Four weeks earlier
Four weeks earlier, Amanda lay on the same bed, looking at the same ceiling; only this time it was mid afternoon, and she felt restless.
Now in her sophomore year, at a certain well-known Ivy League university in a certain historic New England town, Amanda waited impatiently for the second semester to start. As she lay in her university dorm, she wondered if she might in fact be the sole occupant of the building. As with the previous year, she'd spent the winter break 'home alone'; her middle-aged father remained, as ever, deeply absorbed by his work in the Middle East and her mother had never been part of her life. Now, with the start of term less than a week away, Amanda had already finished the reading list, and her first week's essays, and contemplated writing them a second time just for something to do.
On a whim, she jumped up, pulled on her roll neck sweater, winter coat and a pair of boots. Amanda headed out; but not before carefully locking both deadlocks on her bedroom door (including a second one she had installed herself). She alone knew that her humble student digs held several items of incalculable value.
Amanda stepped out into the winter air and scanned the deserted campus for signs of life. In the distance, a couple elderly men in orange boiler suits attempted to clear a pathway in the snow.
As she headed off on her own well-trodden track to the Peabody Museum, Amanda mused on how lonely the previous term had been. Ever since her best friend Ciara abandoned her to go collect pottery fragments in Egypt, Amanda had somewhat lost her source of inspiration. Indeed, compared with her previous year, the first semester of her second had been dull, to the point where Amanda now felt herself long overdue an adventure of some sort.
Stopping briefly to buy a cinnamon roll, Amanda reflected on an eventful freshman year which might have reduced lesser mortals to gibbering wrecks in an asylum. An exchange trip to Oxford University, England, had seen Amanda stumble into the path of an ancient and secret society known as the Illiterati. She'd narrowly escaped their clutches - and the country - only to encounter them once again while working the holidays as an intern at the New York Public Library. Having slipped the Illiterati's clutches a second time, Amanda then saw them frustrate her plan to 'borrow' the Necronomicon in an attempt to decode its hidden secrets.
Just as the Illiterati had finally lost track of Amanda, and things were returning to normal, there had been that awful business with Professor Schnell. She shuddered at the recollection.
Amanda finished her cinnamon roll as she arrived at the Peabody and, climbing the steps, she brushed sugar from around her rather luscious mouth. She had no need for an entry ticket - Amanda had received honorary membership for donating a couple of her archaeological finds. With an eye to her impending class in Mesoamerican Civilizations she climbed the stairs of the old building, looking for the ongoing exhibition: Encounters with the Americas.
There were four flights of stairs to navigate, but Amanda was fit and had, after a bad experience, developed a phobia of elevators. By the time she reached the top of the stairs, she had nevertheless started to perspire in her brown duffle coat - which she quickly unbuttoned, revealing her enviable chest.
Amanda passed a pleasant hour in the exhibition, finding a couple of large and complex stone carvings which she copied painstakingly into a small notebook. As she browsed a long glass case, full of bracelets and jewellery, she subconsciously noticed movement and looked up from her notes.
A moment of awkwardness followed - on the other side of the glass case, a young blonde woman of Amanda's age, also holding a notebook, stared straight back at her. The two had looked up at the same time - and locked eyes for one of those interminable moments, fractionally less than a second, that feels like forever.
Both women turned simultaneously and buried their heads back in their notebooks. Nevertheless, a few chosen seconds later, Amanda found herself stealing another look, sidelong, at the girl on the other side of the case. Amanda admitted to herself, with fascination, that the young woman was stunningly beautiful. Her face was creamy, soft and flawless, with full lips and crystal blue eyes. Her short blonde bob curled elegantly around her cheeks. She was decked out in a stylish tan overcoat, jeans and suede boots. As well as the notebook, the girl carried a digital SLR camera, worn around her neck.
With nothing better to do, Amanda followed the blonde girl from a discreet distance, studying her intently, without giving herself away. Something about this girl transfixed her, even more than the riches of the exhibition itself.
Then, another moment of awkwardness followed:
Amanda's quarry settled in front of a case housing a magnificent golden mask. Amanda knew it well to be a death mask of a Mayan king, from around AD750: discovered by Professor Coe from the university and donated to the museum a few years back. Amanda suspected it to be one of a pair, and had devoted herself to locating the counterpart tomb of the queen. She had come across half a stone tablet and, believing it to reveal the location, translated what she could using her purloined Illiterati codebook. Although she was now fairly confident of the location, she had been searching on the quiet for the other half of the tablet before approaching Professor Coe about it.
The mystery blonde girl appeared fascinated by the mask, and it seemed that drawing it in her notebook wasn't enough: she raised the camera from around her neck and snapped picture after picture of the mask. The flash bulb illuminated the room repeatedly, and Amanda knew exactly what was about to happen...
A jacketed curator, a lady that Amanda recognised and knew to be many years the girls' senior, marched with outrage towards the blonde, chastising her:
"There's absolutely no flash photography allowed in here without a permit."
Oddly, the young woman, who was rather tall - perhaps marginally taller than Amanda herself - haughtily brushed off the curator's warning as if she was of no consequence. She continued to snap away.
"Did you hear me?" said the curator, tugging at the girl's elbow.
With measure and graceful poise, the girl turned to regard the old lady.
"Désolé, je ne comprends pas. Y at-il un problème?" she asked.
The curator huffed. She didn't speak French, and was on the verge of giving up. A moment of indecision followed.
Amanda immediately saw the opportunity to help. Emerging from her vantage point behind a stone slab, she strode confidently towards the pair.
"Allow me," she addressed the curator; then, to the young woman, "la madame a dit qu'il est interdit de prendre des photos, dans cet exposition."
The blonde girl turned and looked up at Amanda, fixing her with a stare colder than the frost outside. This time at closer range, Amanda once again marvelled at the girl's striking blue eyes; but unlike before, they were this time narrowed in anger. Amanda felt almost that they bored, unwelcome into her mind and examined inside.
Uncomfortable seconds elapsed.
"Je te remercie. Tu est très gentil," the girl replied, calmly. "A la prochaine." Then, with nowhere left to go, she turned and walked from the room.
"Thanks so much," said the curator to Amanda. "These tourists just get ruder by the day. How many signs do we have to put up?"
"No problem," replied Amanda; there wasn't much else to say, or to look at in the exhibition, and so she decided to go home.
Amanda returned to the landing and started clip clopping down the stone stairs to the foyer. She looked for the young woman but she was nowhere to be seen. Emerging into the frozen dusk outside, Amanda turned and headed for her dorm...
...and a pair of crystal blue eyes followed her.