Omaha and Painter stood across the room from each other, on either side of Safia. Neither man moved, both equally unsure if it was appropriate to comfort Safia. The matter was settled by Henry stepping through the archway, the butler’s arms full of folded clothing.
Henry nodded to the two men. “Sirs, I’ve rung for a maid to help Mistress al-Maaz dress and gather her things. If you would be so kind…” He nodded toward the door, dismissing them.
Painter stepped closer to Safia. “Are you sure you’re okay to travel?”
She nodded, an effort. “Thank you. I’ll be fine.”
“Just the same. I’ll wait outside in the hall for you.”
This earned him the smallest smile. He found himself matching it.
“That won’t be necessary,” she said.
He turned. “I know, but I’ll be there anyway.”
Painter found Omaha studying him, his eyes slightly more narrowed than a moment before. The man’s expression was tight. He was clearly suspicious, but also a trace of anger lay under the surface.
As Painter crossed toward the door, Omaha made no room to allow him to pass. He had to turn sideways to get by.
As he did so, Omaha addressed Safia. “You did good in there, babe.”
“It was just a snake,” she answered, standing to accept the clothes from the butler. “And I have a lot to do before we leave.”
Omaha sighed. “All right. I hear you.” He followed Painter out the door.
The others had all cleared, leaving the hallway empty.
Painter moved to take a post beside the door. Omaha started to march past him, but Painter cleared his throat. “Dr. Dunn…”
The archaeologist stopped, glancing sidelong at him.
“That snake,” Painter said, following a thread left untied earlier. “You said you thought it came from outside. Why?”
Omaha shrugged, stepping back a bit. “Can’t say for sure. But carpet vipers like the afternoon sun, especially when shedding. So I can’t imagine it was holed up in there all day.”
Painter stared over at the closed door. Safia’s room had an eastern exposure. Morning sunlight only. If the archaeologist was correct, the snake would’ve had to travel a long way from a sunny roost to the tub.
Omaha read his thoughts. “You don’t think someone put it there?”
“Maybe I’m just being too paranoid. But didn’t some militant group once try to kill Safia?”
The man scowled, an expression worn into the lines of his face. “That was five years ago. Way up in Tel Aviv. Besides, if someone planted that snake, it couldn’t have been those bastards.”
Omaha shook his head. “The extremist group was rooted out by Israeli commandos a year later. Wiped out, actually.”
Painter knew the details. It was Dr. Dunn who had helped the Israelis hunt the extremists down, using his contacts in the area.
Omaha mumbled, more to himself than Painter, a bitter tone. “Afterward, I thought Safia would be relieved…would return here…”
It’s not that easy, guy. Painter already had a good fix on Omaha. The man tackled problems head-on, bulled through them without looking back. It wasn’t what Safia needed. He doubted Omaha would ever understand. Still, Painter sensed a well of loss in the man, one that had been filled by the sand of passing years. So he tried to help. “Trauma like that is not overcome by—”
Omaha cut him off sharply. “Yeah, I’ve heard it all before. Thanks, but you’re not my goddamn therapist. Or hers.” He stalked off down the hall, calling back derisively, “And sometimes, doc, a snake is just a snake.”
A figure moved from the shadows of a neighboring archway. It was Coral Novak. “That man has issues.”
“Don’t we all.”
“I overheard your conversation,” she said. “Were you just chatting with him, or do you really think another party is involved?”
“There’s definitely someone stirring the pot.”
He slowly shook his head. “No, some unknown variable.”
Coral scowled, which consisted of the barest downturn of the corner of her lips. “That’s not good.”
“No…no, it’s not.”
“And this curator,” Coral persisted, nodding to the door. “You’ve really got the role of the attentive civilian scientist down pat.”
Painter sensed a subtle warning in her voice, a cloaked concern that he might be crossing the line between professionalism and something more personal.
Coral continued, “If there’s another party sniffing around, shouldn’t we be searching the grounds for evidence?”
“Definitely. That’s why you’re going out there now.”
Coral raised an eyebrow.
“I have a door to guard,” he said, answering her unspoken question.
“I understand.” Coral began to turn away. “But are you staying here to safeguard the woman or the mission?”
Painter let command harden his voice. “In this particular case, they’re one and the same.”
S AFIA STARED out at the passing scenery. The two tablets of diazepam kept her head muzzy. Lights from passing streetlamps were phosphorous blurs, smudges of light across the midnight landscape. The buildings were all dark. But ahead, a blaze of light marked the port of Muscat. The commercial harbor was active twenty-four hours a day, kept bright with floodlights and sodium-lit warehouses.
As they rounded a tight turn, the harbor came into view. The bay was mostly empty, most of the oil barges and container ships having docked before sunset. During the night, their cargo would be off-loaded and reloaded. Even now, H-cranes and trundling train-car-size containers swung through the air, like giant toy blocks. Farther out, near the horizon, a behemoth of a cruise liner floated on the dark waters like some candlelit birthday cake, backdropped against a spray of stars.
The limo aimed away from the commotion toward the far side of the harbor, where the more traditional dhow sailing vessels of Arabia stood docked. For thousands of years, Omanis had plied the seas, from Africa to India. The dhows were simple wooden-planked shells with a distinctive triangular sail. They varied in size from the shallow draft of the badan form to the deep-sea baghlah. The proud array of old ships lined the far harbor, stacked close together, sails furled, masts poking high amid tangles of ropes.
“We’re almost there,” Kara mumbled to Safia from the other side of the limo. The only other occupant, besides the driver and a bodyguard, was Safia’s student, Clay Bishop. He snorted a bit when Kara spoke, half drowsing.
Behind them trailed the other limo with all the Americans: Painter and his partner, Omaha and his brother.
Safia sat straighter now. Kara had yet to tell her how they were getting to Salalah, only that they were heading to the harbor. So she guessed they would be traveling by boat. Salalah was a coastal city, like Muscat, and travel between the two cities was almost easier by sea than by air. Transports, both cargo and passenger, left throughout the day and night. They varied from diesel-engine ferries to a pair of lightning-fast hydrofoils. Considering Kara’s urgency to be under way, Safia guessed they’d be taking the fastest vessel possible.
The limo turned through the gated entry, followed by its twin. Both continued down the pier, passing rows and rows of docked dhows. Safia was familiar with the regular passenger terminal. This wasn’t it. They were heading down the wrong pier.
“Kara…?” she began.
The limo cleared the last harbor office at the end of the pier. Parked beyond, lit by lights and crowded with clusters of line-haulers and dock-workers, stood a magnificent sight. From the commotion and the unfurled sails, there could be no doubt this was their transportation.
“No,” Safia mumbled.
“Yes,” Kara answered, sounding none too pleased.
“Holy Christ,” Clay said, leaning forward, the better to see.
Kara checked her watch. “I couldn’t refuse the sultan when he offered us its use.”
The limo pulled athwart the pier’s end. Doors opened. Safia climbed to her feet, swaying a bit as she stared at the top of the hundred-foot masts. The ship’s length was almost twice that.
“The Shabab Oman,” she whispered in awe.
The high-masted clipper ship was the sultan’s pride, the country’s maritime ambassador to the world, a reminder of its nautical history. It had the traditional English design of a square-rigged foremast, the main and aft masts bearing both square and sloop sails. Built in 1971 from Scottish oak and Uruguayan pine, it was the largest vessel of its era in the world that was still seaworthy and in active service. For the past thirty years, it had traveled throughout the world, participating in races and regattas.
Presidents and premiers, kings and queens, had strode its deck. And now it was being lent to Kara for her personal transportation to Salalah. This, more than anything, demonstrated the sultan’s esteem for the Kensington family. Safia now understood why Kara could not refuse.
Safia had to suppress a small bit of glee, surprised by the burbling feeling. Worries of snakes and nagging doubts dimmed. Maybe it was just the drugs, but she preferred to believe it was the fresh salt of the sea breeze, clearing her head and her heart. How long had it been since she’d felt this way?
By now, the other limo had drawn up and parked. The Americans climbed out, all eyes wide on the ship.
Only Omaha seemed unimpressed, having already been informed of the change in transportation. Still, to see the ship in person clearly affected him. Though, of course, he tried to hide it. “Great, this whole expedition is turning into a great big Sinbad movie.”
“When in Rome…” Kara mumbled.
C ASSANDRA WATCHED the ship from across the harbor. The Guild had secured this warehouse through contacts with a trafficker in black-market pirated videos. The back half of the rusted structure was stacked with crates of bootlegged DVDs and VHS videos.