The main floor of the east wing of the museum was permanently devoted to temporary exhibits. It had two large galleries that ran side by side from east to west, and a smaller gallery at the end that joined them into a U-shaped path.
Some exhibitions used all three of them. The Minoan exhibit was small enough to fit into the end cap, which also allowed better security: the doorways connecting it to the rest of the museum hid security gates that would crash down if an alarm was triggered. J.J. had been in the museum when the alarm went off after a small earthquake jostled the motion detectors just enough to drop them.
J.J. passed through an interactive child-friendly exhibit about the physical science and psychology of color on her way to the end. A banner over the doorway proclaimed the full name of the show: Lost Atlantis—Treasures of Minos.
The pop culture hook on which it was hung was that the Minoan society might have inspired certain aspects of the European legends of Atlantis, if not traded and shared influence with the actual historical Atlantean civilization. That last idea was controversial, but they’d found some Amazon-American scholar to interview for video segments, talking about the cultural similarities.
J.J. didn’t even care that much about the Atlantis connection. The exhibitors hyped it up to help draw in crowds, but she’d found Minos a fascinating enough subject in mythology and history all by itself.
More than that, though, she’d felt something drawing her to the exhibit ever since she saw the first ad for it, which prominently featured a bronze statue of a bull with an acrobat vaulting over it, one hand on the bull’s horn and the other clutching a double-bladed axe.
The bull and the axe were both symbols of the Minoan society, J.J. knew, and images of bull-dancers were common in artwork from the region. What had been exciting was the way the piece combined them. That unique touch coupled with its realistic rather than stylized depiction of the bull and the leaper had made the piece even more controversial than the claimed Atlantis connections.
It was, as far as anyone knew, one of a kind, and had been subjected to intensive authentication when it surfaced. Adding to the mystique of the statue was the fact that no one had been able to conclusively date it with any accuracy, though the consensus was that it was very old and had lain beneath the Mediterranean Sea for a very long time.
The official literature associated with the exhibit had adopted a “Teach the Controversy” position, noting that there were still doubts about when and where the piece came from but that it had been found near an ancient shipwreck that contained genuine Cretan artifacts from the Middle Minoan period.
J.J. couldn’t say that she wasn’t curious about the provenance of the artifact. History had been her passion, to the point where she’d almost majored in it in college before being talked into something more “employable” by her parents… a fact she’d rued many times during the long, fruitless summer of searching for jobs.
But there was something about the piece that, well, spoke to her, more than any piece of art she’d seen. During the Summer of Funemployment, she’d regularly toured every free cultural attraction in Calvary Crossing in between looking for a job in her field. Having been a connoisseur of every art museum and gallery in the city that offered free admission as well as a dedicated peruser of any library book that seemed halfway interesting, she had seen and appreciated a lot of art.
But the piece prosaically referred to as “Bull-leaper with labrys, date unknown (bronze)” called to her like no piece of art ever had.
Not just art, if she was honest. Nothing on earth.
It seemed she wasn’t alone in that.
When she reached the gallery, it was empty except for a tall, muscular man with a buzzcut who stood directly in front of the Bull-leaper, as close to the gold velvet rope that separated him from it as he could stand without touching it.
J.J. tried to stifle a groan of disappointment, and surprised herself by succeeding.
Of course it had to be a dude.
She’d always had a thing about standing in arm’s reach of a guy, particularly a guy who looked so much like he could overpower her. She’d never been in bad shape, and her months in the warehouse had built her wiry muscles up a bit, but she’d learned to respect the importance of things like reach, leverage, and weight in a fight.
She didn’t think a random guy in a museum would be looking for a fight, of course, but he might just feel entitled to something that would lead to a fight. Something about him just screamed bad news, like a toxic vibe of entitlement and danger.
Well, she thought, even if he stands in front of the dang thing until they announce the closing, he’ll have to leave then and I can have a look on my way out?
It wasn’t ideal, but it would do. It would have to. In the meantime, there were other things she could be looking at. The amphorae and the coins and navigational tools and bits of metalwork from the ship itself weren’t as interesting, but it was always neat to see that kind of thing in person.
The smell of the cleaner they used on the tiles was sharp in the still gallery air, and J.J. found herself sniffling a bit after stifling a sneeze. The sound echoed in the stillness.
“You know, I really thought I’d be alone,” the man said. He sounded weary, and somehow bitter. J.J. turned and saw he was still looking at the bronze as he spoke. “Coming this late. I didn’t think anyone else would be here.”
“Hey, you and me both, dude?” J.J. said. “But, I mean, I won’t bother you if you don’t bother me?”
“I expect you won’t,” he said. He chuckled, and it was the sort of chuckle that always made J.J.’s stomach knot up. He turned to look at her, revealing a pockmarked face with sunken cheeks, and a prominent scar bridging the right end of his mouth to a moustache that was trimmed almost as close as his buzzed hair. “You know, I spent hours trying to figure out the best way to get in here before I realized I could just go in through the front door.”
“That’s… the way I usually do it?” J.J. said. She acted on the faint impression that the man expected her to say something to acknowledge that he had spoken, but she had no idea what it was she was meant to say. This was in no way unusual for her, but she felt it with him to an unusual degree. That plus her irritation with his presence damaged her habitual cheer. “A-plus planning, guy. Really. Wow.”
The man did not notice her sarcasm, which didn’t bother her, as she rarely noticed anyone else’s. He barely noticed that she had said anything at all, a fact that made her relax a bit.
“I realized that all of my plans hinged on the idea that once I reached my goal, if I reached it, then nothing else would matter. If I was caught before I could get to it, it would all be for nothing. But if I reached my prize, and it was what I thought it was, then no one could stop me from just walking out.”
“That… uh… sure is a thing you’re saying?” J.J. said. Her eye darted towards the chair where a security guard might have been sitting, but at the moment, wasn’t.
Of course I’d be alone when Mr. Buzztache decides it’s share time for manifestos, she thought. She wondered how far away she could get and still have a good chance of seeing the bronze up close on her way out. The problem was that leaving the gallery through either doorway would mean the shortest way out was away from it.
A clink brought her attention back to the dude, who had just unclipped the velvet rope from its stand.
“Hey, you know, I think they put that there for a reason?” she said. “It’s like, look, but don’t touch?”
“It’s so much smaller than I thought it would be,” he said, reaching for the statue. “Even having read its dimensions, studied pictures. I pictured it bigger.”
“Yeah, and it’s probably more fragile than you think, too?” she said. “That’s why they don’t want anyone…”
An ear-shattering alarm sounded as he picked the piece up from the table. The security gates clattered down.
“What the whirled chickpeas, dude?” J.J. yelled, her voice competing badly with the clanging alarm.
“At last,” the man said. He turned the statue over in his hands, then started prying at something with his fingernails.
“Dude! That’s priceless!” J.J. said, all sense of self-preservation fleeing in the face of the fear that flooded her when she thought of him damaging the statue. She charged at him, reaching for the statue.
“Little girl, you have no idea,” he said, trying to turn and shoulder block her away. He was big, but she was fast, and wearing excellent shoes. She managed to skid and pivot and skip around, grabbing out at the statue as she danced around him.
Her hand caught the bull by the head, and her momentum wrenched it halfway out of his hands. He tightened his grip, and pulled back.
“If you break this, I am never hecking forgiving you,” J.J. said. She knew he had no reason to care, but it was the truth. This statue was important, somehow, and he clearly knew that, so why was he trying to destroy it?
“When I get this open, it’s my forgiveness you should worry about.”
“You sound like a dang supervillain,” J.J. said, lashing out with her knee to try to loosen his grip. His reflexes were good, though, and she wound up hitting nothing more vulnerable than a muscular thigh.
“Dang? Hecking?” the man said. “Really…?”
“You’re pulling an Ocean’s One heist here and you’re going to hit me for having a potty mouth?” J.J. said.
The man was big enough and strong enough that his attempts to wrench the statue away from J.J. mostly just wrenched her around, and she was strong enough to hold on. Between their twisting, something in the statue gave out. There was a cracking sound, and then the metal was… soft. Like it had lost cohesion. For a single endlessly elongated second, it seemed to stretch between them like taffy.
Then… it exploded.