Painter confirmed it with his own scanner. “Definitely hot.”
Coral dropped to a knee. Wearing thin lead gloves, she examined the urn, rolling it carefully. A rattle sounded inside. She glanced up at him.
He nodded for her to investigate. She reached through the mouth of the urn, searched a moment, then pulled free a thimble-size chunk of rock. She rolled it in her gloved palm. One side was blast-blackened. The other was red, metallic. Not rock…iron.
“A piece of the meteor,” Coral said. She held it out for Painter to scan. The readings indicated the item was the source of the strong reading. “And look at my ancillary readings. Besides Z-bosons and gluons against the background gamma, as expected with antimatter annihilation, this sample is emitting very low levels of alpha and beta radiation.”
Painter frowned. He had little background in physics.
Coral shifted the sample into a lead specimen jar. “The same radiation pattern found from decaying uranium.”
“Uranium? Like used in nuclear facilities.”
She nodded. “Nonpurified. Perhaps a few atoms trapped in the meteoric iron.” She continued to study her readings. Her brow creased with a single line, a dramatic response in the stoic woman.
“What is it?” he asked.
She continued to fiddle with her scanner. “On the flight over here, I reviewed the results from DARPA’s researchers. Something troubled me about their theories of a stabilized form of antimatter trapped in the meteor.”
“You don’t think such a thing is possible?” It was certainly a stretch of plausibility. Antimatter always and instantly annihilated itself when in contact with any form of matter, even oxygen in the air. How could it exist here in some natural state?
She shrugged without looking up. “Even if I accepted such a theory, the question arises of why the antimatter happened to ignite at this time. Why did this particular electrical storm trigger it to explode? Pure chance? Or was there something more?”
“What do you think?”
She pointed to her scanner. “Uranium decay. It’s like a clock. It releases its energy in set, predictable ways, spanning millennia. Perhaps some critical threshold of radiation from the uranium caused the antimatter to begin to destabilize. It was this instability that allowed the shock of the electrical discharge to ignite it.”
“Sort of like a timer on a bomb.”
“A nuclear timer. One set millennia ago.”
It was a disturbing thought.
Still, Coral’s brow remained creased. She had another concern.
“What else?” he asked.
She sat back on her heels and faced him for the first him. “If there is some other source of this antimatter—some mother lode—it may be destabilizing, too. If we ever hope to find it, we’d best not drag our feet. The same nuclear time clock could be ticking down.”
Painter stared at the lead sample jar. “And if we don’t find this lode, we’ll lose all chance of discovering this new source of power.”
“Or worse yet.” Coral glanced around the burned-out shell of the gallery. “This could occur on a much more massive scale.”
Painter let this sobering thought sink into him.
In the heavy silence, a scuffle of steps echoed up from the nearby stairwell. He turned. A voice carried to them, the words muffled, but he recognized Dr. al-Maaz’s voice.
A prickle of warning raced through Painter. Why was the curator returning?
Stronger words reached him, a tone of command, the speaker unknown. “Your office. Take us there.”
Something was wrong. He remembered the fate of the two Defense Sciences officers, shot execution style in their hotel room. He swung to Coral. Her eyes had narrowed.
“Weapons?” he whispered.
They hadn’t had time to arrange for sidearms, always a difficulty in gun-shy Britain. Coral bent and tucked up the cuff of her pant leg to reveal a sheathed knife. He hadn’t known she had it. They had flown commercial to substantiate their covers. She must have stashed the weapon in her checked luggage, then donned it when she used the restroom at Heathrow.
She slid free the seven-inch-long dagger, titanium and steel, German from the look of it. She held it out to him.
“Keep it…” He grabbed instead a long-handled spade from a nearby pile of tools one of the salvage teams had left.
Footsteps approached the stairwell opening. He didn’t know if it was merely museum security, but he wasn’t taking any chances.
Painter signaled Coral his plan, then flicked off the nearby lamp pole, plunging the entrance into gloom. The pair took positions on either side of the opening to the blasted wing. Painter took the post closest to the stairwell, behind a stack of wooden pallets. He could peer between the slats yet still remain in shadow. On the opposite side of the entrance, Coral crouched behind a trio of marble plinths.
Painter kept a hand raised. On my mark.
From his hiding place, he kept an unblinking watch on the doorway. He didn’t have long to wait. A dark figure slid quickly through and took a position flanking the stairwell opening. He was masked, an assault rifle on his shoulder.
Certainly not museum security.
But how many others were there?
A second figure appeared, similarly attired and armed. They searched the hall. The rattle of the fans remained the only sound. Between them, a third masked figure stepped into view. He clutched Safia al-Maaz by the elbow, a pistol shoved into her ribs.
Tears ran down Safia’s pale face. She trembled with each step as she was dragged forward. She struggled to breathe, gasping, “It’s…it’s in my office safe.” She pointed her free arm down the hall.
Her captor nodded for his companions to continue.
Painter slid back slowly, made eye contact with his partner, and signaled their marks. She nodded, shifting position with smooth ease.
Out in the hall, the curator’s eyes searched the entrance to the Kensington Gallery. Of course, she must know the Americans were still here. Would she inadvertently do or say something to give them away?
Her feet slowed, and her voice rose sharply. “Please…don’t shoot me!”
Her captor shoved her forward. “Then do as we say,” he snarled.
She tripped and stumbled, but kept her feet. Her eyes again searched the gallery’s entrance as the pair drew nearer.
Painter realized her terrified outburst had been an attempt to pass on a warning to the American scientists, to send them into hiding.
His respect for the curator grew.
The pair of masked riflemen on point glided forward, passing Painter’s hiding spot. Their weapons swept over the blasted gallery. Discovering nothing, they continued down the hall.
A couple of yards behind the guards, the third man dragged Safia alMaaz. She searched the gallery glancingly. Painter noted the flash of relief as she found the nearest rooms deserted.
As the pair passed his position, Painter signaled his partner.
Coral sprang past the cluster of plinths—shoulder-rolled into the hall—and landed in a crouch between the guards and Safia’s captor.
Her sudden appearance startled the man holding Safia. His weapon shifted from his captive’s ribs. That was all Painter required. He hadn’t wanted the curator shot by reflex. That sometimes happened following a head blow.
Painter slipped from the shadows and swung the spade with deft skill. The gunman’s head cracked to the side, bone giving way. His form crumpled, dragging Safia to the floor with him.
“Stay down,” Painter barked, stepping past to Coral’s aid.
It wasn’t necessary. His partner was already in motion.
Pivoting on her free arm, Coral kicked out with her legs and struck the closest guard in the knees. His legs went out from under him. At the same time, her other hand threw the dagger with stunning accuracy, striking the second guard at the base of the skull, severing the brain stem. He fell forward with a strangled gasp. Coral continued her spin with fluid grace, a gymnast performing a deadly floor routine. Her boot heels slammed into the first man’s face as he attempted to pick himself up.
His head flew back, then rebounded forward, striking the marble floor.
She rolled over to him, ready to deliver more damage, but he was out, unconscious. Still, Coral kept a wary stance. The other gunman lay sprawled facedown. The only movement from him was the spreading pool of blood on the marble. Dead.
Closer, Safia struggled from beneath the arms of her dead captor. Painter went to her aid, dropping to one knee. “Are you hurt?”
She sat up, scooting free from the limp body, from Painter, too. “N-no…I don’t think so.” Her gaze flickered around the carnage, settling nowhere. A keening note entered her voice. “Oh God, Ryan. He was shot…by the door downstairs.”
Painter glanced back to the stairwell. “Are there any more gunmen?”
She shook her head, eyes wide. “I…I don’t know.”
Painter moved closer. “Dr. al-Maaz,” he said sternly, drawing her scattered attention. She was close to shock. “Listen. Was there anyone else?”
She took several deep breaths; her face shone with fear. With a final shudder, she spoke more firmly. “Not downstairs. But Ryan…”
“I’ll go check on him.” Painter turned to Coral. “Stay with Dr. al-Maaz. I’ll recon downstairs and see about rousing security.”
He bent down and recovered the gunman’s abandoned pistol, a Walther P38. Not a weapon he would’ve chosen. He preferred his Glock. But right now its weight felt perfect in his hand.
Coral stepped closer, freeing a coil of rope from a debris pile to secure their remaining prisoner. “What about our cover?” she whispered to him, casting a glance toward the curator.
“We’re both just very resourceful scientists,” he answered.
“So in other words, we’re sticking to the truth.” The barest glint of amusement showed in her eyes as she turned away.
Painter headed to the stairs. He could get used to a partner like her.