Like a compass.




She stared down the long length of tomb, raising her arm to sight along it. Her gaze traveled past the walls, out over the city, and beyond. Away from the coast. Out toward the distant green mountains.




Then she knew.




She had to be sure. “I need a map.”




“Why?” Cassandra asked.




“Because I know where we have to go next.”




12 Safety First




Sandstorm






DECEMBER 3, 3:02 P.M.




SALALAH




O MAHA, HALF drowsing in the truck’s bed, felt the telltale rattle under the seat of his pants. Damn it… The vibration in the flatbed grew worse, jarring. Those who had been dozing, heads lolling in the heat, glanced up, faces creased with strained worry.




From the front of the truck, the engine coughed a final time and died with a sighing gasp of smoke. Black clouds billowed over the truck, issuing from under the hood. A reek of burned oil accompanied it. The flatbed coasted to the side of the road, bumped into the sandy shoulder, and braked to a stop.




“End of the line,” Omaha said.




The Arabian stallion stamped a hoof in protest.




You and me both, Omaha thought. He stood along with the others, dusted off his cloak, and crossed to the drop gate. He yanked the release. The gate fell away and crashed with a clatter into the sand.




They all clambered down as Captain al-Haffi and his two men, Barak and Sharif, vacated the cab. Smoke still billowed, smudging into the sky.




“Where are we?” Kara asked, shielding her eyes and staring down the winding road. To either side, sugarcane fields climbed in swaths of dense fronds, obscuring distances. “How far are we from Salalah?”




“No more than a couple of miles,” Omaha said, punctuating with a shrug. He was unsure. It could be twice that.




Captain al-Haffi approached the group. “We should go now.” He waved an arm toward the smoke. “People will come to see.”




Omaha nodded. It wouldn’t be good to be found loitering around a stolen truck. Or even a borrowed one.




“We’ll have to walk the rest of the way,” Painter said. He was the last out of the flatbed. He had the stallion in tow on a rope lead. He led the skittish horse down the dropped gate. It shook and danced a bit once on solid ground.




As Painter consoled it, Omaha noted the man’s left eye had begun to purple but appeared less swollen. He glanced away, balanced between shame for his earlier outburst and the residual anger he still felt.




With no gear, they were soon under way, trekking along the road’s shoulder. They moved like a small caravan, in twos. Captain al-Haffi led them. Painter and Coral trailed last with the horse.




Omaha heard the pair speaking in whispers, strategizing. He slowed to drop beside them. He refused to be left out of the discussion. Kara noted this, too, and joined them.




“What’s the plan once we get into Salalah?” Omaha asked.




Painter frowned. “We keep low. Coral and I will go to—”




“Wait.” Omaha cut him off. “You’re not leaving me behind. I’m not going to hide away in some hotel while you two go traipsing about.”




His angry outburst was heard by all.




“We can’t all go to the tomb,” Painter said. “We’ll be spotted. Coral and I are trained in surveillance and intelligence gathering. We’ll need to reconnoiter the area, search for Safia, stake it out if she’s not arrived there yet.”




“And what if she’s already been there and gone?” Omaha asked.




“We can find that out. Ask some discreet questions.”




Kara spoke up. “If she’s gone, we won’t know where they’ve taken her.”




Painter stared. Omaha noted the worry shadowing the man’s eyes, as dark as the bruise under the left one.




“You think we’re already too late,” Omaha said.




“We can’t know for certain.”




Omaha stared off into the distance. A few buildings could be seen near the horizon. The city’s edge. Too far. Too late.




“Someone has to go on ahead,” Omaha said.




“How?” Kara asked.




Not turning around, Omaha pointed a thumb back over his shoulder. “The horse. One of us…maybe two…could ride the horse into town. Go straight to the tomb. Check it out. Keep hidden. Watch for Safia. Trail her if she leaves.”




Silence answered him.




Coral met his eyes. “Painter and I were just discussing that.”




“I should go,” Painter said.




Omaha stopped, turning to face the man fully. “And why the hell’s that? I know the city. I know its back alleys.”




Painter stared him down. “You haven’t the experience in surveillance. This is no time for amateurs. You’ll be spotted. Give away our advantage.”




“Like hell I will. I may not’ve had any formal training, but I’ve had years of fieldwork in places where it’s best not to be seen. I can blend in if I have to.”




Painter spoke bluntly, no bravado. “But I’m better. This is what I do.”




Omaha clenched a fist. He heard the certainty in the other’s voice. A part of him wanted to pound it out of the man, but another part believed him. He didn’t have Painter’s experience. What was the best choice? How could he walk when he wanted to run to Safia? A cord of pain wrapped around his heart.




“And what will you do if you find her?”




“Nothing.” Painter continued, “I will study their manpower. Find a weakness. Wait for the proper moment.”




Kara spoke up, hands on her hips. “And what about us?”




Coral answered her as Omaha and Painter continued their standoff. “We have a safe house prearranged as backup in Salalah. Cash and supplies.”




Of course they would, Omaha thought.




“Guns?” Kara asked.




Coral nodded. “We’ll go there first. Load up. I’ll make contact with Washington. Debrief them on our status. Arrange for additional—”




“No,” Painter interrupted. “No communication. I’ll contact you all as soon as I can. We’ll move forward from there on our own. No outside help.”




Omaha read the silent discourse that passed between Painter and his partner. It seemed it was not only the Omani government that Painter suspected of leaks, but also their own government. This woman, Cassandra Sanchez, had been one step ahead of them all along. She must be getting inside information.




Painter’s eyes settled back to Omaha. “Are we straight with this plan?”




Omaha slowly nodded, though it was like iron bars had been rammed down the back of his neck. Painter began to turn away, but Omaha stopped him, moving in closer. Omaha pulled free the pistol from inside his cloak and passed Painter the gun. “If you have a chance…any chance…”




“I’ll take it,” he said, accepting the weapon.




Omaha stepped back, and Painter mounted the stallion. He rode bareback, using a makeshift rein of towline. “I’ll see you all in Salalah,” he mumbled, and kicked the horse into a trot, then a full gallop, crouched low.




“I hope he’s as good a spy as he is a rider,” Kara said.




Omaha watched painter vanish around a bend in the road. Then the group set off again, moving slowly, too slowly, toward the waiting city.




3:42 P.M.




S AFIA LEANED over the topographical map of the Dhofar region. It lay spread over the hood of their truck. She had a digital compass resting in the center, along with a straight-edged plastic ruler. She made a subtle alteration in the ruler’s position on the map, aligning it exactly along the same axis as the tomb of Nabi Imran. Before leaving the vault, she had spent several minutes using the laser-calibrated compass to get the precise measurement.




“What are you doing?” Cassandra asked at her shoulder for the fifth time.




Still ignoring her, Safia bent closer, nose almost to the paper. This is the best I could do without computers. She held out a hand. “Pen.”




Kane reached into an inside jacket pocket and passed her a ballpoint. Glancing up, she caught a brief glimpse of a gun holstered at his shoulder. She took the pen cautiously from his fingers. She refused to meet his eyes. More than Cassandra, the man made her edgy, shook her resolve.




Safia concentrated on the map, focusing her full attention on the mystery. The next clue to the secret heart of Ubar.




She drew a line along the edge of the ruler, then pulled it away. A blue line arrowed straight out from Nabi Imran’s tomb and shot across the countryside. She followed the line with her finger, noting the terrain it crossed, searching for a specific name.




She had a good idea what she would find.




As her finger followed beyond the city of Salalah, the lines of the topographic map began to multiply as the landscape rippled up into foothills, then mountains. She followed the line of blue ink until it crossed a small black dot atop a steep-sided mount. Her finger came to rest and tapped the spot.




Cassandra leaned closer and read the name printed beneath her finger. “Jebal Eitteen.” She glanced to Safia.




“Mount Eitteen,” Safia said, and studied the small black dot that marked the small mountain. “Atop here lies another tomb. And like the one here, this spot is also revered across all faiths—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.”




“Whose tomb is it?”




“Another prophet. Ayoub. Or in English: Job.”




Cassandra simply frowned at her.




Safia elaborated. “Job appears in both the Bible and the Koran. He was a man rich in wealth and family, who remained steadfast in his devotion to God. As a test, all was stripped from him: wealth, children, even his own health. So horrible were his afflictions that he was shunned and forced to live in isolation here.” She tapped the map. “On Mount Eitteen. Still, despite the hardships, Job continued in his faith and devotion. For his loyalty, God told Job to ‘strike the ground with your foot.’ A spring was called forth from which Job drank and bathed. His afflictions were cured, and he became a young man again. He lived the rest of his life on Mount Eitteen and was eventually buried there.”