They’d all been too late.
Painter stopped outside the door. It was cracked half open. Lamplight flowed into the hall. Painter listened intently. Silence. He steeled himself against what he would find.
Kara called to him, knowing what he feared. “Safia?”
O MAHA SHOVED out an arm as the ship rolled beneath him. The darkness of the bilge threw off his sense of balance. Water sloshed over his shoes, chilling his ankles.
A crash sounded behind him…and a curse. Danny was faring no better.
“Do you know where you’re going?” Coral asked Omaha, her voice frosty, echoing a bit in the dank bilge.
“Yes,” he snapped back. It was a lie. He kept trailing one hand along the sloped wall to the left, praying he’d find a ladder leading back up. The next one should lead to the main storage hold under the middeck. Or so he hoped.
They continued in silence.
Rats squeaked in sharp protest, sounding larger in the darkness, as big as wet bulldogs. Their numbers multiplied in the imagination. Omaha heard their bodies splashing through the bilge waters, running ahead of them, likely piling into an angry mass at the stern of the ship. In an alley in Calcutta, he had seen a rat-gnawed corpse. The eyes gone, the genitals eaten away, all soft places gnashed. He did not like rats.
But fear for Safia drove him onward, his anxiety heightened by the darkness, the spates of gunfire. Bloody images flashed across his mind’s eye, too terrible to dwell upon. Why had he put off telling her how he still felt about her? He would gladly drop on his knees now to have her safe and sound.
His outstretched hand struck something solid. He reached out and discovered rungs and nail heads. A ladder.
“Here it is,” he said with more confidence than he felt. He didn’t care if he was right or wrong or where the hell the ladder led. He was climbing out.
As Danny and Coral moved closer, he mounted the rungs.
“Be careful,” Coral warned.
The gunfire continued above. Close. That was warning enough.
Reaching the topmost rung, he searched until he found the inner handle to the hatch. Praying it wasn’t locked or weighted down with cargo, he shoved up.
The hatch flew open with ease, swinging back and crashing against a wooden support pillar.
Coral hissed at him. No words, just protest.
Blessed light flowed over him, blindingly bright after the gloom below. The smell was also refreshing after the salt and mold of the ship’s bilge.
A large shadow shifted to his right.
He turned and found himself facing a huge horse, looming over him. The same Arabian stallion that had broken free earlier. It threw its head and huffed at him. Eyes white with terror, it raised a hoof in threat, ready to stamp out the sudden intruder into its shipboard stables.
Omaha ducked back, cursing their luck. The bilge hatch had opened into the stallion’s stall. He spotted other horses in neighboring stanchions.
He turned his attention to the stallion. The horse tugged at the lead tethering him in place. The spooked Arabian was better than any armed guard. But they had to get out and reach the crated weapons in the neighboring hold.
Fear for Safia fired his blood. He had come this far…
Trusting the ropes held the horse, he dove out of the hatch, rolled flat across the planks, and passed under the fence that closed off the stall.
Gaining his feet, he dusted off his bare knees. “Move quick!”
He found a horse blanket, brightly colored in reds and yellows. He waved it at the stallion, keeping it distracted so the others could climb to safety. The horse whinnied at his motions, but rather than growing more perturbed at the additional intruders, the stallion pulled at the ropes that secured it, drawn to the saddle blanket.
Omaha realized it must recognize its own blanket, a promising sign that someone was about to take it for a ride, to let it out of the stalls. Alarm heightened the stallion’s desire to break free.
With regret, he lowered the blanket back over the fence once Danny and Coral reached his side. The stallion’s large eyes met his, scared, full of the need for reassurance.
“Where are the guns?” Coral asked.
Omaha turned from the stall. “Should be over there.” He pointed past the ramp that led to the upper deck. A stack of crates, three high, stood along the back wall. A Kensington crest marked each one.
As Omaha led them across the hold, he kept his head low with each new burst of gunfire. A repeated exchange of gunfire, a volley back and forth. The deadly match sounded like it was coming from outside the double doors at the top of the ramp.
He remembered Danny’s earlier question. Who was attacking? This was no mere band of pirates. This was too sustained, too organized, too damn bold.
Reaching the crates, he searched the stapled manifests. Having organized the supplies himself, he knew there should be a crate of rifles and handguns. He found the right box. Using a crowbar, he broke it open.
Danny took out one of the rifles. “What are we going to do?”
“You’re going to stay low,” Omaha said, grabbing a Desert Eagle pistol.
“What about you?” Danny asked.
Omaha cocked an ear to the fighting as he loaded the pistol on the floor. “I have to get to the others. Make sure they’re safe.”
But in truth, he pictured only Safia, smiling, younger.
He had failed her before—not again.
Coral finally rose from her own search of the crate’s contents with a single pistol. She quickly and efficiently loaded its magazine with .357 rounds, then slammed it home. Armed now, she seemed more relaxed, a lioness loosened up and ready for the hunt.
She met his eyes. “We should return forward through the bilge. Join the others from there.”
More gunfire spat just outside the double doors.
“We’d lose too much time.” Omaha glanced to the ramp that led directly to the heart of the gunfire. “There may be another way.”
Coral frowned at him as he outlined his plan.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Danny muttered.
But Coral nodded as Omaha finished. “It’s worth a shot.”
“Then let’s go,” he said. “Before we’re too late.”
10 Storm Surge
DECEMBER 3, 2:07 A.M.
T HEY WERE too late.
Painter approached the open door to Safia’s cabin. A lamp glowed from within. Despite the urgency, the certain knowledge that the ship had been mined, he hesitated a breath.
Behind him, Kara remained with Clay Bishop’s body. Painter feared finding Safia in the same condition. Dead on the floor. But knew he had to face the truth. She had trusted him. The deaths were all his fault. He’d not been vigilant enough. The mission had taken place under his nose, on his watch.
Standing to the side, he pushed the door wider. Unblinking, he searched the cabin. Empty.
Disbelieving, he stepped cautiously over the threshold. A scent of jasmine lingered in the room. But that was all that was left of the woman who had once occupied it. There was no sign of violence. Yet the metal suitcase that housed the museum artifact was nowhere in sight.
He stood, momentarily paralyzed between concern and confusion.
A moan sounded behind him.
“Clay’s still alive!” Kara called from the passageway.
Painter stumbled back into the hall.
Kara knelt over the young man’s body. She held something pinched between her fingers. “I found this in his back.”
As he crossed to her, Painter noted the boy’s chest moving shallowly up and down. How had he missed that? But he knew the answer. He had been too rushed, too certain of their doom.
Kara offered what she held. A small bloody dart.
“Tranquilizer,” he confirmed.
He glanced back toward the open doorway. Tranquilizers. So they had wanted Safia alive. This was all a kidnapping. He shook his head, biting back a laugh—half in appreciation for Cassandra’s cleverness, half in relief.
Safia was still alive. For now.
“We can’t leave him,” Kara said.
He nodded, picturing the glow of the submersible in the dark waters, waking again to the urgency. How much time did they have? “Stay with him.”
He didn’t explain. He rushed down to the lower deck and searched the rooms for the other members of the party: the Dunn brothers and his partner. Like Safia’s room, their cabins were empty. Were they all taken?
Below he discovered a cowering crewman, one of the galley workers, with a bloody nose. He tried to encourage the man to follow him back up, but fright kept the fellow paralyzed.
Painter did not have time to persuade him and pounded back up the stairs.
Kara had managed to get the student to sit up. He was groggy, head lolling. Unintelligible words mumbled from his mouth.
“C’mon.” Painter scooped Clay under one arm, drawing him to his feet. It was like maneuvering a wet sack of cement.
Kara collected his eyeglasses from the floor. “Where are we going?”
“We have to get off this ship.”
“What about the others?”
“They’re all gone. Safia and the others.”
Painter led the way up the stairs.
As they reached the last landing, a figure swept down toward them. He spoke rapidly in Arabic, too fast for Painter to follow.
“Captain al-Haffi,” Kara said quickly in introduction.
Painter had intel on the man. He was the leader of the Desert Phantoms.
“We need more ammunition from the stockpiles in the hold,” the captain said rapidly. “You must all go into hiding.”
Painter blocked him. “How long can you last with what you have?”
A shrug. “Minutes only.”
“You must keep them pinned down. They mustn’t leave the ship.” Painter thought quickly. He imagined the only reason the Shabab Oman hadn’t been blasted apart already was that the demolition team was still on board. Once they were gone, nothing would stop Cassandra from detonating the mines.