“…at the very least be allowed to rejoin the dig effort and return the artifacts that my team and I rightfully found before anyone else,” Nisa finished. She nervously wrung her hands together, interlacing her fingers between each other. The other historians, museum owners, businessmen and women, archaeologists, and researchers sat on a long table in the center of the meeting room in Cairo, Egypt, staring at her where she stood at the front of the room.
Callahan had managed to convince the Supreme Council of Antiquities to let him take over the dig; he was more qualified and had done more digs than Nisa, obviously because of his age and experience. Her artifacts and research had passed to him and well, that was that. She had come here to meet with the top people in the historical society in hopes they would at least let her and her team back on site, or have their artifacts and research back, but judging from the deadpanned expressions on each of the people’s faces, Nisa didn’t find that likely to happen.
One woman at the front of the table folded her hands and leaned forward. “Callahan is a competent archaeologist. One of the best we have! He’s more than capable of handling this dig on his own.”
On the screen along the back wall, several other people from around the world were online, able to attend the meeting via video conference. One of them, a man whose face was in a square in the lower right corner, nodded. “Indeed. Miss Nisa, I think it’s best to leave well enough alone.”
Nisa swallowed deeply, trying desperately to reign in her temper. “How will teams like mine ever get experience if our digs are always given to men like Callahan? It was ours! There was no reason for him to take over.”
“Our decision is final.” The head woman narrowed her eyes on Nisa.
Nisa’s hands clenched around her fingers and she gritted her teeth. Frustration and anger made her blood boil and it felt as if the entire room had heated up, even more than the hot sun outside had already caused it to. “You’re only doing this because he has money. That and he’s influential whereas I am not! This branch of the SCA is corrupt and always has been; giving digs to the richest archaeologist rather than the most qualified. You all know that I am perfectly capable of handling that dig myself. I’m just wondering how much Callahan paid you!”
One of the men jumped to his feet, face reddened as he pounded his hands on the table. “That’s enough! Security, escort her out! You’ll be lucky if you ever see another dig ever again! Don’t think we don’t have influence with societies in other countries, because we do!”
Nisa’s stomach lurched and felt tears well up in the back of her throat, forming a lump there. Her career was basically over, but then, had it ever really started in the first place? Every dig that had been given to her had been perfectly chosen. She wondered how much of a hand Callahan played in everything. All the leads on her father’s research into the language and yet, for years, Nisa had never been able to find anything about it. Then, the one time she came to a dig on her own, she’d finally found it—the key to solving the mysterious language and finishing her father’s lifelong work. Only to have Callahan rip it from her fingers.
Not this time.
As Nisa stormed out of the building and slipped into the jeep where Oliver waited to take her back to her team’s headquarters across Cairo, she pushed back every tear and all her disappointment and pain and fear of failure.
“I’m guessing it didn’t go well,” Oliver said, as he pulled out of the lot and onto the dirt roads. Sand grew in the thick clouds far to the right, which meant another storm was coming. With any luck, perhaps it would rebury the pyramid and halt Callahan’s progress.
Nisa shook her head, slamming her fist against the side of the door.
“Hey, hey. Don’t take it out on Baby here.” Oliver smirked at her, but then his expression sobered when he glanced at her.
Nisa shook her head. “Callahan has this branch of the SCA wrapped around his fingers. All these years, I’ve been picking up my father’s work, chasing false leads around the globe… I finally choose a dig on my own, not dictated by the Society and that’s the place we finally find what we’re looking for, Ollie. I think Callahan’s been keeping me away from important sites. I mean, as soon as we hit the jackpot here, he takes over and now there’s nothing we can do? My career is over after what happened in there. I’ll never work in Egypt again—or anywhere else, if they have their way—and without their support…” Her voice trailed off and cracked, but she cleared it and tried to force it back.
Oliver paused as some children chased a dog across the road. When they passed, he continued driving forward. “What do you want to do, Ni?”
Nisa scoffed. “Nothing legal. What I want to do is break into the dig and find out everything Callahan knows.” She shot Oliver a sideways look.
He clicked his tongue. “You sure? If you do this and you get caught…”
“I’m willing to risk jail. This… this was my father’s life, Ollie. It became my life. My career is over—if you could even say it ever really started in the first place. I—I can’t just let it get flushed down the toilet like this. I can’t let it go without a fight.” Nisa pursed her lips as determination surged through her chest.
Oliver smiled at her and reached out his free hand to gently hold hers. “I’m with you no matter what, Ni.”
Nisa shot him a look with widened eyes. “Ollie, you can’t! My career may be over, but yours isn’t. I mean, your reputation may have suffered for working with me, but you can always find another job, protecting someone else—“
“No,” Oliver quickly interrupted, as he turned the jeep sharply to the right. “I chose to work with you, Nisa, and that’s not going to change. Besides, you sneaking in anywhere? Not likely to be successful without me.”
Nisa chuckled and lightly smacked his arm. “I think you’d be surprised.”
Oliver rolled his eyes. “What exactly have you ever had to sneak into before? Tombs and pyramids don’t count; everything in there is dead.”
Nisa laughed and it felt good to laugh, to feel lighthearted after the troubles the past few days. Ever since Callahan had taken over the dig, it felt as if a heavy weight was pressing her down. Here, laughing and smiling with Oliver, even just being with him, finally made it feel as if that weight was gone. At least for now.
“What are you going to tell the others?” Oliver asked.
Nisa swallowed. “The truth. They deserve to know.”
They sat in the jeep in silence for several minutes, but it was comfortable, at least between them. Nisa’s thoughts reeled about what exactly she would be proposing and what it meant for everyone involved, especially Ollie. Bea, Chris, and Susie could always find work on another team; the same went for the rest of her workers. But Nisa felt obligated to tell them it was over, and that the only way forward was a less… legal means of figuring out what Callahan knew.
By the time Oliver pulled into her team’s headquarters, Nisa’s nerves were on high alert, like a lightning storm. The sandstorm had settled over the area and the wind blew sand in every direction, strong enough to knock Nisa off her feet. Oliver grabbed her arms tightly and together, they sprinted through the front doors.
Nisa leaned against the wall with a heavy sigh. Safe from the storm at last. She wiped sand from her eyes, but it coated her hair in a thick layer; it would take hours of showering to get it all out, but at this point, she was used to it.
Oliver grabbed her arm and his green eyes softened on hers. With the sand in his own curls, his blonde hair looked light brown. “Ni. You sure?”
Nisa nodded shakily, mentally steeling herself for what she was about to ask of her team, what she was about to tell them; if any of them decided to turn her in, she would be arrested before ever having a chance to find out anything. Why was it so important to her to tell them? Other than Bea, Chris, and Susie, she didn’t even remember the rest of the worker’s names.
Maybe it was because some of them had worked with her father. No, that wasn’t the only reason, Nisa realized. It was because they poured their hearts and souls into their work, the same way Nisa did. She owed them this much, at least.
Together, she and Oliver walked into the back room. The building itself was a refurbished warehouse, so it had plenty of space. The rooms had been divided based on labs and specialties. Now, of course, they had no artifacts to study, which meant many of them didn’t have anything to do while on the job.
They had all gathered in one of the larger meeting rooms, filled with a random assortment of couches and chairs; none of them matched and some of the couches even had patches. One man sat on an upside-down bucket and the light bulbs that hung from the ceiling had no covering on them.
“How’d it go?” Chris asked. He stood on the left side of the room, as far away from Susie as he could get. She stood behind the man on the bucket and that was when his name finally came to Nisa—Kyle, wasn’t it?
Nisa shut the door behind her as each and every eye in the room turned to her. Their expressions were mixtures of hope and fear, probably wondering where their careers were going. Every part of her hated to tell them it was over; especially for the older ones who had worked with her father and been at this twice as long as she had been alive.
Taking a deep breath, Nisa nodded to herself, released her breath, and told them everything. “I met with one of the main branches of the SCA and they believe Callahan is experienced enough to handle this himself. He is now officially in charge of everything—the pyramid’s excavation, all of our research, the artifacts… everything.”
One man cursed. A woman next to him shook her head and scoffed.
“How can they do this? I mean, why?” Susie demanded.
“Are we allowed to go back and work for him, then?” Kyle frowned.
Nisa shook her head. “Callahan has his own team. There is a chance you could all take your leave and try to find another team to work with. I—I doubt the SCA is going to give me official work anymore. Not in Egypt and they’ll keep other countries from letting me work, too.”
Chris slammed his hand against the wall behind him. “Are you kidding me? Everything you worked for, Nisa. How—why did they do this to you?”
Nisa shook her head. “I don’t know.”
Oliver spoke up from where he stood on her left. “We think Callahan’s been paying them off or been influencing Nisa’s digs. Whatever is on that site is important to him—important enough that he might have kept us away from anything to do with the unknown language and whatever else is down there.”
Bea’s eyes widened. “Everything we’ve discovered… As soon as we found out about it, he moved in. But—how did he know?”
Nisa shrugged. “I asked him for help. Maybe he knew we had found something.”
Oliver shook his head. “I don’t think that would have been enough. Something is one thing, but for him to move in like this… It would have taken knowing that you’d found something extraordinary.”
Bea swallowed. “The only ones who knew about everything were us.”
“And your security team, right, Oliver?” Susie pursed her lips.
Nisa shifted her gaze to land on her best friend.
Oliver shook his head. “No. I know because I work closely with Nisa, but none of my men know the details. They may see the artifacts being carried up, but they’re trained in fighting; not history. Most of us have no idea what we’re looking at; just a bunch of stones with scribbles on it.”
For a moment, Nisa found it difficult to hold in her old irritation and surprise at his lack of respect for the past, but then in this case, she found it to be a good thing.
“Do you think there’s a chance one of us betrayed you?” Susie murmured, glancing at the ground.
“Likely,” Chris muttered. “Wouldn’t be the first time.”
Before Susie could respond, Nisa interjected. “I don’t know. But what I have to say next could ruin your careers if you stay—your lives, even. Only stay if you’re completely serious about doing whatever it takes to find out what’s really going on; what’s really down there.”
No one stood up. Everyone stayed in the room. It warmed Nisa’s heart to see their support.
One of the older men, a man who had worked with her father—even though she couldn’t remember his name—nodded his head. “We’re with you, Miss Nisa.”
Nisa nodded, crossing her arms over her chest as nerves prickled through her skin. “Alright, well, I’m going to sneak back inside the camp and see if I can find out what Callahan knows. He obviously knows more than we do and way more than he let on. I’m not asking any of you to go, but you may have contacts, or people, other ways of getting information. If—if you choose to, then anything we can find out can help us get to the bottom of this giant mess.”
“We can get started at that right away,” the older man said. Several of the others nodded and left the room with him.
“Who’s going with you?” Bea asked.
“Me, so far.” Oliver glanced at Nisa and she tried to ignore the butterflies fluttering inside her stomach.
“Then, I’m going to,” Chris said.
Susie nodded. “There’s no way I’m going to miss out on what else he knows.”
Bea narrowed her eyes. “That man took the statue creature… There’s so much we don’t understand. You’ll have better luck if we all go and split off—listen in to multiple tents.”
Nisa looked at Oliver; sneaking into a place was his area of expertise, not hers.
Oliver stared at the back wall for a long moment, deep in thought. “Susie, you and Nisa can try to listen in to the main tent where Callahan is. Chris and Bea can find out what some of the other people have found out about the artifacts or any that Callahan’s recently discovered, and I’ll see what I can get from his personal computers if he brought them.”
The four of them all nodded at Oliver’s plan.
Nisa’s heart raced. This could change everything—one way or another.