I don't own Dirk Pitt or Al Giordino, or any of Clive Cussler's characters. Nor do I own the line, "here rides The Devil and his Pale Bride!" that line is from a book I was fortunate enough to read recently. I also DONOT own the poem "Do not go gently into that good night."
OMG!! NO OTHER GIRLS LIKE CLIVE CUSSLER???
CHAPTER 1; Fate
When he'd returned to the Sahara desert he hadn't expected to be devoured by it a second time. He'd seen it before, many many times before, but each time it had been business. Harsh, unrelenting business.
How many times did an Oceanographer want travel in the desert? How many times did one, whose entire existence revolved around water, crave the barren expanses of an endless ocean of sand?
The first time had been years before. But not enough years for him to forget the taste of thirst. Or the heat of the sun as it beat down on his shoulders. Those years were far to short for a man who had nearly died in the dry, bony grasp of the Sahara. And, yet, he returned.
The weeks of "vacation" he'd been given to recover from his last great adventure had only made the yearning worse. He'd lain awake in his bed staring up at the ceiling feeling old and worn. Yes, his leg had healed, but he knew it would never be the same. How many times could you break the same leg without something going wrong?
It took even longer to heal this time, and now when he walked there was pain. Not a fleeting ache as their had been when he was younger, this pain descended on his thigh and refused to give up. With every step it was as if someone had stabbed him with a heated wire.
At first he'd ignored the pain, and tried to carry on working, praying that it would go away as all the other pains his life had brought. But, this one had refused to give up and when he found he could no longer bear it he'd finally crept to the hospital in the dead of the night some six months after the cast had been removed. All the time praying they wouldn't realize what he'd done.
The doctors had poked and prodded the scared skin of his thigh, taken X-Rays and then confronted him in the little curtained off room in the ER. And, for the first time in his life he'd wished his life had been different. Those three little words had taken him from annoyed to petrified and beyond.
"Its bone cancer."
He'd sat there silently for what seemed like an eternity and his mind, which had been finding the memories of the days he'd spent in the desert with his best friend years before more appealing, closed down.
"Its bone cancer and its spread at an alarming rate..."
He hadn't said anything that he could remember, he'd merely nodded and left the hospital.
He hadn't said anything for close to a month and three days of mindless work and dreams of Sahara. He'd gone on as if nothing were amiss, that is until someone had noticed his daydreaming. Until someone had gathered the courage to step up and ask him what was wrong.
"Uh ... Al?" The little man with the horn-rimmed glasses peered across the cluttered mechanic's table at him.
He grunted, "What, Rudy?"
The little man licked his lips and pushed his glasses farther onto his nose with a single finger, "Uh ... It's kind of obvious you've got something on your mind ... Wanna talk about it?"
He'd stopped working then, lowered the shattered depth gage he'd been tinkering with and spat the little pen light from between his teeth. "What are you talkin' about?"
Rudy looked away for a brief second and the seemingly innocent gesture said more than the man could.
Al took a deep breath and let it shudder from his chest his dark eyes locked on the spectacled man, "What do you know?"
Rudy scratched his head and gave him a 'please don't be angry with me' look "Yeager was running a diagnostic on MAX this morning and she ... She found your medical files."
It didn't surprise him that MAX had been the one to find him out. MAX was, after all, a super computer with a sentient mind of her own. He'd often wondered if Yeager and MAX weren't lovers, but that idea brought up a whole other set of thoughts including one that made MAX just a big vibrator.
"So you know," He said giving Rudy a rather blank look.
Rudy bit his lip and after a minute looked away again, for the most brief of moments. But it was enough.
"You can't tell him. You know what he'll do if you tell him."
Rudy cast him a searching glance but nodded his head. "I won't tell him, but you should ... He's been your best friend since kindergarten. He's known you long enough to be considered family. You should tell him before-" The little man stopped himself and his teeth sank into his tongue.
"Before what?" Al didn't feel anything until that moment. It was as if speaking the words or hearing someone hint at them made it all final, made it all real.
"Before I die? Is that it?"
Rudy flinched and fell silent. Al knew the little man wanted to lunge across the table and hug him. Rudy had always been the one with a big heart. He'd risked his life, and nearly died on a few occasions to save his friends and every time another mission had come up he'd been eager to accept the challenge.
Al sighed and practically threw the depth gage at the table. He walked out of the room, trying not to limp, which was becoming an increasingly difficult task to accomplish.
He wanted a drink. A good stiff drink … And his pain medication, something he'd been practically depending on for the last few weeks.
He was halfway to the elevator before someone stopped him.
"Hey, Al, wait up!"
At first his mind flashed back many years, to when he was a young man newly assigned to NUMA, working dangerous missions raising sunken super ships, rescuing captives from remnant Nazis. Then the memories came back of a much different time. A more innocent time in his life when something like bone cancer and death were decades ahead of him.
"HEY! Hold the door!" A well muscled young man, barely into his thirties slipped between the closing elevator doors and a sly, crooked grin split his lips.
He was wearing a black suit, his tie removed and the first three buttons of his shirt undone. His bright eyes flashed and he leaned back against the wall with a laugh. "You didn't think you were going to get away from me so easily were you, Al?"
A much younger Al, his dark hair cropped short his dark eyes down cast chuckled and pulled a squashed pack of cigarettes from the inside pocket of his jacket. "I was just going down the street ... I had a long day and I think I deserve a drink."
The taller young man shook his head, "There's a place right down the road that serves the best tequila! The barmaid is kind of cute too."
Al felt a smile spread across his face as he turned and spied a vision from his past. "Hey, Kid, where do you think you're going?"
The young man grinned, his smile almost identical to his father's. "I was going to go meet Dad and Summer for lunch ... Are you OK?"
Al shrugged but a twinge of guilt tugged at his stomach and he felt the almost overwhelming urge to spill his guts. To tell his best friend's son exactly what had been bothering him. To tell the young man that life was fragile and that all to soon the guy with the scythe would be tapping him on the shoulder.
"Yeah, I'm fine," Almost overwhelming.
CHAPTER 2; Effigy
Two weeks later Al walked into his cluttered office sat down at his desk. He stared at the wall beside him. There were pictures hanging there that he'd collected over the many years he'd been working in the big NUMA building. There were a few from his younger days, one in particular he couldn't help but smile at. It was old, faded and depicted two boys nearing ten years holding up glass jars filled with tadpoles and one with a rather misshapen mutant fish with two tails.
The taller boy, a young Dirk, had a rather bad sunburn and his whole face was beet red. The shorter, himself, had a healing scrape on his chin and band aids on most of his fingers.
He smiled sadly at the photo and folded his fingers into a steeple at his lips. So many years had passed. So long he'd lived, never knowing that a stupid tumor that started in his leg was going to kill him.
He turned from the picture quickly and bowed his head into his arms. Feeling oddly protected from all thought by the little cave between his biceps.
His breath was hot on his face and he closed his eyes reveling in it. He found himself remembering heat and the soft crunch of sand beneath his feet. The sharp pain of burned skin drawing tight across his face and shoulders. The endless golden brightness of the desert stretching out before him, blonde, deadly and unforgiving.
The desert wasn't cruel like life. The desert was justice. It purged the wicked from every man as unabashedly and as unbiased as only a true maker could be. The desert was righteous, it was the only fair thing on the planet.
If you walk the desert without water or supplies you will die. He chuckled to himself. He'd walked in the desert before, he'd walked without supplies, without shelter and he'd lived ... Maybe that was why he was dying now.
Maybe the desert was having its way with him. Maybe he'd cheated karma for to long and now, after all these years it was coming back to get him.
The pendulum of luck was swinging the other way, bringing with it all the pain he'd caused and all the times he'd cheated death.
The desert would have him, one way or another. His time was about up, the man with the scythe was standing right behind him, lifting a bony hand to tap his shoulder for the last time.
Al would have no choice but to turn around and face death. He'd reached a wall. An un-scaleable mountain of sand blocking his way.
He was an oceanographer dying in the desert of his own personal hell. And now, as he looked down on the granules falling away from between his fingers, he realized the only way to make it right was to go back.
The desert was calling to him one last time and this time he relented. He picked up the phone, dialed a very familiar phone number and waited until his oldest friend answered. "Dirk Pitt speaking..."
"How would you like to take a trip down memory lane?"
CHAPTER 3; Broken Cadence
The boat was different, the day was different, the mood was different ... But it was the same river. The same scenery that had been there years before.
Shanty towns along the shore, a few odd petrol docks and the same immense desert stretching unseen before him.
Summer stepped up beside him where he sat on the bow his new favorite hat turned backward on his head of gray flecked black hair. "Brought you a beer, Uncle Al."
He smiled up at her graciously and patted the teal vinyl covered seat beside him. "There's nothing like it," He swept his hand around indicating the desert before them, "Nothing like the Sahara's tragic beauty..."
She smiled and sat beside him, propping her jean clad legs on the railing and taking a rather unladylike swing of her own beer. She smiled contently and gave him a crooked grin, so much like her father's. "So, you and dad came up this river all those years ago and found that ironclad?"
Al couldn't help but laugh. "That ironclad nearly cost me my life ... Of course so have many of your father's hair brained schemes," He waved back to the man at the wheel of Calliope's Star. Dirk was wearing a pair of vividly colored swimming trunks and no shirt. His bright eyes were shielded by a pair of expensive looking knock off sunglasses bought at a port not too far down stream.
The younger Pitt was seated not to far away his nose in a book, his own sunglasses sitting low on his face.
The resemblance between father and son was striking and Al had often stared at the young man and thought of countless adventures the senior Pitt and himself had gone on in their youth.
He had realized long before this point that the two men behind him had an odd relationship. When they were together rarely a word was spoken. It was as if they could read each other's actions and often could predict the next.
A frown slowly settled on Al's face and he realized he wouldn't get to see his friend ... He was going to die. The connection he'd shared with the older Dirk had lasted practically his whole life and that friendship was being frayed like a rope, fiber by fiber while Dirk looked on unaware.
He felt a cool feminine hand on his arm and he turned his head staring at the red haired woman before him. He smiled halfheartedly and he knew she could tell, he saw it in her eyes. Eyes that were so much like her mother's.
He remembered her mother, how deeply Pitt had mourned her. How elated he'd been when one night years ago, on Pitt's wedding night to be exact, two young people had appeared on his doorstep. One the spitting image of a woman thought long dead, the other a near facsimile of the man himself.
"Uncle Al, are you all right?"
He took a deep breath and lied through his teeth, "Yeah, I'm fine, just thinking how nice it is to be out here again."
She didn't buy the answer one bit but before she could probe deeper a voice came from below, "Dinner's ready, if anyone is willing to help me carry it up!"
The younger Dirk clambered to his feet, dropping his book. He disappeared into the galley and came up moments later carrying a platter of what looked like delicately prepared fish fillets and grilled vegetables.
A beautiful woman with lavender eyes came up after her stepson, carrying a stack of plates and cutlery. "Everyone dig in!"
Rudy showed up as planned on their next stop, just as planned he'd flown in by helicopter after he'd finished working on a rater simple case in Egypt involving a talking fish, which turned out to be quite amusing.
He was dressed nearly exactly as he had been the last time he'd seen the Niger river. In shorts, a t-shirt and what he called a boon-hat. He shoved his glasses back onto his nose and came aboard grinning, his duffel bag slung over his shoulder.
He'd brought his laptop computer, on which Al would be willing to lay money, he never left home without. He also had a rather large supply of bug spray which he would liberally coat his exposed epidermis with once every three hours.
That night he'd enthusiastically shown them a rather hilarious viral video called, "The Numa-Numa song."
Pitt had laughed until he cried then said in a half giggle, "I don't think he meant NUMA."
Everything went well for three days. They laughed, told jokes and listened to countless stories of the adventures of young Dirk and Al.
Then it happened.
Al had been standing at the helm humming the 'Not NUMA, Numa song' when his leg had seized and he'd ended up on his face on the deck screaming in pain. He didn't know why his leg had suddenly begun to hurt so fiercely. Perhaps it had been how he was standing, or maybe it was something else.
But one second he'd been fine the next he was in agony, pain knifing up and down his femur from his knee to his hip and into his lower back.
He'd heard someone shouting and cursing and the next thing he knew a familiar face was looming above him in the blinding sunlight.
"What, happened, where are you hit!" Dirk was tearing at his shirt, his gray streaked hair shining in the sun.
Al tried to fend him off, telling his friend in a breathless, pained voice that he was fine, that he'd merely caught a finger in the wheel. But Dirk knew better, Al could see it in his friend's eyes.
"I'm all right, just smashed my finger, see?" He lifted his middle finger for Dirk's inspection but the other man slapped his hand away and grasped him by the front of his shirt shaking him.
"I've seen you with a smashed finger before, you don't scream ... Hell I've only known you to scream in pain once, and that once I'd really rather not remember."
Even though he'd been near death Al could remember that "once" very well. He, Dirk and Rudy had been stranded on the side of an arctic mountain searching for a team of explorers that were said to have found a hidden tropical world under a glacier.
He sighed and his hand went to his stomach, his fingers playing over the scars to the right of his navel. He could remember very well why he'd screamed and why he'd nearly died. He could also remember to what lengths his two friends had gone to save his life.
Al bit his tongue when he felt the words forming. He felt himself about to say them but was able to keep all of their sound behind his teeth. "I'm fine."
"Damn it, Al, don't lie to me ... What the hell is wrong?"
He growled and tried to force Dirk away from him with a vicious shove but Dirk slammed him back against the deck both hands on his chest and then he politely sat on him.
"What the hell is wrong!"
Al glared up at him and for the first time he actually hated Dirk Pitt. He hated his best friend. But his hate was short lived because as soon as he recognized genuine concern burning in his friend's eyes he stifled a sob and told him everything.
CHAPTER 4; The Dying of The Light
It was dark and a solar powered lantern burned brightly from the center of the table. Around this table sat six people, six people with the same look of despair, fear and anger plastered on their faces.
They had been sitting here, silently for close to a minute in the growing darkness six minds digesting a fateful tale and a mortal diagnosis.
He was dying.
Al Girodino was dying of bone cancer. The tumor had started in his leg, growing steadily worse while the ignorant doctor and patient ignored the extended period of time the bone took to heal.
Then ... Then he hadn't gone to the doctor for another six months because he believed the pain would go away. And now he was dying, the growths had spread from his left femur to his hip and had started appearing on his spine ... They were aggressive tumors, spreading almost as quickly as the doctors could spot them. Had the cancer been caught earlier something might have been able to help.
Amputation could have stopped it, but it was already to far up his body. Chemo wouldn't help, chemo would only weaken him further and wouldn't stop the inevitable.
Six months... That's what they'd given him with the chemo. Close to four if he didn't take the treatments and instead rode out into the sunset with everything he was brought into this world with, minus of course his appendix and tonsils but he didn't really see those organs as important.
He had four months to live. Three now, since it had taken him one to tell anyone of his impending death.
He should have been in the hospital. He should have been on bed rest … But Al had never been one to do something the easy way. So he'd been hiding his pain behind a morphine based pain medication. And he'd hidden the sudden weight loss behind a 'new diet' he'd been trying, as to impress the new receptionist at the front desk.
In truth, he was always in pain, so much pain he'd been too nauseous to eat. A trend that had been noticed, but the 'new diet' story had covered up nicely … Or, so he thought.
He was now sitting on the padded bench at the stern of the boat, leaned into the corner his head bowed. It had been bad enough when Rudy had figured out he was sick, it was even worse to have to see Dirk's face when he said the words, "I'm dying."
The anger had faded into absolute horror and he'd gone ash white beneath his tan.
Al heard Summer take a shuddering breath and he raised his eyes to hers.
"You ... You were going to leave us? You were going to abandon us in the night and start walking across the desert alone?"
He didn't lie this time. He nodded his head. "I'd rather die of dehydration than cancer."
That's when his eyes had connected with Dirk's across the table. His old friend had a slightly nostalgic smile on his face. He didn't say anything at first, but instead sat there staring at the man before him.
Dirk didn't move right away, then, he shifted and leaned forward on the table his fingers laced together. A strong, nimble lattice work of callused digits. His wedding ring glinted in the lantern light and Al felt a little sad, knowing he himself would never be married. Would never know what it was like to have someone call him 'dad', or 'husband'.
He blinked repeatedly to clear away the blurriness that had suddenly descended on his sight and he turned to his friend of so many long tiresome years.
Dirk hesitated long enough for Al to shift uncomfortably against the seat and glance around as though to ask the others if the staring match Pitt had initiated had been noticed. He waited long enough for the sad eyes to return to his before he spoke.
"Do you remember twelfth grade English?"
Al shifted again, his hand going to his leg. He remembered it all right ... Well, he remembered the busty brunette who had sat directly in front of him. He could remember the smell of her shampoo and the small, exasperated sound she made when he'd pulled her into the coat closet.
He could remember her flushed face and the flaxen swells of her breasts in the dim October light. The feeling of her hands in his hair holding his head to her cleavage. The silken skin of her thighs on his hips … He could remember her very well ... English class was another matter though.
And, then Dirk did something that Al didn't think the man was capable of. He started reciting poetry.
"Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
"Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
"Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
"Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
"Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
"And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light."
Al didn't speak. He simply sat there staring at his friend and wondering exactly what he meant. And then it hit him like a brick wall. He was giving up. He was going gently, softly, willingly to his fate.
"The Al Giordino I know would be appalled to go with such a lack of flair. The Al Giordino I know would go out both guns blazing, one of the Admiral's cigars between his teeth and a satanic grin on his ugly face."
Al smiled at that. He didn't know why he smiled or why he found the picture Dirk painted to be so farfetched. Any other time and he would be fighting tooth and nail, but for some reason, THIS time he didn't want to fight. He wanted to lay down his arms and go peacefully. He wanted to make as little impact as he possibly could. And THAT was not his style.
Al Giordino was the kind of man who would walk right up to Death, blow cigar smoke in his skeletal face and then give him a nipple-twister!
Al Giordino was not the kind of man to go gently. He was the kind of man who would go down hard in a bloody battle and live on in legends as the man who died fighting. The man who didn't give up, the man who didn't let cancer break him.
He smiled wider still and Dirk saw the familiar demonic gleam return to his friend's eyes.
"Three months to find a cure ... Because a cure is the only thing that can help me. They said chemo wouldn't help, that it would just put me in the hospital for the time I've got left."
Dirk nodded and pressed his thumbs to his lips. "Where do we start?"
Al laughed and the sound cut the night into prism like brilliance. He threw out his arms and smiled at the moon, "We're in the desert!"
Rudy cut in, turning his laptop so the others could see what was displayed on the screen. "And the desert is right where we want to be."
CHAPTER 5; Gift or Curse
Al felt his smile fade and his eyes honed in on the computer screen. It was an email. An email from a woman named Faith Johnson ... DR. Faith Johnson, posted in a small fishing village on the Niger.
"Dear Mr. Gunn ... My team and I have been recently introduced to a small tribe of nomadic people you may be familiar with. This specific tribe of Tuareg has been gathering crops from a hidden oasis and trading for salt here in this village for many years. The specific crops grown in this oasis are considered to be extremely valuable although on first glance they appear no different than others.
"I suppose, Mr. Gunn, I should cease with the dramatics and get right to the point. I, Mr. Gunn have breast cancer, and until recently have been monitoring a mass in my left breast. When I say recently Mr. Gunn, I mean until the last month. During the last few months I have been exposed to the crops grown by these Tuareg three times, and over the last few weeks have noticed a significant drop in the size of the tumor.
"At first I was skeptical, believing the 'shrinking lump' was just my imagination ... But on a recent trip to Lagos for a mamography my doctor told me the lump had nearly vanished.
"I have examined all members of this specific group and found that none of them are ill. Not so much as a cavity! And there is no history of cancer. Any villager who has also ingested these special crops has also been blessed with health and a long life.
"I've run tests comparing the chemical make up of the food grown in this oasis and crops grown in others and found that the plants grown in this area contain a chemical compound I have been unable to identify.
"This chemical tremor on the scale does not appear in any other crop grown in any other oasis, which leads me to believe there must literally be 'something in the water'. I am not a hydrologist, nor am I able to convince the Tuareg to take me to their garden.
"I would be indebted to you if you could convince your NUMA director to send a team to come and run tests on this water, to help me isolate this chemical and reproduce it.
"The fate of my career rests in your hands. As does the fate of the greatest single scientific find in the last two hundred years ... Sincerely, Faith Johnson."
Al sat very still, staring at the computer screen his lips a thin line on his face. "Explain this to me, Rudy ... What does this doctor think she's found?"
Rudy smiled wider still, pushed his glasses onto his nose with one finger and spoke, "She thinks she's found the cure for cancer."
CHAPTER 6; Closing Time
He knew he was out of pain pills, but he looked for them just the same.
Al shook the bottle once more hoping that maybe, MAYBE he'd missed just ONE pill. But sadly, none fell into his palm. He turned the bottle up and stared down into the little container tears rolling down his face. He'd had a full bottle when he'd left home, and now it was empty.
Where in the hell did all those pills go?
He knew where all the pills had gone ... He knew damned well what had happened to them. He'd been taking three times the prescribed amount hoping to control the throbbing in his leg, hip and back but it still hadn't helped all that much. It had only made the hurt bearable. It had only allowed him partial mobility. The rest of it had been his high threshold for pain.
He cursed under his breath and threw the bottle across the cabin his left hand digging into his hip as if the pressure would kill the hurt.
He'd gone three days without the medication. Those three days had been three of the longest, most painful days of his whole life.
He sank stiffly down onto his bunk and flung his arm up over his face grinding his teeth together. Please, God, just let me pass out ... I can't take this for much longer.
Rudy grunted in his sleep and rolled over, the bunk above Al sagging into a new position.
Al lie there for more than an hour begging God to make it stop but in the end the pain was still there and he was still without medication.
Lauren found him. He could feel her lavender eyes on him but he didn't move, nor did he try very hard to hide the wetness growing across his face. He didn't care who saw him, as long as the pain finally stopped.
God, Please, let it end! I CAN'T take this anymore!
He heard Lauren start to speak, the sound of her breath through her open mouth told him words were on the way, but no sound came.
She crouched beside him and laid a hand on his shoulder. She didn't speak, anything she could have said would have sounded hollow and meaningless if she had. She didn't relate her own feelings, nor did she say she was sorry. She knew that "sorry" didn't mean jack to a man who was dying. "Sorry" was just something someone said to make themselves feel better. To make themselves feel less guilty for being healthy, whole.
After a long while he sighed and raised his left hand to her forearm. His right arm stayed over his eyes, simply because he didn't want to have to look at her. He didn't want to have to see the look on her face.
"Do you want to be alone?" She whispered barely louder than the thrum of the boat's engine.
He didn't remove his hand from her arm but he mouthed a single word that both damned him and released him from part of the torture. "No."
She shifted, sitting in the floor beside his bunk and she took his hand. "Do you want to talk or are you too tired?"
He let out a long sigh and before he could stop himself he'd lifted his arm and peered out at her with bloodshot eyes. "I'm out of pills."
"Your pain medication?"
He nodded and lowered his arm back over his eyes, blotting out the bright desert light flowing in from the open bulkhead. "I've been out for three days..."
"Has the pain been severe?"
She let out another sigh and her hand tightened on his, "How ... How long did the doctors..." Her voice trailed off.
"Three months ... most likely less, the doc was being optimistic."
She nodded. "When we find this Doctor Johnson you'll be OK."
He scoffed, "Whatever that stuff is might only work on breast cancer ... It might make me worse, we don't know."
Lauren sighed and patted his wrist. "You always were the pessimist."
He shrugged and wiped the moisture from his face. "Nah ... I'm just a realist, I don't believe in miracles."
She nodded and slowly climbed to her feet. "We're going to stop for fuel soon. Dirk says there is a woman who sell the most unusual shells..." She stared at him for a moment concerned by the way his usually tanned skin looked oddly translucent. But then she reminded herself why he looked sick and she nearly started crying herself. Three days of agony ... She couldn't imagine.
"I can send Dirk down if you're feeling lonely, I know Rudy can't be much company when he's sleeping."
He shook his head and was still.
She stood there for a moment more, watching him, then with a sigh she turned and went back on deck.
"How is he?" The older Pitt asked from where he was sprawled on the bow reading, of all things, a romance novel.
Lauren snatched the book from him and scanned the page he was on, "What are you doing reading this ... And where on earth did you find it?"
He shrugged, "Your suitcase ... But that didn't answer my question."
She sighed and handed him the book. "He's in pain ... And he's been out of his medicine for three days."
Her husband winced and fingered the worn corner of the book. He didn't say anything for a long time and when he did his words had nothing to do with his dying friend.
"Why do you read this smut?" He captured a tendril of her long hair and twirled it around his finger.
She rolled her eyes, "Its colorful."
He grinned at her over his sunglasses and his ocean colored eyes sparkled, "Is our love life not colorful enough for you?"
She couldn't help but smile, her cheeks reddening. "Colorful is not the word to describe you, my dear ... You're prismatic!"
"Prismatic?" He grinned and a cocky glint came to his eyes setting the sea colors aflame.
She took his sunglasses and put them on herself, stretching out beside him her delicate ankles crossed.
He looked at her adoringly but his smile faded when his thoughts strayed to the man lying on his bunk below. Dirk's eyes turned to the river before him and he sighed in utter and complete frustration.
Why didn't he tell me sooner, when I could have helped him? Three days? Why didn't he say he was out of medicine? Why didn't he go to the doctor when the pain started ... When chemo could have helped him ... Why didn't ... Why didn't ... WHY-
He turned almost completely around and spotted him. He was standing by the railing, leaning heavily on the shining silver cylinders. His face was gray and his eyes red rimmed, but they also held a determination that brought back memories of a long ago time when Dirk Pitt and Al Giordino were young and full of piss and vinegar.
He smiled at his friend, "You should sit, the sun feels nice. It might help a little."
Al nodded and limped up the three steps his teeth ground together. He practically collapsed onto the padded bench and sat there breathing heavily his eyes closed for more than a minute. "Sun does feel nice." He said after he'd managed to get the pain under control.
Dirk nodded, "You look like hell!"
Lauren elbowed her husband in the ribs and shoved the stolen sunglasses up onto her forehead. She gave him an astonished look and was about to verbally scold him when Al laughed under his breath.
Dirk gave Lauren an over the shoulder relieved look and reclined back on the blanket he'd stretched out on the deck.
"Dad!" Summer called from the helm.
"Yeah?" Dirk grunted not bothering to move from his restful position.
"Is that the petrol depot you were talking about? The one to port?"
Dirk raised his head and turned his eyes to the structure left of the bow.
"Yeah, that's it," He climbed slowly to his feet, stretching over enthusiastically for his wife before jogging mid-deck to his daughter and son.
Al turned his head and watched as the redheaded young woman expertly steered the yacht into position next to the petrol pump.
The younger Dirk jumped onto the dock and wound the mooring lines around wooden pegs-
There was a flash of white gold and Al turned his eyes to the building.
A young woman was walking away from the shack. She didn't look in his direction at first, but instead tossed her waist length white blonde hair over her shoulder and ran her hands through it. Then she turned her teary ice blue eyes to him and her perfectly plucked brows drew down in an almost annoyed way. She gave her head a little shake and turned from him, her pale cheeks turning a bright shade of pink.
Why was his heart beating so quickly? Why was it suddenly so hard to breathe?
A large man in army fatigues rushed out of the shack and grabbed her arm turning her roughly toward him. He shouted something in French and grabbed a handful of her honey colored hair and jerked her head back viciously.
Before he knew what he was doing Al was on his feet at the railing.
The big man turned his black eyes to ward the little man on the boat and shouted in mangled English, "Your business is nowhere! None of your concern!"
"LIKE HELL!" Al yelled and pointed to the woman, "You leave her alone, bud, you hear me?" He could hear one of the Dirks hissing at him to keep quiet but Al wasn't sure which one it was, his friend or his nephew.
"None of your concern!" The big man yelled again and motioned to a large shiny gun on his hip. "Leave, away! ALLER!" He turned back to the woman who was, instead of staring at the man holding her, staring at the little man on the boat.
Rudy popped out of the galley his hair a mess his glasses askew, "What's all the shouting?" He yawned then focused on the big man holding the little blonde on shore. "What's going on?"
Al completely ignored him and continued shouting at the man on the path. "Where is she from ... Where are you from?" He called, praying the woman understood him.
She hesitated then shouted back to him, "I'm from Naples Georgia ... I'm an American ... This man says my boss owes him money!"
Al put a hand to his forehead. His head was starting to hurt, like someone had begun hammering away at his skull, "Naples Georgia? What the hell are you doing out here in the middle of the desert?"
The man pulled her hair again and growled something indiscernible in her ear. She shouted back at him in French then turned to Al. "I'm a doctor. I came to pick up supplies but this jackass won't gimme em because he says my boss owes him money."
Al felt his chest tighten, "What kind of supplies?"
The blonde sighed, "Parts for an X-ray machine, a small supply of penicillin and some personal effects."
Dirk spoke up removing his wallet from his back pocket. "How much does he say your boss owes him?"
The woman jerked away from the big man and ran a hand through her mussed hair. "He says five hundred American."
Dirk nearly choked, "What kind of supplies are these again?"
She sighed and cupped her forehead, "There's morphine in it ... Do you know how much a person can get on the black market for morphine and penicillin?"
Dirk turned and eyed both Al and Rudy holding open his wallet so they could see what money he had folded away.
Rudy shoved his hands into his pockets and was able to produce fifteen dollars, a few odd cents, his two gig flash drive and three sticks of chewing gum.
Al didn't even look down, "I'll make a deal with you."
The woman's eyebrows rose, "What kind of deal?"
He hesitated, licked his lips and continued, trying to ignore the churning sensation building in his middle. "You give me some of that morphine and I'll give you the five hundred."
She scowled and shook her head, "This is medical supplies, it is for medicinal purposes, not personal-"
"Lady, I have bone cancer and I haven't had any pain medication in three days."
She went quiet and a wrinkle formed on the bridge of her nose. She gave a small shudder of what looked like fear and nodded, "All right."
Al pulled out his wallet and handed the money to Dirk, who in turn handed them to the blonde.
She had a brief heated discussion with the big man, who walked back into the shack and carried out three large metal containers the size of small coolers. He sat them heavily on the deck and jerked the five hundred dollars from her hand.
Just seconds after the man disappeared back inside the shack counting the money Dirk turned to his friend his eyebrow cocked. He saw only the whites of Al's eyes as he crumpled to his side on the deck and then Summer screamed.
CHAPTER 7; Dedication
The last thing he remembered thinking was; Thank you, GOD! And the pain disappeared as unconsciousness took him on an all to brief ride through the desert.
He felt either Summer or Lauren smacking his face and he heard Dirk grunt as the taller man picked him up and carried him down the steps and into the galley.
He pried his eyes open long enough to see the blonde bending over him, flicking air bubbles from a hypodermic. Then she sank the needle into his right arm and for a little while he was able to rest. Nice, calming pain free rest.
When he woke it was nearly midnight and he wasn't in his bunk on Dirk's yacht. He was in a hospital bed. An old hospital bed staring up through mosquito netting at a bare wood beam ceiling. He tried to speak but his mouth was to dry to make any sound louder than a soft grunt.
He heard a hushed whispering sound to his right and he turned his eyes toward the sound. He saw Dirk standing in another room talking to the blonde woman, who was holding up an X-ray for Pitt's inspection. He strained his ears and was able to pick up what she was saying.
"Its spread from his leg to his hip and spine ... There really isn't anything you can do for him. I can medicate him but-"
"You still haven't told me how long he has," Dirk sounded strained, as if he'd gone days without sleep or was recovering from a cold.
Al knew it wasn't the latter.
How long had he been there? How long had he been on his back in this hospital bed?
The blonde sighed and pressed two fingers to her lips, as if she had at one time been a smoker and was beginning to regret kicking the habit.
"Less than a month."
Al's stomach clenched painfully and he nearly bit through his lower lip. Had she just said what he thought she'd just said?
Dirk leaned heavily back against the desk his head in his hands. His broad shoulders shook and he struggled to breathe. "Doctor Johnson, is there anything we can do?"
The blonde turned her head and a second woman, a woman Al hadn't even known was in the room stepped into view. She had short graying brown hair and faded green eyes. She licked her lips and crossed her arms over her chest.
"Amanda has a special relationship with these Tuareg, Mr. Pitt, She has traveled with them for years and has been able to get closer to them than I ever have. If you are asking what I think you are, Amanda will have to arrange it. She has gone with them before to gather water samples for me. I would go along also but the Tuareg no longer trust me ... Not since I started asking about their oasis."
Dirk nodded and ran his hands through his gray flecked hair. He looked up at the blonde woman pleadingly, begging with those big ocean colored eyes of his.
The blonde, Amanda, sighed and cupped her forehead. "They believe this land is sacred. Handed down to them by God...
"Jahn and his family have protected their oasis for nearly twelve generations. They won't allow you to follow, Mr. Pitt. Since Mr. Giordino is so ill Jahn may be willing to let him, but not you. Al will have to travel with them alone."
Dirk hesitated and his eyes closed tightly, his fist pressed to his lips. He choked and turned his head to clear his throat then he turned to Amanda and nodded.
CHAPTER 8; Hourglass
He was to heavily medicated to walk, he'd tried, but it hadn't gone as well as planned and he'd been carried out of Doctor Johnson's hospital on a stretcher.
Rudy and all four Pitts were waiting just outside for him. Five of his closest friends, who were close enough to call his family kept telling him he was going to feel better when he got back. They assured him he'd be all right, that they'd see him when he returned.
But, deep down, Al didn't believe them. He'd smiled and shook hands, hugged and made jokes to lighten the mood, but in the end he'd said goodbye. He'd wrapped his arm around Dirk's neck and drawn his dearest friend down whispering in the slightly sunburned ear, "You were always my best friend ... Hell, you're like a brother to me.
"If ... If this goes sour, Dirk ... If I d-die ... I... I don't regret anything. Not a single goddamned thing."
Dirk had stayed there for a moment his whole body trembling and he'd nodded. He didn't say anything else. He didn't believe in good-byes.
The first time he'd ridden a camel he'd been bitten in the ass. The second time his legs had been so sore afterwards he didn't think he'd be able to sit for a week. But this time ... The thoughts of being on one struck a nostalgic, nauseating chord.
He could remember riding along on a similar camel in the same desert years before and he laughed to himself. He tried to reposition his throbbing body to alleviate some of the pain that was eating through the morphine haze he'd been in but he could barely move.
By God, he wanted a cigarette ... No, he wanted one of the Admiral's big, pungent cigars.
He smiled and closed his eyes, listening to the rhythmic shifting of the sands and the light crunch of it beneath the feet of the Tuareg and the camels.
He could remember this sand. This hot ... Blinding ... White blonde sand.
This death sand ... Life sand.
The golden orb of the sun was hanging high above him, burning away all conscious thought, purifying. Cleansing him of sin, purging their vile stains from his dying body with every drop of sweat that trickled down his face, back, chest, stomach, arms and legs. And the sand shifted it all away.
This death sand...
He wished the desert would- He wished Sahara would shift him away. Shift him away to that bright shining place beyond the rays of the sun, beyond the water of the sea, the flesh of the earth and the breath of the wind.
He wished Sahara would claim him. He wished Sahara would claim him like a pale bride, like a death bride.
Al had been gone two days.
Amanda had called on the satellite telephone twice, telling him that Al was still alive, still fighting...
And twice Dirk Pitt had dissolved into tears in the cabin of his yacht. He'd collapsed into his wife's arms and nearly bit his tongue in two to keep his children from hearing him. Rudy had cried openly and part of Pitt envied the little man for it. Dirk himself had spent a long time bottling his emotions up, controlling his feelings, controlling nothing in fact...
He knew simply that if he cried in front of his kids his kids would cry in front of him and then there'd be no stopping it. He'd end up drowning in his sorrow.
Dirk chuckled darkly against Lauren's shoulder as she stroked the back of his head. He'd seen it in Al's eyes, and heard it in his friend's voice. Al didn't believe he was going to come back. Al believed he was taking a one way trip into the heart of the Sahara.
Into the land of shifting sand and buried secrets, some of them a Confederate ironclad, some of them a treasure more precious than gold.
This life sand had many secrets...
Life sand … Death sand.
Dirk went to see Doctor Johnson later that day. He found her having a rather heated conversation with a tall man in military fatigues. When he'd first seen the man Dirk had thought of the big man who had threatened Amanda, but he wasn't the same. This one had his black hair in long braided rows backward from his forehead.
Were these men some kind of task force? Or were they something completely different?
Dirk had caught the final statements of the conversation, a shrill shout from Doctor Johnson;
"I'm tired of her sticking her nose into places it doesn't belong. I really don't care what the hell you have to do just finish it, Indugu!"
The man had turned his head, his hand going to a big silver gun on his hip but his fingers hovered two inches from the grip.
"Mr. Pitt," Faith whispered wiping sweat from her forehead. She had a glazed look to her eyes, much like the one Al had had when he'd been carried out on the stretcher.
Dirk recognized it right away. It was morphine. Doctor Johnson had been sneaking hospital morphine for herself.
"If you're busy, I can come back later."
The woman shook her head and walked toward him smiling politely, "Nonsense, HE was just leaving," She cast the big man a threatening glance and he bowed slightly before walking right past Dirk and out the door.
"Did I come at a bad time?"
She smiled and swatted at him playfully, "Just a little problem with the hired help, nothing important."
Dirk nodded uneasily, "I was just wondering how the research was going … And I was meaning to ask you about-"
"The research is going as well as can be expected, seeing as my assistant has gone gallivanting off into the desert with a bunch of heathens," She bit her lip and a thin frail hand went to her throat.
She panted for a moment and Dirk was tempted to ask her if she was all right but the woman waved him off when he tried to put out a reassuring hand.
He nodded and grew quiet for a ten count, "I was wanting to ask you about the crops. You said in your e-mail that you had been exposed to the crops themselves and your tumor had shrunk … Why didn't you just give Al something to eat instead of sending him off into the desert?"
Faith waved at him again and turned from him, "Because we've had a few unexpected … Difficulties."
The gray haired woman sighed, "Someone contaminated my supplies."
She turned back to him and crossed her arms over her chest. "When THEY came back with a fresh supply of crops I seized them for medical research. We don't know what this chemical is, or its long term effects. It could have devastating repercussions if not properly controlled.
"This may be an isolated, once and a lifetime event … Would you really want to waste such potential? If we can identify this chemical we can mass produce it, but it is in such small doses on the crops I need all of them to come up with a sizable sample."
Dirk nodded but something bugged him. Something small, like a tiny mosquito biting the back of his neck. Something wasn't right.
"How was your supply contaminated?"
"I found two street urchins in my storeroom fingering the samples. The oils from their hands rendered every sample I had collected unusable and all the supplies had to be discarded."
"Discarded?" Dirk felt his stomach clench. He'd seen the 'street urchins' in this town. Poor little half starved children who would eat things they found on the ground to stay alive.
"Well, to keep my research a secret all the supplies had to be burned."
Burned? All that food burned while those poor starving children stood by watching? What kind of woman was this Doctor Johnson?
"Why not just give the unusable food to the villagers if you aren't going to eat it?"
"Don't be absurd, any one of those children could be a spy sent by another research team. If they were able to get even one apple or a single kernel of corn my career and my careful planning could go up in flames. I have worked to hard for to long to be denied all the glory of this discovery and no grubby little child is going to steal it away from me."
"Can you say paranoid delusional?" Summer scoffed and turned her head from her father to stare out over the darkening sky.
Her brother laughed heartily and gave his head a shake. "That woman is nuts, Dad. I can see why the Tuareg don't trust her anymore. She takes their crops from them without paying, she then BURNS the crops so no one else can have them when someone touches them …
"God, Summer, she sounds like you when were kids. Break the toy rather than share it."
Summer gave him a scathing look and wrinkled her nose, "If I remember correctly, Dirk, you were the one to throw away the birthday cake because my name was first."
The senior Dirk didn't hear any of this mindless sibling chatter, his attention was closed away, deep in his mind, plotting, planning…
"You two ever play Sneak Attack?"
The two younger Pitts turned wide, confused eyes on their father and near identical, 'is he crazy?' expressions came over them.
"Did you ever play Spy?"
Summer grinned, so much like her father, and nodded. "We crept into the neighbor's yard all the time, just to turn his sprinklers on his open window."
Pitt smiled, "Well, how about we turn Doctor Johnson's sprinklers?"
CHAPTER 9; Lies … Truth
The "sprinkler turning" incident went off without a hitch. Summer and Dirk made their way into the hospital with Rudy trotting along behind his laptop under one arm. They were inside for almost an hour and when they returned Rudy showed them all exactly what Doctor Johnson had been doing.
"She stole her first partner, Doctor Henry Allan's work. Doctor Allan was reported missing about three days before Johnson put in a request for a personal lab assistant … Amanda.
"See, before this date all this work was registered under Allan, after this date it is all under Johnson."
"She's stealing Doctor Allan's work?" Summer was counting out cans of food she and Dirk had stolen from the 'good doctor's' personal pantry and were going to distribute to the children in the village the next day.
"More like she's stolen it already. None of it was published under Allan's name … None of it, in fact, has been published at all." Rudy sighed, and continued scanning the files. "Oh, wow … She's been using W.H.O. funding to pay off those goons of hers too!" His breath abruptly hissed between his teeth.
"What?" Pitt turned to the little man his eyebrows scrunched down.
Rudy rung his hands and turned tear filled eyes to Dirk. "We have to find Al," He turned the computer to his friend and a sense of dread fell on Pitt's shoulders.
There was a message on the screen a simple three lined e-mail from Doctor Johnson to an unknown party.
"Amanda's loyalty has been compromised. She's currently traveling with the Tuareg and a man named Al Giordino. Find them and clean up this mess, use whatever means necessary to ensure my research goes on unimpeded."
Pitt swallowed and turned to Rudy. "I want to send every bit of this information to the World Heath Organization … I know someone who would love to hear about this."
It was an odd sensation. Somewhat like being on a sailboat, or floating in a rubber raft on an endless subterranean river.
The pain was there, slowly chewing its way through his body. A dull, pounding ache starting just above his knee and extending upward, nearly to that horrible, unreachable place between his shoulder blades.
God, I hate camels … They're good animals, but I hate them …If I live through this I NEVER EVER want to ride another camel … I can't take this much longer...
He'd been riding the camel for almost four days before his leg said 'no more' and started trying to kill him faster with unbearable spasms of pain whenever the creature would take a step.
So, the Tuareg had stopped, shifted their load and made a kind of sling on the side of the camel. At first it had been uncomfortable, every step the animal took had rocked him back and forth and, despite spending more than half his life on ships and on the ocean, he'd gotten terribly seasick. There hadn't been that much in his stomach when it had happened so he hadn't thought it a big deal but Amanda had.
Amanda had made him drink what felt like enough water to cause one to sprout gills and she'd draped a scarf over the camel, creating a kind of canopy under which Al hung in the sling. He hadn't gone back to sleep, as he would have liked to do. Instead, he remained quite wakeful watching the woman walking beside him.
Unlike the Tuareg's blue head wraps the scarf Amanda had draped over her head was a light aqua marine, it seemed to make her eyes dance like the sea. He watched her from the corner of his eye. The soft fringe of gold lashes cresting her eyelids. The tanned and freckled skin of her face, chest and arms … The perfect swell of her breasts.
She continued walking, the lead strap attached to the camel's bridle in her hand.
She was wearing a pair of light-tan cargo pants and a long white colored tunic with ankle length front and back panels.
He watched her for the longest time, a small, thin smile growing wider on his ashen face. A mischievous sparkle came into his eyes and Amanda glanced at him, startled at first. A pink tinge brushed her face and she lowered her eyes, a self-conscious tightening of her mouth turning into a bashful grin.
She sidestepped toward him and lifted the little flap on the scarf made canopy, "Are you grinning at me because of the morphine or is it something else?"
He tried to shrug, but the ache in his back made it near impossible. He licked his lips and lifted his fingers, making his hands do what his shoulders could not. "What can I say, I'm a dying old man with a beautiful young doctor looking after me."
She smiled, "You're not old."
He scoffed and rolled his eyes, "I'm old."
She tilted her head to the side and gave it a small shake, "You're not that much older than me."
He laughed in his throat, a dry sarcastic sound, "Risking a slap that would be well deserved … How old are you?"
She smiled brightly and looked forward, out over the seemingly endless expanse of the Sahara.
He choked and started coughing. "You can't be thirty-five. You don't look a day over twenty!"
"I'm thirty-five, I promise you. I've been stationed with Doctor Johnson for three years and I've known Jahn for close to five," She smiled up at the man in the front of the caravan, even though he had his back to her.
"He's asked me many times to be his wife but I can't really see myself giving all this up. Though there is something, these people do have something right."
"What do you mean?" It was becoming harder and harder to keep his eyes open. The heat and the gentle rocking motions were finally lulling him to sleep.
She sighed and shook her head, "I don't know … There's just something about this place, especially The Caves."
She nodded, "You can't see them because you're facing the wrong way, but we're going to stop there tonight to get water and let the camels rest."
"What's so special about the caves?"
She shook her head again, "Just a feeling … Its like the earth is more alive there, something mysterious but oddly inviting."
He nodded and barely thirty seconds later his chin fell to his shoulder.
There, forty miles south of the oasis, in the middle of the Sahara desert. Unnoticed by the doctor at his side, Al Giordino lost the race against his body. The cancer was winning...
CHAPTER 10; Sanctuary
The sandstorm came that night, blotting out the moon and the stars like a curtain.
Jahn had rushed everyone into the cave, his blue head wrap protecting his sensitive eyes from the blowing granules of sand. The particular cave they huddled in was large enough to accommodate the camels and all five traveling members of Jahn's family. And thankfully the wind was blowing at such an angle that barely any sand came in the 'door'.
Amanda discovered, barely moments before the storm came that the low-grade fever plaguing Al since their departure had suddenly risen to well above one hundred and four degrees Fahrenheit. His whole face was deathly pale, save the two telltale red splotches high on his cheeks.
She'd maneuvered him out of the sling just as the storm was reaching its peak outside.
They were all covered in a thin, golden layer of dust and sand from the brief amount of time they'd run through the storm to reach the safety of the caves. Amanda wiped this dust away from her eyes and the eyes of her patient with a moistened corner of her scarf then settled back against the camel's left flank, Al cradled to her chest.
He shivered uncontrollably for close to ten minutes, while the wind screamed past the mouth of the cave and the camels seemed to sway from side to side in rhythm to some unheard music. She closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the camel's warm, rough furred side.
The winds shrieked, the camels swayed and somewhere, perhaps within Amanda's own subconscious, perhaps from the cave itself, a deep resounding throb began. Like a pulse, a heartbeat, keeping time with the rising and falling of the wind and the swaying of the camels.
It seemed to grow and thrum deep within her, filling her with a sense of peace, of right. She felt Al shudder once more and he sighed, in relief. As if a weight had been lifted from him or he had been taken from the weight…
She didn't move at first, she was afraid she'd look down and see the man in her arms was dead. That all this time of fighting had been in vain. But, she forced herself to look anyway, forcing the doctor in her to overpower the woman and check on her patient.
The dust coating his body made him appear ghostly, the sweat wetting his hair had mixed with the sand, caking the dark, curling locks with mud. His cheeks still held the hectic flush of fever but his eyes were shimmering, unclouded by pain. He stared up at her puzzled, in an intelligent, burning way and his lips slowly parted as if he were going to speak.
She felt a similar redness creep to her cheeks and she shifted him to a more comfortable position against her. He was by no means beautiful, his body was riddled with scars, he had a bump on his nose where it had been broken years before and never healed exactly right.
He was cranky, stubborn, and was dying. But he was unnaturally attractive in a deep, 'I promise you passion, I'll give you nothing less' kind of shiver inducing way.
And despite being nearly twenty years, if not more, older than her Amanda was so entranced by him she could do nothing else but stare down at him and wonder what his lips would feel like pressed against her skin.
What would those callused fingers feel like stroking while her fingers were tangled in that thick mane of hair on his head?
She trembled and cupped her hand to his cheek, wiping away a drop of muddy sweat that threatened to run into his eyes.
The storm died and a rain of dirt began to fall, blowing into the cave with them.
She felt him lift his head and she closed her eyes her breath catching in her throat as his fingers slid under her scarf, running through her hair. He drew her head down and kissed her, tenderly chastely then relaxed back into her arms and let the chaotic fever dreams fly him through the desert.
It wasn't a Mercedes, nor was it a Model T Ford in Mint condition, both of which Pitt owned, but it was a car and it did go faster than a camel.
He felt somehow … Rustic, driving the old Willie's Jeep across the desert at breakneck speed. Rudy was bouncing up and down in the back seat his hand clamped down over his hat so he wouldn't loose it.
Dirk was in the passenger side seat, grinning like the devil both hands clutching the sides of his seat so tightly his knuckles were white. He'd been the one to find the jeep. Of course, like father like son, both Dirks could sniff out an internal combustion engine anywhere.
They went air born as they crested another sand dune and Rudy let out a little gasp.
The jeep had been modified, the chassy lifted to near two feet off the ground, big, powerful lime green shocks had been added as well as a solid titanium roll-cage to protect the occupants should the vehicle turn turtle.
The engine had been super powered and it now ran off vegetable oil, which surprised the hell out of both Dirks. They had gotten identical looks of awe on their faces and made "Ooo" sounds in their throats.
The body was scratched, dented and new panels, painted to look like flags were riveted into place over the fenders. The frame was new and Pitt knew someone had put a lot of time and money into this car.
An old man had sold it to him. But, he couldn't remember the man's name to save his life, it was a funny name, he knew that, but he just couldn't seem to remember it. He sighed in frustration, the old man seemed so familiar too.
"Try him again on the mobile, Rudy!" Pitt yelled to be heard over the powerful engine.
Rudy thought about taking his hand off his hat, thought better and removed it completely, shoving it under his behind. He fished the satellite telephone from his bag and dialed the number for the phone he'd sent with Al.
It rang twenty times, but there was no answer. He shook his head at his friend and stowed the phone back in his bag then gripped the bar above his head when they flew through the air again, landing, tires digging into the sand.
"That smell is making me hungry, Dad," Dirk said, tossing his head to the rear of the car.
Pitt nodded. It smelled like they were towing a whole McDonalds chain behind them. The smell of French fries was so thick his stomach had been growling for close to an hour. But he couldn't think about food, not when his best friend was in danger.
"How are we on ammo?"
Dirk pulled a familiar Colt .45 from the waistband of his jeans and released the clip. "We've got about forty rounds for the Colt … And the same for the rifle that old man gave us … Damn it, why can't I remember his name?"
Pitt smiled crookedly at his son, "Me neither."
"Rudy has twenty-five rounds for the nine-mil and I've got this," He pulled out a smoke grenade. "It's our favorite color too!" He grinned and motioned to the blue green sticker on the bottom.
Pitt laughed in his throat, "Okay then, just take care of that Colt … I've had it for years."
"And years and years and years," Rudy rolled his eyes. "He's had that thing for as long as I've known him … Probably longer."
Dirk laughed nervously and tucked the Colt into his waistband. "Let's just hope we don't have to use them, OK?"
Pitt nodded, but he knew with their luck there would be lots of shooting. He just prayed that no one he cared about got hurt.
Doctor Johnson knew someone had been in her pantry, half her canned food was gone. She also knew someone had touched her computer. And she knew exactly who it was.
It had been that nosey man who had interrupted her conversation with Indugu,. That 'Mr. Pitt'. She twisted her hands indignantly and opened the drawer on her desk. She had quite a collection in here. All locked away safe and sound from everybody.
Under lock and key like she kept all her secrets. She had a little pristine white paper envelop full of money, a box she kept her syringes in, her cigarettes, Doctor Allan's ID, Social Security card, Passport … and his wedding ring. She also had three extra clips for her little Smith and Wesson and a whole box of shells... Well a whole box minus three. Three bullets she'd used many years ago to end the life of another nosey man who put his sniffer where it didn't belong.
Doctor Allan had found her combing through his research one night and accidentally fired her.
He'd wanted to keep all the glory for himself. He wanted to be THE doctor to discover the cure for the plague of the twenty-first century. HE wanted to be THE DOCTOR to find the cure for cancer. He had been fine sharing his lab, sharing his food, and sharing his bed with her… But when it came to the glory of THAT find, he'd wanted it all to himself.
So … One night while he slept she'd accidentally loaded his gun, accidentally put a pillow over his face to deaden the sound, and accidentally pulled the trigger three times.
It all seemed so silly to think about now. Now that it was her glory. Allan was nothing like her, he had wanted it all for himself, she wanted to share the cure with the world. She wanted Dr. Johnson's Miracle Drug on every family's grocery list, she wanted every person to be cancer free… She wanted to ring Amanda's scrawny little neck!
That blonde bitch had ruined it all by befriending the Tuareg. Amanda had waltzed in, batted her blue eyes and gotten VIP access to the oasis those selfish Tuareg had been hiding.
She'd charged Amanda with testing the water in the oasis, and Amanda had brought back water from some other oasis, it was useless, no miracle chemical in it at all.
It was HER find, HER cure, not Amanda's. Amanda was just the research assistant. She was the girl who fetched coffee and cooked dinner, not the one who gets to travel all over and get free, unrestricted access to the cure.
Amanda would pay dearly… So very dearly…
He woke to a gunshot, a single soft crack in the stillness of the night.
He'd lain completely still, listening, then he'd slowly raised his head, ready for the pain of his aching back, hip and leg to start screaming again. He felt a twinge of discomfort but ignored it, leaning himself against the camel's flank as another louder, closer crack in the darkness just outside the cave.
Amanda crawled to his side, "What is it?" She whispered, "is it bandits?"
Jahn and his sons were up, each seeming to pull battered weapons out of thin air. Al recognized AK-47s and M-16s as well as what looked like a thirty caliber sniper's rifle. Jahn's ritualistically scarred face was angry and he held up a hand to still Al, who upon seeing the weapons had drawn his own, a newer version of Pitt's old Colt .45, with his own special modifications. The Giordino Special, as Rudy had called it.
Al nodded and lowered his gun, though he kept it in his hand ready for when the time came, which, for him, seemed closer than ever.
God, this is familiar … Didn't I already do this? When's Dirk gonna show up and make me go looking for his ironclad?
His leg was beginning to throb and his vision was blurring.
Oh, God, please don't let me pass out yet … Not yet. His hand tightened on Amanda's and he blinked rapidly to clear his eyes, praying that it was merely settling dust from the sandstorm hours ago and not the man with the scythe.
Amanda squeezed his hand tightly and whispered in his ear, "Its, OK, I'm here."
He felt a kind of peace wash over him and the growing pain in his body suddenly didn't matter as much as this moment. It didn't matter half as much as his need to be strong, to get whoever was trying to harm them.
"It is John-sohn's men," Jahn whispered in heavily accented English.
Al pictured big thugs with big guns and shiny gold teeth for some reason. Maybe he was just remembering the last time he'd been threatened in this desert. The last time he'd nearly been claimed by Sahara's pale blonde seas.
"They are on the cliffs above us…"
Amanda trembled and she leaned her head to Al's shoulder panting. "I should tell you this now, because we may not get another chance. The reason Jahn won't work with Doctor Johnson is she has been taking his crops and keeping them for herself without giving him fair trade.
"She believes that because of what she found on the crops that Jahn should automatically take her to its source-"
"But, instead they took you?" Al whispered back, not turning his head away from the men at the cave's entrance.
Amanda's breath hissed in her throat. "That's just it … They've never taken me 'there' because they don't know where 'there' is."
His chest felt tight.
"They don't know how it happens, or why it only happens to their crops, but I've been to the oasis, I've tested the water…"
"And?" His heart was pounding in his ears.
"Nothing… I've even tested the crops and there is nothing there."
He turned to her, his eyes full of pain, and betrayal. He shouted at her, "Then why the hell did you bring me along? Why in God's name did you bring me on this trip if you don't know what the fuck you're looking for! Why didn't you just leave me with my friends so I could die in peace!"
And that's when all hell broke loose.
CHAPTER 11; The Race Against Time
They found the caves shortly after sunrise the next day.
Pitt slowed the jeep his heart in his throat. The air seemed to thrum with an unknown presence, whether evil or benign he wasn't sure.
There were dead bodies lying strewn about, both man and camel. He jumped out of the jeep, rifle in hand and ran to the mouth of the cave screaming, "AL!"
There was little smell and he judged from it that the Tuareg had been dead no more than twelve hours. Bodies decomposed faster in the sun than in the shade. He searched through the bodies but couldn't find Al, or Amanda.
"DAD!" Dirk shouted from outside, "DAD, there are tracks over here!"
He followed his son's finger and saw distinct marks in the sand. A camel had run this way, quickly. He followed the tracks for a few dozen yards and saw a dried splotch of blood on a rock.
Not far from that were tire tracks two trucks had followed the lone camel, and from the pattering of shells he found, they had been heavily armed.
He ran up the embankment and peered out over the desert, his hand up, shielding his eyes. There was one jeep over turned at the bottom of the hill and as he looked out he saw another speck some two miles out. He couldn't see it well with his naked eyes, but from the size of it, he knew it wasn't the jeep.
Summer was a little angry that her father hadn't taken her along on the rescue mission, but now she knew why. Someone had to stay here to deal with the 'Wicked Witch'.
Doctor Johnson came to visit the day after the men left. And the 'good doctor' wasn't alone. She had three goons with her, each packing a large chrome plated gun that, Summer would be willing to lay money on this speculation, was evidence they were compensating for 'something'.
Lauren had been most helpful, skillfully talking the woman down from searching the boat by insisting that her husband, step son and Rudy were merely shopping around town before they came home for dinner.
Then she'd turned her lavender eyes to Summer and given her the, 'get us the hell out of here' look and Summer had politely put-the-peddle-to-the-metal, so to speak. Calliope's Star had shot forward, her beautiful super-powered engine putting so much distance between the doctor and the Pitt women so quickly Johnson's goons hadn't had time to fire a single shot.
"When your father gets back, I am going to kill him!" Lauren said, and on a whim, one her husband would have laughed hysterically at, she ran the Jolly Roger up the flagpole and both women gave Doctor Johnson the finger, Summer grinning like the devil.
CHAPTER 12; Findings
The lump Pitt had seen in the desert was the camel.
It had been shot numerous times and a thick trail of blood had led them to it. Footprints ran off to the right, followed closely by a set of tire tracks and after a few dozen feet there were a pile of bodies. The bodies were not Al's and Amanda's but were the bloated carcasses of Johnson's Mercenaries.
It took Pitt a few moments to realize that the footprints leading away from the camel were female and that Al had shot all the men dead. "They stole the other jeep!" Pitt said happily. "They're alive."
"Or were yesterday…" Dirk turned to his father a mournful look on his face. "Unless they found water and shelter before the sun came up…" He let his voice trail off.
Rudy was studying the ground intently. "He crawled to the car."
Pitt nodded and shielded his eyes, scanning the surrounding desert for any sign of them. He pulled a binocular from his pocket and trained it on the fading line of tire tracks. "They made it at least over that hill over there," He pointed.
Rudy nodded, but something was eating away at him. Something important was missing, but what was it?
Doctor Faith Johnson was in a Land Rover, one of her guards on either side of her, head in hands sobbing uncontrollably. Nothing else existed but her plight … her downfall.
She'd wanted nothing more than to find her cure before the W.H.O. discovered what had happened. Before the World Health Organization realized she'd been neglecting her calling and become a kind of drug lord. Using Federal money to fund her own personal army, bent on finding and killing the Tuareg who held her cure for hostage every time they refused to tell her what they were putting on their crops.
But it was to late for that now … The W.H.O. had found her out … Most likely from an E-mail a nosey little man named Rudy Gunn had sent to the new W.H.O. Assistant Director, Dr. Eva Rojas.
The W.H.O. had raided her hospital, confiscating her computer, her files and all her research. Now there were policemen looking for her, as well as government agents.
Johnson sobbed and the car continued to rock violently from side to side as the dirty little street urchins shouted and pounded on the car with their dirty little street urchin fists and cans of HER private supply of food. She parted her fingers and looked out at the only adults in the whole crowd.
There was a white haired man with a goatee and sunglasses covering his brilliant eyes, and on each side of him stood a woman.
To his left was a tall, thin woman with dark hair and lavender eyes, on his right was a slightly shorter woman with flaming red hair and a grin that would have suited Lucifer himself.
Summer waved at the woman in the car and turned to thank the white haired man but he was gone. "Jeez … Where'd Mister… Mister…" She turned to her step mother her eyebrows raised, "Where did Mister-what's-his-name go?"
Lauren searched the streets but turned back to Summer with a saddened sigh. "I don't know … That man is like a ghost ... I would have liked to introduce him to your father too. I think they would have gotten along famously."
They drove slowly up the hill, not sure what they would find on the other side. Afraid that the bodies of Al and Amanda were lying at the bottom of the hill tangled in a wrecked jeep. As they crested the hill, a cascade of sand running down the slope before their tires Pitt's eyes locked on what sat there, partially hidden by a chunk of rock.
It was the jeep, the driver's side door was open, and Amanda was sprawled on her side in the seat the lower right side of her white tunic stained red with blood. But what scarred all three men in the approaching jeep worse than the unconscious woman was the fact their friend wasn't in sight.
Then Rudy pointed out the staggering, drunken path leading away from the jeep and into the desert and realization set in.
Al was gone.
CHAPTER 13; Judgement of The Devil
"Then why the hell did you bring me along? Why in God's name did you bring me on this trip if you don't know what the fuck you're looking for! Why didn't you just leave me with my friends so I could die in peace!"
The men on the hill had begun firing at the cave, screaming obscenities in French.
"Because its somewhere else! Somewhere they stop on the way back!
"I couldn't get a sample because I'm not sure exactly WHICH place! I thought that if I brought you along it would help! We have to take you to the source but if we don't know exactly where that is, all we can do is take you on the trip and hope to find it on the way!
"I took a chance … And if it was the wrong choice I apologize."
He stared at her in awe then without warning he grabbed her and kissed her savagely, relishing in the enraptured whimpers escaping her.
She'd returned his kiss with as much passion as he dished out, if not more.
And he'd broken from her, his dark eyes aflame. The Devil was back … And he was going to war...
Al crawled onto the camel growling in pain, Amanda behind him, unwilling to let him go. He'd bellowed in fury, a dying man with nothing to loose.
The gunfire ceased for a moment as Indugu and his men stared in horror at the camel running from the cave. Its eyes rolled and bloody foam boiled from its mouth. It bellowed and on its back were two people, a man, shrouded in black with fire for eyes and a woman dressed in pale colors laughing as if in deep feral ecstasy.
Jahn stared in awe and with his last breath shouted, "Here rides The Devil and his Pale Bride!"
Then the man in black had turned his hell-eyes to Indugu, raised a gun and fired a single shot.
The bullet hit Indugu square between the eyes and blasted the entire back half of his skull off in a brutal explosion of red and gray jelly.
The little man on the camel kicked the beast and it ran forward into the night bawling.
Ten of the men stayed to kill the rest of Jahn's men while the other six remaining brutes jumped into the nearest jeep and sped off after the animal guns blazing.
The woman on the back of the camel turned, holding the man's gun and deftly shot the jeep clean through the radiator. Which spurted water, blinding the driver, who cut the wheel to soon and flipped the jeep, rolling it down the hill like a toy, killing seven of the ten men inside.
Three crawled from the wreckage and fired their guns after the camel's braying noise, hoping to at least wound the beast and slow the two fleeing people down.
Four of the ten that stayed to deal with Jahn's sons died in the firefight, the other six found the second jeep and took off, leaving their three comrades that survived the crash of the first jeep running along behind.
The second jeep caught up to the camel and began firing.
The camel went down with fifteen bullets in it. The woman screamed and toppled off.
The man in black tumbled silently from the beast and lie there still, unmoving, his chest empty of breath.
The woman clambered to her feet and began to run, zigzagging around, hoping to throw off their aim.
They fired one shot, hitting the woman in the lower right side and sending her face first into the sand with a soft cry.
The driver stopped the jeep and they climbed out laughing. Doctor Johnson had said she didn't care what they did, as long as they 'finished IT'.
"We will make you scream in pain from our-" The first would-be-rapist's head pitched forward, his face bursting from his body in a spray of red mash.
Two more died when they turned their faces to the night, bullets shattering their skulls like egg shells. Another was flung forward as a bullet hit him in the small of the back, blowing his insides out like some kind of cheap holiday fire-cracker.
The two remaining men turned, and in a hurry to sweep the surrounding desert with bullets, shot each other to death.
Amanda lie there on her face, silent, her hands clamped over her side, hot fresh blood oozing from her wound. She didn't move throughout the whole little battle, she was too afraid.
She counted the minutes breathlessly and then she heard him stumbling up to her, his breath rasping in and out of his throat. She heard him catch himself on the side of the jeep as he fell and heard him call her name weakly.
She forced herself to her feet, holding her side. Tears rolling down her face. "I'm here."
He smiled and flicked his pain-clouded eyes at the jeep behind him. "Care to join me?"
He'd pulled himself into the jeep, his teeth gritted, sweat rolling off his waxy face. He'd driven for five kilometers in complete silence, his right hand tight on her bloodstained left. Then, as she'd fallen over, unconscious he'd stopped the car, bandaged her side as best as he could and left her.
It was coming… He could feel death's icy chill starting in his feet, flowing steadily upward to his knees, through the cancer riddled bones in his leg, hip, and back, then into his chest.
The chill burned him, wracking his body with convulsions as he walked, his feet numb with it his whole body alive with it. He'd stopped to be sick no less than four times and each time nothing but bile and water came up.
He wished Amanda were there. Amanda would make him feel better, just looking at her made him feel better. Her honey blonde hair, her bright denim blue eyes … The sassy plumpness of her pink lips…
If I could have lived long enough to get married I would have liked to be married to her … She's not afraid to take risks … And she's a hell of a kisser too. God, I bet she's good in bed … He laughed to himself, I thought I told Dirk I wouldn't regret anything … Okay, I only regret ONE thing … I regret not telling her that I love her.
There was a deep rumbling hum coming from somewhere, he guessed it was in his head because when he made a noise to try and gage its volume even the softest grunt drowned it out.
He closed his eyes tightly, his feet making rhythmic swish-crunch sounds as he walked, his breath gasping shallowly from his throat, his teeth chattering with fever-cold.
The air felt thick, viscous like a living thing, humid and frigid all at once. His whole body felt hot, as if someone had set fire to his bones, branding him from within. Melting the normal throb and ache in his skeleton into sharp spasms slicing him to ribbons, tearing him apart from the inside out.
And he felt Sahara begin to shift beneath him … Shifting away his pain, his fear, sadness, regret, anger and confusion. He felt Sahara shifting him away…
His legs gave out and he crumpled lifelessly to the warm giving embrace of the sand…
Death's sand … Life's sand
CHAPTER 14; A Colt .45
"Dirk, she's waking up!"
A man's face swam into view above her. She closed her eyes tightly, her sensitive crystal blue orbs wary of being twice assaulted by the blinding midday sun.
When she cracked her lids a second time there were two faces above her. They looked almost identical, save the one on the left seemed a bit more worn and his dark hair was flecked with gray.
They both smiled and the face with graying hair spoke, "How are you doing?"
"My side hurts…"
The younger face nodded, "You've got a pretty nasty flesh wound, but you'll be OK."
The older face suddenly receded and was replaced by another man, this one with horn rimmed glasses. "You need to lie still, OK? Everything is going to be alright."
"Where's Al?" She tried to sit up, but the young man she recognized as the Dirk that Al called 'Junior' put a gentle hand to her shoulder.
"We were hoping you could tell us…" He motioned to the stumbling trail leading off into the heart of the desert.
Pitt had his field glass to one eye and was scanning the horizon. "I don't see him…"
Amanda shook her head and struggled to rise, "We have to find him, I can't loose him, I love him…" She was pressed back into the seat by 'Junior'.
He sighed and looked up to his father, "Should we go after him?"
Pitt lowered the glass, his stomach turning summersaults. What if Al didn't want to be found? Why had he left this woman here alone and gone off? Why had a dying oceanographer left the only aid and hope he had to disappear into the desert.
Pitt remembered his first pet dog. A scruffy mutt he'd named Liberty. It was an ugly thing, its gray fur mottled with white and light brown, it had only had one ear when he'd found it and despite his father's urgings to scare it off he'd secretly fed it. Keeping it hidden in the shed behind his house.
When his father had found the dog, instead of running it off he'd allowed his son to keep it.
It had been the best dog Pitt had ever known … But, in the end, after nearly seventeen years of having Liberty by his side, the dog had run off in the night to die…
He felt sick, comparing his best friend to a childhood pet … He wanted to shout, to rant and rave and possibly shoot something in his anger. Al was NOT a dog so why had the man run off to die?
"Dad, did you hear me?"
Pitt turned and for a moment his keen faded eyes locked onto the rocks behind his son. He wasn't sure why at first. Some fleeting movement, a rock tumbling down from the squat cliff above or possibly some desert animal scurrying for cover. He scanned the cliff and saw nothing, but a tingling sensation prickled the hairs on his neck and forearms…
Someone was watching them.
Dirk trotted forward and stopped before his father his hands cocked on his hips. "Should we go after him?"
"Don't turn around or make any sudden movements, but there's someone hiding in the rocks behind you."
Dirk's fingers dug into his hips and his lips compressed into a thin line on his face. "You felt it too?"
Pitt give an microscopic nod. "You still got that old Colt of mine?"
"Yeah, but Rudy's nine-mil and the shotgun are in the jeep."
Pitt ground his teeth together. "Start making your way there slowly … forget the shotgun, just get Rudy's gun and the first-aid kit … keep the gun hidden and bring it to me, understand?"
Dirk nodded and turned, walking toward the super-powered 'potato wagon' as Rudy had begin calling it.
That growling throb had started again, under Pitt's feet. It made him shiver and he shifted on his feet uncomfortably. It wasn't a noise, but was more like a feeling … a pressure coming up from the earth and out from the rocks. It was as if it came from Sahara herself.
Pitt watched his son bend into the jeep, tucking Rudy's pistol into a worn baseball cap and pulling the first-aid kit from the compartment under the back seat. He stuffed the smoke bomb into his pocket and smiled up at his father. He began walking briskly toward him the hat clutched in his hand.
Rudy took the kit and looked up at Dirk questioningly, "I just put that back, why did you bring it to me again?" He whispered.
Dirk gritted his teeth and handed Rudy the smoke bomb. He gave the little man a probing look and whispered, "We might need it, just keep your head down, OK?"
Rudy went pale but nodded, tugging his hat firmly down on his head.
Dirk looked down at the baseball cap in his hand and his stomach clenched, it was Al's hat … Why did he have to pick up Al's hat? He started forward his eyes locked on his father's. He felt more than heard something on the rocks behind him and every muscle in his whole body went taut, preparing for what he knew was coming.
Pitt saw his son hand the bright yellow first-aid tin and the smoke bomb to Rudy, whisper something that he couldn't quite hear then start forward. He saw the hat Dirk had and his heart climbed to his throat. Al's hat … He'd picked up Al's hat.
It was kind of funny really … Al hadn't lost his hat this time, he'd lost himself.
Pitt glanced at the ground for half a second and when he raised his eyes again he realized it had been a half a second too long.
There was movement on the cliff and a large man stood, raising an M-16 to his shoulder.
Time seemed to hang by a thread, bobbing up and down with the beat of Dirk Pitt's heart. He heard his only son inhale sharply, heard the grate of sand as his body tensed and slowed…
He heard the sharp report of the M-16 and saw the little puff of yellow at the end of the barrel. Then his eyes moved quickly, almost as fast as the bullet itself and he saw the look of surprise on his son's face. Watched his back arch and he was flung forward three stumbling steps his arms going up as if to surrender.
The boy's knees buckled and even though he knew his son wasn't a boy any longer he still believed him to be naught but a little boy. A child…
The look of surprise faded to agony and he collapsed on the sand, still trying to crawl forward as if unaware he'd just been shot.
Pitt stood there, shocked, unable to move and the thread suspending time midair broke … Then it all came crashing down like a landslide.
Dirk wasn't screaming … Which frightened Pitt even more than if he had been.
The man on the cliff shouted down in heavily accented English, "Nobody move, or you will all die like him."
Dead … Dead? Was his son dead?
In a moment of pure incoherence, something Dirk Pitt had never experienced before he looked up at the man on the cliff, his eyes wide his face slack, and shouted, his voice breaking like a fragile piece of glass. "You son-of-a-bitch!" He looked back down at his son, his whole body rigid.
Dirk was lying there, eyes closed, unmoving, not breathing…
There was a neat little hole in the back of the blue Hawaiian shirt just above the waist band of his pants and a small red stain was beginning to spread there, coloring one of the white flowers bright crimson.
There didn't seem to be much blood. Which could be a good thing or a bad thing.
Pitt took three steadying breaths and fought the almost overwhelming urge to drop to his knees and scream. He was shaking with fear, anger and a hollow permeating sadness…
The man on the cliff shouted again, "Raise your hands so I may see them," Two more men appeared beside him, raising guns of their own.
"Here's a hand for ya'!" A hauntingly familiar voice shouted from behind him and the man on the cliff turned his head his eyes wide.
There was a thunderous boom and something bright red bloomed on the assassin's chest.
Rudy pulled the pin on the smoke bomb and tossed it, "Fire in the hole!" Aqua marine smoke began to cloud everything and Rudy pulled Amanda behind the jeep, shielding her with his body.
Pitt watched, his whole body numb as his son suddenly rolled over, Rudy's gun in his hands. He shot twice but neither bullet hit the targets.
The two remaining men on the cliff opened fire and Pitt's mind sprang into life. He dove to the side just as a line of bullets tore through the air where he had been standing. He rolled twice trying to evade the gunfire and hide in the teal smoke but he felt something white-hot catch him in the left shoulder. Wrenching his arm backward and throwing him with the force of impact.
A man screamed and the gunfire pattered off for a moment before picking back up with twice the wasteful fervor.
Pitt ground his teeth and prayed the wind didn't suddenly shift and expose him for the helpless sitting duck he was. He saw a shadow peeking over the sand dune not far to his left and covered his head with his uninjured right arm.
There were four more loud reports and the last mercenary screamed, dropped his guns and rolled forward his hands clamped over his stomach. He toppled the fifteen feet to the desert floor, struck his head on the rocks and was still.
Dirk collapsed back on the sand his back arched teeth ground together. He pulled a familiar old Colt .45 from the waistband of his pants and inspected the pulverized grip. He slowly raised his head and looked around for his father, praying that the only casualties were the three men sprawled on various parts of the cliff.
Pitt lie there in the smoky haze panting. He felt oddly numb as he climbed unsteadily to his feet his left arm limp and throbbing. The smoke began to clear as he shuffled forward slowly. He didn't look at the wound, feeling it was enough.
"Dad, that bullet smashed your grip … If he'd aimed any higher or that gun had been any farther to the left or right I'd be paralyzed or dead…"
Pitt stood there agape, suddenly unable to move. He heard footsteps on the sand off to his right and he turned his head, staring unblinking.
"I guess that relic is good for something…" The shadow shouted with a grin.
Dirk slowly lifted himself to wobbling legs his hand to the bleeding cut on his back. He bent with a groan, picked up the crushed hat he'd hid the nine-mil in and stumbled toward the specter.
Pitt could only stare at the little man who stood not ten feet from him, his dark curling hair peppered with sand and the odd gray hair. He seemed to be covered in grit from head to foot. The only clean places on his body were the little creases at the corners of his sparkling dark eyes.
Dirk held out the hat smiling, tears shining his eyes. He didn't speak, but instead gave a strangled cry, wrapped both arms around the barrel like chest and lifted the man off the ground in a bone-breaking hug.
Al growled indignantly his hands closing into fists at his sides. "Just gimme my hat and knock it off, Junior, I'm gettin too old for this kind of abuse!"
CHAPTER 15; Death Sand … Life Sand
He awoke just as the sun was rising, the gold, pink and purple coloration of the sky reflected in the sand. It was a glorious sight and for a moment he believed he was dead, that this sunrise was heaven.
Then he became aware of the terrible ache in his leg and middle. It was such a pain that he wondered if maybe he hadn't crashed the jeep and it was lying on top of him. But when he rolled to the side groaning and blinking drunkenly he discovered he was quite alone.
Something told him that being alone was bad, but he couldn't remember why.
He grew still, listening to the stillness of the desert dawn. It was as he lie there that he realized the pain in his lower body was fading. It was, dare he say, bearable. He could probably walk if he so desired.
He sat up, leaning his back against a small outcropping of stone to his left.
He felt stiff. As if he'd spent the whole night sleeping on a rather uncomfortable couch, but the terrible, deathly pain he'd been in for the past three months was gone. Replaced instead by an annoying ache.
He laughed out loud and crawled hesitantly to his feet, testing his weight on the fouled leg. He nearly toppled head first into the sand his leg wobbled so badly but he laughed, caught himself and stood there staring down at his knees his arms out for balance.
He was completely covered in sand. As if he'd buried himself in it!
He turned his head and eyed the indentation he'd 'slept' in.
Indeed it did appear as if he'd wallowed out a shallow grave to spend the night in. Tossing and turning with the terrifying nightmares he'd been tortured with all night no doubt.
He rubbed his stomach, realizing that he was very VERY hungry.
He laughed again and dropped to his knees burying his hands in the sand and drawing up two palms heaped with it. He threw it into the air closing his eyes tightly and falling onto his side, rolling in the sand like a child at the beach, laughing like a lunatic.
He rolled to his knees scooped up more sand and watched as the little granules sifted through his fingers. He smiled at it noting that mixed in with the little brown, tan and white crystals were tiny flecks of an odd pale gold … just like Amanda's hair...
Oh, my God, I left her!
He cupped his hands and stared down at the sand now thinking of nothing but the woman he'd abandoned the night before. Was she all right? Was she still alive?
Amanda was out there … His beautiful Amanda was lying in the front seat of a jeep with a bullet hole in her side alone. He bit into his lip then spat when sand got into his mouth. He climbed slowly to his feet and turned back in the direction his staggering footsteps faded.
He inhaled sharply and his eyebrows shot up in shock.
…Did … Did he smell French fries?
"We thought you were dead!" Rudy screamed as Al walked stiffly toward them smiling
Pitt's hand went to his mouth and for a second he thought he might be sick. He followed silently unsure if he should be shrieking in fear or in joy. Al was standing there … STANDING there alive, laughing. And Dirk was STANDING there alive, unharmed.
It was a miracle!
He made a garbled moaning sound and grasped Al by the shoulder giving him a little shake.
Al's bushy eyebrows drew down and he grabbed Pitt's arm, his eyes wide and staring at the quickly growing stain spreading outward from his friend's shoulder, "You, OK?"
Pitt's knees were shaking and a peculiar ringing was building in his ears. He tried to swallow but his mouth was dry and all his skin felt hot.
"Hey, Dirk, maybe you should sit down…" Al tried to maneuver him into the driver's seat but the taller man refused to move.
Pitt's eyes fluttered and Dirk put a hand on the small of his father's back, steadying him. "Dad?"
Dirk voice seemed to echo and Pitt wanted to shake his head, to clear away the thick substance that was impairing his body. Keeping him from functioning…
Al's hands tightened on his arm just as his knees gave out.
"Okay … A LITTLE too much excitement for one day," Al said quickly and wrapped his arms around his friend, holding him up long enough for Dirk to grab his father's legs and help lift him into the jeep.
Amanda, still cradling her side, appeared with a bottle of water, "Drink this slowly," She unbuttoned the man's shirt and started fanning his suddenly pale face. "Where's that kit?"
Pitt turned to his son, ignoring the fact Dirk had clamped both hands over his shoulder and was applying a great deal of pressure;
"If you ever … EVER do something like that again without letting me know you're OK, I'll smack ya … I don't care how old you are, I'll clobber you!"
Dirk rolled his eyes, "Okay, whatever you say, Dad."
Three days later Dirk elected to stay with Calliope's Star while the others went back into the desert to see 'the cure'.
He had insisted that his reluctance to go stemmed from the need to keep the locals from getting into the boat. But in all actuality, when his father's old Colt had stopped the bullet it hadn't stopped the force of the impact and he'd developed a rather bad bruise across his spine.
Because of this he couldn't move without pain and remained sprawled on his comfortable bunk in the galley snoring while the others packed tents and drove off into the desert.
Pitt, who had demanded to go along despite his wounds, was seated in the back of the jeep with Lauren, his shoulder trussed up in an elaborate bandage a rather goofy, morphine induced grin on his face. Summer was in the driver's seat smiling at the two people standing just off to the right of her wondering exactly how long Al was going to be able to keep his hands off of Amanda.
"So it was here the whole time?" Amanda said under her breath.
Al grinned and crouched stiffly by the rock scooping up a handful of sand and letting it fall through his fingers. "I noticed it when I woke up. I'd felt like hell right before I keeled over. When I woke up and started thinking about it, I realized I'd felt those creepy burning sensations before, only on a much smaller scale back at the cave," He stood, walked to the second jeep and leaned against the fender smiling out at the rolling pale desert surrounding him.
"We were covered in it and didn't even know."
Amanda shook her head in awe. "The crops passed over this particular stretch of desert. They come into contact with this sand when the camels lie down, or when there is a sandstorm … We were covered in it … You spent all night passed out right in the heart of it…" She smiled and dug under the seat for the satellite phone. She opened the compartment at the base and stared in at the heavily corroded batteries. "The Tuareg don't have electronics and I only ever took plastic specimen jars with me … Which blocked its effects on the specimens as we passed back this way. So, I never noticed these telltale effects."
Rudy leaned out of the jeep and looked at the battery, "It's radiation?"
Amanda nodded, "The cure is here, Al's X-Rays confirm it … It's the sand."
Al shook his head. He knew what it was … He knew exactly what it was. "It's Sahara."
CHAPTER 16; Living Proof
He sat at the back of the auditorium scratching under his collar at a particularly annoying itch. He watched her speak, listened to her words, even though he didn't understand most of them because she was speaking in French. But he did know when she started talking about him because his X-rays appeared behind her on the projection screen.
Two X-rays shown side by side. The one on the left showed his bones riddled with cancer, the one on the right was taken barely four months after the first and showed his now cancer free skeleton.
He chuckled at the doctors seated all around him 'oo-ed' and 'ahh-ed' and one, a particularly large man with a mustache leaned over and said; "That can't be real … Not after four months … That must be an exaggeration."
"What makes you think that?" He whispered back, grinning.
He scoffed, "All right, introduce me to that man and we'll ask HIM how long it actually took!"
He smiled yet wider and held out his hand to the man, "Nice to meet ya, names Al Giordino."
The plump man did a beautiful double take and his hand twitched, "T-that's you?"
Al nodded. "Yes, it is … And that doctor up there is my fiancé. She wouldn't lie and I won't lie to you either … But if you want to know how long the 'treatment' took I'll tell you."
The plump man licked his lips nervously, "H-how long…"
Al smiled, "Two weeks."
The doctor's eyes bugged, "Two weeks!"
He nodded, "The first week was painful as hell and I was so sick I couldn't even move … Of course I was strapped to a camel half the time…
"The second week I was on my back in a tent as sick as a dog and it felt like my bones were burning. Then I was in the hospital for about a month recovering … Not to mention the time I was at home in bed … But I don't think THAT was medicinal...
"But by God those two weeks were worth it … And you see them?" He pointed over his shoulder at the six rows of men, women and children behind him. "They think it was worth it too."
"This … Strapping people to camels, is that part of the treatment?" The doctor's eyebrows rose and the other doctors in the auditorium stood and began to cheer, signaling the end of Amanda's lecture.
Al smiled and pulled on his old worn hat, "No, that's just how I like to get around."
Oh, how I WISH there were really a cure for cancer. I hope that one day there will be, but until then I want to spread the word and encourage everyone who read this to get screened and to support cancer research because you never know where they'll find the cure.
Yeah, yeah yeah …Here I am turning Fan-Fiction into a cause. :P lol