Authors: Aileen G. Baron
Tags: #FICTION, #Mystery & Detective, #General
The Scorpion’s Bite
The Scorpion’s Bite
A Lily Sampson Mystery
Aileen G. Baron
Poisoned Pen Press
Copyright © 2010 by Aileen G. Baron
First Edition 2010
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 2009942214
ISBN: 978-1-59058-753-9 Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-59058-755-3 Trade Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-61595-251-9 Epub
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in, or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher of this book.
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To Nelson Glueck, master of the archaeological survey, who could spot a microlith from the back of a camel, and palm sheep’s eyeballs with the best of them.
The three of them sat in the shade of the Jeep, mouths dry, throats heavy with the scorching air, seared by relentless heat, huddled close, but still not completely sheltered from the unforgiving sun. They were almost out of water, just a few drops in their canteens and in the canvas bag hanging limp on the side of the Jeep.
They were in the Wadi Rum, stuck there with a broken axle: Lily, with Gideon Weil, director of the American School in Jerusalem, and their photographer, Klaus Steiner, doing an archaeological survey of Trans-Jordan for the OSS.
And Lily had no idea why.
Last March, more than three months after the Allies took North Africa in Operation Torch, General Donovan appeared in Casablanca looking for Lily Sampson. This time, she thought Wild Bill Donovan was going to tell her to go back south, past Marrakesh and Volubis, into sub-Saharan Africa. Instead, he sent her back to Jerusalem, told her to be ready in twenty-four hours. She was used to this from Donovan.
She left Morocco the next morning at ten o’clock, flying out of the Naval Airbase at Port Lyautey. She landed at Kolundia, the small airport north of Jerusalem, and took a taxi to the American School of Oriental Research where Gideon Weil, the director, was waiting for her.
Gideon had once been on the cover of
magazine, in all the glory of his dark good looks and his roguish smile, sitting atop a camel like a Bedouin. He wore a
with a dashing tilt.
He told her they were going to do an archaeological survey of Trans-Jordan. He had been working on the survey since before the war, had already published two volumes of research.
Klaus Steiner, a refugee from Hitler’s Germany, caught up with them in Jericho. Steiner sported an ascot, a very British blond mustache, a scar on his left cheek, and a gold-capped canine tooth that glinted when he smiled. He told them he had been assigned to them as photographer.
The three of them crossed the Jordan at Allenby Bridge and spent the next month traipsing up and down the ancient King’s Highway, visiting cities of the Roman Decapolis.
Lily felt superfluous.
They spent a week mapping Jerash, ancient Gerasa. It had been mapped before; it had been dug ten years ago.
In the midst of the ruins of Jerash, they passed a fellah with an ox and an ass yoked together and pulling a plow. Gideon pointed out that in Deuteronomy, it was forbidden to yoke them together like that. Klaus rolled his eyes to the sky in a show of impatience with Gideon quoting the Bible.
When they reached Amman, Gideon set Lily and Klaus to mapping and photographing remains of the well-documented Roman theater while he made a courtesy call on His Highness, Emir Abdullah.
That afternoon, Gideon told them they were going to Wadi Rum, then on to Petra to meet someone.
Now they sat stranded in the Wadi Rum where tall sandstone cliffs rear straight up like cathedrals, like castles of the mind. When they first reached Wadi Rum, they had stopped the Jeep and sucked in their breath, awed by its grandeur: the pink sand, the clean stillness in the air, the high, red cliffs, echoing silence.
“Red,” Gideon had said. “The color of Edom is red, ruddy like Esau, the father of the Edomites, who sold his birthright to Jacob for a mess of red lentils,” and Klaus rolled his eyes again.
Today was a lost cause. They had to stick to the track that ran through the wadi without a clue to the whereabouts of either archaeological sites or the Bedouin camps. They were looking for both.
Their Bedouin guide, Qasim, had vanished this morning and left them to fend for themselves.
Last night, as they had every night, they sat around the campfire in the cool desert air, breathing the perfume of the desert and the pungent odor of wormwood and tamarisk, watching the firelight flicker on Qasim’s face as he told them tales of his family, of the tribe of the Howeitat, tales of raiding for sheep and camels, of noble gestures. They sat, warmed by the crackle of the fire, with sparks flying upward into the night of brilliant stars, and listened to his stories of how the greedy Saudis, craving power and drunk with religious fervor, raided his people, impoverished them, and how the British betrayed them and sided with the Saudis.
And all day long, Klaus was out with his camera, climbing the hills, vanishing into the fissures in the turreted limestone cliffs, coming back hours later telling them he had shots of rock drawings, or yet another magnificent vista of the clean, silent, wasteland of the desert.
Qasim was missing and the dapper Klaus—his eyebrows and lashes pointed with the red dust of the wadi, his moustache caked with pink powder—sat with them, grumbling about the heat and the rowdy wind, his camera wrapped in a towel.
All they could do was watch sand whirl in gusts as it piled against the small dune opposite the Jeep, gape at the overwhelming desert, and wait for help to come.
A dark spot emerged above the crest of the horizon and Lily watched it approach from over the high ridge, seeming to erupt out of the hills beyond the blowing sand. She could just make out the figure moving toward them.
As the figure came closer, Lily saw that it was a child, a girl no more than eight or ten. She was dressed in adult finery with a small abayah over her long dress. A veil, sweeping in the wind, covered her head, a necklace of coins draped across her forehead. She came toward them, her face engraved with the dry dust of the desert.
“Those Bedouin,” Klaus said. “Where do they all come from? They’re everywhere, coming out of nowhere in the desert, keeping an eye on us, watching our every move.”
“Desert hospitality,” Gideon said. “They’re our hosts, we’re their guests.”
“And they’ll invite us at knife point to sleep in their camps with their bedbugs and rotted cheese.”
“It’s all they have,” Gideon said. “They share what they have, bedbugs and all.”
The Bedouin girl carried a tiered tray, covered with a cloth against the dust. She set it down on the running board of the Jeep and removed the cloth, revealing three cups and a pot of tea. She poured the tea, gave them a shy smile, and sat silently on the small dune opposite the Jeep while they drank the tea and muttered, “
,” to the girl between sips. “Thank you, thank you.”
When they finished, the child, still silent, collected the cups, trudged back over the hill, and disappeared.
And they continued to wait, marooned in the wind and sand and desert pavement.
The wind picked up, blowing around them, the sound of it escalating like an eerie whine of spirits who had vanished in the Wadi Rum.
Lily peered down the wadi and saw a whirlwind roaring toward them, eddying over boulders, picking up rocks and branches of brush in its vortex as it advanced.
“Dust devil!” Gideon shouted over the noise of the wind.
Lily closed her eyes and covered her face with her scarf as the whirlwind came nearer still, swirling and biting into their skin, sputtering and roaring as it closed around them, trajectories of rock and sand stinging the bare flesh of her arms and hands.
She held her breath, struggled against the gritty air, drowned in sand.
Thirty seconds passed and she tried to breathe.
One minute—with wind snapping her clothes, howling in her ears.
Another minute, gasping.
Then the wind passed and traveled up the wadi.
They coughed, sipped from what was left in their canteens, and coughed again.
“Behold,” Gideon said. “A storm of the Lord is gone forth in fury, yes a whirling storm.”
“Not another.” Klaus gave Gideon an impatient look before he snapped a picture of the disappearing whirlwind. “Not another Biblical quotation.”
“It’s from Jeremiah.”
Klaus rewrapped the towel around his camera. “You are also a rabbi, yes?”
Gideon nodded. “My degree is in theology. My dissertation was on the meaning of
in the Old Testament.”
“And what is the meaning of
“Love,” Lily said.
“You took a hundred and eighty-seven pages to say that?” Klaus asked.
Gideon looked over at him. “A hundred and eighty-seven pages? How do you know?”
“I saw in our library at university. Göttingen, no?”
“You told me you were at Heidelberg.” Gideon ran a finger along his own cheek, approximating Klaus’ scar. “With a dueling mark on your left cheek to prove it.”
“You are mistaken.” Klaus stood up. “Göttingen.” He beat some of the grit off his pants, carefully unwrapped his camera, blew off the surface dust with an air-bulb and glanced at the Jeep.
,” he said, focusing the camera on the hood of the Jeep where the paint had scraped off. “Astounding.” He stepped back and declared, “It has been sanded,” and gave a sage nod.
But Lily was looking straight ahead at the small dune across from the Jeep. The sand had blown away from the edge of the dune, and what she saw was a sandaled foot attached to a leg buried underneath.
Gideon spoke first, his voice a whisper, as if he were afraid of disturbing the dead. “A Bedouin.”
“How can you tell?” Lily asked.
“His sandal, his darker skin.”
“What do you suppose happened?”
“These Bedouin,” Klaus said. “They’re always killing each other. One tribe against another. They steal, they kill, they fight over anything—honor, revenge, a lost camel.”
Gideon stared at him for a moment, then shook his head. “This is no honor killing. This is murder. Whoever did it tried to hide it by covering it.”
“Murder?” Lily shivered.
A dark silhouette appeared on the horizon above the ridge of hills behind the dunes, this time on the north. A man on a camel loped toward them, his outline shimmering in the desert heat like a ghost.
Gideon gestured toward the rider. “We’ll find out soon enough. Rescue is at hand.”
When the man drew closer, the camel slowed, striding with the dignity of a king.
The rider wore the long khaki coat, the
of the Desert Patrol. Red bandoliers crisscrossed his chest, a dagger was inserted into his heavy red belt, a rifle was slung over his shoulder.
“Surprising,” said Klaus, “that the man isn’t covered with dust. These Bedouin ride out the dust storms in depressions, you know, or behind a rock until the dust devil passes.” He took the scarf from around his neck, wiped at his face, and called out, “The whirlwind passed by you?”
He strode toward the Bedouin. His scarf fluttered to the ground and fell on the dune, covering the sandaled foot.
The Bedouin couched the camel and came toward them. A red-checked kafiya, folded at a slant covered his head and part of his face so that only his eyes were visible.
Gideon rose with a welcoming gesture. “
,” he said. “Welcome in peace.
Ahlan wa Sahlan
The Bedouin nodded to Gideon. “
He gave no indication that he had seen the sandaled foot surfacing from the small dune near the Jeep.
? Gideon asked. “How are you?”
The Bedouin answered with a musical lilt, “
“He hid in the wadi until the whirlwind passed,” Klaus said into Lily’s ear. “You see—I know these things.”
Gideon knew the Bedouin, Jalil ibn Akram, who addressed Gideon as
, all the while facing away from the telltale dune opposite the Jeep.
Can’t he see the foot, Lily wondered? She glanced at the dune again, and saw the scarf, billowing in a slight breeze, covering the bottom of the dune and the sandaled foot. Gideon gestured toward it before he spoke again.
Klaus had listened to the ritual of greeting with impatience, and now he shoved Gideon aside.
“Enough of this nonsense. Let’s get going.” He stood before the Bedouin, tapping his thigh. “Jalil, is it?”
Klaus told him that they were Americans doing an archaeological survey; that the axle had broken in their Jeep; that they needed transportation.
He crossed his arms and demanded to be taken to the nearest Desert Patrol Outpost, where, he said, he would arrange for a lorry to tow the Jeep and get it repaired.
Lily leaned toward Gideon, whispering, “Who does he think he is?”
Klaus sauntered to the couched camel, tied his wrapped camera to his waist, and ordered the Bedouin to take him to the Outpost. “I will facilitate arrangements from there.”
He called out to Gideon, “There is only room for one of us on the camel with Jalil,” and sat astride the back of the camel’s saddle. “You will both be all right while I’m gone, no?”
The Bedouin looked from Gideon to Klaus and back again. “
,” he said, and held out his hands in a hopeless gesture. “You and your sister will wait here?”
He thinks I’m Gideon’s sister, Lily thought. When they had encountered their first Bedouin encampment at the beginning of the survey, Gideon reminded her that Abraham told Sarah, “Say, I pray thee, that thou art my sister.” She asked him then if it was because, like Abraham, he was afraid he would be killed out of jealousy because she was so beautiful.
He had flicked an eyebrow. “Sometimes, when the sun shines golden on your hair, you have an ethereal beauty.”
“And your suntan complements the sea-blue of your eyes.”
“As blue as the Mediterranean.”
“And with that color in your cheeks, you’re even prettier.”
He flashed a mischievous grin and ducked his head. “Satisfied?”
He held out his hands, palms up. “It’s just for your own safety. Necessary if we travel together.”
That time, Klaus agreed with Gideon. “A blonde might have trouble with these Arabs,” he said, flapping an arm in the direction of the encampment and pontificating on the ways of the Bedouin. “Without the protection of a relative, you would appear as a woman of loose morals, fair game, taken advantage of, attacked in the night.”
And now, as Jalil strolled back to the camel, mounted, and got ready to leave, Gideon shrugged. “Not much choice.
Ma’a es salaam
, Go in peace,” he said to Jalil. “You’ll come back for us with a lorry?”
With a mighty heave, the camel rose, lurching backward and forward as Klaus held on and grumbled.
“I hope he’s as uncomfortable as he looks,” Lily murmured as Jalil turned the camel north and they lumbered back up the wadi. “If he weren’t a refugee from the Nazis, he could be an SS man. I almost heard the heels of his sandals click.”
Gideon smiled. “He can be hard to take. But have a little understanding. In Germany, he was a Great Dane.”
“You don’t know the story? Two refugee dogs met in the park, a Saint Bernard and a little dachshund, and the dachshund looked up at the Saint Bernard and said, ‘In Germany I was a Great Dane.’”
“You certainly know how to tell a story.”
They watched Klaus and the Bedouin ride out of sight behind the ridge. Gideon rose, tentatively brushed some sand from the dune in front of them, to reveal part of the sandaled foot, and then opened the back of the Jeep where they stored their equipment.
Sighing, Lily followed.
He reached into the storage area, handed Lily a trowel and two brushes, and poured the last few drops from the water bags into their canteens.
They plodded back to the dune, knelt down, and began to remove the sand, moving up from the feet as if they were excavating a tomb, carefully scraping away the overburden with trowels, sweeping away the sand that lay against the body with soft paintbrushes and a rat-tailed brush.
Lily said as they kept working, “He called you
. What was that about?”
Gideon cleaned sand from the hem of the worn white
, the long Bedouin shirt that covered the body. “When I started doing surveys of Trans-Jordan a few years ago, I would go from Bedouin camp to Bedouin camp asking where to find ancient remains.” He continued brushing, slower now. “They saw I needed their help. A
is someone who pitches a tent near the encampment and is under the protection of neighboring tents.”
They worked silently, wielding trowels and brushes, taking an occasional sip of water. The body wore a coarse brown cloak over the
Lily’s hand began to quiver as she realized that the clothes looked familiar. A frisson of apprehension ran through her.
“We haven’t seen Qasim since he made coffee this morning,” she said.
Gideon glanced at her, said nothing, and continued brushing, more carefully now.
Lily thought of Qasim’s elaborate gesture as he would pour the coffee into the little porcelain cups, how he always polished the blackened coffee pot with desert sand and would tell her when he rubbed the lid that if it didn’t have the figure of a chicken on the top, it wasn’t a Bedouin pot.
“Qasim said he had a message for you,” Lily said.
“He didn’t tell me. What was it?”
She kept brushing. Slowly, carefully.
“I’m not sure, something about the Rashidi. I didn’t get all of it. He spoke in a low voice, and was talking into the wind.”
They had cleared the sand away from the rope that was used as a belt, and came to the hands, slightly raised, clenched in a grotesque empty grip that clutched nothing but air.
“This is beginning of rigor.” Gideon paused and sat back on his heels. “When the fingers curl like that. He’s been dead at least three hours.” He stopped, seemed to think about it, then nodded. “In this heat, about three hours.”
Lily shuddered with a flicker of dread. “Since this morning.”
He glanced at Lily, his eyes dark with worry, and patted her arm in reassurance.
They cleaned the stiffened hands gently, using a camel’s hair brush between the fingers, and continued along the arms and across the chest, up to the shoulders, and beyond the neck to reach the face.
They brushed away the sand to reveal a mouth distorted into the grimace-like rictus of rigor mortis. The eyes had already begun to sink. A dollop of blood at his nose had dried into a brown crust.
Lily felt the blood drain from her face. She murmured, “Qasim,” and put down her brush.
Gently, Gideon cleared the sand from the open eyes as well as he could.
Lily glanced away. She could just make out a Bedouin seated on a camel watching them from the top of the ridge. His brown
was done up as a turban and his dark cloak fluttered in the wind. She rose and stood beside of the Jeep, leaning her head against the doorpost. Even though the Jeep was hot to the touch, a chill ran through Lily and she began to tremble.
And what was the message Qasim had for Gideon, she wondered? Maybe Klaus heard some of it. I’ll ask him.
Dimly, Lily heard the sound of a lorry coming down the wadi toward them and looked up.
She glanced toward the top of the ridge again. The Bedouin with the brown
was gone. Maybe she imagined him. Gideon hadn’t seen him. Who was he, and why was he watching them, she wondered?
The lorry came closer. Jalil was driving. He turned the lorry and backed it until it almost touched the front bumper of the Jeep. He reached behind him for a chain, gave a quick glance to Qasim’s body with a sharp intake of breath. He looped the chain over the bumper of the Jeep and fixed it to the tow bar of the lorry before he walked over to Qasim and stood over him.
“To bury a man is to honor him,” he said, and strolled to the back of the Jeep. Without a word, he signaled to Gideon and waited for him to bring out shovels and trenching spades.
He watched silently as Lily and Gideon measured out a rectangle with a north-south axis large enough for a grave and marked the area with nails and a string.
All three of them began to dig. Out of habit, Lily reached for the trowel and began to scrape the sides of the rectangle to make a plumb surface.
Jalil gave her a disapproving glance and told her to wait in the lorry.
She sat in the front seat, next to the open door, watching as the heat of the day lightened, thinking, with a touch of resentment, he sent me away because I am a woman.
By the time Gideon and Jalil finished digging, the sun was lower on the western horizon, and a gentle afternoon wind hinted of the cool desert night to come. Gideon cleared the string surrounding the pit and wound it around the nails, while Jalil prepared to remove Qasim’s clothes to leave on top of the grave for other needy Bedouin, in Qasim’s last act of generosity.
Jalil rolled the body over and spoke for the first time. “Knife wounds. More than one. He’s been stabbed repeatedly in the back.” He rotated it back again and left the bloodstained clothing in place.
Qasim stared with blank, sand encrusted eyes at the open sky. Both Gideon and Jalil carried him, now stiff with rigor, to his grave and lowered him into it with his head facing south toward Mecca.
Jalil wrapped the cloak tighter around Qasim before they refilled the cavity with sand heaped over the body. He piled stones over the small mound and, with his arms crossed over his chest, mumbled a prayer, first at the foot of the mound, then at its head.
Jalil turned, cleared his throat, said, “Gideon Weil, I regret that, for now, I must arrest you for the murder of Qasim ibn Achmad,” and moved Gideon to the lorry.