This week the opening chapters from my thriller '2012', written back in 2006. Any coincidences with real events are entirely intentional.
An ex-Special Forces soldier, drunk and contemplating suicide as he sits alone on an empty beach in the early pre-dawn hours, witnesses three men attacking a young woman. With nothing to lose, he intervenes, quickly discovering he has taken on something far more dangerous than he could ever imagine.
Against a backdrop of a pre-war scenario against China, a US President finds himself at a loss as to how to deal with the crises that accumulate globally.
Powerful, ancient forces are being manipulated by a sect that threatens the very existence of humanity; power so evil, no one can hope to overcome their deadly effects.
Against a backdrop of a pre-war scenario against China, a US President finds himself at a loss as to how to deal with the crises that accumulate globally.
Powerful, ancient forces are being manipulated by a sect that threatens the very existence of humanity; power so evil, no one can hope to overcome their deadly effects.
Gizeh Plateau, Middle Kingdom, Egypt, Summer, 1923 B.C.
Kheperkare looked around nervously. He could only see the members of their small band, twenty loyal members of the Guard, willing to give their lives to succeed in this mission…and Wosret. He glanced over at the Goddess. She seemed unconcerned, as always. Calm, serene, placid; her dark-skinned, unlined face belied her age. She held her staff, with its twin-pronged end, loosely in her right hand; her left hand rose to shade her eyes, the almost-transparent blue that pierced the minds of those who spoke with her. The mission had been at her insistence; its objective only known to her and Kheperkare.
He hefted the sack slung over his shoulder; its physical weight belying the importance of its contents. He drew his sword, signalling to the soldiers to stop pulling the sled and arm themselves. The wind dropped suddenly. An all-encompassing silence fell. An expectant pause; a prelude to… something.
Kheperkare slowly turned his gaze to the rocks nearby. Surely, that was the only cover from which an attack could emerge. He looked over at Wosret. She had her back to the rocks, her gaze fixed on an area of sand a short distance ahead of their convoy. He looked in that direction but could not make out anything threatening.
Wosret signalled to him. The danger was there, not in the rocks. He whistled softly to his men and signed his instructions. The soldiers split into two groups; six stayed with the sled and its precious cargo, the rest moving forwards, fanning out.
The earth exploded upwards at multiple points in front of them. Reed mats under a thin layer of sand had covered the attackers. There were many of them; Kheperkare hoped his small force was up to the challenge. The battle was bloody and fierce. Kheperkare dispatched three assailants by the simple expedient of beheading them with broad slices of his sword. He looked over at Wosret to see if she needed help. Instantly he saw she was more than a match for her attackers. She gave no quarter, fighting like the goddess she was, blue sparks issuing from the pronged end of her staff, extinguishing the life of anyone it touched. Seven bodies lay on the ground at her feet, and as he watched, fascinated, two more attackers died.
The attack was over almost as soon as it had begun. He had lost three soldiers; the enemy lost over forty. Only Kheperkare’s force remained standing. He directed his men to check the bodies of the assailants and finish-off any still living. They complied, removing the heads of the enemy to make certain.
“We need to continue,” Wosret whispered in her raspy voice.
He organised the soldiers and again they heaved at the sled, dragging it and its covered cargo over the sand.
An hour later, the evenness of the horizon was broken by their destination; a fierce speck of orange light. The sun was setting and its rays reflected off the polished limestone making the Per-Neter an awe-inspiring vision. He knew they were all exhausted. They had barely rested since leaving Oun in the northeast several days before; their endurance taken to unsuspected limits by the battle, yet the sight of their destination in the distance renewed their strength.
It was deepest night when they arrived, their torches sending sparks to mate with the stars in the heavens. Preparations made long before; the down-sloping ramp alongside the Per-Neter completed and camouflaged. They dragged and pushed the sled down into the bowels of the earth. The underground chamber reached, the soldiers dismissed, only Kheperkare and Wosret remained. The Goddess told Kheperkare where to place the contents of his sack as she removed the covering from the sled. When Kheperkare finished his task, he stood back. Wosret touched the prongs of her staff to the Ben Ben and guided it into position. Their mission was almost finished. Kheperkare sighed deeply.
Together they dragged the empty sled up the ramp and once outside, Wosret turned her staff’s prongs towards the beginning of the slope. Blue fire danced and coursed down, until its intensity forced Kheperkare and his soldiers to look away. Several minutes passed. The light went out. As Kheperkare’ eyes adjusted to the night again, he saw all trace of the slope were gone, the melted sand forming a shiny surface. At Wosret’s request, he directed his men to pile more loose sand on top to hide the unnatural mark. The desert winds would provide a more definitive solution.
Hours later, at the campsite erected near their battleground, most of the men fell into exhausted sleep. Wosret and Kheperkare sat well apart from the few soldiers on guard. Wosret whispered into Kheperkare’s ear.
“Now I must return to Waset and you must return to Oun. You still have much to do there.”
“Yes, I have already put things into motion. Soon it will be finished.”
“Let us hope this is the correct solution.”
“Too much is at stake for it not to be.”
“Indeed.” Wosret paused and looked at the man before her. Her eyes pierced his mind, seeking, finding. “Kheperkare, from today you will take another name so all will know you are under my direct protection. You will be known as Senwosret, son of Wosret.”
Kheperkare inclined his head, knowing Wosret was bestowing a great honour on him. No mortal man professed a relationship, albeit in name, to the Gods before.
Wosret rose and bade him a safe journey. She turned and walked away. Kheperkare stood, watching her depart, knowing they would only ever meet again if their plan failed. Deeply saddened by her departure, he walked back to their campsite. She had taught him many skills; had made him what he was today. Known by yet another name, more public: Senusret, “The Man of the Star Walkers”, it meant. Senusret, Pharaoh of the Middle Kingdom.
Lisbon, Portugal, Wednesday, 16th May, 1956
The boy crossed the concrete esplanade of the airport. His small hand disappeared in the huge fist of the man at his side. This was not his father. The boy would have been overjoyed if his father had accompanied him today, but, as usual, his father had other, more important tasks, to attend to in Lisbon. Early that morning, before dawn, he woke the boy from a deep sleep, and after a quick wash and breakfast, they drove to his office. The boy now sat in a chair with a piece of paper and crayons, told to draw an aircraft flying through the skies. His father ignored him, spending over two hours on the telephone, making call after call to faraway places, starting deals, closing deals. Then, as boredom brought on restlessness, he asked the boy if he wanted to go for a ride. The boy hesitated. His father pointed to the boy’s drawing and smiled. The man wished him well on his seventh birthday, and then spoke to him of the treat in-store: the flight to northern Spain in the newly acquired Cessna 182, the first one in Europe, his father had told him. The plane, delivered the week before, was on its premier voyage as part of the company’s fleet. They would be taking cargo to Bilbao, on the coast. The cargo was special, said his father, something from Africa. Its final destination would be Hamburg in Germany.
The boy peered up at the man by his side, as he trotted to keep up with the adult’s strides. The Pilot smiled down at him. He was an American who had fought in the Spanish Civil War, on the losing side. He sought refuge in neighboring Portugal, and now worked for his father’s company there. His conversation with the boy limited; his command of Spanish oriented more towards his military experience and the words he needed to satisfy his baser needs. As English was the international language of his profession, he had not even bothered to learn Portuguese in the fifteen years he had lived in Lisbon.
The Pilot was nervous. Not because of his passenger though. Taking the boss’ boy for a ride was a piece of cake. Nor was his anxiety related to the new aircraft. He had not flown the 182 before, but its predecessor, the 180, was familiar to him. His misgivings were firmly rooted in the cargo they carried that day. It was contraband, sure, and neither the first time, nor, he was convinced, would it be the last, that his cargo needed to avoid inspection by the authorities. This time it was different, a favour his boss was doing for a friend in Germany.
The cargo, loaded half an hour ago, consisted of one crate with the word “LIVE” stencilled on all sides. He told the handlers to put it in the small cargo bay in the fuselage behind the cabin. However the crate’s dimensions dictated, only just, that it had to ride behind the passengers. Its contents were silent, no grunts or growls; just occasional scraping sounds confirming it was indeed “LIVE”.
The Pilot led the boy past the front of the plane, around the wing struts and back towards the passenger door on its right side. He reached up and opened the door. Then he turned, took hold of the boy by the armpits and hoisted him into the cabin. As the Pilot strapped him into his seat, the boy’s eyes roved over the instrument panel in front of him. To his left, in front of the Pilot’s seat, the light brown panel housed eleven dials. On his side there were only nine, three large, round dials and two rows of three smaller rectangular indicators, as well as a couple of large, round holes where others dials could be installed. Below and to the right of the dials, a black tube protruded from the panel. A white tennis ball crowned it. This was where the co-pilot’s joystick would be, had there been a co-pilot. The boy glanced over at the joystick to his left. Briefly, he closed his eyes, extending his arms in front of him, imagining himself flying the aircraft through the blue skies of the Iberian Peninsula.
His reverie abruptly broke by the opening of the door on the Pilot’s side of the plane, as the American climbed aboard. The man looked nervously behind him at the crate. As though sensing the attention, the crate’s contents shifted audibly. The big American shivered once, then turned his attention to the instruments before him. Switches flicked, dials tapped, pedals pushed, and the joystick put through its range of movements. The boy’s eyes never left the Pilot’s movements. His imagination substituted the Pilot’s hands with his own. Finally, the Pilot placed a set of earphones on his head and spoke into the attached microphone to the Control Tower. The boy leant to his right to look down at the tarmac. The aircraft’s motor roared into life and he could no longer hear the Pilot talking to the Tower. With a noticeable jerk, the plane started to move forwards. They taxied to the runway and, without slowing, the 170kW Continental flat six-piston engine powered them at increasing speed, until the twin blade propeller grasped at the air, and pulled them off the ground.
The boy realised he was holding his breath and forced himself to exhale. He looked over at the American, but the Pilot was engrossed in his conversation with the Tower and in flipping switches, ignoring him. The boy turned his attention to the world outside the cabin as the plane climbed steadily. He watched, eyes squinting, as the sun traversed from right to left as they headed northeast. He felt the Pilot tapping his arm and looked down. The Pilot was handing him a pair of sunglasses, far too large for him, but they matched the Pilot’s own and he donned them as though they were a Rite of Passage awarded him by the big American. The Pilot smiled at him and turned his attention back to the dials.
The flight passed from novelty into routine then rapidly degenerated into boredom for the boy. The view outside was the same; browns and greens below, the occasional river, blue-green, slashing across the fields, with even fewer towns, white, grey, black and dark-brown against the ground, breaking the monotony. As they headed north, the Pilot gained altitude. It was colder in the cabin now. The boy shivered. He looked at the Pilot who seemed unaffected by the drop in temperature, and pulled his jacket tighter around his small torso. The terrain below slowly changed. Now the green turned grey; rocks substituting grass; mountains in place of fields.
Without warning, the small aircraft dropped sharply. The boy felt his stomach heave, tasting acid bile in his throat. The Pilot pulled back on the controls, as the plane’s nose dipped. The engine noise changed note, higher, more insistent. A couple of chug-chugs, then silence. The boy looked forwards over the rim of the instrument panel and saw the tip of the stationary propeller. At his side the Pilot, speaking, no, yelling into his headset. The boy did not understand the language but the tone was clear; they were in trouble.
The Pilot repeatedly tried to restart the engine but to no avail. He gazed down, looking for somewhere to glide into an emergency landing, but only rocks greeted his eyes. He gently pulled back on the controls, lifting the nose of the aircraft, trying to gain altitude. Without power, the result was minimal. In the ensuing minutes, the aircraft had descended several thousand feet according to the large dial on the top row that now occupied his entire attention.
He turned to the boy and spoke in halting Spanish.
“Voy abajo. Suelo. Agarrar fuerte.” (I’m going down. Ground. Hold tight).
The boy grabbed the sides of his seat fiercely, his fingers soon aching with the effort. He closed his eyes, swallowing hard to keep from throwing up. He could feel the sweat, cold, bitter, running down his face.
With a shrieking growl, the engine fired up again. The boy’s eyes flew open, taking in the sight of trees rushing towards them, too close! As the aircraft’s wings crashed into the trees, the brusque movement threw the boy first hard left then right. Something crashed mightily into the back of his seat. His head whipped against the doorframe. Then, blackness!
A buzzing, insistent, awoke him. The buzzing changed, its tone softening. He forced his eyes to open. It was night. Darkness surrounded him. He looked up at the night sky, so many stars, no moon. He was cold, ever so cold. His breath misted on the air in front of his face. He lifted his right hand slightly; pain, intense, unwelcome, and a grating feeling in his shoulder. He felt his consciousness slipping; the dark night became total blackness again.
Voices! Far away but getting closer. He felt the warm rays of the sun caressing his eyelids. His mouth was bone dry; his throat ached. He parted his eyelids. A dark, round eye in a reptilian head stared back, fewer than ten centimetres from his head. He started. A new wave of pain ran through his shoulder. The reptile raised its hooded head, forked tongue slipping between its jaws; its eyes never leaving his own. He felt movement on his legs. Another serpent! Big, brown, raising its broad snout to peer away from him, towards the source of the noise.
He was lying on his back. The serpent near his head, curled on his chest. Now it moved its head towards the direction its mate indicated, its tongue sensing the air. The boy did a stupid thing. He reached out with his left hand and took a gentle hold on the serpent’s neck. Strangely, the snake did not protest; did not turn its deadly fangs on him. Instead, it slid from his body on to the rock beside him, soon joined by its mate. He tried to raise his body. The pain said ‘No, stay where you are!’ He persisted. He moved his eyes to the left. There was the plane, what was left of it. There had been a fire. The charred remains of the Pilot hung from where the front windshield had been. The boy lay over twenty metres away. How had he distanced himself from the fire? He had no recollection of anything.
“¡Madre de Dios, mira esto!” A gruff voice nearby. The upper body of a man came into his vision.
“¿Estás bien, chico?” He tried to nod that he was ok, but again his shoulder sent ripples of extreme pain towards his neck.
The man approached, speaking into a large walkie-talkie. He skirted a large, dark-brown shape on the ground some ten metres away, his eyes never leaving the two snakes. In turn the snakes, watched his approach, their upper torsos raised, hoods extended, the light colour of their necks offset by two dark bands. Naje Haje, Egyptian Cobras, one of the deadliest snakes in the world, their neurotoxin venom more than capable of killing him in a few minutes. This they explained to him later, back in Madrid, in the hospital, while they placed his broken collarbone in plaster. They had been the LIVE cargo. And they had seemingly saved his life.
The plane crashed, mortally wounding the Pilot, and throwing him from the cockpit. The Pilot bled profusely and the scent of his blood attracted an opportunist predator. A male brown bear, fully 180 kilos of vicious teeth and claws, looking for dinner. By then the fire had razed the plane and the Pilot’s corpse, so the bear turned its attention to the unconscious form of the boy. It approached. The snakes attacked it, both injecting prodigious quantities of venom into the beast’s unprotected snout. The rest was history. The rescuers surmised all this. It was a miracle, they said. The boy was special, charmed in some mysterious way. Destiny had something special prepared for him, they said.
London, United Kingdom, Tuesday, 13th November 2012
Dammit! I’m a Scientist, an Engineer, not some damned super spy, thought the man. He gazed up at the building in front of him. He had seen it several times from afar, but never this close; Canary Wharf Tower - a huge, light grey obelisk in London’s Docklands. It reminded him of Egypt; of another time, a quieter time; a normal time. For over four years, normal no longer existed. Rather, normal became something else; looking over his shoulder, using false names and passports, skipping from one country to another every few weeks, never in the same place for more than a couple of days. Tired; physically, mentally. Now the game’s pace increased. Now he was having growing difficulty keeping ahead of his pursuers.
They almost caught him that same morning. The day started with him eating breakfast in his hotel bedroom. He was on edge, no rest the night before. In truth, he had slept badly for over four years. He longed for his lab, his people, and his family. He missed his daughter most of all. He had not heard from her for several weeks. Then, unexpectedly, they had been communicating by Internet. He finished the conversation a happier man. She was no longer alone. He regretted, like so many times before, having ever involved her in this business. Yet he also admitted she would have had to run anyway. The pursuers would have used her to trap him. It was better this way. Nevertheless, he felt sad he was responsible for so drastically altering her life.
The knock came unexpectedly. Room service had delivered his breakfast tray half an hour before. He placed his second cup of tea on the tray when the knock repeated. He looked around. He was on the second floor. No balcony outside and the fire escape at the end of the hallway. Trapped! Wake up man! Don’t you see your life depends on you being aware of all these nuances; escape routes, Plan B´s, alternatives, ALTERNATIVES! He reached out and grabbed the small shoulder bag on the bed. Slinging it around his body, he crept to the door. A quick look through the spyhole revealed there were two of them. He only had the window.
He was halfway across the room, heading for the window, when the door resonated under a heavy blow. He abandoned all attempts at silence. Rushing over to the window, he turned the handle and pulled it inwards. The drop was daunting, straight on to the pavement below, with nothing to break his fall.
Another strong blow to the door. He grabbed the mattress off the bed with a strength he did not realize he possessed, and threw it out of the window. He climbed out of the frame, holding on with his hands, lowering himself as far as he could. The door exploded inwards. The two assailants entered, brandishing silenced pistols. They saw him. One fired. The glass in the windowpane above his head shattered. In the same instant the man released his hold on the frame and dropped to the street below.
As he hit the mattress, he rolled to one side, trying to absorb the impact as much as possible. Inertia brought him back on to his feet and adrenaline did the rest. He started to run for the corner of the hotel, nearest the main entrance. There were taxis here, at all hours. This he had remembered to check. Yes, he was lucky. Two black hackney cabs waiting for passengers. He yanked open the door of the first, leaning forwards and barking out “Docklands and quick” through the partition to the driver.
The driver responded by pushing down the accelerator so hard, the Scientist was flung back against the rear seat. He stole a glimpse backwards. The two attackers appeared from the front of the hotel. They saw his cab leaving and immediately boarded the other. The Scientist reached into his shoulder bag, extracted a fat wallet, took out a hundred pound note and waved it at the driver.
“You lose that cab behind us and this is yours.” Magic words! The cab shot forwards, weaving in and out of the morning traffic. Yells, hooted horns were their accompaniment as they screeched along. The passenger looked back; the other cab was still there but much farther back now. His driver took a sudden left and immediate right, throwing the passenger from one side of the bench seat to the other. The driver slowed and pulled into the kerb. They looked back in time to see the other cab race across the mouth of the street behind them. The Scientist handed over the money. The cabdriver put the car into gear and sedately resumed his route to the Docklands.
When they arrived, the Scientist alighted, paid the meter charge and thanked the driver. No explanation sought or given for this episode, the London cabby taking it into his stride as though it happened every day. He left the cab and walked for a while. He paused at the base of the Canary Wharf Tower for a few minutes, transported in time and place, unnerved at how this building’s shape attracted him.
The streets were filling up. People walking to their jobs. Good camouflage. He tried to look as if he belonged there, adopting the same pace as the crowd. He looked around trying to get his bearings. Where to go? Along the river towards the Tower of London.
He walked quickly, using the reflections in every available surface to see if they were still following him. He crossed the road and doubled back. He would stop suddenly and turn. He thought he had shaken them. That or they were professionally good. He knew he could not underestimate them. They would not give him a second chance.
He continued towards the Tower. The office workers started to give way to people walking much slower, tourists. Again, he tried to blend in. He knew his clothing was nicely nondescript, unremarkably ambiguous. He bought a local paper from a street vendor, folding it under his arm as he walked. That made him more of an office worker than a tourist, so he quickened his pace. He could still not see anyone suspicious, but he had a feeling they were out there, close by, waiting to pounce.
Then he saw the Traitor; the last person he expected to meet. Expected, or wanted. He knew then, in that moment, it was over. They had him! Well he would go down fighting. The Judas approached, smiling, a hand raised in greeting.
“Fuck you!” An epithet that, until four years ago, would never have issued from his lips.
“Now that’s not very nice. Look we can do this one of two ways.” The Judas held out a hand. “Hand it over, or I’ll take it.”
“Don’t come any nearer.” He made a fist with his right hand, his left hand grabbing the strap of the shoulder bag.
“Look behind you.”
The Scientist turned slowly. There was the slight man he ran from so many times in his worst nightmares. He stood not five metres away. Half-hidden along his right leg, he touted a silenced pistol.
“Have you met my Father?” the Judas asked.
The Scientist was momentarily caught off guard. The Judas rushed at him. He turned away, striking out with his fist at the slight man. He connected hard. His hand stung, blood springing from his skinned knuckles. The slight man staggered but did not fall. He brought up his weapon, not caring about the reaction of the passers-by. He clubbed at the Scientist’s head. A glancing blow, but enough. Multi-coloured shapes exploded in the Scientist’s vision. He stumbled forwards. The slight man kicked at his back and he went over. He tried to stand, but his legs did not obey him. The slight man stood over him. The Judas approached and yanked the bag from his shoulder, looking inside.
“It’s here,” said excitedly, triumphantly.
“Well, Doc,” said the slight man. “You know what Samuel Johnson used to say. ‘When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life’.”
He smiled softly, raising his weapon.
The Scientist pushed himself upright and lunged between parked cars into the street. He had no time to check for traffic. Life or death, no time for caution.
A black taxicab collided with his left side, sending him against the parked vehicles. His limp form collapsed on to the road.
Misr (Cairo), Egypt, Thursday, 12th February, 2009
The significance of this day was not lost on William, Will to his friends, Abrams. If not for the politics, and stubbornness of the University of Cairo people, what they were about to do might have been accomplished over two years ago. However, that was not to be. It fell to this day, the long-awaited opening of the famous third door in the Great Pyramid.
The helicopter collected him at the Cairo International airport, 24 kilometres to the northeast of the city. It took to the air in a cloud of back-blown dust and fine sand that provided a backdrop for his musing on the events leading up to today. It all started with the almost accidental discovery of first one, then a second, narrow passageway in the south and north-facing walls of the Queen’s Chamber in the Great Pyramid of Khufu. Waynman Dixon and his friend Dr. Grant discovered the first of these in 1872, when they noted a crack in the granite stone. After they pushed a long wire through the crack and discovered a space behind, they hired a carpenter, an irascible Englishman called Bill Grundy, to cut through the wall. Once the passageway was disclosed, they proceeded to measure it using somewhat primitive methods; a long rod. The passageway was sixty-five metres long, although the upward bend of the shaft, encountered after a couple of metres, prevented seeing what was at the other end. They lit fires in the chamber and wafted the smoke up the shaft. The smoke did not stagnate, nor could it be seen to emerge from the Pyramid’s outside walls. However, scraping their rod along the shaft, they discovered three artefacts inside the passageway; a small, bronze, two-pronged grappling hook, a length of cedar wood and a tiny ball made of grey-green stone.
Initially theories abounded about the use of the shafts. Some said they were ventilation holes for the original pyramid builders. Others, they were symbolic passages for the “ka” or souls of the departed pharaoh to rise to the underworld of Duat, from where Osiris would lead them to the place of imperishable souls in Ihm´sk. The mystery deepened when more recent exploration by remote means showed a stone doorway sporting two copper handles, at the end of the south passageway.
National Geographic had sponsored a robot vehicle attack on the south-shaft door in 2002. This event was televised live, worldwide, to great expectation by the public. The robot slowly crawled its way along the passageway, trailing fibre optic and electrical cables for the five cameras and the lights it carried, and painstakingly drilled a small hole through the door. A minute camera then inserted through the stone, which was found to be less than eight centimetres thick, only showed another, almost-identical, doorway a few centimetres beyond. TV viewers worldwide had to content themselves with the Egyptian Antiquities Society’s General Secretary’s comment that “It seems that something important is hidden there”.
Immediately, another attack on the second door was planned, but this fell afoul of local politics and the attempt, also televised live, was eventually made six years later. The World, again, held its breath as the drill breached the second door and a camera was inserted. The images of yet another identical doorway beyond instantly beamed across the globe, compounded the previous reaction by the public. Additional hype by the Egyptian authorities tried to uphold interest, but for Joe Public the prospect of there being a fourth, fifth, sixth and who knows how many, further doors, like some prime-time quiz show gone mad, was enough. The archaeological and New Age journals were the only areas of the Media still showing any interest in the subject.
Many months passed since the discovery of the third door and, with no media funding, the Egyptians grudgingly accepted the participation of foreign groups in the project. Abrams and his small team came from the Field and Space Robotics Laboratory at MIT and were experts in applied robotics. This time the Cheops Rover Robot Vehicle, conceived and built, by Abrams and eight of his students, piece by piece, would be the point man in the new attack on the door. Even smaller than the original Pyramid Rover, which at fourteen centimetres high, twelve wide and thirty long was not exactly a giant, the Cheops Rover packed within its compact dimensions an extraordinary array of tools and devices. The robot, originally called the Emergency Remote Intervention Concept or E.R.I.C. for short, was a modified design of a vehicle made by Abrams to aid rescue workers. Before arriving at Giza, exhaustive trials had used earthquake-ruined buildings on three continents as field-tests, where it successfully located twenty-three survivors and many more dead.
Instinctively Abrams patted the metal case he held on his lap. This was the last piece of the Cheops Rover that needed installing, arriving on the same day they would make their penetration of the third door.
He looked out of the side window of the helicopter, down at the city’s sprawling outskirts below. They were flying over Heliopolis now. Not the six-thousand year old original capital of Egypt, Oun, later renamed by the Greeks, which lay in ruins to the north, but the modern suburb, bordered by the desert to the east, of al-Qahira city itself. They flew over the al-Azhar University and turned slightly north, passing above the bustling thoroughfares thronged with tourist traps around Tahrir Square. Suddenly the Nile appeared ahead, then below, then behind, as the chopper took them over the rooftops of the upscale housing in Zamalek on al-Geezera Island. More water ahead, then behind, and the helicopter banked to the left, heading south-west, to the Sphinx and Pyramids of Giza.
As he watched the Pyramids and their surrounding structures grow in size with closeness, he reflected on how close these were to the city itself. In fact, the romantic postcard view of the Pyramids with the desert beyond was becoming increasingly difficult to recognize. Today, at least, the area was not swarming with TV crews. None had in fact shown interest in yet another mega-flop, and hand-held personal camcorders and the Rover’s own cameras were the only means available to record the day’s events. That’s showbiz!
The chopper came down on the improvised landing pad near the entrance to the Great Pyramid. Awaiting Abrams was a tall, gaunt Egyptian man, called Saïd Hakim, an Egyptologist who served as liaison with the Authorities. As he descended to the ground, Abrams raised a hand in greeting.
“Hallo, Saïd. How are things going in my absence?”
“Very well, Will. All is ready. We have been waiting for your arrival to start the Rover on its journey.”
Abrams raised the case.
“I’m glad you waited. This little beauty is going to make things a lot easier.”
“Ah, it is the new laser, yes?” He passed his right hand over his bald head, a gesture that had become familiar to Abrams in the last few weeks.
“That’s right. It finally cleared customs. It’s so hot it can melt stone with surgical precision. Should be able to get through any obstacles that turn up.”
“Good, good. I will go on ahead and tell the others you are here.” With that, he walked briskly away towards the entrance to the Great Pyramid.
Abrams walked after him, as usual staring up at the enormous shape silhouetted against the cloudless sky. The statistics ran through his head like a mantra. The Great Pyramid of Cheops, or more correctly Khufu; one hundred and forty-seven metres high; two point three million blocks of stone weighing from two and a half to fifty tons each. Three burial chambers: one underground carved direct into the rock, the second, aboveground, where he headed, and the third higher up; the King’s Chamber containing the Sarcophagus sculpted in red granite.
As Hakim disappeared into the pyramid ahead, he stopped and looked around. Other than the helicopter, and the mobile home, which served as their control room, the place was deserted. Except, that was, for two bored Egyptian police officers standing nearby; smoking, while they watched the entrance to the Great Pyramid. If it were a normal day, the place would be swarming with tourists. The Egyptian authorities restricted access to the Pyramids, only three hundred people a day, as a measure designed to combat the erosive humidity, previously causing problems. Now, in February, not a busy month for tourists, Hakim persuaded the Egyptian Tourist authorities to put the Great Pyramid off-limits while the joint University of Cairo-MIT exploration took place. This added to the strangeness of the situation for Abrams. You could almost imagine being the first person to venture into the pyramid’s innards, unearthing the past for the first time. An involuntary, deep shudder rippled through his body. Scary! Not like the safe, academic world of high-tech robotics that made up his life.
He stooped beneath the tarpaulin that stretched in front of the mobile home, and collected a powerful flashlight from the recharger. The flashlight was not necessary, as all the passageways and chambers had electric light, but his claustrophobia preferred the sense of security it gave him.
He opened the door in the mobile home and poked his upper torso inside.
“Hey guys, I’m back. How’s everything going?”
“Hiya, boss,” called out an overweight man, sweating profusely despite the air-conditioning. “Jody’s just finished running the comm tests. We’re all set here. Whenever you guys say.”
“Thanks Mark. Tell Jody I’m on my way in.” He closed the door and started out towards the Pyramid’s entrance.
Before he entered the Pyramid itself, Abrams paused and looked around. He had felt strange all day, as though someone was walking over his grave. His wife would have said it was the spirits of the dead workers in the pyramid, protesting against his violation of their labour. Mind you, she would have accompanied this with one of her broad smiles, chasing away the clouds in his mind. He smiled to himself, turned and entered the north face of the Great Pyramid of Khufu.
He walked down the sloping twenty metres leading from the entrance into the ascending passageway. This in turn gave way to the famous Grand Gallery, which took you to the King’s Chamber. However, his route lay elsewhere. After reaching the level landing at the start of the Grand Gallery itself, he took the straight passageway and made his way to the Queen’s Chamber. He crouched and moved down the passageway almost crab-like. This method proved to be the most efficient way to traverse the limited height of the access to the Queen’s Chamber. A further wave of apprehension came over him. He shook his head, mentally cataloguing this as his claustrophobia, although his stomach told him otherwise.
The doorway through which he passed into the Queen’s Chamber was located in the north-facing wall. To his right, set off-centre in the east wall, was the curiously shaped niche, over twice the height of a man, where once, so Saïd suggested, a statue of Khufu held sway over this chamber. The bevelled roof helped to make the chamber seen larger than it was. He looked across the room towards the south wall where the MIT team’s equipment lay strewn.
Two members of his team greeted him; the rest sitting in comfort in the air-conditioned mobile home control centre, to record the data feeds from the Rover. There in the Queen’s Chamber he nodded to his number two, Rolf Kalin.
Rolf was a large man with a huge, black beard and a dark mop of curly hair adorning his head. He had earned a Sports Scholarship, and played quarterback for his university team, before his academic results came to the attention of the MIT talent spotters. He had been with Abrams for over ten years now, and was a close friend as well as his assistant. Also despite their age difference, they shared many likes and dislikes, utmost of which was their love of their common occupation.
The other team-member, Jody Petrie, was making a last-minute check on the Rover, nestled on top of its crate. Jody was the team’s latest acquisition, having joined them just a week after this project started. She was a phenomenal computer expert, and developed some unique software in the last few months, helping the project move on schedule towards this day.
He strode across the uneven, rough-hewn floor and handed the case to his lieutenant.
“Hi guys. Here’s the laser. Fix it on to the harness, will you Rolf.” Abrams placed the flashlight alongside the Rover, on the top of the large steel crate that was its home. Then he turned to face the other two people in the room: Hakim and Dr. Kamal Awyan, the new Head of the Egyptian Antiquities Society. He nodded at Awyan. Spoken greetings between the two, no longer common. Abrams had refused, two weeks prior, to be drawn into the political battle the Society was waging with the British Museum for the return of the treasures, unlawfully (according to Awyan), exfoliated by countless British Archaeologists in the past. A tension between the members of the joint-team resulted. A tension that could have put paid to the whole project if not for the tireless work of Saïd Hakim. Hakim knew, as did everyone else, that given the current economic situation in the country, the Egyptian Museum curators could ill-afford to store, let alone display, the priceless antiquities adequately. In the following days, Abrams and Hakim became firm friends and allies.
“Hi, Boss. Already to go here,” said Jody.
“The laser’s in place, and seems to be working ok,” said Rolf.
“Ok. I’ll give you a hand with that.” He stepped over to the Rover and, with Rolf’s help, lifted the robot crawler into the mouth of the square hole located at shoulder height in the south wall. Jody left her laptop for a moment and guided the cables providing the data feed. They settled the robot inside the mouth of the twenty centimetre square passageway and stepped back. Jody picked up her laptop and placed it on the now vacant crate top.
“Switching on all systems,” she announced into her headpiece as her fingers flew over the keyboard.
The Rover started to emit a low hum. Then its forward and side-facing LED searchlights came on, piercing the blackness of the passageway. Abrams bent down and squinted into the hole, looking past the Rover, but was unable to see far because of the sharp upwards turn.
“Extending forward sensors.” Two thin wires emerged from the front of the Rover. These were its blind sensors, feeling their way ahead of the Rover.
“Cameras on-line.” Abrams glanced back at the laptop and saw half of the screen now showing an image taken from the main forward camera.
“Attitude sensors on-line.” The humming increased in pitch as, from the top and sides of the Rover, small, fat, rubberised caterpillar tracks extended to bracket the robot firmly in the hole.
“All recording systems are go, here. Do you copy, Control?”
Back in the mobile home, the rest of the team checked all the data feeds and gave the sweating Off-site Controller, Mark Forgione, the thumbs-up sign.
“We copy. All systems green-lighted here,” he replied.
“Boss, we’re ready,” she said looking over at Abrams.
“Ok, Jody, let’s rock ´n´ roll,” he said with a smile.
“Americans!” grumbled the Antiquities Head, loud enough for all to hear. Abrams ignored him. He may be an outstanding Egyptologist, but he was also a politician, a combination that meant he was an all-round pain-in-the-ass.
“Rover is on autonomous,” said Jody, and in the same instant, the robot crawler gave a little jerk forward as its tracks engaged.
Abrams and Rolf watched the Rover crawl steadily away from them into the passageway and saw the lights dip up as the robot started to negotiate the incline. Abrams left Rolf feeding the data cables after the crawler and stepped over to the crate. The Egyptians also crowded around the screen, which showed the images coming from the main forward camera.
There was little sense of forward movement. The Rover slowly negotiated the passageway. Only after a few minutes, the lights picked out the step in the floor, nicknamed the “tank trap”. Abrams had seen the footage of the first two attacks on the doors many times and he was now intimate with the marks and grooves found on the granite stone blocks forming the walls of the passageway. The Rover’s forward progress halted as its sensors probed the step and the obtained data sent back down the trailing cable to Jody’s laptop, and then on to the mobile home. Abrams could hear the humming of the robot’s electric motors ramp-up in pitch as the forward angle of the caterpillar tracks changed to cope with the step. The image on the laptop jumped about, finally settling again as the Rover successfully negotiated the step and advanced.
At last, the Rover reached the place where the first doorway once blocked the passageway. As it approached, the Rover slowed, its forward sensors picking up the rough edges of stone. The Rover inched forward to the second doorway. Only the hole drilled into it to allow inserting the fibre-optic camera the previous robot had carried, breached this door. It sat there, a square block of polished, grey granite, unadorned except for the two dull copper fittings set midway in the top third of the stone block. These in turn fitted into a black, tar-like mass that penetrated the stone itself.
“Positioning laser,” announced Jody.
“Please go ahead,” said the Head of Antiquities, unnecessarily, and again, ignored by all.
Jody hit a key and for a second the image juddered, finally stabilising to show a narrow, articulated arm emerging from the lower left of the Rover. This carried a fibre-optic cable, which would focus the laser beam on its target.
“Positioning laser complete,” said Jody as the end of the fibre optic cable touched the stone near its joint with the top of the shaft.
“You are sure the heat will not damage any parchments that may be there?” asked the Head of Antiquities.
“The Pyramid Rover’s cameras showed there’s nothing but dust and stale air in the space between the second and third door, sir. That’s why we are using this approach. It saves much more time than drilling away the complete door,” responded Rolf.
“The device is a Neodymium-doped, Yttrium-aluminium-garnet crystal laser, Dr. Awyan,” interjected Hakim, speaking in English for the benefit of the Americans, “It will produce over a kilowatt of continuous power at 1065 nanometre wavelength, which as you know is in the infrared.” Abrams smiled. Three weeks ago he tracked down a suitable laser in MIT and arranged, with Hakim’s invaluable help, to have it sent here. Hakim asked him to repeat the specifications of the laser several times, so he could memorise them. He explained, his smiling face showing large uneven teeth, he intended to throw out the explanation to the Head of Antiquities at the first opportunity. Abrams then found himself explaining the meaning of bullshitting.
They all watched as the fibre-optic cable head slowly traversed the door’s upper edge, then moved on down the left side. A two-centimetre wide trench appeared in its wake.
“Burning right side,” pronounced Jody, as the laser switched off temporarily before recommencing at the top of the right edge of the door. Finally, the fibre-optic cable head traversed the lower edge and, as the last section was cut, the door fell forward onto the Rover.
The image on the screen went opaque.
“What is wrong, Doctor Abrams?” asked the Head of Antiquities, anxiously.
“Uh, oh it’s ok. The doorway fell towards the Rover. We expected this could happen. Remember there’s a thirty-nine degree incline there. We’ll just back the Rover up a piece and the door should fall free. Jody, retract the forward sensors so they don’t get trapped.”
Jody complied and responded, “Spidey web deploying”.
Unseen in the passageway a milky, gel-like substance squirted from the front of the Rover and fixed on to the front section of the door, encompassing the two copper fixtures.
“We’ll just give that a minute or two to set,” said Abrams.
“What is this Spidey web?” asked Dr. Awyan.
“It’s something we came up with when we did the field trials. In a collapsed building, you can easily find your way blocked by loose bricks and gravel. Trying to pick this up using traditional remote claws was just too difficult and time-consuming. One of our colleagues, a comic fan, came up with this gel glue. We just shoot it out at the bricks, let it harden and then just haul the debris away. Just like Spidey. When the grapple releases the web, we just leave it wherever we dragged it. In this case we are going to drag the door back here in one piece so you guys can have a good look at it.”
They all watched the screen as the Rover backed up. Slowly the door slipped down the front of the robot and they could make out the “web”, glowing eerie white in the lights, hooked by a small, articulated claw. The Rover started its journey back to the Queen’s Chamber.
Forty-five minutes later the Rover was back in position in front of the third door. As in the previous two instances, a toughened drill now bit into the stone. It turned slowly but steadily to reduce debris. Though the fine dust highlighted by the LEDs, a hazy image appeared on the monitor. Pulverised stone could be seen trickling from the bottom of the drill as it penetrated the door.
“Breakthrough!” said Jody, “Retracting drill arm. Articulated sensors inserted.”
“Door is seven point six centimetres thick. No obvious obstacle immediately beyond. We are reading a cool fifteen degrees Celsius,” intoned the voice of Mark from the laptop’s speakers.
“Ok, retracting sensors. Inserting camera.”
Under Jody’s command, from the front of the Rover, an articulated tube snaked out towards the drilled hole. As it approached, she hit a couple of keys and a powerful light emerged from the circumference of the tube. The camera lens, taking up the centre of the tube, relayed the image back to the laptop as it traversed the hole.
“Well, we didn’t expect to see that!” said Abrams, as the camera penetrated the far side of the door.
Madrid, Spain, Tuesday, 9th December, 2008
Emilio Paredes León sat on the top floor of his holding company’s newly opened headquarters in the north of Madrid. He swivelled his deep, leather chair around from the enormous desk and gazed out at the view of the Castellana thoroughfare far below. He was watching the activity of the thousands of cars traversed this wide avenue bisecting the Spanish capital from north to south. He saw minute figures of pedestrians scurrying to their workplaces; the solid mass of vehicles, halting at the red lights of the major junction below; people begging at driver’s windows, selling tissues, washing windows, or just demanding money. This was, for Paredes, a microcosm of how he saw the World; His World.
His considerable fortune originated in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. While the rest of Europe fought their own battles, the Iberian Peninsula, and Spain in particular, almost existed as though on another planet. Generalissimo Franco opted, wisely, not to precipitate his newly won nation into another debilitating war. He chose instead consolidation; of his power, of his people. As a consequence, on the twenty-third of October, 1940, he travelled to the town of Hendaya to meet personally with Adolph Hitler.
Whilst Franco was consummating his passive alliance in the French town, a close collaborator of Hitler, none other than Reichfürher Heinrich Himmler, the founder of the SS, was in Barcelona. His arrival, on the nineteenth of that month, was in part to organise the meeting between Hitler and Franco, but also to conduct two other lines of business. One, at the insistence of the Fürher himself, involved visiting several places in Spain, such as the Escorial Monastery near Madrid and the Montserrat Monastery near Barcelona, in search of clues to the whereabouts of the Holy Grail. The other, more personal, involved Paredes´s Father, Cayetano.
Cayetano Paredes used the Civil War to acquire a small fortune in easily convertible wealth, mainly diamonds and precious stones, dispossessed from families summarily deemed to be Reds. He trafficked with this wealth in the closing year of the Civil War and amassed even greater influence. Such, that, when el Generalissimo looked for someone to take Himmler on his ‘scenic’ tour of Spain, Cayetano, who spoke fluent German, became an asset. What neither Franco nor Hitler knew, however, was that Cayetano and Himmler were in contact for months before the Germans took Paris. They discussed mutual interests involving the distribution of artwork and other valuables from their original French owners to buyers in South America.
Cayetano Paredes, walking alongside Himmler at Montserrat, was not listening to the protests of the two priests who were refusing to be Himmler´s guides. His mind was elsewhere, focused on the details of his agreement with the ReichFürher, settled the evening before over dinner in Toledo. The deal would make an important amount of money for Himmler, of which a healthy percentage would be his.
The years went by, and Cayetano became even richer, diversifying into construction and industry, becoming a major force in Spain’s economic recovery. On his sixtieth birthday, he called his twenty-year old son, Emilio, into his office, and formally inducted him into the family business, with its tendrils spread throughout Spain and South America. Emilio took the business empire built by his Father, and in five years tripled its worth, buying-out ailing companies and turning them around. Now the Paredes Industries Group was a worldwide concern. Its fiscal headquarters was in the Cayman Islands, but Emilio had maintained the offices in Madrid as the hub of the network.
Emilio and his Father saw things very differently. While his Father would have communed with the Devil if there was profit to be made, Emilio was more subtle. He openly moved in circles bordering the Catholic Church. He had private, one-on-one, audiences with two Popes. He was an insatiable traveller, exuding energy from his very pores, not content to be in one place for more than a couple of days. He never married, nor shown any interest in any long-term relationships. His needs were satisfied by his dedication to his main interest; his reason for being.
He watched as the world polarised into the rich and the poor. He saw wars undertaken for the flimsiest of reasons. He witnessed exterminations on two continents. He observed as drug-fuelled crime spiralled to heights unknown in his father’s day. He knew at his innermost core, his destiny was to correct this situation. And finally, one day, nine years ago, an event occurred that presented the opportunity.
He had been travelling, as usual, visiting a new luxury hotel project his construction interests were putting up in Cairo. On the evening of his last day, he expressed an interest in visiting the Cairo Museum; a private visit, hastily arranged, in exchange for a cash incentive. A museum curator called Khaled was the only person found at that late hour to act as Paredes´ guide. Khaled was an Iraqi from a wealthy family who skipped military service in his homeland and auto-exiled himself in Egypt. He was a short, fat man, who spoke English with a remarkable dominance of four-letter words. The curator took Emilio through the public rooms at the museum at breakneck speed. Emilio was about to conclude his race through the halls and corridors, when Khaled asked him if he would like to see the areas unknown to the “fucking public”. Emilio, intrigued, acceded. They descended a narrow staircase and entered the basement storerooms and the restoration areas. Emilio was fascinated. He could touch, hold in his own hands, fragments of a bygone age.
His interest in Egyptology grew from that day. Emilio became adept in the skills of a modern Egyptologist by the simple expedient of buying the best tuition available worldwide. Khaled was now on to his payroll as an adviser, although publicly he retained his job at the Museum. Khaled also provided numerous antiquities, redirected before formal cataloguing in the Museum, and therefore officially not existing. Amongst these was the papyrus spread across Emilio’s desk that morning. A document whose contents he knew by heart. He had pored over it for many years now, and as he turned his chair back to the desk, he glanced down at the document. To preserve it, he arranged for it to be covered with a fine layer of transparent plastic, protecting its fragility from his constant handling, yet not diminishing the glowing colours of the hieroglyphs.
The papyrus was his prized possession; discovered, with several more papyri in a sealed earthenware jar in the ruins of the old city of Oun to the north-east of Cairo, dated from the period when Oun was the capital and Ra its God. It told the tale of Ra’s Legacy and its journey to Giza, although its author, a Sumerian spy in the court of Pharaoh Senusret I, had not documented the exact resting-place of the Legacy.
When he read the papyrus for the first time, Emilio knew that, from that moment onward, he would dedicate his all to finding the Legacy and using it to right the wrong he saw everywhere. To this end, he financed many excavations, both public and secret. He bribed those who had access to the antiquities in the excavations and scores of photographs of anything remotely significant rewarded him daily. He devoted untold sums to his search, though his wealth was unaffected greatly. Then other clues started to turn up. He pieced together what he now saw as his mission. A puzzle comprising hundreds of ancient documents, originating from all over the Middle East, North Africa and France, where Napoleon had taken many an unappreciated treasure back to the hub of his Empire. All was now ready. Only one more task remained uncompleted.
He reached out and pressed the intercom switch.
“Is Mr. Sirtak here?” he asked of his secretary in Spanish.
She responded affirmatively and Emilio clicked off the intercom. He sat back while he waited for his lieutenant. Lieutenant! More like his Left-hand man. Left, as in sinister. Not that Sirtak was sinister in appearance. He was usually elegantly dressed with faultless manners. A man of short stature with a wiry toughness his ready smile disarmed, but not a man to take lightly. Sirtak’s origins were uncertain, as though Destiny somehow provided him to Paredes. Born in Hungary, abandoned on the steps of a church as a baby, in a predominately Catholic country, ensured his upbringing in an orphanage was strict, following the precepts of that religion. Sirtak rebelled when he was fifteen. He had been involved in a fight with another two boys, both bigger. They came off much, much worse. Sirtak possessed a dark side, which made him careless of his own safety when fighting. He attacked one hundred percent. The orphanage tried to have him taken to a juvenile prison, but this proved impossible. Sirtak solved the problem by sneaking out of the orphanage that same night, never to return. He lied about his age and within a week was wearing the uniform of a recruit in his country’s limited army. There, the Instructors recognised his darker side. They singled him out for special training in commando techniques. The rigours of that training only served to spur on the youngster. The absence of any real opportunity where he could put his new knowledge into practice quickly disaffected the boy. Within two years, he deserted and moved to the Balkan countries where he worked his way as a mercenary during the following six years. He amassed a compendium of lethal arts that soon had him commanding high fees. He travelled wider afield, in conflicts in Africa, Asia, and South America. He also discovered two other characteristics about himself; his inherent capacity to pick up a language within a few weeks, he now spoke eight fluently, and his love of literature, especially the English Classics.
Sirtak and Emilio’s paths had crossed when the latter was on a business trip to Colombia to present a bid for a major construction contract. His own company insisted he have round the clock protection against the risk of kidnapping. Sirtak was one of five bodyguards assigned. There had indeed been an attempt to take him from a car transporting him to a meeting. Two of the bodyguards were machine-gunned to death by a man on a motorcycle. Sirtak, sitting with Emilio in the back of the car, had sensed the attack seconds before and pushed Emilio brusquely to the floor of the car. As four other assailants joined the motorcycle rider, Sirtak drew his pistol, shot out the back window of their car, then clambered out. Standing on the trunk, he calmly shot each of the assailants as though he had all the time in the world. He then jumped down, opened Emilio’s door and helped him gently from the car. They crossed the street and entered a bar, where Sirtak ordered a brandy for Emilio and a bottle of mineral water for himself. They waited until the police arrived. Then they walked over to the Police officer in charge, explained the situation, and left, after their names were taken. Sirtak even persuaded the Police to drive them back to Emilio’s hotel. Once there, he escorted Emilio to his room and used the telephone to call the industrialist’s office in Bogotá to arrange for a quick flight from the country. He personally drove Emilio to the airport and, once the Spaniard had boarded the private jet, turned back to the car and drove off.
A week passed. Then news arrived of the unexpected deaths of two executives of an American firm competing for the construction deal in Colombia. Apparent suicides. Emilio suspected the attempted kidnapping was a ruse to put him out of action, and his company into chaos, so the competitors would carry off the lucrative business deal. He felt himself indebted to Sirtak and searched him out. Sirtak, located in New York, flew to Madrid where Emilio offered him a full-time job as a personal bodyguard. Sirtak accepted and soon became a trusted aide, able to take on the less savoury tasks rising out of Emilio’s interests. When the secret organization had formed, seven years’ ago, Istiván Sirtak was a natural choice to be a founder member. Now his involvement with the organization’s activities was full-time.
The office door opened and Sirtak entered, silently closing the door behind him. He crossed the room, hardly making a sound on the polished wood floor.
Despite his quiet movement, two Egyptian cobras, living in the giant terrarium to the left of Paredes’ desk, raised their bodies and flared their hoods, intently watching his approach. Sirtak feared little, but his boss’ obsession with these creatures, their perpetual reaction to his presence, caused an involuntary cold shiver to pass through his frame. Paredes noticed this and smiled inwardly.
Without ceremony, Sirtak sat opposite Emilio. He reached within the jacket of his perfectly tailored suit and extracted a small sheaf of papers, which he handed to Emilio.
“Everything comes to he who waits,” he said, in Spanish, smiling.
“So it’s now all in place?” Sirtak nodded, the smile ever-present.
“All we have to do is to wait a couple of months more.”
“Good. Very good.”
Benidorm, Spain, Tuesday, 30th October, 2012
The wind blowing off the Mediterranean was chilly. He hardly noticed. The humidity this close to the sea was over eighty percent. He hardly noticed this either. The sand on which he sat was damp, soaking into his jeans. The discomfort went all but unobserved. At this time of the morning, a little after three, no one was about. The machines used to clean the beaches during the night had long gone. There were few tourists on this, the Poniente Beach, as the season was over and now, in that limbo between summer and winter, all was unnaturally quiet. The man welcomed the solitude. He reached out and picked up the bottle, wedged into the sand by his side. He took a long pull of the whiskey; not seeking warmth from the liqueur, nor courage. He had performed many difficult tasks in his life; this was easy by comparison.
Grey sat on the sand, reflecting on what he had accomplished in his fifty-four years. In one word: Nothing! He had not been able to keep a stable relationship with a partner that endured more than six months. This was in part because of the constant travelling imposed upon him by his profession, his old profession. Also because he was always wound up like a tense Jack-in-the-box, ready to pop as the lid opened. That, more than anything else, had prompted him to chuck it all, seven years ago, after the problem in Kazakhstan. He chose Spain as his retreat because he was fluent in the language, the climate was warmer which was better for his knee, and above all, he had no reason to return to the United Kingdom, his original home. He had no living relatives, no long-term friends, no close ties, in summary, no emotional drag. He wished his life could be different but reality reigned. He hoped to take a job in this area of Spain, based on his language abilities. However, despite the huge influx of British tourists each year, and the large resident population, he found to his surprise his language skills were secondary. He unsuccessfully applied for over fifty jobs in the past seven years. The main obstacle? His age. If you were over forty-five, you are finished. While he still had some money from his savings, he took courses in computer maintenance, professional cookery, and gardening. Now he was a competent computer professional with green fingers who could cook up a storm. Still no luck. Too old! His previous work experience was useless now; he had nothing to fall back on. He unloaded trucks, looked after a bookshop while the owner went on holiday, served drinks in a pub catering for Brits; jobs that lasted weeks, two or three months at the most.
He started to slide into depression as he sat before the television, alone, last Christmas. He had always been a fighter, a survivor. They had trained him for little else. He hauled himself off to see a psychiatrist, who only prescribed him happy pills. These helped, at first. He felt buoyant, optimistic, full of energy. Just like the old times. Nevertheless, it did not last. He was not sleeping. He spent his nights watching interminable advertisements for unimaginably miraculous products on the TV. The next day, his body protested, so he took pills to sleep. Not a good idea! Worse, he started to drink. Not heavily; at least, not at first. He found if he drank a glass of whiskey with his sleeping pills, he would comatose sufficiently so his physical body could rest. Mentally he felt oh so tired. He started to take a shot of whiskey in the morning, disguised in his mug of tea. Then his weight began to creep up. He lost interest in preparing decent food, and resorted to take-away and fast food. High carbs, good for energy; if you needed it! He could not even muster up the willpower to go running or exercise somehow. He did not own a car, so he walked everywhere, but now he had nowhere to go. So, he sat in his apartment, in front of the television, drinking, popping pills and eating takeouts when hunger dominated.
Until today, or rather yesterday, given the time. He woke up past midday. Staggering out of his warm bed, he grimaced at his reflection in the bathroom mirror. He showered, shaved, ironed a shirt and tried to look presentable. He sipped his fortified mug of tea, and then went for a long walk. The day was warm, hardly any wind. He walked until his calf muscles burned. Forcing the pace even more to punish himself for having let go. He almost collapsed on to a bench on the seafront. There he sat for a couple of hours, watching a few people playing on the beach, enjoying life. He tried to remember when he had last had a holiday; ten years ago, maybe more. Nevertheless, that was not what he needed. He needed a job; he needed to feel useful again. Nothing grand, just something with purpose. Something worthwhile.
He continued into the centre of town and walked into one of the Hospitals and asking to see the Personnel Manager. A young woman, easily half his age, received him. He offered to work at anything in the hospital for a couple of months free, and then if they were satisfied, they could take him on staff. She responded cruelly, directly, without preoccupation for any feelings he may have, unable to empathise. Too old to start fresh at something. He rose and looked the young woman in the eyes, saying nothing. She saw something in that glare, something that frightened her. She recoiled, he left. Life was a bitch! A bitch called Age!
He realised then, as he walked back to his apartment, this was a world run by, and for, young people, and ‘young’ meant mid-twenties, no older. He had nothing to offer. Less to receive.
He stopped at the supermarket on the way back and bought a couple of bottles of whiskey. Good stuff. Glenmorangie. Might as well enjoy it. It would be his last.
Now, hours on, the first bottle gone, he sat finishing the second, but he could not taste the single-malt now. He pitched the empty bottle into the air and watched it splash into the waves. Well, no point putting this off. He stood, stretched and took a couple of steps towards the water. Not tentative steps. Determined! Resolved!
Behind him, he heard a sharp squeal of brakes. He instinctively looked back, across the wide expanse of sand, at the road running parallel to the beach. He could see two cars there. One pulled across the front of the other, blocking its progress. Now from the second, a figure emerged and started to run. It was a young woman. From the other vehicle, three men chased after her. The woman’s progress hampered by a large bag slung over her shoulders, they were gaining. One reached out, grabbed her long hair and yanked it back. She stumbled off the pavement, falling on to the sand. The men jumped down too. One of them said something to her. She responded by flinging a handful of sand at him. He kicked at her. She tried to roll, but the kick landed, lifting her slight form up. One of the other men grabbed her arm and pulled her to her feet. He tried to take the bag, and she scratched his face. He responded by hitting her on the side of the head with his fist. She collapsed like a limp sack.
Grey had watched this, initially uninterested. The girl had probably had a fight with the guys in a disco. Now they were exacting revenge. A callous kick to the downed woman’s abdomen changed his level of interest. Screw this, he thought. He sprinted towards the group. As he neared, he yelled out in Spanish for them to let her go.
One of the men turned to face him, pulling a knife from a belt sheath. A nasty, ugly weapon. The man brandished it lightly, not waving it about, his other hand close to his waist. A Pro!
Grey let his momentum carry him forward. As the knife fighter lunged to stab him, he leant hard to his left, twisting his body. He delivered a penetrating punch with his left fist into the nerve bunch between the biceps and triceps. The knife fell from the deadened fingers. Grey used his twisting motion to grab the man’s knife hand, raising it upwards as he stepped under the extended arm. He brought the arm down hard on to his own left shoulder. The assailant yelped with pain. Grey continued to move, turning to his left, back to face the man, using the impetus to deliver another right-handed blow with the heel of his open palm to the top of the man’s sternum. The knife fighter went over backwards on to the sand, gasping for breath. One down, two to go.
The other two men, surprised at the stranger’s ability to dispose so easily of their colleague, had not moved. Now one of them grabbed the unconscious woman, while the other reached under his jacket, towards the back of the belt. Gun! thought Grey. He launched himself at the man, pushing back on the man’s arm with his left hand so he could not draw the weapon. With two straightened fingers of his right hand, he struck at the nerve group at the base of the trapezium muscle, temporally paralysing the lungs. The man gasped, fighting for air. Grey drew back his right hand and struck deeply with the knuckle of his bent thumb on the man’s Carotid artery. The assailant went down, unconscious.
The third attacker had grabbed the woman’s bag and was trying to wrest it from her limp form. Grey stepped towards him, and the man released the bag, letting the woman fall to the sand again. He sidestepped her prone body and faced off against Grey. The man launched a series of short, rapid Wu Shu punches aimed at Grey’s torso and face. Grey slapped them away. He countered with a couple of stabs at the man’s eyes, designed to focus attention on his fingers. The man did not take the bait; he stepped back out of reach and lifted a leg, preparing to drive a forward kick at Grey’s stomach. Grey sidestepped the kick, pushing it further aside with his raised knee, trying to spin the man. The attacker knew his business. He altered his motion into a sidekick catching Grey a glancing blow on his ribs. Grey stumbled back. The assailant advanced, preparing to finish him off. Grey tripped and extended his right hand down to the sand to stabilise himself. The assailant raised his left hand ready to deliver a chop to Grey’s exposed neck. As he stepped in, Grey twisted and brought up the knife he recovered from the sand, burying it to the hilt in the man’s upper leg. The man let out a primal scream, sharply cut off as Grey chopped to the man’s Carotid.
Grey sensed movement behind him and spun around. The knife fighter was up, coughing badly but ready to continue. What was up with these jerks? Don’t they know when to give up? The woman can’t be worth this.
They squared off. Grey saw the knife man was in far better shape, younger, faster, and more agile. Something dark stirred in Grey, a beast he had thought long gone. An ally; a curse! The man stepped forwards raining punches at Grey’s torso. Grey allowed himself to fall back on to the sand, kicking up at the man’s genitals as he fell. He felt the soft area squash under his heel. The man breathed out sharply, his hands going in a reflex action to his groin. Grey rolled on to his right side and, extending his left leg, swept the man’s feet from under him. As the man tumbled on to his back, Grey rose, punching the attacker hard just above the end of the sternum. The man lost consciousness. It was over!
Grey sat on the sand for a full minute, fighting to recover his breath. He looked towards the sky.
“Thanks for screwing up my plans tonight!” he yelled to the stars above.
He looked around. No one else was about at this hour. No light had gone on. No disgruntled neighbours had called the police. Yet!
He looked over at the woman. She looked totally out of it. Gingerly he stood. As he did so, the mixture of adrenaline and alcohol hit him and he doubled over, vomiting forcefully into the sand. He retched until his stomach ached, unable to heave up anything solid. He gulped down lungful’s of air, shaking his head, trying to clear the spots before his eyes. After a couple of minutes, it passed. He stood again. His head swam. He breathed deeply, forcing the air into his lower lungs. Slowly, he felt better. The spots had gone, he no longer felt dizzy. God, how he had lost it, he thought.
He stepped over to the young woman. She was lying face up on the sand, her face all but obscured by her jet-black hair. He bent over and brushed the hair away. She seemed to be Asian, her sharp features reminiscent of India or thereabouts. He felt for a pulse at her neck. Erratic; but there. He listened to her breathing; shallow. She had taken a couple of good blows to the head and stomach. Maybe concussed. He reached over and gently lifted her up.
Struggling to walk through the sand carrying her weight, he made his way slowly towards the two cars. The one she had driven still had the engine running. He reached out and pulled open the rear passenger door. He laid her limp body across the backseat, pushing her legs in to close the door. He walked around to the open driver’s door and climbed in. Grey manoeuvred the car back away from the other vehicle and then drove around it. He looked back at the three prone forms on the beach. They would be out for a while, but… He stopped the car just in front of the other vehicle. He stepped out and approached it. A BMW; new; nice wheels. He sat inside and opened the glove box. He took the car’s registration papers. At the back of the compartment, he found another knife, identical with the one he had used on the beach. He took it and stepped outside the car, closing the door. He removed the knife from its sheath, weighing it in his hand. Solid, strong. A Cold Steel Tanto, unless he was mistaken. Kraton non-slip grip. A good, professional, fighting weapon. He walked to each of the tyres in turn, plunging the knife into the rubber near the air valve, cutting each valve out. When he had all four, he threw them across the road, behind the front fencing of an apartment block. Should keep them busy for a while, he thought. He sheathed the knife, and slipped it into the small of his back. Never know, might come in handy. He returned to the woman’s car, sat behind the wheel and drove slowly away.
Some of the things they are saying about
"Difficult to put down. The story is well crafted and it is action packed from beginning to end"
"...take an obscure group who wish to change the way the world operates... throw in a splash or more of devious activity at tomb excavations in Egypt... global disasters and upheavals... a dissolute ex-special ops hero with a renewed purpose to live... mayhem galore.. don't blink or you'll miss some of it... great action... wonderful pace... terrific yarn... enjoyable read..."
"...take an obscure group who wish to change the way the world operates... throw in a splash or more of devious activity at tomb excavations in Egypt... global disasters and upheavals... a dissolute ex-special ops hero with a renewed purpose to live... mayhem galore.. don't blink or you'll miss some of it... great action... wonderful pace... terrific yarn... enjoyable read..."
"full of action, but doesn't ignore the fact that the reader wants a good story as well. There are surprises as the individual tales slowly weave together for a truly satisfying ending. I found this to be one you didn't want to put down!"
"the action starts on the first page. One of the reasons I enjoy Gates’ books is because he can take even a normal scene and fill it full of tension. In this book, he weaves together the events of different times into a dynamic plot, which is difficult to put down. Well done action sequences and a surprise ending make this one easy to recommend to those that enjoy thrillers."
"a thumping good read with nasty villians and a valiant hero."
"An amazing thriller full of unexpected turns that traverses the globe in relevant detailed style. A must read for those who enjoy adventure, mystery, a fast paced ride, edged with credible force and an incredible plot."
"Fighting through a power-driven story of disasters and destruction, this gripping, high speed book keeps the reader's attention from start to finish. Excavations in Egypt and a brilliant 'cliff-hanger' ending"
"Absolutely gripping read written a style that gives you the thrust to read it without stopping. Difficult to put down."
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Eric @ www.ericjgates.com