"That's the end of it." Joel Levy stepped back from the bed of the truck with a sigh of satisfaction. "Now, can we get the hell out of here, Emily? I don't like the look of those clouds. All we need is to get caught in a snowstorm to make this trip a total waste of time."
"It's not been a waste of time," Emily Hudson said as she zipped up her fleece-lined jacket. But Joel was right, the temperature had dropped dramatically in the last hour, and the air had a bite to it. "Just because we didn't find anything that we haven't seen before doesn't mean that those artifacts aren't worth saving. It means something to these people, this country."
"Save the lecture for your class at the university," Joel said. "All I know is that we drove all the way up here into the mountains to this little museum that no one but us seems to give a damn about. And no wonder. Most of those artifacts are less than a hundred years old."
"And you wanted to find Alexander's sword or a new version of the Bible." Emily made a face at him. "And I'm not lecturing you. Do you think I'm nuts? I know it would be hopeless. I don't know how you got your doctorate. You're no scholar, you're an Indiana Jones wannabe."
"You're just jealous." Joel grinned. "You want to be Indiana Jones, too, but you're weighed down by paperwork and responsibility. All that stuff is sapping the joy of life out of you. You should never have taken this job, Emily."
She shrugged. "It needed doing."
"And the U.N. wasn't willing to pay anyone else enough to risk their necks like we do." He corrected himself, "Like you do. After this job, I'm going home to settle down and write my memoirs."
"No publisher would buy it. You're only twenty-seven."
"But I've aged in the last five years I've worked with you. I'll lie a little, embroider a little, and then Spielberg will buy my book for the movies."
"Good luck." Joel was always threatening to quit, but he never did. He had a fine mind, but he was too restless for university work and liked moving from country to country. He'd certainly had enough of that working with Emily. The U.N. sent them to the hot spots and war zones of the world to catalog, verify, and move the contents of museums to special preservation centers until it was considered safe to return the cultural treasures to their home bases. Not only did Joel have a Ph.D. in Archaeology and Antiquities, but he was fluent in Hebrew and several other Middle Eastern languages, making him invaluable to Emily. "But if you stay home, Maggie will make you marry her. No more ships that pass in the night."
He flinched. "Maybe I'll go on one more job with you."
"Is that the last load, Emily?" Al Turner stuck his head out the window from the driver's seat. "We'd better hit it. It looks like snow."
"I'm surrounded by weathermen," Emily said as she turned back to the museum. "That's it, Al. You and Don go on. Joel and I will take one more look around, then follow you in the other truck."
"Don't be too long," Al said. "You don't want to be caught by weather in these hills. I know the U.N. said they'd cleared the area of bandits, but they've been wrong before."
No one knew that better than Emily. She and Joel had almost been blown up in Baghdad when the military had assured them that the area the museum occupied was in a safe zone. Joel swore that the U.N. had pressured the military to make a hasty judgment. The artifacts in that museum had been priceless, and the U.N. had not wanted either theft or damage done as a result of the war effort. It would have been "awkward."
The museum had been booby-trapped, and there had not only been treasures lost, but Emily had ended up in the military hospital in Germany with a concussion. Like Joel, she was now wary about trusting any reports of peace in any region. "It's been pretty peaceful so far. And I just got a call that our military escort is almost here."
Al scowled. "They should have been here hours ago. They were supposed to meet us before we even entered this zone."
"That's what I told them. They stopped to help remove a land mine at a village near here. You'll probably run into them before you've gone far." She waved. "Get out of here, Al. I'll see you in Kabul."
She watched the truck go down the hill and then lifted her gaze to the mountains of the Hindu Kush to the north. Magnificent mountains whose rough paths had been walked by Alexander the Great, Russian invaders, and local warlords. They always looked austere, but with those storm clouds hovering over the peaks, they were particularly forbidding. She turned to Joel. "Let's go back and check the cellar again. We were working so fast that I didn't get a chance to examine the walls to see if there were any cubbyholes where the curator might have hidden anything."
He followed her into the building. "Why wouldn't he have taken anything valuable with him?"
"He might have done it. The report said he'd been killed by bandits while he was trying to get out of the area. But you know we've found hidden artifacts before." It wasn't that unusual for museum staffs to pilfer artifacts, then blame warring forces. "Come on. Maybe you'll find the Holy Grail."
"Not likely." He glanced around at the empty cases of the first-floor exhibition room. "We didn't find one display case that could have preserved anything ancient. Cheap, very cheap. I can't figure out why they even had a museum out here in the boondocks. There's only a little village in the valley, and that's practically deserted after all the bandit activity in the area."
That had puzzled Emily, too. The area had just been opened to the U.N. after a violent year of bandit and Taliban activity. It was strange that the museum had appeared to be untouched by the violence taking place around it, but perhaps stranger that it existed here at all. "I was told the museum was funded by Aman Nemid, a member of the National Council who was born in that village. He's very proud of it. He was the one who requested we be sent here to save it."
"Save what? I think that curator would have considered an old print of Casablanca an art treasure."
"It was. I liked that movie." She was already on her way downstairs. "I know, I'm a sentimental slob."
"Yep," he said as he followed her. "You need someone to jar you into the real world. I can't understand why you're not a cynical, hard-bitten shrew, considering the job you do."
Her brows rose. "You mean I'm not? What a concession coming from you."
"Well, I have to keep you in line. You'd be impossible to work with if I didn't."
"I am cynical," she said quietly. "I just can't let it poison me. There are scumbags walking this earth, but there are good people too. I figure if I look straight at the goal ahead, maybe I won't see the ugliness." She smiled as she glanced back over her shoulder. "And good company helps the bad medicine go down. You qualify at least seventy percent of the time."
"Eighty-five." She was looking around the dim cellar. It had been used as a storage area as in most museums, and they had packed up everything that qualified as a possible artifact. There were rusting farm tools thrown in the corner, but they couldn't have been over twenty years old and had probably been used in the garden in the back. The few wooden storage boxes piled across the way had already been searched and deemed not worth transporting. "You check that wall. I'll do this one. If you see any cracks, any thickness that might conceal a compartment, give a shout."
"I know the procedure." Joel moved toward the wall and turned on his flashlight. "But we're not going to find anything. Give it up, Emily."
"Your approval rating has just gone down five points. Be quiet and just look." She didn't blame Joel for being reluctant to waste time here. This job had gone wrong from the time they had arrived in Afghanistan. They were supposed to have been sent to Iraq again but had been diverted to Kabul. Then there was the snafu with the military escort, and when they arrived here, the museum had been deserted and the supposedly priceless artifacts as disappointing in value as Joel claimed. Well, all she could do was do the job and hope the next one went better. She turned on her own flashlight. "I want to get out of here, too. But I need to leave knowing that I didn't miss anything."
"Yes, boss," Joel said. "It's only fair to tell you that I'm rethinking the hard-bitten shrew."
"I'll live with it." She started going over the walls, first visually, then with the tips of her fingers. "I'll just watch a DVD of Casablanca when I get back to town, and maybe I'll remember that some men are willing to sacrifice what they want now and then."
"That hurt. When you were down with flu, didn't I do your paperwork on that job in Chevnov? I'd say that was a gigantic sacrifice."
"You only did it because you wanted to use it to blackmail me for the rest of my career." It was a lie. Joel had been as caring as a mother with her child when she had been ill. He had found her a decent doctor and finished the job in Chevnov himself. No one could be a better friend than Joel had proved to be. She'd be devastated both personally and professionally if she lost him. "Check those walls."
"Okay. Okay." He shined his beam on the walls. "But I bet Humphrey Bogart wouldn't have wasted his time. There's no drama in this. Boring."
"But Ingrid Bergman would have done it in a heartbeat. She knew about duty."
Joel sighed and repeated, "Boring."
"I'm done," Joel said. "Nary a cache in sight. Do you need any help?"
"No. I'll only be a few more minutes." She moved a few feet, her gaze narrowing on the wall. "You'd just get in my way."
"If you take any longer, I'll build a bonfire of those trunks." He blew on his hands. "We've only been down here ten minutes, and it's like an icebox."
"A few more minutes," she repeated absently, her fingertips probing the rough stone wall.
Joel leaned back against the wall, watching her. She probably didn't even feel the cold, he thought. Once Emily focused on a project, nothing existed but the work at hand. That was the reason she was admired and respected by military and diplomats alike in this part of the world. She was brilliant and dedicated and had credentials out of the stratosphere. She was only thirty, but she had been working for the U.N. since before she had gotten her degree. At first, she worked under Oxford Professor Cordwain, but she had taken over after he opted out eighteen months later.
More power to her. He wouldn't have her job on a bet. He didn't mind being on the team, but he liked his personal life, and Emily had none. Every time she started to have a tentative relationship, she was sent to another part of the world.
Why hadn't he tried to get her into bed? They worked together with a closeness that should have lent itself to a more sexual intimacy. God knows, she was attractive. Maybe not in the usual sense. She was tall and thin, but with a grace and strength that were kind of sexy. Her brown eyes were wide set and slanted, giving her a faintly exotic appeal. She wore little makeup, but her skin was baby soft and clear, and her short blond-brown hair was always clean and shiny.
So why hadn't he hit on her?
Because he'd sensed the fragility beneath the strength. In spite of what she faced every day, she was a dreamer, and dreamers could be hurt. She wanted to believe in a better world that had all the beauty of the past, and ignored the fact that the past had been as violent as the present.
No, she didn't ignore it. But she refused to dwell on it. Maybe that was why he liked her so damn much. She wanted the world to be good and was doing something about it. She was right, he only wanted the adventure, the excitement, and the friendship that Emily gave him.
And occasionally, when he was on leave, a roll in the hay with Maggie Nevowitz, who was cute and bawdy and not at all fragile.
"Nothing." Emily took a step back. "I didn't really expect it."
"Then will you tell me why I'm freezing my balls off down here?"
Her smile lit her face. "Because it could have been." She started for the stairs. "The most magical words in the language."
He followed her. "No, the most magical words are heat, food, and sex." He turned up his collar as they went outside. "Brrr." His gaze went to the mountains. "It's coming fast. Look at those clouds."
"Then let's get going." She jumped into the passenger seat of the truck. "At the speed you drive, we should be out of the province before the storm catches up to us. And the military escort will meet us long before then. It should be okay."
"Yeah." He didn't move, his eyes on the roiling gray-black clouds. He was feeling a chill that had nothing to do with the temperature. His chest was tight, and he was experiencing a weird panicky sensation. It was as if those threatening clouds were alive and stalking him.
"Sure." He tore his gaze away from the approaching storm. "It'll be okay."
"They're coming." Borg fell down beside Staunton on the side of the hill overlooking the road. "Just a few minutes away." He lifted his rifle. "Shall I blow out the tires to make them stop?"
"No, they'll stop." Staunton lifted his binoculars. "They have a reason. We don't want to damage the artifacts in the back if they skid off the road." He focused his glasses on the front seat of the approaching truck. "Yes, there she is in the passenger seat. Emily Hudson. She's smiling and talking to the man next to her. What's his name? Levy. No sexual relationship, but they're friends of long standing. And her attitude toward him leads me to believe our reports are accurate."
"They're going to see it soon," Borg said. "We should be ready."
"I'm ready." Staunton said. "I'm always ready." He put the binoculars down. "Stop worrying, Borg."
"We can't delay that escort any longer. They're going to be right on top of us within thirty minutes."
"Thirty minutes can be a long time. I've prepared everything. It will all go well."
"Sure." Borg clenched his hand on the stock of the rifle. Staunton had ice water running through his veins. The bastard was always cool and certain of everything. "Do you think she has it in that truck?"
"I hope she does." He smiled. "It will be so much easier for her if it's there."
"For Pete's sake, will you turn off Bruce Springsteen?" Joel asked. "You played him all the way here. I need a break."
"You're never satisfied." She started searching her iPod. "I'd think you'd appreciate the difference between The Boss and Casablanca. 'Born in the U.S.A.' is definitely not sentimental."
"But he goes both ways. 'Dancing in the Dark' is a little too—what the shit!" He jammed on the brakes. "It's Al's truck!"
Emily's eyes widened in horror. "My God."
The truck was turned over and artifacts were strewn all over the gravel road and bordering ditches.
"I don't see Al or Don." Joel opened the door. "Where the hell are they?"
"No!" Emily grabbed his arm. "Don't get out of the truck. Get us out of here."
"No way. I have to find—"
"You know what we're supposed to do when we run into anything unusual. We'll come back as soon as we run into the escort. This could be a trap."
"And it could be a hit-and-run by those son-of-a-bitchin' bandits or Taliban. If our guys are hurt, they could bleed to death before we can get back to them." He grabbed his gun from the glove box and jumped to the ground. "Stay here. I'll check it out." He strode toward the overturned truck. "Call for help."
If he was going to do it, then she couldn't let him go in alone. She grabbed her Glock and got out of the truck. "Be careful, dammit. Don't go barging in and—" She stopped as she saw the blood.
A thin red stream was running toward them from behind the truck.
She forgot about being careful. She was around the truck before Joel got there.
"God in heaven," she whispered.
Al was crumpled near the ditch. His head had been almost torn from his body by a barrage of bullets. Don was half under the truck as if he'd tried to get away from the attack. He hadn't succeeded. Bullet holes peppered his entire torso.
"Butchers," Joel said huskily. "They didn't have a chance."
Emily tore her gaze from the bodies. Bodies. So impersonal a word. These had been her friends and companions. "We can't do anything for them. We have to get out of here."
He didn't move. "Sons of bitches."
Emily grabbed him by the arm. "We have to leave. Now. They could still be—"
"And they are." She whirled to see a tall, loose-limbed man with sandy hair coming toward her, an AK-47 cradled casually in the crook of his arm. "Don't lift your guns. This weapon could cut you in two before either of you could press the trigger."
"You killed them?" She stared at him in bewildered horror. "Why? If you wanted anything in the truck, they would have let you have it. Those are our orders. We're not supposed to fight to protect those artifacts."
"But, love, I needed a distraction." He raised his thick sandy brows. "How else could I be sure to engage your attention?"
His voice was smooth, casual, and had a faint Australian accent. In comparison, his words were shockingly ugly and cold. "Now lay your guns down on the ground. Very carefully."
Emily hesitated. "Do it, Joel." She put her gun down.
Joel didn't move for an instant, then reluctantly laid his gun down, too.
"Very smart." The Australian lifted his fingers to his lips and gave a piercing whistle. "Time to check your cargo. Stand very still while we do it, and you may live for a while longer."
"Bastard," Joel said. "You killed them in cold blood."
"Of course. It's always best to keep a cool head when violence is involved." He glanced at the six men who had streamed down from the hill. "Borg, be quick about it. I want to know in the next five minutes." He turned back to Joel. "If you'd been a little cooler, we might have lost you. I saw the lady trying to make you stay in the truck. If you'd been less emotionally involved, you could have—"
"It wasn't his fault," Emily interrupted. "I would probably have done the same thing."
"You're defending him even in these circumstances? You must be very good friends. I can't tell you how happy that makes me."
Emily was watching his men carelessly tossing artifacts out of the back of the truck. She flinched as a three-foot-high vase broke. "Tell me what you're looking for. You don't have to destroy everything."
"How devoted you are to doing your job. Preserve and protect."
"That's right." She had to figure a way to get out of this. The situation was too dangerous to make mistakes. "Let me protect the rest of these artifacts. Tell me what you want."
"I will if we don't find it." He called, "Borg?"
"It's not here, Staunton," A short, burly man with thinning brown hair jumped to the ground and motioned to the other men to leave the truck. "I thought maybe in the vase, but it wasn't there either."
"Look, there wasn't anything valuable in this museum," Emily said. "If anyone told you there was, they lied."
"I was told there was a very valuable item, and my source is very reliable." He shook his head. "Which means that you're lying."
"I have no reason to lie. I told you, our orders are to give up any artifacts if it means risking personnel. What are you looking for?"
He tilted his head and studied her expression. "Zelov's hammer."
"Maybe you don't recognize it by its name. But I'm sure you'd recognize the treasure hidden in the handle. You're an expert in Russian artifacts. Was it too tempting for you to give up?"
"We don't know what the hell you're talking about," Joel said. "There weren't any tools on display at the museum. Certainly none with any hidden compartments."
"No tools at all?"
"There were used gardening tools in the cellar of the museum," Emily said. "Go check those out."
"I will," Staunton said. "You're being very cooperative. I'm impressed."
"Then let Joel leave. You don't have to keep both of us as hostages."
Joel began to curse. "No way."
"He doesn't like the idea," Staunton said. "Neither do I." He smiled. "But I do like the idea of getting out of here. We've run out of time." He turned away. "I'll call the helicopter. Bring them."
Borg was coming toward them. Emily tensed. Going anywhere with these murderers might be a death sentence. She had no choice but to make a move.
Her gun that she'd dropped at Staunton's order.
She fell to the ground, reaching for it.
"Oh no, bitch." Borg swung viciously, and the stock of his rifle struck her in the temple.
"Wake up. I'm getting impatient."
Emily tried to open her eyes, but the pain was too great.
"Wake up!" She was lifted by her shoulders and slammed against the wall.
Her eyes flew open.
"That's better." Staunton was standing before her. "I thought you might be playing possum. I've actually been very lenient, but it's time we got down to business. My employer wants answers and isn't at all pleased with me."
Australian accent, deadly words.
Don and Al lying butchered by the side of the road.
The memory jarred her into full consciousness. Her gaze flew to Staunton's face. "You killed them."
"We've already gone into that. You're beginning to bore me. We've already moved on." He shook his head. "And I've already lost time because you were stupid enough to try and go for that gun. I do hate waiting."
She glanced around her. She appeared to be in a hut of some kind. "Where am I?"
"The mountains. Actually quite near the stronghold of my good friends who used to rob and pillage this area."
"Yes. Though Shafir Ali regards himself as a warlord. Unfortunately, the national government doesn't agree. He's a little too barbaric for them."
"Then I can see why you consider them friends. Why didn't you get them to rob our trucks?"
"I couldn't trust them. But I had them do their part."
"No, I did that, but of course I'll give them credit."
"Or blame. You don't think the U.N. is going to sit still for this, do you?"
"No, but this country is still barbaric in many ways. The civilized world doesn't always know how to handle barbarians, and the U.N. is nauseatingly civilized. There have been bandits wreaking destruction here for centuries. Very few are brought to justice because they know these mountains." He smiled. "I hate to disappoint you, but there won't be any cavalry coming to your rescue."
"You're the one who will be disappointed. Westerners don't just disappear without a cry being raised."
"I'll take my chances."
"Why? It's crazy that you—" She stopped as fear surged through her. "Where's Joel? What have you done with him?"
"Nothing yet. He's just been placed in the hut next door. I thought it more convenient."
"Convenient for what?"
"Persuasion." He squatted beside her, and his hand wrapped around her throat. "For him. For you."
"Don't touch me." She moistened her lips. "I told you that I don't have what you want. Did you check the basement of the museum?"
"Yes, we went immediately to search it. There was no hammer, though the other tools were of Russian make." His hand tightened on her throat. "A conspicuous absence, wouldn't you say?"
"I thought they were garden tools. They appeared to have been used. They might be. There was nothing of value in that museum. You have to be wrong."
"I could be. But my employer believes it was there before your arrival. He said he was absolutely certain it was. That makes it necessary for me to make very sure. He said to explore every option . . . extensively."
"We don't know anything about any hammer."
"You'll have to convince me." He drew even closer to her, his blue eyes glittering in his long face. "And I'm going to be very hard to convince."
"Use a lie detector. Give me truth drugs."
"There are ways to beat both of them. I'm an old-fashioned man. I believe traditional methods are best." His voice was soft. "Shall I tell you what I'm going to do? I'm going to take your friend Joel Levy and hurt him beyond your ability to imagine. When you think he's had enough, all you have to do is tell me what I want to know."
"What big eyes you have," Staunton said. "You're frightened. It's an awesome responsibility to have the power to stop another's pain, isn't it? Tell me now, and we won't start it."
"Why Joel?" she asked hoarsely. "Why not me?"
"Your turn may come. I believe this will be much more effective. Besides, I've always found that torturing women has bad side effects. For some reason, it's regarded as particularly heinous and rouses opinion against you. Seems unfair, doesn't it? Sexist. But if by chance you ever got free, I'd be hunted down without mercy. No, you'll tell me where it is after a few days of our persuading Levy."
"I can't tell you," she said, agonized. "I don't know anything about it."
"I almost believe you. But I have to be sure." He rose to his feet. "I'm going into Levy's hut now. Borg is waiting for me. Don't try to leave. There's a guard outside, and my bandit friends are camped a short distance from here in the hills." He drew a machete out of the holster at his hip. "I think I'll start on his fingers first. You'll be able to hear him screaming."
"Don't do it. There's no sense to it. He doesn't know anything. I don't know anything. Please."
"Yes," she said unevenly. "Don't hurt him."
He was staring at her. "You feel things with such intensity. What a delight you'd be to break. Begging is always satisfying, but it's not enough." He headed for the door. "If you're stubborn, we'll have to move on to the bigger stuff soon. Then I'll bring you in to watch."
"But we don't know anything."
He was gone.
Dear God in heaven. Panic was flooding through her. It was a nightmare. How could she stop it? How could she convince him? Why wouldn't the bastard believe her? Maybe he was bluffing. Maybe he only wanted to scare her.
And then she heard the first scream.