Then he heard it. A song, being sung by a handful of voices, rose from the valley behind him. He glanced over a shoulder. Through his night-vision lenses, the world was cast in shades of green, but sharp shards of brilliance bloomed below. Torches and flashlights. He watched the Bait Kathir begin a slow, steady climb up the road, singing as they proceeded.
Painter swung his attention back to the tomb complex.
The guards had noted the stirring of the tribesmen and had slowly shifted positions to concentrate on the road. Two men fled into the brush flanking the road and continued down the switchback.
With the forces pulled away from the parked SUVs, Painter made his move. He swept from his hiding place, staying low, and raced across the thirty yards to the nearest truck. He held his breath as he ran, avoiding the noisy splash of puddles. No alarm was raised.
Reaching the first SUV, he ducked behind it while pulling open the oiled zipper of his ditty bag. He removed the prewired C4 packages, each wrapped in cellophane, and tucked one into the truck’s wheel well, near the gas tank.
Painter silently thanked Cassandra for the gift of the explosives. It was only fitting that he return what was hers.
Staying low, he hurried forward to the next SUV and planted the second package. He left the third truck untouched, only checked to make sure the keys had been left in the ignition. Such a precaution was a common practice in an ops situation. When the shit hit the fan, you didn’t want to have to hunt down the driver with the keys.
Satisfied, he checked the lot. The guards remained focused on the approaching band of camels and men.
Swinging around, he darted toward the low wall that enclosed the tomb complex. He kept the line of SUVs between him and the guards. Behind, he heard shouts rising from below…in Arabic…jovial arguing. The singing had ceased. A pair of camels bleated forlornly, accompanied by the jingle of harness bells. The bedouin were halfway up the hill.
He had to hurry.
Painter vaulted the low wall. It was only four feet high. He had chosen an isolated spot, behind the mosque. He landed with more of a thud than he intended, but the rain covered the noise with a grumble of thunder.
He paused. Light flowed down either side of the mosque, coming from the courtyard in front of the building. It shone blindingly bright through his night-vision goggles. He heard mumbled voices, but the rain drummed away any distinction. He had no clue how many were out there.
Crouching to keep his silhouette below the wall, he fled along the back of the mosque, keeping to the shadows. He came to a back door, checked the knob. Locked. He could force the door, but it would make too much noise. He continued on, looking for a window or another way inside. He would be too exposed if he attempted to reach the central courtyard directly from either side of the building. There was no shelter and too much light. He needed a way through the mosque, a way to get closer. To abduct Safia from under Cassandra’s nose, he would need to be close to the action.
He reached the far corner of the mosque. Still no windows. Who built a place with no windows in back? He stood in a small weedy vegetable garden. Two date palms guarded over it.
Painter stared up. One of the palms grew close to the mosque’s wall, shadowing the roof’s edge. The mosque’s roof was flat. If he could scale the palm…reach the roof…
He stared at the clumps of dates hanging beneath the fronds.
It would not be an easy climb, but he’d have to risk it.
With a deep breath, he jumped as high as he could, straddling his arms around the trunk, hitching his feet up on it. The bark offered no purchase. He promptly slid down, landing on his backside in the mud.
As he began to push back up, he spotted two things, both hidden behind a hedgerow flanking the back wall: an aluminum ladder…and a pale hand.
The hand did not move.
He crawled forward, parting the bushes. A ladder leaned against the back wall, along with a pair of clipping shears. Of course, there had to be a way to reach those hanging dates. He should have known to search for a ladder.
He moved to the figure stretched out on the ground.
It was an older Arab man, in a dishdasha robe embroidered with gold thread. He was most likely a member of the tomb’s staff, a caretaker of some sort. He lay in the dirt, unmoving. Painter pressed fingers to the man’s throat. He was still warm. A slow pulse beat under Painter’s fingers. Alive. Unconscious.
Painter straightened. Had Cassandra darted the man, as she had done to Clay? But why drag him back here and hide him? It made no sense, but he had no time to ponder the mystery.
He hauled out the ladder, checked to make sure he was still hidden from the guards, and propped it against the back wall of the mosque. The ladder reached just shy of the roofline.
He quickly scaled the rungs. As he climbed, he glanced over his shoulder. He saw that the guards had moved to block the road completely. Downslope, he spotted the lights and torches of the Bait Kathir clan as they clustered a short way down. They had stopped and begun to make camp. He heard occasional snatches of loud voices, all in Arabic, as the men kept up the pretext of nomadic travelers bunking down for the night.
Reaching the top of the ladder, Painter grabbed the edge of the roof and hauled himself up, hooking a leg over the lip and rolling out of sight.
Staying low, he hurried across the roof, aiming for the minaret near the front. Just a few feet above the roofline, an open balcony encircled the tower, where the call to prayer would be sung for the local worshipers. It was easy to grab the railing and vault over the balustrade.
Painter crouched and edged around the balcony. He had a bird’s-eye view of the courtyard. It was too bright for his night-vision gear, so he pushed the goggles up and studied the layout.
Across the way, the small set of ruins blazed with light.
A flashlight lay abandoned near the entrance to the neighboring tomb. Its shine illuminated a metal pole planted in the ground. It appeared to be surmounted by some sculpture, a bust by the looks of it.
Voices rose from below…coming from the squat tomb. Its door to the courtyard lay open. Lights glowed from inside.
He heard a familiar voice. “Show us on the map.”
It was Cassandra. Painter’s gut clenched, fiery and determined.
Then Safia answered her. “It makes no sense. It could be anywhere.”
Painter crouched lower. Thank God she was still alive. A surge of relief and renewed concern swept through him. How many people were with her? He spent a few minutes studying the shadows across the frosted windows. It was hard to say, but it didn’t appear that more than four were in the room. He watched the courtyard for additional guards. It remained quiet. Everyone seemed to be in the one building, out of the rain.
If he moved quickly…
As he began to swing away, a figure stepped out of the tomb doorway, a tall muscular man dressed in black. Painter froze, afraid of being spotted.
The man tucked the brim of a ball cap farther over his eyes and shoved into the rain. He crossed and knelt beside the pole.
Painter spied as the man reached to the bottom of the pole and ran his fingers slowly up its length. What the hell was he doing? Reaching the top of the shaft, the man stood and hurried back to the tomb, shaking out his ball cap.
“Sixty-nine,” he said as he disappeared inside.
“Are you sure?” Cassandra again.
“Yes, I’m bloody damned sure.”
Painter dared wait no longer. He ducked through the archway to reach the tower stairs that spiraled down into the mosque. He flipped his night-vision goggles in place and inspected the dark staircase.
It seemed quiet.
He pulled free his pistol and thumbed off the safety.
Wary of guards, he proceeded with one shoulder near the wall, gun pointed forward. He continued down the short spiral, sweeping the mosque’s prayer room as he descended. Highlighted in green, the room was empty, prayer mats stacked in back. He stepped out and moved toward the entryway in front.
The outer doors were open. He pushed the goggles back up and sidled to the entrance. He crouched to one side. A covered porch spread along the front. Directly ahead, three steps led down to the courtyard. To either side, a short stucco wall framed the porch, topped by arched openings.
Painter waited and checked the immediate area.
The courtyard remained empty. Voices murmured across the way.
If he dashed across to the tomb, hid outside the doorway…
Painter calculated in his head, unblinking. For this to work, speed was essential. He straightened, pistol held steady.
A slight noise froze him in place. It came from behind.
An electric thrill of terror lanced through him.
He wasn’t alone.
He swept around in a crouch, pistol pointing into the depths of the mosque. Out of the gloom, a pair of dark shadows stalked toward him, eyes glowing in the reflected light of the courtyard. Feral and hungry.
As silent as the night, the two cats closed in on him.
S HOW ME on the map,” Cassandra said.
The curator knelt on the floor of the tomb. She had spread out the same map as before. A straight blue line led from the first tomb on the coast to this one in the mountains. Now a second line, this one in red, branched away, heading northeast, crossing out of the mountains and into a great blank expanse of the desert, the Rub‘ al-Khali, the vast Empty Quarter of Arabia.
Safia shook her head, running a finger along the line out into the sands. “It makes no sense. It could be anywhere.”
Cassandra stared down at the map for several breaths. They were looking for a lost city in the desert. It had to be somewhere along that line, but where? The line crossed through the center of the vast expanse. It could be anywhere.
“We’re still missing something,” Safia said, leaning back on her heels. She rubbed her temples.
Kane’s radio buzzed, interrupting them. He spoke into his throat mike. “How many?” A long pause. “Okay, just keep a bloody close eye on them. Keep them away. Let me know if anything changes.”
Cassandra eyed him as he finished.
He shrugged. “Those sand rats we saw on the side of the road have returned. They’re setting up camp where we spotted them earlier.”