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Solomon's jar - Alex Archer

By Howard Torres,2014-07-20 22:11
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Solomon's jar - Alex Archer

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    ? ? ? SOLOMON'S JAR ? ? ? ? ? ?

    TORONTO • NEW YORK • LONDON ? ? ? ? ? ? SOLOMON'S JAR ? Rogue Angel 02 ? By Alex Archer ? ? ? All characters in this book have no existence outside the imagination of the author and have no

    relation whatsoever to anyone bearing the same name or names. They are not even distantly

    inspired by any individual known or unknown to the author, and all incidents are pure

    invention. ?

    First edition September 2006 ? ISBN: 1-55254-605-5 ? SOLOMON'S JAR ? Copyright ? 2006 by Worldwide Library. ? ? ? ? ? Special thanks and acknowledgment to Victor Milan for his contribution to this work. ? ?

    ? ? Chapter 1 ? On long tanned legs Annja Creed ran through the hardwood forest. Rays from the sun hanging

    precariously above the great mountains slanted like pale gold lances at random between the

    boles. They caressed her sweaty face like velvet gloves as she ran through them.

    Despite sweating in the heat, she breathed normally, dodging thicker stands of brush, crashingthrough the thinner ones. Late-season insects trilled around her and in sporadic spectralclouds tried to fly up her nose and into her mouth. The birds chattered and called to oneanother in the trees. The woods smelled of green growth and mostly dried decayed vegetation,not at all the way she imagined a true rain forest might smell, lower down in the Amazon basinproper. Up in the watershed of the Amazon's tributary the Río Marañón, in eastern Peru, theearly autumn was drier and cooler, the growth far less dense.

    Her heart raced as much as any person's might have after running at high speed for over twomiles, up and down steep ridges. It had little to do with the exertion, though.

    She ran for her life.

    ?

    Daylight came late and evening early to the small Peruvian village of Chiriqui. The sun hadrolled well past the zenith. Though shadows weren't yet very long, it wasn't far from vanishingbehind the tree-furred ridge to the west when the blast of a diesel engine ripped the calm air.

    Beyond the ridge loomed the mighty peaks of the Andes themselves, looking close enough totopple and crush the little village into its dusty hillside, their blue tinge hinting how faraway they really stood. The hills were mostly covered in patchy grass, dry as the hot SouthernHemisphere summer ended. Stands of hardwood forest rose on some of the heights, interspersedwith tough scrub.

    Chickens flapped their wings in annoyance and fled squawking as a big blue Dodge Ram 2500,battered and sun faded, rolled into the small plaza in the midst of the collection of a coupleof dozen huts. A tethered spider monkey shrilled obscenities and ran up a pole supporting athatch awning as the vehicle clipped the edge of a kiosk and spilled colorful fruits bouncingacross the tan hard-packed dirt. The owner remonstrated loudly as the vehicle stopped in acloud of exhaust and dust.

    Men began bailing out of the truck's extended bed. Men dressed in green-and-dust-coloredcamouflage who carried unmistakable broken-nosed Kalashnikovs and grenades clipped on theirvests like green mango clusters.

    They were gringos, unmistakably, who towered over the small brown villagers. The vehiclesported a powerful Soviet-era PKS machine gun mounted on a roll bar right behind the cab.

    The people of Chiriqui knew better than to call attention to themselves when such visitors cameto town.

    "Gather 'round," the apparent leader commanded in clear but norteamericano -accented Spanish.

    He wore a short-sleeved camo blouse, a similarly patterned baseball cap atop his crewcut redhead, and carried a black semiautomatic pistol in an open-top holster tied down his right thighlike a movie gunslinger.

    Unlike people familiar with such things only from watching television from the comforts oftheir dens, the villagers knew well the difference between semi and full automatic.

    The villagers stared, more as if their worst nightmares were coming true than from any lack ofcomprehension. Because, of course, that was exactly what was happening. The gringo soldierswith their hard faces grinning mean white grins spread out in pairs with rifles at the ready toenforce their leader's command.

    ?

    In the relative cool of her hut Annja Creed sat straining to read by the light coming in bydribs and drabs through gaps in the hardwood-plank wall. A bare bulb hung by a frayed cordperilously low over her head at the table on which she had spread the ancient book. It wasunlit. The people of the village of Chiriqui had already done more than enough for her; she hadfirmly but with effusive thanks refused their offers to burn up more of their scarce, preciousfuel to run the generator to provide artificial illumination. She could smell hot earthoutside, the thatch, the sun-dried and splitting planks of the walls. And most of all the

familiar musty odor of an ancient volume.

     she read, "...herb has most salubrious effects,""particularly with regards to ye falling

    sickness, the effects of which fit it serves to ameliorate most expeditiously..."

    That was how she would have translated it into English, anyway. The Jesuit Brother João daConcepção's seventeenth-century Portuguese gave her no problems; modern Portuguese had changedless in the intervening centuries than most languages. Even other Romance languages, which iftranslated literally tended to sound archaic and formal even at street level to English ears.

    She knew her Romance languages. She knew the majors, Spanish, French, Italian and, of course,Portuguese. Plus she was rudely conversant in some of the minors, such as Catalan. Of the wholegroup she knew little of Romanian. She read and wrote Latin superbly; it had formed the core ofher language study since she had learned it in the Catholic orphanage in New Orleans.

    What gave her fits was Brother João's crabgrass handwriting. The ink had faded to a sort offaint burgundy hue on the water-warped pages of the ancient journal. In some places water spotsor mold obscured the text entirely. In others the words faded entirely from visibility as oftheir own accord.

    "This would probably be easier if I went outside in the direct sun," she said aloud. She had atendency to talk to herself. It was one of several reasons – that she knew of – that thevillagers called her la gringa loca , the Crazy White Lady. That she spoke Spanish and was

    willing to share her medical supplies or give impromptu English lessons to the local kids – ortheir elders – helped keep the inflection friendly when they said it, so all was well.

    As for going out in the sun, she'd had about enough of it in the weeks she'd spent tramping thehills looking for the tome. It wasn't as hot there as it was down lower in the Selva, the greatjungle of the Upper Amazon. But to compensate, the high-altitude sun was more intense, withless air to block the UV rays that punished her fair skin. And it was hot enough. Even in theshade of the hut she had to keep constantly on her guard to prevent sweat from running the lineof her chestnut hair, tied back with a russet bandanna, and dripping off her nose onto thepriceless pages.

    "Anyway," she said, aloud again, "I'm just being impatient. I could just wait till I'm back atthe hotel."

    Having searched a month to find the book, she was eager to confirm its contents. However, shewas still a day or two from any kind of reliably illuminated, not to mention air-conditioned,surroundings; she was meeting a farmer from up in the hills about sunset. He had agreed to giveher a lift into the nearest town of consequence in his venerable pickup.

    Annja's impatience was rewarded. It seemed that the hints she'd been pursuing had been correct.The long-dead friar had cataloged a wealth of herbs of the Upper Amazon and watershed, alongwith a remarkable accounting of their observable effects on various maladies so systematic thatit prefigured the scientific method. She wondered if an early stint in China, with itsextensive materia medica assembled over millennia, and its own tradition of systematic

    observation and trial and error, had influenced him.

    Excitement thrilled through her veins as she carefully paged through the book, readingpassages, looking at the pictures Brother João had drawn in almost obsessive detail. She knewnothing about botany, and even the mid-seventeenth century was straying beyond her actual scopeof formal training, which was medieval and Renaissance Europe. But since she had taken on thisnew life, she'd found herself constantly expanding her horizons.

    She was barely conscious of the outlaw-motorcycle rumble and snarl of the diesel truck pullinginto the plaza. None of the villagers possessed a motor vehicle, but a few, mostly pickuptrucks, wandered through Chiriqui almost every day.

    "Senorita," a childish voice said, low and urgent behind her. She turned.

    "What is it, Luis?" she asked the tiny figure who stood in the door, a tattered T-shirt hanginghalfway down his bare brown legs. His eyes were great anthracite disks of concern beneath histhatch of untamed black hair.

"You must go," he said.

    He looks so innocent, she thought, not overly concerned despite his apparent urgency. She knewhow kids tended to dramatize.

    "Why?" she asked.

    His eyes grew bigger and his voice more grave. "Bad men come," he said.

    From outside came the sudden, unmistakable clatter of automatic gunfire.

    ?

    The villagers crowded into the square and stared as one at the man who lay writhing on theslope across the stream, guts and pelvis pulped by a burst of steel-jacketed rifle bullets. Thestink of burned propellant and lubricant stung the air.

    "My, my," the intruders' leader said, wagging his head reprovingly. "You people are slowlearners. Don't you know by now that when we come around you don't run, because you'll only dietired?"

    For a moment there was no sound but the pinging of the truck as it cooled and the groans of themortally injured man. "Don Pepe, front and center," the redheaded man in the ball capcommanded.

    A burly black trooper rudely thrust an old man with a full head of white hair forward. Don Pepewas skinny and stooped, in his formerly purple-and-white-striped shirt, faded by sun andrepeated washings to dusty gray, his stained khaki shorts and rubber sandals. Big darksplotches of sweat spread outward beneath the pits of his scrawny arms.

    Don Pepe staggered a few steps. Then he straightened and approached the intruder with dignity.

    "Why are you doing this?" he asked. "We paid our taxes. Both to the government and to DonFrancisco."

    "Don Francisco is the main traficante in the region," Luis said. He stood beside Annja as shecrouched in the shade of an awning behind a blue plastic barrel used to collect rainwater."These are his enforcers."

    Annja made gestures to silence Luis. The boy seemed unfazed by the throes of the man who'd beenshot. Annja knew him as a villager who'd lived here his whole life; he was probably at least asemidistant cousin of the boy. This isn't the first man he's seen shot , she realized with a

    jolt. Maybe not even by these men.

    She felt a flare of righteous fury. She suppressed a strong desire to rush in. The mercenarieswere too many and too well-armed, and she knew well what her failure would cost her friends.

    The tall man, his skin sunburned an uncomfortable pink, wagged a finger. "Ah, but that's notwhy we're here. You're harboring a spy – a journalist."

    Don Pepe raised his head and stared the man in the eye. He did not speak.

    "Not going to deny it, huh?"

    "Tell him, Pepe!" a middle-aged woman screamed. "She's no journalist! She's an archaeologist."

    A Latino soldier drove the steel-shod butt of his Kalashnikov into her belly. She staggeredback and sat down hard in the dust, clutching herself and gasping for breath.

    Annja went tense.

    "Anybody else care to speak out of turn?" The red-haired man surveyed the crowd. The villagersshifted their weight and glared sullenly. But they said no more.

    "Didn't think so. Now, Don Pepe, here. He's a man of the world. Aren't you, Pep? He knows allthis archaeology noise is just a bunch of bullshit. Right?"

    The old man shook his head. "It is true. She is no journalist."

    The mercenary shrugged. "Doesn't matter. A spy's a spy. You know better than to shelteroutsiders. So do yourselves a favor and give her up."

Don Pepe shook his white head. "No."

    The other cocked his head to one side. "What's that, old man? I don't think I heard youcorrectly."

    "I will not. We will not. She has done you no harm. She has come among us as a friend. She – "

    The vicious crack of a 9 mm handgun cut him off. Don Pepe's head whipped back, but not beforered blood and dirty white clots flew out the back of his ruptured skull. He fell.

    The red-haired man tipped the barrel of his Beretta service side arm skyward. A tiny wisp ofbluish smoke curled from the blue-black muzzle.

    "So much for old Don Pepe. Anybody else care to step forward as a spokesperson – preferablysomebody smart enough not to contradict me?" The echoes of the gunshot reverberated on and on,from the far hillside where the first man still lay dying in agony, from all around.

    Behind the rain barrel, Annja backed away. "Where do you go?" Luis asked in alarm.

    "To give them what they want," she said grimly.

    "You can't! They'll kill – "

    But she was gone.

    ?

    "Looks to me as if there's gonna be a village massacre here, boys," the redhead told his men inEnglish. "Those atrocity-loving leftist guerrillas. So sad."

    "Even if they give the bitch up, boss?" a hatchet-faced trooper asked.

    "Do you even need to ask? Examples need to be made here. Remember, we got to be back in time tosecure the airfield by 1900. Got an extraspecial shipment headed out tonight on the FreedomBird."

    Then, returning to Spanish, the leader announced, "All right, people. Listen up, here. You haveten seconds to give up the spy. Or else the nice lady sitting there gets it in the belly.Understand?"

    ?

    The trooper who stood in the Ram's bed behind the mounted machine gun had blond hair shorn to asilver plush and ears that stuck straight out from the sides of his head beneath his crumpledcamouflage boonie hat like open car doors. He couldn't possibly have been as young as helooked. Not and be old enough to have had the military training and the seasoning these menshowed. Annja was still new to the game, still finding out – as she was to her horror today –just what it entailed. But she knew it took time to become a killer.

    Her rage, her sense of mission, quieted the roiling in her gut. And the adrenaline song of fearin the pulse in her ears.

    The boyish gunner had his attention focused wholly on the villagers.

    So stealthily did Annja creep up in the dust behind the truck that he would have had a hardtime hearing her even if he had been listening. But there was no way he would miss the shift inbalance as she climbed up in the bed, no matter how carefully she moved.

    So instead she simply crouched, then leaped like a panther, over the tailgate and in behindhim. The corrugated soles of her ankle-high hiking boots still made little noise as she landed.The truck's rocking alerted him. He started to turn.

    She caught him around the throat with one arm, his head with the other. He reached for thecombat knife hanging from his belt. But the sleeper hold she put on him cut off blood flow tothe brain and put him out almost instantly.

    Annja held him for an endless half minute, just to be sure. Heart pounding, she feared one ofthe intruders would look around, or one of the villagers would spy her and give her away,deliberately or through simple reflex surprise. But the mercs and their captives had eyes onlyfor one another, as the shadows of evening stole across the village.

Slowly she lowered the unconscious man to the bed.

    The machine gun was fed by a belt from a box attached to its receiver. Annja stood up straightbehind the weapon, grabbed the pistol grip, swung the butt around to her shoulder and boldlyannounced her presence.

    "Here I am!"

    ?

    "What have we here?" the leader of the intruders asked sarcastically, putting his hands on hiships. "You here to do the right thing and give yourself up, save these good people a lot ofsuffering and dying?"

    Annja swiveled the barrel so it aimed straight at the freckled bridge of his nose. "Not achance," she said. "Throw down your weapons and walk out of here, and it's you who'll be savingyourselves."

    "I think not," he said. "I think I'll just start executing one of these little people everycount of ten, say, until you decide to surrender." He raised his Beretta and aimed it at thehead of a man who stood nearby.

    Annja pulled the trigger.

    Nothing happened.

    Safety, she thought, with a gut slam of shock. She knew pistols and rifles fairly well. Butnext to nothing about machine guns.

    She spun away as a trooper behind the leader whipped his AKM to his camo-clad shoulder andtriggered a burst. The bullets cracked over her head. She dived over the tailgate as a grenadethumped in the bed.

    The explosion drove the big Ram down hard on its suspension. As it flexed back up, the fueltank went up with a loud whomp, sending an orange ball rolling into the sky, trailing a pillarof black smoke.

    A figure reared up from the truck bed, all orange, waving wings of flame. Demonic screamsissued from it.

    "Billy!" shouted the trooper who'd thrown the grenade.

    Frowning slightly, the leader raised a straight right arm, sighted down his handgun andsqueezed off a single shot. The flame-shrouded head snapped back. The shrieking ceased. Thefigure settled back into its pyre.

    "Spread out. Find the bitch," the redhead said coldly.

    "What about these people?" asked the tall black trooper.

    "The hell with them. I want her dead!"

    ?

    Through gathering evening, Annja ran.

    Not so much for fear of her own life. To her own surprise she felt little concern for that.Rather, for her mission. The thought that her mentor might have labored half a millennium tofind the sword, and to find a new champion, only to have his labors made futile by such men asthese made her blood boil.

    Her footfalls thudded in her ears, above the buzz of swarming insects and the swishing andpiping cries of the birds that swooped between the trees in pursuit of them. She had no ideahow many men hunted her through the hills. They seemed to operate in teams. Three times theyhad spotted her and opened fire with their false-flag Russian weapons. Fortunately her reflexes– or distance – had prevented her being tagged.

    That and her knowledge of the terrain. She had spent the better part of a month tramping thesehills, looking for buried treasure: the cache where Brother João had hidden his voluminousjournal from the planters and the troops who hunted him to steal his secrets. She had found it

    not two days before beneath a cairn of stones half-buried in a hillside, using clues left bythe friar after he made his escape to Goa, India.

    She knew Chiriqui's intimate environs far better than her pursuers were likely to. And theydidn't seem inclined to slow themselves down by dragging along a local to serve as a guide.Besides, she could see they were manifestly arrogant to the point of blindness, accustomed tobelieving themselves so superior to anyone else that they'd never think of dragooning help.

    She paused in the shelter of an erosion-cut bank, trying to control her breathing with a yogaexercise. The sun had gone from sight, although the sky remained light, stained with peachtoward the west. The hollows and low places were filled with a sort of lavender gloom that wasalmost tangible.

    A deep ravine gashed the land just over the next ridge. Using such cover as scrub and rockoutcrops offered, she climbed the slope, senses stretched tight as a guyline. She paused in thedeep shade of the broad-leaved trees at the crest. A hill across from her still hid the sun.Below her the ravine was a slash in gloom crossed by a pale blur – a rope-and-plank footbridgecommon in the erstwhile Incan empire.

    She drew a deep breath. Almost out of here, she thought. She walked down the slope.

    A nasty crack sounded beside her left ear. She felt something sting her cheek. Byuncomprehending reflex she turned to look back up the hill.

    A yellow star appeared in the brush at the foot of the trees, not far from the point whereshe'd left them. It flickered. She heard more cracking sounds.

    She turned and raced for the bridge. The short, steep slope gave no cover. The bridge gaveless. But the only chance she saw was to make it across and lose herself in the night and farhills. Her pursuers might have night-vision equipment but she'd just have to chance it.

    She zigged right and zagged left, running flat out. The grayed, splintery-dry planks werebouncing beneath her feet with a peculiar muted timbre as she darted out onto the bridge.

    It had not occurred to her to wonder why these hardmen, who seemed to know their business hadgotten a clear, close shot at her back – and missed.

    But then a pair of men rose up from the bushes clustered on the far side and walked onto thebridge to meet her. Men in mottled brown-and-khaki camouflage. Each carried a rifle with anunmistakable Kalashnikov banana magazine slanted in patrol position before his waist.

    Feeling sick, she grabbed the wooly guide rope with one hand and turned. Another pair of menstrolled almost casually down the hill behind her, likewise holding their weapons muzzle down.Their crumpled boonie hats were pulled low, making their faces shadows.

    "Might as well give it up here, miss," a man called from the bridge's far end in a New Englandaccent. "Only way out is down. And it's a long step."

    "What do you think you're doing?" a nervous voice asked from behind her.

    "What do you think?" the New Englander called out with a nasty sneer. "The first white woman wesee in weeks, and she's a babe with legs up to here . You want to let that go to waste?"

    "Plenty of time to waste her later," the big merc added. "Sorry, lady. Nothing personal. Life'sjust a bitch sometimes, ain't she?"

    Annja let her head hang forward with a loose strand of hair hanging before it like a bannerfrom a defeated army. Her shoulders slumped. She sat back against the guide rope heedless ofthe way it swayed over emptiness.

    "That's more like it, honey," the trooper said. "You've got a good sense of the inevitable."

    He was close now. Holding his weapon warily in a gloved right hand, he reached for her with hisleft.

    Her face hidden, she frowned in sudden concentration. She reached with her will into a pocketin space, into a different place, always near her but always infinitely far away.

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