Like many of its counterparts in developing, post-soviet, non-aligned, and esoterically-described nations worldwide, the United States Embassy to the Republic of Uzbekistan in Tashkent resembles a giant wedding cake crossbred with a WWII concrete pillbox. A system of baffles, sharp turns, gates and guard points prevents any attempt by suicide bombers or enraged mobs to storm the building. Pulling up in your car, you reflect that it also makes getting to meetings on time a pain in the ass.
Assembling in the main conference room, you take a moment to glance around at the hastily assembled investigative team, the stacks of potentially-vaguely-relevant documents, the half-drunk cups of coffee; looks like this case has everyone working overtime. Time to put your shoulder to the wheel and introduce yourself…
Arrivals and Introductions
Mattias Fjäder picks up a cup of coffee, sniffs at it, takes a sip, makes a face but keeps the cup.
"Alright, I'm Mattias Fjäder of Featherweight Facilitators, pleased to meet you all!"
A staffer bustles over. "Please, have some… oh, you've got some already. It's not the greatest, sorry - we're down to the Moccona Instant, but should have some real coffee soon. Looks like you're the first one here - ah, make yourself comfortable, we should be starting the formal briefing shortly when the rest of the team arrives".
A moment later, the door sweeps open and William Lowell darts in, managing to make a grand entrance while still giving the impression of scuttling. He deflates slightly upon seeing only one person waiting for him… but only slightly. “Dr. Lowell – Interpol. Pleased to see, er, that the others seem to be late… I mean, that is, pleased to meet you, and I see the others aren’t early. Not that – yes… well.” The bookshelf draws his attention and he glides over to inspect the spines of bound State Department circulars and briefings with apparently genuine curiosity.
The obliging staffer hurries to William's side. "Dr Lowell - thank you so much for signing on at short notice. I understand that you're going to give us a short presentation on the legal position on these kinds of thefts, is that right?"
"If you need an opening act, certainly, once the others arrive I can say a few words about the international law regarding this kind of trafficking… as long as you can guarantee me front-row seats at the main event." He leaves off fingering a binder of translated newspaper clippings long enough to wink laboriously at the staffer. "Which will be when someone explains what our legal position is. I was extremely surprised to be instructed to come to the American embassy rather than the Uzbek justice ministry or police headquarters, or even the UNESCO office here. I, at least, have no legal authority to personally conduct an investigation into smuggling antiquities into Uzbekistan. Much less felonies committed entirely within its borders, like this grave-robbing. Organizing us here, well, one has to make some assumptions." An blank-spined volume draws his attention and he tugs it out to read the title on the front cover: 2003 Conspectus of Agricultural Development (Andijon Region)… "Naturally, the Uzbek security services will." Sadly he pushes the book back into place.
The young man nods. "Well, we will explain the position in detail once everyone's here - but in a nutshell, the Uzbeks have no jurisdiction over NATO bases, or NATO personnel while on the bases. Since they've accused American military personnel at the Termiz NATO base of the crime, we need to have our own team. But we will be working with the Uzbek services as much as possible."
"Blaggards! Poltroons, utter thieving bastards!"
Even by Todd Saint-James's standards this entrance is impressive. Conversation freezes. The straw-haired Englishman blanches, disconcerted by the attention he has unwittingly - well, semi-wittingly - attracted. Its difficult to know what has upset him: it might have been the marine guards at the embassy gates, it may have been the cost of his cab fare. In fact, for those of you who know Todd, you'd guess it was probably his cab fare. Riding cabs in Tashkent can be an extreme sport.
Todd glances around the room, taking in the faces, the piles of documents. A groan erupts as his eyes come to rest on the coffee facilities. He is more nervous than usual, scared even, and blustering to cover it. He relaxes a little as he spots Mattias and Lowell.
"Well, I see the u-sual suspects have all been assembled. So what is it this time, 'Five Go Mad in Dorset?'
Hsi Lien slips into the room unnoticed while Todd is holding centre stage. She simply stands by the door, her back to the wall, arms crossed over her chest, watching Todd’s theatrics with considerable cynical amusement. She looks quietly around the room, taking everything in but saying nothing while Todd runs out of steam. A blusterer. An overweight lightweight. She wonders what his problem is and decides he’s probably either very nervous or simply an upper class English asshole. She studies the other two. She knows Fjader but not very well. A competent fixer and organiser, then turns to William. An academic. Interesting. What’s going on here?
“So,” She steps forward and pours herself some coffee “what’s the story?” She keeps her voice low, so as to contrast as much as possible with Todd’s bluster and allowing her American drawl to sound through.
On his way to a seat, William doesn't blink; but his his coffee cup rattles slightly on the saucer he holds. "I see it's Todd," he beams brightly, offering his hand to Lien instead. "We may be in more of a Trainspotting narrative mode, now. — Very pleased to meet you."
Lien smiles back and takes his proffered hand, ignoring Todd's …volume… and his rudeness.
"And I'm very pleased to meet you!" she replies. The academic seems quite friendly and welcoming. He drops her hand and she sips her coffee, watching him measuringly for a moment over the rim of her cup.
"I'm Hsi Lien, NYPD, and I have no idea why I've been seconded back here, or why my services may be needed. I'm hoping someone can enlighten me."
Mattias smiles broadly, takes another sip and straightens up in his chair "From what I gather, we're off to hunt ourselves a couple of mummies! Regular Indiana Jones stuff, sure to be an adventure! Don't know any particulars, but I read the papers…"
"What? Surely you aren't talking about the Tarim mummies?" She turned to Fjader in surprise. "Why would anyone do such a stupid, destructive thing?"
Fjäder puts an apologetic hand in the air. "Honestly, I'm not here to do the briefing, and I really don't know the details, but from what I heard when I was asked to assist on this investigation: we are indeed mummy-hunting. And the Tarim mummies are stolen. And that theft has caused a bit of a bruhaha recently, up to US-president-level. You are, I presume, a trained and skilled law enforcment officer and you have heard about these mummies, so I'd say your in the right place!" Big, friendly smile suddenly turns severe. "As to why anyone would do such a thing… Well, I hope I'm there when you find out."
"Ahem. The Tarim mummies are from, as one might guess, the Tarim Basin, and to the best of my knowledge are all safely tucked away at museum laboratories far from Uzbekistan." William gives up the struggle to resist and rolls his eyes at Todd. At least he's someone who might have a little historical knowledge around here. Tarim mummies kept in Timur's crypt? Really? "Where they're stirring up alarm about Indo-Europeans being the aboriginal inhabitants of so-called 'China' and otherwise busy being very interesting.
"Whereas Timur's mausoleum wasn't built until the turn of the fifteenth century, much less occupied. So what have gone missing here are vastly younger bodies, presumably Turks, and not more than six hundred years old, give or take. Worse luck for us — one of the boring periods." He gazes blankly across the table at the shelf of State Department pamphlets and wilts visibly into his chair. This is going to be a disaster…
Lien leaned against the table and heaved a sigh of relief.
"OK, well serious as the situation is that's something of a relief." She looked at William "Thanks, I'd heard of them but didn't know that much about them. Not my field of expertise, though I'm always happy to learn!" She smiled. This was kind of interesting. "So…Timur…is he Marlowe's Tamburlaine? I've spent a lot of time here but it's been tracking down people smugglers, not studying history."
Fjäder gets a dry biscuit from the small basket on the table and, sitting back, starts gnawing on it without much sucess (it seems very hard and dry indeed) but with apparent relish. He takes a sip from his cup and eyes William and Lien with apparent interest. This ought to be good!
Special Agent Thomas Weston enters the room briskly and moves directly to the seat closest to the head of the table. He nods curtly to the staffer as he does so, neatly placing a stack of folders and an unopened can of Red Bull in front of him.
The staffer looks up in relief. "Ah, Agent Weston. I gather that you were held up at Customs? Is your partner here yet? In any case, we had better begin the briefing."
The staffer has a quick conversation on an internal phone while SA Weston surveys the rest of "the team". He regards them coldly, the corners of his lips tightening as he checks his watch.
A few minutes later, an internal door opens, and a woman with a brisk manner enters. She is dark haired, conservatively dressed and has a moderately attractive but slightly lined face. She is perhaps in her mid forties.
"Ma'am, gentlemen", says the as-yet-unnamed staffer. "Allow me to introduce Ms Aldones, the cultural attache. Ms Aldones will chair this meeting and deliver an initial briefing."
SA Nordman slips into the room and moves directly to a free seat furthest from the door. He places a drab-sand coloured cloth binder on the table and unzips it around three edges, opening up to expose the notepad and plastic pockets. Shuffling some of the papers and tucking them away in a pocket of the binder, he then reaches forwards to pour a cup of coffee and studies the faces and nametags around the table, nodding once to SA Weston.
Weston glances meaningfully at his watch as SA Nordman enters, but returns the nod with a small smirk.
The Briefing Begins
Ms Aldones makes her way to the head of the table. At a nod from her, the lights are dimmed slightly and a PowerPoint slide flashes up…"US-Uzbekistan Joint Investigation into the Desecration of the Crypt of Timur". The yellowish light of the projector throws her features into relief, making her appear older, and harsher.
William hunches down in his seat, peering — or staring — more at Aldones than the screen. What on earth is she really up to?
"Ms Lien. Gentlemen. First, let me thank you, on behalf of the US Government, for making yourselves available at such short notice." Her voice combines the rounded tones of an upper-class Northeasterner with the clipped delivery of a senior bureaucrat. "As I'm sure you're all aware, fighting a two front war and the ongoing campaign against terrorism means that line personnel with investigative skills and central Eurasian experience are in exceptionally high demand. Sometimes, when we're faced with a breaking situation like this, it's more important to do something fast than to do it as we might wish it were done. Accordingly, I apologise if things sometimes seem a bit ad-hoc. We feel confident that you have the necessary combination of talents to bring this investigation to a satisfactory conclusion".
Agent Weston's hands tighten around the manila folders in front of him and his eyes tighten as they quickly sweep across the rest of his "team". He straightens himself in his chair and coolly continues to observe Ms. Aldones.
"Second, let me clear up a misconception that has appeared in some press reports. The robbery which has taken place is not of the Gur-e Amir, the Tomb of the Mongol warlord Timur in Samarkand. As far as we know, he is still undisturbed. The robbery is of the Crypt of Timur, the building in Shakhrisabz which was intended to be Timur's resting place but was never used for that purpose. As the archaeological experts on your team are no doubt aware," she drops a nod in the general direction of William and Todd, "this crypt was only found in 1943, and the bodies that are, or rather were, within have never been identified, or at least no identification has been made public. Consequently, it has been treated as a low security site by the Uzbekistan government, compared to other, better-known reliliquaries; a misjudgment for which we are now all paying."
"Third: the ground rules. As you are all (I hope) aware, President Karimov has accused US troops stationed at the NATO base in Termiz of being responsible for the robbery. Why, we're not sure. There are various theories, but I don't want to skew your judgement by rehashing the politics of the issue. It's even possible he's correct - Agent Weston will have more to say about that shortly."
"The point I want to be sure you understand is that by treaty, NATO bases and personnel stationed therein, when on base, are extraterritorial. Uzbekistan has no authority to conduct any kind of investigation in Termiz base, and we have no intention of allowing them to use this crime to push that envelope. If any Uzbek personnel accompany you onto NATO facilities, they get the VIP tourist treatment, but that's all."
"When you're not in NATO's extraterritorial zone, we have extended diplomatic personnel status to all of you who are US or UK nationals. We have also accredited you as Interpol consulting agents (except Professor Lowell and Ms Lien, who already have such status) to the Uzbekistan Security Services. In essence, we have agreed with the Uzbekistanis that you will be official consultants to their investigation when it takes place on their soil, and they can't bar you from parts of the investigation without good reason. Uzbekistan's crime detection and forensics capabilities are not well developed, and since this crime is something of a slap in the face for Karimov, who likes to portray himself as the heir of Timur, they are relatively eager to have help in those areas."
"Now, are there any questions before we get down to the specifics, what there are of them, of the crime?"
Weston turns to the rest of the assemblage, steeling himself for a torrent of inane, irrelevant questions, imagining himself as a schoolmaster who has just announced recess. His lips quiver slightly as he waits, unconsciously holding his breath.
Mr Fjäder raises his right hand, his left still clutching the by now rather stale cup of coffe and raps of a rapid stream of questions. "Is there any deadline on this? I assume ASAP, but are we talking ASAP two weeks or two months? Also, is the main goal of this mission to find the stolen mummies, to find the thieves, to bring the thieves to justice or just find a convenient scapegoat? What kind of court will eventually judge this matter: US, Uzbek general or Uzbek pro forma? I also noted that you explained quite well that while on Uzbek soil we are Interpol consulting agents, but failed to say anything about our official status on US and other NATO-bases. Also, "Interpol consulting agents" sounds nice and all, but "consulting" usually means "you can ask me questions, but I can't really do anything", is it the same here?" He looks intensely at Weston and takes another sip of coffe.
Dr. Lowell's attention shifts from Aldones to Fjäder, who gets an appreciative smirk. He puts down his pen — and only then realizes he's been writing out the etymology of Shahr-e-sabz step by step back towards Proto-Indoeuropean. Hastily he turns the page of his notebook and puts his hands on his lap.
"Mr Fjäder," begins Ms Aldones in a dry manner. "'Finding convenient scapegoats' is not the way that the current administration works."
"In answer to your questions: The robbery took place, we think, less than 48 hours ago. Although Uzbekistan's borders are notoriously porous to contraband, as Ms Lien can tell you, customs officials both here and in bordering countries have been alerted to the theft and the, ah, high political danger of being found to be the one who let these relics of Uzbekistan's heroic age slip through. Therefore, we have some hopes that the thieves and the mummies are still inside Uzbekistan. As time advances, that hope will rapidly diminish and it would become necessary to seek further cooperation in likely destination countries. Although various international treaties on the smuggling of antiquities, which Professor Lowell can inform you of, mean that cooperation would likely be forthcoming, this would nevertheless add a layer of legal complexity and delay that would diminish our chances of success even further. So, time is of the essence."
"The order of priorities from the perspective of this, the US/NATO investigation consulting team, is: first, Establish the identities of the thieves and their accomplices; second, bring them to justice; third, recover the stolen materials. Given that this may be a politically-motivated crime, we also regard establishing the motives of the thieves as important. Your Uzbek counterparts will possibly order their priorities differently. If, God forbid, the thieves do turn out to be US or NATO personnel, they will be tried by the NATO military justice system. Otherwise, they will be handed over to the Uzbek justice system, unless of course they are arrested in a third country." She looks grim.
"I think Agents Weston and Nordman are best placed to answer your question about jurisdictionary issues on-base." She looks in their general direction.
SA Nordman finishes making some notes in his notebook, ticking off a series on points and speaks up. "NATO and our bases won't be an issue, Special Agent Weston and I are with the Army's Criminal Investigation Division, we have security clearance for most places we will need to go, in Allied facilities. As part of our team you will be afforded much the same access. This is obviously a joint forces operation, I don't think you will need to worry about that. But I have a question, apart from cultural significance, how valuable are these mummies? And I mean physically, are they covered in gold and jewels, or just dry-pickled jerky in bandages?" He looks to the academic types with pen poised over a pre-drawn check box he wrote earlier.
"Jerky in a shroud," Lowell replies. "No grave goods with them at all, as well as I can remember. I'm sure the local heritage authorities can provide us with photographs of the mummies — but I came straight here and haven't had a chance to meet with anyone yet. But nothing was found with them to identify them; hence all the mystery. Certainly no gold and jewels, anyway. But they did have their viscera intact." His contemplation of Aldones resumes. What sort of name is that, anyway? Portuguese? Galician?
"Thank you, Professor", says Ms Aldones. "But I will add one caveat to your description. As far as we know, the only archaeological investigation of the crypt was done by the Soviets during World War II, in a rather rushed and secretive manner. It's possible any grave goods were either not discovered, or were not recorded. They may have been seized by the Russians. But it seems we are getting into the specific forensic details. Are there any more questions about the investigation as a whole, the legal basis and so on?"
Fjäder looks sharply at Ms Aldones. "Yes, I'm still fuzzy on the jurisdictionary issues off-base, what are we? Supercops with wide-ranging authority to order the local police around? Regular Uzbek police officers, entitled to cooperation from the Uzbek police, but not much more? Strictly consultants, with no authority and no right to intervene or arrest?"
"There are limits to the level of authority that any country will grant the law enforcement personnel of other countries", Ms Aldones states. "And that goes double for countries with a highly authoritarian structure. Such as here. Off-base, you are advisors and consultants to the Uzbek investigation. Given the diplomatic niceties surrounding this investigation, however, it would look particularly bad on the Uzbeks if they failed to cooperate with reasonable requests, and could have real consequences for their relationship with the US and Interpol. Plus, they need your cooperation to investigate the NATO end. I might note at this point, Mr Fjäder, that we've hired you based on your reputation for enabling pragmatic working relationships with the Government of Uzbekistan. So negotiating the team's authority to the necessary limits in order to complete this investigation is a ball that is very much in your court."
Mattias leans back with a very broad smile, bordering on a giggle, and nods several times. He looks quite content, actually.
Getting Down to Details
As Aldones opens a fresh folder on the desk before her, the slide on the screen changes to a satellite projection of Shakrisabz.
View Larger Map
"The Crypt is here, behind the Dorussiadat mausoleum", she says, waving at the large square structure in the centre of the map with a laser pointer. "The robbery seems to have taken place at some point during the night before last. Currently, we don't have any available satellite footage of the relevant time period in IR or other night-vision-capable imagery. I have put in a request to, ah, some of the more esoteric branches of the Intelligence Community for such resources if they exist, but so far, no luck. So more old-fashioned legwork is probably needed to trace their movements."
"The robbers seem to have had little concern for subtlety. From what the Uzbek police have told us, it seems that they killed a guard on the mausoleum and set fire to his corpse, then cut through the locks on the Crypt using an incendiary or an arc-welder. They also appear to have been unconcerned about damaging the crypt's interior while extracting the bodies, or whatever else they were after."
"We're still not sure about the sequence of events when the police discovered the crime the next morning. Forensic crime scene investigation in this country is not highly developed; the first response of the police to a crime is usually to clear away all visible signs of disruption. In this case, however, they may have triggered some kind of leave-behind IED or anti-personnel weapon. Whatever it was, we infer from their reactions since that it scared the locals enough to leave the site untouched from then on. So, assuming we can disarm the booby trap (if it hasn't been triggered already), the site is open to whatever we can throw at it. That's about all we know at this point."
"Now, on to the American connection; it saddens me to say that there is indeed a potential suspect from the Termiz base; a trooper who was AWOL at the time of the robbery and hasn't returned since. It may be a coincidence. Since Agent Weston has already been following up this lead, I'll ask him to take it from here and summarise what we know. And one final point: I am required to remind you all, especially those of you who aren't US citizens, that according to your contracts, revealing any of this information to anyone unauthorised carries heavy penalties."
"Before Agent Weston tells us about the potential suspect, are there any questions about the crime scene?"
Fjäder pipes up again "May have triggered an IED? Care to elaborate on that?"
Ms Aldones eyes Mr Fjäder warily. Her features suggest she is weighing up whether or not you need to know something.
SA Nordman looks up from his notebook where he has jotted further details, underlining several points several times, and looks at Mr Fjäder, clearing his throat "triggered as in deployed and activated, at a guess, but either way, there are all kind of unpleasant things that could be left behind; mines, grenades, mortar shells wired to the underside of packing crates of medical supplies, you know, the usual kind. Point is, if the locals aren't going in, then it's cause for concern. Villagers can always find uses for things left behind, and salvage is a good income. If they won't go in, they may know something we need to. We won't know 'til we go. Unless someone already sent a team in?"
Fjäder leans back in his chair, clasps his hands behind his neck and looks almost vacantly at the ceiling. "Usually, the way to know when an IED has been triggered is that whoever was standing closest has lost a few limbs and everybody in a hundred meters has a hard time hearing anything for a few minutes. There are of course other possibilities, including IED's that disperse gas or other aerosols, but either way, these things are dangerous. Now, Ms Aldones, there is something you are not telling us." He quite rapidly whips forward into half-standing, his hands slamming the table in front of him, freezing Aldones with an ice-blue stare. "If this team ends up dead or injured on the first day of investigation because of something you failed to mention in briefing, several PRESIDENTS will be on your ass about it. Now do your job and BRIEF us!"
Ms Aldones stares back. Icicles momentarily coalesce along their line of sight. "I begin to suspect that your vaunted diplomatic skills have been overrated, Mr Fjäder. Since they are the only reason that we've taken the extraordinary step of bringing a non-US civilian into this investigation, I suggest you moderate your tone. Whether the US government reveals potentially sensitive information is NOT up to you!"
"However, Agent Nordman and yourself raise a valid point." She sighs. "Information to hand, the source of which I am not at liberty to discuss, indicates that some of the local law enforcement believe that some form of supernatural manifestation took place at the site after they arrived. A 'river of blood' was mentioned, literally or figuratively, we don't know. The mausoleum is also the burial site of a noted Islamic holy man and they seemed to think he was expressing his anger."
"To the best of our knowledge, this phenomenon, whatever it was, has not hospitalised anyone. It's possible that fear generated by this event is one reason the Uzbeks are happy for a foreign team to investigate. The Uzbeks don't know that we know this, and so I insist that you make no reference to it outside secure areas, such as the Embassy, unless and until they inform you of it independently. Failing to obey this instruction could be considered to be divulging classified information prejudicial to the interests of the United States during wartime. Do I make myself clear, Mr Fjäder?"
Fjäder has indeed sat down and calmed down while Aldone is chewing him out. Quite mollified he answers only: "Crystal.".
Ms Aldones relaxes her stance. "Well then, any more questions before Agent Weston takes the floor?"
After a brief pause, Aldones nods in Weston's direction and sits down. "Agent Weston, over to you".
With a tight, thin smirk Agent Weston stands, giving Fjäder a look of naked contempt. Clearing his throat before beginning, Weston's voice comes out tight and clear, "First, I want to clarify something: we've only got a single suspect, not a number of US military personnel acting in concert as Karimov and the media seem to want to have us believe. If it turns out this SOB is responsible for the robbery, any team he might have assembled is not likely to be assembled from American warfighters."
Weston passes around a photograph, "Meet Airman Clark Smith, USAF, Aircraft Hydraulic Systems Mechanic, formerly of Platte AFB before being transferred out to Termiz for being a complete fuck-up. Smith's got a disciplinary record a mile long, mostly comprised of insubordination and petty theft, and after speaking to his commander I've received the impression that his last chance in Uzbekistan didn't improve his attitude any. Since he's known to be damn antisocial on top of all this, it appears that most of the soldiers stationed with him steered clear of him. However, at this time we know very little concerning the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of Smith, as we do not yet even possess a proper timetable, so there's still a lot of questions to be answered."
The photograph is of a youngish man, perhaps late 20s or early 30s. His hair is blond and eyes blue, and he might be considered handsome if not for the slight scowl on his face and a shadowed, distant look aroung the eyes. Part of a tattoo is visible on his shoulder; it looks like the sort of Metallica-inspired design sported by millions of blue-collar-and-below young men the world over.
Weston nods curtly to Ms. Aldones as he sits back down, his gaze resting directly on Fjäder, his posture relaxed.
"What's your impression of the lack of a timeline for Smith's disappearance? I would have imagined that the Air Force keeps pretty close tabs on its personnel coming and going on an overseas base." Dr. Lowell twitches as if physically struck by a new idea. "Or are uniformed personnel so busy keeping track of the contractors drinking margarita shooters out of each others' butt-cracks that they can't spare the oversight?"
Turning towards Dr. Lowell, SA Weston's lips tighten as he leans forward in response. His voice calm, he says, "Dr. Lowell, although a timetable has yet to be correlated, it is only because this investigation is only beginning to get off the ground, not due to any incompetence on the part of the personnel at the Termiz airbase. However, to do so will require checking logbooks, interviewing guards, and reviewing security footage. Once this briefing has concluded establishing said timetable will be one of our top priorities. Let me assure you that the US military conducts itself in a professional manner, as does the majority of our warfighters. I would advise any consultants in the employ of our forces to conduct themselves in the same fashion."
"Right, right, thank you, Mr. Weston." Lowell's head bobs earnestly and he carefully writes in his notebook (voicing it just at the edge of audibility): … regards misplacing soldier for 48 hours as consistent with professionalism… "Shall we move on, then?"
SA Nordman makes a further series of notes and ticks and crosses, sometimes looking at the briefing board, then flipping pages and looking at the people around the table before continuing his annotations.
M Fjäder leans backwards, eyes in the distant high. "Alright, to summarize: Person or persons, obviously with access to some pretty specialized equipment, clearly violent and quite possibly psychotic; kills a guard and sets him on freaking FIRE, burns through the locks (I noticed the plural "s" there), grabs the mummies (I distinctly remember hearing these mummies described as both unidentified and at least one belonging to a muslim "holy man", but I assume that's local folklore and archeological research behind the two different stories there)… Where was I? Oh, yes, grabs the mummies while causing damage to the interior of the crypt significant enough to bear mentioning in local police reports, makes off with the mummies into the night, leaving behind at least one trap designed to release aerosol hallucinogens, presumably to prevent closer examination of the crime scene. Our prime suspect, so far that is, is a petty if persistent criminal and antisocial fuckup talented enough not to have gotten himself a quite well-deserved kick-out from the army despite a rap sheet long enough that it had to have been assembled during what sounds like several years of service." Clear blue eyes shift between Aldones and Weston. "Would that be a correct assessment of the situation?"
Ms Aldones exchanges a glance with Agent Weston, and leans forward slightly. "More or less. The tomb is actually part of a larger mausoleum complex where the holy man is buried. I'd rather not speculate on the nature of the trap just yet. Airman Smith is a suspect only because the Uzbek government, based on no evidence that we know of, has claimed that US servicemen are responsible. He might be drunk in an alley somewhere, for all we know - it would seem more consistent with his record."
insert any more questions here
Todd looks down at his notebook. Embarrassed by his over-eager entrance, he has remained silent throughout the briefing. Lowell has befuddled everyone with bullshit as usual, and Fjäder has shown just the right flash of Scandavian fire.
Just like old times! The thought is not entirely cheerful.
Todd mutters, half to himself, half to the Asian American woman sitting silently by his side.
'Bloody Americans, trying to run a world Empire but can't even supply decent coffee.'
As the details unfold, Todd fights the cold shivers that run down his back. Hallucinogenics? Rivers of fire? Who are they trying to kid?
His head swims. For a moment, words and colours coalesce in a spinning kaleidoscope of confusion. The room totters, and shadows leap about in multi-coloured hues.
Todd seeks shelter in his notes:
1. CONTRACT TO SUPPLY COFFEE TO YANKS. MAKE FORTUNE.
2. ALDONES. LOOKS GOOD IN JACKET. NO RING.
3. ARCTIC FIRE. USE REAL PEPPERMINT, NOT OIL.
4. HOLY MAN. WHO?
He's been to the crypt of course, when he was researching the Timur book. Remembers little of it, all a bit Johnny Walker. A holy man? Surely not Shamseddin Kulyal, Timur's tutor?
"Err Miss, Mzzzz…. err Aldones? You mentioned the mummy of a holy man. Could you be a little more err, specific?"
Aldones shuffles through some papers. "Ah, Amir Kulal. Yes." Those familiar with local pronunciations of Arabic will note her slight mispronunciation.
Lien sits very quietly, her dark eyes wary, watching the conversation and sizing up her companions. Fjader's outburst startles her: he'd seemed a rather genial sort yet here he was shouting and threatening. Testosterone poisoning. He probably doesn't like being ordered around by a woman. She decides she needs to watch him, he seems potentially violent. Aldones hasn't tried to placate him and therefore deserves respect.
Lien looks at the woman calmly and says, her voice clear and low:
"Why would anyone blow up the crime scene in such a way as to draw attention to the theft after they'd taken what they wanted and left?" She was silent for a moment. "And the hallucinogen seems a very elaborate trick with no payoff. What was it, anyway, and where did they get it?"
"I'm afraid we lack answers to those questions at this point, Ms Lien. The potential presence of a chemical weapon is one reason that Agent Nordman has been tasked to the team. Doubtless, once you have inspected the scene, you can find some answers."
"Right", says Aldones , rising to her feet. "That concludes the briefing. Your course of action is in Special Agent Weston's capable hands. I'll provide whatever diplomatic support you may need from here. I'll expect regular updates, of course. Over to you, Agent Weston."
SA Weston nods in a curt, controlled manner to Ms. Aldones before stepping forward. His countenance lies somewhere between a smirk and a sneer as he begins to speak, "Thank you, Ms. Aldones. Since we've got a lot to do and a limited window in which to achieve our objectives, I'll get right down to it. Due to the number of civilian contractors in this investigation, my primary concern is establishing proper safety protocols for this team. Although I understand that many of you have extensive experience in Uzbekistan, the political nature of this operation leaves open a distinct possibility of engagement with armed hostiles."
He turns towards Ms. Aldones, "First, I would like to request a security detail for civilian consultants when they'll be working in the field. Although I understand that we are understaffed, and it might be considered burdensome by certain members of this team, if direct contact with an opfor is established I want to know that trained operators will be able to ensure their extraction."
Weston glances over at Saint-James and Fjäder, "Moreover, I agree with Mr. Fjäder's reservations in regards to the limits of our investigation. Therefore, as he and Mr. Saint-James are our residents fixers, I'd like to see what you can do to arrange an initial meet and greet with our Uzbeki liaison along with SA Nordman, who'll be leading you on this expedition. You will have four objectives in this mission," he pauses to write on the whiteboard behind him, "1. To collect any evidence that the initial Uzbek investigation has uncovered but which has not yet been received by us. 2. To determine the extent that the Uzbek government is willing to allow our involvement, and what role they expect us to play. 3. Assure our liaison that we are happy to fully cooperate with their investigation."
"Before this happens, however, I'd like to hear about any personal experience in Shahrisabz, especially in regards to security concerns. Are we going to need to be concerned with IMU, security services, or organized crime?"
"In the meantime, I'd like Dr. Lowell to find out everything he can on this mausoleum, with an especial emphasis on our Islamic holy man. Considering the tensions between the state and religious extremists, the last thing I want to do is to agitate the local population by pissing on the shrine of their saint-in-residence."
"Finally, Ms. Lien and myself will be attempting to establish the whereabouts of Airman Smith, as well as the likelihood in his involvement in this case. As such, I believe that our agenda will be as such: 1. Review base security logs and video footage to determine the time of his departure. 2. Initial interviews with his immediate superior and the guard on duty when he left the base. 3. A thorough search of his quarters and interview with his bunkmates. 4. Obtain Airman Smith's schedule prior to going AWOL and interview other warfighters that had direct contact with him. 5. Gain access to his financial records and check for any irregularities, with an eye for large withdrawals or deposits. Who knows, perhaps this idiot's dumb enough to be running his American Express card all over town."
"Now, I know everyone's anxious to get to the crypt, but I want to make sure we have all of our ducks in a row before departing Termiz, as the presence of US military means that we're relatively safe here, as compared to Shahrisabz and wherever else this investigation may take us. If anyone has any objections, or would like to suggest any additional avenues for investigation, now is the time to voice them." Weston leans back slightly, his hands unconsciously balling into fists.
Ms Aldones looks slightly uncomfortable, and scribbles something on a notepad which she passes to Agent Weston. As if on cue, the nameless staffer hurries back into the room and slips to her side, commencing whispering something in her ear.
Fjäder looks quite sincere as he says "Sharisabz is a fairly well known tourist attraction, at least for travellers that bother getting to this part of the world in the first place. The obvious tourist traps are to be avoided, of course, but even they pose a danger mainly to your wallet. I mean, of course the police are corrupt, but it's not a warzone. This is not afghanistan, you know! (a knowing, amused wink in the direction of Saint-James) As for our Uzbek liason officer, I have worked with mr Sharaf Bukhari on several occasions and have a good working relationship with him. I anticipate no problems there.
Lowell cuts in: "Nor do I anticipate any useful information on the background of the crypt or its 'late residents' — so to speak." He pauses as if for applause, then thinks better of it and continues. "I propose that I remain in Tashkent to liaise with the local academic and cultural authorities — the Lenin Museum, or whatever they call it now, the National University and the Institute of Oriental Studies, et cetera. And perhaps something can be found out, here in the capital, about previous attempts to loot the crypt. Intelligence on whose bodies these were in the past, and to whom they might be going in the future, seems to me to be of at least as much value as the scene of the crime. Let me volunteer Mr. Saint-James to head off to Shahr-i-sabz with you at once, as a true expert in… local color." He smiles brightly across the table at his one-time student.
SA Nordman finishes copying down the whiteboard notes, and looks up at Mr's Saint-James and Fjäder, and offers them a quick two-fingered "Boy-Scout" salute, pen still in hand, to his right eyebrow. The tanline of his goggle marks are highlighted by his equally tanned fingertips. As more converasation happens, he makes a few more notes on his pad, and adjusts something in one of its pouches.
Fjäder, with a slight concern in his voice: Me and Todd are indeed experts on "local colour" (the quotation marks are quite audible), but the entire point in going to Shahr-i-sabz is to investigate a crime scene! Also, I anticipate some (a noticable pause) issues from Mr Sharif, where you to stay in Tashkent for an extended period, he is after all supposed to act as a liason and minder, something he can't do when he's not even in the same town as you. My suggestion is that we all spend the afternoon making calls necessary to get as many of our "ducks in a row" as possible, the evening to pack and prepare and head to Shahr-i-sabz first thing tomorrow morning.
SA Weston listens quietly to the explosion of chatter as he looks down at the note from Ms. Aldones. Waiting for the argument to die down, he audibly draws in a breath and says with all the sincerity he can muster, "Thank you for your suggestions. Now, Mr. Fjäder, if you feel a security detail is unnecessary at this time, I'll follow your instincts. Nevertheless, before we leave," at this point he pauses, his voice dropping to near-inaudible levels as he mutters to next word, "Termiz Tashkent I'd like to understand what level of deployment we may potentially employ when pursuing suspects or for personal protection. I suspect you'll be able to discuss with Mr. Bukhari when you, Mr. Saint-James, and Special Agent Nordman meet with him this afternoon. Moreover, it may be worthwhile to ask Mr. Bukhari about travel restrictions and if we're going to be able to operate in different parts of Uzbekistan at the same time. Also, I want to make this clear to you, Mr. Fjäder: I do not expect a phone call, but a face-to-face meeting with Mr. Bukhari. Regarding our departure for Shahr-i-sabz, that will be contingent on how long it takes for Ms. Lien and I to wrap things up with Airman Smith."
"Now, Mr. Lowell, as we are in," Weston pauses to rub the back of his fist against his forehead, "Termiz Tashkent, I'm afraid that you'll have to limit your research here for the time being, although I'm interested in seeing what you can 'dig up' on previous thefts, both at the crypt and elsewhere in Uzbekistan. Upon arrival in Shahr-i-sabz, should we determine that you're more useful in Tashkent than on-site we'll discuss the possibility with Mr. Bukhari. Also, if you're already familiar with the Islamic holy man in question and local customs surrounding him, perhaps you'd like to brief us on him?"
Lien stood and placed her fingertips on the table. She was confused. She was an expert in forensics and yet she was being taken from the scene of the crime and being placed in a situation in which she’d be much less useful. Was he trying to keep her with him on the mistaken understanding that she wasn’t capable of looking after herself? She raised an eyebrow and said:
“I’m a little confused here…obviously, I’m happy to be wherever I’m most useful but it seems to me that I’d be better off at the tomb giving Special Agent Nordman, here, a hand with the forensics side of things. I’m not sure how useful I’d be at the airbase. I don’t know anyone there, I’m not military and I don’t even know my way around. I’d be more of a liability than an asset Oh…and I’ve not briefed about chain of command. Are you in command or were you just being “manly”?” She drawled, smiled sweetly at Weston.
Aldones looks rather concerned at the incipient chaos. "Of course, Ms Lien, you have been brought in for your forensic skills, and also your knowledge about local organised crime and smuggling. I would expect that Agent Weston, while acting as your team leader, would take full account of all your expert opinions in determining your course of action. But if I have understood Agent Weston's task assignments correctly, he hasn't assigned anyone to go to Shakrisabz immediately, but wants to clarify Airman Smith's movements from Termiz first. "
Dr. Lowell slouches in his chair, casting a suspicious and increasingly contemptuous gaze around the table. An 'investigation' into cultural artifact trafficking with less than a day to consult the archives or local experts? he thinks. Let's rush mindlessly out to stare at the empty hole in the ground and pose for pictures? It's going to be one of those deals, obviously. Right. Right. Fine. They asked for it.
This Aldones is asking for it.
Ms Aldones raps the table to draw attention. "It seems you may be able to have your conversation with Mr Bukhari sooner than that. According to my aide, he is here at the embassy in the waiting room, seeking to meet the team. Before you ask, he can't come in here - this room is a secure environment."
Fjäder looks up, visibly happy, at Ms Aldones. "He's here? Great, I'll pop out and have a little chat with him then!" and heads for the door.
SA Nordman shifts evenly in his chair and closes the tan Cordura binder he has been making notes in, he holds it up off the table slightly so that the front cover faces Ms Lien and taps at something on the front, a unit patch, velcroed to the cover. "Eighty fourth Chemical Battalion, You-sam-ricked trained, seconded to the See-eye-dee, ma'am, I'm a forensics specialist. That won't be an issue." He places the folder back down and opens it up again.
Fjäder stop, hands on door handle. turns to Nordman and Lien both "Four skilled, well trained eyes see more than two. And since Special Agent Weston is unlikely to require a bodyguard during investigations on a US military base, I'm sure he'll do fine. I appreciate the advantage in having two skilled interrogators working in tandem, but since it's unlikely that he'll run straight into a prime suspect, I don't really see that Ms Lien will be more valuable working with Special Agent Weston as an interrogator chasing faint clues on the whereabouts of a very tentative suspect than working with Special Agent Nordman investigating a very non-tentative crime scene. By the way, Ms Lien, do you have an official title or is it simply Ms?
"You can call me Hsi, if you like. I'm not used to standing on ceremony and I prefer it if people use my given name." Lien smiled. To her mind hierarchical types got way to carried away about titles and the like. The best way to judge a person was by how they behaved under stress and styles and titles could be very deceptive in that regard.
"Hsi it is, then! I'll be off to see Sharif then, come join us when you've finished wrapping up here!" He leaves.
In a slightly peeved manner, S.A. Weston bows to the emerging group consensus. "Right. Agent Nordman, Ms Lien, Dr Lowell and Mr Fjäder will proceed to the Crypt, interview witnesses, liaise with local law enforcement - hopefully with Mr Bukhari's assistance - and begin a forensic examination of the crime scene. Mr Saint-James and I will head to Termiz and begin the search for Airman Smith. I'll expect regular, 3 hourly reports from Agent Nordman. Also, do not discuss any details of Airman Smith's potential involvement within Mr Bukhari's hearing range if at all possible - we don't want to give the Uzbeks evidence for a manufactured scandal. I'll meet him now and endeavour to steer him towards Shakrisabz."
Dr. Lowell rises to his feet, loudly clattering his pen, notebook, cup, and saucer. "Well, ladies and gentlemen, clearly I don't have have time to stay and chat. I have museums, universities, archives, and ministries to visit, and a signed permission slip from mummy. Leave a message at my hotel where to meet you for our field trip." He darts toward the door like a weasel in a spotlight.
Why do they think I know this johnny-come-lately 15th century crap? Do these voc-tech graduates think that one millennium's history is just the same as another, this side of Suez? Right. Of course they do. Who the hell is Amir Kulal? Must look like I give a shit. Air Force knuckledragger. "Mummies". Just you wait until I can get on the trail of those manuscripts, kids… must look like I give a shit… must look like I give a shit…
As he passes out the door into the waiting room, he looks behind him. Was I saying that out loud?
SA Nordman makes a couple more notes in his notebook, then closes it, zips it shut, before tearing open a previously concealed velcro fastened front pocket, revealing two glossy plastic map-insert pockets and waves over an aide. "I want satellite recon images and a decent topographic map of Tashkent, the more recent the better, and I’ll be wanting my field cases, as well as standard hot weather rations, for three for three days, in a vehicle, preferably whatever the local police or military drive.” He then looks to Ms. Lien, "Do you have field equipment or other gear you will be wanting to bring along?"
"Of course," Replied Lien, "there are some supplies I need to restock as well. I've not been anywhere near a sizable town for months."
SA Nordman closes and zips together his notebook and stands, with a nod to Lien, and to SA Westen. "We're going to hit the PX, and then the motor-pool. You have my cell if you need to be in touch. He then heads out of the meeting room, and out into the embassy complex.
Moved the Waiting Room to its own page