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Footprints in the Desert


It’s two years into World War I.

In Europe, on the Western front, trench warfare rages at the ongoing battles of Verdun and the Somme. On the Eastern front, Russia is at war with Germany and Austria-Hungary.

In Africa and in the Far East, the Triple Entente (Britain, France, and Russia) is fighting the Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy) to keep their respective colonial possessions. There is also the war at sea, a race between Britain and Germany for naval supremacy.

And in the Middle Eastern theatre of war, the Ottoman Empire, allied with the Alliance, is fighting the British in its own territories: the Sinai, Palestine, Mesopotamia, Persia, North Africa, and Arabia, and the Russians in the Caucuses to the north east of Turkey.


Chapter One
May 1916

It was an unseasonably hot and humid spring in Izmir, western Turkey. The mercury rose to dizzying heights and the accompanying mugginess created a cloying cover, a miserable haze that even the sun couldn’t burn through. The rumble of thunderclouds and flashes of lightning in the distance dangled hopes of a cooling rain, but it was only a tease. The clouds never came west. They roiled over the Bozdag mountain range, drenching villages and the valley beyond Mount Yamanlar, but never ventured towards the Aegean coast. The city was tense, like a volcano about to blow.

Just past seven in the evening on May 3, Salah Masri was staring out the large bay window of his small wood-paneled office that looked out onto Konak Square. It was swarming with Ottoman and German officers and soldiers. He noticed a new checkpoint at the north end of the square that led to the German military chief of staff’s residence. He saw people rushing around, getting their evening errands done before the recent nightly curfew began. Country women, almost all of them dressed in black, their heads covered with the traditional black scarf, were being stopped as they entered the market just beyond the square with their produce, their baskets searched.

A loud commotion broke out on the street in front of one of the many coffee houses around the square. Salah couldn’t quite make out what it was about, but policemen were taking a man away while two women on the ground held onto his legs, crying and screaming. “I’ve done nothing!” Salah thought he heard him say. “That’s what you all say,” and he watched as one of the policemen elbowed the man in the ribs, causing him to double over.

Salah took a deep breath and slowly released it. He walked back to his desk. Yes, the noose was tightening. But he was almost done. One more mission. That was it. He would have fulfilled his side of the bargain.

There was a knock on the door.

“Masri Pasha . . .” It was a young man who worked as an assistant.


“Sorry to bother you, but this telegram just arrived.”

Salah slit open the envelope and pulled out a piece of paper.

They’re on to you. Get out. Docks, 8 p.m. MN


Salah looked back down into the square. He saw four men in black suits and tarbush caps walking toward the building. In front of them was Colonel Omer Erdogan, who was rumored to be the new head of the Ottoman secret police. Salah’s pulse rate picked up.


He looked at his pocket watch. He had no more than five minutes before they reached his office. He hurriedly gathered the papers strewn across his desk and shoved some of them in an old, weathered cognac-colored leather pochette. The rest he inserted into a brown folder marked “Confidential” and threw it in a safe behind him. From the same safe, he pulled out an envelope and quickly thumbed through the lira notes before placing it in the breast pocket of his jacket. He also took out three passports and put them in along with the money. Finally, he opened the middle drawer of his desk. Inside a small locked compartment was a gun, a 9-millimeter German Luger. He checked the chamber to make sure it was loaded, unclicked and clicked the safety switch, and put it in the shoulder holster he had begun to wear. He got up, adjusted his jacket, and walked toward the door of his small office. Out of nowhere, a man appeared in the doorway.

“Colonel Erdogan!” Salah exclaimed.

The Ottoman officer crossed his arms across his chest and tried to puff himself up to Salah’s height.

“You look a little flustered, Masri,” he drawled.

“Just this damned heat,” Salah replied, taking a handkerchief out of his pocket to wipe his brow.

Omer Erdogan stared at him for a moment through narrow, steely eyes.

“Where are your manners? You haven’t offered me any coffee.”

He placed two fingers on Salah’s arm and moved him aside.

Salah allowed himself to be moved.

Born of a Lebanese father and an Egyptian mother, Salah was surprisingly tall. He was well over six feet, almost six foot three, and he was big: big body, big hands, big feet, big belly, big voice, big laugh. While he did not have movie-star good looks, Salah was attractive; his height and size and commanding voice creating a daunting presence. But his face suggested a different kind of person. His skin was pale olive, his eyes dark brown and lively, and his nose long and aquiline. A slender mouth, where a mischievous smile always danced around the edges, hid behind a cropped moustache and an equally cropped beard that looked more like two-day growth. He had short, dark wavy hair that he tried to tame with gel and water every morning, but it inevitably did as it pleased. All in all, Salah was a gentle giant of a man with a kind, expressive face.

Erdogan, on the other hand, at five feet ten, was by no means short, although next to Salah he seemed to be. He was muscular and lean and rather dashing, with prominent cheekbones and a chiseled jaw. His fair skin was sun tanned, his eyes icy blue, and he wore his thick dark blonde hair slicked back. He was wearing the Ottoman Army officer’s uniform: a green jacket over grey pants tucked into black boots and a brown holster belt. On his head he wore a black fez.

“Nice office you’ve got here, Masri.”

He strode in, his hands behind his back, as he surveyed the office. He ran a finger along the edges of Salah’s desk before inspecting the large map on the wall of the Hejaz Railway that ran from Damascus to Medina, one of the many railway lines that crisscrossed the Ottoman Empire.

“You must be proud of this railway,” Erdogan said, turning around and walking back to the desk. “I hear you had a lot to do with its completion.”

“Look, Erdogan, I’m late for an appointment,” Salah said.

Silence . . . broken by the sound of boots creaking on wooden floorboards.

“Erdogan, I don’t mean to be rude, but . . .”

“You’re to come to Damascus with me.”

“Why? When?”

“Jemmal Pasha wants to see you.”

“Why does the governor of Syria want to see me?”

“Aren’t you one of the engineers for the Hejaz Railway?”

“Yes . . . but why me?”

“I have my orders.”

“Erdogan, I’m a very busy man. I insist that if Jemmal Pasha needs any information, he should talk to the interior minister or his German advisor.”

Erdogan shrugged, uncaring.

“I don’t argue with Jemmal Pasha. We leave in the morning.”

With that, the colonel swept by him, his saber clanging in its scabbard.

Halfway down the hallway, he turned. “By the way, Masri, your office looks unusually tidy for a busy man. I’ve noticed that most people sort out their affairs when they’re planning on never coming back. You weren’t thinking of leaving us now, were you?” Erdogan mock saluted Salah before walking away.

Son of a bitch.

As soon as Omer Erdogan was out of sight, Salah turned and walked quickly down the five flights of creaking wooden stairs on the far side of the hallway, his mind whirring. What do they know? He stopped only once to wipe the sweat from his face and the back of his neck. He could feel his heart beating faster and he knew that the white shirt he wore under his navy blue pinstriped double-breasted suit jacket was drenched. In the lobby, he waved to the two guards on duty and stepped out onto the street.

Once outside, he stopped for a moment. He looked left and right. The street was empty, apart from a few people hurrying home, trying to escape the heat or potential trouble. Salah took a cigarette out of a rumpled packet, struck a match, and cocked his head as the flame lit the tobacco. And through the thin gray haze of smoke, he saw a couple of men come out of a café and walk over to the newspaper kiosk a few yards away in the middle of the square. Erdogan’s boys. He was sure of it. Salah’s heart pounded. Stay calm. Not wanting to let on that he knew who they were, he took a couple of puffs of his cigarette, adjusted his jacket, tucked his pochette firmly under his arm, and crossed the street toward the market.

The market in Alsancak, known for the produce that came from the countryside, was crowded. Housewives were shopping for the evening meal, arguing with vendors about their prices, while their bored husbands looked on, wishing they were sitting at the bar with their friends playing backgammon and enjoying a glass of wine.

Salah wound his way through the narrow aisles between rows of figs, pomegranates, melons, and peaches. Vegetable sellers shouted their prices, hoping to steal away their competition’s customers by lowering them with every call. A plump old woman, her cheeks red from the sun and stained purple from burst spider veins, offered Salah some of Izmir’s renowned Tulum cheese. He shook his head and moved on as she yelled at him for being so ungrateful. Every now and again he glanced back, but the two men were behind him, keeping a safe distance, their black tarbushes bobbing in and out of the crowd.

Up ahead, Salah saw Ilham, the olive oil seller, who was as slippery as the oil he sold.

“Brother Masri!” Ilham shouted and waved him over.

Salah did not reply. With his eyes he gestured over his shoulder to the two men who were following him. Ilham nodded and pointed to the tiny alley next to his stall. Salah quickly ducked in. Seconds later, he heard shouts and two consecutive thuds.

“You clumsy fool!” he heard a man yell. “What do you mean the jar slipped out of your hands? Look at us! We are covered in oil. And my friend here has a twisted ankle.”

Salah scurried down the alley. At the end of it, he stopped. The main road was just ahead. He peeked around, quickly looking left and right. A couple of Erdogan’s men were standing about a hundred yards to his right. Salah ducked back in. Taking a deep breath, he ventured out.

“There he is!” he heard one of the men shout. “Get him!”

Salah took off as fast as he could. He looked around as he sprinted down toward the sea. Erdogan’s men were closing in. Salah reached the main road that ran along the coast. He saw a line of horse taxis waiting for a fare. He needed something faster. The Turks were almost on top of him. Just then, he saw a motorbike and a sidecar attached to it, sitting patiently next to a streetlight in front of a café. Two German officers were enjoying a coffee at one of the outdoor tables. Salah headed for the bike. He pushed down heavily on one of the pedals and the bike roared to life.

“Hey!” he heard someone yell behind him. “Halt! You! Halt! That belongs to the Germany Army!”

But Salah stepped on the accelerator, and drove off, headed straight for the port.

The Port of Izmir was bustling when Salah arrived. Freighters, cargo ships, passenger ships, and German war ships and U-boats—now part of the Ottoman navy—were getting ready to leave with the evening tide.

Salah abandoned the motorbike outside. Keeping his head down, he made his way to the customs house, a large stone building between two piers that also served as an immigration post for foreigners entering the empire. The quickest way to find who he was looking for in this mayhem was to ask the port captain, Mehmet Reza, a friend he didn’t necessarily trust.

Mehmet was a diminutive man with a rotund head, exacerbated by a lack of hair, and a just as rotund body. He had small, beady black eyes, heavy jowls set beneath a lunar face, and a thin moustache above thin lips. His teeth were small and stained brown from coffee and cigarettes. He was writing at his desk, a monocle in his left eye, when Salah knocked on his door.

After a few minutes of greetings, a quick cup of Turkish coffee, a foul-smelling cheroot, and slaps on the back and promises to get together for a long dinner to catch up, Salah made his way to Quay 7.

“Come on, you lazy bastards!” a voice boomed, “we don’t have all night. We have to unload this ship and reload and be out of here in twenty minutes! Now get a move on!”

“What I need to buy you is a whip,” Salah addressed his old friend Musa Nusair’s back.

There was a moment of silence.

“And if you did, I would use it,” Musa replied, without turning around.

“Now listen carefully,” Musa added, keeping his back to Salah. “Can you find your way to my office on the ship?”

“I guess so.”

“I’ll meet you there in ten minutes. Go quickly.”

“Come on, you good for nothings! Get all those crates off the ship!”

Salah slipped away and made his way up the gangplank. There was no one on the ship. Everyone was on the quay.

There was a small office in the passageway toward the bridge. This was probably it. Salah opened the door. The air was scented with a mixture of pipe tobacco and cigars. On a small cabinet, a black cat lay fast asleep. Yes, this was Musa’s office indeed. Salah sat down on a wood and leather chair that swiveled, and looked around while he waited. On the wall, there was a portrait of the Ottoman sultan, Abdul Hamid II, looking regal in his ceremonial turban, one hand on his sword and the other on his waist. There were a couple of empty nails next to the portrait and shadows on the wall indicating that, at one point, something had hung there. Musa probably changed the pictures around depending on the port he docked in. That crafty Yemeni bugger. The desk itself was a mess, papers of all kinds strewn everywhere, pencils, an inkpot, and a small gas lamp. Partially buried behind a piece of paper was a photograph of a woman surrounded by seven children. Musa’s wife, no doubt.

Footsteps in the passageway. Salah jumped out of the chair and took a quick step toward the door and hid behind it, his hand on his gun, just in case it wasn’t the ship’s captain. Moments later, Musa Nusair walked into the office, sat down heavily in the chair Salah had vacated, took off his white captain’s hat, and slammed it down on the desk, scattering the papers in all directions. He was a good-looking man. His black skin was smooth and relatively unlined. His face was round, his eyes were small and very dark, and he had thick lips and a big, toothy smile. Like Salah, he was tall, well over six feet, and large, his broad shoulders straining under the cotton strands of the white sweater he wore with black pants.

Salah stepped out from behind the door. Musa indicated that he close it.

“So what’s going on?” Salah ventured.

Musa cradled his hands behind his head and took a deep breath, staring at the portrait of the Ottoman sultan. He exhaled slowly and sat forward, his elbows resting on his thighs, his hands clasped. “You’ve got to get out of here, brother.”

“Yes, I know . . .”


“Nusair, I’ve got one more thing . . . it’s important.”

Musa shook his head. “Masri, it’s all over. The French ambassador’s house in Beirut was raided. Apparently, Ahmad Jemmal has letters and correspondence between the Arabs and the British and the French, saying that the Arabs will revolt against the Ottomans with the support of the British and in return the British will recognize an independent Arab state.”

Salah took a deep breath. “They have names?”

“Yes, Erdogan has already made several arrests in Beirut and Damascus.”

“Wissam? Rafic?” Salah asked about his best friends.

“And Khaled too,” Musa added sadly. “I just took him and wife back to Beirut a couple of weeks ago.”

“To Beirut?” Salah shouted. “I told him you would get him out of Izmir, but why the hell did you take him to Beirut?”

“That’s where he insisted on going. I tried to dissuade him, but he wouldn’t listen. Something about his wife wanting to give birth in Beirut.”

“His wife? Noura? Pregnant?”

“Yeah,” Musa nodded. “So pregnant that she gave birth on my ship.”

“Oh my God!” Salah exclaimed.

“Look, Masri, if they have your friends, you’re next.”

“But my name couldn’t be on any piece of paper they may have found in the ambassador’s house.”

“You hope it isn’t . . . but in any case, it doesn’t matter. Jemmal won’t need a piece of paper to throw you in jail.”

“How much do they know about what I’ve been doing?”

“I don’t know, but they know you’re involved. Look, you have to disappear, tonight! You don’t have any time. Once they arrest you, you’ll rot in jail until they have their proof of treason.”

Salah was silent

“Masri, Erdogan is on his way,” Musa said, his tone urgent.

“He’s already here. He came to my office just after your telegram arrived.”

“As I said, you go with him and you’re as good as dead.”

The two men looked at each other. Musa raised his eyebrows questioningly.

“Musa, can you delay departure until midnight?”

“Are you crazy? How will I explain that to the port captain? And with this new curfew? They’ll never agree to it. I’m a Yemeni freighter captain . . . a pirate for hire to the highest bidder. I have to get out by ten. That’s the last departure slot they’ll give me.”

“Look, if I can arrange it, can we leave at midnight?”

“Why? What is more important than your life?”

“Musa, there is one more thing I need to do.”

“Brother, you are going to get yourself executed.”

“Nusair, it is the last and most valuable piece of the puzzle.”

Musa looked at him silently.

“Just give me a few hours.”

The captain sighed deeply.

Salah took his leave with a warm handshake. He ran down the gangplank and quickly walked to the customs house.

“Mehmet,” he said, shutting the door.

“Salah! I wasn’t expecting to have that dinner tonight . . . and I can’t . . . my wife is expecting me . . .” Mehmet’s fez sat askew on his big, bald, egg-shaped head.

“Mehmet,” Salah put his hand up to stop him. “I need a favor . . . please.”

It was close to nine o’clock when Salah left the customs house. In return for a sum of money, Mehmet had agreed to let the Tree of Life stay in port until midnight.

“But not a minute later, Salah,” he warned. “I have to stamp the exit papers with today’s date or else I will be hauled off for questioning. You know the rules. And then what will happen to my family if I am in prison . . . ?”

“Thank you, dear friend,” Salah interrupted him.

The docks were still buzzing with activity. Voices mingled with ship horns as some of the vessels started to pull up anchor and move out of their berths. As Salah approached the guards at the entrance to the dock, he kept his gaze set on the street in front of him. He could feel them staring at him as he walked past. It was almost curfew and, in his suit, Salah didn’t exactly look like a dockworker. And while he was a civil servant and had the right to be out past curfew, he was carrying a gun, a wad of cash, and several different identity papers. Getting stopped and searched was not ideal.

“Hey! You!” he heard behind him.

Salah froze.

Suddenly, a flash of lightning lit up the early night sky. Thunderclouds rumbled, only this time, they sounded closer than ever. In the split second that everyone’s attention turned toward the sky and the long-awaited possibility of rain, Salah quickly slipped away amid the general chaos of horse carriages, donkey carts, passersby, and vendors.

Taking every shortcut he knew, he approached the small residential, cobblestone street just off Konak Square in the heart of the old city, where he lived on the top floor of an old townhouse that had been converted into apartments. He looked around cautiously before opening the main door, entering as quietly as he could. He didn’t want his neighbors or the concierge or anyone to know he was back.

He stole across the courtyard and ran up the stairs to his apartment. The door was unlocked. Someone had been there. He padded into the darkened foyer, turned on the small gas lamp and glanced around quickly. Everything looked normal. He turned it off.

He hurried down the hall to his bedroom. He lit an oil lamp and waited for a moment, listening, just in case. But apart from the sound of the cicadas, there was silence. He grabbed a small satchel out of the closet. He opened the top drawer of his dressing table, pulled out a couple of shirts and a pair of pants and threw them in. He opened a second drawer and took out a diary, putting it in the satchel along with the wad of lira notes and three passports from his breast pocket and the papers from the leather pochette.

He stripped off his suit and hung it in his closet as he usually did, before tossing his shirt in a basket. Like his office, he wanted it to look as normal as possible. He pulled out a suitcase from under the bed. Inside was a khaki German lieutenant’s uniform that he had quietly acquired the week before. It was a little tight on him, both the pants and the tunic straining at the waist, but it would have to do. He pulled on a pair of black boots, tucking the pants into them. He slipped into the standard leather holster that had several pockets around the belt, securing the Luger inside, and placed a brown officer’s cap on his head.

A floorboard creaked. The sound seemed to be coming from the direction of the living room. He thought he could hear hushed voices. Moving quickly, he peeked through a crack in the curtain. The same two men who had followed him earlier were standing in the courtyard looking up at the apartment. The floorboards creaked again.

Salah’s heart jumped. There was someone in the apartment. He quickly extinguished the lamp, slung the satchel over his shoulder and across his body, and went through his bathroom to the kitchen. Keeping close to the walls, he felt his way to the back door that led to a spiral staircase down to the garden. He found the doorknob and turned it, wincing at the loud whine of the hinges. He squeezed himself through the small door and locked it from outside with his key. The door wouldn’t survive a good push, but it would give him a couple of extra minutes in case he needed them. He was almost at the bottom of the staircase when he looked up and saw the lights go on in his apartment. He saw shadowy figures dash from one room to the other and heard the sounds of furniture being overturned, closets being thrown open, and the sound of breaking glass.

Salah flew down the last few steps. He went quickly through the garden and out into the street through the back gate. It was a twenty-minute walk to the old Ministry of the Interior, an imposing early nineteenth-century building, now the seat of German military command. Salah knew the building like the back of his hand. It was where he first had his office when he began working at the Chemin de Fer Imperial in 1908.

It was a dark, silent night with the occasional rumble of thunder in the distance. Salah moved as quietly as possible, keeping to the darker corners and alleyways, avoiding the main roads and the streetlights. Sound traveled fast on nights like this. He had a couple of close calls along the way, almost colliding with a group of soldiers patrolling the area around the barracks.

As he neared the building, he veered off to the right. He walked under an arched bridge and stopped at an old rusted iron gate covered with clinging plants. He opened it and descended a short staircase into a narrow tunnel that went underneath the grounds of the building toward the back entrance of the Ministry. The Izmir Clock Tower rang out, telling Salah it was 10:15. He had an hour, maybe an hour and a quarter, but not much more.

Just as he came out of the tunnel near the back gates, they opened and a small convoy of cars pulled out, driving off into the night. The car in front was the dark blue Benz belonging to the military chief of staff himself. Good! He’s going home for the night.

A high wrought-iron fence surrounded the compound. Salah knew that two guards were posted at the brightly lit main gate and the compound was patrolled by soldiers and German shepherds every fifteen minutes. Dropping down onto his belly, Salah cautiously approached the fence. There was another tunnel hidden in the embankment that surrounded the building that Salah knew would take him into the building. Once inside, all he had to do was get to the third floor and into the military chief of staff’s office.

Digging in the earth near a stout old olive tree, Salah found the wooden gnarled door that led into the tunnel. The wood was rotted and the latch was completely rusted and initially refused to budge. Salah tried to coax it open but he couldn’t. He didn’t want to pull it, fearful of the noise it would make. He would have to wait until the next time the guards came by with the dogs and somehow get them to bark to mask the sound of him pulling open the door.

The clock tower struck 10:30. They should be along anytime now. Right on schedule, two guards with big German shepherds came walking along and stopped on the other side of the fence a few feet away from Salah. One of the dogs came to the fence and began to sniff. The other followed him. The guards lit up cigarettes. Salah rolled over on his back. His hand felt for a small rock and, saying a little prayer, he launched it.

“What was that?” one of the soldiers said. “It came from over there,” he pointed to a dark corner.

“It’s nothing . . . probably just a rat.”

“Let’s go take a look.”

Just then, a cat came out of nowhere and ran across the compound. The two dogs began barking, baring their teeth, straining at their leashes as the cat squeezed through the iron bars.

“Hey, hey, hey!”

Salah heard them from inside the tunnel calming the dogs down: “It’s only a little kitty cat.” But the cat had done its job well. During the racket, Salah had used the butt of his gun to push the latch back.

The tunnel was pitch black. Once inside, Salah lit a match. The tunnel was dank, the sides black and green with mold. Salah went down the stairs. He was almost knee deep in dirty water and his head skimmed the ceiling. The tunnel was narrow enough that if he stretched his arms out, he could touch the sides. Rats scurried along the sides and God knows what else lurked in the filth beneath him. He knew he had roughly two hundred yards to go. Lighting match after match, he finally reached the short flight of stairs that led to another door. This one was behind a painted wooden panel in one of the hallways off the foyer on the main floor. Salah stuck his ear to the door and carefully pushed it. It wouldn’t budge. No! He tried again. It wouldn’t move. He put his ear to the door again, but he couldn’t hear anything. Putting all his weight against the door, Salah shoved. The door gave a little. Hopeful that he could slowly get it to open, he shoved again and was about to give it another push when he heard a muffled voice.

“What was that?”

Salah held his breath.

“I didn’t hear anything.”

“It was like a groan.”

“A groan . . . you’re imagining things.”

“I swear I heard it.”

“Come on, this is an old building. Maybe they’re ghosts.”

“I probably just need some sleep.”

Salah heard footsteps walking away from him. He heaved a huge sigh of relief. A couple more pushes and the door opened a crack, allowing him to peek in. But he had to move quickly . . . a crack in a wooden wall panel would be easily noticed.

Once in the foyer, Salah looked around. There was no one there. He cautiously took the staircase to the first floor, ran up the second, and was on the third when he heard footsteps behind him. He quickly ducked behind a heavy brocade curtain.

“Now, Captain Brandt, I need those reports typed up and on my desk within the hour.”

Peeking through the slit in the corner he recognized General Otto Liman Von Sanders, the head of the German military mission. Salah moved into the shadows behind the curtain. What the hell? So who was in his car? All the information Salah was looking for was in Von Sanders’ office.

The clock tower struck eleven.

“By the way, Brandt, why is the carpet on the stairs so dirty?” Von Sanders asked. “Actually, it looks like wet footprints. Find out who came up here with wet boots and get that cleaned, would you. It stinks.”

“Yes, Sir,” the younger army officer saluted smartly and went about his business.

Salah heard Von Sanders open the door to his office and then close it.

Now what?

There wasn’t much time left. He needed the information he’d come for. And, he had to get to the docks by midnight or else he was dead. Just as he was debating what to do, he heard the door to Von Sanders’ office open. Through the slit in the curtain he watched him walk down the hall. Where is he going? And for how long?

Salah had to take the chance. He was about to step out when he stopped and pulled off his wet, smelly boots before padding across the hall. Cautiously, he went in and closed the door behind him. Boots in hand, he rushed over to the General’s large mahogany partners desk, scanning the papers quickly. They were not what he needed. On the right, there was a wooden cabinet. Salah tried to pull the top drawer open, but it was locked. Outside he heard footsteps. He froze. They passed by and headed down the hallway. He looked around quickly to see where he could hide if he needed to. Behind the curtain of a tall French window was his only bet. Hurriedly, he hid his boots behind it.

Where would he keep the key to this damn drawer?

Salah looked around the desk. There they were, sitting in a little leather tray. He dove for them and quickly opened the drawer. Inside were files, all neatly labeled. This was it. Exactly what he’d come for. He began rifling through them. Come on! Come on! Caucasus, Persia, Gallipoli, North Africa . . . Here! Arab Campaign . . . South Arabia Campaign,Sinai, Palestine, Mesopotamia.

Salah opened the South Arabia file. There they were: maps of German-Ottoman military installations and key ammunition depots and reports of the latest troop concentrations from Damascus to Medina. He pulled out a small notebook and started scribbling madly. Suddenly, he heard Von Sanders’ muffled voice coming down the hall. He was sweating. All he needed was five more minutes.

Von Sanders stopped outside his door. Salah saw the handle go down. He jumped up and quickly went behind the curtain. He stood there, his heart hammering against his rib cage.

“General! Please come with me to the war room!” he heard someone say.

“What is it?”

“We have received some very disturbing news from Jemmal Pasha in Damascus.”

The clock tower struck 11:15.

Salah held his breath. From behind the curtain, he saw the door handle slowly go back up. “All right . . . Brandt, did you find out whose wet boots were on the stairs? Oh and Brandt . . . could you get me a little schnapps, bitte . . .”

Salah quickly went back and began copying down the information. He shut the files, placed them back exactly as he’d found them, and locked the drawer. Now all he had to do was get out. It was almost 11:30.

He was out of time. There was no way he was going to be able to get through the tunnel and to the docks in time.

Quickly, he opened the door to Von Sanders’ office and slipped out out, pulling his boots on outside. The hallways were empty. Hopefully they were all in the war room. He got down to the ground floor and was wondering what to do when a door opened and he came face to face with Captain Brandt.

The two men stared at each other in silence.

“Lieutenant!” Brandt said, looking at the officer insignia on his sleeve.

Ya wohl!” Salah stood to attention and saluted, looking straight ahead.

Brandt walked around Salah and came back and stood in front of him.

“Lieutenant, you stink? Where have you been?”

Salah looked down at his muddy boots.

“What are you waiting for, Lieutenant?” Brandt said loudly. “Get to your barracks and change. You cannot be in the war room with the general smelling like you’ve been in a sewer!”

Salah shook his head and smiled tightly.

Ja, mein Kommandant!” he mumbled, trying to disguise his accent.

He saluted the German officer again.

“Get this man to the barracks. He stinks!” Brandt said to the two guards who appeared.

“Go on, go on! What are you waiting for, you fool?” Captain Brandt flicked his hand shooing Salah away.

Salah walked backwards toward the front entrance and flew down the stairs to the courtyard and toward the gate. All he heard was the jeering laughter of the guards as he sailed through the gates on his way to the docks.

It was almost midnight. Carefully Salah entered the port. Thunderclouds rumbled and a flash of lightening lit up the sky. Salah ducked behind huge crates piled up at the entrance. He looked around for the guards but he didn’t see them. Hiding in the shadows and behind dock equipment, boxes and anything that served as cover, Salah made his way to Quay 7. Suddenly, the wind picked up and thunder rolled again. He saw Musa Nusair pacing up and down the quay, smoking, his dark figure a stark contrast to his white cotton sweater and his white captain’s hat that glowed yellow in the gaslight. He whistled softly to get the Yemeni’s attention. Musa stubbed out his cigarette and whistled back. Lightening ripped open the sky and the crack of thunder this time was ominous.

“Quickly,” Salah heard Musa say to his men who were standing by the gangplank. “Untie her and prepare to haul anchor. We leave now.”

From where he was hidden, Salah saw Musa head toward the customs house, no doubt to get his exit papers stamped. Moments later he came out, holding his cap firmly across his brow as the wind twirled around him. He whistled again. Salah came out of the shadows and walked quickly toward the gangplank. Silently, both men boarded the ship.

Just as the Tree of Life pulled away from the quay, the Izmir Clock Tower struck midnight.

A flash of lightning lit up the entire harbor, illuminating the man who sat quietly on a bench, looking out to sea. He took a long drag of his cigarette, crossed his legs and laid an arm across the back of the bench casually, as though he had all the time in the world. The gaslights of the harbor flickered as the wind picked up. The man looked first at his pocket watch and then up at the customs house. The light was still on in the office on the second floor. The wind and thunder died down, momentarily restoring the peaceful sound of water lapping around the wooden dock posts. Several minutes later, another man emerged from the now darkened customs house and came and sat down on the bench.

“So was our friend Mehmet amiable this evening?”

“The gold helped loosen his lips, Colonel Erdogan.”


“The boat is headed to Chania . . . in Crete.”

Just then, there was a crack of lightening. Following a deafening roll of thunder, the rain came.


Copyright © 2014 by Maha Akhtar. This excerpt is published by arrangement with Open Road Integrated Media, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Footprints in the Desert
by by Maha Akhtar