“You’re much too pretty for this,” she says.
I mortify myself by blushing. “Uh, thank you … Uh, what do you mean?”
“Just … I don’t know.” She vaguely sweeps a bare arm. “Maybe we’re all too pretty.”
The last thing I expected was philosophy. We are standing at a high window, watching but not watching the lumpen traffic of the afternoon. The cars look like disgruntled toys, parping at the weary ants trudging either side.
She is wearing a tank top and jeans that taper to sandaled feet. The key to the room is tied around her wrist. I don’t know why I find that strange. I am sweating. I want to stop but I can’t control it. Surely she must know. Can she smell it? Smell me?
One of my hands snakes to the side of my ear, lusting for a scratch. I halt it in mid-air. “So – uh – how do you want to do this?”
She turns her head to me. There is a slow smile, something almost sad. I can’t decide if she is pretty. “Colour of your money honey.”
My tongue darts around. My lips feel like carpet. “I .. uh…”
“Yes?” There is a sudden brightness around her eyes. Has she decided that she is amused, by my unease, my lack of poise?
“I suppose…” I’m touching the damn ear. “I suppose it might be nice to – uh – view the merchandise?”
“Isn’t that a funny word,” she says, turning from the window and commencing a slow, sensuous walk towards the double bed. I’ve noticed that she likes to walk slowly, as if deriving pleasure from the way her ass coils about its inner axis of mystery, round the source of power.
“Isn’t what a funny word?”
We are in a city hotel room. An age seemed to pass before she answered my summons from the lobby. I was terrified of meeting someone I knew. What to do if she showed up during the ritual of swapped pleasantries?
We rode the lift together to here. She didn’t speak until we were at the window. Now she stops at the bed and drops to her knees. She shoves skinny arms in underneath and pulls something out. There is a tiny grunt as she pops the case on the bedclothes.
I approach it, my palms now sweating profusely. “I’ll – eh – I’ll need a few minutes to…”
“Take as long as you like.” And she does the slow sashay again, off towards the bathroom. The case is made of cheap black leather. I almost break a nail pulling at the lock.
The package inside is wrapped in ancient paper. I can feel her return and hover behind me as my hands shake and pull and tear. I don’t look back.
It is there, buried under maddening coils and twists. The book. It is the book. I know even before I do the tests, check the secret marks I’ve spent a decade trying to identify. Seven hundred years old and it’s here, right here in my shaking hands.
“How?…” I can’t keep the shake from my voice. “How did you…?”
“Least said, soonest mended.” The expression seems at odds with my imprecise notion of her nationality. “We do business now?”
I turn to her and we crank through the agreed method of payment. At the end, she regards me with another odd twinkle and says “want a receipt?” When I look at her blankly, she says “just a joke.”
All the while I wonder at her confidence, the utter ease with everything. Did the thought not occur that a man might simply assault her and make off with the prize? No, of course not. She has back up. There are burly, shadowy figures she can call on if things get hairy.
She even assists me in wrapping the book back inside the elderly paper, supervises my bumbling efforts at packing it into the case.
I am ready to leave. We face each other, either side of the bed.
“Well uh …”
“Our work is done.”
“You’ve got to take this someplace now.”
“Well, yeah.” A trickle of sweat begins to form between my shoulder blades. An ominous drumming begins in my gut. This isn’t part of the plan. Why is she stalling? I was supposed to just take my bundle and go.
“This might sound crazy, but …” Her eyes look metallic.
“Would you like to meet after – after you’ve done? Have a coffee or something?”