‘Yes, but that’s OK. It’ll give us a chance to talk. Mo Speller’s coming round tonight and he never lets anybody else get a word in edgewise.’
‘Nice place,’ said Silja, walking through to the living room. It was still decorated according to Jenna’s tastes – with pale lemon walls and white-upholstered couches, and white ceramic jugs and figurines.
‘I’ve been here nearly eight years now. Bought it from Jimmy Volante when he retired. You know, the guy who used to do Happy Pappy on children’s TV. Or probably you don’t know. Way before your time.’
Silja went out on to the veranda. The setting sun shone through her dress, and Noah couldn’t help noticing that she was wearing nothing underneath but a white lace thong. He coughed and said, ‘How about a glass of wine?’
‘Why not? I have two days free before I have to fly back to London. God, I hate that Pinewood Studios. It’s like a prison camp. And it never stopped raining.’
‘So what’s this interesting something that you wanted to show me?’
‘I tried to call you, but I can never work out the time difference. Is it nine hours behind or nine hours ahead? Anyhow, when I found out that I was coming back here, I brought it with me.’
She opened her small white purse and took out a folded page torn from a magazine. She spread it out on the table and said, ‘This was in the
magazine last Saturday. It was an article about suicide bombers. I was only reading it because I was bored and there was nothing else to read.’
The headline said,
. There were several pictures of Middle Eastern suicide bombers, posing in front of political banners. To Noah, they all looked pretty much the same, their heads tied with scarves, some of them trying to look intimidating, some of them grinning as if they were posing for holiday photographs, but all of them painfully young.
‘What am I looking for?’ he asked.
‘This one,’ said Silja, and pointed to the largest photograph. It showed a young man in glasses with a wispy moustache. Unlike the others, he was standing in front of a plain background, with no Arabic messages written on it. He was wearing a black shirt, open at the front, revealing a chain and a circular medallion.
The caption underneath the photograph read,
Abdul al-Hamiz, 21, who blew himself up in front of the Taj Hotel, Dubai, in an abortive attempt on the life of Adeola Davis, the diplomatic representative of DOVE
‘And?’ said Noah.
‘Look closer. Look at his medallion.’
Noah picked up the page and held it at an angle, so that the evening sunlight fell across it. The young man’s medallion was decorated with a criss-cross pattern of arrows. It looked exactly the same as the medallion that he had retrieved from the bottom of the Mediterranean.
‘Now, is that strange or is that not strange?’ asked Silja.
‘Well, maybe. Here—’ Noah went into the living room and opened the top drawer of his white oak desk. The medallion was lying there, together with the
box and all kinds of other junk that he had picked up on movie sets – a chrome-plated whistle; six or seven cigarette lighters; several pairs of spectacles with no lenses in them; an Iron Cross; and a large magnifying glass (from a Sherlock Holmes picture, with Michael Caine).
He laid the medallion on top of the photograph and examined both of them closely.
‘You’re right. They’re identical. Eleven – twelve – thirteen – fourteen arrows each. But come on, do you really think that means anything? This is probably a very common pattern in the Middle East. You know, like the Celtic cross in Ireland, or the swastika in India.’
‘I don’t think so. I have travelled all over, and I have never seen it before. When I saw this picture, I thought to myself, What is the chance that I would come to England and pick up this magazine and see this medallion?’
‘Pretty remote, I guess. But that’s coincidences for you. Most of the time coincidences are – well, they’re very coincidental.’
‘No – I don’t think this
a coincidence. This young man blew himself up less than a month ago. The medallion you found is more than sixty years old. I think this is destiny, trying to explain something to me. Fate.’
Noah didn’t know what to say. Wherever he went, he always carried a lucky wooden clothespin with a face painted on it, which his father had made for him when he was a boy. Whenever he spilled salt, he always threw a pinch of it over his left shoulder. But otherwise he wasn’t really superstitious. He performed highly hazardous stunts for a living, and he knew that survival wasn’t a question of luck: it was a question of timing, judgment, and meticulous preparation.
‘We should show this to somebody who knows about these things,’ said Silja. ‘Didn’t you tell me that your ex-girlfriend was a jeweller? Maybe she could tell us.’
‘Well, yes, she probably could. But whether she
– that’s a different story altogether. Let’s just say that she and I didn’t exactly separate on the friendliest of terms. Crockery was involved. Lots of crockery. And a fish tank.’
‘Then maybe a museum?’
‘I don’t know. I can always
talking to Jenna. It’s been nearly two years now. Maybe she’s cooled off by now.’
The doorbell chimed again. Noah went to open it, and there was Mo Speller, with his third wife, Trina. Mo was wearing a loud purple-spotted shirt and carrying a bottle of wine in each hand. Trina was dressed in a bright yellow dress with a huge bow at the back. She came teetering into the hallway on absurdly high stilettos.
‘I’m thinking of buying a pair of those shoes myself,’ said Mo. ‘I’m sick of all of my wives being two feet taller than me.’
‘How are you, Mo?’
‘I’m good, I’m good. I’m working too hard, but there you are. It takes a river of blood and an ocean of sweat to write a funny TV show, not to mention a mountain of Chinese take-out.’
‘Mo, Trina, this is Silja Fonselius. She and I worked together on
? That was Richard Bullman, wasn’t it? What a
– excusing my French.’
‘Couldn’t agree with you more, but the money was good. How about a drink?’
‘Just a soda for me, thanks. I had a physical last month and my liver was hiding behind my pancreas and waving a white flag.’
‘I’ll have a white wine spritzer, if that’s OK,’ said Trina, batting her eyelashes.
‘Easy on the white wine,’ said Mo. ‘I don’t want you falling off those shoes. There could be innocent people passing underneath.’
They took their drinks out on to the veranda. ‘Ah, this wonderful city of ours,’ said Mo. ‘Don’t you think the smog looks ravishing at this time of the day?’
Noah said, ‘Silja came over to show me this article. It’s all about suicide bombers in the Middle East.’
Mo looked serious. ‘One of my cousins was killed that way. In a bar, in Haifa, about fifteen years ago. Well, I didn’t know him. But what a way to go. They’re devils, those people. Devils. May they all be reincarnated as camel shit.’
Silja leaned forward to show him the photograph. ‘I noticed the medallion around this one man’s neck,’ Silja explained. ‘You see it is just the same as
medallion, which Noah discovered on the bottom of the ocean off Gibraltar. Look. Identical. But Noah’s medallion dates from way back in 1943.’
Mo took off his thick-lensed spectacles and scrutinized the photograph and the medallion from less than two inches away.
‘Yes, you’re right. That’s interesting, isn’t it? I mean, I don’t know
it’s interesting, but it’s interesting. It’s interesting like the number of chickens you can squeeze into a Ford Edsel is interesting.’
‘How many exactly
that?’ asked Trina. ‘Chickens, I mean.’
Mo put his spectacles back on and stared at her. ‘I was talking hypothetically, my angel.’ He looked back at Noah and rolled his eyes up for God to grant him patience. ‘But I’ll tell you what else is interesting, if you didn’t know this already. What do you think these marks are – the ones that look like pointy arrows?’
‘I don’t have a clue,’ Noah admitted.
‘Well, I’m going to impress you now. It’s some kind of ancient writing. My dope of a son came home from college a couple of weeks ago and he was wearing this purple T-shirt, and it had marks on it just like these.’
‘Almost exactly the same. He’s taking a course at the UCLA Centre for Jewish Studies, and apparently this was how the Babylonians used to write when the Hebrews were in exile in Babylon. Pointy arrows, scratched into clay tablets. It was a great system. If the scribes wanted to keep what they’d written, they’d bake the tablets in the oven. If they didn’t, they rolled them out and turned them into exile souvenir ashtrays.’
‘So the marks on these medallions – they probably mean something?’
‘I can’t be sure, but my son’s college professor could probably tell you. The writing on my son’s T-shirt, it’s a three-thousand-year-old riddle. Something like – when you walk into this house, you’re blind, but when you walk out of it, you can see. What kind of a house is it?’
‘Not a bar, that’s for sure,’ put in Trina. ‘That would be the other way around. You know, you can see pretty good when you walk
‘Thank you, my lovely,’ Mo interrupted her. ‘We all get the point.’
Silja said, ‘Why don’t you take this photograph and have your son take it to college? Look – I can use a candle to make a rubbing of this medallion, so that his professor can compare the two of them.’
‘Why not?’ said Mo. ‘My dope of a son might even get some course credits for it.’
wo days later Noah drove up the coast to San Luis Obispo to see Jenna. He had persuaded himself that he only wanted to satisfy his curiosity about the P R C H A L medallion, but at the same time it had given him a legitimate excuse to call on her.
Jenna lived in a white single-storey house on North Tassajara, not far from Cal Poly, with orange trees in the backyard, and a view of the mountains. Noah pulled his black Ford Super Duty truck into the curb a few houses away, and smoked a cigarette before he climbed out. Now that he was here, he was surprised that he felt so apprehensive. What if she was just as attractive as ever? What if she wasn’t alone? Jesus – what if she were married?
He walked up the curved concrete path in front of the house and rang the doorbell. Across the street, an old woman in a saggy blue dress stood in her living-room window and stared at him. Noah winked and nodded at her but the old woman didn’t acknowledge him.
There was no answer to the doorbell, so Noah walked around the side of the house to the small design studio that Jenna had built on the end of her garage. The door was open and there she was, sitting at her workbench, soldering an elaborate silver brooch.
She had grown her hair. When she and Noah had been together, she had always had it cut into a short, severe bob. Now it reached all the way down her back, shiny and brown. She was wearing a pale blue embroidered blouse and jeans.
He knocked loose-wristed on the open door. She didn’t look up at first, because she was concentrating on her soldering. ‘Just a second – soon as I’ve done this. You can leave it on the bench if it doesn’t need to be signed for.’
Noah waited until she’d finished. She put down her soldering iron and turned around. ‘My
,’ she said. ‘Noah – the return of the living dead!’
‘How are you doing, Jenna?’ He smiled. He glanced around the studio walls, which were cluttered with sketches and photographs of bracelets and earrings and brooches. ‘Looks like you’re keeping yourself busy.’
‘Busy? It’s crazy. I’m freelancing for B. Anthony and Company – engagement rings, mostly. Things have been really, really great.’
‘I’m happy for you. You’re very talented. You deserve it.’
‘How about you?’
‘Oh, the usual. Falling off buildings, jumping through hoops, setting fire to myself.’
‘You look good. Thinner. A little more grey.’
‘Well, time takes its toll.’
She switched off her soldering iron. ‘Are you here for a reason? Don’t tell me you just happened to be passing along North Tassajara and you just decided to drop in.’
‘No, I came to see you to ask your opinion about something.’ He took the P R C H A L medallion out of his pocket and held it up. ‘I found this on the seabed off Gibraltar. I was wondering if you knew what it was. I showed it to Mo Speller and he said it had some kind of ancient writing on it. Babylonian, that’s what he thought.’
Jenna took the medallion and laid it on the workbench in front of her. She put on a pair of magnifying eyeglasses and examined it carefully, both sides.
knew what this was?’ she asked, incredulous.
‘Yes – I was surprised, too. But his son is studying ancient Jewish history at UCLA. Mo recognized the characters from some T-shirt the kid was wearing.’
Jenna frowned. ‘Well, I’m not a linguist, or an archaeologist, but I think he could be right. The one thing I can tell you for sure is that this is a very old piece of jewellery.’
Noah watched as she turned the medallion this way and that. He wasn’t sure that he liked her hair so long. It made her look younger and freer, and maybe that was why. She was just as alluring, though, with those large brown eyes and that heart-shaped face that had always reminded him of a fairy from a children’s picture book.
‘What’s it made of?’ he asked her.
‘It’s black because it’s so tarnished, but I’m pretty confident it’s solid silver.’
‘And when you say “very old” . . . ?’
‘I couldn’t be sure,’ said Jenna, taking off her glasses. ‘But a couple of years ago some Israeli archaeologists found a collection of Babylonian jewellery in a cave near the Dead Sea. Like – historically – it was a really important find, because it proved beyond any question that the Jewish aristocracy had been taken into exile in Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar and then sent home again forty-eight years later by Cyrus the Persian. You know – ‘by the rivers of Babylon, where we sat and wept, when we remembered Zion . . .’