Safia watched the man vanish down the stairs. He moved so silently, as if gliding on ice. Who was he?
A grunt drew her attention back to the woman. She had a knee planted in the lower back of the last attacker. She had wrenched his arms back, earning a protest from the groggy gunman. She swiftly bound his limbs with rope, moving with deft skill. Either she had a background that included calf-roping, or there was more to this woman than mere physics. Beyond this one observation, Safia’s curiosity could not be further piqued.
She concentrated on her own breathing. There still seemed to be a deficient amount of oxygen in the air, even with the blowing fans. Sweat slicked her face and body.
She kept her position by the wall, knees raised tight, arms hugging her chest. She had to restrain herself from rocking. She did not want to appear that crazy. The thought helped calm her. She also kept her eyes away from the two bodies. The alarm would be raised. Security would come with batons, lights, and the comforting presence of others.
In the meantime, the hallway remained too empty, too dark, too humid. She found her gaze lingering on the stairwell opening. Ryan… The attack again played out in her head, reeling like bloody film stock, only silent. They have been after the iron heart, her own discovery, the one she had been so proud to uncover. Ryan had died because of it. Because of her.
A sob shook through her. She tried to hold it back with her hands and found herself choking.
“Are you all right?” the woman asked from a step away.
Safia curled into herself, shaking.
“You’re safe. Dr. Crowe will get security up here any moment.”
She kept herself balled up, seeking a place of safety.
“Maybe I’d better get some—” The physicist’s voice cut off with a choke.
Safia lifted her face. The woman stood a step away, stiffly straight, arms out at her sides, head thrown back. She seemed to be trembling from crown to toe. Seizure. The choking sound continued.
Safia crabbed away, unsure, on her hands and knees, heading toward the stairwell. What was happening?
The woman’s form suddenly slumped, and she toppled forward to the floor. In the gloom of the hallway, a small blue flame crackled at the base of her spine. Smoke rose from her clothing. She lay unmoving.
It made no sense.
But as the blue flame died, Safia spotted a thin wire. It trailed from the prone woman to a figure standing three meters down the hall.
Another masked gunman.
He held a strange pistol in his fist. Safia had seen such a device before…in movies, not in real life. A tazer. A silent means of dispatch.
Safia continued scrambling backward, her heels slipping on the slick marble. She remembered her initial fright when leaving her office. She had thought she had heard someone, saw a flicker of light in the Byzantine gallery. It hadn’t been her anxious imagination.
The figure dropped the discharged tazer and strode after her.
Safia gained her feet with a speed borne of adrenaline and panic. The stairwell lay ahead. If she could reach it, get down to the security area—
Something struck the marble floor to the right of her toes. It hissed and spat blue sparks. A second tazer.
Safia bolted away from it and charged toward the opening. It would take a few moments to reset the tazer…unless the gunman had a third weapon. As she reached the stairwell, she expected to be struck by lightning from behind. Or simply shot.
Neither happened. She fell into the stairwell.
Voices greeted her from below, yelling. A gunshot sounded, deafening in the small space. More gunmen were downstairs.
Moving on pure instinct, Safia fled upward. There was no thought besides escape, to keep running. She pounded up, two steps at a time. There was no third level to this section of the museum.
These stairs led to the roof.
She rounded the first flight, grabbing the handrail to sweep herself around. A door appeared at the top of the next flight. An emergency exit. Locked from the outside, it would automatically open from the inside. An alarm would sound, but that was a good thing at the moment. She prayed it wasn’t secured after regular public hours.
Footsteps sounded behind her, at the stairwell entrance.
She lunged at the door, arms out, shoving the emergency latch.
It stuck. Locked.
She slammed into the steel door with a sob. No…
Painter held up his hands, the Walther P38 on the floor at his feet. He had come close to being shot in the head. The bullet had whizzed past his cheek, near enough for him to feel the burn of its passage. Only a quick dodge and roll had saved him.
But then again, he could imagine how it looked. Him kneeling beside Ryan Fleming’s body at the exit door, gun in hand. A trio of security men had come upon the scene, and all chaos had broken out. It had taken him a moment of frantic negotiating to reach this standoff—dropping his gun, hands in the air.
“Dr. al-Maaz was attacked,” he called over to the guard with the gun. Another checked the body, while the third was on a radio. “Mr. Fleming was shot when she was kidnapped. My partner and I were able to subdue the attackers upstairs.”
There was no note of reaction from the armed guard. He could just as well have been deaf. He simply pointed his pistol. Sweat beaded the man’s forehead.
The guard by the radio turned and spoke to his mates. “We’re to secure him in the nest until the police arrive. They’re on their way.”
Painter glanced to the stairwell. Concern jangled through him. The shot must have been heard upstairs. Had it sent Coral and the curator into hiding?
“Oi, you,” the guard with the pistol said. “Hands on your head. Move along this way.”
The guard waved the gun down the hall, away from the stairwell. It was the only firearm among the three, and its bearer seemed poorly acquainted with the weapon. He held it too loosely, too low. Probably the only gun here, one rarely pulled out of mothball storage. But the recent explosion had made everyone jumpy, overly alert.
Painter laced his fingers atop his head and turned where indicated. He had to reestablish control here. With his hands in plain view, he swung around, stepping closer to the inexperienced guard. As he turned, he shifted his weight on his right leg. The guard’s eyes flicked away for a half second. Plenty of time. Painter snap-kicked out with his left foot, striking the guard’s wrist.
The gun went skittering down the hall.
Sweeping down, Painter snatched the abandoned Walther from the floor and leveled it at the stunned trio. “Now we’re doing things my way.”
Desperate, Safia shoved the emergency latch to the roof door again. It refused to budge. She pounded a fist weakly against the jamb. Then she spotted a security keypad in the wall beside it. An old one. Not an electronic card scanner. It needed a code. Panic whined like a mosquito in her ear.
Each employee was assigned a default code. They could change it at their leisure. The default code was each employee’s birth date. She had never bothered to change hers.
A scuff of heel drew her attention around.
Her pursuer came around the lower flight, standing on the landing. The two eyed each other. The gunman now had a pistol in his grip. Not a tazer.
With her back to the door, Safia fingered the keypad’s buttons and punched in her birth date blindly. After years at the museum, she was accustomed to touch-typing entries into an accounting calculator.
Once done, she pushed the emergency latch.
It clicked but failed to budge. Still locked.
“Dead end,” the gunman said, his voice muffled. “Come down or die.”
Pinned against the door, Safia realized her mistake. The security grid had been upgraded after the millennium. A year was no longer defined by two digits, but four. Unclenching her fingers, she rapidly typed in the eight numbers: two for day, two for month, and four for her birth year.
The gunman took a step toward her, pistol stretching closer.
Safia rammed her back into the emergency latch. The door flung open. Cold air whipped over her as she tumbled out and darted to the side. A shot ricocheted off the steel door. Driven by desperation, she swung the door shut, slamming it into the masked face of the gunman as he lunged.
She didn’t wait, unsure if the door would relock, and fled around the corner of the rooftop exit hut. The night was too bright. Where was London’s fog when you needed it? She searched for a place to hide.
Small metal outcroppings offered some shelter: hooded vents, exhaust flumes, electrical conduits. But they were isolated and offered scant protection. The remainder of the roof of the British Museum looked like the parapet of a castle, surrounding a glass-roofed central courtyard.
A muffled shot blasted behind her. A door slammed open with a crash.
Her pursuer had broken through.
Safia sprinted for the closest cover. A low wall lipped the central courtyard, outlining the edges of the Grand Court’s glass-and-steel roof. She climbed over the parapet and ducked down.
Her feet rested on the metal rim of the two-acre geodesic roof. It spread out from her position in a vast plain of glass, broken into individual triangular panes. A few were missing, knocked loose by the blast last night and patched with plastic sheeting. The remaining panes shone like mirrors in the starlight, all pointing toward the middle, to where the bright copper dome of the central Reading Room rose from the middle of the courtyard, like an island in a sea of safety glass.
Safia remained crouched, realizing how exposed she was.
If the gunman searched over the wall, there was nowhere to run.
Footsteps sounded, crunching on the graveled roof. They circled around for a few moments, stopped for a long breath, then continued. Eventually they would head here.
Safia had no choice. She crawled out onto the roof, scuttling like a crab across the panes of glass, praying they would hold her weight. The forty-foot fall to the hard marble below would prove just as deadly as a slug in the head.
If she could only make it to the domed island of the Reading Room, get behind it…
One of the panes splintered under her knee like brittle ice. It must have been stressed by the blast. She rolled to the side as it gave way beneath her, cracking and falling through its steel frame. A moment later, a loud ringing crash echoed up as the pane struck marble.