Scott Mariani

The Heretics Treasure

The fourth book in the Ben Hope series, 2009

This one is for Malu Pothi,

a very special Bengal tigress

You are in my heart and none other knows thee

But your son ‘Akhenaten’.

You have given him understanding of your designs and

your power.

The people of the world are in your hand…

From ‘Hymn to the Sun’

The Pharaoh Akhenaten

Chapter One

The Western Desert, Egypt

Late September 2008

Nobody knew how many centuries the desolate Bedouin fort had been standing out here among the oceans of sand, its crumbling walls abandoned long ago.

Perched up high on a ruined tower, a vulture cocked its head and peered down at the line of dusty 4x4 vehicles that passed through the gateway and pulled up in the courtyard.

The passenger door of the lead vehicle swung open. A combat boot crunched down into the sand and a man stepped out of the car, stretching his cramped muscles after the long trek westwards and shielding his eyes from the sun’s white glare. There was no wind. The air was a furnace.

The man’s name was Khaled Kamal, and he was one of Egypt’s most wanted terrorists. The man without a face, the one they could never catch.

The rest of the group climbed down from the vehicles. Eleven men, all watching their leader. Nobody spoke. They wore a mixture of military combat fatigues, T-shirts and jeans. Six of them had stubby AKS-74 assault weapons slung over their shoulders. There were a lot more guns in the vehicles, the smell of cordite still on them.

Kamal scanned the empty ruin. He scratched the three-day-old stubble on his chin and thought about the events of the last thirty-six hours.

The diversion had worked well. If the choppers had been mobilised after the attack, then the anti-terrorist forces were hunting in the wrong place. Nobody would be looking for them out here in the middle of nowhere, hundreds of miles west across the desert from the Aswan to Cairo railroad where Kamal and his gunmen had opened fire on a northbound tourist train.

He smiled to himself as he replayed the fresh images in his mind. The passengers had been sitting ducks. Six carriages ripped to shreds by automatic fire. Blood on the tracks and on the sand. Another successful job.

But, after more than a decade, Kamal was getting bored with taking potshots at Westerners. Back in 1997, when the radical Gama’a al-Islamaya group had massacred more than sixty tourists at Hatshepsut’s Temple near Luxor, Kamal had been the only one who got away from the anti-terrorist commandos. Since then he’d been involved in dozens of bus ambushes, tourist resort bombings, gun attacks on Nile river cruisers, assassinations of US business travellers. Kamal had personally packed the nails into the motorcycle suicide bomb that had caused carnage at the Khan al-Khalihi bazaar in 2005.

All small stuff. He had his sights on something bigger, much bigger. He had the talent, the will and the manpower. And, most importantly, he had links to networks all across North Africa, the Middle East and beyond. All he lacked was funding, and for the kind of plan that had been forming in his mind he knew he’d need a lot of it. A hell of a lot.

But all that was for the future. Now the dozen men needed to escape the murderous desert heat for a while. It would be cool later, but the sun was hot enough to cook a man in his boots. The ruined fort offered shade-as well as something more valuable. Kamal unscrewed the top of his canteen and poured the last drops of water into his parched throat. He tossed the empty container into his black Nissan Patrol and wiped his mouth with his sleeve.

Hani, the youngest of the crew, was gesticulating and grinning. ‘See, didn’t I tell you?’ he laughed, pointing at the round stone well in the middle of the courtyard.

Kamal shot him a look. He hadn’t stayed alive this long by trusting people, and he was about to find out whether he could trust this one.

They leaned over the edge of the well and peered down. The shaft was deep, disappearing into darkness. Kamal picked up a loose piece of stone and dropped it in the hole. He listened for the splash. Nothing.

‘You said there would be water here,’ he said. He slapped away a sandfly.

Hani said nothing, just made a face and shrugged.

Youssef joined them at the edge. His bald scalp was glistening with sweat. He wiped it and replaced the tattered green baseball cap that he always wore. ‘We should have headed for the Farafra oasis instead.’

Kamal shook his head. The oasis area was only thirty miles to the south, and its inhabitants were mostly Bedouin. It should have been a safe haven for them-but you never knew when a police informant might be watching. The train attack would have been on radio and TV by now, the news spreading far and wide. He couldn’t afford mistakes.

‘Get down there,’ he ordered Hani.

Hani thought about protesting, but Kamal wasn’t someone you protested against.

The plump, bearded Mostafa and Tarek, the gaunt-looking eldest of the gang, fetched a rope from one of the 4x4s and fastened one end to its bull bars. They looped the other end around Hani’s waist. The young man’s eyes were bright with fear but he obeyed. He clambered up onto the stone mouth of the well and three of the men grabbed the rope to lower him.

It was a long way down. Hani’s boots finally connected with the dirt at the bottom. He crouched in the darkness, scraped with his fingers in the dry sandy earth, then craned his neck upwards at the distant mouth of the well, up to the small blue circle of sky and the faces peering down at him. ‘The well is dry,’ he called up to them. His voice echoed in the shaft.

Then something dropped down the well, making him flinch. It hit him a glancing blow to the head and, for a second, he stood there dazed, unsteady on his feet. He put his fingers to his brow and felt blood. He groped at his feet and found the object that had been thrown down the well at him. It was a small folding shovel.

‘You brought us here, you shit-headed little moron,’ Kamal’s voice shouted down at him. ‘You can dig for the

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