In front of him a heavy set Arabian man was struggling to keep a young American girl under control. "I will shoot," he yelled in an accented voice. "Do not step closer, I will shoot." Although the Arab was struggling to keep his German made Mauser against the head of the girl he was still a threat to be reckoned with. Houston took on step back, his eyes nor his pistols ever wavering.
All three of them were inside an ancient Muslim tomb in the country of Algeria. It was dark but dry inside, the only light provided came from a series of candles that the archeological team that had arrived a few weeks earlier had set up; the team of which this girl was a member. Algeria was an inherently unsafe place to send a team of foreigners, especially Americans, without any protection. Houston had been hired as an after thought by the University with which these people were associated with. He arrived to late to keep the team from being taken captive by the Arabs, but not to late to save at least this one woman.
Suddenly the American girl slammed her heel on the foot of the Arab. He screamed and finally let go of the woman, cursing in Arabic. She took off at a sprint for shelter behind one of the large columns along the walls. Houston allowed a smile to crack his tough face and cocked the hammer of his pistols. The metallic click rang around the tomb and the Arab stopped hollering and stared down the barrel of Houston's gun. Ever so slowly the Arab dropped his Mauser and put his hands up. Jack motioned for the Arab to take his leave, there was no use in worrying about a disarmed overweight and quite stupid vagabond. As the echoing footsteps of the Arab exiting the tomb receded Jack strode over to the column which the girl was hiding behind.
"Ma'am?" he asked in a questioning voice. "Ma'am, are you all right?" There was no answer, only the silence of the stones. Jack sighed, he hated scientists. "Ma'am, I was sent by the University, I'm here to protect you."
"A fat lot of good you did then," she said stepping out from behind the column, her brown eyes ablaze with fire. Jack hadn't been paying all that much attention to her before, there had been more pressing issues, mainly an Arab with a gun, but he fought the urge to whistle. She was a stunning girl, no older then her early twenties. Her hair was long and black, most of it tied behind her head. A few stray bangs fell over her face, she brushed them out of the way as she spoke. "Why did you come so damn late? We could have used you a day ago." Houston could say nothing to make up for his tardiness, except that it hadn't been his fault.
"If you want to blame somebody, blame the University. I wasn't hired until last Wednesday, two days ago. It takes time to go from Cairo to Algeria."
"You could have flown...How did you get here, by foot?" she shot back contemptuously. Houston surpressed a curse, his Yankee upbringing kept him from swearing in front of the women, but only for so long. "Listen Lady, I took a horse. Your University refused to pay for a plane, so I took a horse. Travel by horse takes time."
She deflated with the last remark and dropped her head. "I'm sorry, its just...just," she trailed off. Houston frowned for a moment, perhaps he was supposed to say something. Instead he waited in silence for her to finish her apology. She looked up at him expectantly and then hardened as he stood in stony silence. "It doesn't matter. We have to go rescue the others."
Jack shook his head. "I was paid to protect you. I protected you. Thus my job is done. If you'll excuse me I'm going back to Cairo." He tapped the brim of his hat politely and did a quick military turn. She stared at him uncomprehendingly as he walked towards the exit of the tomb. "You bastard," she called after him. Houston stopped and slowly turned around. "What did you call me?" he asked quietly.
"A bastard," she swore and spat at his feet. "A stupid son of a bitch."
"Ma'am? I did what I was paid for, I'm not your hero, at least not for free," he said. Houston was still thinking about the nice young Egyptian dancer that was waiting for him in a hotel in Cairo. Houston owed her a drink...or two.
"Fine, I'll pay you myself if you help me," she said forcefully. Houston watched as she pulled a thin wad of money from one of her many pockets. It finally struck him, and struck him forcefully, that she needed him. He had to be her hero, he was the only one who could do it. Pity entered his mind and turned his resolve. "All right," he said, "I'll help you out. By the way, what's your name?"
"Emily, Emily Duquette," she smiled a little as she said it. Houston instantly saw the French in her. It was the small nose, high cheek bones and dark hypnotic eyes.
"How long ago did they leave?" he asked her, tearing his thoughts away from her features. At the very least she seemed to have the attitude of a Frenchman.
"About three hours ago...They left by truck."
"They had trucks?" he asked. Most thieves would have taken a camel or horse; trucks implied planning and funding.
"There were two ford trucks and a car, all painted khaki to disguise them in the desert. I think they put the rest of the team in one truck, artifacts and goods in another and the thieves were inside the car."
"Any idea what direction they went in?" asked Jack. He hadn't seen any tracks coming in, but then he hadn't been suspecting an ambush when he entered the tomb either.
"I don't know. I was inside the whole time," she replied. Houston nodded thoughtfully and then motioned for them to leave. "Grab whatever you need and lets go. If they only left a few hours ago we can still catch up." She nodded and went to grab a small knapsack, presumably full of tools. Despite the dust and dirt of working in the desert the black leather bag was immaculately polished. Houston had reholstered his pistols, one in his shoulder holster, the other in his belt. Without looking to see if the woman he had rescued was coming Jack exited the tomb and entered the harsh, hot world of Africa. A white hot sun burned high in the sky. Sweat appeared instantly on Jack's brow and a hot breeze did little but throw sand into his eyes.
Sand covered his leather boots as he marched around the entrance to the tomb. Endless sand dunes covered the horizon and the sun glinted off the sand. Jack squinted and wiped the grit from his eyes. Emily came out a second after and looked disdainfully at the horse tied to a rock ten feet from the entrance. She watched as Houston bent down onto one knee and examined the sand more closely. He had found tracks but which way were they leading? Still lost in thought he stood up and looked off into the distance, and then glanced back the other way.
"Well?" asked Emily impatiently. Houston said nothing, just glanced at his feet and kicked some dirt around. For a third time Jack glanced up and then pointed west. "They went that way," he said matter-of-factly. Emily frowned. "How do you know?" she asked. He was already trudging over to the horse and answered absent mindedly. "When the trucks pulled out it took a moment for the wheels to catch in the sand. Thus the direction opposite the disturbed sand must be where they went."
Emily shrugged followed Houston to the horse. With an agility that Emily did not know a man like Houston could posses, Jack was up and onto the horse. He leaned over and grinned at Emily. "Need any help?" he asked smugly. Emily cursed under her breath and hauled herself up uneasily. Only a few times before had she ever been on a horse and none of those experiences had ever been fun. Making sure that Emily was secure Houston spurred the horse forward and at a gallop they began the hot pursuit.
Hours they traveled in the hot sun following an endless line of tracks. Jack had handed Emily a dampened rag, moistened with canteen water, to put over her head. He kept his fedora firmly placed atop his dark head. Occasionally he took a swig from the water canteen, even more occasionally he took a nip from his flask. Live hard, drink hard, was his motto. Finally they stopped alongside a formation of rocks. In the harsh sunlight they looked like some of the formations he had seen back in Arizona and New Mexico. Houston broke out several cans of surplus army rations and handed one to Emily. Sitting in the shade that the rock formation provided Houston slurped down the nasty slime that was spaghetti and meatballs. Emily took her time, picking around the clumps of food for the better pieces.
With his meal finished Houston placed his fedora at an angle so that it covered his face. A quick twenty minute nap would replenish him and then they could set off on their trek once again. However Emily had other ideas.
"I don't know anything about you, do you know that? Nothing at all," she said. Jack grunted from under his fedora.
"Where did you grow up? What are you doing in the desert?"
"Mmph," replied Jack sleepily. Still Emily was not put off, it wasn't in her nature to give up. "Tell me something! For instance, what kind of a uniform is that your wearing?"
Giving up on any kind of sleep for the moment Jack removed his hat and glared at Emily. "Its an infantryman's uniform, of Great War vintage."
"Oh, did you serve?" she asked cautiously, not wishing to offend the veteran. Jack opened his mouth with a sarcastic comment on his tongue but stopped and closed his mouth. "Yes," he replied tersely.
During the Great War he had served as a doughboy in the Ardennes during the last great push of the war. German's didn't give up easily and fought long after any reasonable person would stop and give up. While Houston had admired their fighting spirit, it cost many a good men their lives. After a brief stint in Europe after the war Jack had returned home with his regiment, the 110th Infantry, and began the rest of his life. All of the horror of war had done little to effect him directly, but before the war he had looked forward to a career as a salesman, to settle down with a nice local girl and raise a family. Now he was anything but a domesticated man. This he conveyed to Emily in one sentence.
"It wasn't pleasant," he said and pulled down his hat again. She frowned slightly but let up on the questions. As he drifted into an uneasy slumber, filled with the nightmares of a soldier, she did what she could to make herself presentable. With a dusty piece of string she tied her long tangled hair back into a flowing pony tail. Using a semi-clean clothe she wiped her face clean of the dust and grit. Women can make themselves look attractive in any situation, a fact Houston had stumbled across years before in a little burlesque a mile from the western front, and he was pleasantly surprised when he awoke half an hour later.
Their quest resuscitated Jack and Emily headed further east on the tired and thirsty horse, following a seemingly endless trail of car tracks. Jack was the first to notice the signs of recent travel, trash lying around the trail, tossed out by careless thieves. "You sure they were all Arabs?" he asked her an hour after they had left the rock formation. She nodded, "Pretty sure, why?" Jack pointed to a couple of Coca-Cola bottles half buried in the dirt. "I didn't know Muslims were a fan of the Cola," he said. Although Jack couldn't see it, Emily smiled radiantly, her pearly white teeth flashing in the sun, pretty mouth upturned. She squeezed his stomach a little tighter, an action he took little notice of.
Off in the distance the sun gradual began its descent into the horizon. Sinking like a battleship with a couple of torpedoes in the gut, the sun seemed to collapse. In a matter of hours the pair was covered by darkness, obscuring the trail. Jack was prepared to give up, set up camp for the night and return to the hunt tomorrow morning. Luckily, Emily spotted a glow off in the distance. It was manmade, far to powerful to be provided by the stars or the moon, and Jack made tracks for that spot. In ten minutes they were within thirty yards of the camp. Two Ford four by fours sat alongside each other. Gray gas cans were tossed carelessly around the trucks, tools littered the desert floor; wrenches, screws, and a oily rag all lay onto the hood of the first truck. If they were a hired gang then their employer could do much better in purchasing a more professional group of thieves next time, these men were nothing but ammeters.
A string of lights, illuminating the sky like overpowered fireflies, were powered by a small generator. Humming like a demon the generator produced just enough electricity to power the lights. Fire, that ancient uncontrollable force harnessed first by man's ancestors cast shadows across the desert from its hearth in the middle of the clearing. Several men, covered in large swaths of cloth, were cooking food. Jack hopped off the horse silently and assisted Emily in doing the same before creeping forward. In doing this he told Emily quietly to stay by the horse until he came back. Jack could only hope that Emily would choose this moment to listen to him, an act that seemed as unnatural to her as swimming was to a cat. Stealthily he crept over a mound of sand and looked down into the camp of thieves below him.
Invisibly the smell of roasting pork slowly drifted up to where Jack was situated. Instantly Houston knew he wasn't dealing with some random Arabian bandits. Most Muslims, at least those who would kidnap a team of archeologists in the name of saving their god would not be eating pork. Or drinking, thought Houston as he noticed the dozens of liqueur bottles lying in the sand. "At least they have good taste," mumbled Jack recognizing the label of one bottle being a twenty year old imported scotch.
Jack took a quick count of the bandits, five were digging into dinner, another three were sleeping in one corner, two were keeping watch at separate sides of the sandy clearing and in a corner, stuck between two sand dunes, was another bandit guarding at least four prisoners lying face down in the sand. Jack silently rolled down the dune and crawled to where, thankfully, Emily was still waiting.
"What's going on?" she asked rather loudly considering the situation. Jack instantly shushed her before answering. "Off to the left there is one Arab guarding the other members of your team. Outside of that there are ten others in various positions and states of alertness."
"Do you have a plan?"
Jack scoffed, "Of course I have a plan...in a minute."
Emily glared at him and Jack could have sworn she gave him the finger. When he was a kid a lady would never think of making such a gesture. Apparently times had changed, and not for the better. After three minutes of hard thinking Houston came up with an idea that might not get him killed. It was crazy, it was incredibly stupid, but it could work.
"All right, here's what we'll do: You get over next to where the prisoners are. I'll climb up to where I was before and shoot the man guarding them first and then move on to peppering the other bandits with .45 bullets. They'll keep their heads down long enough for you to get the others untied. We'll meet behind that dune as soon as you're away and safe."
To her credit Emily never showed an ounce of fear, she simply nodded and pursed her lips stoically. Jack couldn't help but smile, where else could you meet a nice American girl but in Algeria? With a wordless bob of the head the two took off in separate directions. Jack made it to his spot first, once again climbing up the dune undetected by the incredibly stupid thieves. He waited up onto that dirt mound for another couple minutes before he saw that Emily was in her place, directly behind the dunes hiding the prisoners.
Cool as a cucumber Jack stood up, took aim, and let loose with his first shot. Two other rounds were fired in quick succession. The Arab was lifted up as two of the large caliber bullets slammed into his chest, ripping through the thin organic machine that was a human. His last word was an incoherent grunt as he crumpled on the desert floor. Unfortunately for the rest of the kidnappers, they failed to realize what was happening before Jack turned on them. Firing the remaining three shots out of his first .45 Jack took down another guard and one of the men eating dinner.
Around Houston the enemy suddenly seemed to come alive, those in bed were hustling to find weapons while those who were awake hustled to turn there weapons on Jack. He dropped his first forty five back into his holster with lighting fast speed and pulled out his second from his shoulder holster just as fast. Another six bullets cut through the hot desert air and ripped through the Arabs. Two more collapsed, followed by a third howling in Arabic as he clutched his chest. Quickly glancing to his side Jack saw that Emily had only two of the prisoners untied and was desperately working to free the other two. One of the men, a big burly Italian by the looks of it, had grabbed the dead Guards shotgun and was reloading the big gun.
Sand kicked up around Jacks ankles and he suddenly realized he had to reload. Dropping to the ground just in time, bullets whined and cracked over his head, blew sand into his face. Reaching into his pouch Jacks trembling fingers closed around a couple of clips of ammunition. First he reloaded the gun he was holding then put that one aside to pull out the other empty handgun. Behind him the voices of angry Arabians filled the air. Rounds still tore across the sky above him, but it was simply an attempt to pin Jack down and as he clutched his .45's nervously he realized it was working. Now a couple of the bandits would come around and flank him. Suddenly the roaring blast of a shot gun filled the night. Screams rose up and another shot was fired. Just as suddenly the stream of gunfire that had poured above him slackened and stopped. Screaming like a Banshee Jack stood up and fired into the chaos.
Three of the bandits were directly below him, two had been badly injured by the scientist wielding the shotgun, the third was taking aim to fire back as the scientist reloaded. Jack's first two shots shattered the bandits spine and he collapsed without taking a shot. A bullet whined past Jack and he looked up, saw that the remaining Arabs were trying to take cover from behind the trucks. Guns in both hands Jack riddled the truck with bullets, killing another bandit in the process. The scientist on the shotgun fired another two solid shells into the trucks hood. The poor Ford burst into flames and those still crouching behind it left their refuge. Below Jack the remaining archeologists were being shepherded off by Emily. Seeing that the big man playing the shotgun was looking up at him curiously Jack threw him a cocky salute and sauntered down the dune as flames rose up behind him.
"Where the hell are we?" asked a baffled Professor David A. Copper to an exhausted Jack Houston. Houston regarded the nervy looking scientist harshly. "I'd say about two miles due East of your dig. Does anyone have a map?" he asked. One scientist pulled one out of a small pocket inside his coat. "You didn't bring one?" he asked curiously as he handed the rolled up map to Houston.
"Didn't think I'd need one," he replied and unfurled it. The large Italian scientist, identifying himself as Dr. Vincent Campenallo of Brooklyn, New York, pulled out a small candle and book of matches. Jack stared at him, "What, they didn't search you?"
"No they didn't, thank god. I don't think they planned for us to be rescued so quickly. The bastards only frisked us for anything that could be a weapon. I lost my set of chisels to them." The big man smiled and patted the twelve gauge at his side. "Oh well."
Peering at the map Jack made a series of scrawls on the corners occasionally adjusted by one scientist or the other. "Well that settles it, we're about ten miles from the nearest major town. If we go northeast from here we should run into by tomorrow."
"They'll be waiting for us there, won't they?" asked Campenallo. Dr. Coppers stared at him curiously. "How do you know?"
Jack only nodded. "Its the closest town around, plus it has a ferry route to Europe. They'll be reinforced. We'll be lucky to grab some supplies and a method of transportation to the Mediterranean. Only then can I guarantee that you'll all be safe."
"What about the dig," protested Copper.
"Forget about it," snarled Jack. He was sick of these goddamn doctor types. They thought nothing of there own safety, which was fine by Jack, but they were liable to get him and Emily killed in the process. Campenallo nodded, although he was inclined to go back for the artifacts he valued his life over his career. Jack just assumed he could tell the difference between the two, unlike Prof. Copper.
"All right, its gonna be a hike, lets hit it," said Houston and threw Emily's rescued knapsack over his shoulder and grabbed the reins of the tired black horse. "I still got room on the horse, anything else we need to bring?" Nobody said anything and after a moment Jack began to trudge up the steep sand dune, towards the small city of Annaba.
Hours passed as they wandered in the general direction of Annaba. Then days, as apparently Jacks calculations had been off by a couple of dozen miles and it wasn't until the second night that they saw the lights on the far off horizon. Emily, who against her will had been riding the horse, was in the best shape of all of them. She kept talking long into the day, Houston often stopped listening after ten in the morning. Most of the other archeologists had thankfully stopped talking as their conversations usually contained bits and pieces of the histories of the ancient Babylonians. Most of the time Jack led the group, one eye on the compass the other on the endless horizon. Campenallo took up the rear, both meaty hands gripping the shotgun, pockets filled with extra shells he liberated from the bandits. In between them wandered the three remaining scientists, who were not in the prime of their lives when they began the journey and were no where near it now.
Twice the group was forced to halt because Copper or the other elder professor, Josh Hartley had collapsed from exhaustion, or dehydration, or hunger. As the older men were recuperating Jack usually took the highest location around and kept watch. Several times he saw the far off clouds of dust indicating cars or trucks moving at high speeds around the desert. This area was devoid of traders, no caravans should be passing anywhere near here. It was also as devoid of settlers as it was of water. No wars were being fought in the Sahara, at least for now, so there would be no men on military maneuvers, least of all the French, who had no men left for maneuvers. His theory of the bandits being more then bandits was becoming more and more reasonable.
Suddenly the old men were up again and reasonably ready to go. Jack slowly walked back down the hill, sand up to the ankle of his boots and helped Emily back on the horse. For a northeasterner she was taking to the horse like a natural. Towards that afternoon, Jack kept time on his old beat up pocket watch, the gold one his father had given to him on the day he entered the army, they saw the low buildings begin to pop up from behind the sea of sand. Emily, who had the highest vantage point saw it first, pointing it out and shouting with excitement. Houston let Campenallo tell her to keep quiet. It wasn't in her nature to not celebrate even the tiniest event and she looked hurt for much of the rest of the journey. Whether she was actually upset was a mystery to Houston. Perceptive in the ways of nature and tracking, he wasn't so with women.
Outside Annaba Houston had the group wait for nightfall. All day he had observed the large cars flying in the desert, full of gun-toting Arabs. Finally as the sun sank into the distant Mediterranean Sea he turned to Emily and Campenallo, who were sharing a can of rations.
"Did either of you take anything from the Arabs or from the tomb?" he asked nonchalantly. Both shook their heads as they chewed on the tough pieces of old chicken that had been floating in the cans of soup. Emily spoke first. "No, why do you ask?"
"Because there have been cars full of armed men driving all across the desert. I've been watching them for two days now. They must be searching for something, and I doubt its just to kill us."
"You never now, we may be their automatic enemies just for what they consider defecating a sacred tomb. Most of these religious fanatics consider western style Christians heathens anyway."
"I don't think so, most of these people are traders at heart and they don't go out of the way to kill for no reason. At the very least they wouldn't spend all that gas searching for heretics, would they?" asked Jack.
"No I suppose they wouldn't spend the gas," said Campenallo chuckling. Emily broke into a smile for the first time in hours. Again Jack was astounded by how even in the desert she could look so pretty. Smiling unconsciously he stumbled down the rise towards Professor Copper and his colleagues, busy arguing, amusingly, over the technicalities of Mesopotamian irrigation systems as well as aqueducts.
"You boys keep anything from the temple?" asked Jack coming right straight to the point. Two of the scientists looked up at him blankly, uncomprehendingly. Copper stared and the ground for a moment and then glanced up at Jack. "No," he said evenly. Jack turned and spat at the ground. He could see a bullshitter a mile away.
"Like hell you didn't. Now give me the truth," he demanded.
Copper pulled the thick glasses from their perch on his nose and wiped them with a dirty white cloth. "Maybe we took a few things."
"We?" asked his similarly bespeckled colleague.
"Yes, we. I know you grabbed a 1,400 year old preserved book of Muslim prayers," said Copper matter of factly. There was no hint of accusation in his voice at all. Then he pointed to his other, slightly, no very portly, colleague. "You took two small coins placed with the deceased and a leather sandal." Copper looked up at Houston who was staring incredible at the trio. "I also took several works of art left inside the tomb, you know a crescent moon, a small statue, etc."
"Are you kidding me?" asked Houston incredible.
"No...not at all," replied Copper. Houston just shook his head and wandered back to Emily and Campenallo. The scientists returned to there in-depth analysis of water in Mesopotamia. Jack quickly explained the situation to Campenallo and Emily, telling them that it would now be a struggle to get out of the country alive. When he finished Campenallo shook his head. "I always knew the old man was a dirty bastard. He'll get us all killed."
"And not for the first time," mumbled Houston.
That night, as the bright and beautiful full African moon cast the land full of dark and mysterious shadows, the group crept into the quiet seaside town. A warm breeze blew off the shimmering blue ocean. The air seemed full of moisture and tension. Off in the distance bells tinkled as the ships rocked in the steady water and far off laughed filled the air. Houston stumbled around the corner and into a dark alleyway where the rest of the group was waiting.
"I got passage on the first steamer to France. Its leaving at four am sharp."
"Where do we go for the next six hours?" asked Emily. It was a question Campenallo would have asked but he was to busy peering out the other end of the alley, looking for anyone like the Arabs who had held them hostage.
"Luckily There's a run down hotel a few feet from the docks. We can get a room for a few hours. I took the liberty of reserving one with a balcony that overlooks the harbor," said Houston, glancing around him. "All set?" When Emily nodded he darted out of the alley and into the open streets. Each side of the road was framed with squat colonial era buildings. Some French flags snapped with the brisk breeze. Most of the old buildings were dark, but a few were lit up, probably with oil lamps as electricity had yet to make inroads into Africa, even the relatively modern North Africa.
If there had been the usual crowds flooding downtown to the bazaars and fisherman's markets Jack would have walked normally down in the open streets and blended in with the crowd. He looked like any European adventurer, Foreign Legion deserter or a member of the lost generation of American authors and artists. Unfortunately Houston was tasked with making five ragged yet nerdy looking westerners disappear in a poor Arab population. Jack had sold the horse to a trader outside the city and they were all carrying there items making them look even more suspicious. The three looting scientists had to sacrifice a bedroll and some equipment to keep their stolen wares. Emily was forced to walk on her wary feet and silently groaned with every step. Jack had noticed that the boots she had been wearing were not of good quality, probably left over from the war, made shoddily by American companies trying to cut costs and make a better profit off of the poor doughboys. Jack had bought a new pair of sturdier boots similar to his military boots. Unlike the footwear made by the Americans, the Limey's knew how to make a good boot. She was overjoyed and put them on instantly. "How did you know my footsize?"
Jack smiled, "Clever deductions," he said. In reality he had just bought a pair and figured if they were to big she could wear extra socks, if they were to small he could loosen them up some. Emily had hugged him and Jack felt himself blushing in spite of his stony features. She whispered her thanks in his ear and kissed him lightly on the cheek. "No problem," he said.
Comparing the hotel to a roach motel, the roach motel would have come out ahead. Look at it this way, the place prided itself in being a local dive. Needless to say Jack loved it. As the scientists crowded upstairs in the cramped little room with one seedy bed and a scratched up bureau he slouched on a bar stool knocking back shots of whisky and conversing with the other patrons of the bar.
Like any Mediterranean fishing city this bar had the usual sailors, fishermen, soldiers and poor traders. Talked flowed in dozens of languages, English, French, the local African French mix and Spanish. Good natured insults were hurled across the room as the locals played the out of towners in darts and billiards. Twice Houston turned down hits of opium from local suppliers; he could handle a gunfight stone drunk but not out of his mind.
Emily had come down for a few minutes, but in that time was pursued by a large number of equally ill mannered and grotesque suitors. Hastily she beat a retreat back upstairs to her room. Houston had invited Campenalli to join him in the bar, but the big man had disagreed, saying he would stand watch over the group of archeologists. Houston had just shrugged and shambled on down the steps into the noisy saloon. The bartender was busy showing off his new records, straight from Algers with the latest Muslim hits. To Jack it was the worst sound he had ever heard, next to ragtime, but after a few shots it was fine by him.
With a bang the door to the bar was shoved open and a small group of Arabs came in. The bartender shouted something at them in French and the head Arab, wearing a black turban, shouted back and pointed a sawed off shot gun at him. Instantly the bartender back off and let the group through and up the stairs that led to the hotel rooms. Jack thought that one man looked familiar, his facial scars predominantly, in the scant light provided by the numerous oil lamps. It was the man Jack had chased out of the tomb. Hurriedly he slapped down several of the multicolored bills that made up the local currency. Like most Algerian places of business the bartender accepted both local Algerian money and French francs. Jack had a roll of both in his army uniform. A little British and French money will take you anywhere in Africa and the middle east.
Jack charged up the stairs after the Arabs but paused at the top, just before the first floor hallway. He heard voices in Arabic arguing in the hall and peeked out around the corner. All four men were shouting at each other, apparently about which floor to check first. Taking this moment to make a dash for it, Jack hurled himself across the hall into another staircase. Thankfully no one noticed the small din he made. With the speed and grace of a leopard Houston was up the stairs and to the third floor. Panting he burst into the room finding the scientists playing a game of cards. They looked up at him like he was a lizard.
"What are you doing?" he gasped loudly.
"Playing poker...for quarters," said Copper blandly pointing at the stack of American coins lying in the center of the small tables. Hartly was smoking a cigarette and nodded confidently.
"Oh shit, now you decide to be cowboys," Jack said shaking his head. Emily was lying on the bed reading an old copy of Le Monde. She had taken the opportunity to shower and her hair was wet and draped around her shoulders. Jack considered the ultimate test of a woman's beauty to be wetting her hair. If a girl can still look good with wet hair then she was a good looking girl.
"Come on, the bandits are downstairs, they found us," exclaimed Houston as he started to grab bedrolls and bags. As he tossed a knapsack at Copper he stopped for a moment. "Where's Campenallo?"
"Behind you," said a deep voice from, oddly enough, behind Houston. Jack whirled around and stared down the barrel of a large shot gun. He looked up hesitantly, "And how are you doing?"
"Take off your holsters and put them on the floor in front of you, got it?" asked Campanello with squinty eyes.
"Charles, what are you doing?" demanded Emily indignantly from the bed. Her dark eyes were flashing with anger. Jack didn't want to be on the receiving end of that wrath. He pitied her future husband.
"Quiet, stay where you are," shouted Campanello, he leered at her. "That fool Ahmed was supposed to take care of you. That's okay, he'll get another chance tonight." Campanello cackled. The other three men in the room silently stood up and raised their hands.
"Sit down you fools, this isn't an old west stick up. I know you're not armed," said Campenallo amazed at their sheer foolishness. From behind the doorway Jack could here the sound of heavy footsteps and shouting in Arabic. The bandits would be here at any moment, Jack had only minutes to figure out what the hell to do. Emily was looking at him expectantly, she knew he must have a plan, even if he didn't.
"But why? What's in it for you?" asked Copper quizzically. Campenallo smiled, it wasn't the bright and friendly smile the Italian had displayed after being rescued, it was the hard cold smile of a killer. "You'd be amazed at how much an oil sheik will spend once he wants something, particularly something that concerns Islam."
As he spoke Emily crept up behind him with a rock hammer she had pulled out one of her many pockets. Campenallo was to busy leering and chortling to notice the young woman sneak up behind him and slam the small hammer into the base of his skull. At that instant Jack dropped to the floor as the shot gun went off over his head, tearing a hole through the door. Campenallo collapsed on the floor next to Jack. He glanced up at the hole in the door and then looked at Emily. "Next time do that when the gun isn't leveled at my head. Okay?" She smiled at him. "Okay."
Outside the Arabs were yelling and running for the door. Jack grabbed his .45's and slapped his holsters back on. Aiming at the hole in the door he shouted for the others to get there things. Emily gave Campenallo one final kick before grabbing her bag and bedroll. When the were ready Jack had them back out to the open balcony. The wind picked up the curtains and twisted and twirled them in the air. Pulling a long rope out of his knapsack Jack had Emily securely fasten it to one of the poles of the balcony. Never taking his eyes off the door Jack ordered the scientists to shimmy down to the dirt street below. One by one they went down the rope and hid in the shadows below. As Emily went down the Arabs finally burst into the room. Taking aim Jack squeezed the triggers and fired three shots in quick succession. .45 bullets were large and they tore through anything that was in their way, even humans. One of the Arabs screamed and collapsed on the floor, his blood spreading in a pristine pool on the dirty carpet.
The other two men quickly ducked back around the corner of the door. Jack smiled, if only the thin walls could stop a bullet. He fired another two rounds into the flimsy hotel walls. From the outside a man hurled curses in the air. Jack fired another bullet and the tirade halted with a heavy thud. Reinforcements were quickly coming up the stairs, Jack could hear there heavy breathing and shouts. Taking his eyes off the door for a moment he saw that Emily had reached the bottom of the rope. Like a Cheetah he leaped off the balcony just before the Arabs opened up with an old dismounted machine gun. Bullets ripped over Jacks head as he dove for the hard dirt floor three stories below. Luckily he landed on an empty streetcart which broke his fall, leaving him with only a few bruises and some deep scratches.
"Son of a bitch!" he spat trying to untangle himself from the mess of wood and cloth. Emily ran over and grabbed his rough hands, yanking him up. From above there came loud, angry shouts. Copper motioned for all off them to head for the docks urgently. A crowd was beginning to gather in the streets summoned by the harsh bark of a machine gun. In the distance Houston could hear a bell being rung. This sound wasn't the innocent tinkling of a ships bell, ringing in the rocking seas but the purposeful church bell, summoning police and soldiers.
"What's the time?" shouted Jack at Copper as he dodged the Arabs, who were now shooting from the balcony. Instantly the crowd scattered, trying to avoid the death raining down from above. Jack slammed himself into the hard concrete wall of the colonial building next to the hotel. While Copper was busy searching for a watch Houston reloaded his guns and fired another two or three rounds from below the balcony. Wood splinters sprinkled down from the large gaps above.
"Its two thirty!" shouted back Copper. Jack realized that they couldn't hold out for another hour and a half for the ferry. He had another insight: even if they could hide out for a while the Arabs would know they were leaving on the first possible ferry out. They were stuck in Dodge for the moment. "Okay, lets head for the water," said Jack grimly. He looked to be the only one who saw the predicament they were in. Together the team sprinted down the street towards the sound of lapping waves and rocking boats, leaving behind the harsh screams and swears of the Arabs.
They arrived at the docks quickly and Jack began looking for any vessel that might carry them. Luckily he struck gold when he found father and son fishermen in an old rusty boat trying to get a good nights sleep. With a little persuasion Houston convinced them to start up the old vessel. Roaring, the diesel engine spat out a large cloud of smoke as it kicked to life. Houston tossed the bags and equipment in the small aft deck of the boat while the son helped the scientists board. Just as the father, a crusty hard working French-Algerian man, was casting off the ropes a truck pulled up to the dock.
"Oh shit, those boys are back for more!" shouted Jack, pulling his guns from their leather holsters. He had one foot on the pier the other on the rocking boat and still his aim was immaculate. Two bullets took out the driver and the truck came to a screeching halt only feet from the water. Another three rounds ripped through the chest of the passenger, shattering the windshield and throwing glass all over the floor.
"Hurry Jack, hurry!" cried Emily from the floor of the wet, grimy deck.
"Dammit, I'm busy," snarled Houston firing into the crowded rear end of the truck. Howls of pain rose up from the sheiks men and several dove off the truck for a better hiding spot. Jack took this moment to plant both his feet firmly on the slimy deck and signaled for the boat to leave. The diesel engine growled as it churned the propellers forward towards freedom. A few bullets snapped over Jacks head, but they weren't aimed shots only the release of anger by the defeated Arabs. As the lights of Annaba slowly disappeared and the brighter lights of Marseille appeared Emily came up from behind Jack and put an arm around him.
"You saved us all."
"Just doin' my job," he replied, never taking his eyes of the open horizon. A dark horizon, but one that none the less meant freedom.
"Where are you going after this?" she asked him. Jack smiled if only he knew for sure. "I figure I'll head back for Cairo, see if I can get some work down there. Then maybe if I strike rich I'll go back home, back to good old New England."
"Its funny, isn't it?" she said smiling in the dark. He turned to face her and kissed her gently on the forehead. "What's funny?" he asked realizing for the first time that he was falling for her.
"That we're both from the same part of the country."
"It isn't that wild, I've met dozens of New Englanders across the globe," he said slowly. He hoped she wouldn't spot it for a lie, never before had he met anyone from Massachusetts anywhere besides Massachusetts. New Englanders weren't a roaming people. There roots were in New England and That where most chose to spend there lives, unlike say, the westerners who were forever a wandering race. There isn't anywhere that you won't meet a Texan or a Mississipian.
"Will I ever see you again after we arrive in Marseille?" she asked just as slowly. It was a deep question. For the first time Jack could see himself settling down, an entire lifetime flashed before his eyes, one with children and a small farm, maybe a few crops. As quickly as it came the dream, perhaps one could call it a fantasy left. "Maybe," he said. It was a lie and they both new it. Emily would go back to her college and Jack would return to the deserts and jungles from whence he came. Despite this unchangeable fact the pair held each other as the lights from Marseille grew ever brighter on the horizon, guiding them towards the future.