Painter spotted a slumped form by the doorway. It was one of the masked gunmen, the one he had seen sprawled on the deck. He lowered Clay to the floor and crept next to the man. Perhaps he could find something on the gunman that would help. A radio or something.
Captain al-Haffi joined him. “I dragged him back here, hoping he had extra ammunition on him. Or a grenade.” He said this last with thick bitterness. A single grenade would have ended the stalemate on the deck.
Painter patted the body down, ripping away the mask. The man wore a subvocalizing radio. He tugged it free and pushed the earpiece in place. Nothing. Not even static. The team had gone silent.
As he searched further, he pocketed the man’s night-vision gear and discovered a thick strap around the man’s chest. An EKG monitor.
“What?” Kara asked.
“Lucky you never discovered that grenade,” he said. “The men are rigged with status monitors. Killing them would be as good as letting them escape. Once they’re gone—overboard or dead—the others will blow the ship.”
“Blow the ship?” al-Haffi repeated, eyes narrowing, speaking English.
Painter quickly explained what he had spied and the implication. “We must get off this ship before the rear guard does. I saw a motorized skiff stowed behind the stern.”
“It’s the ship’s gig,” the captain confirmed.
Painter nodded. An aluminum runabout.
“But the infidels stand between us and the launch,” al-Haffi argued. “We could perhaps try to go under them, through the ship’s bowels, but once my men stop shooting, the others will escape.”
Painter abandoned his search of the gunman and peered outside the doorway to the open deck. The firefight had slowed, both sides running low on ammunition, needing to make each round count.
The Phantoms were at a disadvantage. They couldn’t let the gunmen escape—but neither could they kill them.
Another form of stalemate.
Or was it?
He swung around, having a sudden idea.
Before he could speak, a thunderous crash erupted from the aft deck. He glanced back outside. The lower hold’s hatch had been thrown violently open, shoved under the weight of a trio of horses. The Arabians galloped and bucked out onto the windy deck, smashing into crates and tangling through rigging. Chaos ensued. Lights shattered. Night fell darker across the ship.
One of the horses, a mare, trampled directly through the gunmen’s barricade. Shots were fired. A horse screamed.
Amid the confusion, a fourth horse appeared from the hold, galloping under a head of steam. The white Arabian stallion. It flew up the lower ramp and onto the deck, hooves pounding the planks.
But this time it was not wild and unguided.
Astride the stallion’s back, Omaha rose from the saddle, pistols in both hands. He aimed toward the nearest masked men and fired both guns, emptying them without mercy at almost point-blank range.
Two men fell as he rode past.
“No!” Painter called out, pushing out the door.
The barrage deafened his words.
Movement by the aft hatch revealed Coral sneaking into a sniper’s post. She had a rifle on her shoulder. She took aim at the only standing gunman. The man dove for the starboard rail, intending to leap overboard.
A single rifle blast exploded with a muzzle flash.
The gunman jolted in midair as if kicked by a phantom horse. The left side of his head exploded away. His body slid across the deck, coming to rest against the rails.
Painter bit back a groan. The stalemate had finally ended. With the rear guard dead, nothing would stop Cassandra from blowing the ship.
C ASSANDRA CHECKED her watch as she climbed from the Zodiac pontoon boat and back aboard the hovercraft. The mission timetable was behind by ten minutes. Clambering onto the deck, she was met by her second.
John Kane crossed to her. He barked for two men to help haul the prone form of the museum curator aboard. The seas were getting choppy as the winds kicked up, making climbing aboard an exercise in balance and timing. Cassandra dragged up the suitcase with the artifact.
Despite the setback, they had completed their mission.
Kane stepped to her side. He was more shadow than man, dressed in black, from boots to a knit black cap. “The Argus radioed their all clear eight minutes ago. They await your order to detonate the mines.”
“What about the demolition team?” Cassandra had heard the firefight aboard the Shabab. While she was racing back, sporadic gunfire had echoed over the waters. But for the past minute, there had been only silence.
He shook his head. “Status monitors just went tits up.”
Dead. Cassandra pictured the men’s faces. Skilled mercenaries.
Footfalls pounded across the deck from the pilothouse. “Captain Sanchez!” It was the team’s radioman. He skidded to a stop on the slick surface. “We’re picking up the signals again. All three!”
“From the demolition squad?” Cassandra glanced across the sea. As if noting her attention, a new barrage of gunfire erupted from the Shabab Oman. She glanced to Kane, who shrugged.
“We lost contact a short time,” the radioman reported. “Maybe interference from the storm. But the signal’s back, strong and solid.”
Cassandra continued to stare across the seas toward the lights of the other ship. Her eyes narrowed, picturing the men again.
Kane stood at her shoulder. “Orders?”
She glared across the seas as a stiff rain began to pelt the deck. She barely felt its sting on her cheek. “Detonate the mines.”
The radioman startled but knew better than to question. He glanced at Kane, who nodded. The man clenched a fist and ran back toward the pilothouse.
Cassandra rankled at the delay in snapping to her orders. She had noted the radioman seeking confirmation from her second. Though Cassandra had been assigned to lead this operation, these were Kane’s men. And she had just condemned three of them to death.
Though Kane’s face remained stoic, his eyes glass, she elaborated. “They’re already dead,” she said. “The new signal is false.”
Kane’s brows drew together. “How can you be so—”
She cut him off. “Because Painter Crowe is over there.”
C ROUCHED WITH the others, Painter checked the straps snugged around the bare chests of Omaha and Danny. The dead men’s heart monitors seemed to be functioning fine. The device on his own chest blinked regularly, transmitting his pulse to the hidden assault ship out there.
Danny wiped the rain from his glasses. “These things won’t electrocute us if they get wet?”
“No,” Painter assured him.
Everyone gathered on the stern deck: Kara, the Dunn brothers, Coral. Clay had been revived enough to stand. But the steep rolling of the ship in the higher seas kept him weaving and needing support. Steps away, the four Omani border patrol fired off rifles periodically, mimicking a continued standoff.
He didn’t know how long the ruse would hold. Hopefully long enough for them to abandon ship. Captain al-Haffi had rallied the crew. The ship’s motorized launch had been untied and was ready for boarding.
The other lifeboat was being swung out, ready to drop. The fifteen-man crew was now ten. With no time to spare, the dead would have to be left behind.
Painter watched the ever-growing seas from a shadowy vantage, not wanting to be spotted by the patrolling Jet Skis. Waves had climbed to twelve feet. Winds snapped sails while rain swept in bursts over the deck. The aluminum launch knocked against the stern as it hung free now.
And the full brunt of squall had yet to strike.
Painter spotted one of the black Jet Skis fly over a tall wave, hang in the air, then race down the far face. He instinctively ducked lower, but there was no need. The pilot of the Jet Ski was angling away.
Painter stood. The Jet Ski was heading away.
Painter spun around. “To the boats!” he screamed. “Now!”
S AFIA WOKE out of blackness to the crack of thunder. Cold rain spattered her face. She was on her back, soaked to the skin. She sat up. The world spun. Voices. Legs. Another burst of thunder. She cringed at the noise, sinking back.
She felt rocking, heaving. I’m on a boat.
“Tranq’s wearing off,” someone said behind her.
“Get her below.”
Safia’s head rolled to stare at the speaker. A woman. She stood a yard away, staring across the seas, some strange scope fixed to her face. She was dressed in black, wore her long ebony hair braided away from her face.
She knew the woman. Memory came flooding back. A shout from Clay, followed by a knock at her door. Clay? She had refused to answer, sensing something wrong. She had spent too many years at the edge of panic not to have built up a thick layer of paranoia. But it made no difference. The lock was picked as easily as if they had a key.
The woman standing before her now had been the first through the door. Something had stung Safia’s neck. She reached fingers now and felt a tender spot below the angle of her chin. She had scrambled to the far side of the cabin, choking, panic narrowing her vision to a laser point. Then even this sight vanished. She had felt herself slumping but never felt herself hit the floor. The world had slipped away.
“Get her some dry clothes,” the woman said again.
With shock, Safia recognized the voice, the disdain, the sharp consonant strikes. The rooftop of the British Museum. Tell me the combination. It was the thief from London.
Safia shook her head. She was in a waking nightmare.
Before she could respond, two men hauled her to her feet. She tried to find her legs, but her toes slipped on the wet deck. Her knees were warm butter. Even holding her chin up took all her will.
Safia stared beyond the metal rail of the boat. The storm had struck. Seas rose and fell in dark hummocks, like the backs of whales, slick and smooth. A few whitecaps flashed silver in the meager light. But what drew her eye, kept her head strained up, was the fiery ruin a short distance away.
All strength left her.
A ship burned atop the rough seas, masts now torches. Sailcloth fanned out in swirls of fiery ash, carried by the gusting winds. The hull lay gutted. All around bits of flaming flotsam decorated the seas like so many campfires.