“I guess I owe you at least dinner,” he had stated afterward.
“And I suppose I must accept.”
That night, they shared a leisurely dinner of wood-fired kingfish, accompanied with spiced rukhal bread. They talked until the sun sank into the sea and the skies filled with stars.
That was their first date. Their second date wouldn’t be for another six months, after Omaha was finally freed from a Yemeni prison for entering a holy Muslim site without permission. Despite the penal setback, they continued to see each other off and on, across four out of the seven continents. One Christmas Eve, back at his family’s home in Lincoln, Nebraska, he had dropped to a knee by the couch and asked her to marry him. She had never been happier.
Then a month later, everything changed in one blinding flash.
She shied away from that last memory, standing up finally from her desk to clear her head. It was too stuffy in her office. She needed to walk, to keep moving. It would be good to feel the breeze on her face, even the damp chill of London’s winter. She retrieved her coat and locked up her office.
Safia’s office was located on the second floor. The stairs down to the first floor were at the other end of the wing, near the Kensington Gallery, which meant she would have to pass the explosion site again. Not something she wanted to do. But she had no choice.
She set off down the long dark hall, illuminated by the occasional red security lamp. Usually she enjoyed the empty museum. It was a peaceful time after the daily bustle. She would often wander the gated galleries, staring at cabinets and displays, comforted by the weight of history.
No longer. Not this night.
Circulating fans had been set up like guard towers on long poles the entire length of the north wing, whirring and rattling noisily, trying and failing to disperse the reek of charred wood and burned plastics. Space heaters dotted the floor, snaking orange cords, set up to dry out the halls and galleries after the pumps had drained the worst of the sooty water. It made the hall swelter, like the damp warmth of the tropics. The line of fans stirred the air only sluggishly.
Her heels tapped the marble floor as she passed the galleries displaying the museum’s ethnographical collection: Celtic, Russian, Chinese. The damage from the explosion grew worse the nearer she approached her own gallery: smoke-stained walls, ribbons of police tape, piles of swept plaster, broken glass.
As she passed the opening to the Egyptian exhibit, she heard a muffled tinkle behind her, like breaking glass. She stopped and glanced over a shoulder. For a moment, she thought she spotted a flicker of light from the Byzantine gallery. She stared for a long breath. The opening remained dark.
She fought down a growing panic. Since the attacks had begun, she had difficulty distinguishing real danger from false. Her heart thudded in her throat, and the hairs on her arms tingled as a nearby fan rotated its pass over her, whirring asthmatically.
Just the headlamps of a passing car, she assured herself.
Swallowing her anxiety, she turned back around to discover a dark figure looming in the hall outside the Kensington Gallery.
She stumbled back.
“Safia?” The figure lifted a hand torch and flicked it on, blinding her with its brightness. “Dr. al-Maaz.”
She sighed with relief and hurried forward, shielding her eyes. “Ryan…” It was the head of security, Ryan Fleming. “I thought you had gone home.”
He smiled and flicked off the torch. “I was on my way when I was paged by Director Tyson. It seems a pair of American scientists insisted that they review the explosion site.” He walked her toward the opening to the gallery.
Inside, two figures dressed in identical blue jumpsuits moved through the dark gallery. The only illumination came from a pair of lamp poles in each room that cast weak pools of light. In the dimness, the investigators’ instruments glowed brightly. They appeared to be Geiger counters. In one hand, each of them held a compact base unit with a lighted computer screen. In the other, they carried meter-long black wands, attached to the base unit by a coiled cord. They slowly worked one of the gallery rooms in tandem, sweeping their instruments over singed walls and piles of debris.
“Physicists out of M.I.T.,” Fleming said. “They flew in this evening and came directly here from the airport. They must have some pull. Tyson insisted I accommodate them. ‘Post haste,’ to quote our esteemed director. I should introduce you.”
Still edgy, Safia tried to bow out. “I really must be getting home.”
Fleming had already stepped into the gallery. One of the investigators, a tall man with ruddy features, noted him, then her.
He lowered his wand and strode rapidly forward. “Dr. al-Maaz, what good fortune.” He held out a hand. “I had hoped to speak to you.”
She accepted his hand.
“I’m Dr. Crowe,” he said. “Painter Crowe.”
His eyes, piercing and attentive, were the color of lapis, his hair long to the shoulder, ebony black. She noted his tanned complexion. Native American, she guessed, but the blue eyes were throwing her off. Maybe it was just the name. Crowe. He could easily be Spanish, too. He had a generous smile that was also reserved.
“This is my colleague Dr. Coral Novak.”
The woman shook Safia’s hand perfunctorily with only the tiniest nod. She seemed anxious to return to her survey.
The two scientists could not be more different. Compared to her darkly handsome companion, the woman seemed devoid of pigment, a pale shadow. Her skin glowed like freshly scrubbed snow, her lips thin, her eyes icy gray. Her naturally white-blond hair was cropped short. She stood as tall as Safia, lithe of limb, but still carried a certain sturdiness to her frame. It could be felt in her firm handshake.
“What are you searching for?” Safia asked, taking a step back.
Painter lifted his wand. “We’re checking for radiation signatures.”
“Radiation?” She could not hide her shock.
He laughed—not condescendingly, only warmly. “Don’t worry. It’s a specific signature we’re looking for, something following lightning strikes.”
She nodded. “I didn’t mean to disturb you. It was nice meeting you both, and if there’s anything I can do to facilitate your investigation, please let me know.” She began to turn away.
Painter stepped after her. “Dr. al-Maaz, I had meant to hunt you down. I have a few questions that I would like to discuss with you. Maybe over lunch.”
“I’m afraid I’m very busy.” Those eyes caught hers. She was trapped, unable to look away. She read the disappointment in his pinched brow. “May-maybe something could be arranged. Try me in my office in the morning, Dr. Crowe.”
He nodded. “Very good.”
She tore her gaze away and was saved further humiliation by Ryan Fleming. “I’ll escort you out,” he said.
She followed him into the hall, refusing to glance back. It had been a long time since she had felt so foolish, so flustered…by a man. It must be an aftershock of her unexpected conversation with Omaha.
“We’ll have to take the stairs. The lifts are still out.”
She kept in step with Fleming.
“Odd bunch, them Americans,” he continued as they descended the flights to the first floor. “Always in such a hurry. Had to come this very night. Insisted that the readings they sought would deteriorate. It had to be now.”
Safia shrugged as they reached the bottom and passed the short way to the employee-side exit. “I don’t think that’s so much an idiosyncrasy of Americans as it is of scientists in general. We’re a surly and determined lot.”
He nodded with a smile. “I’ve noticed.” He used his passkey to unlock the door to keep the alarm from sounding. He pushed the door wide with his shoulder, stepping out to hold it open for her.
His eyes were on her, oddly shy. “I was wondering, Safia. If you had the time…maybe…”
The gunshot sounded like no more than a cracking walnut. The right side of Ryan’s head exploded against the door, splattering blood and brain matter. Bits of skull ricocheted off the metal door and into the hallway.
Three masked gunmen crowded through the open door before Ryan’s body hit the ground. They rammed Safia into the far wall, pinning her, choking her, one hand over her mouth.
A gun appeared, pressed against the center of her forehead. “Where’s the heart?”
Painter studied the red needle on his scanner. It jittered up into the scale’s orange range as he passed the detection rod over a blasted display cabinet. A significant reading.
The device had been designed by the nuclear labs at White Sands. Rad-X scanners were capable of detecting low-level radiation. Their particular devices had been specially calibrated to detect the unique decay signature of antimatter annihilation. When an atom of matter and antimatter collided and obliterated, the reaction liberated pure energy. That was what their detectors had been calibrated to sniff out.
“I’m picking up a particularly strong reading over here,” his partner called to him. Her voice was matter-of-fact, all business.
Painter crossed to her. Coral Novak was new to Sigma, recruited from the CIA only three years ago. Still, in the short time since her hiring, she had earned a Ph.D. in nuclear physics and was already a black belt in six disciplines of martial arts. Her IQ was off the charts, and she had almost an encyclopedic knowledge on a wide range of subjects.
He had heard of Novak, of course, even met her once at a district meeting, but they had only the short hop from Washington to London to better acquaint themselves. Not nearly enough time for two reserved people to form any relationship, beyond a stiffly professional one. He couldn’t help comparing her to Cassandra, which only exacerbated his reticence. Similar traits between the women tweaked his suspicion, while discordantly, the few differences made him wonder about his new partner’s competence. It made no sense. He knew this.
Only time would sort it out.
As he stepped beside her, she pointed her detection rod at the melted ruin of a bronze urn. “Commander, you’d better double-check my findings. I’m reading a signature all the way into the red range.”