She joined the group by the video bank, followed by Inspector Samuelson. Fleming touched her shoulder, his eyes wounded. “I’m so sorry. Your gallery, your work…”
“How much was lost?”
Fleming looked sick. He simply pointed to one of the monitors. She leaned toward it. It was a live feed. In black and white, she saw a view down the main hall of the north wing. Smoke roiled. Men, masked in protective suits, worked throughout the wing. A collection of them gathered before the security gate that led into the Kensington Gallery. They appeared to be staring up at a figure tied to the grating, a gaunt, skeletal shape, like some emaciated scarecrow.
Fleming shook his head. “The coroner will be allowed in shortly to identify the remains, but we’re sure it’s Harry Masterson, one of my men.”
The frame of bones continued to smoke. That had once been a man? Safia felt the world tilt under her, and she fell back a step. Fleming steadied her. A conflagration of a magnitude powerful enough to burn the flesh off the bone was beyond her comprehension.
“I don’t understand,” she mumbled. “What happened here?”
The man in military blue answered, “That’s what we’re hoping you can shed some light on.” He turned to the video technician. “Rewind back to zero one hundred.”
The technician nodded.
The military man turned to Safia as his order was carried out. His face was hard, unwelcoming. “I’m Commander Randolph, representative of the Ministry of Defence’s antiterrorist division.”
“Antiterrorist?” Safia stared around at the others. “This was a bombing?”
“That’s yet to be determined, ma’am,” the commander said.
The technician stirred. “All ready, sir.”
Randolph waved her to the monitor. “We’d like you to watch this, but what you’re about to see is classified. Do you understand?”
She didn’t, but she nodded anyway.
“Play it,” Randolph commanded.
On the screen, a camera showed the rear room of the Kensington Gallery. All was in order, though the space was dark, lit only by security lights.
“This was taken just after one o’clock,” the commander narrated.
Safia watched a new light float in from a neighboring room. At first, it appeared as if someone had entered, bearing aloft a lantern. But it soon became clear that the source of light moved on its own. “What is that?” she asked.
The technician answered, “We’ve studied the tape with various filters. It appears to be a phenomenon called ball lightning. A free-floating globule of plasma jettisoned from the storm. This is the first time in history one of the bloody buggers has been caught on film.”
Safia had heard of such lightning displays. Balls of charged air, luminescent, that traveled horizontally over the ground. They appeared on open plains, inside houses, aboard airplanes, even within submarines. But such phenomena rarely caused any harm. She glanced back to the live-feed monitor with its smoking charnel house. Surely this wasn’t the cause of the blast.
As she pondered this, a new figure appeared on the monitor, a guard.
“Harry Masterson,” Fleming said.
Safia took a deep breath. If Fleming was right, this was the same man whose bones smoked on the other monitor. She wanted to close her eyes, but couldn’t.
The guard followed the glow of the lightning ball. He seemed as mystified as those in the room with her. He raised his radio to his lips, reporting in, but there was no audio with the footage.
Then the ball lightning settled atop one of the display pedestals, one holding up an iron figure. It fell across it and winked out. Safia winced, but nothing happened.
The guard continued to talk into his radio…then something seemed to alarm the man. He turned just as the display cabinet shattered outward. A moment later, a second explosion appeared as a flash of white, then the screen went black.
“Hold that and rewind four seconds back,” Commander Randolph ordered.
The footage froze and reversed, frames clicking back. The room reappeared out of the flash, then the cabinet re-formed around the iron figure.
The image stopped, shuddering slightly on the monitor. The iron artifact could be seen clearly within its glass display. In fact, too clearly. It appeared to shine with a light of its own.
“What the hell is that?” the commander asked.
Safia stared at the ancient artifact. She now understood why she had been called into this briefing. No one here understood what had happened either. None of it made any sense.
“Is that a sculpture?” the commander asked. “How long has it been there?”
Safia could read his mind, the barely hidden accusation. Had someone slipped a bomb into the museum disguised as a sculpture? And if this were true, who would be the one most likely to cooperate with such a ruse? Who but somebody on the inside? Somebody tied to an explosion in the past.
She shook her head at the questions and the accusations. “It…it’s not a sculpture.”
“Then what is it?”
“The iron figure is a fragment of meteorite…discovered in the Omani Desert near the end of the nineteenth century.”
Safia knew that the artifact’s history dated much further back. For centuries, Arabian myths spoke of a lost city whose entrance was guarded by an iron camel. The wealth of this lost city was supposedly beyond comprehension. Such were its riches that scores of black pearls were said to be scattered near its entrance like so much trash. Then, in the nineteenth century, a bedouin tracker led a British explorer to the place, but he found no lost city. What he discovered was merely a chunk of meteorite half buried in the sand that looked roughly like a kneeling camel. Even the black pearls were found to be just bits of blasted glass, formed by the heated impact of the meteorite into the sands.
“This camel-shaped meteorite,” Safia continued, “has been a part of the British Museum’s collection since its founding…though it had been relegated to the storage lockers until I found it in the catalog and added it to the collection.”
Inpector Samuelson broke the silence. “When did this transfer happen?”
“Two years ago.”
“So it’s been there quite some time,” the inspector said pointedly, glancing toward the commander as if this satisfied some earlier quarrel.
“A meteorite?” the commander mumbled with a shake of his head, clearly disappointed that his conspiracy theory had not panned out. “That makes no sense.”
A commotion drew everyone’s attention to the door. Safia saw the director of the museum, Edgar Tyson, force his way into the security room. The usually dapper man wore a wrinkled suit that matched his worried expression. He tugged at his small white goatee. Only now did Safia wonder at his conspicuous absence. The museum was the man’s life and livelihood.
But the reason for his notable absence soon made itself clear. In fact it followed at his heels. The woman swept into the room, her presence almost preceding her form, like a surge before a storm. Tall, a full hand span over six feet, she wore a full-length tartan overcoat, dripping water, yet her sandy-blond hair, cut to the shoulders, was dry and coiffed to gentle curls that seemed to shift with their own breezes. Apparently she had not forgotten her umbrella.
Commander Randolph straightened, stepping forward, his voice suddenly respectful. “Lady Kensington.”
Ignoring him, the woman continued her search of the room, her eyes settling on Safia. A flash of relief. “Saffie…thank God!” She hurried forward and hugged her tightly, mumbling breathlessly in her ear, “When I heard…you work late so many nights. And I couldn’t reach you on the phone…”
Safia hugged her back, feeling the tremble in the other’s shoulders. They had known each other since they were children, been closer than sisters. “I’m all right, Kara,” she mumbled into her shoulder.
She was surprised by the depth of genuine fear in the otherwise strong woman. She had not felt such affection from her in a long time, not since they were young, not since the death of Kara’s father.
Kara trembled. “I don’t know what I would’ve done if I’d lost you.” Her arms tightened around Safia, both comfort and need.
Tears rose in Safia’s eyes. She remembered another hug, similar words. I won’t lose you.
At the age of four, Safia’s mother had died in a bus accident. With her father already gone, Safia was placed in an orphanage, a horrible place for a child of mixed blood. A year later, the Kensington estate took Safia on as a playmate for Kara, put up in her own room. She barely remembered that day. A tall man had come and collected her.
It had been Reginald Kensington, Kara’s father.
Because of their closeness in age and a shared wild nature, Kara and Safia had become fast friends…sharing secrets at night, playing games among the date and palm trees, sneaking out to the cinema, whispering of their dreams under bedcovers. It had been a wonderful time, an endless sweet summer.
Then, at the age of ten, devastating news: Lord Kensington announced Kara would be traveling to England to study abroad for two years. Distraught, Safia had not even excused herself from the table. She had run to her room, panicked and heartbroken that she’d be returned to the orphanage, a toy put back in a box. But Kara had found her. I won’t lose you, she had promised amid tears and embraces. I’ll make Papa let you come with me.
And Kara had kept her word.
Safia went to England with Kara for those two years. They studied together, as sisters, as best friends. When they returned to Oman, they were inseparable. They finished their schooling in Muscat together. All seemed wonderful until the day Kara returned from a birthday hunting trip, sunburned and raving.
Her father had not returned with her.
Killed in a sinkhole was the official story, but Reginald Kensington’s body had never been found.
Since that day, Kara had never been the same. She still kept Safia close to her, but it was more from a desire for the familiar than from true friendship. Kara became engrossed in finishing her own education, in taking over the mantle of her father’s enterprises and ventures. At nineteen, she graduated from Oxford.