Jeweled History: A Creative Writing Series - The Golden Bowl, Flashback (Chapter 3)
|Gold & Lapis Bowl looted from the National Museum of Iraq during Operation Desert Storm.
Chapter 3: Flashback
EJ gathered up her bag and looked at Adam as he tossed some money on the table. She could tell by the seriousness on his face that he was in “business mode” as she used to call it when she was a teen. His mind was whirring at a rate well beyond that of the average mortal. His eyes darted around the café cataloging the faces of every person there making mental notes and committing any identifiable features to memory. Adam reached for her elbow and gently guided her to his car.
“I’m having one of my guys bring an armored vehicle from the
motorpool to the Museum. We’ll switch
out after your presentation for the duration of your stay,” he said as he hurried
them along. If there was one thing Adam
knew well it was security. Ever since he
had been deployed to the Middle East in Operation Desert Storm a lifetime ago,
he’d fallen in love with the area. So
much so that when his time in the Army expired he returned, making Dubai his
home base and the headquarters for his executive protection agency. Adam had jobs and teams stationed all over
the world. He didn’t advertise or
promote himself or his experience. All
of his clients were word of mouth referrals and thoroughly screened before they
even got a sit-down with him or his executive team. If Adam knew the value of anything else, it
was exclusivity and Richter, Inc. had
it in spades.
Adam looked around the passenger door handle and under her
seat area of the car before opening the door. EJ climbed
in the SUV, messenger bag on her lap and leaned her head back against the head
rest; eyes closing. Adam walked around
the car, examining it closely before assuming his position in the driver’s
“Just making sure no one got to the car while we were
eating,” he said. “You should have told
me as soon as you heard from DHS, Red. I
could have helped and I definitely would have been better prepared when you got
here. You know that preparation is key.”
“Mmm. Uh-huh,” EJ
muttered. “I know, Adam. You hammered it into me as a kid. I’m already doing everything you taught me
to. I just didn’t want you to worry.”
Adam huffed in response as he put the car in drive and
pulled away from the café heading for the freeway.
“Worrying is what you do when you haven’t adequately
prepared,” he mumbled. “And I am not ever adequately prepared.”
Eyes closed, EJ frowned to herself noting the bit of irritation
in the subtext of Adam’s voice as he quickly maneuvered the SUV out of the
“Luke, you ready?” EJ whispered to the well-built blonde
cameraman next to her.
Luke positioned his camera on his shoulder and looked at EJ,
steeling his voice before responding, “Always.
If this warehouse turns out to be what you think it is; then you’re
finally going to get the happy ending to a story that you’ve always wanted.”
“Let’s hope. It’d be
nice to finally see something good come from all the bad without having to
report on a complete puff piece.”
Luke chuckled in agreement and took a deep breath. Slowly, he rose to a standing to position behind
EJ and readied himself for the next move.
EJ and Luke moved together in a decades old partnership born
and solidified in joint trauma and experience.
Wherever EJ was deployed, as her cameraman, so was Luke. EJ used to joke that Luke was more of a husband
/ boyfriend / partner than any of the men who had romantically entered her
life over the years. EJ had learned long ago that most
men want a ‘strong, independent’ woman until they actually have one. Then they suddenly want a woman who knows how
to cook, clean, be a mother and let them stick to being the breadwinner and "head of household." Such fragile egos. Not that EJ didn’t know how to do any of
those things. She just didn’t want to.
A definite distinction.
Luke, however, was the rare sort of man who was confident
enough in himself and so completely unbothered by EJ’s past; her complicated
family relationships and the very, very specific ways that she liked things to
be done that their work partnership seemed to be the only constant and reliable
relationship in her life. At least for
now. That’s not to say that in their
time together, they hadn’t used each other to ‘scratch an occasional itch’ now and
again. Luke was exceptionally good-looking.
Built like someone who had years of competitive swimming under his belt,
with a head full of tousled blonde hair that never seemed to have any
particular style and deep green eyes; Luke never had any trouble getting a
date. Neither had EJ, for that matter,
but their nomadic lifestyle made relationships near impossible. Her mother loved Luke and would often try to
pry into their status. EJ would never
confirm or deny anything. Luke was Luke
– her constant North and nothing more.
And both of them were completely satisfied with the arrangement.
As they crossed the wide rundown lot stretched out in front
of the warehouse, EJ tried to scan the area for any nearby lookouts or vagrants
that might be able to identify her to the warehouse owner(s). She’d done some digging and preliminary
recognizance before dragging Luke out on this little adventure. The warehouse was owned by an offshore
conglomerate with no Board of Directors or CEO listed. The only name on any of the ownership,
permitting or licensing documents that she had found were all an attorney at a
local firm. If this adventure panned out
the way she hoped, his office would be her next stop. Hopefully she’d be able to get an on-camera
interview or comment out of the guy.
During one of her multiple drive-byes, she hadn’t
spotted any obvious camera or fancy security systems that would have stood out on
the rundown look. In fact, she never did
ever see any cars in the now-defunct parking area. At one point in her
surveillance, she’d even begun to question if there really was anyone working
in the building…at least until she saw a beat up white cargo van pull up down
an obscured alleyway nearby. She had
then watched as several individuals slip into the fenced off property
through a loosely secured chain link construction gate before filing into one
of the rusted red metal doors near the loading dock area of the building. The same door she and Luke were now making
their way towards.
If there was one errant skill that EJ had picked up during
her rather unorthodox childhood that had turned out to be a valuable asset on
multiple occasions it was that of lock picking.
Mind you, EJ was no master thief.
But she could get into (or out of) a locked room in a respectable amount
of time. As she and Luke closed in on
the door, EJ reached into the side pocket of her tactical pants and pulled out
a basic lock set. By the time they
reached the door with no one the wiser, EJ already had her tools in hand and
was focused on the lock.
“I know,” Luke said before EJ could give him 'The Look,' “don’t get you breaking and entering on camera.”
“I have no idea what
you are talking about. Someone must have
left this door unlocked. See. Come on my intrepid explorer, let’s go on an
adventure and have a bit of a look-see.”
Situating the camera on his shoulder even more securely and
pulling one side of his headphones over his ear, Luke hit the record button and
the red light above the lens pulsed to life.
EJ tapped her wireless mic and whispered a quick mic-check. Luke gave her a thumbs-up as she silently
pulled the door open a crack and paused.
Satisfied there was no immediate danger, no one in the immediate
vicinity and not hearing any alarm in the background; she and Luke made their
Once inside, EJ began to whisper her narration as she
scanned the interior loading dock area and fished a flashlight out of one of
her other pockets.
“Here at Channel 5, we are nothing if not thorough in our
investigations. Following up on information
provided and discovered over the course of my interview with a renowned
antiquities forger about the deliberate and purposeful flooding of the black market in order to fund the continued looting of cultural
antiquities from war-torn areas in the Middle East; I’m here in New York at an
undisclosed location where I’m hoping to uncover one of the studios responsible
for nearly 80-percent of the fakes on the market today. Let’s see what we can find out.”
As EJ and Luke made their way through the loading dock, they
discovered already packed wooden shipping crates. Each marked in red lettering with the word “FRAGILE”
along with some sort of serial number painted on the outside. All the crates, regardless of size and shape
had a piece of paper loosely taped to them with the same serial number and a black
and white photo of the contents.
Honestly, the level of organization was impressive. Unfortunately, no names or addresses where to
be seen anywhere on the crates. Luke got
a wide angle shot of the space littered with shipping crates before zooming in
on one of the papers. Then, they moved
deeper into the building, EJ still narrating.
“It’s obvious from the number of shipping crates that this
is a large and very organized operation,” she stated. “Perhaps we’ll learn more about who’s behind
this as we explore more of the facility.”
Once in the heart of the building, they discovered a vast
open area with a large kiln at one end; multiple wash basins in a line
bisecting the room with what appeared to be workstations of varying sizes and styles on
either side. Some of the workstations
were set up like drafting areas with angled tables and stools. Others were larger open spaces with tools
lined up meticulously on rolling carts surrounding large, partially carved
sandstone or onyx blocks. Towards the
back part of the warehouse, further away from the loading dock entry and near
what appeared to be a chain locked emergency exit, additional work tables were littered
with smaller bits of sandstone, onyx and sand.
Carving tools of various shapes and sizes – some even looking like they may have been custom made
– scattered across the desks.
“Here we see what appears to be the heart of the operation,”
EJ narrated. “As you can see, there are multiple work areas designed
specifically for the antiquity be forged with all the appropriate tools of the
Luke panned the wide open space, zooming in on the various
work stations before centering on EJ as she picked up one of the carving tools
from the smaller tabletop and examined the sharp tip of the instrument. Luke paused the recording and looked at EJ,
“We’d better get a few more shots and then let’s get out of here before the
people start rolling in for their shifts – or whatever you call the workday of a master forger.”
“It’s fine. No one
starts arriving until closer to 0500,” EJ remarked. “We have plenty of time to explore. Let’s see if we can find some sort of
paperwork or office that might give us a few more clues. I want to have as much information as
possible before I take all this to Rickman.”
EJ nodded to the stairs at the end of the room opposite the
kiln, “Maybe it’s up there.”
Luke hoisted the camera back on to his shoulder, panned the
room once more and then they headed towards the stairs.
Sure enough, there was an office about midway up. Nothing fancy, a typical warehouse style
office. A metal desk, beat-up Army-green
metal filing cabinet, 1980s style copier and one of those medical looking gray
1950s era rolling chairs were the only inhabitants. Luke got a quick shot of the space before he
focused the lens on following EJ to the filing cabinet. He zoomed in on her hands as she rifled
through the assorted file folders in the cabinet.
“Let me guess, that wasn’t locked either?” he chuckled.
“Would you believe it if I said, No?” she laughed. “I guess they didn’t think anyone was the
wiser to what was going on in here so there was no reason anyone would come snooping.”
Luke shook his head, “Amateurs.”
About that moment, EJ’s hands stopped. Luke zoomed in to catch the handwritten title
on the folder, “DELIVERIES” before she pulled it out and began flipping
“This folder appears to have a list of addresses throughout
the States but no names. Just addresses
with a string of numbers next to it,” she held one of the papers up and allowed
Luke to zoom in before continuing, “I suspect these numbers will coincide with
the numbers we saw printed on some of the crates earlier,” she continued her
narration before taking it over to the ancient copier. Luke made sure to follow her movements
creating a ‘chain of custody’ style video.
EJ bent over the machine and quickly turned it on. As she waited for it to warm up, she stacked
the papers in the auto feeder, just as the machine beeped its alertness; EJ
hit the copy button. Once completed, she
carefully placed the originals back into the folder and returned them to the
filing cabinet; and Luke captured every move before she pulled out another file
and repeated the process.
After the copier was done with the contents of the second
folder, EJ put everything back in the filing cabinet as she found it before
moving to the desk. She pulled open each
drawer looking for something interesting which may provide additional
clues. All she found were scraps of
paper, news articles about various artifacts, a pack of Vigor cigarettes and
“There’s nothing else here,” EJ said showing Luke the
cigarette pack. He zoomed in to capture
the brand name and then flipped the camera off.
“What’s so special about cigarettes?”
“These are a brand that I’ve only seen in Iraq, Moldova and
Cameroon,” EJ replied. “I’ve never seen
them here in the U.S. – not even at a specialty market. Whoever smokes these either brought the pack
with them or is buying them off the main stream marketplace.”
“Seriously, a cigarette black market,” Luke shook his head
incredulously. “What is the world coming
EJ laughed, “Sanctions in the 1990s set the stage for forward-thinking
businessmen to get richer smuggling or knocking off whatever the people
wanted. Think of what prohibition in the 1920s
did for the creation of moonshine and alcohol smuggling. Entrepreneurship at its finest. Maybe the second oldest profession in the
Luke laughed as EJ put the cigarettes back and gathered the
papers from the copier. Folding them in
half, she slipped them into her waistband before the pair headed back down the
stairs and towards the loading dock.
They only made it halfway through the studio work area before the
laughter reached them.
“Shit, is it already 5am?” Luke asked.
“No, it’s barely 3,” EJ exclaimed. “No one should be coming in!”
“Well it sounds like a whole damn tribe is here!”
Both frantically looked for an exit before settling on the
one they saw earlier at the far end of the workstations. Luckily the pallets leaning up against the
wall nearby made for the perfect cover. As
they passed one of the smaller work stations, EJ stopped to see three small,
round cylinders with deep cuneiform looking carvings on them.
She grabbed her phone and quickly flipped on the video feature before
taking a quick, panning video of the whole desk which included the cylinders as
well as three identical – yet uncarved – versions. Then she quickly pocketed her phone and the
“What are you doing,” Luke demanded.
“I think these are originals. I remember seeing them in one of the photos
the museum director showed us,” she said.
“And you won’t think that they'll notice they’re missing?”
“Well…” EJ grabbed
her lock set out of her pocket as they headed for the door, changing the subject
before Luke could say something else that made sense. “I hope it’s not alarmed or rusted shut,” she
“If it’s alarmed, just run for cover once we get outside and
don’t move. If it is rusted shut, I hope
you brought snacks and that whoever is supposed to be carving those called in
sick today,” he nodded towards her pockets.
Behind the pallets, Luke set up his camera and started recording
as EJ picked the lock on the locked chain around the emergency exit door and the inset lock in the door itself. The sweet click of the bolt unlocking told
her it wasn’t rusted shut. Venturing a
quick look at the cabling running to the door told her the alarm wires had been
clipped well-before now.
“We’re in luck,” she told Luke pointing to the frayed
wires. Luke nodded and pointed to the
crowd of artists gathering in the studio area.
“You’re getting this, right,” she asked.
He gave her a thumbs up.
A darker skinned gentleman who appeared to be in his late 50s
dressed in dark brown tweed trousers with a matching vest and cream dress shirt
rolled up to his elbows walked out of the crowd of artisans and up the first
few stairs towards the office before turning towards the small crowd. They quickly quieted down and focused their
attention on him. He was obviously the
man in charge here.
“Thank you all so much for coming in early today, we have a
lot of work to get done if we’re going to meet our quota for this month. Shipments are scheduled to be delivered by
the end of the month so all work will need to be completed within the next few
days. As a reminder, whenever you
complete a piece, please let me know so I can perform the final inspection
before it gets packed and shipped. Lunch
will be early today at 11 so please bring me your orders prior to 10,” he said
before turning and heading up the stairs to the office.
Luke flipped off the camera and they readied themselves to
make a run for it. EJ didn’t want to
wait for the crowd of artisans to be headed their way or get settled, “Let’s
EJ quietly pulled the chain through and pushed open the door a small amount to determine what
level of noise it would create.
Everything was working in their favor for now and the door remained
silent. Luke slide through first with
his camera and EJ followed close behind, carefully closing the door behind
them. They made a mad dash for cover
behind one of the concrete road barriers in the rundown parking area and
waited. After a few minutes, it didn’t
appear anyone was behind them and their exit has gone unnoticed.
EJ spots the white cargo van next to the warehouse, “See if
you can get a shot of the van and license plate. I was never able to capture it
“Sure thing, then let’s get out of here.”
“If it’s on you, yes. Besides, I think it’s the least you can do,”
Finally relaxed and settled in their booth at the all-night
diner not far from their hotel, EJ discussed next steps with Luke.
“I think we need to get the footage edited as soon as
possible,” she says. “We can take it to
Rickman and negotiate the terms for how to give him all the raw footage from
tonight but only if he lets us tag along on and film the sting.”
“Agreed but are you going to include the footage from the
interview with the forger?”
“Of course not, that would be revealing my source and I
can’t do that. When we air the story,
I’ll see if we can get Production to agree to run it in two or three
parts. That way we’ll run the interview
before the warehouse and CPAA sting.
What do you think?”
“I like it but we’ll need to get Production on board before
we can approach Rickman. We need to know
what kind of timeline they want so we know what our negotiation parameters
are. He’s going to be pissed though, you
know that right?”
“Yeah, but I’m hoping all will be forgiven once he sees what
The next afternoon once she and Luke are back in D.C., EJ
pitches her idea to the Station Manager and Producer. After a bit of back and forth, they agree to
the series concept and settle on three parts: the forger interview, EJ and
Luke’s recon efforts and the CPAA sting.
Knowing where the station stands and what her negotiation parameters are
from the Station Manager, EJ reaches out to Rickman.
“Hey Carl! So glad
you could make lunch,” she says as Rickman sits down at the table.
“I was excited to hear from you,” he says. “It’s been a while. Catch me up, how have you been?”
“I’m good, just following up on things and staying
“Good, kids are getting ready for school. Work is crazy, as
I’m sure you remember,” Rickman smiled.
“So now that we’ve done the dance, why don’t you tell me what this
sudden call and lunch is really all about.”
EJ laughed, “You always did like to get straight to
it.” Rickman smirked.
“I found where all those forgeries are being created that
you and I were chasing back in the desert.”
“I found them.
Remember when we discussed the idea of a black market antiquities seller
purposefully flooding the market with fakes in order to eat up the time of
investigative and authentication resources,” EJ asked.
“Yea, if I recall, I dismissed the idea – it just didn’t
make sense under the circumstances,” Rickman said.
“Well, after our investigation and the interviews, I just
couldn’t get the idea out of my head so I started doing my own research. I landed an interview with a forger who
confirmed my hypothesis and even, unintentionally, disclosed the location where
the fakes were being created. Luke and I
did some recon and it’s bigger than we thought so…here I am.”
“And you want to help out of the goodness of your heart,”
“I do,” EJ responded.
“The interview with the forger will air tonight and the recon Luke and I
did will air in a few days.”
Before he could protest the timing and any potential fallout
to his ongoing investigations, EJ presented him with a set of copies of the
paper files she and Luke had retrieved from the warehouse as well as a thumb
drive containing the edited footage of their warehouse adventure.
“And the pièce de résistance,” EJ said with flourish as she
reached into her bag and pulled out the three cylinders and slid them across the
table to Rickman.
“Are you fucking kidding me,” he said as he flipped through
the copies before picking up the cylinders.
“All I want is to tag along when you, DHS and the CPAA raid
the location,” EJ said.
“You know I can’t make that decision right now without
“I know, but I need an answer in the next 24 hours. The second piece which is of the recognizance
of the location that Luke and I’s did airs in three days and my Station Manager
will only hold it if we have an answer – in writing – from the CPAA or DHS that Luke
and I will be granted exclusive rights to be imbedded during the sting. We’ll then air the recon footage after the
sting so there won’t be any worry of tipping the parties involved off or giving them time to relocate their set-up.
We can coordinate the final footage in the series to coincide with whatever
incredible press conference you all want to host.”
“What makes you think there will be a press conference,”
“When you look at that footage, I think you’ll have your
answer.” It was EJ’s turn to smirk now.
The check came and Rickman left with the cylinders, thumb
drive and copies. An hour later as EJ
walked towards her apartment, her phone rang.
“You have a deal,” Rickman said. “The waivers, NDAs and participation
parameters are being couriered over to your office. Get the signatures and get them back to me
first thing in the morning. We’re going
to move quick on this. Once you and your cameraman have signed everything we’ll meet to discuss your intel and you can give me the
location. We’ll develop our operational
plan and advise you of the details when they’ve been finalized. And EJ, do me a favor, don’t say ‘I told you
Before EJ could even respond with anything other than a
laugh, Rickman hung up.
Less than a week later before the sun was anywhere near to rising, Luke and EJ were back at the
warehouse, this time wearing bullet proof vests. The warehouse raid went off spectacularly! In the very early morning hours, DHS/CPAA and
FBI agents gathered for a quick review of the operational plan – all caught on
camera by Luke, of course. Once everyone
was in their assigned locations, the wait began. Right on time, the white cargo van pulled up
and the forgers headed for that same rusty red door. Once they were safely ensconced and working;
Rickman’s team moved in. Dozens of
artists were placed under arrest; agents carried out boxes of documentation,
shipping crates and evidence was photographed and cataloged. EJ finally did get a happy ending to the
story that began so long in a desert thousands of mile away. Her only regret was that in the stream of
handcuffed individuals being led out of the warehouse nowhere did she see that
dark skinned man in the tweed trousers and vest.
The stories aired and it wasn’t long after that when EJ began to
feel like someone was following her. She
found threatening notes in her mailbox or packages delivered to the
Station. She started taking all the
necessary precautions. It wasn’t the first
time she’d been threatened as an investigative journalist after all. But this time, something felt different. It didn’t feel like an angry viewer or
mentally unstable stalker. It felt
deliberate and orchestrated so in some ways, she wasn’t really surprised when
DHS reached out to her about the human intelligence they had
gathered. What did surprise her was that
the Taliban had put a price on her head.
“I doubt anything will come of it,” Rickman tried to
reassure her. “I’ve had a price on my head
for years and here I still am!”
“I’m sure you’re right,” EJ replied.
As the months wore on, the uneasiness never went away. The threats only slightly lessened – or at
least it seemed that way. Maybe she was
just getting used to them so the shock value wasn’t there any longer. Either way, she was still please with her
part in the whole event and that her hypothesis had, in fact, been correct. Rickman was just pleased that she never had
said, ‘I told you so.’ So he was more
than happy to negotiate the return of the artifacts to the museum with a little
public plug for the CPAA’s efforts with EJ front and center.
“I finalized all the repatriation details for the dozens of
artifacts,” Rickman said not looking up from the paperwork on his desk. “All the larger ones have already been
shipped directly to the museum. However, for the
press announcement, the Director wanted you to have something to hand over to
him for the photo op. Since they are so small
and easily concealed, I’ve agreed to bring the cylinders with us. I’ll be there with you, but, I’ve got a scheduling
conflict and can’t arrive in country until an hour or so before the event. In case there is a layover or I get hung up;
I’m going to send the seals with you.”
“What, why can’t you just ship them and have the Director bring them
to the photo-op? We can stage the hand-off.”
“Come on, EJ. It’ll
be fine. There’s security and law
enforcement there. I’ll be on stage with
you. It’s just a better-safe-than-sorry
request in case my plane gets delayed.
Please, just do this for me and sign the chain of custody form,” Rickman
“Fine,” EJ huffed as she mumbled under her breath an bent to sign the form.