Sandstorm

Page 23

Loading...


And even though Safia recognized the illusory nature of London’s security, the city had become her home. She had friends, colleagues, a favorite bookstore, a theater that played old movies, a coffeehouse that served the perfect caramel cappuccino. Her life had become defined by the streets and trains of London.


And then there was Billie. Safia had been forced to foster her cat with Julia, a Pakistani botanist who rented the flat under hers. Before leaving, Safia had whispered promises in the tomcat’s ears, promises she hoped to keep.


Still, Safia worried, deeply, down to the marrow of her bones. Some of the anxiety was inexplicable, just an overwhelming sense of doom. But most was not. She stared around the cabin. What if they all ended up like Ryan, laid out in the city morgue, then buried in a cold cemetery as the first winter snow fell.


She simply could not handle that.


Even the possibility turned her intestines to ice. Her breathing grew pained at the thought. Her hands trembled. Safia fought the wave of panic, sensing its familiar roll. She concentrated on her breathing, focusing outward, away from her own frightened center.


Across the breadth of the cabin, the drone of the engines had driven everyone else to recline their seat backs, to catch what little sleep they could as they winged south. Even Kara had retreated to her private quarters—but not to nap. Muffled whispers reached to her through the door. Kara was preparing for their arrival, handling the niggling details. Did she ever even sleep anymore?


A noise drew Safia’s attention back around. Painter Crowe stood beside her chair, appearing as if by magic. He bore a tall tumbler of ice water in one hand and held out a tiny crystal snifter brimming with auburn liquid. Bourbon from the smell of it. “Drink this.”


“I don’t—”


“Just drink it. Don’t sip. Down it all.”


Her hand rose and she accepted the glass, more afraid it was going to spill than from any desire to accept his offering. They hadn’t spoken since that bloody night, except for a brief thank-you after her rescue.


He lowered into the seat next to her and motioned to the drink. “Go on.”


Rather than arguing, she lifted the glass and poured the contents down her throat. It burned all the way down, filling her nostrils, then settled with a fiery glow in her belly. She passed the glass back to him.


He traded it for the glass of water. “Soda water and lemon. Sip it.”


She did, holding the cup with both hands.


“Better?”


She nodded. “I’m fine.”


He stared at her, half leaning on one shoulder to face her. She kept her gaze averted, focusing on the length of his outstretched legs. He crossed his ankles, exposing his socks. Black argyles.


“It’s not your fault,” he said.


She stiffened. Was her guilt so plain? She felt a flush of embarrassment.


“It’s not,” he repeated. His tone of voice lacked the reassurance of the others who had sought to comfort her with platitudes: colleagues, friends, even the police psychologist. Instead, Painter’s voice was simply matter-of-fact.


“Ryan Fleming. He was at the wrong place, wrong time. Nothing more.”


Her eyes flicked to him, then away again. She felt the heat of him, like the bourbon, whiskey-warm and masculine. She found the strength to speak, to argue. “Ryan wouldn’t have been there…if…if I hadn’t been working so late.”


“Bullshit.”


The profanity from him startled her.


Painter continued, “Mr. Fleming was at the museum to supervise us. Coral and me. His presence that night had nothing to do with you or your discovery of the artifact. Do you blame us?”


A small part of her did. Still, Safia shook her head, knowing who was ultimately to blame. “The thieves were after the heart, my discovery.”


“And I’m sure it wasn’t the first attempted theft from the museum. I seem to recall a midnight burglary of an Etruscan bust just four months ago. The thieves cut through the roof.”


Safia kept her head bowed.


“Ryan was head of security, doing his job. He knew the risks.”


Though she was not entirely convinced, the tight knot in Safia’s gut loosened a bit. Then again, maybe it was just the alcohol.


His hand touched hers.


She flinched, but the American did not retreat. He cupped her hand between his palms, his touch warm after the cold glass of soda water. “Lady Kensington may not welcome our presence on this expedition, but I just wanted you to know that you aren’t alone. We’re in this together.”


Safia slowly nodded, then slid her hand from between his, uncomfortable by the intimacy, by the attentions of a man she hardly knew. Still, she slipped her hand into her other, preserving the warmth.


He leaned back, perhaps sensing her discomfort. His eyes glinted with easy amusement. “You just hang in there…I know from experience you’re darned good at that.”


Safia pictured herself dangling from the museum’s rooftop. How she must have looked! And unbidden, a smile traced the edges of her lips, the first since the horrible night.


Painter studied her, his expression seeming to say, There you go. He stood up. “I should try to get some sleep…so should you.”


Thinking such a thing might be possible now, she watched him stride silently across the carpeted cabin, returning to his seat. She lifted a finger and touched her cheek as her smile faded away. The warmth of the bourbon still glowed deep within her, helping her find her center. How could something so simple have brought her so much relief?


But Safia sensed it wasn’t truly the alcohol so much as the kindness. She had forgotten what that was like. It had been too long. Not since…not since…


12:13 P.M.


O MAHA HUNCHED low in his seat and kicked again at the divider that separated him from the taxi driver. His heels struck with no effect. It was like kicking steel. Bulletproof glass. He slammed an elbow against the side window in frustration.


Trapped. Kidnapped.


“They’re still following us,” Danny said, nodding behind them to the trailing BWM sedan, fifty yards back. Shadowy figures could be seen filling the front and rear seats.


The taxi rode through a residential area of stucco-and-stone homes, all painted in various shades of white. The sun’s reflection was blinding.


The other car kept pace behind them.


Omaha faced forward again. “Leyh?” he spat out in Arabic. “Why?”


The driver continued to ignore them, stoic and silent, wending his way through the narrow streets with deft skill.


“We need to get out of here,” Omaha said. “Take our chances in the streets.”


Danny had turned his attention to his door, staring at the side panel. “Ton coup-ongles? Omaha.” His brother was speaking French—clearly attempting to keep the driver from eavesdropping. Danny held out his hand, low, away from the direct view of the driver.


Omaha fished in a pocket. What did Danny think to accomplish with his coupe-ongles? Fingernail clippers? He asked in French, “You planning on clipping your way out of here?”


Danny did not look back, only cocked his head forward. “That bastard up there has us locked in by using the child protection feature of the car. Meant to keep kids from opening the back door.”


“So?”


“So we’re going to use the same safety features to get us out.”


Omaha pulled out the fingernail clipper from his pocket. It hung from his keys. He passed it to Danny, who palmed it.


“What are you—”


Danny shushed him, flipped open the clippers, and extracted the tiny nail file. “Magazines reported on the sensitivity of the Mercedes’s safety systems. Had to be careful even when removing the access panel.”


Access panel?


Before he could ask aloud, Danny turned to him. “How soon do you want to make a break for it?”


Right now would be good, Omaha thought. But then up ahead, a large open-air souk, or market, appeared. He motioned low. “Up there would be perfect. We could get lost in the shops. Shake loose the others following in the BMW.”


Danny nodded. “Be ready.” He leaned back, straightening. The nail file poised under three imprinted letters on the sill of the passenger window: SRS.


Safety restraint system.


“Air bags?” Omaha asked, forgetting to speak in French this time.


“Side air bags,” Danny concurred. “When any of the bags deploy, as a safety feature, all the locks disengage to allow outside emergency rescuers access to the vehicle.”


“So you’re going to—”


“We’re almost at the souk,” Danny hissed.


The driver slowed the Mercedes as it passed the entrance to the market, cautious of the bustle of midday shoppers.


“Now,” Omaha murmured.


Danny jabbed the nail file under the SRS panel and savagely dug around, like a dentist struggling with a stubborn molar.


Nothing happened.


The sedan slid past the souk, picking up speed.


Danny leaned in closer, swearing under his breath. A mistake. With a pop of a firecracker, the side air bag ejected, smacking Danny in the face and knocking his head back with its sucker punch.


An alarm sounded in the car. The driver braked.


Danny blinked, holding his nose. Blood dripped from under his fingers.


Omaha did not have time to check further. He reached past his brother and yanked the door handle. It fell open, the lock releasing. Thank God for fine German engineering.


Omaha shoved. “Out!” he yelled.


Dazed, Danny half rolled and half fell out of the backseat, Omaha pushing from behind. They landed on the pavement and tumbled a few feet. The slowing car slipped on ahead, then slammed to a stop.


Omaha scrambled to his feet, hauling Danny up with one arm, his strength fueled by fear. They were only steps from the market’s entrance.


But the BMW sped forward—then fishtailed as it braked at the market.


Omaha sprinted, Danny in tow.


Three doors popped open. Dark figures, masks pulled over their heads, jammed out. Pistols appeared in flashes of polished platinum. One rifle swung through the air.

Loading...
Tip: You can use left and right keyboard keys to browse between pages.