Outside, Painter saw that the local security had things in hand. Additionally, a row of charcoal gray police cars, lights flashing, wound through the parking lot, circling down upon the site. The MP Tribal Police.
Painter searched the area. Zhang’s bodyguards were down on their knees, fingers laced behind their heads. Two bodies were sprawled on the ground, security coats draped over their faces. They were both men. Painter crossed to them and peeled one suit back. Another bodyguard, half his face gone. He didn’t have to check the other. He recognized Zhang’s polished leather shoes.
“He shot himself,” a familiar voice said from amid a group of security men and a pair of EMTs. “Rather than be captured.”
Painter turned and saw Cassandra step forward. Her face was pale, her smile shy. She was only in her bra. Her left shoulder was lost in a bandage.
She nodded to a black suitcase a few feet away. Zhang’s computer.
“So we lost the data,” he said. “The EM pulse wiped it.”
“Maybe not,” she said with a grin. “The case is shielded with a copper Faraday cage. It should’ve been insulated from the pulse.”
He sighed with relief. So the data was safe. All was not lost…that is, if they could retrieve the pass code. He stepped toward Cassandra. She grinned at him, eyes still shining. He pulled his Glock and pressed it to her forehead.
“Painter, what are you—” She stepped back.
He followed, never letting his gun drop. “What’s the code?”
Fenton moved to one side. “Commander?”
“Stay out of it.” He cut the security chief off and maintained his attention on Sanchez. “Four bodyguards and Zhang. Everyone is accounted for here. If Zhang was onto our surveillance, then there was a good chance he alerted his contact at the conference. They would have fled together in order to complete the exchange.”
She tried to glance to the bodies, but he restrained her with his gun. “You can’t think it was me?” she said, with a half laugh.
He pointed his free hand, never letting his weapon drop. “I recognize the handiwork of a forty-five, like the Sig Sauer you carry.”
“Zhang took it from me. Painter, you’re being paranoid. I—”
He reached to a pocket and pulled out the bug he found taped to the elevator wall. He held it toward her.
She stiffened, but refused to look at it.
“No blood, Cassandra. Not a trace. Which means you never implanted it like you were supposed to.”
A hard edge sharpened her face.
“The computer code?”
She simply stared at him, coldly dispassionate now. “You know I can’t.”
He searched this stranger’s face for the partner he knew, but she was long gone. There was no remorse, no guilt, only determination. He didn’t have the time or the stomach to break her. He nodded to Fenton. “Have your men cuff her. Keep her under constant guard.”
As she was being secured, she called over to him. Her words were plainly spoken. “Painter, you’d best watch your back. You have no idea what a shitload of pain you just stepped into.”
He picked up the computer suitcase and walked away.
“You’re swimmin’ in the deep end, Painter. And there are goddamn sharks all around you, circling and circling.”
He ignored her and crossed toward the north entrance. He had to admit something to himself: he simply didn’t understand women.
Before he could escape back inside, a tall figure in a sheriff’s hat blocked his way. It was one of the MP Tribal Police. “Commander Crowe?”
“We have an urgent call dispatched through our offices holding for you.”
His brow crinkled. “Who from?”
“From an Admiral Rector, sir. You can speak to him on one of our radios.”
Painter frowned. Admiral Tony “The Tiger” Rector was the director of DARPA, his commander in chief. Painter had never spoken to him, only seen his name on memos and letters. Had word already reached Washington about the mess out here?
He allowed himself to be led to one of the parked gray cars, lights still flashing atop it. He accepted the radio. “Commander Crowe here. How may I help you, sir?”
“Commander, we need you back in Arlington immediately. There’s a helicopter on its way to collect you.”
As if on cue, the bell beat of a helicopter sounded in the distance.
Admiral Rector continued, “You’ll be relieved by Commander Giles. Debrief him on the current state of your operation, then report here as soon as you land at Dulles. There’ll be a car waiting for you.”
“Yes, sir,” he responded, but the connection was already dead.
He stepped out of the car and stared at the gray-green helicopter sailing over the surrounding woodlands, the lands of his ancestors. A sense of misgiving rang through him, what his father called “distrust of the white eyes.” Why had Admiral Rector called him so abruptly? What was the urgency? He couldn’t help but hear an echo of Cassandra’s words.
You’re swimmin’ in the deep end, Painter…and there are goddamn sharks all around you, circling and circling.
3 Matters of the Heart
NOVEMBER 14, 05:05 P.M. GMT
O VER HERE! I found something!”
Safia turned to see one of the men armed with a metal detector call to his partner. What now? The pair had been turning up bits of bronze statuary, iron incense burners, and copper coins. Safia splashed over to see what had been discovered. It might be significant.
Across the gallery, Kara appeared at the entrance to the wing, having heard the shout, too. She joined them.
“What have you found?” she asked with cold authority.
“I’m not sure,” the man said with a nod to his detector. “But I’m getting a very strong reading.”
“A piece of the meteorite?”
“Can’t tell. It’s under this block of stone.”
Safia saw that the block had once been the torso and lower limbs of a sandstone statue, toppled onto its back. Despite the fact that the upper limbs and head had been blasted away, she recognized the figure. The life-size statue had once stood guard by a tomb in Salalah. It dated to 200 B.C. It depicted a man with an elongated object lifted to his shoulder. Some thought it looked like a rifle, but actually it was a funerary incense lamp, borne on the shoulder.
The destruction of the statue was a tragic loss. All that remained now were the torso and two broken legs. Even these were so blasted by the heat that the sandstone had melted and hardened into a crust of glass over its surface.
By now, others of Kara’s red-hatted forensic team gathered around them.
The man who made the discovery pointed his metal detector at the ruined statue. “We’ll have to roll the block out of the way. See what’s under it.”
“Do it,” Kara said with a nod. “We’ll need crowbars.”
A pair of men slogged away toward the stash of work tools.
Safia stepped protectively forward. “Kara, wait. Don’t you recognize this statue?”
“What do you mean?”
“Look closer. This is the statue your father discovered. The one found buried by that tomb in Salalah. We need to preserve what we can.”
“I don’t care.” Kara pulled her aside by the elbow. “What’s important is that there could be a clue to what happened to my father under there.”
Safia tried to pull her aside, keeping her voice low. “Kara…you can’t really think anything of this has to do with your father’s death?”
Kara waved to the men with the crowbars. “Give me one of those.”
Safia remained where she was. Her gaze swept around the other rooms of the gallery, contemplating it all in a new light. All her work, the collection, the years spent in study…was it more than just a memorial to Reginald Kensington for Kara? Had it also been a quest? To gather research material all in one place, to determine what actually happened to her father out in the desert so long ago.
Safia remembered the story from when they were both girls, told amid much weeping. Kara had been convinced something supernatural had killed her father. Safia knew the details.
The nisnases…the ghosts of the deep desert.
Even as girls, she and Kara had investigated these tales, learning all they could about the mythology of the nisnases. Legend said they were all that remained of a people that once inhabited a vast city in the desert. It went by many names: Iram, Wabar, Ubar. The City of a Thousand Pillars. Mentions of its downfall could be found in the Koran, in the tales of The Arabian Nights, and among the Alexander Books. Founded by the great-grandchildren of the biblical Noah, Ubar was a rich and decadent city, filled with wicked people who dabbled in dark practices. Its king defied the warnings of a prophet named Hud, and God smote the city, driving it into the sands, never to be seen again, becoming a veritable Atlantis of the deserts. Afterward, tales persisted that the city still remained under the sands, haunted by the dead, its citizens frozen into stone, its fringes plagued by evil djinns and the even nastier nisnases, savage creatures of magical powers.
Safia had thought Kara had set aside such myths as mere fables. Especially when investigators had attributed her father’s death to the sudden opening of a sinkhole in the desert. Such death traps appeared not uncommonly in the region, swallowing lone trucks or the unwary wanderer. The bedrock below the desert was mostly limestone, a porous rock pocked by caverns worn by the receding water table. Collapses of these caverns occurred regularly, often accompanied by the exact phenomenon described by Kara: a thick, roiling column of dust above a whirlpool of swirling sand.
A few steps away, Kara grabbed one of the crowbars, meaning to add her own shoulder to the effort. It seemed she had not been convinced by those earlier geologists’ explanation.
Safia should have guessed as much, especially with Kara’s dogged persistence about ancient Arabia, using her billions to delve into the past, to gather artifacts from all ages, to hire the best people, including Safia.