and The Pirates of the Mystic Caravan.
Chapter 14 - Tea for Two
Passing through, the girls found themselves standing in another, larger chamber.
Confronting them against the far wall was an image. It was that of a man, hands upon hips, an array of beams like a crown, radiating from his head.
But what shocked the girls was that rays of light flickered between the solid stone as if fire burned beyond.
'You don't think that could be real fire do you?' said Priscilla. 'I mean like The First Fire of Zarathustra?'
'I have no way of knowing that,' replied Narenda, 'but this image is surely of the Sun-God Mithra. See, he carries a whip in his hand as driver of the heavenly chariot...'
'And here is where they went through,' said Monique, indicating a narrow archway, littered with fragments of shattered masonry.
'Shhh!' Belinda hushed them all with a finger to her lips. 'Listen! I can hear faint voices, listen!'
Sure enough, the others picked up the garbled sounds emanating from beyond the Sun-God's grid.
'There they are!' said Monique, standing on tip-toe to peer between the stone rays of Mithra's helm. 'There is fire! And I can see Surban! She is kneeling in front of a... what is it? How do you say in English? ...Ahh, break, crack... chasm, yes yes chasm! There is fire bursting, leaping out of it, flames taller than the men standing around her... '
'What's she doing, what's she doing!' interrupted Priscilla, trying to gain a glimpse of what was happening.
'And more to the point, what are the men doing?' said Belinda jostling at Priscilla's shoulder.
'One of them seems to be shouting at her and also at the other two and now he is kicking at both of them. Ohhh!' Monique's voice went up an octave. 'The fire! Flames shooting high into the air! It is not man-made that fire. It comes from within the earth and they are on the edge too close! One of the pair is turning on the other and pushing him down!'
'He's got a knife!' cried Priscilla.
'Look out!' screamed Narenda involuntarily as she too managed to find a vantage point.
Below, two of the men scuffled together fighting over the weapon, kicking out and digging in their heels to avoid the flames that curled from the void where Surban and the third man lingered until he bent and grasped her by a wrist, wrenching her away from the edge of the flames and the thrashing of the pair struggling over possession of the knife.
On the brink of the fiery crevasse, the two combatants rolled over and over, the sounds of their grunting for supremacy astonishingly sharp through the flickering vault below.
'That one, the one on his back... no, now on top, he's Dastur Navsari, the fake priest we met in Canberra!' Priscilla cried, waving her hand at the thrashing pair just as the other flailed an arm free and with several vicious strokes ripped the knife into the garments of Navsari. Vivid red spurted from several rents in the back of his dirty flannel shirt as he tore himself free and momentarily gained his feet, stumbling a few paces before collapsing, one hand clutching around uselessly at his wounds as he coughed out blood that splattered crimson across the stone in the firelight.
His adversary too found his knees and lifted the knife on high in signal of victory.
There was a sudden blast, a single gunshot that felled him on the instant.
Surban screamed, twisting in the grasp of the third man, who kept her captive whilst stepping closer to the man he had just shot and firing another round into him at close range.
'Surban!' shouted Priscilla and the others joined in, 'We'll get you out of this!'
Harry was pleased that Activator Silent Mode was still operative.
As the girls clustered together around their viewing portal they watched helplessly while the gunman used his foot to roll, first the dead body of the man he had killed into the fire chasm and then callously did the same to the second stabbed victim, who might have yet been alive.
Then, still grasping Surban's wrist tightly, he brought the pistol he clasped around to her forehead.'
'Oh no! He's going to shoot her too!' screamed Priscilla, banging her hands uselessly against the stone and then suddenly remembering that there was a way to get down through the broken arch indicated by Monique, who was already scrambling through with Belinda and Narenda right behind.
Another loud gunshot boomed across the vast underground temple and Priscilla's heart sank as she frantically followed on hands and knees.
'Oh Surban! We've let you down!' she cried, tears springing to her eyes. Then, drawing up behind the others she pushed her way between to glimpse a sight she could not have possibly imagined.
Below, Surban and her captor were still in the same position almost as if they had been frozen in time. What was chillingly different was the appearance of a number of other armed men, their weapons trained on the pair. One of the intruders was shouting and at first made no sense until the Black Eagle language decoder morphed it into English. '... or you die and so does girl. We do not make allowance in this. First shot was over head. Next shots kill. Weapon down now!'
For almost too long the man holding Surban's arm hesitated.
Those facing him moved menacingly closer, their raised weapons sighted directly upon him.
With a sigh of submission he lowered the gun and allowed it to fall to the ground, at the same time releasing his hold upon Surban as he drew himself upright.
'Do you know who I am?' he said as his assailants slowly advanced to surround the pair. 'I am Gammal Kaddar, Egyptian research Archaeologist of hitherto undiscovered sites and collector of ancient artifacts and relics. I will pay you well to deal with me. The money will aid your cause considerably, whatever it might be. As for this girl, you may treat her as you will. Now lower your weapons and let us talk.'
'The bastard!' said Monique uncharacteristically. 'He was the so-called Priest that came to Hopewell for Surban!'
'He's the same bastard I saw on the Han Maru the night the pirates attacked.' Priscilla answered. 'I bet he had some sneaky scheme to make her folks tell all, except the pirates double-crossed him and threw him off the ship, but somehow he still tracked Surban to Australia and set up the scam in Canberra. We've gotta get down there!'
Yet before the girls had taken more than a few steps the situation changed dramatically.
A figure emerged from the shadows. He was tall, well over six feet, and clothed in dirty white garments and upon his greying head he wore a grubby turban of sorts wrapped around so that an end curled down to his black-grey beard.
The armed men surrounding Surban and Kaddar moved aside as the figure passed between, his arms folded, hands hidden amongst the swathes of his clothing.
'Girl-child,' he began in a deep voice, 'short of killing you, I should have your tongue removed and your eyes put out, but then hands would need be cut off also to stop your communication with the outside world. Instead you will remain with my followers. They will instruct you over the years to come, so that you see the correct way before us all. Now, this pot that you hold, is this for the fire? Are you of Zoroaster? Answer! Are you a believer in Zarathushtra! Speak now or you will indeed have no tongue to speak with!'
'Yes, I will speak,' she said boldly though her voice quavered. 'I am Surban Anahita, and I am believer in might of Ahura Mazda and Mithra. This man with me is very bad man. Pretended to be priest. Convinced Surban to lead him and other false priests to this secret first Fire-home then is going to kill me. When one of them tries to stop my death the other is ordered to kill him. Then when he does this evil thing this man shoots him dead also and is about to murder me when your men come. Whatever now befalls me I shall keep to my belief, for honour of dead parents. My humble offering of fire-coals taken from home-land over ocean to far-off country of Australia, presented there and renewed to be brought here again to fire that began all others, I now give back to same!'
And before any of the surrounding gun-men could move, Surban flung the pot high over their heads so that it fell and rolled to the brink of the fiery crevasse and then plummeted into the depths. The flames suddenly grew in intensity, billowing and waving into the darkness of the underground vault, and several of the gunmen stepped back in awe.
But the tall man merely raised an arm, beckoning to one of his company. 'The girl-child has spirit. With us she will require such if she is to survive to womanhood. Take her back to our billet and do not touch her! Though she is not of our faith she yet is defended by hers here in the sanctuary of such gods.'
Before Surban could protest, two men grasped her arms and led her away toward the shadows from where they had come.
'Now,' said their commander, turning to Kaddar, 'I believe that you wish to say something. I will give you a moment to collect your thoughts while tea is prepared. You do drink tea?'
Kaddar, seeming suddenly lost for words, could only nod, sinking slowly to the dusty ground.
'Girls, do you know who that man is?' said Belinda, the words springing breathlessly from her lips.
'It could not be,' said Narenda. 'He, if he is alive, is in Pakistan or Afghanistan or on the borderland of Iran.'
'Oh come on? Will you two get real?' Priscilla asked. 'Like we can't hang around here debating who he is while Surban is being dragged off to this bloke's harem.'
'It will not be, as you call it, a harem of females for the pleasure of this head bloke,' Monique replied. 'More likely Surban will be forced to live with these terrorists, possibly used as a hostage or later killed as yet another act of their brutality. And, I believe that Belinda is right. The tall man is the most hunted man in the world, Osama Bin Laden!'
'Pull the other one! You're putting me on,' Priscilla answered. 'You can't be serious?'
Before anyone could reply, activity below took their attention. Even as the girls began silently and invisibly to make their way carefully down the rubble slide to the bottom level a weird scenario began to play out. A raggedly robed figure emerged from the darkness carrying a basket-weave tray upon which rattled steaming brass pots and cups. Setting it down before the kneeling figure of Gammal Kaddar, the man backed away, leaving the tall man to sink, like a camel at a water hole, cross-legged opposite Kaddar. In the meantime, the rabble of armed men had all slowly withdrawn in the direction of Surban's abduction.
'So, Mister Kaddar,' said the tall man, pouring tea into a cup, 'you desire to be recognised as an important person, someone who is of influence in the world of archaeology and yet at this moment you are also aware that your life is on the edge of a knife. You know that one nod of my head is all that is required. Now I know who you are and you already know who I am.'
'No! I do not!' Kaddar replied far too quickly and, as if realising that, added, 'You must be a powerful tribal leader who fights against those bastard infidels the Americans and their allies. Ptah! I spit on them and the British as well!'
'Honey, sugar or lemon?'
'Oh dear,' said Belinda as the girls advanced now over a level area just metres away from the two men, 'Kaddar understands only too well who he has stumbled upon and is frantically trying to find a way to save his neck.'
'Whatever.' said Priscilla. 'We have to keep focused and go after Surban. I hope they kill each other anyway.' Invisible, she stepped around the two men and made for the darkened area where Surban had been taken, but Belinda called, 'Priscilla, indulge me, please wait, I have a feeling we might learn something of importance.'
Priscilla halted with Monique at her side. 'This could get violent again. You girls able to take it?'
'If it helps us to understand what has happened and how we can save Surban, perhaps it is worthy of a few more minutes,' offered Narenda.
'Umm, O.K. they're still chatting, let's listen in.' Priscilla agreed, taking a few steps back toward the seated pair.
'Mister Kaddar, lemon is a wise choice for those who favour lemon. Enjoy. Your other choice, to pretend that you are ignorant of my identity is wildly foolish. Your eyes give you away. Have you any comment?'
Kaddar, his eyes indeed bulging in a face that stared aghast across his uplifted teacup spluttered, 'Yes, of course, wildly foolish oh most Wise and Powerful One. And may I say that I am also wholeheartedly against your enemies and upon the side of right. That is to say, your side. Besides I can pay you well. I have much money in swiss banks and various investments, and you may not realise exactly where you are situated here but this is the culmination of my life's work. This place, which has been known only to very few over the centuries, I am certain is the site of Zoroaster's original fire source. The artifacts hidden here could be worth a king's ransom and will make the outside world sit up and take notice. I have spent much and gone to great lengths to gain the information that has finally brought me here. It took torture to the death to discover the names of that girl's parents, the ones entrusted with the secret of this location. I even caused a ship to be overrun by pirates in order to save and be-friend them. I had intended to ingratiate myself and, if need be, to use whatever manner of persuasion to extract the information I needed. However I was double-crossed by those vermin pirates, may they rot forever, and set adrift. And though I survived that ordeal it took time to discover the whereabouts of the girl, who had survived and been sent on to her dead parents destination in Australia. But Kaddar does not give up easily. I will not bore your Most Gracious self with the details, save to say that I found and persuaded the child to lead me here and... well, there were some complications that required a resolution. That was happening at the moment of your illustrious arrival. I am now astonished and elated to find that I have been forestalled by your Honourable self. Yet we can still forge an alliance beneficial to both of us. Think of it, the greatest find of the new millennium! It will rank with last century's giants: Carter in The Valley of the Kings, Wooley at Ur, Schliemann at Troy, Petrie in the Nile Val...'
'Pardon me, Mister Kaddar, but how could you see this as beneficial for my cause? Your desire to discover what may lie beneath the surface here is single-minded. You are a tomb-robber, a plundering common thief, a publicity-seeking power hungry megalomaniac, nothing more. Greed seeps to the surface. Riches corrupt. Power decays.
It may surprise you, yet your finance offered in such circumstances, is not welcome. I have access to vast amounts of currency via multiple agencies. So you see you are of no use to me on that point, and as for your foraging exploits in this land, it is to my advantage that they fail. My faith, my own personal beliefs, will not tolerate Christian, Hindu, Buddhist or followers of Zoroaster. This hidden place, crucible of Zarathushtra, I will do my utmost to ensure remains forever undiscovered. For this time it is a convenient base far away from where those who pursue me search, but of course I stay only briefly anywhere. What is your reply to that?'
Wiping his face with a large red handkerchief, Gammal Kaddar answered, 'Very well, if my money is not of use to you, then of course you have me. The ransom I could fetch will be considerable, and easy to obtain.'
'Wrong on all assumptions, Mister Kaddar. As I have told you, money is not of importance and as for your notoriety, who cares? More tea?'
'Am I to understand that you will not allow me to leave this place?'
'That is a point of absolute certainty, Mister Kaddar. Apart from anything else, you have already demonstrated that you are a ruthless murderer by killing your own two companions. Your guard at the entrance has also been disposed of by my own followers. Surprised? Poor fellow. He could hardly have expected anyone at his back. My people always have other entrances and exits. As for those few herders who await your re-appearance amongst their beasts of burden outside, they will tire eventually, especially if they seek to find you and discover that the way you entered has been blocked with what will seem randomly fallen stones. They will simply abandon you.'
'This is preposterous!' shouted Kaddar, standing and automatically reaching for his pistol only to find the holster empty and suddenly remembering that he had given it up.
'An interesting weapon Mister Kaddar, an army issue revolver firing six shots,' said the seated man, looking up at him, the weapon held lightly in his left hand. 'Now if my memory serves me correctly you have already discharged two bullets, and I should be surprised if the last four were not in the chamber. Here, take it. You shall be in need of such in a very few minutes from now.'
Kaddar looked at the seated man in astonishment. 'You tell me that I am to die and yet you hand me back my pistol? Why do you trust me with this weapon? Are you not afraid that I might use it against you?'
'Your tea, Mister Kaddar. Drink it before it cools. Enjoy this last luxury of life. I however must be going along to prepare for the days to come. You would be foolhardy to think that there are not weapons trained upon you as we speak. One false move and you will be cut down immediately. I simply leave it up to you. There is no way out. Use the pistol on yourself. It will be the swiftest way to end your life. Otherwise you face a death that at best might be sharp under a fusillade of bullets, or at worst a lingering demise at the hands of my followers for your treachery. We shall not meet again, in this life or any other.'
The seated man arose and, grasping Kaddar's wrist, pressed the gun into his palm.
'You are overwhelmed of course at the thought of death. And perhaps your beliefs are so fragile that they are not enough to carry you on. It is a pity that you have not my expectations of death and what is to follow after. If you did there would be no fear and you would open your arms to welcome what is to come. Do the best you can and nothing foolish.'
So saying, the tall man turned his back and strode away so swiftly that the girls had to jump aside.
'Whoa! Scary!' said Priscilla, her gaze, like the other girls, still upon Kaddar where he remained, standing alone, the pistol gripped in his trembling hand.
'Even scarier, there doesn't seem to be anyone else hanging around that I can make out,' said Belinda, but before anyone could reply, Kaddar took their attention. With a wail he sank to his knees and began to gibber vague words that made no sense, lowering his head to the ground for a few moments before rising up and lifting the gun. The sudden blast shocked the girls almost as much as if it had actually blown them over. Smoke from the weapon mingled with the fire beyond as Gammal Kaddar crumpled and lay still.
'What then have we learnt?' Monique wondered as the girls turned away, sickened by what had happened.
'Evil! We have learnt about evil in many ways,' Narenda choked, stumbling along with Priscilla aiding her. 'It is a vile thing to witness this murdering of people in a place that was meant to be for the uplifting of humanity.'
'Look out!' Belinda exclaimed. 'There are men here!' She indicated shapeless masses that loomed from the shadows and resolved into two dark forms clutching assault rifles. Cautiously the pair approached Kaddar's huddled form, passing the invisible girls and halting a few paces from the body.
'Blood.' said one quite clearly, indicating with his left hand.
'Search him. There might be cigarettes or valuables,' said the other, 'then kick him into the fire. Here, give me his gun.'
The first bent down over the body and reached for the weapon where it lay in Kaddar's open hand. Even as his fingers touched its barrel the hand closed around the butt, raised and fired at point-blank range and, swift as a snake, moved and fired again at the second man who was taken completely by surprise, coughing once, his rifle slipping from his grasp as he fell close to the feet of his already dead comrade.
An instant later Gammal Kaddar was on his feet, swaying slightly, his hand pressed against the side of his head where the bullet from his own gun had blasted his left ear. Blood continued to spatter down his white-gowned arm as he holstered his pistol and began to relieve the terrorists of their weapons and ammunition.
'Alright, O.K. Seen enough everybody!' shouted Priscilla dancing around in front of the others who seemed rooted to the spot. 'Learnt enough? Come on! Harry! Tell them! This isn't a movie! Kaddar is alive and now he's got their guns. Who knows what could happen? We have to get to Surban, we can't just give up and leave her to these... '
'In canine terms, mad-dogs or mongrels would be about right.' said Harry from their activators. 'You don't have any choice now. Buggy tells me they've blocked the entrance up top. You'll have to follow the way they took Surban. And remember, these guys claim to have other ways out. But take care, who knows what Kaddar is going to do? He seems to have lost his mind.'
'I don't think so, he's got nothing to lose now, not even his mind,' said Priscilla. 'He's a dead-man-walking, a very dangerous dead-man loading up with guns and bullets!'
Chapter 15 next