The first thing I noticed as my eyes flew open was the sweat. Sweat was pouring down my face in spite of the air conditioner. It WAS cold inside the room and I shivered a bit. Yet I was sweating. Then there was the light. It was bright, blinding, harsh.
It was the sun.
I turned away from the window and sat up in bed. The sheets were practically soaked and I threw them off. The cold air hit me just as suddenly as I’d thrown of the sheets and I wrapped my hands around me. How come I was sweating in this cold? I rubbed my forehead to be sure I wasn’t coming down with a fever. I hadn’t ever fallen sick far away from home before and I certainly didn’t want to be ill now. To my relief, I felt completely fine and I wasn’t running a temperature. Still, something didn’t quite feel right….something I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
And I felt like I had company.
I got up from the bed and headed for the bathroom. Just as I was about to push the door open, I began to feel wary. I WAS not alone. I could feel it strongly and I wasn’t going to take chances. I pushed open the bathroom door slowly and peered in. It was empty.
I turned around and headed for the adjoining room. It was probably nothing; just me feeling the after effects of the dream I’d had. Besides, nobody else had access to my room. Except hotel staff had come in while I was asleep…….but that wasn’t right….and….as I looked around, I could tell that nothing had been disturbed. Everything looked almost exactly the way it had been when I had gone to bed.
I was quite sure the black inscription on the white wall opposite the bed wasn’t there when I had gone to bed. The very sight of it stunned me. I had seen that same mark before…..not too long ago. It was the same as the tattoo I had seen on the girl’s neck.
In the dream I had last night.
I was immediately apprehensive. Who could have had access to my room while I was asleep? And how come they had broken in, inscribed that on the wall and escaped without me noticing at all. I wasn’t a deep sleeper; the slightest of sounds would wake me up. Whoever did this was really good. And I could guess the purpose of the inscription. But as I had already pointed out, I would not be dissuaded. I would continue the work I came here to do. Besides, I was already billed to see the curator today as we had an appointment today for…..the appointment! I turned to glance at the clock and was horrified at what I saw. 11:30 am! The meeting was billed for 11:0!
The inscription disappeared from my mind as I dashed into the bathroom and then suddenly stopped unsure of what to do first. Then I grabbed my toothbrush and towel. Ten minutes later, I dashed out of the hotel, the very picture of a rushed preparation and made for the rented car. I was sure I looked crazy but I really didn’t care. I had to get down to the museum or I would miss the chance to see the Ainkhut artefact up close. It would be touring museums around the world from the next day. This was my only opportunity and I was half sure I had blown it.
The drive down to the museum didn’t make things any better. Traffic was horrible and the sun blazed down from the sky with furious vengeance. The air conditioning in the car didn’t make things any better; it was so hot, I felt like I was seated in an oven. And the heat made me look even more haggard. One look at myself in the car mirror and I wasn’t inclined to look at myself again. Then I remembered something thing that had been niggling at the edge of my memory since I left my room at the hotel. I had left my phone behind.
I cursed silently. I would have to get back to the hotel to retrieve the phone. But that would be after I’d seen the Ainkhut. As I turned into a parking space outside the museum, I caught a glance of my image in the car mirror again and almost decided to go back. I looked quite harried but again, I shook off the feeling. I had work to do.
There seemed to be more activity around the museum than the previous time I had been there which was only a few days ago. Probably has to do with the artefacts that would be shipped out tomorrow, I thought. I just hoped the Ainkhut hadn’t already been packed for shipping……and that the curator wasn’t completely mad at me.
As it turned out, he was patient enough to wait for me and, to my relief, didn’t look annoyed. If anything, he looked positively expansive, almost happy.
“You’re late, Mr Bennett,” he said as I walked into the large atrium the entrance doors led to. He stood at the base of the wide stair that led to a gallery upstairs looking straight at me, like he already knew I was coming in through the doors before I actually did.
“Sorry about that,” I huffed, the near run from my car, down the long walk that led to the museum’s main building having quite knocked much of the wind out of me. “Woke up late.” He took the hand I offered and turned around as soon as he relinquished it and started heading up the stairs.
“Well, you’re late on two counts.” My heart sank. The Ainkhut was already being packed for shipping. “First, there’s the matter of you showing up an hour after you were supposed to.”
He had to rub it in. “My apologies, again,” I muttered.
“Oh, I have no problem with that. In fact, I have no problems at all anymore. On the second count, you’re too late to see the Ainkhut.”
“It’s already been packed for shipping?” I asked, trying to come up with a convincing reason to see the Ainkhut before it got shipped out.
“No. I would still have a problem if that was the case.” At this point, we had got to the head of the stairs and could see the large upstairs main gallery. There was even more of a crowd up here than downstairs. A different crowd, however. They were mainly policemen.
“The Ainkhut is no longer here,” he declared as we headed in the direction of where the Ainkhut display had been the last time. “In simpler terms; it’s missing.”
“What?” I wasn’t quite sure I heard right.
“You heard me right. Went missing last night. Or this morning. Either way, it wasn’t here when I came in this morning. Came in an hour earlier after security called to inform me of its absence.”
“So it was stolen?” I asked.
“Stolen? Well i guess that would be the general impression. It was here and now it isn’t anymore. So probably someone took it.”
“You don’t sound like you think it was stolen.” I returned.
“What I think is immaterial. The Ainkhut isn’t here anymore and that’s all the fact we know. The police will conduct their investigations and I’m ready to accept whatever their findings are. It’s rather unfortunate it happened before you could get to see it.”
I shook my head. This was unbelievable.
“So you believe the Ainkhut disappeared?”
“Well it has, hasn’t it? Else it would still be here,” the curator responded. We were now close to the display case that had housed the Ainkhut and had more policemen about it. On sighting the curator, they waved him through. “They said they’re done with checking for signs of a forced entry. So we can look around ourselves.”
“Really? Shouldn’t they keep things closed off till they’re completely sure they’re not missing anything?”
“I don’t know how the police in your country work, Mr Bennett,” the curator sighed. “This is how those in mine work. I’m sure I’ll get a report later today telling me they will do everything possible to find whoever took the Ainkhut. I’m lucky I haven’t been detained as a suspect myself. Anyway, whatever they do, whether they take it serious or not, they’re wasting their time. I don’t really care if they find it or not, anyway. In fact, between you and I, I’d rather it stays missing.”
Again I shook my head, incredulous. “So you mean to tell me, Mr. Ahmed, that the most prized artefact in your museum goes missing and you aren’t worried?”
He turned to face me, the expression on his face intense. “I’ve already told you, Mr Bennett, that thing was trouble. Since the first day it was brought here, it has been trouble. They were warned not to take it away from the Tbiosi tribal land but they came up with cultural preservation excuses and brought it to this museum. Maybe you should talk to the last night guard to patrol this gallery at night. He resigned two months ago. And before him, four other night guards resigned. Since then, none of the night guards come into this gallery, even if they see someone obviously break in.”
He turned away.
“I would suggest you forget about the Ainkhut, Mr Bennett. That thing is a curse to whoever is interested in it. It’s not worth your peace of mind. You can’t understand it so I’d advise you not to try. It has chosen to leave and I’m happy it chose to.” He began walking away, quickly. “I’ll be in my office if you need me.”
I rubbed my forehead, confused. What was happening here?