CHAPTER ONE


WASHINGTON D.C., Smithsonian (Saturday morning)

            Matt Nolan pressed both hands against the glass as if that would bring him closer to the tablet—like a wide-eyed kid gawking at a toys “R” us Christmas display he knew his family was way too poor to buy.  The object behind the Smithsonian special display case was a stele from Jericho inscribed with the world’s first alphabet—or at least that’s what the experts have said.  Matt was fluent in Arabic and had studied a little Akkadian in college, but that didn’t help much with this pictographic script.  His life-long interest in ancient Near Eastern languages had brought him here to the rotunda of the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History on his day off from the McGowan Research Corporation this Saturday morning.  He couldn’t help thinking that had his life not taken a different turn he might be one of the professors assigned to translate the tablet.

            Ignoring his own athletic, mid-thirties crew-cut visage reflected in the glass, Matt studied the tablet, contemplating the enigma of it.  He was able to recognize a few of the symbols from books on ancient scripts he had read, and thought he could make out the name of an Arab ruler--until a movement reflected in the glass caught his eye.  He turned to his right and saw three men dressed in workmen’s overalls with Acme plumbing stenciled on the front entering the rotunda from the front door.  Acme plumbing baseball caps hid much of their faces from him.  Carrying tool boxes in their gloved hands they circled around the African elephant display in the center of the rotunda, then entered a nearby restroom.  Three men to fix one malfunctioning toilet.  Just like the government.   Matt had worked over a decade for the National Security Agency before joining the McGowan Research Corporation, which was really just another finger of the government’s intelligence apparatus—if the truth be known—so he knew all about government efficiency.

            Just as Matt was departing the rotunda he saw the three men re-emerge from the men’s room—and his skin prickled.  They had pulled ski masks over their faces and brandished Uzis instead of their tool boxes.  Matt yelled, “down!  Everybody down!”

            He ducked behind the huge elephant display and flattened himself on the floor just as they began yelling “Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar” while  spraying the entire rotunda with bullets.  The Ratta-tat-tat ratta-tat-tat from their weapons vied with the screams of panic tourists.   

            Matt clenched his fists in rage and helplessness unable to do anything as he saw the security guard at the front door be the first to go down.  Bullets ricocheted everywhere and tourists screamed in pain and terror.  Museum visitors not hit in the initial onslaught trampled each other in their efforts to flee down one of the hallways or escape through the front exit.  Sweat pooled on Matt’s brow as screams and gunshots continued to echo throughout the museum.  The familiar copper odor of blood and the sulfur smell of spent cartridges stung Matt’s nostrils increasing his frustration over his current helplessness.   

            With the foyer emptied of most living visitors one of the terrorists pulled a hammer out of his overalls pocket and smashed the display case containing the stele.  Shards of broken glass tinkled on the floor.  Breaking the display glass set off a screeching alarm hurting Matt’s ears.  Every muscle in his body tensed against the stone-cold floor like a jungle cat ready to spring upon prey--if only he had brought a weapon with him.  As Matt continued to peak around the elephant display a second thug reached in, hefted the large stone tablet and placed it in a leather bag held by his hammer-wielding partner while their companion guarded them with his Uzi at the ready.  Jabbering in Arabic they all three raced for the door.

            Matt jumped up immediately and stepping over bodies of tourists and the security guard and almost slipping on the pools of blood collecting on the floor Matt ran after the three perps.  At the front door he peered out in time to see the three of them start down the steps carrying their stolen treasure—and hear the whoop whoop whoop of a helicopter approaching fast.

            Before the thieves reached the bottom of the stairs the helicopter, bearing the insignia WJLA-7 TV, swooped in low across the mall and someone inside the copter opened fire.  Three quick shots felled the three perps who toppled to the base of the steps.  The instant the copter landed, a tall well-built man, looking like something out of a Hitlerian ubermenschen fantasy, jumped out, and crouching low to avoid the whirling copter blades, ran towards the three perps he’d just shot—the whipped air from the rotor blades churning his blond hair.  He picked up the leather sack, took a quick look at the contents, then glanced up the stairway locking eyes with Matt for a brief second.  Matt stared into those crystal clear eyes—eyes as cold as blue ice—and felt a deep shiver.  The blond man quickly turned and sprinted back to the chopper, tossed the sack in and followed it with one graceful move as the copter lifted off.

            Matt watched just long enough to see the copter clear the Smithsonian Castle heading south and disappear into a metro sky the color of a TV tuned to a dead channel.  He sprinted to his car he had left on nearby Ninth Street.   Gasping for breath, he cranked the ignition, spun out to Constitution avenue and sped towards Reston, Virginia.   Guess this won’t be a day off after all.