STEPHANIE HANDED THE ATTENDANT HER TICKET AND ENTERED the National Air and Space Museum. Green had not come with them, because the attorney general's presence in such a public place would not have gone unnoticed. Stephanie had chosen the locale for the building's many transparent walls, reputation as the world's most visited museum, abundance of security staff, and metal detectors. She doubted Daley would, at this point, invoke anything official that might lead to uncomfortable questions, but he could bring Heather Dixon and her new Arab associates.
They pushed through the crowds and glanced around at the museum's three-block-long interior composed of steel, marble, and glass. Ceilings soared at nearly a hundred feet, creating a hangarlike effect, and displayed a history of flight from the Wright Brothers' flier, to Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, to the Apollo 11 moon ship.
"Lots of people," Cassiopeia muttered.
They passed an IMAX theater with a thick line of patrons and entered the busy Space Hall. Daley stood near a full-sized, spiderlike Lunar Module, displayed as it would have appeared on the moon, with an astronaut balanced on its landing leg ladder.
Daley looked calm, considering. Not a hair on his head had escaped its usual brilliantine hold.
"Got your clothes back on," she said as they approached.
"I underestimated you, Stephanie. My mistake. I won't make it again."
"You leave all your escorts at home?" She knew Daley rarely went anywhere without bodyguards.
"All but one."
He motioned and she and Cassiopeia turned. Heather Dixon appeared from the far side of the Skylab exhibit.
"Deal's off, Larry," she said.
"You want to know about the Alexandria Link? She's the one to fill in the gaps."
Dixon strolled through the crowd toward them. A group of noisy children congealed at the Lunar Module, hugging the wooden railing that wrapped the display. Daley led them closer to a narrow walk on its rear side that paralleled a glass wall, the museum's busy cafeteria beyond.
"You're still dead," Dixon said to her.
"I didn't come here to be threatened."
"And I'm only here because my government ordered me."
"First things first," Daley said.
Dixon brought out an electronic device about the size of a cell phone and switched it on. After a few seconds, she shook her head. "They're not wired."
Stephanie knew how the device worked. Billet agents routinely used them. She grabbed the detector and pointed it at Dixon and Daley.
She tossed it back to Dixon. "Okay, since we're alone, talk."
"You're a bitch," Dixon said.
"Great. Now could you get to the point of this drama?"
"Here it is, short and sweet," Daley said. "Thirty years ago George Haddad was reading a copy of a Saudi Arabian gazette, published in Riyadh, studying place-names in west Arabia, translating them into Old Hebrew. Why he was doing that, I have no idea. Sounds like watching paint dry. But he began to notice that some of the locations were biblical."
"Old Hebrew," Cassiopeia said, "is a tough language. No vowels. Hard to interpret and loaded with ambiguities. You have to know what you're doing."
"An expert?" Dixon asked.
"Haddad is an expert," Daley said, "and here's the problem. These biblical place-names he noticed were concentrated in a strip about four hundred miles long and one hundred wide, in the western portion of Saudi Arabia."
"Asir?" Cassiopeia asked. "Where Mecca is?"
Daley nodded. "Haddad spent years looking at other locales but could find no similar concentration of Old Hebrew biblical place-names anywhere else in the world, and that included Palestine itself."
Stephanie realized that the Old Testament was a record of ancient Jews. So if the place-names in modern-day west Arabia, translated into Old Hebrew, were actually biblical locations, that could have enormous political implications. "Are you saying there were no Jews in the Holy Land?"
"Of course not," Dixon said. "We were there. All he's saying is that Haddad believed that the Old Testament was a record of the Jewish experience in west Arabia. Before they traveled north to what we know as Palestine."
"The Bible came from Arabia?" Stephanie asked.
"That's one way of putting it," Daley said. "Haddad's conclusions were confirmed when he started matching geography. For more than a century archaeologists have tried to find, in Palestine, sites that match biblical descriptions. But nothing fits. Haddad discovered that if you match locales in west Arabia, translated into Old Hebrew, with biblical geography, location after location matches."
Stephanie was still skeptical. "Why has no one noticed this before? Haddad's surely not the only person who can understand Old Hebrew."
"Others have noticed," Dixon said. "Three, between 1948 and 2002."
Stephanie caught the finality of Dixon's tone. "But your government took care of them? That's why Haddad had to be killed?"
Dixon did not answer.
Cassiopeia broke the moment. "This all goes back to the conflicting claims, doesn't it? God made a covenant with Abraham and gave him the Holy Land. Genesis says the covenant passed through Abraham's son Isaac to the Jews."
"It's been assumed for centuries," Daley said, "that the land God identified for Abraham lay in what we know as Palestine. But what if that wasn't the case? What if, instead, the land God identified was somewhere else? Somewhere far from Palestine. In west Arabia."
Cassiopeia chuckled. "You're nuts. The Old Testament has its roots there? In the heart of Islam? The land of the Jews, what God promised them, contains Mecca? A few years ago factions of Islam rioted worldwide over a cartoon of Muhammad. Can you imagine what they would do with this?"
Daley seemed unmoved. "Which is why the Saudis and the Israelis wanted Haddad dead. He said proof of his theory was to be found within the lost Library of Alexandria. And he was told that this was the case by someone called a Guardian."
"As were those other three individuals," Dixon said. "Each one visited by an emissary called a Guardian, who offered a way to find the library."
"What kind of proof could there possibly be?" Stephanie asked.
Daley seemed impatient. "Haddad told the Palestinian authorities five years ago that he believed ancient documents could be used to verify his conclusions. Just an Old Testament, written before the time of Christ, in its original Hebrew could prove decisive. None older than the tenth century exist today. Haddad knew from other writings that have survived that there were biblical texts in the Library of Alexandria. Finding one may be the only way to prove anything, since the Saudis will not allow archaeological research in Asir."
Stephanie remembered what Green told her early Tuesday morning. "That's why they bulldozed those villages. They were afraid. They didn't want anything found. Nothing that might be associated with the Jewish Bible."
"And it's why they now want you dead," Dixon said. "You're interfering in their business. No chances are going to be taken."
Stephanie stared out into the Space Hall. Rockets on display reached for the ceiling. Excited schoolchildren wove their way through the exhibits. She glared at Dixon. "Your government believes all this?"
"That's why those three men were killed. It's why Haddad was targeted."
She pointed at Daley. "He's not a friend of Israel. He'd want to use whatever he found to bring your government to its knees."
Dixon laughed. "Stephanie, you're losing it."
"There's no question that's his motive."
"You have no idea of my motives," Daley said, his indignation rising. "I know you're a liar."
Daley stared back at her with uncertainty. He almost seemed confused, which surprised her, so she asked, "What's really going on, Larry?"
"More than you can possibly realize."
MALONE RETREATED INTO THE GIFT SHOP BUT KEPT HIS ATTENTION on the three armed men, who were advancing in trained movements across the lower gallery. Pros. Great.
He used one of the glass cases adjacent to the open door as a shield, Pam beside him, and continued to peer out into the cloister. McCollum was crouched behind the center table.
"They're down and we're up. Should buy us a few minutes. The church and galleries are big. It'll take time to search. Those locked?" he asked McCollum, motioning to the other set of glass doors leading out of the shop.
"Afraid so. They lead down and out. So they must lock them as a precaution."
He didn't like their position. "We need to get out of here."
"Cotton," Pam said, and he turned his attention back out into the upper gallery. One of the men had emerged from the stairway leading down and started advancing toward the gift shop.
McCollum slipped up behind him and whispered, "Take her over to the register and get behind the counter."
Anyone who could shoot two men in the head and then enjoy his breakfast warranted some respect. So he decided not to argue. He grasped Pam's arm and led her to the far side of the counter.
He saw McCollum palm the knife.
The three glass display cases nestled beside one another with a gap between wide enough to accommodate McCollum. Darkness would shield him, at least until it was too late for his prey to react.
The armed man drew closer.
STEPHANIE WAS LOSING PATIENCE WITH LARRY DALEY. "WHAT do you mean more than I can possibly realize?"
"There are some within the administration who want to prove Haddad's theory," Daley said.
She recalled what Daley had said to Brent Green when he thought they were alone. "Including you."
"That's not true."
She wasn't buying it. "Get real, Larry. You're only here because I have the dirt on you."
Daley seemed unfazed. "Time for a reality check, Stephanie. Our media people will spin whatever you do into a tale of fabricated evidence by an out-of-control employee trying to save her job. Sure, there may be some embarrassment, questions from the press, but you don't have enough to take me or anyone else down. I didn't give a dime to anyone. And those lobbyists? It's a swearing contest. A battle you'll lose."
"Maybe. But you'd be radioactive. Your career over."
Daley shrugged. "Occupational hazard."
Cassiopeia was studying the exhibit hall and Stephanie sensed she was anxious. So she said to Daley, "Get to the point."
"The point," Dixon said, "is that we want all this to go away. But somebody within your government won't let it die."
"That's right. Him." And she pointed at Daley.
Cassiopeia drifted toward the Lunar Module exhibit and the flurry of teenagers crowded around its base.
"Stephanie," Daley said, "you blamed me for the Alexandria Link being leaked. But you don't know your friends from your enemies. You hate this administration. You think the president is an idiot. But there are others who are far worse. Dangerous people."
"No," she said. "They're all fanatics. Party loyalists who've shot off their mouths for years. Now they're in a position to do something."
"And for the moment, Israel is at the top of their agenda."
"Skip the riddles, Larry. Tell me what you want me to know."
"The vice president is behind this."
Had she heard right? "Get real."
"He's connected to the Saudis. They've financed him for a long time. He's been around. A few terms in Congress, three years as treasury secretary, now the second seat. He wants the top job, makes no secret, and the party faithful have promised him the nomination. He has friends who need good relations with the Saudis, and those friends will be the ones supplying him with money. He and the president disagree on the Middle East. He's tight with the Saudi royal family, but keeps that quiet. Publicly he's climbed their asses a few times. But he made sure the Saudis knew about the Alexandria Link. His token for their goodwill."
What she was hearing rang contrary to what Brent Green had said, since the attorney general himself had taken the blame for the leak.
"What is it?" Stephanie asked her.
"Too much intrigue in your life," Dixon said to Cassiopeia.
"Too much lying in yours."
Stephanie faced Daley, her thoughts arguing. "I thought you said a few minutes ago that some in the administration want to prove Haddad's theory. Now you say the vice president fed it to the Saudis. They'd want it to go away. Which is it?"
"Stephanie, what you took from my house would finish me. I work in the shadows. Always have. But somebody has to do it. Do you want to get me, or do you want who's really behind all this?"
Not an answer to her question. "I want all of you."
"That's not possible. For once, would you listen? You can smack on a log all day long with a hatchet and you might cut through. But slam a wedge down its center and the thing splits every time."
"You're just trying to save your hide."
"Tell her," Daley said to Dixon.
"There's a division in your government. You're still our friend, but there are some who want to change that."
Stephanie wasn't impressed. "That's always the case. Two sides to everything."
"This is different," Dixon said. "More is happening. And Malone is in Portugal."
That grabbed her attention.
"The Mossad plans to deal with him there."
Daley ran a hand through his hair. "Stephanie, two factions are at work. One Arab, one Jew. They both want the same thing and, for once, they want it for the same reason. The vice president is linked to the Arabs-"
An alarm echoed through the cavernous museum, then a flat voice announced through a public address system that the building must be immediately cleared.
Stephanie grabbed Daley.
"It's not me," he quickly said.
SABRE STOOD ROCK-STILL. HE NEEDED THE MAN WITH THE GUN to enter the gift shop.
He'd have to.
Sabre wondered where the other two had gone. His answer came with movement beyond the set of locked glass doors.
These three obviously knew the geography, and they also knew that the gift shop was their destination.
Had they seen the lights?
The two gunmen to his left tested the doors and found they were locked. The forms then backed away and fired at the glass.
No retorts. Just thumps. Like a hammer to a nail. Metal smacked into the glass, thudded, but did not shatter it.
The third gunman in the upper gallery rushed inside the open doorway, his gun leading the way. Sabre waited for the instant of indecision, when his target had to assess his situation, then lunged forward, slamming the man's gun with his foot as he brought the knife around and slashed the man's throat. He gave the man no time to realize his fate, plunging the blade into the nape of his neck.
A few gargled gasps and the man collapsed to the floor.
More thuds dotted the locked glass doors. A couple of kicks loosened nothing. Then he heard footsteps as the two attackers retreated down the stairway.
He grabbed the dead man's gun.
THE ALARM CONTINUED TO BLARE. HUNDREDS OF PATRONS rushed toward the museum entrances. Daley was still in Stephanie's grasp.
"The vice president has allies," he said. "He can't do this alone."
She was listening.
"Stephanie. Brent Green is working with him. He's not your friend." Her eyes locked on Heather Dixon, who said, "He's telling the truth. Who else knew you were coming here? If we wanted you dead, this would not have been the meeting place."
She'd thought herself in control, but now she wasn't so sure. Green was indeed the only other person who knew they were there-if Dixon and Daley were telling the truth.
She released Daley, who said, "Green's in league with the VP. Has been for a while. He's been promised the second seat on the ticket. Brent could never hope to win an election. This is his one shot at moving up."
An announcement again ordered that the building must be cleared. A security guard exited the cafeteria and told them they'd have to leave.
"What's happening?" Daley asked him.
"Just a precaution. We need to clear the building."
Through the far glass walls, Stephanie saw people streaming away from the road and trees that separated the museum from the grassy mall.
They hustled back toward the main entrances. People continued to flood out the doors. Lots of chatter and concerned faces. Most of them were teenagers and families, the talk about what could possibly be happening.
"Let's find another way," Cassiopeia said. "At least be a little unpredictable."
She agreed. They walked off. Daley and Dixon stood rigid, as if trying to make them believe.
"Stephanie," Daley called out.
"I'm the only friend you've got. Find me when you realize that."
She did not seize on his words, though she hated the feeling of uncertainty that coursed through her.
"We have to go," Cassiopeia said.
They rushed through more galleries brimming with shiny aircraft, past a gift shop rapidly losing patrons. Cassiopeia seemed intent on using one of the emergency exits-a good play, since the alarms were already activated.
Ahead, from behind a display case loaded with miniature planes, a man appeared. Tall, dressed in a dark business suit. He raised his right palm. Stephanie spotted a thin wire corkscrewing from his left ear.
She and Cassiopeia stopped and turned. Two more men, similarly dressed and equipped, stood behind them. She registered their look and manner.
The first man spoke into a lapel mike, and the building's alarm went silent.
"Can we do this easy, Ms. Nelle?"
"Why should I?"
The man stepped closer. "Because the president of the United States wants to talk to you."