The Mummy Buyer
Nayland Jones wondered, as he picked his way through the Cairo streets, if he was wearing the proper clothes for purchasing a mummy. He felt certain that he looked like an escapee from one of those sweat-and-gin movies that Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre and Humphrey Bogart had appeared in so often. He was even wearing a pith helmet, the crowning touch to his uniform.
Through the muski he strolled, long legs carrying him over streets mercilessly baked and cracked by the sun. Past peddlers, beggars and merchants.
One beggar squatted at the edge of the street, his back against a crumbly clay wall. As Nayland passed, the beggar plucked his milky dead eyeball from its socket, let it descend on well-worn tendons and dangle on his cheek. It looked like some sort of long-tentacled jellyfish reaching out and groping for the edge of a small, dark cavern, preparing to pull itself up into the black interior.
The beggar held out a hard, dirty palm.
More out of disgust than charity, Nayland put a coin in the beggar's palm. The beggar put the coin in his pouch, and his eye in its socket.
Nayland thought: "Disgusting country." He remembered what he had been told about such beggars. From birth the man had probably been prepared for his "profession." He had been taught to massage the eyeball daily, until the sight died and it became nothing more than a rubbery pulp that could be pulled from its socket and dangled on the cheek at will.
Nayland shivered. The whole country was full of crazies. Civilization had touched the place, but just barely. It was still a country of backward savages as far as he was concerned.
But he hadn't come to Cairo to study the people. He had come to purchase items for his unusual collection. Already he had compiled such rare things as a supposed Yeti's scalp from Tibet; shrunken heads from the wilds of New Guinea; spears and shields from Africa; and a number of other rare articles.
He kept all of these locked away in his private museum for his own personal pleasure. No one was allowed to see his goodies. They were his and his alone. And at night, he gloated over them.
But one thing of importance was missing from his collection: a mummy. Well, he intended to remedy that. He had obtained a very substantial lead concerning a man who would sell him a mummy—a mummy from a Pharaoh's tomb.
The address he was seeking was off the main street—what was main about the street, Nayland failed to see—and down a dark alley bordered by leaning buildings that cast shadows on the cobbles below.
Nayland didn't like the idea of the dark doorways that bordered the alley on either side like hungry mouths, but he was determined to get his mummy.
He walked along the alleyway counting doors. He was looking for the fifteenth on the right. On either side of him, partially hidden by shadow, were rows of beggars, cripples, eye-pluckers, and a few (Nayland couldn't honestly tell if they were male or female) so infested and pocked with sores they churned his breakfast, which he nearly lost.
But he came to the fifteenth door and his repulsion faded to enthusiasm as he entered the dark, foul smelling shop. It contained all manner of jarred and bagged items; a sort of apothecary shop. But from the looks of things, Nayland doubted if he'd buy anything for a headache here.
A little man who seemed very much a part of the place shuffled forward from a corner, hands clasped together, head tilted to one side. The man's face was very aged, or perhaps ravaged by some exotic disease. The flesh looked leathery. No, actually it looked wooden. The little man seemed to move with great difficulty, as if the old legs were too stiff or the bones too dry.
"Might I help you," the man said in perfect English, recognizing Nayland for an American immediately. The little man's voice was very deep, as if brought up from the insides of a hollow log.
"Why ... why, yes ... I was told by a man named Jauhur that I could find someone here who would sell me... " His voice got very low as the purchasing of such an item was illegal, "... a mummy."
"That is correct," the little man said. "For a price," he smiled his blackened stubs, "we can get you almost anything."
"A mummy for my collection, that will do."
"Yes. Shall we talk money ... American dollars?"
"I'm willing to pay a proper price, but not be cheated, mind you."
"Of course, but a mummy is ... shall we say, a rarity. They are scarce. Most of the tombs have long since been robbed...."
"But you have one for sale?"
The little man nodded his head.
"I would like to see it first, before we discuss price."
"Very well." The little man turned, shuffled toward the back of the shop, stopped and beckoned Nayland to follow.
They went through a dark, curtained doorway and into a large room where half a dozen sarcophagi rested against the wall.
Nayland licked his lips. The little man clutched the corner of one sarcophagus and opened it. "Inspect, but do not touch too much," the little man said. "They are fragile, very fragile."
Nayland nodded, unable to speak. He walked carefully to the case and inspected the wrapped figure inside. The cloth that bound the mummy was yellowed with age, even black in places.
"If it were unwrapped," the little man warned, "the air would soon crumble it. It would be advisable to put it in a glass case of some sort, and never move it or touch it."
"Yes," Nayland said absently. He looked the mummy up and down, greedily. A mummy for his collection; for him to feast his eyes on alone. No one would ever know….
Hello! Nayland thought. What's this?
On the left hand of the mummy, where the arms were pulled across its chest, was a break in the cloth, a slight bulge on the left ring finger.
Nayland looked over his shoulder at the little man who was watching him with patient, black, bird eyes.
"Perhaps you would rather be alone," the little man offered, sensing Nayland's nervousness.
"Yes ... yes, if you don't mind."
"No problem." The little man turned and shuffled away.
When Nayland was alone with the mummy, he returned his attention to the bulge on the mummy's finger. Perhaps he had found something of importance, like a ring; a ring of priceless gold and jewels; a ring that had resided on a dead man's finger for centuries. If the proprietor became aware of it, he might drive the price up; if not, Nayland felt certain he could make a nice purchase. He'd have the mummy for his collection, and the ring to sell for no telling how much.
Carefully, he reached up and touched the bulge. It was very hard. He saw through the break in the wrappings that something glinted. Yes, by golly, he'd found a mummy equipped with a ring. Of course, it could be bone, nothing more.
Nayland leaned forward and peered at the rent in the wrapping. Still uncertain, he carefully reached up and began to peel back the wrappings from a finger, and then he saw it.
Yes, a ring ... a ... He looked closely. God! No! But there was no denying it. It was a ring all right, and on it he read: SENIOR, '69, GLADEWATER HIGH SCHOOL.
Nayland, suddenly aware that someone was behind him, turned.
Nayland saw the little man's arm and the hatchet descend in a blur, and then he saw no more.
The hunchback brought Nayland's nude body out of the steaming vat of chemicals with a long-handled hook, pulled the corpse onto the wrapping slab with expert ease.
He was about to begin the wrapping when the little man came into the smoky chamber.
The hunchback hoped he wasn't still angry.
The little man said, "I hope you inspected this one, Kuda. No rings or watches ... and remember the one you wrapped still wearing his glasses? What am I to do with you? We have to sell these mummies to stay in business. We can't keep making them out of potential customers just because of your idiot mistakes."
"Remember the bulge those glasses made beneath the wrappings? And if I hadn't looked in on the American, I might not have seen him or the ring you forgot. Had I not caught him in time it might have led to the police. Robbing graves is a nice neat method of supply, but making our own corpses first could get us in trouble, Kuda. You understand?"
"Yes, Master. Forgive me, Master. I understand."
The little man shook his head. "The help these days." He turned and shuffled back to the front of the shop. A man was coming soon to buy a mummy.
"The Mummy Buyer" was originally published in March 1981 in Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine. It later appeared in A Fist Full of Stories (and Articles), a collection of Lansdale's short stories (and articles) published by CD Publications. "The Mummy Buyer" © 1981 Joe R. Lansdale.
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