“Probably,” Shakir admitted. “But if they survive, they’ll have learned a valuable lesson and I may reconsider and deem them worthy of enlistment.”
Hassan was Shakir’s closest adviser, an old ally from his Secret Service days. On rare occasions, Shakir allowed his old friend to influence his decisions, but not today.
“Do as I’ve instructed.”
Hassan picked up a radio and made the call. A host of Shakir’s black-clad warriors swooped in to direct the laggards on a journey that would most likely kill them. In the meantime, driver number four got up and staggered across the finish line.
Hassan offered him water.
“No,” Shakir snapped. “He is to walk also.”
“But he almost won,” Hassan said.
“And yet he quit so close to the finish line,” Shakir said. “A trait I cannot stomach in any of my people. He walks with the others. And if I learn that anyone has helped him, it would be better for that person to kill himself rather than suffer what I will inflict on him.”
Driver number four looked at Shakir in disbelief, but instead of fear, a defiant glare appeared in his eyes.
Shakir actually appreciated the anger in that stare and for an instant considered revoking his order before deciding that it must stand. “The hike begins now,” Shakir said.
Number four shook loose from Hassan’s grip, turned without a word and began the arduous hike without looking back.
As he walked off, Shakir read a communiqué handed to him by an aide. “This is bad news.”
“What’s happened?” Hassan asked eagerly.
“Ammon Ta is confirmed dead,” Shakir said. “He was killed by two Americans before he could get to the Italian doctor.”
Shakir nodded. “Members of the organization called NUMA, it seems.”
“NUMA,” Hassan repeated.
Each of them spoke the acronym with disdain. They’d been in the intelligence business long enough to have heard rumors of the exploits this American agency had undertaken. They were supposed to be oceanographers and such.
“This can’t be a good thing,” Hassan added. “You and I both know they’ve caused more problems than the CIA.”
Shakir nodded. “As I recall, it was a member of NUMA who saved Egypt from the destruction of the Aswan Dam a few years ago.”
“When we were all on the same side,” Hassan noted. “Do we have any exposure?”
Shakir shook his head confidently. “Neither the freighter nor Ammon Ta nor the cargo can be traced back to us.”
“What about Hagen, our operative on Lampedusa? Ammon Ta was supposed to deliver the Black Mist to him so he could use it to influence the governments of Europe.”
Shakir read on. “Hagen escaped and made it back to Malta. He will try one more time to purchase the artifacts before they’re revealed to the public. If he’s unsuccessful, he’ll try to steal them. He promises to report back in two days.”
“Hagen is the only link to us now,” Hassan said. “We should eliminate him. Immediately.”
“Not until he has those artifacts. I want those tablets in our possession or destroyed beyond anyone’s ability to reconstruct them.”
“Is it really worth this much effort?” Hassan asked. “We’re not even sure what’s on them.”
Shakir was tired of Hassan’s endless questioning. “Listen to me,” he barked. “We’re about to put the leaders of Europe in a sleeper hold that will give us carte blanche to annex the most valuable part of this continent without any kind of repercussions. If someone finds a clue to the antidote on those tablets—if someone figures out how to counteract the Black Mist—then our entire plan, completely dependent on leverage, will fail. How can you not understand this?”
Hassan shrank back. “Of course, but what makes you think that information will be found on these artifacts?”
“Because that’s what Napoleon was looking for,” Shakir said. “He’d heard rumors of the Mist, sent his men to the City of the Dead and removed everything he could find. It’s only by luck that we were able to piece together the formula from what remained undisturbed and what we recovered from the bay. That means the vast majority of the information was taken. Taken by Europeans from our forefathers. I will not allow them to use it against us. If any of the details happen to exist on these particular relics, they must be retrieved or destroyed. And when it’s done, only then shall we eliminate Hagen.”