“In hindsight, it was a bad idea.”
“Ya think?” Inspector Dixon stubbed out his seventh cigarette and glared at the man sitting on the other side of the table in the dingy interview room. That man was Dr Hennessey, curator of the Museum of Archaeology. He was short and bald, with eyebrows that made him look like a particularly dispirited vulture and a moustache that just looked stupid. He was also the reason that Inspector Dixon was spending his Friday evening at the police station rather than at the theatre with his wife. Not that he particularly wanted to see Hamlet, but Mrs Dixon had lately been muttering about “time spent at work”, and dropping the word “retirement” into casual conversation.
Sirens wailed in the distance, audible even through the thick concrete walls.
Dr Hennessey shifted nervously in his seat. “I don’t know a lot about cats, I’m afraid. I rather expected it to stay still. My sister assured me the creature was docile, you see.”
“I don’t see why you needed a cat in the first place.”
“They’re very Egyptian.”
“The ancient Egyptians had a number of sacred animals,” said Dr Hennessey, suddenly enthusiastic. He stroked his moustache while he talked, making it look even more ridiculous. “They worshipped cats and crocodiles, along with the jackal, the ibis, the scarab…”
“What’s that then?” Constable Roberts said, looking up from the notes he was supposed to be taking.
Inspector Dixon shot him a look.
“Sorry, sir,” said the constable. “It’s just easier to write, y’see, knowing what a whatsit is. Scarab.”
“A scarab is a type of beetle,” said Dr Hennessey. “The Egyptians considered it to be a representation of the sun god, on account of it rolling -”
“Yes, thank you,” said the inspector. “Let’s continue. The cat was there to provide a, shall we say, Egyptian atmosphere?”
“Exactly. And it’s not illegal to have a cat in a museum, inspector. I honestly don’t understand why I am here, being interrogated in this way.”
“Because,” growled Inspector Dixon, “five people are in hospital, there was a riot on Lower East Street, and I’ve been asked to find out why. Did I miss anything, constable?”
“The rioting actually spread to Upper East Street, sir, before it was contained.”
Inspector Dixon took a few deep, calming breaths. “As I’m sure you understand, Dr Hennessey, we would very much appreciate your help in understanding how this all started.”
“You’re not the only one with problems, inspector! The entire Egyptology department is in chaos.”
“Not my problem. Now, let’s go back to the beginning. This was the opening night of your new exhibition, correct?”
“Yes, it’s called Life and Death in Ancient Egypt.” Dr Hennessey was once again brimming with enthusiasm, stroking his moustache with one hand, gesturing wildly with the other. “All the artefacts are from Lord Colchester’s most recent expedition to the Valley of the Kings.”
“Is it true it’s cursed?” Constable Roberts said. He caught the inspector’s eye and quickly busied himself with his notes.
Dr Hennessey snorted. “Absolute rot!”
As if on cue, there was another wail of sirens. At least three police cars, thought the inspector, travelling very fast indeed. They were probably still chasing down the remaining rioters.
“There are no ancient Egyptian curses,” Dr Hennessey said. “It’s just the newspapers making things up to get a good story. Four people died, yes, but there were no mysterious circumstances. One was stung by a scorpion, one crushed by a boulder, and two died of tropical fever. Nothing unusual about that.”
The constable turned very white.
Inspector Dixon was just relieved that the Valley of Kings was outside his jurisdiction. He badly wanted another cigarette, but his packet was empty. Damn all cats.
Dr Hennessey was happily describing the expedition in question, oblivious to the discomfort of the two police officers. “The seals on the tomb were intact, can you imagine? Lord Colchester was the first to step inside for thousands of years. The hieroglyphs have not been fully translated yet, but we’re assuming Eighteenth Dynasty. We’re the first museum in the country to have a mummy. It’s remarkably well preserved, and the sarcophagus is a particularly fine example of -”
“The exhibition, if you please,” said Inspector Dixon.
“Sorry, inspector. Well, we wanted to put on a bit of a show. Everybody who’s anybody was there tonight. Lord Colchester himself, of course. The mayor. A number of important benefactors to the museum. Oh, good lord, what must they think?”
“Describe your bit of a show.”
“We had a tableau vivant.”
“How d’you spell that?” asked the constable. “And what’s it mean?”
There was a dull pain behind Inspector Dixon’s eyes, the beginnings of what would certainly be a spectacular migraine. Dr Hennessey didn’t look much happier. The constable had that effect on people.
“We hired entertainment,” said Dr Hennessey. “Actors dressed up as pharaohs. Actresses with black wigs and lots of kohl around their eyes. Other actors fanning them with palm fronds. You know the sort of thing,” he added, to the inspector.
Inspector Dixon did not, unless you counted a picture in a book, but he refrained from saying so.
“Plus assorted musicians and caterers,” said Dr Hennessey.
“And a cat.”
“Yes. One of those slim, elegant creatures. My sister’s. The animal was supposed to sit on the lap of one of the actresses, and look regal.”
“The actress in question would be Miss Trixie Corby, I assume?” Inspector Dixon turned to the constable. “Roberts, I believe we have Miss Corby’s statement.”
Constable Roberts shuffled his papers. “This is the one, ‘ere. Dressed as Cleopatra.”
“Absolutely not!” said Dr Hennessey. “That’s completely the wrong time period, constable!”
“It’s what she wrote in her statement.”
“Ridiculous! She was portraying Nefertiti, who lived centuries before Cleopatra.”
Inspector Dixon cleared his throat loudly. “If we can return to the matter at hand…”
“I beg your pardon, inspector. Well, Miss Corby was supposed to be in charge of the cat. She let it run amok.”
“Says in her statement it attacked her,” the constable remarked.
“Perhaps she upset it somehow. I don’t know. I don’t understand cats. But it happened at a most inconvenient moment! Lord Colchester was about to open the exhibition, but the journalists wanted to ask some questions first.”
They were interrupted by a knock on the door, and the desk sergeant stuck his head inside the room.
“The Chief Constable called, sir,” the sergeant said. “He expects a full report this evening.”
The inspector would have liked nothing better than to bury his face in his hands and groan.
“Fine,” he said. “Anything else?”
“Additional statements, sir, and a report from the hospital.” The sergeant handed a thick folder to Constable Roberts and hurried out of the room.
Constable Roberts opened the folder and glanced through its contents.
“Anything I need to know, constable?”
“Another six people were sent to hospital, sir. All of them with burns. Seems someone set fire to a bus because… Oh, they don’t know why. But it’s probably related. Apparently, someone was shouting about a curse.”
“And what else?”
“Statements from the waiters. Statements from people on Lower East Street. About a dozen people claim to have seen a mummy walking about.”
“Ridiculous,” muttered Dr Hennessey.
The throbbing pain behind Inspector Dixon’s eyes increased in severity. He turned to Dr Hennessey again. “Where were we? Journalists! Did they ask about the curse?”
“They asked about nothing else! And at just that moment, there was a terrifying yowl and that actress, Miss Trixie Corby, shrieked that the monster had bitten her!”
Constable Roberts gaped.
“Meaning the cat, constable,” said Inspector Dixon.
“Yes, the bloody cat!” said Dr Hennessey. “But everyone started shrieking about the curse of the mummy. I believe two women fainted outright and some old colonel was shouting about how he wished he’d brought his service revolver with him. I managed to calm everyone down, and then Lord Colchester suggested everyone have a look at the mummy, and they could see for themselves that it was completely lifeless.”
“Except the cat, that accursed cat, got in the way again! The little beast had climbed inside the sarcophagus, doing goodness knows what damage to the fragile mummy. People crowded around, and someone saw the cat moving in the shadows, thought the mummy had awakened from the dead, and then all hell broke loose. Tables and shelves knocked over, windows smashed. It was an utter disaster. I know at least two clay pots were smashed, and I’m very worried about the statuette of -”
“I believe people were injured,” Inspector Dixon said.
“Oh, yes. There was a bit of a stampede for the exit. I distinctly remember seeing that horrid journalists of the City Times pushing people out of the way and jumping out of the window. And one of the actresses was hitting people with her sandal to push through the crowd! Disgraceful behaviour!”
“And what happened outside?”
“You know Lower East Street, inspector. There’s always a crowd there on a Friday night. I’m sure some of them must have been drinking, because it only took a minute before they all joined in the chaos, shrieking and yelling about the curse of the pharaoh. Utter rubbish.”
“Are you certain nothing else happened to spark these riots?” Inspector Dixon had arrived on the scene about half an hour after the incident at the museum, and found Lower East Street to be a mass of people, some fighting, some crying, some smashing windows. Loath as he was to accept that this level of chaos had been caused by a cat and a few rumours, there was nothing in any of the statements to contradict it.
Inspector Dixon swore under his breath. Having a cat in a museum was not illegal, neither were being annoying or stroking a horrible moustache, unfortunately.
He was going to have to let Dr Hennessey go.
“Right,” he said, before he changed his mind. “You can go. Constable Roberts will type up your statement, which you can sign in the morning.”
Dr Hennessey did not need telling twice. He nodded curtly, stood up, smoothed his waistcoat, and left the room without looking back. The two police officers sat for a while, inhaling stale cigarette smoke.
Eventually Constable Roberts cleared his throat.
“I suppose it could have been worse, sir.”
“I mean, good thing they picked a cat, eh? As the sacred animal in this entertainment thing. Imagine if they’d gone with the crocodile.”