posted on Dec, 24 2004 @ 03:04 AM
Vera Cruz III: In the Vault.
Ali and I slouched nervously against the wall of the vault, eyeing our “guards.” They were mercenaries here, not actual soldiers. But then, I had
already passed over the border of the waking world, and crossed into the twilight lands of black market commerce and all manner of shady dealing;
where your degree of actual danger is inversely related to the number of police or actual soldiers in your proximity.
Ali was a large Egyptian, with the aquiline nose that showed his Egyptian, rather than truly Arab, ethnicity. His frame was thin and lithe, and it
drove me nuts that the man never held himself completely still, even for an instant. It was driving the guards nuts, too. And there were not enough
chairs for all of us. So Ali and I had to stand, while the guards sat on swivel chairs. Guards—who are they kidding? They were armed thugs, paid
for this venture--paid by the minute, probably. It didn’t help my sense of perspective to think that our own guards were waiting down the street,
watching for the first sign of Ramirez. If he showed, then there would be trouble. Violence comes in many shades of meaning in a battle zone.
American-on-American bloodshed would bring all the wrong sorts of attention, and bring it immediately.
The old man Ghassan had led us down to this bank vault, its rows of safe deposit boxes empty of any loot or even interest. He had taken two of the
guards with him, promising to return with the Cross. It had been at least 20 minutes. I was sure Ghassan was shining us on, that he didn’t really
even have the thing.
But here were footsteps in the corridor. Poking my head out the door and into the hall, sure enough the two khaki-clad thugs with their Saddam
moustaches preceded the old man who carried a box covered with a black plush cloth, edged in gold fringe. At least this would be interesting.
My heart was beating as Ghassan set the box down silently and pointed with this chin for the guards to wait outside. They obviously would have
preferred to see the thing, and took tiny baby steps as they backed out the door. As soon as they were gone, Ghassan leaned against the old steel
door, pushing it noiselessly close to the latch, yet not locking it.
“Prepare yourselves, gentlemen” he intoned with a thick and labored accent. “The wonder of the ages!” He whipped off the black cloth with a dramatic
flourish to reveal a plexiglass box, maybe 3 feet by a foot and a half long and a foot and a half tall. Inside was a red velvet cushion, upon which
rested a nut-brown wedge of what I guessed was wood, but which looked like nothing so much as a giant piece of old dried sponge, ludicrously shaped
like a giant warped banana. “CRUCE VERUM” Ghassan intoned with genuine gravitas in his best pseudo-Latin. “The last remaining piece of the cross of
This in itself was an amazing utterance for an Arab, since the Qur’an states that Jesus, or Issa, was not actually crucified; but whose death had been
faked. On the other hand, I had learned more about insincerity in one Iraqi month than I had learned in a decade of black market antiquities dealing.
And old Ghassan was only one step removed from the hucksters in the local Suq, plying their counterfeit electronics and scrounged weapons: “Best guns
for you, sir! Best ammo! Everything very fresh! Where you from? Ah-America! Special “American” price for you my friend! Special price today for
Americans!” Like I said, Ghassan was only one step removed from the street, and it wasn’t a very large step at that.
I looked from him back to the artifact. I asked him to lift the plexi case off for me. Wagging his finger inches from my nose, he repeated his
negative litany. “No cameras, No strobe or UV lights, And bism’allah, not to be touching it! He lifted the case off, while I pulled a folding
magnifying glass out of my shirt pocket. I was shaking.
Breathlessly, I hovered over this obviously ancient piece of wood. I exhaled slowly as I walked my way around the thing, looking at the silken pillow
made specifically to cradle this unique object. The thing even smelled ancient.
And as I inhaled through my nose, alarm bells began to go off in my mind. The obverse of the piece of wood bore part of an inscription: “ . .
.AZARENVSRE. . .” Obviously, part of the Latin inscription, “Isvs Nazarenvs Rex Ivdaeorum.” The line below it was a fragment of Greek capitals,
“TOSESTINO” part of the phrase “Outos Estin O Basileus” or “This is the king. A third line showed a final Mem, the Hebrew letter at the end of the
word “Yudai-yim, of the Jews.”
Why was it that I knew in my heart that this was a fake. I couldn’t put my finger on it . . . until two insights hit me simultaneously, like twin
blasts from a double-barreled shotgun: On the one hand the cross smelled ancient. And truly ancient wood should have no smell at all. It’s resins
should have yielded up every last ester, every last free molecule of odor, centuries ago.
The second wave of recognition came from history. If this was the piece of the cross that Saladin had captured from the Templars at Hattin, then it
couldn’t have the inscription on it. The piece of Saladin’s cross had been cut from a larger artifact. The titulum, or signboard, from THAT cross
had been shipped off to the chapel called “Santa Croce in Gerusalemme” located in the Vatican. According to legend, St. Helen had shipped it off to
Rome nearly 700 years before Saladin was even born. The titulum, the board that Pilate had written his condemnation of Christ on, was, according to
the Church, still on display at the Santa Croce, where every Spring it is displayed at Mass during the second Sunday in Lent.
So the Vatican wouldn’t be buying this particular piece of lumber: “No thanks, but we’ve already got one of those.”
I tried to steel myself, hunkering over this piece of junk, in the remains of the vault of some bank’s basement. Could Ghassan tell that I had
already guessed that his treasure was a fake? Could Ali? Did Ghassan even know it was a fake?
I crossed myself fervently and pretended to mutter the Lord’s prayer. I watched as Ali narrowed his gaze, then dropped his mouth open. Ali knew I
was a Protestant, and would never form the sign of the cross over myself. He quickly closed his mouth, and began to mutter the introduction to each
of the Qur’an’s chapters: “Bismillah, Al Rachman, Al Rachim.” In the name of Allah, the magnificent, the merciful.
As Ali rose to his feet, I tried to act as glib and overjoyed as possible. I told Ghassan that this was the find of the Millenium; that he would be
remembered in history as the man who had sealed the friendship of Muslims and Christians forever. I hugged him and tried to force myself to shed
tears. “I’ll go to Prudhomme.” I stuttered through crocodile sobs. “No price is too high!”
Outside and into the street, the evening air like a blast furnace, even with the humidity of the ancient muddy Euphrates only a few blocks away.
Tired palm trees drooped like bored peacocks in the raised median as we made our way towards the end of the street. One of our men stepped from
behind the line of trees. I heard the Mercedes roar to life, and Ali grabbed me by the arm and we ran toward it.
We ran along the broken pavement. Ali shouted at me. “You know it’s a fake somehow.” I didn’t answer, just trying to get away as quickly from the
fraud as possible. “You’re not going to Prudhomme.” He said as he jogged along. “Where are you going?” He asked as he steered me around a beggar
lying with his crutch against a building.
“To the Yezidis” I said. “That wasn’t the cross they were trying to sell. No burn marks. Wrong inscription. Any inscription is wrong.” I
stammered as I gasped for breath while the maroon Mercedes pulled toward us, and finally up to the curb.
But Ali wasn’t looking at me. He was staring across the street at a crowd of boys, huddled around their game of Al Harq’ur, that ancient game of
pebbles that was the precursor of chess. One of the boys was not watching the progress of the tiny stones across the chalked-in lines of the board.
No. This one boy had been watching us.
Time slowed, and began to unwind, down to a whisper. Now the boy was rising, turning, and running up the street. His friends were up and running
into the nearest open doorway. Ali hurled himself into the ancient Mercedez, as hailstones clanged against the fender. I spun around, reacting on
instinct, in time to see the firefly of a muzzle flash from a rooftop beyond the line of palm trees. I dove in to the back seat, as the driver sped
away, the door swinging wildly as he squealed around corners, trying to lose the cars that would surely be pursuing us.