He proceeded carefully.




“You have ninety seconds,” Coral reminded him.




Another failsafe. The ten-digit sequence had to be punched in within a set time span. He tapped each number with care, proceeding steadily. As he reached the seventh number in the sequence—the number nine—his finger hovered. The illuminated button seemed slightly dimmer than its neighbor, easy to miss. He held his finger. Was he being too paranoid? Jumping at shadows?




“What’s wrong?” Coral asked.




By now, Omaha had joined them, along with his brother.




Painter sat back on his heels, thinking. He clenched and unclenched his fingers. He stared at the number-nine button. Surely not…




“Painter,” Coral whispered under her breath.




If he waited much longer, the system would lock down. He didn’t have time to spare—but something was wrong. He could smell it.




Omaha hovered behind him, making him too conscious of the time ticking away. If Painter was to save Safia, he needed what lay behind this door.




Ignoring the keypad, Painter picked up the tweezer and nail file. With a surgeon’s skill, he carefully lifted free the number-nine key. It fell into his hand. Too easily. He leaned closer, squinting.




Damn…




Behind the key rested a small square chip with a pressure plunger in its center. The chip was wrapped tightly with a thin metal filament. An antenna. It was a microtransmitter. If he had pressed the button, it would have activated. From the crudeness of its integration, this was not a factory installation.




Cassandra had been here.




Sweat rolled into Painter’s left eye. He had not even been aware of the amount of moisture that had built up on his brow.




Coral stared over his shoulder. “Shit.”




That was an understatement. “Get everyone out of here.”




“What’s going on?” Omaha asked.




“Booby trap,” Painter said, anger firing his words. “Out! Now!”




“Grab Kara!” Coral commanded Omaha, ordering him into the bathroom. She got everyone else moving toward the door.




As they fled, Painter sat before the keypad. A litany of curses rang through his head like a favorite old song. He had been singing this tune too long. Cassandra was always a step ahead.




“Thirty seconds!” Coral warned as she slammed the flat’s door. He had half a minute until the keypad locked down.




Alone, he studied the chip.




Just you and me, Cassandra.




Painter set down the nail file and picked up the nail clipper. Wishing he had his tool satchel, he set to work on removing the transmitter, breathing deeply, staying in a calm place. He touched the metal casing to bleed away any static electricity, then set to work. He carefully dissected away the power wire from its ground, then just as carefully filed the plastic coating off the power wire without breaking it. Once the ground wire was exposed, he tweezed it up and touched it to the hot wire. There was a snap and a sizzle. A hint of burned plastic wafted upward.




The transmitter was fried.




Eight seconds…




He cut the dead transmitter free and plucked it out. He closed his fingers over it, feeling its sharp edge dig into his palm.




Fuck you, Cassandra.




Painter finished tapping in the final three digits. Beside him, the door’s locks tumbled open with a whir of mechanics.




Only then did he sigh in relief.




Straightening, he inspected the door’s frame before testing the knob. It all looked untouched. Cassandra had counted on the transmitter doing the job.




Painter twisted and pulled the knob. The door was heavy, reinforced with steel. He said a quick final prayer as he hauled the door open.




From the doorway, he stared inside. A bare bulb illuminated the room.




Damn it…




The neighboring room was filled with steel shelves and racks, from floor to ceiling. All empty. Ransacked.




Again, Cassandra had taken no chances, left no crumbs, only her calling card: a pound of C4 explosive, rigged with an electronic detonator. If he had tapped the number-nine button, it would have taken out the entire building. He crossed and pulled free the detonator.




Frustration built into a painful pressure behind his rib cage. He wanted to scream. Instead, he crossed back to the flat’s entry door and called the all clear.




Coral’s eyes were bright as she climbed the stairs




“She cleaned us out,” Painter said as his partner entered.




Omaha frowned, following on Coral’s heels. “Who…?”




“Cassandra Sanchez,” Painter snapped. “Safia’s kidnappers.”




“How the hell did she know about the safe house?”




Painter shook his head. How indeed? He led them to the empty locker, stepped inside, and crossed to the bomb.




“What are you doing?” Omaha asked.




“I’m salvaging the explosives. We may need them.”




As Painter worked, Omaha entered the locker. Kara followed, her hair wet and tangled from her interrupted shower, her body snugged in a towel.




“What about Safia?” Omaha asked. “You said you could track her.”




Painter finished freeing the C4 and motioned them all back out. “I did. Now we have a problem. There should’ve been a satellite-linked computer here. A way to reach a DOD server.”




“I don’t understand,” Kara said thinly. Her flesh shone pale yellow under the fluorescents. She appeared wasted, leaving Painter to suspect it wasn’t drugs that had worn the woman down, but the lack of them.




Painter led them back into the main room, revising his plans with one step, cursing Cassandra with the next. She knew about the safe house, obtained the locker code, and booby-trapped it. How did she know their every move? His gaze traveled over the group here.




“Where’s Clay?” Painter asked.




“Finishing a cigarette on the stairs,” Danny answered. “He found a pack in the kitchen.”




As if on command, Clay pushed through the door. All eyes turned to him. He was taken aback by all the attention. “What?” he asked.




Kara turned to Painter. “What’s our next step?”




Painter turned to Captain al-Haffi. “I left the sultan’s horse with Sharif downstairs. Do you think you could sell the stallion and quickly roust up some weapons and a vehicle that could carry us?”




The captain nodded with assurance. “I have discreet contacts here.”




“You have half an hour.”




“What about Safia?” Omaha pressed. “We’re wasting too much time.”




“Safia is safe for the moment. Cassandra still needs her, or Safia would be sharing that tomb with the Virgin Mary’s father right now. They took her away for a reason. If we hope to rescue her, the cover of night might be best. We have some time to spare.”




“How do you know where they’re taking Safia?” Kara asked.




Painter searched the faces around him, unsure how freely to speak.




“Well?” Omaha pressed. “How the hell are we going to find her?”




Painter crossed toward the door. “By finding the best coffee in town.”




5:10 P.M.




O MAHA LED the way across the Al-Haffa souk. Only Painter followed. The others were left at the safe house to rest and await the return of Captain al-Haffi and their transportation. Omaha hoped they had someplace to travel to.




Dull anger throbbed with each step. Painter had seen Safia, been within yards of her…and he had let the kidnappers ride off with her. The man’s confidence in his ability to track her had been shaken back at the safe house. Omaha saw it in Painter’s eyes. Worry.




The bastard should’ve attempted to rescue her when he had the chance. To hell with the odds. The man’s insufferable caution was going to get Safia killed. And then all their efforts would be too late.




Omaha stalked among the booths and stalls of the market, deaf to the chatter of voices, the cries of hawkers, the angry burble of heated bartering, the squawk of caged geese, the braying of a mule. It all blended into white noise.




The market was near to closing for the day as the sun sank toward the horizon, stretching shadows. An evening wind had kicked up. Awnings rattled, dust devils danced amid piles of littered refuse, and the air smelled of salt, spice, and the promise of rain.




It was past monsoon season, but the weather reports warned of a December storm, a front moving inland. They would have rain by nightfall. The squall last night had been only the first in a series of storms. There was talk that this weather system would cross the mountains and collide with the sandstorm rolling south, creating the perfect monster storm.




But Omaha had larger concerns than wild weather.




Omaha hurried across the souk. Their goal lay on the far side, where a modern strip of commercial facilities had sprouted, including a Pizza Hut and a minimart. Omaha wound through the last of the stalls, passing shops selling knockoff perfumes, incense burners, bananas, tobacco, handcrafted jewelry, traditional Dhofari dresses made of velvet and covered with beads and sequins.




At last, they reached the street separating the souk from the modern strip mall. Omaha pointed across the way. “There it is. Now how is that place going to help you find Safia?”




Painter headed across. “I’ll show you.”




Omaha followed. He stared up at the sign: SALALAH INTERNET CAFé. The establishment specialized in elaborate coffees, offering an international array of teas, cappuccinos, and espressos. Similar establishments could be found in the most remote places. All it took was a telephone connection, and even the most out-of-the-way corner of the world could be surfing the Web.




Painter headed inside. He approached the counterperson, a blond-haired Englishman by the name of Axe who wore a T-shirt that read FREE WINONA, and gave him his credit card number and expiration date.




“You have that memorized,” Omaha asked.




“You never know when you’re going to be attacked by pirates at sea.”




As the man ran the number, Omaha asked, “I thought you wanted to keep a low profile. Won’t using your credit card give away that you’re still alive?”




“I don’t think it really matters anymore.”