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Sandstorm: Page 5

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The footage froze and reversed, frames clicking back. The room reappeared out of the flash, then the cabinet re-formed around the iron figure.

"Freeze there."

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.

The young woman proved a financial savant, trebling her father's net worth while still at the university. Kensington Wells, Incorporated, continued to grow, branching into new fields: computer technology platforms, desalination patents, television broadcasting. Still, Kara never neglected the fountainhead of all her family's wealth: oil. In just the last year, Kensington surpassed the Halliburton Corporation for the most profitable oil contracts.

And like Kensington's oil ventures, Safia was not left behind. Kara continued to pay for her education, including six years at Oxford, where Safia earned her doctorate in archaeology. Upon graduation, she remained under the employ of Kensington Wells, Inc. Eventually she came to oversee Kara's pet project here at the museum, a collection of antiquity from the Arabian Peninsula, a collection first started by Reginald Kensington. And like his former corporation, this project also prospered under Kara's mantle, growing into the single largest collection in the entire world. Two months ago, the ruling family in Saudi Arabia had attempted to buy the collection, to return it to Arabian soil, a deal rumored to be worth in the hundreds of millions.

Kara had declined. The collection meant more to her than money. It was a memorial to her father. Though his body had never been found, here was his tomb, this lone wing in the British Museum, surrounded by all the wealth and history of Arabia.

Safia stared past her friend's shoulder to the live-feed monitor, to the smoky ruin of her hard work. She could only imagine what the loss would mean to Kara. It would be like someone desecrating her father's grave.

"Kara," Safia began, attempting to soften the blow that would come, to hear it from someone who shared her passion. "The gallery…it's gone."

"I know. Edgar already told me." Kara's voice lost its hesitancy. She pulled out of the embrace, as if suddenly feeling foolish. She stared around at the others gathered here. The familiar tone of command entered her demeanor. "What happened? Who did this?"

To lose the collection so soon after rejecting the Saudis' offer had clearly piqued Kara's suspicion, too.

Without hesitation, the tape was once again played for Lady Kensington. Safia remembered the earlier admonishment about the secrecy of what the footage revealed. No such warning was given to Kara. Wealth had its privileges.

Safia ignored the replay on the monitor. Instead she studied Kara, fearing how this might devastate her.

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