Cassandra stepped next to her. “What do you know that you’re not telling us?” A pistol pressed into Safia’s side, under her rib cage. Safia had not even seen the woman pull it free.
Keeping her hand flat against the wall, Safia turned to Cassandra. It was not the pistol that made her speak, but her own curiosity.
“I need a metal detector.”
A S NIGHT fell, Painter turned off the main highway onto the gravel side road. A green sign with Arabic lettering stated JEBAL EITTEEN 9 KM. The truck bounced from the asphalt surface to gravel. Painter didn’t slow down, spitting a shower of stones onto the highway. Gravel rattled in the wheel wells, sounding distinctly like automatic fire. It heightened his anxiety.
Omaha sat in the shotgun seat, his window rolled half down.
Danny sat behind his brother in the backseat. “Remember, this piece of crap doesn’t have four-wheel drive.” His teeth rattled as much as the vehicle.
“I can’t risk slowing down,” Painter called back. “Once nearer, I’ll have to go more cautiously. With the lights off. But for now we have to push it.”
Omaha grunted his approval.
Painter punched the accelerator as they reached a steep incline. The vehicle fishtailed. Painter fought it steady. It was not a vehicle suited for backcountry trekking, but they had no other choice.
Upon returning from the Internet Café, Painter had found Captain al-Haffi waiting with a 1988 Volkswagen Eurovan. Coral was examining his other purchases: three Kalashnikov rifles, and a pair of Heckler & Koch 9mm handguns. All traded for the sultan’s stallion. And while the weapons were sound, with plenty of extra ammunition, the van would not have been Painter’s first choice. The captain hadn’t known they’d be leaving the city. And with time running short, they had no time to seek alternate transportation.
Still, at least, the van could carry all of them. Danny, Coral, and the two Desert Phantoms sat crammed in the backseat, Kara, Clay, and Captain al-Haffi in the extra third row. Painter had attempted to dissuade them all from accompanying him, but he had little time to state his case. The others wanted to come, and they unfortunately knew too much. Salalah was no longer safe for any of them. Cassandra could dispatch assassins at any time to silence them. There was no telling where she had eyes, and Painter didn’t know whom to trust. So they stuck together as a group.
He bounced the van around a tight switchback. His headlights swung about and blinded a large animal standing in the road. The camel stared at the van as Painter slammed on the brakes. They skidded to a stop.
The camel glanced down at the vehicle, eyes shining red, and slowly sauntered the rest of the way across the road. Painter had to creep onto the shoulder in order to edge around it.
Once past, he accelerated—only to brake again in another fifty feet. A dozen more camels filled the road, ambling along in no order, free-roaming.
“Beep your horn,” Omaha said.
“And alert Cassandra’s group that someone’s coming?” Painter said with a scowl. “Someone will have to get out and scatter a path through them.”
“I know camels,” Barak said, and slid out.
As soon as his feet hit the gravel, a handful of men stepped out from behind boulders and shadowed alcoves. They pointed rifles at the van. Painter caught movement in his rearview mirror. There were another two men back there. They wore dusty ankle-length robes and dark headdresses.
“Bandits,” Omaha spat, reaching to his holstered pistol.
Barak stood beside the open van door. He kept his palms bared, away from his weapon. “Not bandits,” he whispered. “They’re the Bait Kathir.”
Bedouin nomads could distinguish various tribes at a distance of a hundred yards: from the way they tied their headcloths, to the colors of robes, to the saddles of their camels, how they carried their rifles. While Painter did not have this ability, he had educated himself on all the local tribes of southern Arabia: Mahra, Rashid, Awamir, Dahm, Saar. He knew the Bait Kathir, too, tribesmen of the mountains and desert, a reclusive, insular group prone to taking affront at the least slight. They could be dangerous if provoked, and very protective of their camels, more so even than they were of their wives.
One of the tribesmen stepped forward, a man worn by sun and sand into just bone and skin. “Salam alaikum,” he muttered. Peace be on you. They were strange words coming from someone still holding a weapon aimed at them.
“Alaikum as salam,” Barak responded, palms still bared. On you be peace. He continued in Arabic. “What is the news?”
The man lowered his rifle a fraction. “What is the news?” was the standard question all tribesmen asked upon meeting. It could not be left unanswered. A flurry of words passed between Barak and the tribesman: information about the weather, of the sandstorm threatening the desert, of the predicted megastorm to come, of the many bedouin fleeing the ar-rimal, the sands, of the hardships along the way, of the camels lost.
Barak introduced Captain al-Haffi. All desert folk knew of the Phantoms. A murmur passed among the remaining men. Rifles were finally slung up.
Painter had vacated the van and stood to the side. An outsider. He waited for the ritual of introductions and news to be shared. It seemed, if he followed the discourse correctly, that Sharif’s great-grandmother had worked on the film Lawrence of Arabia with the leader of this band’s grandfather. With such a bond, an air of celebration began to arise. Voices grew more excited.
Painter sidled to Captain al-Haffi. “Ask them if they saw the SUVs.”
The captain nodded, bringing a serious tone to his voice. Nods answered him. Their leader, Sheikh Emir ibn Ravi, reported that three trucks had passed forty minutes ago.
“Did they come back down?” Painter urged, speaking now in Arabic, slowly infiltrating the conversation. Perhaps his own brown skin, ambiguously ethnic, helped alleviate their suspicion of his foreignness.
“No,” the sheikh answered, waving a hand toward the rising lands. “They stay at the tomb of Nabi Ayoub.”
Painter stared up the dark road. So they were still up there. Omaha stood by the open passenger door. He had heard the exchange.
“Enough already,” he urged. “Let’s get going,”
The Bait Kathir had begun to round up their camels and shoo them off the road. The beasts protested with gurgles and angry belches.
“Wait,” Painter said. He turned to Captain al-Haffi. “How much money do you have left from the sale of the stallion?”
The man shrugged. “Nothing but a handful of rials.”
“Enough to buy or rent a few camels?”
The captain’s eyes narrowed. “You want the camels. For what? Cover?”
“To get closer to the tomb. A small group of us.”
The captain nodded and turned to Sheikh Emir. They spoke rapidly, two leaders conferring.
Omaha stepped to Painter. “The van is faster.”
“On these roads, not much faster. And with the camels, we should be able to get very close to the tomb without alerting Cassandra’s group. I’m sure she noted these tribesmen on her way up. Their presence will not be unexpected. Just a part of the natural landscape.”
“And what do we do when we’re up there?”
Painter already had a plan in mind. He told Omaha the gist of it. By the time he was done, Captain al-Haffi had reached some agreement with the sheikh.
“He will lend us his camels,” the captain said.
“All of them.” The captain answered Painter’s look of surprise. “It is unseemly for a Bedu to refuse the request of a guest. But there is a condition.”
“What is that?”
“I told them of our wish to rescue a woman from the group up at the tomb. They are most agreeable to help. It would be an honor to them.”
“Plus they like to shoot their guns,” Barak added.
Painter was reluctant to put them in danger.
Omaha did not share his hesitation. “They do have weapons. If your plan is going to work, the more firepower the better.”
Painter had to agree.
With Painter’s acquiescence, the sheikh broke into a broad grin and rallied his men. Saddles were cinched, camels were dropped into crouched positions for easy mounting, and ammunition was spread around like party favors.
Painter pulled his own group together, pooled in the headlights of the Eurovan. “Kara, I want you to stay behind with the van.”
She opened her mouth to protest, but it was a weak effort. Her face shone with a film of sweat, despite the wind and chill of the night.
Painter cut her off. “We’ll need someone to hide the van off the road, then bring it forward on my signal. Clay and Danny will stay with you with a rifle and a pistol. If we should fail, and Cassandra flees with Safia, you’ll be the only ones able to track them.”
Kara frowned, hard lines creasing her face, but she nodded. “You’d better not fail,” she said fiercely. But even this outburst seemed to tax her.
To the side, Danny argued with his brother, wanting to come along.
Omaha stood firm. “You don’t even have your goddamn eyeglasses. You’ll just end up shooting me in the ass by mistake.” Still, he placed a hand on his younger brother’s shoulder. “And I’m counting on you here. You’re the last line against trouble. I can’t risk losing her again.”
Danny nodded and backed down.
Clay had no objection to being left behind. He stood a step away, a burning cigarette in his fingers. His eyes stared at nothing, almost glazed over. He was nearing the end of his ability to handle all this.
With matters decided, Painter turned to the waiting camels. “Mount up!”
Omaha strode beside him. “Have you ever ridden a camel?”
“No.” Painter glanced at him.
For the first time in the past day, Omaha wore a wide grin as he stepped away. “This’ll be fun.”
B ATHED IN the beams of two floodlights, Cassandra watched as one of Kane’s men waved the metal detector over the back wall of the niche. Just right of center in the wall, the detector buzzed with discovery. She tightened and turned to Safia. “You knew something would be found. How?”
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