The Scorpion’s Bite: A Lily Sampson Mystery #3

The Scorpion’s Bite: A Lily Sampson Mystery #3

It is 1943 and the world is at war. Archaeologist Lily Sampson has been sent to Trans-Jordan by the OSS, along with Gideon Weil, the famous director of the American ...

About The Author

Aileen G Baron

Aileen Baron was a professor of archaeology at California State University, Fullerton, where her work took her to many parts of ...

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Chapter One

The three of them sat in the shade of the Jeep, mouths dry, throats heavy with the scorching air, seared by relentless heat, huddled close, but still not completely sheltered from the unforgiving sun. They were almost out of water, just a few drops in their canteens and in the canvas bag hanging limp on the side of the Jeep.

They were in the Wadi Rum, stuck there with a broken axle: Lily, with Gideon Weil, director of the American School in Jerusalem, and their photographer, Klaus Steiner, doing an archaeological survey of Trans-Jordan for the OSS.

And Lily had no idea why.

Last March, more than three months after the Allies took North Africa in Operation Torch, General Donovan appeared in Casablanca looking for Lily Sampson. This time, she thought Wild Bill Donovan was going to tell her to go back south, past Marrakesh and Volubis, into sub-Saharan Africa. Instead, he sent her back to Jerusalem, told her to be ready in twenty-four hours. She was used to this from Donovan.

She left Morocco the next morning at ten o’clock, flying out of the Naval Airbase at Port Lyautey. She landed at Kolundia, the small airport north of Jerusalem, and took a taxi to the American School of Oriental Research where Gideon Weil, the director, was waiting for her.

Gideon had once been on the cover of Time magazine, in all the glory of his dark good looks and his roguish smile, sitting atop a camel like a Bedouin. He wore a kafiya with a dashing tilt.

He told her they were going to do an archaeological survey of Trans-Jordan. He had been working on the survey since before the war, had already published two volumes of research.

Klaus Steiner, a refugee from Hitler’s Germany, caught up with them in Jericho. Steiner sported an ascot, a very British blond mustache, a scar on his left cheek, and a gold-capped canine tooth that glinted when he smiled. He told them he had been assigned to them as photographer.

The three of them crossed the Jordan at Allenby Bridge and spent the next month traipsing up and down the ancient King’s Highway, visiting cities of the Roman Decapolis.

Lily felt superfluous.

They spent a week mapping Jerash, ancient Gerasa. It had been mapped before; it had been dug ten years ago.

In the midst of the ruins of Jerash, they passed a fellah with an ox and an ass yoked together and pulling a plow. Gideon pointed out that in Deuteronomy, it was forbidden to yoke them together like that. Klaus rolled his eyes to the sky in a show of impatience with Gideon quoting the Bible.

When they reached Amman, Gideon set Lily and Klaus to mapping and photographing remains of the well-documented Roman theater while he made a courtesy call on His Highness, Emir Abdullah.

That afternoon, Gideon told them they were going to Wadi Rum, then on to Petra to meet someone.

Now they sat stranded in the Wadi Rum where tall sandstone cliffs rear straight up like cathedrals, like castles of the mind. When they first reached Wadi Rum, they had stopped the Jeep and sucked in their breath, awed by its grandeur: the pink sand, the clean stillness in the air, the high, red cliffs, echoing silence. “Red,” Gideon had said. “The color of Edom is red, ruddy like Esau, the father of the Edomites, who sold his birthright to Jacob for a mess of red lentils,” and Klaus rolled his eyes again. Today was a lost cause. They had to stick to the track that ran through the wadi without a clue to the whereabouts of  either archaeological sites or the Bedouin camps. They were looking for both.

Their Bedouin guide, Qasim, had vanished this morning and left them to fend for themselves.

Last night, as they had every night, they sat around the campfire in the cool desert air, breathing the perfume of the desert and the pungent odor of wormwood and tamarisk, watching the firelight flicker on Qasim’s face as he told them tales of his family, of the tribe of the Howeitat, tales of raiding for sheep and camels, of noble gestures. They sat, warmed by the crackle of the fire, with sparks flying upward into the night of brilliant stars, and listened to his stories of how the greedy Saudis, craving power and drunk with religious fervor, raided his people, impoverished them, and how the British betrayed them and sided with the Saudis.

And all day long, Klaus was out with his camera, climbing the hills, vanishing into the fissures in the turreted limestone cliffs, coming back hours later telling them he had shots of rock drawings, or yet another magnificent vista of the clean, silent, wasteland of the desert.

Qasim was missing and the dapper Klaus—his eyebrows and lashes pointed with the red dust of the wadi, his moustache caked with pink powder—sat with them, grumbling about the heat and the rowdy wind, his camera wrapped in a towel.

All they could do was watch sand whirl in gusts as it piled against the small dune opposite the Jeep, gape at the overwhelming desert, and wait for help to come.

# # #

A dark spot emerged above the crest of the horizon and Lily watched it approach from over the high ridge, seeming to erupt out of the hills beyond the blowing sand. She could just make out the figure moving toward them.

As the figure came closer, Lily saw that it was a child, a girl no more than eight or ten. She was dressed in adult finery with a small abayah over her long dress. A veil, sweeping in the wind, covered her head, a necklace of coins draped across her forehead.

She came toward them, her face engraved with the dry dust of the desert.

“Those Bedouin,” Klaus said. “Where do they all come from? They’re everywhere, coming out of nowhere in the desert, keeping an eye on us, watching our every move.”

“Desert hospitality,” Gideon said. “They’re our hosts, we’re their guests.”

“And they’ll invite us at knife point to sleep in their camps with their bedbugs and rotted cheese.”

“It’s all they have,” Gideon said. “They share what they have, bedbugs and all.”

The Bedouin girl carried a tiered tray, covered with a cloth against the dust. She set it down on the running board of the Jeep and removed the cloth, revealing three cups and a pot of tea. She poured the tea, gave them a shy smile, and sat silently on the small dune opposite the Jeep while they drank the tea and muttered, “Shukran, shukran,” to the girl between sips. “Thank you, thank you.”

When they finished, the child, still silent, collected the cups, trudged back over the hill, and disappeared.

And they continued to wait, marooned in the wind and sand and desert pavement.

The wind picked up, blowing around them, the sound of it escalating like an eerie whine of spirits who had vanished in the Wadi Rum.

Lily peered down the wadi and saw a whirlwind roaring toward them, eddying over boulders, picking up rocks and branches of brush in its vortex as it advanced.

“Dust devil!” Gideon shouted over the noise of the wind.

Lily closed her eyes and covered her face with her scarf as the whirlwind came nearer still, swirling and biting into their skin, sputtering and roaring as it closed around them, trajectories of rock and sand stinging the bare flesh of her arms and hands.

She held her breath, struggled against the gritty air, drowned in sand.

Thirty seconds passed and she tried to breathe.

One minute—with wind snapping her clothes, howling in her ears.

Another minute, gasping.

Then the wind passed and traveled up the wadi.

They coughed, sipped from what was left in their canteens, and coughed again.

“Behold,” Gideon said. “A storm of the Lord is gone forth in fury, yes a whirling storm.”

“Not another.” Klaus gave Gideon an impatient look before he snapped a picture of the disappearing whirlwind. “Not another Biblical quotation.”

“It’s from Jeremiah.”

Klaus rewrapped the towel around his camera. “You are also a rabbi, yes?”

Gideon nodded. “My degree is in theology. My dissertation was on the meaning of ahavah in the Old Testament.”

“And what is the meaning of ahavah?” “Love,” Lily said.

“You took a hundred and eighty-seven pages to say that?” Klaus asked.

Gideon looked over at him. “A hundred and eighty-seven pages? How do you know?”

“I saw in our library at university. Göttingen, no?”

“You told me you were at Heidelberg.” Gideon ran a finger along his own cheek, approximating Klaus’ scar. “With a dueling mark on your left cheek to prove it.”

“You are mistaken.” Klaus stood up. “Göttingen.” He beat some of the grit off his pants, carefully unwrapped his camera, blew off the surface dust with an air-bulb and glanced at the Jeep. “Erstaundlich,” he said, focusing the camera on the hood of the Jeep where the paint had scraped off. “Astounding.” He stepped back and declared, “It has been sanded,” and gave a sage nod.

But Lily was looking straight ahead at the small dune across from the Jeep. The sand had blown away from the edge of the dune, and what she saw was a sandaled foot attached to a leg buried underneath.

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