He touched his left eye, half swollen shut now. The pain focused him on their situation. The journey, while steady, had been slow, limited by the terrain and the condition of the old road. And now a radiator hose had burst.
The delay risked all.
A crunch of sand drew his attention around to Coral. She wore a loose fitting robe, a bit too short, showing her bare ankles. Her hair and face were smudged with the oil from the bed of the truck.
“We’re late,” she said.
He nodded. “But how late?”
Coral glanced at her watch, a Breitlinger diver’s chronograph. She was rated one of the best logisticians and strategists in the organization. “I estimate Cassandra’s assault team made landfall at Salalah no later than midmorning. They’ll delay only long enough to make sure no one marked them for the Shabab’s bombing and to secure a fallback position in the city.”
“Best-and worst-case scenarios?”
“Worst. They reached the tomb two hours ago. Best. They’re heading there right now.”
Painter shook his head. “Not much of a window.”
“No, it’s not. We shouldn’t fool ourselves otherwise.” She eyed him. “The assault team demonstrated their drive and focus. With their victory at sea, they’ll proceed with a renewed determination. But there may be one hope.”
“Though determined, they’ll proceed with extra caution.”
He frowned at this.
Coral explained, “You mentioned earlier the element of surprise. That’s not truly where our best strength lies. From the profile I received on Captain Sanchez, she’s not one to take risks. She’ll proceed as if she expects pursuit.”
“And this is to our advantage? How?”
“When someone is always looking over their shoulder, they’re more likely to trip.”
“How very Zen of you, Novak.”
She shrugged. “My mother was a Buddhist.”
He glanced at her. Her statement was said so deadpan that he couldn’t tell if she was joking or not.
“Okay!” Omaha called as the engine choked, caught, and grumbled. More roughly than before, but it was running. “Mount up, everybody!”
A few wordless protests erupted as the others pushed from the sand.
Painter climbed in ahead of Kara, helping her up. He noted a tremble in her hands. “Are you all right?”
She freed her hand, clasping it in her other. She would not meet his eyes. “Fine. Just worried about Safia.” She found a shady spot in the back corner.
The others did the same. The sun had begun to heat up the flatbed.
Omaha leaped into the back as the giant Barak closed the drop gate. He was covered with oil and grease from his elbows to fingertips.
“You got it running,” Danny said, squinting at his brother, not so much from the sun’s glare as nearsightedness. He’d lost his glasses during the explosion. It had been a very tough introduction to Arabia for the young man, but he seemed to be holding up well. “Will the engine last to Salalah?”
Omaha shrugged, collapsing on the bed next to his brother. “We jerry-rigged something. Stoppered the bad hose to keep it from leaking. The engine may overheat, but we only have another fifty or so miles to go. We’ll make it.”
Painter wished he could share the man’s enthusiasm. He settled into a seat between Coral and Clay. The truck jerked forward, jostling them all, earning a worried whinny from the stallion. Its hooves clattered on the knobby bed. Wafts of diesel exhaust smoked up as the truck lurched back onto the road and set off again toward Salalah.
As the sun reflected off of every surface, Painter closed his eyes against the glare. With no hope of sleep, he found himself thinking about Cassandra. He rolled his past experience with his ex-partner through his head: strategy sessions, interoffice meetings, various operations in the field. In all such matters, Cassandra had proven his equal. But he’d been blind to her subterfuge, her streak of cold-bloodedness, her calculated ruthlessness. Here she surpassed him, making her a better field operative.
He pondered Coral’s words from a moment ago: When someone is always looking over their shoulder, they’re more likely to trip. Had he done that himself? Since the museum’s foiled heist, he had been too conscious of his past with Cassandra, his focus on her too muddled, unable to balance past with present. Even in his heart. Was that what had allowed him to let his guard down aboard the Shabab Oman? Some belief in Cassandra’s ultimate goodness? If he had fallen for her, there must have been something true between them.
Now he knew better.
A grunt of protest drew his attention across the truck bed. Clay yanked his cloak to cover his knees. He made for a poor Arab, what with his pale skin, shaved red hair, and studded ears. He caught Painter’s eye. “So what do you think? Will we get there in time?”
Painter knew honesty was best from here on out. “I don’t know.”
S AFIA RODE in the backseat of the four-wheel-drive Mitsubishi. Three other identical vehicles trailed behind. They composed a small funeral parade headed to the tomb of the Virgin Mary’s father, Nabi Imran.
Safia sat stiffly. The SUV smelled new. The crispness of the interior—charcoal leather, titanium trim, blue accent lights—all belied the ragged state of its passenger. And she could not blame all the red-rimmed fogginess on the aftereffects of the sedatives. Instead, her mind spun on her earlier conversation with Cassandra.
Who was he? How could he have once been partnered with Cassandra? What did that mean? She felt bruised inside, sore to the touch, as she pictured his wry smile, the way his hand touched so lightly on hers, reassuring. What else had he kept hidden? Safia pushed her confusion down deep, unable to face it yet, not sure even why it affected her so much. They barely knew each other.
She turned her focus instead on the other disturbing comment by Cassandra. How she worked for the U.S. government. Was that possible? Though Safia was well aware of the occasionally ruthless nature of American foreign policy, she could not fathom U.S. policymakers advocating this attack. Even the men under Cassandra had a raw, mercenary flare about them. Their nearness prickled her skin. These were no ordinary American soldiers.
And then there was the man named Kane, always dressed in black. She recognized his Queensland accent. An Aussie. He drove their vehicle, a little heavy-footed. Corners taken too sharply, almost angrily. What was his story?
The truck’s remaining occupant sat beside Safia. Cassandra watched the passing scenery, her hands in her lap. Like any tourist. Except she carried three guns. Cassandra had showed them to Safia. A warning. One in a shoulder holster, another at the base of her back, and the last strapped to her ankle. Safia suspected there was a hidden fourth weapon.
Trapped, she had no choice but to sit still.
As they traversed central Salalah, Safia watched the built-in navigation track the vehicle. They rounded past a beachside resort, the Hilton Salalah, then cut across traffic and aimed for the inner municipal district, the Al-Quaf area, where the tomb of Nabi Imran awaited them.
It was not much farther. Salalah was a small town, taking minutes to cross from one side to the other. The city’s chief attractions lay beyond the municipality, in the natural wonders of the surrounding landscape: the magnificent sandy beach of Mughsal, the ancient ruins of Sumhurran, the myriad plantations that prospered under the monsoon rains. And a bit farther inland, the green mountains of Dhofar loomed as a backdrop, one of the few places on Earth where the rare frankincense trees grew.
Safia gazed toward the misted mountains, a place of eternal mystery and wealth. Though oil had replaced frankincense as Oman’s main source of riches, incense still drove the local economy of Salalah. The traditional open-air markets scented the township with samplings of rosewater, ambergris, sandalwood, and myrrh. It was the perfume center of the world. All the top designers flew here to sample wares.
Still, in the past, frankincense was the true treasure of the country, surpassing even gold. Trade in the precious incense fueled Omani commerce, drove its seafaring dhows to as far north as Jordan and Turkey and as far west as Africa. But it was the overland route, the Incense Road, that became the true stuff of legend. Ancient ruins dotted its course, cryptic and mysterious, their histories mingled with the religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The most famous was Ubar, the thousand-pillared city, founded by the descendants of Noah, a city that grew rich through the pivotal role it played as a major watering hole for caravans passing through the desert.
Now, millennia later, Ubar had become the focus of power again. Blood had been shed to discover its secret, to expose its heart.
Safia had to resist glancing over her shoulder to the silver case in back. The iron heart had come from Salalah, a bread crumb left behind, a trail marker to the true wealth of Ubar.
Could it be possible?
Their Mitsubishi slowed and turned down an unpaved side street. They passed a line of roadside stands, sheltered under palm trees, selling dates, coconuts, and grapes. Their truck idled slowly past. Safia considered jumping for it, fleeing away. But she’d been buckled in place. Any move toward the belt’s release and she’d be stopped.
And then there were the trailing vehicles, full of armed men. One truck made the turn behind them, the other continued, perhaps circling around to cordon off the other end of the alley. Safia wondered at such extra measures. Kane and Cassandra seemed more than enough to handle the prisoner. Safia knew there was no escape.
It would be her death to attempt it.
A surge of fiery heat, a long-suppressed anger, burned through her. She would not sacrifice herself needlessly. She would play their game but wait for her chance. She glanced sidelong at Cassandra. She would have her revenge…for her friends, for herself. This thought sustained her as their truck pulled to a stop outside a set of wrought-iron gates.
The entrance to the tomb of Nabi Imran.
“Don’t try anything,” Cassandra warned, as if reading her mind.
John Kane spoke to a gate attendant, half leaning out the window. A few Omani rials passed hands. The gate guard pressed a button, and the gate swung open, allowing the vehicle to pass inside. Kane pulled in slowly and parked.