Only a dream…




She wished she could believe it. It had been too forceful, too vivid. She still tasted the blood in her mouth. She wiped her brow but continued to tremble. She wanted to blame her reaction, the dream, on her exhaustion—but that was a lie. It was this place, this land, home again. And Omaha…




She closed her eyes, but the dream waited, only a breath way. It was no mere nightmare. All of it had happened. All of it was her fault. The local imam, a holy Muslim leader, had tried to deter her from excavating the tombs in the hills outside of Qumran. She had not listened. Too confident in the shield of pure research.




The year before, Safia had spent six months deciphering a single clay tablet. It suggested a cache of scrolls might be buried at the location, possibly another sepulcher of the famous Dead Sea Scrolls. Two months of digging proved her right. She uncovered forty urns containing a vast library of Aramaic writings, the discovery of the year.




But it came with a high price.




A fanatical fundamentalist group took offense at the defilement of a Muslim holy place. Especially by a woman, one of mixed blood, one with close ties to the West. Unknown to her at the time, Safia was targeted.




Only it was the blood and lives of innocent children that paid the price for her hubris and gall.




She was one of only three survivors. A miracle, it was described in newspapers, a miracle she had survived.




Safia prayed for no other such miracles in her life.




They came at too high a price.




Safia opened her eyes, fingers clenched. Anger warmed past grief and guilt. Her therapist had told her this was a perfectly natural response. She should allow herself to feel this fury. Still, she felt ashamed of her anger, undeserving.




She sat straighter. Water splashed over the tub’s edge and washed across the tiles, leaving a trail of jasmine petals on the floor. The remaining petals sloshed around her bare midsection.




Under the water, something brushed against her knee, something as soft as a flower, but with more weight. Safia tensed, a rabbit in headlights.




The waters settled. The slick of jasmine petals hid the depths of the tub. Then slowly a lazy S-curve disturbed the layer from beneath.




Safia froze.




The snake’s head surfaced through the petals, a few clinging to its mud brown head. Gray eyes turned black as the protective inner eyelid pulled down. It seemed to be staring right at her.




Safia knew the snake on sight, spotting the telltale white cross atop its crown. Echis pyramidum. Carpet viper. All Omani children knew to watch for its mark. The sign of the cross meant death here, not Christian salvation. The snake was ubiquitous in the region, frequenting shady spots, found hanging from limbs of trees. Its venom was both hemotoxic and neurotoxic, a fatal combination, from bite to death in less than ten minutes. Its ability to strike was so broad and swift that it was once thought to be capable of flight.




The meter-long viper swam through the tub, aiming for Safia. She dared not move or risk provoking it. It must have slipped into the water after she fell asleep, seeking moisture to aid in the shedding of its skin.




The snake reached her belly, rising a bit from the water, tongue flicking the air. Safia felt the tickle on her skin as it sidled even closer. Goose bumps traced down her arms. She fought not to shiver.




Sensing no danger, the viper beached onto her belly, slithered upward, and slowly crested her left breast. It paused to flick its tongue again. Scaled skin was warm on her own, not cold. Its movements were muscular, hard.




Safia kept her own muscles tight, rigid. She dared not breathe. But how long could she hold her breath?




The snake seemed to enjoy its perch, unmoving, settling atop her breast. Its behavior was so odd. Why didn’t it sense her, hear her heartbeat?




Move… she willed it with all her might. If only it would retreat across the room, find some corner to hide, give her a chance to climb from the bath…




She found the need for air growing into a sharp pain in her chest, a pressure behind her eyes.




Please, go…




The viper sampled the air again with its red tongue. Whatever it sensed seemed to content it. It settled in for a rest.




Tiny stars danced across Safia’s vision, birthed by the lack of oxygen and the tension. If she moved, she died. If she even breathed…




Then a shift of shadows drew her eye to the window. Condensation steamed the glass, making the view murky. But there was no doubt.




Someone was out there.




8 Snakes and Ladders




Sandstorm






DECEMBER 2, 08:24 P.M.




OLD TOWN, MUSCAT




W HERE THE hell’s Safia?” Omaha asked, checking his watch.




It was ten minutes past the time they were all supposed to gather for dinner. The woman he had known in the past was painfully punctual, something drilled into her at Oxford. It was her attention to detail that made her such an accomplished curator.




“Shouldn’t she be here by now?” he said.




“I had a bath drawn for her,” Kara announced as she stepped into the room. “A maid just went up with fresh clothes.”




Kara entered, resplendent in a traditional Omani thob gown of flowing red silk with gold filigree embroidered along the hems. She abandoned any headdress, leaving her auburn hair free, and wore Prada sandals. As always, to Kara, a line had to be drawn between the traditional and the fashionable.




“A bath?” Omaha groaned. “Then we’ll never see her this evening.”




Safia loved water in all its forms: showers, fountains, flowing taps, dips in streams and lakes, but especially baths. He used to tease her, attributing her fixation to her desert past. You can take the girl out of the desert, but never the desert out of the girl.




With this thought, other uninvited memories intruded, of long baths shared, limbs entwined, laughter, soft moans, steam off water and skin.




“She’ll be along when she’s ready,” Kara warned, protective, drawing him back to the room. She nodded to the household butler. “We’ll be serving a light Omani dinner before we head out in a couple of hours. Please sit.”




Everyone found seats, dividing into party lines. Painter and Coral sat on one side, along with Safia’s graduate student, Clay. Danny and Omaha took seats on the other. Lastly, Kara settled on the lone chair at the head of the table.




Upon some unseen signal, servants paraded through a set of swinging doors from the kitchen hallway. They bore aloft covered trays, some held above their heads on a single palm. Others carried wider trays in both arms.




As each platter was lowered to the table, the servant stepped deftly back, lifting the lids to expose what lay beneath. It was all clearly choreographed.




Kara named each dish as it was revealed. “Maqbous…saffron rice over lamb. Shuwa…pork cooked in clay ovens. Mashuai…spit-fired kingfish served with lemon rice.” She named a handful of other curried dishes. Amid the feast were plates of thin, oval breads. They were familiar to Omaha. The ubiquitous rukhal bread of Oman, baked over burning palm leaves.




Kara finally finished her introductions. “And lastly, honeycakes, one of my favorites, flavored with the syrup from the native elb tree.”




“What…no sheep’s eyes?” Omaha mumbled.




Kara heard him. “That delicacy can be arranged.”




He held up a conciliatory palm. “I’ll pass this time.”




Kara waved a hand over the spread. “Tradition among the Omani is to serve oneself. Please enjoy.”




The group took her at her word and proceeded to spoon, spear, ladle, and grab. Omaha filled a cup from the tall pot. Kahwa. Omani coffee. Deadly strong. Arabs might shun alcohol, but they had no qualms about caffeine addiction. He took a deep sip and sighed. The bitter tang of the thick coffee was softened by cardamom, a distinct and welcome after-taste.




Conversation centered initially on the quality of the fare. Mostly murmurs of surprise at the tenderness of the meat or the fire of the spices. Clay seemed content to fill his plate with honeycakes. Kara merely picked at her food, keeping a watch on the servants, guiding with a nod or turn of her head.




Omaha studied her while sipping his kahwa.




She was thinner, more wasted than when last he saw her. Kara’s eyes still shone, but now appeared more fevered. Omaha knew how much effort she had invested in this trip. And he knew why. Safia and he had kept few secrets…at least back then. He knew all about Reginald Kensington. His portrait stared down at Kara from the wall behind her. Did she still feel those eyes?




Omaha imagined he’d be no better if his own father had vanished into the desert, sucked out of this world. But thank God, it required his imagination to fathom such a loss. His father, at eighty-two, still worked the family farm back in Nebraska. He ate four eggs, a rasher of bacon, and a pile of buttered toast each breakfast and smoked a cigar each night. His mother was even more fit. Solid stock, his father used to brag. Just like my boys.




As Omaha thought of his family, his brother’s sharp voice drew his attention from Kara. Danny was elaborating on the escapade of the midday abduction, using his fork as much as his voice to tell the story. Omaha recognized the flush of excitement as he relived the day’s events. He shook his head, hearing the bluster and swagger in his younger brother. Omaha had once been the same. Immortal. Armored in youth.




No longer.




He stared down at his own hands. They were lined and scarred, his father’s hands. He listened to Danny’s story. It had not been the grand adventure his brother related. It had been deadly-serious business.




A new voice interrupted. “A woman?” Painter Crowe asked with a frown. “One of your kidnappers was a woman?”




Danny nodded. “I didn’t see her, but my brother did.”




Omaha found the other man’s eyes turning to him, a piercing blue. His brow furrowed, his gaze concentrating attention like a well-focused laser.




“Is this true?” Crowe asked.




Omaha shrugged, taken aback by his intensity.




“What did she look like?”




This last was spoken too quickly. Omaha answered slowly, watching the pair. “She was tall. My height. From the way she handled herself, I’d say she had military training.”