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Sandstorm


Sandstorm: Page 3


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Breathing too hard, Safia reached to the bedside lamp, a small Tiffany replica depicting stained-glass dragonflies. She flicked the lamp's switch a few more times, but the lamp remained dark. Electricity was out. The storm must have knocked down a power line.


Maybe that was all the commotion.


Let it be something that simple.


She swung out of bed, barefoot, but in a warm flannel nightshirt that reached her knees. She crossed to the window and twisted the blinds to peer through to the street below. Her flat was on the fourth floor.


Below, the usually quiet and dignified street of iron lamps and wide sidewalks had become a surreal battlefield. Fire engines and police cars jammed the avenue. Smoke billowed despite the rain, but at least the fierce storm had faded to the usual London weep. With the streetlamps darkened, the only illumination came from the flashers atop the emergency vehicles. Yet, down the block, a deeper crimson glow flickered through the smoke and dark.


Fire.


Safia's heart thudded harder, her breath choked-not from old terrors, but from newborn fears for the present. The museum! She yanked the blinds' cords, ripping them up, and fumbled with the lock to the window. She pushed the sash open and bent out into the rain. She barely noted the icy drops.


The British Museum was only a short walk from her flat. She gaped at the sight. The northeast corner of the museum had crumbled to a fiery ruin. Flames flickered from shattered upper windows while smoke belched out in thick gouts. Men, cowled in rebreathing masks, dragged hoses. Jets of water sailed high. Ladders rose into the air from the back of engines.


Still, worst of all, a gaping hole smoked on the second floor of the northeast corner. Rubble and blackened blocks of cement lay strewn out into the street. She must not have heard the explosion or just attributed it to the storm's thunder
. But this was no lightning strike.


More likely a bomb blast…a terrorist attack. Not again…


She felt her knees grow weak. The north wing…her wing. She knew the smoking hole led into the gallery at the end. All her work, a lifetime of research, the collection, a thousand antiquities from her homeland. It was too much to fathom. Disbelief made the sight even more unreal, a bad dream from which she would awake at any moment.


She fell back into the security and sanity of her room. She turned her back on the shouts and flashing lights. In the darkness, stained-glass dragonflies bloomed to life. She stared, unable to comprehend the sight for a moment, then it dawned. The power was back on.


At that moment, the phone on her nightstand rang, startling her.


Billie raised his head from the comforter, ears pricked at the jangling.


Safia hurried to the phone and picked up the receiver. "Hello?"


The voice was stern, professional. "Dr. al-Maaz?"


"Y-yes?"


"This is Captain Hogan. There's been an accident at the museum."


"Accident?" Whatever had happened was more than just an accident.


"Yes, the museum's director has requested I call you into the briefing. Can you join us in the next hour?"









"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."


"Director."


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.


Ever.


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.


Sandstorm


"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.


How appropriate.


He picked up a pen and filled in the answer in block letters.


SIGMA.


02:22 A.M. GMT


LONDON, ENGLAND


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.

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