VAULTS OF POWER
Li Mei looked at the incoming number on his cell phone's screen. He let it ring out. The phone rang again, once. Then a third time, just once again. He felt a rush of adrenaline and controlled it with deep breaths. He stood from his black laminated desk and stretched and walked to the window. Paris had been stuffy and dirty and waiting for the storm since morning but suddenly the wind was picking up. He watched the clouds scatter over the slate roofs.
It was happening just the way it was supposed to, and that in itself was a good omen. It meant he had planned things right. Found the right man to do the job. Chen Guang would say he was thinking like a Westerner. Maybe he was. Maybe that was the trick, too. Become your enemy to defeat him.
The doorbell rang. It was an old-fashioned doorbell, with a long high shrill that resonated through the three rooms of the apartment. No video or fancy thing. Nothing that could be recorded. That was the main feature of the apartment. That and the layout of the building. With one entrance along a busy street and one in a quiet backstreet. His apartment spanned the width of the building. One window on each street. And it was on the floor before last, high enough for a good view. There was also a main staircase around an elevator. And a service staircase. So two exit routes from the apartment, and two from the building. And an extra floor on top just in case.
The bell rang again. He looked through the peephole. Toslav was not much taller than he, dark hair combed back, straight nose, olive skin. Slanted eyes the way he remembered them from the only time he had met him in person, years ago.
They shook hands, Western fashion, after the door was closed and locked. Toslav walked with a cane and it clicked on the hardwood floor. Li showed him to his study and they sat on low chairs on either part of a black, Ming style coffee table. Toslav propped his cane against the table.
Li asked to see Toslav's cell phone. Snatched the battery out of it and slid the pieces in his pocket.
He reached inside the drawer of the lacquered coffee table and pulled a dull grey metallic box, five inches long, with a small screen. Activated a switch. The box made a rattling sound. He checked the screen. No eavesdropping device in the room. He put the box back into the drawer and nodded.
Toslav got the message. He pulled out a thin file from his briefcase and started talking. “There was an attempt to access the vault Friday.”
Li pinched his nose. Four days lost.
“Title to the safe-deposit was presented by a lady. American,” Toslav continued. “Sybil Gabriel.”
So it was still in the family.
Toslav pulled out an envelope from his briefcase and with two fingers retrieved a four by five glossy shot. Pushed it toward Li on the lacquered coffee table.
Li picked up the picture. It was a close-up, taken with a powerful camera, of a very American-looking young woman. Straight blonde hair, perfect teeth, full lips, blue eyes, pink cheeks. She looked innocent enough. And healthy, and wealthy. He thought of the Chinese women her age in the villages in the province of Henan. The absence of schools. The illnesses due to sheer poverty. The lack of hospitals. The deaths in childbirth.
He put the snapshot back on the table. He knew the face.
Toslav went on. “Access was denied on pretense of the need for an appointment. Appointment was taken for yesterday morning.”
Li flexed his fists and forced a steady breathing.
Toslav looked at him. “No one showed up.” He sat back in his chair. “Miss Gabriel was half-beaten to death. Her sister and fiancé both arrived from the United States. She is being treated in Marseilles, Hôpital de la Timone. The gendarmes have no idea what happened to her.”
Half-beaten to death. Against the gaping dragons painted on the table, Sybil Gabriel was smiling back. I have more than a clue what happened to you, Li thought.
Toslav slid a spreadsheet across the table. He put it right next to the picture. “This is a summary of my expenses so far.”
“Where did she go after the bank on Friday?”
“Straight to her hotel.”
“The private detective applies surcharge for weekends.”
Li rubbed his constricting temples. “Meaning?”
“He resumed his work Monday morning.” He looked at Li straight in the eyes and pushed the spreadsheet closer to him. “My expenses,” he said. “With an advance I could have arranged for round-the-clock surveillance.”
Li did not look at the paper. He nodded, a short nod with a faint smile that meant he was annoyed, but that most people interpreted as approval. He knew about the frequent misunderstanding and counted on it. He stayed firmly in his chair and said, “All expenses will be covered when your work is done. And a hefty fee. We have been through that.”
Toslav stroked the silver handle of his cane. “I am an antiquarian, Mr. Li. Not a private detective. I buy and sell rare objects. I don't follow people around. I had to hire someone for this job. I had expenses.”
Li nodded. “Are you reconsidering the terms of our agreement?”
Toslav twitched in his chair. “No, of course not.”
Li stood. He reached for a sleek cell phone on his desk with a sticker note on the back. Handed it to Toslav. “This is your new cell phone. Safer. Paid for. The calling number is on the back.”
Toslav pulled himself out of the low chair. His hands trembled a little when he reached for the phone. He took it without a word. He put his briefcase on the lacquered table and buckled it.
“Don't forget your documents,” Li said.
Toslav did not look up. “They're yours.”
“Not yet.” And I won't need them when they are, he thought. “I asked for the Logonikon, and that is what I expect from you.”
Robyn was still sitting on the floor, turning the statuette in her hands when Tom walked in, a coffee-table book tucked under his arm. He took a long look at the open suitcase, didn’t say anything, squeaked to the head of the bed and lightly kissed Sybil’s forehead. He dropped the book on the chair.
“Found what you were looking for?” Robyn asked.
He took three slow steps and crouched in front of the suitcase. “How did this get here?” he said and started stacking the clothes neatly back in.
“Police brought it earlier. Thought you saw it.” She held Sybil’s handbag open. Put the tissues, keys, lipstick, pen, Advil and Filofax back in. Gave the passport and phone to Tom. “Nothing on the phone, nothing on the organizer.”
He pointed his chin toward the statuette in her hand. “Was that in her suitcase?”
“With a small flat key. In there,” she said, showing the brown envelope.
She handed the statuette to him. His time to turn it around, set it on the floor, watch it roll.
“It’s probably white jade. Rare. Old.”
He tilted his head and clapped his tongue. “Something you had at home?”
She shook her head slowly. “Don’t remember.”
“Is it a lion?”
“Could be. Or a dragon.”
His gaze wandered over Sybil’s clothes and he handed the statuette back to her. “Do you remember Sybil playing marble maze?”
“At twelve years old? No.” She looked from the statuette to Tom. “Do you think the date on the letter is wrong?”
“Do you remember her playing it at all? Or you?”
“No. Don’t really know what it looks like, and pretty sure I never played a game of Chinese chess either.”
“Chinese chest. The letter said Chinese chest,” he said.
“In a handwritten letter?”
“Misspelling, is what I mean.” God the guy was anal.
He stayed silent for a while. Just re-packed the suitcase.
She thought back to the letter. It just didn’t compute. According to the date, when their father drafted it they were in seventh grade. Still kids in a sense, no boys in the picture yet, but feeling very serious about themselves. Outdoors most of the time, or at least out of the house. Cheerleading for Sybil, karate for Robyn. Softball for both.
Indoors felt almost like a punishment. And there was something else.
“My mom didn’t play the keyboard,” she said. “She played the violin.”
He turned around, his shoes squeaking horribly on the linoleum. “No keyboard?”
“How can you be so sure?”
“What do you mean?”
“You don’t really remember your toys, but you’re positive about the keyboard.”
“Always wanted one. Never got it. I’d remember if there had been one around.” She put the statuette and the flat key in the envelope and the envelope in her tote bag. Glanced at him. Their eyes connected a fraction of a second.
He stood. “I should have known,” he said. “There was more to the letter. Now it’s too late.”
She felt the burden of guilt settle somewhere right above her stomach and radiate in waves of shame through her whole body. She was the one who should have known. “He died thirteen years ago. You can’t just sit up from the grave and order people around,” she said.
“You want to travel military or civilian?” he said.
“I’m taking Sybil home. You coming with us?”
He snapped the suitcase shut. “Helicopter transfer to Italy, then a US Air Force plane will fly her home.” He put the suitcase next to his bag, against the wall, then pulled out his cell phone again. “Hey Chuck. We’re all set. You got clearance?” The cell phone sputtered. “Roger.” He put his phone on the windowsill and turned to her.
“Last time I saw a hospital in such a bad shape, was in Iraq. And they were repairing it,” he said. “You’ll need to go downstairs and sign the discharge. As next-of-kin.”
Sure, he could have asked for her opinion. But there wasn’t much to debate.
When she reached the door, he said, “Don’t get into details. Frogs’ll freak out if you say the M word.”
M for Marines.
It took close to an hour to get through the lines and the paper work. When she came back, Tom said the chopper was on its way and they just had to wait now.
He was back in the chair, thumbing through the book. His cell phone was still on the windowsill. It was one of those large items with a screen that flipped open length-wise and a comfortable, full keyboard. Serious stuff.
“Can I use it?” she asked.
He hesitated for a beat, but didn’t ask any questions. Just, “Let me unlock it.”
“Want to run Chinese chests images, see if I remember anything,” she said. “It’s been bugging me.”
She sat on the edge of the armchair. The page was already on Google. She typed Chinese chest, then clicked on the image tab.
The screen was big enough to make out the vignettes. She zoomed, just to be sure. Nothing familiar. No souvenir popping to the surface.
She did the same with marble maze. Same non-result.
She surfed a little, tried combinations.
Chinese chest keyboard. Results for unlocking games came up.
Chinese marble. Kitchen countertops lined up.
Chinese keys. Several recipes. A website selling stuff Parker would have loved, and displaying pictures of keys that looked more like locks to Robyn. An article on ancient Chinese keys. She clicked on it.
During the nineteenth century, elaborate keys had the shape of animals. They were usually made of bronze, and their flattened tails were the opening device. She enlarged the illustrations. Zoomed in. Pulled the statuette out of her bag and compared it to the picture on the small screen. Everything fit. Everything, except the material. Her key, if that was what it was, was made of jade. White jade, the most precious kind.
She looked again at the red eyes, the clutched paws. Went back to the animals on the screen. They were similar. The legend said dragons.
She looked at her key. And now what? she thought.
She continued flicking through websites.
There was an article on Chinese locks. Chinese locks operated like puzzles, not like regular locks. She scanned through the page absent-mindedly until she was ripe with frustration. “So I guess you didn’t find what you were looking for? That errand you ran?” she said.
“Of course I did.” He looked at her as if she’d said some profanity and handed her the coffee-table book he’d been looking through.
Her fingers made moist marks on the cover. It was black and gold and glitzy, with a title in French, “Le Code Voynich”. The Voynich Code. Sub-title, The Most Mysterious Manuscript in the World.
The cover art was a picture of an ancient manuscript, three folios wide with the right-side looking like it was meant to be folded. Something she might have heard about on the Discovery Channel but never made it into the curriculum of her all too serious History studies.
She flipped the book open. A long introduction in French, then it was page after page of reproduction of the ancient manuscript. She was holding the only published fac-simile edition of the so-called Voynich manuscript. “Where did you get this?”
“Doesn’t matter,” he said.
The inside was glossy paper with picture after picture of eerie drawings and writing that bore a vague resemblance to Latin script, but was nothing close to any existing alphabet. Here and there, o’s and a’s, and maybe m’s. And sometimes digits—9,4,8. The rest of the characters looked like letters and were grouped in neat clusters looking like words—but they weren’t. Beyond studying ancient Greek and Latin, she’d come across enough foreign or ancient languages to know this wasn’t written in any known tongue. Many lines started with the same letter or a variation of it.
Something like the letter pi, with loops where the lines intersected.
A letter she had taken for a symbol just hours ago, when she saw it burnt into Sybil’s flesh. She looked up at Tom.
“How d’you know?” she said.
“Cipher courses,” he said. “It’s a classic. The ultimate unbroken code.”
What struck her first as a historian was how unique the manuscript looked. It wasn't the orderly affair of a copyist monk, where line after line of perfectly formed letters aligned in neat rectangles on the page. Here, the penmanship flowed regularly enough—the produce of a stable hand—but without any aesthetic effort.
The looped symbol pi, as she had thought about it, repeated itself often and sometimes appeared with more elaborate forms of looping. The letter stood taller than the others and usually at the beginning of the words, although in its inflected forms it could appear in the middle.
She pointed to it. “That's the letter on Sybil. It’s like the trademark of the manuscript. That’s what put you on track?”
He didn’t say anything.
She turned to another page. “The drawings seem the most important part. See how the writing is ordered around them? It's not text and illustration: it's representation and text around it.” She ran a finger on the page. “Strange plants… they look more like sea weeds, don't they? See anything familiar?”
“No,” Tom said, “but I'm not much of a plant person.” He grabbed Robyn’s T-shirt from the back of the chair and stepped into the bathroom. Water gurgled.
She kept turning the pages slowly. The drawings were more fascinating than the strange writing. On almost each page, a plant was sketched out in fading ink, its leaves in washes of green, the roots brown. Sometimes, flowers in shades of blue or red. Rarely, yellow and purple.
The overall effect was lively and artful. How could this be related to Sybil’s agony?
Tom came back and started patting Sybil’s forehead with the T-shirt. “Anybody who studies cipher tackles the Voynich manuscript at one point or another. I know I did. Wasted my time.” He folded the T-shirt in a neat rectangle. “Now I’m having second thoughts about it being a scam.”
He shrugged. “That’s what people are saying now. Makes them feel comfortable for not being able to break it.”
She pored back over the book. Past the middle of the manuscript, the contents changed. Over twenty astral diagrams followed, one on each page, and all different. Some had concentric circles filled with the cryptic writing, others had radiating segments with stars or more writing, and some had strings of naked women merry-go-rounding or standing in buckets around a central zodiacal symbol. All conveyed this sense of efficacy, of precise information and all were utterly elegant and decorative. Whoever had drawn this had a beautifully balanced mind, both scientific and artistic.
She flipped to another page.
Stark-naked women, either plump or pregnant, were thigh-high in basins filled with green water, often holding hands. Some were alone in buckets, holding tubes from which water spurted. All the buckets and basins seemed to be linked together by a flow of water running continuously through the pages, thin currents either streaming freely around the text or channeled by hoses in varying degrees of design and complexity.
On one of the pages there was only text, about forty lines arranged in three paragraphs each marked by a star.
Stars with slightly rounded tips, or flowers with pointed petals. Just like the branding on Sybil, on either side of the letter pi.
“You coming with us or you traveling civilian?” he said.
“I’m not going anywhere,” she said, and kept turning the pages.
Then she got to the last page and said, “Oh-oh.”
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