The Last Oracle

Page 11

What was Archibald Polk doing at Chernobyl? How had he been exposed to such a lethal level of radiation from the dead reactor site? The reactor was due this week to be sealed with a new Sarcophagus, a massive articulated steel dome. Amid all the new construction, had Polk somehow been exposed to a lethal dose of radiation there?

Before Painter could question Malcolm in more depth, his cell phone vibrated on his belt. He unhooked it and checked who was calling. It was his assistant. Frowning, he flipped it open.

“What is it, Brant?”

“Director, I received an alert from Homeland. There’s just been a bomb threat called in to the natural history museum.”

Painter’s fingers tightened on his cell phone.

The natural history museum…where Gray had been headed.

That couldn’t be good.

“Patch me through to Gray’s radio.”

He waited, cell phone at his ear. Malcolm stared over at him.

Had Gray called in the threat? Had someone else?

Either way, something was wrong.

He had confirmation a second later.

Brant came back on the line. “Sir, he’s not responding.”

7:56 P.M.

Elizabeth Polk appraised Gray Pierce as they neared the museum’s loading docks. Studying him askance, she noted the faded bruising on one side of his face. His sunburned complexion hid most of the contusions. The beating must have taken place a month or so ago. It gave the planes of his face a look of hammered copper and brought out the blue of his eyes. It was those same eyes that chilled her when he spotted the half dozen men clearing the museum’s loading dock and turned them back.

“Something’s not right here,” he said.

She caught a glimpse of the warehouse space past his shoulder. Lit by flickering fluorescents, the cavernous space was crowded with tall shelves stacked with cleaning supplies and dry goods for the various museum concession stores. A single forklift rested beside a series of pulleys and counterbalances for bringing in larger pieces of an exhibit. A steel roll-up door stood open to the right. Outlined against the waning daylight, a cadre of men in black riot gear had set up a cordon near the exit. Under the klaxon of the evacuation alarm, they were searching each worker and staff member who sought to exit in that direction.

A narrow-shouldered man in a blue suit oversaw it from a few steps away. He was plainly someone high up the food chain.

Gray forced her back down the hallway. He hefted his shoulder bag higher. It bore the museum logo and carried the strange skull her father had hidden in the museum’s storage room. At the thought of her father, a dull ache in her chest threatened to melt into sobbing tears. She held it back. She would address her loss at a quieter moment.

Down the hall, in the opposite direction of the docks, a shout echoed out the stairwell ahead, a call to search every room. Boots pounded down the stairs.

Gray stopped and turned to her. “Is there another way out of here?”

She nodded. “The service tunnels. Over this way.”

As she led them back again, Gray fixed her with those stormy eyes, questioning her knowledge.

“Some of the staff take their smoking breaks down there.” She glanced to him guiltily. She really needed to quit. Still, the habit had allowed her to bond with a few of the other researchers. A secret smokers’ club. And all it cost was the risk of emphysema and lung cancer. “We’re not supposed to smoke within the museum, of course. Fire danger, but it’s all stone and steam pipes down there.”

She led them to an unmarked door and keyed open the electronic lock with her card. The stairs on the far side were stained cement with a steel railing along one side. It led down in sharp turns.

Before they could enter, a low growl drew all their eyes back to the docks. A low shape slunk into view of the hallway. Thirty yards away. A German shepherd. It was outfitted with a black vest and was tethered to a man still out of view.

Elizabeth froze.

The dog spotted them and lunged forward, straining against his leash.

“Go,” Gray urged and pushed her through the open stairwell door and followed. His beefy partner crowded in behind them. It was hot and close. The museum’s air-conditioning did not extend here. The only light was a caged emergency bulb.

Gray closed the door with the barest click of the lock engaging. The alarm klaxon muffled. He waved them down the tight stairs and squeezed up to join her. “Do you know where the tunnels lead?”

She shook her head. “Not sure. I never went any farther than I had to. It’s a maze down there, branching in every direction. Rumors say even under the White House. But surely there must be a street exit somewhere.”

Behind them, something heavy hit the door above, followed by deep barks. Shouts echoed, chasing them down the stairs.

“Could it be a bomb-sniffing dog?” Elizabeth asked. “Maybe the threat is real.”

Gray’s partner, Kowalski, snorted. “Only around Pierce is a real bomb threat considered a good thing.”

At the bottom of the stairs, they hit a barred gate. Gray cranked the locking bar aside and creaked the gate open. The tunnels stretched in both directions, pitch-black, sweltering, smelling of wet cement and whispering with trickles of water.

“I hope someone brought the flashlight,” Kowalski commented.

Gray swore softly under his breath. He’d left the light back in the storeroom.

Elizabeth fished in her pocket and produced her cigarette lighter. It was an antique silver Dunhill. She flipped it open and rasped a small flame into existence. With practiced skill, she adjusted the flame.

“Nice,” Kowalski said. “I wish I’d brought one of my cigars.”

“Me, too,” Elizabeth mumbled back.

Kowalski did a double take in her direction.

Before he could say anything, light flooded down the stairs behind them. The alarm klaxon rang louder. Their pursuers had gotten through the upper door.

“Hurry.” Gray headed to the right. “Stay close.”

Elizabeth kept to Gray’s shoulder with Kowalski behind her. She held her lighter high. The flickering glow extended only a few yards ahead. Gray trotted down the tunnel. He kept one arm up, his fingertips trailing along the run of pipes overhead. He took the first branch to get them out of direct view of the stairwell exit.

A single low bark echoed to them.

Gray urged their flight into a run.

Elizabeth’s lab coat flapped behind her. Her flame burned through a nest of cobwebs as they raced around another turn.

“Where are we going?” Kowalski asked.

“Away,” Gray answered.

“That’s your big plan? Away?”

A burst of furious barking erupted. Shouts rang out. Their trail had been found.

“Forget what I said,” Kowalski corrected. “Away sounds just fine by me.”

In a tight group, they fled into the maze of tunnels.

Halfway across the city, Yuri sat on a bench under the spread of a cherry tree. It felt good to sit down. His knees ached, and his lower back threatened to spasm. He had dry-swallowed four tablets of Aleve. He had stronger medications back home, but nothing he dared bring into the States. It would be good to return to the Warren.

He stretched a leg and rubbed a knee.

As he rested, the sun was near to setting and cast long shadows across the parkland walkway. Steps away, a low cement wall bordered the path’s far side. Children and parents lined the edge and pointed down into the outdoor habitat beyond the wall. A small piece of China’s forestland had been re-created: a rocky outcropping sectioned into grottoes, ponds, and misty streams. Shrubs decorated its steep slopes, along with weeping willows, cork trees, and several species of bamboo. The habitat’s two occupants, two Giant pandas on loan from China—Mei Xiang and Tian Tian—had captured the delighted attention of the zoo’s last few visitors.

Including Sasha.

The girl stood with her arms folded atop the lip of the stone wall. One shoe swung rhythmically to strike the cement. But it was slowing down.

As he had hoped.

Yuri had brought the girl to the National Zoological Park after her performance with Mapplethorpe. From long experience, he knew the calming effect animals had on his charges. Especially Sasha. Yuri had no need to test the BDNF levels in the girl’s spinal fluid. After such an intense episode, the hormone levels of “brain-derived neurotrophic factors” had surely spiked to dangerous levels. He had not been prepared. Caught off guard by her performance, he knew he had to calm her down quickly. Away from her home environment, she would be especially agitated, vulnerable. There was a risk of lasting neural damage. He had seen it before. It had taken them decades to discover the innate relationship between autistic children’s mental health and the palliative effect of their interaction with animals.

So while Mapplethorpe executed a search of the natural history museum, Yuri had transported Sasha to the city’s famous zoological park. It was as close a facsimile to the Menagerie as he would find here in the foreign city.

Sasha’s kicking slowed even further. She was ramping down. Still, the toe of her patent leather shoes had become badly scuffed. But better her shoes than her mind.

Yuri felt a knot between his shoulder blades ease. He would get her on the next flight back to Russia. Once returned to the Warren, he would schedule her for a complete physical exam: blood chemistries, urinalysis, a full cranial CT scan. He had to be sure there was no damage.

But more important, he needed an answer as to how she had induced an episode on her own. That shouldn’t have happened. The cortical implant maintained a steady-state level of stimulation, tailored to each child’s ability. Sasha’s display back at Mapplethorpe’s office should not have happened unless her implant was remotely triggered to provoke such a response.

So what had happened? Had there been a malfunction in her implant? Had someone else triggered it? Or even more disturbing, was Sasha growing beyond the yoke of their control?

Despite the day’s heat and his relief, he still felt cold.

Something was wrong.

A flurry of noise erupted ahead of him. It came from the crowd lining the panda exhibit. Excited murmurs swelled. A flurry of camera flashes sparkled among the crowd. More people were drawn by the commotion. Yuri heard a named called out and repeated.

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