A week ago, I chanced upon the sixth and penultimate fragment of the Si’i-Aamos Tablet. I only shifted my weight in bed; I felt its hard edges against my back; somehow, the fragment had been wedged between the bodies of myself and my wife as we lay sleeping.
I have long since ceased to feel amazed at the places they appear. Ever since I happened on the first, in a sandcastle I demolished with my feet on the Irish coast when I was five years old, and came to realise there would follow a second, and a third, and later came to understand more fully what the whole thing entailed. The first fragment was the biggest, and remains the dearest to me. With it I discovered a fragment of myself, and my larger mission in life. Its sharp edge split the skin of my foot. I have a little scar on my toe.
My wife was still fast asleep. I stroked her back cautiously. Then I wrapped my fingers round the fragment and tucked it under the waistband of my boxer shorts. I slipped my feet to the floor, put a pullover on and went quietly down the corridor to the bathroom.
Once inside, I locked the door and examined the fragment in the honeyish glow of the shaving light above the mirror. There was no doubt. There never is. It was exactly how I knew it would look, even down to the chips along the shortest side. It was rhombus-shaped, as I knew it had to be. That pinkish-brownish-silverish colour that’s something like salmon, and something like smoke, the familiar unknown metal.
I held it in my hand for minutes, using my palm as a scales. The material possesses a strange density, as if gravity is not pulling it, but some other force is pressing from above. I rinsed it under the cold tap, washing off the soft grey dust that always layers the pieces, then patted it dry and wrapped it in toilet paper. I went back to the bedroom, took a chair to the wardrobe and, hearing out for my wife’s deep breathing, slipped the fragment into the gap between the top of the wardrobe and the ceiling. Then I got back into bed with my wife.
She woke up and started kissing me at some point after that. Sometimes she will want to kiss for hours, that’s all she wants, she will not get bored. And sometimes she won’t feel like kissing me at all, and on those days I suppose I get more done.
That morning, she wanted to kiss for a long time. The alarm clock didn’t go off. We had breakfast. She saw me smiling as I cracked the eggs, and playfully tugged my moustache. I didn’t tell her what I was smiling about. I felt so happy I cracked six eggs when we only needed four.
My name is Doctor —. I am forty-three years old. I now possess six of the seven lost fragments of the Si’i-Aamos Tablet.
It wasn’t until after lunch that I put the parts together. My wife went to the ice rink with a friend, as she does every Sunday in the winter. I went from place to place around the property, gathering all the pieces. I keep them separately, for security. The fifth rests in the gap above the wardrobe, where I stashed the sixth. The fourth is hidden beneath a loose tile outside the kitchen door. The third is between two beams in the attic, next to the water tank. The second is taped to the bottom of the bathtub. And the first, my private nod to origins, is buried in the sandpit in the garden, where once our children played.
You may wonder why I don’t have the fragments locked up securely. You might visualise a portrait on the wall that slides inwards on silent runnings to reveal a lead-lined combination safe, or a secret vault beneath the floor protected by a web of infrared beams. Why not at keep them in a bank, at least, so I don’t have to worry? But I believe it’s safer this way. My protection is my anonymity. The less attention I draw to myself, the safer they will be.
And, until now, it’s worked. I’ve never attracted outside interest. No-one knows about my work, and no-one knows I had them. Through the course of my career, I never suspected anyone else was looking for the fragments. No-one really believes they exist. They have been consigned to mythology, or at least to exaggeration. Occasionally, in the course of my researches, I’ll come across some reference or other, buried in some obscure text, but the conjectures are so hypothetical it only makes my secret more secure.
For thirty-eight years, there’s only been one direct threat to my completion of the tablet. This was when I was eleven years old, back in the days when I still carried them around with me, my personal charms, one in each pocket. I was holding the second fragment in my hand, admiring it innocently, and an older boy tried to grab it off me. He wanted to throw it at some ducks. We scuffled, and in my panic I smashed the piece against his mouth. It chipped his front tooth. He howled and howled. I was so relieved the fragment wasn’t damaged I don’t even remember being punished.
Not that the fragments could possibly be damaged by striking tooth enamel. This is one thing I have learned. The material is indestructible, immune to chipping, cracking, snapping, grinding or extremes of temperature. But the incident impressed upon me the precarious nature of my work, the daily risk of theft or carelessness, and from that day I determined to hide them. In every place I’ve lived in since, I’ve sought out secret nooks and crannies, judging their relative security on an instinctive level. When I was an undergraduate at — University, I secreted the four fragments I had at opposing compass points of the campus. When I was married to my first wife, I sewed one piece into an embroidered cushion that her family had handed down for generations. Sometimes I still jump up the night with a single thought – ‘that piece isn’t secure’ – and then I have to get up and retrieve it, and won’t allow myself back to bed until I’ve found a recess that feels right.
When I’d gathered the six fragments together, knowing my wife wouldn’t be back for hours, I went to my study and locked the door behind me. Safely inside I drew the blinds, and laid the pieces before me on a strip of green baize.
The fragments fitted together so perfectly it was impossible to make out the cracks. For a long time I studied the cuneiform script, etched into the metal so finely I can only imagine it was done with a diamond-tipped hair. I marvelled at how the archaic hieroglyphics merged, after all this time, seamlessly with the ones I’d spent so long pouring over before.
Of course, I cannot translate them yet. The message cannot be deciphered without the seventh fragment.
After a couple of hours of study, I returned the fragments to their hiding places. I found the right place to hide the sixth, surrounded by stuffing in the hole I slashed in the back of the sofa. Just as I finished stitching up the gash, I heard my wife’s car in the driveway. She came in glowing from her ice skating, saying her ankles ached. Her teeth felt clean and cold inside her mouth, and then she said, ‘let’s go to bed.’ So we stayed in bed until evening fell.
That day was a kissing day.
The Si’i-Aamos Tablet has received remarkably little attention throughout history. When I was younger, a young buck, a rising star in the archaeology department of — University (where I work to this day, a tenured professor), I was convinced that most of the references had been deliberately suppressed. I suspected the Vatican, the Rosicrucians, the Masons, Mossad, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and of course (how could I not?) the Knights Templar. But now I believe the tablet has simply been overlooked, incredible as that seems. There’s a reference on a Ptolemaic altar-stone to ‘The burnished plate/ That knows more than Men,’ and the chronicles of the Persian scholar-king Xinopses II mention something about a silvery disc containing a startling revelation, but apart from riddles of this nature there’s little in the way of hard fact. Certain scholars have come close – a medieval society of Flemish alchemists seemed to be on the right track for a while – but having never seen the fragments, let alone laid their hands on them, they’ve been forced to hypothesise its existence from its absence. The way astronomers predict the existence of a planet through orbital wobbles.
In fact, the powerful wall of silence surrounding all allusion to the tablet has only strengthened my certainty that the pieces are out there. The less evidence I found of them, the more I believed. Generations of lonely scholars have thrown up their hands and despaired, giving up all hope of tracking them down. Only I have persevered. I’ve survived on faith alone.
I used to imagine some esoteric order hot on the trail of the fragments and myself, a society of baleful cultists relentlessly hunting me down. In Cairo once, at a conference, at the height of my paranoid beliefs, I became convinced I was being followed by a sinister Oriental type with a limp and a white umbrella. I dodged him through the alleyways, hopping in and out of shops. He kept popping up in the crowd, and I felt sure he was tracking me down to ransack my hotel room in search of the fragments, which I’d hidden, somewhat unimaginatively, in the toilet cistern. That was back in the days when I travelled with them, hauling them around the world. I wouldn’t attempt such risks anymore.
That paranoia is behind me now. The sight of a white umbrella no longer quickens my pulse. I know there’s no-one after me. If there was any secret society dedicated to uniting the fragments, if anyone was even close, I’d have sniffed them out by now.
At least that’s what I thought, until last week.
A few days after I’d found the sixth fragment, I saw a letter lying by the door.
Right away, something put me on guard. A prickly feeling ran through me. Some other letters were scattered on the doormat, but this one had landed vertically and was standing straight up, like a shark’s fin. I felt an inexplicable foreboding. Part of me wanted not to look at it, to push it straight back through the letterbox. I had to examine it, of course. It howled with significance. It bore a local postmark, no clues there, and my name and address in turquoise pen, written in a hand I didn’t know.
It’s a mark of my growing trepidation that I opened the letter in the bathroom, flushing the toilet to mask the sound of the envelope ripping open. I thought of simply flushing it away, like I’m driven to do at times with letters from my ex-wife. But curiosity overcame me. I knew it could not be ignored. Also, I doubted that it would flush. Envelopes don’t go down.
Inside, there was a single piece of paper. It wasn’t the writing I saw first. The thing I saw first was the coffee stain at the bottom of the page. It was only an inch across, and less analytical eyes than mine would have assumed it was simply a splash, a careless, hurried mistake. But I recognised its shape at once. It was a rough diamond shape, with one of the sides rounded like the edge of a plate. The recognition produced a plunging, soaring feeling in my stomach, somewhere between exhilaration and terror. The unmistakable shape of the final piece, the missing seventh fragment.
In the same turquoise pen were written the following words:
I have something you want. There’s only one way to get it. Meet at the bar of the — Hotel at 9pm, Thursday night. I want only you.
I covered my mouth with a towel and moaned, deeply, softly. I plucked the soap from the dish by the sink and mashed it to paste in my fingers. Then I stared at myself in the mirror, wondering whether I should trim my moustache or let it grow for a while. I cannot possibly express my horror and excitement.
Presently my wife called up the stairs.
‘Fried or scrambled? We’re out of Tabasco.’
‘Fried,’ I managed to reply. I hate scrambled eggs without Tabasco.
I folded the letter and envelope as small as they would go, and secreted them in my sock. I couldn’t think what else to do.
Then I cleaned the soap from under my nails, and descended for breakfast.
For the next few days I lived in a stupor. I was dimly aware of my wife, coming and going as she always does, popping off to Pilates classes or yoga or Eastern European film nights or salsa or Spanish lessons, periodically filling and emptying cupboards, sometimes kissing me and sometimes not. I couldn’t stop reading the letter in my mind. Why a turquoise pen? It seemed an odd colour. Crudely cut-out newspaper letters would have puzzled me much less. Did the colour of the ink have some significance? Did it relate to something I was missing? In my study I gathered all the texts relating to the Si’i-Aamos Tablet, which I have hidden in a box of old shoes in the attic, safe from my wife’s curiosity. I methodically scanned the pages, looking for a connection. There was nothing.
What about the calligraphy itself? It gave little away. Was it a man’s or a woman’s hand? Probably a woman’s. Was it the hand of a malevolent cultist? There was nothing to suggest that. It looked sober and suburban. If you saw that letter casually lying on a table, you’d mistake it for a shopping list.
That, I thought, only made it more ominous.
And the clue itself, why a coffee stain? I knew that coffee had originated in the southern highlands of Ethiopia. Did that point to some cryptic African connection? Or was it a nod to Central America, or other coffee-producing regions of the world? Why coffee? Why not wine? Why not blood? There had to be a reason.
I couldn’t think.
As Thursday loomed, I snapped out of my funk. I knew I had to take action. If this sinister correspondent knew where I lived, there no way of telling how long the house had been under surveillance. Moving the six fragments was risky, they’d been safely hidden until now, but I couldn’t risk the possibility that their locations were known. I turned in with my wife as normal and feigned sound sleep until half past three, then crept quietly out of bed. I felt calmer in the light of the moon. I studied my wife’s sleeping face.
To the various hidey-holes I went, gathering up the six fragments. I took no torch, but felt my way among the nooks and crannies. I could have done it blindfolded. First I ripped loose the stitches in the sofa, then went to the gap above the wardrobe, followed by the loose tile, the attic, the bathtub and finally the sandpit. The grass was wet beneath my feet and the damp sand clogged my nails. I froze to listen in the still of the night, suddenly scared that eyes were upon me, but no sound came from the surrounding foliage. I crab-walked back into the house.
I put the six fragments together in a handbag my wife never uses any more. Out of concern for her safety that night, I went to sleep on the sofa downstairs, clutching the handbag tight against my chest. Shortly before dawn I drank a cup of coffee, and left in my wife’s car.
I took sensible precautions on that drive. I drove erratically, jumping red lights, sometimes doubling back on myself and turning corners sharply without warning. I saw nothing in my rear-view mirror, but this only increased my trepidation. If I was being followed, I thought, it was by an expert. First I drove a few miles out of town to the woods my wife and I sometimes walk in, where we used to come with the kids in the summer. I parked at the end of a familiar lane, and slipped between the trees. I remembered a hollow in a rotten old oak where my son had once found a pornographic magazine. There was no smut in there this time, just an old wine bottle clogged with mud, so I moved it aside and pushed the sixth fragment into the mulch at the bottom. I went ducking and weaving back to the car and took a different route back into town.
I drove around for a couple of hours, making the various stops. I functioned on gut feeling alone, allowing instinct to guide me. I buried the fifth fragment in a rose bed in my wife’s favourite park. In the public library I positioned the fourth behind a volume on megalithic dolmens, which I doubted anyone would take out in the next ten years. The third I secreted in a grit bin, knowing no snow would come for months, the second I threw into a duck pond in my wife’s handbag, weighed down with stones, and finally I drove to my ex-wife’s house and buried the first fragment in her front garden.
Strange safe places, I admit, but they just felt right.
I ate a late breakfast in a sandwich bar, and afterwards bought some tobacco for my pipe and took a long stroll along the seafront. Profound relief settled over me. I had stepped up to the challenge. I had done all I could reasonably do. My enemies would not take me by surprise; I would be ready for them.
When I got home it was almost midday. My wife was in the garden, planting bulbs.
‘I had an early appointment on campus,’ I told her. She hadn’t asked where I had been, but I wanted to take the initiative. ‘I didn’t want to wake you, so I just crept out.’
‘Anything interesting?’ she asked.
‘I met an old friend. An old colleague, who’s back in town for a lecture.’
‘Anyone I would know?’
‘I don’t think so. He came on sabbatical from the University of Nairobi. He wrote a brilliant thesis on megalithic dolmens.’
‘Sounds fascinating,’ said my wife. I squatted down beside her and took a bulb from the brown paper bag. She was watching the side of my face. I thumbed the bulb down into the earth.
‘Did you sleep on the sofa last night?’ she asked.
‘I got up early. He flew home today. I didn’t want to disturb you in the night.’
We planted bulbs together for a while. She took my hand and we trowelled together, getting our fingers covered in mud.
Later, when we were in the kitchen, she said, ‘I think something dug up the sandpit. There’s sand thrown right across the lawn.’
‘Badgers,’ I replied. ‘They always talk about that cull, but no-one ever seems to get round to it.’
When I was younger, in the days when my career was taking off, my name first starting to appear in well-regarded academic journals, I used to fantasise about how I would break my secret to the world. I imagined a murmuring lecture hall, a buzz of anticipation. I saw the lights going up on the stage as I stepped out, somewhat bashfully, from behind a red velvet curtain. I would be wearing a safari suit, perhaps even a monocle. The completed tablet would be wheeled in encased behind bullet-proof glass, and the hieroglyphics would bleed with gold as I explained their meaning. I imagined glossy fold-out sections in popular culture magazines, pictures of me bending over the tablet, magnifying glass in hand. University annexes would bear my name: the — Lecture Hall, or the — Memorial Wing. I’d be invited to speak at conferences all over the world, Johannesburg, Addis Ababa, Rio de Janeiro, New York, New Delhi. My wife would come with me on these trips. We’d live in a restored farmhouse or a renovated water mill.
But increasingly, over the years, these daydreams have lost their appeal. I’ve grown older, less showy, I suppose. The closer the tablet has crept towards completion, the more I’ve shied away from fantasies of fame. Now I just want the tablet for myself. I know that will satisfy me enough. To have and to hold, to enjoy endlessly, my private talisman. For surely my claim on it is greater than anyone else who ever lived. For thirty-seven tricky years I’ve painstakingly gathered the pieces, patiently, even humbly, never knowing when the next might appear. I’ve woken up with the cold night-sweats imagining some terrible mishap – what if the next fragment fell in the sea? It might have been tossed in a volcano! – palpitating at the possibility that the others might have vanished forever, while my wife (or before her, my ex-wife) dozed on unwittingly beside me. Watching old footage of the moon landings I even became convinced for a moment that I spotted the fifth one lying up there, before Buzz Aldrin’s booted feet, coated in lunar dust. Those bastards! They took it to the moon! So that’s what this was all about! I’ve had to douse my head in cold water to quell these fears at times.
You may attempt to lecture me about my professional responsibility, my perceived duty to humanity, but I deserve the Si’i-Aamos Tablet. The Si’i-Aamos Tablet deserves me. And when it’s complete, I will know its message. I will possess its truth.
Is this really so much to ask? A single moment of truth, for one man?
I doubt I will even tell my wife, though I love her. I really do.
On Thursday night, at a quarter to nine, I parked opposite the — Hotel and sat there breathing deeply.
I had been surprisingly calm all day. My mind was alert and focused. It reassured me, reminded me that I was as prepared as I could possibly be, ready for sudden shocks and surprises. My wife was out for most of the day, so I had the house to myself. I had prepared my cover story, telling her that I would be dining with a fellow academic that evening, someone anxious to talk to me about ancient Etruscan architecture. I had seldom lied to my wife before – with the exception of not telling her about my life’s secret work, which, I’m sure you will agree, is not a lie but an absence of truth – but she didn’t even bat an eyelid. It was easier than I imagined. I made a light, nutritious lunch, packed with protein and carbohydrates. I knew I’d need energy for that night. I might need stamina.
An hour after lunch, I did press-ups and chin-ups. I jogged on the spot, holding the weights my wife uses for her power-walks. I hung a cushion from the tree in the back garden and boxed it, practicing upper cuts and left hooks. It was the first time I’d exercised in years. For forty-three, I’m in pretty good shape. I broke a sweat, and it felt good.
As it grew dark, I cracked the blinds and scanned the road in front of the house with the binoculars my wife takes on her bird-watching trips. There was nothing that suggested I was under surveillance, but I couldn’t be sure. Then I scanned the back of the house, but there was nothing suspicious there either. If there was anyone hidden out back, they’d have witnessed my boxing routine. I wanted them to see.
I showered and changed into jeans and a dark sweater, something loose, that would give me room to move. I put on a pair of comfortable trainers. Finally I put on a bulky coat that would conceal the antique duelling pistol I’d wrapped inside a handkerchief and stuffed into one of the pockets. Its chamber had long since rusted up, it hadn’t fired a bullet in two centuries, but it was a good visual threat. It made me feel safer.
Just before I left the house, I spent a few minutes with a sharp piece of wood scraping claw-marks in the earth around the sandpit, to corroborate my badger story.
After that, I was ready.
I locked the car, and crossed the road to the entrance of the — Hotel. I put my shoulder to the revolving door, and swung my way in.
The hotel bar was mostly empty. A business group in lilac shirts occupied the centre table, and sitting in the dimmest corner was an intimate Japanese couple, talking to one another softly with their foreheads almost touching. A man with leather patches on his elbows was reading the menu at the bar, and as I approached he looked up and stared at me arrogantly. I met his stare. He looked away. I decided to ignore him.
I bought a glass of Diet Pepsi and took a seat at a table near the wall. I checked my watch. It was nine minutes to nine. I had a sip of my drink. Then it occurred to me that from this seat I couldn’t keep an eye on the door, so I moved to another table, in the middle of the room. But that one didn’t feel right either. I preferred to have my back to the wall, so no-one could creep up on me. So after some thought, I moved again, crossing to the opposite side of the bar. That position felt a lot better. Years of finding hiding places for the fragments, selecting the right spots intuitively, have given me an sixth sense for these things. I checked my watch. Five minutes to nine. I scanned the bar once more.
The man with the leather patches on his elbows was staring at me again. He had shifted halfway around his stool. I tried not to look at him directly, but curiosity got the better of me, and our eyes met. He held the stare. It seemed like a challenge. His eyebrows went up and down. He was about sixty years old, and had an earring in one ear. I had another sip of Pepsi. I was starting to get nervous.
The bar was plush and overheated, and now I could feel sweat nudging down under my armpits. I didn’t want to remove my coat, for fear at being at a disadvantage if I needed the gun in a hurry. I forced myself not to look at the man and concentrated on the other customers, all the while trying to watch the door in my peripheral vision. The Japanese couple were still talking. The man had his hand on the woman’s arm, and she was giggling softly. Then suddenly she moved her eyes, and gazed right at me. In the same instant, I spotted something propped up underneath their table. A white umbrella! My blood leapt. I almost rose to my feet, but managed with an effort to restrain the impulse. I told myself to be logical. The woman had turned back to her partner, and now he was giggling too. I squinted for a better look at the umbrella. It had frilly edges, I observed, and was decorated with pink cartoon bunnies. It was not the umbrella of a murderous occultist. I looked at my watch again.
Two minutes past nine. The sweat was running now. I glugged on the Pepsi. When I turned back to the bar, the man was still staring. Was he trying to menace me? Or was this some kind of distraction, to cover other movements? Were there any other possibilities? I tried to remember what the barman had looked like. He seemed to have gone off somewhere. He had one of those ethnically ambiguous faces that could come from anywhere from Latin America to Turkey. There were no clues for me to go on. I couldn’t ignore the man with the leather patches on his elbows. I turned to face him, meeting his challenge, and refused to look away. All of a sudden, he puffed out his cheeks in an arrogant, toad-like manner.
A wild thought came into my head: he has it in one of his cheeks! I didn’t pause to consider the plausibility of this notion. I was on my feet in a second, and making my way across the patterned brown carpet. I rested one elbow on the bar, and addressed him softly.
‘Good evening,’ I said in a level voice. ‘I believe you’re expecting me.’
‘Doctor —?’ said a voice. Panicked, I swung round.
Standing behind me was Anna —. Anna — is one of my seminar students.
She was wearing a long suede coat, a black scarf wrapped around her neck.
‘Doctor —,’ she repeated. ‘Sorry, I’m a bit late.’
‘What are you doing here?’ I asked. Anna — was drinking vodka tonic, and without thinking I’d allowed her to buy me one as well. The bubbles fizzed against the ice-cubes. We were sitting across from one another at the table by the wall.
‘I think we both know the answer to that,’ said Anna —. She was wearing lipstick, which she doesn’t wear in class. It made her look strikingly different. Her earrings, I registered dimly, were the shape of Ancient Egyptian ankhs, a detail which struck me as tacky. She had removed the suede coat, and underneath she was wearing a kind of black gown with a Japanesey look.
‘Did you send that letter?’ I demanded.
‘What do you think, Doctor?’
I tried to gather the facts in my mind, to index what I knew about her. The truth was, Anna — had never stood out in any way. In the couple of years I’d known her, I had formed no particular impression, certainly nothing to bring her to mind when seminars were over. She was a competent student, with a good attendance record. She came to my lectures. Her work was adequate. She’d written a satisfactory, but no more than satisfactory, dissertation on the Axumite obelisks, which I vaguely remembered grading at the end of last year.
She did her work, she kept fairly quiet. She rarely asked questions or argued. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, to suggest that she was in possession of knowledge about the missing seventh fragment, or even – it didn’t seem remotely credible – of the fragment itself.
I decided to be methodical. I thought back to the day’s preparations, the press-ups and the boxing moves. The badger marks scraped around the sandpit. I was ready for her.
She took a slice of lemon from her glass, and sucked the vodka from it.
‘Did you send that letter?’ I asked her again.
‘Yes. Of course I did.’
‘Because I wanted to see you.’
‘You see me twice a week in class. If there’s something you want to discuss, why didn’t you bring it up then?’
‘Because I wanted to see you privately. I didn’t think you’d want me to say it out loud, in front of everyone.’
‘What do you mean? Say what out loud?’
‘Come on, Doctor. Have a guess. You’re a very intelligent man, I’m sure you know perfectly well.’ Her fingers moved on the tabletop. I didn’t take my eyes off her face, but I realised what her fingers were doing. They were sketching the shape of the seventh fragment, I was sure they were. That diamond shape with one rounded side, her red-tipped fingernail tracing the outline like a laser pointer.
‘I’ve been watching you,’ Anna — went on, halting the movement of her hand and bringing it up to cup her chin as she looked at me. Her eyes had the gleam of mockery to them. I forced myself to breathe slowly. ‘In seminars, in lectures. After class. I’ve been watching you a long time. I’ve always found you interesting. Different from all the other tutors. That was why I joined your seminar group, why I switched classes. There’s something about you, isn’t there, Doctor? Something you try to keep hidden.’
‘You don’t know anything about me.’
‘I know a little bit. I’ve seen the way you look at me. You may be a brilliant academic, but you’re terrible at keeping a secret.’
‘I never look at you.’
‘You’re looking at me now.’
‘I never look at you in class. I hardly even notice you’re there.’
‘That’s not very nice,’ she said. Her face suddenly looked hurt, all the sharpness fleeing from her lips. ‘I do have feelings, you know, Doctor. I took a big risk with that letter. I’m stretching my neck out for you.’
‘I mean, of course I notice you’re there. But I don’t look at you like that.’
‘Not like anything! I didn’t come here to play games with you. I demand you give me a straight answer.’ I couldn’t speak its name out loud, not here, not to her, not to anyone. My voice dropped to a rasp. ‘How do you know about… about that? How could you possibly know? Do you have it? If you have it, I demand… I demand you give it to me.’
‘You’re making a lot of demands,’ she said, and it seemed she was about to start laughing. I noticed two little lines when she smiled, elongated dimples in her cheeks, like they’d been scored with a knife. ‘I don’t want to sound dramatic, but you’re in no position to make demands. Not when you answered my letter, Doctor. Not when you know why we’re here.’
I knew I had to get the upper hand, recover my authority. All I could think about at the time was how much I was sweating. As I unbuttoned my bulky coat, Anna —’s eyes went wide.
‘What’s that in your coat?’
I looked down. The handle of the antique pistol was sticking out from the handkerchief.
‘Is that a gun? Have you got a gun in there? Oh Doctor, how exciting! You must have thought that meeting me would be very dangerous.’
‘It’s not real, it doesn’t have bullets. I didn’t know I was meeting you. It could have been anyone. I didn’t know what the risks were…’
‘But it is a risk, isn’t it? It’s a big risk, us meeting like this.’
‘Please, just tell me, where is it?’
‘Where is what?’
‘Don’t play games with me!’ I cried, losing my composure. ‘I’m warning you, it’s no laughing matter. I have something you want, that’s what you wrote, that’s what you said, in your childish letter. How do you know what I want? How did you possibly find out? You have no right to taunt me like this, not after all these years. You could never hope to understand everything I’ve been through. What is it that you want from me? I demand you tell me!’
‘I can’t refuse a man with a gun,’ she smiled sweetly. She drained what was left of her vodka tonic, and spat an ice-cube back into the glass. It made a rattling sound. ‘I told you, Doctor, I’ve been watching you. You may think you’ve been keeping it hidden, but I can see, clear as day. You give everything away. I know exactly what you want. I can tell when you’re dreaming about it.’
‘You can?’ I said incredulously. It was true, the Si’i-Aamos Tablet was often in my thoughts. In seminars, in between slides at lectures, with rows of dull faces gazing at me, my mind would return to the missing fragment, worrying at its mystery. The final piece to the puzzle of my happiness. How could I not dream about it?
‘I’d think any girl could tell, when you get that look in your eyes. But I was the first to sit up and take notice. I know what’s in your mind when you smile, by the way your lips move. You may try to hide them under that moustache, but you have very expressive lips. Your lips give everything away.’
‘They do?’ I was reeling now. I’d lost all feeling in my hands. What things had I let slip over the years? Had I mumbled to myself, fantasised out loud? Did I mutter in my sleep? Had my wife heard anything? Did my colleagues hear?
‘And those eyes of yours reveal so much,’ Anna — went on. ‘It’s like you’re trying to wear a mask, something that disguises what you really desire, but you can’t cover up the eyeholes. You can’t keep these things hidden, not from a girl like me.’
I felt the slow dawning of horror as I realised how true her words were. How could had I have got so careless? If she had seen through my apparent normality, who else might have guessed? I’d become middle-aged and complacent, thinking my quiet scholarly achievements and respectable academic position would be enough to conceal my true purpose, the single obsession that threads my life together. When I rid myself of my paranoia, my misapprehensions and false fears, I had jettisoned all caution. When had I stopped being vigilant? Perhaps as long as a decade ago. Since marrying my second wife, since telling myself I was content. Since allowing myself to grow careless with happiness.
I must have underestimated them, those others, those dark unknowns. I had consigned them to myth long ago, deluding myself. While I was making eggs for my wife, or spending afternoons in bed with her, kissing, they had been out there, restless souls. Never sleeping. Searching. Younger, stronger, more ruthless than myself. The way I had been, in the early years. Before I dropped my guard.
But it least it wasn’t them that tracked me down, I reassured myself. It wasn’t an order of goat-worshippers or a Jesuit assassin squad. It was a twenty-two year-old girl, wearing lipstick and a high-collared gown, the neck of which, I noticed now, had been unbuttoned to reveal the pale skin below. She was wearing a necklace made of mah jong pieces. There was a freckle below her collarbone. It could have been someone much more dangerous, this is what I told myself.
Unless – could this be possible? – she was working for someone else. What had she got herself mixed up in? I stared at her with renewed doubt and fear. I knew absolutely nothing about her. Who was Anna —, really?
‘You can’t hide it from me, Doctor,’ she was saying now. ‘I know your mind isn’t really concerned with ancient systems of crop rotation, or broken plates dig up in Turkey, or irrigation channels. I know exactly what you want, because I want the same thing.’
‘You want it?’ I whispered, leaning close. ‘So you still don’t have it, then?’
‘I will have it, very soon. Don’t you think so?’ Her voice was soft, confident. A pink flush had risen in her cheeks, and she was gazing into my eyes with a look of such candidness that I knew I was going to have to trust her. There was no other choice.
‘When will you get it?’ I asked, still whispering. ‘How can you be so sure?’
‘I’ll get it as soon as you want me to get it,’ she whispered back, smiling.
‘What? But I don’t know where it is! I’m looking for it too.’
‘I know you are,’ said Anna —. Her hand was on mine now. Our foreheads were almost touching, just like that Japanese couple. ‘You’ve been looking for a long time.’
‘Years. I’ve waited years for this moment…’
‘I know you have, Doctor. So have I.’ Her hand was on my shoulder, her fingers gently caressing. I suddenly wanted to tell her more, things I had never been able to tell anyone before. For surely she understood my quest, no matter how young and inexperienced she was. Surely she felt something similar, the same deep, burdening urge, a shadow of the same desire. I fought hard to restrain myself. I knew this compulsion was dangerous. I mustn’t lose self-control, not at this crucial point. ‘I know how hard it was for you,’ she said, her lips almost brushing my ear, ‘pretending all along that everything was normal, that there was nothing there. But you can stop pretending now. You don’t have to pretend with me.’
‘We’ll find what we’re looking for together, will we then?’ I asked, taking her hand from my shoulder and holding it in my own. My mind was working all this time. It had never raced so fast. I still didn’t know how she had found out, she had cunningly evaded revealing this, but that detail wasn’t important now. The important thing was the seventh fragment. It must be close. She would lead me to it, but I didn’t know what would happen after. Thank God I’d had the foresight to move the others to new hiding places. She couldn’t know where these six were hidden, I was sure of that. So I had one advantage over her. I had that up my sleeve.
‘Just you and me,’ she said. ‘We need each other, Doctor.’
‘Yes, I know, I see that now. We must join forces, work as a team. We both want the same thing.’
‘Let’s not wait. Finish your drink and let’s go, let’s go now.’
‘Go where? Is it far away?’
‘Not far at all. Upstairs, to the bedroom I reserved.’ She must have seen the amazement on my face, for she added, ‘I hope you don’t think that was hasty of me. But I felt so sure. I knew it would be like this, I never had any doubts.’
I drained my vodka tonic in one go. Ice-cubes clattered against my teeth. ‘I see you’re a very competent woman,’ I said, reaching for my coat.
‘You’ll soon find out that’s not all I am,’ she said cryptically, taking my arm. We crossed the bar, and on the way to the door I met the eyes of the man with leather patches on his elbows. He looked Anna — up and down, and then, to my alarm, seemed to give me a wink. This caused a ripple of consternation. What could that possibly signify? Was he connected after all? Was he trying to communicate some message? Anna — gave no sign of noticing. She pulled me into the lobby.
Perhaps I had been mistaken. I was getting jumpy again. I forced myself to take five deep breaths, some Taoist thing my wife recommends, to keep my mind focused on what lay ahead. It was essential to remain calm, to maintain full control. Whatever questions I had about this girl, about her baffling level of involvement in my life’s most secret mission – questions I’d crammed to the back of my mind, determined not to let them distract me – must wait until afterwards.
When I had the fragment to myself.
Anna — was clinging to my arm. For a moment she seemed to hold back, as if she was suddenly unsure of something. I couldn’t allow her to back out now, so I steered her firmly towards the lifts. As the doors opened, the confidence seemed to flow back into her.
We shared the lift to the seventh floor – had she planned this symbol too? – with the Japanese couple from the bar. They were holding hands, and the woman was holding the white umbrella with the frills and the bunnies. Neither of them looked at us. They seemed a bit embarrassed. As we ascended, Anna — reached into her handbag and took out a hip flask. ‘I know this is a bit naughty,’ she said. ‘But, what the hell.’ She took a swig and handed it to me. It was whiskey. Cheap stuff. Then she slipped her arm round my waist, and gave me a pinch under the ribs.
The Japanese people looked uncomfortable. A neat move, I thought. They’d assume we were a couple, and not ask any more questions. The girl was clever, I had to give her that. She knew what she was doing.
On the way down the long corridor, which we walk alone, past identical doors, I think about how it will feel. To put the fragments together at last, after so many centuries. I can picture them all in my mind, I know the exact weight of them, their colour, their texture, their tiny chips and flaws. They have been with me for so long, even the missing seventh fragment. I know its shape by its negative. I know it by its absence. The seven fragments are parts of me, revealed section by section over time, through the years of my life, filling me in one piece after the other.
I think about the secret script, the writing etched in gold. At last, I will decipher its message. What power and what revelation does it hold? How will its truths change me?
She is kissing me outside the door, while her hand fumbles for the key. Maintaining our cover until the end. I have to admire her cunning. I hold her face in my two hands, as if I am holding the tablet before me, fused at last, those broken shards, never to be parted.
What will I do? Will I grab it and run? Or leave the room on some pretence, and hastily make my way down to the car? Can I outpace her, if she comes after me? She’s twenty years younger than me, but I’m wearing trainers, running shoes, while she has a pair of high heels. Those heels might be the tactical slip that end up costing her the game. But for now I must wait, just a few minutes more. She has opened the door of the room. She hasn’t turned on any lights. She has let the door click softly shut behind us.
She is kissing me beside the bed, her arms around my neck. I hold her, trying to glance around to see if I can see any clues, a duffel bag or an envelope, anything, a Bible with the pages cut out, that might contain the thing I want, the thing I need more than ever. But the room is too dark. I must wait, just a few minutes more. I let her pull the sweater over my head. I’m ready to make my escape.