The Last Oracle
    Off on the other side, Kowalski hit the line next. To aid in his disguise, he carried a gallon of paint in each hand, which he was mostly using to knock people out of his way. He also was searched. Even the cans of paint were opened.
    Gray held his breath. Not good. The panic was not disrupting the search as much as he would have liked.
    Passing inspection, Kowalski was waved out into the Mall.
    Gray pushed out the door and met the palm of one of the guards.
    “Arms up!” he was ordered. The command was bolstered as another guard leveled a weapon at his chest.
    Hands searched him swiftly. From head to toe. Luckily, he had stashed his ankle holster and weapon back in the gallery’s trash can.
    “Open your bag!”
    Gray knew there was no way he could resist. He dropped the bag and unzipped it. He pulled out the only thing it held: a small electric sander. The rest of the bag was shaken to make sure it was empty—then Gray was waved out of the way.
    As he passed the barking dog, Gray noted a man standing to the side, dressed in a suit. No body armor. He had a Bluetooth headset fixed to his ear. He was barking orders, plainly in charge. Gray also remembered seeing him at the dock of the natural history museum.
    Passing him, Gray spotted the credentials affixed to his jacket pocket.
    Defense Intelligence Agency.
    Gray noted the name in bold type: MAPPLETHORPE.
    Before his attention was noticed, Gray continued out into the Mall.He circumspectly joined the others well away from the museum and the confusion, just a trio of workers reuniting. Gray retaped his radio’s throat mike under his jaw. He attempted to raise Sigma Command.
    Finally, a familiar voice responded.
    “Gray! Where are you?”
    It was Painter Crowe.
    “No time to explain,” Gray said. “I need an unmarked car at the corner of Fourteenth and Constitution.”
    “It’ll be there.”
    As he headed toward the extraction point, Gray held out a hand toward Kowalski.
    The large man passed over one of the gallons of paint. “Just carrying the thing creeps me out.”
    Gray accepted the paint can with relief. Submerged at the bottom lay hidden the strange skull. Gray had chanced that no one would explore too closely the depths of the thick latex paint, especially carried by a worker whose coveralls were splashed with the same paint. Once the skull was cleaned, maybe they’d finally have some answers.
    “We made it,” Elizabeth said with a ring of relief.
    Gray did not comment.
    He knew this was far from over.
    Halfway around the world, a man awoke in a dark, windowless room. A few small lights shone from a neighboring bank of equipment. He recognized the blink and beat of an EKG monitor. His nose caught a whiff of disinfectant and iodine. Dazed, he sat up too quickly. The few lights swam, like darting fish in a midnight sea.
    The sight stirred something buried. A memory.
    …lights in dark water…
    He struggled to sit up, but his elbows were secured to the railings of the bed. A hospital bed. He could not even pull his arms free of the bedsheet. Weak, he lay back down.
    Have I been in an accident?

    As he took a breath, he sensed someone watching him, a prickling warning. Turning his head, he vaguely made out the outline of a doorway. A dark shape stirred at the threshold. A shoe scraped on tile. Then a furtive whisper. In a foreign language. Russian, from the sound of it.
    “Who’s there?” he asked hoarsely. His throat burned, as if he had swallowed acid.
    Silence. The darkness went deathly still.
    He waited, holding his breath.
    Then a flash of light bloomed near the doorway. It blinded, stung. He instinctively tried to raise a hand to shield his eyes, forgetting his arms were still secured to the bed.
    He blinked away the glare. The flash came from a tiny penlight. The shine revealed three small figures slinking into his room. They were all children. A boy—twelve or thirteen—held the light and shielded a girl maybe a year or

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