Omaha pushed forward, eyeing the stairs. “We have to get to the others.”
Coral stood up and blocked him with an arm. “We need weapons.”
A rifle blast sounded above, loud in the tight space.
Everyone took a step back.
Coral met Omaha’s eye. He stared up, caught between rushing to Safia’s rooms and proceeding cautiously. Caution was not at the top of his core values. Still, the woman was right. Fists against bullets was not a good rescue plan.
He swung around. “There are rifles and ammo stored in the hold,” he said, and pointed to the floor hatch that led down into the bilge compartment. “We should be able to crawl through there and get to the main hold.”
Coral tightened her grip on her knife and nodded. They crossed to the hatch, threw it open, and climbed down the short ladder to the low-ceilinged bilge. It smelled of algae, salt, and oak resins. Omaha was the last through.
A fresh barrage of gunfire erupted, punctuated by a sharp scream. A man, not a woman. Still, Omaha cringed and prayed for Safia to keep her head low.
Hating himself, he closed the hatch. Darkness fell over them. Blind, he dropped down the short ladder, landing with a tiny splash in the bilge.
“Anyone bring a flashlight?” he asked.
No one answered.
“Great,” Omaha muttered, “just great.”
Something scurried over his foot and disappeared with the sound of tiny splashes. Rats.
P AINTER LEANED out one of the ship’s windows. A two-man Jet Ski buzzed below, sweeping under the overhang of the protruding forecastle. It fled past with barely a whine, exhaust muffled, leaving a V-shaped wake across the waves. Even in the darkness, he recognized the design.
DARPA-engineered, experimental prototype for covert ops.
The pilot crouched low behind the windshield. His passenger sat higher, manning a swivel-mounted assault rifle in the rear, gyroscopically stabilized. Both men wore night-vision goggles.
The patrol whined past. So far he counted four. Probably more circling outward. Across the dark sea, he saw no evidence of the main attack ship, the one that had surely off-loaded the assault team. Most likely it had moored to one of the ship’s flanks, then raced away afterward, maintaining a safe distance until it was time to recollect the team.
He ducked back inside.
Kara crouched behind a sofa, looking more angry than scared.
As soon as the first explosion rocked the ship, Painter had checked outside the cabin. Through the deck hatch, he’d spotted a curl of smoke and an ominous crimson glow from the back of the ship.
An incendiary grenade.
Even that brief glimpse almost got him killed. A man in black camouflage gear suddenly appeared in the doorway, steps away. Painter ducked back inside as the man strafed the opening. If it hadn’t been for the metal reinforcement of the Presidential Suite door, Painter would’ve been chopped in half. After bolting the door, he gave Kara his assessment.
“They took out the radio room.”
“Don’t know…paramilitary group from the looks of them.”
Painter abandoned his post by the window and crouched beside Kara. He knew with certainty who led the team. There was no doubt. Cassandra. The Jet Skis were stolen DARPA prototypes. She had to be out there somewhere. Possibly even on board, leading the assault team. He pictured the determined glint in Cassandra’s eyes, the double furrow between her brows as she concentrated. He shoved this thought away, surprised by the sudden pang, something between fury and loss.
“What are we going to do?” Kara asked.
“Stay put…for now.”
Barricaded in the Presidential Suite, the two of them were safe from immediate harm, but the others were at risk. The Omani sailors had been trained well, responding quickly to the threat, putting up a fierce firefight. But the sailors aboard the ship were mostly young, only moderately armed, and Cassandra would know all their weaknesses. The ship would soon be hers.
But was that her goal?
Painter crouched beside Kara. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He needed a moment to stop reacting and to think, to concentrate. His father had taught him a few Pequot chants, his weak attempt to imbue his one son with tribal tradition, usually done while his breath reeked of tequila and beer. Still, Painter had learned the chants, whispering them in the dark when his parents fought, yelling, cursing in the neighboring room. He found comfort and focus in the repetition, not knowing the meaning—then or now.
His lips moved silently, meditatively. He shut out the spates of gunfire.
Again, he pictured Cassandra. He could guess the purpose of her attack. To obtain what she had been after from the start. The iron heart. The only solid clue to the mystery of the antimatter explosion. It still lay in the curator’s cabin. His mind ran along various attack scenarios, mission parameters—
In midchant, it struck him.
He bolted back to his feet.
From the start, he had been nagged by the sloppiness of the assault. Why blow up the radio room and alert the crew prematurely? If it was an ordinary mercenary group, he could blame the lack of planning and precision on inexperience, but if Cassandra was behind it…
A sinking feeling hollowed out his gut.
“What?” Kara asked, pushing up with him.
The gunfire beyond the cabin had gone deathly quiet. In the silence, he heard a telltale whine.
He crossed to the window and ducked his head out.
Four Jet Skis came sweeping in out of the darkness—but each was manned only by the pilot. No passengers. The rear assault seats were empty.
“What?” Kara asked again, fear entering her voice.
“We’re too late.”
He knew with certainty that the grenade explosion hadn’t marked the start of the mission, but its end.
He silently cursed his stupidity. This was all the endgame. And he hadn’t even been playing. He had been caught totally off guard. He allowed himself this moment of anger, then focused on the situation.
An endgame was not necessarily the end itself.
He stared as the four Jet Skis swooped toward the boat. Come to collect the last members of the assault team, the rear guard, the demolition team assigned to blow the radio shack. One of the Omani sailors must have stumbled upon these men, leading to the firefight on the deck.
More gunfire erupted, sounding farther away, more determined, near the stern of the boat. They were attempting to retreat.
Out the window, Painter watched the last of the Jet Skis circle wide, wary of the gunfire. The other Jet Skis, those with men manning the mounted assault rifles, were nowhere in sight. He also heard no sign of their engagement. They were gone. Along with the point team, Painter imagined. Along with the prize.
But to where?
Again he searched the water for the main assault ship. It was out there somewhere. But only dark waters lay beyond. Storm clouds now obliterated both moon and stars, turning the world black. His fingers clenched on the sill of the wide window.
As he searched, a flicker of light drew his eye—not out across the waters, but down below it.
He leaned farther and stared into the depths.
Deep in the midnight waters, a glow glided out from under the ship. It slowly slipped off to starboard and floated determinedly away. Painter’s brow crinkled. He recognized what he saw. A submersible. Why?
The answer came immediately with the question.
With the mission over, the sub and the main assault team were bugging out. All that was left was the cleanup. To leave no witnesses.
He knew the purpose of the sub’s presence. To come in baffled and silent, too small to detect…
“They’ve mined the ship,” he said aloud. He calculated in his head how long it would take for a sub to clear the blast zone.
Kara said something, but he had gone deaf to her.
Painter swung from the window and hurried to the door. The firefight seemed to have settled to a stalemate of sporadic shots. He listened at the door. Nothing sounded close. He slid back the bolt.
“What are you doing?” Kara asked at his shoulder, sticking close but clearly irritated by her own need to do so.
“We must get off this boat.”
He cracked the door open. A few steps away lay the opening to the middeck. The winds had kicked up as the edge of the coming storm brushed over the Shabab Oman. Sails snapped like whips. Ropes rattled in stanchions.
He studied the deck, reading it like a chessboard.
The crew had no opportunity to reef and secure the mainsails. The Omani sailors were pinned down by a pair—no, three gunmen—hidden behind a pile of barrels stacked at the far end of the middeck. The masked men had the perfect vantage point to guard the forward sections of the ship. One of the pair kept his rifle pointed toward the raised stern deck, protecting their rear.
Closer, a fourth masked gunman lay sprawled on the deck, facedown, blood pooled around his head, the body only a few steps from Painter.
He took in the situation with a glance. Similarly ensconced behind crates on this side of the middeck were the four Omani border-patrol agents, the Desert Phantoms. They lay on their bellies, rifles pointed toward the gunmen. It was a standoff. It must have been the Phantoms who had waylaid the assault team’s rear guard, pinned them down, kept them from escaping over rails.
“C’mon,” Painter said, and took Kara by the elbow. He dragged her out the suite’s door and toward the lower stairs.
“Where’re we going?” she asked. “What about getting off the boat?”
He didn’t answer. He was too late, but he had to be sure. He clambered down the stairs to the next landing. A short passage led to the guest quarters.
In the middle of the hall, bathed in the light from the single overhead lamp, a body draped across the floor. Facedown like the masked man above. But this was not one of the attackers.
He wore only boxers and a white T-shirt. A tiny dark stain marred the center of his back. Shot from behind as he attempted to flee.
“It’s Clay…” Kara mumbled in shock, hurrying forward with Painter.
She knelt near the boy’s body, but Painter stepped over him. He had no time for mourning. He hurried to the door toward which the graduate student had been heading, seeking a place to hide or to warn others. Too late.