As the truck bounced onto the coastal road, Painter studied the stallion. White is good luck. Painter hoped so…they would need every bit of it.
DECEMBER 3, 12:22 P.M.
S AFIA WOKE in a cell, disoriented and nauseated. The dark room spun and jittered as she moved her head. A groan bubbled up from her core. A high barred window let in stabbing shafts of light. Too bright, searing.
A wave of queasiness rolled over her.
She turned on her side and dragged her head, too heavy for her shoulders, over the edge of the cot. Her stomach clenched, then clenched again. Nothing. Still, she tasted bile as she collapsed back down.
She took deep breaths, and slowly the walls stopped their spin.
She became aware of the sweat covering her body, pasting the thin cotton shift to her legs and chest. The heat stifled. Her lips felt cracked, parched. How long had she been drugged? She remembered the man with the needle. Cold, tall, dressed in black. He had forced her to change out of her wet clothes aboard the boat and into the khaki shift.
Carefully, Safia stared around her. The room was stone walls, plank flooring. It stank of fried onions and dirty feet. The cot was the only furnishing. A single door of stout oak stood closed. No doubt locked.
She lay unmoving for several more minutes. Her mind floated, half deadened by the aftereffects of the drug they had given her. Still, deep inside her, panic coiled around her heart. She was alone, captured. The others dead. She pictured flames in the night, reflecting off storm-swept water. The memory had burned into her like a camera flash in the dark. All red, painful, too bright to blink away. Her breathing tightened, throat closed down. She wanted to cry but couldn’t. If she started, she would never stop.
Finally, she pushed up and rolled her feet to the floor. It was not with any determination beyond the heavy pressure in her bladder. Biological need, a reminder that she lived. She stood, unsteady, a hand against the wall. The stones were welcoming cool.
She stared up at the barred window. From the heat, the angle of the sun, it had to be close to midday. But which day? Where was she? She smelled the sea and the sand. Still in Arabia, she was sure. She crossed the room. The burning in her bladder sharpened.
She hobbled to the door, lifted an arm. Would they merely drug her again? She fingered the purple bruise at the angle of her left arm, where the needle had dug in. She had no choice. Need outweighed caution. She pounded on the door and called out hoarsely, “Hello! Can anyone hear me?” She repeated her words in Arabic.
No one answered.
She knocked harder, stinging her knuckles, an ache flaring between her shoulder blades. She was weak, dehydrated. Had they left her here to die?
Finally, footsteps responded. A heavy bar scraped against wood. The door swung open. She found herself facing the same man as before. He stood a half a foot taller than she, looming in a black shirt and scuffed, faded jeans. She was surprised to find his head shaved. She didn’t remember that. No, he had been wearing a black cap then. The only hair on his head were his dark eyebrows and a small tuft at his chin. But she did not forget those eyes, blue and cold, unreadable, passionless. A shark’s eyes.
She shivered as he stared at her, the heat suddenly gone from the room.
“You’re up,” he said. “Come with me.”
She heard a trace of an Aussie accent, but one blunted by years away from home. “Where…I have to use the lavatory.”
He frowned at her and strode away. “Follow me.”
He led her to a small hall bath. It had a squat toilet, curtainless shower, and a small stained washbasin with a leaking tap. Safia ducked inside. She reached a hand to the door, unsure if she would be allowed privacy.
“Don’t be long,” he said, pulling the door the rest of the way shut.
Alone, she searched the room for some weapon, some means of escape. Again the lone window was barred. But she could at least see out of this one. She hurried forward and stared out at the small township below, nestled against the sea. Palm trees and white buildings spread between her and the water. Off to the left, a flutter of rainbow-colored tarps and awnings marked off a market souk. And in the distance, green patches beyond the city defined banana, coconut, sugarcane, and papaya plantations.
She knew this place.
The Garden City of Oman.
It was the capital city of the Dhofar Province, the original destination of the Shabab Oman. It was a lush region, green, with waterfalls and rivers feeding the pastures. Only in this section of Oman did the monsoon winds bless the land with sweeps of rain, a regular light drizzle, and an almost continual mist over the nearby coastal mountains. It was a weather system like no other in the Gulf, one that allowed for the growth of the rare frankincense tree, a source of great wealth in ancient times. The riches here had led to the founding of the legendary cities of Sumharam, Al-Balid, and lastly, the lost city of Ubar.
Why had her kidnappers taken her here?
She crossed to the toilet and quickly relieved herself. Afterward she washed her hands and stared at her reflection in the mirror. She appeared a shadow of herself, gaunt, tense, hollow-eyed.
But she was alive.
A knock on the door. “ ’Bout done in there?”
With no other recourse, Safia stepped back to the door and opened it.
The man nodded. “This way.”
He strode off, not even glancing back, so sure of his control of the situation. Safia followed. She had no other choice, but her legs dragged, leaden with despair. She was marched down a short flight of stairs, along another hall. Other men, hard-eyed, rifles over shoulders, lounged behind doorways or stood guard. They finally reached a tall door.
The man knocked and pushed open the door.
Safia found a room furnished spartanly: a threadbare rug with the color long bleached out of it by the sun, a single sofa, two stiff wooden chairs. A pair of fans buzzed, stirring the air. A table to the side was weighted down by an array of weapons, electronic equipment, and a laptop computer. A cable trailed out the neighboring window to a palm-size satellite dish pointed at the sky.
“That’ll be all, Kane,” the woman said, stepping away from the computer.
“Captain.” The man nodded and left, closing the door.
Safia considered lunging for one of the guns on the table, but knew she would not get within a step of them. She was too weak, still wobbly.
The woman turned to her. She wore black slacks, a gray T-shirt, and over that, a loose long-sleeved shirt, unbuttoned, cuffs rolled to elbows. Safia noted the black butt of a holstered pistol at her side.
“Please sit,” she instructed, and pointed to one of the wooden chairs.
Safia moved slowly, but obeyed.
The woman remained standing, pacing behind the sofa. “Dr. al-Maaz, it seems your reputation as an expert in the antiquities of the region has come to the attention of my superiors.”
Safia barely understood her words. She found herself staring at the woman’s face, her black hair, her lips. This was the woman who had tried to kill her in the British Museum, orchestrated the death of Ryan Fleming, murdered all her friends last night. Faces, images shuffled through her mind, distracting her from the woman’s words.
“Are you listening, Dr. al-Maaz?”
She couldn’t answer. She searched for evil in the woman, for the capability for such cruelty and savagery. Some mark, some scar, some understanding. There was nothing. How could that be?
A heavy sigh escaped the woman. She crossed around the sofa and sat down, leaning forward, elbows on her knees. “Painter Crowe,” she said.
The unexpected name startled Safia, a flash of anger burning through her.
“Painter…he was my partner.”
Shock and disbelief rattled Safia. No…
“I see I have your attention.” The smallest smile of satisfaction shadowed her lips. “You should know the truth. Painter Crowe was using you. All of you. Needlessly putting you in harm’s way. Keeping secrets.”
“You’re lying,” she finally croaked out past her parched lips.
The woman lounged back into the sofa. “I have no need to lie. Unlike Painter, I’ll tell you the truth. What you stumbled into, discovered by misfortune and chance, holds the possible key to untold power.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I’m talking about antimatter.”
Safia frowned at the impossibility of what she was hearing. The woman continued explaining about the explosion at the museum, radiation signatures, the search for the primary source of some stable form of antimatter. Despite her wish to deny it all, much of it began to make sense. Certain statements by Painter, some of his gear, the pressure by the U.S. government.
“The meteor fragment that exploded at the museum,” the woman continued. “It was said to guard the true gates of the lost city of Ubar. It is there that you will lead us.”
She shook her head, more in denial. “This is all preposterous.”
The woman stared a moment longer, stood, and walked across the room. She dragged something from under the table and grabbed a device from among the stacked equipment. As she returned, Safia recognized her own suitcase.
The woman flipped the trunk’s clasps and swung open the lid. The iron heart lay nestled within molded black Styrofoam. It glowed ruddy in the bright sunlight. “This is the artifact you discovered. Inside a statue dating back to 200 B.C. With the name of Ubar written on its surface.”
Safia slowly nodded, surprised at the woman’s intimate knowledge. She seemed to know everything about her.
The woman leaned down and passed the handheld device over the artifact. The device crackled and popped, sounding not unlike a Geiger counter. “It gives off an extremely low-level radiation signature. Barely detectable. But it’s the same as the exploded meteor. Did Painter ever tell you that?”
Safia remembered Painter testing the artifact with a similar device. Could it be true? Again despair settled to the pit of her stomach, a cold stone.
“We need you to continue your work for us,” the woman said, resealing the trunk. “To guide us to the lost gates of Ubar.”