Site menu:


The Tenth Gate

~ Part Four

Example content image

Yet again, he woke early. But today, he didn’t care. This was the day when he would get to see what Ella was certain was the tenth picture. His mind buzzed. He didn’t even care that again, he’d slept alone.

Apart from the fragmented encounters in the bath and in the kitchen, they hadn’t even touched. He was sorry about the close isolation he found himself in, but when he considered the material basis of their strange relationship he didn’t mind. In fact, he thought, it was safer the way it was. He knew from the experience of a man lost in a world of predatory women that love and lust were not necessarily easy partners. Something else was needed to make them coexist, but it was something he hadn’t experienced, couldn’t define. Paradoxically, he wanted the former yet craved for, was addicted to, the dirtiness of the latter. He usually liked the unexpected viciousness of sex that came out of nowhere, the walk away without the exchange of numbers or the slippery unmeant promises to call. He didn’t want to sacrifice that for love. He’d stick with what he knew.

Usually. He frowned to himself. Usually. This time he knew that his godless soul was lying to itself. He ran his hands through his greying hair and wondered how this sentiment had crept up on him. He did his best to block out the feelings that had wormed their way through his emotional hard covers, pulled on his crumpled clothes and went downstairs to search out the day’s first nicotine.

He was still looking for his last few cigarettes when she came in. He looked up from the table covered in papers and actually blinked, did a double take at the woman who entered the room. Ella looked different, amazing. It was the first time he’d seen her in anything other than casual clothes. Her closely fitting shirt was buttoned, her narrow skirt was dark and neat, and her high heels clicked. Her hair was severely scraped back emphasising the extra layer of mascara and glowing lipstick. She was like a child dressing up. She smiled and giggled, posing and turning, wiggling her rear in a clichéd pastiche of what she aimed to be, enjoying the dressing up. “What do you think? Do I look like your so-called secretary? Is this how you like your research assistants to dress, Dr Corso? Shall I wear glasses, carry a clipboard? Do these heels and lipstick attract you attention?” She posed and pouted some more.

He found himself laughing back at her. “No, you look absurd. Much too straight-laced. You look like the worst sort of hotel receptionist. Undo a button, loosen your hair. And no fake glasses, please. But yes, you’ve certainly got my attention.”

She leaned forward, still laughing, and pressed her hand against his swelling crotch. “That’s plain for all to see. And you don’t even know what I’m wearing underneath yet.”

He was about to explore the likelihood of finding out, but she laughed and stepped back and picked up her bag of papers. “No time like the present for academic research. Don’t forget your letters of introduction, This is no open access library.” She rattled her car keys, and, still giggling, turned to leave.

Subsiding, and only a little disappointed, he followed her out to the car.

As they made their way along the straight roads that led to the city they were quiet. The scene out of the window rushed past, flat and fertile fields, crops cut and waiting for the plough. The same landscape for miles, reaching to the hazy horizon. No hedges, no woodland. Rivers banked up against the winter floods. .In a landscape of horizontals, you were forced to look up. The sky gave the place its possibilities; it alternately sheltered and threatened, and forced you to consider your position beneath the heavens.

He though some more about the problem of love and lust. Were they the only two possibilities? Were they the two sides of the same coin that they appeared to be? There had to be more to it, but his desiccated heart couldn’t find the key. The laughter they had shared in the kitchen a few minutes ago had lifted his spirits, and that had been neither love nor lust. It was as if the laughter had momentarily created an easiness, a lightness of spirit that went through his tense mind like a gasp of air.

But as they drove into the old city, though the Victorian suburbs, his obsession drove these thoughts away, and he focused on the problem of obtaining the etching. It had to be the original, he knew that from his experience with Balkan at the castle. But a picture or a photocopy would be worth having as well, at least to let them work on the riddle it held. However, problems existed. They were not heading for a library that leant out books. The archive of The Fitzwilliam was well known in academic circles, holding rare volumes from the days when the Civil War battered the marshes around the city. Books from that time were fragile and precious. They’d have to wear gloves to even touch some crumbling papers, and would have to beg and plead to be allowed to photograph or to even hope to photocopy. He suspected that it would come down to theft or bribery. And of those, theft was preferable, producing less traces. He’d done it before, for obsessive collectors who could pay the price. He’d just never imagined that the obsessive would one day be himself.

And once they’d got it- and they would find this picture, his obsession made him sure of that-then what? Would he tell her of what he knew about laying out the pictures in sequence, as Balkan had done? Did she know the sequence already? And what would emerge when it was all done? Something that could be shared? Or something that demanded solitary ownership?

The faded greens of the fields were being replaced by prosperous suburbs as he continued his musings. Nearly there, get your script ready, he thought. This was one thing at least he could excel at. For years he’d talked himself into deals, flattered and oiled his way into sales that made his living. He knew exactly how to look a seller in the eye and make them believe, through a downward glance, a half smile and a shrug of the shoulders, that he was doing them a favour when he offered less that real value. It was the one way he could always succeed with women, he thought, lips narrowing at the irony. Men and women, in fact. There was little to choose between the sexes in their desire for approval and self aggrandisement. People see what they want to see, not what is real. More irony, he thought, as he stole a glance at Ella.


As they walked up the white marble steps to the ornate columned portico of the museum he slipped back into his work persona. Once again he was the book detective, dressed as if his mind was on higher matters and carrying too many poorly filed papers. His assistant walked a little behind him, smartly dressed, businesslike, better organised. They spoke together in whispers as they paused for a moment, appearing to look at the hideous modern sculptures that blighted the grassy lawns around the cool and classical building. A nodded agreement and they walked in.

The cool reception hall was almost silent, and smelled of the dust of glass cases and polish on wooden frames. Uniformed staff, the usual security check, bags searched in a desultory fashion by a poorly paid and bored guard. The walk to the reception desk.

“Look ahead, don’t drop your gaze,” he’d told her. “You have to look like what you’re doing is honest, legitimate.” Easier said than done, he thought as his letters were examined. He hoped that these dealers in documents wouldn’t spot the fact that his recommendation was a forgery that had admitted him under an assumed name to many of the country’s greatest closed libraries. He had counted on them being checked by a receptionist who was less than familiar with the names he had chosen to invoke in his recommendation. An academic may have chosen to check. She, however, seemed to be reading them too carefully, glancing up to look at him. How many seconds would he wait before he made Ella turn and run? As the receptionist lifted the phone, he felt himself starting to sweat. A sideways look at Ella showed she was playing her part well, better than him: bored, tetchy but unruffled, just what she should be.

Seconds ticked past in slow motion. The woman put the phone down. “Thank you. That’s fine. The local collection you’ll need is downstairs. Go the corridor and take the lift two floors down. I hope you find your visit interesting.”

He had to be careful not to run, or laugh, or sigh with relief as they walked to the lift.

“Level C” He told her which stack they needed to find. “Local documents from the seventeenth century.” The lift moved smoothly, down into the place’s history.

Ella ran her tongue over her dry lips. “This shouldn’t take long. The location is easy, the sections are referenced by century in the floor plan they gave us. A couple of shelves to search through, that’s all. But we still have to get the picture out with us.”

True, he thought. And it was pretty plain that there was going to be no photocopy. He’d brought a small camera, but the library had strict regulations about flash photography, so any photo would be poor quality. Again, theft seemed the only choice. Not the whole book, which could have been, probably was, tagged to set off alarms if it went past the desk, but the page. Guiltily, he felt deep in his pocket for the sliver of scalpel blade he kept for such occasions.

The lift doors opened and they stepped out into the silent and musty vault that was level C. Deep underground, the air conditioning could not hide the smell of the sweet potential of decay. Papers lined the walls, classified by date. Brown cracked leather covers, peeling gold tooled spines. The sickly smell of oiled bindings, old animal glues. The carbon taste of print hung in the air. He loved it all, wanted to stand still and absorb it. This was a kind of heaven. He couldn’t even begin to imagine the value of what was stacked around him. The thrill he felt was almost sexual. Magic dripped from these books.

Ella walked ahead of him, drawn to the location, hardly glancing at the plan, seemingly guided by some sort of unconscious sense. Turning into a quiet alcove, books on three sides of her, she looked up, smiled, turned to him.

“It’s there. I want you to touch it first. See if it’s the one we need. See if it feels like the other nine. Something about it will speak to you if it is.”

He moved closer, reaching up and above her to the higher shelf. Although she leant back, his body pressed into her. As his arm reached for the book, he could smell her perfume, light, flowers and the musky scent of sex. He looked down towards her, and found her looking straight back at him with eyes that sucked all thoughts of research from his mind.

He was horrified at what he thought she wanted to do, but more horrified at the idea that she’d read the idea that had welled up for a split second from the most secret corners of his mind.

“Is that what you want? Here and now? I know what’s in your mind.” He felt himself blush, and he looked down to avoid her eye. Could anyone hear them, did anyone know what she had read in him? Did her words take his guilt and echo it around the silent galleries? Were they really alone in the cool depths of these stacks? Was there someone, a curator with muffled shoes, a solitary student returned early, around the back of the dusty shelves? He started to sweat. But he knew that what had crossed his mind had long been something that he’d fantasised about, clandestine images spilling from his worst subconscious when, frustrated and needy, long evenings alone in his apartment lay emptily before him. But fantasy and reality were different beasts. For a start, in fantasies no-one got caught and thrown out of libraries with no further chance of getting the documents they needed. The idea of stepping back, pretending he hadn’t heard, came into his mind. But her fingers were too quick for him, and he felt her hand run over the fabric of his clothes. He caught his breath and looked up.

Her eyes took away the past and the future, the guilt and the fear.

And when only the present exists, it’s easy to have courage. He felt himself push forward and kiss her hungrily. The thought that others may be there disappeared like dust in the heavy air. What had happened to him? How was he acting like this? The fear had gone. He was turning into another, bolder, person. He kissed her again, and pulled back to see her smile. She was beautiful, but the smile was one which sucked the life from him, the smile of one who took and absorbed. Someone who gave what was asked as part of a harder bargain. And he realised that there is a horror in fantasy becoming reality. What you dream is perfection, what you live is grubby. Fantasies were not truths; they did not translate into beauty. He was somehow disgusted with his mind, but he was trapped by his body.

He realised that he held the book in his hand. She reached up to take it, and flicked through the thick and musty pages to open it at a picture that immediately looked familiar. Handing it to him, she whispered “Cut out the page. And let me hide it.”

He did what he was told, nausea growing in his stomach as the realisation of being used grew in his mind.

The marble floors soon echoed with their retreating footsteps, and the metal doors of the lift closed to begin their escape.


Next Chapter