The following novelette, "Nor Idolatry Blind the Eye" by Charles Ardai, was first published by Dorchester Publishing in August 2009 together with Ardai's pseudonymous novel HUNT THROUGH THE CRADLE OF FEAR.
by Charles Ardai
The heel of the bottle cracked against the bar on the first swing and then shattered on the second. The few conversations in the room died. In the silence Malcolm could hear glass crunching under his feet. He felt his legs shake and put out his other hand to steady himself.
There were three of them, and a broken bottle wouldn’t hold them off long enough for him to get to the door. Assuming he could even make it to the door without falling on his face. There was a time when he could have made it in a dead sprint, turning over tables as he went to slow them down, but then there was a time when he wouldn’t have had to run from a fight in the first place, not if it were a whole regiment facing him. A time when he’d been able to hold his liquor, too. But that was all part of the past—the dead past, buried three winters ago in a cold Glasnevin grave.
He shook his head, but it didn’t get any clearer. He remembered coming to the pub, he remembered taking his first few drinks, and he remembered the three men taking up positions around him, reaching over his shoulder to collect their pints from the barman. Was that how the argument had started? Or had one of them said something? That he couldn’t remember. He supposed it didn’t matter.
The one in the middle was younger than the other two—just a kid, really. He was wearing a navy peajacket, probably his brother’s or father’s since he looked too young to have served himself. The others were dressed in denim windbreakers and dungarees, like they’d just stepped off a construction site. Which maybe they had—there was still plenty of rebuilding going on. The one on the left had the crumpled features of a boxer who’d taken too many trips to the mat. The one on the right looked almost delicate, his thin nose and long chin giving him the appearance of a society lad slumming in a tough neighborhood. Malcolm knew which one he’d prefer to face in a fight. Unfortunately, it didn’t look like he’d get to choose.
All three had their hands up, palms out, but it was a gesture of mocking deference, not fear. Malcolm swung the bottle by the neck and they didn’t even bother to step back.
"Go on, old man," the one in the middle said. "Just try it."
"Leave me alone," Malcolm said, or tried to—the words sounded strange to his ears, like he was talking through cotton. He forced himself to enunciate. "I don’t want to fight you."
"Bugger that," the society boy said. "You’re bloody well going to."
Malcolm feinted toward the boy’s face with the jagged edge of the bottle, then dodged around him. The door was open and the way before him was clear, but he felt himself stagger as he ran, felt his head spin and the floor lurch up to meet him. He fought to catch his balance and then lost it again. He fell to one knee and the bottle spilled out of his hand.
The first kick caught him in the side as he was standing up, and it laid him out flat on the floor. After that, Malcolm couldn’t say who was kicking him or even what direction the blows came from. He covered his head with one arm and tried to back up against the bar.
One boot heel caught him in the chest. By some old reflex, he snaked an arm out and pinched the foot in the crook of his elbow. He twisted violently and its owner came crashing to the floor.
"That’s it," one of them said. Malcolm felt a fist bunched in the fabric of his shirtfront, felt himself lifted bodily from the floor and pressed back against the bar. It was the boxer’s meaty fist at his throat, the boy in the peajacket looking on angrily over his shoulder. So the society lad must be the one laid out on the floor, groaning curses into the sawdust. Well, he had taken one down, anyway.
"You’re going to wish you hadn’t done that," the boxer said.
Malcolm swung a fist at him, but it was hardly a punch at all, and the man holding him deflected it lightly with his forearm. In return, he threw a right cross that snapped Malcolm’s head violently to the side. Malcolm felt blood on his cheek where the man’s ring had scraped a ragged groove, and he tasted bile when he swallowed. He tried to raise a knee toward the man’s groin, but he couldn’t—they were standing too close together, and anyway his legs felt like lead. He groped behind him on the bar, hoping his fingers would find something—a glass, an ashtray, anything—but all they found was another hand that pinned his firmly against the wood.
"Teach him a lesson," the boy in the peajacket said. He pressed down, grinding Malcolm’s knuckles into the wood. "Teach him good."
He felt a thumb and forefinger at his chin, positioning his head, saw the man’s fist cock back, saw it snap forward. After that, he didn’t see anything, just felt the punches landing from the darkness.
One punch split his lip against his front teeth and he gagged from the taste of blood. He felt the night’s liquor coming up and he made no effort to stop it. Vomit poured out of him, a day’s worth of food and drink expelled in foul batches. The men holding him yanked their hands away and Malcolm slid to the floor.
"Fucking narrowback lush—" Another kick dug deep into his belly. From somewhere off to one side, Malcolm heard the click of a switchblade opening.
"Cut the sorry bastard—"
He forced his eyes open, rolled out of the way as the blade descended. It was the boy in the peajacket holding it. He swung again, and Malcolm lifted an arm to block it. He felt the blade slice through the sleeve and streak across the flesh beneath it.
It was a woman’s voice. Malcolm hugged his bleeding arm to his chest and looked for the source of the voice. A pair of legs approached, clad in nylons, a tan skirt ending just below the knee. The shoes were brown leather and scuffed, with low heels, the sort a certain type of girl would call ‘sensible.’ On either side, a pair of paint-smeared dungarees turned in her direction.
"Leave him alone, or I’ll bring the police."
"Stay out of this, love. It’s not your fight."
"Oh, yes? And what do you call it when my husband is getting himself mauled by the likes of you?"
"You’re married to...this?"
"He may not be much," she said, "but I’d just as soon not have him skewered over some tiff in a pub. Now would you be kind enough to help him up so I can bring him home?"
A tense moment passed, the blade still shining under the room’s lights. Then a pair of rough hands folded the switchblade shut. It disappeared into the long slash pocket of the peajacket. "He’s your problem, love. Help him yourself."
"Jaysus," one of the others said, "bird like you and an old harp like him. No bleeding justice, is there?"
"Bastard." One of them got in a final kick, wiped the sole of his work boot on Malcolm’s shirt. Then the men’s legs went away. The woman’s stayed.
Malcolm wanted to raise his eyes, to look at the woman’s face, but his arm had started to throb and he found himself slipping in and out of consciousness.
The stockings took two steps forward, skirting the smear of filth beside him. The woman lowered herself to a crouch. The light was behind her and Malcolm could only faintly make out her features. She had a sharp widow’s peak and fair skin, and the largest, saddest eyes he could remember seeing.
"You’re Malcolm Stewart?" she said.
He nodded. She looked as though she’d been hoping he’d say no.
"Look at you," she said. "I can’t take you to him like this."
"To whom?" he said. He felt dizzy. "Do I know you?"
"My employer. He asked me to bring you to him. He has—" She paused to look him over again, and the disappointment in her voice was undisguised when she spoke. "He has an assignment for you, Mr. Stewart."
"I told him it wasn’t a good idea. I told him the reports he had were years old. But Mr. Burke’s not one to be put off." She took him by his undamaged arm, pulled him not too gently to his knees. "Come along, Mr. Stewart. Let’s get you bandaged up and bathed, what do you say?"
"I say," he mumbled, trying to think of the words. "I say ‘thank you’?"
"Well," she said, "it’s a start."
The iodine stung and the bandage smarted. He’d burned his tongue on the coffee she’d given him, and his chest was erupting with colorful bruises. His head was still ringing. But he’d showered (carefully, leaning against the wall) and he could feel sobriety returning to him, timidly, like a husband tiptoeing back into the house after a evening’s debauch.
"Have you got a name?" he said. "Or would you rather I just thought of you as an anonymous benefactor?"
She was watching him from one of the bedroom chairs, legs crossed primly at the ankles, hands laced in her lap. She had an admirable figure and a face just this side of beautiful. And she was young, too—still in her early twenties, Malcolm guessed, which would make her less than half his age. He could understand why the lads in the bar might have had a hard time picturing them as man and wife.
"My name is Margaret Stiles. But that’s not important. Only Mr. Burke is, and what he wants to talk to you about."
"And what is that?"
"He’ll want to tell you himself."
"Please choose a shirt and get dressed," she said. "We shouldn’t keep Mr. Burke waiting."
There were three shirts laid out on the bed. Malcolm selected the softest of them, a red flannel, and drew it on over his bandaged arm. He winced as he buttoned it.
He was still wearing his own pants—they hadn’t been spattered as badly. And the boots were his as well. A quick dunk under the tap had restored them to whatever prior vitality they might have claimed. His shirt had been ruined. He imagined it was now being incinerated in some hidden chamber of this house.
"Your Mr. Burke knows I’m here?"
"I spoke to him while you were in the shower."
"And he wants to see me now?"
"In a manner of speaking."
"Why ‘in a manner of speaking’?"
"Come on," she said, standing up. "We’ve lost enough time."
"I want to know what you meant. He doesn’t want to see me?"
"I imagine," she said, "that he would like to see you more than anything. But that’s hardly an option."
"Any why is that?"
"His eyes, Mr. Stewart. He was blinded in North Africa."
North Africa. The words brought a rush of painful memories. The press toward Libya, the desert winds in his throat, the baking heat, and in the middle of it all, between spells of tortured boredom, the moments of utter chaos: the mortar rounds tearing great gouts out of the sand, and out of the men who sped across it. So Burke had been an 8th Army man? And had paid for it dearly, though not so dearly as some.
"I’m sorry," Malcolm said. "I was in that campaign myself."
"I know you were," she said. "It’s one of the reasons he selected you, though perhaps he’ll think better of it once he meets you."
"That’s rather harsh, my dear."
"Harsh? Look at you. And what he’ll ask of you, Mr. Stewart...it’s ever so much worse than dealing with those three in the pub."
"I’ve dealt with worse."
"Yes, but recently?" She waited, but he had no answer for her. "Now will you please follow me?"
He stepped out into the hall. She led him down to the main floor on a staircase wide enough to hold four men abreast. The building was deceptive: From the front as they’d come in it hadn’t looked nearly as big as it turned out to be once you were inside. There was money behind this Burke, generations of it. It didn’t show in ostentatious ways—no chandeliers dripping with crystal or gold leaf on the picture frames. But the pictures themselves looked like they’d fetch a pretty sum at auction, and the carpeting was the sort that costs as much as most people spend to furnish their entire homes.
They passed from the entry hall into a library, and on through a short connecting corridor into the kitchen, where a woman in a cook’s smock stood cutting potatoes into a copper kettle. She looked up as they passed. He thought he spied a look of pity in her eyes.
"Another, Miss Stiles?"
Margaret moved them along without slowing.
Malcolm looked back over his shoulder. The woman was still watching, knife at the ready, supper temporarily forgotten.
Malcolm didn’t say anything till they were out of earshot. "What did she mean, ‘another’?"
"Never mind her." Margaret stopped at a closed door. She tugged on a brass pull set into the doorframe at eye level. He could hear a bell ring within and, moments later, a man’s voice called out. "Miss Stiles?"
"Have you got Mr. Stewart with you?"
"Bring him in." It was a deep voice, muffled by the door, but strong, Malcolm thought, and self-confident. He was put in mind of his commanding officers from the army—it was the sort of voice you were trained to use when marshalling troops for a charge across a no-man’s zone. Some men didn’t need to be trained, of course. They’d learned it in the nursery or had it bred into them from birth.
Margaret swung the door open. He was surprised to see no light behind it. She made no move to turn one on.
"Come in, Mr. Stewart," the voice intoned. "Don’t let the darkness bother you. Miss Stiles will show you to a chair." She took him by the arm and steered him through the room, navigating obstacles he could see only dimly. It was oddly damp in the room, as though a window had been left open, but the only windows he could make out appeared to be shut and heavily curtained.
"It’s for my eyes, you understand," Burke said. "Dark, cool, moist—I’m afraid it’s the only way for me to be comfortable any longer."
"I’m sorry," Malcolm said.
"Come," Burke said. "Sit by me, and Miss Stiles will join us."
She put his hand on the arm of a chair, and he sat. Now that his eyes had begun to adjust, Malcolm could make out the outlines of Burke’s face where he sat two feet away. He wore a beard, and his hair curved up from his forehead in uneven curls. The man leaned forward with his left hand out. Malcolm took it. Burke’s grip was firm.
"What happened?" Malcolm said. "To your eyes, I mean. Shrapnel? Or fire?"
For a moment, Burke didn’t say anything, and Malcolm thought perhaps he’d crossed a line. But for Christ’s sake, the man had brought the subject up himself. And after all, hadn’t Malcolm served in the same campaign, hadn’t he seen plenty of friends lose eyes and worse—?
"No," Burke said. "Not shrapnel, nor fire, nor any of the other causes you’d imagine. I’ll tell you what happened, Mr. Stewart, but that is the end of the story, not the beginning. Miss Stiles, could you turn up the fan? Thank you."
Malcolm heard Margaret’s footsteps retreat and return. A mechanical hum he hadn’t noticed before got louder, and he felt the air stir.
Burke leaned forward with his forearms on his knees. Malcolm could see he wasn’t wearing anything over his eyes—no dark glasses, no patch. He didn’t seem to blink, either. Of course, perhaps he had glass eyes...but no, that wouldn’t explain the need to sit in the dark and keep things as damp and cool as a cellar.
"Mr. Stewart, I want to thank you for hearing me out. I need your help. Or to put it another way, I need the help of someone who knows his way around a part of the world I understand we have in common. Someone who’s not easily frightened or put off the scent. I’ve asked around and people think highly of you."
"You must not have asked anyone in town," Malcolm said. "You’d have gotten a different picture."
"Yes, Miss Stiles told me about the scene in the pub. Most regrettable. You drink too much, Mr. Stewart."
"Or not enough."
"More and you’d be dead of it, and no use to me. Let’s not fence with each other, shall we? You were a good man once. I heard it from men I trust. Until your wife died, I gather, and since then it’s been one long bender, hasn’t it?"
Malcolm flinched. "Not so long."
"Three years, man. And you once a good soldier. Where’s your backbone?"
"I left it behind in the sand," Malcolm said, "where you left your eyes."
"Nonsense. You’ve still got a spine, man, you’ve just let it soften in that embalming fluid you insist on pouring into yourself. If you’re to work for me, you’ll do it dry, you understand?"
The voice of command—Malcolm almost felt himself sitting up straighter in response, against his will. "And am I to work for you?"
"I hope to god you are—I’ve exhausted everyone else."
"What is it you want done? I don’t see you as the type to raise a private army, and I’m out of the soldiering business anyway."
"No. I’ve never been a soldier myself. What I have been—what I am, Mr. Stewart—is a student of history. When I went to North Africa it was not because of the war but in spite of it. I wasn’t part of the military action, I was there on my own, pursuing of one of the greatest mysteries of the ancient world."
’Greatest mysteries of the ancient world’? The man sounded like a radio programme. But he had a job to offer, apparently, and such offers were not plentiful these days.
"I understand," Malcolm said. "You were in Africa hunting something, but instead of finding it, you came across the military action instead?"
"No, Mr. Stewart. I found what I was looking for. I found it exactly where I thought it would be. I saw it with my own eyes. I’d searched for a decade and more, and by god, I found it." He fell silent.
"What happened?" Malcolm said.
"Some antiquities, Mr. Stewart, are hidden by time alone—a cave’s entrance is covered in a sandstorm and forgotten, and no one sees its contents again for a thousand years. But others are kept hidden deliberately, passed from generation to generation in secret. The price for learning the secret is a vow to preserve it, and the penalty for revealing it is death. It is antiquities of this sort that are the harder to find. They aren’t lost, you see, and the people who know where they are have an interest in keeping them from you."
"But you did find...whatever it was."
"I did, and I did it the hard way. You wouldn’t know it to look at me know, but I was a stronger man than you, and faster, and better with a gun. I knew what I was after. I hunted it and the men who kept it, I hunted it through nine countries on three continents, and I found it, Mr. Stewart." His voice broke. "I found it. But I couldn’t keep it. They caught me, and for several days they held me while they discussed what to do with me. Then they cut off my right hand—I’d touched it with that hand, you see. And of course I’d seen it, Mr. Stewart. I’d seen it."
Burke leaned over the side of the chair and pressed a switch on the desk beside him. A shaded light went on—low wattage, but enough to illuminate one side of Burke’s face. The other side remained in shadow until he turned to face Malcolm full-on. Burke’s eyes were wide open and leached of all color, only the faintest outline of concentric circles to hint where pupil and iris had once shown.
"They cut off my eyelids, Mr. Stewart. With the sharpest of knives, and gently, so gently, holding my head so I couldn’t scream or injure myself. They wiped the blood from my eyes with silk. With silk, Mr. Stewart—I’ll never forget the touch. Then they carried me out into the desert west of the Gattara Depression, left me in the Great Sand Sea, completely naked, left me to go blind and mad and then die—and I would have, surely, if I hadn’t been found by a pair of soldiers from a British regiment who had wandered off course. They saved me from madness and death, Mr. Stewart. But it was too late to save me from blindness."
He switched off the light, but the image of the lidless, sun-bleached eyes hung between them. "The touch of light is quite painful still," he said. "But I wanted you to see. There should be no mystery between us."
It took a moment for Malcolm to find his voice. "What is it that you want me to do?"
"I’ve found it again," Burke said. "It has taken me years, and more money than you can imagine. It’s cost several good men their lives. But I’ve found it, and this time it won’t get away from me. Not with your help."
"And why should I help you?"
"There will be money, of course—quite a lot. But I know what you’re going to say: Of what use is money if you’re not around to spend it? And that’s so. But there’s more. This is your chance to be a part of something much greater than yourself, greater than me, greater than all of us. You will play a role in unraveling one of the greatest unsolved riddles of all time."
"Is that what you told the other men? The ones who died helping you?"
"Yes, Mr. Stewart, it is. It was the truth."
"And they took the job."
"I pay extremely well. And the men I chose had something in common with you."
"Nothing to lose," Burke said.
It stung, but only because it was true. He had no family and no employment. His army pension kept his glass full as long as his tastes were cheap, and occasional under-the-table assignments paid the rest of his bills. He’d fetched and carried for some of London’s worst, had ridden shotgun for questionable deliveries, had taken part in labor actions on whichever side cared to have him. It was a life, but only in the barest sense. Even when he’d had reason to, he’d never shrunk from risking it. Why would this be the assignment to make him put his foot down at last? And yet the image of Burke’s lidless eyes was a hard one to rid himself of.
"Tell me, Mr. Burke, what it is that I’d be collecting for you, and how much you would pay me for it."
"I’d pay enough that you’d never need work again," Burke said.
"If you please, I’d prefer a number."
"Fifty thousand pounds, or its equivalent in any currency you choose. Gold, if you like."
Malcolm’s mouth went dry. "You can’t be serious. What are you asking me to do, steal the crown jewels?"
"Oh, something much more valuable than that. Do you remember your bible, Mr. Stewart?"
"Not too well."
"There’s a story in it about a man called Moses," Burke said. "You may recall he went up into the mountains for forty days, leaving his people behind. We’re told they grew restless, that when he didn’t return as promised, they called on his brother, Aaron, to make them an idol to protect them. A figure of a calf fashioned from the melted-down gold of their earrings and wristlets and such. When Moses returned and saw them worshipping this golden calf, the bible says his anger was terrible. He smashed the tablets he was carrying, ordered the calf destroyed—ground to powder—and then mixed the powder with water and made his people drink it."
"Like most of what’s in the bible, there are elements of historical truth to this story, but there is also much that’s unreliable. Moses existed, surely, and so did the golden calf, and when he saw the thing being venerated at the foot of Sinai, it’s very likely he did order it destroyed. Perhaps he even thought it had been, that the powder he was forcing down his people’s throats was the residue of its destruction. But he was just a man, after all, and easily deceived.
"The golden calf was not destroyed, Mr. Stewart. I’ve seen it. I’ve touched it, I’ve held it in my hand. For three thousand years, it’s been hidden, preserved by a priestly sect that moves it from place to place at two-year intervals. They’ll kill any outsider who gets close to it. They tried to kill me, and they’ll try to kill you. But they won’t succeed—not if you’re as good as people say."
"I was once," Malcolm said.
"And you shall be again. No more wine, man. You have a job to do." Burke extended his hand again, his left hand, and Malcolm watched it hang in the darkness, drawing him into a covenant that could cost him his life or worse.
Lydia, he thought, if you were here, I’d spurn the offer and not think twice. But you’re gone, my darling, in heaven or in sod, and I’m left behind to end my days alone. What harm if they end quickly?
He took Burke’s hand, felt it tighten around his own.
From the darkness, he heard Margaret’s breath catch and felt a flicker of anger. She was the one who’d brought him here. What had she expected him to do?
Malcolm strode purposefully through the rooms, retracing their steps to the entry hall. Margaret had to run to keep pace.
"So, how many of us have there been?"
"Four. Unless you count the ambassador. He refused the offer."
"Probably the only time anyone has refused that man anything."
"He’s a great man, and he’s suffered greatly," Margaret said.
"And made others suffer."
"He’s not made anyone do anything. He’s offered the opportunity—"
"Four men have died chasing his opportunity."
"Then why did you say yes?" She wheeled on him and grabbed his arm. "No one forced you to."
"Maybe I just want the money."
She held his eyes, searched in them for something.
"I don’t think so," she said. "I don’t think you expect to see the money."
"Well, then, maybe I just need something to do, something that will get me out of this town."
She shook her head.
"So tell me, Miss Stiles, why am I doing it?"
"I don’t know. I’d like to think it’s because you recognize the importance of what he’s discovered. But I don’t think that’s it at all. I think maybe it’s the danger that attracts you. I think maybe you want to die."
"You’re wrong," Malcolm said. "If that’s what I wanted, this city’s got no shortage of roofs to jump from."
"And pubs, where you can get yourself stuck by a boy with a knife."
"I didn’t start that fight," Malcolm said.
"None of you ever starts a fight. But somehow you end up in so many. And eventually one of them’s the death of you."
"Eventually. But not today."
"Only because I was there."
"And I’ve thanked you for it," Malcolm said.
"Who will you thank in North Africa, Mr. Stewart? When you’re crossing the Jebel Akhdar, who will you lean on for support?"
"Maybe you’ll come with me," he said, with a small smile. "And watch my back for me on the Jebel Akhdar."
She released his arm and he started toward the front door. She called out after him.
"You know what the difference is between you and the other four?"
He looked back. "What."
"They had a chance," Margaret said.
He needed a drink in the worst way. It wasn’t just the heat, nor the deprivation—he’d gone without for longer when he’d had to. It was the touch of the familiar he yearned for. A bit of the house red might have dimmed the sun and cooled the air; most of all, it would have made the place feel less alien.
Six years had gone unnoticed here. The flags of the Reich were gone, but no new standard had taken their place—the few flagpoles still standing were bare. The harbor hadn’t been enlarged: two ships of modest size still filled it to capacity. And bullet holes of various vintages scarred the walls of every building, silent reminders of the place’s violent history.
Malcolm carried his bag into the center of town, waved off the attempts of two locals to take it off his hands for a couple of dirham. The papers Margaret had given him directed him to the hostel by the souq, and Malcolm picked his way to it through the crowded, listless streets. There were tradesmen bargaining, displaying their wares from hooks driven into the walls a century earlier. Reed baskets and hammered metal copils, cloth woven with traditional arab motifs hanging side by side with war booty, bits of parachute silk and laceless boots, bayonet blades brown with rust and blood. Who would buy these things, Malcolm wondered, and with what money? But the merchants were there, and they didn’t look like they were starving.
He palmed some folded dinars to the man behind the front desk at the hostel and was taken to a third-floor suite. The bed was low to the ground, and other than a mat and a basin the room had no furnishings, but it would do. It would have to. At least the elevation put it off limits to all but the more adventurous burglars—there was no balcony outside the window, and a thirty foot fall to the cobblestones would end a man’s career even if it were not fatal.
The call of the muezzin sang out and Malcolm closed the shutters of the window to muffle it. He’d have to get used to it—he’d be hearing it five times every day. But he was still tired from his trip, his healing arm was still sore, and he figured he could start getting used to it tomorrow.
He unpacked his revolver, wiped it down, sighted along the barrel and practiced firing a few times before loading it and sliding it into the holster on his hip. With his jacket on, all but the bottom of the holster was covered. Anyone looking for it would spot it, but a casual passer-by might not.
He folded Margaret’s tidy pages of notes and tucked them into one of his shirt’s breast pockets. He’d committed the information to memory during the crossing, but these names—he couldn’t always remember which was the person’s, which the street’s.
The currency Burke had supplied went into his other breast pocket. Malcolm buttoned this one closed.
The rest? His clothing could stay here. It would be pawed through by the management, but as long as they expected another night’s stay from him, they’d be unlikely actually to take any of it. He slung a small leather satchel over his shoulder and around his neck. The two paperbacks he’d brought as shipboard reading he wrapped in one of his shirts and shoved to the bottom of the bag. One was the new James M. Cain, the other a copy of the Christian bible, and both would excite comment if left lying around.
Finally, he unfolded the crushed Borsalino he’d bought just before leaving, patted it back into shape. Every soldier knew you couldn’t get by in the desert without a decent hat. It didn’t have to be a Borsalino, but for god’s sake, it was Burke’s money he was spending, this might well be the last hat he’d ever own, and damn it, he’d bought the Borsalino.
He put it on and headed down to the street. He didn’t bother to lock the door.
Dr. Ettouati’s rooms were in the old quarter, where the buildings were smaller and the streets tighter. Standing with your arms out, you could almost touch the walls on either side. Malcolm consulted the notes, tucked them back into his pocket, and made his way to the building Burke had named.
It was a low, terraced building done in the andalusian style, with rounded arches supported on the backs of narrow columns. There were fewer bullet holes here, and fewer people. One old woman watched from a nearby corner, leaning on a whiskbroom she’d been using to stir the dust between the cobblestones. He felt her eyes on him as he climbed the exposed staircase to the building’s second story.
The doctor came to the door wiping his hands, and wiped them again after closing it behind them. He was a short man, no more than shoulder height to Malcolm, but solid, as though he’d be awfully hard to tip over. Malcolm was reminded of the statues he’d seen in Derna’s museum when he’d passed through in ’43, the heavy-featured stone guardians and gods, carved and unmovable.
"Burke wired me to expect you. You are the American, eh?"
"Hardly," Malcolm said.
"That depends who you ask."
"Well. Which of us is not a citizen of the world, yes?" He waited for a response, got none, and went on. "Burke indicated that he wanted me to give you certain information I have collected for him about the Ammonites and their descendents. He seemed to think there was a modern sect carrying on their practices. This is, of course, highly unlikely.
"But there are ruins. Aren’t there always? And there are records, and you’re welcome to my notes on both." He pushed a notebook across the table between them. Malcolm thumbed through it briefly.
"Mr. Burke said you’d be able to point me toward a particular temple," Malcolm said. "North of Mechili."
"The Mechili find? Oh, I wouldn’t call that a temple—really just a way station for travelers. And it’s in poor condition. But if you want to see it..." He took the notebook back, paged through it, found what he was looking for and handed it back, tapping a forefinger on an illustration. The pencil sketch showed a stone altar, crudely carved with figures that might have been animals or people, or perhaps a bit of both.
"The Ammonites were a sacrificing people, and they missed no opportunity to provide their gods with a tribute. See this surface here?" He pointed to a flat rock protruding from the wall in the illustration. "That’s where they would slaughter the lamb, or goat, or bullock, or what have you, and then burn it as an offering. There are channels here and here for the blood to run. You’ll have to forgive the drawing, I am a poor draftsman..."
Malcolm thought the drawing was quite clear, actually. A grooved stone surface just large enough to hold a small animal, posts on either side to bind the struggling creature, channels to catch its blood.
Dr. Ettouati went on. "Young infants were also sometimes sacrificed, in times of—"
"Yes," Ettouati said. "Is that the wrong word? I mean to say children, boy children. In times of crisis. Is this not what the word means, ‘infant’? How do you say a boy child in English?"
"You say infant," Malcolm said. "Nothing wrong with your English."
"Good. Good. They would sometimes sacrifice an infant, although this was rare."
"It would more or less have to be, wouldn’t it?"
"Well, a woman had more children then, but yes, they were not so plentiful as goats."
Malcolm turned the page. A hand-drawn map showed the approach to the temple—the way station, whatever it was—through a mountain pass. It was on the other side of the great Green Mountain, the Jebel Akhdar, with its sheer rock faces and endless twisting paths. Getting there wouldn’t be an easy journey for a fully equipped party, much less a man traveling alone. But according to Burke, that’s where he had to go.
"Tell me," Dr. Ettouati said, "has Burke told you what you are looking for?" He was wiping his hands again, Malcolm noticed, perhaps unconsciously but quite eagerly.
"No," Malcolm said. "Did he tell you?"
"Not a word. I don’t imagine Burke as the type to root around in ancient sites for purely scholarly purposes, but he’s said nothing about what he hopes to find. Ah, well. ‘Ours not to reason why,’ as your poet had it. Do you mean to go to Mechili?"
"I can come with you if you like," Ettouati said.
What would Burke say? He hadn’t brought Ettouati into his confidence, and presumably he wouldn’t want Malcolm to do so either. On the other hand, having a local to guide him through the mountains would make the journey easier.
"I’d appreciate it," Malcolm started to say—but before he could get the words out, a spray of blood covered his hands.
Everything seemed to happen in an instant, and in reverse: first the blood, streaking across his hands, then Ettouati’s face crumpling as a bullet passed through it, and finally Malcolm became conscious of the sound, the thundercrack of gunfire echoing from wall to wall inside the small room. It took him longer than it should have to react: a bullet clipped his shoulder as he tipped over his chair and fell to the floor in front of the desk.
Where? How? He fought to call the layout of the room to mind as he jammed the bloody notebook into his pocket and fumbled his gun out of its holster. There had been two windows behind Ettouati, both shut. And beyond them a balcony? Probably—he’d seen a door in the other room.
He heard the rapid slap of running footsteps, chanced a look up over the top of the desk. The shutters of one window had been blown away, and through it he caught a glimpse of the shooter’s arm, his back, as he sprinted for the door. Malcolm raced to the window, stuck first his gun and then his head through, but the man was already off the balcony, in the other room. Malcolm slid along the wall to the corner by the door with his gun raised in both hands. His hands were shaking, damn it, and it wasn’t the shoulder wound doing it—the bullet had only grazed him. It was the shock of seeing a man killed just inches from his face. You thought you’d put it behind you, and in an instant it all comes back: the blood, the smell of a body suddenly opened to the air, the sick feeling in the pit of your stomach, the helplessness—
Damn it, pull yourself together. He gripped the gun tighter, swung around to face the door and kicked it open. He was firing before his foot touched the floor. There were two men, one in a sand-colored jalabaya, one in western-style khakis. A pair of red stains bloomed on the jalabaya and the man fell backwards, the gun tumbling from his hand. Malcolm swung to face the other man, saw a curved blade flashing as the man raced toward him. He pulled the trigger twice. The first shot went wide, took a chunk out of the far wall and ricocheted off. The second caught the man in the gut. The dagger clattered to the floor as the man doubled over.
The front door was open, and through it he saw the old woman, now at the top of the stairs, the broom still in one hand, the doorknob in the other. She let the broom fall and took off, screaming for help.
Malcolm stepped around a low table to where the second man lay, gasping, struggling for breath. The knife was within the man’s reach, and he saw the man go for it. Malcolm kicked it away, placed the sole of his boot on the man’s hand, and leveled his gun at the man’s face. "Who sent you?" Malcolm said.
The man was going into shock: his skin was grey and his face was shaking. The look of rage on his face was replaced by one of despair as the pain intensified. He spoke in a child’s singsong whisper, the same words over and over: "Molekh sh’ar liyot bein tekhem."
"Who sent you?" Malcolm put more pressure on the man’s hand. "Were you after Ettouati or me?"
"...sh’ar liyot bein tekhem," the man whispered. "Molekh sh’ar..."
There wasn’t time for this. The woman’s screams had faded, but she’d be back any minute, together with whatever passed for the authorities in this town. They’d find him with a half empty revolver in an apartment where three men had just been shot. He’d didn’t want to find out what the inside of a Libyan prison was like.
He returned the gun to his holster and stepped off the man’s hand. It wasn’t mercy: the man would die of his gut wound, probably quite painfully as his stomach acids leaked out to poison his body. Shooting him now might have been more merciful. But Malcolm couldn’t spare the bullet.
He took the stairs two at a time. In the alley behind the building, he found the transportation the men had used: a BMW R12, left over from the Wermacht. The sidecar was dented, the kickstand missing, the carriage streaked with rust. The glass cover of the headlamp was smashed in and one of the rubber handle grips had been torn off. But the engine was purring softly and when he gunned it, it responded instantly.
He pushed off against the wall with one leg and drove along the narrow alley as quickly as he dared, taking a sharp right when it became clear that continuing straight would take him to a dead end.
There was no time to return to the hostel, even assuming he could find it again. Between buildings, he could see the mountain in the distance and he used that to orient himself. He prayed the motorcycle’s saddlebags held some water. It would be a short expedition if they didn’t.
From behind him, he heard the roar of another motorcycle engine, and further back the throatier growl of a truck. He shot a look back over his shoulder and after a second saw the second cycle round a corner. The man driving it held a machine gun in one hand, the barrel resting on the handlebars. He shouted something in Arabic, raised the gun.
Malcolm took another corner, skirting the stone wall of the building by inches. The whine of his pursuer’s engine grew higher pitched as he accelerated. Malcolm turned his handgrip to match and felt the cobblestones streak by beneath him, jolting him, forcing him to hold on tighter than his wounds would allow. His sleeve was wet where his shoulder had bled, and his forearm still ached from the slash he’d received in the pub. He struggled to keep the machine upright, to find the end of this maze of alleys, to keep at least one turn between him and the men behind him.
Was this how the others had died, shot from behind or smashed against a wall? He tried not to think about it, forced himself to concentrate on steering.
He was glad now that he hadn’t taken a drink. His heart was racing and his reflexes, he knew, weren’t what they once had been, but his hands were relatively steady and his vision clear. He heard Margaret’s voice again—The other four...they had a chance—and gunned the engine.
They shot out from the old quarter, first Malcolm, then, some distance back, the man on the cycle, and finally what looked, at the edge of the circular mirror mounted on his handlebar, like an American jeep. There were no more turns to make: just the city’s wide southern gate and, past it, the open desert. A spray of bullets shot in his direction, missing him narrowly. He grabbed the gun out of his holster. Only two shots left and no way to reload while driving, but it was still better than facing a machine gun unarmed. He sped through the gate, then took a hard left and braked to a stop behind the city wall. He turned back, lay low against the chassis, and waited for the other cycle to burst past.
But it didn’t. The other cycle braked just inside the gate, idled as the jeep pulled up. He couldn’t see them from where he was hidden, but he could hear their voices, the old woman and several men, all speaking in a tongue of which he understood only a few words. Among the words he recognized were "desert" and "death." It sounded as though they were deciding whether it was worth pursuing him. Why bother? One man alone in the desert would get all the justice he deserved. The night was coming; it was growing dark and cold. Let the man enjoy his victory—it would be brief.
Only don’t allow him to seek refuge by sneaking back in. With alarm, Malcolm saw the heavy doors draw shut and heard the wooden bolt slide into place. Derna was off-limits to him now.
The foothills of the Jebel Akhdar were distant, and who knew how long his petrol would last—but that was the only direction open to him.
Could he make it? He’d have to; there was no choice.
He drove off. Within minutes it was dark. Fortunately, the headlamp still worked, shattered glass or no, and he used it to cut a narrow path through the night. The light illuminated a trail of hard-packed sand and scrub, just a few feet at a time. He couldn’t see the mountains any longer, but he took it on faith that he was still pointed in the right direction. In the morning he would check Ettouati’s map, would correct his course. For now, all he had to do was drive—that, and stay awake.
The strange silence lulled him. Rarely, he would hear the cry of a distant bird, some nocturnal hunter calling to others of its kind; otherwise, the only sounds were those of his tires scouring the sand and his engine tearing through the night.
In his mind, he saw Burke’s face, the naked eyes bulging in the half-light. He heard Margaret’s voice: Why did you say yes? No one forced you to.
And he saw Lydia’s face, too, remembered her as he’d seen her last, breathing shallow breaths in the hospital bed, delirious from the pain but clinging tightly to his hand, until all at once she wasn’t any longer, all at once her face was still and her suffering was over. It had only been four months since he’d returned from the army. Four years he’d spent away, always a sea or an ocean or a continent between them, and then when he’d been able to return home at last, she’d been just a few months away from death.
When he’d been here last, in the desert, with tanks and munitions and men eager to kill for their masters, she’d kept him alive. He’d see her face when his eyes were closed, would whisper her name at night, would kiss the one snapshot he had of her when other men kissed crucifixes. He used to imagine that she’d protect him in battle, keep bullets from his path. He’d prayed to her: Darling, let me come home to you, safe and sound, let no man take me from you. And no man had.
But the reverse—that he had never considered, that she might be taken from him. In the prime of life, in peacetime, in a clean, quiet room overlooking a shaded yard, she’d died holding his hand, and he’d been able to do nothing to prevent it.
He found the road before him blurred and realized he was weeping. He wiped the tears away on the back of his sleeve and didn’t slacken his pace. His only hope was to reach the mountains before the heat of day, and he found himself praying to her again. Darling, stay with me now. The drive ahead is long; I need your help.
Why had he said yes to Burke? He couldn’t have answered Margaret honestly at the time; he hadn’t known. But now he knew. Here in the desert again, more alone than he’d ever been, rocketing through the night with nothing but carrion birds for company, he felt closer to her than he had at any time since she’d died. She was there in the night, wrapping her arms about him and whispering softly in his ear. There was nothing left of her back home, nothing but a headstone and fading memories, but here he felt her presence as he hadn’t in a very long time.
He wiped his eyes once more and bent low over the handlebars.
The dawn, when it came, broke suddenly. Malcolm saw the first shadings of gray light against the rocks and within minutes the light had turned from the cool of early morning into the harsh, hostile glare it would remain for the rest of the day. Malcolm pulled over into the shadow of a boulder to rest the overheated engine.
He took his bearings. Somehow he’d managed not to stray too far from the path he’d meant to follow. The mountain was still some distance away, looming lush and green like a mirage. The Jebel Akhdar got its name from the trees and vegetation it supported, and he imagined he could find water once he got there. But until then, he was limited to whatever he had with him.
He searched through the saddlebags hanging on either side of the rear wheel. There was a goatskin canteen in one, half-full. He sniffed its contents and took a careful sip. It tasted stale, but it was water. He allowed himself two swallows before he recapped the canteen and put it back.
He stripped off his jacket and shirt, looked sideways at the trail of dried blood that ran across his left shoulder and disappeared down his back. He flexed his shoulder, stretched his arm, massaged the muscle. It wasn’t a deep wound, and he didn’t think it had gotten infected, but good god, he’d forgotten how much it hurt to get shot.
He put his shirt back on, folded the jacket and laid it in the bottom of the sidecar. From his shoulder pouch he took his ammunition case and reloaded his revolver. Then he got back on the cycle.
The fuel gauge showed the tank as nearly empty. It wouldn’t last all the way to the mountain, that was certain, but it would take him a few more miles, and then he’d walk. He glanced at the map from Ettouati’s notebook—the sketch wasn’t as clear as he’d have liked, but it looked like he wanted to be west of where he was. He oriented himself against the sun, kicked the engine to life and settled in for the ride.
The heat grew, and his fatigue grew with it, till at midday he found himself drifting, felt his head jerk as he caught himself on the verge of sleep. It was tempting: Pull off, take a few hours to recuperate. But there was no shade here, and lying down in the open sun was suicide. He took another swig from the canteen, and drove on.
The foothills were in sight when the engine finally coughed and died. Malcolm took his jacket, slung the canteen across his chest, and started out on foot. The sand was hot, and soon the soles of his boots were, too. But there was nothing to be done for it. The hat kept the worst of the glare out of his eyes; and if it was hot, well, this was the desert, what did you expect? He bulled forward, keeping the base of the mountain in sight.
By the time he reached it, the canteen was empty, his throat was parched, his legs ached, and his head swam. He kept moving forward mechanically, putting one foot in front of the other, hardly feeling the soreness in his shins, his shoulder, his sunburned neck. The hours in the sun had turned him into a desert creature, shambling forward without a thought other than the desire to get out of the heat. When he reached the first tree, he sank to his knees in its shade.
He didn’t intend to sleep, and wasn’t conscious of having done so, but when he next opened his eyes, the sun had shifted. He dug out the map. It showed a stream nearby and after searching for a bit, he found it. The water level was low, but it was fresh water and clean. He drank and refilled the canteen, then did the best job he could of washing his wound.
There were perhaps two hours of daylight left. The last thing Malcolm felt like doing was beginning the climb, but it had to be done. He set off. At first, the paths were nearly flat, but they grew steeper as he climbed, and the sparse vegetation of the mountain’s base turned into something more like a forest as he rose, with ample undergrowth to trap his feet and make progress difficult. When the sun went down, what had been merely difficult became impossible, and finally Malcolm allowed himself to stop. He was hungry, but since he didn’t know what around him was edible, he didn’t take any chances. He wedged himself between a tree and the rock wall against which it had grown, tipped the hat forward over his face, and slept.
The next day’s climb was easier, as the mountain leveled out for a stretch. To either side, he saw the curving paths along the rock walls slope upward alarmingly, but he stuck to Ettouati’s map and followed the shallower course of the pass. He found a tree that resembled a date palm and took a chance on its fruit. He filled his pouch and when, several hours later, he still felt no ill effects from the first piece, he allowed himself a few more. Only a few—even edible fruit could give you the runs if you ate too much of it. But at least he wasn’t ravenous any more, just hungry.
The path meandered, and he ached to cut across it, to attempt to find a shorter route, but he didn’t dare. The mountains were treacherous here, famous for sudden drop-offs into gorges five hundred feet deep. If Ettouati had been there, he’d probably have known some better paths, but he wasn’t, except in the form of his map. Malcolm had no choice but to treat the map as scripture.
He thought about Ettouati as he climbed, thought about the men who’d killed him. They’d looked more Egyptian than Libyan. Broader features, for one thing, and then there was the knife with its scalloped blade, the sort you’d find in Cairo sooner than in Tripoli. But he wasn’t sure they’d been Egyptian, either. The language the second one had been speaking certainly hadn’t sounded like Arabic.
He thought, too, of Burke and the assignment he’d accepted from him. Even if Malcolm made it to the Mechili temple, what was he supposed to do when he got there? Burke hadn’t said, and Margaret’s notes held no clues. There were dangerous men about, that much was clear—the ones who’d caught and mutilated Burke were presumably also the ones who’d sent the assassins to Ettouati’s home. They’d seen to it that the other men Burke had put on their trail hadn’t returned home, and they’d do what they could to add Malcolm to the list. So his first priority was staying out of their hands. But supposing he succeeded at that, how was he to find the bloody statue he was being paid to recover? He could hardly expect the thing to be sitting out in the open.
All Burke had said was that the statue was protected by a sect that moved it from place to place. The last word he’d had suggested it was at the Mechili site: Margaret had shown him the telegram. The man who’d sent it had been killed the next morning, strongly suggesting that he’d been on the right track. But that didn’t mean he’d actually found the thing. And if he had, wouldn’t they have moved it since?
No, Burke had insisted, they only moved it once every two lunar years. It’s a practice they’d observed since biblical times, and they wouldn’t deviate from it just because someone located the site. They might not even know Lambert had sent a telegram—they might think they’d silenced him before he could tell anyone what he knew. And even if not, they’d have confidence in their ability to silence anyone else who came looking. In addition to the four men he’d sent, Burke had turned up stories of a dozen other men over the past century who’d gone looking for the calf and never returned.
Hearing that, Malcolm had very nearly backed out. A dozen other men—why think he’d fare better? The only man who’d made it out alive was Burke himself, and look what had happened to him.
But he’d already bought the fucking hat. And he’d shaken hands on the deal. And what was the alternative, drinking himself to death slowly in a succession of West London pubs? Burke had been right: what did he have to lose?
Malcolm spent the second night between the roots of a giant acacia and woke with water on his face. It didn’t rain often in this part of the world, and you took advantage of it when it did. He stripped off his clothing, put his gun under his jacket to keep it dry, and stood with his head tilted back. It was a brief shower, not even enough to wash all the dust off him, but its touch invigorated him. The morning sun dried him rapidly and he climbed back into his clothes before he could burn. He ate the last of his dates and started downhill.
He could see the way off the mountain by noon and set foot on level ground before nightfall. The southern desert stretched out before him, flat and featureless. Near the coast there had been frequent patches of vegetation and signs of animal life; here there was nothing except for the occasional jird scuttling ratlike across the sand. And the sand itself—it wasn’t the rolling dunes you saw in foreign legion pictures, just a parched surface that had been bleached the color of bone and packed so hard it barely took footprints. He remembered a line from a poem they’d made him recite in grade school: Boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away. He’d had a mental image of the desert, he remembered, as a sort of giant beach. The reality, of course, drove such images out of your mind forever. You couldn’t imagine the size of it, the emptiness, till you were standing inside it.
He started walking, setting a roughly southwesterly course. Traveling by night would be less arduous than trying to cross to Mechili with the sun beating down. He had a full canteen and he’d packed his pouch with whatever bits of fruit he’d been able to find on the way down the final slope. He could do the seven miles before dawn if he pushed himself. He’d be tired when he got there, which was not the best condition in which to face whoever might be waiting for him at the temple, and worst of all, if the landscape didn’t change along the way, they’d be able to see him coming for the better part of a mile, but that was just all the more reason to approach at night. He pocketed the hat, shifted the strap of his bag so it cut into a different part of his back, and pushed forward.
At a certain point, the dusk gave way to total darkness. He had a tin of matches in his bag, but it wasn’t worth using them up for the few instants of light they’d provide. His eyes adjusted, though it hardly mattered: there was nothing to see by day, less still at night. There was a hot wind that blew past from time to time, stirring the sand around him. He listened to his footsteps landing rhythmically. There was nothing else to do.
Was this what it was like to be blind? He couldn’t imagine what Burke must have gone through, wandering the desert with the sun searing his unprotected eyes until at last they were burnt out like useless candle stumps. How he must have treasured the night! Until all he had was night.
It was strange, Malcolm thought, how the man burned to recover the least of what he’d lost—not his sight, not his hand, not the normal life he’d had, but that thing, that useless, useless thing he’d lost his sight pursuing. Oh, it was valuable, no doubt—priceless even—and Malcolm imagined that archaeologists and museum docents could jabber about it for a thousand years, but what good could it possibly do Burke? A three thousand-year-old statue—was this worth a dozen men’s lives? Or even one man’s? There would be a certain satisfaction for Burke in recovering it, Malcolm supposed, in victoriously closing a chapter that had opened in bloody defeat. But in the clear light of day, what was that really worth?
In the clear light of day. Look at me, Malcolm thought, walking through the night at the arse end of nowhere, talking about the clear light of day. Who am I to take potshots at Burke for chasing some relic out of his past, when at least he has the good sense to do it from his armchair at home, with his fan blowing cool breezes on his brow? I’m the one on a trek through a desert I never thought I’d come back to. How’s that for useless?
Fifty thousand pounds. That’s not useless.
It is when you’re wandering in the desert, Malcolm reminded himself. Nothing more useless then.
He drank a bit of his water, recapped the canteen, and kept going.
Ettouati’s map had shown the temple as hidden inside the curve of a rocky outcropping, and in the half-light preceding sunrise Malcolm caught sight of a craggy shape in the distance, listing at an angle like a ship run aground. He was perhaps forty meters off to one side, but that was just as well: he’d be able to approach it from the side instead of straight on.
He crept up to the rocks slowly, revolver in hand, circled around the long way. He saw no one. There was an opening in the rocks where Ettouati had indicated, and he stepped in with his gun raised, but no one seemed to be inside either.
It was cool inside, and dark—stepping in from the desert was not unlike entering Burke’s room back home, only less damp, and with the whirring of the electric fan replaced by the skittering of rodent feet. Malcolm lit a match, saw the carvings on the walls jump in the flickers of orange light. Animal-headed men in rows, some kneeling, some upright—the Egyptian influence was clear. But there was also an unfamiliar quality. These weren’t ordinary hieroglyphs.
The images converged on the altar, which was larger than he’d thought it would be. You could fit a fairly large animal between the posts, and the drainage channels ran deep enough to catch quite a lot of blood without spilling over.
The match went out, and Malcolm decided not to light another. It wasn’t bright in here, but enough light leaked in from outside that he could see what he needed to. He ran his hand along the surface of the altar and its underside, bent low to look closely at the wall. The carvings continued all the way around the altar and were framed by a rectangular groove extending from the ground on either side and meeting across the top. Malcolm felt along this groove, tried to fit the tips of his fingers inside it. It looked almost like the outline of a doorway, but when he pushed against the wall, it felt like pushing against solid rock.
He ran his index fingers along the length of the channels on the altar and at the far end of each, near the wall, he felt a pea-sized hole. This surprised him—it put him in mind of drainage and implied that the altar itself was hollow. He leaned forward and blew into one of the holes. A puff of dust rose and slowly settled.
He looked around. There had to be more here. Lambert’s telegram had referred to a temple—an altar in a cave was not a temple. If there was a temple in this cave, it was somewhere deeper inside, but how were you supposed to get there from here? He tried to put himself in the place of the men who had built and used this place. If there was another area, what would they have done to gain access to it?
What, indeed. Ettouati’s words came back to him. The Ammonites were a sacrificing people. They missed no opportunity to provide their gods with a tribute.
He lit another match, watched the ground as a handful of jirds scattered. They were not large animals, about the size of rats, but—
Three or four, he imagined, might be equal in size to a small kid. Goat, that is. A small goat.
He dug through his shoulder pouch until he found his pocketknife and unfolded the longer of its blades. Then he took a few pieces of fruit—two dates, a wild fig—and cut them each in half. He pocketed the knife, placed half a fig on the ground and stood as close to perfectly still as he could. After a few seconds, he saw the dim shape of a jird nosing up to it.
He dropped his hat over the animal and scooped it up, pinning the sides of the brim between his fingers to trap it. It struggled violently and he almost lost his grip, but with his other fist he bunched the hat closed and smashed it twice against the cave wall. The jird went limp inside the hat.
He poured the body out onto the altar. It wasn’t dead, he didn’t think, but it was out cold and would stay where he left it. He put the other half of the fig on the ground and stepped back to wait.
In all, he managed to catch four. After that, though he still heard tiny claws clattering in the shadows, he wasn’t able to lure any more into the trap. He looked over the bodies arranged in a row on the altar. They were smaller than he’d thought. Would four be enough?
There was only one way to know. He picked up one of the animals, held it firmly by its hindquarters above the left channel, and with one stroke of his knife sliced its head off. Its blood flowed freely, if not for long. He held it upside down directly over the hole at the end of the channel, watched as the flow drained off into the body of the altar. He pushed against the wall, but there was no movement. He tried using the posts for leverage, gripping one in each fist and straining. Nothing.
He decapitated the second jird, holding this one over the right-hand channel. Then he did the third and fourth. His hands were greasy from their fur and sticky with their blood. He wiped his hands roughly against the seat of his pants and took hold of the posts again. This time he thought he could feel something as he strained, some small shifting of the stone. But no more than that.
He cast about for something else he could use. Could he catch more jirds? It didn’t seem likely, and even if he could, the blood from the first four would have dried up by the time he did, so he’d be starting over from scratch. There had to be another way.
He hefted the canteen. It was better than half full. He hated the idea of using any of his water this way, but—
He uncapped the canteen and carefully poured a thin stream into each channel. This time, when he pushed, he could hear the stones shift, some heavy internal counterweight slowly turning. He poured in some more, closed the canteen, took hold of the posts and pushed with all his strength.
The wall moved—slowly, with a grinding of stone against stone, but it moved, the altar and the section of the wall behind it both turning on some invisible, freshly lubricated axis.
There was light behind the wall, first a narrow orange crack and then an expanding glow like the flames of a thousand candles. And as the wall continued to turn, more smoothly now, more easily, Malcolm saw that there was also a man there, a man in a gold skullcap and patterned robe, standing with one arm crossed over his chest. The other arm was extended toward Malcolm, and held a gun.
Malcolm now regretted having holstered his own revolver, but there was nothing to be done for it. His couldn’t outdraw a man who already had the drop on him, never mind doing so when his hands were sticky with blood.
His mind raced. The man hadn’t pulled the trigger yet, but neither had he lowered the gun. He seemed to be weighing which would be more appropriate.
Malcolm dropped to his knees, held his bloody palms out. "Molekh sh’ar liyot bein tekhem," he said.
Slowly, the gun lowered. "Molekh sh’ar," the man said.
The room behind the altar stretched on for some distance and the ground sloped steeply downward. By the time Malcolm had followed the man to the far end, he suspected they were past the edge of the outcropping entirely and standing beneath the desert floor. The man slipped the gun inside the pocket of his robe and took out a ring of keys, one of which fit the lock set into the wrought-iron gate that barred their way. He swung the gate open and passed through without speaking a word.
Which was just as well, since Malcolm had used up all the words he knew in the man’s language. If he’d tried to start a conversation, Malcolm would have had to make an attempt for the gun, however hopeless it might have been.
The room on the other side of the gate was several times the size of the entryway, a hollowed-out octagon with shallow alcoves carved into the walls, each containing a dish of tallow and a dancing flame. The center of the room held a freestanding stone altar in the shape of a giant hand, palm pointing toward the ceiling, fingers slightly curled.
There was one man kneeling in front of the altar and one standing behind it; on the altar itself was a pile of stones that looked as if they might have been chipped from the walls, only glowing, like the embers of a fire. It wasn’t clear what the source of heat was, if indeed there was one—maybe it was just a source of light. The man behind the altar was short and wore the same sort of robe and skullcap the other man had on, while the one on his knees wore only a breechclout, a twisted strip of cloth knotted around his waist and between his legs. He swayed from side to side in time with a wordless chant, sometimes bowing forward to touch his head to the ground.
The robed men stood in silence, waiting, and Malcolm stood silently as well, but he used the time to steal glances around the room. There were openings in several of the walls leading off to dark corridors. Was the idol down one of them? If so, which one? And for how much longer could he maintain the charade of being a fellow worshipper? If he hadn’t walked in on a ceremony in progress, surely they would have spoken to him already, and would instantly have found him out.
The kneeling man was swaying faster now as his chant grew louder. He reached out toward the altar, toward the stones, and jammed his hands in among them. Malcolm recoiled as the air filled with the stink of burning flesh. The man was howling now, screaming, in transports of pain and ecstasy.
Perhaps there would be a better opportunity later—perhaps. But it didn’t seem likely.
Malcolm stepped up close to the man who had let him in, darted his hand into the pocket of the robe and grabbed the pistol. It was a German gun, heavy and cold to the touch. He whipped an arm around the man’s neck and held the gun to his temple. The other robed man started forward.
"Take one more step and he dies," Malcolm said. "Do you understand me?"
The kneeling man rose to his feet. Malcolm saw that he still held a hot stone in each of his hands. His cheeks were covered with tears. His chest was scarred, long welts running haphazardly across his breastbone and along his ribs. Even barefoot as he was, he stood well over six feet tall, and his frame was formidable. But when he spoke, his voice was soft, calm.
"No, he doesn’t understand you. Neither of them speaks English."
Malcolm found the man’s voice unnerving. It was the furthest thing imaginable from the wordless howl it had been just moments before.
"He understands this," Malcolm said, gesturing with the pistol.
"You may shoot him if you want," he said. "It is what he deserves for letting you in."
Malcolm unwound his arm from around the robed man’s throat and shoved him away. He reoriented the Luger’s sight so that it pointed squarely at the giant’s naked chest. "And what about you, brother? Are you as ready to throw your own life away?"
Slowly and with a casual stride he came forward. "I am not afraid of pain. If it is Molekh’s will that I die, I shall die."
"It’s my will you need to be concerned about right now," Malcolm said. "The good news is I’m just here to do a job and leave—"
"You will never leave."
"We’ll see. Why don’t you back up against the wall, and tell the other two to do the same thing." The man paid no attention. Malcolm cocked the gun. "Now, or I swear to god I’ll shoot you where you stand."
A voice spoke from behind him, a reverberant voice that rang from the stones. "You swear to god?"
Malcolm spun to find its source, but there was no one there.
"And which god is it that you swear to? When you are in my temple, do you swear to me?"
Malcolm saw movement in the corner of his eye and turned back, but the giant was suddenly beside him, and then the stones, still hot, were pressed against his gun hand, one on either side. He strained to pull the trigger, but the man had his hand firmly pinned. He felt his skin starting to sear.
Malcolm reached under his jacket left-handed, drew his own gun from its holster, jammed it into the man’s gut and fired. The force of the gunshot sent the man stumbling back, freeing Malcolm’s hand. He leveled the Luger at the man’s head and pulled the trigger. A bloody spray stained the chamber floor.
The other two men were fleeing awkwardly in their cumbersome robes, heading for corridors on opposite sides of the room. To raise an alarm? To get reinforcements? He couldn’t take the chance. One bullet apiece—left hand, right hand—and they were down.
Malcolm’s heart was hammering, his head reeling. He heard the sound of laughter all around him, echoing louder as the thunder of gunfire died down. "Blood!" The voice was exultant. "You do swear to me—you swear in blood, the blessed offering."
"Who’s talking?" Malcolm said, turning in a circle, scanning the shadows, a gun in each fist. "Where are you?"
"I am the Lord of this place and this people. I am brothergod to the Lord you worship, and have been since men first spoke of gods. I am many-named: men call me Melech, and Molekh, and Moloch; I have been called Legion, and Horror, and Beast, in fifty tongues and fifty times fifty, but men also call me Father, and Master, and Beloved. There is no end to the names men have given me."
"Enough," Malcolm said. "Save the booga-booga for the natives. Come out and face me."
"No man may look upon me and live."
Malcolm worked his way along one wall of the room, scanning the rock for a concealed loudspeaker, or some other mechanism that might explain where the voice was coming from. "Let’s get one thing straight, Charley," he said. "I’m not here for the sermon. I’m not here for your fifty tongues or any of the rest of it. A man sent me here to collect a statue—either you have it or you don’t. You leave me in peace and I’ll leave you in peace."
"Peace!" The laughter was explosive. "You talk of peace? Look about you. The blood of my servants stains my altar and you speak to me of peace?"
Malcolm completed his circuit of the room. There was nothing—just rock and flame and the voice, shouting in his ear. The entrance to one of the dark corridors was next to him, and he stepped into it, but the voice followed him, chasing him along its length until he came out into a room much like the first. Only this one’s altar was shaped like a pedestal, and where the other had held stones, this one held—
He couldn’t see clearly what it held. There was a shape, but Malcolm could only see it through a haze, as though of smoke. Could it be the outline of a calf? It could be anything, he realized. And as he watched, the smoke closed up around the altar, obscuring the figure.
"You say you seek a statue. If so, your quest is doomed, for the statue you mean was destroyed a hundred generations ago."
"But a man told you he saw it. You are not the first he has sent to me, this blind man. And you, so quick to believe, you take the word of a blind man over that of your own scripture?"
"He wasn’t blind when he saw it."
"You are all blind." The voice was now a guttural whisper, cold and insinuating. "You see only what you wish to see. Each man who faces my altar sees that which he most desires and, addressing it with impure heart, gains only what he most dreads."
The smoke began to thin, as though blown by a breeze.
"Your blind man spent a lifetime searching for my mount, the figure they made for me at the foot of Sinai, so when he came before me, that is what he saw.
"Look closely, child. What do you see? Like your ancestors before you, you have wandered in the desert and climbed the mountain’s slopes. You did not bear this burden in pursuit of another man’s quest."
Malcolm could make out the altar again, and upon it he saw a form, a human shape, but it was still indistinct.
"Do you even know what you are searching for?"
And the smoke vanished, in an instant, leaving the figure behind it bare. She was naked and pale and trembling, and Malcolm fell to his knees before her.
"Each man worships at the idol of his choosing."
"No," Malcolm said, shaking his head. "She’s dead. I buried her." He turned to the woman seated on the altar. "You’re dead, three years dead."
Lydia stepped down, came toward him, one arm outstretched. "My love, my poor love," she said.
He shrank from her. "It’s impossible," he said. He shouted it: "It’s impossible! This is a lie!"
"Why impossible? Do you doubt my power?" From the corridor, Malcolm heard the echo of footsteps approaching, and then one by one the men he’d killed entered the room, the two in robes and the third in his loincloth, his bloody trunk and head still bearing their horrible, fatal wounds. "Over certain among the living I have influence, but over the dead—over the dead, I have utter command."
"No," Malcolm said. But he couldn’t deny the evidence of his eyes. These men—they had died, he had struck them down himself, had seen them fall. Yet here they were. And here she was, looking exactly as he remembered. His mind recoiled at the thought. And yet—
She reached out for him again, but the dead men in priestly robes each took one of her arms and between them they pulled her back toward the altar. The third man followed, his naked back gleaming in the candlelight, bloody and torn where the first bullet had emerged above his hip.
Malcolm launched himself to his feet, threw himself at the three men, but while the priests secured Lydia to the altar, the giant swatted him away, sent him reeling to the floor with one swipe of his scarred palm. Malcolm drew his gun and fired, twice, three times, till the chambers were all empty, but this time the bullets had no effect.
The priests stood back, and he saw that they had shackled Lydia to the stone, ankles and wrists encircled with iron bands. From the folds of his robe, one of them drew a knife with a curved and scalloped blade and handed it to the third man, the barebacked giant who had so casually fended off Malcolm’s charge. The second priest positioned himself behind Lydia’s head and placed one hand firmly on either side of her face.
"Close your eyes," the giant said. His voice was soft and calm and Malcolm’s blood froze at the sound of it.
"Malcolm!" Lydia’s cry took him back in an instant to her bedside at the hospital. "Help me."
"It’s not real," Malcolm said. He shouted it to the ceiling of the cavernous room. "It’s not real!"
"Your arrogance is awesome," the voice intoned, "if you presume to state what is and is not real."
"My wife is dead. You cannot change that. No one can."
"Perhaps. But can the dead not also suffer?"
And from the altar came a shriek of purest terror, of anguish beyond measure. He saw only the giant’s broad back, stooped over the bound figure, saw the hugely muscled arms, streaked with sweat, rock as he gently worked the knife.
"Stop it," Malcolm said. "Please stop."
"Why, if it is not real?"
Malcolm had to struggle to keep his voice under control. "Why are you doing this?"
"Because I can, child, and because it is my pleasure. It is my pleasure that my power be revealed, that men may know a god of might still walks among them, that they may bend their knees in supplication."
"You want me to kneel?" He dropped to his knees, spread his arms out. "Please."
"Kneeling is more than a matter of being on your knees. I will spare her for you—and then you will kneel to me in earnest, you will bow to me and do my bidding, as your blind man does in spite of himself. And in time you will speak my name with true reverence rather than with deceit in your heart."
The men surrounding the altar stepped away, and Malcolm saw that Lydia was still bound to it, her face smeared with blood. He ran to the altar. She was shaking and pale, her torso covered with sweat, and he took her hand gently. One of the priests held a square of silk out to him. He took it and carefully wiped the blood around her eyes.
"My darling," she whispered. "Don’t leave me."
So, Burke, he thought, here’s your golden calf. I understand now. There’s a thing you love and crave, and you had it once, too briefly, and now you ache to have it back. Yes, I know how you ache. There is no way you could leave it behind in the desert: you’re bound to it for life, you are its slave. Even if it no longer exists outside your imagination.
I crave, too, Malcolm thought. You’re not the only one; my imagination is no less troubled. But I am not blind, Burke, and I have not your capacity for blind faith.
"I left my wife in Glasnevin," he said softly, "and I’m going back to her there."
He let go of her hand, stepped back from the altar, and walked as rapidly as he could toward the corridor through which he’d entered. Behind him, the voice thundered.
"If you go, you will never see her again."
He kept walking.
"You will never speak to her, touch her, hear her voice."
He bit back tears.
"She will suffer torments you cannot conceive!"
And then she screamed, a shattering, curdled scream that seemed to contain more pain in it than any body could bear. Malcolm ran from it, tore through the first chamber and the iron gate and the entry hall, pursued by the sound of it. The flames of the candles lining the walls all at once were snuffed out, and at the far end of the corridor he saw the stone wall slowly swinging closed.
"Coward! You will curse the day you abandoned her to me."
The hall seemed endless, the band of light beyond the wall shrinking as he ran toward it. He bent forward and strained for extra speed, for the last desperate dregs of energy that would carry him through, and he reached the wall at last when only inches remained. He squeezed through sideways, scraping against the rock on either side. From inside, a final angry whisper came, one he could only barely make out.
And then the wall slammed shut.
He leaned against it, breathing heavily, sobbing freely. What have I done, he thought. What have I done?
It was twilight outside and dry and hot. He had little water and less food, and seven miles between him and the nearest source of either. There was nothing for it. He started walking.
I’ll make it, he told himself. I’ll make it home. I’ll tell Burke nothing—let him think I died, let him send other men after me, I don’t care. Just let me make it back.
An image came unbidden into his mind: the shackles, the altar, the woman writhing upon it.
It wasn’t her, he told himself. It wasn’t. The dead don’t walk, or speak, or feel pain, or beg you not to leave.
But it looked—her touch, her voice, it was all—
Rubbish. It was an illusion, a dream, a bit of desert madness.
In his jacket pocket, where he’d crammed it as he ran, he felt the crumpled square of silk, still damp. He took it out, turned it this way and that in the fading light. It was real, and the blood on it was real—not a dream, not an illusion. But what did that mean? Something had happened in the temple, something terrible; but not to Lydia. That wasn’t possible.
Are you certain? a voice in the back of his mind whispered.
Yes, damn it. I am certain.
Then why are you so frightened?
Because you saw her with your own eyes, you held her in your hand, and now you’ve gone and left her behind...
It wasn’t her. It couldn’t have been.
No, no, of course not. It couldn’t. But you’ll never know that for sure, will you?
And he remembered Molekh’s final, whispered imprecation, the words hissed out at him just before the stone walls ground together. You may leave this place, the voice had said, but you will never escape it.
The Jebel Akhdar was barely visible at the horizon. He marched on, and the night closed in around him.
Copyright © 2009 by Winterfall LLC. All rights reserved.