Chapter 4 of The Holy Lance, a fantasy thriller

Chapter 4 moves the story to Baghdad in 1924. Four chapters, spanning nine centuries in five locations. Not bad. Comments are again welcome.

Chapter 4

The Iraqi Museum of Antiquities stands occupied, as does much of what the League of Nations designated as Iraq in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, by the British. The museum is housed in an ornate, three-story, sandstone building best described as a cross between Islamic and Imperial British architecture. The ornate trim of the building reflects an Islamic aesthetic somewhat out of character for the secular structure. The front of the building has four, large Doric columns, also constructed of sandstone, at the top of a wide set of marble stairs. Behind the plain columns standing guard over the antiquities are three sets of brass and glass double doors extending to a height of four meters. But for the imposing engraved letters over the building’s entrance identifying its function, one could reasonably mistake it for another British colonial government house.

The inside of the museum is dimly lighted just past midnight on the morning of July 1, 1924. Indeed, the only lights visible from the street are those in the large entryway just behind the entryway doors. Three stories of tall, narrow windows fanning out from the entrance are all darkened. A lone, uniformed watchman sits just inside the museum’s entrance occasionally lulled to sleep by the warm night air.

The beam of a flashlight goes on in one of the second story windows half way down the left side of the building’s facade. The intruder, realizing the light will be visible from the street, goes to the window and draws the shade to hide the flashlight’s meager output. He returns from the window to begin his search of a small, cluttered office of one of Great Britain’s ubiquitous civil servants.

Rolled maps lie in a heap next to a typewriter on a large wooden desk, the room’s centerpiece. A candlestick phone sits on the right side of the desk, and a well-worn wooden swivel chair is tucked in under its locked center drawer. The room’s walls are lined with shelves crammed with books about the ancient world’s treasures, and reports about what the British have done with a considerable number of those treasures over the years. Three wooden boxes with the words “Property of the British Mandate” stenciled on them are stacked in a corner nearest the door. A ceiling fan that has not worked for more than a year collects dust.

The intruder, a man in his early thirties, is dressed from his watch cap to his soft leather shoes all in black. His black hair and full black beard complete the midnight camouflage chosen for his mission.

He shines the flashlight around the room. Guiding his search with his flashlight, he runs his hand along the shelves at shoulder height. He stops and applies slight pressure to a shelf to the left of the desk until he hears a click. The narrow shelf swings outward slightly and the intruder opens it so that it is perpendicular to the wall. Behind the shelf is a small wall safe.

The intruder removes his watch cap and wipes the sweat of his brow with the forearm sleeve of his cotton shirt. He sets the watch cap on the ground and brings his hand up to the safe’s dial. With his other hand he shines his small light on the safe’s dial and turns it several times until it clicks. He opens the safe by firmly pulling down on its steel handle.

At the front of the safe are assorted bundles of British pound notes of different denominations, three delicate gold bracelets, and five small wooden boxes. The intruder removes the pound notes and jewelry and sets them on the floor. He returns his attention to the safe, pulls out one of the boxes, opens it, shines his light in it, and sets it on the desk. He does the same with two more boxes. He opens a fourth box, pulls out a layer of cotton, and looks inside.

The intruder’s eyes grow wide. He stares at the contents of the box–the six inch tip of a spear–for a moment before he regains his composure, replaces the cotton, closes the box, and puts it on the desk as well. He carefully places the three other boxes, the jewelry, and the pound notes back in the safe in their original positions. He closes the safe, returns the handle to its closed position, turns the dial twice round, and returns the bookshelf to its closed position.

He grabs the box from the desk, turns off his flashlight, gives his eyes a moment to adjust to the darkness, and walks out of the office. In his excitement at having secured the object of his burglary, he fails to notice he has left his watch cap lying on the office floor.

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George Higgins, a middle-aged, scrawny, bespectacled Englishman, enters his office, that of an Assistant Archivist at the Iraqi Museum of Antiquities. The day’s heat is already rising and he silently curses the unresponsive maintenance department that refuses to repair, or even take a look at, the inert ceiling fan in his office. Higgins would likely find some relief from the heat were he not wearing a tropical three-piece suit, and if he did not insist on starting his day with a cup of hot tea.

He closes his office door behind him. He has a newspaper tucked under his left arm and his cup of tea in his right hand. He turns on the office’s light from a switch by the door and heads for his desk. Having placed both paper and tea on his desk, he pulls a handkerchief from his suitcoat’s breast pocket to dab at the day’s first beads of sweat on his forehead. He tries to clean his wire-rimmed glasses with the same handkerchief, inspects the unsatisfactory results, and puts his glasses back on.

He opens the newspaper and begins to peruse the headlines. Without looking he reaches for his cup of tea and, as he does at least once a week, knocks the cup over spilling the tea on his desk.

“Good Lord!” he exclaims as is his habit.

He jumps up from his seat to avoid the tea which is now dripping off his desk, rights the tea cup, and looks at the spill. As he looks at the floor he notices a black watch cap. He bends over, picks up the cap, inspects it, and places it on a dry portion of his desk.

He scans the room and goes over to the bookshelf that conceals the safe. He goes through the same routine the intruder went through less than eight hours ago. He inspects the contents of the safe thoroughly. Without closing the safe, he goes to his desk, sits down, picks up the transmitter of his telephone, and clicks the switch hook twice.

“The Director, please,” he requests. Higgins waits for a moment, further inspecting the watch cap as if it might provide some clue while he waits.

“Higgins from Archives here on the second level, sir. I’m afraid I’ve some bad news. . . . Yes, well, that’s exactly right. It’s gone missing. . . . Must have happened last night. . . . Yes, sir, I’m quite certain. I check it before I leave work every evening. . . . If I may, sir, shouldn’t we notify the Iraqis? . . . No? . . . Ah, yes I see. Quite right. I’ll put it in your morning briefing, copy to the home office. . . .  No copy it is, then. Very good, sir. Thank you, and I’m terribly sorry about this.”

He hangs the transmitter back on the hook, pulls a blank piece of stationary from the desk’s top right drawer, places it into the typewriter on his desk, and begins to type.