When Camels Fly

 

 

Do you know how you can go onto Amazon or Barnes & Noble and click on a book and read the first few chapters to see if you want to read further? I think that is a swell idea. The only problem is there are gazillions of books out there and unless you are choosing from the NY Times Bestseller List , GoodReads, your favorite book blogs or someone has given you a recommendation – how the heck are you going to find those often lost in-between the cracks new releases?

The purpose of this new feature, Reading This Weekend, is all about skipping that one step. We are going to recommend a book AND give you the first three chapters to read. If it tickles your fancy, go buy it. We are looking for fun and interesting reads – any recommendations are welcome. I hope you are intrigued with our first selection, When Camels Fly by NLB Horton!

 

1Chapter 1

Arabian Desert, western Jordan

“You risk everything by killing her.” The Israeli voice outside Maggie’s tent rattled with age.

“How much do you think she knows?” The second speaker sounded young, his diction precisely well educated. Based on her work in the region, she thought his accent was Lebanese or Jordanian. He was not the same caste as the Bedouin guard who communicated with a grunt, and leered and cleaned his pistol across from her now.

The men had circled outside the twenty-seven-year-old hydrologist’s prison for fifteen minutes, discussing her death and their crime. She was bound and gagged, but wasn’t deaf.

“She knows plenty.” The old Israeli spoke with military precision, almost growling. “She visited three locations in thirty days. When I saw her at the second, I decided she must have discovered something. Weigh the risks. Do we hold her captive until it’s too late to stop us? Or is she threat enough to warrant inquiries after her death?”

“Do you want to free her and find out?” The Arab laughed as he spoke.

Goose bumps carpeted her arms. She was cold despite knowing temperatures outside the tent had passed a hundred degrees hours ago.

The Arab stopped laughing long enough to lecture the Jew. “We risk four years of work and die in prison if we’re discovered. Israeli prisons are unpleasant, General. Especially in old age.”
A scratching noise made her think one of them lit a match. She hoped it was to ignite a cigar or cigarette and not the tent in which she was imprisoned.

Then the Jew, “General,” made a suggestion. “Her death can be an accident. Desert people stage them well. She got lost. By the time her bones are found, we’ll be untouchable.”

They stood near her, separated only by a homespun goat-hair fabric wall. Then the Arab ended the conversation as cigar smoke seeped under the hem. “We have a week. Let me take care of this.”

Through a gap made by a plant growing under the tent edge, she spied polished leather shoes and desert boots. She tried to see the men’s faces, but they moved out of sight before she could inconspicuously reposition herself, slowly, so as not to alarm the Bedouin cleaning his gun. She’d never forget their voices.

Scraggly vegetation, glimpsed through the same gap and on her two daily “nature treks,” was consistent with the desert of northwestern Jordan. During the outings, she recognized the hills west of Amman. Her waking hours were spent reasoning through the mechanics of vast amounts of disappearing water, and how to escape if she had the chance.

When she escaped, she’d have a plan.

 

###

She was rolled—tightly enough to secure, but not so tightly as to suffocate—into a worn Heriz rug similar to ones her mother, an archaeologist, brought to the family’s homestead years ago, expanding a collection now creeping from the floors to the ranch-house walls. Woven near Mount Sabalan, Heriz are functional masterpieces of abnormally dense, long-lasting fibers that muffle noise. Not that soundproofing mattered—she was in the middle of nowhere and her execution was imminent.

A tailgate clanked after someone slid the rug into the bed of a pickup. The bumpy ride included a stop-and-go border crossing. Her Bedouin captor’s interrogation by an Israeli soldier indicated she was moved to Israel. If anything went wrong, the Israelis would be blamed in a tactical move she understood.

Hours later, she was rolled out of the rug and onto the desolate desert floor. She recognized this area, too. Once upright, she shuffled down a trail into a wadi near the aptly named Dead Sea. How appropriate that she would die in one of God’s drainage ditches.

Only a miracle would save her. Her hands were bound, her ankles shackled with only enough slack for baby steps. He held the gun, but she was calm. Faith led her to believe in eternal life.

The thought of grieving her family edged her close to tears. She wouldn’t let him mistake her sadness for fear, so pushed their faces from her mind. And tried not to hear Mama’s voice. She stayed ready for the opportunity to escape—one she knew wouldn’t come.

1

Day One

Chapter 2

 

Noon

Archaeologist Grace Madison, Ph.D.
Michmash, Hill Country, Israel/West Bank

 

For seventy-two hours I begged God to guide me, knowing I’d kill for my daughter.

The 9mm Glock shaking in my sweating hand had saved Maggie’s life. The man prodding her recoiled, then crumpled facedown at her feet, so I must have pulled the trigger. Her profane yell erupted from the dry riverbed before heavy air permeating south-central Israel’s Dead Sea basin fell silent.

I remember stabilizing my wrist on abrasive sandstone, and having a clear shot. Defined as one that wouldn’t kill my child.

Oozing across his djellabah, a red stain—the only color in a monochromatic landscape—saturated the folds of his robe. This blood, leeching onto sand pocked with hoof prints, reminded me of the battle between life and death.

A gasp quelled my breakfast granola bar, and I struggled to free my stiff self from the crevice fifty feet northeast of her. The voice muttering, “Grace, mothers do not shoot people,” was mine.

I couldn’t shout to reassure her. The sound of the shot was incriminating enough. A shepherd near the wadi tip herded our direction this morning. He was the only other living thing I’d seen breaching the expanse between the Judean hills forty miles southwest, and my perch, in more than two days. If he worked with Maggie’s abductor, shouting would reveal my position and render me useless. I couldn’t take the chance.

As I clambered down the rock surface, sliding on pebbles left by spring torrents, Maggie jerked around, her dark-blonde ponytail swinging. She froze in fighting mode: feet planted firmly, slight body crouched, palms bound flat together chest-high, ready to strike ineffectively because she was shackled. In khaki cargo pants and a pink fly-fishing shirt faded by sun and age, she almost disappeared into the parched landscape, and resembled Lot’s wife.

She whirled low toward my sound. I ducked behind an outcropping to avoid smashing my head, and hopped to an uneven shelf. I shook so violently that my movements were uncertain, and my hands and feet missed specific marks. My throat closed and arms thrashed, and I tried to point the pistol away from Maggie when my foot skied three feet across a sandy slab. I dove over the rock edge after catching my boot tip on a raised lip, then somersaulted toward my daughter.

“Nuts!” I barked mid-air. Landing six feet below on the wadi floor with a muffled thud, I disbursed sand like a boulder dropped in a puddle.

I am an archaeologist of mature vintage. Rapid descents are not my specialty. I am the plodding type.

Righting myself, I slipped the warm pistol into the holster under my vest, snagging the hammer on a frayed seam. My gardening hat (whose days were numbered because brim clung to crown with duct tape) showered me with sand as I clamped it on my graying head.

“Mama!” Maggie sprung from her crouching-tiger pose. A moment later we collided, knocking the wind out of me. The greeting was supposed to be a hug, but she was bound and I squeezed the daylights out of her instead. Choking on tears, I clenched my jaw to maintain enough emotional control to run away.

“We have to get out of here.” Her voice was raw.

While clinging to her and panting, I monitored the ridge and wondered. Were we safe? How long until the stench of death filled the desert air? Where was the shepherd? With my red-and-white floral Swiss Army knife, I cut plastic ties binding her hands. “My camels are up top. Anyone else?”

“No. But he was part of a team,” she said, massaging her lower arms. Tears spilled over her lashes, then slid down bruised and blotchy cheeks, leaving tracks to her chin. Her blue-green eyes were unattractive slits above dark half moons. She glanced at the body. “That could be me.” Then looked at me. “Excellent shot, Mama.”

“He didn’t think so.” I lightly kissed her swollen cheek and prayed too-tight gags—not fists—created the vivid discoloration.

When she squeezed my hand, red welts encircling her wrists made me swallow hard. I barely resisted the urge to empty the magazine into the corpse and pictured a satisfying Swiss-cheese pattern on its back. But I couldn’t waste ammunition. Struggling to conquer a literal interpretation of overkill, I tugged Maggie, and we barreled slowly up-wadi, grains thickly shifting under every thrusting step.

“We need to go, Maggie. The embassy. Jerusalem.”

“An Israeli’s involved.” She stared at the body. “Do we leave him here?” Her voice rose at the end of her predictably humane question. “Shouldn’t we … ?”

A camel roar from the wadi base silenced her. I hadn’t seen it—was it mounted or wild? The shepherd should still be beyond the wadi top, afoot.

I calculated my bullets. One chambered, another in the corpse, ten in the magazine. I firmly turned her toward a side channel and steadied my breathing to shoot again. I also prayed—probably heretically —that my aim would stay deadly.

“I’m open to ideas about the body, but don’t want to discuss it with the Israeli authorities. I’ve rationalized it to my God.” I lied, peering over my sunglasses at her, ignoring the sprawled form in our wake. No mother should have to murder for a child. “If you’re certain about the Israeli, then we skip the embassy.” She knew the U.S. and Israeli governments were Siamese twins separated at birth, always embroiled in a love-hate relationship that increasingly transcended reason.

Maggie hoisted to the shelf from which I had tumbled, and turned, reaching toward me. As she squatted back and I lunged to climb, a pop, then reverberating roar of a high-powered rifle exploded up the chasm. Rock shattered six inches above her head, peppering us with shards. We rolled under a jutting ledge as a second shot rang from above us. The shots were almost simultaneous. Two gunmen?

“What is this? The O.K. Corral?” I complained as I arched my body over hers. She grunted, and I flipped back while smashing her into the wall. Blood on her shirt registered in my addled brain.

“Just a scratch from the rocks-and-roll,” she whispered quickly, trying to smile. “Compliments of Wyatt Earp.”

I nodded, held my index finger to my lips for silence.

A young male voice, too close, shouted. “Dr. Madison! The peace of Christ be with you!”

Maggie shook her head emphatically. She apparently didn’t know anything about the stranger. Rage overcame my fear.

“Prove it!” I yelled while scrambling up. Kneeling in a shooting position under the ledge, my head scraped the ceiling. I pointed my Glock toward the voice and scanned, ready to tighten my aim.

“Dr. Madison, my shot ensured you and your daughter will leave this wadi alive. Have faith!” His speech, slightly accented, was crisp. I survived supervising upper-crust Englishmen and women during gap years on digs throughout the Middle East, so recognized the broad vowels taught in Britain’s best boarding schools.

“A mustard seed dwarfs my faith! Drop your weapon. Hands on your head. Show yourself!” My voice, rough from dehydration, hissed through unmoving jaws.

“It’s down, my hands are up, and you’ll see me.”

My right fist had a death grip on the pistol, index finger snugly on a trigger ready to pull. My left cupped its butt. I looked down the barrel’s ridge. I wouldn’t miss. “Drop into the wadi. I’ll kill you if you try anything.”

Shepherd robes flapped like wings, snapping until he landed on all fours, eight feet from us, in soft sand blown against a rock cliff. I trained a vertical line with the gun as he dropped. He stood and waited.

“Who are you? Why shouldn’t I kill you?” As I demanded information, I realized he would be the second man I had murdered in less than fifteen minutes, an eternally damning personal worst.

“Leave Israel. Your camels are where you left them. I’ll clean up.” He was calm, professional, tall, and dark. None of his gorgeousness was lost on Maggie, who breathed out in a soft, controlled whoosh. He nodded slightly to acknowledge her.

Circumstantial evidence convicted him as an assassin. My instinct—which I hesitated to call the Holy Spirit at this moment—told me he wasn’t.

“Your weapon?” I hadn’t moved my gun from his face. He hadn’t blinked. I was certain my shirt visibly bumped with each hammer of my heart.

“My rifle is where you said to leave it.” Shoulder-length black hair swung as he cocked his head toward the desert floor fifteen feet above. I glanced only long enough to decide he shot from a fault halfway down the cliff immediately after Maggie and I rolled under him.

Assessing our position, I realized he stood between us, and the only wall irregular enough to climb. Where he said the rifle lay. “Maggie, get it.” I shifted to let her pass.

She shimmied up the cliff behind him, choosing stable hand and toe holds in crumbling strata, cresting cautiously in case he’d brought backup. My pistol remained pointed at his forehead, and I wouldn’t hesitate to kill him.

“Got it, Mama.”

“Cover me.” I followed her route—dangerously, given my chronic instability—until I stood, weak-kneed, on the desert floor. “We’ll take it. I’m sure he brought a spare.”

“You’d be dead now if that were the reason I’m here. Make that last flight to London from Tel Aviv.”

“Who are you?” I demanded, eager to figure out what was behind Maggie’s abduction and his inexplicable appearance. “Why are you here?”

“I was sent to protect you if you couldn’t rescue your daughter yourself. Go now.” He turned down-wadi, unconcerned about the great probability of a bullet in the back of his head.
Maggie pointed the rifle at the trotting form that passed the corpse of her abductor. Beyond that victim lay a second body partially hidden by a craggy bend at the broad mouth of the wadi. The shepherd killed this second man, the source of the shot that caused Maggie and I to dive under the ledge.

We would run.

We broke for my camels, then pushed them. Struggling to stay astride Western-style, I gripped my animal’s ovoid belly with legs that ineffectively reached mid-ribcage. Leaning forward behind its musty neck, I clutched the front pommel, keeping my center of gravity low behind the hairy hump.

Within two hundred yards, I switched to desert-style, like Maggie. Crossing my legs on the seat padding in front of the pommel and around the hump, I settled my hips deeply to rock forward and back in tandem with my mount. The animal’s neck elongated like a racehorse’s with every stride, nestling me further tail-ward against the short seatback.

My wide-brimmed hat slapped between my shoulder blades. As I squinted into the setting sun, damage from another sunburn stung my face. Dark sunglasses protected my vision from flying grit kicked up by a building windstorm.

I desperately wanted to reach Jerusalem, which lay in a saddle between two summits less than ten miles away, visible in the distance. Angry, frustrated, and scared to death, I needed to scream even if she couldn’t hear me.

“How did international hydrologist Margaret Madison almost get herself killed in the wilderness?” A melancholy gust swept my unheard shout toward the Judean desert.
1

Chapter 3

Mid-Afternoon
Grace
Judean Hill Country to Jerusalem

The lunatic gene doesn’t swim in my pool, but a casual observer would have thought otherwise. Our mother-daughter reunion during the southwesterly camel race to Jerusalem was punctuated by visible (grimace … grin … repeat) mood swings unrelated to menopause, while our speed and the wind prevented discussion of our troubles.

Reviewing my path to the wadi, I prayed I hadn’t overlooked clues on the palm-sized gray cuneiform hidden under my pillow in the dig tent. It said she would be murdered at a specific longitude and latitude, but nothing more. I called for my husband, Mark, in the States, and tried my son Jeff in London, but neither picked up. It never occurred to me to contact anyone else, a self-reliance borne from raising two kids on thousands of acres populated by predators.

As we cantered into the bus depot on the edge of Jerusalem forty-five minutes after leaving the wadi, my heart raced, and I struggled to breathe. My frantic condition was unrelated to the stomach-churning escape in one-hundred-and-twelve-degree heat.

The windstorm was now a sandstorm. We left our mounts with others near the refreshment stand, where the umbrella provided shade and its stick functioned as a hitching post. Bedouin often rode to the suburbs before taking a bus to their urban destination, so our camel stop-and-drop looked normal. The animals would be absorbed into another herd if left unclaimed for more than a day or two.

Maggie moved slowly, a scarf from my camel bags wrapping her head and shoulders, burkha-style, to hide her battered face. She reached for me periodically, as if ensuring I was really there, and we searched for the bus among a dozen obscured by blowing sand. We joined the clot of passengers boarding for Jerusalem’s Central Station, where we would catch a cab.
Everything and everyone was suspicious. Trying to think like a spy was quite a stretch for a late-in-life archaeologist. Each passenger was a potential assassin, including the adorable toddler playing with a Lone Ranger toy. I stared at him crossly until he whimpered into his mother’s bosom.

###

 

I flagged the only un-air-conditioned taxi from the Central Station queue. My experience in espionage was via thriller novels in which spies never shout their intentions, so I whispered instructions to the driver.

We rode in noisy silence, unable to communicate above hot air buffeting through the windows. Heading toward the Old City, I jumped at each backfiring car.

Poking, prodding, and pushing aching parts were punctuated by smiles as Maggie leaned against my shoulder, oblivious to the noises frightening me. I hurt with her, and wished I had emptied the magazine into the corpse when I had the chance. It was a comforting, unchristian thought for which I would never repent.

Reaching for my phone to call Mark again, I discovered it abandoned me somewhere in transit. Rubbing my forehead to discourage a thundering headache, I wondered if the taxi driver could be trusted. Memory of the corpses in the wadi reassured me that my distrustful nature was wise.

 

For more on NLB Horton, visit her site: NLBHorton.com

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