Iraqi Freedom: A Mystery
Al Anbar Province,
Iraq – July 2003
It had become his favorite part of the day. No, that wasn’t quite right. It had become, more accurately, the least objectionable part of his day. It was sunset, and Army Captain Nick Putnam was seated alone, on a rocky ridge overlooking an expanse of the Syrian Desert in Far Western Iraq. Before him was a seemingly endless stretch of flat, parched, and barren earth, its bleached color only slightly brightened by the ball of orange fire gliding slowly beneath the horizon. The scene was, as you might expect, desolate and depressing, but it did have one redeeming feature -- the quietness. Even the wind seemed to have abandoned this part of the world, and Capt. Putnam could be guaranteed that when he took his short walk to this ridge he would be alone with his thoughts. He was not quite sure whether that was good or bad, considering the thoughts he sometimes entertained, but it was a change from his routine, and that was enough.
Putnam had arrived here in the western corner of Iraq, so close to the border with Jordan and Syria, only three days ago. It seemed like much longer. He had come here as an officer in what was called “Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha,” part of the newly-renamed Iraq Survey Group, charged with locating and destroying Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. It was not an easy or a pleasant job. This was the third month of their mission, and the team had yet to find a single shred of evidence to prove the weapons program’s existence, much less a stockpile of mustard gas or nerve agent to destroy. It was discouraging, but it was also surprising. They had arrived expecting to find a WMD hidden under every grain of sand.
Capt. Putnam’s job in the Mobile Exploitation Team was an important one, although, as he often noted, not as exalted or as complex as many others. He had a college background in anthropology, and thus he had participated many years ago in several instructional digs in Greece. This had been enough, in the eyes of the Army, to make him a promising candidate to become a forensic technician, specializing in the excavation of sensitive sites. His first assignment as an excavator had been in Bosnia, uncovering mass graves left over from the Serbian campaigns of “ethnic cleansing” targeting Muslim civilians. Now he was here, digging holes in the Iraqi desert, trying to prove to the satisfaction of the Pentagon, and perhaps more importantly, to the New York Times and CNN, that Saddam Hussein really had been an imminent threat, armed to the teeth with WMD. It was a strange job to start with, and he had to admit, it was getting stranger all the time.
Strictly speaking, Capt. Putnam did not actually dig – he supervised others who did. To describe the process in more detail, a DIA or CIA official in jeans and dark sunglasses would come along, point ominously to a spot in the ground, and Putnam would set his men (there were about ten of them working at a time) to their task. His men looked vaguely absurd, dressed in brightly-colored chemical protection suits and gas masks, crouching over an area of sand or dirt, scraping gingerly at the surface with a brush, sometimes as small as a toothbrush. Most of the time they had no choice in their methods, though – it was protocol, and the Survey Group’s commanders were petrified of digging too aggressively and thus damaging the sinister treasures that the ground surely held. So Putnam and his men did what they were told. They moved from site to site, each of them designated a “high priority” by the Pentagon planners, trawling the dirt for anything that looked remotely suspicious. If they occasionally found a buried barrel full of fertilizer, or a musty old crate of RPGs, they counted themselves lucky, because there was nothing worse than digging a hole and finding nothing at all. No, actually there was something worse, and Capt. Putnam knew it all too well. Worse than digging a hole for no reason was watching and supervising while your own men -- men who you respected and even loved -- were obliged to dig that hole for you. Putnam had watched his men’s mood change from that first day of excavations, when their hands shook with anticipation and excitement, to this latest round of digging, when their expressions were hollow, bored, and broken. Putnam could not help but feel responsible. He knew that good soldiers were wasting their time, their energy, and -- if the Fedayeen had its way -- maybe even their lives, by following his orders. It was as frustrating as anything he had ever known.
Maybe this was the reason why he came here every evening to watch the sunset in the Syrian Desert. It calmed him. It took him away from his discouraged and increasingly resentful men. He needed that, and he didn’t mind admitting it. So here he was, sitting serenely on a flat rock and gazing westward, his face sunburned and red, his blue eyes squinting in the desert sun, and his feet sore and cracked under his military boots. He thought to himself, this is what counts for entertainment in this God-forsaken place… He chuckled silently.
Suddenly, off about 200 yards in front of him, something caught his eye. It was a glint, a flash of light, that came and went with a strange logic of its own. He had noticed it before, yesterday, and the day before that. Each time he had dismissed it. It was probably, he reasoned, an aluminum can someone had dropped out of an airplane years ago, or maybe a piece of trash left by Bedouins. Or maybe, just maybe, it was a mine or a booby-trap left by the Iraqis when they abandoned this “military site.” Hold on, he thought to himself -- you always do this. You think too much. It’s probably nothing at all. But then, an even more intriguing possibility occurred to him. He asked himself, where was this place anyway? It was nowhere, that’s where it was, but it was close to somewhere. It was close to the border with Syria and Jordan. Putnam knew that Arabs had been smuggling things through this desert for centuries, interesting things, things worth getting up off his rock and taking a look at… He took a breath. Why not? What did he have to lose?
So Captain Putnam heaved himself up and moved slowly in the direction of the glinting object he had seen. Every so often the flash of light would appear, and then quickly disappear, and he started to wonder what smugglers might bring through here that would gleam so seductively. Luxury goods for Baath Party officials, maybe? Spare parts for Saddam’s fleet of Mercedes limousines? Weapons, most likely. Smuggling weapons into Iraq had been a major industry, at least according to Ari Fleischer, President Bush’s faithful Press Secretary…
Finally, Putnam got close enough to see that the glint was coming from a mound in the sand, an indistinct object of some kind, half-buried long ago. He moved a little closer, and what he saw amazed him. It was a motorcycle, or rather, it was the remains of a motorcycle, but not like one he had ever seen before. It looked like an antique, and not just because it was rusted and weather-beaten, but also because of its shape, its styling, and its utter simplicity. He moved closer, and he could just make out the badge on the side of the bike: “Triumph Model H.” So, it was British, and obviously very old, but how old? And then Putnam stopped dead in his tracks. There was more. Standing right over the motorcycle, Putnam could see that there were bones intermingled with the steel frame of the bike. He knew immediately that they were human bones. He had seen enough in Bosnia to tell that much and more. He looked closer, and the bones turned out to be a full human skeleton, with the skull impacted beneath the handlebars of the bike and buried halfway beneath the sand. There were a few scattered scraps of cloth surrounding the bones, but it was obvious that most of what the rider had been wearing had rotted away years ago.
Putnam next decided to look at the bones more carefully. It was eerie how they were wrapped around the battered remains of the bike, almost like an embrace, or as if the two forms had melted into one other. He could tell after a few moments that the skeleton was of a man, probably in his 20s, and that many of the bones were broken, presumably, given the twisted state of the bike, by the motorcycle crash itself. But what had caused the crash? Putnam lifted the bike slightly, and it gave an awful groan. Something shifted inside the seat of the bike, the leather covering of which had long ago rotted to expose an uncomfortable-looking wire frame. Putnam’s attention, however, was transfixed by the skull, which he now wrenched out of the earth to view more closely. And then he saw it: a bullet hole! There was an entry wound at the base of the back of the skull, and an exit wound just above the man’s right eye. He had been shot, and had surely died instantly, while riding – that much was clear. And what a shot! To hit a man cleanly in the head while he was riding a motorcycle was something only a very skilled, or a very fortunate, marksman could do.
But who was this man whose skeleton was lying before him? There was no sign of identification – no wallet, and since there were no clothes remaining, no pockets either. That would make things difficult. Putnam had to take a breath and collect his thoughts. What he had found was puzzling, to say the least, but it was also exciting. He was glad he had taken a chance and wandered out into the desert.
After a while, Putnam shifted his gaze back to the motorcycle. It was in very bad shape. That was hardly surprising, given how it had met its end and how long it had been here. Putnam looked back at the seat again, and he noticed that something was underneath the exposed wire structure. He looked, and it appeared to be something rectangular and solid, something out of place, which, he thought to himself, would not have added much to the comfort of the rider. He felt inside the wire mesh of the seat, and the tip of his finger brushed up against the side of the object. It was a rusty tin of some kind, about the twice the size of a can of sardines. His curiosity piqued, Putnam reached under the wire mesh and pulled it away from the base of the seat with surprising ease. He then reached in and grabbed the tin to take a closer look.
He could tell immediately by the decorations and the markings on the top that it was a tobacco tin, not so different from the aluminum containers some of his men purchased their chewing tobacco in. But why place it under the seat? That, of course, would depend on what was inside. Putnam shook the tin gingerly and listened to the dull noise it made, but that didn’t help much at all. He thought to himself, I’ve come this far – why not take a look? So Putnam opened the little box, and he was immediately glad that he had. He saw right away what he had hoped to find before – a dog tag. That would make the mystery much easier to solve. So the victim had been a soldier, presumably a British soldier. That made perfect sense. Also inside the tin was a short newspaper article cut out from the Iraqi Times (published in Baghdad), dated 20 April 1921. 1921! It was entitled, “Scandal and Corruption in French Beirut.” Under the circumstances, it was remarkably well-preserved.
Even more intriguing, from Putnam’s perspective, was a faded document underneath the article. It was printed on stiff bluish paper that said prominently at the top, “LAISSER-PASSER.” It was, on closer inspection, a note from the British Colonial Office that claimed the bearer as its representative and asked that he be given “all suitable accommodations therefore.” It was also dated, 15 February 1921, and it had two signatures at the bottom – one of the British High Commissioner in Iraq, Percy Cox, and the other of the Colonial Secretary, Winston Churchill! But it was the name of the bearer of the Laisser-Passer that most interested Putnam, and luckily that name was typed neatly at the top of the note: “Pvt. Leonard White.” Putnam thought to himself, ah ha! The skeleton lying before him, slouched over a Triumph Model H motorcycle, was in all probability that of Private Leonard White, presumably of the British Army, somehow employed by the Colonial Ministry, and killed by a gunshot to the head sometime after April 20th, 1921! These clues, Putnam reflected, made White’s murder that much more fascinating... He was obviously no ordinary smuggler. There was only one more object in the tin, and it was to this that Putnam now turned his attention.
Filling most of the space inside the tobacco tin was a small pouch made of what appeared to be dark-colored velvet, or at least the remains of velvet. The top of the pouch was cinched shut by a yellow string, which Putnam could tell had once been ornamental, maybe even gilded, but was now limp and faded. Before he picked up the pouch, Putnam could not resist making a few educated guesses about what lay inside. His best guess was the obvious one – tobacco of some kind, but there were more interesting possibilities. There could be money inside, perhaps in the form of gold or silver coins, to be used for any number of purposes. There could be drugs inside – a supply of heroin or cocaine would not have been unusual for a soldier in those days, just as it was depressingly common today. It could be a locket, or some sort of keepsake of purely sentimental importance. Enough theories, Putnam thought to himself. It’s time to see what Private White considered worth hiding so carefully. Putnam then picked up the pouch and kneaded it in his hand. It felt like there were small pebbles inside, but they made no sound when he moved them about. Next, Putnam tried to untie the string at the top of the pouch, but it had been securely fastened, and when he pulled on one end, it broke entirely and partly disintegrated. Fair enough, he thought, and so he forcefully pulled the pouch open and quickly poured the contents out onto the palm of his left hand.
Up to now, Captain Nick Putnam had been intrigued and mildly excited by his discovery. He had felt a bit like Sherlock Holmes when he solved a case – smug and self-confident. But when the contents of that pouch emptied onto his hand, all that self-assurance disappeared completely. It was no longer a game of detective he was playing, and Putnam knew immediately that he had stumbled onto something that was going to change his life forever. He was no expert, but he knew a diamond when he saw one. This wasn’t a diamond, though. It was several dozen, and they were bigger and more brilliant than any stone he had ever seen, at least outside of a museum. Most of the diamonds were about the size of a dime – bigger, in other words, than anything that one would find in an ordinary ring or necklace. Almost all of the diamonds were cut, but in various shapes and styles. Putnam knew nothing about the art of diamond-cutting, but these stones looked impressive, and they looked expensive too. He spread the diamonds out across his palm, and he noticed that a few of them had markings on one side, as though they had once been mounted and then crudely torn free. He also noticed that a few of the diamonds were still uncut, and they were much less remarkable to look at -- although, he guessed, no less valuable for that. All in all, he counted 28 cut diamonds, and 7 uncut, with the uncut stones being slightly larger for the most part. He could not begin to guess what the diamonds would be worth, but he knew instinctively that it was a lot. The thought briefly crossed his mind that they could be fakes, but then why hide them so carefully and smuggle them across the desert? No, if they were worth hiding, and worth dying for, they were almost certainly real. Incredible!
Up to now, Putnam had been kneeling over the bike, inspecting the contents of the tin. Now he sat down crossed-legged and gingerly spread the diamonds out on the surface of the bluish Laisser-Passer lying on the ground. He needed some time to think.
Only minutes before, Putnam had amused himself imagining how the man on the motorcycle had died, and what had brought him this far into the desert. Now those mysteries did not seem nearly as urgent. Putnam faced a bigger and more immediate question – what should he do about his find, and who, if anyone, should he tell? The obvious choice, and the one he was officially obligated to make, was to report the matter immediately to the military police, who would examine the case and take possession of the diamonds. This option, although legal and proper, hardly seemed desirable.
For one thing, he was tempted by the diamonds -- who wouldn’t be? There had been stories recently of a couple of GIs who had found several hundred million dollars hidden in a dog kennel in Baghdad. They had dutifully reported the matter to their superiors and turned over the money, seemingly without a second thought. Everyone was very impressed by their honesty. But that was misleading, Putnam knew. What were two ordinary soldiers going to do with several truckloads of hundred-dollar bills? Hide them under their pillows? Of course not. They really had only one choice open to them. But this was different. Putnam could keep the diamonds and start a new life, if he wanted to. How could he resist an opportunity like that?
Putnam was also hesitant to report what he had found because he knew the mood of the Army commanders in Iraq. Dead Englishmen from the 1920s, and even hidden treasure, weren’t of much interest to them. They wanted proof of Iraqi WMDs, and they wanted it like a junkie wants his fix. They would brush aside any mission, or any mystery, that didn’t fit with their agenda. At best, Leonard White would be shipped back to England in a box, to his aging grandchildren if he had any. The chances of a serious investigation into his death were essentially nil. And the diamonds! Putnam shuddered to think what the U.S. Army would do with a small fortune in diamonds. Probably they would end up in a warehouse somewhere, forgotten and of no use to anyone. At best, they might be returned someday to the new government of Iraq, which probably meant they wouldn’t benefit anyone except the country’s next dictator, who would undoubtedly spend the money on some self-indulgence, like Saddam and his gold-plated toilet fixtures! Putnam had no faith that a genuine democracy would flourish in a place like this. He found it hard, therefore, to imagine that the diamonds would be put to any good use by the Army or by the Iraqis, and that tempted him all the more to keep them for himself.
Ultimately, Putnam’s decision was made easier by the realization that there really was no hurry to decide. He could keep the diamonds for now and think things over, and in the meantime try to solve the mystery of who Leonard White was, how he had obtained the diamonds, and why he had been killed. Maybe in doing so Putnam would find out who the original owner of the diamonds had been – he had no doubt that Leonard White had stolen them somehow – and hand them over to the rightful heir. Yes, that sounded much better than surrendering his treasure to the MPs right away. If he changed his mind, he assured himself, and decided to go to the proper authorities after all, he would never have to admit that he had kept the diamonds hidden for a while. Probably the MPs would be so stunned by his honesty that they wouldn’t ask too many questions. He might even get a commendation! So, for now, he would keep the diamonds, and he would look into the matter himself. If nothing else, it would be good to have a real mystery to solve – more rewarding, at least, than digging useless holes in the ground! It would give him a sense of purpose, for a change.
That night, Putnam returned to his tent with the tobacco tin hidden in one of his boots. He quickly found a safe place to store the tin in a compartment of his excavator’s toolkit. He went to sleep in his cot that night staring up at the heavy sand-colored fabric of the tent flapping every so often in a light breeze. He was, not surprisingly, in a thoughtful mood, and it crossed his mind, as he dozed off, that beyond that drab fabric there was a gigantic desert sky, filled with stars that sparkled brightly in a way not unlike his newfound diamonds. His diamonds. He probably shouldn’t think like that, but oh well… There would be plenty of time to think more sensibly later on.
The next day, Putnam put in his hours of futile digging, and in the evening he quickly adjourned to the research lab at the site. Fortunately, because of their mission, all the officers in Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha had ready access to phones, e-mail, broadband internet, and various databases that helped them to gather the information they required to do their work. Putnam needed to be a little careful, though, because all the communications going into and out of the site were monitored and recorded. He doubted, however, that anyone would be especially concerned about his activities, and even if they were, putting together what he was up to would be virtually impossible. Putnam’s first step, then, was to sit down in front of a PC and map out his strategy for solving the mystery of Leonard White, and in the process, the mystery of those diamonds as well. As he saw it, there were four main questions to ask. First, who was Leonard White? Second, how did he come into possession of the diamonds? Third, why was he cycling across the Syrian Desert with the diamonds hidden under his seat? And, last, who shot Private White, and why?
Human nature being what it is, though, none of these questions, intriguing as they were, were uppermost in Putnam’s mind when he first sat down at the terminal. The first thing he wanted to know (and who could really blame him?) was the value of the diamonds he had found. This was a difficult question to answer, though, because Putnam himself could not evaluate the diamonds with any precision. All he could really do was weigh them. As best as he could determine, all the diamonds were about 5 to 7 carats, and they were also white in color, as opposed to yellow or blue diamonds, which apparently were worth much more. The cuts were various, and the clarity was of course impossible for him to judge. From the little research he was able to do online, however, he surmised that the diamonds were worth at least $1 million, and depending on their quality as much as $5 million or more. In any case, he concluded, they were sufficiently valuable to set him up for life, if that was what he wanted, especially if he chose to settle in a country where the cost of living was cheap. It was definitely food for thought…
Having satisfied himself as to the value of the diamonds, Putnam then turned to the first question he had posed about Leonard White – who was he? He had White’s name and serial number, and that was an excellent place to start. He began searching the internet, but after more than an hour he became quite discouraged. What he wanted was fairly basic information – date of birth, next of kin, service record, etc. – but as usual, the internet was not offering up this information very easily. Putnam decided, therefore, to take a risk and involve someone else in his quest.
Years ago in Bosnia, he had met a British Army officer who was a researcher in legal affairs. His name was Lieutenant Tony Blastow, and he had become a trusted friend. Putnam knew he was now stationed in Basra, and he could be depended on to do a small favor like this without asking too many questions. Putnam called up Lieutenant Blastow therefore and asked him to look into the matter. Blastow’s first reaction was puzzlement: “You must be joking, Nick. Why are you interested in some long dead Tommy?” Putnam replied, “The thing is, Tony, we’ve found a skeleton out here in the Syrian Desert, and to be honest, me and my men are kind of curious about it. You know how it is -- we’re just not finding many WMDs to amuse us…” Lieutenant Blastow laughed. “I can imagine,” he said. “No harm in it. Everyone enjoys a good mystery. How about I get back to you in a day or two?” Putnam breathed a sigh of relief. “Thanks, Tony. If you ever need a hole dug, you know who to ask.” Both men laughed. Putnam felt bad for deceiving his friend, but this was information he desperately needed.
Next, Putnam turned his attention to the question of how Private Leonard White had taken possession of several million dollars’ worth of assorted diamonds. Since White had been given a rare and valuable Laisser-Passer by the British Colonial Office, it was reasonable to assume that he was performing some important function for them. Since he was a lowly Private, however, he would not have been a diplomat or an administrator – that much was obvious. Perhaps he was an adjutant to someone more exalted? But that also seemed unlikely, given his rank. Could he have been a spy? Perhaps, but masquerading as an Army Private was an awfully bad cover in a place like Iraq in the 1920s. Putnam thought further. Perhaps the motorcycle was a clue. White could easily have been a courier of some sort. That would explain the Laisser-Passer. But why would the British Colonial Office need a military courier? Why not use an Iraqi civilian? Here Putnam felt he needed to know more about the history of the British occupation of Iraq.
After some workmanlike web surfing, he soon found out that the British had arrived in Iraq at the end of World War One, as the Ottoman Empire crumbled. They had quickly established a mandate over large parts of the former Ottoman Empire, detaching areas like Jordan, Palestine and (rather ominously) Kuwait from the new country they created around the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, which they called Iraq. The mandate was not readily embraced by the Arab inhabitants of Iraq, however, and by 1920 a full-scale rebellion (“Thawra” to the locals) was raging against the British. The goal of the rebellion was apparently independence and the eviction of all British troops. The British, smarting from their losses in the First World War, decided to defend their interests in Iraq by force, but also to pursue a diplomatic solution, by finding Iraqi leaders who would be willing to serve in a British-backed, but nominally autonomous, government. In the summer of 1921, the British finally settled on Amir Faysal to lead the new government, and he became King Faysal in August, after a national referendum. This did not end Arab opposition to the British mandate, but it did establish a modicum of stability until Iraq achieved a fuller degree of independence in 1932. The pro-British monarchy would last until 1958.
What all this meant, as far as Putnam could tell, was that in 1920-1921 Iraq was in chaos, and the British were using force as best they could, including airplanes (rare for the time), to crush the local opposition. In the meantime, they were also courting Iraqi leaders to join a new administration, which they hoped would be popular enough to quell the unrest. So, the Colonial Office would have had every reason to employ a courier in early 1921, to build contacts and cut deals with the native elite. Putnam surmised, therefore, that this was most likely White’s job before his death. None of this, of course, really answered the question of how exactly White had obtained the diamonds, but it might be useful information later on.
Then there was the third question: Why was White riding across the Syrian Desert with the diamonds ingeniously hidden beneath his motorcycle’s seat? Since this was a traditional route for smugglers, it was reasonable to assume that White was smuggling the diamonds, but where and why? First, it appeared from the place of issuance listed on the Laisser-Passer, and from the origin of the newspaper clipping, that White had come from Baghdad. So, he was almost certainly leaving Baghdad and going west, through the desert, to either Jordan or Syria. On closer inspection, the newspaper clipping seemed to suggest an answer. The story, entitled “Scandal and Corruption in French Beirut,” was about a French customs officer who had been tried for corruption and acquitted because of a lack of evidence. He had served in Beirut, which was now part of the French mandate that covered Syria and Lebanon. Apparently, the man, named Major Denis Legrand, had accepted numerous bribes from underworld figures to allow the smuggling of drugs, gems, weapons, and other items into and out of Beirut’s port. Gems! Interesting, thought Putnam.
According to the article, Legrand was infamous in the city for corruption and indeed other vices, too numerous to detail, and had only escaped justice because of a legal technicality. This was, according to the Iraqi Times reporter, a great shame, because the growing corruption and maladministration in Beirut, which was otherwise a beautiful and exotic city (sometimes called the “Paris of the East”) was a threat not only to the success of the French mandate, but to the British mandates in Iraq, Jordan and Palestine as well. The reporter, a man comically named Edward Buckles, seemed to think that French laxity would unhinge the entire Middle East, and for all Putnam knew, maybe the man had been right. But why would this article catch the eye of Leonard White? Was he connected in some way with the corrupt French customs official? Perhaps, but how would he ever have met the man, and if he already knew him, why clip the article? Putnam thought carefully about the significance of the news story. It seemed to him that the article contained remarkably little specific information. It was mostly a tirade against the French. What the article did include, however, was a colorful paragraph describing Beirut. It rather artfully portrayed the city as beautiful and sophisticated, on one hand, but also wicked and debauched on the other. It described the famous “Corniche,” for example, a cosmopolitan promenade by the beach, and the equally famous Casino du Liban, a favorite haunt, along with the many nightclubs in the city, of playboys and gangsters. To a reader less interested in moral probity than Edward Buckles, the description could almost have read as an endorsement of Beirut as something like, dare one say it, a thieves’ paradise… Interesting! Maybe Beirut was White’s destination. It made excellent sense.
That left question number four: Who shot Leonard White? Here Putnam was very nearly stumped. The fact was, there was plenty of evidence at the scene relating to Leonard White, but there were literally no traces of the killer. All Putnam had to go on was one thing: the diamonds had been left untouched. That fact strongly suggested that whoever shot Private White had not known about his secret. In other words, it had probably been a random killing. Could it have been rebels, or bandits perhaps? There really was no way Putnam could think of to find out. He had to admit, the question of who shot Leonard White might never be solved.
Putnam went back to his tent that night knowing that he had made extraordinary progress in solving the mystery, and yet there were still so many questions left to answer. Bedeviling him in particular were the questions of how White had obtained the diamonds, and, for rather more selfish reasons, precisely how much those diamonds were worth. Putnam noticed that the foreboding he had felt when he had first found the diamonds was ebbing away again. The thrill of discovery, and the excitement of sudden wealth (even though it still wasn’t technically his), were an intoxicating mixture. It made his job as an excavator seem, by comparison, not just drab, but oppressive. He couldn’t wait to find out more about the case tomorrow.
The next day, while he supervised his men digging a new hole in the desert sand, Putnam was continually distracted by thoughts of Leonard White. He tried to picture what the man might have looked like. Tall and thin perhaps, like so many other Englishmen, with a wisp of brown hair falling across his face, and penetrating gray eyes. It was as likely an image as any other. He also tried to imagine what it would have been like to ride on one of those antique motorcycles across the desert -- an adventure, to say the least! He even pictured White, safe in Beirut, gleefully gambling his fortune away at the casino, or nuzzling belly dancers at one of the seamy nightclubs near the waterfront. Or, who knows, maybe White would have taken a different path and donated his fortune to the local orphanage, spending the rest of his days helping the less fortunate… Putnam grinned ironically at the thought.
All day long, he had expected a messenger to run up and tell him that a call was waiting from Lieutenant Blastow, but regrettably no call came. Putnam eventually began to think about his next move. Ultimately, he concluded, the answers to this riddle wouldn’t be found here in the Syrian Desert, nor on the internet. The story had begun where Leonard White had stolen his jewels – in Baghdad. It was to Baghdad, therefore, that Putnam would have to go, sooner or later, if he wanted to find the truth. That was probably also the only place in Iraq where he could get the diamonds accurately appraised. That night, therefore, he applied for a two-day leave to go to Baghdad to visit a friend. In reality, he had no friend in Baghdad, but he also had no doubt that the leave would be quickly approved. Operations were winding down at this location, and it would not be long before the team began to pack up for its next “mission” elsewhere. Putnam went to bed confident that things were falling into place. It would not be long before he retraced Leonard White’s steps on the road to and from Baghdad, and, he hoped, once there he could solve the mystery once and for all.
The next day, before departing for the capital, Putnam finally got a call from his friend, Lieutenant Blastow. What he had to say was going to be critical to the case. After an excruciatingly long exchange of pleasantries, Blastow began to describe Leonard White’s most basic biographical details. He had been born on August 23, 1900 in Winchester, England. He had been married in Winchester on November 13, 1920 to Lenore Anne Phillips, but divorced only three months later on February 22, 1921. Interesting, thought Putnam… But it was White’s service record that really began to shed light on the man’s untimely death. White had joined the Army on July 3, 1918, just in time to fight in some of the last battles of World War One in western Belgium around the city of Bruges. After the armistice, White was sent almost immediately to the Middle East to help enforce the British mandate over Iraq. After departing for Iraq, White had returned to England only twice for brief visits, no more than two weeks in both cases. One of these visits coincided with his marriage to Miss. Phillips. Putnam wondered, could it have been a whirlwind romance, followed by an equally sudden divorce? If so, White could have been depressed in early 1921, which would have made him much more likely to attempt a desperate crime.
But it was the final details provided by Lieutenant Blastow that most intrigued Putnam. In Belgium, White had served in the infantry, but in early 1921, as a result of his excellent service record, he had been transferred to the 23rd Regiment of the Royal Engineers – to the Postal and Courier Section! The records said nothing about the specific assignments White had been given, but it was clear that Putnam’s suspicion that White had been a courier or a messenger was correct. The last detail that Lieutenant Blastow provided was the most predictable. Private Leonard White had been reported missing in action on April 24, 1921 – three days after the article about Beirut had been published. Apparently, after finding no evidence of his fate, the Army had reclassified him as killed in action in 1923, and that was how the record had stood ever since.
Putnam was very pleased with the progress he was making. He thanked Blastow repeatedly: “Tony, this really is a big help. You have no idea.” Blastow replied, “Not at all, Nick. You can repay me by coming down to Basra for a visit sometime.” “I’d love it,” answered Putnam. “There’s less shooting down there, or so I hear, and better company too.” Blastow chuckled, and the two men said good bye. Putnam’s next step was to pay a visit to Baghdad, and specifically to the Baghdad Library. There, he felt sure, the last pieces of the puzzle would fall into place.
The road to Baghdad, 300 miles long and covered with potholes all the way, offered Putnam many opportunities to glimpse a side of Iraq he seldom saw as a member of a Mobile Exploitation Team. Most of the time, in his experience, the Iraqis themselves were long gone by the time the WMD hunters arrived at a site. That meant that Captain Putnam had so far had very little experience interacting with the locals, or the “natives,” as Leonard White might have called them. Putnam took advantage of this new opportunity as best he could, therefore. He had hoped to travel alone to Baghdad in a Humvee. At the last minute, though, he had been required to join a military transport headed to the capital on a regular run. It wasn’t so terrible, though, because it gave him the chance to sit by the window and watch the countryside and the people pass by. What he saw was fascinating, but also disturbing.
Like most Americans, Putnam’s dominant impression so far of the war in Iraq had been of jubilant crowds surging through Baghdad, toppling the statues of the hated dictator, and celebrating Iraq’s newfound freedom. At the time, it had all seemed so promising. Putnam had been in Kuwait then, waiting for his chance to join the hunt for WMDs. What he saw now, though, looking out at Iraq and the Iraqi people three months after the “liberation,” was less encouraging. In addition to the poor state of the roads, it was obvious that almost every other element of Iraq’s infrastructure was crumbling. Buildings were tottering, streetlights were non-functional, women were collecting water from squalid puddles, and even the supposedly “middle class” neighborhoods looked like shantytowns. Putnam could only imagine the sort of massive investment that would be needed to build this country up to a civilized standard. He wondered where that money would come from. Would the oil be enough? The newspapers were saying now that Iraq’s oil exports were barely sufficient to pay for the country’s basic needs – for food and medicine – so how could all these other problems ever be solved? It was all very disheartening.
What most disturbed Putnam was not the poverty of Iraq, though, but the mood of the Iraqis. On his way up from Kuwait, Putnam had seen cheering crowds at the side of the road, and he had naively assumed that Americans would be welcomed for as long as they stayed here. What he saw now made him question whether that was true. Looking out the windows of the Army bus, he still saw smiling children, playing by the side of the road, flashing the “V” for victory sign at any American they saw. But the adults were different. Most of them were indifferent to the American vehicles constantly passing by, but a few looked on with a sullen expression on their faces, which hardly communicated enthusiasm. Once in a while, an Iraqi – invariably, an older man – would shake his fist at the Americans, shout insults, and sometimes even take off his shoe and wave it in the air (a great insult among Arabs). It was obvious, in short, that the honeymoon period was over. Putnam knew that the level of violence in Iraq was again on the increase. American soldiers were being targeted daily by Iraqi irregulars, and who could tell where that low-level insurgency would lead… Putnam had to think back to what the British, and Leonard White, had gone through in 1920: a period of calm and optimism, followed by a slow escalation in violence, culminating in a full-scale rebellion. Could it happen again? This time, would it be him, Nick Putnam, lying dead in the desert? Would it be one of his men? The thought made him shudder.
Finally, the military transport arrived in the capital, and after a good night’s rest, Putnam was ready to begin the last phase of his research into the strange death of Leonard White. After one of the most harrowing -- and malodorous -- cab rides of his life, Putnam arrived, in civilian dress, at a pawnshop in a poor Shiite area of greater Baghdad once known as “Saddam City.” The shop looked decrepit from the outside, but his cabby had assured him that the owner specialized in precious stones, artwork, and antiques, and the amounts he paid were especially generous. Whether any of this was true, Putnam could not be sure, but he was desperate by now to find out how much his diamonds were worth. He was slightly afraid, of course, that he might be seen by MPs entering the store, or that the people inside might try to steal what he was about to show them, but all in all the risks were worth taking. Putnam stepped inside and braced himself for what was to come.
The interior of the pawnshop contrasted sharply with the street scene Putnam had just left. Outside, it was sunlit, noisy, crowded, and smelled strongly of untreated sewage. Inside, it was dark, cool, quiet, and smelled strongly of tobacco. The shop itself was cluttered with Oriental and Western artwork, and various Arabic-looking furniture and household items. There was a richness and an exoticism to the room and its contents that was highly appealing, but at the same time slightly absurd if one drank it in too quickly, as Putnam was now doing. He felt, quite frankly, as if he had just stepped onto the set of an Indiana Jones film. He was tempted to laugh, but quickly thought better of it.
After a few seconds, which seemed more like hours, Putnam was approached by a fat, moustached Arab of medium height. The man was dressed in gray polyester slacks and a frightfully tasteless striped white and purple shirt (buttoned only halfway up) that made him look rather like a lounge singer or a pimp, but nonetheless Putnam returned his greeting. After establishing that the man was the proprietor of the shop, Putnam sat down with him to talk. Putnam quickly found that the man was eager to sell him various items – a Persian rug, a hideous painting of Saddam on a horse, even an engagement ring of unspecified origin (speckled, rather ominously, with dried blood) – but the Arab was quite surprised when instead of buying Putnam wanted to sell. At first the shop owner seemed disconcerted, and he babbled on and on about how he would never dream of breaking the law, and anyway, he didn’t buy weapons of any kind – “Never, not once. Very illegal always.” After a while, though, the man seemed to accept that Putnam wasn’t pawning weapons, and there was even a glint of avarice in his eye at the mention of the word “jewels.”
Putnam explained slowly that he had many gems in his possession, which he wanted to fence for a third party, and that if the Arab could tell him how much one of the stones was worth, he was sure that both of them could make lots of money on the deal. The Arab, oddly enough, given his profession, then imprudently asked, “Where did you get the jewels?” When Putnam explained the “truth” – that a German aid worker of his acquaintance had dug them up in Uday Hussein’s flowerbeds – the Arab laughed so raucously that Putnam feared that the man might fall off his chair. Nonetheless, the story seemed to satisfy him. When he was done wiping the tears of hilarity off of his fat cheeks, the Arab asked nonchalantly to see the stone, and Putnam produced the diamond he had brought – he had been careful to carry only one – from his pocket.
At first the Arab held the diamond between two of his fingers and looked at it next to a lamp that was sitting nearby. He grunted with approval. He then took out a monocle-like magnifying glass and inspected the diamond more closely. Immediately, he said something under his breath in Arabic that sounded distinctly like an oath. Was that a good sign? The man then looked Putnam in the eye for a second, and Putnam was careful to return his gaze with steely self-assurance: he wanted an accurate estimate of the stone’s value, not a rock-bottom price intended for suckers and tourists. The pawnshop’s owner pursed his lips, and after a few more seconds of thought, he returned the diamond to Putnam’s hand. “I cannot buy this stone,” he then solemnly declared. Putnam panicked momentarily. What could that mean? But then the Arab explained himself. “This is just a simple shop. I cannot help you, but I know a man who can. If you want, I can put you in touch with him, for a price.” The shop owner then waited patiently for an answer. “Fine,” Putnam replied, “how much do you want?” “10 percent,” answered the Arab. Since Putnam had no intention of selling the diamond at this stage anyway, he readily agreed, but then he asked, “So what is it worth? What do you think we can get?” Putnam knew that now both of them had an interest in getting the best possible deal. The man thought for a while, and then he declared, “There is a lot of police, a lot of American military who make things very difficult. Normally, I would say $120,000 easy, but these days, probably less. Say $100,000, minus 10 percent, of course…” The Arab smiled politely. Putnam was pleased, very pleased, but he tried not to betray his excitement. “We’ll have to see...” he replied. “My friend, the German, won’t be happy with that price, but I’ll try to convince him.” The Arab shrugged.
Putnam then went through the motions of setting up another meeting with the shop owner and his wealthy friend. He had no intention of showing up for such a meeting, of course – selling a diamond like this in American-occupied Baghdad would be extremely foolish – and besides, he still hadn’t decided yet what to do with the diamonds. He was clearly leaning towards keeping them, but there were so many reasons not to… In the end, he shook the Arab’s hand and left the store, with every intention of putting as much distance as possible, as soon as possible, between himself and this polyester-clad charlatan.
Two hours later, after a long taxi ride and a short lunch at a stand next to the old Ministry of Justice, Putnam breezed through the double-doors of the Baghdad Library. “Breezed through” is an ironic description, because the air was literally moving through the Library at will, through a large hole in the roof which had obviously been caused by an American bomb several months before. Iraqi workers were hammering away, trying to patch the hole with planks of wood, but in the meantime the Library was noisy, dusty, and open to the elements. The reference stacks, which sat right under the bomb damage, caught Putnam’s eye first, and they were indeed pathetic to behold. Some of the shelves were crushed and buried under fallen concrete. Others were merely covered in debris and water-logged from the rain which had poured through the hole in the roof. Fortunately, though, what Putnam wanted was not in the reference section. He would need the help of a librarian to find what he was looking for, and, surprisingly enough, he found one very quickly.
A few minutes later, Putnam was seated at a decrepit microfilm reader whose brand name was written in strange Cyrillic characters – clearly a leftover from Iraq’s days as a Soviet client state in the years before Saddam. The machine worked fine, though, thanks to the small electrical generator which was humming behind the circulation desk – this part of the city was still without regular power. After fumbling with the spools of microfilm for several minutes, Putnam soon found himself staring at the front page of the Iraqi Times for January 1, 1921. At the bottom he glimpsed something familiar – an advertisement for “Marquis Tobacco,” the same brand favored by Leonard White! Adjusting the knobs on the microfilm reader, Putnam sped past the months of January, February, and March. It was April that would hold the key. Finally, he arrived at April 20th. Now things were getting interesting!
The front page of the April 20th edition included a headline that read, “Monarchy Negotiations Push Ahead.” The article discussed how early contacts between Amir Faysal and the British authority in Iraq were proving fruitful, and how Faysal seemed willing to serve as King, if certain conditions were met. The article speculated on what sort of government Faysal would form, and who would make up his Council of Ministers. A number of names were mentioned that must have been recognizable at the time, but meant nothing to Putnam now. This was all very nice, but it did not provide Putnam with what he wanted, so he looked further.
And then, there it was! On page four, he found the article by Edward Buckles about the corrupt French customs official in Beirut. It was grouped with a number of other features, most of them examinations of British politics, or of tensions between the French and the Germans in the Ruhr Valley. The positioning of the article on page four suggested, of course, that Buckles’s piece did not have the urgency of a news flash, but was more of a studied analysis of the problems that the French were experiencing in governing their new mandates of Syria and Lebanon. There was no other news about Beirut, unfortunately, so it was hard to put Buckles’s article in context. Probably only a visit to Beirut could do that. For the moment, though, Putnam was satisfied to see visual evidence of where White had obtained the article that had obviously fascinated him so much. Exactly why it had interested him, on the other hand, was still hard to say.
Next, Putnam went carefully through the editions of April 21st and 22nd. They were fascinating, from a historical point of view – the typesettings, the ads, the sports reports, and especially the “society page,” all seemed like they came from another world, in this case, the world of British colonialism. Ultimately, though, they provided no clue about how and where Leonard White had come across his diamonds. Putnam began to feel discouraged. Maybe the answer wasn’t here after all, he reflected.
Then, all of a sudden, his eyes lit up. On the front page of the April 23rd edition, there was a massive headline that read: “MURDERED!” – and beneath that a smaller headline: “Shaykh Muhammad Al-Basrah Shot at Home in Machine-Gun Massacre.” Could there be a connection? Putnam read the entire article, not once but twice, and drank in the details.
Baghdad, Staff – Last night, to the consternation of the city’s police and the British forces here, Shaykh Muhammad Al-Basrah, allegedly one of the few Shiite leaders ready to join in the proposed government of Amir Faysal, was gunned down in the sanctity of his home. According to sources in the police force, Al-Basrah was killed by dozens of machine gun bullets while reading in his parlor, and four of his bodyguards were also found dead in an adjoining room, apparently lined up against the wall and executed.
Furthermore, reports indicate that Al-Basrah’s Baghdad residence, a sprawling palace in spacious and well-protected grounds, located not far from the home of the High Commissioner, was riddled with bullets, both inside and out, in a way that suggests both calculation and a degree of blind rage and wanton destructiveness. The floors of several of the rooms were coated in blood, though whose, due to the scale of the massacre, it is, as of now, impossible to say.
Al-Basrah’s death comes as a blow to the recent negotiations to create a Monarchy in Iraq, because the Shaykh was reputed to be close to accepting the position of Minister of Public Works in the new administration. His inclusion in the government was seen by many as vital, given the need to marshal Shiite support for the new King. Up to now, most Shiites have been wary of living under a Sunni Monarch.
The negotiations with Al-Basrah, to garner his support for Amir Faysal, had so far been conducted in considerable secrecy, apparently because of the checkered reputation and “colourful” past of the Shaykh. As the most powerful man in the southern port city, for years under the Turks it is alleged that Al-Basrah ran the local administration by the liberal use of both terror and corruption, and greatly enriched himself in the process. Though he attracted the support of many poor and uneducated Shiites, by favoring supporters with jobs and other inducements, responsible citizens in the Basrah community had long considered the Shaykh to be a brutish gangster of the worst sort. Since the arrival of the British, he had apparently tried to turn over a new leaf, improving his image and courting the reputation of a trustworthy power broker. Many remained unconvinced.
Al-Basrah’s dark history must, then, lead to many questions about who would have a motive to kill the Shaykh in such a brutal manner. Given the intensity of the present unrest, it is entirely possible that opponents of the current administration have murdered Al-Basrah to complicate the negotiations underway to create a pro-British Monarchy. On the other hand, many who know Shaykh Al-Basrah’s past suspect that he may have died at the hands of rival gangsters, or perhaps due to the desire of some of his past victims for revenge. A short statement released by the police has already promised a full and thorough investigation. It is promised that more details will soon become available.
Fascinating, thought Putnam! What a soap opera! More importantly, here were all the ingredients that might create an opportunity to steal a fortune in diamonds and get away with the crime. As a courier, White might have been passing messages between the corrupt Shaykh and the British administration, and he might in the process have become acquainted with the location of some of Al-Basrah’s loot. Perhaps, coming unexpectedly across the murdered bodies of the Shaykh and his bodyguards, White could have sensed that his opportunity to steal the gems had finally come. It was a plausible theory, thought Putnam, but hardly conclusive.
As he considered the evidence, another story on the front page caught Putnam’s eye. It was a tiny report located right under the story about Shaykh Al-Basrah’s murder, written in small letters as an addendum. The caption read, “British Soldier Missing in Carnage.” Putnam’s heart skipped a beat, but he kept reading. The article said simply,
Adding to the mystery of the grisly murders of last night is the disappearance of a British Army Private, who was temporarily housed in the palace of the Shaykh, and whose job it was, according to reports, to pass messages between Al-Basrah and the other parties to the negotiations underway. Blood was reportedly found in the soldier’s quarters, but whether this is an indication of his fate is unknown. A massive search is currently being conducted throughout the city, as it is hoped that the soldier – if he is still alive – can shed some light on the terrible events of last night.
“Ha!” Putnam said aloud, unwisely attracting the attention of most of the patrons and staff of the Library. He quickly brought his excitement under control, but he could not help re-reading the short article again and again. Who else could this be but Leonard White? Clearly, White had worked for Al-Basrah, and even more than that, he had lived under the same roof. That would explain how he came to know about the diamonds. But what about the blood in his room? Could White have been wounded in the attack? It was possible, but unlikely, reflected Putnam. How would he have gotten out of that massacre alive? More probable, Putnam thought, was that the blood in his quarters was a feint White had used to throw off the police. It would naturally be assumed that he had been killed or kidnapped, rather than absconding with the Shaykh's hidden treasure. If that was indeed how it had happened, it was a brilliant ploy…
So how was the case taking shape? Putnam again put the evidence he had in the context of the four critical questions he had posed earlier. First, who was Leonard White? Obviously, or at least according to the preponderance of the evidence, he was an Army Private working as a courier for Shaykh Al-Basrah, a man likely to have hidden assets, including diamonds (a convenient and portable form of wealth for a gangster), in his residence. White was also a man recently divorced, and thus plausibly depressed, and perhaps also discouraged by his mission as a messenger boy for a notorious crook, all of this in an environment of popular unrest and thus constant physical danger. All those pressures could easily lead a man to become a thief. It seemed, therefore, that the first question of Leonard White’s identity and motive had been answered. Or had it?
The second question was crucial: how had White obtained the diamonds? It would be reasonable to assume that, coming across the bodies of Shaykh Al-Basrah and his bodyguards, White had sensed a sudden opportunity to leave town with the diamonds and strike it rich. Fair enough. But there were several problems with this theory. First, White had clipped an article from the Iraqi Times of April 21st about corruption in Beirut, two days before the murders. This strongly suggested that the theft of the diamonds was pre-meditated, and White was thinking about where he might take them. This brought up a frightening possibility. What if Leonard White, the lowly Private with a clean service record, had murdered the Shaykh and his bodyguards himself? He could then have staged the murder scene to look like a gangster-style killing, or a politically-motivated assassination. This would give him a chance to steal the diamonds, and it would cover his tracks, since whoever investigated the murders would naturally assume he was dead. A fortune in diamonds was, needless to say, ample motivation to commit such a crime.
Curiously, this new theory disturbed Putnam more than he would have expected. Over the past several days, he had developed a certain sympathy for White. He had built up an image of the man that corresponded, in a strange way, to his image of himself. He saw White as a loner, as a dutiful soldier, discouraged by the nature of the mission he had been given, and gripped by a vivid imagination that caused him to fantasize about the different paths that his life could still take. Putnam had viewed White, without any real evidence, as a romantic figure, as a man who had risked everything in pursuit of a dream. Now, the thought that he could have been a cold-blooded killer made Putnam recoil. Putnam thought to himself, if the lure of sudden wealth could turn a man like White into a murderer, then couldn’t it do the same to me?
Putnam thought long and hard about this question of how White had obtained the diamonds. The Library staff must have begun to wonder how long he would stare blankly at the microfilm reader, but the truth was that Putnam was a long way from getting the answers that he needed. He thought further, and then it dawned on him – how plausible was it that a man like Private White could commit such a crime? The news story spoke of walls riddled with bullets, floors drenched in blood, four bodyguards killed (execution style) together in a room. Could one man do all that? It was exceedingly doubtful. But there was an even better question to ask. Not could one man commit such a crime, but why would he? White had intimate knowledge of the Shaykh’s residence, and he must have known the comings and goings of Al-Basrah and his bodyguards. If he wanted to stage a murder of the Shaykh to cover his theft of the diamonds, why not do it at a time when fewer bodyguards would be present, or when they would be distracted by something else? Or, better yet, why not simply steal the diamonds when no one was looking? It was all very perplexing, but Putnam increasingly felt certain that it was not White who had committed the murders.
Still, Putnam was nagged by doubts. He scanned the editions of the Iraqi Times from April into May, and beyond, hoping to find out the identity of the killers. There were more stories about the murders, but remarkably few, Putnam reflected, given the prominence of the earlier headline. The truth was, the paper was filled with stories of murders, assassinations, bombings, and ambushes. Iraq in 1921 was a violent place – even more so, arguably, than it was today. The death of the Shaykh had caused a sensation at the time, but it was quickly forgotten, and so, according to the Times, was Leonard White. Putnam yearned for confirmation that the killers were someone, anyone, other than the British Army Private whose body he had found lying in the desert, but in the end he had to admit – the proof just wasn’t there. Maybe if he could look through the records of the Baghdad Police, he would find something more definitive. He reminded himself, though, that he was pushing his luck already by pursuing his research in a city filled with military police, and with a “hot” diamond burning a hole in his pocket. Maybe if he stayed here long enough he would find the truth. But then again, he thought, maybe he didn’t need to. Maybe he didn’t want to! He sighed and switched off the microfilm reader. It was time now to go back to the desert. It was time to solve a different kind of mystery – the mystery of Nick Putnam – who he really was, and what he was going to do next.
Back at the excavation site with the Mobile Exploitation Team, Putnam found his work as frustrating and as pointless as ever. The first afternoon after his return, he was supervising his team as they finally unearthed – what? It turned out to be a large olive-green canister with suspicious military markings on it. Putnam’s men were excited, and CIA specialists turned up after a while in chemical protective gear and radiation suits to look the thing over. After the usual delays as the “experts” leafed through their volumes of protocols, they finally decided that the canister had tested negative for radiation, chemicals, and bio-toxins, so the decision was made to open it. Inside, the CIA specialists found several dozen magazines left over from the late-1980s filled, as it turned out, with the most depraved and explicit pornography any of them had ever seen. It was enough to make Putnam and his men howl with laughter, but for some reason the CIA boys were not so amused. They left the scene scowling and muttering under their breath about the stupidity and lack of professionalism in the Army.
When Putnam was not busy that day supervising his team of excavators and babysitting the CIA, he had plenty of time to think, and what he thought about were the last two questions he had posed originally about the death of Leonard White. He had asked before, why had White been riding a motorcycle in the desert, with a tobacco tin hidden under his seat? The answer was now obvious. He was fleeing with his diamonds in the direction of Beirut. Exactly why he was going to Beirut it was hard to say, but probably because the city was an ideal hiding place for a thief. There he would easily be able to fence his diamonds, live in luxury (and debauchery, if he was so inclined), and someday, perhaps, catch a steamship to wherever in the world caught his fancy. That, however, still left the fourth question unanswered: who had shot Leonard White, and why? This question troubled Putnam greatly, partly because it was literally impossible to answer, especially without evidence, but also for a quite different reason.
To Putnam, it seemed that White’s murder in the desert represented the intrusion of an unknown but ultimately decisive force – fate, perhaps? – into his bold decision to leave Baghdad with the diamonds. His sudden death was, therefore, a reminder that, no matter how carefully one calculated the risks, weighed the pros and cons, of any choice, there were still unknown and unknowable factors that could derail one’s well-laid plans in an instant. It was a sobering thought. White had begun his journey from Baghdad anticipating a life of opulence and adventure, and he had ended up dead and rotting in the desert sun instead. And – this was the real point for Putnam – if that kind of terrible surprise lay in store for White, it could be waiting for him too. He didn’t want to die like that, alone and forgotten, dreams turned to dust, but, truth be told, if he decided to follow White’s example, literally anything could happen... That kind of uncertainty made Putnam think hard about the choice he had to make.
That night he returned to his tent, lay down in his uniform on his cot, and stared at the ceiling, literally trembling with fear, conscious of the gravity of the decision he was about to make. He first thought about all the reasons to remain at his post, to turn over the diamonds to the MPs, or perhaps simply to return them to their hiding place under Leonard White’s broken-down motorcycle seat. First, there were obvious risks in becoming a fugitive with a cache of stolen diamonds to smuggle from place to place. Putnam could be tracked down by the military after leaving the camp. Obviously, the Iraqi borders were well-guarded these days, at least relatively speaking. He might be intercepted as he tried to leave the country, therefore, court-martialed as a deserter and a thief, and imprisoned for years. Alternatively, Putnam knew that he would desperately need new identification papers, including a passport, as soon as he left Iraq. There were major risks involved in purchasing and using such fraudulent papers, especially in the post-9/11 world, where any smuggler or illegal alien could easily be confused with a master terrorist. If he did make it to a place of relative safety, there was still the risk that someone could learn his secret, and they might blackmail or kill him for the diamonds. All in all, life on the run would certainly not be easy, and it might even be fatal. That was an excellent reason to hand over the diamonds to the police and be done with it.
At this point, Putnam furrowed his brow. These were all good practical reasons to rid himself of the diamonds, he reflected, but there ought to be more. Much more! What about honesty? What about loyalty to the Army and to your country? What about your friends and family, and everything else you would have to leave behind? Those things ought to matter, right? He considered each of these factors one by one.
Honesty, he had to admit, had never been his strongest virtue – it was fine under normal circumstances, of course, and in fact Captain Putnam almost never told a lie. But the fact was that every thinking person understood that sometimes a lie was better than the truth. Occasionally, the truth could be hurtful, or even disastrous. Sometimes, on the other hand, great good could be accomplished by telling a lie, even a monstrously big lie, and who therefore could really ever say that lying was always wrong? Moreover, as far as stealing was concerned, Putnam could see no moral problem, as such, with taking diamonds from a skeleton – diamonds which had, after all, been stolen before, and who knew how many times over! No, he was fairly confident that all the good things he could accomplish by taking the diamonds, both for himself and for others, clearly outweighed any guilt he might feel in misrepresenting himself or “stealing” from the dead. Honesty, therefore, was, for Putnam, not a decisive concern.
But then there was the question of loyalty to the Army and to the United States. This was a more compelling argument, as Putnam saw it. He had joined the Army at a very difficult period in his life, right after college, and only a year after both his parents had been killed by a drunk driver near their home in Eugene, Oregon. Putnam had gone slightly wild after his parents’ deaths, drinking, partying, and experimenting with drugs, and he had been lucky to graduate from college at all. At that point, he needed discipline and direction in his life, and the Army seemed like the perfect choice. Whatever else you might say about it, the Army had taken care of him, and without it, he had no idea where he would be today… Putnam was also a patriot, and he believed that every man should serve his country at one time or another in his life. True, sometimes the orders you had to obey as a soldier were confusing, or even downright ridiculous, but as an American, what choice did you have? You had to pick a side.
Truthfully, though, Putnam had felt for a while now as though he had served his time already. He had been in the Army for almost ten years now – his first overseas posting had been in Haiti, of all places – and he had begun to think seriously about moving on. It was hard not to, given the “missions” he had been given in the recent past. In Bosnia, the Army had him digging up mass graves. You would think, beyond the obvious distastefulness of the task, that it would be fulfilling, because you were bringing closure to grieving families, and you were also helping the UN prosecutors to build a case against the butchers who had committed those awful crimes in the first place. But it didn’t really work that way, and no one knew it better than Putnam. For one thing, there was no “closure” for the families – with or without a body, they already knew the fate their loved ones had met. All you were really bringing them, therefore, was a corpse, and a hideously disfigured and decomposed corpse at that. Putnam had seen the looks on the faces of family members when the bodies were turned over. It was by no means a look of “closure”– it was a look of horror and unspeakable grief. And that was his job! He woke up in the morning, drank a cup of coffee, and dug men, women, and children out of the ground. Incredible! And the idea that “justice” would be served by gathering evidence of those atrocities was similarly hollow. The fact was, almost everyone in the country already knew who the perpetrators were, but none of the peacekeepers dared to arrest them, because that might upset the “settlement” that had been reached at Dayton in 1995. That was the bad side to the Army, Putnam reflected – with all of its human and technological resources, it could, in theory, accomplish great things, but all too often politics and bureaucracy got in the way. That was hard to accept, and it was getting harder all the time.
Given the frustration that Putnam had experienced in Bosnia, it was entirely predictable that, at first, he had treated his transfer to Kuwait, and then Iraq, to join the hunt for weapons of mass destruction, as a blessing. All the intelligence reports indicated that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq possessed a diverse and deadly arsenal of WMD – especially chemical and biological. The identification and destruction of those weapons, including those hidden underground, was a mission of critical importance. Like most Americans, Putnam had believed President Bush when he had described Iraq as a grave and imminent threat to U.S. national security. That initial enthusiasm, however, was proving to be Putnam’s Achilles’ heel now.
All the excitement that the hunt for WMD had generated when the Mobile Exploitation Team first arrived in Iraq very quickly turned to discouragement and disappointment when no weapons were found. Putnam already knew what this kind of let-down felt like, because he had experienced it in Bosnia before, but to watch his young subordinates go through it for the first time really was tough. The truth was, Putnam wouldn’t have been at all surprised if it turned out that Saddam Hussein really did have WMD all along. What was clear now, though, was that the intelligence analysts didn’t have a clue where those weapons were. All their “threat assessments” and site identifications had been based on bogus information, most of it spoon-fed to them by professional liars in the exiled Iraqi National Congress. What that meant, in the final analysis, was that Putnam and his men were out here digging holes in the dirt for nothing. If they came across a WMD, it would be by pure chance. It was maddening when you thought about it. It was enough to make Putnam question whether the whole invasion of Iraq had been a mistake.
In the end, Putnam had just been through too much as a soldier, and had wasted too much time on assignments of dubious value and importance, to believe that blind loyalty to the Army should stand in the way of pursuing his own personal goals and desires. The Army had given him a lot, it was true, but they had also taken a lot. Maybe it was time to move on.
If Putnam ultimately did not feel bound to the Army, therefore, or to any abstract ideal of “honesty” or “virtue,” he had to admit that, on the other hand, his attachments to people were perhaps the best reason of all not to begin a life as a fugitive. True, his parents were gone, and he had no close family back home. He had friends, though, some of whom he had known for years. Moreover, some of those friends – they were almost all Army men like himself – had been at his side during some very hard times. It would be difficult, to say the least, to turn his back on people like that, and perhaps never see them again.
Putnam had a sense, though, an awful sense – and he had had it for some time – that if he did die, or disappear, which was the same thing, no one would greatly miss him. Sure, he would be mourned for a while -- a few of his closest friends would be genuinely chagrined -- but would they really, truly be grieved by his departure? He doubted it. The Army had a way of building up friendships, after all, but it also had a way of cutting them short, before they could truly blossom. To Putnam, the fact that he had no really close friends was, in some ways, the surest proof that what he had been doing with his life these past ten years had been fundamentally misguided. What was life all about, after all, if not about forming connections with other human beings, connections that would endure and give meaning to one’s existence? He thought long and hard about that. But even if it was true that he was alone and isolated, was that a reason to take the diamonds and start a new life, or was it a reason to stay where he was, simply because he had nothing to leave for? He honestly didn’t know. By this point in his ruminations, Putnam was as confused as ever about the decision he had to make.
His thought process that night was complicated by the knowledge that there really was some urgency to his choice. There was a fairly thorough security sweep of everyone and everything in the camp each time they picked up and moved to another site. That would be happening again in a few days. Would the MPs discover his hidden cache of diamonds in the course of their routine inspections? Maybe, maybe not, but the chances of hiding the diamonds successfully for as long as he stayed in Iraq, and then successfully smuggling them back to the States, were slim to none. If Putnam wanted to keep those diamonds, therefore, he had to leave with them soon. Otherwise, he put himself at a terrible risk.
Putnam had already gone over in his head all the reasons why he shouldn’t flee with the diamonds, but what were the reasons why he should? There was, of course, the obvious: greed! Those diamonds were worth a fortune, probably more than Putnam would earn in a lifetime. He had already been daydreaming about all the things which that money could buy. He could travel the world. He could buy himself an Aston Martin. He could spend his nights with beautiful women – or with beautiful gold-digging women anyway, which was still pretty good. He could buy himself a villa in some sun-drenched port, and lounge on his verandah admiring the ocean view. He could do all of these things, and more. It was a seductive fantasy, to say the least. And wasn’t it the birthright of every American to dream of being rich?
But that was just the beginning. All that money could do so much more than simply buy Putnam luxuries and amusements. Instead of digging useless holes in the ground, for example, he could dedicate himself to doing good. He could start by hiring a private investigator, to solve the mystery of Leonard White more thoroughly than he ever could by himself. He could visit White’s relatives in England and give part of the money to them, if they seemed deserving. Or else, Putnam could take a more expansive view, and give back the diamonds (or, more realistically, some fraction thereof) to the people of Iraq, from whom, in all likelihood, they had been stolen in the first place. Think of all the good a sizeable donation to a humanitarian organization could do… The truth was, Putnam could accomplish amazing things with the largesse that those diamonds represented. He could do far more to benefit mankind, he felt certain, than the Army or the Iraqi government ever would with the same resources. That was a powerful reason, and even – for once! – an unselfish one, to take the diamonds and run.
Suddenly, in the middle of these calculations, Putnam sat up in his cot. He had been gripped by an inexplicable desire to hold the diamonds in his hand once again. For some reason, he thought that it would make his decision-making process easier. Quietly, he went over to his toolkit. He removed the tobacco tin from its hiding place, and returned to his cot with the velvet pouch. He then knelt down at the side of the cot and poured out the contents of the pouch in his hand, allowing the diamonds to slowly spill through his fingers and onto his sheets. He next began to caress the stones with the tips of his fingers, marveling at their beauty and their brilliance, even in this low light. He realized, though -- something wasn’t quite right... He was missing something. All his deliberations, he felt absolutely sure, had been misguided, because there was something critical that had passed him by. But what could it be?
Putnam stared at those diamonds for a long time before it came to him. Oddly enough, when the realization hit him, he wasn’t thinking about himself or his predicament at all. He had been thinking about Leonard White. He had been picturing White on his antique motorcycle, racing towards the west, wind blowing through his hair, great billows of sand and dust flying out from beneath his tires – riding, or so it must have seemed, into destiny itself. Then it hit him. Suddenly, in a moment of epiphany, Putnam knew exactly who this man, Leonard White, had been. Putnam knew, with a certainty that would have seemed absurd to any other living person, that Leonard White was not a murderer, after all. In fact, he wasn’t a thief either. The monetary value of those diamonds, although it impressed him greatly, was not really the purpose of his flight. The money, when you thought about it, really didn’t matter at all. What mattered was what the money represented – freedom, dignity, and opportunity. There was no guarantee of happiness, Putnam suddenly understood, just because one possessed a certain degree of wealth. That wealth could be taken from you in an instant. For that matter, your life could be taken from you in an instant, as Leonard White’s unfortunate demise had proved. What mattered was that, in the end, by taking those diamonds, by trading one life of predictability and conformity for another of boldness and raw self-assertion, you were living as a man ought to live – you were free… That, Putnam now felt sure, was how Leonard White had felt riding across that desert, and it was how he had felt even at the moment of his death. He had felt like a man who had finally grasped a hold of his own destiny. That was what made the diamonds so irresistible. They gave a man the opportunity to be true to himself.
It was early morning now, and in only an hour or so, the entire camp would be humming with activity. Putnam knew that he would have to act fast.
There could really be no question of taking his personal effects with him. That would make the nature of his disappearance much too obvious. No, only a few vital provisions would make the journey with him – a knife, a quantity of cash, several canteens of water, sunscreen, some toiletries, and, oh, the tobacco tin, of course! Putnam left his tent after a few minutes and moved silently over to the press office at the site. Rifling through a desk, he came across what he was looking for: a Press Pass, blank. He filled it in with a fictitious name, wrote in the most inoffensive nationality he could think of (“CANADA” – who would ever suspect a Canadian?), and laminated the pass using the machine nearby. He then thrust the pass into his pocket. This would be the only identification he could take with him. Hopefully, it and the wad of cash would be enough to get him out of any predicament he encountered. Hopefully!
Next, Putnam walked over to the camp’s motor pool and appropriated, of all things, a motorcycle. Why not? History repeats itself sometimes, does it not? Obviously, the missing bike would be noticed, but the truth was that things went missing so often in the Army that he doubted that anyone would make the connection. Putnam then pushed the bike stealthily out to the ridge overlooking the desert, where he had sat just a few days ago and had first noticed the glint of Leonard White’s motorcycle on the horizon. Finding the rock he had habitually sat on, he took the knife out of his pocket and cut a deep gash into the palm of his left hand. Blood flowed freely from the wound, and Putnam sprayed it liberally on the rock. It was a cheap trick, to be sure, but it had worked before… The most logical conclusion, he knew, would be that he had gone for an early morning walk and had been killed or captured by Iraqi guerrillas.
The last thing Putnam did before leaving the area was, to his mind, the most important. He took his bike out to the scene of Leonard White’s death, 82 years before, and stared respectfully for a few moments at the rusted motorcycle and the bleached skeleton, still entwined in that grotesque facsimile of an embrace. Putnam then took out the tobacco tin, and he removed White’s dog tag. As carefully as he could, he placed the tag around White’s fractured neck, or what was left of it. Putnam knew that, once the Army began a search for a missing soldier in the desert, they would inevitably come across the motorcycle and the skeleton. Without the dog tag, they would have no idea what to make of it. This way, at least, Leonard White would be recognized for who he was. Whatever else they did, the MPs would certainly make sure his remains made it home. Putnam briefly pictured to himself White’s headstone, tucked in the corner of some quiet, shady cemetery in the town of Winchester, perhaps even in a family plot. Did that represent some kind of “justice,” or “closure” perhaps? He laughed. Probably not, but for now, it was all he could do.
Minutes later, Putnam was on his motorcycle, the diamonds safely hidden under his seat. He drove as fast he could, his eyes fixed on the western horizon. The desert seemed to go on forever, but he knew that “forever” ended fairly close to the Iraqi-Jordanian border, and it was there that he would face his first real test.
He was in a thoughtful mood now. It was funny how things happened sometimes, he reflected -- funny how fate unfolded. And then he caught himself. No! “Fate” had not done this thing to him. He had done it by himself – it had been his choice, his decision. That was a sobering thought, but it was also invigorating. For the rest of the day, and indeed for as long and as far his journey would take him, he would carry that feeling of exhilaration with him. If he was nothing else, and God knew he probably wasn’t, at least he was free, and that was good enough!
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