She knew the ship. The Shabab Oman.
All air squeezed from her lungs. She strangled between a scream and despair. The roll of the seas suddenly sickened her. She vomited across the deck, splattering the shoes of her guards.
“Fucking Christ, man…” one of them cursed, yanking her cruelly.
Still, Safia’s eyes remained fixed across the sea. Her throat burned.
Not again…not everyone I love…
But a part of her knew she deserved this pain, this loss. Since Tel Aviv, she had expected everything would be taken from her. Life was cruelty and sudden tragedy. There was no permanence, no safety.
Tears ran hotly down her cheeks.
Safia stared at the fiery ruin of the Shabab Oman. She held little hope of survivors—and even this hope was dashed with her captor’s next words.
“Send back the patrol,” the woman said. “Kill anything that moves.”
P AINTER WIPED the blood from the cut above his left eye. He kicked his feet to keep himself above water as the seas heaved up and down. Rain fell heavily out of low skies, flashing with lightning. Thunder grumbled.
He glanced back to the overturned launch as it rose and fell in sync with him. Around his waist, a length of towline secured him to the skiff’s bow. Immediately around him, the seas remained dark, as if he were floating in oil. But farther out, fires sputtered in the rolling seas, appearing and disappearing. And in the center, the fiery bulk of the Shabab Oman loomed, half sunk, burning down to the waterline.
Swiping blood and rain from his eyes, Painter searched the waters for any threat. A vague worry about sharks fluttered across his mind. Especially with the blood. He hoped the squall would keep such predators deep.
But Painter watched for other predators.
He didn’t have long to wait.
Lit by the many fires, a Jet Ski hoved into view, circling wide.
Painter reached up and slipped the night-vision goggles over his eyes. He sank lower, minimizing his silhouette. The world dissolved to greens and whites. Fires appeared as blindingly bright glows, while the seas took on a silvery aquamarine sheen. He focused on the Jet Ski. Through the scope, the ski now shone starkly, its shaded headlamp as bright as the fires. He toggled the magnification feature. A pilot hunched in front. Behind him, his passenger manned the mounted assault rifle, capable of firing a hundred rounds a minute.
With the goggles in place, Painter easily spotted two other Jet Skis circling the debris field. They were starting wide and circling inward. Somewhere beyond the bulk of the fiery ship, the rattle of gunfire erupted. A scream accompanied it, but it ended immediately; the gunfire did not.
The purpose of these scavengers was plain.
No survivors. No witnesses.
Painter swam back to his overturned launch, a cork in the rough seas. Once near the skiff, he dove down and under it. The night-vision goggles were watertight. It was strange how bright the seas were through the scope. He spotted the many legs dangling from beneath the capsized skiff.
Maneuvering up through them, he surfaced under the runabout. Even with the night-vision scope, details were blurry. Figures clung to gunwales and bolted aluminum seats. Eight in all. Hidden beneath the launch. The air had already staled with their fear.
Kara and the Dunn brothers helped keep Clay Bishop in place. The grad student seemed mostly recovered. Captain al-Haffi took a position near the launch’s windshield. Like his two men, he had stripped out of his desert cloak and wore only a loincloth. The fate of the fourth Phantom remained unknown.
The explosion had occurred just as the launch had hit the water. The concussive force had tossed them away, toppling the small runabout. All bore minor injuries. Afterward, amid the confusion, Painter and Coral had herded the others under the launch as debris rained down. It also offered good cover from searching eyes.
Coral whispered at his ear, “Did she send a cleanup crew?”
Painter nodded. “We’ll have to hope the storm shortens their search.”
A whine drew nearer, waning and ebbing as the launch and its hidden passengers rose and fell with the waves. Finally, the noise sharpened. The ski must have angled into the trough with them.
Painter had a bad feeling.
“Everyone underwater!” he warned. “For a count of thirty!”
He waited to make sure everyone obeyed. Coral was the last to vanish. Painter took a deep breath, then—
Gunfire rattled against the launch’s aluminum side. Deafening. Golf-ball-size hail on a tin roof. But it wasn’t hail. At such close range, a few rounds perforated the double hull of the runabout.
Painter dove down. A pair of stray bullets sizzled through the water. He watched the others holding themselves beneath the skiff, arms extended upward, hands clutching. Painter hoped the speed of the bullets would be dulled by the launch’s double hull and impact with the water.
Painter watched one of the trajectories slam past his shoulder.
He held his breath clenched until the barrage stopped, then rose up. The whine of the Jet Ski still sounded near. Thunder caused the aluminum hull to reverberate like a struck bell.
Omaha popped up beside him, followed by the others as their need for air overwhelmed them. No one spoke. They all listened to the nearby puttering engine. Everyone prepared themselves to dive again if necessary.
The Jet Ski whined closer, bumping against the side of the skiff.
If they tried to turn it over…used a grenade…
A large swell lifted the boat and its hidden passengers. The Jet Ski bumped harder, jostled by the storm surge. A loud curse erupted from outside. The engine whined louder and began to pull away.
“We could commandeer that Jet Ski,” Omaha whispered at him, nose to nose. “The two of us. We’ve still got a couple pistols between us.”
Painter frowned at him. “And then what? You don’t think they’d miss one of their skis? There’s a main boat out there, something fast. They’d be upon us in a heartbeat.”
“You’re not getting it,” Omaha pressed. “I wasn’t talkin’ about leaving. I’m talking about taking the damn thing back to where it came from. Going in undercover. To rescue Safia.”
Painter had to grant the man had balls. Too bad he didn’t have the brains to go with them. “These aren’t amateurs,” he snapped. “You’re going in blind. All the advantage is theirs.”
“Who gives a damn about the odds? It’s Safia’s life we’re talking about.”
Painter shook his head. “You wouldn’t get within a hundred yards of the main boat before you were discovered and blown away.”
Omaha refused to back down. “If you won’t go, I’ll take my brother.”
Painter made to grab for him, but Omaha shoved his hand away.
“I’m not leaving her.” Omaha turned his back and swam to Danny.
Painter recognized the pain in the other’s voice, the fury. He felt the same. Safia’s kidnapping was his fault, his responsibility. A part of him wanted to lash out, to charge in, to risk all.
But it was also a futile course. He knew this.
Omaha had his pistol out.
Painter could not stop him—but he knew who could. He turned and grabbed another person’s arm. “I care for her,” he said sharply.
Kara tried to free her arm, but Painter held tight. “What are you talking about?” she asked.
“Your question earlier…in your cabin. I care about Safia.” It was hard to admit aloud, but he had no choice but to recognize the truth. He did indeed care. While maybe it was not love…not yet…he was willing to see where it would lead. This surprised him as much as it seemed to surprise Kara.
“I do,” Painter pressed. “And I’ll get her back—but not this way.” He nodded toward Omaha. “Not his way. He’s more likely to get her killed. She’s safe right now. Safer than we are. We need to survive for her sake. All of us. If there’s to be any hope of a real rescue for her.”
Kara listened. Ever the consummate corporate leader, she did not delay her decision. She swung to Omaha. “Put the bloody gun away, Indiana.”
Beyond the aluminum hull, the predatory Jet Ski suddenly screamed, its engine Dopplering up. It was heading off.
Omaha glanced in its direction—then swore and shoved the pistol away.
“We’ll find her,” Painter said, but he doubted the other man heard. And perhaps it was just as well. As much as he had blustered, he didn’t know if it was a promise he could keep. He was still shaken from the assault, the defeat. From the outset, Cassandra had been a step ahead of him.
He needed to clear his head.
“I’m going to keep watch. Make sure they leave.”
He dove back down and kicked free of the launch. His thoughts remained on Cassandra’s skill at anticipating their moves. How had she managed that? A worry had seeded in his chest. Was there a traitor among them?
O MAHA CLUNG to the launch’s gunwale, rising and falling with the waves. He hated waiting in the dark. He heard the others’ breathing. No one spoke. All remained lost in their own worries.
His grip tightened on the aluminum frame as the launch climbed another wave, taking them all up with it.
All but one. Safia.
Why had he listened to Painter? He should have tried to commandeer the Jet Ski. To hell with what anyone thought. Pressure built in his throat, tightening his breath. He clamped it down, unsure if he let it loose whether it would come out as a sob or a scream. In the dark, the past came rolling up out of the depths of the sea.
He had walked away from her.
After Tel Aviv, something had died in Safia, taking all love with it. She had retreated to London. He had tried to stay with her, but his career, his passion, lay elsewhere. Each time he returned, more and more of her was gone. She was wasting away inside. He found himself dreading the return to London from the lost corners of the world. He felt trapped. Soon his visits grew fewer and fewer. She didn’t notice or complain. That hurt the most.
When did it end, when did love become dust and sand?
He couldn’t say. It was well before he finally admitted defeat and asked for his grandmother’s ring back. It had been over a long, cold dinner. Neither had spoken. Both knew. Their silence said more than his faltering attempt to explain.