The remainder of the warehouse, though, met her requirements. Formerly a mechanics shop, it had its own enclosed dry dock and berth. Water slapped in a continual rhythm against the nearby pilings, disturbed by the wake of a passing trawler heading out to sea.




The motion jostled the group of attack vessels brought in last week. Some had arrived disassembled in crates, then reassembled on-site; others were brought in by sea in the dead of night. Rocking in the berth were three Boston whalers, each tethering a rack of sleek, black Jet Skis, modified by the Guild with swivel-mounted assault rifles. In addition, the dock housed Cassandra’s command boat, a hydrofoil capable of rocketing to speeds in excess of a hundred knots.




Her twelve-man team bustled about with final preparations. They were all ex–Special Forces, like herself, but these hard men had never been recruited by Sigma. Not that they weren’t intelligent enough. Drummed out of the Forces, most had gone into various mercenary and paramilitary groups around the world, learning new skills, growing harder and more cunning. From these men, the Guild had handpicked those with the best adaptability, the keenest intelligence, those who demonstrated the fiercest loyalty to their team, traits even Sigma would have appreciated. Only in the Guild’s case, one criterion was paramount: These men had no qualms about killing, no matter the target.




Her second-in-command approached. “Captain Sanchez, sir.”




She kept her attention on the video feed from the exterior cameras. She counted as Painter’s party climbed aboard the ship and were greeted by Omani officials. Everyone was aboard. She finally straightened. “Yes, Kane.”




John Kane was the only non-American in the group. He had served in the elite Australian SAS, Special Air Services. The Guild did not limit its talent search to U.S. borders, especially as it operated internationally. Standing over six and a half feet, Kane was solidly muscled. He kept his head shaved smooth, except for a patch of black hair under his chin.




The team here was actually Kane’s own men, positioned in the Gulf until called to duty by the Guild. The organization had teams planted throughout the world, independent cells who knew nothing about the others, each ready at a moment’s notice to do the Guild’s bidding.




Cassandra had been sent to activate this particular cell and lead the mission, gaining the assignment because of her knowledge of Sigma Force, the Guild’s adversary on this op. She knew how Sigma operated, their strategies and procedures. She also had intimate knowledge of their op leader—Painter Crowe.




“We’re locked and loaded,” Kane said.




Cassandra nodded, checked her watch. The Shabab Oman was due to disembark at the stroke of midnight. They would wait a full hour, then set off in pursuit. She stared again at the video monitor and calculated in her head.




“The Argus?” she asked.




“Radioed in a few minutes ago. She’s already in position, patrolling our attack zone to ensure no trespassers.”




The Argus was a four-man submersible, capable of off-loading divers without surfacing. Its peroxide-propellant engines and ordnance of mini-torpedoes made it as fast as it was deadly.




Cassandra nodded again. All was in place.




None aboard the Shabab would live to see the dawn.




MIDNIGHT




H ENRY STOOD in the center of the bathroom as the draining tub gurgled. His butler’s jacket lay on the bed outside. He rolled up his sleeves and pulled on a pair of yellow rubber gloves.




He sighed. A maid could have easily handled this chore, but the girls were already put off by the commotion, and he felt it his duty to rid the house of the viper’s remains. Ultimately the well-being of the palace’s guests fell upon his shoulders, a duty he felt he had failed in this evening. And though Lady Kensington’s group had departed, he still felt it a personal responsibility to cast the snake out, to correct his mistake.




Stepping forward, he leaned down and gingerly reached for the body. It floated in a lazy S-shape upon the water, even seeming to writhe slightly, bobbled by the tidal pull of the drain.




Henry’s finger hesitated. The bloody thing looked alive.




He squeezed his gloved hand. “Get a grip on yourself, old man.”




Taking a deep breath, he grabbed the snake by the middle. His face clenched in distaste, teeth grinding. “Bloody piece of shite,” he muttered, reverting to the language of his Dublin youth. He cast a silent prayer of thanks to Saint Patrick for driving these buggers out of Ireland.




He dragged the limp form out of the tub. A plastic-lined pail awaited his catch. Turning, holding the snake at arm’s length, he positioned the snake’s tail over the bucket and wound its body down into it, coiling it into place.




As he settled its head atop the pile, he was again amazed at the lifelike appearance of the creature. Only its slack mouth ruined the image.




Henry began to straighten, then cocked his head, seeing something that made no sense. “What’s this, then?”




He turned and collected a plastic comb from the vanity. Gingerly grabbing the snake behind its skull, he used the comb to pry the mouth open farther, confirming what he had noticed.




“How odd,” he mumbled. He probed with the comb to make sure.




The snake had no fangs.




9 Blood on the Water




Sandstorm






DECEMBER 3, 1:02 A.M.




ARABIAN SEA




S AFIA STOOD at the rail, staring at the dark coastline as it floated past. The ship creaked and groaned around her. Sails snapped as the winds twisted over the midnight seas.




It was as if they had been transported to another time, when the world was just wind, sand, and water. The smell of the salt and the whisper of waves sliding along the boat’s sides erased the bustle of Muscat. Stars shone above but clouds were blowing in. They would have rain before they reached Salalah.




The ship’s captain had already relayed the weather reports. A squall was raising swells to ten feet. “Nothing the Shabab can’t handle,” he had said with a grin, “but it’ll make for a bit of a roll and yaw. Best stick to your cabins when the rains hit.”




So Safia had decided to take advantage of the clear skies while they lasted. After the excitement of the day, she found it too confining in the cabin. Especially now that the sedatives were wearing thin.




She watched the dark coastline glide past, so quiet, so smooth. The last oasis of light, an industrial complex on the very outskirts of Muscat, began to disappear around a spur of land.




A voice spoke behind her, sounding intentionally indifferent. “There goes the last vestige of civilization as we know it.”




Clay Bishop stepped to the rail, gripped it with one hand, and raised a cigarette to his lips. He still wore his Levi’s and a black T-shirt emblazoned with the words GOT MILK. For the two years he had served as her grad student, he never wore anything but Tshirts, usually advertising rock bands in garish colors. The black-and-white one he wore now was clearly his formal wear.




Slightly irritated at the intrusion, she kept her voice stiff and scholarly. “Those lights,” she said, nodding to the fading complex, “mark the city’s most important industrial site. Can you tell me what it is, Mr. Bishop?”




He shrugged, and after a moment’s hesitation, guessed, “An oil refinery?”




It was an answer she expected, but it was also wrong. “No, it’s the desalination facility that produces the city’s freshwater supply.”




“Water?”




“Oil may be the wealth of Arabia, but water is its lifeblood.”




She allowed her student to dwell on this fact. Few in the West knew of the importance of such desalination projects here in Arabia. Water rights and freshwater resources were already replacing oil as the hotbed of contention in the Middle East and North Africa. Some of the fiercest conflicts between Israel and its neighbors—Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria—were not over ideology or religion, but over control of the Jordan Valley’s water supply.




Clay finally spoke up. “Whiskey is for drinkin’, water is for fightin’.”




She frowned.




“Mark Twain,” he said.




Once again, she was surprised by his astute intuitiveness and nodded to him. “Very good.”




Despite his slacker appearance, there was a sharp intelligence behind those thick black glasses. It was one of the reasons she had allowed the young man to join this expedition. He would make a fine researcher one day.




Clay raised his cigarette again. Studying him, she noted the slight waver in its lit end and, for the first time, his white-knuckled grip on the ship’s rail.




“Are you all right?” she asked.




“Not a big fan of the open sea. If God had meant for man to sail, He wouldn’t have ground the dinosaurs into jet fuel.”




She reached over and patted his hand. “Go to bed, Mr. Bishop.”




The desalination plant finally vanished around the spit of land. All went dark, except for the ship’s lights, reflected in the waters.




Behind Safia, solitary lanterns and strings of electric lights lit the decks, aiding the crew in working lines and rigging, preparing for the rougher seas of the approaching storm. The crew was mostly trainees, young men from the Royal Navy of Oman, practicing while the ship was home, running short trips up and down the coastline. The Shabab was due in another two months to compete in the President’s Cup regatta.




The murmur of the young men was interrupted by a sudden shout from the middle of the deck, a flurry of Arabic cursing. A crash erupted. Safia turned to see a middeck cargo hatch thrown wide, knocking a sailor back. Another man came flying out the open doorway, flinging himself to the side.




The reason for the sailor’s mad flight appeared at his heels, hooves smashing down onto the planks. A white stallion galloped up the hold’s ramp and out onto the deck. Tossing his mane, he stood silvery in the moonlight, his eyes two pieces of smoldering coal. Shouts now echoed all around.




“Jesus!” Clay blurted beside her.




The horse reared up, neighing threateningly, then crashed back, hooves dancing on the planking. It was haltered, but the rope end was frayed.




Men ran in circles, waving arms, trying to corral the stallion back down the hatch. It refused to budge, kicking out with a hoof, butting with its head, or snapping with its teeth.