Saturday, August 16, 2014

Third Saturday Fiction

Excerpts from Chapters 20-25 from the novel Death Mask

By Steve Glossin

[Bob Tilden and his old boss Bill Holden are in Saudi Arabia, on the trail of the mysterious, fabulously wealthy collector – The Egyptian – believed to have purchased relics stolen from the grave of Tupac Amaru, the Last Inca....]

“What do you see when you look into the desert?” asked Medhat.
    “Heat,” said Bill.
    “What else?”
    “Sand,” said Bob. “Lots of sand.”
    “Excellent! Everyone sees lots of sand, but no one sees a grain or two or even three. They become invisible as a drop of water in the ocean.” He swallowed some coffee and continued. “If one doesn’t want to be found, one must disappear, and there’s no better place than the desert of Saudi Arabia.”
    “What are you suggesting,” said Bill, “hiding in the desert until the Egyptian’s man leaves?”
    “Tayma is less than four hundred kilometers from the Sinai Peninsula, but Tabuk is less than two hundred if we take a direct route across the desert. From there we’d only have to cross the Straight of Tiran and the Gulf of Suez to reach Egypt proper.”
    “What do we do about the border crossings? Our passports are sitting in Riyadh…I’m not sure your Mercedes would make it that far anyway.”
    A shit-eating grin had formed on Bob’s face. “You’re talking about riding camels aren’t you, Mr. Medhat?”
    “You call me Medhat and I’ll call you Bob. If we’re going to be riding across the desert together as my forefathers did, we should be a little less formal.”
    “Sure, Medhat,” said Bob, who turned to Bill in expectation of what he’d say about a camel ride.
    “Since you’ve both made up your minds, my agreement is just a formality. It had better be a damn gentle camel is all I’ll say.”
    “I’ll call a cousin to arrange everything we’ll need. It’ll be better if we leave soon. I don’t want rumors following us into the desert.”

The second night of the journey, the four camels plodded through the loose desert sand. The men who rode them looked up occasionally when a stream of incandescent light crossed the night sky.
    “How long did it take you to get used to this?” Bob asked, rising and falling against the hard saddle.
    Medhat glanced at Bob, who was riding next to him. “Get used to what?”
    “The bouncing. My ass is killing me.”
    Medhat translated the conversation to Khalid, who laughed, but said nothing. “Very few people get used to it. I’m one of them. I fold a sleeping blanket over the saddle.”
    “Ah, shit!” exclaimed Bob. “Bill, how you doing?”
    Bill’s grin was hidden in the darkness. “Medhat’s right. The extra padding helps.”
    “How come no one told me?”
    “I watched Khalid and Medhat and followed their lead.”
    “There’s an Arab proverb,” said Medhat. “Treat your wife with respect, the ride she gives you will be fast and furious, but treat your camel with tenderness, his ride will be long and hard.”
    “Great proverb,” said Bob. “I ain’t married and hopefully this camel and me will be parting ways soon.”

They had ridden in silence for an hour when Khalid, who was five paces ahead of the others, stopped his camel before a big sand dune. He motioned with his arm for the others to do the same.
    Medhat coached his camel closer to the cousin and had a quiet conversation before returning to where Bill and Bob waited.
    Medhat pointed toward the big sand dune. “There’s a campfire on the other side,” he whispered. “Khalid will see who they are.”
    “I don’t see anything,” Bob whispered. “How does he know?”
    “They’re burning dried camel dung. He smelled it.”
    Fifteen minutes of waiting and Medhat became uneasy. He rose up in the saddle and studied the darkness in the direction Khalid had taken. “Wait here, I’ll return in ten minutes.”
    Bill and Bob sat quietly and watched Medhat’s camel disappear into the void.
    “Whatcha think?” asked Bob.
    “If he’s not back in ten minutes, the camels’d better have better night vision than we do. We’re going after him.”
    No sooner had Bill spoken the words than they heard a loud scream, “Kahlid—!” Then silence.
    Both men prodded their camels forward. The animals started out slowly, then speeded up as their riders yelled and struck their sides. At the edge of the dune they turned without prompting and Bill and Bob held on precariously and screamed for more speed.
    Coming around the dune, they sounded like a platoon of horse-mounted cavalry, missing only the bugle call for charge. Neither man spoke when they spotted the campfire where Kahlid lay bound and saw the outline of Medhat being dragged through the sand toward him.
    The two Bedouins who had been dragging Medhat toward the campfire dropped him and turned toward the approaching storm of riders, as they would later recall it. They began running toward their two comrades, who were already mounting their camels and preparing to fight.
    The running Bedouins yelled, “Flee!” and “The wrath of Allah is upon us.” They mounted their camels too.
    Still whooping sounds of war, Bob and Bill closed to within twenty-five feet of the closest Bedouins, who were urging their camels away from the din behind them.
    Bill reined his camel in and coached it to a trot, but Bob shot past him after the four men who were riding off into the dark.
    “Bob!” Bill yelled into the shadows already enveloping his friend. He brought his agitated animal to a sliding stop, threw a leg up and jumped out of the saddle, landing on his butt in the sand. He scrambled to his feet and ran to where Medhat lay in the sand groaning. “Are you hurt?”
    Medhat opened his eyes and sat up. “I’m okay, check on Kahlid.”
    Bill scurried to the campfire and found Khalid lying on his stomach with both hands roped behind his back and his legs bound. He unraveled the knots and gently rolled Khalid over.
    Medhat staggered towards the campfire. “Is he okay?”
    “His breathing is strong, but he’s got a knot above his right eye the size of an egg.”
    Medhat took the water skin off Bill’s mount, dampened a rag and ran it across the unconscious man’s forehead, then poured a little between his lips. “Where’s Bob?”
    “Christ!” Bill jumped up and darted for his camel. “He took out after them.” Bill tried to get up on the saddle, but it was too high. “How do I get this damn beast on his knees?”
    “Bill, wait! You can’t track them in the dark.”
    “He’s my friend.”
    “He’s my friend also, but there’s nothing we can do until it gets light. He’s in Allah’s hands at the moment, inshallah.”
    Kahlid regained consciousness an hour later. He described his encounter with the bandits. He thought there were three. They welcomed him and offered to share their fire. He dismounted and stood near the flames. But a fourth man stepped out of the shadows and clubbed him.
    Medhat and Bill told him what had happened next.
    Kahlid swore an oath to find Bob when it was light enough to follow the tracks and a second oath to kill the bandits when he caught them.

Kahlid and Medhat said their morning prayers on their knees toward Mecca.
    Then they rolled and packed their prayer rugs and mounted their camels, which fortunately hadn’t ranged far when the Bedouins fled. They rode to where Bill sat mounted and waiting, wanting to give them some privacy.
    Kahlid inspected the imprints in the sand and set out at a slow pace, followed by his two companions.
    “The tracks are obvious” said Bill. Why’s he moving so slow?
    “There are many tracks, old and new,” said Medhat. “Some may have been covered by wind blown sand. If we miss one that has veered away from the others, it could be from Bob’s camel. Kahlid is familiar with the desert. You must trust his judgment as I do.”
    Bill remained mute and continued to follow the two men into the arid wasteland. He thought of the oath Kahlid had sworn. He swore that when they found Bob, he would do everything within his means to help the cousin fulfill that oath.
    The three men topped a small sand dune and Kahlid halted and stared intently at the dry waves of the tan sea facing them. Neither Medhat, whose eyes were not as sharp as they were in his youth, nor Bill saw anything but the shimmering heat rising off the desert floor. Both men strained to see what caught the cousin’s attention.
    Kahlid pointed and yelled, then prodded his camel forward. Medhat followed before Bill could ask what the cousin had said. By the time Medhat and then Bill arrived, Kahlid was off his camel and inspecting the galabaya-covered body.
    “He’s one of the bandits,” said Kahlid. “His neck’s broken.” He searched the body and removed from the belt under the man’s robe the water skin and empty jambiya sheath.
    He circled the area and inspected the foot and pad prints. In the disturbed sand he spotted the blade partially buried under a brown splotch. He picked up the dagger, slid it into the sheath and handed it to Bill. “There’s blood on it, but it’s not his. May Allah guide your hand when you use it.”
    Kahlid mounted his camel and continued following the tracks.
    Bill lifted his robe and secured the knife under his belt, then prodded his mount to follow.

When Bob’s camel had raced around the end of the sand dune and he saw Khalid’s body lying on the ground and Medhat’s being dragged by the two men, he lost it. A rage erupted, one he hadn’t felt since the death of a brother marine.
    The pain and discomfort of the night’s ride vanished, replaced by a single-minded need to revenge the friends he thought were dead. He didn’t see Bill slow down or hear his name being called as his camel carried him headlong into the vast darkness.
    The bandits’ animals hadn’t hit full stride, and his speed would have carried him into the middle of them if they hadn’t turned east toward sand with a firmer crust. Bob heard the camels some distance to his left and changed course, but was slowed by the loose sand.
    Fifteen minutes later the dromedary’s thick sole pads struck harder ground with resounding clops. Bob came to a halt and listened to the dark silence until he heard a faint bellow. He willed his mount forward.

The four riders had the advantage of knowing the desert and where they were going—a small oasis where they could fill their water skins and ambush anyone pursuing them.
    “Are the riders still behind us?” asked the older of the four men, who was deaf in his right ear from a wound he had suffered in a fight.
    “I heard the footfall of one camel following us when we left the fire,” answered his sister’s son. “When we turned east it faded. The rest must have stopped to check on the other two.”
    The older man studied the position of the stars. “The sun will show its glaring face after we reach the oasis. I can’t relax knowing a knife may be getting closer to my back.”
    “What do you want?” his nephew asked.
    “One man will wait here. If after an hour he sees no one, he will ride to the oasis where we’ll be waiting. If he sees someone following us, he’ll send him to Allah then meet us.”
    The youngest of the four was a distant relative and understood who the man would be without his name being spoken. “I’ll catch up with you before you reach the oasis,” he boasted.
    “Of course you will,” said the older man. “Inshallah.”
    The lookout watched his tribesmen fade into the night, then coached his camel to a kneeling position, stepped off and waited.
    If someone was following it wouldn’t be the first man he had killed. Such were the ways of the men in his tribe.

Bob had the advantage of a single purpose governing his thoughts. He was riding an animal he was unfamiliar with, in a strange desert, under a moonless night sky. Not once did those things cause a moment’s doubt or hesitation.
    This was the second hour of his chase. After the sounds of the bandits’ camels had faded, Bob slowed his mount to a walk. He had been glancing at the stars and remembering his desert training in land navigation at the Twentynine Palms Marine Base. He hoped that the men were taking the quickest route to their destination and wouldn’t deviate by much.
    The bellowing of a camel less than a quarter-mile away brought him to a sudden stop.
    Bob prodded his camel slowly forward until he was within forty feet of whoever was hidden in the dark. There he stopped.
    Another sound from the camel broke the silence. Not knowing what awaited him, Bob urged his mount forward into a run.
    He closed to within ten feet and saw the dim outline of a kneeling camel and a robed Arab standing beside it with something in his hand. Bob leaned far out over the saddle and swung his right arm like a fence post at the man’s head.
    At the same time the startled Arab thrust his knife in desperate defense.
    Both connected, but Bob neither felt the cut nor saw the blood that ran down his arm and colored crimson the sleeve of his bisht.
    He turned his animal, anticipating the next attack, twisting left and right, not knowing where it would come from. Then he realized that he and this one Arab were alone.
    Bob kneed his camel toward his downed opponent and knew from the angle of the Arab’s head that he was dead.
    He leaned down and took the leather reins of the kneeling camel. He pulled it to a standing position, then grabbed its feed bag and looped its strap over the head of his own mount.
    Finally he felt the sticky blood dripping off his fingers. He located the wound on his forearm and ripped a strip of cloth from his bisht to bind it.
    When his camel finished feeding he would tie the dead bandit’s mount behind his and continue the hunt.

The sun hadn’t reached its zenith, but the sweltering heat it showered on the desert would be deadly to anyone or anything that did not heed its warning and find shelter.
    The three pursuers continued at a steady pace, following the imprints on the ground. Kahlid stopped and waited for Medhat and Bill to ride up next to him.
    “There are five heading in the same direction,” he said, “but I don’t believe they were together. One of them is the camel your brother was riding last night.”
    “Then why are we stopping?” asked Bill.
    “The hottest time of the day is almost upon us. If we don’t find cover soon, we may not be of use to anyone, including ourselves.”
    “What do you suggest?” asked Medhat, sweat pouring down his face.
    Kahlid lifted the skin from his saddle. “We take our fill of water and give some to the camels. Then as fast as they will carry us we follow the main path only. We have no time to follow any stray prints that may leave it.”
    “What if those prints are Bob’s?”
    Kahlid didn’t answer and Bill was sorry he’d asked. They would all die if they roamed around the desert much longer.

It was three hours after the deadly encounter. Bob would have been rocked to sleep from swaying on the saddle of the plodding camel but for his determination to catch the other Bedouins.
    He hadn’t enjoyed killing the man, but he didn’t regret it and intended to do the same to the other three when he caught them.
    He could hear nothing but the footfalls of his two camels. The Arab’s camel came alongside him now, bellowed loudly and tried to run forward. Bob yanked on its reins and forced the animal to fall back.
    A minute later, when it happened again, Bob released the straining animal’s reins and let it lope forward. His own camel readily followed the other’s lead.

“Did you hear that?” The nephew and the other two Arabs sat around their dung fire drinking tea. “Fahd must have taken care of him already…he’s early.”
    The approaching camel let out another loud bawl. The oldest Bedouin said, “That’s his camel. I told him to trade it for a quiet one at the souk, before its hollering gets him killed.”
    His companions grunted in agreement.
    “It sounds like Fahd was rewarded for his night’s work,” said the nephew. “I can hear a second animal.”
    “I’ll decide who keeps it!” the older man said harshly.
    “Yes, Uncle,” the nephew answered and Fahd’s camel bellowed again.

Bob saw the light of the campfire and understood what had excited the camel. He crouched in his saddle and kept his mount near the leader. They were within twenty feet of the light’s nearest boundary when he heard something in Arabic being called out in their direction. He clamped his legs tightly around the sides of his mount and raced forward.
    The oldest Bedouin was staring into the dancing flames of the fire, enjoying his sweet tea, when the quiet cousin yelled out a greeting, “We have some hot tea for you, Fahd.”
    The answering howl caused the old uncle to jerk and pour the scalding tea on his lap. He screamed in pain and his tribesmen turned toward him.
    At the same moment Bob’s camel entered the firelight, galloping straight at them.
    The thunderous pounding of the approaching beast caused the Bedouins to look up, but too late to react as a massive body vaulted from the saddle and bowled them over.
    The nephew was knocked across the campfire and the quiet cousin died a second after being kicked in the head by Bob’s hurtling camel. The nephew’s robe ignited and in a panic he rolled along the ground to try to put out the flames.
    The oldest Bedouin had let his body relax before being knocked backwards. Suffering a stinging pain in his bruised chest, he reached for his jambiya and struggled to a standing position.
    “Who are you?” he demanded in Arabic and glared up with his heavily browed black eyes at the giant who towered above him.
    Bob didn’t understand a word, but the meaning of the little Arab’s curved dagger was clear.
    “Are you deaf and dumb?” the Bedouin taunted his assailant. A quick glance at the cousin’s bleeding head told him there was no help there. He could see his nephew rolling along the ground and wanted to buy him time to put out the fire.
    “Why are you attacking three innocent travelers,” he asked calmly as he circled to the side of his assailant opposite his nephew.
    “Fuck you,” said Bob. “You killed my friends and now you’re gonna die.”
    The nephew ripped the last remnants of his robe off, reached for his knife and rushed toward the stranger.
    Bob saw the jabbering Bedouin nod and he spun around in time to avoid the knife thrust and grab the attacker’s arm. He bent it backwards until the shoulder snapped, extracting a scream of agony from the ruined man.
    Bob slung the otherwise useless man around to shield himself from the older attacker’s knife, and the nephew died quickly from his surprised uncle’s unfortunately expert thrust. Before the Bedouin could withdraw his knife, Bob shoved the body aside and grabbed the old man’s head in the vise of his powerful hands.
    He returned the Arab’s dark, hate-filled stare and twisted until a loud crack proclaimed that total retribution had been exacted on the four hapless bandits.

The three riders had swallowed their last drops of water half an hour earlier and were perilously close to heat prostration now that their bodies had stopped sweating and were rapidly overheating.
    The camels were suffering but would last much longer than their riders. The lead camel bellowed once and picked up its pace.
    “What’s the matter?” Medhat croaked between parched lips.
    Kahlid turned in his saddle and smiled weakly. “He smells water.”
    Bill’s encroaching dizziness prevented him from comprehending either the question or the answer. He could barely maintain his seat on his accelerating mount.

The campfire had burned itself out hours earlier. Bob sat beside it drinking what was left of the Bedouins’ tea. When he had assured himself that no other bandits were hiding behind the palm trees around the well, he drank his fill then gathered the camels and buried the Bedouins. Then he found a bag filled with dried dates and ate until the growling in his stomach subsided.
    Now he heard the approaching bellow and stood up, his body tensing instinctively in preparation for battle. At first he thought that Kahlid and Medhat were ghosts, then the sight of Bill bringing up the rear told him that his eyes weren’t deceiving him.
    “Over here! Over here!” He ran toward the three men and saw parched smiles spread across their lips. He followed them back to the shade of the oasis and helped them dismount.
    Each man got off his camel and briefly wrapped his arms around Bob before dropping to the ground in front of the trough to drink alongside the faithful beasts.
    Bob waited until they quenched their thirst before speaking. “Damn, it’s good to see you! I thought you was dead.”
    “Another hour out there and we might have been.” Bill dunked his head in the water again then reached over to pat his drinking camel affectionately.
    Kahlid said to Medhat, “Ask him where the bandits are!” All he could see was their riderless mounts.
    Bob’s face turned somber when he heard Medhat’s translation. He waved for them to follow and led them to three mounds of earth and sand on the fringes of the oasis.
    “I only had to kill two of ’em.” He recounted what had happened after he saw what he thought were the dead bodies of Khalid and Medhat lying on the ground. “…I’m not sorry they’re dead.”
    Medhat translated. After his last sentence was uttered, Khalid wrapped his arms around the big man again, not so briefly this time, and spoke quietly to him in Arabic.
    “Khalid thanks you for saving our lives,” said Medhat. “They would have murdered and robbed us if you and Bill hadn’t arrived when you did. You and Bill are cousins of the tribe, though we don’t share the same blood or beliefs.”
    Bob squeezed Khalid’s arm. “Thanks. I like that.”
    “We must rest now,” said Medhat. “It has been a long journey, but we’re in luck…It has carried us in the right direction. If we depart at midnight, we’ll reach the Gulf of Aqaba before the sun rises.”
    “Hey,” said Bob, “I got a bag of dates…If anyone’s hungry.”

Copyright © 2014 by Steve Glossin


  1. I enjoyed it as much as when I read the whole novel. In your hands the Middle East becomes alive. In another life you must have walked that heat land. Good job!

  2. Two dudish Westerners go riding camels across a Sinai desert to hunt down stolen Incan artifacts? What will master storyteller Steve Glossin think of next?

  3. A good read. Thanks!
    A real-life parallel: "Arabian Sands", by Wilfred Thesiger.
    And a famous one, "Seven Pillars of Wisdom", by T.E. Lawrence.