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It was obvious to all concerned that real men rode camels and only pathetic losers or possibly elderly nuns would stoop to riding around on mere horses. The camel drivers were as exotic as their charges. They wore the traditional Egyptian galabia, a long-sleeved blue, gray, or black tunic that fell to the ankles, and most of them also wore white or red-and-white scarves wrapped about their heads to protect themselves from the sun. We spilled off the bus in great excitement, only to be met by a squadron of shouting camel drivers.

The front-runners shied like startled deer.

Death Rides Again

Dawn Kim actually turned and tried to get back on the bus, but she was blocked by rickety Charlie de Vance, who was still trying to bend his knee replacement far enough to make it down that last step. Anni smoothly turned us over to the one driver with whom she had an arrangement, and the others shuffled off dejectedly. We followed our camel driver eagerly. The redheaded Peterson boys raced ahead while their mother shouted warnings about staying away from the camels.

Fiona and Flora clutched each others arms like hens and kept repeating that they wanted to share a camel. Jerry Morrison held back with his daughter, looking disdainful. I also hoped Jerry was wrong about the fleas. I stooped to tighten my shoelaces, willing to be one of the last to board a camel rather than be too close to the Morrisons.

Or the ditz duo. It was already covered with a light coating of dust, which did not entirely displease me. I rose and joined her. The camel driver beckoned to us impatiently, and we followed, picking our way gingerly past a few recumbent cud-chewing camels to join him. Our driver was immensely fat, the giant beach ball of his stomach making a tent of his galabia. I imagined dozens of small desert creatures sheltering under the folds and then gave a little shudder.

One of his front teeth was gold, the other missing, and his swarthy skin was covered with a light sheen of sweat. On this camel, please. I had to admit, up close they did look a little flea-bitten. Very strong. Kyla shot him a glance that should have made him stagger back. He appealed to me with a look, but I just raised my eyebrows and stared coldly. It worked on seventeen-year-olds and it worked on him. His shoulders slumped a little. The young man who held the lead rein of my camel gave a small private smile, then helped me into the saddle. It was good advice.

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Then the front half rose, throwing me sharply back. I settled back into the saddle some eight feet off the ground, pleased not to have fallen. Alan Stratton came and stood beside my camel, looking up at me and shading his eyes with his hands against the brilliant morning sun. His eyes were the most remarkable color, a soft green that changed subtly from sage to gray depending on the light. His hair, cut short and therefore clearly not as curly as it could have been, was a soft golden brown that had probably once been blond.

It made a very attractive little swirl at the crown of his head. His voice was as attractive as the rest of him, deep and ever so slightly gravelly. I realized I was staring like an idiot. He gave a little grin. You look like a natural. I watched as the animal lifted its hind end straight up and tossed Alan forward like a rag doll. He held on gamely and then gave me a little wave of triumph.

I waved back. The fat camel driver gave a shout, and we were off. Camels take huge, slow strides, swaying from one side to another. Ahead of me, the rest of the group, singly and in pairs, plodded forward across the sand toward the pyramids. I could not believe I was actually here. I wanted to shout with excitement, to grab someone and jump up and down laughing.

Kyla was too far ahead to share my exhilaration, but she would have understood. We saw every Discovery Channel special and conned our parents into driving us four hours each way to a special exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Saturdays were spent renting every mummy movie ever made. Now I was actually here, on a camel, riding across the sands of the Sahara toward the great pyramids of Giza.

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I glanced back. Alan Stratton rode the last camel in line, a pensive look on his face. I gave him a huge grin. He met my eyes and relaxed into a smile. Behind him, the camel herd dotted the sand like toys scattered by a child while the immense desert rolled away to the horizon until it blended seamlessly into the hazy sky. It was a perfect picture and without thinking I raised my little camera and snapped. For an instant, I thought his smile faltered.

I wondered if I should apologize, but the next moment he was smiling again. What was wrong with me? I was as bad as any high school student, feeling all hot and bothered just because an attractive man was being pleasant. Maybe he had a hidden past. Maybe he was hiding from the law. Or from a crazed wife.

Or from the mafia. Or he was a spy.

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Or maybe he was just camera shy, I told myself sternly. More importantly, did I really look good on a camel? How good?

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Fortunately, before my own thoughts could drive me crazy, the boy leading my camel stopped and reached up for my camera. It was my turn to have my picture taken. On a camel. In front of the pyramids of Giza. With a great-looking guy just out of frame who might or might not have been flirting a little.

We all craned our necks to get a view, those lucky enough to be on the right side of the bus pressing against the windows like kids at Christmas. Above their heads, I caught a glimpse of the battered, enigmatic face, noseless but serene. Just as the pamphlet said, the massive figure truly rose from the sands in majestic splendor, but what the pamphlet could not convey was its sheer size. The tourists standing behind the barricades at its base looked like tiny dolls. The bus pulled to the side of the road.