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Authors: Andy McDermott

The Secret of Excalibur

BOOK: The Secret of Excalibur
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The Secret of Excalibur

 

 

ANDY MCDERMOTT

 

 

headline

www.headline.co.uk

 

Copyright © 2008 Andy McDermott

 

 

The right of Andy McDermott to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

 

 

Apart from any use permitted under UK copyright law, this publication may only be reproduced, stored, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means, with prior permission in writing of the publishers or, in the case of reprographic production, in accordance with the terms of licences issued by the Copyright Licensing Agency.

 

 

First published as an Ebook by Headline Publishing Group in 2009

 

 

All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

 

 

Cataloguing in Publication Data is available from the British Library

 

eISBN : 978 0 7553 7228 7

 

 

This Ebook produced by Jouve Digitalisation des Informations

 

 

HEADLINE PUBLISHING GROUP
An Hachette Livre UK Company
338 Euston Road
London NW1 3BH

 

 

www.headline.co.uk
www.hachettelivre.co.uk

For my family and friends

Prologue

Sicily

T
he little church watched over the village of San Maggiori as it had every sunset for seven centuries. The dusty road up from the village was steep and winding, but the local faithful were proud enough of their place of worship and its long history not to complain about the trek. At least, not
too
frequently.

Father Lorenzo Cardella was the most proud of the church. He knew pride was technically a sin, but this place belonged to God, and surely even the Creator would allow Himself a moment to appreciate it. Modest in appearance and size, it had for all that withstood weather and wars, invaders and insurgents, since the days of the Holy Roman Empire. God, the priest mused, clearly liked it enough to keep around.

He took a last moment to appreciate the splendour of the setting sun before turning to the church’s time-scoured oak doors. He was about to lock them when he heard the slithering crunch of a vehicle coming round the road’s final hairpin. A large black SUV pulled itself through the turn, tyres scrabbling for traction even with four-wheel drive.

He suppressed a sigh. The truck - American, he guessed, from its sheer bulk and gaudy chrome - had a foreign registration plate. The idea that churches had opening hours just like any place of business always seemed to escape tourists, who treated the world as their own personal amusement park. Well, this group would have to go away disappointed.

The truck rumbled to a standstill. Father Cardella put on a polite face and waited for its occupants to emerge. The windows were tinted so darkly that he couldn’t even tell how many people were inside. He held back another sigh. Who did they think they were, Hollywood stars?

The doors opened.

Definitely
not
Hollywood stars. While Father Cardella didn’t want to be uncharitable, he couldn’t help thinking it had been a long time since he’d seen such a concentration of ugliness. First out was the driver, a shaven-headed man with a sallow, almost sickly complexion. He had the look of a soldier - or a convict. From the other side emerged a giant, a mass of muscle unfolding himself with difficulty even from this oversized vehicle’s interior. His wiry beard failed to camouflage a face pock-marked with scars, the biggest a gnarled knot of skin in the centre of his forehead. Whatever injury he had sustained there, he had been lucky to survive it.

The third person to exit was a woman, whom Father Cardella would have considered attractive if not for her hard, scowling expression and lurid blue-dyed hair, which seemed to have been more hacked than cut as if she had done it herself using a knife, without the aid of a mirror. She quickly turned in a full circle, eyes scanning the surrounding landscape before locking on to him with an uncomfortable intensity.

For a moment the three stood still, regarding him. Then the woman tapped twice on the SUV’s window. The last occupant emerged.

He was older than the others, close-cropped hair grey, but had the same hardness to him, an armour forged by the batterings of a brutal life. Somehow, Father Cardella could tell this man was used to treating others as he had been treated himself. His nervousness increased as the man strode towards him, the others automatically falling in step behind like soldiers on the march. He backed up slightly, one hand reaching for the door handle. ‘Can . . . can I help you?’

The leader’s broad, almost frog-like mouth unexpectedly broke into a smile, though his piercing blue eyes remained as cold as ever. ‘Good evening. This is the church of San Maggiori, yes?’ His Italian was reasonably good, but he had a strong accent - Russian, the priest thought.

‘It is.’

‘Good.’ The man nodded. ‘My name is Aleksey Kruglov. We have come to see your . . .’ He paused, frowning briefly as he struggled to find the right word. ‘Your
reliquary
,’ he finished.

‘I’m afraid the church is closed for the night,’ Father Cardella told him, still with one hand on the door handle. ‘It will open again at ten o’clock tomorrow morning. I can show you round then, if you like?’

The humourless smile returned. ‘That is not convenient for us. We want to see it now.’

Masking his rising concern with dismissiveness, Father Cardella opened the door and backed through it. ‘I’m sorry, but the church is closed. Unless you want to make a confession?’ he added, the words coming out unbidden in a failed attempt at levity.

To his horror, Kruglov’s smile became genuine, a sadistic leer. ‘Sorry, Father, but even God would be shocked by everything
I
have to confess.’ His hand jabbed forward in a signal for action.

Father Cardella threw the door shut, closing the bolt as someone slammed against the wood. He leaned against the oak to hold it shut as he fought rising panic, trying to think. His mobile phone was in his small study at the back of the church; help from the village could be here in minutes—

Another blow to the door, so hard that Father Cardella was thrown to the ground as the bolt sheared in half. A gnarled, plate-sized hand reached around the edge to shove the door wider.

He kicked as hard as he could. The door crashed shut, smashing the hand against the frame. A low gasp came from outside, an intake of breath. He waited for the scream of pain.

It didn’t come. Instead, he heard
laughter
.

He scrambled upright. Stumbling down the aisle, he looked back to see the huge man almost filling the doorway, bared teeth glinting in a demented smile.

Outside, the woman yelled something in Russian. Father Cardella raced desperately for his study.

 

‘Get out of the way, Bulldozer !’ shouted the blue-haired woman. ‘And
stop laughing
, you retard!’

‘That felt
good
!’ growled the giant, ignoring her insult. He stepped back, examining his hand. A gash had been torn across its back, blood matting the thick hair covering it. ‘Ha! The old man kicks like a donkey!’

Kruglov clicked his fingers impatiently. ‘Dominika, Yosarin, get the priest.’ He gestured to the giant. ‘Maximov, come with me.’ The woman and the shaven-headed man nodded obediently and ran into the church.

Maximov wiped the blood from the back of his hand with a final grunt of pleasure. ‘Where are we going, boss?’

‘The reliquary. If the German’s research was right, what we want is in there.’ He gestured through the door. Maximov grunted again, this time in acknowledgement, and ducked to go inside. Kruglov followed.

The priest had reached a door at the far end of the church, and slammed it shut. Kruglov frowned. Either he meant to barricade himself inside until help arrived, or . . . ‘Dominika, if he gets outside, stop him,’ he called, new strategies instantly clicking into place inside his head. ‘Maximov, break the door down.’

Dominika turned and ran back the way she had come as Yosarin reached the other door. As Kruglov had expected, it was locked from inside. Maximov broke into a lumbering run down the aisle and barged into the wood shoulder-first. It was far less solid than the sturdy oak at the church’s entrance - the force of the impact ripped it clean off its hinges. Man and door ploughed into Father Cardella’s desk, tipping it over and spilling its contents across the floor.

Yosarin ran in after him, just in time to see the frightened priest scurry through another door at the rear of the study. ‘He’s gone out the back!’ he warned Kruglov.

‘Go after him!’

Yosarin took off, passing Maximov as he untangled himself from the wreckage of the desk. ‘You want me to go too, boss?’ the big man asked.

‘No,’ said Kruglov. ‘Let’s get what we came for.’

 

The phone was clutched tightly in his hand, but Father Cardella couldn’t spare even the moment he needed to look down and punch in a number as he ran along the narrow path between the back of the church and the steep, rocky slope below.

He heard a bang - the door being thrown open. They were coming after him.

Who
were
they? And what did they want? The reliquary, the leader had said: they wanted something from the church’s repository of relics. But why? The items there were significant only in regard to the church’s history, not for their monetary value - at most they would be worth a few thousand euros.

Nothing worth coming all the way from
Russia
to steal . . .

He emerged from behind the church, risking a glance back as the path widened. The shaven-headed man was running after him, fists and feet pumping almost robotically. At the top of the road he saw the black truck, the woman throwing open the rear door and pulling out a long cylindrical case.

That escape route was blocked, then, but there was another, an old path winding steeply down through the woods to the village—

Heart thudding, he headed for the gap between the scrubby bushes marking the start of the trail. It had been a few years since he’d last taken it, but he knew the route well, and unless the man chasing him had the agility of a goat he too would find it tricky to negotiate. Father Cardella just needed him to be slowed for a few seconds, enough of a respite to use the phone. One call would bring the entire village to his aid; the people of San Maggiori wouldn’t take kindly to strangers threatening their priest.

He reached the bushes. The hillside opened out below him.

Footsteps behind, getting closer—

Father Cardella leapt over the edge, black robes flapping behind him like a cape. His foot thumped down amongst the rocks and roots. The path was a blur, only memory guiding him. Arms flailing, he fought to bring his descent under control.

A shout from behind, a foreign curse followed by an explosive crackle of branches. Father Cardella didn’t need to look back to know what had happened - his pursuer had slipped and tumbled into a bush.

He had the few seconds he needed.

Raising the phone, he stabbed at the keypad to bring up the directory. Anyone in the village would do. He selected a name, pushed another button. A message on the screen told him the phone was dialling. A few seconds to make a connection, another few to get an answer . . .

He looked back up the slope as he held the phone to his ear. It was ringing. The bald Russian was still entangled in the bush.

Come on, pick up . . .

Another figure at the top of the hill, a silhouette against the sunset. The woman.

A click in his ear, the phone being picked up. ‘Hello?’

He opened his mouth to speak—

The fat cylindrical suppressor attached to the barrel of the rifle Dominika was holding reduced the sound of the gunshot to little more than a flat thump. It was so quiet that Father Cardella never even heard the shot that killed him.

 

The reliquary was a cramped chamber behind the altar, low enough to force Kruglov to duck his head. He ignored the inconvenience as he hunted for his objective. The other items in the reliquary, carefully arranged on blood-red velvet inside a glass-topped case, were little more than junk. A very old Bible, the Latin text illuminated by hand rather than printed; a silver plate with a crude illustration of Jesus etched into the metal; a golden cup . . . the rest of the pieces didn’t even merit more than a cursory glance. He knew what he was looking for.

There it was. The last item, tucked away in a corner of the case as if even the priest considered it insignificant. It certainly looked it, just a shard of metal barely ten centimetres long, the broken tip of a sword. A circular symbol was inscribed on it, a labyrinth, marked with small dots. Apart from that, it appeared utterly unremarkable.

But the sight of it made Kruglov smile his cold smile once more. He had to admit that he’d believed the German was either a fraud or deluded, spouting nonsense. But Vaskovich thought otherwise . . . and only a fool would dismiss
his
beliefs.

He pointed at the case. Maximov, practically crouching to fit in the room, clenched his fist and banged it down on the glass. It shattered over the relics. The huge man’s beard twitched with an involuntary smile, and Kruglov wasn’t surprised to see a sliver of glass poking from his hand. He ignored it, long used to his subordinate’s peculiarities.

Instead, he reached past him into the case, carefully prodding the glass fragments aside until he could lift out the sword piece. After everything Vaskovich had told him about it, he half expected something extraordinary to happen. But it was just metal, inert, cold.

Maximov plucked the glass from his hand, then looked more closely at the golden cup. ‘Do we take the other things too?’ he asked, already reaching for it.

‘Leave it,’ snapped Kruglov.

The scar on Maximov’s forehead twisted with his look of disappointment. ‘But it’s gold!’

‘You can buy better from any goldsmith in Moscow. This is all we came for.’ He took a slim foam-lined metal case from inside his jacket, carefully placing the broken piece of the sword inside before closing it with a click. ‘That’s it.’

Dominika peered into the reliquary. ‘I took care of the priest,’ she announced in a bored tone.

Maximov’s scarred forehead furrowed again. ‘You
killed
him?’

She snorted sarcastically. ‘Duh.’

‘But he was a priest!’ he protested. ‘You can’t kill a priest!’

‘Actually, it’s easy.’ After rolling her eyes, she looked at the case in Kruglov’s hand. ‘Did you get it?’

‘I got it. Let’s go.’ Kruglov looked past her. ‘Where’s Yosarin?’

Another eye-roll. ‘He fell in a bush.’

Kruglov shook his head, then slipped the case back into his pocket and ducked through the low door. ‘Start the fire over there,’ he decided, pointing at the first row of pews. ‘No need to make it look like an accident. The Sicilian Mafia will take the blame, it’s their kind of thing.’ He strode up the aisle as Dominika sprayed lighter fluid over the pew, then lit a match and tossed it into the puddle of liquid. Flames instantly leapt up with a whump.

BOOK: The Secret of Excalibur
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