The electronic credit card machine chimed. The man gave him a thumbs-up. “How much time do you want?”
“Is it a highspeed connection?”
“DSL, mate. No other way to surf.”
“Thirty minutes should be enough.”
“Brilliant. Machine in the corner is free.”
Painter led Omaha over to the computer, a Gateway Pentium 4. Painter sat down, accessed the Internet connection, and typed in a long IP address.
“I’m accessing a Department of Defense’s server,” he explained.
“How is that going to help find Safia?”
He continued typing, fingers flying, screens flashed, refreshed, disappeared, changed. “Through the DOD, I can gain access to most proprietary systems under the National Security Act. Here we go.”
On the screen appeared a page with the Mitsubishi logo.
Omaha read over his shoulder. “Shopping for a new car?”
Painter used the mouse to maneuver through the site. He seemed to have full access, flashing past password-encrypted screens. “Cassandra’s group was traveling in SUVs. Mitsubishis. They did not make much effort to hide their backup vehicles. It didn’t take much to get close enough to read the VIN number off one in the alley.”
“VIN? The Vehicle Identification Number?”
Painter nodded. “All cars or trucks with GPS navigation systems are in constant contact with the orbiting satellites, keeping track of their location, allowing the driver to know where he is at all times.”
Omaha began to understand. “And if you have the VIN number, you can access the vehicle’s data remotely. Find out where they are.”
“That’s what I’m counting on.”
A screen appeared, asking for the VIN number. Painter typed it in, not looking at his fingers. He pressed the enter button, then leaned back. His hand had a slight shake in it. He clenched a fist in an attempt to hide it.
Omaha could read his mind. Had he remembered the number correctly? What if the kidnappers had disabled the GPS? So many things could go wrong.
But after a long moment, a digital map of Oman appeared, fed from a pair of geosynchronous satellites orbiting far above. A small box scrolled a series of longitude and latitude designation. The moving location of the SUV.
Painter sighed with relief. Omaha echoed it.
“If we could find where they were holding Safia…”
Painter clicked the zoom feature and zeroed in on the map. The city of Salalah appeared. But the tiny blue arrow marking the truck’s location was beyond its borders, heading deeper inland.
Painter leaned closer. “No…”
“Goddamnit. They’re leaving the city!”
“They must’ve found something at that tomb.”
Omaha swung away. “Then we have to go. Now!”
“We don’t know where they’re going,” Painter said, remaining at the computer. “I have to track them. Until they stop.”
“There is only one highway. The one they’re on. We can catch up.”
“We don’t know if they’ll go overland. They were in four-wheel-drives.”
Omaha felt pulled in two different directions: to listen to Painter’s practical advice, or to steal the first vehicle he could find and race after Safia. But what would he do if he reached her? How could he help her?
Painter grabbed his arm. Omaha balled a fist with the other.
Painter stared hard at him. “I need you to think, Dr. Dunn. Why would they be leaving the city? Where could they be going?”
“How the hell should—”
Painter squeezed his arm. “You’re as much an expert in this region as Safia. You know what road they’re taking, what lies along the way. Is there anything out there that the tomb here in Salalah might point toward?”
He shook his head, refusing to answer. They were wasting time.
“Goddamnit, Omaha! For once in your life, stop reacting and think!”
Omaha yanked his arm away. “Fuck you!” But he didn’t leave. He remained trembling in place.
“What is out there? Where are they going?”
Omaha glanced over to the screen, unable to face Painter, afraid he’d blacken the man’s other eye. He considered the question, the puzzle. He stared at the blue arrow as it wound away from town, up into the foothills.
What had Safia discovered? Where were they headed?
He ran through all the archaeological possibilities, all the sites peppered across the ancient land: shrines, cemeteries, ruins, caves, sinkholes. There were too many. Turn over any stone here and you discover a piece of history.
But then he had an idea. There was a major tomb near that highway, just a few miles off the road.
Omaha moved back to the computer. He watched the blue arrow coursing along the road. “There’s a turnoff about fifteen miles up the highway. If they take that turn, I know where they’re headed.”
“That’ll mean waiting a bit more,” Painter said.
Omaha crouched by the computer. “It seems we have no choice.”
P AINTER BOUGHT time on another computer. He left Omaha to monitor the SUV’s progress. If they could get a lead on where Cassandra was headed with Safia, they could get a head start. It was a slim hope.
Alone with his computer, Painter again accessed the DOD server. There was no reason to feign death any longer. He’d left enough of an electronic trail. Besides, considering the elaborate trap at the safe house, Cassandra knew he was alive…or at least, she was acting that way.
That was one of the reasons he needed to log back onto the DOD site.
He entered his private pass code and accessed his mail system. He typed in the address for his superior, Dr. Sean McKnight, head of Sigma. If there was anyone he trusted, it was Sean. He needed to apprise his commander of the events, let him know the status of the operation.
An e-mail window opened, and he typed rapidly, relating a thumbnail sketch of events. He stressed the role of Cassandra, the possibility of a mole in the organization. There was no way Cassandra could have known about the safe house, the electronic code for the equipment locker, without some inside information.
I cannot stress enough that matters at your end must be investigated. Success of this mission will depend on cutting off further flow of intelligence. Trust no one. We will attempt to rescue Dr. alMaaz this evening. We believe we know where Cassandra’s group is taking the doctor. It appears they are headed to
Painter paused, took a deep breath, then continued typing:
the Yemeni border. We are headed there right now in an attempt to stop the border crossing.
Painter stared at the letter. Numb at the possibility.
Omaha waved to him from the neighboring computer. “They made the turnoff on the side road!”
Painter hit the send button. The letter vanished, but not his guilt.
“C’mon.” Omaha crossed to the exit. “We can close the distance.”
Painter followed. At the door, he gave one final glance back to his workstation. He prayed he was wrong.
13 Footprints of the Prophet
DECEMBER 3, 5:55 P.M.
S AFIA STARED out the window as the truck wound up a switchback through the mountainous hills. After they left the highway, asphalt had given way to gravel, which in turn disintegrated into a rutted red dirt path. They proceeded slowly, cautious of the deep gorge that shouldered the road to the left.
Below, the valley flowed away in deepening shades of lush green, disappearing into shadows near the bottom as the sun set to the west. A scatter of baobab trees dotted the slope, monstrous trees with tangled, rooted trunks that seemed more prehistoric than specimens of the modern world. Everywhere the land rolled in shades of emerald, striped in shadows. A waterfall glistened between two distant hills, its cataracts sparkling in the last rays of the sun.
If Safia squinted, she could almost imagine she was back in England.
All the lushness of the high country was due to the annual monsoon winds, the khareef, that swept the foothills and mountains in a continual misty drizzle from June through September. Even now, as the sun set, a steady wind had begun to blow, buffeting the truck. The sky overhead had darkened to slate gray, canopied with frothy clouds that brushed the higher hills.
The radio had been tuned to a local news channel during the ride up here. Cassandra had been listening for reports on the ongoing salvage operation on the Shabab Oman. Still, no survivors had been found, and the seas were again kicking up with the approach of a new storm system. But what dominated the weather reports was news of the fierce sandstorm continuing its sweep south across Saudi Arabia, heading like a freight train for the desert of Oman, leaving a swath of destruction.
The wild weather matched Safia’s mood: dark, threatening, unpredictable. She felt a force building inside her, below her breastbone, a tempest in a bottle. She remained tense, tingling. It reminded her of an impending anxiety attack, but now there was no fear, only determined certainty. She had nothing, so could lose nothing. She remembered her years in London. It had been the same. She had sought comfort by becoming nothing, cutting herself off, isolating herself. But now she had truly succeeded. She was empty, left with only one purpose: to stop Cassandra. And that was enough.
Cassandra remained lost in her own thoughts, only occasionally leaning forward to speak in hushed tones to John Kane up front. Her cell phone had rung a few minutes ago. She had answered it tersely, turning slightly away, speaking in a whisper. Safia heard Painter’s name. She had tried to eavesdrop, but the woman kept her voice too low, blocked by the babble of the radio. Then she had hung up, made two other calls, and sunk into a palpably tense silence. Anger seemed to radiate in waves from the woman.
Since then, Safia kept her attention on the countryside, searching for places where she might hide, mapping the terrain in her head, just in case.
After another ten minutes of slow trekking, a larger hill appeared, its top still bathed in light. The golden bell of a short tower glinted in the sun.
Safia straightened. Job’s tomb.