She crossed through the room to the bedchamber beyond. The silk canopied bed looked as if it had not been disturbed since she had left here to go to Tel Aviv so long ago. That painful memory smoothed as her fingers trailed down a fold of Kashmiri silk. A wardrobe stood on the far side, near the windows that opened upon a shadowed side garden, gloomy with the setting sun. The planted beds had grown a bit hedgy since last she had stared out from here. There were even a few weeds, which touched a well of loss she hadn’t known was so deep.
Why had she come back? Why had she left?
She could not seem to connect the past to the present.
A tinkling drip of water drew her attention away, to the neighboring bathing chamber. There was not much time until dinner. She shed her clothes, letting them drop to the floor behind her. The bath was a sunken tile tub, deep but narrow. Water steamed into the air with a whisper that could almost be heard. Or maybe it was the shifting layer of white jasmine petals floating on the surface, the source of the room’s perfume.
The sight drew a tired smile.
She crossed to the tub, and though she couldn’t see the step hidden beneath the waters, she entered without hesitation, instincts from a past perhaps not entirely misplaced. She settled into the steamy warmth, sinking to her chin, leaning back against the tile, hair spreading over the water and petals.
Something deeper than sore muscles loosened and relaxed.
She closed her eyes.
T HE GUARD patrolled the alleyway, flashlight in hand, the beam pointed at the cobbled path. His other hand scraped a match against the limestone outer wall of the Kensington estate. The tiny flame flared with a hiss. He failed to notice the black-cloaked figure hanging in the deeper shadows cast by the wide leaves of the date palm that hung over the top of the wall.
The light ate away the shadows, threatening to expose the climber. Cassandra pressed the trigger on her grappling gun’s winch. The slight noise of its oiled mechanism was covered by the bark of a stray dog, one of many that ran the streets of Muscat. Her feet, muffled in slippers, fled up the wall as her body was hauled upward, drawn by the thin steel-alloy grappling cable as it rewound back into the handheld pistol. Reaching the top, she used her momentum to fling her body atop the wall, then lay flat.
Razor-sharp glass shards were embedded along the top of the wall, planted to deter interlopers. But they failed to penetrate her lightweight black Kevlar bodysuit and gloves. Still, she felt one shard pressing near her right temple. Her mask hid and protected the rest of her face, except for a strip open across her eyes. Nonreflective night-vision goggles rested atop her forehead, ready for use. The lenses were capable of taking an hour of digital footage and were hooked up to a microparabolic receiver for eavesdropping.
Painter Crowe’s own design.
This thought drew a thin smile. She loved the irony. To use the bastard’s own tools against him…
Cassandra watched the guard vanish around the corner of the estate. She freed her grappling hook and resecured it to the muzzle of her compact gun. She rolled onto her back, ejected the spent compressed-air cartridge from the pistol’s grip, grabbed a fresh cylinder from her belt, and slapped it in place. Ready, she swung around and crawled along the jagged parapet of the palace wall, aiming for the main building.
The outer wall did not merge with the palace, but surrounded the structure from a distance of ten meters. Smaller gardens filled the narrow space, some separated into private, hedge-lined shade gardens, dotted with fountains. The tinkling of dancing water echoed up to her as she continued along the parapet.
Earlier, she had scoped the estate, ensuring the security schematics supplied to her by the Guild were accurate. She knew better than to trust ink and paper. She had personally checked each camera’s position, the schedule of the guards, the layout of the palace.
Ducking beneath the overhanging leaves of another palm, she crept more slowly toward a section of the palace ablaze with light. A tiny columned court framed arched windows that looked in upon a long dining hall. Candles, carved into delicate flowers and afloat in silver basins, flickered atop the table, while others tapered out of elaborate candelabras. Crystal and fine porcelain reflected the firelight. Figures mingled before the silk-draped table. Servants bustled among them, filling water goblets and offering wine.
Lying flat to hide her silhouette, Cassandra lowered her digital goggles over her eyes. She did not activate the night-vision mode, only toggled the magnification, telescoping closer to the action. Her earpiece buzzed with the amplified conversation, sounding tinny from its digitalization. She had to keep her head very still to fix the parabolic receiver on the conversation.
She knew all the players present.
The lanky graduate student, Clay Bishop, stood by one of the windows, ill at ease. A young serving girl offered to fill his wineglass. He shook his head. “La, shuk-ran,” he mumbled. No, thank you.
Behind him, two men sampled a tray of varied hors d’oeuvres, traditional dishes of Oman, bits of braised meat, goat cheese, olives, and slivered dates. Dr. Omaha Dunn and his brother, Daniel. Cassandra knew all about their narrow escape earlier. Sloppy work on the part of the kidnappers.
Still, she eyed the pair. She knew better than to underestimate an opponent. Defeat lay along that path. There could be strengths to this pair that bore watching.
Omaha chewed around an olive pit. “While you were in the shower,” he said, sucking on the pit, “I checked the weather report on the local news. The sandstorm shut down Kuwait City, shoved a dune right down Main Street.”
The younger brother made a noncommittal noise. He did not seem to be paying attention. His gaze followed a tall blonde as she entered on the far side of the room.
Coral Novak, Sigma operative, her replacement.
Cassandra turned her attention to her adversary. The woman’s coolness seemed too practiced, especially considering how easily she had been taken down at the museum, caught off guard. Cassandra’s eyes narrowed with distaste. This is who they thought to take my place at Painter’s side? Someone green to Sigma? No wonder things had to change.
On the heels of the woman, Painter appeared. Tall, dressed in black slacks and black shirt, formal, yet casual. Even from her perch on the wall, Cassandra recognized his study of the room, circumspect, out of the corner of his eye. He was taking in all sights, analyzing, calculating.
Her fingers tightened on the wall’s shards of glass.
He had exposed her, threatened her position with the Guild, brought her low. She had been perfectly poised, spent years cultivating her role as a lead operative, earning her partner’s trust…and at the end, maybe even something beyond simple loyalty.
Anger built in her chest, stirring bile. He had cost her everything, driven her out of the limelight, limiting her role to ops that required total anonymity. She rose from her spot and continued along the wall. She had a mission. One thwarted before by Painter, at the museum. She knew the stakes involved.
She would not fail this night.
Nothing would stop her.
Cassandra worked around to the far wing of the palace, toward a lone light in the darkness at the rear of the building. She rose up on her toes and ran the last distance. She could not risk missing her target.
At last, she settled before a window that looked down upon an unkempt garden. Through the steamy window, a lone woman reclined in a sunken bath. Cassandra scanned the remaining rooms. Empty. She listened. Not a sound.
Satisfied, Cassandra aimed her grappling gun toward an upper balcony. In her left ear, she heard the woman mumble. It sounded groggy, a dream, a choked cry: “No…not again…”
Cassandra pulled the gun’s release trigger. The hooks snapped wide and sailed through the air, spiraling a thin cable of steel behind. A tight zipping noise accompanied it. The grappling hooks sailed over the balustrade of the third-story balcony.
Securing the hooks with a snug pull, Cassandra swung from the wall toward the garden below. Wind whistled. Dogs barked in a neighboring alley. She landed without breaking a twig and leaned against the wall beside the window, one ear cocked for the sound of alarm.
She checked the window. It had been left cracked open a finger’s breadth. Beyond, the woman mumbled in her dreams.
S AFIA STANDS in the waiting room of a large hospital. She knows what is going to happen. Across the way, she spots the bent woman walking with the limp, entering the ward. Face and form covered in a berka. The bulge under the woman’s cloak evident now.
…not like before.
Safia lunges to cross the waiting room, frantic to stop what is going to happen next. But children crowd around her feet, clambering at her legs, snatching at her arms. She struggles to push them away, but they cry out.
She slows, unsure whether to console or push forward.
Ahead, the woman disappears into the mass of people by the desk. Safia can no longer see her. But the station nurse raises her arm, points in Safia’s direction. Her name is called.
The crowd parts. The woman is spotlit in her own light, angelic, cloak swelling out like wings.
No, Safia mouths. She has no air to speak, to warn.
Then a blinding explosion, all light, no noise.
Sight returns in an instant—but not hearing.
She is on her back, staring as silent flames race along the ceiling. She hides her face from the heat, but it’s everywhere. With her head turned, she sees children sprawled, some aflame, others crushed under stone. One sits with her back to an overturned table. The child’s face is missing. Another reaches toward her, but there is no hand, only blood.
Safia now realizes why she can’t hear. The world has become one scream stretched to infinity. The scream comes not from the children, but from her own mouth.
Safia startled awake in the tub, choking on the same scream. It was always inside her, trying to get out. She covered her mouth, shaking out a sob, holding everything else inside. She trembled in the cooling water, arms hugged around her breasts. Tight. Waiting for the echo of the panic attack to subside.