She clutched the scrap of map tightly. She no longer needed to refer to it, the route was etched into her memory, but still she could not bear to let it go. It was, after all, a priceless artefact in its own right and some small part of her soul remained that of a scholar, not yet completely lost to the greed that had consumed the rest.
The mid-day heat was almost beyond bearing and an old-hand such as herself should have known not to continue walking. She should have found a place to wait out the sun but the shifting sands were too treacherous to dig a cool-pit and the open erg left no shade, so she kept moving. The last oasis had been left behind two days ago and the water containers she had filled to the brim then were almost empty now. She was afraid that, after everything she done, everything she'd suffered, she wasn't going to make it.
It was all Padstow's fault. She was glad she'd killed him six days ago. Or was it eight? She couldn't remember. She wished he were still alive so she could kill him again but more slowly.
Yes, Padstow's fault. Eighteen months ago Padstow had walked into the cubby-hole which the university had assigned her, fondly believing it deserved the title of office. And everything had changed.
Ailsa looked up from the manuscript she'd been studying. "Yes. May I help you?"
"Ah, excellent, I've found you."
"Was I lost?"
The man paused, obviously uncertain as to the expected response. "Ah, yes, ah..."
Ailsa took pity on him and stood, offering her hand. "I'm sorry, it's been a long week. Please do come in and have a seat. What can I do for you, Mr...?"
"Padstow. Donald Padstow." He shook her hand limply.
"I'll resist the temptation to trot out the usual silliness." She smiled briefly. "Would you like a drink? Tea? Coffee?"
"No, no thank you. I'm quite all right."
Ailsa sat down and carefully returned the manuscript to its protective case. She looked enquiringly at her visitor.
"Doctor Hendrie, as I understand it you are quite an expert on the subject of the Roman general Scipio Africanus?"
It sound more like a question than a statement, Ailsa treated it as such. "Well I don't know that I'd describe myself as 'quite an expert' but yes, my lecture series is The History of the Punic Wars and so I am familiar with Scipio's early life and military career. But if you were looking for information on the subject I'm not the foremost expert in the field. Some of my colleagues are far more..."
"No, no," he interrupted, "I'm aware of your standing. You are also well-versed in the history and culture of the Sahara, the Berber people and the Tifinagh language, I believe."
"Well yes, but there are others with..."
He waved a hand to silence her. "I do realise that there are academics with greater qualifications than yourself in each field, however, you have expertise in all these areas and that is why I have come to you. I need your help but I think we can be mutually beneficial."
Ailsa studied him for a moment or two. She was already tired of the over formality and the dancing around they were doing. Decision made, she leant back in her chair, rested her booted feet on the desk and announced, "Ok. I'm intrigued. Can we stop this bloody waltz and get to the point."
He looked shocked. "Ah, yes, I was told you could be..."
"Direct. Let me be equally direct. This room, it's the smallest of all those that the university assigns as staff offices, is it not?" She nodded. "And you have twice recently not received promotions you were expecting?" She nodded again.
"Yes, but there were factors..."
He interrupted her once again. "I'm sure the Chancellor presented you with some very plausible reasons but the fact remains that you are the longest serving member of your department and are still on the lowest rung." She didn't bother to nod, it rankled that she'd been passed over, again. "You are a woman, you are working-class and you are a lesbian. The law may very well forbid any kind of discrimination based upon those qualities and the university has a very good 'diversity' programme in place, but do you honestly believe that they haven't had an impact on your career? Do you truly believe you will ever receive the recognition you're due?"
"Well, maybe I haven't had much luck, but I haven't published since my doctorate and I'm young yet. There's time."
"How much time, Doctor Hendrie? You're thirty-eight years old. Your superior is a man of twenty-nine; a man you trained."
She was silent. There was nothing to say. He was right. Female, a gutter-snipe and a dyke. They could forgive her any one of those things in isolation, but all three? No. She was as high as she could go and she knew it. Now she was angry.
"So, you sought me out to insult me, inform me that my career stinks and that I'm going nowhere?? You must have an awful lot of time on your hands, unfortunately I haven't. I have work to do. I'm sure you can find your way out."
He held up a hand in apology. "Please forgive me, I didn't mean to upset you. I was merely being honest. My intentions were to sum up your prospects before offering you an opportunity to improve them beyond all measure. Please, might we continue? " Ailsa settled back down and titled her chair against the wall.
"I have here some documents," he opened the briefcase which he'd rested on his lap and pulled out a folder, "which I think might be of interest to you. I can't read them and neither of my colleagues has been able to, though they did recognise some of the language they are written in. You were recommended as the person to consult." From the folder he removed three protective sleeves, each holding a piece of vellum, and carefully placed them on her desk. Casually she reached across and picked them up. She began reading the first.
"Oh my Christ!" The chair thudded back into the upright as Ailsa sat up. "Oh my God, is this real? Is this what I think it is. Oh my God!"
Padstow appeared gratified by her reaction. "I have every reason to believe so, although as I said I was unable to obtain a translation of sufficient quality to confirm it."
"That's probably because it's written in Western Tifinagh. Most people can only read Eastern Tifinagh. Not only is it in Western but it's actually a transliteration of a Greek original and not an actual Berber document."
"If it was originally Greek then it does seem to suggest it is genuine." Padstow leant forward. "Is it?"
"You mean is it really a copy of Scipio's lost memoirs. Impossible to say from just a brief glance at these few pages, but yes. I'd bet my career on it. This is fantastic. This could make the university see me..." She stopped talking as once more Padstow had raised a hand. "You sure like to interrupt a lot, don't you?" She was smiling, good humour restored by this fantastic bit of luck. "Scipio's lost memoirs. Amazing."
"My dear, I'm gratified by your confirmation and encouraged by you excitement but I must ask that you do not yet reveal any of this. No, please, hear me out. I have many more pages of this. Including maps. I have a team ready to go. Until now I haven't been able to find anybody who could show us where to go."
Ailsa was baffled, she had no idea what he was talking about. "You have more? The whole book? " She wasn't sure if she was still remembering to breathe. When had she got to her feet? She sat again.
"Yes, I have almost the whole book. If you look at page three of those I have given you, you will see only two things, written in the original Greek and not Tifinagh, one is a reference to a treasure amassed by Scipio and hidden in the desert and the other is a warning that Numidian magician placed a curse upon it. I want to find that treasure. You are welcome to a share, you are welcome to any academic benefits that accrue from its discovery, but I want the treasure first."
"Treasure? Are you sure you're not mixing Scipio with Domitian? Scipio amassed a fortune and built himself some fine homes in Italy with it."
"No, this is Scipio's insurance. He was well aware of the way that public opinion in the Roman Republic could turn on a knife edge. He had this second hoard as a back-up. It's never been found. I want it. I need you to help me find it. I have a small team, none of the locals will risk the curse, the team I have will."
Ailsa sat in thought for several minutes. The curse didn't bother her, it was probably as much a myth as the so-called Curse of Tutankhamen. But the rest... She could imagine the faces of the Chancellor, her colleagues, hell the whole of the academic world if she brought back Scipio's treasure. And published a translation of his memoirs. They'd be falling over themselves to offer her a chair. Perhaps even Oxford.
to be continued....