12:45 P.M.

FINAL APPROACH

THELEARcircled over the water, preparing for its descent into Seeb International Airport. Safia stared out the small window.

The city of Muscat spread out below her. It was really three cities, separated by hills into distinct districts.

The oldest section, called, cleverly enough, Old Town, appeared as the jet banked to the right. Stone walls and ancient buildings lay nestled up against a sweeping crescent bay of blue water, its white sand shoreline dotted by date palms. Surrounded by the old gated city walls, the town housed the Alam Palace and the dramatic towering stone forts of Mirani and Jalai.

Memories overlay all she saw, as tenuous as the reflections in the smooth waters of the bay. Events long forgotten came alive: running the narrows with Kara, her first kiss in the shadow of the city walls, the taste of cardamon candy, visiting the sultan’s palace, all atremble and in a new thob dress.

Safia felt a chill that had nothing to do with the cabin’s air-conditioning. Home and homeland blurred in her mind. Tragedy and joy.

Then as the plane angled toward the airport, Old Town vanished, replaced by the Matrah section of Muscat-and the city’s port. One side of the docks moored modern hulking ships, the other the slender single-masted dhows, the ancient sailing ships of Arabia.

Safia stared at the proud line of wooden masts and folded sails, in stark contrast to the behemoths of steel and diesel. More than anything else, this typified her homeland: the ancient and the modern, mixed together, but forever separate.

The third section of Muscat was the least interesting. Inland from the old town and port, stacked against the hills, rose Ruwi, the modern business center, the commercial headquarters of Oman. Kara’s corporate offices were there.

The plane’s course had mapped out Safia and Kara’s life, from Old Town to Ruwi, from riotous children playing in the streets to lives confined by corporate offices and dusty museums.

Now the present.

The jet dropped toward the airport, aiming for the stretch of tarmac. Safia leaned back into her seat. The other passengers gaped out the windows.

Clay Bishop sat across the cabin. The grad student bobbed his head in sync with the current digitalized tract on his iPod. His black glasses kept slipping down his nose, requiring him to push them back up repeatedly. He wore his typical uniform: jeans and a T-shirt.

Ahead of Clay, Painter and Coral leaned together, staring out a single window. They spoke in hushed tones. She pointed, and he nodded, fiddling with a tiny cowlick atop his head that had formed while he napped.

Kara folded back the door to her private suite and stood in the threshold.

“We’re landing,” Safia said. “You should sit down.”

Fingers flicked away her concern, but Kara crossed to the empty seat beside her and dropped heavily into it. She didn’t buckle her seat belt.

“I can’t ring up Omaha,” she said as introduction.

“What?”

“He’s not answering his mobile. Probably doing it on purpose.”

That wasn’t like Omaha, Safia thought. He could be dodgy sometimes, but he was all business when it came to the job. “He’s surely just busy. You left him hanging out to dry. You know how touchy and territorial the cultural attachйs can be in Muscat.”

Kara huffed out her irritation. “He’d better be waiting at the airport.”

Safia noted how large her pupils were in the bright light. She looked both exhausted and wired at the same time. “If he said he’d be there, he will be.”

Kara cocked a questioning eyebrow at her. “Mr. Reliable?”

Safia felt a pang, her gut wrung in two different directions. Reflex made her want to defend him, as she had done in the past. But memory of the ring she had placed back in his palm constricted her throat. He had not understood the depth of her pain.

Then again who could?

She had to force her eyes not to glance at Painter.

“You’d better buckle up,” she warned Kara.

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