The man in uniform had not known that pulling a trigger was so easy.
That rainy evening, he had walked with a group of security guards along Great Russell Street in the fashionable and busy Bloomsbury district of London. They side-stepped the vehicle-distancing bollards and walked through the gate of a black iron fence. Then they cut across a yard to reach a neoclassical building dating from the Georgian era. Over 300 men and women were part of the elite unit that guarded the British Museum at all times.
The museum housed eight million objects within an expanse of 75,000 square metres.
On most days, around 17,000 visitors walked into its hallowed halls. Established in 1753, the place was often in the news for all the wrong reasons. After all, most of the exhibits had been sourced from around the world when Britannia reigned. Britain’s colonial past had come under severe scrutiny, one reason being the “looting” of national treasures from conquered lands.
Not that this knowledge dimmed the curiosity of its gawking visitors.
The museum hosted some of the world’s most priceless objects. These included the Rosetta Stone, the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs. There was the colossal granite head of Amenhotep III, the pharaoh who ruled Egypt between 1390 and 1325 BCE. Another precious item was the Sutton Hoo Ship burial helmet worn by an East Anglian king from the seventh century CE.
And then there was the most famous item of all, the ancient Cyrus Cylinder. On its clay surface was written, in Akkadian cuneiform, a declaration by the great Achaemenid king, Cyrus, in the sixth century BCE.
This evening, after a quick but thorough inspection, the group of guards crossed the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court with its high steel-and-glass lattice roof. The area had once been open to sky but had been redeveloped as a covered enclosure sheltering the treasures in the surrounding galleries.
One of the guards from the group broke away covertly and headed towards Room 52, one of the several galleries that dotted the museum. Once he was within spitting distance of “52”, he hid himself in a supply closet that he had identified some days earlier. He had already obtained the schematics of the museum that showed locations of the security cameras in the area. That had been easy enough, given his access to the security command centre. The entire museum was a high security zone, integrating cameras, alarms, access control and a digital radio system.
Inside the closet, the man sat and waited.
By 5 pm the security team began escorting visitors out while courteously thanking them for having come. An hour later, caterers entered. By 7 pm, the entire Great Court had been transformed by an elegant arrangement of damaskcovered tables, flowers and dinnerware for a corporate event. The wining and dining wrapped up by 10 pm.
By midnight, the relentless hum of life below the beautiful roof of the Great Court stilled. A dense silence permeated the cavernous galleries that circled it, each one bursting with artefacts that represented multiple arcs of human history. Some said that the museum was haunted and that one could hear strange sounds at night. But tonight, even the ghosts had apparently taken time off.
A little after midnight, the door to the supply closet opened. The guard stepped out and made his way towards Case Number Four, Exhibit No. 1880.0617.1941. On his way, he carefully avoided the laser barriers that were scattered across the room. Planning a path that would remain out of view of the cameras and yet dodge the beams had been difficult but the drills to overcome these challenges had been patiently rehearsed days in advance.
Within minutes, he was in front of the glass case that contained what he was after: the Cyrus Cylinder. The words had been inscribed at the behest of Cyrus the Great, who had ruled the vast kingdom of Persia around 2600 years ago.
The guard pressed a sequence of keys on his mobile with gloved fingers. The sequence activated a bug that would freeze the camera that pointed towards the display case, but only for sixty seconds. He fished out a diamond cutter from his bag and applied a suction cup to the area that he planned to cut. He worked quickly and methodically, ensuring that his tool created a circular cut of even depth in the glass. He then used the suction cup to gently prise out the cut portion and reached inside to grasp the cylinder.
“Hey, you!” a voice cried from another part of the hall. The thief froze and cursed under his breath. He had managed to overcome the best of security technology, only to be screwed by human intervention. There should have been no one on rounds in this area at this time. Murphy’s law. He forced himself to focus on the job at hand. He delicately lifted out the cylinder that was less than thirty centimetres in length and placed it in his bag. Then he swung around to face the direction of the voice.
“What do you think you’re doing?” said the woman as she ran towards him. She was a little startled to see that he was a security guard like herself. Her mad dash towards him quickly tripped the laser beams. A shrill alarm was triggered.
The thief realised that desperate times called for desperate measures. He pulled out the Colt 1911 from his holster and pointed it at the running figure as she approached him. He had never used it before. He paused just momentarily before pulling the trigger. The guard crumpled to the floor as blood spurted from her abdomen.
The thief now ran towards the East Stairs, no longer paying any attention to cameras or beams. He quickly emerged in the Great Court from where he sprinted towards the exit at Montague Place. He knew that perimeter control would get activated within a few moments. In such an eventuality, his electronic pass would no longer function. He made it with just a few seconds to spare.
Quickly mounting the motorbike that had been parked there for him, he zipped away into the dark and misty night of London.
Excerpted with permission from The Magicians of Mazda, Ashwin Sanghi, HarperCollins India. HarperCollins has also acquired the rights to republish Ashwin Sanghi’s six previous novels in the Bharat series.