By Jill Gregory and Karen Tintori
Iraq National Museum
April 12, 2003
Ibrahim Baaj picked his way through the darkness.
All around him, irreplaceable history lay shattered. As U.S. troops advanced along the dusty streets of Baghdad, chaos and pandemonium ruled. And so did greed.
Ibrahim understood greed. He was driven by it. It was greed that called him here tonight as common looters stormed the great museum. Little did this rabble know that his greed surpassed even theirs. As did his daring.
He was betraying men so powerful, so far-reaching, that he himself marveled at the brazenness of his own audacity.
Ibrahim smiled to himself through the sweat dripping from beneath his mustache. This steamy stone building was home to 170,000 of Mesopotamia’s oldest cultural treasures—some dating back to the cradle of civilization. Yet the crazed throng coursed through the galleries, shooting, grabbing, smashing, and plundering as if they were in a junk shop.
Very few were professionals as he was, searching with purpose and discrimination, carefully selecting the booty they would spirit away. Yet he suspected that amid this greedy throng there must be one or two agents who’d been sent by the United States or Israel, for both nations knew that this museum hid the greatest treasure of them all. The treasure he’d come for and intended to claim before the night was over.
Ibrahim gasped for air as he descended alone into the windowless, blackened bowels of the building and the oxygen-deprived chamber closed in around him. He paused to listen, blinking as beads of sweat stung his eyes. Despite the clamor above, he could discern no sounds down here besides his own ragged breaths. Trying to ignore the stale stench, he edged forward, prowling through the tomblike underworld of the museum’s five basement storerooms. The narrow beam of his flashlight was nearly useless, barely illuminating the floor directly beneath his feet.
No matter. He’d had twelve years while Saddam’s Republican Guard patrolled the compound—fearing another American strike—to memorize the crudely sketched layout that Aslam Hameed had given him. Twelve years to rehearse in his mind’s eye, waiting for a night like this one, with Saddam in hiding, the Americans on the march, and the museum’s courtyard gates smashed open. Now the moment was upon him.
He must seize it.
Nejeeb Zayadi knew the fifth storeroom as well as he knew his own wife’s body. Lovingly, he’d cared for the treasure secreted within it, just as his family had for generations. They were a family of caretakers.
Only a few outside of his brood knew what lay nestled here within the lockers. The slim storage bins looked innocuous enough—like the metal lockers outside any school gymnasium. But these compartments that he tended, checking daily to make certain they were secure, held wealth beyond measure. Coins, gold, silver—and the Eye.
Even the director of the museum knew nothing of the Eye’s presence. She didn’t even possess keys for all of the locks in this vast museum. It was he, Nejeeb, who had slipped the treasure deep inside the back set of lockers in 1966, transferring it from the old museum alongside the Tigris, where his father had preceded him in watching over it.
Nejeeb’s father had been a child when the vigil began. He’d told Nejeeb many times about how he was awakened by the voice of the stranger who had come to his father in the dead of night.
“Guard this until I return. I will make it well worth your trouble,” the stranger had said in a voice that sounded to the sleepy boy like the wind howling across the sand.
As Nejeeb’s father had peeked through the crack in the door, he’d watched his father shivering in his nightshirt, staring down at something in his palm, looking stunned.
“What is this?” Nejeeb’s grandfather had asked.
“Something dangerous in the wrong hands. I am entrusting you with it because your family name is an honored one, recorded among those who served in the court of King Nebuchadnezzar. Your table will always have bread and your sons will always have honor if you keep this safe.”
Nejeeb’s grandfather was dead now. Nejeeb’s father was dead, too, and Nejeeb himself was an old man. Soon his eldest son would step into the role of caretaker. For how long? Nejeeb wondered. Year after year, the money still came, but the strange man had never returned.
Nejeeb hoped that in his lifetime he would learn the truth about that which he guarded. If he could keep it safe through tonight?.?.?.?
A sudden sound in the darkness made Nejeeb jump. Footsteps. The creak of a drawer opening. One of the looters has made his way to the treasure rooms. Someone who knows to search for the keys.
Nejeeb’s gnarled hand tightened momentarily on the key he kept pinned inside his shirt, then fell to his side as he groped for his gun. But what good was a gun in the dark? Swearing under his breath, his fingers latched onto his pushbroom—it would sweep in a wider arc.
Fear congealed in his bowels as he heard the footsteps coming closer. More drawers opening, closing. A quick gleam of light, a shadow—all he needed to pinpoint the intruder. The old man lunged, lashing out fiercely with his broom, but it sliced through dead air. He swung it again and this time it connected—but he found himself suddenly dragged with it, pitching forward, down. Hitting the ground, he choked on dust and fumbled in panic for the gun—but it was too late.
He felt the blade nick at his throat an instant before it slashed his Adam’s apple in two.
Blood spurted across Ibrahim Baaj’s beard as he dispassionately searched the old caretaker’s body in the dark, hunting for a key ring. Nothing had jangled when he’d fallen.
Ibrahim’s search was quick but thorough. His fingers froze on the single key pinned inside the old man’s shirt.
One key. Interesting. It could be the one.
He switched on the flashlight for an instant, and located the lockers. Then, careful not to slip on the blood pooled around the old man’s body, he moved toward the lockers, praying for a perfect fit.
There wasn’t much time. He was surprised he hadn’t already been forced to dispatch a competitor tonight, one armed with inside information as accurate as his own. But the air held only the smell of must and blood and death, no hint of the adrenaline sweat of another human.
Noiselessly, he slid the key into a dozen locks before a tumbler finally clicked home. His heart thrummed with excitement as he pried open the door.
His fingers found a worn leather pouch tucked behind boxes of metal coins, clay cylinders, and small pottery figurines, all of which he ignored. He tore at the drawstring. There was no time to study it now, but he beamed the light inside just long enough to glimpse the dull gleam of ancient gold and the gem-emblazoned eyes staring back at him, one from each side. He had it: The prize countless men around the world had been seeking for centuries was in his palm.
Through pitch darkness, Ibrahim retraced his steps. Barely breathing, he slipped through the mob of thieves like an eel through deep water, smuggling the treasure through the chaos and rubble, easily concealing it within the pocket of his coat.
Then he was racing through the shouts and the gunfire of the streets. Panting, he sank into his car and sped north until he came to a field far from the city, far from the gun battles raging through Baghdad.
Ignoring the thick curtain of unrelenting heat, Ibrahim hacked at the dirt until he’d dug three feet down. He paused only for a moment to wipe the sweat stinging his eyes and to gaze upon the treasure again before he buried it.
It was just as it had been described in the crumbling manuscript he’d been shown: the timeworn leather drawstring pouch, painted on each side with a black-rimmed eye of bright blue.
A shiver ran through him as he untied the pouch adorned with the ancient protective symbol, thinking of the riches its contents would bring him. Carefully, he found the golden chain nestled within, and he drew the egg-shaped pendant out.
The Eye. It was magnificent, like no other—a pendant of hammered gold inlaid on both sides with jewels depicting an eye. He turned it over to make sure—smiling as he saw the identical orb staring at him from the opposite side.
Greedily his fingers traced over the red and yellow gemstones forming the center of the Eye and around the borders of lapis lazuli lined thick as Cleopatra’s kohl.
But Ibrahim dared not break apart the pendant to gaze upon the treasure locked inside.
His hands shaking slightly with urgency, he shoved it back inside the pouch and buried it, as war raged throughout his homeland. The treasure and its innate power had lain hidden for centuries here in Babylon. It would remain hidden a bit longer, until his price was met.
Ibrahim Baaj snuck back into the city by the same route he’d left it. Tomorrow, while the world learned how horribly its cultural history had been plundered, he would betray those who had hired him to seize it and would launch the bidding war for his prize.
But there was no tomorrow for Ibrahim. As he listened to the sounds of war exploding through his city, war came to him. A rapid burst of gunfire ripped through the windshield and blew his left eye through the back of his head.
Five years later
The sand was everywhere—in her throat, in her eyelashes, embedded beneath the screw-on cap of her Gatorade bottle. Dana Landau had always loved the beach, but after three months in Iraq she’d be more than happy to never again feel the grit of sand between her toes.
“A few more minutes and I’ll have the rest of the footage,” her cameraman, Rusty Sutherland, called out.
“Make it fast.” Dana glanced warily around as he panned the wreckage yet again. She’d seen enough. And every minute they were out here, away from the fragile security of the Green Zone, they were in the devil’s hands.
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