Safia knew the horse was one of four stalled below—two stallions, two mares—all headed to the royal stud farm outside Salalah. Someone must have been careless in securing the animal.
Fixed at the rail, Safia watched the crew battle the stallion. Someone had freed a length of rope and attempted to lasso the horse. The roper earned himself a broken foot, hopping backward with a sharp cry.
The stallion crashed through a tangle of rigging, ripping bodily through. A line of electric lights struck the deck. Glass bulbs popped and shattered.
New shouts arose.
Finally, a rifle appeared in one of the sailor’s hands.
The stallion’s rampage risked life and damage to the ship.
A flash of bare skin drew Safia’s eye in the other direction. Amid the clothed sailors, a half-naked figure ran from a foredeck door. Wearing only a pair of boxers, Painter stood out like some wild savage. His hair was a mess, as though he had just woken. The cries and crashing of the horse had plainly roused him from his cabin.
He snatched a tarp from atop a coil of rope and sprinted barefoot through the others. “Wa-ra!” he shouted in Arabic. “Get back!”
Clearing the ring of sailors, Painter fluttered the tarp. The motion caught the attention of the stallion. It reared up and pounded back down, a threatening, warning stance. But its coal black eyes remained fixed on the tarp and man. A matador and a bull.
“Ye-ahh!” Painter yelled, waving an arm.
The stallion backed a step, lowering its head.
The American swept forward—not straight at the horse, but to its side. He tossed the tarp over the horse’s head, covering it completely.
The stallion bucked once, thrashed its head, but the drape of tarp was too large for the beast to shake free. The horse settled back to the planks and stood still, blinded by the tarp, unsure. It shivered, sweat gleaming in the moonlight.
Painter kept a step away. He spoke too softly for Safia to hear. But she recognized the tone. She’d heard it on the airplane. Simple reassurance.
Finally, he walked cautiously forward and placed a palm on the stallion’s heaving side. The horse nickered and tossed its head, but more gently this time.
Moving closer, Painter patted the stallion’s neck, continuing to murmur. With his other hand, he reached to the frayed rope attached to the halter. Slowly, he guided the stallion around.
Unable to see, the horse responded to the familiar signals, having to trust the man at the end of the rope.
Safia watched him. Painter’s skin gleamed as much as the horse’s flank. He combed a hand through his hair. Was there a tremble in the gesture?
He spoke to one of the sailors, who nodded. The sailor led him down into the hold, horse in tow.
“Very cool,” Clay said approvingly, stamping out his cigarette.
With the excitement over, the crew slowly returned to their duties. Safia stared around her. She noted that most of Kara’s party had gathered on the deck by now: Painter’s partner in a belted robe, Danny in a T-shirt and shorts. Kara and Omaha hadn’t changed their clothes. They must have still been going over last-minute arrangements. At their shoulders stood four tall, hard-looking men dressed in military fatigues. Safia did not recognize them.
From the hatch, Painter returned, rolling the tarp in his hands.
A small cheer rose from the crew. A few palms slapped his back. He winced from the attention and ran a hand again through his hair, a gesture of modesty.
Safia found herself crossing to him. “Well done,” she said as she reached Painter. “If they’d had to shoot the horse—”
“I couldn’t let that happen. It was just spooked.”
Kara appeared, arms crossed over her chest. Her face was unreadable but missing its usual scowl. “That was the sultan’s champion stud. What happened here will reach his ears. You’ve just made yourself a good friend.”
Painter shrugged. “I did it for the welfare of the horse.”
Omaha stood at Kara’s shoulder. His face reddened, plainly irritated. “Where did you learn that horsemanship, Tonto?”
“Omaha…” Safia warned.
Painter ignored the insult. “Claremont Stables in New York City. I cleaned stalls when I was a kid.” The man finally seemed to note his undressed state, staring down at himself. “I should be getting back to my cabin.”
Kara spoke up, stiffly. “Dr. Crowe, before you retire, I’d appreciate your stopping by my cabin. I’d like to go over the itinerary once we reach port.”
His eyes widened in surprise at the offer. “Certainly.”
It was Kara’s first sign of cooperation. Safia was not surprised. She knew of Kara’s deep affection for horses, a tenderness that she felt for no man. Kara had been a champion rider in dressage. Painter’s timely intervention to protect the stallion had won him more than just the sultan’s appreciation.
Painter nodded to Safia, his eyes glinting in the lantern light. She found her breath catching before she could choke out a good-night.
He departed, passing through the four men standing behind Kara. Others slowly followed, dispersing to their respective cabins.
Omaha remained at Safia’s side.
Kara turned and spoke in Arabic to one of the men, a tall black-haired fellow, wearing an Omani shamag headcloth and military khakis. Bedouin. All were outfitted similarly. Safia noted the sidearms holstered at their belts. The man bending an ear to Kara also bore a curved dagger tucked into his belt. It was not a ceremonial knife, but a wicked weapon that looked like it had been well used. Clearly he was the leader, distinguished from his men by a pale, ropy scar across this throat. He nodded at whatever Kara said, then spoke to his men. The group marched off.
“Who was that?” Safia asked.
“Captain al-Haffi,” Kara said. “From the Omani military border patrol.”
“Desert Phantoms,” Omaha mumbled, using the border patrol’s nickname.
The Phantoms were the Special Forces of Oman. They waged an ongoing war with smugglers and drug runners in the deep desert, spending years out in the sands. There were no harder men in all the world. British and American Special Forces teams were taught desert warfare and survival by ex-Phantoms.
Kara spoke. “He and his squad have volunteered as bodyguards for the expedition. With the permission of Sultan Qaboos.”
Safia watched the men head below.
Omaha stretched and yawned. “I’m off to crash for a few hours before sunrise.” He glanced back at Safia. His eyes were hooded under his brows. “You should try to get some sleep. We have a long day ahead of us.”
Safia shrugged, noncommittal. She hated to agree with him on even such a simple suggestion.
His gaze fell from her. For the first time, she noted the passing of years on his face, deeper and longer sun crinkles at the corners of his eyes, a bruising under them. He bore a few more threadlike scars. She could not deny his rugged handsomeness. Sandy blond hair, hard planes to his face, dusky blue eyes. But the boyish charm had faded. He looked tired now, sun-bleached.
Still…something stirred inside her as his eyes fell away, an old ache that was as familiar as it was warm. As he turned away, she caught a hint of his musky scent, a reminder of the man who once lay beside her, snoring in a tent. She had to force herself not to reach out to him, to hold him back a moment longer. But what was the use? They had no words left between them, just uncomfortable silences.
She turned to find Kara staring at her.
Kara shook her head. “Let the dead rest in peace.”
T HE VIDEO monitor displayed the dive team. Cassandra hunched at the screen, as if trying to hear over the whine of the hydrofoil’s engines. The feed came from the team’s submersible, the Argus, five miles away and sunk to twenty fathoms.
The Argus was designed with two chambers. Aft housed the vessel’s pilot and copilot. The stern chamber, filling now with seawater, held the two assault divers. As the water swamped over the two men, equalizing pressure inside and out, the stern canopy opened like a clamshell. The two divers pushed out into the waters, illuminated by the sub’s lights. Strapped to each of their waists hung maneuvering pulse jets. The DARPA-engineered devices were capable of propelling the divers to astounding speeds. Slung below them in pocket nets, the pair dragged an arsenal of demolition gear.
Tinny words whispered in her ear. “Sonar contact established on target,” the pilot of the Argus reported. “Deploying force team. Estimate contact in seven minutes.”
“Very good,” she answered under her breath. Then sensing someone at her shoulder, she glanced back. It was John Kane. She held up a hand.
“Mine deployment at zero two hundred,” the pilot finished.
“Roger that,” Cassandra said, repeating the time and signing off.
She straightened and turned.
Kane lifted a satellite phone. “Scrambled line. Your ears only.”
Cassandra accepted the phone. Your ears only. That could mean one of her superiors. By now, they would have received the report on her failure in Muscat. She had left out the details of the strange bedouin woman who had vanished. Her report had been damning enough. For a second time, she had failed to secure the artifact.
A mechanical voice answered, synthesized for anonymity. Though its inflection and tone were masked, she knew who spoke. The head of the Guild, simply code-named “The Minister,” as in “prime minister.” It seemed a foolish precaution, cartoonish, but the Guild patterned its organization on terrorist cells. Information passed among teams on a need-to-know basis, each under independent authority, accountable only to the upper echelon. She had never met the Minister; only three people ever had, the three lieutenants who ran the overseer’s board. She hoped to gain such a position someday.
“Gray leader,” the eerily synthesized voice said, using her op designation. “Mission parameters have been changed.”
Cassandra stiffened. She had the time schedule tattooed in her head. Nothing would go wrong. The Shabab’s diesel engines would be blown, signaling a strafing run by the Jet Ski gunboats. An assault team would follow, mopping up, cutting off communication. Once the iron heart was in hand, the ship would be blasted apart and sunk. “Sir? Deployment’s under way. Everything’s in motion.”