The late afternoon sun was obscured by the dense cloud cover as it attempted to traverse the thick glass roof of the Temple of Dendur. The pavilion which had been erected in the center of the reflecting pool, housed the half-dozen-and-one priceless gemstones of Antiquity’s curiosity. Across the platform sat squat, bullet-proof glass encapsulations, enshrouding black velvet, brilliant halogen light, and priceless jewels in variety rarely seen outside the crown collections of far-flung royalty. Though the exhibit “Gemstone Treasures of the Ancient World” had led to lines extending well up to the corner of 86th street and 5th Avenue, in the post-noon lull of December 23rd, there wer barely a dozen people milling around the exhibit. Perhaps it was the holiday fervor, overtaking those who would normally suffuse themselves in culture, driving like a multitude of cogs in the great Yuletide commercial machine, or perhaps it was the unseasonable cold, even for the Northeast in December (the corpulent Al Roker reported an average temperature of -12, with a wind-chill factor of -22); but whatever the cause, the special exhibition saw fewer people than it ever had since it’s opening, a few weeks prior.
In addition to the myriad of motion detectors, video cameras, and general security measures The Metropolitan Museum of Art took in protecting its artifacts, there were two full-time guards attending the platform in the center of the Temple. One, a short but powerfully built Russian, with slicked-back hair and tattoos barely hidden by his cuffs, counted patrons walking across the bridge to the center of the pool, and kept a sharp eye on the digital counter he held in his hand, ensuring too many people did not enter the exhibit at once. In the center of the artificial parterre, next to the centerpiece of the exhibit, stood an attentive guard with a swarthy complexion, a neatly trimmed mustache; his arms crossed at his chest as his eyes constantly danced from patron to patron milling around the exhibition. Glancing briefly at his watch, the guard began his circuit of the cases, a two-minute walk he took every ten minutes, in part to ensure nobody was doing things they should not (like take photos of the display cases) but also in a vain attempt to keep warm. The glass walls of the Temple offered little warmth on a day with no sun and such biting cold.
Arjan paced his rounds carefully; one hand on his walkie talkie, the other kept loosely hanging by his side. There was an odd mix of patrons for this time of day on a holiday, but none who looked like they were in to cause any mischief, and no furtive shutterbugs amongst them, which meant his few minutes of pacing were uneventful at best. Sighing deeply, Arjan looked again at his watch, then up at the dismal sky, wishing he had taken a later shift, and had not forgotten his jacket. He contemplated using his radio to ask for a relief so he could run to the lavatory, and maybe get his coat on the way back, but his shift was ending soon, and it seemed to make sense to him to save the break, so that he could cut out a little early. Though Arjan took no pleasure in the annual Christmas festivities which choked Manhattan like an Asian kudzu each holiday season, his commute certainly suffered for it, and the extra fifteen minutes would possible make up half the time he’d lose to gawking tourists and lost out-of-towners stumbling through the subway like inebriated orangutans on the way home.
As Arjan returned to his post beside the Moonstone, he got a good look at it, a rarity for a day shift – the case was usually swarmed with people pressing themselves to the glass, It sat in a carefully arranged set of folds in black velvet, cleverly positioned to hide the stand which supported it from beneath. The gem was glowing far less than it had been a week ago, in the light of the full-moon. When he had first read about the stone in the Employee newsletter, he assumed the “glowing” properties of the Moonstone were something of an exaggeration – an oddity used to drum up a crowd during the busiest time of the year. Arjan was surprised to have been mistaken, and he noted, disconcertingly, that the chartreuse luminescence the stone seemed to be radiating did, indeed, look like letters of some sort, just as the detail plate had suggested it would. The odd points of light seemed to dance in the depths of the stone, hovering within the crystalline angles nested in black velvet. Arjan was not much one for gemstones, but he had to admit the eerie rock was impressive – nearly twice the size of a hen’s egg, and meticulously cut, the diamond was one of the largest in the world, to say nothing of the unique properties which led to its moniker.
As Arjan took his post alongside the case, he shivered as a thin breeze wafted across the Reflecting Pool. His hand was halfway to his walkie-talkie before he heard Viktor politely shouting at the patrons who had walked around the stanchions cordoning off the doors to Central Park, and were now trying to force them open against the wind, and the stout chains which prevented them from opening more than a palms width. As Victor approached the trio attempting to leave via the blocked exit, his voice lowered, and his hand gestures began to make up for the words Arjan could no longer hear. As Viktor escorted the tourists away from the doorway, he flipped Arjan a subtle “Okay” with his hand behind his back, suggesting that Arjan did not need to call any guards in from the hall just outside Dendur to help with the post Viktor had temporarily vacated.
Under normal circumstances, Arjan would have already called for a swing guard, but there were few enough people that the count was not going to be a huge issue.
When Arjan was a boy, he remembered watching a large flock of birds milling around the mud flat at the shore of the Sutiej, outside Bahawalpur. His family had gone there on holiday, and he was watching the birds with his grandfather. Though he was only a small boy, he noticed that the birds picking through the mud seemed to move in a pattern – they would spread out in a wide group, and then move tightly together, all of the sudden, dipping their beaks in the mud all at the same time. Arjan had asked his grandfather why the birds did that, and his grandfather had grunted, pulled out a half-cigarette, lit it, and explained to Arjan that the birds were working together to catch little worms beneath the mud. When they spread out, the worms came up for air, thinking things were safe, and when they crowded all together, they were doing so in an attempt to prevent the worms from making any escape. Not every bird got something to eat each time they did ths, but pretty much every bird got something to eat over the course of the cyclical process.
Arjan never ceased to be amazed that museum patrons were so like the riverbirds of his lost childhood. Spread out across the exhibit for minutes, milling around, as if they were not interested in the priceless artifacts they had paid to gawk at, then, all at once, converging on the centerpiece, as if there was a morsel that was going to escape, if they did not all press together to look at the same time. Like the flock of skimmers, the patrons pressed near to the Moonstone were all very similar in their goal, but very different as individuals.
There was a middle-aged man in jeans and white sneakers, a puffy jacket and a backwards hat, looming over a frail-looking older woman with a fur-fringed brown jacket and a thick wool hat. There was a huge, bulky bald man in a brown pea coat and sunglasses, looking furtively between the Moonstone and at the blonde woman at his elbow, who was oddly attired for the weather, in thinly-layered cotton and a thing sweatshirt jacket. There was a bearded man in a tweed suit, holding a trench coat and a woman’s fur coat, which Arjan assumed belonged to the stooped older woman standing beside him, pointing at the gem. Arjan felt vaguely that he recognized, or should have recognized the woman, but couldn’t connect her face with a name. Behind them, trying furtively to get a better look at the stone past the man holding the mound of coats and the behemoth in the pea coat, was a middle-aged man pushing a wheelchair, on which was a fit-looking wrinkled old man in a black mesh baseball hat with a well-worn leather jacket draped across his lap. As the man pushing the wheelchair fought to maneuver to give its occupant a better vista, Arjan noted that the gentleman in the wheelchair had only one leg.
Arjan stepped off his perch to rearrange the flock of patrons somewhat, he looked to see if Viktor had made it back to his post from his interlude with the Houdini tourists. It looked like he had just returned, and was fidgeting with the digital counter, probably trying to reset it. Viktor was a man of many diverse talents, but technical proficiency was not really high on that list. As Arjan cleared his throat, preparing to launch into his oft-recited speech about stepping away from the glass, and letting other people get a chance to see the gem, a piercing whine suddenly permeated the air around the small group, causing everyone standing wince in pain, with more than one person clapping a hand or two to their ears to block the pernicious warbling. The sound was as sharp as feedback from a microphone getting too close to a speaker, but seemed to suffuse the entire platform, which, he knew, had no speakers on it. Arjan’s speech died in his throat as all the moisture fled from his mouth, perhaps as a byproduct of the chittering whine, which seemed to be originating from the wheelchair.
As Arjan took a step towards the man in the wheelchair, and his aide, the sound doubled in volume, and the old man in the wheelchair cursed in a language Arjan did not recognize, pawing at his ear as if it were the cause of the problem. The security guard saw the hearing aid pop and sizzle in the air as the old man knocked it to the ground from where it had been affixed, just as his walkie talkie began emitting a similar screech. Arjan, startled, fiddled with the volume knob, trying to turn down the sound, but it made no difference. As several other people in the small crowd began to step back from the source of the high-pitched whine, Arjan noticed, for the first time, across the platform, the trio of strange men standing beside Viktor, who, for some reason, had drawn his sidearm. Viktor was pointing his gun at the lead of the three men standing beside him, gesturing wildly with his free hand. As Arjan felt his pulse jump as a shock of adrenaline surged through him, he winced as the piercing whine got even louder, and started to oscillate painfully. Viktor took a half-step back onto the platform from where he stood at the exhibit entrance, covering one of his ears with his free hand as the three men slowly walked forward towards Viktor’s pistol, the lead of the trio extending his hand, as if he intended to either disarm the Russian, or shake his hand, despite the fact that it held a loaded 9mm pointed at him.
Arjan had been working at The Museum for most of his adult career, and he had seen and guarded a number of exhibits in that time. In the late nineties, there had been an presentation of antique British hand-made clothing that the Costume Institute had cleverly entitled “Edward’s Wardrobe”. Arjan had thought the exhibit was pretty dull, but he did remember the first outfit that you saw, walking into the exhibit, was a dummy dressed in an Edwardian suit, black cloth and odd-cravat, complete with a bowler. All three of the men that Viktor was pointing his firearm at were dressed in an outfit similar to the one Arjan had seen in that exhibit, except instead of hats, they were wearing tightly bound black turbans, and, instead of the mustachioed British caricature one would associate with a wearer of such an outfit, they seemed to have no facial features at all, only a pasty white eggshell face, marked with a nose and what might be the slit of a mouth.
As all the cell phones and digital watches of the people nearby him exploded into a redoubling choir of grating feedback, Arjan flipped the walkie talkie into the water of the reflecting pool, dimming the volume of the horrible sound echoing through the Hall, and drew his sidearm, thumbing off the safety as he tried, in vain, to shout over the sound, which seemed to make the fillings in his teeth vibrate painfully. The old woman in the fur-lined coat clasped a hand to her chest, and folded to her knees, then slumped, face first into the carpet-padded plywood floor. Viktor squeezed off three shots at the lead man in the turban and odd suit.
At the range Viktor was shooting from, he should not have missed, and Arjan waited half a heartbeat to see the results of the fire. Amazingly, Viktor seemed not only to have missed, but froze in a moment of panic at having done so, as the lead man in the strange mask (Arjan assumed they had to be masks, intended to foil the cameras) took the last step he needed to close his hand around Viktor’s pistol. Arjan shouted, knowing he would not be heard above the brain-melting din, and fired off a shot, aimed directly at the center of the head of the man who now had a gloved hand firmly clasped on Viktor’s pistol, as if he might force the Russian’s aim to the ground.
Arjan had never fired a gun at a living person before. He had done his monthly target practice in the third-sublevel basement firing range, as all of The Museum guards who carried guns were required to. He had gone every first Monday of the month, without fail, ever since he had started carrying a gun; an attempt to garnish a raise through hazard pay six years ago. His third time at the range was the first time Arjan met Viktor, who had just started working at The Museum, and the two had become fast friends, particularly after Viktor got a glimpse at Arjan’s shooting. Though Arjan distained firearms as a means of settling conflict, he was a dead shot, only scoring less than perfect on his target rounds once, in 2001, when he came to work horribly jetlagged from a friend’s Sunday Vegas wedding.
The shot should have dropped the man in the odd suit and mask where he stood, next to Viktor, splitting the front of his head like a machete going through an overripe cassava. Instead, the figure turned slightly, if it were noticing Arjan for the first time, and cocked it’s head slightly to the side. A palpable wave of terror shot through Arjan’s spine as the eggshell face regarded him in eyeless curiosity. The figure pointed at Arjan with its free hand, and the two other costumed compatriots started walking towards Arjan, jerking as if they were guided by unseen marionette strings. The Sikh found their gait almost as terrifying as the fact that, after empting most of a clip into the oncoming duo, he seemed neither to have hit nor even slowed either of them. As their flailing steps came closer and closer to Arjan, who numbly tried to reload his gun, he realized he could hear the creaking of the leather in the soles of his assailants shoes, as they jerk-stepped their way towards him, despite the tooth-grindingly painful whine of the feedback.Arjan slammed a fresh clip into his gun, and unloaded a shot, at nearly point-blank range, directly into the face of one of the two masked men who were reaching towards him with spidery fingers, seeking to grab him, and hold him down, as the other had done to Viktor. Somewhere far away, Arjan heard Viktor shriek madly for a moment, his voice raised in terror and agony just above the volume of the horrible otherworldly whine, then cut silent, suddenly, as if someone had slapped a hand across his mouth. Backpedaling, Arjan found himself tripping into one of the glass cases containing another gemstone, the Kahn’s Ruby. He instinctively felt the smooth glass behind him, walking sideways away from the two men, who, it seemed, were less interested in him, and more interested in the case containing the Moonstone, which they picked their way towards, in odd puppet like hops over the people strewn across the floor. The small crowd had all taken cover or collapsed, Arjan was not sure which. The only exception seemed to be the man in the puffy jacket, who looked like he was trying to shake the old woman he was with awake, noiselessly screaming at her as she lay on her back staring up into the cloudy sky beyond the Temple’s glass ceiling.
Arjan fell to his knees, blood suddenly trickling from his nostrils and his ears, as the deafening whine became a moment of absolute silence, and electric agony of pressure pierced his forehead. The silence fell just as the two suited figures stopped in front of the case containing the Moonstone. Arjan struggled to hold an arm out in front of him, so he did not fall flat on his face as the pain sapped the strength from his legs. As tears sprang to his eyes, he saw something impossible as the sudden silence was broken by a gut-wrenching screech, like some monstrous clawed hand scraping across a huge slate. The two men in suits appeared to have inserted their hands into the surface bulletproof glass case protecting the Moonstone, as if it were liquid. Lazy ripples worked across the surface of the glass case, which groaned in protest as the air around it seemed to warp and shimmer. With slow determination, the two men began peeling away handfuls of the glass if it were thin aluminum foil, the strips curling like rolled paper as they were pulled away from the case’s center. The last thing Arjan saw, before everything became white agony and shadowed consciousness, was the third figure walking up behind the other two, pristine jacket soaked in gore and blood, and reach through the hole in the glass his compatriots had made, plucking the green-glowing diamond from its velvet perch within the spoiled case.