Mystery of the Egyptian Scroll Chapter 3 by Scott Peters

Mystery of the Egyptian Scroll
by Scott Peters

Chapter Three

The Stranger's Door

  Zet bounded over the pots and headed out of the marketplace.
  A cool alley quickly swallowed him in shadow.
The air felt good on his hot skin. Doves cooed, nestled in eaves over doorways. Underfoot, a few sleepy pigeons rose, flapping, disturbed by the slap of his bare feet. He passed the woodcarver's open door; the sweet smell of cedar shavings floated in the stillness.
Zet flew around a corner and then slowed. He was almost there.
What if the thief kept running right out of town, instead of going home? But then he saw the sandals, lined up on the stoop. His heart leaped. He was in luck. He could almost feel the deben in his hands. A big, heavy bag of copper. He could barter that copper for ten sacks of grain, or any manner of things. What would his mother say? She'd be so proud. And he'd tell her he was simply doing his job and taking care of them. Just like father asked.
Zet crept up the steps.
Rather than a proper door, a heavy curtain shielded the house from the alley.
He approached and gently pulled it. Just enough to peek inside. He wanted to make completely sure it was the same person, before raising the alarm.
As he lifted the curtain, however, he suddenly realized the danger he was putting himself in. A thief lived here. No ordinary thief, according to the medjay. Zet couldn't hope for help from a passerby. The alley behind him was empty. And Zet had no weapon.
Before he could change his mind, two strong hands grabbed him by the shoulders and hauled him inside.
"What's this?" the man growled. "A spy?"
"Let go," Zet said, struggling.
"Why should I?" he said. "What are you doing, sticking your head in my door?" His sun-darkened face was the color of old leather. A scar ran down one cheek, and mud-stained his calves.
"You're a thief," Zet said. "Let go, or you'll be in more trouble. They'll come for you!"
"Who have you led to my door?" he said.
Zet was about to say medjay, hoping the man would believe him and let him go, when a woman hurried into the room. Flour covered her hands.
"What's this? Let go of the poor boy. What's come over you?" she cried.
"He followed me," the man said, but the anger had gone out of his voice.
The woman wiped hairs from her cheek, leaving a streak of flour. She was dressed simply, and her black hair hung in a neat braid. "Why would he do that? And what's got you so upset?"
The man slumped onto a three-legged stool. "Medjay were chasing me."
"He's a thief!" Zet said.
"Will someone please tell me what's going on?" the woman said, looking from Zet to her husband and back again.
"Now, Ama," he said, "Do you really take your good husband for a thief?"
She planted a hand on his shoulder. "Of course not." She brushed away her floury prints. "What happened?"
"First, bring me and the boy some water. I think we're both thirsty from running." He looked at Zet for confirmation.
Zet nodded. Seeing the man now, he realized he was telling the truth. While he'd looked frightening in the doorway, he could see he was simply a hard worker. And the laugh lines etched deeply around his eyes and mouth spoke of kindness.
The man stood and offered Zet his stool, and went in search of another. The house smelled good, like flowers. He searched for the source of the smell and was rewarded by the sight of one of their big clay bowls on a low table, filled to the brim with fragrant, flowering herbs. The bowl was etched all around with blue water birds; funny how he remembered liking it when he was little—and now here it was like a long-lost friend. They must have bought it years ago.
The man returned, and Ama came back a moment later with three clay cups balanced on a tray of woven straw. The water tasted pure and cool, and Zet drank thirstily. 
The man set down his cup.
"I'll tell you both what happened. My name is Padus. I'm a papyrus farmer. I have a plot of land on the bank of the Nile, where I tend my papyrus plants. It's a small plot, but it yields enough reeds to barter with the paper makers and feed me and my Ama here."
"Why were those medjay chasing you?" Zet said.
He smiled and held up a calloused hand. "I'm coming to that. It started when I was leaving my field. I was walking through my reeds, slowly, checking for insects and rot, that sort of thing. They're very tall this time of year—much taller than me. I overheard a man talking. I was surprised because few people just wander into my plot." He shrugged. "There's no reason to. There's nothing worth stealing, and it's not particularly interesting unless you're a farmer."
He took a deep sip of water, then set his cup down.
"As I said, I heard voices. Given the thick vegetation, I couldn't see who was speaking. But I did hear one man say, Now that we have the building plans, we're set. All you need to do is to make sure our buyer is at—" Padus paused, and color suffused his cheeks.
"At what?" Zet said.
"That's the problem. I don’t know." He ran a hand over his head. Frustration was clear on his face. "That's the last I heard. I was so stupid to let them see me! I didn't think. I just stepped out into the open. And they stopped talking."
Zet groaned. If Padus had held back just a little longer, they'd be able to solve the case.
"I know," Padus said as if reading Zet's thoughts.
"What did they look like?" Zet asked.
"One was quite fat, a large man with a short, beaded wig. Wealthy. Rings on every finger. And in one hand, he had what looked like a large scroll wrapped in leather."
"A scroll—the building plans they were talking about," Ama said.
"Exactly," Padus said. "But building plans for what, I don't know."
"What about the other man?" Zet said. "You said there were two."
"Yes. The other one was tall and thin and bony, with a long neck. He looked like a boiled chicken, if you know what I mean."
Zet grinned at this description. "So what happened after they saw you?"
"I looked at them, and they looked at me, and the fat one shouted, 'Get him!' Well, I could have told them they were trespassing, but that didn't seem like a good idea because the thin one pulled out a knife. I didn't wait to find out if he planned to use it. I just started running! I ran for town, hoping I'd lose them in the alleys."
"So then why were the medjay chasing you?"
"I think the big man must be some kind of official because a medjay recognized him, and he yelled that I was a thief and that I'd stolen something. I was lucky to make it home."
Zet nodded. It had been close. "It's good you're a fast runner."
"That won't do me much good now, though. I'm afraid to leave my house. They've seen my face. You know what happens to thieves. And if he's official, and it's state business, it's death for certain. But if I don't leave home, how can I tend my fields?"
Ama looked stricken. "But you're innocent."
Zet jumped to his feet. "That reminds me, you'd better bring your sandals inside."
   "Why?" Padus jumped up, hearing the warning in Zet's voice.
(Read Chapter One Here)
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