CHAPTER 9

In Which Full Disclosure Takes a Drubbing

T he rumbling growl of the young cave cat announced the arrival of the new day, waking the sleepers. The Burley Men roused themselves and set about their allotted daily chores: one to feed Baby, one to make breakfast, one to see to the prisoners. Dex had drawn that last straw. So, slipping his feet into sandals and pulling on his desert kaftan, he shuffled out of the tent. The sun was up, though still so low that the early-morning light did little to penetrate the shadows of the wadi. He drew a deep breath of clean morning air and, yawning, started for the tomb entrance.

Since Burleigh had ordered that no more food or water was to be given to the captives until they agreed to talk, he did not bother filling the water can or food pan. Nor did he bother firing up the generator for the lights. What he needed to learn could be discovered in the semidarkness of High Priest Anen’s tomb.

Pressing a hand to the stairwell stone, he descended the narrow steps into the tomb’s vestibule, paused a moment to allow his eyes to adjust, then proceeded into the first chamber. He crossed the empty room to the door of the smaller second room, wherein lay the remains of the great granite sarcophagus that had once contained the coffin of the high priest. This room was secured by an iron grate. All was quiet in the darkened chamber.

He approached. No one stirred at his arrival.

Dex stood listening for a moment, but heard nothing-neither the brush and rustle of men moving about, nor even the intake and exhalation of sleeping men breathing. The tomb was silent.

“Wakey! Wakey!” he called, his voice loud in the emptiness. “You’re wasting the best of the day!” He smiled at his little jest.

There was no response.

“Are you dead in there?” he called and considered that this was only too likely to be the case, and that the captives had succumbed in the night, following Cosimo and Sir Henry-two right royal pains in the arse if ever there were-into the grave.

Splendid, now he would have to go and fire up the generator, turn on the lights, and then get the key and come back and deal with the bodies. Bloody bother, muttered Dex inwardly. But before he went to all that trouble, he decided to make sure the two remaining captives were not merely sleeping after all. Thinking to rattle the iron with a sound loud enough to rouse them, he put his hand to the grate and gave it a shake.

The door swung open at his touch.

The Burley Man pushed it open and stepped inside. He could dimly make out the great bulk of the stone sarcophagus in the centre of the room, but the rest of the chamber remained steeped in darkness. He could not see into the corners, but a heavy stillness lay all about and the air reeked with the sickly pungent sweet stench of death.

Pressing the back of his hand to his nose, Dex turned and fled the room. What are we doing in this awful place anyway, he wondered. What’s the point?

Back outside, he sucked in clean air, then went to the equipment room to crank the generator to life and switch on the lights. He paused at the mess tent to dip the hem of his kaftan in some vinegar, then returned to the tomb. This time, with the lights on and the vinegar-soaked material over his mouth and nose, he confirmed what he feared: the captives were gone.

Spinning on his heel, he ran back up the stairs and out into the wadi, shouting, “The prisoners have escaped!”

Con and Mal were still in the bunk tent and seemed unimpressed with this news. “Pipe down, will you?” muttered Mal, a hand to his head. “It’s too early to be yelling like that.”

“What’re you on about?” asked Con.

“The prisoners aren’t in the cell. They’re gone. They must have escaped somehow.”

“You sure?” Mal regarded him with suspicion.

“Of course, I’m sure. Idiot!”

“Okay, okay, keep your shirt on.”

“What about the other two?” asked Con. “They still there?”

“Which other two?”

“The dead ones. Who do you think?”

“Yeah, they’re still there.”

“They still dead?” wondered Mal.

“Shut up,” snarled Dex. “I’m warning you.”

“They can’t have got far,” Con said. “We’ll find ’em.”

“You better hope so-and before Tav gets back. He won’t like this.”

The three trooped out into the canyon.

“I’ll get Baby,” said Con. “Maybe she can track them down.”

“I doubt it,” said Dex. “Leave her. Go get the guns instead. Those two yobs don’t know their way around the wadi, so we should still be able to catch them before they work out how to get out of here.”

Armed and keen to recover their charges, the three Burley Men set off to work their way along the two main branches of the dry ravine. “Mal, you check out the back way,” ordered Dex. “And, Con-you come with me. We’ll take the big wadi.” The other stood looking at him. “Well? Let’s get cracking.”

Mal turned and soon disappeared along the winding path that was the canyon bottom. Dex and Con made their way towards its mouth, moving quickly, senses alert to any stray sight or sound. They passed the burial niches of a former age and civilisation, quickly searching those large enough to hide a fugitive or two.

After walking at least halfway to the end, they stopped to reassess the chase. “Maybe they went up over the top,” suggested Con. “If they’d have come this way, we would have picked up some trace of them by now.”

“Could be you’re right,” agreed Dex. “And we would have heard Mal’s signal if he’d found anything. Let’s go back. There’s a cutting back there at the bend. We can climb up that way and have a good look ’round.”

The two retraced their steps, following the undulating gorge back towards the camp. At the bend-a great curving bank of mottled sandstone-the wadi made a lazy quarter-circle from southwest to a more northerly direction. A deep natural crevice in the rock face had been widened by the tomb builders at some time in the past, and shallow steps were cut in the stone to form a crude staircase leading up out of the wadi to the plateau above. The two scrambled up the crease, eventually gaining the top. Whatever they hoped to glimpse from that high vantage, they did not see.

A quick scan of the surrounding area revealed only the drearily unchanging landscape: sun-blasted rocks and shattered hills stretching into the heat-dazzled distance in every direction. Of the fugitives there was neither sign nor trace. Still, they waited awhile, shielding their eyes from the sun, surveying the empty, dun-coloured landscape for any sign of movement-any sign of life at all.

There was nothing.

“Now what?” Con wanted to know. He wiped the sweat from his face. “If they were anywhere around we’d have seen ’em from up here.”

“We should get back to camp,” Dex said. “Tav will return soon. We’ll have to give him the bad news.”

“Burleigh ain’t going to be happy,” Con observed.

“No. He won’t be happy.”

“It ain’t our fault.”

Dex shrugged.

“It ain’t,” Con insisted.

“You tell him that. You get on so well with him. He listens to you, right? You can tell him how it wasn’t our fault the prisoners let themselves out while we were asleep.”

Con muttered an oath under his breath.

“Let’s get back.” Dex started for the rock-cut staircase leading down to the wadi floor.

“What’s so almighty important about those two anyway?” Con asked, growing sullen. “They didn’t look like no threat to me. Pretty near hopeless, in fact.”

Dex shrugged again. “I guess that’s another thing you can discuss with the boss. Me? I keep my mouth shut and do as I’m told. The boss has his ways. I stopped trying to figure it all out years ago.”

By the time they reached the camp, Mal was waiting for them. His search had been no more successful, and he had nothing to report. “Looks like they got clean away,” Dex concluded.

“Looks like,” agreed Mal. “I’m starving. I’m going to get something to eat.”

“Good idea,” agreed Con.

The two started for the mess tent. Dex, with nothing better to do, followed.

The sun had long since passed midday by the time Tav returned. The men heard the rattling sputter of the truck echoing down the canyon long before it came into view. They instinctively assembled themselves before their tent, weapons at their sides, to await his arrival. The claptrap vehicle came to a dry, scrunching halt in a cloud of dust. The door swung open, and Burleigh’s right-hand man stepped out. One glance at the others standing at loose attention roused his suspicions. “What is it?” he asked. “What have you done?”

“It’s the captives,” replied Dex.

“Are they dead, then?”

“They’re gone.”

“Gone…” His glance took in the others who hung back, waiting to see how he would greet this news. Tav frowned.

“Escaped.”

“I see.” Tav’s eyes narrowed; his frown grew fierce.

“We searched both ways up and down the wadi,” volunteered Con. “We even went up top. We searched half the morning, but we couldn’t raise so much as a footprint.”

“You looked everywhere? You’re sure?”

“Everywhere,” confirmed Dex. “I swear it.”

“Then there’s nothing to be done about it now,” concluded Tav. “Strike the camp. Load it up-everything. Boss wants it all cleared out. We’re done here. We’ve got until sunset, so jump to it.”

“What do we tell the boss?” asked Con.

“The truth,” replied Tav.

“He won’t like it.” Con had an uncanny ability to grasp the obvious. And of all the implications of the situation, this was the one that had taken firm root in his mind. “He won’t like it at all.”

“I don’t expect he will,” confirmed Tav.

“Then I say we don’t tell him.”

“We have to tell him,” countered Mal.

“Why?” demanded Con.

“He’ll find out eventually,” suggested Dex.

“So? If he ever does find out, we just say they were still alive when we left here. They must have got out somehow after we packed up.”

“That might work,” agreed Dex. “I’m with Con. Telling Burleigh they escaped will only get us in trouble, and it won’t make a bean’s worth of difference anyway.”

“What about you, Mal? Are you with the other two?”

Mal shrugged. “I guess.”

Tav was quiet for a long moment. He raised his eyes to the sky and seemed to contemplate the faint horsetail wisp of high cloud he saw drifting there. The silence became an oppressive force, and the Burley Men were already wincing with anticipated pain when Tav drew a deep breath, as if preparing himself to deal out desolation in heavy doses, and said, “That’s it, then: don’t breathe a word of this to the boss. If he finds out, we know nothing about it. Which isn’t far from the truth anyway.”

Just then a roar that resounded down the wadi walls announced that a very hungry cave cat had not yet been fed and was growing exceedingly peeved at the situation. “Con, see to Baby. It won’t do to have that creature scrapping at everyone along the way.”

“What about the generator?” wondered Mal. “What are we supposed to do with that?”

“I don’t care what you do with it. Just get rid of it. Wipe out any trace that we were ever here. Got it?”

When no one moved, Tav added, “What are you waiting for? Move!”

As if startled into life, the Burley Men jolted away, each hurrying off on his own separate errand. It was not the first time they had decamped at a moment’s notice, and it would not be the last.

“Where are we going?” called Dex, backing off a step at a time.

“Never you mind,” Tav answered. “We’re done here-that’s all you need to know.”

Contents

Обращение к пользователям