Chapter 15: Mai Le’s Story / Disc 3
I came along a year after that. My mother was as devoted to me and I was devoted to her. Father was always affectionate when he was around, but as you know he was always on the move.
Her beauty and professionalism made Mother an anomaly in the male-dominated business power structure of Singapore. She became sought after because of her ability to grind out common ground solutions for diametrically opposed interests. She, like our father, was busy a lot of the time, so I had a variety of au pairs, French, English, Vietnamese. I, like my mother, had a gift for language and the different au pairs helped reinforce that. But in my teens, father insisted on an American nanny. She was in her late twenties and was blessed with a distrust of authority and a surly mouth. She left a lasting impression on me. I think father had chosen her because he wanted to impart to me his view of the world. Sometimes I think, deep down in his secret self, he thought his country had betrayed him.
The Singapore public schools did a good job of giving me a basic education, but for university both my parents wanted me to head off to Europe. The first two years, I spent at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, but it was such a giant place I felt I was just another number there. I moved on to the Lady Margaret Hall at Oxford University in England. I majored in Anthropology and Archaeology with an emphasis on Egyptology. After I got my BA there, I move on to America and the University of Pennsylvania for my masters. I was lucky enough to have the eminent archeologist Dr. Mohammed Zahi as a mentor.
A year after I received my Master's Degree, Dr. Zahi returned to Egypt where he was appointed Minister of State for Antiquities. I ran into him at one of his lectures in Singapore. We had a delightful reunion. He mentioned that if I got myself to Egypt, he'd put me to work. Especially since I specialized in ethnographic documentation and there was a great volume of things that needed to be recorded and cataloged before they vanished.
I was happy working in the Valley of the Kings but I missed my mother. We'd correspond weekly and I'd visit every few months, but for the most part I was by myself. Our father came to visit me in Luxor once but he seemed to be preoccupied. He always seemed to be on one assignment or another. I knew he loved my mother but they were becoming increasingly separate.
The last time I saw my mother alive was the week we spent in Bali. It was wonderful, but in the back of my mind I noticed that she seemed distracted. She had aged and I was a little concerned that she might be ill. But she said that her health was O.K., that she was dealing with some old family matters that she thought had been settled long ago.
Upon my return to Cairo, I found that the flat I shared on and off with my cousin and her husband had been ransacked. They had a beautiful second story flat in a villa on Zamalek Island. They’d generously made room for me in their lives when I’d moved to Egypt. They’d been close to me and my mother when we all lived in Singapore. And since they and I had both relocated to Egypt my mother made the connection for me. I was grateful to be living with family again, since there was little enough warmth in my daily existence.
The next night, we’d just finished cleaning up and putting everything back where it belonged when my phone rang. Mother had been taken ill and the doctor said it looked serious. I made frantic calls to the airlines and was able to get the last seat on a flight to Tokyo, where I could make connections to Singapore.
It was like a nightmare. She had passed away before I could get back and one of her greatest fears had come true.: to die alone in a hospital filled with strangers.
Mother was born Buddhist and raised Catholic, and I observed all the funerary customs for both. I had a mass said for her at Our Lady of Lourdes. After she was cremated I took her ashes home and placed them in the family shrine for the mandatory 90 day mourning period.
Once I could pull myself together enough I began to close up her condo and settle all her affairs. It wasn’t as hard as I had imagined it would be because she had set everything in motion before her death, which gave me an indication that her death was not unexpected. Near the end of the ninety days, I began to receive visits by several older ladies who I guessed were Vietnamese. They represented themselves as business associates of my mother and wanted to offer their condolences. They were overly reserved and didn't say much. Everything was framed in the form of a question, like they were trying to draw me out as to what knowledge I had of my ethnic Chinese ancestors. I told them the truth, that my mother had once tried to contact them but had been rebuffed in a most unpleasant manner. And from that day to this we kept our distance and knew nothing of them, other than some slanderous rumors.
With just one week until my return to Cairo, three of the ladies returned. They were dressed all in black and reminded me of a scene from Macbeth. We had tea and polite conversation for a while, then they finally got down to what they really came for. They intimated that my mother's death was not the will of God and that if I wanted the truth I should have her ashes tested for poisoning. I thanked them for their concern and said I would think about what they had said. As I ushered them out, each in turn stop in front of me, gently held my hands for a moment, looked into my face while murmuring something, then turned and walked out, like it was some kind of ritual. Uneasy, I closed and locked the door and looked over at the silver box that held her ashes, wondering if I should take their advice.
I turned the key in the lock of her condo and knew that it was for the last time. I'd settled her affairs, said my goodbyes, packed the keep sakes I couldn’t left behind.
The Sun was setting as I walked through the lobby to my waiting airport limo. A middle-aged man dressed like a condo staff employee stepped up asking if I was Mae Li Price. When I answered in the affirmative he handed me a red and gold envelope and said, "With the compliments of the management." In a hurry, I just stuffed it into my purse and moved on.
Back in Cairo, my cousin and her husband did their best to bolster my spirits, but mother's death weighed heavily on me. A foreboding had taken hold, and I was filled with a dark sadness. I got a call from the Antiquities Department asking if I could return to Luxor and finish up documentation of Seti the First's tomb. Feeling as if it might do me some good, I kissed my cousin and husband farewell and caught the night train to upper Egypt.
Old Winter Palace Hotel was just waking up when I got there. I knew the manager slightly and, because I was working for Dr. Zahi, he'd reluctantly let me have a long-term room. My resident visa was a god send because the price of my lodgings was only a fifteenth of what a tourist would have had to pay.
The place is a little shabby compared to some of the other five-star hotels in town, but the ambiance is what you're there for. It has a grace and elegance that spoke to a long-ago way of life where one had the time to just watch the world roll by.
I was working across the Nile in the Valley of the Kings. Restoration work was about to begin on the Tomb of Seti the First and I had been assigned to document the damage done to the tomb’s wall painting from a rare flash flood that had inundated it the summer before. It’s my favorite of all the Egyptian funerary tombs and anything I could do to help, I was more than willing.
It was late afternoon when I walked out of the tomb and stood witness as the inspector padlocked the entrance. It had been an exhausting day and all I could think about was getting back to the hotel bar for some ice cold lemonade. I bummed a lift with one of the site workers down to the Nile ferry. The blue ferry boat only takes five minutes to make the crossing and I was glad of that because the boat was packed with locals crossing to get to their evening jobs.
From the ferry landing, I walked up the hill, pausing for traffic before crossing the corniche to the hotel. I was trudging through the lobby when the assistant manager waved me over to the reception desk, where he handed me a bundle of mail forwarded to me from Cairo by my cousin.
The bar was packed with tourists just returning from their dusty day in the Valley of the Kings. I spotted the barman. He just smiled and shook his head. In other words, call room service.
Upon the second floor, a tour manager was handing out room keys to a newly arriving group of visitors. I pushed past them and made a dash down the hall to my room. Inside, I through the bundle of mail on the bed, stripped off my sweat-stained khakis, picked up the phone, called room service, ordered, then went into the bathroom to rinse off the day's grime.
Sooner than I expected, there was a knock on the door and the call out of, "Room Service." I grabbed one of the hotel bathrobes and, dripping, I made my way to the door. The servicer pushed the trolley into the room. I quickly signed the bill and sent him on his way, making sure to double lock the door after him.
After pushing the trolley next to the bed, I sat cross-legged on the comforter and tucked into my order. After the fries and lemonade, I was feeling a little more human. Reluctantly, I began to go through the mail. Near the bottom of the stack, I found your letter.
The news of my father’s death, compounded with that of my mothers, hurled me into a dark place that was hard to crawl out of.
It took the whole night of staring into nothingness to come to terms with all the things that needed to be done. But by 4am I was ready to act. I forwarded all my notes and image files to Dr. Tarak at the Supreme Council of Antiquities along with my apologies for leaving unexpectedly. I paid my bill and woke up a cab driver to take me to the train station. At 5:30 the night train from Cairo pulled into Luxor station. The ticket office was closed, but I got on anyway and paid the conductor in cash for the second half of the night train’s journey south to Aswan. On the train, using my phone, I booked a direct flight from Aswan to London and the red-eye from London to L. A.
I made the connection at Heathrow by the skin of my teeth. The envelope that I was given in Singapore was still in the bottom of my purse under a bunch of stuff. When security inspected my bags they pulled it out and opened it. Nine thousand dollars worth of one hundred dollars bill spilled out. I was in shock and it took twenty minutes to search me and my bags to find that I only had another two hundred dollars in cash on me. Otherwise, if I was over ten thousand, I'd have broken some money regulation and be up to my neck in trouble. After they counted the money for the third time, I had to sign an affidavit that I wasn't doing anything illegal. It had taken so long that my coach seat had been given to a standby passenger so I had to use four thousand dollars from the offending envelope to upgrade to business, the only empty seat on the Delta 747. During the 11 hours of the flight, I tried to imagine how to approach you, Jackson. I'm sure you were stunned when you found out about me and my mother and what it said about your deceased father. Finally, I decided to just be as straightforward as I could. I always knew a little about you. Whenever father was in a sad mood he'd brood about his two families and his shortcomings.
When I got to Pasadena, I took my mother's ashes to a lab that I’d found on Google before I came to see you. The next day, I got a message from the lab that they found a high concentration of arsenic in the sample I provided them.
I had talked to our father a month ago and he'd said that if anything happened to him I should make sure you got your fair share of his estate, and that there was a good chance that we were in danger since we were the last of our lines. So when I got your letter I knew that things were starting to go downhill.
Brother, I'm sorry that I had to leave Pasadena in such an abrupt manner and that we didn't have more time together. My lawyers should be in touch with you soon if they haven't been already. All, except a cash gift to my cousin, of my estate is coming to you. The only thing left I have to give to you is a small piece of advice.
When it comes time for action, never explain beforehand, just do it. Don't talk, pull the trigger.
Mr. James must have been waiting in the doorway because the moment the video ended he flipped on the light and walked back in.
“Ford, the rest of the story you know first hand. Our cadre is pretty sure that the Luru clan still aims to terminate the last aberrant mark from the clan's pedigree. And that is you, Mr. Price. So you can either wait for them to show up on your doorstep, or you can take the bit between your teeth and put a stop to these assholes.”