Damn it.




Cassandra reached a spot along the wall where another date palm rose from within the walled compound. Its fronded leaves fanned wide, shading both sides of the wall, blocking her run.




Without slowing, Cassandra kept one eye on her quarry. As she reached the tree, she lunged out, grabbed a handful of leaves, and leaped off the twenty-foot wall. Her purchase gave way under her weight. Leaves ripped from between her gloved fingers, but the temporary support helped break her fall. She landed in the alley, her knees absorbing the impact.




She shot after her quarry, who vanished down a cross street.




Cassandra subvocalized into her controls. An overlay map of the immediate cityscape appeared within her goggles. It took a practiced eye to interpret the mishmash of imagery.




Here in Old Town, there was no rhyme or reason to the layout. The surrounding environment was a labyrinth of alleys and cobbled streets.




If the thief escaped into that twisted maze…




Cassandra sped faster. The other had to be slowed. Her digital overlay showed the side street to be less than thirty yards long before it crisscrossed more alleys.




Cassandra had only one chance.




She dove for the corner, yanking her grappling gun free. As she slid into the street, she quickly tracked and locked her quarry, thirty yards away.




She pulled the trigger.




The zip of cable hissed. The grappling hook shot in a low arc down the alley, passing over the shoulder of her mark.




Cassandra squeezed the retractor, reversing the winch, while yanking back with her own arm. Like fly-fishing.




The hooks dug into the other’s shoulder, spinning the figure, legs flailing.




Cassandra allowed herself a grim smile of satisfaction.




She savored her victory too soon.




Her adversary continued the spin, unwinding a fan of cloak, pulling free of the garment with a skill that would have astounded Houdini. Moonlight cast the figure as bright as midday through the night-vision goggles.




A woman.




She landed with feline grace upon one hand, springing back to her toes. With a sweep of dark hair, she sped down the street.




Cassandra swore and gave pursuit. A part of her appreciated her target’s skill and the challenge. Another wanted to shoot the woman in the back for making her night that much longer. But she needed answers.




She dogged the woman, whose movement was lithe and surefooted. Cassandra had been a champion sprinter in high school and only got faster during her rigorous Special Forces training. Being one of the first women in the Army Rangers, she needed to be fast.




Her target fled around another corner.




By this time at night, the streets were empty, except for a few crouched dogs and scurrying cats. After sundown, Old Town locked itself up and shuttered its windows, leaving the streets dark. Occasional bits of music or laughter echoed from inner courtyards. A few lights shone from upper balconies, but even these were barred against intrusion.




Cassandra checked her digital overlay. A smile stretched her lips thin. The warren of alleys into which her quarry had fled was circuitous but ultimately a dead end, terminating against the towering flank of the ancient fort of Jalai. The walled fortress had no entrance on this side.




Cassandra kept pace. In her head, she planned her assault. She freed one of her Glocks. With her other hand, she tapped her radio. “I’ll need evac in ten,” she subvocalized. “Fix on my GPS.”




The response was terse. “We copy. Evac in ten.”




As planned, the team subcommander would send out a trio of modified dirt bikes with silenced mufflers, solid rubber tires, and jacked engines. Automobiles had limited mobility in Old Town’s narrow passages. The bikes suited the region better. Cassandra’s expertise: fitting the right tool to the right job. By the time she had her target cornered, backup would be riding at her heels. She would only have to hold the woman at bay. If there was any resistance, a bullet to a knee should dampen the other’s spirit.




Ahead, a flash of white limb on her night-vision scope alerted Cassandra that her target was slowing, the distances closing. She must be realizing the trap she had run into.




Cassandra paced the other, keeping her in sight.




Finally, a last twist of narrow alley revealed the towering Jalai fort. The storefronts to either side ran up against the structure, creating a box canyon.




The woman, stripped of her cloak, wore only a loose white shift. She stood at the base of the fort’s sheer sandstone wall, staring upward. The closest purchase or opening was thirty feet up. If the woman attempted to scale the neighboring storefront rooftops, Cassandra would discourage her with a few well-placed shots from her Glock.




Cassandra stepped into the alley, blocking any escape.




The woman sensed her and turned from the fort wall to face her.




Cassandra flipped up her night-vision scope. The moon illuminated the alley well enough. She preferred her natural vision in close quarters.




With her Glock conspicuously pointed forward, Cassandra closed the distance. “Don’t move,” she said in Arabic.




Ignoring her, the woman shrugged a shoulder. Her shift dropped from her form and pooled around her ankles, leaving her naked in the street. Long of limb, bearing apple-size breasts, and bending a shapely long neck, she seemed unabashed by her nakedness, a rarity in Arabia. There was a measure of nobility to her pose, a Greek statue of an Arab princess. Her only jewelry was a small ruby tattoo by her left eye. A teardrop.




The woman spoke for the first time, slowly, warning in her voice. Her words, though, were not Arabic. With a background in linguistics, Cassandra was fluent in a dozen languages, efficient in a score of others. She bent an ear to the words, sensing a familiarity but unable to pin it down.




Before Cassandra could discern anything else, the naked woman stepped barefoot from her clothes and backed into the shadow of the towering wall. Moving from moonlight into darkness, her form vanished for a breath.




Cassandra stepped forward, maintaining the distance between them.




She stared harder.




No.




She flipped down her night-vision goggles. Shadows dissolved. The sandstone cliff of the fort sharpened into focus. She searched right and left.




The woman was nowhere in sight.




Cassandra rushed forward, pistol raised. She reached the wall in seven steps. One hand went out, touching the stone to ensure it was real, solid. With her back to the wall, she scanned the alley with her night-vision goggles. No movement, no sign of the woman.




Impossible.




It was as if she had turned to shadow and vanished.




A veritable djinn, a ghost of the desert.




Cassandra only had to stare at the pile of discarded clothes to know better. Since when did ghosts wear cloaks?




A crunch of gravel and a low growl drew her attention to the entrance to the alley. A small motorbike rounded the bend, flanked by two others. Her backup.




With a final check around, Cassandra crossed to them. She spun in circles twice more. When she reached the lead bike, she asked, “Did you see a naked woman in the alley on your way here?”




The rider’s face was masked, but confusion shone in his eyes. “Naked?”




Cassandra heard the negation in his voice. “Never mind.”




She climbed onto the bike behind the rider. The night had been a bust. Something strange was afoot out here. She needed time to sort it out.




She tapped the man’s shoulder. He swung the bike around and the trio fled back the way they had come, aiming for the empty warehouse they had rented at the docks for their base of operations in Muscat. It was time to finish the mission assigned her. It would have been easier with the iron heart in her hands. But contingencies were already in place. By midnight, they would move forward with the plans to eliminate Crowe’s expeditionary force.




Her mind ran over the final details that needed to be arranged, but she had a hard time concentrating. What had happened to the woman? Had there been a secret door into the fort? One unknown to her intel. It was the only explanation.




As she pondered the strangeness, the woman’s words echoed in her head.




The muffled rev of the bikes helped her focus.




Where had she heard that language?




She glanced back at the ancient fort of Jalai, its towers thrust up into moonlight above the lower buildings. An ancient structure, from a lost era.




Then it struck her. The familiarity of the language.




Not modern. Ancient.




In her head, the words played out again, thick with warning. Though she still didn’t understand, she knew what she was hearing. A dead language.




Aramaic.




The language of Jesus Christ.




10:28 P.M.




H OW DID it get in there?” Painter asked. He stood by the entrance to the bath, staring at the floating length of dead snake among the jasmine petals.




The entire dining party had heard the maid’s scream and come running. They had been held at bay by the butler until Kara could help Safia into a robe.




Kara answered his question from her seat beside her friend on the bed, “Bloody buggers are always turning up, even in the plumbing. Safia’s rooms had been closed off for years. It could’ve been nesting anywhere in here. When we aired out her rooms and cleaned the place, it must have been disturbed, then was drawn out by the water in the tub.”




“Shedding,” Safia whispered hoarsely.




Kara had given her a pill. Its effect had lazed the woman’s tongue, but she seemed calmer than when the group first arrived. Her wet hair hung damply to her skin. Color slowly returned. “Shedding snakes seek water.”




“Then more likely it came from outside,” Omaha added. The archaeologist stood by the arch into the study. The others waited out in the hall.




Kara patted Safia’s knee and stood up. “Either way, the matter’s over. It’s best that we get ready for our departure.”




“Surely it can be put off a day,” Omaha said, glancing at Safia.




“No.” Safia pushed past the sedative haze. “I can manage.”




Kara nodded. “We’re due to rendezvous at the port at midnight.”




Painter held up a hand. “You never did tell us how we’d be traveling.”




Kara waved away his words like a foul smell. “You’ll all see when we get there. I have a thousand last minute details to attend to.” She strode past Omaha and out of the rooms. Her words carried back as she addressed the others in the hall. “Gather in the courtyard in an hour.”