Sandstorm, p.11
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       Sandstorm, p.11
 

         Part #1 of Sigma Force series by James Rollins
Page 11

 

  She closed her eyes, wondering now how much of her own life had been guided by this fruitless quest. How influential had Kara been in her choice of studies? In her research projects here? She shook her head. It was too much to grasp at the moment. She would sort the matter later.

  She opened her eyes and stepped toward the statue, blocking the others. “I can’t let you do this. ”

  Kara motioned her aside, her voice calm and logical. “If there’s a piece of the meteorite here, salvaging it is more important than a few scratches on a broken statue. ”

  “Important for whom?” Safia attempted to match Kara’s stolid demeanor, but her question came off more as an accusation. “This statue is one of only a handful from that age in Arabia. Even broken, it’s priceless. ”

  “The meteorite—”

  “—can wait,” Safia said, cutting off her benefactor. “At least until the sculpture can be moved safely. ”

  Kara fixed her with a steely gaze that broke most men. Safia withstood the challenge, having known the girl behind the woman.

  Safia stepped toward her. She took the crowbar, surprised to feel the tremble in the other’s fingers. “I know what you were hoping,” she whispered. Both knew the history of the camel-shaped meteorite, of the British explorer who had discovered it, how it was supposed to guard the entrance to a lost city buried under the sands.

  A city named Ubar.

  And now it had exploded under most strange circumstances.

  “There must be some connection,” Kara mumbled, repeating her words from a moment ago.

  Safia knew one way to dispel such a hope. “You know that Ubar has already been found. ” She let these words sink in.

  In 1992, the legendary city had been discovered by Nicolas Clapp, an amateur archaeologist, using satellite ground-penetrating radar. Founded around 900 B. C. and located at one of the few watering holes, the ancient city had been an important trading post on the Incense Road, linking the frankincense groves of the coastal Omani Mountains to the markets of the rich cities of the north. Over the centuries, Ubar had prospered and grown larger. Until one day, half the city collapsed into a giant sinkhole and was abandoned to the sands by the superstitious townfolk.

  “It was only an ordinary trading post,” she continued.

  Kara shook her head, but Safia was unsure if she was negating her last statement or resigning herself to the reality. Safia remembered Kara’s excitement upon hearing of Clapp’s discovery. It had been heralded in newspapers around the globe: FABLED LOST ARABIAN CITY FOUND! She had rushed out herself to see the site, to help in the early excavation. But as Safia had stated, after two years of digging up potsherds and a few utensils, the site turned out to be nothing more exciting than an abandoned trading post.

  No vast treasures, no thousand pillars, no black ghosts…all that was left were those painful memories that haunted the living.

  “Lady Kensington,” the man with the metal detector called out again. “Maybe Dr. al-Maaz was right about not moving this bloody thing. ”

  Both women turned their attention back to the toppled statue. It was now flanked by both of the team members with detectors. They held their devices to either side of the blocky torso. Both metal detectors were beeping in chorus.

  “I was wrong,” the first man continued. “Whatever I detected is not under the stone. ”

  “Then where is it?” Kara asked irritably.

  The other man answered, “It’s inside it. ”

  A stunned moment of silence followed until Kara broke it. “Inside?”

  “Yes, ma’am. I’m sorry. I should’ve thought to triangulate earlier. But I never thought anything could be inside the stone. ”

  Safia stepped forward. “It’s probably just some random iron deposits. ”

  “Not from the readings we’re getting here. It’s a strong signal. ”

  “We’ll have to break it open,” Kara said.

  Safia frowned at her. Bloody hell. She dropped to her knees beside the sculpture, soaking her pants. “I need a flashlight. ”

  She was handed one by another member of the team.

  “What are you going to do with that?” Kara asked.

  “Peek inside. ” Safia ran her hand over the heat-blasted surface of the statue. The sandy surface was now fused glass. She planted the flashlight facedown on the statue’s bulky torso and flicked it on.

  The entire glassy surface of the statue lit up. Details were murky through the dark crystalline crust. Safia didn’t see anything unusual, but the glass was only two inches thick. Whatever they were looking for might be deeper in the stone.

  Kara gasped behind her. She was staring over Safia’s shoulder.

  “What?” She began to pull away the flashlight.

  “No,” Kara warned. “Move it toward the center. ”

  Safia did so, bringing the wash of light over the middle of the torso.

  A shadow appeared, a lump in the center of the statue, lodged deep, at the point where glass became stone. It shone a deep crimson under the light. The shape was unmistakable—especially given its position inside the torso.

  “It’s a heart,” Kara whispered.

  Safia sat back, stunned. “A human heart. ”

  8:05 P. M.

  H OURS LATER, Kara Kensington stood in the private lavatory outside the department of the ancient Near East.

  Just one more…

  She shook a single orange pill into her palm. Adderall, a prescription amphetamine, twenty milligrams. She weighed the pill in her hand. So much kick in such a small package. But maybe not enough. She added a second tablet. After all, she’d had no sleep last night and still had much to do.

  Tossing back the pills, she dry-swallowed them, then stared at her reflection in the mirror. Her skin looked flushed, her eyes a bit too wide. She ran a hand through her hair, trying to fluff some body back into it. She failed.

  Bending down to the tap, she turned the cold spigot, soaked both hands, and pressed them to her cheeks. She took deep breaths. It seemed like days rather than hours since she had been woken from her bed back at her family estate in the village of Blackheath. News of the explosion had her chauffeured limo racing through the stormy streets to reach the museum.

  And now what?

  Throughout the long day, various forensic teams had gathered all the necessary samples from the gallery: charred wood, plastics, metals, even bone. Finally, a few slag fragments of the meteorite had been picked out of the rubble. All initial evidence suggested that an electrical discharge had ignited some volatile components deep in the chunk of meteoric iron. No one was willing to say what those components were. From here, the investigation would be carried out in labs both in England and abroad.

  Kara could not hide her disappointment. Witnessing the glowing ball of lightning on the video footage had drawn her back to the day her father had vanished into the dust cloud, a spiral of sand sparking with similar crackles of bluish electricity. Then the explosion…another death. There had to be a connection between the past and present.

  But what? Was it just another dead end, like so many times in the past?

  A knock on the door drew her attention from her reflection.

  “Kara, we’re ready for the examination. ” It was Safia. In her friend’s voice, she heard concern. Only Safia understood the weight around Kara’s heart.

  “I’ll be right out. ”

  She dropped the plastic pill vial back into her purse and snapped the satchel closed. Already the initial surge of drug-induced energy took the edge off her despair. With one last futile sweep of her hair, she crossed to the door, unlocked it, and pushed out into one of the more handsome research quarters—the famous Arched Room of the British Museum.

  Built in 1839, the two-story vaulted chamber, located in the west section of the museum, was of early Victorian design: double galleries of library shelves, p
ierced iron walkways and stairs, arched piers leading into recessed alcoves. The very bones of the place harkened back to the times of Charles Darwin, of Stanley and Livingston, of the Royal Society of scientists, where researchers wore jackets with tails and gathered studiously among the stacks of books and ancient tablets. Never open to the public, the department of the ancient Near East now utilized the room as a student center and reserve archive.

  But today, deserted of all but a select few, it served as a makeshift morgue. Kara stared across the room to the stone cadaver, headless and armless, resting atop a wheeled stretcher. It was all that was left of the ancient sculpture found in the north wing. Safia had insisted that it be rescued from the rubble and brought up here, out of harm’s way.

  Two halogen lamps lit the body, and an array of tools rested atop a neighboring library bench, set up like a surgeon’s table with scalpels, clamps, and thumb forceps. There were also various-size hammers and brushes.

  Only the surgeon was missing.

  Safia snapped on a pair of latex gloves. She wore safety glasses and a tightly cinched apron. “Ready?”

  Kara nodded.

  “Let’s crack this old man’s chest,” a young man called with the usual crass enthusiasm of an American. Kara, well familiar with all who worked in her gallery, knew Clay Bishop, a grad student out of North-western University. He fiddled with a digital camcorder resting on a tripod, standing in as the group’s videographer.

  “A little respect, Mr. Bishop,” Safia warned.

  “Sorry,” he said with a crooked grin that belied any true remorse. He was not unhandsome for a gaunt bit of Generation X. He wore jeans, a vintage concert T-shirt depicting the Clash, and Reeboks that might have once been white, but this last was only a rumor. He straightened, stretching, showing a strip of his bare belly, and ran a hand over the stubble of his red hair. The only modicum of studiousness to the grad student was the pair of thick, black-rimmed glasses, uncool enough to be fashionable nowadays. “We’re all set here, Dr. al-Maaz. ”

  “Very good. ” Safia stepped under the halogen lights, positioning herself beside the spread of tools.

  Kara circled to view from the far side, joining the only other person observing the autopsy: Ryan Fleming, head of security. He must have arrived when she had gone to the loo. He nodded to her, but his stance stiffened at her approach, nervous at her proximity, like most of the museum staff.
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