The work here was more than just her academic life. After Tel Aviv, she had rebuilt her heart here. And though she had left Arabia, she had not abandoned it. She was still her mother’s daughter. So she had rebuilt Arabia in London, an Arabia before terrorists, a tangible account of her land’s history, its wonder, its ancient times and mysteries. Surrounded by these antiquities, walking the galleries, she heard the crunch of sand underfoot, felt the warmth of the sun on her face, and tasted the sweetness of dates freshly picked. It was home, a safe place.
But it was more than all that. Her grief went deeper.
At her core, she had built this home, not just for herself, but also for the mother she barely remembered. At times, when working late at night, Safia caught the faintest wisp of jasmine in the air, a memory from childhood, of her mother. Though they couldn’t share their life, they could share this place, this bit of home.
Now it was all gone.
“They’re letting us in.”
Safia stirred. She glanced to Ryan Fleming. The head of security had kept vigil with her, though it looked like he’d had little sleep.
“I’ll stick with you,” he said.
She forced air into her lungs and nodded. It was the best she could manage as thanks for his kindness and company. She followed the other museum staff forward. They had all agreed to help with the cataloging and documenting of the gallery’s contents. It would take weeks.
Safia marched forward, both drawn to and fearful of what she would find. She rounded past the last barricade. The security gates had been removed by the coroner’s office. She was thankful of that. She had no desire to see the remains of Harry Masterson.
She stepped to the entrance and stared inside.
Despite the preparation in her head and the brief glimpse from the video cameras, she was not ready for what she found.
The bright gallery was now a blackened cavern system, five chambers of charred stone.
Breath caught in her chest. Gasps arose behind her.
The firestorm had laid waste to everything. The wallboard had been incinerated down to the base blocks. Nothing remained standing except for a single Babylonian vase in the center of the gallery. It stood waist-high, and while scorched, it had remained upright. Safia had read reports of tornadoes doing the same, cutting a swath of total devastation while leaving a bicycle resting on its kickstand, untouched in the middle of it all.
It made no sense. None of it did.
The place still reeked of smoke and several inches of sooty water covered the floor, left over from the deluge of the fire hoses.
“You’ll need rubbers,” Fleming said, placing a hand on her arm, guiding her over to a line of boots. She pulled into a set numbly. “And a hard hat.”
“Where do we even begin?” someone muttered.
Properly outfitted now, Safia stepped into the gallery, moving as if in a dream, mechanical, eyes unblinking. She crossed through the rooms. When she reached the far gallery, something crunched under her boot heel. She bent down, fished through the water, and retrieved a stone from the floor. A few lines of cuneiform etched its surface. It was a piece of an Assyrian tablet, dating back to ancient Mesopotamia. She straightened and stared across the ruin of the Kensington Gallery.
Only now did she note the other people. Strangers in her home.
Folks labored in pockets, talking in hushed tones, as if in a graveyard. Building inspectors examined the infrastructure while fire investigators took readings with handheld devices. A pack of municipal engineers argued in a corner about budgets and bids, and a few policemen stood guard by the collapsed section of the exterior wall. Workmen were already constructing a crude plank blockade to cover the opening.
Through the gap, she spotted gawkers across the street, held back by cordons. They were surprisingly persistent considering that the morning drizzle had turned into sleet by the afternoon. Flashes of camera bulbs flickered in the gloom. Tourists.
A surge of anger flamed through her numbness. She wanted to throw the lot of them out of here. This was her wing, her home. Her anger helped focus her, bring her back to the situation at hand. She had a duty, an obligation.
Safia returned her attention to the other scholars and students from the museum. They had begun to sift through the debris. It was heartening to see their usual petty professional jealousies set aside for now.
Safia crossed back toward the entrance, ready to organize those who had volunteered. But as she reached the first gallery, a large group appeared at the entrance. At the forefront strode Kara, dressed in work clothes, a red hard hat emblazoned with the insignia for Kensington Wells. She led a team of some twenty men and women into the gallery. They were identically outfitted, wearing the same red hard hats.
Safia stepped in front of her. “Kara?” She had not seen the woman all day. She had vanished with the head of the museum, supposedly to help coordinate the various investigative teams of the fire and police. It seemed a few billion in sterling garnered some authority.
Kara waved the men and women into the gallery. “Get to work!” She turned to Safia. “I’ve hired my own forensic team.”
Safia stared after the group as they tromped like a small army into the rooms. Instead of weapons, they carried all manner of scientific tools. “What’s going on? Why are you doing this?”
“To find out what happened.” Kara watched her team set to work. Her eyes had a feverish shine, a fiery determination.
Safia had not seen such a look on her face in a long time. Something had sparked an intensity in Kara that had been missing for years. Only one thing could bring about such fervor.
Safia remembered the look in Kara’s eyes as she had surveyed the videotape of the explosion. The strange relief. Her one spoken word. Finally…
Kara stepped out into the gallery. Already her team had commenced digging samples from various surfaces: plastics, glass, wood, stone. Kara crossed to a pair of men carrying metal detectors, sweeping them along the floor. One pulled a bit of a melted bronze from some debris. He set it aside.
“I want every fragment of that meteorite found,” Kara ordered.
The men nodded, continuing the search.
Safia joined Kara. “What are you really seeking here?”
Kara turned to her, eyes ablaze with determination. “Answers.”
Safia read the hope behind the set in her friend’s lips. “About your father?”
“About his death.”
K ARA SAT in the hall on a folding chair. The work continued in the galleries. Fans whirred and rattled. The mumble and chatter of workers in the wing barely reached her. She had come out to smoke a cigarette. She had long given up the habit, but she needed something to do with her hands. Her fingers trembled.
Did she have the strength for this? The strength to hope.
Safia appeared at the entryway, spotted her, and stepped in her direction.
Kara waved her off, pointed to the cigarette. “I just need a moment.”
Safia paused, staring at her, then nodded and headed back into the gallery.
Kara took another drag, filling her chest with cool smoke, but it did little to settle her. She was too unbalanced, the adrenaline of the night wearing thin. She stared at the plaque beside the gallery. It bore a bronze likeness of her father, the founder of the gallery.
Kara sighed out a stream of smoke, blurring the sight. Papa…
Somewhere out in the gallery, something fell with a loud bang, sounding like a gunshot, a reminder of a past, of a hunt across the sands.
Kara drifted into the past.
It had been her sixteenth birthday.
The hunt had been her father’s gift.
The Arabian oryx fled up the slope of the dune. The antelope’s white coat stood out starkly against the red sands. The only two blemishes to its snowy hide were a black swatch on the tip of its tail and a matching mask around its eyes and nose. A wet crimson trail dripped down its wounded haunch.
As it fought to escape the hunters, the oryx’s hooves drove deep into the loose sand. Blood flowed more thickly as it kicked toward the ridgeline. A pair of tapered horns sliced through the still air as the muscles of its neck wrenched with each painful yard gained.
A quarter mile back, Kara heard its echoing cry over the growl of her sand cycle, a four-wheel all-terrain vehicle with thick knobby tires. In frustration, she gripped the handles of her bike as it flew over the summit of a monstrous dune. For a breathless moment, she lifted out of her seat, airborne, as the cycle bucked over the ridge.
The angry set to her lips remained hidden behind a sand scarf, a match to her khaki safari suit. Her blond hair, braided to the middle of her back, flagged behind her like a wild mare’s tail.
Her father kept pace on another cycle, rifle carried across his back. He had his own scarf dropped around his neck. His skin was tanned the color of saddle leather, his hair gone a sandy gray. He caught her glance.
“We’re close!” he yelled above the whining growl of their engines. He gunned his engine and sped down the windward side of the dune.
Kara raced after him, bent over her cycle’s handlebars, followed closely by their bedouin guide. It had been Habib who had led them to their quarry. It had also been the bedouin’s skilled shot that had first wounded the oryx. Though impressed with his marksmanship, shooting the antelope on the fly, Kara had become furious upon learning the wounding had been deliberate, meant not to kill.
“To slow…for the girl,” Habib had explained.
Kara had rankled at the cruelty…and the insult. She had been hunting with her father from the age of six. She was not without skill herself and preferred a clean kill. Purposely wounding the animal was needlessly savage.
She cranked the throttle, kicking up sand.
Some, especially back in England, raised their eyebrows at her up-bringing, considering her a tomboy, especially with no mother. Kara knew better. Traveling half the world, she had been raised with no pretensions about the line between men and women. She knew how to defend herself, how to fight with fist or knife.
Reaching the bottom of the dune now, Kara and their guide caught up with her father as his cycle bogged down in a camel wallow, a patch of loose sand that sucked like quicksand. They passed him in a cloud of dust.