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Vera Cruz

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posted on Dec, 12 2004 @ 01:11 AM
“L’ech L’azazel!” Even I could understand the old woman’s curse: “Go to the devil Azazel!”

The conversation was obviously over. The translator, an Egyptian named Ali, had probably done more harm than good. Another local, now convinced that the occupiers were here at the behest of whatever local despot had outbid his rivals for the role of local gendarme of the provisional government down in Baghdad.

The old woman turned toward me, a shapeless lump of malevolence beneath her burkha. Her bare feet were gray with layers of dust as we stood on the scorching pavement beside the hovel which had probably once been a gas station. She shouted another string of epithets at me, and made a hissing sound beneath her shroud. Then she said the magic words: “Vera Cruz”

So Ramirez had been here. I instructed Ali to offer her more money, hundreds this time. She snatched the fistful of Franklins from him like he had just been caught picking her pocket. Yes, a man. A Faranq, a redhead. Tall. No, not in uniform, but with American soldiers who had no patches on their clothes. How did she know they were Americans, then? Ali broke my thought down into whatever outrageous dialect was this witch’s native tongue. “Because they reeked of American deodorant, and listened to Selena.” came the reply a dozen seconds later. “Were they speaking English?” “No- Indios!”. Came the reply.

That was Ramirez, all right. And with a group of fellow-Spanish speakers. I said to Ali, “Ask her who said the words ‘Vera Cruz.’ Was it Ramirez?” He translated while she kicked at the asphalt beneath her feet. “La. No.” Came the answer. Then who, I wondered, while Ali continued to work with her. “Easy.” He finally said. “The priest who was with them.”

My heart sank. This meant that the Vatican was probably involved as well. Ali continued to ask her if the priest was wearing black, or had merely been introduced as a priest. But I didn’t waste my time. I went back to the Humvee, and picked up the cell phone. One bar. Not enough signal for me to try and call my buyer. Ali and the mercs came waddling up to our vehicles under their pounds of gear, flopping into the seats and slamming the doors whose hinges had already been sprung long before we’d ever set foot in this Godforsaken armpit of a desert.

Ali offered that she had backed up the rest of Farouk’s story; that a band of Yezidis, “devil-worshipers” had stopped long enough to refuel and ask for directions to Moustafa’s base. That they were arguing over what to do with “Saladin’s Amulet.” Some wanted to burn it once and for all. The leader and his second shouted down the would-be arsonists, and assured them that the Nizranis, the “Nazarenes,” would pay any amount for a piece of their True Cross, taken by Saladin at the Battle of the Horns of Hattin back in AD 1187.

posted on Dec, 18 2004 @ 04:14 PM
Ali opened the driver’s door of the Humvee, and stood on the seat so he could be seen by the other drivers in our caravan. He Pointed a stiff arm up, and made circles with it, then pointed North. Then he turned around and dropped into the seat, made a U-turn and headed back the way we had come.

“So. Ramirez. He must be at Moustafa’s fortress. Do you think he can shoot his way in and grab the cross?”

As we whizzed passed the line of 2 mazda pickups and the 3 old Mercedes in our parade, I refused to answer. Ali drove furiously, picking up speed. He knew that if we traveled too tightly, as an obvious convoy, we’d draw attention from everyone. The road began to twist left and right in a series of switchbacks, as we made our way out of the foothills and back onto the plain south of Mosul.

An hour ticked by, and I tried to place the landscape in my mind. It wasn’t like the “clean” desert of the Arabian “empty quarter,” a whipping moonscape of windblown sand. Nor was it like the desert Southwest of America, with its red dirt and mesas. This blistered dirt reminded me of the scrubby badlands of borderland Arizona; too dry to even support Mesquite or Acacia. The only signs of vegetation, weeds really, were along the occasional draw or wadi that threw us around in the humvee. It looked like hell on a slow business day.

The sky was different too. I grew up under the big sky of the American plains. Summer was dry, sometimes for months. But at least the sky had been a robin’s-egg blue, broken up by towering thunderheads that looked like cotton. They sure as hell weren’t going to rain on you, but they might offer some afternoon shade and a degree or two’s drop in temperature.

Here in Iraq, though, even the sky is ugly. Only blue at the zenith, it washes out into a gray white from the heat, and then down to a light tan or khaki for the last 20 degrees down to the horizon. I wondered as we bounced along what had once been a paved road: Was the brown of the horizon caused by wind-bourn dust, or by pollution. Of course I knew the answer. In Iraq, the answer was, as always, “whichever is worse.”

Suddenly as the road straightened out over a small rise, the cell phone blared it’s alarm in mid-ring, as we pulled in range of it’s invisible signal. We bounced through a pothole, and Ali and I fished for the phone as it went skittering across what passes for a dashboard in a Humvee. It reminded me comically of a wet bar of soap, or trying to land a bass in a mountain stream. Ali caught it without flipping the vehicle, and handed the phone to me. It was Prudhomme, in Baghdad.

“Moustafa had it. Definitely,” he began with no introduction. “It’s being moved down to some bank here. I need you down here to take a look at it, before I make a bid.”

“Is it already there?” I wondered, incredulously?

“It will be by the time you get your butt down here” Prudhomme’s voice sneered as the hiss of static banished it from my ear. If this was true, then Ali and I were closer to it, or would be, that Ramirez himself. WE might get the jump on the first look and first bid. As I told Ali the news, he fluttered the breaks to get the attention of the other vehicle, and made yet another u-turn, this time heading south for the road to Sammara, and then on to Baghdad.

posted on Dec, 18 2004 @ 04:41 PM
Excellent work, Herr Doktor. Keep it up. I like how it seems to be grounded in experience. I've never seen a desert, myself. I wish I could visit one.



posted on Dec, 24 2004 @ 01:10 AM
There is something really Lovecraftian about your writing... and that is one of the highest compliments I've ever given somebody.

I look forward to the next installment

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 Christ!”

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.


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