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 seat.

“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 parking area.




“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 way inside.

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 trade.”

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 through.

“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 take-out menus.

“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 to?”

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 world.”

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 cylinders.

“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 whispered.

“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.  EJ shrugged.

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 go.”

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 before.”

“Sure thing, then let’s get out of here.”

“Agreed.  Breakfast,” EJ asks.

“If it’s on you, yes.  Besides, I think it’s the least you can do,” Luke says.

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 we got.”

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 busy.  You?”

“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.”

“You what?”

“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,” Rickman chuckled.

“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 authenticating these.”

“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,” Rickman asked.

“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 so.’”

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 pleaded.

“Fine,” EJ huffed as she mumbled under her breath an bent to sign the form.




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