Authors: James Douglas
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Thrillers, #Suspense, #General
It had been kept hidden for centuries, in readiness for a time of need. But not hidden well enough, it seems. One night in July 1937, it vanished – its disappearance swallowed up in the storm clouds of the war that was about to engulf the world . . .
In 1941, twelve of Himmler’s most trusted generals gather at a grim castle in East Prussia, to re-enact an ancient rite steeped in blood. At its heart is a pentagram formed by five swords. One of them is King Arthur’s mystical Excalibur . . .
Seventy years later, and art recovery expert Jamie Saintclair laughs in disbelief as he reads the codex to a German war veteran’s will, the strange ritual it describes and the mention of a sword named Excalibur. But obsessive collector Adam Steele is convinced – and if Saintclair can trace the legendary blade, he will pay a small fortune for it . . .
The search leads Saintclair into a dangerous hinterland where the loyalties and hatreds of the past live on, and the line between fanaticism and madness is gossamer thin.
As the last piece of the puzzle falls into place, it becomes clear that some mysteries should be left unsolved . . .
For Siobhan, Greg and Ruaridh
‘Are we lost again, Neumann?’
‘This is it, Wulf, I’m sure this time.’
‘And the last three times.’
Neumann blushed. ‘No, this time I’m certain,’ he insisted. ‘Look at the hills.’ The younger boy pointed to a distinctive shape dominating the horizon and Wulf Ziegler’s pulse quickened. He pulled a folded square of paper from the inside pocket of his brown uniform and opened it, comparing the silhouette to the one in front of his eyes. They were exactly as he’d been told they’d be and marked the place he sought as clearly as any signpost.
Wulf patted Neumann on the shoulder and remounted his bicycle. ‘We’ll ride for another hour and find somewhere to camp.’ As the others set off, he looked again at the hills and let out a prolonged sigh. The most
difficult part of the mission remained, but even so he experienced nothing but exhilaration. They were here.
Eight boys, aged between fourteen and sixteen, they’d set out from Dortmund on their bikes a month earlier with a hundred comrades. Wulf was the eldest, and the leader –
unit. At sixteen he was a six-year veteran of the organization, respected for his command ability and already marked for the
at Bad Tölz. He’d helped organize the ‘cultural exchange’ with members of a Boy Scout troop in Birmingham, but the Dortmunders had told their hosts they were keen to experience more of this fascinating country. With Baedeker guides in hand, the sub-units fanned out across Britain, through the industrial Midlands, and as far south as the hop fields of Kent, seeking out sights of interest. Wulf Ziegler’s allotted region had been the north and he’d led his party first to the soot-stained factories and belching chimneys of Manchester, before crossing the mountainous spine of the country to Leeds and joining the road to Newcastle. The journey taxed even fit young men at home in the saddle, like his comrades, but they’d been welcomed wherever they went, offered campsites by ruddy-faced northern farmers, and cloudy lemonade and dry cake by the farmers’ cheerful wives. On the way, they had seen many interesting historical sights, but, perhaps more important, great sprawling industrial plants, mills and vast dockyards, each carefully marked on the map Wulf carried. The previous day they’d camped on a windswept
moor and been visited by soldiers from the armoured unit training there, eager to meet these unlikely exotic visitors and share their stories.
Today the chosen campsite was on the heather-clad shoulder of the northernmost hill, overlooking the broad loop of a river that twinkled like a silver ribbon two hundred metres below. As the other boys unpacked the tents and bedding and dug the latrine, Wulf climbed swiftly over treacherous pink-veined scree and through patches of green and gold gorse bushes to the summit of the peak. Here, he had a panoramic view of the entire valley through the twin lenses of the Zeiss birdwatching binoculars that had served him so well. He felt an uncharacteristic thrill of fear as he studied the curve of the river and the large house with the grey chimneys exactly where the aerial photographs said it would be. Fear of failure and fear of the consequences of failure. He went over it in his mind, as he’d done a hundred times since the endless rehearsals at the training range. Compared to this, the rest had just been little boys’ games.
They would do it tonight.
‘And the light drizzle will continue well into the afternoon …’ Abeba Trelawney’s hand flicked out and hit the radio switch, consigning the weather report to some distant corner of the ether. God, she hated driving in the rain. The little sports car was fine for nipping about town, but on a jam-packed M25 in a deluge it lost a helluva lot of its charm. She gritted her teeth as the intimidating bulk of an articulated truck surged up the outside lane, throwing a wall of spray that momentarily blinded her. ‘What’s your hurry?’ she snapped at the passing behemoth. Three lanes of traffic moving intermittently between zero and forty miles an hour max; nobody was getting anywhere fast. That reminded her. She was going to be late. Should she call Jamie? Her hand groped for the mobile phone on the passenger seat.
‘Damn.’ The movement towards the handset distracted her and she almost missed the brake lights on the car in front.
She took a deep breath. No, it was illegal, and Abeba was a girl whose solicitor parents had brought her up to respect the law. She’d leave it for now and perhaps stop later at a service station to send him a text. The thought brought with it an electric surge of excitement from low in her belly. Should she tell him? She smiled to herself and decided not. This wasn’t the kind of news you imparted in a text, or even in a phone call. It had to be face to face. The smile broadened as she thought of his reaction. Would he be pleased? Of course he’d be pleased. She caught sight of herself in the rear-view mirror: soulful brown eyes; long hair, black as a raven’s wing, and a complexion the shade of pale honey. She looked like the cat who’d just been given a saucer of cream. Would he be pleased? Please, God, let him be pleased. I couldn’t stand it if he wasn’t pleased. Just one flinch and I’ll burst into tears.
But Jamie wouldn’t flinch. Not the Jamie Saintclair she knew and loved.
Now it was his face that swam into view. Thin-lipped, sardonic and maybe just a little tired, but with wide green eyes that sparkled with humour and crinkled at the edges. She loved the way his unruly dark hair flopped low over his brow and had been surprised at the lean, muscular hardness hidden behind the old-fashioned suits and assumed air of wholesome innocence. Time had taught her the world-weariness was a defence mechanism, a barrier imposed by his supposed failures with women in the past. She had had to fight to break it down. He
was an easy man to like, but there were hidden shadows that made him harder to love, and wary of being in love. An art dealer – she smiled at the memory of their first meeting – not really her type, she’d thought, and maybe a little protective of his secrets, which intrigued and kind of irritated her, until she’d understood why. With patience she had drawn out the real man from behind the psychological suit of armour he wore. At first he had been restrained in bed, and she sensed he wanted to be led, but when she had persuaded him to make the running and allow his passions and desires to rule him, the results had been spectacular and most worthwhile. She gave a little unladylike snort at the images she’d conjured up. They hadn’t seen each other for a week and he’d just come back from a trip to France to investigate a painting that might have been stolen by the Nazis during the Second World War. Perhaps later …
The outer lane was moving much faster than the others and she considered switching, but immediately thought better of it, even though the big truck was by now a hundred and fifty yards further ahead. Fortunately, the rain had begun to slacken and visibility was much clearer. As pointlessly as it had sped up, the outside lane slowed to a halt and she glanced right to see two wide eyes staring at her from a scarlet face. A furry arm rose to wave a greeting and she blinked. The TV puppet vanished as swiftly as it had appeared to be replaced by a grinning curly-haired urchin about the same age as the kids in the Year One class she taught. She smiled back
and tried to concentrate on the road as the traffic picked up speed at last.
From the elevated cab of his truck, Rasul Mohammed had a view of all three lanes ahead. He could feel the adrenalin building in his system as his satellite navigation system told him he was getting closer to the mark. The rain and spray reduced his visibility, but he had no doubt he would know the place when he got there. He had driven this route ten times over the past few weeks and never missed it once. Closer. He nudged the accelerator pedal and moved up so he was almost bumper to bumper with the car in front, which in turn edged forward away from the intimidating presence of the forty-tonne monster. Rasul licked his dry lips. He’d performed the manoeuvre he was about to attempt often, but never in the rain and never in a fully laden truck. That had been for the movies. This was for real. The most important scene he’d ever shoot.
‘Mark One.’ The voice sounded unnaturally loud in his ears, but he didn’t need the instruction. There it was, a white rag tied to a distinctive bush. Less than a quarter of a mile. He flicked the plastic indicator lever to signal that he wanted to move into the middle lane and began to edge his way across into the solid line of cars. In his passenger-side mirror he could see open mouths that would undoubtedly be cursing him for the thoughtless and potentially dangerous manoeuvre. He could almost feel their puzzlement and anger at the giant throwing his
weight around like a prizefighter in a pub queue, but he ignored them. Concentrate. Not too far, his positioning had to be exactly right; half in one lane and half in the other, blocking both.
He could see the second mark a hundred yards ahead. Everything seemed so clear. His gaze darted across the dials. Speed: perfect. Weight distribution: perfect. Position: perfect. Even the rain might help, because it would give his tyres less traction.
‘Now!’ the voice in his ear echoed the shout in his brain, but his hands and feet were already working in sequence to put the command into operation. In one movement he hauled the wheel to the left and his foot hit the brake with just the right amount of pressure.
For a moment Abeba wondered if she was dreaming. Her consciousness was fixed on the car in front, but at its perimeter a surreal image formed of the articulated lorry swerving into the lanes ahead. The image was followed instantly by a terrible rending of metal and, as if in slow motion, the truck toppled to block the three-lane motorway. She hit the brakes and her scream of fright merged with the squeal of hundreds of tyres.
When the noise subsided, she sat with her head bowed, breathing as if she’d just run the hundred-metre sprint and still only half believing what she’d seen. That idiot … she could – would – be stuck here for hours. But natural concern quickly overcame anger.
What about the driver? And the people in the cars up ahead? There had to be casualties from an accident as bad as that. One of the lorry’s tyres must have burst to cause the sudden change of direction. Or maybe the driver had had a heart attack? She reached for the door, but by the time she opened it she saw, in the narrow gap between the cars ahead, that dozens of people were already streaming towards the stricken vehicles. She hesitated before closing the door. For a few moments her fingers remained on the handle, but she was forced to acknowledge that apart from basic First Aid she didn’t have any particular medical skills to contribute. There was no point in just getting in the way. In some ways it was a relief. The car was a warm metal cocoon that protected her from the realities of what was happening a few hundred yards ahead. She tried to call Jamie, but only reached his voicemail, so she left a short message outlining her situation and began backing it up with a text because she knew he often forgot to listen to voicemails.