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The Madonna

By Mary Lou Heilman

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Chapter 1

The Madonna's eyes beckoned. Such sparkle, drawing Sasha into the room even though the Madonna's rapturous gaze never left the infant Jesus in her arms. A soft light delineated the rubies circling her head, the alabaster of her skin, the pave jewels of her gown – the clearest blue diamonds Sasha'd ever seen. And yet…what was it? Something seemed…

                "Exquisite, isn't she?" Sasha Garibova's host, Mr. Palomas, touched her arm. "I couldn't resist highlighting her alone among my other icons.

                "I…yes, she's spectacular, but…did you just acquire this icon?" Sasha asked, turning to the man and gently moving away from his grasp.

She had never met a man so perfectly groomed – an airbrushed vision. His tissue-thin gray-worsted suit threaded with a barely perceptible blue stripe had nary a wrinkle, a contrast to her rumpled linen pants suit – all-too-obviously unsuitable for Washington's humidity, with its jacket fabric stretched to cover her broad, swimmer's shoulders. His hair, revealing just the correct amount of gray at the temples, sculpted gently to his head, while her dark hair, damp with perspiration, had long ago escaped her attempt at a French knot. And his hands:  can a breathing human have such beautifully manicured fingernails? Even though she hadn't been working in the lab for the week of the DNA conference, her rough, chapped fingers were still all too evident.

                His genial expression didn't alter with her impertinent question. The gravitational pull of the icon had drawn her from the reception area of his Georgian mansion, but, actually, being in this room was none of her business. Its rich mahogany paneling was the perfect backdrop for the icon, glowing in its intricately carved niche that could have contained it for centuries. But that would be a lie.

                "The Blue Madonna. Actually, I was able to acquire the icon fairly reasonably, considering that its provenance was…spotty," Palomas said. "Well documented until World War Two. Then lost."

                Yes, the Blue Madonna, she thought. The reason she'd almost died last summer. But she'd actually never seen the small icon until now, for all the danger it represented. Her mind whirled back to that scene. White Nights, St. Petersburg, Russia. Her Motherland. She'd almost been knifed to death because of that lost icon, small enough to have been packaged like a loaf of bread and then untangled from the arms of a dead man by Alex's great-grandmother during the Siege. Her friend Alex didn't realize it then, but when he'd heaved that massive laboratory chair at her attacker, he'd struck the icon's rightful owner, or inheritor, Dr. Lermatov. Where had this Madonna hidden out these past seventy years?

The icon was small, its size insignificant, but whether it was the artful highlighting or the saintly duo's expressions, Sasha found it was hard to look away. 

                Luckily, Alex was back at the hotel, nursing a bruised shin from his stumble. Those Washington Monument steps were treacherous for the clumsy. And Alex was the king of clumsy. What did Americans call someone like him – a klutz? Ironic. Alex was the one who insisted their group try for a walk-down tour of the Washington Monument. Hard to get, but they'd been lucky, or their host, Dr. Robinson, had pulled some strings, another American saying, to impress their delegation to the International Mitochondrial DNA Conference.

                "Would you like to take a little guided tour of my other icons?" Palomas said, interrupting her thoughts.

Rhetorical question, she thought, as he took her elbow and steered her away from the Blue Madonna. Sasha didn't think all Americans were so into touching, especially by someone so perfect, but she could detect a slight accent – Spanish? She looked around, spotting several ancient icons, medieval protectors of towns, no doubt. One, its wooden base heavily encrusted with jewels and pearls, caught her attention.

 "I'm happy to make your acquaintance, but where is our host…and that icon I've heard so much about?" a man asked, laughing, his sing-song voice was slightly muffled by the heavy connecting door.

But not so muffled that Sasha didn't recognize it. His tone seemed strange, but it had to be him. If the world could end now – please! A giant fist squeezed her stomach at the sound of a voice she never wanted to hear again.

Footsteps.

"I'm…I need to go," Sasha managed as she twisted away from Palomas and looked around for another exit. Away from that voice. Away from the hotel. Away from Washington, D.C.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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