“Yes, Captain. I’ll be there immediately.”
“Fine. Your name will be left at the security blockade.” The phone clicked as the captain hung up.
Safia stared around her bedroom. Billie thumped his tail in clear feline irritation at the night’s constant interruptions. “I won’t be gone long,” she mumbled, unsure if she spoke the truth.
Sirens continued to wail outside her window.
The panic that had woken her refused to fade away completely. Her worldview, the security of her position in the staid halls of a museum, had been shaken. Four years ago, she had fled a world where women strapped pipe bombs to their chests. She had fled to the safety and orderliness of academic life, abandoning fieldwork for paperwork, dropping picks and shovels for computers and spreadsheets. She had dug herself a little niche in the museum, one where she felt safe. She had made a home here.
But still disaster had found her.
Her hands trembled. She had to grip one in the other to fight another attack. She fancied nothing more than to crawl back into bed and pull the comforter over her head.
Billie stared at her, eyes reflecting the lamplight.
“I’ll be fine. Everything’s okay,” Safia said quietly, more to herself than to the cat.
Neither was convinced.
02:13 A.M. GMT (09:13 P.M. EST)
FORT MEADE, MARYLAND
T HOMAS HARDEY hated to be disturbed while he worked on the New York Times crossword puzzle. It was his Sunday-night ritual, which also included a neat snifter of forty-year-old Scotch and a fine cigar. A fire crackled in the fireplace.
He leaned back in his leather wingback chair and stared at the half-filled puzzle, punching the nub on his Montblanc ballpoint pen.
He crinkled a brow at 19 down, a five-letter word. “19. The sum of all men.”
As he pondered the answer, the phone rang on his desk. He sighed and pushed his reading glasses from the tip of his nose up to the line of his receding hairline. It was probably just one of his daughter’s friends calling to discuss how her weekend date had fared.
As he leaned over, he saw the fifth line was blinking, his personal line. Only three people had that number: the president, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and his second-in-command at the National Security Agency.
He placed the folded newspaper on his lap and tapped the line’s red button. With that single touch, a shifting algorithmic code would scramble any communication.
He lifted the receiver. “Hardey here.”
He sat straighter, wary. He did not recognize the other’s voice. And he knew the voices of the three people who had his private number as well as he knew his own family’s. “Who is this?”
“Tony Rector. I’m sorry for disturbing you at this late hour.”
Thomas shuffled his mental Rolodex. Vice Admiral Anthony Rector. He connected the name to five letters: DARPA. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The department oversaw the research-and-development arm of the Department of Defense. They had a motto: Be there first. When it came to technological advances, the United States could not come in second place.
A tingling sense of dread grew. “How may I help you, Admiral?”
“There’s been an explosion at the British Museum in London.” He went on to explain the situation in great detail. Thomas checked his watch. Less than forty-five minutes had passed since the blast. He was impressed by the ability of Rector’s organization to gather so much intelligence in such a short time.
Once the admiral finished, Thomas asked the most obvious question. “And DARPA’s interest in this blast?”
Rector answered him.
Thomas felt the room go ten degrees cooler. “Are you sure?”
“I already have a team in place to pursue that very question. But I’m going to need the cooperation of British MI5…or better yet…”
The alternative hung in the air, unspoken even over a scrambled line.
Thomas now understood the clandestine call. MI5 was Britain’s equivalent of his own organization. Rector wanted him to throw up a smoke screen so a DARPA team could whisk in and out before anyone else suspected the discovery. And that included the British intelligence agency.
“I understand,” Thomas finally answered. Be there first. He prayed they could live up to this mission. “Do you have a team ready?”
“They’ll be ready by morning.”
From the lack of further elaboration, Thomas knew who would be handling this. He drew a Greek symbol on the margin of his newspaper.
“I’ll clear the way for them,” he said to the phone.
“Very good.” The line went dead.
Thomas settled the phone to the cradle, already planning what must be done. He would have to work quickly. He stared down at the unfinished crossword puzzle: 19 down.
A five-letter word for the sum of all men.
He picked up a pen and filled in the answer in block letters.
02:22 A.M. GMT
S AFIA STOOD before the barricade, a yellow-and-black A-frame. She kept her arms folded, anxious, cold. Smoke filled the air. What had happened? Behind the barricade, a policeman held her wallet in his hand and compared her photo to the woman who stood before him.
She knew he was having a hard time matching the two. In hand, her museum identification card portrayed a studious thirty-year-old woman of coffee-and-cream complexion, ebony hair tied back in an efficient braid, green eyes hidden behind black reading glasses. In contrast, before the young guard stood a soaking, bedraggled woman, hair loosely plastered in long swaths to her face. Her eyes felt lost and confused, focused beyond the barriers, beyond the frenzy of emergency personnel and equipment.
News crews dotted the landscape, haloed by the spots from their cameras. A few television trucks stood parked half up on the sidewalks. She also spotted two British military vehicles among the emergency crews, along with personnel bearing rifles.
The possibility of a terrorist attack could not be dismissed. She had heard such rumblings among the crowd and from a reporter she had to sidestep to reach the barricade. And not a few cast suspicious glances in her direction, the lone Arab on the street. She’d had firsthand experience with terrorism, but not in the manner these folks suspected. And maybe she was even misinterpreting the reactions around her. A form of paranoia, what was termed hyperanxiety, was a common sequela to a panic attack.
Safia continued through the crowd, breathing deeply, focusing on her purpose here. She regretted forgetting her umbrella. She had left her flat immediately after getting the call, delaying only long enough to pull on a pair of khaki slacks and a white floral blouse. She had donned a knee-length Burberry coat, but in her hurry, the matching umbrella had been left in its stand by the door. Only when she reached the first floor of her building and rushed into the rain did she realize her mistake. Anxiety kept her from climbing back up to the fourth floor to retrieve it.
She had to know what had happened at the museum. She’d spent the past decade building the collection, and the past four years running her research projects out of the museum. How much had been ruined? What could be salvaged?
Outside, the rain kicked up again to a steady downpour, but at least the night skies were less angry. By the time she reached the makeshift security checkpoint that cordoned off access, she had been soaked to the bone.
She shivered as the guard satisfied himself with her identification.
“You’re clear to proceed. Inspector Samuelson is awaiting you.”
Another policeman escorted her to the southern entrance of the museum. She stared up at its pillared facade. It had the solidness of a bank vault, a permanence that could not be doubted.
Until this night…
She was ushered through the entrance and down a series of stairs. They passed through doors marked MUSEUM STAFF ONLY. She knew where she was being taken. To the subterranean security suite.
An armed guard stood watch at the door. He nodded at their approach, clearly expecting them. He pulled the door open.
Her escort passed her on to a new fellow: a black man dressed in civilian clothes, an undistinguished blue suit. He stood a few inches taller than Safia, hair gone completely gray. His face looked like well-worn leather. She noticed a gray shadow of stubble across his cheeks, un-shaven, called from his bed most likely.
He held out a hard hand. “Inspector Geoffrey Samuelson,” he said as firmly as his handshake. “Thank you for coming so quickly.”
She nodded, too nervous to speak.
“If you’ll follow me, Dr. al-Maaz, we need your assistance in investigating the cause of the explosion.”
“Me?” she managed to force out. She passed a break room, crowded with security staff. It appeared the entire staff, all shifts, had been summoned. She recognized several of the men and women, but they stared at her now as if she were a stranger. The murmur of their chatter fell silent as she passed. They must have known she had been called in, but they didn’t seem to know the reason any more than she did. Still, suspicion was plain behind the silence.
She held her back straighter, irritation sparking through her anxiety. These were her coworkers, colleagues. Then again, they were all too aware of her past.
Her shoulders slumped as the inspector led her down the hall to the farthest room. She knew it housed the “nest,” as it was nicknamed by the staff, an oval-shaped room whose walls were completely covered with video-surveillance monitors. Inside, she found the room almost deserted.
She spotted the head of security, Ryan Fleming, a short but stout man of middle years. He was easily distinguished by his entirely hairless pate and beaked nose, earning him the nickname the “Bald Eagle.” He stood beside a lanky man wearing a crisp military uniform, including a sidearm. The pair leaned over the shoulders of a technician who was seated at a bank of monitors. The group glanced over to her as she entered.
“Dr. Safia al-Maaz, curator of the Kensington Gallery,” Fleming said as introduction. Straightening, he waved her over.
Fleming had been on staff since before Safia had assumed her position. A guard at the time, he had worked his way through the ranks to become chief of security. Four years ago, he had foiled the theft of a pre-Islamic sculpture from her gallery. It was this diligence that had won him his current position. The Kensingtons knew how to reward those who had done right by them. Ever since then, he had been particularly protective of Safia and her gallery.