Page 49

“Is that the place?” Cassandra stirred, eyes still narrowed.

Safia nodded, sensing that now was not the time to provoke her captor.

The SUV coasted down a final slope, circled the base of the mount, and then began a long climb toward the top, crawling up a switchback. A group of camels lounged beside the road as their vehicle neared the hilltop tomb. The beasts were all couched for a rest, kneeling down atop their knobby knees. A few men sat in the shadow of a baobab, tribesmen from the hills. The eyes of both camels and men followed the passage of the three trucks.

After a last switchback, the walled tomb complex appeared, consisting of a small beige building, a tiny whitewashed mosque, and a handsome garden courtyard of native shrubs and flowers. Parking was merely an open stretch of dirt in front, presently empty because of the lateness of the day.

As before, Kane settled the truck to a stop, then came around to open Safia’s door. She climbed out, stretching a kink from her neck. Cassandra joined them as the other two SUVs parked and the men unloaded. They were all dressed in civilian clothes: khakis and Levi’s, short-sleeved shirts, polos. But all the men wore matching windbreakers with the logo for Sunseeker Tours, all a size too big, hiding their holstered weapons. They quickly dispersed into a loose cordon near the road, feigning interest in the gardens or walls. A pair had binoculars and scanned the immediate area, turning in a slow circle.

Except for the road leading here, the remaining approaches were steep, almost vertical cliff faces. It would not be easy to flee on foot.

John Kane went among his men, nodding, bowing his head in last-minute instructions, then returned. “Where first?”

Safia motioned vaguely to the mosque and vault. From one tomb to another. She led the way through the opening in the wall.

“Place looks deserted,” Kane commented.

“There must be a caretaker somewhere about,” Safia said, and pointed to the steel chain that lay loose beside the entrance. No one had locked the place.

Cassandra signaled to two men. “Search the grounds.”

Obeying, the pair took off.

Cassandra led the way after them. Safia followed with Kane at her side. They entered the courtyard between the mosque and small beige vault. The only other feature of the complex was a small set of ancient ruins near the back, neighboring the tomb. An ancient prayer room, supposedly all that was left of Job’s original home.

Closer by, the door to the tomb lay open, unlocked like the gate.

Safia stared toward the doorway. “This may take some time. I don’t have the slightest idea where to begin to look for the next clue.”

“If it takes all night, then it takes all night.”

“We’re staying here?” Safia could not keep the surprise from her voice.

Cassandra wore a hard-edged expression. “For as long as it takes.”

Safia swept the courtyard with her gaze. She prayed the caretaker had been careless in locking the place up and had already left. She feared hearing a gunshot somewhere out there, marking his death. And what if other pilgrims came later? How many more would die?

Safia felt conflicted. The sooner Cassandra had what she wanted, the less chance that other innocent folk would die. But that meant helping her. Something she was loath to do.

With no other choice, she crossed the grounds and entered the crypt. She had an inkling of what needed to be found—but not where it might be hidden.

She stood a moment in the entryway. The crypt here was smaller than Nabi Imran’s tomb, a perfect square. The walls were painted white, the floor green. A pair of red Persian prayer rugs flanked the grave mound, which again was draped in silk shawls imprinted with passages from the Koran. Beneath the cloths was the bare dirt in which Job’s body was said to have been buried.

Safia made a slow circle around the mound. There was no marble headstone as there had been at Imran’s tomb, only a scattering of clay incense burners, scorched black from frequent use, and a small tray for visitors to leave gifts of coins. The room was otherwise unadorned, with the exception of a wall chart listing the names of the prophets: Moses, Abraham, Job, Jesus, and Muhammad. Safia hoped they wouldn’t need to track all these men’s tombs on the road to Ubar. She ended back at the entrance, none the wiser.

Cassandra spoke at the door. “What about that iron heart? Can we use it here?” As before, she had brought the silver case and had set it outside the door.

Safia shook her head, sensing that the heart would not be significant here. She exited the chamber, slipping between Cassandra and Kane.

As Safia stepped outside, she realized she had walked through the tomb in her shoes. She had also left her hair uncovered. She frowned.

Where was the caretaker?

She eyed the grounds, fearful for the man’s safety, again hoping he’d already left. The winds had kicked up, scurrying through the yard, bobbing the heads of a row of daylilies. The place appeared deserted, displaced in time.

Yet Safia sensed something…something she could not name, almost an expectation. Maybe it was the light. It cast everything—the neighboring mosque, the edges of the walls, even the hard-packed gravel of the garden path—in stark, flat detail, a silver negative held over a bright light. She sensed if she waited long enough, all would be revealed in full color and clarity.

But she didn’t have the time.

“What now?” Cassandra pressed, drawing her back.

Safia turned. Beside the entranceway, a small metal door was affixed to the ground. She bent to the handle, knowing what lay beneath it.

“What are you doing?” Cassandra asked.

“My job.” Safia let her disdain shine through, too tired to care if she provoked her captor. She tugged up the door.

Hidden below was a shallow pit, sixteen inches deep, dug from the stone. At the bottom was a pair of petrified prints: a large man’s bare footprint and a horse’s hoof.

“What’s all this?” Kane asked.

Safia explained, “If you remember my story of Job, he was afflicted with disease until God ordered him to strike his foot down and a healing spring was called forth.” She pointed into the stone pit, to the footprint. “That is supposedly Job’s footprint, where he struck the ground.”

She pointed to the hole in the ground. “And there is where the spring bubbled up, fed from a water source at the foot of the hill.”

“The water traveled uphill?” Kane asked.

“It wouldn’t be a miracle otherwise.”

Cassandra stared down. “What does the hoofprint have to do with the miracle?”

Safia’s brow crinkled as she stared at the hoof. It was stone, too. “There is no story associated with it,” she mumbled.

Still something tweaked her memory.

Petrified prints of a horse and a man.

Why did that sound familiar?

Throughout the region, there were countless stories of men or beasts turning to stone. Some even concerned Ubar. She shuffled through her memories. Two such stories, found in the Arabian Nights collection—“The Petrified City” and “The City of Brass”—related the discovery of a lost desert city, a place so evil it was damned and its inhabitants frozen in place for their sins, either petrified or turned to brass, depending on the story. It was a clear reference to Ubar. But in the second story, the treasure hunters hadn’t stumbled upon the condemned city by accident. There had been clues and signposts that led them to its gates.

Safia recalled the most significant signpost from this story: a sculpture of brass. It depicted a mounted horseman, who bore aloft a spear with an impaled head atop it. On the head, an inscription had been written. She knew the line from the story by heart, having done extensive research for Kara about Arabian mysteries:

O thou who comest unto me, if thou know not the way that leadeth to the City of Brass, rub the hand of the horseman, and he will turn, and then will stop, and in whatsoever direction he stoppeth, thither proceed, for it will lead thee to the City of Brass.

To Ubar.

Safia pondered the passage. A metallic sculpture turning with a touch to point to the next signpost. She pictured the iron heart, aligning itself like a compass needle atop the marble altar. The similarity was uncanny.

And now this.

She stared into the pit.

A man and a horse. Petrified.

Safia noted how both the foot-and hoofprint pointed in the same direction, as if the man were walking his mount. Was that the next direction? She frowned, sensing the answer was too easy, too obvious.

She lowered the lid and stood.

Cassandra kept at her side. “You’re onto something.”

Safia shook her head—lost in the mystery. She strode in the direction of the prints, walking where the long-dead prophet would have headed with his horse. She ended up at the entrance to the small archaeological site located behind the main tomb, separated from the newer building by a narrow alley. The ruins were a nondescript structure of four crumbling walls, no roof, outlining a small chamber ten feet across. It seemed once a part of a larger home, long gone. She walked through the threshold and into the interior.

While John Kane guarded the door, Cassandra followed her inside. “What is this place?”

“An ancient prayer room.” Safia stared up at the darkening skies as the sun sank away, then stepped over a kneeling rug on the floor.

Safia walked to where two of the walls had crude niches constructed into them, built to orient worshipers about the direction in which to pray. She knew the newer one faced toward Mecca. She crossed to the other, the older niche.

“Here is where the prophet Job prayed,” Safia mumbled, more to herself than Cassandra. “Always facing Jerusalem.”

To the northwest.

Safia stepped into the niche and faced backward, back the way she had come. Through the dimness, she made out the metal lid of the pit. The footsteps led right here.

She studied the niche. It was a solid wall of sandstone, quarried locally. The niche was a tumble of loose stone blocks, long deteriorated by age. She touched the inner wall.

Sandstone…like the sculpture where the iron heart had been found.

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