Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,
Nicholas
nwhyte

She Fell Among Thieves, by Robert Edmond Alter

Published 50 years ago, in the April 1966 edition of Argosy, reprinted from September 1964

Our six diggers were spading back the hard, cindery earth crusted over a formation of flat stones. I was sitting on a wall just above them, supervising the job. Tanner, my partner, was in his tent suffering from intermittent malaria.

Twilight was flowing over the Jordanian hills, and the first fat drops of rain were just beginning to splat on the bone-dry dirt. The headman, Hassin, straightened up and grinned at me. They had uncovered a stone floor or roof, a rectangle of, say, 20 by 15 feet. I hunkered down for a closer inspection.

It was a roof, all right, laid by long-ago artisans to endure centuries of dust-submerged oblivion.

“Good,” I said to Hassin. “Remove one of the cornerstones.”

The Arabs pried up one of the fair-sized slabs. A rectangle of black, hollow space appeared.

“Bring the ladder and a flashlight,” I said. “You and the men stay up here. Understand? Give them cigarettes.”

The place itself was not truly clammy. It was the cold, dark air that gave the suggestion. I started to shiver. I played the flashlight over the old, stone walls, seeing a faint filigree of mold.

The figure of a white female stood in the halo of light. It took me so by surprise that I almost blurted, “Excuse me.” Then I had to laugh at myself. It was only a life-size marble statue. It glowed, pale, cold and glorious, like moonlight.

It was the most remarkable statue I had ever seen. The detail was astounding. Her hair, eyelashes, fingernails, everything. She stood with her legs slightly apart, her torso turning at the hips, her head looking back over one shoulder. The expression on her face held me—was it surprise, horror or ecstasy? At what strange sight was she staring? Who had been the sculptor? How had the statue come here? How long ago?

Excitement beat in my ears, and slushed around in my brain like warm, heady wine. I was certain that I had made an exceedingly valuable discovery. I went up the ladder, dismissed the work crew and hurried over to Tanner’s tent.

“You’ve never dreamed of a statue like the,” I told Tanner. “She—she’s beautiful!”

Tanner grunted and threw a pill into his mouth. He was a squat, powerful man. The Mexican government was down on him for smuggling artifacts out of Yucatan; he had been run out of Cambodia for the same business. There wasn’t a reputable archeological group in the world that would touch him with a ten foot pole. I was new in the game; I didn’t especially like the man, but I admired his professional knowledge. It seemed that I could learn about the financial end of archeology—the rewards—from Tanner.

In raincoats, we went out into the rain-lashed night. Tanner took one look at the white statue and went into a spasm of trembling. “My gosh, she’s f-fantastic, Miller! She’s old, old, old. My boy, you have no idea how old. She’s not Greek or Roman. Even their greatest sculptors couldn’t capture a facial expression like that. Y-you can practically see the pores in her skin!”

Her face had me again—that enigmatic backward look. What had she seen? I pulled my eyes away.

“The sculptor must have used a Jewess for his model,” Tanner said, “She probably dates back to the Old Testament. Do you have any idea what she’s worth?” His fever-bright eyes were greedy.

I shook my head, staring at him.

“She’s worth the 30 years I’ve spent grubbing in this business. This is the treasure hunter’s dream. There’s thousands in her, Miller. I know the right people. No questions asked. Right down the middle, boy. Fifty-fifty. If—“

“If I help you smuggle her out of the country,” I said.

He laughed, his eyes leaping from my face to hers.

“There’s no other way. You know there isn’t. do Hassin and the boys know about her?”

“I don’t think so. I came down here by myself. But Hassin might have peeked when my back was turned.”

Tanner nodded, shivering. “If he knows, he’ll run right to the authorities. Miller, we’re getting her out of here tonight. We’ll take the truck and follow the shore of the Dead Sea down to Israel. There are crossroads through the barbed wire.”

We had to rig up the block and tackle to get her out of the pit. She was heavy, but not as heavy as I thought marble would be. “What do you think she is?” I asked. “Did you notice how she seems to sparkle in the light?”

“Could—could be just the moisture,” Tanner grunted, “After eons of dampness down in that cellar.” Maybe. But the cellar had seemed as hermetically sealed as King Tut’s tomb.

Our vehicle was an archaic old wreck, with tall, metal sides around the bed and an open top. Grunting, heaving and shoving, we jockeyed the gleaming, woman-size statue into the truck bed. “I’ll d-drive,” Tanner said, and he gave me a shove into the cab.

Outside, it rained. Inside, it dribbled, the moisture seeping around the door frames and the seams of the windshield. The truck skidded, swerved, slewed around, the tires treading for the ground. It all seemed crazy to me—this pell-mell race into the night, down a muddy, nameless road, in a blinding rain, the fever-ridden obsessed man clutching the swerving wheel at my side. A crystalline white eye materialized ahead of us, far down the road.

“That’s a motorcycle,” I said. “Someone’s signaling us to stop.”

Then I realized that Tanner meant to drive right over the man and his cycle. I slashed at his brake foot with my left boot. “You fool! You can’t kill him!”

The truck went into a mad skid, the rear end skittering halfway around in a muddy pivot. A rain-coated Arab picked his way toward us, slipping in the muck. He was one of the shore patrolmen, and he carried an old World War II sub-machine gun. I was in a panic to get out and meet him at the back of the truck. He probably could be bribed.

“Open up,” the Arab ordered.

The truck bed must have been like a bathtub. Rainwater was pouring out of every crack and hole. I put my hand on the right-hand bolt and smiled at him. “Look here,” I started to say.

Tanner’s silhouette appeared behind the Arab, and I saw his right arm swing up. A wrench bounced off the man’s head, and the machine gun roared straight in the air as he dropped into the mud.

“Tanner! You crazy idiot! We could have bribed him!”

Tanner yanked the gun free of the Arab. Then he said, “Drag him into the shrub. Hurry!”

“Tanner, he’s badly hurt or dead. We can’t leave him out here in…”

The muzzle of the submachine gun tapped me coldly, jarringly, under the chin. When I looked up, Tanner was aiming at my chest.

“Get him into the bush; then drive.” Tanner said. And there were no ifs about it, either—not with that gun aimed at me.

I was scared—sick-stomach scared. The sound of that gun was still ringing in my ears. Those slugs would plow through me like darning needles through warm butter. I hid the body and drove.

The rain never let up. It seemed to cover the night land as Noah’s deluge had once done.

Tanner figured we were far enough south to get through the barbed-wire barricades that separated Jordan and Israel, and he said, “Take the first turnoff west.” But the road ran us smack into a frontier outpost. An officer came through the door. Tanner swung up the submachine gun. I grabbed at the barrel in a panic.

“Don’t! There’s a whole guardhouse of them. They’ll cut us to shreds.”

Tanner relaxed with a soul-weary sigh. “I had it,” he muttered. “I had the answer for at least one man’s purpose of existence in this stupid world. And now…”

The officer, followed by a sentry who carried an old Lebel rifle, came up on my side.

“Where do you think you’re going?” the lieutenant asked.

“We’re American archeologists. We want to cross to Beersheba.”

“What are you carrying into Israel?”

“Nothing.”

He turned slightly. “Keep your rifle at his head while I check the truck,” he told the sentry.

I stared blankly at the rifle while my world turned slowly upside down. It wasn’t just the trouble we would be in for trying to smuggle the statue out of the country; it might also be murder, which could mean a firing squad.

I turned and looked at Tanner. He was trembling. “She’s mine,” he said hoarsely. “They can’t take her. I’d rather die than give her up!”

The Arab lieutenant came slogging back. “All right,” he said. “You may pass.”

I stared. Then I said, “Thank you.”

I pressed the gas, and we rumbled into the waiting blackness of no man’s land. I didn’t get it. Surely the Arab officer had looked into the truck bed. So why hadn’t he seen the statue? Why hadn’t he arrested us as smugglers?

Suddenly we were at the Israeli barricade and soldiers came out to meet us. I stopped the truck, and a Jewish lieutenant stepped up to the cab window. “We’ll have to check your truck,” he said.

Tanner was already out his door. I shot out mine. Tanner and I unbolted the tailgate and let it drop. We stared into the rain-whipped truck bed. Water poured out of it like a miniature Niagara Falls.

That’s all there was—draining water. Nothing else.

“Stolen!” Tanner screamed. “They stole her!”

“No!” I grabbed at his arm. “They didn’t have a chance. We would have heard the tailgate. The Arab lieutenant was back there for only a few seconds. He couldn’t have gotten her out by himself. She weighs too much.”

“Then where?” Tanner wailed. “Where’s she gone to? Oh my gosh, she’s dissolved! The rain! The filthy rain!”

He turned away from the open truck bed, and he started to laugh the high-mounting, rocking laugh of insanity. He sat right down in the mud and roared with laughter until his breath failed him; then he went into hiccupping, giggling sobs.

The lieutenant and I left Tanner with a medic. We went outside to have a smoke. The rain had dwindled to a sullen mist. I had nothing to say. I had only one question. Where had she gone?

The medic came out and accepted a cigarette from the lieutenant.

“I gave him a shot to calm him down,” he told us. Then he looked at me and jerked his thumb back at the infirmary shack. “Religious fanatic, eh?” he said.

“Who? Tanner? No. Why?”

“Because he keeps raving about Lot’s wife,” the medic said. “About how she looked back at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah even though God had warned her not to. And so she was turned into a pillar of salt.”
Tags: archaeology
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