The Prisoner's Gold (The Hunters 3) (9 page)

BOOK: The Prisoner's Gold (The Hunters 3)
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‘Then what are we waiting for?’ McNutt asked.

‘Two reasons,’ Garcia answered. ‘Number one, it’s located in a remote part of China with virtually no passable roads. The terrain is barely navigable, plus the area is subjected to frequent wind and sandstorms. It’s so grim it’s known as a “dead zone”.’

‘Sounds like Cleveland.’

‘The area used to be a nuclear test site ages ago, but the military has long since abandoned it. The only thing out there now is a mining operation, and that’s twenty miles away. Any satellite intel that I have is several years old. Nothing military has bothered to pass over this region in a decade.’

McNutt grimaced. ‘All of that was
one
reason? What the hell is number two?’

‘The second reason is even worse,’ Maggie admitted. ‘The Chinese sent an archaeological team to Loulan in 1979, and they thoroughly excavated the site.’

‘Well that sucks,’ Sarah grumbled.

Papineau tried to lift her spirits. ‘It’s not the kiss of death, though. The city of Alexandria had been picked clean for centuries, but we still found what we were looking for.’

Sarah nodded. ‘Good point.’

Cobb glanced at Maggie. ‘Any other potential leads from the manuscript?’

‘Unfortunately, no. Rustichello never got specific details on the size of the treasure, why Polo didn’t return with it, or exactly where Polo left it. All we have are his suspicions, probabilities, and guesses. But he liked Loulan as the site.’

Cobb had been led to believe that this meeting was necessary because they had encountered some good news. Now he wasn’t so sure. ‘That doesn’t leave us much to go on.’

‘Not from the manuscript,’ Maggie admitted. ‘But there is more – thanks to Hector.’

Garcia puffed up slightly at the praise, then ran his fingers across his keyboard as the giant screen came to life. It showed an overhead view of Genoa on the northern coast of Italy. The satellite view resembled a plot of concrete acting as a barrier between the blue of the sea and the green of the foothills to the north that marched up to the Alps.

‘As you know,’ Garcia said, ‘Polo and Rustichello were held captive in Genoa for four years, but little is mentioned of their imprisonment in
The Travels.
Most publishers rightfully assumed that people would be far more interested in Polo’s journey to Asia than his time in prison. And yet a few editors disagreed. One bit of trivia that appeared in a few translations of the book was the names of their captors.’

‘And that helps us how?’ Papineau wondered.

‘Go on, Hector. Tell them what you found,’ Maggie said.

Garcia beamed with pride. ‘I learned that two of the guards were illiterate, but the third was decidedly not. While Rustichello was recording the details of Polo’s adventures, the third guard, Giovanni Ravio, spent much of this time compiling an elaborate diary of his thoughts. His son, Luca Ravio, became a poet of some note at the time. And Luca’s collection, including his father’s journal from the days he worked at the prison, made its way to a private collector, and eventually to a museum in Florence.’

Garcia touched a key, and the display scrolled southeast, a third of the length of Italy from Genoa to Florence, then it blurred briefly before zooming in on the red-tiled roof of a U-shaped museum building between a river and a cobbled plaza.

Sarah recognized it at once. ‘That’s the Uffizi Gallery. It’s one of the most celebrated galleries in the world. If Luca’s collection is displayed there, he really was famous.’

‘Maybe so,’ Garcia said. ‘But as far as we can tell, no one has ever connected the poet’s father with Marco Polo.’

Cobb smiled. ‘You think Giovanni wrote down information we could use?’

‘The guards were torturing Polo,’ Maggie stressed. ‘According to Rustichello, Polo’s muffled screams could be heard throughout the building. It stands to reason if Polo ever slipped up and declared the location of the treasure, it would have been under duress.’

Cobb nodded in agreement.

He was familiar with the effects of torture.

‘Okay,’ Cobb said, ‘we’ll need time to prepare for either possibility. Sarah, you’re in charge of the Italian job. Figure out what you need to retrieve the journal.’

‘I saw that movie,’ McNutt joked. ‘All she needs is Mini Coopers.’

Sarah laughed at the reference.

‘Meanwhile,’ Cobb said, ‘Josh and I will take a rekky to Loulan. We need some boots on the ground to determine the feasibility of the site. While we’re gone, everyone should continue to prep for both countries: Italy and China. Regardless of what we find in Loulan –
unless
we find the treasure itself – we’ll go to Florence first, so Sarah can steal the guard’s memoirs.’


Steal?
I don’t
steal,
’ Sarah argued. ‘I’m not a thief!’

‘But you can get the book, right?’ McNutt asked.

Sarah nodded, but concern filled her face. ‘Truth be told, I’m one of the few people in the world who can. But this is going to be tough.’

‘Tough?’ McNutt blurted. ‘You’re going to a
museum
in Florence. I’m going to a former nuclear test site in China called “the dead zone”. Would you like to trade?’

Sarah smiled and patted him on the back. ‘When you put it like that …’

McNutt growled softly. ‘Yeah. Didn’t think so.’

13

Wednesday, March
26

Xinjiang Autonomous Region, China

(
1
,
501
miles west of Beijing)

Cobb was on the verge of falling asleep in the passenger seat of the Toyota Land Cruiser when he spotted a camel in the distance. Since it was the first living thing he had seen in the desert in two days, he asked McNutt to steer closer so they could get a better view.

So far, this had been the highlight of their trip.

The camel was wandering aimlessly through the sand on the south side of a long strip of endless gray tarmac that seemingly touched the horizon. The animal looked sickly and thin, its two humps sallow and dull as it lumbered over the arid turf.

McNutt didn’t want to spook it, so he slowed as he approached the beast. ‘Do you know how to tell the difference between a Bactrian camel and a dromedary?’

Cobb was prepared for most things, but not that question. ‘Nope.’

McNutt pointed at the animal’s back. ‘Bactrian camels have two humps and dromedaries have one. To help you remember, imagine the capital letters for B and D and turn them on their sides. This camel looks like a B, which means it’s a Bactrian.’

‘How the hell do you know that?’

‘A BBC documentary. Can’t get enough of them. Plus it helps to know what animals might trample on you when you’re in a hide, sweating your ass off for days in the desert, waiting to put a bullet through a terrorist’s face.’

‘Been there,’ Cobb admitted.

‘Done that,’ McNutt added as he waved goodbye to the camel.

Then they lapsed into silence for another hour.

Cobb was increasingly impressed with McNutt, who, without the audience of the rest of the team, had kept his typical zaniness to a minimum. They had left Florida separately before meeting up in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, where McNutt had arranged for them to travel to the border. Cobb had been surprised to find a small group of Marines waiting for them with forged passports bearing phony visa stamps; as far as he knew, no US forces were stationed in Kyrgyzstan at all. From there, the men had smuggled him and McNutt down to the bustling city of Kashgar in western China.

After their Marine escorts departed, McNutt had secured the Land Cruiser, an Uyghur guide, and a few weapons. They had set out on an actual highway, which loosely followed the Silk Road of old, but quickly discovered how little time they would spend on blacktop. They had frequently encountered areas of the road in such disrepair that they had been forced to travel for miles on the shoulder. Many of the construction projects they had passed – if that’s what they could be called – were often little more than mountains of gravel dumped into the middle of the road for later renovations. More than once they had seen billboards proclaiming that the work would be done on schedule … in December of 2004.

In this part of China, travel wasn’t measured in miles.

It was measured in days.

Maggie, who remained in Florida to research other aspects of Polo’s life, had warned them of this concept, but it didn’t really sink in until they got here. She had also explained the bleak terrain they would encounter. While the remnants of the Loulan kingdom had still been of note during Polo’s time, the city itself had been abandoned after a natural disaster more than a thousand years ago. In the millennium since, the area had been all but forgotten.

One look was all it took.

It was obvious why no one returned.

Identifying Loulan as ruins was an insult to good ruins everywhere. Sandy brown soil stretched for miles in every direction. Without the aid of their guide and their GPS, they wouldn’t have known they had reached their destination.

As recently as the 1980s, archeologists had found man-made evidence of a former settlement including canals, burial domes, and hundreds of ancient objects. Now there were virtually no signs of life except for an occasional polished rock or hand-cut fragment of petrified wood.

They were driving on top of the former salt lake, which wandered no more thanks to multiple dams on the Tarim River. The lake had dried up completely, leaving only patches of sand that looked smoother and lighter than the pebbly ground.

‘Might as well stop here,’ Cobb said.

‘Why?’ McNutt asked as he slowed the vehicle to a halt. ‘This rekky is going to be as useful as a helicopter with an ejection seat.’

Cobb understood McNutt’s frustration. It had been a difficult journey, one that seemed likely to produce no leads. ‘Well, we’re here now, so let’s look around for a bit.’

McNutt climbed out of the vehicle and spat on the arid ground. It was the only moisture in sight. ‘If it’s okay with you, I’ll let you handle the archeological shit. I’m more concerned with checking out the potash setup. I don’t want to get caught with our pants down.’

Cobb eyed the distant facility, glimmering in the desert heat several miles away. He knew McNutt wasn’t being lazy. Rather, he was being security-conscious. If anyone would detect their presence here, it would be the guards at the mine. ‘Suit yourself.’

‘What are you going to do?’

‘Now that I’ve seen the terrain, I’m going to call Maggie and find out exactly what we’re supposed to be searching for.’

‘Before you do that, maybe you should look at the truck.’

Cobb raised an eyebrow. ‘Why? What’s wrong?’

McNutt pointed at one of the tires. ‘It’s been feeling sluggish in the turns. I thought it was just the terrain, but it looks like we have a slow leak.’

‘No worries,’ Cobb said as he glanced at the tire. It was extremely low on air. ‘I’ll have Ali work on it. It will give him something to do while we look around.’

Mashuq Ali, their guide, had spent the bulk of the journey sleeping in the back seat. He would occasionally wake to eat and he insisted on stopping five times a day so he could get out of the truck and pray toward Mecca, but other than that he barely said a word.

McNutt lowered his voice to a whisper. ‘About time he did something other than eat, pray, and sleep. Who does he think he is: Julia Roberts?’

McNutt walked away laughing as Cobb stayed behind to explain what needed to be done. Ali assured him that he would handle it as soon as he finished praying. Cobb was tempted to stay behind and fix the tire himself but ultimately decided he had better things to do. Their goal was to get in and out as quickly as possible, and that meant starting their search immediately.

Cobb pulled out his satellite phone and called Maggie, who was in the war room with Garcia. They were expecting his call sometime that day. ‘Well, we made it here safely, but there isn’t much to see. Not even a deserted site.’

‘Really?’ Garcia said. ‘Are you sure you’re in the right place?’

‘Did you give me the correct coordinates?’

‘Definitely.’

‘Then we’re in the right place.’

Maggie chimed in. ‘Unfortunately, we knew this was a possibility. The weather there is notoriously bad. I’ve heard stories where the temperature has fallen over sixty degrees in less than an hour. When the temperature drops, the wind sweeps in and covers everything with sand.’

‘And that’s what I’m looking at:
sand
.’

‘Not us,’ Garcia said, ‘we’re looking at static. Are you wearing your glasses? Because right now we aren’t getting your feed.’

On previous missions, the team had used high-tech flashlights that recorded and transmitted video, but for this journey Garcia had given Cobb aviator-style sunglasses that would accomplish the same task. Meanwhile, McNutt had chosen yellow-tinted shooting lenses. The glasses sent video signals via Bluetooth to a laptop in the vehicle, and it forwarded that information back to Florida.

‘Hang on,’ Cobb said as he turned on his glasses. ‘We just arrived on site. I didn’t want to set up the broadcast link until I touched base with you. Give me a minute.’

Cobb pulled a small satellite dish out of the vehicle and set it up on a tripod. Then he ran a line to his laptop that allowed video files to be transmitted at an incredible rate of speed. Within seconds, Maggie and Garcia were seeing a live broadcast from Loulan.

‘Much better,’ Garcia said as he tweaked some settings on his end. ‘We can see everything that you’re seeing – which isn’t much. You weren’t kidding about the sand.’

Cobb slowly turned in a circle to give them a view of everything. Other than the Land Cruiser and McNutt walking in the distance, they saw nothing but desolation.

‘Jack,’ Maggie asked, ‘do you see anything resembling the site?’

‘You’re joking, right?’

‘I don’t mean an actual town. I mean remnants of the Chinese excavation. Perhaps a section of wall that is barely visible in the sand or a landmark of any kind?’

‘I’m afraid not,’ Cobb said as he walked away from the SUV. ‘As I mentioned, we just got here. The place is so barren I didn’t know where to start.’

BOOK: The Prisoner's Gold (The Hunters 3)
12.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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