What great noise the truck made as it traversed the dirt track that served as the main thoroughfare to camp. No one spoke, but there was no such thing as silence. There was the grinding of stones and dirt under rubber, the creaking of stiff suspension, and the growling of the truck's engine as it pulled its human load over the land's low rises. Birds fled before it, chirping their agitation. A group of nomads were resting near the track, and the noise roused their camels, who showed their disdain for the interruption by bearing their teeth and uttering their strange camel noises. The nomad children chased after the truck, throwing stones and yelling, "Booree nazarwalee, hamen mat dekh!" One child removed his sandal and tossed it ineffectively down the road.
Neither the stones nor the shoe ever came anywhere near the Hack. As the children disappeared behind a rise, Peter looked down into his empty hands and then to the floor. What few virtues Peter dared to count as his own seemed to be threatened by this place. It was these virtues – his decisiveness, his confidence in matters of human history – that bound his resolve to go out into the world, and if they were loosening, then his will to be a part of it, let alone to subject himself to the hardships of life in the very fringes of the Empire, would fall to tatters. He wanted to leave very, very much. "Evil eye guy, don't look at me!" the children had cried. He had wished he had a rock or even the impudence to heft his own boot at the children. Five hours at camp – only five more hours, and he could take himself and his things away from the Mound of the Dead, and under the careful guard of Bhakti, he could return to a place where he could recuperate in peace.
While Peter collected his things, Irene headed to the antiquities tent to oversee the packing and ordering of the finds. The Major was already there. "Ah! Miss Howell! I'm happy to see that you remain undiminished!" he said, smiling earnestly.
"There has been some new mischief in camp – ah, so, Professor Humphries gave you word. Very good – I mean, it is a pity, but a temporary hold on operations seems to be the best course of action. What can be gained by continuing on with a dig that's cursed?" Before Irene could offer an answer – for she surely had several – McCormick clarified himself. "I mean it metaphorically, of course . . . but the sentiment is popular among the men right now. If I don't call things to a halt," he said not entirely unapologetically, "I'm sure the laborers will abandon us anyway. They insist that something preternatural has been happening here. This very problem is ubiquitous in the minds of the Crown's tropical subjects, as I'm sure you know. Yet this time the case is that unfortunate circumstances, crime, and native hokum have conspired to make continuing here more trouble than it's worth."
"I suppose you have only our well beings in mind," Irene suggested, charitable as ever. She moved to the table and took the catalog in her hands.
"Yes, I do – first Cox and now Daniel. About Professor Daniel: He said that there was an accident – this much he passed to Humphries before going mum. Humphries is convinced that something has disturbed the man into silence, and I tend to agree with him. I don't mean to alarm you, but in my opinion, Professor Daniel has met with foul play at the hands of some person in camp. I think that Daniel refuses to speak for this reason: he fears retribution at the hands of the laborers.
"Indeed," McCormick continued, "we have our suspect in captivity at this very moment. Yes! He's all tied up in the sick tent. A man named Navid. You see, it had occurred to me that while all of my men were accountable during the theft, the local labor was not. So, Sergeant Ahluwalia and I set about questioning each and every worker on the payroll. I say, unless all fifteen of them are acting in concert, they were indeed all accountable the night of the intrusion. But, my questions didn't end there! I asked them about last night, when Daniel was injured. One of them claimed that he was in camp. But no one could remember him there. I confronted the man with this and he silenced himself. I think that this man attacked Daniel. He may even know something about the vandalism!" McCormick was pleased with himself – it was obvious to Irene that this had been the source of his earnestness in greeting her. He had wanted to show off.
"Of course, it all would have been much easier to accomplish if the professor would only have had done the fingering himself – but these Bombay babus are squeamish if nothing else – and, besides, he may know something that we don't."
Could it possibly be as simple as this? Irene knew better - and surely the Major knew, too, that this was an imperfect resolution to the affair.
McCormick noted the concern on her brow. "It's a temporary hiatus at worst. Nevertheless, it is time to move what we have to some safer place. I've already been over the catalog there, and I believe everything is in order. If you like, you can give it another look. But do be ready to leave at seven o'clock."