Read the seventh pillar epub format

Authors: Alex Lukeman

the seventh pillar

 

 

Acknowledgements

 

First my wife, Gayle. She is so patient. I think out loud. I constantly run plot and scene scenarios by her for months and in general drive her nuts. She makes excellent suggestions. She's really good at pinning me down when my masculine mind falls into some trap regarding the way women think. Because of her this is a better book.

Then there are readers who actually read, appreciate and comment on my work. They haven't seen this one yet, but the emails and comments and thoughtful reviews of the first two books in the PROJECT series, WHITE JADE and THE LANCE, have helped me improve my writing. Thank you, readers, you make it worthwhile.

Thanks to Gloria Lakritz. Gloria is one of my "Beta" readers. She provided great support while I struggled with the last few pages.

Thanks to Mike, Lee, Amanda, Rick.

Thanks too to Justin Dunne, who believes.

 

 

 

 

The PROJECT Series:

 

Book One: White Jade

Book Two: The Lance

Book Three: The Seventh Pillar

Book Four: Black Harvest

 

 

 

 

 

Part One:

Africa

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

 

Twelve stood motionless, invisible in a world of soundless gray. Thick London fog cloaked him like a whisper from the grave. The fog smelled of old, unpleasant things, of the polluted waters of the Thames not far away.

His body hummed with energy. Every bead of moisture on his skin was anticipation, every sound seemed amplified ten fold. He sensed footsteps coming. A man dressed in a dark topcoat and hat emerged wraith-like from the gray curtain, swinging an umbrella at his side. Two minders walked behind him, as always. This man was never alone.

The assassin drew an ancient dagger from his sleeve as the man passed by. He stepped from the mists and thrust the blade deep into the notch at the base of his target's skull, then turned with practiced ease and snapped the neck of the first guard. A quick blow to the throat sent the other to his knees, a dead man trying to breathe.

Twelve reached down and wiped the blood from his dagger on the dead man's expensive coat. He took a small object from his pocket and placed it on the body. It bore a curious design.

 

The sign pointed the way but led nowhere. It would confuse those who would come. Confusion was good.

The assassin melted back into the silent fog. His Teacher would be pleased.

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

 

If Nick Carter needed a reminder of how much things had changed in the past weeks he only had to look at his phone. It was black and shiny and had a lot of buttons. There were buttons for the White House, the Seventh Floor at Langley, the Director of National Intelligence, the Joint Chiefs, NSA, DIA and a half dozen more he hadn't figured out yet. 

At least it isn't red, he thought.

The phone came with his new job as Co-Director of the Project, along with a new office. The office came with a big flat screen monitor on the wall, brown leather chairs and a thick carpet. There was an impressive desk with an encrypted computer linked to the Cray mainframes downstairs. There were two windows. One looked out at the hall. One let him see across a common work area into Stephanie Willits' office.

Stephanie ran the Project on a day to day basis. Nick ran field operations, in charge of tactics and strategy and getting in and out of places no sane person would ever want to go. Together the two of them reviewed intelligence briefs sent from the big three letter agencies to the President. Sometimes they pointed out that the Emperor wasn't wearing any clothes, which made them unpopular in the US intelligence community.

Carter got up and poured a cup of dark coffee from a gleaming chrome machine. He went back to the desk, where a manila packet waited patiently for his attention. Steph had handed it to him with raised eyebrows when he'd come in. Raised eyebrows meant his day was about to get complicated.

He sipped the coffee, opened the packet and took out the contents. Reports and pictures. The first picture showed a man lying on a wet sidewalk. His eyes were open and expressionless, blue. There was blood pooled under his head.

Carter set the photo aside and began reading. Scotland Yard, MI-5, CIA. The dead man was Sir Edward Hillary-Smythe, the British Foreign Secretary. A powerful man, a hawk, a strong advocate for harsh sanctions on Iran and military action against the Tehran regime if needed.

The only thing worse would have been the assassination of the Queen. Sir Edward had been a popular and controversial figure, a likely successor to the big job at No. 10.

Stephanie came into his office. "Ten to one we hear from Rice before noon."

James Rice, President of the United States. An election was coming up. Not even Christmas yet, and the political rhetoric had already turned brutal.

"No bet, Steph. But it's a British mess. MI-5 is pretty good."

"They weren't good enough to stop him from getting killed."

"What was he doing walking in the fog?"

"Sir Edward liked his evening constitutionals."

"Nobody heard anything?"

"Have you ever been in London in really heavy fog?" Stephanie sat down in one of the brown leather chairs. "You wouldn't hear a bomb go off two blocks away. Besides, the killer used a knife. No noise. He took out two MI-5 agents at the same time."

"A pro."

"Yes. In and out, terminate, no muss."

"Anyone have an idea who's behind it? Anyone claim responsibility?"

"No and no."

Steph was in her mid thirties. Her dark hair was cut half way to her shoulders. She favored long gold earrings and gold bracelets on her left wrist. She had full lips and wide cheekbones and dark shadows under dark eyes.

Looking at her, you might think of cocoa and cookies and a warm bed on a cold night. You might think she drove a van to the soccer field a few times a week. You would be wrong. Steph could place thirteen rounds in the black from a hundred feet in under thirty seconds. She was a genius with computers and could hack any firewall in the world. She'd been married and divorced. Now she lived alone in her Washington condo. Along with Nick, Stephanie ran one of the most secretive counter-terrorism units in the world. Carter had no idea what she did when she went home. He didn't need to know. He trusted her and that was enough.

Carter looked at the photo of the dead man and felt a headache starting. He picked up another picture from the packet, of an object inscribed with an odd design.

"What's this?"

"The killer left it on the body."

"A message?"

"Must be."

"It's some kind of writing. Let's get Selena to take a look."

"She's down in the computer room. I'll page her."

Selena's gift for languages was world class. If anyone could figure out the writing, it would be her.

A few minutes later Nick watched her come through the door. The way she moved reminded him of a cross between a ballet dancer and a sleek jungle cat, all grace and feral beauty. She was five-ten, shorter than Nick. She had high cheekbones and a natural beauty mark over her lip. Her eyes were an unusual violet color. Her hair was reddish blond.

She wore a tailored gray suit and a lavender blouse that picked up the color of her eyes. She had a slim gold watch on her left wrist and simple earrings. Not everyone could make a Glock .40 in a quick draw holster look like a fashion accessory, but Selena pulled it off.

When people saw them out on the town together it confused them. No one would ever call Nick handsome. Hard, perhaps. Rugged. Tense, with intense gray eyes that never stopped moving. Women might say not bad looking, maybe a little scary, someone to keep an eye on. Never handsome. Selena was another story. She came close to beautiful.

"What's up?" She sat down next to Stephanie.

"Someone killed the British Foreign Secretary this morning and left this. Can you make anything of it?"

Nick handed the picture across.

She studied the photo. "It says 'Muhammad and Ali'. The writing is Arabic. It's an ambigram, a calligraphic mirror image with multiple meanings."

"What's this one about?"

"This is a Shia ambigram. One meaning is that Ali is the rightful successor to Muhammad, the one appointed by Muhammad and God to lead the Muslim community."

"So?"

"Ali was Muhammad 's cousin. When Muhammad died, Ali claimed rightful succession by divine decree. Sunni Muslims say that Abu Bakr was the lawful successor. The Shias say Abu Bakr was an opportunist who seized power. Islam has been fighting about it ever since."

She frowned at the picture.

"I've seen this before, I just can't remember where. It'll come to me."

Carter tugged on his ear. "You think of Shia Islam and terrorism, you think of Tehran. Sir Edward was a firebrand when it came to Iran. Maybe the Iranians are behind this."

"That's jumping to conclusions." Selena smoothed a wrinkle on her skirt. "I wonder why he was killed?"

"We figure out who did it, we'll know why."

He changed the subject. "Steph, you hear from Ronnie and Lamont yet?"

"Two hours ago. So far there's only routine activity. They should update any time now."

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

 

Ronnie Peete and Lamont Cameron sat in a battered blue Toyota pickup under a relentless African sun. The temperature was over a hundred, the door handles hot enough to burn. The heat didn't seem to bother Ronnie. Sweat ran down Lamont's brown face, followed the ridge of scar tissue across his eye and nose, dropped onto his sand colored robe. He looked over at his partner.

"How come you don't sweat?"

"This isn't hot. You ought to try a sweat lodge sometime. That's hot."

Ronnie was Navajo, raised on the reservation before he'd joined the Corps. He'd been Recon, in the same unit as Nick.

"A sweat ceremony might last three days," he said. "Course we could go outside and cool off once in a while."

"You got a ceremony for shade?"

Ronnie smiled.

Lamont lifted his binoculars. "Something's happening."

He focused on a low cement structure two stories high, flat roofed, surrounded by a fence topped with razor wire. It was whitewashed and dirty and uninspired. Lamont passed the binoculars over.

"They're loading something onto the truck."

The truck had shown up yesterday, along with a man with a full white beard and a green turban surrounded by armed guards. Lamont had taken three quick photos and sent them on to Stephanie. The truck was like ten thousand other trucks in Africa, used for hauling everything from goats to troops. There were no markings on it. It had Sudanese plates. Since they were right outside Khartoum, that wasn't surprising.

Five bearded men with AK 47s stood by, looking tense. Two others lifted an olive drab metal container about the size of a footlocker up to someone inside the truck. Two white Toyota pickups mounted with belt fed Degtyaryov machine guns waited nearby. The Russian guns were popular in this part of the world.

The building was similar to a chemical factory bombed by the US a few years back. That one been had been making VX, a lethal nerve gas refined from pesticides. The bombed out ruins were now a prime tourist attraction in Khartoum.

Maybe someone was making VX again. It was why Ronnie and Lamont baked under the African sun. To find out if they were.

"They're being pretty careful with that box. Like it's made out of eggshells." Ronnie adjusted the binoculars. A gleam of sunlight reflected from the lenses and bounced against the windshield. Ronnie swore under his breath. Someone pointed their way. There was sudden activity by the pickups.

"Shit. We've been spotted. Time to boogie."

Lamont started the engine. He turned onto the road to Khartoum and floored it. Ronnie looked back and saw the armed pickups pull out after them.

The Toyota sped into the outskirts of Khartoum. The trucks behind closed and the gunners opened fire. At the sound of the guns people ran for cover and cleared the wide street. Everyone in Sudan knew that sound.

Lamont and Ronnie hunched down. The rear window exploded in a shower of glass. Bullets starred the windshield with holes, kicked up geysers of dirt around them, pocked the whitewashed walls of the houses. The rounds rang off the roof of the cab. Inside, it sounded like hammers hitting steel.

There was a grenade launcher in the bed of the truck under a canvas tarp. It didn't do them any good back there.

Ronnie flung open his door. "I'm going for the launcher."

He climbed outside and grabbed the frame where the rear window had been shot away. Broken shards of glass ripped his hand. He swore, got a leg over the edge and rolled down into the truck bed. He crawled to the launcher and flung off the tarp. It sailed away into the air and landed in the roadway behind. He opened the case, took out the long tube and loaded a round.

One of the gunners found the rear tires. They blew out in flat, loud explosions and turned into twisted steel and shredded rubber. Lamont fought for control of the bouncing truck. Ronnie steadied himself, got to one knee, fired, watched the trail of smoke head away. He felt the brief hot wind of rounds passing by before they struck the cab. Lamont cried out. The first of the pursuing trucks burst into an orange ball of flame.

The second vehicle came past the burning wreckage. The heavy, distinctive sound of the Russian gun echoed from the buildings lining the street. Ronnie's next round detonated as it went through the windshield. The truck lifted, flipped onto its side and exploded.

Their pickup drifted sideways into a building and ground along the wall until it stopped. Ronnie leapt from the bed, opened the door and pulled Lamont out from behind the wheel. Armor had stopped two rounds in his back. A third had hit his arm. Blood soaked his robe.

Lamont's brown face had turned the color of light coffee, blanched with pain. He held his wounded arm against his body.

A wisp of flame snaked out under the hood of their truck.

With the shooting over, people began to come out of the houses and shops. Lamont had Ethiopian coffee skin and blue eyes. Ronnie had his Navajo coloring and looks. They both wore skull caps and robes and realistic beards. They wouldn't pass as Sudanese, but no one would figure them for Americans. Ronnie had his pistol out to discourage anyone from asking questions. No one did.

They hurried down the street and into a maze of alleys and narrow paths running between the houses. Behind them their truck turned into a blazing torch, sending a column of black smoke into the cloudless sky.

Ronnie stopped in a deserted alley. A narrow beam of sunlight shone down between dust colored walls. He cut open Lamont's sleeve. Shattered bone showed above the elbow, where the bullet had tumbled through.

"How bad?" Lamont's voice was hoarse with pain.

"Not so good. I gotta stop the bleeding. This will hurt." Ronnie cut strips from his robe and bound the wound. He improvised a sling. Lamont gritted his teeth.

Ronnie watched the entrance to the alley and punched a button on his phone. The call could be intercepted, but no one could understand it without the right chip on the other end.

There was a brief delay as the call routed through the satellites. Stephanie answered. "Yes, Ronnie."

"We have a problem. Two trucks came after us. We took them out, but our vehicle is toast. Lamont took a bad hit. I'm cut up a little." He looked down at his bloody hand. "Get us out of here. Lamont needs a hospital, now."

"Go to the safe house. We'll get you out."

"They loaded something onto a deuce and a half. We put a bug on the truck last night."

"We'll track them. Call when you're safe."

"Roger that." Ronnie put the phone away.

 

CHAPTER FOUR

 

 

The following day Selena, Nick and Stephanie met in Steph's office. Ronnie and Lamont were on a US Navy carrier two hundred miles off shore. The cost of extraction from Khartoum was a bill owed to CIA. The Project didn't have assets on the ground all over the world. Langley did. To Nick's surprise, they'd cooperated. Carter was relieved his team was safe, but he knew Langley would call for payback.

There was a new, bad development.

Stephanie briefed them. "Senator Randolph has been murdered. There were three Secret Service agents with him. They're dead too. Also his wife and his dog. They found a disc on the body, like the one in London. The President called and he wants answers."

Randolph had been a lock to run against President Rice in the upcoming election. He had favored pre-emptive military intervention to stop Iran or anyone else from obtaining nuclear weapons. Someone had just assassinated the man who might have been the next President of the United States.

Nick said what they all knew. "Someone is bound to make the Shia connection with that symbol. Randolph wanted heavy sanctions against Tehran. Like the Brit Secretary. Everyone's going to think Iran is behind these murders."

"Maybe they are behind it." Stephanie tapped her fingers on her leg.

"It doesn't make sense, Steph. Why would the Iranians announce their involvement? It's not their style."

"Public perception is going to drive things. It's politics, you know that. Everyone looks for someone to blame. This could start a war if anyone finds a direct link."

"I don't think it's Tehran," Selena said. " She held up the picture of the disc. "I remembered where I'd seen this. It's hard to believe we're looking at it now."

"'What do you mean?" Carter waited.

"This was the sign of a secret order called the Hashishin. That's where the word 'assassin' comes from. They were a Shia sect that disappeared seven hundred years ago."

"Are those the guys who smoked hashish and thought they were in Paradise?"

"Yes."

"Don't tell me." Nick said. "They came out of Iran."

"That's right. Only it was Persia then. They had a fortress in northwestern Iran, at a place called Alamut. It's still there. It was conquered by the Mongols in the thirteenth century."

"What happened to them? You said they disappeared."

"They believed in a succession of hidden Imams and went into something called dissimulation. Into hiding, until their Imams would reveal them again. That's not supposed to happen until there's a divine sign."

"What kind of sign?"

"Your guess is as good as mine. I suppose they'll know it when they see it."

"Maybe the sign's turned up. Maybe they're back."

"You think this cult is still around?" Steph asked.

Selena shrugged. "It's their symbol. Their weapon of choice was a dagger, though they weren't above using poison or something else now and again. They were trained in every method of killing from an early age. Think of them as Muslim Ninjas, and you've got the picture. They were fanatics, an isolated, minority sect even among the Shia. They believed they were the only ones with a true interpretation of Muhammad's teachings."

"How many were there?"

"No one knows."

Carter massaged his throbbing temples. "They can't possibly still exist."

Stephanie said, "I'm thinking of Sherlock Holmes."

"This isn't a movie, Steph."

"Don't be an asshole, Nick. What I mean is Holmes said that if the possible is eliminated, only the impossible remains. Something like that. If it is the assassins, they exist in the modern world, even though everyone thinks it's impossible."

"If they still exist and have been hiding out for hundreds of years, they're pretty good at it. How do we get a handle on them?"

Selena frowned. "We need more information about them. I know where we might start."

"Where?"

"In Mali."

"Mali? What's in Mali?"

"The Ahmed Baba Institute. It's a library in Timbuktu with a collection of Arabic manuscripts and papers going back to the thirteenth century. You want to know something about Muslim history in the Middle Ages, that's the source."

Nick saw her excitement. Pure research on obscure texts, what she'd done for years. It had brought her world wide academic recognition.

"You want to go to Timbuktu?"

"If there's any contemporary historical reference to what really happened to the Hashishin, it's the best place to look for it. All you can find anywhere else is standard history. That won't help us."

Stephanie flicked away lint from her dark suit. Nick remembered when she'd shown up for work sporting bright colors. Now she was all business.

Selena continued. "Steph, I need a research permit. They're very protective of those manuscripts. It shouldn't be hard with my credentials. I gave a lecture two years ago to an international conference on Islamic history and language and I've been invited to speak again when the next one comes up. I could use my real identity and say I was doing research for that."

Stephanie made a note. "We can arrange that."

"She can't go alone, Steph. I'll go with her. We've got advisors in Mali, the government's friendly. We can send our pistols by diplomatic pouch."

"Damn it, Nick. You're a Director now. You're not supposed to go off somewhere where you could get shot at or captured. Besides, all the intelligence agencies in the world will be looking for these people. They can find them."

"The other agencies don't have Selena. This is a tactical decision and it's my call. She doesn't have enough field experience to go alone. Ronnie and Lamont are out of it. That leaves me."

Selena waved her hand. "Excuse me, I'm right here." Her face was flushed. "You don't think I can take care of myself?"

"That's not the point. You're a rookie. This will be your first time in Africa. Consider it part of your training."

Selena looked at him, nodded once. Carter knew he'd hear about it later.

"Nick..."

"I'm going, Steph."

Stephanie sighed. She knew it was hopeless when Nick made up his mind. She let it go.

"You're too well known in the Muslim world. You'll need a cover legend, a disguise."

It was true. After Jerusalem, he was a high priority target for the fanatics.

"We'll figure it out," he said.

 

CHAPTER FIVE

 

 

Carter and Selena left the Project and headed back into town. She'd gotten another Mercedes to replace the one shot up by the Chinese. A coupe. Fast, burgundy red, almost the color of blood. The inside of the car was leather comfortable and warm. Outside, it had begun snowing. The whisper of the wipers and the quiet background of the heater filled the car against the noise of Selena's silence. Nick kept his thoughts to himself. When she finally spoke, her voice was tight.

"Why do you think I can't take care of myself?"

"I don't think that."

"Yes you do. You called me a rookie back there."

"You are a rookie. Africa is a mess. Anything can happen there. You don't know yet what it's like to go in as an agent. You have to assume everyone wants to kill you."

"They tried pretty hard in Tibet."

"That was different. Ronnie and I are experienced in special ops and it was that kind of mission. So was Argentina. You did great, more than great. But covert field work isn't the same. You don't have any experience in that."

"You forget my research took me to a lot of dangerous places without getting hurt. Including Africa."

"Look, in the field you can't trust anyone. You can't believe things are what they appear to be. You have to develop constant awareness. You have to see everything with a different eye, looking for the false gesture, the wrong word, the concealed knife. You always assume someone is after you, even if they aren't."

"This is just a library."

"A library in the middle of a Muslim country full of terrorists, where you want to look for information on a bunch of terrorist assassins. If anything's there do you think they don't know about it? Do you think they aren't watching? You have to assume they are, because if you don't you could end up dead."

Selena was getting angry. Nick knew the signs. "Why do you assume I can't figure that out for myself?"

Carter felt his face get tight. Blood pressure going up. "God damn it, Selena, it's not about that. Like I said, this is the first time you've done something like this. You think you know what I mean but you don't."

"Just another dumb woman, huh?"

"God damn it..."

They were a few blocks from Nick's apartment in D.C. She braked hard and came to a stop.

"I think you can find your way home from here."

Nick got out and slammed the door. Selena pulled away in a fishtail spray of slush and snow.

The guard took one look as Nick came in and went back to his paper. Carter smoldered as he rode the elevator up to his floor. He let himself in and walked over to the bar. He poured a double Irish and drank most of it down. He stood at the window and watched the snow and waited for the whiskey to do its work.

What the hell was it with women, anyway? It was simple, wasn't it? He knew what he was doing and she didn't. Why couldn't she see that? He was trying to help her, not criticize her.

He'd have to get this straight with her before they went to Mali. It was hard to sort out what was personal and what wasn't. As her boss, he couldn't let her refuse to hear what he said. That could compromise the mission. As her lover, he was just plain pissed.

He poured another whiskey and sat down. He thought about food, but his stomach was in knots. He got up and put on some music. Miles Davis. He liked Davis and Coltrane and Horace Silver and John Desmond. Carter settled back in the chair again and sipped his whiskey.

Goddamn it, he'd never come close to understanding the women in his life. Except for Megan. Megan was different. But Megan was dead.

He glanced at a picture taken a few months ago of his mother and his sister, Shelley. His mother looked vague, his sister like she'd eaten something unpleasant. He thought about his mother. She was going downhill with Alzheimer's. A few weeks before, he'd had a blow out argument with Shelley and her asshole husband. They wanted to put her in a home and sell her house. Prime property in Palo Alto. They couldn't wait to get their hands on the money, but they couldn't do it without him. They'd had to agree to 24/7 live in help instead. Carter could afford it, now.

At least Shelley had stopped needling him about his work, now that she knew he wasn't just another Washington bureaucrat. After Jerusalem, there was no way to keep her in the dark. She didn't know exactly what he did, but she knew paper pushers didn't end up on CNN and carry guns and hang out with the President. Guns or not, she still defended their father. She still tried to bully Nick with the big sister act. She was a pain in the ass. He wished it were different.

Another woman problem. Carter was tired of thinking about it. He got up and opened the refrigerator, found some cold Chinese take out and ate it. He poured another whiskey, sat down in his chair and tried to read. The words kept blurring. To hell with it. He'd been up since three in the morning. He got undressed and went to bed.

He dreamed the dream.

 

The rotors echo from the sides of the valley. The village is there again, the same worthless, dust-blown cluster of crappy buildings. It bakes in bright Afghan sun, the light glinting from sharp brown hills that circle it. A single dirt street runs down the middle.

Like always, he drops from the chopper and hits the street running. Like always, his M4 is up by his cheek, his Marines behind him. Houses line both sides of the street. On the left is the market, ramshackle bins and hanging cloth walls. A cloud of  flies swarm the butcher’s stall.

He's in the market. He can smell his own stink, the adrenaline sweat of fear. He keeps away from the walls. A baby cries somewhere. The street is deserted.

Men rise up on the rooftops and begin shooting at him. The market stalls turn into a firestorm of splinters and plaster and rock exploding from the sides of the buildings.

A young child runs toward him, screaming about Allah. He has a grenade. Carter hesitates. The boy cocks his arm back and throws as Nick shoots him. The boy's head erupts in a fountain of blood and bone. The grenade drifts through the air in slow motion...everything goes white...

Carter came awake, shouting, slick with sweat. The grenade had left ridges of scar tissue on his body. It had left his mind scarred in ways that couldn't be seen. The flashbacks didn't happen much anymore, except when he was asleep. He got up and walked naked into the bathroom. He showered, shaved, got dressed and made coffee.

He hated the dream. He hated that he'd killed that kid. It didn't do any good to tell himself it was self defense, or that bad things happened in war. It didn't do any good to tell himself there wasn't a choice.

Carter didn't believe in religion. He didn't think redemption for what he did in life could be found in the words of men, even if they were supposed to have the blessings of God. That was exactly what the Jihadists believed, and look what the results were. If there was such a thing as redemption he'd have to find it in himself. If it was in there, he hadn't found it yet. For now, he'd try and stop the people who sent children out with grenades from doing it again. One terrorist at a time. Maybe that was redemption.

He waited for the comfort of dawn.

The phone rang.

"Yes."

"It's me."

He wasn't sure what to say. "Where are you?"

"At the hotel." Selena kept a suite of rooms at the Mayflower. Neither of them were ready to live together full time. Maybe they never would.

"I'm sorry about earlier," she said. "I guess I'm a little stressed these days."

"I'm not trying to tell you how to run your life."

"I know."

"I worry about you. I don't want you getting killed. Maybe I ride you too hard."

"Is that an apology? We knew this would come up. It's not the first time. But I know what I signed up for. I know there are lots of things I have to learn. I'm not dumb."

"You're anything but dumb."

"Then give me credit for it."

"You have to..." He stopped, began again. "It's important you don't take it the wrong way if I tell you something. I've been doing this for a long time. I have to treat you the same as I would anyone new. I can't change that because we're lovers."

"What does that mean, Nick? We're lovers because we sleep together?"

"I thought so."

"Maybe there's more to it than that." She hung up.

 

CHAPTER SIX

 

They took commercial air to Mali's capitol at Bamako and a connecting flight to Timbuktu. Stephanie had made arrangements. Their pistols would be waiting for them at the hotel.

Carter wore jeans and a short sleeved plaid shirt, a baseball cap and Ray Bans. He had a thick black beard and mustache that made him look like pictures he'd seen of Civil War soldiers. No one would recognize him. According to his passport he was John Depp. Selena traveled under her own name.

Six hundred years ago Timbuktu had been the crossroads of the Western Sahara, the capitol of an empire. Now it was a fly-ridden shadow of its former glory, plagued by drought, poverty, heat and the encroaching desert. Except for adventurous tourists and Islamic scholars, it was a place the world ignored.

Every year the sands of the Sahara drew closer. In time the city would vanish under the dunes. From what he saw from the air, Carter didn't think it would be much of a loss. As they came in to land they flew over the burned out wreckage of a twin engine cargo plane near the end of the runway. It brought bad memories. He pushed them away.

They stepped through the gate. Two men in police uniform carrying M-16s blocked their way.

"Depp? Connor?"

"Yes."

"You will come with us."

Selena and Nick looked at each other.

"Where?" Carter said.

"Come with us. Someone wishes to speak with you."

The two policemen led them to a door marked Airport Security in bold white letters and knocked. A deep voice responded.

"Come."

The voice belonged to a large, powerful man the color of dark chocolate. He sat behind a large desk. He sweated. The sweat beaded on his round face and trickled under the soiled collar of his shirt.

The sweating man informed them with satisfaction that his name was Colonel Samake. He wore a loose, brown suit that strained over his massive frame. His hands were massive, broad and powerful. He gestured at two wooden chairs.

"Please. Sit." They sat.

Sand gritted on the floor under Carter's boots. A tiny fan stirred papers on Samake's  desk. It did nothing for the oppressive heat. Carter figured him for a security watchdog from Bamako. The two policemen stood by the door. They seemed nervous, as if they might make a mistake standing there.

"I wish to welcome you to our country, Doctor Connor. You are here to pursue research at the Institute?" Samake's voice was resonant, deceptively soft for such a big man.

"Yes, Colonel. For a presentation at the Islamic International Conference in Istanbul."

"That conference is two years away."

"Preparation is always lengthy." Carter kept silent. Something was going on here besides a welcome wagon.

"How long do you intend to stay?" Samake smiled, showing blunt, powerful teeth.

"It's difficult to say. Perhaps a week. We'd also like to do a little sightseeing. I've never been to Mali before."

Small talk.

"And Mister Depp? He is your assistant?"

"Yes. He helps me organize my research and takes care of travel arrangements, lodging, those sorts of things." She turned to Nick. "Don't you, Johnny?"

Nick looked down at the floor. "That's right, Doctor."

She looked away from him before he'd finished speaking. Dismissive. Nick admired her act. A gopher under a woman's thumb. No threat to Samake or anyone else. Nick almost laughed.

"Colonel, it is so nice of you to welcome us."

Selena stroked the man's ego. Almost flirting with him. Samake folded his big hands in front of him and leaned forward. He had an earnest expression. A sincere friend, about to give advice.

Bullshit, Carter thought.

"I must advise you to avoid the northern part of our country, should you decide on venturing out of Timbuktu."

"Oh?"

"There are temporary difficulties with bandits in that area. It is not safe for foreigners. It would be a shame if anything happened to such a distinguished visitor."

Carter's ear burned. That had been a veiled threat. It would have sounded like friendly advice to a real tourist. The message was clear. Don't go to the north.

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

 

 

An hour later they'd checked into their hotel. Carter looked out at the dusty courtyard. Forty Euros a night for a room with two questionable narrow beds and a fan. Selena had the room next to his.

Timbuktu had a grand total of six hotels. None of them met a reasonable international standard, but this one wasn't bad. There was a pleasant outdoor terrace and a second floor balcony restaurant with a view. His room had a private bath and the fan worked. There was a fine dusting of sand everywhere, adding to the exotic ambience of being in one of the world’s legendary destinations.

Selena knocked on the door and came in.

"It's hard to get used to that beard. You look like a pirate."

"Johnny Depp, at your service. It itches." At least they'd decided skin dye wasn't necessary. Westerners weren't unusual in Mali. "Johnny?" he said.

"Well, it worked, didn't it? Colonel what's his name never gave you a glance after that."

"Samake. He doesn't want us out of his sight and he doesn't want us going north. It could just be advice to an important tourist, but I think there's more to it than that. He's right about the north being a bad place to go."

"Why?"

"That's AQIM country."

"AQIM?"

"It's a terrorist group. AQIM stands for Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb. They're a bunch of thugs. That area is a major route for drugs from South America headed for Europe. AQIM finances their ops by protecting the shipments. They like to kidnap westerners stupid enough to go up there and hold them for ransom or kill them. If there aren't any tourists, they ambush border patrols to keep busy. There aren't many of those, now."

"How come no one has stopped them?"

"You can't find them. They hide out in the southern mountains of Algeria. The whole region is within something called the Arc of Instability, across all of North Africa from the Atlantic coast to the Red Sea."

"Then maybe we shouldn't go there."

"We probably won't need to."

"Ready for the library?"

"As I'll ever be. How long will this take, you think?"

"It's research, Nick. There are around twenty thousand manuscripts. It could take days."

"We don't have days. Rice needs results."

"You can't hurry a search like this. I'm just saying it can take time. But I might get lucky. I'm told the manuscripts are well organized. The collection dates from the thirteenth century, right where we need to look."

They found a taxi in front of the hotel and headed for the Institute. A hot, dry wind carried the timeless scent of the Sahara. The great desert stretched away for thousands of miles to the east.

The cab drove past blocks of low houses and shops made from yellowish mud brick. The buildings had heavy wooden doors studded with metal decorations and decorative grillwork over the windows. The driver told them most of the houses were built around hidden courtyards and gardens.

The streets were unpaved sand. Sand was everywhere. They passed donkeys, cows, goats. An occasional mangy dog or cat. They passed bee hive shaped clay ovens that hadn't changed design in hundreds of years, where groups of women in bright colored head wrappings and long skirts baked bread and chattered to each other.

They pulled up in front of the library, on the edge of the desert. The building was new and modern, built to replace an older structure in another part of the city. They entered through a series of high barriers designed to minimize the blowing sand and found themselves in a large paved courtyard. Thick concrete and mud walls blocked the heat. A fountain trickled water into rectangular channels and small pools that cooled the air.

Inside, Selena introduced herself to the librarian. Carter followed her down a ramp to the lower level. The restricted reading area was glassed off and air conditioned. He breathed a sigh of relief.

Selena told the research assistant what she wanted. Carter took a seat. The assistant returned with a stack of manuscripts in colored binders. Selena settled in and began reading. It looked like a long day.

Carter looked around the room. Several people bent over articles and manuscripts. A man with a dark, pockmarked face studied a manuscript at a table across the room. Nick's ear tingled. Something about him didn't seem right, but Carter couldn't pin it down. As if reading his mind, the man looked up at him.

 

CHAPTER EIGHT

 

 

Five looked up from the papers in front of him. He smiled at the man who'd come in with the woman. The man turned away, scanning the room. Five watched the woman take a manuscript from a red binder and begin reading. He could tell it was the one he'd been told to watch for. It was as they had suspected might happen. Someone else sought the journal.