The Illumination

A Novel

Karen Tintori, Jill Gregory

St. Martin's Press

Prologue

Iraq National Museum

Baghdad

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.

 

Chapter 1

Five years later

Baghdad

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.

Her chest tight, Dana picked her way across the bomb-torn terrain in search of a patch of shade.

Another day, another car bombing, she thought grimly, turning her back on the convoy of military vehicles that had accompanied them, their driver, and their interpreter to this grisly scene. The strike had taken out two truckloads of newly trained Iraqi soldiers.

The network had allotted her ninety seconds to sum up today’s chapter in this ongoing odyssey of death, which they’d edit down to a sound bite that could never reflect the enormity of the carnage.

Dana had busted her buns to snag this assignment. She’d fought for it harder than she’d ever fought for anything, but she had to concede that when she left Iraq next month she wouldn’t miss this danger-fraught nightmare—the thunder of bombs puncturing the night, the stench of burned flesh and rubber, the thin high wails of the children. She’d gladly trade the sandbags piled against the windowsills of the MSNBC villa, the razor wire surrounding it, and all the paranoia, grittiness, and uncertainty of life in a war zone for some humdrum assignment covering schoolteachers on strike.

But she’d keep that to herself. Her father had always cautioned her and her sister about shedding tears for answered prayers. This stint in Iraq was what she’d wanted, and it was establishing her as a prime-time contender right alongside all the big boys—the older anchors who’d cemented their careers covering battlefields and the world’s hotspots.

But I won’t miss it—and I damn well won’t ever be able to forget it, she thought, gulping warm Gatorade as she leaned into the meager shade of a date palm. She’d miss Rusty, though. Having been in Baghdad a full month before Dana had arrived, her cameraman was leaving in the morning for two weeks R & R stateside.

“Done! Let’s get outta here.” Rusty slammed the trunk of the armored car. She knew he was already halfway home, envisioning his reunion with his wife and kids back in Connecticut.

After Baghdad, American suburbia would be paradise.

“Coming.” She pushed herself away from the tree, eager to be on the move as quickly as possible. A quick cell call from an insurgent spotting them out here would be enough to bring a car bomb speeding this way with their names on it.

As she straightened, the Gatorade bottle cap slipped from her fingers. Swearing, she stooped to retrieve it from the hot sand and spotted something peeking out of the explosion-rocked earth a few feet away. A patch of weathered leather, half buried in the sand. Even from a distance she could see it was decorated with a painted eye.

Dana crouched and tugged it from the sand. Yep, it was most certainly an eye. A blue eye, rimmed in black, painted on a leather pouch half the size of a playing card. A blue eye was a familiar talisman, especially in this part of the world; it was used as protection against the evil eye.

Just like this one, she thought, touching the dainty silver charm shaped like a downturned open palm dangling at her throat. Her fingers brushed quickly along the seven small amethysts edging her hamsa amulet to find the turquoise cloisonné eye painted in its center and dotted with a single pearl—her mother’s pearl. Natalie had sent this necklace to her as an olive branch right before she’d left for Iraq. The hamsa was a perfect going off to war gift from her sister, since if anyone knew about protective talismans and good luck mojo, it was Nat.

Her older sister had spent fifteen months honing her doctoral thesis on the history of ancient Mesopotamian protective amulets, charms, and talismans. Now she was a curator at New York’s Devereaux Museum of the Ancient Near East, and though her specialty was Mesopotamia, she could rattle off just about anything you’d want to know about protective charms and customs around the world—and the incantations associated with them.

Not only everyday customs, like your typical knocking on wood or carrying a rabbit’s foot or four-leaf clover for good luck, but esoterica like Arubans recoiling if a black butterfly entered their houses, fearing it portended death. And that ancient Greeks believed that owls flying over battlefields were a sign of imminent victory, while ancient Romans thought their cries foretold death or disaster. Owls were downright terrifying to the ancient Chinese, who named the summer solstice the Day of the Owl and believed children born on that day had a propensity for violence.

Dana had often teased Nat about her encyclopedic expertise, referring to her sister as “the doctor of superstitious voodoo.”

But she hadn’t teased Natalie about anything in a long time. They were barely back on speaking terms.

Hurrying toward the convoy, Dana flicked sand from the leather pouch and suddenly realized there was something inside it. She loosened the black drawstring and shook out a tarnished pendant on a gold chain. The egg-shaped pendant was decorated with blue, red, and yellow stones arrayed in the same distinctive “eye” image as on the pouch.

“Yo! Ms. Landau!” The handsome young army officer in charge of their convoy barked over the engines. “Time to move!”

Dana dropped the trinket back inside its pouch and broke into a run, stuffing her find into the pocket of her olive cargo pants. Maybe some poor tourist’s loss will be Natalie’s gain, she reflected as she ducked inside the armored car.

She didn’t give the pouch or the pendant another thought until she reached into her pocket for lip gloss after dinner in the villa.

“Damn. I almost forgot.” She tugged out the pouch and eyed Rusty Sutherland across the creaky dining table. “How’d you like to do me a little favor and deliver a fabulous treasure to my sister when you get home?”

“What do I look like, a pack mule?” Rusty wadded up his napkin and stuffed it into his plastic cup. At forty-two, he sported a Yul Brynner dome, which he achieved by ruthlessly shaving any straggling strands of the reddish-blond hair that had earned him his nickname. He was solidly built but quick on his feet, and he’d been nominated for the Pulitzer not once, but twice. Dana was certain the bags under his somber brown eyes had doubled since he’d stepped foot in Iraq.

When she dumped out the pendant and held it aloft, his brows lifted.

“Worth all of two bucks max, but Natalie might get a kick out of it. You’re sure you don’t mind?”

“No sweat. You never know—that thing could turn out to be the centerpiece of her next exhibit. We’ll see if anyone can tell the difference between trash and treasure,” he snorted.

“Natalie knows her stuff. She’ll know exactly what this is. I’ll stick a note inside tonight and give it to you in the morning. What time are you choppering out?”

He grimaced. “Four a.m. The hour of the revolving cameramen. Linc jumps off the plane at three—you won’t like him nearly as much as you like me, by the way—and an hour later I get on. And get out.” He shoved back his chair and stood up, stretching his arms over his bare head. “So I’m passing on the high-octane coffee tonight. If I don’t hit the sack now, I may as well pull an all-nighter.”

“See you in the morning, Rusty. Don’t forget to knock on my door before you leave.”

She lingered at the small table after he went up to his room, swallowing down an unexpected surge of homesickness. The green-tiled dining room was empty save for the skinny young Iraqi who worked in the kitchen and kept the place in some semblance of order for the network staffers bunking there. Tonight the villa felt more desolate than usual, despite the fragrance of the lush vegetation outside and the proximity of Saddam’s former palaces.

Villa. The word conjured up images of wealth and splendor, palm trees and servants. But now this villa was anything but idyllic. Would this country ever again know any luxury—even the “luxury” of peace?

After the hotels had been bombed, MSNBC and other news agencies had been forced to rent headquarters in assorted villas or large private homes within the Green Zone. All of them were in various stages of disrepair, yet they were still safer bases of operations than the hotels, which were far more visible targets.

Not that any place was actually safe here.

She thought for a moment of countless dinners in New York, of relaxed people laughing in crowded restaurants, of the festive clink of flatware and glasses, and the short walks afterward to snag a taxi or jump on the subway. She flashed on all the Friday nights she’d met Natalie for dinner after work, and the Sunday mornings she’d jogged through Central Park, and suddenly Dana became nostalgic for grass damp with dew. And for her sister. There was so much she missed, especially the normal, simple freedoms of life lived without the fear of kidnappings and beheadings.

You wanted this, she reminded herself, scooping up the pendant from the table, jangling the chain in her hand. And in only a few more weeks you’ll be done—choppering out at four a.m. yourself. So suck it up and smile for the camera, baby.

“Excuse me, Miss Landau?.?.?.” Duoaud, the young Iraqi, leaned in to set a small cup of thick black coffee before her. “Is there anything else you need this evening?”

“I’m set for tonight, Duoaud.” She glanced up at the thin young man with the movie-star eyelashes who hovered at her elbow. “I’m turning in for the night, too.”

She angled the pendant back into its pouch as Duoaud gathered up the plates and napkins. As he worked, his gaze followed the glint of the chain as it slid into the hollow of waiting leather.

“A most beautiful amulet, Miss Landau. Almost as beautiful as you,” he added with a flashing grin. “My girlfriend, she would enjoy wearing one like that. Did you buy it here in Baghdad?”

She scraped back her chair and turned toward the stairs. “Actually, it found me. G’night, Duoaud. Please tell Wasim the lamb was amazing this evening. The best I’ve ever tasted.”

But Duoaud didn’t tell Wasim a thing. As soon as Dana left the dining room, Duoaud raced through the kitchen and out the back door, tearing down back alleys stinking of garbage and dog piss, past tall and vacant hotels, past gas stations and trinket shops, until he stood at a stately home near the far outskirts of the Green Zone. At the door of Aslam Hameed, who was paying him to keep an eye on the Americans and to keep an ear out for whispers about the Eye of Dawn, he pummeled the thick wood with the side of his fist.

“It’s true. It exists—it’s here. The Eye of Dawn. I saw it with my own eyes. Tonight—at the villa.”

The words poured out of him faster than the sweat sliding down his dark, razor-sharp cheekbones. The obsidian eyes of Aslam Hameed pinned him.

“Inside.” The heavier man jerked Duoaud into the stone entryway of his comfortable home, quickly scanning the street in both directions before he stepped back inside his residence and slammed the door.

“Tell me everything. But first, tell me who has it.”

Duoaud was still panting, yet exhilarated by the full attention of Aslam Hameed.

And when Hameed reports my discovery to Hasan Sabouri himself, insha’allah, I, too, might be in line for an important position with the Guardians of the Khalifah.

“A woman has it. She is a reporter. For an American television network—MSNBC. Her name is Dana Landau.”