Omaha reached the edge of the souk and bounced aside a woman bearing a basket full of bread and fruit. Loaves and dates flew high.
“Sorry,” he mumbled, and danced into the market. Danny kept to his heels, his face bloody from the nose down. Broken?
They fled down the center aisle. The souk spread out in a labyrinthine maze. Reed roofs sheltered carts and booths, laden with bolts of silk and Kashmiri cotton, bushels of pomegranates and pistachio nuts, iced bins of crab and whitefish, barrels of pickles and coffee beans, swaths of fresh-cut flowers, flats of breads, slabs of dried meats. The air steamed from grease stoves, sizzling with spices that burned the eyes. Alleyways reeked of goat and sweat. Others were redolent with a cloying sweetness. Incense and honey.
And crowded within this maze pressed throngs of folk from throughout Arabia and beyond. Faces of every shade flashed past, eyes wide, some behind veils, most not. Voices chased them in dialects of Arabic, Hindu, and English.
Omaha fled with Danny through the rainbow and the noise, darting right and left, serpentine, then straight. Were the pursuers behind them? In front? He had no way of knowing. All he could do was keep moving.
In the distance, the ah-woo, ah-woo of the Omani police force crested over the cacophony of the crowd. Help was coming…but could they last long enough to take advantage?
Omaha glanced behind him as they danced down a long straight narrow bazaar. At the other end, a masked gunman appeared, head radar-dishing around. He was easy to spot as folk fled in all directions, opening space around him. He seemed to hear the police. Time was running out for him, too.
Omaha was not going to make it easy. He dragged Danny, flowing with the rush of the crowd. They rounded a corner and ducked into a booth selling reed baskets and clay pots. The robed proprietor took one look at Danny’s bloody face and waved them out, barking in Arabic.
It would take some skill in communication to gain sanctuary here.
Omaha yanked out his wallet and laid out a row of fifty-rial bills. Ten in all. The salesman glanced down the line, one eye squinted. To barter or not to barter? Omaha reached to gather the bills back up, but a hand stopped him.
“Khalas!” the old man declared, waving them down. Deal done!
Omaha crouched behind a stack of baskets. Danny took a position in the shadow of a large red earthenware pot. It was large enough for his brother to hide inside of. Danny pinched his nose, trying to stop the bleeding.
Omaha peered out into the alleyway. The patter of sandals and swish of robes ebbed after a few breaths. A man stepped to the corner, his masked face hurriedly searching all four points of the compass. The police sirens closed toward the souk. The gunman’s head cocked, tracking them. He would have to abandon the search or risk being caught.
Omaha felt a surge of confidence.
Until his brother sneezed.
T HE LEAR circled over the water, preparing for its descent into Seeb International Airport. Safia stared out the small window.
The city of Muscat spread out below her. It was really three cities, separated by hills into distinct districts.
The oldest section, called, cleverly enough, Old Town, appeared as the jet banked to the right. Stone walls and ancient buildings lay nestled up against a sweeping crescent bay of blue water, its white sand shoreline dotted by date palms. Surrounded by the old gated city walls, the town housed the Alam Palace and the dramatic towering stone forts of Mirani and Jalai.
Memories overlay all she saw, as tenuous as the reflections in the smooth waters of the bay. Events long forgotten came alive: running the narrows with Kara, her first kiss in the shadow of the city walls, the taste of cardamon candy, visiting the sultan’s palace, all atremble and in a new thob dress.
Safia felt a chill that had nothing to do with the cabin’s air-conditioning. Home and homeland blurred in her mind. Tragedy and joy.
Then as the plane angled toward the airport, Old Town vanished, replaced by the Matrah section of Muscat—and the city’s port. One side of the docks moored modern hulking ships, the other the slender single-masted dhows, the ancient sailing ships of Arabia.
Safia stared at the proud line of wooden masts and folded sails, in stark contrast to the behemoths of steel and diesel. More than anything else, this typified her homeland: the ancient and the modern, mixed together, but forever separate.
The third section of Muscat was the least interesting. Inland from the old town and port, stacked against the hills, rose Ruwi, the modern business center, the commercial headquarters of Oman. Kara’s corporate offices were there.
The plane’s course had mapped out Safia and Kara’s life, from Old Town to Ruwi, from riotous children playing in the streets to lives confined by corporate offices and dusty museums.
Now the present.
The jet dropped toward the airport, aiming for the stretch of tarmac. Safia leaned back into her seat. The other passengers gaped out the windows.
Clay Bishop sat across the cabin. The grad student bobbed his head in sync with the current digitalized tract on his iPod. His black glasses kept slipping down his nose, requiring him to push them back up repeatedly. He wore his typical uniform: jeans and a T-shirt.
Ahead of Clay, Painter and Coral leaned together, staring out a single window. They spoke in hushed tones. She pointed, and he nodded, fiddling with a tiny cowlick atop his head that had formed while he napped.
Kara folded back the door to her private suite and stood in the threshold.
“We’re landing,” Safia said. “You should sit down.”
Fingers flicked away her concern, but Kara crossed to the empty seat beside her and dropped heavily into it. She didn’t buckle her seat belt.
“I can’t ring up Omaha,” she said as introduction.
“He’s not answering his mobile. Probably doing it on purpose.”
That wasn’t like Omaha, Safia thought. He could be dodgy sometimes, but he was all business when it came to the job. “He’s surely just busy. You left him hanging out to dry. You know how touchy and territorial the cultural attachés can be in Muscat.”
Kara huffed out her irritation. “He’d better be waiting at the airport.”
Safia noted how large her pupils were in the bright light. She looked both exhausted and wired at the same time. “If he said he’d be there, he will be.”
Kara cocked a questioning eyebrow at her. “Mr. Reliable?”
Safia felt a pang, her gut wrung in two different directions. Reflex made her want to defend him, as she had done in the past. But memory of the ring she had placed back in his palm constricted her throat. He had not understood the depth of her pain.
Then again who could?
She had to force her eyes not to glance at Painter.
“You’d better buckle up,” she warned Kara.
D ANNY’S SNEEZE was as loud as a gunshot, startling a pair of caged doves in a neighboring shop. Wings fluttered against bamboo bars.
Omaha watched the masked gunman turn toward their booth, stepping toward them. A yard away, Danny covered his nose and mouth and sank lower behind the tall earthenware urn. Blood ran freely down his chin. Omaha pushed to the balls of his feet, tensing, ready to leap. Their only hope lay in surprise.
The police sirens wailed, piercing now from their proximity to the market. If only Danny could have held back for another minute…
The gunman held his rifle shouldered, pointed forward, moving in a crouched stance, experienced. Omaha clenched his fists. He’d have to knock the rifle up, then dive low.
Before he could move, the robed proprietor of the shop shambled forward, into plain view. He waved a fan in one hand and wiped his nose with the other.
“Hasaseeya,” he mumbled as he straightened some baskets over Omaha’s head, cursing his hay fever. He feigned surprise at seeing the gunman, threw up his hands, fan flying, and fell back.
The gunman gave a muffled curse, waving the old man back with his rifle.
He obeyed, retreating to a low counter, covering his head with his hands.
Off in the direction of the souk’s entrance, the squeal of brakes announced the arrival of the Omani police. Sirens whined.
The gunman glanced in their direction, then did the only thing he could. He stepped to the large urn sheltering Danny and shoved his rifle inside. And after a check around, he ripped off the mask and tossed it in, too. Then, with a swirl of a sand-colored cloak, the figure disappeared into the depths of the market, clearly planning on simply joining the mass of humanity.
Except Omaha had stared hard. He saw her face.
Mocha skin, deep brown eyes, a tattoo of a tear under the left eye.
After a safe stretch, Omaha stepped out of hiding. Danny crawled to join him. Omaha helped his brother up.
The proprietor appeared, straightening his robe with pats of his hands.
“Shuk ran,” Danny mumbled around his bloodied nose, thanking the man.
With the typical self-effacing custom of the Omani people, the man shrugged.
Omaha stripped off another fifty-rial bill and held it out.
The shopkeeper crossed his arms, palms facedown. “Khalas.” The deal had already been struck. It would be an insult to renegotiate. Instead, the old man crossed to the stack of baskets and picked one up. “For you,” he said. “Gift for pretty woman.”
“Bi kam?” Omaha asked. How much?
The man smiled. “For you? Fifty rial.”
Omaha returned his smile, knowing he was being swindled, but he handed over the bill. “Khalas.”
As they left the market and headed toward the entrance, Danny asked nasally. “Why the hell were those guys trying to kidnap us?”
Omaha shrugged. He had no idea. Apparently Danny hadn’t gotten a look at their assailant like he had. Not guys…gals. Now that he thought back on it—the way the others had moved—they might all have been women.
Omaha pictured the riflewoman’s face again. Skin aglow in the sunshine.
The resemblance was unmistakable.
She could’ve been Safia’s sister.
7 Old Town