“And you think this tomb is the next spot on the road to Ubar?”
“If the first signpost was erected at this tomb, it only follows that the next would be in a similar location. Another gravesite of a holy personage revered by all the religions of the region.”
“Then that’s where we must go next.”
Cassandra reached to the map.
Safia slapped a hand atop the paper, stopping her. “There’s no way I can be certain what, if anything, we’ll find there. I’ve been to Job’s tomb before. I saw nothing significant related to Ubar. And we have no clue where to begin to search. Not even an iron heart.” She again pictured the way the heart had wobbled atop the marble altar, aligning itself like a compass. “It could take years to discover the next piece to the puzzle.”
“That is why you’re here,” Cassandra said, snatching up the map and waving for Kane to get the prisoner back into the SUV. “To solve this riddle.”
Safia shook her head. It seemed an impossible task. Or so Safia wanted Cassandra to believe. Despite her protests, she had a distinct idea of how to proceed, but she was unsure how to use this knowledge to her advantage.
She climbed into the back again with Cassandra and settled into her seat as the truck angled through the entry gate. Out in the street, the vendors were beginning to load up their wares as the afternoon waned. A lone stray dog, all ribs and leg bones, wandered listlessly among the strip of stands and carts. It lifted its nose as a horse passed slowly along behind the row of makeshift shops, led by a man draped from head to toe in a bedouin desert cloak.
The truck continued down the lane, aiming for another Mitsubishi parked at the end. The procession would continue into the foothills.
Safia stared at the GPS navigation system on the dashboard. Streets radiated outward. The countryside awaited.
And another tomb.
She hoped it wasn’t her own.
D AMNED SCORPIONS…
Dr. Jacques Bertrand crushed the black-armored intruder under his heel before settling to the rug that cushioned his workspace. He had been gone only minutes to fetch more water from his Land Rover, and the scorpions had already invaded his shaded alcove in the cliff. In this harsh landscape of hardscrabble, bitterbrush, and stone, nothing went to waste. Not even a spot in the shade.
Jacques sprawled on his back in the niche, faceup. An inscription in Epigraphic South Arabian had been carved into the roof of the niche, an ancient burial crypt. The surrounding landscape was littered with them, all overshadowed by Job’s tomb atop the mount where he labored. The entire region had become a cemetery. This was the third crypt he had documented today. The last for this long, interminably hot day.
He already dreamed of his hotel suite at the Salalah Hilton, a dip in the pool, a glass of Chardonnay.
With this thought firming him to his task, he set to work. Running a camel-hair brush over the inscription, he cleaned it a final time. As an archaeologist specializing in ancient languages, Jacques was currently on a grant to road-map early Semitic scripts, tracing their lineage from past to present. Aramaic, Elymaic, Palmyrene, Nabataean, Samaritan, Hebrew. Gravesites were great sources of the written word, immortalizing prayers, praises, and epitaphs.
With a prickly shiver, Jacques lowered his brush. He suddenly had an intense feeling of being watched. It welled over him, some primeval sense of danger.
Raising up on an elbow, he stared down past his legs. The region was rife with bandits and thieves. But in the shadow of Job’s tomb, a most holy shrine, none would venture to commit a crime. It would be a death sentence. Knowing this, he had left his rifle back in the Rover.
He stared out into the brightness.
Still, he pulled his booted feet fully into the niche. If someone was out there, someone meaning him harm, perhaps he could remain hidden.
A tick-tick of a pebble rolling down a rocky slope sounded from the left. His ears strained. He felt trapped.
Then a shape moved across the entrance to the crypt.
It padded past, sauntering, lazy, but confident with power. Its red fur, speckled in shadow, blended with the red rock.
Jacques held his breath, trapped between terror and disbelief.
He had heard tales, been warned of their presence in the wilds of the Dhofar Mountains. Panthera pardus nimr. The Arabian leopard. Nearly extinct, but not extinct enough for his tastes.
The large cat moved past.
But it was not alone.
A second leopard strode into view, moving faster, younger, more agitated. Then a third. A male. Huge paws, splaying with each step, yellow claws.
He held his breath, praying, near mindless, a caveman huddling against the dangers beyond his hole.
Then another figure strode into view.
Not a cat.
Bare legs, bare feet, moving with the same feline grace.
From his vantage point, he could see nothing above her thighs.
She ignored him as surely as the leopards, moving swiftly past, heading higher up the mountain.
Jacques slipped from the crypt, like Lazarus rising from his grave. He could not stop himself. He poked his head out, on his hands and knees. The woman climbed the rock face, following some path known only to her. She was the color of warm mocha, sleek black hair to the waist, naked, unashamed.
She seemed to sense his gaze, though she did not turn around. He felt it in his head, the overwhelming feeling of being watched again. It bubbled through him. Fear prickled, but he could not look away.
She strode among the leopards, continuing upward, toward the tomb at the top. Her form seemed to shimmer, a heat mirage across sunbaked sand.
A scratching sound drew his glance to his hands and knees.
A pair of scorpions scuttled over his fingers. They were not poisonous but dealt a wicked sting. He gasped as more and more boiled out of cracks and crevices, scrabbling down walls, dropping from the roof. Hundreds. A nest. He scrambled from the crypt. He felt stings, sparks of fire on his back, ankles, neck, hands.
He fell out of the opening and rolled across the hard soil. More stings flashed like cigarette burns. He cried out, maddened with pain.
He clambered up, shaking his limbs, stripping his jacket, slapping a hand through his hair. He stamped his feet and stumbled back down the slope. Scorpions still scuttled about the crypt’s opening.
He glanced higher, suddenly fearful of drawing the leopards’ attention. But the cliff face was empty.
The woman, the cats, had vanished.
It was impossible. But the fire from the scorpion stings had burned all curiosity from him. He fell back and away, retreating for his parked Rover. Still, his eyes quested, moving higher, to the top.
To where the tomb of Job waited.
He pulled open the door to his Rover and climbed into the driver’s seat. He had been warned away. He knew it with dread certainty.
Something horrible was going to happen up there.
S AFIA’S STILL alive,” Painter said as soon as he strode through the door of the safe house It was not so much a house as a two-room flat above an import-export shop that bordered the Al-Haffa souk. With such a business fronting the safe house, none would question the comings and goings of strangers. Just a normal part of business. The noise of the neighboring market was a chatter of languages, voices, and bartering. The rooms smelled of curry and old mattresses.
Painter pushed past Coral, who had opened the door upon his knock. He had already noted the two Desert Phantoms posted discreetly out front, watching the approach up to the safe house.
The others were gathered in the front room, exhausted, road-worn. A run of water tinkled from the neighboring bathroom. Painter noted Kara was missing. Danny, Omaha, and Clay all had wet hair. They had been taking turns showering away the trail dust and grime. Captain al-Haffi had found a robe, but it was too tight for his shoulders.
Omaha stood as Painter entered. “Where is she?”
“Safia and the others were leaving the tomb just as I arrived. In a caravan of SUVs. Heavily armed.” Painter crossed to the tiny kitchenette. He leaned over the sink, turned the tap, and ran his head under the spigot.
Omaha stood behind him. “Then why aren’t you tracking them?”
Painter straightened, sweeping back his sodden hair. Trails of water coursed down his neck and back. “I am.” He kept his eyes hard upon Omaha, then stepped past him to Coral. “How are we equipped?”
She nodded to the door leading to the back room. “I thought it best to wait for you. The electronic keypad proved trickier than I had imagined.”
She led him to the door. The flat was a CIA safe house, permanently stocked, one of many throughout the world. Sigma had been alerted to its location when the mission was assembled. Backup in case it was needed.
Painter spotted the electronic keypad hidden under a fold of curtain. Coral had pinned the drape out of the way. A small array of crude tools lay on the floor: fingernail clipper, razor blades, tweezers, nail file.
“From the bathroom,” Coral said.
Painter knelt in front of the keypad. Coral had opened the casing, exposing the electronics. He studied the circuits.
Coral leaned beside him, pointing to some clipped wires, red and blue. “I was able to disable the silent alarm. You should be able to key into the equipment locker without alerting anyone. But I thought it best you oversee my work. This is your field of expertise.”
Painter nodded. Such lockers were rigged to silently send out an alarm, notifying the CIA when such a safe house was employed. Painter did not want such knowledge sent out. Not yet. Not so broadly. They were dead…and he meant to keep them that way for as long as possible.
His eyes ran along the circuits, following the flows of power, the dummy wires, the live ones. All seemed in order. Coral had managed to sever the power to the telephone line while leaving the keypad powered and untampered with. For a physicist, she was proving to be a damn good electrical engineer. “Looks good.”
“Then we can enter.”
During his premission briefing, Painter had memorized the safe house’s code. He reached to the keypad and typed in the first number of the ten-digit code. He would have only one chance to get it right. If he entered the code wrong, the keypad would disable itself, locking down. A failsafe.