Coral grabbed the stick, shoved the SUV into reverse, and jammed the accelerator. The SUV found traction again, barreled backward as the guillotine of bullets sliced just inches in front of the bumper.
A second helicopter dove toward them.
Barak opened fire skyward. The copter’s searchlight shattered away. But it kept coming.
Still going in reverse, Coral spun the wheel. The car fishtailed in the mud. “Omaha, your left!”
While Barak was busy with the helicopter, one of the guards had decided to take advantage of his inattention. The man rose with his rifle on his shoulder. Omaha leaned back in his seat. The SUV swung to face the man. No choice, Omaha fired his Desert Eagle through the windshield. He squeezed two more shots. The safety glass held, but fractured into spiderwebs.
The guard ducked away.
The SUV caught traction in the fresh mud and sped across the lot, still in reverse. Craned around, Coral expertly maneuvered the vehicle, aiming for the gate to the compound, going in ass backward, pursued by the helicopters.
P INNED IN the alley, Safia stood between Painter and Cassandra. Ahead, Kane pointed his gun. Everyone had frozen for half a breath as the helicopter exploded behind them.
“Shoot him,” Cassandra repeated, staying focused.
“No!” Safia attempted to step around Painter, to shield him. Every movement flamed her shoulder. Blood ran down her arm. “Kill him and I won’t help you! You’ll never discover the secret at Ubar!”
Painter held her back, protecting her from Kane.
Cassandra pushed through the hedge. “Kane, you have your order.”
Safia glanced between the two armed assailants. She spotted a shift of shadows behind the man. Something rose from a crouch, sharing the crest of the wall. Eyes shone a feral red.
Painter tensed beside her.
With a growled roar, the leopard pounced on Kane. His pistol fired. Safia felt the shot whistle past her ear and strike the dirt with a thud. Man and cat tumbled off the wall, into the prayer room beyond.
Painter ducked, grabbed Safia’s arm, and swung her behind him as he turned to face Cassandra. He had a second pistol in his free hand.
Cassandra leaped backward, crashing through the bushes. The bullet missed, clipping the corner of the tomb. She ducked to the side.
Next door, screams arose—bloody and sharp. It was impossible to discern man from beast.
Bullets ricocheted off the sandstone walls as Cassandra returned fire, staying low around the corner, shooting through the bushes. Painter pushed Safia against the tomb’s wall, out of direct line of fire…at least for the moment.
“Make for the outer wall,” he urged, and shoved her down the alley.
“What about you?”
“She’ll follow us. The slope’s too exposed.” He intended to hold Cassandra at bay.
“Goddamnit, go!” He pushed her harder.
Safia stumbled down the alley. The sooner she reached safety, the sooner Painter could make his own escape. So she justified it in her head. But a part of her knew she was simply running for her own life. With each step, her shoulder throbbed, protesting her cowardly flight. Still, she kept going.
The exchange of gunfire continued.
In the neighboring ruins of the prayer room, all had gone deathly quiet, the fate of Kane unknown. More gunfire erupted from the parking lot. A helicopter flashed low overhead, whipping up the rain with its rotor wash.
Reaching the end of the alleyway, Safia lunged across the wet gardens toward the far wall. It was only four feet high, but with her wounded shoulder, she feared she’d never make it over. Blood soaked through the shirt.
From beneath a baobab tree, a camel appeared on the far side of the wall. It moved to meet her. It seemed to be the same camel that had sauntered past the tomb’s door earlier. In fact, it had the same companion: the naked woman.
Only now she rode atop the camel.
Safia didn’t know whether to trust the stranger or not, but if Cassandra shot at her, then the woman had to be on her side. The enemy of my enemy…
The stranger offered her arm as Safia reached the wall—then spoke. It wasn’t Arabic or English. Yet Safia understood it—not because she had studied the language, which she had, but because it seemed to translate through her skull on its own.
“Welcome, sister,” the stranger said in Aramaic, the dead language of this land. “Be at peace.”
Safia reached for the woman’s hand. Fingers gripped hers, hard and strong. She felt herself pulled up effortlessly. Pain lanced out, shooting down her wounded arm. A cry escaped her. Blackness closed her vision to a pinpoint.
“Peace,” the woman repeated softly.
Safia felt the word wash over her, through her, taking pain and the world with it. She slumped and slipped away.
P AINTER PULLED the screen off the window beside his head. It was a flimsy affair. With his back pressed against the tomb’s wall, he fired his pistol twice, keeping Cassandra at bay.
He used his palm to slide open the window. Thankfully it was unlocked. He glanced down the alleyway and watched Safia vanish around the corner.
Dropping to a knee, Painter fired another shot, ejected his clip, grabbed another from his belt, and slammed it home.
Cassandra fired again. The slug struck the wall by his leg.
Where was another goddamn leopard when you needed one?
Painter returned a shot, then holstered his weapon. Without a second glance, he leaped up, boosted himself through the window, and fell in an undignified tumble into the tomb.
Inside, he rolled to his feet. His eyes discerned a central shrouded mound. He kept to the wall and circled the gravesite, his pistol back in his hand, aimed at the door. Crossing past the back window, he felt a wet breeze through it.
So that was how that bastard got the jump on me.
Painter glanced through the window, noting movement outside.
Beyond the wall, a camel turned away, heading down the far slope. A naked woman sat astride it, seemingly guiding it with her knees. In her arms, she cradled another woman. Limp, unmoving.
The camel and its riders descended out of sight. A pair of leopards bounded from the dark gardens to the wall, then away, following the camel.
Before he could decide to pursue or not, Painter heard a scuff by the door. He dropped and turned. A shadow lay draped across the entry.
“This isn’t over, Crowe!” Cassandra called in to him.
Painter kept his pistol trained.
A new roar reached his ears. A truck. Barreling his way.
Shots fired. He recognized the retort of a Kalashnikov. Someone from his own group. Cassandra’s shadow vanished, sweeping out of sight, retreating.
Painter hurried to the door, keeping his weapon ready. He spotted a discarded map on the floor. He reached down and crumpled it in a fist.
Out in the courtyard, one of the Mitsubishi trucks bounced through the gardens, digging ragged furrows. A figure protruded through the moonroof. A muzzle, pointed skyward, flashed. Barak.
Painter checked the rest of the yard. It appeared empty. Cassandra had retreated into hiding, outgunned for the brief moment. He stepped out of the tomb and waved the crumpled map.
Spotting him, the driver of the Mitsubishi swung sharply. Its back bumper aimed for him. He fell back inside to avoid getting hit. The SUV skidded to a stop, scraping paint off its side panels. Its backseat door landed abreast of the tomb.
He spotted Coral in the driver’s seat.
“Get in!” Barak called.
Painter glanced back to the tomb’s back window. Safia…
Whoever had taken her, they had at least been heading away, out of immediate harm. That would have to do for now.
Turning back, he popped the handle, dove inside, and slammed the door. “Go!” he called to the front.
Coral jostled the SUV into forward gear, and the truck sped away.
A pair of helicopters gave chase. Barak shot at them from his topside vantage. The SUV raced toward the open gate. Coral leaned forward to peer through the cracked windshield.
They swept out of the complex, bounced over a muddy rut, momentarily airborne, then jammed back down. Wheels spun, caught, and the SUV sped toward the road and the cover of the heavy forest.
From the front, Omaha stared back at him, eyes lost. “Where’s Safia?”
“Gone.” Painter shook his head, unblinking. “She’s gone.”
15 Mountain Trek
DECEMBER 4, 12:18 A.M.
S AFIA WOKE from slumber, falling. She threw her arms out, panic racking her body, as familiar as her own breath. Agony speared her shoulder.
“Calm yourself, sister,” someone said near her ear. “I have you.”
The world swirled into focus, midnight dark. She was propped against a couched camel, who chewed its cud with indifference. A woman loomed at her side, an arm under her good shoulder, holding her up.
“Where…?” she mumbled, but her lips seemed glued together. She tried to find her legs, but failed. Memory slowly returned. The fight at the tomb. Gunfire filled her head. Flashes of images. One face. Painter. She shuddered in the woman’s arms. What had happened? Where was she?
She finally found enough strength to stand, leaning heavily on the camel. Safia noted that her wounded shoulder had been crudely bandaged, wrapped to slow the bleeding. It ached with every movement.
The woman at her side, shadowy in the gloom, appeared to be the one who had rescued her; only now she wore a desert cloak.
“Help comes,” the other whispered.
“Who are you?” she forced out, suddenly noting the cold of the night. She was in some jungle grotto. The rain had stopped, but drops still wept from the canopy overhead. Palm and tamarind trees rose all around her. Tangles of lianas and hanging gardens of jasmine draped everywhere, perfuming the air.
The woman remained silent. She pointed an arm.
A bit of fiery light pierced the jungle ahead, glowing brightly through the ropy vines. Someone was coming, bearing aloft a torch or lamp.
Safia had an urge to flee, but her body was too weak to obey.