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Authors: Bill Napier

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Splintered Icon

BOOK: Splintered Icon
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Shattered Icon

Bill Napier

 

Copyright © 2003 Bill Napier

ISBN 0 7472 6726 X

Version 1.0

 

Things called Stars appeared, which robbed men of their souls and left them unreasoning brutes, so that they destroyed the civilization they themselves had built up.

Nightfall,
Isaac Asimov

 

Part One

God's Longitude

 

CHAPTER 1

 

The bird circles gracefully, high in the mountain thermal, a slow, lazy motion. Delicate fine-tunings of its wings, the product of ancient evolutionary forces, keep its head perfectly level in the updraft and its black eyes steadily fixed on a spot five hundred feet below. These eyes are focused on a large, motionless animal. Ancient instincts tell the bird that this big animal is in trouble.

A shadow flits briefly over the man. Something big, but he can't think what. He forces his eyes open but at first sees only the harsh sun. Then a high, black shape: a bird, a beautiful thing, soaring in the mountain air.

And another. And another.

Need to drink. Tongue a lead weight. Face hot, beaded with sweat.

Lots of them now.

They're circling around me. Getting lower.

A buzzard lands, about twenty yards away. Not graceful at all: powerful tearing beak, bald head, long scraggy neck, big talons. And those black shiny eyes.

Strong flapping behind me, from big wings, and a scuffling noise, like two birds squabbling. And then a quiet rustling sound, very close. Almost at my neck.

I can't move!

Several pairs of eyes now. No pity in them, no way to plead or reason, no way for our minds to connect. Closing in, in cautious little hops. Indians round a wagon circle.

They'll go for the softest parts of me first, the eyes. Then maybe my ears and nose. Then they'll start on my neck and cheeks, tearing at the flesh.

Don't die, not like this. Not eaten alive by vultures.

'It's not like forensic entomology, for example.'

The Professor - at least that's what he appears to be - is a small, weedy, wrinkled man with a sweaty, pinched face and a turned-down mouth with thin, mean lips. He is wearing a cheap grey nylon suit, an absurdity in the Jamaican climate: it is stained with sweat from his armpits. A gaudy tie is pulled wide at the neck. His eyes are small and black. He is leaning over a small wooden artefact on the table in front of him. It is in three panels, hinged together so that the two side panels can fold on top of the central one. This central part contains a little rectangle of gnarled wood. The other two panels are painted, a mother and child on the left panel, Christ crucified on the other against a black and stormy sky. He is scanning this strange object with a large magnifying glass.

'Entomology?' A second man scratches his head. The Professor smiles primly. 'Insects. If this was an insect we would have a large DNA database. But as you see, this is a piece of wood, not an insect, and wood, after all, is dead. There are some special tests we can apply to test for particular types - staining, shining ultraviolet light on them and so on. But these are only useful for identifying unusual families of trees, usually obscure species from South America. The Vochysiaceae family, for example, accumulates aluminium from the soil, and its wood turns blue if we apply a special reagent.'

As execution chambers go, this one is comfortable, even luxurious. The room is large. One wall consists of nothing but French windows. Beyond it there is a broad balcony, and beyond that the black expanse of the midnight Caribbean. Expensive air conditioners whisper, barely audible, from the corners. The floor is laid with imported Italian marble, in big multicoloured squares. The furniture is heavy, dark brown and ornately carved in the Mexican style. Exotic lampstands and vases are scattered around, and Jamaican artwork in bright primary colours decorates the walls.

Three people are seated on a deep, low, white leather sofa. In the middle is a bearded man, tall and well-built, in his early thirties. He is sitting upright, tense and watchful, calculating the odds. A teenage girl to his left, casually dressed in jeans and white sweater, is breathing in big gulps, hyperventilating. She has a bruised cheek. Her eyes are wide with fear and she is trying hard to keep herself under control. On the man's right is a woman also in her early thirties. She too is casually dressed and calculating the odds, coming up with the same hopeless answer. They know that, so long as the Professor keeps talking, they stay alive. Their problems begin when he shuts up.

Two men are standing across from them at a table. One of them is the Professor; the other is of Mediterranean extraction, probably Greek. He is short and stocky, with a deep-wrinkled, angular face. He is wearing black trousers and an open-necked shirt with a silver cross - or swastika - hanging around his neck on a chain.

A heavy black revolver lies on the polished table in front of the Greek, within his arm's length. His companion is talking.

Apart from the Greek, six others in the room are armed with guns, five men and a woman. The woman is leaning back, relaxed, in an armchair in one corner. She too has Mediterranean features; she is wearing a long, slim, pink evening dress and a lot of gold. She has a revolver resting on her lap. The five men are sitting around on casual chairs, with the exception of a young, black Jamaican with dreadlocks. He is sitting cross-legged on a bean cushion and is rolling a large joint, his gun on the floor. He seems to be more interested in his joint than in the prisoners. The woman, however, is watching them carefully, a cat eyeing up a mouse, a distant half-smile on her lips. From time to time she rotates the barrel of her gun, a chamber at a time, as if checking that it is loaded.

'A scanning electron microscope is a lot of work, and to tell you the truth, my most useful tool is this magnifying glass. For example,' the Professor says, peering closely at the wood, 'there are about eighteen thousand species of tree worldwide, but I can already, after a few seconds with my lens, narrow this wood down to a few hundred possibilities.'

He drones on.  His small black eyes are  shining enthusiastically and his lips are puckered primly. 'Tree trunks are really marvels of plumbing. There are chains of large cells which carry water from the roots to the leaves, and more chains which carry the sugary liquid made by the leaves back down through the tree trunk. Different species have different patterns of plumbing, you know. Ah, now this is interesting. Here we have big structures mixed in with the smaller, finer cells. That means I can eliminate a whole swathe of trees, in particular the softwoods. I believe we are down to ash, hickory or oak.'

The young Jamaican says: 'Ya.' He has finished rolling the joint. He pulls out a thin blue lighter, flicks it and puffs. Whorls of ganja smoke begin to drift upwards. He watches them rise towards the ceiling, a look of contentment settling on his face.

The Professor looks up from his magnifying glass. 'Jesus Christ was most probably crucified on a cross made from a white oak, a common tree in the Middle East then and now. Something like a boat was discovered some decades ago on Mount Ararat in Turkey. It turned out to be made from white oak, and enthusiasts have seen it as evidence that the boat was Noah's Ark.' Again that prim, superior smile. 'There are several types of oak, quercus robur, quercus rubra...'

'Doctor

But the Professor seems insensitive to the volcano of impatience building up inside his companion. '. .. and I can tell you that this particular wood is white oak.'

The Greek says, 'What are you telling us, Doctor? That the wood is from the Middle East?'

'Unfortunately white oak is also found in North America. It was often used for shipbuilding two hundred years ago. However, in my opinion this wood is much more than two centuries old. And there are subtle differences between North American and Middle Eastern white oak. It is my opinion that this is not North American white oak. Yes, it comes from the Middle East. And yes, it is very, very old.'

The Greek's temper has reached its limits. He asks: 'Is it the icon or not? Yes or no?'

The Professor smiles triumphantly. 'Of course proper verification would require carbon-14 dating. But I can safely rule out some sort of elaborate modern forgery.'

For the captives, the remark is a death sentence.

'Thank you, Doctor.' The Greek exhales air as if a pressure valve has been opened. 'I think you can leave us now. Cassandra, would you see to the Doctor's fee?'

The Professor gives a slight bow of his head. 'I would like to be well clear of this island before' - he glances briefly at the captives - 'before there is any unpleasantness.'

The Greek exposes his teeth. 'You will be long gone before anything happens here.' The woman in pink uncrosses her legs, stands up and walks towards the prisoners. Her high heels click-click sharply on the stone floor.

The Professor gives a last glance at the prisoners, this one slightly anxious. 'They have seen my face, you know.'

'Doctor, you have absolutely no worries in that direction.'

She raises her gun.

 

CHAPTER 2

 

It was more or less closing time. Janice had left with her usual cheery 'Byee!' and I was about to set the alarm when a maroon Rolls-Royce drew to a halt on the double yellow lines outside the door. It was pouring with rain and the man was wet in the interval between leaving the Roller and scurrying into the shop.

I'd seen him around the streets of Lincoln from time to time. He was small, rotund, white-haired, with a tiny, prim mouth, piggy eyes and a complexion which told of a lifetime's devotion to port. The voice was middle-aged, English public school, with the faint air of disdainful superiority which affronted my proletarian roots. 'Mister Blake? Harry Blake?'

'The same.'

'My name is Tebbit. Toby Tebbit.'

The Tebbits. Our local gentry, tucked away behind a thousand or so acres of woodland, back of Lincoln, surrounded by a high wall. 'Sir Toby?'

'The same.' He brushed a few drops of rain from his camel-hair coat. 'Mister Blake, if I can get to the point. I'm looking for some help. I've had a parcel delivered from Jamaica. It's a heap of paper, basically. Very old, so far as I can see.'

'How did you come to—?'

'In due course.' Spoken in the slightly irritated tone of a man who is not used to being questioned. 'I'd be grateful if you could evaluate the papers for me.'

'That'll be fine. Do you have them here?'

'I felt it better to have you come and see them.'

'No problem. My assistant will keep shop. I'll call for them at ten o'clock tomorrow, then.'

Tebbit nodded curtly, turned his collar up and left to brave the rain between shop entrance and Roller again. He hadn't bothered to tell me where he lived.

The next morning was blue sky, but dark clouds were on the horizon. I took my elderly Toyota out of Lincoln and along a country lane. After a few miles I turned into a single-track road guarded by a lodge house. A notice on a stone gatepost displayed the words: PICARDY HOUSE. A sign on the other gatepost said: PRIVATE. NO UNAUTHORISED ENTRY.

The road was tarmacked and lined by low metal fencing, and it meandered through fields scattered with oak trees and sheep. About a mile along there was denser woodland. I drove past a small lake on the left; a rowing boat was tied up at a short pier. Then I curved in towards a large gravelled courtyard with fountains, manicured bushes and statues in the Italian style fashionable amongst people who had gardeners on their staff a century or two ago. Ten generations of family wealth looked coldly down on me as I climbed moss-green steps and tapped a heavy brass knocker. The door opened almost immediately.

She was about nineteen, with dark eyes and black hair swept back in a pony tail, and she was wearing a black sweater and jeans. She gave me an appraising look. 'Daddy will be along.' I followed her down a broad corridor and into what I took to be the study. It was about thirty feet by twenty, and wall-to-wall Axminster. One wall was taken up by a bookcase: old books, expensively bound, neatly laid out and, I suspected, never read. She motioned me to an armchair, eased a Persian cat on to her lap and sat facing me. The room was chilly.

Again that appraising stare. 'So you're Harry Blake.'

I said, 'Yes.'

'I'm Debbie. What do you do?'

'I'm an antiquarian bookseller. I specialise in old maps and manuscripts, mostly.'

'That sounds boring.'

'Not if you have an imagination. What about you?' I asked. 'Any interests?'

'Clubbing and horses, mostly.' She smiled wickedly. 'And fit guys.'-

Daddy came in, dressed in an old sweater and baggy trousers. 'This is private business, Deb. Shut the door on your way out.'

Debbie dropped the cat and flounced out, glowing with teenage angst.

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