She knelt in the required position—legs spread wide apart, hands clasped behind her back, upper body bent forward till her forehead rested on the thick carpet. Every secret of her most private parts was exposed—to be viewed, to be fondled, to be violated. Her luxurious mane of dark hair was loose, flowing in waves down her bare back and curling over her shoulders to veil her face.
The air was filled with the heady perfume of incense and she could see the clay oil lamps flickering through a thin haze of smoke. Somewhere in the distance, a lone drummer began beating out a strange, compelling rhythm. The drumbeat grew louder, as one by one the tribesmen joined in.
She could feel the vibration, raw passion seeping into her soul as the tempo quickened. She was shaking all over, but not from cold, although she was nearly naked. She dared not move. He would come very soon, she was sure. After all, this was the night, the night he’d been anticipating—preparing her for ever so patiently, even at times ruthlessly, over all the long hot days and endless nights.
She knew the moment he entered the tent, though his footsteps were silent as those of a jungle cat. She breathed in his unique scent, the mixture of clean masculine sweat and potent male pheromones. When he dropped to his knees behind her and stroked her quivering ass possessively, she gasped. His large hands roamed over her naked ass and then slid down between her legs, arrogantly laying claim to her body.
There was no warning. The harsh crack of his callused palm against the tender skin of her upturned cheeks was followed almost instantly with a bolt of searing fire. She struggled to stay in position as he began spanking her in earnest, his hand raining down on her hapless bottom.
Despite the burning pain, a tiny smile flickered momentarily across her lips. Tonight she was his. And unlike all the other nights, she knew this one would have a very different ending…
“Doc, hurry up! Get over here! I just found the mother lode of ancient porn!”
Shay stood, cursing as a bolt of pain shot through her body. She’d been bent over, sweating in the hot sun on her knees for hours, patiently sweeping particles of sand from a delicate temple frieze. Her back was in spasms, her throat was drier than the dust she’d been clearing away, and she felt dizzy and light-headed.
“Damn it,” she muttered aloud. “If anyone should know better, it’s me. I’m always preaching to the interns about the dangers of heatstroke and how they need to take regular breaks and drink plenty of water.”
Shay reached for her canteen, taking a long gulp. The water was hot and smelled a little like camel, but then, everything here smelled a little like camel—or worse. Still, it was wet, and it soothed her parched throat. One more deep swallow, then a few drops splashed on her face and neck, and she was ready. She tucked a wayward strand of long dark hair back under the brim of her straw hat as she strode along, her well-worn leather work boots kicking up plumes of dust behind her.
“Okay, Jess, show me what you’ve got,” she called out.
A cluster of grad students and white-robed local workers were huddled around the area she’d identified as the temple’s inner courtyard. Jess and Owen were in the middle, clutching a handful of treasures they held out for her inspection. Tiny clay figurines. But unlike the crude Neolithic fertility goddesses with pendulous breasts and wide hips that had been found all over Europe and the Middle East, these figures were more delicately rendered. And they were of both sexes. The females had full breasts and hips, but they were in a variety of positions—some on hands and knees, some sitting or lying on their sides with one leg drawn up, some bending over with their legs spread wide apart. The other figures were clearly male—prominent penises jutting out as they stood or knelt. Owen was playing with the figures, arranging them in different scenarios as the workers laughed and egged him on. Shay understood enough of the local dialect to blush at some of the comments they made. Oh, great. Now he was adding sound effects to the show.
“That’s enough, Owen,” she said sharply, glaring up at him from under the brim of her hat. “Remember, these are sacred items, not ancient Barbie and Ken dolls.”
“I would have played with Barbie and Ken dolls if they looked like this,” Owen replied, not the least bit chastised. He took off his baseball cap and ran one hand through sun-streaked blond hair, pushing it back off his sweaty forehead. “Come on, Doc, seriously. Have you ever seen anything like this?”
Shay took one of the figurines, turning it over and over in her hand as she studied the anatomical features. It seemed vaguely familiar; although she was certain she’d never run across anything like it in her studies. The back rooms of museums all over the world were filled with ancient erotic artifacts and drawings considered too obscene for public viewing. She’d had an opportunity to examine many of them over the last ten years. In academic circles, Doctor Shayla Dennison was regarded as an expert in ancient fertility cults of the Middle East. But she treated her subject matter purely as a scholar, never allowing herself to participate in the smutty banter many of her male colleagues engaged in when they were together in a room full of explicitly pornographic images.
This find was exceptional. She’d never heard of anatomically correct male and female figurines found together on a site that was 3,000 years old.
“The oldest fertility cults celebrated the female form, with stone or clay statues honoring the woman’s role as the bearer of life,” she announced to the group. “Those statues are called Venus figurines. The earliest ever found is an incredible piece carved from mammoth tusk approximately 35,000 years ago. Some of those statues…”
“Yeah, Doc, we’ve all attended your lectures, remember? That’s how we ended up here.” Owen was persistent. “What I want to know is—have you ever seen ancient statues that look like they were prehistoric man’s version of props for an X-rated movie?”
“The only things that come close are petroglyphs found in China a few years ago,” she replied absently, still examining the figurine in her hand. “There are over a hundred drawings on a rock wall that show male and female figures engaging in sex acts, both one on one and with multiple partners at the same time. The men have enormous erect penises, sometimes larger in size than the males themselves. Some of the females are even shown having intercourse with animals.” Shay delivered the information in her usual dry tone, as though she were back in her classroom at the University of Chicago.
“Right, Doc, ancient people liked looking at porn too,” Jess chimed in. “But these statues—we’ve found something in Sheba’s temple that’s really rare, haven’t we?”
The young grad student was giddy with excitement, bouncing around, mindless of the crushing heat that had sucked the energy from everyone on the dig over the last few weeks.
“Now, Jess, we haven’t proven that this is Sheba’s temple,” Shay admonished.
But deep inside, she was as elated at the find as her students were. As a child, Shay wasn’t immersed in musical cartoons about princesses. She’d been raised by her grandmother, who told her ancient tales filled with romance and adventure. Legends about mythical gods and goddesses and snippets from The Arabian Nights were Shay’s bedtime stories. She was especially taken by the love story of Solomon and Sheba. When she began studying archaeology, Shay discovered that versions of their story appeared in ancient writings of many cultures.
According to those legends, 1,000 years before the birth of Christ there existed a fabulously wealthy kingdom in the Arabian Peninsula. Its ruler was a woman and she was known as the Queen of Sheba. Shay was convinced that the stories of the sensuous queen and her rich land called Sheba were based in fact. She hoped to find irrefutable evidence here in this desolate corner of the Arabian Peninsula that Sheba and her treasures were real.
“Don’t be such a spoilsport,” Jess was saying. “You know in your heart this is Sheba’s temple. And now you can see why King Solomon thought she was so hot. Just look at the statues. These erotic images are what she saw, what she touched. She was their high priestess as well as their ruler. We’ve found the place you’ve been searching for all your life… the Great Temple where the Queen of Sheba performed her exotic fertility rites.”
“Let’s break for lunch,” Shay replied, ignoring Jess’s outburst. “We can study these finds further in the shade of the tent this afternoon.” Every day was broken into two separate sessions on the dig—one beginning at daybreak, the other starting late in the day and lasting till darkness was falling to avoid the blistering heat of the midday sun.
“Help me measure and photograph these figurines so we can wrap them up to ship back to Chicago.” The dig had been given permission by the local government to send all artifacts to the US to study them. It took a hefty donation by a wealthy graduate of the university to a private ‘cultural fund’ run by the corrupt minister of antiquities to get that concession. Bribery had been part of doing business for millennia in the Middle East and Shay was a pragmatist. If a palm or two had to be greased to uncover and document an entire lost civilization, so be it.
Owen and John wandered in, their arms full of more of the tiny clay figurines. Shay picked up one of the female figurines. Kneeling down, bowing with her head on the ground, long hair covering her face, the figurine was posed in a position of subservience. Her knees were apart, her buttocks thrust up in the air. Though the figurine was tiny, the cheeks of her ass and exposed labia were rendered in great detail.
Shay could almost feel the tension building in the captive slave. She had been commanded to kneel, naked, with her legs spread wide apart and wait for her sultan to punish, then take her savagely… Shay clutched it tighter in her hand, shivering in spite of the heat. She took a deep breath and swore she caught a faint, familiar scent. Shay shook her head. There was no way this clay figure could still bear the odor of frankincense after three thousand years buried in the sand. She didn’t know where these fanciful images in her mind were coming from. Nothing about the figurine told her it was a slave. More likely it was a rendering of one of the temple prostitutes advertising her charms.
Shay sat the crouching statue down and chose another figurine, this time one of a male. He was on his knees, sporting a huge phallus. She did the calculations in her head. Based on the image’s overall size, an erect penis of the dimension depicted would be approximately twenty inches long on a live male. She smiled, idly stroking the stiff protrusion. In her limited experience, this figurine was definitely depicting a mythical being.
The team worked tirelessly, occasionally taking a break for water or one of the dry sandwiches that tasted like tinned mystery meat basted with sand. They all ate sparingly; knowing that their Bedouin cook was busy preparing the usual evening feast.
“Chow time, Doc.”
Shay glanced up in surprise. The tent was empty except for her tech assistant Ashley, who was unhooking her computer and slipping it into a large plastic trash bag to protect it from the dust storms that occasionally sprang up with no warning.
“Where did everyone go?”
“They’ve been back at the dig for hours. You were so lost in studying those figurines that I don’t think you even heard them leave. Anyway, it’s nearly dark. The fire is crackling and Abdullah has our meal ready. I don’t know about you, but I’m beat. It’s time to knock off for the day.”
Shay stretched her cramped muscles and looked around. Half a dozen statues lay on the tray in front of her, joined together in obscene poses. “I told Owen to knock it off,” she muttered, annoyed.
Ashley stared at her. “Owen didn’t do that,” she said. “You did.”
The young woman looked faintly embarrassed. “You’ve been playing with them for hours,” she said softly. “Rearranging them, talking to yourself, even humming and singing.”
“That’s not funny,” Shay snapped.
“I didn’t think it was funny either,” Ashley replied. “In fact, you scared me a little. It was like you were off in some other world.”
“It must have been caused by all that time I spent outside this morning without a break. Maybe I was having hallucinations brought on by dehydration.”
Ashley nodded, although she didn’t look convinced. “I’m sure you’re right, Doc.” The young woman hesitated in the doorway.
“Go on, Ashley. I’m fine. I’ll be there as soon as I put away my notes.”
Shay was thankful when Ashley disappeared without further comment. She’d glimpsed her notebook, and other than a few lines scribbled at the top of the page, it was completely blank.
“I must be losing my mind,” Shay muttered, then realized she’d been talking to herself out loud all day. “How could I have zoned out for hours?”
Vowing to take better care of herself in the future, Shay hastily rearranged the figurines in a single row on the tray. Refilling her empty canteen from a five-gallon jug in the corner of the makeshift lab, she headed for the safety of the group gathered around a welcome fire not far from their circle of sleeping tents.
Normally the quiet one in the group, John had taken center stage, treating the rest of the interns to a scathing impression of the head of the archaeology department back at the university. She stood in the shadows, watching. John somehow managed to convey the essence of Dr. Reid, scrunching his muscular six-foot-two frame into the chronic hunched-over pose of the humorless academic. He launched into a falsetto-voiced tirade about money being squandered on carbon dating of a recent find of Paleolithic skeletons from a cave in northern Spain.
“I hate paying for you people to prove that you’ve discovered something important,” he sniffed. “All you’re trying to do is show me up. Just because I haven’t stuck a shovel in the ground in the last thirty years…”
Jess was doubled over with laughter. “Now do Doc,” she urged.
John’s voice instantly changed, taking on a dry no-nonsense tone. He stuck his chest out to mimic Shay’s well-endowed figure that no amount of shapeless clothing could totally obscure and began pacing back and forth in front of the fire.
“Now as you know, ladies and gentlemen,” he began, “I’ve spent the last ten years attempting to prove that Neolithic fertility cults were actually ancient swinger’s clubs. Despite my many requests, Hugh Hefner has not agreed to be interviewed. However, as the last surviving member of one of those cults, his knowledge of their erotic rituals would be invaluable. I’ve come up with a way to get close to him, though. I recently hooked up a webcam in my bedroom and applied online to star in his latest documentary ‘Slutty Scholars Do His Big Ten.’ I hope when he sees my compelling video he’ll be aching to put it in me… I mean put me in it.”
“That was very amusing, John,” Shay remarked, striding into the clearing. The raucous laughter died immediately. Jess looked horrified; John stammered something between “Thank you” and “I’m sorry.” Owen just laughed.
“Now that you’re here, Doc, you can deliver the lecture yourself,” Owen urged. “Tell us one of your really dirty ancient tales. You know, the ones you reserve for us grad students. We’ve already paid our dues and sat through your boring introductory classes.”
“John is right about archaic devotions,” Shay replied. Without realizing it, she began moving back and forth in front of the fire as though she were on stage in her large lecture hall back in Chicago. “Early fertility cults probably were a little like swinger’s clubs… swinger’s clubs that doubled as religious gatherings. Many scholars believe that ancient temples housed both male and female prostitutes. It was common for devout pilgrims of both sexes to visit the temple, where some prayed for a good harvest from their crops and others prayed to be blessed with children.
“Wealthy and powerful men often took much younger wives in their old age, hoping for more heirs to carry on their line. Sometimes those women were brought to visit the temple’s young male prostitutes. The women were led to the altar and told to get down on their knees, all the while praying out loud for one of the gods to assume human form and fill them with blessings. According to papyrus texts that I’ve translated, their impotent husbands could pay an extra offering to watch, hidden behind the pillars surrounding the high altar.”
Shay’s voice took on a hypnotic note. “Imagine being in the temple on the night of the full moon when one of those rituals was about to be performed. You’re standing in the shadows, or if your offering to the gods is hefty enough, you have a seat in front of the altar where you can see everything. The Great Hall is lit with hundreds of oil lamps attached to the forty-foot-high pillars running the length of the room.
“The air is heavy with the musky odor of frankincense being burned in front of thousands of temple offerings lining the walls of the enormous hall—bowls overflowing with grain, pots filled with honey and rare spices, statues in all sizes and shapes, some adorned with gold and precious jewels.”
She stopped pacing. Her blank stare focused on a point beyond the fire. Shay continued softly, describing the scene as though she was there, peering out from behind a pillar in the inner sanctuary.
“In the center of the room, on a raised dais, is an enormous bronze bull, measuring nearly thirty feet tall at the tip of his horns. His erect penis juts out, gleaming in the firelight. A carved stone altar stands under him, between his legs, decorated with images of every kind of sexual act imaginable. The priests and temple prostitutes are lined up before the altar, waiting for the procession to arrive. It began at sundown, winding along the two-mile route from the city to the temple complex. Off in the distance, faint music reaches them first… flutes and lyres and the somber cadence of drums echoing off the distant cliffs.
“The male prostitutes, young men all, are nearly naked, displaying smooth muscles anointed with sacred oil that glistens in the firelight. Some of them are already imagining the rites that are to come, their erections poking out from the short linen garments they wear slung around their hips.”
* * *
Lost in the story, for a moment Jess thought she, too, could hear the faint hum of music. But as the sound grew louder, she jumped up, screaming at everyone.
“Run! Run for the tents! It’s a djinn!”
Everyone scrambled to grab their precious canteens, scattering plates and cups as they ran for cover. Long before the word was used to describe a genie with magical powers, djinn was the ancient name for the most dreaded curse of the desert—the dust devil. The team had already experienced one djinn, shortly after they arrived at the site. It was a mild storm, lasting only for an hour, but even so, the tents were nearly ripped from their moorings by ferocious winds that whirled like a tornado.
Dust devils could spring up in an instant, descending on an area with no warning. The foreman of their local Arab workforce told stories of djinns that had lasted for days, swallowing up entire caravans. The storms moved through the vast desert unimpeded, their howling winds driving swirling grains of sand that cut through clothing and skin, shredding hapless souls to the bone. The towering tsunamis of sand had been known to reach as much as fifty feet in height and nearly 1,000 miles across.
John and Owen ran side by side, catching up with Ashley as she headed for her tent. “Is Jess okay?” John shouted.
“She’s ahead of you.” Ashley coughed, her eyes and lungs fighting the whirling sand as she peered back toward the campfire circle. The welcoming light of the fire was gone, its location already obscured by the enormous dark cloud moving in. “Where’s Doc?”
“She was right behind us.”
“I don’t see her anywhere!” Ashley sounded frantic. “We have to make sure she’s okay. She was acting kind of weird today.”
“Go find Jess and get into a tent together. Hurry!” Owen yelled. “We’ll go back and look for Shay. It’s too dangerous for you to be wandering out here alone. Visibility is already near zero.”
The two men put their heads down and began battling against the wind, retracing their steps in what they hoped was the direction of the campfire.
* * *
Shay had been slow to react, lost in her tale of a world long gone. By the time Jess’s warning cries penetrated the fog that seemed to be over her brain, the storm was upon her. Eyes squeezed nearly shut to protect them from the harsh wind whipping grains of sand as sharp as shards of glass, Shay struggled in the direction of the tents. She knew they were pitched just a few hundred yards from the cooking fire. The Arab workers had long since retired for the night, as was their custom, and she was alone out in the storm.
She moved blindly, both hands out in front of her as she stumbled along. Pulling a thin bandana from her pocket, she hastily covered her nose and mouth, but she was still coughing and gasping for breath. Suddenly, a hard object struck her in the back of the head. Shay fell to her knees, reaching around behind her to find a fist-sized lump of rock that had been hurled by the wind. She struggled to get to her feet, then collapsed as the blinding pain overcame her. The wind was keening so loud her ears felt like they were going to pop. Cradling her aching head in her arms, Shay curled into a fetal position and closed her eyes as the full fury of the storm raged over her.