DECEMBER 2, 05:34 P.M.




SEEB INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT




P AINTER KEPT pace behind the trundling cart of gear and equipment. The heat off the tarmac seemed to boil the oxygen right out of the air, leaving only a heavy dampness to sear the lungs. Painter fanned a hand in front of his face. Not to cool himself, an impossibility here, but simply to stir the air enough to catch his breath.




At least they were finally moving again. They had been delayed three hours, confined to the jet due as a result of the heightened security measures after the attempted abduction of one of Kara Kensington’s associates. Apparently the matter had been resolved enough to allow them to disembark.




Coral marched beside him, eyes scanning everywhere, wary. The only sign that the late-afternoon heat had any effect on his partner were the tiny beads of sweat on her smooth brow. She had covered her white-blond hair with a fold of beige cloth supplied by Safia, an Omani headdress called a lihaf.




Painter squinted ahead.




The low sun cast shimmering mirages across the airfield and reflected off every surface, even the drab gray building toward which their group paraded. Omani customs officials in blue uniforms escorted the party, while a small delegation sent by the sultan flanked their sides.




These last were resplendent in the national dress of Omani men: a white collarless robe with long sleeves, called a dishdasha, covered by a black cloak trimmed in gold and silver embroidery. They also wore cotton turbans of varied patterns and hues and leather belts adorned in silver. On these belts, each man wore a sheathed khanjar, the traditional dagger. In this case, they were Saidi daggers, pure silver or gold, a mark of rank, the Rolexes of Omani cutlery.




Kara, trailed by Safia and her graduate student, remained in a heated discussion with these men. It seemed the expedition’s advance men here, Dr. Omaha Dunn and his brother, were being held by the police. Details on the thwarted kidnapping were still sketchy.




“And is Danny all right?” Safia asked in Arabic.




“Fine, fine, my lady,” one of the escorts assured. “Bloodied nose, nothing more. He has already been attended to, let me assure you.”




Kara spoke to the head official. “And how soon can we be under way?”




“His majesty, Sultan Qaboos, has personally arranged for your transportation to Salalah. There will be no further mishaps. If we had only known sooner…that you personally would be accompanying—”




Kara waved his statement aside. “Kif, kif,” she dismissed in Arabic. “It is of no matter. As long as we won’t be delayed.”




A half bow answered her. The official’s lack of offense at her tart response spoke volumes concerning Lady Kensington’s influence in Oman.




So much for the low profile, Painter thought.




He turned his attention to Kara’s companion. Concern crinkled the corners of Safia’s eyes. Her momentary peace at the end of the flight had vanished when she heard of the trouble here. She clutched her carry-on luggage in both hands, refusing to load it and its ancient cargo onto the luggage cart.




Still, a determined glint shone in her emerald eyes, or maybe it was just the reflection of gold flecks in them. Painter remembered her hanging from the museum’s glass roof. He sensed a well of strength in her, hidden deep but still present. Even the land seemed to recognize this. The sun, glaring harshly off everything else in Oman, glowed upon her skin, as if welcoming her, casting her features in bronze. Her beauty, muted before, shone brighter, like a jewel enhanced by a perfect setting.




At last, the party reached the private terminal building, and doors opened into a cool oasis of air-conditioned comfort. It was the VIP lounge. Their stay at this oasis, however, proved brief. Customs routines were hastily dispatched upon the authority of the sultan’s retinue. Passports were glanced at, visas stamped—then the five of them were split between two black limousines: Safia, her grad student, and Kara in one, Coral and Painter in the other.




“It seems our company is not appreciated,” Painter commented as he boarded the stretch limo with his partner.




He settled into a seat. Coral joined him.




Up front, beside the limo’s driver, a beefy Irishman ran shotgun. He carried a prominent sidearm in a shoulder holster. Painter also noted a pair of escort vehicles—one in front of Kara’s limousine, the other trailing. Clearly, after the kidnapping, security was not to be neglected.




Painter slipped a cell phone from a pocket. The phone contained a scrambled satellite chip with access to the DOD computer net and housed a sixteen-megapixel digital camera with flash uploading and downloading.




Never leave home without it.




He drew out the small earpiece and fixed it in place. A small microphone dangled from the line at his lips. He waited as the sat phone transmitted a coded handshake signal that crossed the globe and zeroed in on one person.




“Commander Crowe,” a voice finally answered. It was Dr. Sean McKnight, his immediate superior, the head of Sigma.




“Sir, we’ve landed in Muscat and are headed to the Kensington compound. I was reporting in to see if you’ve received any intel on the attack on the advance team.”




“We have the preliminary police report already. They were snatched off the street. Fake taxi. Sounds like a typical attempted kidnapping for ransom. Common form of raising capital out there.”




Still, Painter heard the suspicion in McKnight’s voice. First the trouble at the museum…now this. “Do you think this could be related to London?”




“Too early to say.”




Painter pictured the lithe figure vanishing over the museum wall. He could still feel the weight of Cassandra’s Sig Sauer in his hand. Two days after her arrest in Connecticut, she had vanished from custody. The police van transferring her to the airport had been ambushed, two men died, and Cassandra Sanchez had disappeared. Painter had never thought to see her again. How was she connected to all this? And why?




McKnight continued, “Admiral Rector has coordinated with the NSA in gathering intel. We’ll have more in a couple hours.”




“Very good, sir.”




“Commander, is Dr. Novak with you?”




Painter stared over at Coral, who watched the scenery flash past. Her eyes were unreadable, but he was sure she was memorizing her surroundings. Just in case. “Yes, sir. She’s here.”




“Let her know that the researchers over at Los Alamos were able to discover decaying uranium particles in that meteoric iron sample you found at the museum.”




Painter recalled her concern over the scanner’s readings on the sample.




“They also support her hypothesis that the radiation from the uranium’s decay may indeed be acting like some sort of nuclear timer, slowly destabilizing the antimatter until it is susceptible to electrical shock.”




Painter sat straighter and spoke into the phone receiver. “Dr. Novak also proposed that the same destabilization could be happening at the antimatter’s primary source, if it exists.”




“Exactly. The Los Alamos researchers have independently expressed the same concern. As such, your mission has become time critical. Additional resources have been allocated. If there is a primary source, it must be discovered quickly or all may be lost.”




“Understood, sir.” Painter pictured the blasted ruins of the museum gallery, the bones of the guard melted into the steel grate. If there was a mother lode of this antimatter, the loss could be more than such scientific.




“Which brings me to my last item, Commander. We do have pressing information that concerns your operation. From NOAA. They report a major storm system developing in southern Iraq, blowing south.”




“Thunderstorm?”




“Sand. Winds clocked at sixty miles per hour. A real barn buster. It’s been shutting down city after city, shifting dunes across roads. NASA confirms its path toward Oman.”




Painter blinked. “NASA confirms? How big is—”




“Big enough to be seen from space. I’ll forward satellite feed.”




Painter glanced at the digital screen on the phone. The screen filled in line by line from the top. It was a real-time weather map of the Middle East and the Arabian Peninsula. The detail was amazing: the coastline, blue seas scudded with clouds, tiny cities. Except where a large, hazy blotch skirted the Persian Gulf. It looked like a hurricane, but one on land. A vast reddish brown wave even extended out over the gulf.




“Meteorological predictions expect the storm to amplify in severity and size as it travels south,” McKnight narrated as the image refreshed the screen. The blotch of sandstorm swept over a coastal city, obliterating it. “There’s chatter of a storm of the century brewing out there. A high-pressure system in the Arabian Sea is producing vicious monsoon winds, drawn into a low trough over the Empty Quarter. The sandstorm will hit the southern deserts like a freight train, then be whipped up and fed by the monsoon tidals, creating a mega storm system.”




“Jesus.”




“It’ll be hell out there for a while.”




“What’s the timetable?”




“The storm should reach the Omani border by the day after tomorrow. And current estimates expect the storm system to last two or three days.”




“Delaying the expedition.”




“For as short as possible.”




Painter heard the command behind the director’s words. He raised his head and glanced toward the other limo. A delay. Kara Kensington was not going to be pleased.




6:48 P.M.




C ALM DOWN,” Safia urged.




They had all gathered in the garden courtyard of the Kensington estate. High limestone walls of crumbling plaster dated to the sixteenth century, as did the idyllic frescoes of climbing vines that framed off arched landscapes and seascapes. Three years ago, restoration work had returned the frescoes to their full glory. This was the first time Safia had seen the finished product with her own eyes. Artisans from the British Museum had overseen the details here, while Safia had supervised from London via digital cameras and the Internet.




The pixilated photos failed to do justice to the richness of the colors. The blue pigments came from crushed mollusk shells, the reds from pressed rose madder, as had been originally done in the sixteenth century.