Safia crouched only halfway across the vast roof, a fly stuck on a mirrored web. And the spider was surely coming, drawn by the crash.




She needed to hide, a hole to crawl into.




Safia glanced to the right. There was only one hole.




She rolled back to the empty steel frame, and without much more thought than hide, she swung her legs down through the frame, then wiggled on her belly. As her fingers grabbed the steel edge, she let herself drop, hanging now by her hands over the forty-foot fall.




She swung in place, facing back toward her initial hiding place by the wall. Through the glass, the starlit night was clear and bright. She watched a masked head peer over the low wall, searching the geodesic roof.




Safia held her breath. Viewed from outside, the roof was mirrored by the silvery starlight. She should be invisible. But already her arm muscles cramped, and the sharp steel cut into her fingers. And she would still need some strength to pull herself back up.




She searched down to the dark courtyard. A mistake. She was so high. The only light came from a handful of red-glowing security lamps near the wall. Still, she spotted the shattered pane of glass under her feet. The same would happen to her bones if she fell. Her fingers gripped tighter, her heart pounded harder.




She tore her gaze from the drop, glancing back up in time to see the gunman climbing over the wall. What was he doing? Once over the wall, he started across the roof, keeping his weight mostly on the steel-framed structure. He was coming straight at her. How did he know?




Then it dawned on her. She had noted the plastic-sheeted gaps in the roof. They were like missing teeth in a bright smile. There was only one such gap that was still uncapped. The gunman must have guessed that his target had fallen through and come to make certain. He moved swiftly, so unlike her own panicked crawl. He swept down on her hiding spot, pistol in hand.




What could she do? There was nowhere else to run. She considered simply letting go. At least, she’d have control over her death. Tears rose in her eyes. Her fingers ached. All she had to do was let go. But her fingers refused to unlatch. Panic held her clenched. She hung there as the man crossed the final pane.




Finally spotting her, he started back a step, then stared down at her.




Laughter flowed, low and dark.




In that moment, Safia realized her mistake.




A gun pointed at Safia’s forehead. “Tell me the combination—”




The crack of a pistol erupted. Glass shattered.




Safia screamed, losing the grip on one hand, hanging by the other. Her shoulder and fingers wrenched. Only then did she spot the shooter on the floor below. A familiar figure. The American.




He stood with his feet planted wide on the marble, aiming up at her.




She turned her face upward.




The pane of glass her attacker had been standing on had crackled into a thousand pieces, held together only by the safety coating. The thief stumbled backward, fumbling and losing the pistol. It flew high, then landed hard upon the shattered pane. The weapon fell through the broken glass and tumbled all the way to the floor below.




The thief sprinted across the roof, fleeing, aiming back toward the wall.




Below, the American fired and fired, blasting out panes of glass, following from below. But the thief was always a step ahead. Finally reaching the wall, the figure vanished over it. Gone.




The American swore loudly. He hurried back to where Safia hung by one arm, like a bat in the rafters. But she had no wings.




Safia struggled to get her other hand up on the support. She had to swing slightly, but finally her fingers gripped steel.




“Can you hold on?” he asked below her, concerned.




“I don’t seem to have much choice,” she called down hotly. “Now do I?”




“If you swing your legs,” he offered, “you might be able to hook them over the next frame.”




She saw what he meant. He had shot out the neighboring pane, leaving an open support bar between them. She took a deep breath—then with a small cry of effort, she swung her legs, tucked her knees, and hooked them over the bar.




Immediately, the ache in her hands lessened as the weight eased. She had to force herself not to cry with relief.




“Security’s already heading up there.”




Safia craned down to the American. She found herself speaking to keep herself from wailing. “Your partner…is she…?”




“Fine. Took a jolt, ruined a nice blouse, but she’ll be up and around.”




She closed her eyes with relief. Thank God… She couldn’t have handled another death. Not after Ryan. She took several more breaths.




“Are you all right?” the American asked, staring up at her.




“Yes. But, Dr. Crowe—”




“Call me Painter…I think we’ve passed formalities here.”




“It seems I owe you my life for the second time this night.”




“That’s what you get for hanging around with me.” Though she couldn’t see it, she could imagine his wry smile.




“That’s not very funny.”




“It will be later.” He crossed and recovered the thief’s gun from the floor.




That reminded Safia. “The one you were shooting at. It was a woman.”




He continued his study of the weapon. “I know…”




Sandstorm




Painter inspected the weapon in his hand. It was a Sig Sauer, 45mm, with a Hogue rubberized grip. It couldn’t be… He held his breath as he turned the weapon on its side. The thumb catch for the magazine release was on the right side. A custom feature for that rare left-handed shooter.




He knew this gun. He knew the shooter.




He stared up at the path of shattered glass.




Cassandra.






Part Two




Sand and Sea




Sandstorm




Homecoming




Sandstorm






DECEMBER 2, 06:42 A.M.




HEATHROW INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT




K ARA MET him at the foot of the steps leading up to the open door of the Learjet. She stood, blocking the way and pointing a stiff finger at the focus of her anger.




Her voice sharpened. “I want it stated clearly, Dr. Crowe, that you have no authority once you board this jet. You may have wrangled your way into this expedition, but it certainly wasn’t by my invitation.”




“I got that from the warm reception your pack of corporate lawyers gave me,” the American answered, hitching his duffel higher on his shoulder. “Who would’ve guessed so many suits could put up such a determined fight?”




“Little good it did. You’re still here.”




He offered a crooked smile as response, then shrugged.




As before, he offered no explanation as to why the U.S. government wanted him and his partner to accompany the expedition into Oman. But insurmountable blocks had appeared: financial, legal, even diplomatic. All this was further complicated by the media circus surrounding the attempted theft.




Kara had always considered her influence to be significant—but it paled beside the pressure placed upon the expedition by Washington. The United States had significant interests in Oman. She’d spent three weeks trying to find a way around their roadblocks, but the trip was hung up unless she cooperated.




Still, that didn’t mean she hadn’t won concessions.




“From here on out,” she said firmly, “you will be under our leadership.”




“Understood.”




The single word irritated Kara further. With no choice, she stepped aside.




He stood his ground on the tarmac. “It doesn’t have to be this way. We aren’t at cross-purposes here, Lady Kensington. We both seek the same thing.”




She pinched her brows. “And what might that be?”




“Answers…answers to mysteries.” He stared at her with those piercing blue eyes, unreadable, yet not cold. For the first time, she noted how handsome he was. Not model handsome, more a weary masculinity that he carried easily. He wore his hair lanky, a five-o’clock shadow at six in the morning. She could smell his aftershave, musky with a trace of balsam. Or was that just him?




Kara kept her face fixed, her voice flatlined. “And what mystery are you seeking to answer, Dr. Crowe?”




He did not blink. “I might ask the same of you, Lady Kensington. What mystery do you seek? It’s surely something more than academic interest in old tombs.”




Kara’s frown deepened, eyes flashing. Presidents of multinational corporations withered under such inspection. Painter Crowe remained unfazed.




He finally stepped forward and mounted the Lear’s stairs—but not before adding one last cryptic comment. “It seems we both have secrets we wish to keep…at least for now.”




She watched him climb.




Painter Crowe was followed by his companion: Dr. Coral Novak. She was tall, firmly toned, wearing a snug gray suit. She carried a matching duffel of personal items. The scientists’ trunks and equipment had already been loaded. The woman’s eyes searched down the length of the jet, studious.




Kara’s frown tracked them as they disappeared inside. Though they claimed to be merely physicists contracted by the U.S. government, she recognized the stamp of the military all over them: the wiry athleticism, the hard eyes, the sharp creases in their suits. They moved together, in unison, casually, one on point, the other watching their backs. They probably weren’t even aware of it.




And then there was the battle in the museum to consider. Kara had heard the detailed report: the murder of Ryan Fleming, the attempted theft of the iron heart. If not for this pair’s intervention, all would have been lost. Despite Dr. Crowe’s clear dissembling, Kara owed him—and for more than just the security of the artifact. She stared across the tarmac as the terminal door swung open.




Safia hurried toward the Lear, dragging a piece of luggage behind her. If the two Americans hadn’t been present in the museum, Safia surely would not have survived.




Still, her friend had not passed the night unscathed. The terror, the bloodshed, the death had broken something in Safia. Her protests against joining the expedition had ended. Safia seemed reticent to talk about her change of mind. Her only explanation was a terse response: It no longer matters.