Phyll sighed with relief as the crate opened under the gentle ministrations of her crowbar without splintering, she should be able to replace the lid without any sign that it had ever been removed. The crate itself hadn’t been too hard to find, once she’d worked out the numbering system. The few she’d seen where the numbers had been obliterated by spray paint or branding had been worrying, but fortunately her target hadn’t been one of them. Now she just had to substitute her dummy weight for the item and she would be ready to go.
She was lifting the carved box of translucent stone and gold out of the small crate in one gloved hand when a black, bony hand clamped down on her wrist and a gravelly voice behind her said, “Well, look what we have here. A thief.”
Phyll kept her grip on the all-important box and looked carefully over her shoulder. One of her siblings, one of the ones who could sight read hieroglyphics, could probably have told her who or what the person gripping her wrist was supposed to be. His clothing was Ancient Egyptian and his skin was as black as the velvet-like fur that sprouted from the level of his deltoids and up. He had the head of an animal Phyll didn’t recognise. The dimensions were all wrong for that head and it muzzle or snout to be a mask on a man.
“I’m not a thief. I’m retrieving something of my grandfather’s for him.” Her voice was squeaking.
“If this trinket belonged to your grandfather, then he would be able to get it out of here in the normal manner, not send a thief to retrieve it.” The grip on her wrist was firmer but Phyll retained her grasp on the box.
“My grandparents have been kidnapped by people who are demanding this box and its contents for their return. It seems that my grandfather either can’t or won’t give them the codes to access the storage account.” Phyll’s voice had steadied and she sounded like herself, not a mouse.
“Have you considered that he may have his reasons for not telling?” The gravelly voice sent shivers up Phyll’s spine, almost as if there were subsonics involved in it somehow. “The results of this trinket falling into the wrong hands could be catastrophic.”
“My grandfather’s a hundred and three and my grandmother’s ninety-seven. They’re old and fragile. Being grabbed and taken from their home by armed men against their will could be enough to send either or both of them into a decline they won’t recover from. We decided to get them back and deal with the consequences later.”
“So, thief, you steal from filial duty. I can almost approve of that.” She thought the new expression on the strange face was a smile. “Take me with you when you leave and I won’t raise the alarm.”
“What?” Her voice didn’t quite squeak.
“You must have a way out of here. Take me with you and I won’t let them know they have a thief inside their vault.”
A little while later, the bony hand clamped around her upper arm, he was looking at the crate she’d arrived in with disapproval. “This is how you plan to get out? Carried along with your own waste?”
“The point is not to let anyone know I was here,” Phyll explained patiently. “Besides, the waste container is very well sealed. I’m as keen on being covered in that as you are. If you don’t like the whole idea, you can stay here.”
“No, there is no other way out. You believe this will work?”
“Before you insisted on coming too, I believed it would work. If they weigh the boxes in and out, we’ll be sunk. Even on your own, you’re twenty kilos heavier than I am, at least. It’s still a better chance than I’ll have if you set off the alarms.”
“Why should I let you come in the box with me?” His grip tightened on her arm as he spoke and Phyll winced.
“Because you don’t know how to lock the box from the inside and in the dark,” she managed prosaically.
“Point taken,” he conceded.
Later, as they lay spooned together in the dark, legs bent to curve around the sealed container of ordure, he muttered in her ear, “Next time I could do that on my own.”
“I thought there wasn’t supposed to be a next time for either of us,” she rejoined. “Oh, and that hand? On my midriff, outside my shirt, and nowhere else, thank you.”
“My concubines have always welcomed my ministrations.”
“Firstly,” Phyll replied tartly, “I’m no-one’s concubine. Secondly, the last thing we need is for this box to be making noise and moving when they come to collect it.”
He sighed in her ear. “So, what were you planning to do while locked in this box?”
“Sleep. Everything’s out of my hands now. I can’t do anything that’ll make a difference until the box is open again.” She hugged the precious stone and gold item to her.
“Then sleep.” As she drifted off, the last thing Phyll noticed was the scent of a hot wind off sand.