Harry followed. "So you think that's Ashley's kid?"
"Shit. Bad time to be playing a video game."
Nob'cobi signaled them to be quiet and waved Harry next to him. He whispered something in his ear. Harry grimaced and backed next to Ben. In a hushed voice, he translated. "This is where Nob'cobi spotted Tiny Tim. The music came from just around the next collapsed building."
Ben nodded. This time he made sure he placed each foot on solid rock before proceeding. He didn't want to repeat the previous blunder that had attracted the pod's attention. The group crept silently, edging past a demolished mess tent, its pots and pans strewn across the rocky floor.
After a minute of creeping, the now-familiar sound of claw on rock and snuffling of something large could be heard from up ahead. Nob'cobi, who was a few yards in front of Ben and Harry, peered around the edge of a pile of shredded lumber into the clearing beyond. Suddenly, he popped back, flattening himself against the corner. He signaled them to freeze.
Ben watched as the beast's thick tail swung into view ahead, sweeping aside a few stray pots. Their clattering was painfully loud in the silence of the dead camp. The tail then disappeared from view.
Nob'cobi waved them slowly forward. Ben crept up first and inched just enough around the corner to peer into the clearing ahead.
Its back was to him, tail slashing back and forth. He could see its head flicking from left to right as it examined something in front of it, snorting loudly. Then it shuffled to the side to get another vantage in which to examine its prey.
Ben suppressed a gasp. As the large creature moved, it revealed its intended target. Jason was roped to one of the columns, the boy's eyes wide with terror. But the crak'an just circled around the column, snorting and snuffling, obviously baffled as to why its prey wasn't running. Like a cat, Ben thought, it wasn't used to a meal just sitting there.
Ben slipped back around and allowed Harry a peek before speaking. He whispered in Harry's ear. "I need you to lure the bastard away. Like you did the others. Give me a chance to free Jason and get him to safety. We'll meet back at Blakely's office."
"But be careful," Ben warned. "This bastard's a tricky one."
Harry huddled a moment with Nob'cobi. Then the two slipped away to circle east a bit, to draw its attention away from Ben's hiding place.
Ben waited as they maneuvered into position, holding his breath, praying that he wouldn't all of a sudden hear a scream from Jason. The creature wouldn't wait forever. Eventually the novelty would wear thin and it would attack.
Tensed, muscles quivering with anticipation, Ben jumped at the sudden eruption of clanking pots and pans from just east of his position. Harry and Nob'cobi. It was about time. He risked peeking around the corner to see the commotion's effect on the crak'an.
It stood there frozen, its ears cocked back to listen, then slowly swung its head in the direction of the noise. It took a few steps toward the sound, then stopped and glanced back at Jason strapped to the pillar. It wasn't going to take the bait. At least not before nailing its easy prey. It took a step back toward Jason.
Goddamn you! Ben raised his pistol. Before Ben could shoot, Harry jumped into the clearing with two dented pots in his hands.
He hollered at it. "Hey there, big fellow, how about a little action?" To punctuate his statement, he slammed the pots together.
The voice and clank got its attention. With a roar, it swung back in Harry's direction. The quickness of the beast seemed to catch Harry off guard. He stumbled a step backward, almost falling. Ben clenched his teeth. Move it, soldier! Harry seemed to hear his silent command and dashed back into the alley.
The fleeing man was too much temptation for the monster. It scrabbled after Harry, disappearing down the alley.
Ben didn't wait. As soon as the tip of its tail vanished, he dashed into the clearing. Toward the boy.
Tears trailed down Jason's soot-blackened features. The boy still stared in the direction of the disappearing beast. Thank god he seemed otherwise unharmed.
Ben ran toward him. The scuffing of Ben's boots on rock drew Jason's attention. A fleeting look of terror crossed his features before he seemed to recognize Ben. Then fresh tears flowed.
Ben reached him in seconds. He hugged him hard in the ropes, pulling the gag free, wondering who the hell had bound and gagged the boy. But now wasn't the time for questions. Jason shook with sobs. "You're okay now, son. You're safe."
But Jason kept on sobbing, trying to get words out between choking sobs. "I… tried to… tried to call you… with my game." He dropped the toy still held in his hands, and it clattered to the stone.
"You did good." Ben crouched down, pulled out a knife, and attacked the ropes.
"My… my mom… is she okay?"
"She's fine. She's somewhere safe."
Suddenly, Jason jerked in the loosening ropes. Ben could barely get the boy's hands untied with him squirming so much. He finally succeeded.
"Stay still for a sec. Let me get that last rope from around you."
"I need to see!" Jason seemed frantic.
Jason lifted up his untucked shirt. For the first time, Ben noticed the glowing LED readout on Jason's belt buckle. The number 6 glowed back at him.
Jason looked down, then moaned.
"It's a bomb," he said, a desperate look in his eyes.
"What the hell are you talking about?"
Jason pointed out the gray squares of plastique hooked to the belt. "Khalid put it on me. To control Linda. It's set to go off in six minutes."
"Then let's get it off you." He reached for the boy with the knife.
Jason backed away. "If it's removed, it'll go off. Only the secret code will release it."
"Who knows the code?"
"Khalid… and he's out there somewhere setting other bombs."
The goddamn bastard. If I get my hands on him… "Well, there's got to be a way to disarm it. Maybe Harry… he's a demolitions expert." Ben covered his face with his hands. Bloody hell. How was he going to get him back here in time? They weren't supposed to rendezvous back at Blakely's office for another half hour. He clenched his fists and pressed them against his temple. Goddamn it man, think!
Ben stared as the LED number dissolved from a 6 to a 5.
Ashley plopped down on the pillow in her small cave. Once again she was confined to her cell. Three guards stood at the threshold, diamond blades glinting in the fungal glow. She had tried through both pantomime and repeating Sin'jari's name to communicate her innocence in the attack on Mo'amba, but it was futile. Her only witness, Mo'amba, was near death.
A commotion at the entrance to her cell drew her attention. She watched as Michaelson was shoved past the guards. He stumbled on his weak ankle but caught his balance.
"Fuckers took my guns," he said as he crossed over to her. "All of them. What's going on?"
"Sorry, it was my fault," she said, standing up, her muscles still tense with frustration. "I was at the wrong place at the wrong time." She told him the story of Sin'jari's attack on Mo'amba, and the result of her interference. "I was caught with a smoking gun, so to speak. Mo'amba was found stabbed in the chest with me standing over him, the murder weapon in my hand. Can you blame them?"
"What's going to happen?"
She shrugged. "I don't know. I think everyone's more concerned about Mo'amba at the moment."
"Do you think the old guy has any chance of surviving?"
Ashley shook her head. "Doubtful. He lost a lot of blood. And with his mental abilities, if he was able, he'd be blowing the whistle on Sin'jari himself-telepathically on all wavelengths. For him to be remaining so silent, he's got to be nearly brain-dead. And if he dies, I don't think either one of us has much chance of living, regardless of whether or not Ben makes the deadline."
Michaelson glanced at his watch. "Ben has less than eight hours."
Sighing, she said, "Now I'm hoping he doesn't return. As angry as those tribesmen are, I think even if he returns with the statue, they'll just execute him along with us. It'd be best if he just stays away."
"I know." She sat back down on a pillow and waved Michaelson to do the same. "If only there was a way to warn him. To tell Harry and Ben not to come back."
"There's no way. Come hell or high water, Ben will return for you."
She smacked her knee with a fist. "Then I've got to find some way to let the village know about Sin'jari. Some way to communicate. But they won't even try to listen. Their judgment is too clouded with anger."
"Maybe Harry will return with Ben before Mo'amba dies. He could translate your story."
"Even if he did, do you think they'd believe us? Sin'jari is one of their elders. It would be his word against mine."
"Then we'll need evidence. What do you think the bastard was up to anyway?"
"No good, that's for sure. I think he means to interfere with Ben's mission. Thwart it in some way."
"If we could prove that, then that would go a long way to support your claim."
"But how?" she asked, exasperated.
"Catch him red-handed when he returns. The only easy route back to the village from Alpha Cavern is through that wormhole. If he went up that way, he'll sneak back that way."
"And how do you propose to catch him locked up in this cell?"
He shrugged. "Hey, I don't have all the answers."
She shook her head at the uselessness of their reverie. "Still, this all depends on Mo'amba surviving until Ben and Harry return. If he should-"
A keening wail erupted from the guards at the door. A cry that also echoed from the village around them, piercing the stone walls like paper, the pitch so high it caused the hairs to stand on Ashley's arms.