Georgia returned from the site in the afternoon. The diggers were making the best progress they had thus far. She could expect some true results soon. She sat on her cot, using an empty crate as a desk, with the journal of Thackery Sykes open to the last entry. The leather of the journal was supple, darkened with much handling, but the edges were dry and cracking. This book had not been taken proper care of in a long while. The last of the memoirs of Thackery Sykes: explorer, archaeologist, botanist, naturalist, novelist. On his travels over the decades, he had chronicled the fantastic and the everyday. He sketched, too, and these became printed and reprinted illustrations in his books. His publishers claimed that not a word had been edited. Everything on the printed page was precisely as in the handwritten journal. Word for word, line for line. Georgia wasn’t sure. The voice, the tone, certainly, was identical in this journal—this unfinished journal—as in such famous works as The Migratory Habits of the Greater Swallowtail Moth or Tales of the Tombs: My Experiences in Desert Archaeology. Georgia loved Tales of the Tombs as a young woman. It had been part of the inspiration to become an archaeologist herself.
This journal, though… It had a raw quality that the others did not. She couldn’t imagine anyone picking it up at a bookshop, leafing through the pages, and purchasing it to read on their next train trip. She couldn’t see it in anyone’s lap, open to the middle. People in the same carriage wouldn’t ask what was read with such interest. This journal would never see the printer’s shop, or the book binders. Georgia had the feeling her friend from the Museum, Gallagher Brant, had pinched it from Thackery Sykes’ estate, while the auction was in full swing. The journal was not on the list of items to be sold. It wasn’t on the list of items to be withheld, either. Unlisted, unknown, unmissed. But it was, quite possibly, the most important find of the lot. It was access to the unfiltered mind of, arguably, one of the most prolific travel and memoir writers in the last century. Unfortunately, the last half of the journal was blank. Not clean, but blank. The emptiness was, perhaps, the most intriguing part. Mr Sykes was notoriously obsessed with filling every page with something. Even just a citation or scribbled flower would do. To have left a notebook half blank, half empty…
Georgia rubbed her eye. She was losing concentration. Enough for tonight. She had been through the journal several times, anyway, retracing Sykes’ last steps. He had been onto a monumental find. Georgia locked the journal in her trunk, as she did every night. Then she stepped out of her tent, into the small camp of experts and diggers. Today had been a day of great progress. She needed to check on the site again, now that work had ceased for the day. Her boots churned the sand as she strode to the open hole.
The sun just touched the horizon as Georgia came to the top of the excavated stairs. She should fetch a torch. She’d not be able to examine anything in the dark. Wait. A glimmer caught her attention, just glimpsed out the corner of her eye. She took one step down, then two more. The western wind tickled her face and mixed with the cool, close air from below ground. She only needed five minutes.
Twenty-five steps to the bottom. She heard the count with each echoing footfall. She’d walked this part of the dig many times. At the bottom, the chamber opened into a long entranceway, running under the desert. Georgia faced the hall, unblinking. She touched the wall, her fingertips just skating over the surface.
She stepped into the passage.