Abdullah nodded gratefully. Faisal was the only one he...
The cement had formed a crust, but hadnâ€™t yet dried underneath. It came away easily when he attacked it with the point of the pickaxe, fragmented grey mush washing down the cliff-face. He made a hole large enough to reach his arm inside and set his torch down at an angle to light his work, then hacked out more cement. Lightning lit up the wadi all around. He braced himself for the crack of thunder, but just before ck of ld efore cit started he could have sworn he heard a different noise, that of automatic gunfire. He anchored one hand inside the tomb, leaned out and looked up to find out what the hell was going on. But there was no one up top to answer his question.
It was pure luck that Khaled saw the man. He just happened to be glancing back when a lightning bolt illuminated the entire plateau, revealing him crouched some thirty paces away, mobile phone in his hand.
The knowledge of how heâ€™d been tricked was both instantaneous and complete. Instead of fear, Khaled felt only a great and visceral rage. He snatched Nasserâ€™s AK-47, turned back towards the man. Darkness had fallen once more, he couldnâ€™t see a thing, but he sprayed the horizon all the same, hoping providence was with him.
â€˜What is it, sir?â€™ asked Nasser.
Lightning shuddered again, revealing the man crawling on his belly like the snake he was. â€˜There!â€™ he yelled, firing another burst. â€˜Get him.â€™
Knox fled across the hilltop as gunfire skittered around him, the night illuminated by muzzle flash and a distant strobe of lightning. It went dark again and he flung himself sideways, tumbling down a rift in the hilltop into a shallow lake created by the deluge. He tried to duck beneath its surface as the three men ran up, but the water wasnâ€™t deep enough.
â€˜Did we get him?â€™
â€˜He went down.â€™
â€˜Then where the hell is he?â€™
â€˜He must be here somewhere.â€™ Torches probed the darkness, flurried across the waterâ€™s surface, heavy raindrops glittering golden in their light. â€˜Who is he, anyway?â€™
â€˜He must have been in our truck.â€™
â€˜You think that policeman knows? You think this was a trick?â€™
â€˜Of course it was a trick!â€™
â€˜Son of a dog. Weâ€™re done for.â€™
â€˜Weâ€™re not done for! Weâ€™re not done for! This oneâ€™s here on his own, isnâ€™t he? We just need to silence him. Thatâ€™s all. Once heâ€™s gone, no one will be able to find this place. They wonâ€™t be able to prove a thing.â€™
A sharp crack; someone had just been slapped. â€˜Follow my orders, damn you. Heâ€™s here somewhere. He must be.â€™ One of the men shone his torch around, the beam flashing again over where Knox was half-hidden in the water. But this time the beam stopped, came back, fixed on him. â€˜There!â€™ he cried.
Knox pushed himself to his feet, splashed up the side of the rift, then fled headlong. But now he was penned between the rift lake and the cliffâ€™s edge. Gunfire ripped the night behind him. He threw himself down by the spike of rock, grabbed for the rope looped around it, slithered over the edge, slick wet fibres slipping through his grasp as he fell, wind buffeting him, spraying mist into his face. He finally gained some grip on the rope, his palms scorching as he juddered to a halt, glanced down to see Abdullah standing on a thin ledge below. He shouted something te beloen …hat Knox didnâ€™t catch, swung at his ankles with a pickaxe. Knox danced away across the rock face, but his sideways movement pulled the slipknot loose from the spike of rock and suddenly he was in freefall, plunging down the sheer cliff-face towards the rocks beneath.
Naguib was driving almost blind, his sidelights rather than headlights on, only the faint glow of the whitewashed kerbstones to show him the road, steep embankments studded with rocks either side, eyes constantly playing tricks on him, blurs all over the place, his tyres banging the sides, wrenching round the wheel.
They had to have fallen way behind by now. Too far behind. He muttered a prayer and switched his Ladaâ€™s headlights on full, stamped his foot down on the accelerator. It proved his undoing. A sudden squall lifted up the light car and threw it sideways, aquaplaning them over the kerbstones and then crunching into a boulder, the sickening noise of crumpled metal, seat belts snapping tight against their chests. He and Tarek glanced at each other. No time to waste in recrimination or regret. They jumped out, ran over to the truck that had pulled up alongside, helping hands hauling them up into the back; drenched, bedraggled, feeling rather ridiculous as they found places to sit, and the truck pulled away again.
â€˜Nice driving,â€™ muttered someone, earning himself a laugh. But then another buffet of wind almost sent the truck over the edge, and the laughter promptly died.
Knox hurtled down the cliff-face past Abdullah towards the wadi floor. But he was still gripping the rope tightly in both hands, and its other end was looped through Abdullahâ€™s belt, so that the momentum of Knoxâ€™s fall transferred instantly to him. Knox slammed against the cliff, grabbed rock, let go of the rope. But Abdullah wasnâ€™t so fortunate. His knees buckled, his right foot slipped from the wet narrow ledge, his hand was ripped free from its hold inside the tomb. He tumbled shrieking past Knox, clawing the sky, and slapped the rocks beneath with a sickening thump. Then only silence.
A cascade of stones clattered by. Knox looked up to see Khaled on the cliff edge, pointing down his torch and aiming his pistol, squeezing off four rounds that pinged and whined off the rocks. Knox scrambled up to the ledge where Abdullah had been, gaining the protection of a slight overhang. There was a gaping hole in the rock, he saw, big enough for him to squeeze through. He tumbled through to the other side. A torch was lying on the ground. He picked it up and shone it around a chamber, ankle deep in water. He splashed over to a passage leading off and then down. â€˜Gaille!â€™ he shouted. â€˜Gaille!â€™
A cry ahead. A womanâ€™s cry: high-pitched, short, terrified. Not Gaille, though. Lily, the other hostage. And panic rather than relief in her voice. He raised his pace, running headlong, almost didnâ€™t see the shaft in time, stopped teetering on its waterfall brim, regained his balance, shone down his torch, picked out Lily fifteen or twenty feet below, clinging to the wall, surrounded by a flotsam of crushed water bottles and wooden planks, keeping Gailleâ€™s head above the water with the crook of her elbow, but crying out in pain and exertion.
â€˜Hold on!â€™ cried Knox.
â€˜I canâ€™t. I canâ€™t.â€™
He looked around for some way to get down to her and then back up again. Any way. He saw an iron peg hammered into the floor, but there was nothing to tie to it. And Abdullah had taken the rope down with him d takeghth him don his plunge.
â€˜Help!â€™ cried Lily. â€˜Help!â€™ A spout of rainwater fell on her open mouth, catching in her throat, making her choke and splutter, flailing around in the water, letting go of Gaille, who promptly slipped beneath the surface.
â€˜Gaille!â€™ yelled Knox. â€˜Gaille!â€™
Lily splashed over to the wall, clawed onto it with both hands. â€˜Iâ€™m sorry,â€™ she wept. â€˜Iâ€™m sorry.â€™
Knox had no time to think. No time at all. He gripped his torch tight, yelled out in fear, and leapt feet-first into the shaft.
Khaled stared down into the darkness as Nasser and Faisal ran up to join him at the cliffâ€™s edge.
â€˜What happened?â€™ asked Faisal. â€˜Whereâ€™s Abdullah?â€™
â€˜He fell,â€™ said Khaled. He turned to his two men....
â€˜Do you want to get out of this or not?â€™
â€˜Then do as youâ€™re told,â€™ spat Khaled. â€˜Fetch me that rope.â€™
Knox burst through the surface of the water, plunged on through, drawing his feet up as he went, striking the floor of the shaft hard, banging and scraping his feet, ankles and backside, his head slapping the wall, rough surfaces scouring his calf and arm, wind punched from his lungs, sucking in water. He kicked instinctively for the surface, coughed and spluttered it out, breathed gratefully in, oriented himself, pointed around his torch. â€˜Gaille?â€™ he asked.
Lily shook her head wretchedly, all her energy needed to cling to the wall.
Knox swam around, feeling out for her. It wasnâ€™t easy with the rainwater cascading down. He kicked beneath the surface. The shaft wasnâ€™t large, yet he couldnâ€™t find her. Another breath, another dive, his hands outstretched, fingers brushing something soft. He grabbed at it but it eluded him. He went after it and then he had it, a shirt, an arm, his hand closed around a wrist, kicking for the surface, lungs burning for air, pulling Gaille after him, an arm around her as she reflexively coughed out water, gasped air.
He found a handhold on the wall on which to anchor himself, carrying Gaille slumped unconscious upon his shoulder. He shone his torch around this drowning prison, Lily fighting hysteria beside him, and the question formed unanswerable in his mind: Now what?
Nasser was wheezing hard by the time he brought the rope back up to Khaled and Faisal at the top of the cliff.
â€˜Abdullah?â€™ asked Faisal.
â€˜No,â€™ said Nasser.
Faisal looked sickened. â€˜Itâ€™s over,â€™ he said. â€˜Weâ€™re finished.â€™
â€˜What are you talking about?â€™
â€˜What do you think Iâ€™m talking about? Abdullahâ€™s dead. How are we going to explain this?â€™
â€˜We say we got worried after that policeman visited with his story about mysterious foreigner voices,â€™ scowled Khaled. â€˜We say we decided to go out searching for them ourselves. Abdullah slipped and fell. A tragedy, but not our fault. Itâ€™s that policemanâ€™s fault for feeding us false information.â€™
â€˜No one will believe that.â€™
â€˜You listen to me, you snivelling little coward,â€™ shouted Khaled. â€˜We see this through. We see this through together. You understand?â€™
â€˜Thatâ€™s better.â€™ Khaled glared back and forth between Faisal and Nasser, then looped the rope around the rock once more, thinking about how to make best use of his limited resources. No way could he trust Faisal up here alone; heâ€™d run like the coward he was the first chance he got. â€˜Nasser, you stay here. Guard our backs. Faisal, you come down with me.â€™
Khaled pressed the muzzle of his Walther against Faisalâ€™s cheek. â€˜You do exactly as youâ€™re damned well ordered,â€™ he yelled. â€˜Am I clear?â€™
â€˜Others are coming,â€™ gasped Lily, clinging to the wall. â€˜Please tell me others are coming.â€™
â€˜Yes,â€™ Knox assured her. â€˜Others are coming.â€™
â€˜Then where are they?â€™
â€˜Theyâ€™ll be here as quick as they can,â€™ he promised. â€˜Thereâ€™s one hell of a storm going on.â€™
â€˜Youâ€™re Knox, arenâ€™t you? Daniel Knox?â€™ She nodded at Gaille. â€˜She said youâ€™d come for us. She said youâ€™d save us.â€™ But then she looked around, realized he was in no position to save anyone, had to fight back the tears.
â€˜Itâ€™s okay,â€™ he assured her. â€˜Itâ€™s going to be okay. Youâ€™ve done really well.â€™ He shone his torch around again, to change the atmosphere as much as anything, picking out the wooden planks and empty water bottles floating in the water, the sheer walls, the rim a good fifteen feet above their heads. He felt his pockets. He still had the scissors from the car. But even if he could gouge holds in the limestone, the shaft would have been far too high for him to climb out on his own, let alone with Gaille and Lily to worry about.
He adjusted Gaille in his arms. Her head lolled back, revealing an ugly gash in her scalp leaking watery blood. â€˜What happened?â€™ he asked.
â€˜Those planks were across the top,â€™ sobbed Lily. â€˜They must have come crashing down. I was underwater, trying to dig through the wall.â€™
â€˜Dig through the wall?â€™
Lily nodded vigorously, her hope rekindling. â€˜We found some talatat down there. We got one out, hoping we could give the water somewhere to drain off to. But then everything came crashing down. Stafford wasâ€¦ he wasâ€¦â€™
Knox nodded. He needed to check this out. â€˜Can you hold Gaille a minute?â€™ he asked.
â€˜I canâ€™t,â€™ wailed Lily. â€˜Iâ€™m sorry. I canâ€™t. I just canâ€™t.â€™
â€˜Please. Just for a little while. Youâ€™ve got to try.â€™
She looked unhappy, but nodded all the same. He passed...
He packed his lungs with air, dived for the foot of the shaft, felt blindly along the rocky debris until he found the hole where the brick had been. He attacked the softened plaster with the scissors, hacking it free. His lungs began to protest. He kicked for the surface, filled his lungs once more, returned back down, aware how little time he had should Khaled and his men come in after him.
Khaled descended the rope first. Heâ€™d planned to wait on the ledge for Faisal, but curiosity got the better of him. He shone his torch inside the entrance chamber to check for an ambush, then advanced warily along the passage, perversely excited by the situation.
Noises ahead. He froze, crouched, aimed his Walther. But it was only water splashing into the shaft. With luck, it would have saved him a job. He continued his advance, catching another noise now, almost in harmony with the first, a woman sobbing. He tiptoed to the rim of the shaft, peered down.
Gaille was stretched out on a wooden plank just a little above the rising water level, her head in Lilyâ€™s lap. No sign of Stafford, nor of their mysterious pursuer. But then the water boiled and he appeared, gasping for air.
Khaled put his Walther quietly away. Handguns werenâ€™t designed for jobs like this. Besides, heâ€™d always been curious about what a grenade could do in a live situation. He plucked one from his belt, pulled the pin with his teeth, then lobbed it into the shaft.
Movement caught Knoxâ€™s eye. He looked up to see Khaled toss the grenade down the centre of the shaft, froze for a moment as he watched its lethal arc. Lily saw it too, screamed and closed her eyes, bracing her body against mutilation and death. Her shriek shocked Knox into action. He dived towards the grenade, arms outstretched, some futile notion in his mind of trying to throw it back up, impossible though he knew it to be.
It slapped the heel of his right palm, heavier than heâ€™d anticipated, like a ball of lead, throwing up a splash as it bounced from his hand. He reached after it, fumbling it with his fingertips, finally grabbing it, but already deep underwater, no time to think, only to kick deeper and thrust it into the talatat hole, then turn and kick for the surface, hope the limestone would protect him fromâ€”
The explosion ripped through the water, his world spinning crazily, bell-towers clanging in his heabell-t Fd, arms flapping uselessly, mind scrambled, swallowing water, unsure which way was up. His head struck rock, scraped along it. He stabilized himself, kicked upwards, broached the surface, coughing and hacking for air, splashing around with Lily, the plank dislodged by the blast. And then something suddenly gave way. The water all gushed out, leaving him, Lily, Gaille and the planks stranded bewildered on the shaft floor.
He looked up. Khaled was staring down in dismay, fumbling for his handgun, muzzle flashing, bullets ricocheting wildly. Lily recovered first, throwing herself through the gaping hole that the grenade had ripped in the wall into a new chamber, half filled with water. Knox scooped up Gaille and tumbled after, bumping into something bulky and soft: Staffordâ€™s body, floating face down. He glanced at Lily, her torch making eerie patterns in the rippling water. She shook her head and turned away, not able to talk about it.
A narrow dark arched passage led off the chamber. Lily said something he couldnâ€™t catch, his ears still ringing from the blast. But her meaning was clear enough. He nodded for her to lead the way, then adjusted Gaille in his arms and set off after her.
Khaled reloaded his Walther as he stared down at the hole in the side of the shaft. What the hell had they found down there? Footsteps behind. Faisal was hurrying up, drawn by the blast, the shots. â€˜Look!â€™ said Khaled, pointing down. â€˜I told you we just had to keep digging.â€™
Faisal stared incredulously at him. â€˜Youâ€™re worried about that now?â€™
â€˜We need to get down there. We need to finish this. Go get the rope.â€™
â€˜Rope? What rope?â€™
â€˜The one we climbed down on, idiot. Get Nasser to throw it down to you.â€™
â€˜But we need it to get back out.â€™
â€˜Weâ€™ll use the path. The rain has to stop sometime, doesnâ€™t it?â€™
He smacked Faisal across the cheek with the barrel of his Walther. â€˜That wasnâ€™t a request. It was an order. Now carry it out.â€™ He watched Faisal stalk away, fretted for him to return with the rope, then anchored the slipknot around the iron peg, tossed the rest down into the shaft. He was about to go first when he realized what a perfect spot it would make for an ambush, so he took Faisalâ€™s AK-47 from him. â€˜You go,â€™ he said. â€˜Iâ€™ll cover you.â€™
â€˜Unarmed?â€™ snorted Faisal.
â€˜Here,â€™ scowled Khaled, giving him his Walther. â€˜Take this, then.â€™
â€˜Why canâ€™t we justâ€”â€™
â€˜Donâ€™t you want to see whatâ€™s down there?â€™
â€˜Weâ€™re going to be rich,â€™ insisted Khaled. â€˜The three of us will have more money than youâ€™ve ever dreamed of. Just do as youâ€™re told.â€™
Faisal looked sullen as a mule, but he tucked the Walther into his waistband, grabbed hold of the rope, tugged it to make sure it was secure, then lowered himself over the edge, climbed without incident down to the foot.
Khaled allowed himself a little smile. The three of us indeed! First Abdullah, then Faisal. What a tragic night for his unit it looked like being.
Gailleâ€™s head lolled against Knoxâ€™s shoulder as he picked his way carefully over treacherous submerged rubble, Lily out in front, her torch playing shadow-theatre on the walls. The corridor sloped gently upwards so that soon the water was only calf-deep, making progress easier, but forcing Knox to concentrate harder on his footing. Maybe that was why Lily noticed the murals first. â€˜What are they?â€™ she asked, illuminating the gypsum-covered wall with her torch.
He went closer to examine them. Faded paintings of stunted...
â€˜Well?â€™ asked Lily.
Knox shook his head. Heâ€™d never seen anything like it before. At least, trees and other vegetation were common enough in Ancient Egyptian art, but only as part of greater scenes, typically filled with people, livestock, water, birds. Never just one tree endlessly repeated like this. Or was it just one tree? Those to his right looked distinctly different from those to his left. The Egyptians had been meticulous about such things. But this was scarcely the moment for detailed investigation. They continued on, emerged from the water altogether, were able to see that the passage wasnâ€™t sloped but rather was cut with long, shallow steps that had been turned into a gentle ramp by the thick covering of sand, rubble and dirt.
Something glinted on the floor where Lily had stepped. He swept it with his foot to reveal a metallic strip running down the centre of the passage. â€˜Over here,â€™ he said. â€˜Letâ€™s have some light.â€™
Lily shone down her torch. â€˜Jesus!â€™ she muttered. â€˜Is thatâ€¦ gold?â€™
â€˜Looks like it.â€™
â€˜What is this place?â€™
A memory sprang then to Knoxâ€™s mind: Kostas describing the link between Harpocrates and Akhenaten, the Luxor Temple on which were depicted wise men coming from the east to celebrate his birth, and the gifts they brought with them. These trees on the walls, not trees at all, but shrubs. Specifically, frankincense and myrrh. And suddenly it all started to make a kind of sense to him, this Exodus quest heâ€™d so unwittingly started out on.
â€˜What is it?â€™ asked Lily, reading it on his face. â€˜Do you know where we are, or something?â€™
â€˜I think I do,â€™ said Knox slowly. â€˜I think weâ€™re in the Cave of Treasures.â€™
The storm was finally raining itself out as the truck arrived at the end of the Royal Wadi road and parked next to Khaledâ€™s truck. Naguib jumped down. The place was still awash with water; all around them was the sound of it trickling and splashing down the hillsides.
Tarek tapped his arm, pointed up at the cliff-top. â€˜See that?â€™
Naguib squinted. The cloud-cover was just beginning to disperse, and one or two stars were peeking through, enough to show the silhouette of the wadi cliffs. He shook his head. â€˜See what?â€™
â€˜A man. He ducked down. Heâ€™s hoping we havenâ€™t seen him.â€™
â€˜Can h="2em Nyou get us up there?â€™
Tarek nodded. He led them close to the base of the cliff to avoid making easy targets of themselves, then east along the wadi. It was Mahmoud who made the grisly discovery of one of Khaledâ€™s men lying spread-eagled on the wet rocks. Naguib knelt down. A single glance was all it took to know it was too late for this one. They climbed the side of the wadi, the light growing stronger all the time. â€˜Spread out,â€™ murmured Tarek as they reached the top.
â€˜And if we meet anyone?â€™ muttered a voice.
â€˜Order them to surrender,â€™ said Naguib.
â€˜And if they wonâ€™t?â€™
â€˜Youâ€™ve got a gun, havenâ€™t you?â€™ said Tarek.
â€˜The Cave of Treasures?â€™ asked Lily.
â€˜A famous place in Jewish legend,â€™ Knox told her. â€˜A cave in a desert beside a great river. Adam and Eve were sent there after being expelled from the Garden of Eden. But that was only the start of it. Thereâ€™s a whole literature on it, not least because many of the Hebrew patriarchs were supposedly buried inside. Adam and Eve themselves. Abel, after being murdered by Cain. Noah. Abraham. Jacob. Joseph. Some even say Moses.â€™
â€˜Pretty big damned cave.â€™
Knox nodded. â€˜Jewish archaeologists have been hunting it for centuries. Quite something to find the tombs of all those Bible legends.â€™
â€˜So what would it be doing in Egypt? Shouldnâ€™t it be in Israel?â€™
Noise behind them. Someone had started wading through water. The passage ahead showed no sign of ending, though it curved sinuously this way and that, limiting their horizons. â€˜Youâ€™ve got to understand,â€™ he told her, â€˜that the Bible isnâ€™t historical. Itâ€™s a collection of folk-tales designed to convince the Jews that theyâ€™d brought their Babylonian exile and the destruction of the Temple upon themselves. Thatâ€™s why so many of the stories follow the same basic moral path.â€™
â€˜Man makes covenant with God,â€™ murmured Lily. â€˜Man breaks covenant. God punishes man.â€™
â€˜Exactly,â€™ said Knox. He set Gaille down a moment, giving his arms a rest, flexing his fingers. â€˜One explanation is that the person or people who put the Bible together actively looked for stories that fitted this pattern. But thereâ€™s another possibility. Take Adam and Eve. The first man and woman, right? Yet even the Bible tacitly admits there were other humans around.â€™ He picked Gaille up again, continued walking. â€˜Cain was branded for killing Abel, for example, so that others would know not to harm him. Which others? He married and had a son called Henoch who founded a city, which you canâ€™t exactly do if youâ€™re alone in the world. So maybe Adam and Eve werenâ€™t the first humans in a biological sense, only in a spiritual sense. Thatâ€™s to say, maybe they were the first to understand the true nature of God.â€™
â€˜Akhenaten and Nefertiti?â€™ said Lily sceptically.
â€˜Think about it,â€™ said Knox. â€˜Here you are, living in Amarna. Itâ€™s your paradise, your Eden, your Promised Land. Youâ€™re certain nothing can go wrong, because this is the home on earth of the One True God, and youâ€™re under His protection. But something does go wrong. Youâ€™re expelled, forced to flee in the night, then to leave Egypt altogether. How is this possible? Surely the only explanation is Surel Stio that you made your God angry for some reason, that you failed him in some manner. You vow never to let that happen again. You renew your covenant. And in return God gives you a new Amarna, a new Eden, a new Promised Land. But not in Egypt this time. In Canaan.
â€˜Decades pass. Centuries. The people of the Exodus splinter into different settlements, different tribes, each with their own identity, though still with that common bond of flight from Egypt. They pass their stories down from father to son, time after time after time, so that they gradually blur with narrative invention and blend with local folklore until, hundreds of years later, theyâ€™re not only unrecognizable from what really happened, but from the folk-histories of their neighbours too, even though theyâ€™re describing the same events.
â€˜Then the Babylonians arrive. They defeat the Israelites in battle, destroy their temple, take them into exile. They become introspective, wondering once more how such a calamity could have overtaken Godâ€™s chosen people. They look to their heritage for answers, gathering all these different traditions together and weaving them together with their favourite Mesopotamian and Canaanite myths to create a single narrative about Adam and Eve, Abraham and Moses, all those journeys back and forth between Egypt to Canaan, all those Edens and Promised Lands and New Jerusalems. But in fact these stories arenâ€™t about numerous patriarchs and ages and places at all. Theyâ€™re about one patriarch, one age, one place. Theyâ€™re about Akhenaten and Amarna.â€™
â€˜It canâ€™t be,â€™ muttered Lily weakly.
â€˜Did you know that Akhenaten solicited gifts of exotic animals from his brother kings? He kept them here. The whole Amarna plain would have flooded during the annual inundation of the Nile. All those animals would have had to be loaded onto rafts. Remind you of any Bible story at all?â€™
â€˜It canâ€™t be.â€™
â€˜When Adam and Eve were in the Cave of Treasures, God gave them the very first possessions ever owned by man: gold, frankincense and myrrh. We even know how much gold they got. Seventy rods of it. Which is really odd, because a rodâ€™s not a unit of weight, but of length. About five metres, as it happens. Much the same as each of these steps.â€™