shield to protect himself from being seen. “My mum is—well, she’s got her own problems. My father buggered off to South America when I was scarcely three. I never knew him particularly well and he died two years ago. He was an archaeologist.” The wry twist of his lips said, ‘now you know where I get it from.’
She reached her hand across the table, compassion flaring in her chest. “That’s so sad. I guess it’s my turn to say I’m sorry.”
Colin gave her hand a squeeze and let go. “No worries, little Mo—all right if I call you that, yeah?”
“Yeah, it’s fine.” At five-seven she was hardly ‘little,’ but if he wanted to give her a nickname, she wasn’t going to argue. She wanted to look away from the intensity of his grey-eyed gaze; whatever magnet had pulled them together wouldn’t let her.
“The one good thing my dad did was pay my school fees,” Colin went on as if nothing had happened—and maybe for him, it hadn’t. “Mum burned through the insurance money in the first year. The thing is, if I can’t finish my PhD, I’m not sure old Hawkins-Whyte will keep me on here.”
He rubbed his hands over his face with a long sigh and shook his head like a wet dog. “Bloody hell, listen to me, pouring out my troubles to a girl I’ve just met. You must think I’m a right prat.”
Monica was not sure what a prat was, except it must be an insult. “I do not think that; I’m happy to listen.”
Colin’s expression was self-mocking. “You’re far too easy to talk to. The thing is, I’ve got to find a means to stay at Uni; that’s all there is to it.”
“You’ll find a way; I know you will.”
“’Course I will.” He pushed away from the table. “Now, that’s enough of my rubbish; let’s make the afternoon count. Tomorrow, we’ll be up at the crack of dawn, working ourselves to death.”
Monica made no attempt to hide her excitement at the prospect. “I know; I can’t wait.”
In the Valley of the Kings, they bought tickets to three tombs. Colin had warned her there would be a lot of walking in the Theban Necropolis. The down-slanted corridors were cut hundreds of feet into the limestone hills, making Monica glad she had listened and wore comfortable walking shoes.
Colin shifted back into tour guide mode as easily as putting on a pair of comfy slippers. “Sixty-three tombs have been excavated, but they never open more than eighteen at a time.”
“I read that people kept using them after the burial,” said Monica.
“That’s right. They brought offerings of food and beer; sometimes jewelry.” They entered tomb KV8. “This one belonged to Merenptah, the son of Ramesses the second; only when they opened the tomb, his mummy wasn’t here. They found it in Amenhotep the second’s tomb in 1898, along with eighteen other mummies. They’d all been relocated in antiquity.”
“Eighteen? Who moved them?”
“The priests, wanting to keep tomb robbers from destroying them. The robbers would rip them apart, looking for valuables. Did you know that, until Tutankhamun, the only pharaoh found in his original tomb was Amenhotep the second?”
“Wow; no, I didn’t. I went to the Tutankhamun exhibit at USC in 2018 with my aunt.” She smiled at the favorite memory. Her interest in Ancient Egypt had taken off like a rocket after that visit.
“What did you like best?” Colin asked. “The golden throne? The death mask?”
She could see he was teasing her and she liked it. “Not the fancy things. It was the small sculptures. You know the one of the boy standing on a raft? Like that. A wooden box with carvings of Anubis and Horus. Oh, and a pair of Tutankhamun’s sandals. I couldn’t stop thinking of him actually wearing those sandals I was looking at, thousands of years later.”
“There are more than five thousand of his artifacts at the Cairo museum now.” Colin’s eyes gleamed with fervor for a topic he clearly loved. “Wouldn’t it be incredible to own one of those pieces?”
Monica shot him a look, remembering what McKenna had said about him ‘hanging out with modern tomb robbers.’ What he had said was innocuous enough; yet, as they took the path down the steep shaft to the burial chamber, his arm linked through hers, an uneasy feeling crept in and settled on her like a too-hot coat.
“They designed various traps to keep tomb robbers out,” said Colin. “That didn’t always work, though.”
“Because their grandfathers and great-grandfathers were the tomb builders and would give them a map.”
The frisson tugged at her again. She wanted to ask him what had happened last season, but there was no tactful way to bring it up. Anyway, if Professor Morgan-Whyte had believed in his innocence, why shouldn’t she? And she had a lot of other questions to ask:
How had the ancient builders created these astounding pillared chambers with their lofty ceilings, using the tools they had?? How did they make the nested sarcophagi that held the pharaoh’s remains? How had the painters and scribes decorated the hundreds of feet of walls and ceilings with so much beautiful artwork, having no floodlights to work by? The oil lamps they used couldn’t have provided all that much illumination, could they?
Colin grinned at her. “I’d love to stay here all day, answering every question you have. But we still have KV9 to see.”
Monica heaved a sigh. “There’s so much to see. KV9 is Rameses’ tomb, isn’t it?”
“Two Rameses—fifth and sixth—uncle and nephew.”
Colorful celestial scenes covered the ceiling, hieroglyphics on the walls of the burial chamber. Far into the tomb, standing in its own niche was an immense green sarcophagus that had been badly damaged and pieced back together—a 3-D puzzle. “It’s like a surreal sculpture.” Monica said, marveling at the empty spaces on the sides where huge chunks of stone should have been. “What happened to it?”
“Smashed in ancient times. Tomb robbers again.”
“It’s awful what they did. I can’t stand it.”
Colin backed away from the niche and moved on to the next area. Did his lack of response to her remark have anything to do with his modern ‘tomb robber’ friends? Monica couldn’t read his expression and he changed the subject too quickly to be sure of what she thought she detected.
“There’s a face mask of Rameses the sixth,” he said as they continued through the tomb. “You’d have to go all the way to England to see it. It’s kept in the British Museum.”
“England? Maybe someday. I wish Claudia could see all this; she’d love it as much as I do.”
“You’ll have to bring her back for a visit next season.”
“I’m definitely going to come back if they’ll let me.”
Colin chuckled. “Let’s see if you feel the same after a few weeks of hard, grubby work.”
Monica made a face. “Don’t worry, I will.”
“I hope you do,” he said as they exited the tomb into bright sunshine. “Now, we’ll end with KV14, the deepest tomb in the Valley.”
Monica didn’t think she could have been any more excited about Egyptian history, but as they entered the tomb of Tawosret, she caught herself gawking at the colors of the wall decorations, which were as fresh and bright as if they had been painted last week.
“There’s so much to learn. I want to know everything.”
“I can teach you a little while we’re here, if you like.”
She could see from Colin’s pleased smile that he was enjoying her newbie enthusiasm. “Are you serious? That would be fantastic.”
He started walking backwards, talking to her as they went. “All right, then, first lesson; Tawosret was another queen who ruled as Pharaoh for a short while—not famous like Hatshepsut, of course. This tomb was meant for her and husband, Seti the second. But after they died, Pharaoh Setnakht came along and had Seti re-buried in another tomb. He took over this one and made it look like everything in it was his.”
They walked and talked for hours, Monica soaking up the scenes of Ancient Egyptian life, wishing every minute could stretch into days. She wanted to see it all, but the few weeks of volunteering at Frank Booth’s excavation was nowhere near long enough to slake her growing thirst for learning the secrets hidden under the desert sand.
When at last they climbed into a taxi, dusk was beginning to fall. Monica, who had been too excited to sleep for more than a few hours the night before, rested her head against the seatback with a long sigh of contentment. When Colin’s hand closed over hers, she let their fingers intertwine and curl together. Imagining the lulling movement of the vehicle as a cradle, her eyes drifted shut.
One moment, she was half-dozing; the next, Colin was shouting, his arm a steel rod across her chest.
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