Four burly tribesmen, wearing robes and turbans, worked in silence to remove the fallen stonework that barred the entrance to the chamber where my friend Doctor Richard Brendon and his young colleague, the lovely Egyptian Talia Khari, believed an ancient artifact, the Scroll of Solomon, was interred.
I had come to Northern Yemen to witness the excavation of the ancient city of Marib, believed by archaeologists to be the long-lost capital of the Queen of Sheba. More than 3,000 years ago, the Queen of Sheba had ruled a vast Empire that encompassed much of what is now Ethiopia and Somalia. For several years now, an international team of scientists had been using radar to map the city buried beneath the constantly shifting, sun-baked sands of the Arabian Desert. Using the radar data, they’d been slowly unearthing Marib’s secrets.
Now we stood literally on the threshold of possibly the greatest archaeological find since the Dead Sea Scrolls. Around 940 BC, the Queen of Sheba had traveled to meet King Solomon of Israel to seek the benefit of his wisdom. Talia, the beautiful young archaeologist from Cairo, had found inscriptions, which led Dick Brendon to believe that the chamber before us, deep in the bowels of the Maharam Biquis – or Temple of the Moon God – contained a scroll, penned by Solomon himself.
The tribesmen cleared the last of the fallen stonework from the heavy sandstone door. Dick inspected the seal carefully as Talia stood nearby, a camera around her neck and thick, leather-bound notebook in hand, ready to record whatever waited beyond the portal. Her eyes gleamed in the light of the bare electric bulbs strung along the ancient corridor.
I desperately wanted a cigarette, and absently scratched at the nicotine patch on my shoulder.
The look on Dick’s face was one of pure joy – this is what the old bonedigger lived for. "All right, men," he said to the robed workers. "Let’s give it a push. Carefully, now."
Two of the tribesmen stepped forward and put their weight against the sandstone.
After a moment, there was a slight rumble as the heavy stone slowly shifted. "Careful," Dick whispered as the burly laborers slowly pushed open the 3,000-year-old door. Once it was open, Dick, flashlight in his hand, ducked and entered the room. Talia and I followed, and the tribesmen were a few steps behind us.
The room was large and oval shaped, the ceiling coming to a dome above us. Six limestone columns ringed the room, and at least a dozen beautiful bronze statues, each a couple of feet tall, were set into alcoves even spaced around the room. In the center of the room was a raised dais, and upon the dais was a large bronze chest.
"It’s incredible," Dick said. "This chamber hasn’t been disturbed in thirty centuries."
Talia stepped forward toward the bronze chest. "Wait!" Dick cried. "We have to document this find. I need pictures, and we have to…"
Talia turned to him, her dark eyes shining. "I don’t think so, Dr. Brendon," she said. "I don’t have time for such foolishness." Suddenly there was a gun in her hand; a small revolver.
I started to step toward her when I felt a heavy hand on my shoulder. It was one of the tribesmen. In his other hand he held a long, curved dagger.
"What is the meaning of this?" Dick demanded, as another of the laborers stepped up to grab him.
Talia laughed. "Ever since I found the inscriptions, I knew that the Scroll, if it existed, would be priceless," she paused. "But rest assured, I intend to put a price on it, Doctor. A very high price."
"But you’re a scientist, Talia!"
"You should have checked my credentials more carefully, Doctor." She turned to the dais, and reached for the shining casket.
I watched helplessly as the beautiful Egyptian girl placed her hands on the lid of the bronze chest, and wished I had my Glock. I tried to think of a way to stop her, but the long knife pressed against my side was making it difficult to come up with a plan.
Talia opened the chest and reached inside. Dick gasped at the careless handling of the ancient treasure. "Careful! You’ll damage it!"
Talia lifted a tightly rolled scroll from the case. Her brilliant smile glowed in the beam from Dick’s flashlight. "Don’t worry, Doctor," she said. "I won’t let anything happen to the Scroll. It is my fortune, after all."
Suddenly, I felt a cool breeze across my neck, and the centuries of dust and sand in the chamber began to stir and lift into the air. The tribesmen began to mutter to themselves as the wind began to pick up. I looked around, but I couldn’t see where it came from.
Dick’s flashlight beam began to flicker. "What’s going on?" Talia demanded.
"I don’t know," Dick said, his voice cracking with fear.
"Put the scroll back, Talia," I said.
Suddenly, Dick’s flashlight beam went out and the room was plunged into darkness. The unexplained wind picked up, and it was cold; arctic cold. My sweat-soaked shirt stiffened against my skin. My stomach tightened in a familiar way, and I knew that old fear.
When the ground began to tremble, the tribesmen started yelling in Arabic. I twisted away from my captor and dived to the stone floor. I rolled a few feet and came to a stop against a limestone column.
And then, without warning, the wind stopped. A warm, golden light filled the room, and I could make out the ghostly image of a woman’s face, beautiful, oval-shaped with large dark eyes and full red lips, in the air above the dais. Dick could see it too, and he stared in mute terror.
Talia looked up at the face and screamed. She fell to the floor, and the scroll rolled from her hand.
And then it was over.
The room was dark again, except for Dick’s flashlight beam, which had miraculously returned to life. The tribesmen fled down the long stone corridor. I rushed to Talia’s side as Dick gingerly scooped up the scroll and placed it back in the bronze casket. I checked for a pulse.
Talia Khari was dead.
"What was that, Walker?" Dick asked.
I thought about it for a moment before answering. Had we seen the shade of the Queen of Sheba, still watching over her treasures after 3,000 years? Or had it been some ancient Arabian deity, some guardian goddess?
I turned to Dick and replied: "What was what?"
"That… apparition –"
"Sorry, Dick," I cut him off. "I didn't see a goddamn thing."
Friday, November 14, 2008
The Walker Files: The Scroll of Solomon, Part 2
And here's the conclusion of "The Scroll of Solomon," a "Joe Walker" adventure: