“Nothing,” Kara said, surprised and baffled. “Maybe it wore away.”
Safia checked more thoroughly, painting it with a bit of isopropyl alcohol to clean its surface. “I see no scoring or trace. It’s too smooth.”
“What about the left atrium?” Clay asked.
She nodded, turning the heart. She quickly spotted a line arcing cleanly over the face of the atrium.
“It’s the letter R,” Kara whispered, sounding slightly frightened. She collapsed down on a chair. “It can’t be.” Clay frowned. “I don’t understand. The letters B, WA or U, and R. What does it spell?” “Those three ESA letters should be known to you, Mr. Bishop,” Safia said. “Maybe not in that order.” She picked up a pencil and drew them out as they should be spelled.
Clay scrunched his face. “ESA is read like Hebrew and Arabic, from right to left, opposite of English. WABR…UBR. But the vowels are excluded between consonants.” The young man’s eyes widened. “U-B-A-R. The goddamn lost city of Arabia, the Atlantis of the sands.”
Kara shook her head. “First a meteorite fragment that was supposed to guard Ubar explodes…and now we find the name written on a bronze heart.”
“If it is bronze,” Safia said, still bent over the heart.
Kara was shaken out of her shock. “What do you mean?”
Safia lifted the heart in her hands. “When I pulled the heart out of the statue, it seemed way too heavy, especially if it’s hollowed out and full of liquid. See where I cleaned the left ventricle with the alcohol? The base metal is much too red.”
Kara stood, understanding dawning in her eyes. “You think it’s iron. Like the meteorite fragment.”
Safia nodded. “Possibly even the same meteoric iron. I’ll have to test it, but either way it makes no sense. At the time of the sculpture’s carving, the peoples of Arabia didn’t know how to smelt and work iron of this quality, especially a masterful piece of art like this. There are so many mysteries here, I don’t even know where to begin.”
“If you’re right,” Kara said fiercely, “then that drab trading post unearthed in the desert back in 1992 is a far cry from the whole story. Something is yet undiscovered.” She pointed to the artifact. “Like the true heart of Ubar.”
“But what do we do now? What’s the next step? We’re no closer to knowing anything about Ubar.”
Clay was examining the heart. “It’s sort of strange that the left ventricle has no letters.”
“ ‘Ubar’ is only spelled with three letters,” Safia explained.
“Then why use a four-chambered heart and spell the letters in the direction of blood flow?”
Safia swung around. “Explain yourself?”
“Blood enters the heart from the body through the vena cava into the right atrium. The letter U.” He poked a finger at the stumped large vessel that led to the right upper chamber and continued his anatomy lesson, tracing his way. “It then passes through the atrioventricular valve to the right ventricle. The letter B. From there, the blood leaves for the lungs via the pulmonary artery, then returns oxygen-rich through the pulmonary vein to the left atrium. The letter R. Spelling out ‘Ubar.’ So why does it stop there?”
“Why indeed?” Safia mumbled, brow furrowed.
She pondered the mystery. The name Ubar was spelled in the path that blood traveled. It seemed to imply a direction, a flow toward something. A glimmer of an idea formed. “Where does the blood go after it leaves the heart?”
Clay pointed to a thick arched vessel at the very top. “Through the aorta to the brain and the rest of the body.”
Safia rolled the heavy heart, followed the aorta to where it ended, and stared inside the stump. A plug of sandstone was jammed in there. She had not bothered to clean it out, too busy concentrating on the surface of the chambers.
“What are you thinking?” Kara asked.
“It’s like the writing is pointing somewhere.” She returned the heart to the table and began to clean away the sandstone from the end of the aorta. It crumbled away easily. She sat back at what she found beyond the sand.
“What is that?” Clay asked, staring over her shoulder.
“Something prized more than blood itself by the ancient peoples of Arabia.” She used a pick to pry a few crystalline chunks of the dried resin onto the table. She could smell the sweet aroma given off by the crystals, preserved throughout the long centuries. It was a scent from a time before Christ.
“Frankincense,” Kara said, awe in her voice. “What does it mean?”
“It’s a signpost,” Safia answered. “As the blood flows, so do the riches of Ubar.” She turned to her friend. “The clue must point toward Ubar, to the next step on the road to its doorway.”
“But where does it point?” Kara asked.
Safia shook her head. “I’m not sure, but the town of Salalah is the beginning of the famous Incense Road.” She nudged the bits of crystalline frankincense. “And the tomb of Nabi Imran lies within that city.”
Kara straightened. “Then that’s where we must begin the search.”
“We must put an expedition together immediately.” Kara spoke rapidly, eyes wide. But it was not the amphetamines fueling her excitement. It was hope. “In a week’s time, no later. My contacts in Oman will make all the necessary arrangements. And we’ll need the best people. You, of course, and whomever you see fit.”
“Me?” Safia asked, her heart skipping a beat. “I…I’m not…I haven’t done fieldwork in years.”
“You’re going,” Kara said firmly. “It’s time for you to quit hiding in these dusty halls. Get back out in the world.”
“I can coordinate data from here. I’m not needed in the field.”
Kara stared at her, looking as if she was going to relent as she had in the past. Then her voice dropped to a husky whisper. “Saff, I need you. If something’s truly out there…an answer…” She shook her head, close to tears. “I need you with me. I can’t do it by myself.”
Safia swallowed, struggling with herself. How could she refuse her friend? She stared at the fear and hope in Kara’s eyes. But in her head, old screams still echoed. She could not silence them. Blood of children still stained her hands. “I…I can’t…”
Something must have broken in her face because Kara finally shook her head. “I understand.” But from her clipped tone, she didn’t. No one did.
Kara continued, “But you were right about one thing. We’ll need an experienced field archaeologist on board. And if you’re not going, I know the perfect person.”
Safia realized whom she meant. Oh, no…
Kara seemed to sense her distress. “You know he’s had the most field experience in the region.” She rummaged in her purse and pulled out her cellular phone. “If we’re going to succeed, we’re going to need Indiana Jones.”
4 White Water
NOVEMBER 15, 07:02 A.M.
YANGTZE RIVER, CHINA
I ’M NOT Indiana Jones!” he yelled into the satellite phone’s headset to be heard over the jet boat’s motor. “Name’s Omaha…Dr. Omaha Dunn! Kara, you know that!”
An exasperated sigh answered him. “Omaha? Indiana? What bloody difference does it make? All your American names sound the same.”
He crouched over the wheel, racing down the crooked river gorge. Cliffs flanked both sides of the muddy Yangtze as it twisted and turned through a section aptly named the Narrows. In a few years, Three Gorges Dam would flood this entire region to the tranquil depth of two hundred feet, but for now, submerged rocks and wicked rapids remained a constant danger as the fierce river choked through the squeeze.
But rocks and rapids weren’t the only danger.
A bullet pinged off the boat’s hull. A warning shot. The pursuers rapidly closed the distance in a pair of black Scimitar 170 bow riders. Damn fast boats.
“Listen, Kara, what do you want?” His jet boat hit a swell and bumped airborne for a breath. He lifted from his seat, gripping tighter on the boat’s steering wheel with his one hand.
A yelp of surprise sounded behind him.
Omaha yelled over a shoulder. “Hang on!”
The boat struck the water with a jolt.
A moan followed. “Now you tell me.”
A glance behind confirmed that his younger brother, Danny, was all right. He was sprawled in the stern, his head buried in a supply cabinet under the rear seat. Beyond the stern, the twin black speedboats continued their pursuit.
Omaha muffled the phone’s receiver with his hand. “Get the shotgun.”
His brother fell out of the supply chest, dragging the weapon clear. He pushed up his glasses with the back of his wrist. “Got it!”
“And the shells?”
“Oh, yeah.” Danny dove back in.
Omaha shook his head. His brother was a renowned paleontologist, having earned his Ph.D. at twenty-four, but oftentimes he put the scatter in scatterbrained. Omaha lifted the phone. “Kara, what’s this all about?”
“What’s going on?” she asked instead.
“Nothing, but we’re sort of in the middle of something here. Why did you call?” There was a long pause. He didn’t know if it was due to the time lag in the satellite communication between London and China or merely thoughtful silence on Kara’s part. Either way, it gave him too much time to think. He hadn’t seen Kara Kensington in four years. Not since he had broken off his engagement with Safia al-Maaz. He knew this wasn’t a casual call. Kara sounded serious and clipped, flaring worry for Safia in him. He couldn’t end the call until he knew she was okay.
Kara spoke. “I’m putting together an expedition into Oman. I’d like you to lead the field team. Are you interested?”