Late August, 1936. The year in which the Oriental Institute of Chicago extended its activities to include a dig at Meggido in (then) Palestine ...
The four came out of the desert as evening turned to night. They might have been wandering Arabs, coming to the ruins with their donkeys, finding a place to camp through the hours of darkness. They might have been Arabs. But they came silently, the hooves of their beasts muffled with rags, and their silhouettes furtive against the early stars as they crossed a ridge and plodded down toward the shining inland sea. And though unwittingly they followed more or less a path Jesus of Nazareth had followed some nineteen centuries before them, that was the single way in which it could be said that they 'walked in the Ways of the Lord.' For in all other respects they were ungodly indeed, and one of them especially so.
Now they picked their way carefully through rubble on the outskirts of what had been, long, long ago, a village. Low, ruined walls stood up from stony ground; the rim of a dried-out well had caved in where once streets joined in an open plaza, and where now the bleached bones of a great olive, dead six hundred years, lay sandpapered and near-petrified under the darkening sky. The moon shone down on a desolation of tumbled stones and rude dwellings crumbled almost to their foundations; in the near-distance, Galilee was a sheen of rippled silver under the stars.
'This is the place,' said the leader of the group, slowlynodding. His voice was the dry whisper of reeds, rustling up as from a throat full of dust. 'Help me down.'
The old man's followers silently dismounted, then assisted him from his donkey. He was light as a feather, desiccated, old as this old place itself. So he seemed. To any chance observer it would also seem that his retainers handled him with reverence; in fact, they handled him with fear - like a fragile bottle of some deadly virus which they dared not spill.
Hooded, all four, for long moments then they stood under the moon, the old man clinging to his donkey until he found his legs. Finally he stood unaided, put up a hand and threw back his hood. The others at once drew back from him. Age had made him ... very ugly. Age and something else: black evil!
George Guigos was all old cracked leather and stained ivory. His lips seemed to have withered, drawing back from teeth which jutted from shrivelled gums and gave him an awful, permanent grin. Oddly, he seemed to have retained all his teeth. Above his mouth, a collapsed nose was a raw hole, the bridge between its great pits of nostrils almost completely eaten away by disease. Pits, too, his eyes: but these were yellow in the dark like those of a cat, with nothing at all of senility about them but a bright and terrible awareness, a luminous intelligence. Bald, his head was a brown walnut on a pipestem neck. He was frail as a twig, and yet his power was awesome; it was the power of evil in him.
'Are you sure, Mr Guigos?' one of the three, a little bolder, perhaps, than the others, stepped forward again. He put back his own hood, glanced all about with quick, dark eyes, as if to find some sort of landmark or point of definition. 'One mound of rubble seems much the same as any other to me.'
'But not to me, Ihya Khumnas,' Guigos snapped, his voice coming viciously to life. 'This is the place.'
'The place of the treasure?' another asked, his voice an eager hiss. This one was called Yakob Mhireni.
Guigos looked at all three in turn. 'The place of great treasure, yes!' he answered.
'You mentioned a map,' said Ihya Khumnas, licking his lips. 'But ... you never seem to refer to one.' He shuffled uncomfortably.
'The map is in my head,' said Guigos. 'If you had such a map, wouldn't you keep it in your head?' He laughed a laugh that grated like a shovel in cold ashes, which finally subsided as he glared again at the three. 'But it seems I must remind you: you have no interest in the treasure itself. Only in its recovery. The treasure is mine. Or perhaps you think you weren't paid well enough?'
They had been paid half in advance, the rest due on completion. And it had been enough. Not a man of them would ever need to work again, neither them nor their children. They could all live in luxury on the interest alone. They were almost rich men, and would certainly be rich men when the account was settled in full. But last night Khumnas and Mhireni had conspired between them, and now they gave each other small, furtive glances before Khumnas answered: 'We've been paid well enough. It's just that we're eager to be done with this, that's all. We're tomb-looters, here under false papers, labouring through the day for the Americans at Meggido, who at any time are liable to see through our cover. That's enough to make anyone nervous. The sooner we can get out of here the better.'
'We are in complete agreement,' said Guigos. 'I do not any more enjoy your company than you enjoy mine. Anyway, that choked well back there - where the old streets cross - that was once the centre of this village.There was a grapevine growing all along the under-branches of the olives, of which there were several. Figs grew up the wall of one of the houses. All in all, it was a very pretty square; the village was not unpleasant.'
'Huh!' Mhireni grunted. 'That lone tree's been dead a hundred years and more! When was this time you speak of, Mr Guigos?'
'Long, long ago!' Guigos rasped. 'As for the olive tree by the well: you are wrong, it has been dead six hundred years. In any case, the well is my marker. That and Polaris.'
He turned his yellow eyes up to the sky, sought out the Great Bear and its pointers, guided his donkey between low mounds of rubble. The others glanced at each other, shrugged, began to follow him.
Khumnas was a forger and confidence trickster; he had been recruited six months ago as he fled his native Iraq where the authorities were intensely interested in his head. Mhireni was likewise Iraqi: a thug and brutally strong, he was nevertheless devious and quick-witted and had thus eluded justice for most of his twenty-eight years. Guigos's third hired hand was no less a criminal, but he was somewhat different from the others.
Handsome, with typically Greek features and a physique to match, Dimitrios Kastrouni was the youngest of the three. His twenty-two years had been spent mainly in Larnaca, a fishing village in Cyprus. The only son of a Greek-Cypriot vintner, two years ago he had been spurned by a girl who then married his rival. Sneaking into the wedding ceremony, as the two were joined, he had leaped forward to slit the bridegroom's throat before all the horrified guests. Then, barely ahead of the hue and cry, he had fled to the mainland in his father's boat, scuttling the craft off Haifa and swimming ashore by night. Under an assumed Jewish name he had got himselfa job driving for the British authorities, which was where Guigos had found and recruited him only a month ago.
Kastrouni was on edge, his nerves jumping. But his was a controlled nervousness; outwardly he appeared cool, almost emotionless. His internal agitation sprang from two years of flight and deception in a world where the storm-clouds of political unrest and the ominous stirrings of nations as they prepared for war had covered his tracks and given him freedom; but he remained unconvinced that he had escaped the consequences of his crime; while he did not relish the thought, still he anticipated his past catching up with him. Sooner or later it would, he was sure, and that kept him on his toes. But, basically honest, he was satisfied with what Guigos had paid and promised to pay; the alleged 'treasure' held no interest for him. Thus he was not part of Khumnas's and Mhireni's conspiracy.
Now, as the four picked their way carefully through the ruins, Kastrouni's flight-sharpened ears detected some slight sound, hopefully distant. 'Shh!' he cautioned the others, coming to a halt.
'What is it, Dimitrios Kastrouni?' Guigos hissed.
They all held their breath.
'I heard - something,' finally Kastrouni answered.
'Huh!' Mhireni snorted. 'And who would be out here, under the stars, in a God-forsaken hole like this?' Although he was not a true believer, Mhireni came of a Shia Islamic family. His remark had no real significance; it was something he'd picked up from the Americans, who blasphemed as a matter of course. But while it meant nothing to him, Guigos was different entirely.
'Be quiet!' the old man hissed, then gave a deep, chuckling, rustling laugh. 'God-forsaken, indeed! Aye, Chorazin is that, all right ...' And to Kastrouni: 'Well, what was this "something" you heard, Dimitrios?'
Kastrouni looked at him, scowled, rounded on Mhireni. 'Fool!' he said, keeping his voice low. 'Who would be out under the stars, you ask? This is British territory. They patrol constantly. To the north the French have border posts. The Arabs still inhabit a number of towns around Galilee. Fishermen sail on the night waters and nomads wander in the desert. Archaeologists scour the land, seeking out just such "God-forsaken" places as this. Who would be out here? Man, didn't you hear what Khumnas said? We're tomb-looters! This treasure Guigos seeks is not his to keep, but he will keep it. Therefore he is a thief and we are helping him. There are men enough in this land who would kill you for your gold earrings, let alone a treasure. And when I say I hear something, you had better believe I hear something!' He spoke Greek but Mhireni understood every word.
Mhireni's flush went unnoticed in the gloom, but Khumnas saw his hand steal inside his robe. The Iraqis had plotted to kill Kastrouni along with Guigos - but after they had the treasure. Khumnas caught Mhireni's elbow in a tight grip. Lightly he said: 'The Greek is right. Perhaps it would be better if one of us kept watch and scouted the land about.'
Guigos looked reluctant but finally agreed. 'You do it, Dimitrios,' he said. 'Your eyes and ears are sharp, and you seem to value your life and freedom more than these two. Keep a watch; go in a wide circle; but be back here by midnight. I'll need you then.'
'Back here?' Kastrouni looked all about. 'Back where?'
'Here,' Guigos grunted. 'Right here!' He stamped an oddly twisted left foot and pointed out three large boulders in a triangle where they supported a fourth. That is the marker.'
Khumnas and Mhireni tethered their donkeys, went to the boulders. Limping a little and moving more slowly,Guigos followed them; he took a dry stick and traced a square in the sand of ages. Its sides were about six feet long and enclosed the triangle of boulders with their boulder apex. The sides of the square itself were parallel to those of a greater square formed of ruined walls. 'This was a temple,' the old man said, almost to himself. He nodded. 'A cursed temple in a cursed and doomed town.'
'And the treasure?' Khumnas couldn't help but lick his lips as he waited for an answer.
'Come,' said Guigos with a nightmare grin, 'topple that boulder and roll the others aside, out of the square. Then get your shovels. Twelve, fifteen inches deep there's a slab; beneath it are steep steps following a natural fissure. The treasure is down there - but I alone know where.'
Khumnas and Mhireni glanced at each other, ran to their beasts. Guigos chuckled, limped to one of the tumbled walls and sat down. He gazed at Kastrouni with sulphurous eyes. 'And you had better get on with your patrol. But carefully. And remember - be back by midnight. Join us below ...'
Kastrouni nodded. He tethered his own animal and took some bread and meat from a pack. 'Midnight,' he nodded again. 'I have a wrist-watch. I'll be back.' He opened his robe, took off his belt, closed the robe and belted it to him. The broad leather belt supported a scabbard and sharp knife. Munching slowly on a piece of dried meat, Kastrouni melted into the shadows.
And George Guigos sat there under the brilliant jewel stars and chuckled obscenely, and watched his pair of Iraqi hirelings through hooded eyes where they struggled and strained to move the boulders ...
Kastrouni moved south through the ruins, following the old town's crumbled mounds of debris to the head of a steep watercourse. A little water still trickled, falling intinkling rills to the silver inland sea spread some eight hundred feet below. In its heyday, Chorazin had offered a superb view of the entire Sea of Galilee. Tiberias's lights were plainly visible to the south-west, some eight miles away, along with a sprinkling of others farther down the rocky eastern shore.
Kastrouni struck out west along the rim of the crags. He would walk maybe a third of a mile, clear of the ruins, then head north and make a half-circle back to the cliffs, and finally west again to bring himself back to this point, and so back to Guigos and the others.
As he walked, keeping back a little way from the edge of the cliff and taking care not to silhouette himself too much against the night sky, he felt somehow relieved to be out here alone. Old Guigos was a living gargoyle, a withered mummy of a man who but for his frailty would be terrifying. Even ancient and dried up as he was, still there was something nightmarish about him: the aura of evil, of a life spent in the pursuit of dark secrets and darker deeds, seemed to emanate almost physically from him. You could very nearly feel it like a fog on your skin. But ... he had offered good money, and Kastrouni would use it to maintain, to perpetuate, his freedom. And maybe one day, under another name and disguised by the years, he would return to Cyprus. Not to Larnaca, no, but another place where he was unknown.
Under another name ...
That was the funny thing about it. Or maybe not so funny. Kastrouni frowned in the night. He had chosen to call himself David Kammad when he arrived in Haifa. And while his features were not typically Jewish, still the assumed name and faith had seemed to turn the trick. The British administration had given him a job and issued an identity card, and that had been that. But then had come the night when Guigos found him, and immediatelythe man had seen right through him. Kastrouni remembered what the old devil had said to him:
'David Kammad? Ah, but that is not your real name, my boy. These eyes of mine are very old and very wise - in ways other than you'd suspect - so that I'm not so easily fooled. You are Greek, not Jewish. Oh, it's likely you've kept your initials, but only those. Now then, what is your real name, the name you're keeping secret?'
And Kastrouni had told him. As simple as that. It had probably been Guigos eyes, which were very nearly hypnotic; whichever, Kastrouni had put his life in the man's hands, and in return had got himself fixed up with this job. And a lot of money. When all of this was over he would head for one of the Greek islands, set himself up in a small business, and -
Kastrouni froze, his thoughts returning to the task in hand. Voices had carried to him on a thermal sweeping up from below. Arab voices, he thought, guttural and - excited? This was what he had heard before, back in the ruins, but it was clearer now and unmistakably a babble of conversation. There were people down there. But doing what?
He dropped to all fours, crept to the rounded shoulder of the cliff. Careful not to disturb any pebbles, he leaned forward and directed his gaze downward. Lights bobbed on the water, occasionally blinking as dark, laughing figures splashed about them. Kastrouni knew at once what was going on: he had seen this often enough in Cyprus. These were fishermen, luring fish into their nets by use of floating lanterns. They were wading in the shallow water at the rim of the lake where the night feeders would gather in small shoals. Nothing to fear from them: they had probably come here by boat from Tiberias or elsewhere, and would return by the same route. Anyway, he couldn't see that they'd have anyreason to climb the steep, ancient watercourse to Chorazin. No, and certainly not by night. His fears allayed, Kastrouni drew back, stood up, turned north and commenced his semi-circular sweep.
Back where the cliffs went down to the Sea of Galilee, Kastrouni's wrist-watch ticked away the seconds. A soft link had snapped where his wrist had scraped over a rock as he crawled on all fours. With all of his senses keyed to what had been happening below, he hadn't noticed. The luminous dial said that the hour was fifteen minutes after eleven ...
It had taken only ten minutes for Khumnas and Mhireni to clear away the loose sand and soil from the square scratched out by Guigos. A little more than fifteen inches down they had reached a stone slab and quickly cleared its surface until clean edges could be seen to form a rectangle some two feet wide by three long. A heavy iron ring at one end of the slab was large enough in diameter to allow both men to get several fingers through, but strain as they might the slab would not come up. By now, as they cursed and struggled with the ring, it was almost as if they had forgotten Guigos was there at all; their minds were full of what might lie below. The old man's chuckle seemed deliberately contrived to remind them of his presence.
'Ihya Khumnas, you were chosen to assist me because you are a cheat, a liar and an expert forger. Not the very best I might have obtained for the money, but you were also young and strong.' He omitted to add that Khumnas would not be missed in this world, not by anyone, but the thought crossed his mind and caused him to smile hideously.
'As for you, Yakob Mhireni,' he continued, '- you are here because of your great strength, also because you arebrutal and devious and utterly untrustworthy. Oh, don't worry: these are qualities I greatly admire, else you would not have been chosen.'
He stared at both of them, his yellow eyes glowing in the shadow of his terrible face ...
'So?' Khumnas finally growled, sweat drying on his back and causing him to shiver. 'And what use to sit there like an ancient mummy and insult us? Do you want the slab tilted or not?'
'Of course!' Guigos snapped. 'And with your cunning and his strength it should have been the very simplest of tasks - and now I think perhaps I chose unwisely after all! If you are not clever enough between you, what now? Should I ask these poor dumb beasts of ours for help?' He turned his head and stared pointedly at the tethered donkeys.
Khumnas followed his gaze, frowned, finally believed he saw what the other was getting at. Mhireni merely scowled and stood watching while his companion took one of the shovels and weighed it in his hands. Khumnas propped the head of the shovel against a flat stone, jumped on it with both feet together and broke off the metal blade. This done he took rope from a pack on his donkey, passed it through the handle of the shovel and made a knot. He had left about five and a half feet dangling, which he now tied to the iron ring. At the other end of the slab, he jabbed the broken wooden stock of the shovel into the loose earth until it found purchase, then tested his device by hauling on the rope. The slab grated and moved a fraction of an inch, but Khumnas was not an especially strong man. The handle of the shovel formed a satisfactory fulcrum but Mhireni would prove to be the better lever; and if Mhireni's strength alone should not suffice, then they could always employ adonkey. Doubtless Guigos had meant as much with his cryptic comment.
Mhireni had got the idea at last; he took the coil of rope from Khumnas and wound it round his arm and shoulder, then leaned into it until the slab gratingly shifted and raised up an inch or two. Khumnas gave a small cry of triumph, jammed several stones under the rim, said: 'More yet. Pull, Yakob, pull!'
The big Iraqi strained, but though the slab shuddered and grated some more it would not lift. 'Donkey!' gasped Mhireni finally. 'Fetch a damned donkey before I break my back!' He stood panting until Khumnas brought one of the animals and tied the rope to its saddle, then together men and beast hauled on the rope until the shovel's handle came over and upright and the slab was suddenly yanked two-thirds of the way toward the vertical.
'Hold it there!' cried Khumnas. The shovel's handle was visibly flexing; before it could break he ran to the slab and threw all of his weight against it, standing over the hole beneath to do so. And at last the slab passed through the perpendicular and leaned back at a slight angle, jamming itself in that position.
'Done!' grunted Khumnas. 'We've done it!'
He stared down into the darkness of the pit, wrinkling his nose at the stenches which came welling up. 'All done,' he repeated then, a little less certainly. 'And the treasure's down there, is it?'
Mhireni went to stand beside him, and both men stared hard at Guigos in the darkness. One thought was uppermost in their minds now, and it was as if the gargoyle read it there:
'The treasure is hidden down there,' he said. 'Well hidden - and I alone know where.' He glanced at hiswatch. 11:25, and time growing shorter with every passing second. 'Come, let's get below.'
'Where's that idiot Greek?' growled Mhireni. 'Is there more hard work below? Are we to do everything?'
'I told Kastrouni to be back by midnight,' Guigos snapped. 'That's when I want him and not before. As long as he's back by then I'll be well satisfied. Meanwhile he's ensuring that no one can come up behind us - and that is important! Now get down there. Time's wasting and there's more to do yet.' He stood up, shuffled awkwardly to the hole where steps went steeply down into darkness.
The two Iraqis stood there undecided; the thought of a hidden hoard lured them magnetically, but the darkness and the odours wafting up from below deterred them. Khumnas took out a candle from his pocket, shielded it with a cupped hand, lighted it. He stooped low over the hole. The steps went down, down, well beyond the limit of the candle's illumination.
Khumnas gave an involuntary shudder. 'It stinks like hell!' he said, turning his face away. 'Like a charnel house. Like a corpse overdue for the worm.'
Mhireni didn't like that; irreligious he was, but he was also superstitious. 'Tomb-looters, you called us,' he prodded Khumnas accusingly. 'But I didn't think you meant it! Is that what this is, a tomb?'
'Dolts!' Guigos chuckled throatily, elbowing them aside. 'Out of my way, both of you ...' He descended into the reeking opening until only his head and shoulders protruded. 'Well, are you coming? Or don't you want the rest of your pay?'
Without waiting for an answer, the grinning, half-crippled gargoyle stepped down out of sight. As he disappeared, so Mhireni's hand snaked inside his robe and snatched out a curved dagger. 'So help me,' heharshly whispered, 'the moment my eyes light on that treasure, I'll slit that bag of filth open from his belly to his balls!' A deep scar on the left of his long nose and down his cheek almost to the jawbone glared white in the moonlight.
Khumnas's teeth were even whiter, twin bars of savage anticipation as he answered: 'Only if you reach him before me!' Then he controlled himself and grasped the other's arms. 'Look, we both hate the loathsome old dog, that's agreed; but just remember this: we can't touch him until after we have the treasure. Then he's fair game.'
Mhireni nodded. 'Right,' he growled. 'And the same goes for the Greek.' Then, Khumnas leading the way with his candle, they followed Guigos down into what was otherwise a Stygian darkness.
The steps were steep and narrow but dry; worn in the middle, as from the passage of countless thousands of feet over the centuries, they wound down in a semi-circle until the way suddenly widened out and grew straight. To the left the steps were hewn from a wall which overhung just above shoulder height, so that the two must go in a half-crouch; on the right stood empty space, inky black and echoing to their half-hearted footsteps. Mhireni deliberately kicked a pebble over the rim, listening for the rattle as it hit bottom. After several seconds his patience was rewarded, but with a distant splash. Water down there - a long way down there.
On the far side of the cleft the opposing wall beetled black and jagged, with stony projections throwing wavering shadows in the dim, flickering light of Khumnas's candle. A thought - how panicked they would be if the candle should go out - struck both men simultaneously; so that even as Mhireni grabbed Khumnas's shoulder, so the other half-turned and produced from a pocket a second stub of wax and wick.
'Have you counted the steps?' Mhireni whispered hoarsely, his great hands trembling slightly as he accepted fire from the other.
'Two dozen,' said Khumnas at once. 'Twenty-five with this next one.'
'Only twenty-five?' Mhireni was surprised. 'God! And already it seems we're half-way to hell! Anyway, how does he do it?'
'Eh?' Khumnas queried, his face pale in the candlelight. 'Old gargoyle? How does he do what?'
'See in the dark,' Mhireni answered. 'How does he do that? I mean, did you see him light a candle?' Damned if I did!'
'No, he didn't have one,' Khumnas frowned. 'I know he was carrying prepared torches under his robe; I prepared them, didn't I? But he didn't have a candle.' He shrugged. 'Anyway, I've heard of people like that, people who see in the dark. So what? Cats do it, don't they? Probably those bloody poisonous eyes of his! Come on, let's get on ...'
In the space of another five or six paces the walls of the cleft came together again, even narrower than before, so that the two must turn almost side-on to proceed. But still the steps went down. And then, as they rounded a sharp bend, light blazing ahead! - and Guigos waiting for them, sitting on a boulder, where suddenly the cleft opened into a large cave ...