Jeweled History: A Creative Writing Series - The Golden Bowl, The Presentation (Chapter 4)
|Gold & Lapis Bowl looted from the National Museum of Iraq during Operation Desert Storm.|
Chapter 4: The Presentation
“We’re here Sleeping Beauty,” Adam announced. “Wipe that drool off your chin and let’s go.”
Even though the drive to the Saruq Al Hadid Archeology Museum only took a few minutes from the café; EJ couldn’t help but wish it had been both longer and shorter at the same time. Shorter to get this all over with sooner and longer to buy her more time to try and figure a way out of it. Either way, time did not appear to be her ally.
“Hrumphf,” EJ snorted as Adam pulled his car into one of the reserved spaces near the museum entrance.
“Come on, Red,” Adam snickered. “You might as well plaster one of those fake television smiles on your face and get this over with.”
“Have you watched any of my broadcasts,” EJ asked rhetorically. “I never smile. Kind of hard when bombs and bullets are flying in your direction.”
Adam laughed and bit the smart retort down before turning in his seat to look at EJ, “You’re going to be fine. You’re going to do fine. No one – and I mean no one – is going to get within ten feet of you if you don’t want them to. Give your speech. Take a bow and then hand the seals over. You’ll be headed home before you know it. Where, I might add, I will have a team deployed on your six until this threat is over,” he emphasized.
“I don’t need a team of babysitters, Adam,” EJ snapped forcefully.
“I know you don’t need them but you’re going to have them until we are both satisfied that the potential for someone to do you harm because of this story becomes a non-issue. Now tell me what’s really got you twisted.”
EJ knew he was right. It wasn’t just the threat on her life or the feelings of being followed. It was something else entirely and she just couldn’t put her finger on it. It was like her mind would not cooperate with her. And never mind the intuition or gut feeling that was currently threatening to make her breakfast come up. She just could not seem to shake the foreboding sense that was looming large all around her.
“Adam,” she started, “it’s more than that. I can’t pinpoint it but something just feels…Off. My gut is screaming at me. It feels like I’m standing at the edge of some mystical cliff waiting for either the next shoe to drop or for my brain to tell me the next step. I feel like I am stuck and falling all at once. Very little scares me but for some reason I feel terrified.”
It was all EJ could do not to start sobbing. She was sure that Adam would think she had lost her mind. She could barely meet his eyes. All her life, she’d been the fearless one. The brave one who pushed forward – sometimes to her own detriment. But now…it was different. It felt different and she didn’t know why. And that scared her even more than knowing there was a price on her head.
“You’ve always reported the story, Red. You’ve never been a part of it before. It’s a new role for you,” Adam said softly. “And this story is different. It’s not a one and done. Being embedded in a war zone is a very different kind of danger than knowing that someone or some group has essentially put a hit out on you. That kind of knowledge and stress is bound to make you feel a little unbalanced.”
“I know. But I feel like there is more to it,” EJ whispered. “It’s not the threat of harm that has me feeling off. It’s this feeling of a change on the wind that I just can’t place.”
Adam reached for EJ’s hand across the console. His hand dwarfed hers and using the pad of his thumb, he began making small, deep circles on her palm. Within minutes, her breathing had evened and she looked a little more like her normal, and slightly ferocious, self.
“Besides,” he said softly, “you never know where this story may continue to take you. It could be exactly what you’ve been searching for, Red. You’ve spent the better part of the lifetime I’ve known you in a near-constant state of upheaval - whether you want to admit and acknowledge it or not. Whatever it is you’ve been searching for in your life might be down this path that you seem so resistant explore. Who knows, it could be the man of your dreams at the end.” Adam winked.
For the first time in what felt like years, EJ laughed so hard her ribs ached by the time she was able to compose herself. She looked at Adam with a proud grin on his face and nearly doubled over in a fit of laughter again. Several deep breathes later, she could finally look at him without becoming hysterical.
“That must be it. I have been looking for my dream guy to come and whisk me away from the career I love and turn me into his trophy wife,” she chuckled. “No, I’m certain that is not it.”
Adam waggled his bushy brows at her, “Don’t knock it. Some young buck may just knock your socks off and have you rushing to leave all this behind!”
“Highly unlikely,” she smiled.
“Come on, you feeling ready to go inside now,” he raised those same bushy brows in question.
“Yea, but no more talk of mysterious men sweeping me off my feet or I may run away from you just to avoid the conversation,” EJ retorted as she climbed out of the car. She did have to admit, he had set her mind a little more at ease than it had been only moments ago.
“Let’s get this show on the road,” she said with a renewed sense of optimism and confidence. Adam guided her to the front door, pulling it open when she stopped mid-step to face him, “Thank you.”
“I got you, Red,” he grinned down at her.
The smile on Adam’s face brought a flood of memories back as they walked into the museum lobby. She tried not to think about how that one wrong decision to sneak out into the Afghani night decades ago was and how very different her life could have turned out had it not been for Adam’s kindness – even if it was, perhaps, motived by a bit of guilt. He could have had her prosecuted or at the very least shipped back to the United States with her mother. Instead, he had convinced the MP to let him take her, kicking and screaming, all the way back to his dorm where he had sat her down and let her spend the next several minutes calling him all sorts of names and berating him for leading her mother on. When she had finally been out of words, he had taken a deep breath and sighed before telling her she was right. Young EJ had no retort for his admission – especially since she wasn’t expecting him to admit wrong-doing in any fashion to a teenager. But he did. Adam agreed that he shouldn’t have given her mother false hope. He should have been more honest and upfront. He should have explained his situation for the word “Go” with Sarah. Then he had apologized and told her the real truth. The truth about his brother’s wife and “their” baby on the way. How Elliott had been killed. His wife and baby left with no way to make ends meet and no medical care. By the time he was done with his apologies and explanations, EJ was ready to go back to her mother and defend him. She had tried to persuade him to let her convince her mother to give him another chance. Adam had told her it was too late and that it was better (and easier) for her mother to hate him. He had said that he could never be what her mother wanted so long as his brother’s wife and child still needed him. He couldn’t divorce her and leave her and the baby with no insurance and support. “One day, maybe,” he had said to her.
EJ had continued to sneak out each night to visit Adam. He had put her on his “Authorized Visitors” list. Eventually she was able to visit him during the day. Her mother had continued to wallow in the room they rented; trying to find a way back to the States. She was determined not to let EJ’s grandmother know the trip had ended poorly and she didn’t have money to pay for the airfare home. EJ’s mother never did like admitting when she had made a mistake and would certainly never ask her grandmother for help. The ‘I-told-you-so’ would have been too much too for her to bear…again. So until her mother caved and asked for help or found another solution, EJ was free to roam and learn what she could on this ‘grand adventure.’
Adam taught her how to shoot. Gave her pointers on what to look out for when she was wandering on her own. He had said her red curls and pale complexion were a dead giveaway that she wasn’t a local. They made her a target for thieves, bullies and any number of people with “less than gentlemanly intentions,” he had said.
EJ chuckled in her mind and gently shook her head at the memory as they entered the museum lobby, “He would have known.”
Once inside, there was a group of mainly men standing in a group, talking amongst themselves. Several wore the familiar olive green uniform of the Dubai Police Force. A small handful were in suits, studying something on tablets and occasionally looking up to give direction or instruction to those gathered. Then, there were the other men in the group, all of above average height and built like a brick house. All were dressed similarly in dark, sand colored tactical pants and matching shirts, black shoulder holsters and black boots. A single woman caught EJ’s attention. She was dressed similarly to the men in the sand pants. Something about her seemed to command respect and authority.
“Those must be your ‘friends,’” EJ chided Adam. “They don’t stand out at all.”
“Those are just the ones you see,” he smirked. “They’re meant to be seen. Call them a psychological deterrent. The others are the ones who will blend in unless shit hits the fan.”
“Good to know,” EJ shook her head. “And here I thought you were going to pull together something subtle.”
“Subtle isn’t really my thing,” Adam smirked as they approached the group. EJ smiled and shook her head. Nope, nothing about Adam was subtle.
As they got closer to the group, one of men in suits looked up and spotted EJ. His smile was large and welcoming; it immediately put EJ at ease and she breathed a sigh of relief. This must be the Archeology Museum’s Director. He clicked his tablet off and walked through the group to meet them, an air of excitement following him.
“Ms. Anne, I am so pleased to finally meet you in person,” he exclaimed. “I’ve heard so much about you that I feel, a bit, as if I’m finally getting to meet a celebrity! Sarek speaks so highly of you.”
“Thank you so much, that’s very kind of you to say, Mr……”
“Oh! I’m so sorry. I got so excited that my manners seem to have completely left me,” the man replied. “William Devontine, Director of the Saruq Al Hadid Archeology Museum. Sarek and I studied together at Cambridge many moons ago.”
EJ turned to Adam to explain, “Sarek is the Director of the National Museum of Iraq, Sarek Abdel. He was one of the individuals who got me thinking and inspired me to keep digging into antiquities black market.”
“Ah, I understand,” Adam said before continuing, “Mr. Devontine, it’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m Adam Richter and I see you’ve already met most of my team.”
“Yes, yes. They are quite impressive,” William said. “But you don’t have to be so formal. Please, you may all call me William. Shall I show you around?”
“Absolutely, I would love a quick tour.”
“Red, if don’t mind, let me introduce you to my team first. Then while William is giving you a tour, I can ensure the appropriate coordination is happening between the security staff and law enforcement before the presentation begins” Adam prompted.
“Oh yes, of course, I forgot. Thanks Adam. William, if you wouldn’t mind giving me just a few more moments before we kick off the tour?”
“Of course, I’ll be out in the gardens making sure the set-up is going as planned. Just have one of the security officers radio me and I’ll come right back to show you around our museum,” he replied.
“Thank you, so much,” EJ nodded. “Adam, which intimidating young man would you like to introduce me to first?”
Adam laughed before gently taking EJ’s elbow and guiding her towards the very obvious group of armed men. Adam bent down and quietly whispered in her ear as they made their way towards the group, “You never know, Red…A few of them are single….”
Just as they got within earshot of the group, the lone woman stepped forward and the group turned towards them. She was slightly taller than EJ. Standing maybe 5-foot-nine, she had a seriously imposing aura about her. Her dark brown, almost black hair and dark eyes created a striking contrast against her abnormally pale skin. In fact, EJ thought she would make an exceptional Morticia Adams for Halloween.
“Stephanie Rice,” the woman said as she stuck her hand out, “you must be EJ.”
"Rice here is going to be with you every step of the way,” Adam said. "Don’t let her fool you though. She knows her shit and is the best I’ve got. I’d put money on her against any man here."
“Adam talks about you constantly,” Rice said. “I don’t think I’ve heard him brag about anyone more.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Stephanie. I’m looking forward to having you here.”
“My pleasure and call me Rice. Everyone else does, I wouldn’t know who you were talking to if you said, ‘Hey Stephanie!’” Rice laughed. “Let me introduce you to the rest of the Team and then we’ll go over some basics. I heard the Museum Director is going to give you a tour so we’ll be quick about it and then I’ll be next to you every step of the way.”
Rice led Adam and EJ deeper into the circle of men all chatting, huddled over their tablets. They each looked up and nodded a greeting as Rice made the individual introductions. Next, she introduced EJ and Adam to the on-site Commander for the Dubai National Police Force and the Museum’s Security Director. Both men shook Adam and EJ’s hand.
“Mr. Richter, I’ve heard a lot about you from our Chief,” the Commander said. “It’s an honor to get to work with you and your Team today. Quite impressive.”
“The pleasure is mine,” Adam replied. “We’re happy to assist. Let me bring you both up to speed on some of our latest intel and you can run me through your security plans and emergency response protocols.”
Adam nodded to Rice who radioed William, the Museum Director. “Let’s get ready for that tour, shall we?”
“While Mr. Devontine heads in, let me give you a couple of ground rules for today. Adam did warn me you’re not to fond of rules but I promise that I’m not here direct or interfere in your choices – just keep others from doing it,” Rice smiled.
EJ found it hard not to like the woman – even if she was both reassured and annoyed by her presence; or rather, the presence of an entire team of people. Rice seemed like not only did she know her job well but she also seemed to have an uncanny grasp of people and their personality types. So, EJ smiled back and encouraged her to continue.
“First, you go nowhere without me. Bathroom, bar, grip-and-grin, nowhere. Second, I always enter a room first – especially if you’re alone. Third, try and have some fun today. Just think of me as your shadow or an annoying little sister, if it makes you feel better,” Rice laughed.
“Well, I am an only child and I did always want a sibling,” EJ quipped. “I guess you’ll do.”
Rice laughed before replying, “We’re going to get along just fine. No worries today. I’ve got your back and Mr. Richter brought in all his top players for this. No one is going to get to you. I promise.”
EJ smiled at Rice and nodded her thanks as William strode up to the pair.
“Ladies, shall we,” he motioned towards a set of doors at the far end of the main lobby.
“Lead the way, William,” EJ responded as Rice fell in beside and just a half step ahead of her on the diagonal.
The Museum Director led them through room after room, explaining the history of key artifacts. Somewhere along the way, EJ had actually begun to tune the man out until it became obvious he had asked her a question.
“I’m sorry,” she blushed. “I missed that?”
“I was just saying how excited the Museum was to participate in the repatriation of the seals to Iraqi National Museum and how generous Sarek and his team have been by letting us display them here before sending them on to Pakistan and Turkey before their return to their permanent home at the National Museum. It’s really quite exciting for us given the history of the seals and their association with the Golden Bowl,” he repeated.
“The Golden Bowl,” EJ questioned.
“Ah yes, the Golden Bowl,” came a familiar voice from the far end of the room. Sarek Abdel strode towards them.
“Sarek!” EJ exclaimed. “I didn’t know you were going to make it today.”
“When Carl called me and we negotiated the repatriation of the seals, I just couldn’t stay away. I hope it’s a good surprise?”
“Always!” EJ hugged the older man and noticed Rice relax – but just a hair. “I’m just glad we could find something out of all those photos of the looted antiquities that you had shown us to actually return. I wish we had found more.”
“Nonsense,” Sarek shrugged. “Your efforts led to the return of dozens high-value originals to several museums which have been targeted over the decades. Any history we can get back for our people is better than none.”
William nodded his agreement and shook his old friend’s hand. “Shall we run through the program of events,” he asked as he led the way back towards the main lobby.
“Indeed,” Sarek replied.
William recited the event schedule and after a quick glance at his watch, noted that CPAA Agent Carl Rickman should have arrived and that they should all start assuming their positions for the presentation and event. The group made their way to the gardens where the presentation and mingling was slated to occur. Once outside, EJ saw Carl standing on the podium with Adam and several others. Carl caught her eye and smiled at her before smirking and tapping his watch.
“Yes, let’s get the seals in place before more of the dignitaries arrive for the hand off,” William noted as the group headed towards the podium. “EJ, Agent Rickman will make a speech after I welcome everyone and thank them for their attendance. He will then reach into the podium to pull out the box in which the seals will be located before presenting it to Sarek. Sarek, you will then accept them and pause for a photos before saying a few words thanking the Americans for their repatriation of the seals and explaining their viewing tour before I will close out the formal portion of our event and inviting everyone to partake in the afternoon’s festivities. Questions?”
“Crystal clear,” Sarek responded as they made their way up the steps. EJ nodded, reached into her messenger bag and handed the three carefully wrapped seals to William. Sarek lifted the mahogany box from the podium and held the lid open. William carefully unwrapped and placed each seal in its specially designed cushioned slot before taking the box and putting it back into the podium. He then nodded at the two security officers flanking each side of the stage who then assumed new positions by the podium.
“I see you and the seals made it safely. I guess this is where I get to say ‘I told you so,’” Carl chuckled.
“The day isn’t over yet,” EJ smirked. “There’s still time. William, now that the seals are safely tucked away, is there someplace where I might put my bag?”
“Oh yes, we can put that in my office until after the event. I keep it locked,” he replied.
“Carl, catch up in just a moment?”
Carl nodded as William led the way to his office for EJ to stow her bag.
To say that the Museum Director’s office had a stereotypical appearance would have been to minimize the work an Indiana Jones set decorator. ‘Cluttered’ was a word that was not even remotely adequate in describing the amount of stuff being housed within those four walls. Paperwork strewn about and taped over every surface. Pens littering the carpet. A pillow and blanket covered the overstuffed leather sofa along one wall with books piled precariously on one arm and stacked haphazardly on the floor. EJ looked at Rice. Her face said it all. She was wondering if the room had been ransacked.
The Director must have caught the look between the two women because he blushed before explaining, “A messy office is a sign of an organized mind.”
Both women smiled. “Mine isn’t much better,” EJ encouraged.
“Yes, well, you can put your bag in here and then I’ll lock the door before we head back to the gardens,” he said as he pulled open a full length cabinet door peppered with hooks and shelves inside. One hook was occupied by a light jacket, another had several ties strewn from them. The upper shelf had a briefcase on one side leaving plenty of room for EJ’s bag at the other.
“Perfect, thank you so much,” EJ hoisting her bag onto the shelf and turning back towards the door. As promised, on their way out, William locked the door and pocketed his keys.
“Whenever you’re ready to leave, just let me or one of the security officers know and they can let you in to get your bag,” he said as they returned to the gardens.
Several hours later, the seals where safely tucked into a display case in the main hall of the museum and the VIPs were mulling about enjoying hors d'oeuvres and champagne.
“EJ,” Sarek began, “do you have a minute? There’s something I’d like to discuss with you.”
“Certainly,” she replied as Sarek guided them towards one of the bar top tables scattered throughout the gardens with Rice close behind.
Sarek began to recite the history of a gold and lapis bowl that had been looted from the National Museum of Iraq during Operation Desert Storm – the same time the seals had been stolen. The bowl was made from solid gold and decorated with a pair of rich, deep blue lapis lazuli stones. From Ur, not much was known about the bowl. Sarek suspected that it had been used as some sort of ceremonial vessel in antiquity. He had been studying it when the war broke out.
“There was always something that fascinated me about it,” he said. “When I discovered it was one of the items which had been stolen, I was devastated.”
“I can understand that,” EJ sympathized.
“I only hope it wasn’t melted down and was sold to a collector so that one day we might get it back,” Sarek smiled. “This is where I was hoping you might be willing to help.”
“The CPAA and Iraqi Intelligence Services have yet to find the bowl – like so many of our artifacts,” he continued. “I thought that perhaps you might have better luck?”
“Sarek, I’m sorry but to my knowledge, it was not one of the items recovered in the New York warehouse raid,” EJ replied.
“I know, but I was hoping you might be willing to see if you can track its location? You seem to have the tenacity, resources and connections that just might find it,” he pleaded.
“I can’t, I have a full time position that takes me all over the world,” she explained. “I just can’t go on a treasure hunt right now.”
“The Museum is willing to cover your expenses and with your travels, you have the opportunity to make connections in locations that I simply cannot,” he argued.
“I’ll think about it,” EJ acquiesced.
“That’s all I ask,” Sarek smiled.
EJ nodded to Rice and the pair headed towards Carl, Adam and William. “Gentlemen, I hope you don’t think me rude, but I’m afraid I still haven’t adequately recovered from the jet lag. I think I’m going to head back to the hotel. Perhaps we could meet for brunch in the morning before I head to the airport?”
“Brunch would be marvelous,” William stated. “I don’t believe I have anything on my calendar.” Carl and Adam agreed.
“Let me walk you back to my office for your bag.”
“Red, I’ll meet you and Rice in the main lobby and get you back to your hotel,” Adam added. “Rice, I assume you have a hand-off in mind for overnight?”
“That’s not necessary, Adam,” EJ interrupted.
“Of course, Mr. Richter,” Rice responded.
EJ glared at Adam. “I know,” he said, “we’re going to discuss this in the car.”
William took the hint and began walking EJ back to his office. He opened the door opening it for EJ and Rice. Rice went it first, as she had instructed EJ earlier. Right behind, EJ stormed to the cabinet to fetch her bag, “I appreciate everything but neither you nor one of your coworkers needs to stand outside my door all night.”
Rice simply nodded and walked towards the open door. William locked the office behind them once more, asked if they could find their way to the main lobby and excused himself.
“I know, this isn’t ideal for you,” Rice started. “But Mr. Richter obviously cares about you and it would bring him a great bit of relief if you just went along with it. It’s only one night and a brunch.”
“I supposed you’re right. I’m just not keen on having people follow me around feeling like I’m under guard,” EJ attempted to explain.
“I get it, but you are under guard and we do try to be as unobtrusive as possible. Maybe just do it for Mr. Richter? It’s obvious you two have a long history. Just go along to get along for his sake, maybe?”
“You’ve been great and have hardly felt like an annoying little sister,” EJ smiled at Rice. “I supposed I could do Adam a favor and not complain too loudly at least.”
Rice smiled at EJ as they walked into the main lobby where Adam was already waiting. EJ smirked and shot Rice a glance before turning to Adam, “I see why you assigned her to me. She can be quite convincing and already knows how to play the mother-like guilt card well.”
Adam laughed and Rice winked. “Did I ever tell you that I am actually pretty good at my job,” he responded as they all headed towards the entry door where a similar SUV was already running and waiting with one of Adam’s men behind the wheel.
He quickly got out and tossed the keys to Adam, “All yours boss.”
Adam, Rice and EJ climbed in. With Rice in the rear, EJ in the passenger seat, Adam pulled out of the museum’s drive and angled the car in the direction of the highway. Once they were moving, EJ began fishing through her bag.
“What are you looking for, Red” Adam asked. “Forget something? Do I need to turn around?”
“No, I’m just looking for my room key,” EJ muttered.
Before long, she had everything strewn about the dash. “Found it!” She shouted triumphantly.
Rice chuckled from the backseat, “And I thought the Director’s office was disorganized.”
“Hush now or I’ll take back everything nice I said about you,” EJ chided her as she starting her wallet, Chapstick, extra glasses and sunglasses, a book and loose papers back in the bag. She stopped on one particular loose paper. A bright yellow, crumpled and partially torn in the corner.
“FoRgEt aBOUt thE GolDen BoWL. GO HOMe NOW!” scrawled in crayon across the full page.
EJ stopped in her tracks and stared at the paper before picking up her phone and dialing Sarek.
“Ok Sarek,” she said as soon as he answered, “I’ll do it.”