Also by Tom Harper
The Lost Temple
The Book of Secrets
The Lazarus Vault
Secrets of the Dead
The Crusade Series
The Mosaic of Shadows
Knights of the Cross
Siege of Heaven
The Twelfth Tablet
First published in Great Britain in 2013 by
Hodder & Stoughton
An Hachette UK company
Copyright © Tom Harper 2013
The right of Tom Harper to be identified as the Author of the Work
has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright,
Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced,
stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any
means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be
otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that
in which it is published and without a similar condition being
imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance
to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library
ISBN 978 1 444 78074 1
Hodder & Stoughton Ltd
338 Euston Road
London NW1 3BH
The museum was closing. Tourists studied their maps, wondering where to go next; relieved husbands hurried their wives away to the tables they had waiting for dinner. A few students lingered, getting maximum value, until the guards rounded them up.
Paul Mitchell let himself out of his office and followed the crowds towards the exit, oblivious to the two thousand years of masterpieces on the walls. It had been a long day, and a long night ahead – five pages to get written, he’d promised himself. The thesis was already late. At six months overdue, the university had cut off his funding. In three weeks, they’d kick him out completely if he didn’t hand it in.
‘Do you work here?’
The voice was loud, easily enough to break him out of his thoughts. A big man, standing in front of the doors to the Classical gallery. He was built like a heavyweight, with puffy lips and a mane of dark hair tumbling over the tight shoulders of his jacket. He had a fat gold ring wrapped around his finger, and a blonde in a fake fur coat wrapped around his arm.
On closer inspection, the blonde was probably fake. The fur, he thought, looked genuine. He’d attended enough museum fundraisers to know money when he saw it. He gave his best apologetic smile. ‘Can I help?’
The man pointed to the locked doors. ‘You can let us in?’
‘I’m afraid the museum’s closed.’ He touched the badge on the lanyard around his neck, warding off the evil look he’d got. ‘We open again at–’
‘Please.’ The woman leaned forward. ‘There was fog at the airport.’
‘We’ve come to see the Aphrodite,’ said her partner. ‘We need only five minutes.’
‘Tomorrow we must go to Venice,’ said the woman.
‘You have the keys?’ the man demanded.
Paul’s hand drifted to the bulging keychain in his jacket pocket. ‘It’s not that.’
‘Of course, I can make a donation to the museum.’ He pulled a fistful of Swiss franc notes out of his trousers. Hundreds and five-hundreds, Paul noticed.
The woman reached out and touched Paul’s hand. A static charge seemed to shiver up his arm. Her soft fingers pressed through his, wrapping around them. He looked into her eyes: deep and dark.
‘They say you have to see her to believe her.’
Paul flicked a switch and shut the door behind them. As the soft lights rose, two dozen faces woke out of the gloom. If they were angry at being disturbed, their stone and marble faces didn’t show it. They’d been sleeping for twenty-five centuries.
The woman ran down the gallery – a skipping, childish run, oblivious to the grownups looking down. The man sauntered after her. At the far end of the room, where a larger-than-life figure stood on a solitary plinth removed from the other gods, the woman stopped.
Aphrodite had been well served by the sculptors of the ancient world, Paul knew, but this one was something else. Cast in bronze, the fluid lines of her body shone wetly, as if she’d just risen from the sea. Her hair coiled back in demure braids; a shy arm covered her modesty, and her head was turned down. Unless you stood in one particular place and looked up, when her ivory eyes suddenly blinked open and transfixed you. Then you understood the story of Pygmalion, Paul thought.
‘Fourth century BC,’ he said. The words sounded stiff as a typed card. ‘Discovered in a shipwreck off Taranto. We think it’s the earliest nude ever to come to light.’
The man grunted. ‘I know. I tried to buy it.’
Paul laughed, then noticed the man wasn’t smiling. The woman reached up, wrapped her arm around the statue’s leg and put her head against it. As if she was listening for something.
Paul rushed forward. ‘You’re not allowed–’
A thick arm barred his way.
‘What’s the point of beauty if you can’t get your hands on it?’ The hand holding him back grabbed a fistful of his shirt and twisted it tight. Paul struggled, but not very hard. All the power seemed to have temporarily drained out of him.
The woman caressed the statue’s leg, running her hand down to the heel. Her lips brushed the cold bronze – a kiss, an offering.
She straightened up. The look on her face almost made Paul forget the fist holding him.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said.
Paul cleared his throat. ‘I think you ought to–’
The fist hadn’t relaxed ‘Are you done?’ the man demanded. The woman stared up at the statue. She nodded.
Paul stumbled as the fist let him go. The man took the woman’s arm and shepherded her to the door – leisurely, smirking. Paul turned out the lights, locked the door and prayed to the gods – ancient, modern, he didn’t care – that none of the guards had seen. If the curator knew…
‘I’m Ari, by the way,’ the man introduced himself, as if he’d never laid a finger on Paul. ‘This is Valerie.’
He shook Paul’s hand. When he let go, Paul felt a wad of Swiss francs fat in his palm.
‘For the museum,’ said Ari. He winked.
‘Thank you so much.’ Valerie peered at him, as if looking for something she might have forgotten. ‘It was unforgettable.’
Paul smoothed his shirt and watched them go. Just before the lift, he saw Valerie stretch up and whisper something in Ari’s ear. She looked like a ballerina, her toes pointed and her body pressed tight against her jersey dress. A silhouette that even the most hardened sculptor might have thought worth a block of marble.
Ari nodded; she turned.
‘Why don’t you come for a drink?’
‘That’s very kind. Really, I should–’
‘Ari doesn’t mind. Do you?’
Ari’s smile showed teeth as sharp as a can opener. ‘You must. We have to celebrate.’
Paul blinked. ‘Celebrate what?’
‘Have you worked for the museum long?’ Valerie asked.
They sat in the bar of the Four Seasons: Ari filling out a club chair, Paul crammed on a loveseat with Valerie, squeezing against the end trying not to rub against her. Among the Gucci and Armani, his brown corduroy jacket felt like sackcloth. He hoped Ari was paying.
He felt the wad of notes in his jacket pocket and savoured the weight. He could pay, if he had to.
‘I’ve been there two years. I just help out in the office – cataloguing, administration, paperwork. Only part-time. I’m still finishing off my doctorate.’
‘That’s fantastic.’ Valerie smelled of cigarettes and perfume: a dark, hazy scent that felt like 3am in someone else’s room. ‘I always wanted to finish university.’
The waiter brought champagne and three glasses on a silver tray. A wisp of icy smoke rose out of the bottle.
Ari gripped his champagne in a paw and took a slug. ‘So much of life is fake,’ he announced. ‘This is the real thing. Like Aphrodite.’
‘To Aphrodite,’ Valerie and Paul chorused. The champagne was so cold it left frost on his throat.
Valerie twisted round in the loveseat so she was looking straight at Paul. Her knee pressed against his.
‘Tell me about your studies.’
‘I’m in the History of Art department here in Zurich. I–’
‘But you’re not Swiss?’ Ari interrupted.
‘English. I transferred here two years ago. From Cambridge,’ he added, hoping it didn’t sound arrogant.
‘What are you working on?’
Paul hesitated. Six years in academia had taught him you had to judge your audience’s tolerance for details. ‘Ancient Greek religion.’
‘You do ancient Greece?’ A look passed between Ari and Valerie. ‘Perhaps you can help us.’
Ari pulled a glossy sheet of paper from his jacket pocket and unfolded it. A tear ran down one edge where it had been ripped out of something.
‘You know this?’
In the main photograph, a black background framed a flat piece of gold. Its edges were torn ragged; creases scored the surface, cutting through the tiny letters that had been pressed into the surface with blindpoint. It looked solid; in reality, Paul knew, it was as thin as silk and fragile as a dry leaf.
‘It’s the Orphic tablet,’ Paul said. ‘We had it in the
exhibition last year.’ He read the description under the photograph.
The Orphic religion was one of the most successful and mysterious cults in the ancient world. Twelve golden tablets have been found in burials across the Mediterranean, in contexts ranging from the fifth century BC to the second century AD. Each is inscribed with fragments of the same poem, navigation for the dead to guide them through the underworld. Little more is known of the religion, though because of the subject and the ancient origin, tradition has always ascribed authorship of the poem to Orpheus.
‘You worked on this exhibition?’
‘I helped.’ Why be modest? ‘I wrote the catalogue entry.’
‘This piece, the tablet. It was a loan, right?’
‘From a private collection.’
Ari nodded. ‘There are twelve of these in the world. Eleven are in museums. This one you had in your exhibition is the only one in private hands, and your exhibition was the first time it had been seen in public since before the Second World War.’
‘You obviously know a lot about it.’
‘Not as much as you.’
Paul sipped his champagne. ‘It’s not really my specialism. They only asked me to do the catalogue because it’s similar to my doctorate.’ Ari’s bloodshot eyes wouldn’t let him go. ‘Most of what I do in the museum is back office stuff. Paperwork.’
‘Paperwork.’ Ari repeated.
‘Customs forms. Insurance. Liaising with other institutions that had loaned us artefacts.’
‘Institutions – or individuals?’
‘So you know the identity of this private owner?’
The champagne was making the world blur. Valerie’s leg had tangled in his, her stocking rubbing softly against the back of his calf. Her perfume was stronger than ever.
‘It’s confidential,’ he said weakly.