City of Screams (Page 2)

Time to go.

Jordan held up one hand, telling him to wait. “Professor Atherton, how many women were at the site?”

The professor stared at him a long second before answering. “Three. Charlotte. I mean, Dr. Bernstein, from the University of Chicago; a local woman who cooked for us; and her daughter. A little girl. Perhaps ten?”

Jordan’s stomach churned, upset at the thought of a little girl caught in what sounded like a massacre. He should have felt outrage, too. He searched for it, but found only disillusionment and resignation.

Am I that hardened?

October 23, 4:31 P.M.

Bamiyan Valley, Afghanistan

JORDAN STARED OUT the chopper’s window at the bowl-shaped valley below. Framed by snow-dusted mountain ranges to the north and south, the entire valley stretched thirty miles long, an oasis of farmlands and sheep ranches nestled between the tall, stony peaks of the Hindu Kush. Though only a short hop by helicopter over the mountains, the city of Kabul seemed a million miles from this isolated valley.

They circled the empty village where the archaeologists had set up their camp. The village was little more than a small cluster of a dozen mud-brick buildings, some with thatched roofs, others topped by rusted metal, a few open to the snowy sky. It didn’t look as if anyone had lived there for a long time before the archaeologists moved in.

Snow fell around them, thick, fluffy flakes that were collecting on the ground and obscuring any evidence. Jordan shifted impatiently in his seat. If they didn’t get there soon, he might not be able to do any good. Plus with the sun to set in the next half hour, they were about to run out of daylight.

They landed, and he and his team, now including Professor Atherton, hiked to the location identified by the Rangers as the murder site. Jordan had brought the professor along in case they needed a Bactrian translator.

Or someone to identify the archaeologists’ bodies.

He hoped the professor was up to the task. The guy had been getting twitchier the closer they got to the site. He’d started picking at the rim of his cast.

Jordan paced carefully around the edges of the gruesome crime scene. Thickening snow and careless feet had already disturbed the details of the crime, but they failed to hide the blood.

There was too much of it: splashed against crumbling stone walls on either side of the hard-packed dirt street, dragged into a rusty-red path out of the village. The wide smear looked like the thumbprint from a bloody god. It seemed that same god had stolen the bodies, too, leaving only evidence of a recent massacre.

But where were the victims taken?

And why?

And how?

He stared at the heavy flakes that fell from a darkening gray sky. They had only scraps of daylight left.

“Treat the entire village as a crime scene,” he instructed his two teammates. “I want it all secured. And I don’t want anyone else setting foot in here until we’re done.”

“Closing the barn door after the horse is out?” McKay stamped his feet against the cold and tugged his cold-weather gear more tightly over his wide shoulders. He pointed to a boot print that marred a pool of blood. “Looks like someone forgot to take their shoes off.”

Jordan recognized the tread mark of a U.S.-military-issue boot. This unfortunate contamination of the crime scene must be the result of the Ranger team who had locked down this valley in the preceding hours, securing the area for the arrival of Jordan’s team.

“Then let’s take a lesson and keep our own steps light from here,” Jordan warned.

“Got it. Light as a feather,” his second teammate acknowledged. Specialist Madison “Mad Dog” Cooper clapped a large black hand atop McKay’s shoulder and patted his friend’s ample stomach with the other. “But that might be a problem for McKay here. Back in Kabul, he’s been spending more time in the chow line than at the gym.”

McKay shoved him away. “It’s not about weight. It’s about technique.”

Cooper snorted. “I’ll take the north side. You cover the south.”

McKay nodded, hiking his pack higher on his shoulder and freeing his digital Nikon camera, ready to begin photographing the site. “First one back with a real clue buys the next round when we hit stateside.”

“Like you need another beer in that gut of yours,” Cooper said, waving him off.

Jordan watched them head off in different directions, following protocol, preparing to canvass the periphery of the town for tire tracks, footprints, abandoned weapons, anything that could identify the perpetrators of the attack. His two men were each trailed by an Afghani police officer—one was named Azar; the other, Farshad—both trainees from the Afghan Criminal Techniques Academy.

Jordan knew the banter of his two teammates masked their uneasiness. He read it in their eyes. They didn’t like this situation any better than he did. A bloody crime scene with no bodies smack in the middle of nowhere.

“Why would anyone live up here?” he mumbled, not expecting an answer but getting one.

“It may be that very isolation that first drew the Buddhist monks to this valley,” Professor Atherton said behind him. Jordan had practically forgotten that he was there.

“What do you mean?” Jordan unpacked his video camera. If the snow kept up, these pictures might be all they had to go on later. He drew a grid in his head and walked to the edge. He took off his gloves so he could work the camera. “Stay behind me, please, and out of the crime scene area.”

Atherton took a long draw of breath through his pinched nose, eyes darting from side to side as if afraid to settle on a single detail. When he spoke, his voice came out in a high-pitched rush. “This entire valley was revered by the Buddhists. They developed a vast monastic complex, digging out meditative caves and tunnels in the cliffs. Some of the world’s first oil paintings still decorate those cave walls.”

“Mmm-hmm.” Jordan switched the camera to low light. He wanted to get every detail he could.

The professor turned from the valley to the cliffs and continued with what sounded like an oft-delivered speech, slipping into a monotone. “Monks sculpted colossal statues of Buddha out of the cliff faces centuries ago. If you squint, you can still see the niches that once housed them.”

Jordan stared at the distant yellow cliffs and could make out the dark pocks marking tunnel and cave openings, along with giant archways, the niches of which the professor spoke.

“The Buddhas the Taliban destroyed back in 2001,” Jordan said, remembering the international outcry.

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