Inside the Mysterious Cabinet of Curiosities

An Excerpt

Sixty-seven year old Archibald Mead was an expert on Egyptian antiquities, not an Egyptologist who studies history and art and ancient languages, or an Archeologist who digs for treasure. Dr. Mead could look at an ancient object and know if it was real or fake, and if it was real, how much someone would pay to own it. He was a collector too, caretaker of an astonishing number of objects that had been in the Mead family for several generations.  As good fortune would have it, Max was next in line to carry forward his grandfather’s legacy, but only because Max’s father avoided the Cabinet and Archi like the plague.

Max and his grandfather sat on opposite sides of the large wooden desk near the entrance to the Cabinet, stretching the backs of their chairs, their feet comfortably up. It was Friday, which in Egypt is the first day of the weekend. But for Max, Friday was a work day. With the Cabinet’s five sizeable rooms, each lined with cases and boxes displaying thousands of objects with delicate temperature and humidity requirements, and additional shelves down the middle of each room made from wood and glass that needed constant dusting and shining, there was always organizing and maintaining to do. Keeping the many journals and newspapers stacked neatly and within easy reach of his grandfather’s chair, and sorting through the post were some of Max’s favourite Friday jobs. It gave him another window into his grandfather’s life, what Archi liked to read and who he corresponded with. But when the hot afternoon sun crept through the Cabinet windows, all chores ceased and reading about new discoveries in the world of collecting and trading became the order of the day.

“Wow…listen to this!” Max said, excitement carrying his voice an octave higher, “Looted Treasure Discovered in Cairo Neighborhood.”

“Looted treasure you say? I’m not surprised.” Archibald responded, shifting his copy of Modern Collector to one hand and reaching for a cup of tea with the other. The air above the desk smelled of nutty tobacco mixed with something flowery.  “They’re building new Egypt above old Egypt. It makes sense there would be these types of, er, discoveries.”  Max folded his copy of Modern Archeological Times in half and brought the pages close to his face. He examined the small, grainy photograph of several men with ropes and pulleys working together to lift an enormous statue from a sandy pit.

“It says they’ve recovered statues of Ramses II and Seti II, his grandson.” Max looked up from the story before continuing, “How is that even possible?”

“Finding looted treasure is not that difficult,” his grandfather said.

“Well, it would be for me! And burying treasure this size, in plain sight of an entire neighborhood, must take an expert and an army and, I don’t know, an invisibility cloak or something.”  Max’s grandfather chuckled.

“You’d be surprised how much stolen treasure is hiding right under our noses.”

“How do you know a treasure has been stolen?” Max asked. As the words left his mouth he rolled his eyes. Part of him anticipated what would come next, a theory with ridiculous-sounding terms and phrases that required an encyclopaedia to interpret. But the other part of him was taking mental notes.

Archibald pushed his glasses over the boney crook of his nose. His eyes flickered before they focused on Max. “It’s quite simple really. The most obvious clue might be that the object is found in a place where it doesn’t belong. There could be an identifying mark, or registration number, indicating the object had been catalogued before.” The old man took another sip from the porcelain cup and then rested his hands on the desk. “It’s possible that when the object was stolen, the theft was widely publicized, making the object highly recognizable.” His grandfather’s eyebrows relaxed into their normal bushy straight line as he pulled the glasses from his face and set them aside.  “Of course, if in doubt, check the Supreme Council of Antiquities Registry.”

“What’s that?” Max asked.

“It’s a fancy database.  I use it from time to time, when my eyes and hands fail me. Though I suppose those fellas in your article didn’t need the Registry, they knew what they were dealing with.”

Max covered his face with the now crinkled pages, scanning for clues that might give away the location of the dig. This wasn’t a detail he planned to share with his grandfather. Instead, his interest was personal. When his friend Youssef returned from visiting family in the countryside, Max hoped the two boys could go snooping around the dig, maybe even score an interview.  If Max could come up with a compelling story for his school newspaper, it might bring more members to his fledgling Amateur Antiquities Sleuthing Club. He’d do almost anything to get more members, even writing an article that seemed a lot like homework.

“How’d they know to look there, I wonder?” Max glanced around the edge of the newspaper just as his grandfather’s phone rang.

“Ah, Mr. Professor, I was just thinking of you.” Archibald said with a crooked smile, then cradled the phone between his cheek and shoulder.  Max watched as his grandfather pulled a rag and pair of white cotton gloves from the bottom drawer of the desk.  He handed them to Max and, with fingers wagging, shooed Max in the direction of the cases.  “I need a few minutes,” Archibald whispered in Max’s direction before swivelling his chair away.

Max hated the cotton gloves that Archi insisted he wear while working in the Cabinet. ‘Kids have dirty hands. Hands get sticky. You touch your face, your hair, your feet, your food and how often do you wash? Nothing destroys objects like dirty hands.’  After two months of wearing gloves, Max still struggled to make them work. They were too big, or too slippery, and sometimes they itched.  But Max persisted because the Cabinet was his favourite place to be in all of Egypt.

Within minutes Max had worked his way to Case #57, Canopic Jars. He was wiping the glass, looking with interest into the case. The face of the god Imsety, a man, stared back at him. Max was completely unaware that inside the body of the jar was somebody’s mummified, shrivelled liver.  Next to Imsety was another jar with the head of a jackal, and next to that a baboon, then a bird. Max tried to make their eyes blink as he teased circles around their heads with the rag. Archi’s voice had fallen silent, “Granddad, these jars in Case 57, they’re all animals except for one.  Why the man head?”  Max expected his grandfather to approach with the answer, but instead there was silence. Max turned back. After several steps he could see his grandfather slumped over the desk, a grey mass of hair falling over cupped hands. Max rushed forward.

“Granddad, are you okay?” To Max’s relief, Archi raised his head and faked a smile.

“I have to go to Alexandria.”

“What do you mean, you have to go?  What’s happened?” Max didn’t try to hide the concern in his voice. The light in the Cabinet turned to a murky yellow making his grandfather’s face look especially tired and pale..

“It’s just a last minute job, that’s all. I’ll be home Tuesday, latest. Given that Youssef is away, I’d like you to take charge of the Cabinet.”

“Can’t it wait?  What if you’re not back on Tuesday?”

“Not to worry, I wouldn’t miss your birthday for anything in the world!”  Apparently Max didn’t hide his disappointment very well, because Archi persisted, “A colleague has asked me to authenticate a collection of scrolls. If I don’t say yes to these requests, I’m afraid they’ll stop calling. You understand.”

“This is my birthday I’m talking about! Something I’ve been looking forward to for an entire year.  Mum will bake her famous Chocolate Supreme Peanut Butter Fudge sponge. She’ll probably pull out the tasseled hats and fill the room with bunting and balloons with kooky sayings on them.” Max imagined licking warm, gooey chocolate from his lips while popping an overstretched balloon under his older sister Maggie’s chair when she least expected it. “And because it’s my birthday, we’re allowed to eat as much cake as we like!”

Max’s desperate wish to have Granddad at his birthday party wouldn’t go over well with his parents. But Max didn’t care, it was his 13th birthday and he was going to make it everything he wanted it to be. Although Max and his family lived in Granddad’s villa, outside the Cabinet they didn’t mix.  And since none of the family came into the Cabinet, Max worried that sooner or later they’d forget Archibald Mead ever existed. Even though Granddad took most of his meals alone and worked late into the night, he wasn’t some old souvenir left on a dark cabinet shelf to be forgotten. Whatever was keeping Granddad and his Dad apart, Max was going to use his birthday to bring them together again.

“That’s a lovely invitation.” Granddad grunted a little as he pulled himself from the chair. Max wanted him to say ‘Yes, I’d be delighted to attend your birthday party and upset your parents with my presence’. But in that moment his thoughts had moved on to what Granddad and the mysterious Mr. Professor might be up to.

 

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