Nineveh, Northern Iraq
"Get out!" The Iraqi driver's thin, high-pitched voice filled the car. Sand and dust spewed up as the vehicle skidded to a stop.
Jarred awake, Cotten Stone sat upright. "What?" She tried to focus in the gathering twilight.
"Out! I drive no American."
The radio blared the frantic-paced voice of an Iraqi announcer.
"What is it?" she asked. "What's wrong?"
The driver threw open his door and ran to the rear of the car.
Cotten tugged the rusty door handle until it finally gave with a squeak. "Hey, what are you doing?" she called, jumping out.
He opened the trunk and tossed her two bags onto the shoulder of the highway.
"You can't leave me here," she said, coming around to the back of the car. "This is the middle of the damn desert."
The driver cocked his head toward the voice on the radio.
She picked up the duffle bag that held her videotapes and chucked it back into the trunk. "Listen, I gave you all the cash I have. I don't have any more." She turned her pocket inside out. It was just a little lie. She had squirreled away close to two hundred dollars and stuffed it inside an empty film container. Her emergency stash. "Do you understand? See, no more money. I paid you to take me to the border."
The driver jabbed her shoulder with a stiff forefinger. "End of ride for American." He yanked the bag out again and slammed it into her chest, sending her stumbling backward. Then he was around the car and in the driver's seat, grinding the gears and spinning the old Fiat around.
"I don't believe this," she said. Cotten dropped the bag on the ground beside her other one and threaded a loose strand of tea-colored hair behind her ear, watching the taillights fade.
The soft whisper of the desert wind carried the first chill of the evening as the January sky turned from rose to indigo. Cotten pulled the hooded parka from her carryall and slipped it on, feeling the cold already creeping through her.
She jogged in place, hands stuffed deep in her pockets. Darkness, thick as Iraqi crude, poured over the desert. Someone was bound to come along had to come along, she thought.
Ten minutes passed with no sign of another vehicle. Finally, she grabbed the handles of her two carryalls and started walking. Gravel and sand crunched like glass chips under her field boots. She glanced behind, wishing for the glow of headlights, but there was only dark, barren desert.
"I should have known better than to trust that guy." Her voice cracked from the dryness. Whatever he'd heard on the radio must have spooked the shit out of him. Cotten knew U.S. forces were gearing up for an invasion. The rumors had been flying around the foreign press corp. for weeks as the war drums grew louder in Washington and London. It was no secret that there were already small insertion teams of American and British forces in the country. The invasion might still be months away, but it was hard to hide the buildup of forces in the Arab countries bordering Iraq to the south. The local Arab news buzzed with sightings of Special Forces and Army Rangers appearing and disappearing in the middle of the night. There were even strategic flyovers of fighters, Predator drones, and high altitude recon aircraft testing the vulnerabilities of the Iraqi missile and radar installations.
Cotten hoisted the strap higher on her shoulder. "It's your own fault," she said. "You're so damn headstrong."
A few weeks ago she had stood in the office of SNN's News Director, Ted Casselman, and begged for the assignment to cover the effects of economic sanctions on the women and children of Iraq. It was an important story, she thought, and she didn't care how unstable the region was. Americans needed to see what sanctions did to innocents. And, she told Casselman, if the U.S. had plans to attack Iraq, she wanted to be there, right smack in the center of the action.
Cotten didn't mention that she also needed to put some distance between her and Thornton Graham. She didn't tell Casselman because she knew she would probably fall apart if she had to explain. The emotional wound was still too raw. Her request to do the story made perfect sense as it was an eager, hungry reporter and she wanted an assignment that would make world headlines.
The Satellite News Network didn't send rookies on assignments in such volatile locations, Casselman told her repeatedly. Yes, he conceded, she had talent and promise. Yes, he felt she could manage the pressure. And yes, he agreed that a Middle East assignment right now was a perfect opportunity to launch a successful career. However, not only was she a rookie, she was a woman, and a woman in Iraq in the current conditions was out of the question. Once the war started, the only journalists would be those chosen in advance by the military and embedded with the troops. And they would only be male. The rules were set, and the answer was no.
She became incensed and began a tirade about the unfairness of it all.
Casselman cut her off with another firm, "No."
After she calmed down, Cotten finally got him to agree to let her tag along with a group of reporters as far as the Turkish border. From there she could cover the plight of any refugees fleeing north once the conflict began.
He was furious when he learned she went on to Baghdad.
Then his call came this morning ordering her to leave. "Things are going to get dicey. Get your sweet ass out of there any way you can. And I want to see you as soon as you get back. Clear?"
She tried to reason with him and buy more time, but he hung up before she could make her case.
When she got home he was going to I-told-you-so, I-should-fire-you her to death. That was if she got home. Cotten shivered. She was stranded and freezing in the middle of the Iraqi desert.
* * *
Charles Sinclair stared out his office window at the sprawling campus surrounding the BioGentec laboratories near the University of New Orleans. The blue of Lake Pontchartrain lay beyond. He watched the small army of groundskeepers with their John Deere mowers and golf cart utility vehicles moving across the lawn and among the gardens manicured and in perfect order. He liked perfect order.
The phone on his desk chirped, and he jumped, spilling a few drops of the chicory coffee onto the Persian rug.
"Dr. Sinclair, you have an international call on line eight," his secretary said.
Sinclair punched the blinking button. He wouldn't take this call on the speakerphone. "This is Sinclair." The hiss of the connection annoyed him as he pressed the receiver firmly to his ear.
"We uncovered the entrance to the crypt two days ago," the man on the other end said. "Late this afternoon, it was opened."
Sinclair's knuckles whitened as he clutched the phone. "Ahmed, I hope you have good news." He paced.
"I do. Everything is just as Archer predicted."
"What did you find?"
"Many artifacts with the bones," Ahmed continued. "Armor, religious trinkets, some scrolls, and a box."
Adrenaline streaked through Sinclair's body making his fingertips tingle. "What does the box look like?"
"Black, no markings, about fifteen centimeters square."
Perspiration softened the starch in the white collar of Sinclair's Armani shirt. Static filled the pause before he spoke again. "And its contents?"
"I do not know."
"What do you mean? You were there, weren't you?"
"Archer did not open it. He and the others are packing to leave as we speak. We must abandon the site the area is becoming too dangerous. Everyone is nervous. There is no time to examine "
"No!" Sinclair pinched the bridge of his nose. "You go back immediately and get the box. Have Archer show you how to open it. Call me as soon as you confirm what's inside and you have it securely in your possession. Do you understand?"
"Yes." Ahmed's voice sank into the static.
"Ahmed," he said, keeping his voice low and controlled, "it is imperative that you complete your assignment. I cannot stress that enough."
Sinclair hung up the phone and stared at the receiver. The Arab could not even begin to understand.