Authors: Alex Mitchell
THE 13TH TABLET
was born in Oxford in 1974 and grew up in Belgium. He studied art and archaeology at Strasbourg University and having completed his Masters there, he returned to Oxford and obtained a D.Phil in Classical Archaeology. His main field of research is the âArchaeology of Humour', on which he has published several papers. His first book,
Greek Vase Painting and the Origins of Visual Humour
, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2009. He is now an Honorary Associated Researcher at the Institute of Archaeology in Oxford.
The 13th Tablet
is Alex Mitchell's first novel in a trilogy of Mina Osman thrillers published by Haus Publishing.
The 13th Tablet
First published in 2012 by Haus Publishing Limited
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Copyright Â© Alex Mitchell 2012
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To the scintillating Aurore,
whose love helped me ride the storm
And the waters overwhelmed the earth so greatly that all the tall mountains that were under the heavens came to be covered.
(Genesis 7: 19)
â¦ and turned to blackness all that had been light. The land shattered like a pot. All day long the South Wind blew, blowing fast, submerging the mountain in water, overwhelming the people like an attackâ¦ they could not recognize each other in the torrent. The gods were frightened by the Flood, and retreated, ascending to the heaven of Anu.
(Epic of Gilgamesh XI)
[â¦] there is Old Nineveh, which is desolate. The whole land of Nineveh is black like pitch [â¦] There is neither herb nor any vegetation whatever [â¦] New Nineveh, opposite, is on the other side of the river. At New Nineveh is a large congregation numbering more than six thousand souls. It has two princes. The name of the one is Rabbi David, and of the other Rabbi Samuel. They are sons of two brothers, and of the seed of King David.
(Petachiah of Ratisbon, 12th century C.E.)
December 5th, 2004. Mosul, Iraq
Mina stepped into her living room. It was completely dark. She always closed the shutters against the fierce Iraqi sun but she didn't recall closing them this tightly. The air was stuffy and she couldn't see a thing. She flipped the light switch but nothing happened. She was about to try again when she heard a slight shuffling sound to her right.
Hal honaka ahad?
Is anybody there?' she asked hesitantly. A second or two passed but no answer came back. Suddenly someone yanked her arms backwards and bound her wrists with cable ties. She heard the zipping sound of the ties tightening around her wrists, before another person pulled a large plastic freezer bag over her head and held it tightly round the base of her neck.
Panicking, Mina gulped a breath which emptied the bag of the little oxygen it held and left her gasping for air. She started choking, sucking the plastic deep into her mouth. She fell to her knees.
As she felt her mind fogging, she heard the creaking sound of the shutters being opened slightly. In a blur she could make out three men in dark clothing, towering over her. One of the men bent down and yanked the bag from her head. She gasped for air, breathing so deeply she thought her lungs would explode. She burst into tears and shook violently, the body's natural response when given another shot at life.
The men didn't give her any time to think. They pulled her to her feet roughly and flung her on a chair. One man stepped up to her, bending low to stare into her tear-filled eyes and said in a cold voice, âMiss Osman?'
Mina didn't reply.
âMiss Osman, you don't know us, but we know everything about you. Do you understand?'
âYes,' she whispered.
âGood,' he replied slowly, âso where is it?'
âWhere is what?'
âWrong answer,' he said and turned to one of the other men, âYou, the bag!'
âPlease,' Mina begged him frantically, âdon't torture me! What do you want? I don't know anythingâ¦' She stopped talking abruptly when she saw her interrogator bringing a sharp knife towards her throat. It glinted in the single beam of sunlight peeking through the shutters.
He held the sharp edge of the knife under her ear and said, âThe tablet, Miss Osman, where is it?'
That's what they were after, Hassan's tablet? But how could they have known she had it? This was insane.
âSo?' He asked, slowly pushing the blade against the skin below her ear until she felt it cut through. Pain flashed through her and she felt warm blood trickling down her neck. Instinctively she tried to bring a hand up to stem the bleeding but she was still tied up. She was utterly helpless. âPlease, please don't hurt me,' she sobbed, âthe tablet is in my rucksack.'
He pulled the knife away and turned to the other man, âPass me the plastic bag.' Taking the plastic bag, he turned back to Mina and with a sinister smile said, âWe wouldn't want to leave any traces, would we?'
Mina felt the clammy plastic being pulled over her head once more and her mind begin to darken. âThis is madness,' she thought, as she began to lose consciousness.
Four days earlier
December 1st, 2004. Mosul airport
Hassan had been pacing up and down the arrivals area for almost an hour. âThe plane's landed,' he thought, âwhy isn't anyone coming out?' He approached one of the guards standing at the gate and asked him what was going on. The guard glanced down at the round-faced youth and replied, âSecurity checks.'
Hassan thanked him and sat down a little further away, âSecurity checks, more security checks. What do they think, Bin Laden's on the plane? Will she ever come out of there?' Suddenly, he caught sight of Mina Osman's slender profile through the window and his face lit up.
Mina wore the tailored jacket and fitted jeans that Hassan and the other students knew so well from her classes. He had been wondering if she'd still be wearing a headscarf after spending time back home in America. At university she often wore a headscarf and made a point of always covering her hair on the streets of Mosul. He suspected Mina didn't like covering her head, but knew better than to ignore local customs. Hassan remembered a discussion they had had months ago, after a class on the representation of foreigners in ancient Babylonian art. The conversation had veered to female dress codes in different countries and she had told him that she often let her hair hang loose in the US. But when she appeared at the arrivals gate, she was wearing a dark headscarf, dashing his hopes.
Mina was the most beautiful woman Hassan had ever been close to. She had almond-shaped eyes that seemed to look deep into your soul. She was slender, but not as tall as the top models he had seen in magazines. She had a natural elegance, as if she breathed a more refined air than those around her. Yet there wasn't a hint of arrogance, other than a touch of academic pride. She was always polite and morally-speaking, irreproachable. Hassan was convinced that under her slightly stern scholarly persona, Mina hid a passionate nature. Half her students were hopelessly in love with her and the other half worshipped her as a goddess.
âWelcome to Mosul, Madam!' Hassan said with a large grin on his face.
âHassan! What a pleasure to see you. Thanks for meeting me. I was afraid you hadn't received my text.'
âI did. But I was worried. Your plane arrived more than an hour ago! The security checks are worse than ever. I'm really sorry, Madam.'
She laughed, âDon't be. You weren't the one rummaging through my belongings. It's funny really. As an archaeologist, I'd expect to be searched on the way out, not the way in!'
Hassan laughed and said, âI thought you came to help us retrieve our looted artefacts, not rob them yourself.'
âI'm so glad to be back,' she said, speaking partly to herself. She added quickly, âBut let's get out of here. How are things, Hassan?'
âWhat do you mean Madam?'
âThe news has been so distorted recently in the US, I have no idea what's really been going on,' she asked, looking concerned.
âFrankly? It's been awful, Madam,' he answered, as they fought their way through the crowd, Hassan taking the lead and carrying Mina's luggage. âFighter planes, bombs,' he went on, âPolice stations were blown up, insurgents from Fallujah came into Mosul and while all this was happening, the US army fought alongside the Iraqi National Guard. At university, the lecturers were either on strike or in hiding. We were wondering if there'd still be a university after the fighting ended.'
âI thought it had stopped?' she asked.
âOnly on the 25th of November.'
âYou mean things have only calmed down in the last week?' asked Mina.
âYes. We didn't think you'd be returning,' he said, shooting rapid glances left and right before adding, âI wouldn't want to be an American right now. The jihadists think that the US only support the Kurds, so they've been ambushing many American soldiers and civilian contractors. To tell you the truth I don't feel that bad about targeting some of those contractors, there's nothing
âI'm sorry you feel that way,' said Mina tersely.
He looked at her, a little taken aback by her cold tone. âOn the other hand,' he stammered quickly, âthe jihadists are cowards. They've murdered Iraqi National Guard officers too. You know Muhammad, the short broody student who's in your class on cuneiform writing?'
âYes, what about him?'
âHis uncle was National Guard. He received insulting letters, saying he was a traitor and warning that he'd better find another job. He dismissed the threats and they killed him. Do you know that bodies of beheaded officers have been found scattered all over the city?'
âMy God, poor Muhammad,' she said, her eyes wide with fear.
âMadam?' Hassan asked, worried about her horrified expression, âI apologise if I've scared you.'
âAren't you scared?'
âThere's nothing we can do about it,' he said with the resigned calm of a young man who had seen too much fighting in his short lifetime.
He changed the subject abruptly as he stopped in front of his battered car, âSo, Madam, what do you think of my new Mercedes?'
Mina suppressed a smile as she looked at the sorriest car she had ever witnessed. It looked like an art installation that had not quite made it to a contemporary art gallery. âIt'sâ¦ it'sâ¦ does it work?' she asked, trying to hide her doubts.
âYes Madam. But you're missing the point. It's
!' he added with a large grin.
âOh. Right, my apologies. What a beautiful car! Listen, about the drive, I've changed my mind. Do you think you could first drop me at my flat in town and pick me up later? I should be ready in an hour's time.'