Safia shrugged. “The iron heart had been posted by the coastal tomb of Imran, hidden in a sandstone sculpture. It pointed here. Up into the mountains. It only made sense that the next marker would be something similar. Another piece of iron, like the heart. The only mystery was where it was located.”
Cassandra stared at the wall. Despite the frustrated anger she felt for the prisoner, the curator had indeed proven her worth. “What now?”
Safia shook her head. “It will have to be dug out. Freed from the stone. Like the iron heart from the statue.” She faced Cassandra. “We’ll have to proceed with caution. A single misstep and the buried artifact could be damaged. It will take days to extract it.”
“Perhaps not.” Cassandra turned and strode away, leaving Safia under Kane’s watch. Stepping out of the prayer room, she crossed back toward the trucks, following the white gravel path through the dark gardens. As she marched past the entrance to the main tomb, a flicker of shadow caught her eye.
In a fluid motion, Cassandra dropped to a knee, sweeping a pistol from her shoulder holster, fueled by reflex and wariness. She covered the entrance and waited a full two breaths. Winds whispered the fronds of a palmetto bush. Her ears strained to listen.
Nothing. No movement from the tomb.
She rose smoothly, pistol held steady on the opening. She sidled toward the entrance, stepping off the path and onto the bare dirt to avoid the crunch of gravel. She reached the doorway, covered one side of the room, edged in, and swept the other. The back windows allowed in enough reflected glow from the powerful work lights next door.
The grave mound was a shadowed hummock. There was no furniture. No place to hide. The tomb was empty.
She backed out and holstered her pistol. Just a mirage of shadows and lights. Perhaps someone had stepped in front of one of the work lights.
With a final glance around, she swung back to the path. With determined strides, she marched off toward the waiting trucks and silently scolded herself for jumping at shadows.
Then again, she had a good reason to be jumpy.
She pushed this thought aside as she reached the trucks. The SUVs carried not only Kane’s men, but also an array of archaeological gear. Knowing they’d be heading out on a treasure hunt, the Guild had supplied her with an assortment of the usual equipment: spades, picks, jack-hammers, brushes, sifting screens. But they had also outfitted her with state-of-the-art electronic tools, including a ground-penetrating radar system and an on-the-fly link to the LANDSAT satellite system. This last was capable of delving up to sixty feet under the sand to produce a detailed topographical map of what lay down below.
Cassandra crossed to where one of the trucks had been off-loaded to free up the metal detector. She knew what tool she needed now.
She used a crowbar to crack open the proper crate. The interior was lined with straw and Styrofoam to protect the piece of equipment, a Guild design based on a DARPA research project. It looked like a shotgun, but was belled at the end of the barrel. And its ceramic stock was extra bulky, wide enough to accept the battery block needed to charge the device.
Digging in the crate, Cassandra freed the battery unit and locked it in place. The device was heavy in her arms. She hefted it to her shoulder and headed back to the prayer room.
Spread along the perimeter, Kane’s men remained at full attention. There was no slacking, no joking. Kane had trained them well.
Cassandra followed the garden path back to the prayer room. As she entered, Kane noted what she held in her arms. His eyes glinted.
Safia turned from where she was huddled in front of the wall. She had chalked out a rectangle. A foot wide at the top and about four feet tall.
“We’re getting readings all along this area,” the curator said, standing up. She frowned as she caught sight of the device in Cassandra’s arms.
“A ULS laser,” Cassandra explained. “Used to dig through rock.”
“Get back.” Cassandra lifted the unit to her shoulder and pointed the belled barrel of the unit at the wall.
Safia stepped aside.
Cassandra pressed the button near her thumb, the equivalent of a safety. At her touch, tiny beams of crimson light speared outward, like the spray from a shower nozzle. Each beam was a tiny laser gun, focused through alternating crystals of alexandrite and erbium. Cassandra centered her aim on the chalked section of wall. The tiny dots of the idling laser formed a perfect circle.
She pulled the trigger. The device vibrated on her shoulder as the array of tiny lasers began to spin, faster and faster. A sound beyond hearing ached the bones of her ear. She concentrated, staring over the barrel.
Where the crimson beam struck the wall, the stone began to disintegrate in a cloud of dust and silica. For decades, dentists had been using ultrasonics to scale tartar from teeth. The same principle was being employed here, only intensified by the concentrated energy of the lasers. The sandstone continued to dissolve under the twin assault.
Cassandra slowly swept the beam back and forth over the wall, erasing the sandstone layer by layer. The ULS laser worked only on aggregate material, like sandstone. Harder stone, like granite, was impervious to it. It was even harmless to flesh. The worst it would do was leave a bad sunburn.
She continued to work at the wall. Sand and dust filled the prayer room, but the wind gusting through kept it relatively clear. After three minutes, she had worn a swath about four inches into the wall.
“Stop!” Safia called out, holding up an arm.
Cassandra released the trigger. She shifted the idling gun upward.
Safia waved sand from her face and moved to the wall. Winds scurried the last of the smoky dust out through the roof as she leaned forward.
Cassandra and Kane joined her. Kane shone a flashlight into the cubbyhole worn by the laser. A bit of metal glinted ruddy from the depths of the pocket.
“Iron,” Safia said behind her, a trace of awe in her voice, a mix of pride and incredulity. “Like the heart.”
Cassandra retreated back and lowered her weapon. “Then let’s see what prize is in this fucking Cracker Jack box.” She pulled the trigger, now concentrating around the iron artifact.
Spinning lasers again dissolved sandstone to dust, eroding away layers. More and more of the artifact became clear, lit by the crimson glow. From the stone, details emerged: a nose, a heavy brow, an eye, the corner of a lip.
“It’s a face,” Safia said.
Cassandra continued her careful sweep, wiping stone away as if it were mud, revealing the face beneath. It seemed to be pushing out of the stone toward them.
“My God…” Kane muttered, bringing his flashlight to bear, bathing it brightly. The likeness was too remarkable for chance.
Kane glanced over to Safia. “It’s you.”
P AINTER SAT atop the camel, staring across the dark valley that separated their party from Jebal Eitteen. Atop the far hill, the tomb blazed against the moonless night sky. The brightness was enhanced by the night-vision goggles he wore, turning the tomb into a lighthouse beacon.
He studied the terrain. It was an easily defensible site. There was only one approach: the dirt road winding up the south face of the mount. He adjusted the magnification on his goggles. He had counted fourteen hostiles but no sign of Safia. She must already be within the tomb complex.
At least he hoped so.
She had to be alive. The alternative was unthinkable.
He pulled off the goggles and attempted to shift into a comfortable position atop his camel. He failed.
Captain al-Haffi sat on a camel to his right, Omaha on his left. They both seemed as relaxed as if they were sitting on lounge chairs. The saddles, double vises of wood over palm thatch, offered little cushioning, positioned on the animals’ withers in front of the hump. To Painter, it was a torture device designed by a sadistic Arab. After only a half hour, he felt as if he were being split slowly in half, like some human wishbone.
Grimacing, Painter pointed down the slope. “We’ll proceed as a group to the bottom of the valley. Then I’ll need ten minutes to get in position. After that time, everyone will slowly climb the road toward the tomb. Make lots of noise. Once you reach that last switchback, stop and settle in, like you’re going to overnight there. Set up a fire. It’ll blind their night vision. Let the camels graze. The movement will make it easier to get yourselves into sniping positions. Then wait for my signal.”
Captain al-Haffi nodded and passed on the instructions as he slowly worked down the line.
Coral took the captain’s place at Painter’s side. She leaned forward a bit in her saddle, her face tight. It seemed his partner was not any happier about their mode of transportation than he was.
She crossed her arms atop her saddle. “Perhaps I should be the one to take the lead on this op. I’ve more experience with infiltration than you.” She lowered her voice. “And I’m less personally involved.”
Painter tightened his grip as the camel shifted under him. “My feelings for Safia will not interfere with my abilities.”
“I meant Cassandra, your ex-partner.” She lifted one eyebrow. “Are you trying to prove something? Is any of that energy going into this operation?”
Painter glanced to the tomb blazing atop the neighboring hill. When he had been searching the complex, noting terrain and manpower, a part of him had also been watching for some sign of Cassandra. She had orchestrated everything since the British Museum. Still, he had yet to see her face. How would he react? She had betrayed, murdered, kidnapped. All in the name of what cause? What could make her turn against Sigma…against him? Just money? Or was it something more?
He had no answers.
He stared at the lights. Was that a part of the reason he insisted on taking point on this mission? To see her for himself? To look in her eyes?
Coral broke the silence. “Don’t give her any leeway. No mercy, no hesitation. Play it cold, or you’ll lose it all.”
He remained silent as the camels continued their slow, painful trek down to the bottom of the valley. The vegetation grew thicker as they descended along the dirt road. Tall baobab trees cast a thick canopy, while massive tamarinds, heavy with yellow flowers, towered like sentinels. Everywhere, ropy liana vines tangled amid wreaths of jasmine.