Safia stared at the closed trunk. All the bloodshed, all the deaths…all tied to her discovery. Again. “I won’t,” she mumbled.
“You will, or you will die.”
Safia shook her head and shrugged. She didn’t care. All that she loved had been taken from her. By this woman. She would never help.
“We will proceed with or without you. There are other experts in your field. And I can make your last hours very unpleasant if you refuse.”
This actually drew a weak laugh from her. Unpleasant? After all she had been through…Safia lifted her head and fully met the woman’s eyes for the first time, a place she had feared staring into until now. They weren’t cold like those of the man who had led her here. They sparked with a deep-seated anger…but also confusion. A frown thinned the woman’s lips.
“Do what you have to,” Safia said, realizing the power in her own despair. This woman could not touch her, harm her. They had taken too much last night. Left nothing that could threaten her. Both of them knew this truth at the same moment.
A flash of worry showed in the pinch of the other’s eyebrows.
She needs me, Safia knew with certainty. The woman had lied about having access to some other expert. She can’t get someone else. Steel flowed through Safia, firming her resolve, firing away the last of her drug-induced lassitude.
Once before, a woman had walked out of nowhere and into her life, a bomb strapped to her chest, passionate with religious fervor, ending lives without mercy. All aimed at Safia.
That woman had died in the explosion back in Tel Aviv. Afterward, Safia had never been able to confront her, to hold her responsible. Instead, she took the guilt upon herself. But it was even more than that. Safia had never been able to exact revenge for the deaths laid at her feet, to purge her guilt.
That was no longer true.
She faced her captor, never breaking eye contact.
She remembered wishing she could’ve stopped that woman in Tel Aviv, met her earlier, somehow prevented the explosion, the deaths. Could it be true about a source of antimatter? She pictured the explosion at the British Museum, the aftermath. What would someone like this woman do with such power? How many more would die?
Safia could not let that happen. “What is your name?”
The question startled her captor. The reaction caused a flash of pleasure to erupt in Safia, as bright as the sun, painful but satisfying.
“You said you’d tell me the truth.”
The woman frowned, but answered slowly. “Cassandra Sanchez.”
“What will you have me do, Cassandra?” Safia enjoyed the look of irritation in the other at the informal use of her name. “If I cooperate.”
The woman stood, anger flashing. “In an hour, we will leave for the tomb of Imran. Where the heart’s statue was found. Where you were planning to head with the others. That’s where we’ll start.”
Safia stood. “One last question.”
The woman stared at her quizzically.
“Who do you work for? Tell me that and I’ll cooperate.”
Before answering, the woman crossed to the door, opened it, and waved for her man Kane to collect the prisoner. She spoke from the doorway.
“I work for the U.S. government.”
C ASSANDRA WAITED until the museum curator had left and the door had been closed. She kicked a palm-frond-woven wastepaper basket across the room, scattering its contents across the plank floor. A Pepsi can rattled and rolled to a stop by the sofa. Fucking bitch…
She had to restrain herself from further outbursts, bottling back her anger. The woman had seemed broken. Cassandra had never imagined her to be so cunning there at the end. She had seen the shift in the other’s eyes, a glacial slide of power from her over to her prisoner. She had been unable to stop it. How had that happened?
She clenched her hands into fists, then forced her fingers to relax and shook her arms. “Bitch…” she mumbled to the room. But at least the prisoner was going to cooperate. It was a victory with which she would have to be satisfied. The Minister would be pleased.
Still, bile churned in her stomach, keeping her mood sour. The curator had more strength in her than Cassandra had imagined. She began to understand Painter’s interest in the woman.
Cassandra heaved out a perturbed sigh. His body had never been found. It left her feeling unmoored. If only—
A knock at the door interrupted her thoughts. John Kane pushed inside before she could even turn. Irritation flashed at his blatant invasion of her privacy, his lack of respect.
“Lunch was brought up to the prisoner,” he said. “She’ll be ready at fourteen hundred.”
Cassandra crossed to the table of electronic gear. “How did the subdermal function?”
“Registering perfectly. A good, strong tracking signal.”
Last night, after the prisoner had been drugged, they had implanted a subdermal microtransceiver between her shoulder blades. The same device Cassandra was supposed to have implanted on Zhang back in the States. Cassandra found it especially gratifying to use Painter’s own design in this matter. The microtransceiver would act as an electronic leash on the prisoner when they were on the streets. They would be able to track the curator for a ten-mile radius. Any attempt at escape would be quashed.
“Very good,” she said. “See that your men are all ready.”
“They are.” Kane bristled at her command, but his neck was also on the line if this mission failed.
“Any word from local authorities about the ship’s explosion last night?”
“CNN is blaming it on unknown terrorists.” He snorted at this last.
“What about survivors? Bodies?”
“Definitely no survivors. Salvage is just beginning to determine cause and body count.”
She nodded. “Okay, get your men ready. You’re dismissed.”
Rolling his eyes a bit, he swung away and left the room, pushing the door behind him, but he didn’t close it completely. She had to cross over and shove it the rest of the way. The latch clicked.
Just keep needling, Kane…payback’s a bitch.
Sighing her frustration, she moved back to the sofa. She sat down, on the edge. No survivors. She pictured Painter, remembering the first time he had succumbed to her subtle advances, her carefully orchestrated seduction. Their first kiss. He had tasted sweet, of the wine they’d had at dinner. His arms around her. His lips…his hands slowly sliding up the curve of her hip.
She touched herself where his palm had come to a rest and leaned back into the sofa, less resolved than a moment ago. She felt more anger than satisfaction after the night’s mission. More edgy. And she knew why. Until she saw Painter’s drowned corpse, his name on the list of the dead dragged from the sea, she would never know with certainty.
Her hand moved down along her hip, remembering. Could things have turned out differently between them? She closed her eyes, fingers clenching on her belly, hating herself for even pondering the possibility.
Damn you, Painter…
No matter what she might fantasize, it would’ve ended badly. That’s what the past had taught her. First her father…sneaking into her bed at night, starting when she was eleven, high on crack, promising, threatening. Cassandra had retreated to books, erecting a wall between her and the world. In books, she learned how potassium stops the heart. Undetectable. On her seventeenth birthday, her father was found dead in his La-Z-Boy. No one paid attention to one needle puncture among the others. Her mother suspected and feared her.
With no reason to stay at home, she joined the army at eighteen, finding pleasure in hardening herself, testing herself. Then the offer, to enter a Special Forces marksman program. It was an honor, but not everyone thought of it that way. At Fort Bragg, an enlisted man pushed her into an alley, intending to correct her. He held her down, ripped open her shirt. “Who’s your daddy now, bitch?” A mistake. Both the man’s legs were broken. They were never able to repair his genitalia. She was allowed to leave the service as long as she kept her mouth shut.
She was good at secrets.
Afterward, Sigma came calling, and the Guild. It became all about power. Another way to harden herself. She had accepted.
Then Painter…his smile, his calm…
Pain flowed into her. Dead or alive?
She had to know. While she knew better than to make any assumptions, she could make contingency arrangements. She shoved off the sofa and stalked to the equipment table. The laptop was open. She checked the feed from the microtransceiver planted on the prisoner and clicked the GPS mapping feature. A three-dimensional grid appeared. The tracking device, depicted by a rotating blue ring, showed her in her cell.
If Painter was out there, he’d come for her.
She stared at the screen. Her prisoner might think she had gained an upper hand earlier, but Cassandra took the longer view.
She had modified Painter’s subdermal transceiver, paired it with one designed by the Guild. It required amplifying the power cell, but once this was done, the modifications allowed Cassandra at any time to ignite an embedded pellet of C4, to take out the woman’s spine, killing her with a keystroke.
So if Painter was still out there, let him come.
She was ready to end all uncertainty.
E VERYONE COLLAPSED on the sand, bone-tired. The stolen flatbed truck steamed on the narrow coastal road behind them, its hood open. The stretch of white sand spread in an arc, bordered by rocky limestone cliffs that tumbled into the sea on either end. It was deserted, isolated from any village.
Painter stared south, trying to pierce the fifty or so miles that lay between him and Salalah. Safia had to be there. He prayed he wasn’t already too late.
Behind him, Omaha and the three Desert Phantoms argued in Arabic over the engine compartment of the truck.
The others sought the shade of the cliffs, collapsing and spent from the long night of rugged travel. The steel bed of the truck offered no cushioning against the bumps and ruts in the coastal road. Painter had caught snippets of sleep, but managed no real rest, just restless dreams.