Painter found his eyes on the lump of meteoric iron resting atop Admiral Rector’s desk. He knew that the upper atmosphere of the Earth was under constant bombardment by antimatter particles in cosmic rays, but they were immediately annihilated when they came in contact with atmospheric matter. It had been postulated that there might be asteroids or comets in the vacuum of space composed of antimatter, left over from the Big Bang.
He began to connect some of the dots in his head. “The explosion at the British Museum…?”
“We’ve tested some of the debris from the blasted gallery,” McKnight said. “Metal and wood.”
Painter remembered his boss’s statement upon arriving here. It’s been confirmed. A cold lump formed in the pit of his belly.
McKnight continued, “The blast debris bears a low-level radiation signature that matches Tunguska.”
“Are you saying that the explosion at the British Museum was caused by antimatter annihilation? That that meteor is actually antimatter?”
Admiral Rector rolled the blasted fragment back and forth with a finger. “Of course not. This is ordinary meteoric iron. Nothing more.”
“Then I don’t understand.”
McKnight spoke up. “The radiation signature can’t be ignored. It’s too exact to be random. Something happened. The only explanation is that somehow the meteor had antimatter stored within it, in some unknown stabilized form. The electrical discharge by the ball lightning destabilized it and created a cascade effect with the resulting explosion. Whatever antimatter had been present was consumed during the blast.”
“Leaving only this shell behind,” the admiral said, nudging the stone.
Silence settled over the room. The implications were enormous.
Admiral Rector picked up the chunk of iron. “Can you imagine the significance if we’re right? A source of almost unlimited power. If there is some clue as to how this is possible—or better yet, a sample—it must not fall into other hands.”
Painter found himself nodding. “So what is the next step?”
Admiral Rector stared hard at him. “We can’t let word of this connection leak out, not even to our own allies. Too many ears are connected to too many mouths.” He nodded for Dr. McKnight to continue.
His boss took a deep breath. “Commander, we want you to lead a small team over to the museum. Your cover has already been established as American scientists specializing in lightning research. You’re to make contacts when and where you can. While there, your objective is simply to keep your ears to the ground and to note any new discoveries that might be made out there. We’ll continue research here with all departments mobilized. If any further investigation on site is needed in London, your team will be our go-to people.”
There was a flicker of eye contact between Admiral Rector and Dr. McKnight, an unspoken question.
Painter felt an icy finger trace his spine.
The admiral nodded again.
McKnight turned to face Painter. “There is one more factor here. We may not be the only ones working this angle.”
“What do you mean?”
“If you remember, the director mentioned a pair of researchers from the Defense Sciences Office over in London.”
“The ones who investigated the ball-lightning sighting.”
“Correct.” Again a flicker of contact between Painter’s two superiors. Then his boss fixed him with a hard stare. “Four hours ago, they were found shot, execution style, in their room. The place was ransacked. Several items were stolen. The Metropolitan Police are considering it a robbery homicide.”
Admiral Rector stirred behind his desk. “But I never could stomach coincidences. They give me heartburn.”
McKnight nodded. “We don’t know if the murders are connected to our line of investigation, but we want you and your team to proceed as if they were. Watch each other’s backs and keep alert.”
“In the meantime,” the admiral said, “let’s just hope they don’t discover anything significant out there until you get across the Pond.”
09:48 P.M. GMT
Y OU HAVE to remove the heart.”
Safia glanced up from her measurements with a tiny silver caliper. The Arched Room of the museum lay dark all around. There were only the three of them left: Kara, Clay, and herself. Edgar and the inspector had left twenty minutes ago. It seemed the exacting measurements and notations of minutiae had not held their interest, diminishing the momentary wonder of the statue’s origin as a funerary sculpture for the tomb of the Virgin Mary’s father.
Safia returned to her measurements. “I’ll remove the heart eventually.”
Safia studied her friend closer. Kara’s face was limned in the halogen spots. The stark light bled all the color from her face, but Safia noted the silvery sheen to her skin, the wide cast to her pupils. She was high. Amphetamines again. Three years ago, Safia had been one of the few who had known Lady Kensington’s monthlong “vacation abroad” had actually been a trip through rehab in an exclusive private clinic down in Kent. How long had she been using again? She glanced to Clay. Now was not the time to confront her.
“What’s the hurry?” she asked instead.
Kara’s eyes darted around the room. Her voice lowered. “Before the inspector arrived, I noted something. I’m surprised you haven’t seen it yet.”
Kara leaned over and pointed to one of the exposed sections of the heart, specifically the right ventricle. “Look at this raised line here.” She traced it with the tip of the caliper.
“One of the coronary arteries or veins,” Safia said, amazed at the artistry.
“Is it?” Kara pointed. “See how perfectly horizontal the top section is, then it drops down vertically at both ends at ninety degrees.” She followed the vessel’s course. Her fingers shook with a characteristic amphetamine tremor.
Kara continued, “Everything on this heart is so naturally rendered. Da Vinci would have a hard time being so anatomically precise.” She stared over to Safia. “Nature doesn’t like ninety-degree angles.”
Safia leaned closer. She traced the lines with her fingers, as if she were reading Braille. Doubt slowly faded to shock. “The ends…they simply stop abruptly. They don’t blend back down.”
“It’s a letter,” Kara said.
“Epigraphic South Arabian,” Safia agreed, naming the ancient script from the region, a script that predated Hebrew and Aramaic. “It’s the letter B.”
“And look at what we can see of the upper heart chamber.”
“The right atrium,” Clay said behind them.
They both glanced at him.
“I was premed before I realized the sight of blood had such a…well, negative effect on what I had for lunch.”
Kara returned to the sculpture and pointed her caliper again. “A good portion of the upper atrium is still obscured by the sandstone encasement, but I think that’s another letter hidden under there.”
Safia leaned closer. She felt with her fingers. The tail end of exposed vessels ended abruptly as they did on the first one. “I’ll have to work carefully.”
She reached for the array of picks, chisels, and tiny hammers. With the proper tools in hand, she set about with the precision of a surgeon. Hammer and chisel to break away the larger chunks of brittle sandstone, then pick and brush to clear away. In a matter of minutes, the right atrium was cleared.
Safia stared down at the crisscrossing of what appeared to be coronary vessels. But they mapped out a perfect letter.
It was too complex for mere chance.
“What letter is that?” Clay asked.
“There’s not a direct corresponding letter in English,” Safia answered. “The letter is pronounced somewhat like the sound wa…so in translations it’s often listed W-A or even U, as that’s what it sounds like orally. Though in truth, there are no vowels in Epigraphic South Arabian script.”
Kara met her eyes. “We have to remove the heart,” she repeated. “If there are more letters, they’d be on the opposite side.”
Safia nodded. The left side still remained locked in the stone chest. She hated to disturb the statue any further, but curiosity drove her to pick up her tools without argument. She set to work. It took her a full half hour to remove the sandstone clamped around the heart. Finally, she attached the suction clamp and gripped the handle with both hands. With a prayer to the old gods of Arabia, she pulled evenly up, using all the muscles in her shoulders.
At first, it appeared to be stuck, but it was merely heavier than she had anticipated. With a determined grimace of effort, she lifted the heart free of the chest. Bits of sandstone and loose grains showered down. At arm’s length, she swung the prize around to the library table.
Kara hurried over to join them. Safia placed the heart on a square of soft leather chamois to protect it, then unfastened the suction clamp. The heart rolled slightly, once released. A small sloshing sound accompanied it.
Safia glanced at the others. Had they heard it, too?
“I told you I thought the thing was hollow,” Clay whispered.
Safia reached and rocked the heart on the chamois. The center of gravity rolled with the rocking. It reminded her oddly of one of those old Magic 8 Balls. “There’s some type of fluid in the center.”
Clay backed up a step. “Great, it had better not be blood. I prefer my cadavers desiccated and wrapped like mummies.”
“It’s sealed tight,” Safia assured him, examining the heart. “I can’t even spot a way to open it. It’s almost like the bronze heart was forged around it.”
“Riddles wrapped inside riddles,” Kara said, and took her turn rolling and checking the heart. “What about more lettering?”
Safia joined her. It took them half a moment to orient themselves and find the two remaining chambers. She ran her finger over the largest, the left ventricle. It was smooth and bare.