Although Roberta claimed to suffer from explosions in her skull the next morning, Khalid drove them into the nearby hills to see Palmyra’s desert necropolis, where limestone tombs jutted like jagged teeth from the sandy earth.
The Palmyrenes originally buried their dead in those towers, he explained, but later changed to safer underground tombs. Each tomb held a family, each body on a shelf sealed with a carved stone slab. The bodies were long gone, most of the stone portraits stolen. Roberta seemed unusually subdued as they walked among the ancient tombs — maybe it was the hangover.
As they crunched between two of the tombs, a long-legged figure stepped from behind a broken tower.
“Greetings, ladies,” said Klaus. “Have you seen Zenobia’s palace?”
“No, but I can’t wait.” Roberta gazed at his worn but striking features. “Tombs’re okay, but I want to see where people lived and loved.”
“I know Palmyra well. You can give your guide time to himself.”
Reluctantly, Khalid left the women with the tall German, looking back with a scowl. Constance suspected that what he most resented was Klaus’s height. Klaus carried them in his Land Rover back into the ruined city. Without warning, three sharp-nosed fighter planes screeched across the blue-white sky.
“Nearby Air Force base,” Klaus explained.
Dirt blowing over their shoes, they hiked past marble temples to the jagged remains of Zenobia’s palace, where they lingered beside mosaic-lined pools in which she’d soaked her royal body. Centuries, millennia, of wars, here and all around. How many bodies turned to dust under the sand?
“Emperor Caracalla claimed Palmyra as a colony, but its wealth gave it unusual independence.” Klaus smiled suggestively at Roberta — at least, to Constance it appeared suggestive. “Zenobia made Palmyra into an independent empire again. Even dared mint coins with her profile.”
“Maybe I can find one.” Roberta looked as if she were about to start pawing through the rubble.
“It would be illegal for you to take it out of the country.”
“Piffle! I’m sure coins and stuff are smuggled out all the time.”
Klaus shook his head. “You’re not as immoral as you pretend.”
“Try me.” Waving away the subject with her hand, Roberta added impatiently, “I know the rest of the story. The lousy emperor attacked the city, captured Zenobia when she tried to run away,and carried her off to Rome — wrapped in gold chains, of course — but she starved herself to death, mourning for her city and her freedom. Still, she almost beat those bastards.”
Roberta flashed a triumphant smile, as if the near victory had been hers, too.
“Tomorrow,” Klaus told them, as they drove back, “I have a surprise for you, something no one else has seen. Something you will never forget.”
“Do we have to wait?” pleaded Roberta. “I hate waiting.”
“I see you do.” Klaus smiled. Teeth too white. Artificially, Constance wondered? “In that case, we will do the surprise in the morning. This evening you are my guests for dinner.”
He was working hard to charm them. Why? All through dinner, Constance studied him, but his performance was flawless — even later, as they sipped drinks on the verandah, watching the light fade over the ruins and listening to the guttural chatter of the young Germans. What was he after — beyond poor Roberta’s body?
When Roberta didn’t respond to several taps at her door the next morning, Constance assumed she’d spent the night with Klaus, but a few minutes later,she saw him filling a plate at the buffet downstairs.
“Your friend isn’t up yet?” he asked.
“I thought she was with you.”
He shook his head. “My lectures yesterday must have exhausted her.”
Constance couldn’t decide whether or not she liked Klaus, although he was going out of his way to be attentive. He even insisted on carrying her plate from the buffet to his table. Pouring her coffee, he assured her that she had no reason to worry about Roberta.
“She was too eager to see sunrise over the ruins to think about food. Soon, she’ll be back.”
After breakfast, Constance tried Roberta’s door again. Still no answer. Even if Roberta had ventured out, she should be back by now. Finally, Constance persuaded Klaus to go with her when she asked the manager to unlock Roberta’s door. Her bedding was folded back but not slept in, her clothes in the closet and drawers, her toiletries still scattered in the bathroom.
“Perhaps she had an accident in the ruins,” suggested the manager. He said this as if it would reassure Constance. “We will notify the police. Your friend will be found.”
“We’ll all look for her,” said Klaus.
“Where’s Khalid? Maybe he knows…” They’re so smug. Condescending. Damn men.
But the mustachioed driver wasn’t in the hotel.
“Your friend told Khalid he wouldn’t be needed today. He’s enjoying a day off.”
Soon several policemen from Tadmor, the nearest town, were searching the ruins. Tourists already were wandering the ancient streets, buildings, and tombs. Costumed in shorts, sandals, T-shirts, hats of various shapes and sizes, they might’ve been trudging over the sand toward the surf instead on the remains of a three-thousand year-old civilization.
“If she’s here, she’ll be found,” Klaus pronounced as they started up the colonnaded central boulevard.
“So many buildings, so many ruins. She could be anywhere.” Constance gestured across the scattered rubble. “In a tomb with a broken leg. Up in the castle. Anywhere.”
Or off with a camel driver. Or another tourist.
“What about that surprise you mentioned?” she asked. “Did you tell her about it? I know how good she is at wheedling information.”
“I hinted but didn’t tell her where it is. Still, if it will make you feel better, we can go there.” He shrugged. “You’ll find it of interest.”
Speeding past date groves, Klaus lurched onto a gravel-and-dirt track, then maneuvered through scrub growth and sand. For a while, the harsh, persistent whir of a helicopter scraped through the sky overhead. Searching for Roberta? Keeping watch over the archeological site? Spying on the populace? Constance never found out.
This wasn’t always desert, Constance seemed to remember reading. But the world changes. Deserts grow. They hardly ever shrink.
After half an hour bouncing across the desert, Klaus swerved to a stop and jumped out. The mid-day sun reflected off the limestone entrance of an underground tomb. A pipe more than a foot in diameter bridged sandy steps that descended to massive doors, ramming into the sand on either side.
“It was found when the oil pipeline was being put through.”
Snatching a flashlight from the Land Rover, he ducked under the pipe and unlocked the stone doors, so perfectly balanced that they swung easily despite their great weight. Following him down the steps and under the pipe, Constance stepped into the dry dusty chill of the past.
Black, except where he swung his light, then a single caged bulb shining through dust clouds: a honeycomb of stone, bigger than expected. Colder, too.
Not denuded by either grave robbers or archaeologists, carved portrait slabs still protected many stone shelves. Moving ahead of her through the icy darkness, Klaus directed his light at them. Here, a curly-headed youth, his expression defiant even in death. There, a proud middle-aged woman, hair elaborately arranged atop her long face. At the end of the room, a bas-relief of the entire family languidly dining Roman style.
“I’m about to begin serious study of this tomb,” Klaus whispered over her shoulder. “Only a few colleagues have seen it.”
Motioning for Constance to follow him to a corner where a portrait slab had been lifted from one of the burial shelves, he aimed the flashlight beam onto a skeleton, its shape twisted as if sleeping, a small clay oil lamp near the bony hand. Pulled by the ancient remains, she stepped forward.
Her father sat on a folding chair in front of a wall of drawers. Incinerated remains in them. One holding his wife. Her mother.
Klaus moved near, wrapping an arm around her. She felt his warmth and breathed in the smell of his skin and cologne. His lips touched her forehead. What was going on here? She broke away. He led her up the limestone steps into the sun. While he closed the great doors, she climbed into the dusty Land Rover, still trembling.
Children, she’d tell the fourth-graders, deep in a hole under the desert I saw stone shelves where dead people once were stored like big dolls. A skeleton was still lying on one of the shelves after two thousand years.
“Tell me about your friend,” Klaus asked, as they drove back to the hotel.
“What is there to say? Her parents died, leaving her a lot of money. She’s smart, educated. Self-indulgent. Always searching for love.”
“What does that mean?”
“She’s constantly in and out of relationships, moaning about her broken heart and cursing men, but I’ve never felt that any of it really mattered to her.”
“A strange young woman.”
“Quite ordinary, really.” She clutched the side of the Land Rover as they bounced over the rugged terrain. “Could Roberta have been kidnapped? She knows nothing about politics.”
“It’s unlikely,” he said. “But you don’t have to be political to be kidnapped for political reasons. And in this country everything is political.”