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Excerpt for The Ring by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

The Ring

Copyright 2017 Bradley Pearce

Published by Bradley Pearce at Smashwords


Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. This book remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be redistributed to others for commercial or non-commercial purposes. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.


Unless stated by the author, this story is fictitious and a product of the author’s imagination. With the exception of God, all the characters in this book are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is purely coincidental.










Dedicated to:

Michelle Knight,

For being a candle in my darkness.


And to:

Zara.

The coffee shop girl that inspired a love story.


Table of Contents

The Call

Arthur McGee

The Letter

Box in the Attic

Deck of Cardinals

Phil

Cardinal Dovizi

Ginger Cake and Tea

Cardinal Cassini

Father Francis

Saint Pancras Station

Father Michael

Roma

The Vatican

London

The Gun

Border Control

Belgium Beers

Hunters become the Hunted

Cracking Eggs

Frankfurt

Nuremburg

The Great Escape

Munich

Vienna

Hungary

Professor Almesh

Werewolves

Zahra

Don Marconi

Transylvania

Bucharest

Owe you One

Istanbul

The Safe House

Looking for Bond Girl

Pierre

Just a Scratch

Bari

The Chase

Home Leg

Cathedral di Santa

The Vatican Vault

Home Sweet Home


About Bradley Pearce

The Call

Somewhere in the Vatican. In a very large lavishness office assigned to a man of rank and position. An office void of sound and movement other than the fluttering lace curtains in the morning breeze. Sat a man behind a large ancient wooden desk, just as his predecessors had. Deep in thought. And allowing the early morning rays of light to capture him. Imaging its warm embrace as the fingers of God.

He had sinned. But it was his job to sin. To do what was required of him. Killing was never easy. He had served the Church devoutly for decades, perhaps his whole life. Wondering how God would judge him when that day ever came? Did his transgressions in the name of the Church transcend the Original Sin?

The telephone rang un-expectantly. Echoing its alarm off polished marble surfaces. Filling every square inch of the large room with its incessant ringing as though pleading to be answered. Breaking the impasse of the silence and the man’s thoughts, or prayers. The man eyes the defiant phone with suspicion, who would be calling at this early hour? Who would be calling him? The man reluctantly lifts the handset from its cradle to annul the intrusion. Filling the large room with a deafening silence once again.

“Hello.” The man spoke softly and economically.

Words were never spoken unless they needed to be. Words could kill if spoken carelessly. Ears could be listening. The man listened carefully for subtle crackles on the line. It was not the first time the two men had spoken.

“Tell me more.” The man asked wanting specifics.

The informant continued to dispatch the details of the treasure. A concerned look came over the man’s face as he in the news of the discovery of a forgotten Holy Relic in Istanbul.

“The First? … Are you sure?” The man asked as though he questioned the find as true.

This was a unique find, unheard of until now. Yet if true, would exalt the word of God. The informant had been reliable in the past, there was no need to begin to doubt him now.

“I understand my friend...” The man said in a grave voice pondering the significance of the discovery.

Deliberately pausing, the man weighed the situation with an urgency building in his mind. There would be others very interested in the relic. His mind filters through the names of those in the immediate vicinity. He had men on the ground that could assist if the situation escalated, or deteriorated. He needed resources, his Organization had resources.

“How can I help?” Asked the man dismissing his competitors.

Listening carefully to the request being asked by the informant.

“Yes I see… The son… I understand... Follow the son… To the Ring… I see… Rest assured my friend… I will take care of the son.” A grave voice promised as the man listened to further instructions.

And the phone goes dead as the informant hangs up leaving the dead signal on the line ringing in his ear. The man listens carefully for un-expectant clicks that never came. Replacing the handset he contemplates the relic’s repatriation. There would be competition also with their eyes on the prize. Men that would kill to attain it. The man knew them all too well. His mind calmly thinking out a strategy to obtain the Relic.

The treasured relic must be re-appropriated by the Church. It was too scared to be left in hands of relic collectors. Grubby little men who scavenged for personal gain and boasting rights. He who possessed the relic would be king among kings.

He would have to inform his superior. There was only one, unless you counted God. The man lifted the handset of the old phone and dialed a simple three digit number. Scrolling each digit deliberately. Unhurriedly. And listened patiently to the dial tone waiting for it to be answered.

“Please excuse the intrusion your Holiness… But I have some very important news.” Cardinal Cassini started to disclose to his Superior, His Holiness the Pope.


Arthur McGee

Some days later in East London, a sunny autumn morning broke upon Watford Terrace. The cold north breeze blew, carrying with it a postman whistling an unrecognizable tune to himself. Much to the annoyance of Arthur McGee waiting at the mailbox, who believed no one should whistle unless it was in tune. And preferably a tune one could recognize. Arthur waited for the annoying whistle to arrive.

“No mail today Arthur!” The Postman called out as he cycled by.

The north breeze pushed the annoying whistle on its way again. Arthur returned inside the terraced homestead. Closing the door in time to keep out the cold breeze that was following him inside.

“Any mail today Arthur?” His Aunt called out from the kitchen.

“Not today Aunty.”

Not that he was expecting any, other than the gas bill. Arthur slumped his father’s comfy arm chair and allowed it to engulf him. As though to hold him prisoner. And he contemplated his existence, as he did most days since being laid off. He was twenty-nine years old and successfully unemployed, after yet another global recession had sent shock waves around the world and with it redundant ripples through the local council at which he had once worked. Staring out the lace curtained window onto the suburban street outside. Lined with identical terraced houses.

Michael sat quietly unseen in a chair opposite, eating what he imagined was Ginger cake and drinking what he imagined was tea. Taking in the manger that was Arthur’s home. Watchful of the young man sitting opposite.

The morning sun’s rays filtered through the curtains, diluted and straining to reach him. Surrendering to its warmth, as though it would re-inflate his deflated self-esteem. The days blurred as they rolled over themselves and into months. He could see no change on the grey horizon of his life as he stared blankly out onto the terraced street.

Collecting the mail and watching football matches over a pint and a packet of Walkers crisps at the local bar, was the highlights to his day. That and catching up with his best mate Phil who had also been laid off from the Council.

Arthur’s father Alistair would be away for weeks travelling peddling his company’s stationary products over Europe. He would return and tell Arthur exotic tales of his travels, of places and foods and equally exotic people. Rousing Arthur’s sense for adventure. Adventures he had read about in Michener’s books. To escape the capture of the arm chair as his father had done. To escape Watford Terrace. Sensing something was calling him. He could smell it, and it was not the Gas Works down the road.

Arthur’s mother had died when he was young. Old photographs reminded him of her beauty. Vague memories of her love would flash to mind, imaginary, but real.

Everything happens for a reason.’ He had told himself trying to reconcile her premature death.

But what that reason was, was beyond him. Believing she was with him in spirit, somehow watching over him. His Aunt had moved in after his mother’s death, to look after him while his father travelled. And she was the closest thing he had to a mother and after a while she had become a part of furniture. Something one could not throw out.

His Aunt was a lovely lady as anyone who did not live with her could attest. Taking a daily dose of medication, he thought there were more drugs in her medical cabinet than there were on the streets. It would not have surprised him if she turned out to be head of an East End drug cartel. Taking in stray cats and naming them Dizzy, Lizzy, and Cuddles. She would often be heard humming an unrecognizable tune and for as much as Arthur detested whistling, humming was second on his list of objectionable reverberations. Calling it her fairy tune for he was sure she was humming along with the fairies that only she could hear. Arthur preferred not to enquire and would not begrudge her these few comforts.

When not at the local bar with Phil, Arthur could be found drinking incalculable cups of tea, eating Ginger Cake and watching re-runs on the television with his Aunt. Feeling himself slipping slowly into his Auntie’s medicated world. And he wondered how long it would be before he too would be making involuntary grunts and humming a fairy tune to himself.

Sitting in his father’s large comfy arm chair and Arthur took stock of Watford Terrace and the world outside. It might have been the chill in the late autumn air that had unsettled Arthur that day. It could have been the postman’s annoying whistle. But something did not feel right. As though something was about to happen and he could not put his finger on it.

In the evenings Arthur would retire to his room to read. His Aunt would stop by and wish him good night and turn off his light, as though he was still nine. Before sleep he would recite a quiet prayer to himself, giving thanks and asking for a decent hand. Having faith that God believed in him, more than he believed in God.


And that was a typical day for Arthur, as it had been since being laid off from the Council. But the cogs of Arthur’s world were turning. Cards were about to be dealt, and Arthur was about to be dealt a very strange hand that would set in motion the End of Days.


The Letter

Dawn broke on Watford Terrace and Arthur awoke to the new day stretching his tired limbs. The universe had shifted overnight, stars were aligning and forces were at play beyond his control. Like a dream he could not remember, a feeling of déjà vu struck him, as though something had crept insidiously into his soul. Sending a chill over his body.

“That’s weird.” He said to himself shaking himself of the peculiar feeling.

“Breakfast Arty.” His Aunt calls out from the kitchen.

“I’m coming Aunty.”

The same cold breeze still blew from the north. Chasing the same whistling Postman who peddled frantically trying to keep ahead of it, as if it too wanted him to stop whistling annoying tune. Slowing down, he reached into the basket of letters and pulled out two envelopes.

“Two today Arthur.” Declared the postman who had momentarily stopped whistling.

Passing them skillfully to Arthur in one continuous motion. Before carrying on his annoyingly whistling way. Only to be chased again by the rabid breeze snapping at his peddles.

“Two? … That must be a record.” Arthur said to himself.

Trying to suppress his excitement, Arthur examines the envelopes and gauged one as a Gas bill he had been expecting. Recognizing the cheap brown envelope and the Company’s logo in the corner. Shuffling the letters he examined the second of the envelopes. A white envelope, a letter and not a bill. It was addressed to him and was hand written. The writing looked strangely familiar. But he could not place it.

“Hmm.” Arthur thought to himself taking in the oddity of receiving a letter.

Arthur had not had a letter from anyone in what seemed like a hundred years. Perhaps two. The foreign stamp a siren as to its origin. European he surmised, but he could not place it. Flipping it over hoping to gleam the sender’s name. But this was blank.

“Hmm, strange… Who would write to me?” Asked Arthur himself.

Hoping to avoid his Auntie’s inquisitive questions from his nosy but loveable Aunt he folds the envelope and shaves it into his pocket hoping she was not watching from the window.

“Any mail today Arthur?” His Aunt enquired.

“Just the Gas bill Aunty.” Arthur half fibbed placing it on the dining table.

Arthur had an idea that would avoid his Auntie’s prying eyes and questioning.

“I’m just popping down to the cafe…” He called out, “… do you need anything from the shops?” He asked, hoping the answer would be no.

“Ohh… Pick us up some more Ginger Cake… we’re getting low. And some tea… the loose kind… Would you be a dear?” Asked his Aunt heading to the laundry.

“No worries Aunty.” Arthur called back reaching for his coat.

Wrapping an old blue university scarf about his neck, he headed out the door. The day was nippy. Arthur hated a lazy breeze that preferred to blow through him than around him. He scans the street outside as though he could see the lazy breeze to avoid it. Pulling a red woolen beanie over his ears he buries his hands deep into his pocket.

The excursion to the cafe was half a fib to be able to read his letter in private. He would pick up his Aunt’s grocery items afterwards. The cafe was three blocks from Arthur’s home and a refreshing walk to stretch his legs. Taking him away from the solitary confinement of his bedroom and ever prying eyes of his Aunt. There was another reason he wanted to visit the café, Zara. You could say Arthur was smitten with her, but lacked the courage to ask her out. Wondering if he should ask Phil for his advice, then quickly decided otherwise.

Zara was about his age, with long dark hair and hazel eyes, with a seductive smile that made Arthur smile. He was hoping Zara would be working that day. And she was. The small bell above the café door announced a patron’s arrival. Zara looks up to see Arthur and smiles. He smiles back half blushing. Arthur begins with small talk about the inclement weather hoping it would bond their momentary romantic relationship.

“Regular latte… one sugar, right?” Asked Zara just as Arthur was about to order.

“That’s right.” Replied Arthur taken back by her personal interest in his particular coffee.

A thought passed through his mind that could be more between them. Time slowed down and more thoughts about the status of their relationship ricocheted at the speed of light about his mind.

“Take a seat… I’ll bring it over.” Said Zara with an infectious smile drawing Arthur back to from his dazed delirium.

Arthur found a table by the window and waited for the coffee to arrive. Staring out the shoppers and passersby. One day he would have the courage like Phil to ask her out, maybe for a coffee. But then wondered if that was a good idea given how she served it all day?

One day…’ he thought. ‘…One day.’

Remembering why he had come to the café, he pulls the envelope from his pocket and re- examines it again. Just then, Zara arrives with his coffee and places on the table beside the letter.

“Thank you Zara.” Said Arthur using her name as though it would personalize her, and watched her return to serve waiting customer.

Taking a sip of the coffee he savored the bitter caffeine against the sweetness of the sugar. The English cup of tea had its merits, but it could not match coffee. His veins pumped with the elixir of life now invigorating his senses and resurrecting his spirit.

Picking up the envelope looks at the familiar hand writing. But still could not place it. The date stamp like all date stamps was illegible and from a country he could not make out from its markings.

East European perhaps?’ He thinks to himself.

A large building was portrayed in dark red ink. Not a church, more like that of a government building of some kind? Much like Westminster. Only grander. Transfixed by the oddity his mind running through the possibilities of countries and wondering who he knew in Eastern Europe that write to him. His father was in France. Or so he thought. Turning it over, the sender’s name had still not appeared.

Running the handle of a teaspoon along the inside edge of the envelope to tear it open to reveal a single piece of paper, folded over. Removing the page Arthur opened it and began to read words he was not prepared for…


Arthur, if you’re reading this, you may in danger.”


That wrenched Arthur to attention more than the coffee had. Quickly looking to the bottom of the letter he was not prepared for what he was about to read there as well…


Dad.”


Now he recognized his father’s handwriting. A chill came over him, unsure what to make of the short letter.

This must be one of dad’s jokes.’ Arthur thought, looking outside the café for his father who might be laughing at him.

But he was not, just passersby and ordinary people going about ordinary lives. The taste of the coffee in his mouth was not feeling as pleasant as it had when he took his first sip. Nevertheless, he took another sip. Hoping to buy him time before he would have to read the contents that would hopefully explain why he would be in danger. His eyes shifting the café and exterior for suspicious eyes watching him. Instinctively he sank lower in his seat, as if this would avoid an assassin’s bullet. His heart quickened with anxiety, beating delexically in his chest.

What was this all about? There was only one way to find out. Taking another sip of coffee to calm himself. Arthur’s eyes went to the top of the letter again.


Arthur, if you’re reading this, you may in danger.


I will explain all when we meet. I need you to go to the attic and in the far corner you'll find a shoebox. Take the contents and go to Budapest University and find a Professor Almesh. He will tell you where to find me. There are people after me, and they may well be after you. Don’t tell anyone, or you’ll endanger them. We don’t have much time.


Trust me.

Dad.”


It made no sense to Arthur. Budapest? That’s in Hungary, if he recalled his geography correctly. That explained the stamp. Other than a few years in Edinburgh to study engineering, and a weekend to France, Watford was the size of Arthur’s world. Hungary was half a world away.

Arthur’s mind was swamped with constipated questions. Who was Professor Almesh? What’s in the shoebox in the attic? Was his father on the run from the law? Did Arthur want to get involved? Was he already involved? All these questions went unanswered. Then there was his Aunt, what would he say to her?

Oh by the way Aunty… I’m just popping off to Budapest for a few days… Yeah, right.’ He thought to himself.

His life was already in tatters being unemployed. How was he going to get to Budapest? He barely had enough money to buy coffee and ginger cake. Strangely enough, the thought of forgetting to buy his Auntie’s ginger cake was more fearful than the assassin’s bullet that was about to explode his brains all over the cafe walls. Not leaving a good impression for Zara. Nor himself for that matter. Looking outside for a grassy knoll, Arthur decided it was safe for the time being.

Carefully re-folding letter he returned it to its envelope hoping to deny its existence and eminent danger. He rocked quietly in his chair as tough to a tune in his head. But this was no tune he recognized. Perhaps he had wished to hard for the adventure he had longed for. Finishing his coffee he stood up and waved to Zara as he was leaving.

“See you again soon Arthur.” She called out with a smile.

Infecting him and causing him to smile back.

“Let’s hope so Zara… Let’s hope so.” Arthur replied unsure if anyone would see him again.

Arthur headed to the Shopping Centre and grabbed a shopping basket from the stacked pile.

“What did Aunty want me to buy?” He asked himself trying to recite the shopping list.

Ginger cake… Tea… Loose... Anything else?’ Thought Arthur unable to concentrate.

His father’s letter causing him mental indigestion. He would have Google the Professor when he got home. Hopefully somewhere among the few cryptic clues his father had given him he would see a picture of what it was all about.


But the universe does not work that way. You cannot Google God’s grand design. You can only experience it one moment at a time. There are the chosen. Those with a divine purpose that keep the order from becoming chaos. Arthur, an unemployed civil engineer from Watford Terrace, had been chosen.


Box in the Attic

“I’m home Aunty.” Called out Arthur closing the front door behind him.

Depositing the small shopping bag on the dining table. Placing the ginger cake away in a tin with the remains of the last cake. Refilling the tea tin with a fresh supply. His Aunt appeared just as he finished unpacking.

“Did you get the cake? She enquired.

“I’ve already put it away Aunty.” Indicated Arthur.

“That’s a good boy…” She replied as if he were still a child. “… I’ll put the kettle on”.

Keen to know what was in the shoe box Arthur had a thought of how to get into the Attic.

“I’m just popping up to the Attic Aunty… I need to find an old text book… I won’t be long… I think I know where it is.” Said Arthur.

“Don’t make a mess up there… And brush the dust off before you come down… I’ve just vacuumed!” His Aunt warned.

“Will do Aunty.”

Content he had a plausible excuse to venture into no man’s land. The Attic. No one actually knew what was up in the Attic. A forgotten graveyard of possessions and keepsakes. It had been years since anyone had been up there. Arthur had no interest in those boxes, but there was one particular box he did have an intense interest, the shoe box.

Opening the ceiling door Arthur pulled down the attic stairs. An amount of dust floated in the air. Descending on him and his Auntie’s clean carpet. Checking the stair’s sturdiness he climbed apprehensively through the opening into a semi-lit room. Light filtered through the large round grilled vent and he reaches for the light cord.

Click, click.’ The bulb was dead and the small room remained stained in darkness.

Must change that while I’m up here’, Arthur thought.

There were spare lightbulbs on a shelf on the other side of the attic if he recalled correctly. Finding his way between the boxes in the dimly lit room, he eased his way to the shelf. His eyes were becoming accustomed to the darkness. Making out the likely box that contained the spare bulbs. Reached inside and fumbled for a bulb. Arthur exchanged the bulb and placed the deceased bulb into a cardboard coffin for later burial.

Returning to the light cord.

“Let there be light!” Arthur pronounced to himself.

Click!’ He tugged on the cord.

“And there was light!” Arthur glorified the known universe with brilliance, albeit the Attic.

Darkness was replaced with the illuminated radiance of the single bulb. Stacked boxes confronted him. Each covered with years of thick dust. Boxes containing old photo albums and nick-nates. Memories of his mother. Boxes that would never be opened ever again. Boxes one could never part with. Their contents were their souls.

In a corner of the attic. Behind several stacked boxes. He made out the faint outline of the shoe box his father had indicated his in letter. Dark shadows shrouded its presence. It had been shoved into the dark corner. Covered in dust, but not as much as the other boxes in the room. This had been a recent addition. Arthur reached into the corner and carefully pulled the box out. Unsure of the frailty or its contents. Feeling an unusual weigh it contained. Not shoes.

Arthur’s curiosity deepened.

String had been wrapped repeatedly around the box and had been tied off in a knot. Not a bow. The box was meant to remain closed and not opened. As if to keep what was inside from escaping. Or those on the outside peering inside. Nervously he untied the knot and unwound the string from around the box. Placing the string next to the box of bulbs as though preforming a surgical autopsy. The attic breathed a gust of air through the open vent from outside, stirring up the dust. Skeletal fingers of sunlight reached for him, illuminating the suspended dust particles. Was it trying to prevent him from opening the box?

But these thoughts never entered Arthur’s mind. His curiosity had gotten the better of him.

“Arthur! … What are you doing up there… Your lunch is almost ready.” His Aunt suddenly hollered from below the opening.

“It’s okay Aunty… I’m just changing the light bulb… I’ll be down in just a couple minutes.”

“Hurry up… Before it gets cold.” The prying voice ordered.

Hesitantly he lifted the lid of the shoe box and was shocked to see what he saw. His mind took a moment to register it.

A gun.

More questions filled his head. Multi-choice would have been useful. What was a gun doing in this box? Who had put it there? Whose box was this? The immediate answer was his father. But his father was a travelling salesman. When does a salesman need a gun? What sort of clients did he deal with? Gangsters need stationary and tissue paper? Perhaps. His Aunt was hardly a double agent. Head of a local drug cartel of East London, he could accept. But a gun? It appeared familiar, but then guns do when you see them enough on television.

The single bulb threw a dark shadow of Arthur’s body and over the box. There was something laying underneath the gun. Carefully lifting the gun from the box. It had weight. It felt awkward in his hand and he placed it carefully on the lid beside the box as though it was sleeping bird, not wishing to awaken it.

Arthur reached for what had laid beneath the gun and discovered bundles of cash. British Pounds and Euros of fifty and hundred denominations.

There must be tens of thousands in here.’ he thought.

So much for not affording coffee and ginger cake anymore.

“Arthur!” His Aunt called out again.

Her voice carried up the stairs so clearly it sounded like she was standing behind him.

“What are you doing up there? Your lunch is ready, come down at once!” His Aunty ordered.

“Yes Aunty… Sorry Aunty… Coming now Aunty.” Arthur answered flustered by the coercing voice.

Carefully replacing the gun on top of the bank notes he replaced the lid. Rewinding the string around the box. And finishing it with a secure knot like his father had done. And slid the box back into its deep dark hiding position. He would have to come back later. Was he really about go to Budapest? He still did had more questions than answers.

Returning to the opening Arthur switched off the light and darkness fell again on the attic. Only the thin boney fingers of sun light reached into the room illuminating the suspended dust now dancing on the drifting air. Climbing cautiously down the stairs, he brushed away any dust that may have hitched a ride.

“Did you fix the bulb? …” Aunty asked wondering why he had taken so long. “…Did you find the book you were after?” She machine gunned him with another question.

“Yeah fixed the bulb… But I couldn’t find the book… It must be buried in one of the boxes somewhere. I’ll have another look later.” He half lied hoping that would end her inquisition.

His father’s letter and now shoe box added to his indigestion such that lunch was not as appetizing as it usually would be. If the gun had not disturbed him enough, the amount of cash that laid beneath certainly had. Desperately his mind tried to rationalize the contents to his father’s behavior, but finding no connection. His Aunt could sense something was amiss for Arthur.

“You feeling okay Arty? You’ve barely touched a bite. You’re not coming down with something are you? … You look flush.” His Aunt asked with concern for her nephew.

“I don’t think so Aunty… I think I must have had too much for breakfast. This is a lovely lunch. Thank you very much.”

And he forced himself to take another mouthful. Then another.

“A cup of tea would be lovely.” He suggested.

A cup of tea was the British answer to everything. Especially when it came to settling stomachs. That and Ginger Cake. Tea had gotten them through several world wars. Though they had lost the American continent because of it. Perhaps things would have gone differently had it have been coffee.

Calmly sipping on his tea he sat quietly with his Aunt and watched the midday news.

“Ginger cake Arty?” Aunty asked.

“Oh that would he lovely.” Arthur replied.

Somewhere between the tea, the ginger cake and the re-run on the television, Arthur had formulated a story to tell his Aunt as to how he could escape for a few days and not arouse her suspicions. It is amazing how the subconscious mind compensates for the deficiency of the fearful conscious mind. Planting ideas we think are our own.

“I had an email earlier from a friend saying that one of our old Professors had just died... I was thinking about heading up to Edinburgh for the funeral… To show my respects…” He began to lie.

Hoping she had not been reading the Scottish obituaries in her spare time, as old people habitually did.

“But I don’t want to leave you here all alone.” He added, baiting the hook.

“That’s nice of you Arty, how thoughtful.... It will do you good to get out of the house for a while... Don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine… How long will you gone?” She asked.

Arthur was taken back by his Aunt’s unreactive response to him leaving. Stunned he quickly calibrates the number of days.

“Oh… I thought I might stay about a week…Catch up with some old classmates and all that.”

“That’s a lovely thought Arty… Make sure you pack something warm… It will be getting cold where you’re going.” She advised.

“Yes it will.” Arthur replied wondering. “I’ll start packing this afternoon... I want to catch up with Phil before I go.” He added to embellish some truth to the lie.

“Will you have enough money? … I can spare you some if you need.”

“Ohh… I think I’m good for money, thanks Aunty.”

Very good’, he thought.


Michael sat opposite, unseen enjoying his tea and ginger cake and watching a re-run of an old Monty Python show.

“I like this one.” He chuckles to himself unheard.

The cogs of Arthur’s life were turning, and forcing other cogs to turn with them. Was he really going to Budapest? Any doubting thoughts that crept into his mind were silenced by forces beyond his control sitting nearby. Any action he takes must be by his own freewill. The decision would always be his.


Deck of Cardinals

Several days earlier. Somewhere in the Vatican, in an opulent office void of sound a second telephone rang a short interval after the first had been laid to rest. Interrupting the man’s mind from his thoughts, or prayers. A humble man of the most importance sat behind a large ancient wooden desk, just as his predecessors had centuries before him, deep in thought. Allowing the creeping early morning rays of light to capture him, imaging its warmth as the angelic fingers embracing him. He had not sinned, it was not his job to sin. He had served the Church devoutly for decades, perhaps his whole life in one capacity then another. Now anointed to the highest office, God’s representative on earth.

The man let the intruding phone ring. The man did not to answer to anyone but God.

Echoing off worn polished marble tiles. Filling every square inch of the opulent room with an incessant ringing as though asking, ‘why do you forsake me?’ The man eyes the defiant phone with suspicion. Who would be calling at this early hour? Who would be calling him? The man reluctantly lifted the handset from its cradle to terminate the intrusion. Filling the opulent room once again with a deafening silence.

“Salve.” The man quietly answered in Latin.

“Please excuse my intrusion, your Holiness. But I have some very important news.” Cardinal Cassini began to explain to his boss, the Pope.

“Please go on.” Replied the Pope now recognizing the Cardinal’s voice.

“We have a situation I think you should be aware of.” Advised Cardinal in a grave tone.

“Ire placet” The Pope repeated, slipping back into Latin.

The Cardinal relayed details of the relic’s discovery he had received from the informant. The ecclesiastic significance recognized immediately by the Pope. It was without question that it would need to be returned to the Church.

“A relic... The first? … I see…” The Pope repeated to confirm what he had heard. “…go on my friend.” The Pope requested hoping the call was not being monitored by outsiders.

The Pope nodded to himself acknowledging the importance and taking in the steps that would have to be undertaken to secure its return suggested by the Cardinal.

“Do what you must do to return the relic to the bosom of the Church... Sit angeli custodiat te (May the Angels protect you).” The Pope blessed the Cardinal before hanging up.


The early autumn morning light shone through the tall open arched windows. Embroidered lace curtains projected twirling shadows of angels across the black and white marbled floor. The Bishop of Rome sat at his stately desk, tapping his fingers tapping on the ancient surface, as if to keep beat to the dancing angels on the floor.

Tap-tap-tap, Tap-tap-tap.’

His mind was deep in thought. Like the Cardinal he knew there would be others who would seek the holy prize, more for prestige than its intrinsic value.

‘Braun…’ A name surfaced among his thoughts. Wondering how far he would go to possess such a relic. Other names bubbled to the surface, each as devious and ruthless as the other.

“Hoc non est bonum.” Muttered to himself. “This is not good at all”.

The holy fingers continued to tap upon the holy desk of the holy predecessors. Then the tapping stopped. Silence once again filled the room, as a decision came to mind. He would summon the Cardinals and advise them of the situation. He would take whatever measures that were necessary to repatriate the founding relic to the Church. Be it by an Act of God if need be. Cassini would be provided all resources and means to coordinate the relic’s return.

“Ita sit. (So be it.)” Vocalizing the thought and crossing himself.


Within the hour of the second phone call, Cardinals had gathered in the large meeting room. Long dark purple drapes, trimmed with gold braids, hung heavily from the tall ancient windows. On the walls hung portraits of former Cardinals and Bishops of Rome. The room was cool with the early morning air still lingering. Cardinals mingled among themselves. Moving slowly about the room as they conversed and nodded to one another.

Large heavy wooden doors slowly opened. Nothing moved very fast at the Vatican. Even the sun’s rays were taking their time to reach this room. Haste was not in the holy vocabulary. Urgency on the other hand was. But never the two shall meet. His Holiness entered the room to a series of ritual bows and nods. Like the Red Sea, Cardinals parted as the Pope walked to the head of a large table. The Cardinals waited for His Holiness to be seated before sitting themselves.

“Thank you for coming at such short notice… I have had word of a pressing matter that concerns the Church”. The Pope began solemnly, his tone betraying the significance of the meeting.

He paused to gather his thoughts, then continued.

“I have been informed that a certain English gentleman will soon be in possession of a unique Holy Relic.” Stated the Pope as if to wet the Cardinal’s ecclesiastical appetites.

Causing an immediate mumbled chatter among themselves as to what the other may have heard, before returning their eyes to their Bishop for confirmation.

“I have this on good authority from Cardinal Cassini, whom you all know very well for his services to the Church...”

Accentuating the word services as if it did not need further qualifying. They all knew of the Cardinal. They all knew of his services to the Church. None of whom wished their paths to cross.

“Cardinals…” The Pope began again, “… I understand the Holy Relic is a Fishermen’s Ring... The first of its kind… Saint Peter’s.” Confessed the Pope relieved to have lifted the burden from his shoulders.

An audible inhalation of a gasps circulated the large table as the significance of the founding Ring sunk into aging minds.

“What can we do?” One Cardinal asked.

“Let us pray!” Exclaimed another.

Ritual nods circulated the large table among the novice Cardinals. Countered by a shaking of the heads among the more senior Cardinals.

“Yes, prayer would be helpful… But I am thinking of a more earthly solution.” The Pope advised looking down to Cassini sitting passively beside him.

Cassini eyed the dilapidated deck of Cardinals about the table, wondering which to keep, which to throw out. Not all Cardinals were created equal. He had been in the service of Church longer than he cared to remember and would remain so until summoned by a higher being. His eyes scan for Cardinals appeared out of place. Stopping at an elderly Cardinal. Sitting quiet, as though frozen in time. The only Cardinal that had not to make eye contact with him. Cardinal Dovizi. His senior years rising him above suspicions of recent Vatican scandals. But not above Cassini’s.

“I have placed Cardinal Cassini in charge of returning the Ring to the Church… You are to give him your full support if called upon. This was not a request… But a direct Holy Order.” The Pope promulgated the authority.


Heads nodded in ritual bows, smudged voices discussed their concerns. The Pope stood and blessed his deck of Cardinals before dismissing them back from whence that had come. A sea of red regalia parted again to allow the Bishop of Rome to pass through the slowly opening wooden doors.

Swiss Guards stood either size in their vivid uniforms. Their polished halberds ready to fall on the necks of those that trespassed the ancient hallow halls. Cassini remained behind, watching the other Cardinal’s leave. Eyeing the solo individual that lagged behind the others. Reluctant to pair up with another. Cardinal Dovizi.


Phil

Sitting in his father’s chair he stared out the window onto the Terraced Street outside contemplating the journey that laid ahead. He had often wished for an adventure like his father’s travels across Europe, but had never expected it to be so sudden and dangerous. But then what adventure is not dangerous? Could he go blindly into the unknown? Hi mind was a blank canvas as to what laid ahead of him. By the tone of his father’s letter it would be sooner rather than later.

What was the danger his father spoke of? Dangerous enough to require a gun? The reality of the gun slapped Arthur across the face. Awakening him to the seriousness of his father’s words. But how would he get to Budapest? Money was obviously not an issue anymore.

Plane or train? Security checks and X-Ray machines would detect the gun followed by a lot of questions for which he had no answers. Flying was out of the question.

Trains? They would take longer, but would work if he concealed the gun well enough. They would give him more room to maneuver, more places to hide the gun. Allowing more opportunity to exist the train if required. It would take an extra day to get to Budapest, but if it meant not getting caught with the gun. Settled, trains it would be. But should he buy his tickets online or as he went?

Who were these people that were after him? Were they sophisticated enough to trace tickets like the CIA? He was Arthur McGee, not Jason Borne. His life was in Watford, not in some remote Indian coastal village. Were they watching him now, waiting for his next move? He looked towards the curtains of the window. The afternoon sunlight filtered through the white lace curtains.

Nah... Not in Watford’, Arthur thought to himself.

But if Arthur had looked more closely outside his window, he would have spied a small grey Humber that blended into the curb. Much like the driver who seem to blend into the upholstery of the seat he was sitting on. Unnoticed. Invisible. He was a patient man. If anyone stopped to question him, he would say he was clergy from Italy to visiting their English brethren. If troubled further he would speak Italian or Latin, and any conversation would be abandoned. If troubled further, the Cassini had a solution in his pocket that would silence any further questioning. He would appear of no importance to anyone. And so would passed under everyone’s the radar. Even the prying eyes of Arthur’s watchful Aunt could not detect the Cardinal’s presence.


Arthur Googled ‘Budapest University Professor Almesh’ and waited less than half a second before the search listing came back. Revealing that the Professor was connected to the Department of Historical Antiquity.

“Hmm… That doesn’t sound like office supplies… Unless he’s a client…” Said Arthur to himself desperately trying to make sense of his father’s clues.

But then neither did the gun in the box.

Arthur was in two minds as to whether he should visit Phil and seek thoughts about his father’s letter, and perhaps help cement his alibi with his Aunt. Wondering how much to tell him about his father’s letter summoning him to Budapest despite his father’s warning not to tell anyone. But this was Phil, not just anyone. They had been mates since Edinburg and were like peas and carrots. It would be wrong not to tell him.


Phil lived two streets over and like Arthur, lived at home with his parents. Arthur knocked on the door.

“Hello Arthur...” Said Misses Atkinson, Phil’s mother, “… how have you been? I haven’t seen you in ages.”

“I’m good Misses A…” Arthur replied cheerfully, “…I was wondering of Phil was home?”

“Come on in Arthur… Would you like a cup of tea?” She inquired. “Phillip! Are you up there?” She hollered up the stairway.

“What’s up mom?” A holler came down the stair way.

“Arthur is here to see you!” She relayed back.

“Send him up thanks Mom!”

“Thank you Misses A… I’ll go on up.”

“Call out if you’d like a cup of tea.” She offered again.

“Will do Misses A.” Said Arthur climbing the narrow stairs to Phil’s room.


Arriving at the door of Phil’s bedroom, a room was unchanged from since he was a teenager. Which was questionable how long ago that was. Heavy metal rock posters adorn the walls. A well-arranged shelf of old vinyl LP’s. Phil sat a desk surfing the net.

“What you up to?” Trying to peer over Phil’s shoulder.

“Nothing much… Just surfing.”

The page quickly changed as Arthur got closer.

“You?” Asked Phil ricocheting a back question to Arthur.

“Not much…” Arthur paused as he thought of what he wanted to say or how to say it, “…Well actually… Something has come up and I need your help”.

“Sounds interesting… What you been up to? … Is it a woman?”

Phil hoping to expel his wisdom upon Arthur. The amount of which could be written on the back of a postage stamp. Which not to be unfair to Phil, was generally more than most men knew about women.

“Interesting yes… A woman? No…” Said Arthur reluctant to continue.

“Come on… Spill the beans…” Said Phil ribbing Arthur to get on with it.

“I don’t know how much I can tell you… I shouldn’t be telling you any of this! … I’ve been told not to ... It could put you in danger as well…” Arthur advised cautiously before realizing he already said to much.

If ever there was a hook to catch Phil’s attention it was the word danger.

Danger? … How can you ever be in danger? … You live in Watford for God sake man… Besides… Danger is my middle name.” Joked Phil.

“Yeah… Though sometimes I wonder if it should be your first.” Replied Arthur, not joking.

Phil had a reputation for being handy with his fists. And not afraid to step up to anyone twice his side if they crossed the line with him.

“So what’s happened to get you in all this so-called trouble? … You haven’t robbed a bank have you?” Asked Phil hoping Arthur would say no.

“Well actually… I don’t know…” Arthur thought about the money in the box. “… If I tell you… You have to swear not to tell anyone okay?”

“What do you mean you don’t know… You either did or you didn’t?” Responded Phil.

Realizing something was troubling Arthur he went to the door and closed it quietly. And looked at Arthur with a solemn look on his face.

“Alright big guy… Spill the beans and don’t hold anything back… Half a story won’t do okay?” Said Phil taking a more serious tone.

“I had a letter from my father.” Arthur started.

“It’s a women isn’t it?” Phil surmised the problem.

“No, it’s not a women… Not everything is about women Phil.”

“Sorry Mate, I just thought… Go on, I won’t interrupt again.”

“I had a letter from my father… He said I may be in danger… Said I should go to Budapest….”

“Budapest?” Phil exclaimed taken by surprise.

“Wait there’s more… Said I should see a Professor there… Almesh… He told me to tell no one… Or I will put them in danger.” Said Arthur relieved to have told someone.

Arthur reached into his pocket and pulled out the letter to corroborate his story. Passing it to Phil who opened it and read it to himself. Phil’s face became solemn again and he lifted his eyes to Arthur’s.

“Shit… You’re not joking…. So what was in the box?” Phil enquired.

“A lot of money…” Arthur paused, “… And a gun.”

“A gun?!” Exclaimed Phil again. “Fuck… The money sounds well and good… But what is your father doing with a gun?”

Phil became entangled in the same knotted thoughts Arthur had had. And the two sat looking blankly at each other taking in the obscure facts.

“What you going to do?” Asked Phil handing the letter back to Arthur.

“I have to go. My father wants me there… He seems to think I’ll be safer there than staying here.” Reasoned Arthur aloud.

“Who’s this Professor… Almesh?” Asked Phil.

“I did a search for him on the net and it seems he has something to do with History and Antiquity at Budapest University… So I guess dad is tied in with him somehow.”

“I thought your father was a travelling salesmen. When did he become a secret agent? … Cool!” Joked Phil.

Arthur tried to restrain himself from laughing but could not help it. Phil managed relieve the anxiety that had been building within Arthur.

“Yeah...” Chuckled Arthur with a grin forming on his face.

“How you going to get to Budapest without your Aunt knowing?”

“I’ve told her I’m heading up to Edinburgh for a funeral of an old Professor.”

“Oh that’s a good story mate! … I’d be proud to think of that one… So… when do we leave?” Asked Phil never to left out of an adventure.

“We?” Arthur looked at Phil, “You can’t come… I can’t get you caught up with this.” Pleaded Arthur.

“Danger is my middle name remember… Besides… You’ll need someone handy with a gun ... I‘ll be your wing man ... Four eyes are better than two… They won’t be looking for two guys travelling together... I can watch your back while you’re watching mine ... Safety in numbers mate ...” Said Phil exhausting most of the clichés he knew and waited for Arthur to accept his invitation.

“I suppose you’re right… If you don’t mind being killed along the way.” Arthur half joked.

“Mate… They have to get through me to get to you.” Stated Phil.

And somehow Arthur knew he meant it. No one got pass Phil without a bruising to show for their troubles.

“You won’t regret it mate.” Grinned Phil excited by the journey.

“Yeah... That’s what I’m afraid of… We leave tomorrow morning. There’s a train leaving St Pancras for Brussels at ten tomorrow morning… Don’t worry about money. There seems to enough for several round trips ... I’ve sorted a rough itinerary that should see us in Budapest in a couple days… Bring your Identity Card and Passport for the border checkpoints and any hotels we may need to stay at along the way.”

“Can’t we simply fly there?” Asked Phil.

“Not with a gun as hand luggage mate.” Reminded Arthur.

“Oh yeah... Security doesn’t like that sort of things these days. I forgot.” Said Phil correcting himself.

“It will take longer… But we’ll get there… You sure you still want to go? You don’t have.” Asked Arthur checking again.

“Mate... I wouldn’t let you go without me.” Responded Phil.

“Yeah…Somehow I thought you’d say that… I’ll see you tomorrow morning. My place by nine okay? We’ll get a taxi from there to the station. Cover story you’re coming to Edinburgh for a week for a funeral of an old professor.” Instructed Arthur.

“See you tomorrow morning mate.” Grinned Phil keen to get going.

“I’ve got to get back for dinner before my Aunt calls out a search party.” Said Arthur heading down the stairs.

Arthur got home just before the alarm be raised and settled in for dinner with his favorite Aunt, before leaving into the unknown, to a man he did not know in country he had only ever read about half a world away. Informing his Aunt that Phil had decided to accompany him to Edinburgh.

“That’s nice… Safety in numbers.” She suggested.

“Yeah… Safety in numbers… And who better than Phil right Aunty?” Arthur replied playing alone.


After the habitual cups of tea, ginger cake and television reruns Arthur excused himself to bed. Usually he would read a few pages before he slept, but tonight his book would serve another purpose. Placing the letter between the open pages he re-read his father’s brief letter. Hoping there was more than what he had already had read. Perhaps there was something he had missed between the lines, between the words.

Go to Budapest. Find Professor Almesh.’

His mind erupted with fantasies of spies and espionage, but soon evaporated when his Aunt appeared at his door.

“You okay Arty? You look tired.” Asked his Aunt.

“I’m fine thanks Aunty, just getting into the book.” He half fibbed.

“Don’t stay up too late… You have a big trip tomorrow. Get some sleep… Sweet dreams.”

“You too Aunty.”

He could hear her going down the hallway. Floorboards creaking underfoot.

I don’t think I’ll be having sweet dreams tonight’, thought Arthur.


Had he made a mistake telling Phil, going against his father’s directions? Arthur’s weakness was Phil’s strength. They complimented each other. Phil was coming along wanted or not. Closing the laptop and book he switched off the lamp.

The room flooded with a darkness illuminated by the growing full moon outside, tinged with a faint red glow. That night Arthur would not sleep well at all. Somewhere between the puzzling thoughts and searching questions, tiredness overcame him.

“Sleep.” Said Michael.

And Arthur drifted into a peaceful sleep, deeper than he had ever slept before.


Cardinal Dovizi

Heads nodded in ritual bows, smudged voices discussed their concerns. The Pope stood and blessed his deck of Cardinals before dismissing them back from whence that had come. A sea of red regalia parted again to allow the Bishop of Rome to pass through the slowly opening wooden doors.

Cardinals moved unhurriedly through the large doorway. Discussing amongst themselves the implications of the finding. The deck shuffled, split itself and dealt the Cardinals in different directions of the Vatican compass. Paired off as if by some primal mating ritual. Except for one lone Cardinal.

Cardinal Bernardo Dovizi.

As within any society, there is good and evil. Moral and immortal. The Vatican was no exception. Dovizi was no exception. Though well past his expiry date he clung to his elected position as he did to life. Over the decades he had made associations with people and organizations around the world. Some reputable, some less so, and some had grown into friendships. The line between good and evil had become blurred. Perhaps smudged at times. We all have friends less moral than ourselves. Yet we still find ourselves associating with them. Somehow they complete they us.

Dovizi too had friends less moral than himself.

While the Pope and the Church fulfilled the one half, his less moral associates fulfilled the other. Dovizi was too old to be concerned moralities anymore. He may not be Pope, nor ever would be and so allowed himself with a few digressions from his ordained position during his final years on God’s earth. Having served many Popes in his time, this tenure may well be his last. An opportunity had presented itself on the silver platter. He had friends that would reward him favorably should the relic fall into his possession. Would it would take would be a silent word to point them in the right direction. There would be no blood on Dovizi’s hands.

Dovizi shuffled unhurriedly to his office along a labyrinth of marbled passageways. There are no escalators in the Vatican, no elevators. Just eternally long corridors. Large winding stairways, each draped with a royal red carpet held in place by polished brass bars.

Beams of morning sunlight shone through the towering windows that stood like Sentinels looking down upon the diminutive figure shuffling along the corridor. They had been watching him for many years. But there was an unspoken code, what happens in the Vatican, stays in the Vatican. The Sentinels allowed the Cardinal to pass. His secret was safe. For now.

Before closing the door of his ancient office Dovizi looked down the corridor to ensure his privacy. Staff would not arrive for another half hour and he would have the office to himself. Lowering himself gently into his chair surveyed his desk of neatly stacked arranged piles of paper. Dovizi was a thorough man and he like things in their place.

Opening a drawer he removed a small plastic box of business cards. Then reached for an old pair of reading glasses and wedged them on his nose. Hooking their bent wire limbs behind his large ears. Removing the cards he thumbed through them as if he was playing bridge. Wondering what to keep, what to throw out. He was searching for two cards in particular. Hesitating, he read the card in front of him. The voices in his head debated what to do next. Would he, would he not?

But the question as to should he? Never entered his mind. Minutes had passed in what seem like a moments as he stared in contemplation at the card. Taking a deep breath to annul his anxiety Dovizi reached for the telephone and lifted the heavy large green hand piece.

Dovizi was confident the call would not monitored. In all his years at the Vatican not once had he heard a case of a telephone being monitored. But that was a risk he was prepared to take. The man on the other end of the line also took risks. Dovizi punched the numbers of the illicit card into the green phone, and waited for it to be answered. It rang several times before a voice answered by a man enjoying his breakfast in the shade of the pergola hanging with vines.

Large stone lions watched on from each corner of the courtyard.

“Cardinal Dovizi… how are you my good friend? What can I do for you?” Came the reply.

“How did you know it was me my good friend?” Enquired the Dovizi apprehensively.

“Caller ID my friend… Isn’t wonderful? ...” Laughed the person on the end of the phone. “…I can tell whose calling. It is good to hear from you… You have something for me today?” Asked the voice eagerly.

The voice was that of Don Marconi. A notorious relic collector. In particular, religious relics. Already holding several of Dovizi’s informed pieces in his collection and was always interested in more. Although highly illegal, Marconi’s connections with authorities had afforded him a level of protection from meddling righteous eyes.

Marconi resided on a remote hilltop hideaway, Villa San Michelle. On the Isle of Capri, Naples. The former chapel, dedicated to San Michele, was reputedly built on the ruins of Roman Emperor Tiberius' villa. But was now a forgotten relic to the outside world. A fitting place of residence for the illicit relic collector. Towering three hundred meters above sea level with over a thousand steps to each it few ever ventured there. Panoramic views of the town of Capri and its harbor. The sleeping Mount Vesuvius in the distance. It had been rediscovered by a young Swedish Physician named Munthe at the turn of the last century. It is said Munthe made a pact with the devil to acquire the property. The hilltop hideaway had passed through a series of socialites and eventually onto Don Maroni. Maroni had not made a pact with the devil to acquire it. But he was about to make a pact with the next best thing, Cardinal Dovizi.

“I have news there is a Relic… The first of its kind.” Dovizi served the appetizer. “We will need to act quickly to secure it.”

“Hmm, most interesting... Do we know what it is?” Marconi asked curiously.

“A Fisherman’s Ring…” Dovizi paused to allow its significance to register. “… The Church is very, very keen to have it returned.” Dovizi added, baiting Marconi further.


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