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PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF CHINA
JULY 21, 2011
“You’ve had quite a night, haven’t you, Professor Lourds?”
Buckled into the passenger seat of the Bell helicopter, Thomas Lourds smiled. He was pleasantly tipsy and looking forward to his tent, and the cot within it even more. “Personally, I thought the evening ended rather abruptly.”
“It has a tendency to do that when you get thrown out of the bar.” Robert Anders sat in the pilot’s seat, deftly handling the aircraft’s controls. His voice was a pleasant baritone over the radio system. He was a burly Australian with an unkempt air. Tattoos of mermaids and dolphins danced along his forearms as he maneuvered the helicopter over the craggy landscape below.
Lourds stared through the window at the ground. He knew they should be coming up on the Jiahu dig before long. After a moment, he saw the area, dotted with various lights, some coming from battery-powered lanterns and other areas lit by generator-powered strings of lights. Those camps were set up using private funding by corporations looking for tax shelters. Lowly universities, like Peking University, which Lourds was currently visiting, didn’t have money to throw around. Instead, the crews—professors and grad students—worked from sunup to sundown.
Anders shook his shaggy head. “I warned you not to hit on that woman.”
Lourds sighed. “If the lady had worn a wedding ring or waited to come with her husband, I wouldn’t have flirted with her so diligently. Rings were made for several reasons, you know, and one of those reasons was to keep a man from making a fool of himself.”
Working the stick, Anders dropped altitude and swooped down over the dig. Before they’d left the Peking University campsite, the Australian pilot had marked the makeshift landing pad with a fluorescent-painted sign. Lourds searched for it in the darkness.
“I don’t think the fight started because you were flirting with the missus, mate.” Anders grinned. “I think it was because you were on the verge of taking her home with you.”
Lourds smiled with genuine regret, which turned into a brief wince as his jaw twinged with pain. “She was quite lovely, wasn’t she?”
“Pretty as a pip, that one.”
“It wasn’t just about the beauty, though. Marie had a wonderful way of listening.”
“That’s ’cause you’re a natural-born storyteller. I never seen the like.”
“You’re too generous.”
“Just calling it the way I see it, Professor.”
“You can just call me Lourds.”
Anders nodded and looked out over the landscape again. “How’s Sleeping Beauty?”
Glancing over his shoulder, Lourds watched Professor Gao Kelu snoozing in the helicopter’s backseat. The young man hadn’t been able to go the distance with his older comrades. When they’d gotten kicked out of the club, after Anders and Lourds had gotten physical with the jealous husband and his brother, they’d had to carry Gao out with them.
“Still sound asleep.”
“Good.” Anders rubbed his face with a big hand. “That bloke couldn’t carry a note in a bucket.” He pointed through the Plexiglas. “That’s the campsite there, isn’t it?”
Lourds leaned forward and stared through the cockpit windshield. His eyes were bleary from alcohol, days spent eating the yellow dust of the central plains of ancient China, and from long hours of studying text. He made out the signal with difficulty. “It is.”
The landing strip had been situated on the other side of the dig Professor Hu had arranged for his students to work and for Lourds to visit. Lourds was initially visiting Peking University to deliver papers regarding protowriting to the professor’s undergrad classes. Although Harvard was expecting him back in a few days, Lourds had managed to squeeze out extra time from the dean, which he was putting to good use here.
“Hang on, and I’ll put us down.”
Lourds leaned back in his seat and felt the helicopter drop even closer to the ground. He’d lost most of the glow from the alcohol, but he knew he’d sleep well once he crawled into his cot. He wouldn’t need any aid from the thriller novel he habitually carried.
Tall and lean, Lourds was in his early forties and kept himself in good shape with dedicated soccer as well as his international trips. His short-cropped goatee was in need of a trim, and his hair had gotten a little shaggy, but he knew it looked good on him. He was dressed in a chambray shirt over a white T-shirt, and brown cargo pants tucked into tall hiking boots to cut down on the amount of dust that crept into his footwear.
As the helicopter started its final descent, movement and a red flash near the one of the dig sites caught Lourds’s attention. He grabbed for the spotlight mounted on his side of the helicopter, switched it on, and trailed the beam across the broken terrain.
“What is it?” Anders glanced in the direction of the beam.
“Thought I saw something.”
The beam fell across the corner of the dig. The Jiahu was mostly undiscovered country for archaeologists. Even though over three hundred bodies had been taken from burial sites in the region, much of the area had yet to be explored. Lourds was a linguist, trained in dozens of languages, and a gifted translator.
Most everything that was found at the dig was turned over to the Chinese government, but there was a fair market for stolen relics. Purloined antiquities remained a flourishing part of international business. Even though China dealt with black market trade in antiquities harshly, there were some who were desperate enough to risk the punishment versus the payoff.
Lourds trailed the beam across the ground and flicked across a man running with a pack on his back. “Did you see that?”
“I did.” Anders flicked a hand out for the radio. “I’ll sound the alert.”
Lourds moved the spotlight around again and found another man. This one had a pack and a rifle, which he was aiming at the helicopter. “Look out!”
Anders jerked the stick, and the helicopter sideslipped through the air. The muzzle flare below stood out bright orange against the black. At almost the same time, a bullet ricocheted off the Plexiglas bubble, and the sound of the shot penetrated the loud din of the rotors.
Startled, Anders swore and twisted the helicopter around. Lourds braced himself as he struggled to keep the spotlight on the grave robbers.
Another man emerged from the shadows and all three men ran for the outer fringe of the excavation, the light trailing after them flying across tents and other dig sites. Lourds doggedly stayed on them as Anders flew the helicopter after the men.
“Do you know what they might have gotten?” Anders heeled the helicopter around again, turning perpendicular to the running men.
“No, we’re still exhuming bodies.” Lourds thought frantically. So much of what had been found at Jiahu was becoming ordinary, but who knew what extraordinary things were still waiting to be discovered? He knew it was more than possible the grave robbers had stumbled upon something irreplaceable. Lourds himself had done that when he’d located—and lost—Atlantis.
“There’s a vehicle up ahead.” Anders shifted the spotlight on his side and pinpointed a pickup truck parked in the shadows of a ridge.
“Good eyes.” Lourds was impressed. He hadn’t seen it, all of his attention focused on tracking the men.
“Have to have them in this business.” Anders glanced around. “I’d’ve thought someone woulda noticed us by now, but I don’t see anyone saddling up to come out this way.”
“We can’t let them get to the truck. Whatever they have might be lost forever.”
“Okay, hang on.” Anders increased the throttle speed and leaned the helicopter forward.
“Can you put me on the ground?”
“You want to go down there after them?”
“Might give us a better chance. If you can put me down near the vehicle, I might be able to disable it before they make their escape.”
“They’re not going to just sit back and watch, you know.”
Lourds nodded and felt slightly sick to his stomach. He wasn’t an action hero—he preferred to read about those kinds of people. And he was perfectly content to see any physical confrontation in his imagination as he turned the pages of a book. But he couldn’t just sit by and watch as perhaps priceless artifacts disappeared before the world got a chance to see them.
Adroitly, Anders maneuvered the helicopter straight for the waiting pickup. “I’m going to stay with the bird. For when you need to beat a hasty retreat.”
“All right.” Lourds took a couple quick breaths to settle his nerves. It didn’t work too well, but helped clear his head a bit.
“I’m gonna drop you on a touch-and-go, mate—the moment I stop moving, you start. When you get out, keep your head low till I take off again. I don’t want to decapitate you by accident.”
“No, we definitely do not want that.” Lourds unbuckled his seat belt and opened the helicopter’s side door. He watched the pickup grow steadily closer.
“Don’t forget they have guns.”
Lourds glanced at the starred imperfection on the cockpit nose. “Trust me, there’s no chance of me forgetting that.”
Slowing his forward momentum, Anders dropped the helicopter to a point a little more than three feet above the ground. He slapped Lourds on the shoulder. “Go! But if you need me, run north. Put as much distance between them dingoes and yourself as you can.”
“Right.” Lourds clapped a hand on his Australian Outback hat and narrowed his eyes against the violent stir of dust kicked up by the spinning rotors.
“When you need help, I’ll be there in a jiff.”
Lourds nodded, then hopped out of the rocking helicopter. He landed on both booted feet, gave thanks that neither of them twisted on the uneven ground, and got his bearings. The battered pickup sat about twenty yards away.
As soon as Lourds started for the vehicle, Anders throttled up, and the helicopter lifted into the air. The dust cloud stirred by the rotorwash grew huge, obscuring his vision and whipping into his face. Pulling his shirt over his nose and mouth to keep the dirt out, he ran for the pickup.
When he reached the vehicle, Lourds pulled a mini-Maglite from his pocket, switched it on, and peered inside. The flashlight was a primary tool for him to have out in the field, but he’d let the batteries go nearly dead. Only a weak light was emitted, but it was enough for him to see the that keys hadn’t been left in the ignition.
Cursing the luck, Lourds turned to find where the tomb robbers were. Noting their arrival in just a few seconds, he reached inside the cab, popped the hood release, and ran around to the front of the vehicle, drawing his pocket tool as he shoved the hood up.
Lourds didn’t know much about vehicles, but he knew enough to sabotage the pickup. He shined the Maglite over the engine and spotted the sparkplug wires immediately.
The men approaching the truck screamed curses at him. One of them fired, the bullet pinging off the truck’s hood and sending a vibration stinging through Lourds’s hand and arm.
Holding the Maglite in his teeth, he flipped out the tool’s blade, grabbed a plug wire in one hand, and sawed at it, cutting through the plastic and wire.
Another bullet smashed into the engine and created a torrent of sparks. The pickup must have been leaking fuel through the carburetor because the exposed fuel immediately caught fire. The grave robbers yelled even more curses at Lourds.
Lourds dropped the severed wire and ran north, his long hours spent playing soccer paying off hugely. He streaked across the uneven terrain toward Anders and the helicopter, about a hundred yards away. The robbers were closing the gap and were about thirty yards behind him.
One of the men took a shot at Lourds as he ran. The bullet dug up a furrow in the ground right next to him, making Lourds put more effort into his stride.
Anders had put the helicopter down with the pilot side facing the three angry grave robbers. Shots slowly cracked, letting Lourds know that the men carried single-action rifles.
Running around the side of the helicopter, Lourds grabbed the door and pulled it open. As soon as he had one foot in the helicopter, Anders nudged the craft into the air.
Just as he was about to haul himself inside, Lourds’s foot slipped on the landing gear. He fell and flailed for purchase. “Help!”
Surprised, Anders threw out an arm, grabbed Lourds’s chambray work shirt, and hauled him inside the cockpit. “C’mon, Professor. I don’t want you to fall and end up in a million little pieces.”
“Me neither.” Lourds clambered into the copilot’s seat and buckled in.
The shots came again, another weak fusillade around the helicopter. This time, however, several jeeps topped the ridge, with armed men riding shotgun. Handheld spotlights caught the surprised thieves in their bright glare.
“Well, that’s obviously not going to end well for them.” Lourds smiled, pretending that he did this kind of thing every day and that his heart wasn’t jackhammering in his chest.
“You did good, Professor.” Anders smiled. “You run a lot faster than I thought a professor could.”
“Thanks.” Lourds decided not to mention that the bullets fired at him had been one hell of a motivator.
Below, the three grave robbers scattered in different directions, but it did them no good. Lourds watched the confrontations play out. The jeeps split up, each one pursuing a fleeing criminal. The thieves all gave up after a short run and planted their faces in the ground until the dig’s security people arrested them.
Lourds happily clapped Anders on the back. “Well, my friend, we’re going to be heroes in the morning. After saving whatever it is we saved down there, I think people should at least buy us breakfast.”
At that point, Professor Gao woke up with a bleat. He’d slept throughout the encounter, but the intense jockeying of the helicopter hadn’t agreed with his stomach.
“Grab him, mate!” Anders frantically dove toward the ground again, which only made matters worse. Gao bent forward, his face a sickly shade of green. Lourds unfastened his seat belt, then the one restraining Gao, holding the small man steady.
“Don’t let him throw up in here!” Anders reached for his door with one hand. “I don’t need the stink for the next week.”
“Short of ramming a towel down his throat, I don’t see how that’s possible for much longer.”
“When I get us down, you get him out of here pronto.”
Setting the helicopter down on the makeshift landing pad, Anders reached across the passenger seat and shoved the door open. “Get him out of here, now! No one throws up in my bloody heli!”
Grabbing Gao by one arm and his belt, Lourds hurled the sick man toward the door. Gao went out unceremoniously, looking like a stilt-legged stork. He plopped onto the ground hard enough to make Lourds wince in sympathy.
Gao sat up and looked dazed. Then he threw up into his own lap.
Anders punched Lourds in the shoulder. “Well, mate, if nobody recognizes you as a hero tomorrow, I will. That was a very near thing there.”
Lourds agreed as he watched the security vehicles hauling the three grave robbers into camp. “Do you believe in omens, Robert?”
“Never had much use for them myself.”
“Nor have I.” But Lourds couldn’t help feeling that something was coming. After days of relative peace and quiet, he felt certain he was on the verge of something big.
Copyright © 2011 by Trident Media Group, LLC