Chapter 1

Dr. Elizabeth Lawrence slowed, and flicked on the car’s brights, looking for the turn in the dark. Incredible, the unexpected twists life can take. Her entire career reduced to two ragged fragments of papyrus that would set the antiquities world on fire.

Then blow it up when the truth came out.

She found the street and pulled to the curb outside Chicago’s St. Paul Coptic Orthodox Church. At 10:00 p.m. on a Monday, the interior of the church lay dark beyond the arched windows. It was an odd place to meet, a street corner in a residential area next to a church. But she knew the location was convenient for Sam. And in the fashionable neighborhood of Logan Square, she felt comfortable.

Who would look for her here?

Plus, the church offered neutral ground. Sacred ground, even. Appropriate, given their business with each other.

Rain spattered the windshield, the first breath of a forecasted spring squall. The air seemed to swell with the damp. Elizabeth glanced at her watch. Sam should be here soon. She hoped the seller hadn’t insisted on coming. The Egyptian, Hassan, had been demanding that she hurry with her assessment of the photos he’d sent of the ancient texts. Demanding that she commit to authenticating them or let him take his treasure elsewhere.


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Now was the time to be painstakingly cautious lest the entire enterprise implode, taking them all down.

She reassured herself that the Sig Sauer handgun was under the driver’s seat. Dr. Elizabeth Lawrence, doctor of ancient history and papyrology, head of the Chicago Institute of Middle Eastern Antiquities, onetime recipient of a MacArthur “Genius Grant,” knew her way around guns every bit as well as she did around artifacts. Despite her appearance, she was no bespectacled denizen of academia’s ivory tower. For forty years she’d been boots on the ground wherever her work required her to be. She’d rappelled down cliffs, fought off malaria and marauders, and lived alone in the desert among jackals and scorpions.

In a man’s world, she’d gone her own way, and she had thrived.

A car drove past without slowing, its tires hissing on the wet asphalt. A black SUV. She watched until it turned a corner.

She had no way of knowing how many people were aware of the existence of the fragments. But there were plenty of other scholars, other institutes, even private collectors, who would pay millions for these ancient texts.

Some would be willing to steal them, should the opportunity arise. Even kill for them.

A wave of weariness swept over her, and she sank back in the seat, cursing her own weak body.

Maybe, while she was still able, she should end her subterfuge and ask for Evan’s help. Tell him the truth about what she’d been doing. Not just the papyri, but everything else. He could serve as a surety that she still functioned—that her brain wasn’t too badly impaired by her illness.

She fished a business card from her wallet and wrote Dr. Evan Wilding on the back. The cancer sometimes crowded out all but the most critical pieces of information. She’d been known to forget meals, forget her medications, leave the house wearing one shoe, walk into a blizzard without a coat.

“Dark of Night”


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She placed the card on the dash. She wouldn’t forget to contact him.

A tap at the passenger window made her sit up straight. A figure bent down to peer through the glass. Samad Rasheed. Sam.

She hit the button to unlock the doors. Sam opened the back door and wedged a large basket into the seat.

“What the hell is that?” she asked as he closed the back door and slid into the passenger seat next to her.

“A gift from the Egyptian. To celebrate tonight and our upcoming success.”

Elizabeth cast a wary glance into the gloom of the sedan’s back seat. Had the basket moved?

“I’m not fond of surprises,” she said.

“This one you’ll like.” He gave her a shy smile. His teeth gleamed in the outdoor lights of the church. It occurred to her that her son—had he lived—would be the same age as Sam.

She’d met Sam through his grandfather, Omar Rasheed, whom she knew from her many trips to Jerusalem. Omar was an antiquities dealer in the Old City, a kind and honest man who was as generous with his advice as he was at sharing his wife’s sugary basbousa cakes.

Sam had his grandfather’s thoughtfulness. But in him, kindness had softened to a reticence that made him an odd fit for the cutthroat antiquities business.

“Well,” she said, “the moment of truth. Let’s see them.”

She turned on the overhead light even as she allowed herself a wry chuckle. What would her peers say if they could watch her prepare to examine scraps of two-thousand-year-old literature under a car’s dome light?

Sam reached into his canvas messenger bag and carefully extracted two five-by-five-inch wooden frames labeled Heb-papyr 03-09 and Heb-papyr 03-10. Or what she, and the others involved, called the Moses papyri. Each frame held two squares of glass, and the papyri were mounted between the squares.

Tenderly, he passed over the first frame.

She saw immediately that the glass carried the bloom of soluble salts that partially obscured the paper, just as she’d noted in the photographs. A bloom like this was common, and unlikely to have harmed the artifacts. There was also adhesive tape of the kind used in the 1950s to repair fragile texts.

Together, the bloom and the tape suggested the texts were extremely old and had been poorly treated after their discovery.

“These are mounted in glass, not plexi,” she said. “I thought you were going to have them remounted.”

“You begged me not to,” he answered. “And Hassan agreed. Did you think I wouldn’t listen to the woman my grandfather calls Seshat?”

She smiled. In her first meetings with Omar, he’d spoken of her as a willful, spoiled American woman. Later, when they’d come to respect each other, he called her Seshat, after the Egyptian goddess of wisdom and writing.

She set the first frame in her lap and picked up the second. Her hands were shaking. There was the salt bloom again, but even through it, she could make out the Hebrew text aseret ha-dibrot, meaning “the ten statements.” This was what had caught her eye when she’d first received the photographs. When she’d first learned of the appearance of the fragments in Jerusalem.

Carefully she lowered the second frame to join the first in her lap. Ten months she’d been waiting for this moment. Ten years, really, if she went all the way back to when the Old Testament had first caught her serious attention.

Would she live long enough to see it through?

A faint sound came from the back seat. She ignored it, her gaze transfixed by the tiny squares of papyrus.

“You understand that I can’t authenticate them under these circumstances,” she said. “I’ll need to remount them. Does the owner trust me?”

“Of course, Seshat.”


Another sound behind her. Sam coughed into his hand.

“Well?” he asked.

“How long can I have them?”

“Two weeks? The Egyptian is eager to close.”

Two weeks. She silently calculated the time to repair and remount, to analyze for indications of fraud. To begin the painstaking work of transcription and translation. To create the provenance of the papyri—the history of their ownership—which would add immeasurably to their value.

“All right,” she said, surprising herself.

Sam’s smile widened. “Good. Then you will get the Egyptian his money, and you will publish your findings, and everyone will be happy.”

“Yes, Sam.” Her smile felt fragile. “Everyone will be happy.”

They shook hands awkwardly in the small car, then Sam peered through the windows before he opened the door and slipped out into the gathering storm. He leaned back into the car.

“The basket,” he said. “It’s a puppy. A Norwegian Lundehund like your old dog. The Egyptian said to consider it a gesture of goodwill. And a promise for our future together.”

“Since when did Hassan turn sentimental?”

Another grin. “Since he received these papyri.”

Sam closed the door and vanished into the dark and the rain.

She set the frames gently on the passenger seat, then turned around and perched on her knees. A puppy confined to a basket. Knowing Hassan, he’d probably drugged the poor thing to keep it quiet. She reached into the back and began to tug at the tightly woven ribbon that held the lid in place.

Even as her hands moved, she wondered, as she had before, if she’d underestimated the risk. From someone who wanted the papyri for themselves. Or from someone who—for their own reasons—would want them destroyed.

A car pulled up to the curb behind her, headlights off. She glanced up.

The thought flashed across her mind that perhaps she’d too easily trusted that the Egyptian’s greed would protect her.

Not that it mattered now, she realized, looking down.

Now that the lid was off.

Barbara Nickless is a Wall Street Journal and #1 Amazon Charts bestselling author.Her newseries features forensicsemiotician Dr. Evan Wilding — a man whose gift for interpreting thewords and symbols left behind by killers has led him to consult on some of the world’s grisliest cases. Nickless has lived most of her lfe in Colorado near the Rocky Mountains, where she loves to hike, cave and snowshoe.