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The Pharaoh's Secret (NUMA Files 13) Clive Cussler 2022/7/22 13:55:05

With that, Shakir pressed the radio’s talk switch. “It’s time,” he said. “Allow the others to catch him and then shut them all down. We shall see who has spirit and who is prone to giving in.”

This call was received by a chase car trailing the group of racers. A technician listening in did as ordered, quickly tapping several keys on his laptop before hitting ENTER.

Out on the dunes, the leading SUV began to smoke. It slowed rapidly and then stalled completely. The others gained on it, spreading out and preparing to speed past the unlucky driver en route to the far side of the dune and the finish line of this strange race, which was itself the culmination of a grueling month of tests to see whom Shakir would choose to join the upper echelon of his growing organization.

“Quite unfair of you,” Hassan shouted from the aft section of the cabin.

“Life is unfair,” Shakir replied. “If anything, I have just leveled the playing field. Now we shall see who is a real man and who is unworthy.”

Out on the sand, the other vehicles stalled in rapid succession and soon the noise of roaring engines and grinding transmissions was replaced with cursing and slamming doors. The drivers, drenched in sweat, clad in grimy clothes and looking as if they’d been through war or hell or both, clambered out of their machines in stunned disbelief.

One opened the hood of his vehicle to see if he could fix the problem. Another kicked the quarter panel, leaving a nasty dent in the sheet metal of the expensive Mercedes SUV. Others committed similar acts of frustration. Fatigue and exhaustion seemed to have sapped their strength of mind.

“They’re giving up,” Shakir said.

“Not all of them,” Hassan replied.

Down on the sand, one of the men had made the choice Shakir was hoping for. He’d looked at the others, gauged the distance to the top of the dune and then taken off, running.

Several seconds passed before the others realized what he intended: to finish the race on foot and win the prize. The finish line was no more than five hundred yards away and, once he crested the dune, it would be mostly downhill.

The others chased after him and soon five men were charging up the dune, over the crest and down the other side.

In some ways, descending the soft sand was harder than climbing up it. The wind had shaped this dune into a steep wave and two men stumbled forward, fell and began to roll uncontrollably. One of them realized that it might be faster to simply slide, and when he reached the steeper section, he launched himself into the air and slid on his stomach for sixty yards.

“We shall have a winner after all,” Shakir said to Hassan. He then turned to the pilot. “Take us to the finish line.”

The helicopter turned and descended, following a long diagonal scar that cut across the desert in a straight line. That scar was known as the Zandrian pipeline. A pumping station at its base served as the finish line to the race.

The Gazelle touched down beside it, kicking up grit and dust in a swirling little sandstorm. Shakir pulled off his headset and opened the door. He climbed from the cockpit and kept his head low as he made his way toward several men in black fatigues similar to Hassan’s.

In another time and another place, Shakir might’ve been a movie star. Tall and lean, with a tanned face, coarse brown hair and a solid square jaw that seemed capable of withstanding a camel’s kick, he was handsome in the sun-burnished way of an outdoorsman. He exuded confidence. And though he wore the same uniform as the men who stood beside him, his bearing was as different from theirs as a king’s would be from a commoner.

In years past, Shakir had been a member of the Egyptian secret police. Under the Mubarak regime, which had ruled Egypt for thirty years, he’d been second in command of the service, hunting down enemies of the government and holding back the tide of insurgents until the so-called Arab Spring had come and turned Egypt upside-down, ushering in what seemed to Shakir and others like him an age of chaos. Years later, that chaos was only just beginning to subside, with no small amount of help from Shakir and others, who were rebuilding the power structure of the country from their new perch in the shadows of private industry.

Using the skills he’d honed in the service of his country, Shakir had built an organization named Osiris. With it, he’d become wealthy. And while it was not a criminal organization in the strictest sense, it conducted business with a certain flair and reputation. If Shakir was correct in his timetable, Osiris would soon control not only Egypt but most of North Africa as well.

For now, he focused on the race, the end of a grueling competition pitting twenty men against one another for the chance to become part of his special operative section. He had dozens of men, and women, already spread throughout North Africa and Europe, but to succeed he needed more, he needed new blood, recruits who understood what it meant to work for him.

Out on the dune, drivers one and four had separated themselves from the rest. As they reached the flat expanse at the bottom of the dune, they sprinted toward the pumping station. Number one was in the lead, but number four, Hassan’s handpicked favorite, was catching up to him. Just when it seemed Hassan would be proven right, number four made a fatal mistake. He miscalculated the nature of the competition, which had no rules and allowed for victory at all costs. Like life itself.

He took the lead, but as he did, the other driver lunged forward and shoved him in the back, sending him falling to the ground. His face hit the sand, and the other driver added insult to injury by stomping on his back as he continued on.

By the time number four looked up, it was all over. Driver number one had beaten him. The others came stumbling in, passing him by, as he remained on the ground, dejected and bitter.

When they too had reached the finish line, Shakir made an announcement.

“Each of you has finished,” he said. “Each of you has learned the only rules of life that matter: you must never quit, you must show no mercy, you must win at any cost!”

“What about the others?” Hassan asked.

Shakir pondered this. A pair of drivers had remained on the dune, unwilling to engage in the footrace after all they’d been through. And then there were the two others whose vehicles had collided. “Have them walk back to the prior checkpoint.”

“Walk?” Hassan replied in shock. “But it’s thirty miles from here.”

“Then they’d better get started,” Shakir said.

“There’s nothing between here and the checkpoint but sand. They’ll die in the desert,” Hassan replied.