The jolt knocked Omaha on his ass. Water flooded over the gunwales, swamping him. Then the boat bobbed back up. “Danny!”
“I’m fine.” He was still strapped to his seat, looking dazed.
Crawling forward, Omaha searched beyond the rail.
The Scimitar lay shattered in pieces, floating in different directions. A body, facedown, bobbled among the debris. Blood trailed through the muddy waters, forming its own river. The smell of fuel fogged the air. But at least the current was dragging them safely away from the wreckage in case it exploded.
Omaha spotted two men clinging to flotsam, heading down into the raging rapids with their makeshift floaters. They seemed to have lost interest in dinosaur eggs.
Climbing back into the seat, he checked the engine. It coughed and died. No hope there. The aluminum frame was bent, the keel pocked, but at least they were seaworthy. He broke out the paddles.
Danny unbuckled and accepted one of the paddles. “What now?”
“Call for help before that other boat comes to investigate.”
“Who’re you going to call?”
12:05 A.M. GMT
S AFIA WAS carefully wrapping up the iron heart in acid-free specimen paper when the phone on the bench rang. It was Kara’s mobile phone. She had left it behind as she retreated to the lavatory again. To freshen up, she had told Safia and Clay. But Safia knew better. More pills.
The phone continued to ring.
“You want me to get that?” Clay asked, folding up the camera tripod.
Safia sighed and picked it up. It might be important. “Hello,” she said as she flipped it open.
There was a long pause.
“Hello?” she offered again. “Can I help you?”
A throat cleared, sounding far away. “Safia?” It was said in a soft, stunned voice. One she knew all too well.
Blood drained to her feet. “Omaha?”
“I…I was trying to reach Kara. I didn’t realize you were there, too.”
She fought her tongue free from the shock. Her words came out stiff. “Kara’s…indisposed at the moment. If you’ll hold, I’ll get—”
She froze from lowering the phone, holding it as if she had forgotten how to use it.
With the phone pulled away from her ear, Omaha’s voice sounded tinny. “I…maybe…” He struggled for words, finally settling on a neutral question. “If you’re over there with her, then you must know what this is all about. What sort of expedition am I being shanghaied into?”
Safia put the phone back to her ear. She could handle shoptalk. “It’s a long story, but we found something here. Something extraordinary. It points to a possible new history about Ubar.”
There was another longish pause. “So this is about Kara’s father.”
“Yes. And for once, Kara may be onto something significant.”
“Will you be joining the expedition?” This question was asked woodenly.
“No, I can be more help here.”
“Nonsense!” The next words gushed out loudly. She had to hold the phone away again. “You know more about Ubar and its history than anyone on the face of the earth. You must come! If not for Kara, then for yourself.”
A voice suddenly spoke at her shoulder, having eavesdropped on Omaha’s tinny words. “He’s right,” Kara said, stepping around. “If we’re going to solve this riddle and any more we come across, we need you on-site.”
Safia stared between the phone and her friend, feeling trapped.
Kara reached over and took the cell. “Omaha, she’s coming.”
Safia opened her mouth to protest.
“This is too important,” Kara said, cutting her off, speaking both to Omaha and Safia. Her eyes shone glassily with the surge of drug-induced adrenaline. “I won’t accept no…from either of you.”
“I’m in,” said Omaha, his words an electronic whisper. “Matter of fact, I could use a little help getting out.”
Kara lifted the phone, turning the conversation private. She listened for a while, then nodded as she spoke. “Are you ever not in trouble, Indiana? I have your GPS coordinates. A helicopter will be out to retrieve you within the hour.” She snapped the phone closed. “You’re truly better off without him.”
“You’re going. In a week’s time. You owe me that.” She stormed off.
After an awkward moment, Clay spoke up. “I wouldn’t mind going.”
She frowned. The grad student knew nothing about the real world. And maybe that was a good thing. She sensed she had started something that was best left forever buried.
5 High Wire Act
NOVEMBER 15, 02:12 A.M. GMT
H OURS AFTER Kara had stormed off, Safia sat in her dark office. The only light came from a lime-shaded banker’s lamp atop her walnut desk, illuminating a sea of paper and thumbed journals. How could Kara expect her to be ready to leave for Oman in a week’s time? Especially after the explosion here. There was still so much to attend to.
She couldn’t go. That was that. Kara would simply have to understand. And if she didn’t, that wasn’t Safia’s concern. She had to do what was right for herself. She had heard that often enough from her therapist. It had taken her four years to gather some semblance of normalcy in her life, to find security in her days, to sleep without nightmares. Here was home, and she wasn’t going to forsake it for a wild-goose chase into the hinterlands of Oman.
And then there was the prickly matter of the Omaha Dunn…
Safia chewed the eraser end of her pencil. It was her only meal in the past twelve hours. She knew she should leave, nip out for a late dinner at the pub on the corner, then try to catch a few hours of sleep. Besides, Billie had been sorely neglected over the past day and would need attention and a spot of tuna to assuage his hurt feelings.
Still, Safia could not move.
She kept running over her conversation with Omaha. An old ache throbbed in the pit of her belly. If only she hadn’t picked up the phone…
She had met Omaha ten years ago in Sojar, when she was twenty-two, fresh from Oxford, researching a dissertation on Parthian influences in southern Arabia. He had been stranded in the same seaside city, awaiting approval from the Omani government to proceed into a remote section of disputed territory.
“Do you speak English?” were his first words to Safia. She was working behind a small table on the dining terrace of a small hostelry overlooking the Arabian Sea. It was the haunt of many students doing research in the region, being cheap as chips and serving the only decent coffee around.
Irritated at the interruption, she had been curt. “As a British citizen, I should hope I speak better English than you, sir.”
Glancing up, she discovered a young man, sandy blond hair, corn-flower blue eyes, a dusky trace of beard, wearing scuffed khakis, a traditional Omani headcloth, and an embarrassed smile.
“Excuse me,” he said. “But I noticed you had a copy of Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 5. I was wondering if I could glance at a section.”
She picked up the book. “Which section?”
“ ‘Oman and the Emirates in Ptolemy’s Map.’ I’m heading into the borderlands.”
“Truly? I thought that region had been closed to foreigners.”
Again that smile, only it had grown a mischievous edge. “So you caught me. I should’ve said I hope to be traveling to the borderlands. I’m still awaiting word from the consulate.”
She had leaned back and eyed him up and down. She switched to Arabic. “What do you plan to do up there?”
He didn’t miss a beat, responding in Arabic himself. “To help settle the border dispute by proving the ancient tribal routes of the local Duru tribes, confirming an historical precedent.”
She continued in Arabic, checking his knowledge of the region’s geography. “You’ll have to be careful in Umm al-Samim.”
“Yes, the quicksands,” he said with a nod. “I’ve read about that treacherous stretch.” His eyes flashed with eagerness.
Safia relented and passed him her copy of the periodical. “It’s the only copy from the Institute of Arabian Studies. I’ll have to ask you to read it here.”
“From the IAS?” He had taken a step forward. “That’s the Kensington nonprofit, isn’t it?”
“I’ve been trying to reach someone in authority over there. To grease some wheels with the Omani government. But no one would return my calls or letters. That place is a tough nut to crack, like its sponsor, Lady Kara Kensington. Now there’s a cold fish if there ever was one.”
“Hmm,” she said noncommittally.
After making their introductions, he asked if he could share her table while he read the article. She had nudged the chair in his direction.
“I heard the coffee’s quite good here,” he said as he sat.
“The tea’s even better,” she countered. “But then again, I’m British.”
They had continued in silence for a long while, reading their respective journals, each occasionally eyeing the other, sipping their drinks. Finally, Safia noticed the terrace door swing open behind her guest. She waved.
He turned at the arrival of the newcomer to their table. His eyes widened.
“Dr. Dunn,” Safia said, “may I introduce you to Lady Kara Kensington. You’ll be happy to know she speaks English, too.”
She had enjoyed watching color blush to his cheeks, caught off guard, blindsided. She suspected such didn’t happen often to the young man. The three of them spent the rest of the afternoon talking, debating current events in Arabia and back home, discussing Arabian history. Kara left before the sun set, heading off to an early business dinner with the local chamber of commerce, but not before promising to help Dr. Dunn with his expedition.