“Tai Shan…Tai Shan…”
He sat up straighter with a wince of protest from his back. He recognized the name from the zoo’s brochure. Tai Shan was the panda cub born to Mei Xiang a few summers back. The youngster must have wandered into sight.
The crowd jostled for a better view. More people gathered. Children were lifted to parents’ shoulders. Cameras flashed furiously. Frowning at the tourists’ manic response, Yuri stood up. He had lost sight of Sasha in the crush of the crowd. He knew she didn’t like to be touched.
He stepped across the walkway and pushed into the pack of people. The park would be closing in the next few minutes. It was time to go.
He reached the wall where Sasha had been standing.
She wasn’t there.
With his heart thudding, he searched the stretch of walls to either side. No sign of her ebony hair and red ribbons. He stumbled outward again, shouldering and pawing his way through the crowd. Grunted protests met his rude passage. A camera tumbled from someone’s hands and cracked against the pavement.
Someone grabbed his shoulder. He was yanked around.
“Mister, you’d better have a goddamn good reason—”
Yuri shook free. His eyes, bright with true panic, met the larger man. “My…my granddaughter. I’ve lost my granddaughter.”
Anger melted to concern.
With mostly parents in attendance, word spread quickly. It was every mother and father’s worst fear. Questions peppered him. What does she look like? What was she wearing? Others offered words of support, promising that she’d be found.
Yuri barely heard them, deafened by his own pounding heart. He should have never left her side, never sat down.
The crowd thinned around him, opening views in all directions.
Yuri turned a full circle. He searched, but he knew the truth.
Sasha was gone.
September 5, 8:12 P.M.
“Door!” Kowalski yelled from the rear.
Gray skidded to a stop and glanced behind him. Elizabeth Polk held out her lighter and revealed a small doorway, hidden two steps off the dark tunnel. Gray had rushed past it, too focused on the roof, searching for a street exit from the service tunnels.
Behind them, calls echoed from the searchers. A single harsh bark rang out as the trackers found their trail again. Gray had crisscrossed among tunnels, trying to lose them, but it proved fruitless, and they were losing ground.
Kowalski reached to the door and fought the handle. “Locked.” He punched the metal surface in frustration.
Coming up to his side, Gray noted an electronic key-lock below the handle. The lighter’s flame flickered across a small steel sign stenciled in Art Deco letters:
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AMERICAN HISTORY
The door was a subterranean entrance to another of the Smithsonian Institution’s museums. Closest to the door, Elizabeth swiped her museum security card, but the lock remained dark. To make sure, Kowalski tugged the handle and shook his head.
“My card’s only good for the natural history museum,” Elizabeth said. “But I hoped—”
A fierce bark drew their attention around. The bobbling glow of flashlights lit up the far end of the tunnel.
“Better move it,” Kowalski said and stepped away from the door.
A shotgun blast erupted. Something sparked off the metal surface, striking where Kowalski had stood a second before. The round ricocheted off the door and spun across the cement floor, spitting blue sparks of electricity.
Kowalski danced away from it, like an elephant from a mouse.
Gray recognized the payload: a Taser XREP. Fired from a standard twelve-gauge, the weapon shot out a self-contained, wireless dart that packed a shocking neuromuscular jolt. It could drop a mountain gorilla.
“HOMELAND SECURITY! HALT OR WE’LL FIRE AGAIN!”
“Now they warn us,” Kowalski said and lifted his arms above his head.
Half hidden behind his partner’s bulk, Gray twisted around and swiped his black Sigma identification card through the key-lock. A small green light flicked into existence alongside the lock.
“HANDS ON YOUR HEADS. GET ON YOUR KNEES!”
Gray shoved the handle, and the door cracked open. It was dark beyond. Reaching behind him, he grabbed Elizabeth’s elbow. She flinched, then saw the half-open door. She, in turn, reached out and grabbed the back of Kowalski’s belt. He had his hands on his head and had been bending down to kneel.
He glanced back to them.
Gray shouldered the door open and pulled Elizabeth with him. Yanked off balance, Kowalski stumbled to one knee—then pushed off the floor and dove after them through the doorway.
Gray heard another blast of a shotgun.
Kowalski knocked into them and sent them sprawling across the dark stairs beyond the threshold. His other leg kicked the door shut—and kept kicking. “—oddamnmotherfu—!” he wailed between clenched teeth.
Gray spotted the sparking projectile impaled through the shoe of the man’s spasming leg. Elizabeth did, too. She climbed over him, pinned his ankle, and crushed the Taser shell under her shoe heel.
Kowalski’s leg continued to twitch for another breath, then stopped.
His cursing did not.
Gray stood and held out an arm to help him up. “You’re lucky it hit your shoe. The leather blunted the barbs from penetrating deeply.”
“Lucky!” Kowalski bent and rubbed the stabs through the polished leather. “Assholes ruined my new Chukkas!”
Muffled shouts approached the doorway.
“C’mon,” Gray urged and headed up.
Kowalski continued to gripe as they ran up the stairs. “Crowe’s buying me a new pair!”
Gray ignored him as he raced up the stairs.
Kowalski’s tirade continued. “Just leave the monkey skull down there. Let ’em have the goddamn thing.”
“No!” rang from both Elizabeth and Gray.
Gray heard the anger in the woman’s voice. It matched his own. Her father had died to keep the skull from his pursuers. Died in Gray’s arms. He wasn’t about to give it up.
They hit the upper stairwell door. It was locked, too. Pounding echoed on the door below. It wouldn’t take long for someone to secure a pass-key.
“Over here,” Elizabeth said and pointed to the darkened card reader.
Gray swiped his security I.D. and heard the lock release. He glanced behind him as he pushed the door open. Surely word was already spreading. Whoever was hunting them would know they were fleeing into the Museum of American History.
Gray led them out into a lighted hall. It was almost a match to the basement of the natural history museum, except here there were stacks of boxes in the hallway, crowding the way. Gray tested his own radio, but he still had no signal, buried too deeply under the museum.
“This way,” he said and aimed for a stairway that led up.
They almost bowled over an electrician in a work uniform, weighted down with a roll of conduit over his shoulder and a heavy belt of tools.
“Why don’t you watch where you’re go—!”
Something he saw in Gray’s expression silenced him. He backed out of the way and flattened against the wall. They hurried past him and upward. The farther they climbed, the more chaos they encountered: clusters of workmen, stripped walls, tangles of exposed ductwork. Reaching the next landing, they had to dodge around piles of Sheetrock and flats of stacked marble tiles. The growl of motors and whine of saws echoed from the doorway ahead. The air smelled of fresh paint and tasted of sawdust.
Gray recalled that the Museum of American History had been undergoing a massive renovation, updating its forty-year-old infrastructure, all to better showcase its three million historical treasures, from Abraham Lincoln’s top hat to Dorothy’s ruby slippers. The museum had been closed to the public for the past two years but was due to open next month.
From the look of things as Gray entered the museum’s central atrium, the grand reopening might be delayed. Plastic sheeting draped almost every surface; scaffolding climbed the three-story core of the renovation. Grand staircases swept from the first floor to the second. Directly overhead a massive skylight was still sheeted with paper.
Gray grabbed the nearest worker, a carpenter whose face was half covered by a respirator. “The exit! Where’s the nearest exit?”
The man squinted at him. “The
exit is closed. You’ll have to climb to the second level. Head out the main Mall entrance.” He pointed to the staircase.
Gray glanced to Elizabeth, who nodded. They walked out as a group. Gray checked his radio again. Still nothing. Something or someone had to be blocking his signal.
They raced to the stairs and pounded up to the second level. It was less chaotic up here. The green marble floor looked freshly mopped, highlighting the silver stars embedded therein. Gray had a clear view from the central atrium to the glass doors of the Mall exit. He needed to make it out before—
A knot of men bearing assault rifles swept into view outside the doors. They wore dark uniforms with patches at their shoulders.
Gray forced Kowalski and Elizabeth back.
Behind them, a growled bark echoed up from the first floor. Workers shouted in surprise.
“What now?” Kowalski asked.
From the Mall entrance, a bullhorn blasted. “HOMELAND SECURITY! THE BUILDING IS TO BE EVACUATED IMMEDIATELY! EVERYONE TO THE MAIN EXIT!”
“This way,” Gray said.
He led them off to the side, toward the largest piece of art on this floor’s gallery. The installation was an abstract flag, made up of fifteen ribbons of mirrored polycarbonate.
“We can’t keep running,” Elizabeth said.
“So we’re hiding?” Kowalski asked. “What about their dogs?”
“We’re not running or hiding,” Gray assured them.
He passed the shimmering flag. Its mirrored surface reflected a prismatic view of the museum. In bits and pieces, Gray saw the armed detail take up an impenetrable cordon across the only exit.