The road to Hell is paved with prayers.
All the great myths say the same thing: thousands of years ago, man was thrown out of Paradise. He left with nothing but pain, suffering, and death. And, according to one myth, he also left with a book, a book about the secrets of Paradise, the land between Heaven and Hell.
The book lay hidden for a thousand years in a Templar treasure cache along the Syrian border, and things might have been better if it had never come to Rachael Nayar. The terrorists who found it and sold it on the black market realize too late what it can do, and they want it back. Black market treasure hunters are after it as well; they want to sell it a page at a time to rich collectors. The Church, hinting darkly about what’s in the book, suggests that the very book itself is a door into Hell, and they want to hide it in their restricted archive before the secret gets out. All of them are ready to kill to have it. Rachael Nayar and her friends David and Sita dodge them all as they work to crack the mysterious alphabet of rings and learn what is hidden in this book.
Once they finally read the words that were last heard in Paradise, nothing is ever going to be the same. The words give you anything you want. But with people dying all around them trying to get this book, Rachael decides the only thing to do is to put it all up on the Internet. If everyone has the secret, maybe the killing will stop. Little does she guess. . . .
Rachael Nayar has, quite accidentally, brought Paradise back to Earth. There is no more hunger, no more sickness, no more pain. Unfortunately, you can still die in Rachael’s new Paradise. . . .
Welcome to a world gone mad. . . .
Imagine you could die and see where you were going to go when you died, but then you were healed and brought back to life before you were gone, and you didn’t like what you saw when you died, so you did this again and again, hoping one day you might get it right. . . .
Can you die in Paradise? Sure you can. Over and over, if you want to. And you will want to.
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Chapter 1. A Dealer in Dead Things
If he went home now, Rafayda would throw her thin little brown arms around him and kiss him, and every time she did, he would know that he was not in Paradise.
Karim coughed and flung the American cigarette, a Marlboro, into the street. The sirens weren’t getting any closer, and he hadn’t seen a policeman or the Yassam for the last couple of minutes. They were all headed toward the column of smoke rising from the Mahaneh Yehuda market.
He prodded the gash on the back of his wrist. The cuff of his overcoat was soaked with blood. He wondered if it was all his. His wrist was no longer numb, and the tips of his fingers were beginning to tingle.
His tongue felt scratchy and burned on the tip. Abdul-Qahhar always said cigarettes eased thirst, and maybe they did a little. He also said they eased hunger, but they didn’t do that at all.
He was hungry. He had fasted all night. He wished he had some kubbi. The last time he had kubbi was when he left home to go with Abdul-Qahhar and fight. His mother and sisters had served them kubbi bi-siniyee, him and Abdul-Qahhar and the rich man from Gaza who told his sisters that their brother was going off to become a great hero and a martyr. Rafayda had cried and she didn’t eat any of the kubbi with him. He remembered the way Rafayda made the kubbi balls. She never learned to roll them. She just squeezed them. Her little hand prints were always there on the fried kubbi balls.
The man from Gaza didn’t eat anything. He just kept smoking in his mother’s clean kitchen and looking at his golden watch. The only time he moved was when he heard sirens outside the window. At the time, that all seemed so urgent, so important. Karim remembered how anxious he was to go with the man from Gaza and with Abdul-Qahhar.
Karim wanted to see Rafayda. But if he went home now, the police would follow him there and they would take him away, and he didn’t want her to see that. Or they would kill him, and he would be in Paradise at last, but Rafayda would see them kill him, and Paradise for her wasn’t the place your brother went when you saw him murdered.
He tried to keep thinking about the important man from Gaza checking his golden watch and smoking. Rafayda hadn’t seemed so urgent, so important, then. He didn’t care what Paradise meant to her, not then.
Abdul-Qahhar was not going to be hungry or thirsty anymore. They were hosing him off the sidewalks down at Mahaneh Yehuda right now, wiping the last of him off the walls of the market stalls. Now he was a martyr in Paradise, a hero of the resistance at eighteen, a master of seventy-two lovely dark-eyed houris, a splash of graffiti on a mud brick wall.
Karim turned his hand over in the bright sunlight. The gash on his wrist would stop bleeding soon. Seventeen-year-old skin healed fast. Maybe he’d get a nice scar out of it, a war wound. You could keep your scars in Paradise, if they flattered you. He wondered if he would live long enough to see it heal, or if his body was just wasting its time. He was supposed to be dead.
Karim looked across the street at the door to the Gurion House hotel. He hadn’t heard a siren for the last two minutes. There weren’t many people on the street. Things were quiet. It was time to go.
Quatermain lived in the Gurion House. Quatermain would help. He would know what to do. Quatermain made his living dealing in dead things.
Adam Quatermain didn’t stop packing the box of artifacts when Karim knocked on the door of his room in the Gurion House. He just told his son to open the door.
Paul set his own box aside, half full of two-thousand year old Herodian clay lamps packed in styrofoam, bound for the antiquities trade in America. These were the real thing, not the tricked out fakes baked up in some back room and peddled to tourists as ancient relics. Paul was especially proud of this collection—he’d contacted the dealer, verified their authenticity, and closed the deal himself. Soon they would be sitting on someone’s bookshelf or end table, and then they would have themselves something from the past, right there, a lamp that maybe Herod or Saint Thomas or God-knows-who might have read a scroll beside, two thousand years ago.
He’d been here a month, and he’d learned a lot about his father’s trade in antiquities, things you couldn’t learn in college. Most of the deals happened just like this, with a knock on the hotel room door. People knew when his father was in town looking for goods, and they usually just showed up, knocked, showed him what they had to sell, and that was it.
So somebody knocked at the door, and Paul opened it, and stepped aside to let the stranger in.
Adam Quatermain glanced up and nodded at the newcomer. “Karim? I’d just about given up on you. Where have you been? What have you got for me this time?”
Paul Quatermain closed the door behind the dark young man. His father seemed all right with this one, but Paul knew immediately that he didn’t like him.
He’d met a lot of dealers in antiquities in Jerusalem in the last couple of weeks, and they mostly seemed proper businessmen. Karim was too young to be a businessman. No older than Paul was. Maybe younger. Paul decided he had to be younger. And this one wasn’t here for the money. You could tell.
Most of the dealers didn’t really seem to care whether what they were peddling was a Roman emerald ring worn by some decadent woman like Poppaea Sabina, or a Canaanite clay brick pulled from a latrine. The only thing they noticed was the check his father gave them for the goods. Dull, unimaginative, but they all looked respectable, Jewish or Muslim or Christian.
He would have preferred it if he and his father could go out and find the stuff themselves. He always had the idea that, in this business, you hacked your way through the jungle or you trekked across the barren desert until you found a lost city and then you opened hidden, sealed tombs and you brought to light all the gold and jewels and weapons that had lain buried for thousands of years, heroes’ swords, princesses’ jewels. But that’s not the way it happened.
A few of the dealers were different. They carried guns, they brought their goods to his father in the backs of vans parked outside of town in the desert, or hidden in dirty abandoned warehouses outside the old city. As long as the items were authentic, and if they had papers—forged or not—that could get the goods across the border, they got their money, too, though they preferred it in cash, dollars or Euros. Paul didn’t care for them much, but that was the way the trade got done, sometimes. Finally, they were all still the same. They were here for the money.
Not this one. Paul didn’t like the way this boy looked, oily black hair that was too long hanging over his sunken cheeks, a fresh gash on his face. He didn’t like the way he smelled, a kind of tense, metallic odor. He didn’t like the way he kept his right hand in his overcoat pocket.
“Quatermain,” Karim said, his breathing shallow and fast. “Yeah. I have been away. Look. I need—”
A siren screamed down the street and interrupted him, a couple of Yassam on motorcycles. Karim darted to the wall and peeked out the window. Paul could see the sweat beading on his shining forehead.
Quatermain straightened up from the box. He looked Karim up and down carefully, and his eye came to rest on the overcoat pocket, bulging with the boy’s hand and, perhaps, with something else. The sirens passed the Gurion House and faded away.
“You have a bad cut on your cheek,” Quatermain said, his voice odd and flat.
Karim reached up with his left hand and wiped, a smear of blood on his fingers. “It’s nothing,” he said. “Listen, Quatermain. I need to get to Syria.”
Quatermain considered this for a moment. “And you look like you’re in a big hurry.”
“You’re not here with goods to trade, are you?”
Quatermain folded his arms across his chest and faced Karim. “I can’t go into Syria. You know that.” He leaned back against the window sill. “What’s on your mind, Karim? Have you got into some kind of trouble?”
Karim laughed explosively. “Something like that.” He quieted, and Paul could see him do it, like he was trying to hide something ugly and restless and squirming under a greasy blanket, his face twisting with effort. “This is not about relics, Quatermain. Not this time.”
“Well, that’s all I’m interested in, Karim.” Quatermain’s face darkened. “Why are you telling me this? Why did you come here?”
“I wasn’t followed, if that’s what’s worrying you.”
“You don’t have any idea what’s worrying me, Karim,” Quatermain said, his voice taking on a kind of quiet menace that Paul wasn’t sure he had ever heard before. He was accustomed to his father’s temper, which he sometimes used with dealers, but this . . . this was different.
Karim didn’t argue the point. But Paul felt his arms flush with tension, the hair standing up on his skin.
Karim looked over his shoulder at Paul. “Your son? Teaching him the trade?”
Quatermain blanched and ignored the questions. “Jericho is closer, Karim. You can cross the border there into Jordan in twenty minutes. The car keys are on the dresser. Right there.”
“And I’ll walk right into the arms of the Magav, waiting for me there.” Karim shook his head, droplets of sweat flinging from his long black locks. “I need a driver. I need somebody to talk for me. I just need to get to the border. I have people in Syria who can help me, if I can get there.”
“Is that what they told you?” Quatermain laughed. “There’s nobody waiting for you in Syria. You’re on your own. You know how this works. Your own people will kill you now, when they find you.”
“It wasn’t my fault! The vest didn’t work!” Karim blurted. “I should be dead by now! I should be in Paradise!”
Something about that softened Quatermain’s expression for an instant, but only for an instant. Then he shook his head dismissively. “Stop wasting my time. Get out of here.”
Karim stepped back until he leaned against the wall and pulled out a pistol.
Paul recognized it at once. It was an IDF issue Baby Eagle. His father had one just like it in his collection back home, in London. Paul watched a drop of sweat gather on Karim’s chin.
“You’re going to help me, Quatermain. I have made you a lot of money in the past. You know that. I know things about your business that you don’t want talked about. You know that, too. I want one last thing from you. That’s all. You are driving me to Syria. He is coming with us.” Karim jabbed the muzzle of the black pistol towards Paul.
Quatermain took a brief, fast step towards Karim, but in an instant he froze, as Karim had the pistol leveled and the hammer cocked.
“I don’t owe you anything, Karim.”
“You’re not doing this because you owe me, Quatermain. You’re doing this because, when this day is finished, you don’t want to owe me.” Again, he nodded towards Paul.
Quatermain seemed to balance the thing out in his head while he studied the jumpy young man with the blood on his face and hands. Then he looked at his son.
Paul’s eye was fixed on his father’s face, and he searched it for some sign, trying to figure out what to do. There were two of them. Karim was only one. He couldn’t shoot them both before they got to him. But he might hit one of them.
But no, surely he wouldn’t dare to shoot them at all. That would get him nowhere. He’d still be in Jerusalem, the police would still be looking for him, he’d still be covered in blood, and the hotel would be ringing with the sound of the gunfire. Surely, they were safe. Paul felt a smile steal across his lips. They had nothing to fear from this boy.
Why, it would be suicide to shoot them in here.
Then Paul felt the smile melt from his lips. Shooting them here would be suicide. Precisely. And then a ticket to Paradise for Karim. That’s the way he saw things. That’s what he was here for.
Ten minutes later they were in the car and on their way out of town, heading north and east, towards Lake Tiberius.
Chapter 2. The Golan Heights
The drive to the Golan Heights took a little over an hour. Nobody said anything. Karim sat in the back seat, his pistol in his lap.
Five minutes north of Ramat Magshimim on Highway 96, the road started to wind through a series of small hills, the highway twisting through the gaps between them in little roads cuts, and Quatermain slowed the car as he began to drive into a tight turn between the low but steep bluffs of a road cut, traffic barricades forcing him to weave between two bulldozers sitting right across the road, the first one blocking the right lane, the second blocking the left.
He growled as the car coasted to a stop at the end of the line of cars caught between bluffs of tan rock. “Damned awkward place for road work. What is this? A rock slide or something?”
“No. No, it’s a roadblock. It’s the border police,” Paul said, pointing between the cars ahead. He turned and cast a quick glance at the traffic piling up behind them.
“The Magav!” Karim said, in a guttural whisper, and Paul felt a fleck of moisture from Karim’s lips fall on his arm.
Paul could feel his father tense behind the wheel.
“Quatermain! Turn the car around!” Karim whispered.
“I’m blocked, Karim. There’s traffic piled up behind me. You had better put that pistol away. They will be searching the car in a moment. And wipe that blood off your face and hands.”
Quatermain seemed to stare straight ahead at the border police, rifles cradled in their arms, leaning close to the cars as each pulled up to the barricade in turn. The police looked inside at the passengers and driver, checked papers and IDs, walked around the cars, searched the trunks. There were four Magav, border police, catching the cars on this lane heading north. No one was searching the cars heading south. They just had to slow down and pass on through.
Paul kept his eyes fixed on his father’s face, but the man seemed completely uninterested in whatever was going on in the back seat or outside the car. He kept both hands on the wheel, and his face was as passionless a mask as Paul had ever seen it.
Karim leaned forward between the two front seats, propping his knees on the transmission hump. “Quatermain! They are looking for me! You need to do something!”
Quatermain sat back slowly and easily. “Relax, Karim. Just relax. I am doing something. I’m going to get you there. They can’t know you’re up here. And I’m sure you have good papers. Just relax. And put away that pistol.”
Paul knew that passive, unemotional face. He knew that voice. He’d heard it once before, when a deal out in the desert late one night was about to go wrong.
They had laughed when Quatermain introduced Paul to them as his son.
They had no goods to trade. The proposed deal was just a set-up. They knew Quatermain would bring cash, a lot of it, for the deal, and they were just going to take the money. Quatermain was going to let them do it, too. He said it wasn’t worth fighting over. Two of them had pistols they kept trained on Quatermain. Sometimes things like this just happened. It was the cost of doing business.
But then one of them said they should take Paul, too, and a couple of them laughed.
Paul couldn’t remember what happened next very clearly. It was dark. Everything was too loud, too fast, gunshots, and crying.
But when Paul could see again, when he could understand what he was seeing, two of the three of them were dead, and the third lay on the ground, his leg bleeding badly from a knife wound. Quatermain didn’t say anything to the man on the ground. He just looked at him, wiped the bloody knife in his hand on a dead boy’s pants, and then he turned and he and Paul left.
Then everything changed again. His voice, his face, everything was just the way it was before. The problem was dealt with. It was over.
Once in a while, Paul still remembered that night. He wondered if the proposed kidnapping was what tipped the scale, or if his father intended to kill the robbers all along.
There was now only one car in front of them in line for the Magav.
He felt the back of his seat bump as Karim leaned forward against it, and the metallic smell of the man’s sweat and fear was strong.
The car ahead of them pulled away, and Quatermain let his foot off the brake, so the car began to drift up closer to the guards and their barricade.
Paul’s hands felt sweaty. He wished he were calm.
Then Quatermain reached down, pulled up on the seat adjustment lever, and shoved backwards with both legs, as hard as he could, throwing Karim back into his seat and off his balance. Quatermain shouted, “Go!”
Paul jerked the door open and rolled out onto the road. He rolled clear, got to his feet, and saw to his horror that his father was still in the car.
Karim shouted, groping for the backs of the front seats, fumbling his grip with his pistol still in his right hand, and Quatermain’s right arm went over the seat in a flash, snared Karim’s wrist, and pulled his arm down and forward. The pistol went off twice, Paul saw the dashboard radio explode in a spray of plastic. Then the pistol went off again, and the windshield was spattered with red.
Then the back door flew open and Karim came spilling out, spraying bullets at the Magav guards. They returned fire, and one of them hit Karim, a glancing shot that left a long crease in his left side.
Karim ran straight into Paul, knocked him to the ground, grabbed him by the collar, hoisted him to his feet and held him close. He fired two more rounds at the Magav, and they scattered to take positions behind the concrete barricades.
Then Karim turned the pistol to Paul’s head.
And everything stopped right there.
This was a perfect stalemate. Paul knew that the Magav would not take another shot at Karim so long as the man held the pistol to his head. They had snipers, good men with a rifle, who could kill Karim, even as he hid behind Paul using him as a shield. But they would never risk the shot while the gun was to Paul’s head. But they also knew they could follow him without risking a shot from him, because Karim couldn’t take the pistol from Paul’s head, not even for an instant, or they would kill him.
Karim dragged Paul to the end of the roadcut, both of them walking backwards, two of the border police following as closely as they dared, rifles trained on Karim, encouraged, if that was the right word, by the fact that Karim never took the muzzle of the pistol from Paul’s head.
Once clear of the roadcut, Karim began to back across the scrub covered gravelly ground, heading east, towards the Syrian border, about a thousand yards behind him.
For several minutes they continued this way, walking backwards, heading for the border, watching the rocks as the Magav followed. The police were not pressing Karim too closely, but they were always there.
Paul’s mind raced as Karim continued to jostle him backwards down the trail, now falling away behind them as steeply as a staircase. He knew Karim would kill him when he crossed the border. Hostages never survived. He had killed his father. He knew he would be next.
But he also knew he had a little time. As long as he hadn’t crossed the border into Syria and as long as the police followed, Karim needed him.
There was only one chance. Karim had to keep him alive until he crossed the border. If there came a moment when Karim thought the police could not see him clearly enough to take a shot, then he might take the gun away from Paul’s head for a moment. That was all he would get.
A few minutes later, that moment came. The trail twisted between the rocks as the bluff steepened, and it looked like the pursuing police disappeared for one instant behind the rocks above as they followed. For one instant, they were out of sight.
Karim took the pistol away from Paul’s head. But he clubbed Paul sharply, and the boy fell to his knees, stunned, his head swimming. Then Karim fished a grenade out of his overcoat pocket, and he pulled the pin and heaved the weapon back up the hillside.
But the Magav could see him after all. Instantly the ground around Karim rippled as bullets spat into the dirt, and Paul heard Karim grunt as something knocked his left leg out from under him, sending him tumbling, grabbing for Paul’s collar, and he dragged Paul down with him until they both collapsed in the dust and rolled down the steep, boulder strewn path, coming to rest as the muffled explosion of the grenade rang out over the rocks, scattering dirt and gravel into the air. Up above them, somebody cried faintly in pain.
Karim lay on the ground gasping in agony. The smell of his sweat now mingled with the smell of his blood. He inspected his new injury, a solid shot right through his left side, the blood flowing freely into his shirt. But the bullet had not fragmented or expanded; it had gone in and come out boring a clean hole right through him.
Karim was tough. After another minute, slowly, he rose to his feet, his hand shaking, but the pistol still against Paul’s head.
Paul, his vision clearing after the blow on his head and the tumble down the trail, could see the weakness in Karim’s step as he resumed his backwards retreat down the bluff, half dragging Paul, half using him for support. There was no sign of the police above them, even though they had had time to catch up. Paul fretted, trying to figure out what that meant, why they had not taken another shot when they had the chance.
Maybe the police knew they had hit Karim, and it was just a matter of time.
Maybe Karim had killed them with the grenade, and the chase was off.
Maybe they knew he was across the border, and it was too late.
Paul knew that none of those options was going to do him any good.
Karim was panting. He stopped to catch his breath. Blood streamed slowly from the wound in his side.
Paul raised his leg, and brought his heel down as hard as he could right on the top of Karim’s foot as he twisted away from the pistol. Karim cried out in pain, the pistol went off, but the round went high and wild. Paul twisted about, jamming his elbow into Karim’s ribs, and he heard him grunt, his grip was still fixed to his collar. Paul reached up for arm holding the pistol, pulling Karim close, grappling with him, hoping his wounds had weakened him.
Karim swung at him with his free hand, struck him solidly, but that was no good, and he tried to push Paul away to shoot him, and Karim fired the pistol again but the round went wide and before he could fire again Paul’s arms were wrapped around him and they fell to the ground, rolling painfully down the steep bluff, too steep to find his feet. They began to gather speed, they banged off the jutting rocks that sprang out at them, Karim lost his pistol, and he was horrified at the desperate strength this boy had.
Then Karim struck his head against a rock, and the last thing he saw in the light of the day was a very dark and very open pit just below him, wide with appetite, and then he was swallowed up and everything was gone, and he wondered if he was now dead and if this was close enough to be counted a martyr.
Chapter 3. The Romance of Archaeology
Nobody ever warned Karim that the houris of Paradise would be white.
She was as white as a leper. Her face, her hands, her eyes. Even her clothes. As white as a leper. She didn’t look anything like the women in Abdul-Qahhar’s tattered Victoria’s Secret catalog.
She stood over him, her long soft arms held out and her face turned to someone or something down about where his feet were. His eyes tried to focus. He tried turning his head, and the pain of it bit into his shoulders and neck like a mother cat moving house.
“Drink,” he croaked up at the houri. She didn’t pay any attention to him. It was going to be hard to get excited about the women in Paradise if they all looked like this. Karim had a feeling they bruised easy.
He sat up. Or the world sat up, and he held on.
It was a cave. The slide down the wadi had dropped him into some kind of a buried ruin—he could just make out the cyclopean masonry of the walls. A few blocks high on the wall, just below the arched roof, had collapsed, leaving the opening through which he had fallen, and a soft pile of silt had accumulated over the fallen blocks under the opening. Soft enough to break his fall, instead of his neck. This was some sort of a temple, or something.
She was a statue. Polished marble. A goddess of some sort. She stood on a raised dais, maybe a foot or two off the level pavement. The corners of the dais were carved into fluted columns, the capitals decorated with the likenesses of doves.
He struggled to his feet, his bloody shirt sticking to his side. The chamber was gloomy, the twilight outside fading fast, but he could barely make out a heap of something lying on the rubble against the near wall.
It was Paul. He wasn’t moving, and he lay at a funny angle. Karim reached down painfully and tugged at his arm until the boy rolled over, his face blank and white. He couldn’t tell if he was dead or not. He couldn’t see him breathing.
Karim stared at the quiet face of the young man on the sand. He was a good looking boy. High cheeks, pale skin, large eyes, soft dark hair, a little long, a little wavy. Abdul-Qahhar would have said he was beautiful. There was something about the mouth, though—something cruel about the mouth.
Karim let Paul’s hand fall to the floor and he began to limp about the chamber. His head swam with fatigue and blood loss and thirst.
This place was full of treasures. He could see other sculptures, and a stack of weapons, swords and spears and shields, and chests. . . . It would be worth a fortune. The only trick would be to get it all out of here and to the right people. The opening high on the wall was a full five feet above the floor level, and the soft pile of silt that had prevented him killing himself when he fell in also prevented him from climbing back up its dry and shifting slope with only one good leg. He was trapped like a bug in an ant lion’s den. The light was failing fast. He felt like he was going to faint.
He put his hand to his forehead, and was surprised at the touch of his own hand, numb, cold, sweaty, and stinking. He examined the wound in his side. It was still bleeding. It would take another two, three hours to bleed to death. Not much more. He had to get out of here while he could still move.
Karim found the knight buried in the floor beside the goddess. He lay prostrate under his shield, mostly covered over with a layer of soft sand and dust, but enough of him sticking out for the young man to trip over.
He looked like a Crusader. Karim, shaking with exhaustion, pulled the great bowed triangular shield off the corpse, six feet of plate armor, and his great sword, and his arms crossed underneath.
Even now, the power of the body lying in the dust filled Karim’s heart with something uncomfortable. But Saladin had finished the Crusaders in this area, around the Sea of Galilee, at Qarne Hittim in 1187. It took another century to finish the work of driving the Crusaders from their land, but by 1300, they were pretty much all gone. The power of the Crusader, invincible for so long, had folded up overnight, and the great Sultan had purged the land of them forever. The story goes that Saladin had a contest, a magical contest, with the Pope himself, and the Pope lost, was turned into a pig, and ran wild into the desert to be eaten by his own dogs. That’s what he’d always been told, anyway.
Karim wondered if this man had ever seen Saladin in battle.
A pale bundle of something lay on the knight’s breast, clasped close by the crumbling arms. Karim gently lifted it from the skeletal grip. His hands, though trembling with weakness, were still practiced with handling treasures from back in the days when he worked on digs and smuggled goods to men like Quatermain. The pale, soft bundle was a book, wrapped in some hide and bound round with thick leather thongs. He tucked it under his arm on the dry side of the shirt. This, at least, he would start with. They’d have to come back for the rest. His friends would like this. For this, they would take him back. For this, they would be glad he had lived.
The shield itself, four feet long, might make a good ramp up the side of the slippery silt. It left him only a foot from the opening. He propped it against the wall and climbed painfully up, clinging tightly to the bas relief design on the shield, and at last he was out into the twilight.
No doubt they would even be able to find some decadent who would pay a fine price for the dead and mummified corpse of the soldier. Quatermain would have known someone who would buy it. He was an expert at dealing in dead things. Karim almost managed to laugh. Now Quatermain was a dead thing himself. He wondered if that made the man any more valuable.
He winced in pain as he looked at the pale bundle of soft vellum at his side, still fresh and supple though it had lain under the knight’s shield for centuries. They would certainly find a buyer for this book. It would bring a fortune for the Intifada.
It looked a long way back up the slope to the road. This had to be Syria. With the knight’s book under his arm, Karim set off down the wadi towards the Syrian border town of Sayda, praying as he walked for a miracle, for a short trip, for a few more hours of strength. He found he could even spare the mental energy to imagine Rafayda and her little hand prints on the kubbi. He might just make it home a hero, after all.
Karim stumbled numbly towards a village, quiet under the dark night sky. He didn’t know the name of the town, his eyes were filmed over with dust and loss of blood, and he couldn’t feel his fingers anymore, clasped tightly and cold about the manuscript.
He saw a pale blue wall covered with roses, pale pink roses, their color fluorescent in the deep twilight. He remembered roses; his mother had fussed over them in her garden when he was a child. She always said that Paradise was full of roses. Karim dropped to his knees before the cracked stucco of the pale blue wall, staring blankly at the glowing blossoms. There was a small wooden door in the wall, framed all around by the heavy rose vine, laden with blossoms. The door was closed.
Karim opened his eyes one last time.
The sky was dark overhead now, and he turned his head achingly towards the rose covered wall. The wooden door stood open. Beyond it, there was a light by another wall.
The old bearded man with his hands on his knees looked at the young man like he couldn’t quite make out what he was seeing. The old man held one of those pale pink roses in his hand, and a pair of garden clippers.
His granddaughter, maybe six years old, knew what she was seeing, though, as soon as she appeared through the door in the wall behind her grandfather. She brushed through the overhanging roses and came straight to where Karim lay in the dust.
She knelt beside the prostrate young man, smoothed out her clean dress, and she lay a Hello Kitty first aid box on the dust beside him, opened it, rummaged about, drew out a stiff rag, and began to hold it again the dying young man’s side.
Karim stared into her eyes. They were black, full of light, dark, and alive. “Rafayda,” he said to her.
“Asiyah,” her grandfather said, and when she didn’t respond, “Asiyah!” he said again. And then he ordered the little girl to go back inside the house.
Asiyah fished the bundle of manuscript out of the dust, carried it to the door in the wall, sat down on the step under the overhanging rose bush, opened it up, and started to turn the pages.
Find The Lesser Gods at Amazon or at Barnes & Noble.
Copyright 2011 by Keith Azariah-Kribbs