The typical, smug smile spread over Dr. Fromkin's face. He clapped his hands together, and gave a great laugh.
"Your sister?" he said, "How perfect! I confess, Dr. Bowen, I had no idea. Although now that I look, the resemblance is quite obvious. You're even wearing the same bonds!"
Sabina turned back to her younger sibling, eyelids drooping in a look of weary disgust. "He thinks very highly of his sense of humor," she said. Yet, Fromkin wasn't wrong; side by side, the Bowen sisters were clear relations, despite their differences. Both wore their black hair long, though Roxana had straightened its wavy curls. They stood at about the same moderate height, though Sabina was a bit taller, while Roxana, freshly emerged from her teenage years, had a curvier figure.
But the sisters had evidently diverged from their common origin. Sabina dressed for practicality and comfort, without any self-conscious display to mold an onlooker's opinion. Roxana, covered in tattoos and piercings and wearing an outfit brief enough to show as many of these as possible, wore hostility on her sleeve, that none but the most ambitious or those who ran in similar circles to her would dare approach. Sabina's face wore the brightness of optimism and openness; Roxana's, the impatience and petulance of an aggressive idealism.
And, in a moment of distress, Roxana met Sabina's coolness with a scoff of derision.
"What?" Sabina said, fidgeting against her bonds. "Aren't you happy to see me?"
Roxana scowled. "How long do you want to pretend that your showing up in the same corner of the world as me at the same time is a coincidence? I guess Mom and Dad sent you to bring me home?"
"Why would they do that?" Sabina said, "Are you supposed to be somewhere else right now? Maybe at school?"
"I fucking knew it," Roxana said, kicking a nearby box with her bound legs.
"Easy there, little girl," said Fromkin, lifting a pistol from a holster at his side. "The contents of those crates are worth a great deal more to us than you are."
"Get bent, asshole," Roxana fired back.
"Roxana, shut up!" Birtukan said, "these people are dangerous!"
"Finally, someone who understands the situation!" Fromkin said. He turned to one of the poachers. "Make sure our guests can't kick anymore, will you?"
The poacher slung his rifle over his shoulder, and wrestled Roxana into position to link a rope from her ankles to her wrists. Sabina, whose legs were in the process of being tied by another kidnapper, rolled her eyes.
"That's going to be fun to sit in all night," she said. "I take it this is your first time being captured?"
Roxana turned her face into the darkness. "Not exactly," she said.
"Hmm," Sabina raised an eyebrow, as the hogtie that Roxana had earned them was applied to her as well. "I was going to ask what sort of trouble a biology B.A. could get into, but I suppose the answer is the same as an archaeologist."
"An archaeologist who goes driving after dangerous criminals in the desert, against the advice of her friend and colleague, I might add," Emily piped up from behind Sabina, where she was also being bound.
Roxana chuckled, shaking her head. "What, you followed them out here in a car, and let them capture you? Still dragging your feet like always, huh?"
Sabina returned a tight-lipped smile. "And I'd wager that you're still leaping before you look, like always."
"She certainly is," Birtukan said, glaring at Roxana.
"Ladies, please, let's not bicker and argue!" Fromkin said, moving into the center of the small space, so that he was surrounded by his captives and their guards. "In fact, I insist we focus on cooperation. Hailie? Gag these two." He indicated Emily and Birtukan.
"Why us?" Emily exclaimed, frantic. "We were hardly making any noise at all!"
Fromkin smiled. "Yes, you were very good at it. I'd like you to keep it up. After all," he said, approaching Roxana, "it's our snooping sisters who got you all into this, and I'd like to hear about your plans from them."
Fromkin approached Roxana. “Now,” he said, bending over her, “Sabina’s already earned her doctorate, while she just said you had a bachelor’s degree; that must make you the younger sibling, yes?” He stared at Sabina, and began playing with Roxana’s braid. Sabina shook her head.
"You poor idiot," she said.
Fromkin chuckled. "Now, now, Sabina, we wouldn’t want anything to happen to your sweet little sistaaAAAAAHHH!!!"
Roxana had sunken her teeth into Fromkin's finger. By the time he wrenched it away from her, she had drawn blood, and heavy bruises began to blossom. He swore, taking rapid shallow breaths as he blew on the wounded digit.
"I've changed my mind," Fromkin said. "Gag her, and let the other one talk."
The poachers hesitated. "Do we have to?"
"Do you want your ivory to get shipped or not?!" Fromkin roared. "Gag her, and do a thorough bloody job of it!"
It took a good ten minutes of wrangling and nipped fingers, but the kidnappers managed to wedge a bundle of gauze into Roxana's mouth, and secure it with a wide, tight black bandana that covered the whole lower half of her face, opened jaw included. Birtukan appeared to breath a sigh of relief at being spared that fate, as did the other women - including Emily, who had quickly decided to behave and allow two strips of tape to shut her up. Roxana mumbled a few curses around her gag, then stared at the floor.
"Now," Fromkin said, masking his rage with his usual smug smile, "I want to know why all of you are here. Who wants to go first?"
Neither Sabina nor Birtukan spoke up.
Fromkin frowned. "Oh dear. Perhaps I did make a mistake in my choice of who to gag. I'll bet little miss sabretooth tiger over here would love to tell me all about why she's here, and what she thinks of me. Wouldn't you, pet?"
Roxana managed a malevolent laugh under her bandana gag, clearly agreeing.
"Them two came over from Eritrea," said Isaias, adjusting Sabina’s hat as he did so. He pointed to Birtukan, "this one is with the government."
Fromkin turned the smug smile on Isaias. "Must you Third World twits always ruin my fun?" Isaias' eyes widened in anger, but he checked himself.
Lesson Number Two from Ethiopia, Sabina made a mental note, money talks... but insults might talk louder, if repeated often enough.
Fromkin strolled over to Birtukan, and crouched before her. She met his eyes, defiant. It didn't appear to faze her kidnapper.
"The Eritrean government, yes?" he said, looking at the patches on her uniform. "I think the Ethiopians would like you here even less than I do."
"My team made contact with the Ethiopians this evening," Birtukan spat. "There is a patrol making its way here this very moment. You are all going to be rotting in jail tomorrow morning."
Fromkin laughed out loud; his African companions managed a few uneasy chuckles, but appeared to take the threat more seriously.
"An Ethiopian patrol all the way out here, at this time of night. Oh my. You're a brave girl, but a terrible bluff," Fromkin let his voice sink lower. "I'm not the one who's going to be rotting by morning. Gag this one," he told Isaias, "if she's going to tell us lies, I'd just as soon her mouth remain shut."
Hailie, the older, African tracker, piped up from the doorway, as one of his men moved forward to stuff a white rag in Birtukan's mouth, and tie another very tightly over it. "They must've been with the patrol that followed us after the elephants."
"Exactly my thinking," Fromkin said. "Need I ask what you were doing in this part of the world, my dear Dr. Bowen?"
Sabina shrugged. "What I'm always doing. Trying to do research to benefit the cultural heritage of mankind. I see you're also up to your usual activity of plundering it. But what I really can't believe is that you've got Ethiopians here doing your dirty work for you. I'll bet you haven't personally laid a finger on any of the merchandise, have you? If the ring gets busted up, they take the fall for you. That's low."
Fromkin held Sabina's gaze for a long, heavy moment, trying to intimidate her. At last, though, he gave himself away with a nervous glance in the direction of the Africans near the door. Sabina smirked. Fromkin, however, was not one to stumble for long.
"And exactly what sort of benefit will those artifacts provide to these young men locked up in a University storeroom, or on display in a museum in Addis Ababa?"
"More benefit than it will give them in the hands of black market collectors, who won't invest a dime back into Ethiopia for the stolen goods. But what I want to know is, where does poaching elephant ivory figure into the game?" Sabina fired back. "The ivory demand is from China, right? Have they developed a taste for Aksumite culture, or does the ivory trade just provide a convenient way to get the artifacts out of the country?"
"She thinks too much, Fromkin," Hailie said. "Talks too much, too."
Sabina's eyes brightened. "Oh, and the poachers run protection for you in return for a cut of the profits! You'll pay your looters a little, but I'll bet you plan to stiff the poachers outright, don't you?"
Fromkin pulled a bandana out of his shirt pocket and, moving with the speed of desperation, shoved it roughly into Sabina's mouth. He whirled round behind her, keeping both hands clamped firmly over the resultant angry mumbling, and motioned to Hailie.
"Don't just stand there; get me something else to keep her mouth shut!"
Hailie stood glaring at Fromkin. He exchanged a look with Isaias, who still stood near the newly-gagged Birtukan. He looked even more upset than his older companion.
“Well, come on, damn you!” Fromkin cursed. “Who’s the one running the show, here?”
“Whoever’s paying,” Hailie said. He retrieved another strip of long black cloth, wadded it up and tossed it at Fromkin. Then he and Isaias both left, scowling.
“Bloody black bastards,” Fromkin muttered. With a hand still on Sabina’s mouth, he bent down to get the rag that Hailie had thrown. One leg went up in the air to counterbalance his reaching arm.
With all the power available to her, Sabina threw herself sideways, into Fromkin’s solitary supporting leg. It wasn’t much, but enough to knock him on the ground before Roxana. Sabina’s sister saw their kidnapper preparing to get up, and acted fast. Unable to move much from her hogtie, she instead rolled into the nearest stack of crates, sending the top two crashing down on Fromkin. One of them scored a direct hit on his head, knocking him unconscious.
Good going, Roxana! Sabina thought. She waited a moment, listening for the sound of investigating henchmen; none came. They were all being quite noisy outside around their fire; she wagered many of them were drunk. They had heard nothing.
Sabina worked the rag in her mouth up to her lips, and spat it out. She turned to her sister.
“Roxana, roll over so I can get at your hands.”
Sabina worked quickly and feverishly to untie her sister’s hands, fearing discovery all the time. But no one came in, and Fromkin lay still. With the two of them untied, they quickly freed their companions as well.
“Brilliantly done, ladies,” Birtukan whispered, rubbing her wrists. “But we’re still trapped and outnumbered. What do we do now?”
“I saw one of our kidnappers give this idiot the key to our Jeep,” Emily said, pointing at Fromkin. “That’s our best bet, but as to how we get to it, I’m afraid I’m coming up blank.”
Roxana rifled through Fromkin’s pockets, coming up with Sabina’s keys. A small black notebook fell out along with it.
“Here, Sabby,” Roxana said, tossing her sister the keys. Sabina caught them with one hand, her mouth set in a tight line at the loud jangling noise they made. She nearly rebuked her sister for her carelessness, but managed to suppress her anger.
Pick your battles, Sabina. Now’s not the time.
She noticed Roxana flipping through Fromkin’s notebook. “What’s that?” she asked.
“Looks like contact information. There are people all over the world in here. The UK, US, Iraq, Italy – China! That’ll be his link to the ivory trade,” Roxana chuckled, and lightly – though not gently – kicked Fromkin in the ribs. “This weirdo actually drew a little cartoon elephant on that one.”
“Don’t kick him, Roxie,” Sabina hissed. “He might wake up!”
“So I’ll bash him in the head again,” Roxana replied, snapping the book shut and pocketing it. “I’ll enjoy doing that.”
“You might kill him. That’s the last thing we want.”
Sabina’s fists clenched. The flippancy, the arrogance of the girl! Had they really sprung from the same family? Memories of childhood play dissolving into fights flooded into her mind.
“I’d enjoy bashing you in the head right about now,” Sabina said, without smiling.
“Ladies, ladies, please!” Birtukan stepped in, stretching her arms out between the sisters. “If I knew you two were just going to use our freedom to bicker, I’d have just as soon we all stayed gagged. That would have helped us escape just as much as this.”
Sabina’s eyes lit up. She turned to peek out the doorway at the men around the campfire. She saw their Jeep, parked close, but off to the side. Almost in darkness.
“Actually,” Sabina said, turning back round to the group, with a mischievous glint in her eyes, “it will turn out to be a lot more helpful.”
Three primal things are often cited for helping a man to forget when the world around him is dark and cold: big, roaring fires; strong drinks; and women.
The men working for Allen Fromkin were mostly very happy in that they possessed two of these things in abundance. The fire kept out the cold of the desert night, and the drinks made them laugh and sing. The only thing that could have improved their lot were women. And, all of these men were well aware that there were four of them right nearby, with not very good prospects of ever escaping their captivity. The night was still young; perhaps they would be three for three before the dawn.
Hailie, Isaias and most of the other poachers were not thinking about these things. They sat apart from the others, talking in low tones. They talked about money, and whether Fromkin could be trusted. They plotted, planned, and discarded plans many times over. They did not do much drinking. Their minds, too, were on the contents of the shack, but rarely on the women.
As such, they were the first to notice when a plume of black smoke began issuing from the doorway of the ramshackle building.
Isaias stood up, dropping his drink. He pointed at the shack, and began walking forward. He was about to cry out, when something else stopped him.
Suddenly, all four of the captive women bolted out of the doorway. The thick, tight gags each had been fitted with were easily visible in the firelight, and their hands were wrapped up in rope behind their backs. It was not a surreptitious escape; all of them screamed and whimpered unintelligibly through their stuffed mouths, trying to get the attention of their kidnappers. It worked.
“Fire!” the shout went up from a dozen throats at once, and the party was over. Every man present had staked his future livelihood on the artifacts and ivory within that building; every one of them grabbed any source of water he could find, or a blanket to beat at the flames. Even when Fromkin, the man in charge of the entire operation, appeared at the doorway holding his head and coughing, he was shoved aside by men eager to kill the fire – many of whom shouted curses at him for starting it.
Obviously, it had to be his fault; who else could have started a fire; the four bound women?
It was all the commotion the captives needed. They raced for Sabina’s Jeep, dropping the ropes they had looped loosely about their wrists, but not bothering with their gags in their haste to escape. They leapt into the Jeep, with Sabina in the driver’s seat. She turned the key.
The engine turned over, but didn’t start.
Roxana was the first to pull away her gag. She spit out the wadded-up gauze in her mouth, and flung it away.
“I can’t believe you talked me into stuffing that back in my fucking mouth,” she swore. “What’s wrong?”
“Mmmph-mm,” Sabina mumbled, trying to turn over the engine again. Birtukan was pulling her gag down around her neck now as well. Emily, frozen in a panic as she had been earlier with the lioness, still wore hers as she watched the men drunkenly scramble to put out the fire.
As such, she noticed Hailie and a group of several poachers whose attention had been attracted by the noise of the Jeep. They had begun to approach.
“Mmm! Mmm!” Emily screeched. Roxana reached up to pull down the terrified girl’s gag.
“They’re coming, oh my god Sabina, they’re coming, hurry, hurry, hurry, please hurry – ”
“Mh mm gmd, plmmsm pmt mt bmck!” Sabina growled at her sister, still trying to start the car.
“Ugh, I agree,” Roxana said, and pulled Emily’s gag back into place.
Finally, the Jeep started up. Sabina hit the oncoming poachers with a spray of rocks and dust as her tires spun out, and finally the four captives shot out into the desert. They sped up the road to the north, toward the Tekeze River, as this was the direction the Jeep was pointed. Soon the burning shack was no more than a distant beacon in the night.
At long last, Sabina pulled down her gag and spat out the wad of cloth. She said, “is everybody okay?”
All replied in the affirmative, except for Emily; she began a mumbled response, then realized her mouth was still covered. She, too, ungagged herself, and turned around to Roxana.
“You put this thing back over my mouth, didn’t you?”
Roxana scowled. “Yes. You were annoying me.”
Emily turned to her fellow archaeologist. “Sabina, your sister re-gagged me!”
“I told her to,” Sabina said, with a shrug. “You wouldn’t shut up.”
Emily looked back and forth between the two Bowen sisters, and finally settled back in her seat.
“You two really are sisters.”
Birtukan leaned forward to address Sabina. “Keep on this road toward the River, and the border. Roxana and I are both in Ethiopia illegally. If we talk to the authorities here, we’ll be jailed.”
“I wonder which one of you is responsible for that one,” Sabina said, glaring at Roxana in the rear-view mirror.
“Excuse me for taking positive action,” Roxana shot back. “That ivory and your stolen artifacts are still in the hands of criminals – if they’re not burnt to ash by now.”
“I don’t recall hearing your plan for escape,” Sabina said, with a maniacal smile, “or much of anything at all, before I got us free and unsealed your mouth for you.”
Roxana laughed. “You got us free? I think I’m the one who took out Fromkin, thank you. Some plan, too; beat a retreat bound and gagged and let the badguys have the loot.”
“And I repeat, what was your plan for escape? Now we know exactly where they are!”
“We certainly do, you bickering idiots!” Birtukan butted in, “And they know where we are, too!”
All four turned, save Sabina, who checked her mirrors; distant headlights were coming up behind them, fast.
“Shit,” Roxana swore, “we should have grabbed some of their damn guns!”
“Don’t worry,” Emily said, shrinking down into her seat, “I’m sure they brought some.”
Sabina sped up as much as she dared on this unpaved track; shortly, however, there appeared a new problem.
“It would have been great if we could have taken some gas, too,” Sabina said. “I’m running on fumes.”
“Can we lose them?” Emily whimpered.
“Sure, let me just find the nearest dark alley between two tall buildings,” Sabina snapped.
“God, if we had just taken the time to grab a rifle,” Roxana said, looking out the back window, “I could have shot out their fucking tires already.”
“Well, just give it a second,” Sabina shouted. “We’ll be captured again, and this time we’ll follow your plan.”
Emily poked her head up. “Sabina, please stop freaking out, okay? I’m a gibbering wreck over here, and seeing the most cool-headed person I know losing her temper is not helping.”
“That’d be my fault,” Roxana said. “She always hates it when I’m right.”
Sabina nearly snapped back at her sister, but gripped the steering wheel instead. Do not wrestle with her on that playground right now, she thought. Roxie gets angry when she’s scared. She tries to act tough. You know this.
“You’re right, Emily. I’m sorry,” Sabina said, eyes straight ahead on the road. I’m trying to think. I’m afraid I don’t have a way out of this.”
The Jeep began to slow. To its occupants’ surprise, the headlights hit on a dark mass of green about a hundred yards off the side of the road. It was a small, but thick mass of brush; an oasis.
“Okay, I have a new plan,” Sabina said.
“Is it as bad as the last one?” Roxana said.
“Worse,” Sabina said, while smirking at Emily. She felt heartened when fellow archaeologist actually laughed a little. “We hide the Jeep in that brush and pray to the dead kings of Aksum that the badguys pass us by.”
“How likely do you think that is?” Roxana replied.
“Not very.” Sabina swerved off the road, using the last bit of gas to thrust the Jeep across the rocky desert in the direction of the oasis. The women bounced against the seats, the roof, and each other, teeth chattering all the way. After a minute or two, they came to a dead standstill - mere yards away from the cover of the foliage.
And the poachers were right behind them.
“Damn it!” Sabina swore, seeing the truck pulling up closer in her rear view mirror. “Look, I’m sorry, everyone. It was my own stupidity that made me drive out here in the first place without enough gas to get back,” she sighed, looking down at her lap. “Roxana, I guess we’re going to get to try out your plan after all.”
“No way,” Roxana said.
“What?” Sabina replied. “Yes way. We’re kinda boned here. What are you – ”
Sabina turned round in her seat to find Roxana staring out the window with a smile creeping over her features. She followed her sister’s gaze, to behold a face staring back at them from out of the foliage. A small, orange face in a furry brown body.
“Olive baboons,” Roxana said. She took off her seatbelt, and opened her door.
“Roxana, what are you doing?”
“Sit tight,” her younger sibling said. “And don’t ask me how I learned this.”
Roxana began emitting a series of shrill, high-pitched “wa-hoo!” calls. They were loud, piercing; there was no way that anyone within several desert miles could fail to hear them. Emily and Birtukan gave Sabina a look that let her know they thought her sister had gone mad. She shrugged.
“She said not to ask!”
The response from the foliage was immediate. Baboons appeared everywhere, echoing the “wa-hoo!” call. They dove in and out of the foliage, climbed atop the car, hooted from the trees. Roxana dove back into the car, just as the poachers pulled up alongside them.
“Alright,” an angry voice yelled, “All of you bitches, out of the car – gah, bloody monkeys!”
The baboons pelted the poachers with sticks and rocks, shrieking all the while. Two of the men retreated into their truck; the other three levelled their rifles, trying to take aim for the creatures flitting in and out of the trees. There was a wild shot, then two.
“Get down!” Sabina yelled, and all four women ducked, screaming.
But the primates had only been the opening act.
The Jeep began to quake with approaching footsteps. There was a sudden crash from the foliage just in front of the hood, and Sabina raised her head to behold a huge, wrinkled grey mass lumbering into her headlights. She looked up, and up – into the serene brown eye of an adult female elephant.
Oh my God, Sabina thought. She had seen elephants at a distance in zoos; almost as far-removed as if they had been on a television screen. She had admired their size and tranquility. But to have one here, looming over her mere feet away, unconstrained by fences or pits, was another experience entirely.
To Sabina, who dedicated her life to the wonders of the distant past, the significance of this enormous megafauna could not be lost. They, like humans, had endured the withering bottleneck of the Ice Age, outlasting all of their larger and hardier relatives to emerge into a world of warmer climes. They, like humans, now struggled to survive in an increasingly-crowding world.
They, like humans, may not make it through the next bottleneck.
From the back seat, Roxana, too, stared in awe at the elephant. She said, with a smile audible in her voice, “That’s why I became a conservationist.”
Three more adults emerged from the brush behind her, shaking the ground with every step. Sabina stared in wonder as they massed in front of the poacher’s truck, seemingly ignoring the immobile Jeep of the four captives. Then, with a brief trumpet of anger, the lead female charged.
The poachers had still been preoccupied with shooting – or trying to, anyway – into the trees, unsuccessfully. Only one of them saw the imminent disaster in time to bail out of the truck and flee into the night. The others were still inside, and Sabina saw their hands go up in terror at the very last second before the enraged elephant slammed her tusks into the radiator of the truck, lifting the entire front end several feet off the ground and pushing the vehicle backwards about ten feet. It landed with a crash, reoriented so that the front now faced the back of Sabina’s Jeep.
“Oh, that’s gotta hurt some tailbones!” Roxana said, laughing. Sabina watched as another elephant began to charge; another poacher leapt out and fled, throwing aside his rifle as he vanished into the desert. The second elephant, a male, shook his mighty head as he barreled straight at the driver’s side of the truck. Sabina managed to observe a look of abject terror on the face of the driver just before the male’s tusks rammed into the lower portion of the car. He pushed it back, and back, straining against the car’s weight as though it were another elephant he was fighting. One of the tires slipped its rim, and the vehicle stuck in the sand once more. The male backed off.
Now the remaining poachers abandoned ship, all exiting through the passenger side. They were just in time. The lead female had started another charge on the heels of her male friend, this one even faster and more furious than the first. She lowered that enormous head, trumpeting in rage. With a flick of her powerful neck muscles, she swung her tusks straight up into the undercarriage of the poachers’ truck, sending it rolling sideways across the desert floor. Objects of all kinds flew out of the broken windows, the headlights flashing like an insane light show. The vehicle rolled twice, all told, and wound up resting on its driver’s side doors.
The elephants, evidently deciding their foe was fully beaten, curled up their trunks and trumpeted in triumph, before returning through the foliage to their place at the watering hole. The baboons, too, retreated en masse to their hiding places in the treetops, with only a few lookouts poking their heads through the leaves. The desert resumed the quiet it had enjoyed before the arrival of the human parties.
Sabina, turned round in her seat to watch the destruction of the poachers’ truck, looked at her sister, who was laughing with glee. A smirk touched the older Bowen’s lips.
“Good plan, Roxie,” she said.
Roxana turned to her, still smiling, but no longer laughing. For a moment, they locked eyes, and each felt the barriers and barbed wire between them slip away. Each forgot the bitterness and bickering that had continued all evening. Each saw that, underneath the raw nerves of rivalry, there flowed indeed a river of warmth between them.
“Yeah, well,” Roxana said, breaking the spell, “I guess you could say I improvised.”
Sabina looked away, down at her hand on the gear-shift, and softly laughed.
“Come on, “Roxana said, opening her door again, “we’d better see if they brought any spare gas along, and get it quick in case they come back.”
The four women all got out and walked cautiously toward the car. Roxana made another noise at her friendly baboons, who instantly went on the alert once more.
“Forget whether you planned all this or not,” Emily said, looking round and wringing her hands, “how did you know the elephants were here, and how did you make the animals help us?”
Roxana turned around, walking backwards so she could talk to Emily. She looked happy enough to skip.
“This is the only place in Africa where olive baboons have this symbiosis with elephants,” Roxana explained. “The baboons create an early-warning system for the elephants, and in return they use the watering holes the elephants dig. I saw the baboons, and knew it was about the only shot we had. So I gave them my best rendition of their threat signal.”
“Are you telling me you speak bloody baboon?” Emily said.
Roxana smiled at her. “Enough to get by.”
Sabina’s eyebrow rose.
Roxana had reached the poachers’ truck now, and began hunting through the strewn-about contents scattered all around it. The others began looking, too, and Sabina spotted a shock of blue in the headlights of the upturned truck. She dove after it, and came up wearing her new blue hat once more.
“They can take our lives,” Sabina said, in a mock Scottish accent, “but they can never take our cowboy hats!”
Meanwhile, Roxana had spotted a gas canister lying near the tailgate. Now, she actually did skip over to it, and lifting it upright, sloshed it around; it was full. She straightened up, holding the can aloft for her companions to see.
“Looks like I got our ticket out of here!” she said. A shadow moved behind her.
Sabina screamed. “Roxana!”
An arm shot up to hook beneath Roxana’s chin, and the barrel of a pistol pressed against her temple. Roxana dropped the gas canister, frozen. A cultured, upbeat voice sounded at her ear.
“I was just thinking the same thing as you, love.”
The face of Alan Fromkin appeared at Roxana’s side, his hair disheveled and clothes ripped. He gave his smug, toothy grin to Sabina from over her sister’s shoulder.
“That was quite a little ride you took me on, young Ms. Bowen,” he hissed at Roxana. “In return, I’m taking you for one as well. You,” he tipped his head up at Emily, clearly thinking she would be the most compliant. “Pick up this gas can and refuel your Jeep. Ms. Roxana and I will be departing.”
“I-I-I um, I um, I’m not sure I, um – ” Emily stammered.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” Fromkin swore. He looked at Sabina. “Dr. Bowen. Gas up your Jeep, or you become an only child. I trust you realize I am not joking.”
“Not at all, Dr. Fromkin,” Sabina said, locking eyes with her sister once again. Roxana was trying to be cool, trying to be tough. Sabina saw her muscles tensed for action – and her lip quivering with fear. Sabina was shaking, too; with anger, and terror. Fromkin had robbed her once before, of treasures that meant the world to her in a professional capacity. Now, she watched the son of a bitch move his slimy, snakelike head right behind Roxana’s, almost indeed like a snake sniffing at the prey it would soon devour. He could very well rob her once again, of something far more precious.
Then, she noticed the position of Fromkin’s head meant something else.
“I know you’re not joking in the least bit,” Sabina continued, leveling her eyes at Roxana. In spite of herself, she slowly smiled. “You’re right… right on the nose.”
Roxana, licking her lips, dropped her head as much as Fromkin would allow, as though bending in submission.
“What a good couple of girls you both are – ” Fromkin began. He did not have time to finish.
As soon as Fromkin began speaking, Roxana squeezed her eyes shut, and slammed her head backward, as hard as she possibly could. Her skull rammed into Fromkin’s face with an audible and sickening crack, like the collision of billiard balls. All three women watching cringed.
Fromkin released his hold on Roxana, as well as on his gun. Emily, finally snapping to, flung herself down to snatch it up. The gun’s owner, however, didn’t seem to notice. He was too busy holding his fingers up to the stream of blood oozing down from his nose. He looked up at Sabina, with tears of anger and pain in his eyes.
“God dab id, dot agaid!” he said.
Roxana sized him up, then reared back and delivered a right cross that put him on his back – out like a light once more.
The others came up to stand over Fromkin. Birtukan took the gun from Emily, who looked like she was about to faint. Sabina put a hand on Roxana’s arm. When her younger sibling met her eyes, they clung together in an embrace as though magnetized.
Sabina said, with tears in her eyes, “That’s my little sister.”
After daybreak, Sabina and Emily found themselves back at the looters’ shack, complete with escorts from the Ethiopian Border Patrol. The shack was black and smoking, but intact; the artifacts and ivory within undamaged. The looters, to a man, had fled. Without Fromkin and his international contacts, their operation could go nowhere.
Sabina and her fellow captives had trussed up Fromkin well and kept watch on him; he now sat in the back of the Border Patrol officer’s car, in handcuffs. Though the destruction of the archaeological site still made her see red, she had to admit that the sight of the man who had plundered two digs and kidnapped her twice sitting in the back of a police car gave her a warm, fuzzy feeling.
What she had much more mixed feelings about was the departure of her sister. Sabina had taken her and Birtukan back to the Tekeze River crossing in the early morning light, so that they might avoid seeing the inside of an Ethiopian prison. The two sisters had stood together for a long time, finding words difficult.
“I’m in Ethiopia for another week,” Sabina said, “I’ll be spending it in Addis Ababa. I’ve got a nice hotel. Please say you’ll come stay with me, Roxana.”
The corner of Roxana’s mouth moved into a tiny smile. “I’m out of time in this part of the world. No way in hell Birtukan is going to let me keep going on patrol after this. Plenty of other places, though. There are threatened species everywhere.”
“Where?” Sabina said. She bit her lip. She hadn’t meant to let such desperation creep into her voice.
Roxana frowned. “You’re trying to get me to go back home.”
“I’m trying to get you to come to Addis Ababa with me,” Sabina said. “Mom and Dad didn’t send me, I swear it. I had no idea you were here. Although I can see why you might have thought they did; if they knew what you were up to, they’d probably be on the way here themselves.” Sabina licked her lips. “But, you really should still be in school, Roxana.”
Roxana shook her head. “You don’t get it any more than they do. How many animals will go extinct while I’m sitting in a classroom, waiting for someone to tell me I’m finally qualified to make a difference? I’d rather be out here, fighting for them.”
“I understand,” Sabina said. “I’ve dug up my share of threatened sites. I’ve watched knowledge get destroyed, become lost forever. It infuriates me. It depresses me.” Sabina took her sister’s hands.
“But none of that compares to what I felt when Fromkin had that gun to your head.”
Roxana met Sabina’s eyes, but did not respond.
“There will always be threatened sites,” Sabina said. “There will always be threatened species… but the only endangered one I’m worried about is you.”
Roxana turned away. From the riverbed, Birtukan called to them.
“Roxana, hurry up! The Ethis’ Border Patrol will be here very soon!”
Roxana put on her rosy sunglasses. “Thanks for the help, big sister,” she said. “Don’t worry. You’ll see me at Christmas.”
She started to walk away, but hesitated. She dug in her left hip pocket, and removed Fromkin’s notebook. She walked back to Sabina, and placed it in her hand.
“I think you’ll make better use of this than I will. Fromkin was only one cog in this black market machine; maybe you can use this to disable the whole thing.”
“Thank you, Roxana,” Sabina said. “I love you.”
Roxana smirked. “Love you too, big sister.”
Sabina sat on the hood of her Jeep, flipping through Fromkin’s notebook. Sadly, most of the names were coded or partial. One name, however, stood out; not so much for the name itself, but because of one of Fromkin’s moronic doodles that Roxana had mentioned.
Below the phone number was the drawing of a small bull idol, in an ancient Babylonian style. It was an idol Sabina knew well; Fromkin had stolen it from her in Iraq. The name on the page was G. Peruggia. The phone number put them somewhere in Italy.
“Emily,” Sabina called into the desert wind. “How do you feel about a Mediterranean holiday?” There was no response. She turned around, to see the stressed-out grad student fast asleep in the passenger seat.
Sabina smiled. It’s just as well, she thought, adjusting her cowboy hat, to brush a long, black curl out of her face. I suppose I’d rather go after this one alone.
But that was not entirely true. Sabina could think of at least one person that she wished was still by her side in the journey to come.