Cassandra noted the concern in Safia’s face. The woman feared for her countrymen’s safety. Good. “Order your men to shoot anyone who gets close.”
Safia tensed at her words.
Cassandra pointed to the map. “The sooner we solve this mystery, the sooner we’re out of here.” That should light a fire under the curator.
Safia stared sullenly at the map. “There must be some distance marker built into the artifact. Something we missed. A way to determine how far down this red line we must travel.”
Safia closed her eyes, rocking a bit. Then she suddenly stopped.
“What?” Cassandra asked.
“The spear,” she said, glancing to the door. “I noticed striations along its shaft, marks scored into it. I thought them merely decoration. But back in the ancient past, measurements were often recorded as notches on a stick.”
“So you think the number of marks could signify a distance?”
Safia nodded and began to stand. “I have to count them.”
Cassandra distrusted the woman. It would be easy to lie and lead them astray. She needed accuracy. “Kane, go out and count the number of marks.”
He grimaced but obeyed, slapping on his sodden ball cap.
After he left, Cassandra crouched by the map. “This has to be the final location. First the coast, then the mountain, now the desert.”
Safia shrugged. “You’re probably right. The number three is significant to ancient faiths. Whether it’s the trinity of the Christian God—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—or the ancient celestial trinity: the moon, the sun, and the morning star.”
Kane appeared in the doorway, shaking rain from his cap. “Sixty-nine.”
“Are you sure?”
He scowled at her. “Yes, I’m bloody damned sure.”
“Sixty-nine,” Safia said. “That has to be right.”
“Why?” Cassandra asked, turning her attention back to the curator as she bent over the map.
“Six and nine,” Safia explained to the map. “Multiples of three. Just like we were talking about. Sequential, too. A very magical number.”
“And here I always thought ‘sixty-nine’ meant something else,” Kane said.
Seemingly deaf to the man, Safia continued to work, measuring with a protractor and tapping a calculator. Cassandra watched over her.
“This is sixty-nine miles along the red line.” Safia circled the spot. “It ends up here in the desert.”
Cassandra knelt down, took the protractor, and rechecked her measurements. She stared at the red circle, noting the longitude and latitude in her head. “So this may be the location of the lost city?”
Safia nodded. She continued to stare at the map. “As best I can tell.”
Cassandra’s brow crinkled, sensing the woman was keeping something from her. She could almost see the woman calculating something in her head.
She grabbed Safia’s wrist. “What are you holding back—”
A shot rang out nearby, clipping away any further words.
It could be a misfire. It could be one of the bedouin shooting off his rifle. But Cassandra knew better. She swung around. “Painter…”
P AINTER’S FIRST shot went wild as he fell backward out the mosque’s doorway and onto the porch. A corner of a wall blasted away in a shower of plaster. Inside, the leopards parted, vanishing into the shadows of the mosque.
Painter flung himself to the side, sheltering behind the half wall of the porch. Stupid. He shouldn’t have shot. He had reacted out of instinct, self-preservation. That wasn’t like him. But some terror beyond the leopards had gripped him, as if something had jangled the deepest root of his brain.
And now he had given away the element of surprise.
“Painter!” The shout came from the direction of the tomb.
It was Cassandra.
Painter dared not move. Leopards prowled on the inside, Cassandra on the outside. The lady or the tiger? In this case, both meant death.
“I know you came for the woman!” Cassandra shouted into the rain. A rumble of thunder punctuated her words.
Painter remained quiet. Cassandra couldn’t know for sure in which direction his gunshot had come from. Sound traveled oddly among these mountainous hills. He imagined her hiding in the tomb, calling out from the doorway. She dared not move into the open. She knew he was armed, but she didn’t know where he was.
How could he use that to his advantage?
“If you don’t show yourself—arms up, hands empty—in the next ten seconds, I’m going to shoot the prisoner.”
He had to think quickly. To reveal himself now would only mean his death, along with Safia’s.
“I knew you’d come, Crowe! Did you really think that I’d believe you were heading to the border of Yemen?”
Painter flinched. He had sent out the e-mail only hours ago, planted with false information, delivered through a secure server to his boss. It had been a test balloon. As he feared, word had reached Cassandra intact. A sense of despair settled over him. That could only mean one thing. The betrayal of Sigma started at the very top.
Sean McKnight…his own boss…
Was that why Sean had paired him with Cassandra to begin with?
It seemed impossible.
Painter closed his eyes and took a deep breath, sensing his isolation.
He was now alone out here, cut off. He had no one to contact, no one to trust. Oddly, this thought only helped energize him. He felt a giddy sense of freedom. He had to rely on himself and his immediate resources.
That would have to be enough.
Painter reached into his ditty bag and palmed the radio transmitter.
Thunder growled, throatier, guttural. Rain fell harder.
“Five seconds, Crowe.”
All the time in the world…
He stabbed the transmitter’s button and rolled toward the stairs.
F ROM SEVENTY yards away, Omaha jolted as the twin explosions rocketed the two SUVs into the air, as bright as lightning strikes. The dark night went brilliant. The concussion squeezed his ears, thundered in his rib cage.
It was Painter’s signal. He had secured Safia.
A moment ago, Omaha had heard a single gunshot, terrifying him. Now flames and debris rained down across the parking lot. Men lay sprawled in the dirt. Two were on fire, bathed in burning gasoline.
It was time to move.
“Now!” Omaha shouted, but his yell sounded tinny in his own ears.
Still, rifle fire spat out of the forest to either side of Omaha. Additionally, a few flashes of muzzle fire sparked from a high shoulder that overlooked the parking lot, coming from a pair of Bait Kathir snipers.
Up at the tomb, two guards had been picking themselves off the ground. They suddenly jerked, bodies thrown backward. Shot.
Other guards sought cover, reacting with well-honed skill. These were no amateurs. They retreated over the compound walls, seeking fast cover.
Omaha lifted his binoculars.
Atop the hill’s plateau, the two burning SUVs lit the parking lot. The third vehicle had been shoved a few feet by the concussion. Pools of flaming gasoline dotted the dirt and hood, steaming in the rain. Painter was supposed to use the vehicle as an escape vehicle. He should’ve been there by now.
Where was he? What was he waiting for?
An ululating cry rose to Omaha’s right. Bells jangled. A dozen camels scattered uphill. Amid them ran more of the Bait Kathir. Cover fire rained from out of the tree line.
A few shots now answered. A camel bellowed, dropping to one knee, skidding in the dirt. An explosion ripped into the hillside off to Omaha’s left. A flash of fire and torn tree limbs, smoking leaves, and dirt flumed upward.
And then a new sound.
It came from the deep gorge to the right.
Five small helicopters rose into view, as swift as gnats and as tiny. One-man vehicles. Just blades, engine, and pilot. They looked like flying sleds. Spotlights swept the grounds, peppering the area with automatic gunfire.
Camels and men fled in all directions.
Omaha clenched a fist. The bitch had been expecting them. She’d had a backup force lying in wait, an ambush. How had she known?
Coral and Barak appeared at Omaha’s elbow. “Painter’s going to need help,” Coral hissed. “He can’t reach the escape vehicle now. It’s too exposed.”
Omaha glanced up to the lot, now a bloodbath of bodies and camels. From the forest, shots fired up at the helicopters, driving them higher. But they continued a zigzagging pattern over the compound, guarding it tightly.
The entire plan had fallen to shit.
But Safia was up there. Omaha was not leaving her again.
Coral freed her pistol. “I’m going in.”
Omaha grabbed her arm. Her muscles were cords of steel. He held tight, brooking no argument. “This time, we’re all going in.”
K ARA STARED down at the Kalashnikov rifle on her lap. Fingers twitching uncontrollably on the stock, she found it hard to concentrate. Her eyes felt too large for her head, threatening a migraine, while nausea lapped at her belly.
She dreamed of a little orange pill.
To her side, Clay fought to get the engine started. He cranked it again, but it failed to turn over. Danny sat in the backseat with the lone pistol.
The explosion had lit up the northern hills like a rising sun. It was Painter’s signal. Across the intervening two valleys, echoing spatters of gunfire sounded like fireworks.
“Piece of shit!” Clay swore, and struck his hand on the steering wheel.
“You’ve flooded it,” Danny said sourly from the back.
Kara stared out the passenger window. A ruddy glow persisted to the north. It had started. If all went well, the others would be racing downhill in one of the kidnappers’ SUVs. The remainder of the party would scatter into the hills. The Bait Kathir knew many paths through the forested mountains.
But something felt wrong.
Maybe it was just the edgy frazzle in Kara’s head. It grew more acute with each breath. Pain lanced behind her eyes. Even the light of the dashboard stabbed painfully bright.