Cartwright pushed the half eaten bowl of food across the table and sat back in the precarious chair. Six months in the country and he had still not got used to rice soaked in butter tea for breakfast. Through the smoke of a newly lit cigarette Cartwright watched the room from the vantage of a corner table. He was the only noticeably, recognisable westerner, most of the faces were familiar to him though. Even if the food wasn’t to his liking the small cafe was. The owner was hospitable and it was a great place to pick up the local comings and goings, despite the complexity many dialects brought.
Having listened to the chatter for some time Cartwright checked his watch. Time to go in order to undertake the superficial duties he had been assigned. Stepping into the bright sunshine and the slight chill of the alpine air he smiled. Many people acknowledged him on his way to the Attaché’s office. He had been told to ensure he had a significant profile in the capital and given the populous’ response that was one job well done.
Cartwright took his time before deciding to cross the main thoroughfare but before he did became distracted by a clamour from a side street. Before he could reach the origin of the sounds a caravan of mountain horses made its way into the sunshine. It was led by three, time and weather gnarled men with some younger armed men making up the rear. The noise came from excited children dancing around the horses, suspecting they were carrying concealed treats.
As the procession moved onto the main street more children joined the throng and started singing a local folk song. The noise rose as pieces of wood and metal were banged in time. The caravan reached Cartwright who was standing on the edge of events. The children surrounded him, smiling, singing, laughing. Some called him by one of the many dialect words for outsider. He needed to start work and the children were becoming an irritant. As he went to shoo them away a hand touched his and slipped some paper into his palm before closing his fingers over the small package. Cartwright looked to his right and saw one of the old men returning to his horses before leading them away. The children dispersed, running and skipping in every direction. Cartwright stuffed the package into his jacket pocket and went home. The Attaché could wait.
Back at his house Cartwright studied what he had been given. Its yellowing paper had been folded over a number of times and sealed with a drop of an indeterminate, crusted brown substance. He unfolded the sheet to reveal a page of numbers written in pencil by a person with shaky handwriting. Cartwright checked the top line of numbers – 127, 15, 21 – before reaching for his copy of Huxley’s Crome Yellow from the short row of books on a ramshackle shelf on the wall. He turned to page 127, ran his finger down to the fifteenth line and across to the twenty first letter. This was the anchor point for interpreting the cipher he had been given.
Cartwright hated using the code as it was so laborious, it took him an hour to work out the message in front of him. Once finished he grabbed a jumper, scarf and heavy tweed jacket. It was going to be colder where he had to go. Picking up his ready packed rucksack Cartwright left the house.
After twenty minutes moving through the capital’s backstreets he was at its outskirts in the base of the mountains’ foothills. He looked up to see his destination perched on the edge of a plateau which formed a precarious lip on the sheer precipice before him.
The trail to the monastery was straightforward but hard going. The incline was steep with few areas where much purchase could be had under foot. However, luckily, he had so far been a lone traveller.
Cartwright needed to rest so stopped to check his watch. It would soon be midday. Before he could start off again he heard the sound of chanting and music coming from track ahead of him. Nestling behind a thicket Cartwright waited. After about five minutes the first of the shaven headed monks appeared, their terracotta coloured robes a resplendent contrast to the scenery around them. The procession was twenty in number, some chanting, others playing crude instruments. After the monks passed Cartwright relaxed some, with the monks out of the way it should make his task easier.
A further thirty minutes and the path’s incline started to reduce and turned towards the plateau. Upon entering a flatter area Cartwright stopped to look at the monastery before him. Its pagoda roof was supported by steep walls: half white washed, supporting a fusillade of wooden framed and shuttered windows.
There was more walking, the path obscured by forest. The trees provided shade and serenity but as he continued the latter was broken by an increasing crescendo. The gushing roar drowned out all other noises. Cartwright started to worry but this turned to relief when the tree line broke. In front of him was a raging river, engorged by melt waters. Across its span stood a rickety bridge festooned in brightly coloured pennants flapping against the wood of the man made structure. The bridge led to the monastery but would leave him exposed. He started to walk as quickly as the wooden structure would allow. If no one was watching he knew they wouldn’t hear him coming.
The buildings he needed were behind the monastery so he moved up to the outer wall and followed it. He reached the entrance, the gates pinned back, pillars guarded the court yard. Cartwright heard a noise. He hid behind a pillar, peering round to see what was happening. Doing his best to remain concealed Cartwright could see a novice monk, free from his elders, running along the line of ornately carved cylindrical prayer wheels, spinning them as he went. Cartwright sighed and carried on when the child’s back was turned from him.
The main office building stood directly behind the monastery flanked by two smaller outbuildings. The sun glinted off the bronze plaque on the door to the office which announced the headquarters of the German archeological expedition. Looking through the window of the first building he could see a mound of crates covered in a tarpaulin. It suggested this might be his goal so Cartwright tried the door, locked. Pulling a wallet of picks from his jacket he made short work of the lock.
The room smelled of a mixture of damp and kerosene and was filled by crates of many sizes placed in a way that ensured there was access. Cartwright ripped off the cover of the first stack revealing four large crates emblazoned with a eagle motif seared into the wood and plaques stating the contents were property of Ahnenerbe, the SS Ancestral Heritage Society. Cartwright levered the tops from a number of the crates using a short crow bar taken from his pack. None of them contained what he was after. Before starting on the next he saw a small void between the crates. Cartwright clambered over the obstacle and noticed a space containing a small box . He lowered his arm into the gap but could not reach. Returning with the crowbar he levered the box towards him.
Cartwright placed the container on the floor and knelt before it. He released the screws holding the lid down, removed it and pulled the straw out that was concealing the contents. After a couple of handfuls he could see what was being stored in the box. It was a slightly battered, pottery icon shaped as a child. Its features were picked out in paint and gold droplets were pressed into the clay just below the eye. Cartwright gasped. This was the fabled totem that no one believed existed. It was said to have the power to unite the people of the land. It was also believed to have certain supernatural capabilities. Whatever the truth it would be a significant prize for whichever government had it in their possession. Cartwright started to lift it carefully in the palms of both hands. Before he had moved the statue very far Cartwright felt cold metal pressing into the nape of his neck.
“Put that back please.”
The clipped tones of Schäfer were unmistakeable.
“You have audacity indeed, trying to steal from the Führer.”
Cartwright hastily looked to see how he could escape.
“Unfortunately for you nobody must know this item exits until it is time…”
Cartwright flinched as the German stopped speaking and the gun dropped to the floor. Schäfer followed it choking, holding his throat before he stopped writhing.The eyes of the prone German protruded from their sockets and a look of fear was etched into his face. Cartwright, still on the floor, reached for the statue but heard a noise behind him. Pulling for the German’s gun Cartwright spun round whilst standing up. A noise again from a curtained alcove in the corner of the room.
“Show yourself. Do it know. I’m armed.”
Nothing, a gust of wing rustled the curtain.
“Show yourself or I’ll shoot.”
The curtain cascaded aside helped by a thin arm and a slender, tall man stepped forward, his face covered in a scarf.
“Who are you?”
“I will ask this only once more. Who are you?”
The man started to raise his hand towards his face.
“Careful,” Cartwright said waving the Luger towards the curtained alcove.
The man removed his scarf and stepped forward. Cartwright gasped as the young man smiled a wide grin which seemed to make the golden tear tattoos on his face ripple as if they were running from his eye.