Harry swept forward through the rooms, slipping from one dynasty to another—from the times of the Crusades to the birth of Christ, from the glories of Alexander the Great to the ages of King Solomon and Queen Sheba.
At last, he reached the farthest room, one of the largest. It contained objects more of interest to a naturalist, all from the region: rare stones and jewels, fossilized remains, Neolithic tools.
The source of the glow became clear. Near the center of the domed chamber, a half-meter globe of blue light floated lazily across the room. It shimmered, and its surface seemed to run with a flame of prismatic blue oil.
As Harry watched, the globe sailed through a glass cabinet as if it were made of air. He stood stunned. A sulfurous smell reached his nostrils, issuing forth from the ball of cerulean light.
The globe rolled over one of the crimson-glowing security lamps, shorting it out with a sizzling pop. The noise startled Harry back a step. The same fate must have been dealt to camera five in the room behind him. He glanced to the camera in this room. A red light glowed above it. Still working.
As if noting his attention, Johnson came back on his radio. For some reason, there was no static. “Harry, maybe you’d better get out of there!”
He remained transfixed, half out of fear, half out of wonder. Besides, the phenomenon was floating away from him, toward the darkened corner of the room.
The globe’s glow illuminated a lump of metal within a glass cube. It was a chunk of red iron as large as a calf, a kneeling calf. The display card described it as a camel. Such a resemblance was dodgy at best, but Harry understood the supposed depiction. The item had been discovered in the desert.
The glow hovered over the iron camel.
Harry backed a cautious step and raised his radio. “Christ!”
The shimmering ball of light fell through the glass and landed upon the camel. Its glow winked out as quickly as a snuffed candle.
The sudden darkness blinded Harry for a breath. He lifted his torch. The iron camel still rested within its glass cube, undisturbed. “It’s gone…”
“Are you safe?”
“Yeah. What the hell was that?”
Johnson answered, awe in his voice, “A sodding lightning ball, I think! I heard stories from mates aboard warplanes as they flew through thunderclaps. Storm must have spit it out. But bloody hell if that wasn’t brilliant!”
It’s not brilliant anymore, Harry thought with a sigh, and shook his head. Whatever the hell it was, it at least saved him from an embarrassing ribbing from his fellow guards.
He lowered his torch. But as the light fell away, the iron camel continued to glow in the darkness. A deep ruddy color.
“What the hell now?” Harry mumbled, and grabbed his radio. A severe static shock bit his fingers. Swearing, he shook it off. He raised his radio. “Something’s odd. I don’t think—”
The glow in the iron flared brighter. Harry fell back. The iron flowed across the camel’s surface, melting as if exposed to a wash of acid rain. He was not the only one to note the change.
The radio barked in his hand: “Harry, get out of there!”
He didn’t argue. He swung around but was too late.
The glass enclosure exploded outward. Stabbing spears pierced his left side. A jagged shard sliced clear through his cheek. But he barely felt the cuts as a wave of blast-furnace heat struck him, searing, burning away all the oxygen.
A scream lay upon his lips, never to be aired.
The next explosion ripped Harry from his feet and threw his body clear across the gallery. But only flaming bones hit the security gate, melting themselves into the steel grating.
S AFIA AL-MAAZ awoke in a dead panic. Sirens rang from all directions. Flashes of red emergency lights strobed the bedroom walls. Terror gripped her in a vise. She could not breathe; cold sweat pebbled her brow, squeezed from her tightening skin. Clawed fingers clutched the bedsheets to her throat. Unable to blink, she was trapped for a moment between the past and the present.
Sirens blaring, blasts echoing in the distance…and closer still, screams of the wounded, the dying, her own voice adding to the chorus of pain and shock…
Bullhorns boomed from the streets below her flat. “Clear out for the engines! Everyone pull back!”
English…not Arabic, not Hebrew…
A low rumble rolled past her apartment building and off into the distance.
The voices of the emergency crews drew her back to her bed, back to the present. She was in London, not Tel Aviv. A long strangled breath escaped her. Tears rose to her eyes. She wiped them with shaky fingers.
She sat wrapped in her comforter for several more breaths. She still felt like crying. It was always this way, she told herself, but the words didn’t help. She gathered the woolen comforter around her shoulders, eyes closed, heart hammering in her ears. She practiced the breathing and calming exercises taught to her by her therapist. Inhale for two counts, out for four. She let the tension flow away with each breath. Her cold skin slowly warmed.
Something heavy landed on her bed. A small sound accompanied it. Like a squeaky hinge.
She reached out a hand, met by a purring welcome. “Come here, Billie,” she whispered to the overweight black Persian.
Billie leaned into her palm and rubbed the underside of his chin across Safia’s fingers, then simply collapsed across her thighs as if the invisible strings supporting the cat had been sliced. The sirens must have disturbed him from his usual nighttime haunting of her flat.
The low purr continued on Safia’s lap, a contented sound.
This, more than her breathing exercises, relaxed the taut muscles of her shoulders. Only then did she notice the wary hunch in her back, as if fearing a blow that never came. She forced her posture straight, stretching her neck.
The sirens and commotion continued half a block from her building. She needed to stand, find out what was happening. Anything simply to be moving. Panic had transmuted into nervous energy.
She shifted her legs, careful to slide Billie onto the comforter. The purring halted for a moment, then resumed when it was clear he was not being evicted. Billie had been born in the streets of London, alley feral, a wild fluff of matted fur and spit. Safia had found the kitten sprawled and bloodied on the flat’s stoop with a broken leg, covered in oil, hit by a car. Despite her help, he had bitten her in the fleshy meat of her thumb. Friends had told her to take the kitten to the animal shelter, but Safia knew such a place was no better than an orphanage. So instead, she had scooped him up in a pillow linen and transported him to the local veterinary clinic.
It would have been easy to step over him that evening, but she had once been as abandoned and alone as the kitten. Someone had taken her in at the time, too. And like Billie, she had been domesticated—but neither ended up completely tamed, preferring the wild places and rooting through lost corners of the world.
But all that had ended with one explosion on a bright spring day.
All my fault… Crying and screams again filled her head, merging with the sirens of the moment.
Breathing too hard, Safia reached to the bedside lamp, a small Tiffany replica depicting stained-glass dragonflies. She flicked the lamp’s switch a few more times, but the lamp remained dark. Electricity was out. The storm must have knocked down a power line.
Maybe that was all the commotion.
Let it be something that simple.
She swung out of bed, barefoot, but in a warm flannel nightshirt that reached her knees. She crossed to the window and twisted the blinds to peer through to the street below. Her flat was on the fourth floor.
Below, the usually quiet and dignified street of iron lamps and wide sidewalks had become a surreal battlefield. Fire engines and police cars jammed the avenue. Smoke billowed despite the rain, but at least the fierce storm had faded to the usual London weep. With the streetlamps darkened, the only illumination came from the flashers atop the emergency vehicles. Yet, down the block, a deeper crimson glow flickered through the smoke and dark.
Safia’s heart thudded harder, her breath choked—not from old terrors, but from newborn fears for the present. The museum! She yanked the blinds’ cords, ripping them up, and fumbled with the lock to the window. She pushed the sash open and bent out into the rain. She barely noted the icy drops.
The British Museum was only a short walk from her flat. She gaped at the sight. The northeast corner of the museum had crumbled to a fiery ruin. Flames flickered from shattered upper windows while smoke belched out in thick gouts. Men, cowled in rebreathing masks, dragged hoses. Jets of water sailed high. Ladders rose into the air from the back of engines.
Still, worst of all, a gaping hole smoked on the second floor of the northeast corner. Rubble and blackened blocks of cement lay strewn out into the street. She must not have heard the explosion or just attributed it to the storm’s thunder. But this was no lightning strike.
More likely a bomb blast…a terrorist attack. Not again…
She felt her knees grow weak. The north wing…her wing. She knew the smoking hole led into the gallery at the end. All her work, a lifetime of research, the collection, a thousand antiquities from her homeland. It was too much to fathom. Disbelief made the sight even more unreal, a bad dream from which she would awake at any moment.
She fell back into the security and sanity of her room. She turned her back on the shouts and flashing lights. In the darkness, stained-glass dragonflies bloomed to life. She stared, unable to comprehend the sight for a moment, then it dawned. The power was back on.
At that moment, the phone on her nightstand rang, startling her.
Billie raised his head from the comforter, ears pricked at the jangling.
Safia hurried to the phone and picked up the receiver. “Hello?”
The voice was stern, professional. “Dr. al-Maaz?”
“This is Captain Hogan. There’s been an accident at the museum.”
“Accident?” Whatever had happened was more than just an accident.
“Yes, the museum’s director has requested I call you into the briefing. Can you join us in the next hour?”