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Forty-three miles east of Erfoud
Kingdom of Morocco
The ground beneath Annja Creed's feet shivered, giving her a slight warning. The only warning she got. She threw herself against the nearest earthen wall and pressed her face against the hard-packed sand while raising her right arm over her head to shield herself. With her left hand, she fumbled for her neckerchief and succeeded in bringing it up to cover her nose and mouth as the tunnel caved in and dust rose in a whirlwind. She closed her eyes and fought to remain calm.
Falling earth pummeled her and drove her to her knees, pounding the air from her lungs. She kept her eyes closed. Getting buried alive under tons of sand was one of the most horrible deaths she could imagine.
"Look out!" The man's warning barely penetrated the thunder of the tumbling earth, and it came far too late to do any good. Everyone who had been down in the khettara when it collapsed was now at risk of suffocating.
The sand covered Annja and everything went dark. Panic set in then as she automatically fought to push herself up. She couldn't budge the sand and in her fear she imagined that it was still falling, burying her even more. The sound of falling earth echoed in her head, but she told herself it was just the beating of her heart.
Calm down. You lose your head, and you're dead. And there are other people in here that may need your help. Not many of them could have escaped the cave-in.
She struggled to take a breath. It felt as if an elephant was standing on her back. Realizing that she couldn't just push up from all the dirt, she concentrated on shifting her right arm.
Professor David Smythe had been in the tunnel with her. He'd left her exhuming the pottery shards while he'd gone for the brushes. Theresa Templeton, the grad assistant from Harvard, had been there, as well. Cory Burcell, the BBC cameraman, had been filming. Three of the muqannis, the Moroccan irrigation diggers
Annja thrust her arm up, hoping she hadn't gotten twisted around during the collapse. She used her open hand open like a knife blade to slowly slide through the shifting dirt. Lifting her arm let more sand slide in under her chin and her next breath was even more difficult to take.
Finally, her hand broke free of the sand. Knowing that freedom was less than two feet away galvanized her. She contorted her body and heaved her way out of a premature burial.
She broke through to her waist and blinked sand out of her eyes as she stared down the dark tunnel. She pulled the neckerchief down and filled her lungs with air. The dust made her cough.
"David! Theresa! Cory! Anybody!"
A male voice. To her left. Annja peered through the gloom and barely made out Professor Smythe standing against the far wall twenty feet away. The lean archaeologist, caked in sand from head to toe, looked pale in the darkness. His thin blond hair was wet with sweat and stuck to his scalp.
"I thought we'd lost you," he said in relief, looking much younger than he waslate thirties, she remembered. Experienced enough to be of some use getting out of this.
Annja brushed off her legs. "Not yet. Have you got a spare flashlight?" She'd lost hers during the cave-in.
Smythe rummaged in a backpack near the wall and came up with a Mini Maglite. He started to cross to her, then stopped, obviously realizing there were people still under the dirt. "Here." He pitched the flashlight to her underhand.
It was almost invisible in the darkness but Annja managed to catch it. "Who are we missing?"
Smythe ran his light over two men standing beside him. One of them was Cory Burcell, the BBC cameraman. In his early twenties, lean and black, his once-khaki shorts and Batman T-shirt were covered in dirt. Cory was used to laid-back assignments, not roughing it in Morocco. The other man was one of the muqannis, in his fifties and experienced at irrigation construction. He was already digging through the sand by hand like a human mole.
"Theresa's missing. Two of the muqannis!" Smythe reached for a trenching tool.
"No. No shovel," the muqanni barked. "Hand. Use hand only. Work from edge. Quickly. Quickly!''
Smythe put the trenching tool down and started digging. "Do you know where they were? Where they were standing?"
Annja turned on her flashlight and saw that during the confusion she'd moved, but she hadn't been more than three feet away from this position before the cave-in. Theresa had been helping her with the pottery shards, getting firsthand experience with the process of pulling the pieces from the earth.
Theresa was young, and though she'd been on digs before for the BBC, this was the first time she'd been in danger. She'd probably gone down where she'd been kneeling.
Annja felt guilty that she hadn't thought to reach out for the young woman.
She worked swiftly, heaving sand and loose rocks over to the tunnel's side. With the flashlight on, she saw that the ceiling had given way, dropping what looked like at least three feet of earth onto them.
At present, they were thirty feet underground, so that left plenty of earth above them to either provide supportor to collapse. That wasn't a pleasant thought, so she concentrated on finding Theresa as she dug a shallow trench across the area where she thought the woman had gone down.
Less than a minute later, movement shifted one side of the trench. Annja focused her energies on that spot, seizing handful after handful of earth. The sand and rock felt coarse against her skin and she was thankful for the years of calluses she'd built up through martial arts and her archaeological work.
Annja uncovered Theresa's back, then managed to run her hands down either side of the woman's body and grab hold around her middle. Pulling steadily, Annja lifted Theresa out. Gasping, the young woman came free of her impromptu tomb.
"Are you all right?" Annja shined her flashlight over the woman. She checked her pulse, which seemed strongif a little wild.
Theresa nodded and coughed. She tried to talk but couldn't.
Trusting that the intern was going to be all right, Annja turned back to the pile of sand and tried to remember where the two irrigation workers had stood. One of them had been the older man's son, a boy of fifteen or sixteen. Souad. He loved Japanese manga, she remembered. His father had been training him to be a muqanni because there was always work for a man who could build irrigation tunnels for the farmlands. Without those tunnels, drought would force people to move or starve. The excavations were dangerous, though.
Fear stole over Annja as she dug, driving her hands into the dirt. She didn't want to uncover the boy's lifeless body.
Souad's father, Nadim, pulled the other muqanni out of the dirt, then dove back in. This time he couldn't keep his fear at bay. He cried out his son's name over and over again and his voice reverberated along the khettara.
A moment later, Annja's hand struck flesh. She shifted closer and ran her hands into the pile until she made certain she had hold of the teen. Hauling him up by herself proved impossible. She looked up at the others.
"Here. He's here."
Nadim scrambled over to her. The other muqanni was only a half step behind. Annja felt along the boy's body, figuring out how he lay beneath the dirt.
"This way." She indicated with her hand and they fell to.
Annja didn't like how limp Souad was as they uncovered him. Panic would have made him struggle.
Unless he'd been knocked unconscious.
Judging from his position, he'd borne the brunt of the collapse.
A moment later, they managed to pull the teen out into his father's embrace. He wasn't breathing.
"Give him to me." Annja took him from Nadim's trembling arms. She laid Souad on the ground on his back. Dirt caked his face, but when she opened his mouth, there was no blockage. More dirt crusted his nostrils. She wiped that clean, then leaned in and put her mouth on the boy's mouth, breathing air into his lungs.
His chest rose and fell as she breathed into him again and again. Then she knelt beside him and started chest compressions, counting off in her head. "C'mon! You're young! You're strong! You can do this!"
Still seeing no response, Annja leaned down and breathed into his mouth again, filling his lungs with more air. This time Souad coughed and choked, and blinked his dark eyes open in panic that quickly dissolved to surprise.
Annja placed her fingers on the side of the boy's neck. His pulse beat strong and steady beneath her fingertips. His breathing rasped and came rapidly, but he was doing it on his own now. "How do you feel?"
Souad grinned up at her. "I am in love."
Annja smiled back at the teen, then gave way as his father bulled in and crushed Souad to his breast. Tiredly, she sat back against the khettara wall and stared at the father and son as they embraced.
"Well, that was bloody close." Smythe sat beside Annja and knocked dirt off his shirt.
"It was." Annja gazed around at the khettara. "This puts us behind schedule."
Smythe sighed and leaned his head back. "Ready to call it quits?"
"Are you kidding?" Since she'd left the New Orleans orphanage where she'd been raised, she'd never felt any more at home than on a dig site or prowling through a musty library or museum. Morocco had all of those. She'd spent the past few days in heaven. A little cave-in hadn't put her off.
Smythe took off his hat and banged it against his knee. He grinned ruefully. "Me, too. But we'd be better off getting above. The kid needs fresh air, and it wouldn't hurt us, either." He stood and offered Annja his hand.
She took it and let him help her to her feet even though she could have managed easily on her own. She was five feet ten inches tall, an inch or so shorter than Smythe, and more athletically built. She pulled her chestnut hair off her neck and enjoyed an all-too-brief breeze that entered the chamber from above.
Ten feet away, a rope hung from the nearest mouth of the subterranean ditch. The muqannis first located an underground water supply by digging wells in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. Once the water table was determined, they sank a vertical shaft down to it, then began the process of digging toward the farmland at a lower level. New shafts were dug every sixty to one hundred feet, depending on what was needed and how easy the soil was to work. Fresh air and potential rescue avenues always figured into the time needed to construct the waterway.
Men stationed around the well mouth above called down in concern. Midafternoon sunlight slanted into the chamber.
Annja couldn't keep up with the rapid-fire dialect, but she picked up enough of it to know the men on the surface had felt the quivering earth and known immediately what it meant. Several of them knelt at the side of the well and peered down.
Souad walked under his own power now, but he lacked his usual surefooted grace. He smiled at her shyly as he stood woozily under the well mouth. Nadim carefully tied a padded rope under his son's arms, then called to the men to lift him.
Directing her flashlight beam to the end of the irrigation tunnel that led back to the underground water source, Annja saw the dark water lapping at their makeshift dam. The water was already two feet deep. With the setback they'd incurred, the dam was going to have to be higher to hold back the water. The farmers at the other end of the khettara wouldn't be happy.
And the crops suffering from the drought would have to go a few days longer without water. That would be the biggest problem and the one most complained about.
The men at the top of the well swiftly hauled Souad out. Then the rope loop was thrown back down. Nadim picked it up and handed it to Annja, who wriggled into it.
One of the men called, "Are you ready?"
"Yes." She held on tight and resisted the impulse to kick her feet against the side of the shaft as they pulled her up. Any impact might trigger another cave-in. The sides would have to be shored up before they could return to the dig.
On her way up, though, she stared into the hollow left by the falling earth. The concavity ran for a dozen feet or more and had been at least six feet thick. She couldn't even guess at the raw tonnage that had dropped on them. She shone her flashlight into the concavity out of curiosity.
Above, the workers set themselves to hauling again. "Wait." She'd seen something.
"Annja?" Smythe peered up at her. "Is something wrong?"
Without answering, she shifted in the rope loop until she hung upside down by her feet. She caught hold of the concavity gently and pulled herself toward it. In her other hand, she held the flashlight steady. The yellow beam revealed long bones embedded in the chamber's new roof. "I found something."
"What?" Smythe shifted below her, tracking her movement cautiously, striving not to get under the treacherous section.
Annja played the flashlight along the ulna and radius to the humerus, knowing immediately she was looking at a human arm that had been reduced to bone. Above the humerus, she spotted the dark eyeholes of the skull that lay sideways, as though the skeleton had turned its head to glare at her.