The Night Before
Amanda had no idea what to wear for her evening with Rachel; with little optimism, she rifled through a cupboard full of cowboy shirts, cosy sweaters and well-worn jeans. Her only smart clothes were too formal: a ball gown, a business suit (never used) and a cocktail dress. Amanda grasped the definition of 'smart casual': clothes she didn't own.
What did Rachel expect, anyway? Amanda barely knew her. Would she want to talk archaeology or to party? This would be Amanda's first time at Sam's outside of a large group. Alone with the stunning Rachel, she didn't want to be out-dressed or outshone. She wanted to make an impression, so Rachel would treat her as an equal: not look down on her as a socially-awkward swot.
How then to avoid looking scruffy, or dressing like a frump? Amanda longed for the advice of her absent soul mate Ciara. Confident and always eclectically dressed, Ciara often reassured her: 'be yourself, you're gorgeous.'
Amanda picked a thin, white tie-top blouse from a hanger, and decided she would stay in her favourite denim shorts and tights. This time, however, boots or sneakers wouldn't do; she pulled out a shoebox. The smell of fresh leather assailed her as she took off the lid: inside was a pair of smart black pumps. Amanda slipped them on and tottered briefly in the three inch heels, smiling to herself; now she would be the one looking down on Rachel!
It was time to go. Amanda double-locked the door and headed tentatively down the stairs. By the time she reached the bottom, she had resolved to take a taxi.
The ride was short, and a few minutes later the cab pulled up outside Sam's Bar. Amanda paid the driver and climbed out to the noisy street and evening lights.
A chill wind reminded Amanda that she was lightly dressed. She descended a stone staircase to the underground bar, gripping the handrail all the way. She paused outside the door; sounds of music and laughter came from inside. Amanda gave a little shudder, from cold mixed with excitement.
The door flew open, taking Amanda by surprise.
"Oh sorry!" said a young couple, both at once. They pushed past Amanda and up the steps.
Amanda walked on through the doorway and into Sam's. It was busy tonight. Regulars perched on stools around a square bar in the middle of the room; in booths around the walls, diners tucked into steaks and seafood. A jukebox in the corner played American Pie by Don Maclean. Amanda strained her eyes and looked for Rachel in the dim light, but couldn't see her anywhere.
"Hi there," said a young Chinese-looking man. "I'm Roger. Are you here to eat with us tonight?" Roger wore a stripy shirt and a red apron.
"Erm... yes," replied Amanda. "Actually I'm meeting someone, but I don't see her. I'm not even sure if she booked a table."
"What's her name?" asked Roger, taking a clipboard from a hook on the wall.
"Ah, yes... you have a booking for two," Roger beamed. "Your table will be ready in a few minutes. Can I ask you to wait at the bar?"
"Sure." Amanda crossed the room purposefully, grabbing a bar stool that was just vacated by a sharp-dressed office worker. It was all in the timing.
"What can I get you?" From behind the bar, a girl with a stripy shirt offered Amanda a menu.
Amanda didn't want to get drunk. It was a rare occurrence and one she always regretted afterwards; she ordered some oddly-named concoction of lime, coconut and other ingredients - but no alcohol. She sat back on her barstool and waited, crossing her long legs. Across the room, she could just make out a couple from her Byzantine Studies course. The jukebox changed to a newer song she recognised but couldn't name.
Amanda felt a hand squeeze her arm gently.
"Hi," Rachel smiled back at her.
The two girls appraised each other. Rachel wore jeans, boots, and a sleeveless red sweater with an outrageous gap in the middle of the chest. She was not wearing anything underneath; modesty was clearly not one of her many qualities.
"You look great!" said Rachel, reaching behind her and taking a barstool.
Amanda brimmed with questions, but the middle of the bar was no place to ask them. Her drink arrived. Rachel got herself a Sam Adams; she drank straight from the bottle, leaning back against the bar.
Rachel seemed content to make small talk while waiting for the table. Amanda used the opportunity to discover a few details about her: she was an exchange student from the University of Toronto: she travelled a lot, spoke five languages, and was a fencing champion.
Roger appeared presently and led the girls to a secluded booth in the corner. They ordered a mountain of seafood; Rachel ordered another beer and Amanda a lemonade. Roger disappeared and went to work.
"You're not drinking?" Rachel asked, surprised.
"I have a seminar at nine in the morning."
"You need to loosen up, girl."
Amanda couldn't wait any longer: "Rachel...who was that man in the alley, earlier?"
Rachel extended her hand. "Can I see the transcript, please?"
"Did you bring the tablet?" said Amanda. Rachel nodded.
Amanda reached in her back pocket, unfolded the paper, and handed it to Rachel, who slid the stone tablet across the table. Silence followed, while the two girls studied the respective items.
Rachel read aloud: "From the river bank, go southwest until you find the mouth. What does that mean? Like a river mouth? Or a cave mouth?"
"No," replied Amanda. "It literally says 'mouth' here."
"Hmmm, wonder what kind of mouth," said Rachel. She continued: "Those who wish to pay homage and gaze upon the golden face of the lady..." Rachel stopped. "Does that mean what I think it means?"
"If you mean, does Lady Xoc's tomb have a golden mask like Shield Jaguar's - the answer is yes."
Rachel looked up at Amanda; their eyes locked. Rachel smiled, then looked back down at the paper.
"Disciples must follow The Sun. Sacrifice must be given, lest you become sacrifice yourself," Rachel continued. "What do you think that means?"
"The tomb probably has booby traps," said Amanda. "If it's underground then 'following the sun' is not to be taken literally; it possibly refers to symbols that denote a safe path."
"Amanda you're brilliant, you know that?" Rachel smiled. "I could never have read this myself."
Amanda blushed as Rachel returned the paper to her, extending her hand at the same time for the tablet.
The items swapped hands once more. Rachel tucked the tablet away just as Roger arrived with a large seafood platter. Silence reigned again as the girls picked at their food. Rachel continued to knock back her beer while Amanda sipped at her lemonade.
"Rachel." Amanda was first to speak. "I think you should give the tablet to Professor Coe. We can get the university to fund a proper expedition. This could be huge."
Rachel did not look up from her food.
"Amanda, have you ever explored a tomb by yourself?"
"No," said Amanda, eyebrows raised. "Have you?"
Amanda frowned. "Why would you go by yourself?"
Rachel sighed. "Amanda, don't you see? We don't need the university! They can go to hell. We can do this - you and me." She looked up, her beautiful eyes full of passion. Amanda felt transfixed.
"But why -"
"Do I have to spell it out to you?" Rachel was mildly exasperated. "That mask alone is worth millions! We can split it fifty-fifty. We can leave the rest of the finds for the university, if you like."
Amanda was speechless. Forces raged inside her. She wanted to go with Rachel. She wanted to be Rachel's friend. She wanted to do what was right.
"What?" said Rachel, disbelieving.
"If that mask is going anywhere, it's the Peabody Museum - for everyone to see. Lady Xoc should be reunited with her king: not in someone's private collection."
"What does it matter? It's in a hole in the ground now, and it's been there for a thousand years!"
"I don't go around raiding tombs, Rachel. And if you do, how come you're not rich already?"
"Because I raided the wrong ones!" She beat the table in frustration; cutlery rattled, drawing the attention of drinkers at the bar. An awkward silence followed.
"Amanda," Rachel pleaded, desperately, "I need this. And I need you with me."
"No way, Rachel."
Roger interrupted the conversation; he brought another beer for Rachel and lemonade for Amanda. Rachel waited until he was out of earshot.
"You know, it's easy for you," she said, bitterly. "I don't have a rich daddy to pay for everything."
"How do you... who said -" Amanda's eyes widened.
"You're just going to put the mask in the museum with a little plaque saying Amanda Jones is the cleverest archaeologist in the world? Big deal Amanda." Rachel took a long swig from her beer, and then plonked the empty bottle on the table.
Amanda felt suddenly miserable. Had it all been leading to this?
"It's about doing what's right, Rachel," she said, resignedly.
Rachel leaned forward. "Amanda," she spoke with quiet intensity, "this is bigger than you and your museum. There are people after me; they know I have this tablet, and they won't just stop and leave me alone. I have to finish this, with or without you."
"Then tell the police!" Amanda shook her head disparagingly. "I don't want any part of it... and I won't let you ransack that tomb."
"Actually, you can't stop me." Rachel sat back and folded her arms. "I have the tablet, and I'll go alone if I have to."
Amanda sighed. "Look at the tablet, Rachel: see those ridges along the end? That's where it fits into the other half. You have half a tablet there, and yours on its own won't open the tomb."
Rachel's reply stunned her: "You think I don't know that? Professor Coe has the other half - I'm sure of it - and I can get it any time I like!"
Amanda had to stop this crazy girl and bring her back to Earth.
"Coe doesn't have the other half - I do."
"You have it?" Rachel shook her head. "You're lying."
"How do you think I produced a full transcript? Your piece has only half the story."
Rachel's pale blue eyes flickered with rage. She groaned and slumped forward, her head in her hands. There was a long silence.
"Alright Amanda. You win again." Rachel sighed. "We do this your way: we give our tablets to the Professor, and let the University organise an expedition."
Amanda reached forward and took her hand.
"It's the best way. You're doing the right thing."
Rachel shrugged. "At least this way the tablet's out of my hands. I'm getting a little too much... attention, anyway."
"If these people won't leave you alone, we go to the police."
"You're right." Rachel smiled and looked up. "Thanks Amanda, and... sorry. You know, I just got carried away, thinking...."
"I know, I know." Amanda smiled. "I've done a few crazy things myself."
"Now that," Rachel said, standing up, "is something I'd like to hear all about. But first, I'm going to pay the check. This was on me, remember?"
Amanda watched Rachel disappear out of sight. At last, everything was out in the open. She had talked some sense into Rachel; hopefully things would turn out for the best, and they could still be friends.
Roger arrived and cleared the table. He retreated, arms full of plates, as Rachel returned with a glass in each hand.
"What's that?" said Amanda.
"We're going to Mexico - with the University - so the cultural research starts now."
She offered Amanda a glass. "This," she grinned, "is a Tequila Slammer."
Amanda took the glass: there was salt around the rim and a piece of lime clung to it.
"I don't want to get drunk, Rachel," Amanda protested, "I have class in the morning."
"Come on! It's just one for the road," Rachel insisted. "Now - watch what I do."
She licked the salt from the rim, placed her hand over the top of the glass, and slammed it on the table. The drink fizzed violently. "Down the hatch!" said Rachel and gulped it in one go; finally, she placed the lime in her mouth and bit down. She grimaced, then nodded at Amanda expectantly.
Amanda decided there was little harm in one drink. She copied Rachel, licking the salt, banging the glass and downing it in one. The drink was very salty; she was grateful for the lime to take away the taste.
"Atta girl!" Rachel laughed.
Amanda felt happy to regain Rachel's approval. "You know, Rachel," she said, "I really think this is going to work out. You'll see."
"I know, I know. I think I should just accept that you're always right, Amanda Jones."
Amanda pulled her phone from her back pocket and glanced at the screen. The time was already after eleven.
"Let's go." Amanda rose from the table, wobbling slightly. Whoa, those Tequila Slammers were strong stuff!
The girls weaved through the crowd at the bar and out into the night air. Rachel let Amanda go up the stairs in front of her. For Amanda, it seemed to take a colossal effort to get up them; it had been a long day and she felt tired.
"Walk you home?" Rachel offered as they reached street level.
"In these?" Amanda joked, pointing to her heels. "Let's get a taxi."
Rachel flagged down a cab and the girls climbed in. Amanda leaned forward and gave the address of her dorm block. The car jerked suddenly into motion.
"Oops!" Amanda rolled back into the seat, with a small giggle. Rachel giggled too. The two girls burst out laughing until, breathlessly, Amanda remembered to put on her seat belt. She searched for the metal clasp and fumbled with it.
"Here," said Rachel, reaching across and clicking it securely.
Amanda felt glad to have a friend like Rachel. No one could replace Ciara... but Rachel was amazing in her own ways: mysterious, smart, and stunningly gorgeous. Amanda's head was heavy and she rested it back against the seat. She felt sleepy.
The car came to a halt, its engine running. Rachel paid the driver, got out, circled to Amanda's side and opened the door.
"Come on," said Rachel. She bent down and unbuckled Amanda's seatbelt.
It was warm in the car and cold outside; Amanda didn't feel much like getting out.
"Lady, I gotta busy night," said the driver over his shoulder.
Amanda pulled herself together and took Rachel's hand. She extended one glossy black leg, then the other, from the car and allowed Rachel to help her onto unsteady feet.
The taxi sped away. Amanda blinked, momentarily lost.
"This way," said Rachel, gesturing.
"Yes Miss Fox," replied Amanda, giggling. She stumbled slightly; Rachel reached to support her. She grasped Amanda round the waist and looped her arm over her neck.
Amanda leaned gratefully against her friend. "Y'know Rachel, next time we need to go easy on those Tequila...what you call them?"
The two girls set off the short distance to Amanda's block. Amanda's head swam and her legs felt shaky under her: it was a good thing she was nearly home. She was happy and safe with Rachel, but needed to get to bed. Her eyelids began to droop; the clicking of her heels echoed around inside her head.
"Amanda - keys?" Rachel asked her; they were at the side door of her building.
Amanda fumbled in her back pocket - her keys fell to the ground. Rachel bent and picked them up, handing them to her. Amanda examined them and frowned: oddly, she couldn't remember which key opened the door.
"Which one is it, Amanda? Let me help you there."
Amanda looked up into Rachel's warm and beautiful face.
"Rachel... you have such lovely blue eyes."
She turned away, to unlock the door, but the keys clattered on the ground once again.
"Oh," said Amanda.
And then, she passed out.