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Authors: Eileen Hodgetts

Excalibur Rising

BOOK: Excalibur Rising
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Excalibur
Rising

 

Book One

Eileen Enwright Hodgetts

 

 

 

 

 

 

©2014 Eileen Enwright Hodgetts

 

The One-Eyed Man
London
     The one-eyed man stepped out of the mist under the light of a waning moon.  He had timed his arrival to coincide with low tide on the River Thames so that he would be on the shingle beach and not be up to his knees in water. The hour was late and the boy should not even have been there.  Who, he asked himself, allows their kid to walk alone on the Thames Embankment so late in the evening?  The boy had seen him.  Briefly he considered killing the kid, but then he decided a killing would attract too much attention.  He was here to kill, but the killing would be subtle and secret and should remain undiscovered for many days. 
     He consulted his watch, pleased to see that it had started to work again. On the other side of the mist the watch was no more than an ornament, but here it told him what he needed to know.
     He had allowed himself five hours. Just enough time to kill the man, reroute the victim’s phone calls, steal his car, and drive to Heathrow Airport.  If all went well, he would be on the flight to Vegas with time to spare. 
     He slipped the dagger out of his pocket and admired the way  the cold moonlight played upon the jeweled handle.  The kid was still looking at him.  He climbed the ancient steps from the river bank up to the Embankment where the light of the street lamp played full on his face.  The kid took one look and then turned and ran.
      The one-eyed man strode purposefully through the moonlit streets.  He was on his way to end a life. The thought gave him no particular pleasure, but it also gave him no particular pain; killing was what he did.  He would kill many more times before he could return to the place he called home.

 

CHAPTER ONE
Professor Marcus Ryan, Las Vegas, Nevada
        Marcus Ryan pounded angrily on the elevator button but the doors to the staff elevator remained firmly closed.   He reluctantly conceded that the Out of Order sign actually meant what it said, and the elevator was truly not working, a rare event in the well-oiled machinery of the Mandretti empire.  He was left with no choice but to leave the privacy of the Mandretti Treasure Vault and go out onto the Strip, and around the corner to the hotel entrance..
        All he wanted to do was reach his room on the 20
th
floor of the Mandretti Resort Hotel and get himself out of his work clothes and into a stiff drink.  What he didn’t want to do was parade himself through the Las Vegas Strip where someone might recognize him as Marcus Ryan, the once youthful professor who used to have a network television show about historical treasures. Of course, that was before cable had destroyed the networks, and before the passage of time had blurred Ryan’s youthful features.        
        Unfortunately, Ryan’s boss was still determined to cash in on Ryan’s waning popularity and insisted that Ryan should dress the way he had dressed for the TV program.  Kitted out in full explorer gear including snake proof boots, khaki shorts, safari jacket, and an Australian bush hat Ryan felt like a caricature of his former self.  The only really useful items were the bush hat which protected his head from the heat of the desert afternoon, and the thick soled boots that protected his feet from a sidewalk that was roughly the temperature of a bed of burning coals.  As for the rest; he had no useful items in the multitudinous pockets of the safari jacket, and in real archaeological conditions his neatly pressed shorts would be of no use at all, too short, and too tight for any real work.       
        He scurried as fast as his long legs would carry him along the Strip, through the hotel lobby, and over to the bank of elevators serving the thousand rooms.  A small group of newly arrived tourists had gathered in front of the elevator, clutching their keycards and suitcases. 
        “That’s him,” he heard a woman say.
        “No, it isn’t” came the reply. “He’s bigger than that.”
         “They all look bigger on TV,” the woman argued. “I’m telling you that’s him.  He’s doing some kind of show here.  I saw his picture in the brochure.”
        The man tapped Ryan on the arm.
        “Are you him?” he asked.
        Ryan removed his hat and pasted on his best TV personality smile.
        “Welcome to Vegas,” he said.
        The elevator doors opened and he welcomed the rush of super cooled air.  They all stepped inside, the tourists with their suitcases, and Ryan in his ridiculous explorer outfit.
        The women addressed her husband as though Ryan was invisible. “It’s him,” she reiterated, “but he’s looking much older.”
        She turned to him. “I used to watch you on TV every Sunday night,” she said, “me and the kids loved Treasure Hunt.  You found such interesting stuff.  I was sorry you was cancelled.”
        “So was I,” Ryan said, and breathed a sigh of relief as the doors opened onto the 20
th
Floor.
        “Nice to meet you,” the woman said as the doors closed again. 
        Ryan made his way along the corridor to his room where he immediately stripped off his safari jacket and flopped down on the bed in his shorts.  How are the mighty fallen, he said to himself, although to be honest he knew that he had never been mighty. He had only been a fairly well known TV personality, never a major star.
        The message light was flashing on his room phone and he picked it up, punched in his code and listened to a recorded messaging telling him that Professor T. Q. Peacock would like Professor Ryan to call him as soon as possible.  His room number was 21112.
        Ryan replayed the message to be sure that he had heard correctly.  Professor T.Q. Peacock was here at the Mandretti?  What on earth, he wondered, was Taras Quentin Peacock doing in Las Vegas? 
        Intrigued, he dialed the professor’s room number and was greeted by the unmistakable upper–class British accent of the man who had been his freshman history professor his first terrifying year at Harvard.
        “Good news,” the professor said, “Great news.  Call room service, my boy, and order something decent, none of that revolting California swill, something French.  I’ll be with you in a tick.”
        “But how did you know I was here?” Ryan asked.
        “I know everything,” Peacock said.  “I know all about you, my boy.  You certainly haven’t lived up to your earlier promise.  How old are you now?”
     “Forty five,” said Ryan.
     “Forty five,” Peacock repeated. “That’s what I thought. You’re still young but don’t have any time to waste.  I think I have something better for you.  Stop asking questions and order the drinks.  I’ll see you in a minute.”
        Peacock broke the connection and left Ryan to wonder what on earth his old professor could want with him after so many years, and just how and why he intended to revive Ryan’s flagging career.
        Before he picked up the phone to order room service, Ryan shuffled through his mental filing system until he arrived at the image of T.Q. Peacock sitting at his desk and pouring red wine into a whisky tumbler.  The year was 1990, the place was Harvard, and the wine was a French Chateau Neuf du Pap, served at room temperature.
        Ryan called Room Service and ordered a bottle of Chateau Neuf du Pap at a somewhat alarming price, and then he took his own bottle of Jack Daniels from the mini-bar.  He had several bottles of Jack Daniels in that refrigerator.  For the past few years Jack Daniels had been his only friend.
He slipped into jeans and a tee shirt and was searching for his sneakers when the professor knocked at the door.  He greeted Ryan with a bear hug and then stepped back to look him up and down.
        “You’ve grown taller,” he said, “and thinner.”
        Ryan shook my head. “No taller, and no thinner, “he said, “six four and one eighty.”
        “Five six and twenty stone,” Peacock said in reply, “that’s two eighty to you Americans, and I’m proud of every pound of it.”
        The professor stepped into the room, rubbing his hands together in delight.  His hair, which had been peppered with grey when Ryan first met him, was now a mass of snowy white curls.  His rotund body was stuffed into a heavy Harris Tweed suit which may well have been the same suit he had worn as Visiting Professor of History all those years ago.  His eyes had the same old twinkle, and his nose was the same cheerful red.
        “Look at this, look at this!” Peacock exclaimed, waving his arms expansively to encompass the room, the view and the whole of Las Vegas. “Fallen into clover, that’s what we’ve done, lad.  We’ve fallen into clover.  Do you know how much money there in this town, lad?  Do you?”
        For a moment Ryan was a student again, forced to admit that he didn’t know the answer. “Not exactly,” he muttered.
        “Neither do I,” Peacock shouted, slapping Ryan on the back, “but I reckon there’s enough to go around, and then some to spare.”
        “Do you mind telling me what you’re doing here?” Ryan asked. “Of course I’m glad to see you but …”
        Peacock silenced him with a peal of jovial laughter. “Don’t get upset, lad,” he said, “I’m not here to get in on your act, not that you’ve been doing all that well lately.  Lost the TV show, so I hear.”
        “Ten years ago,” Ryan admitted. “My simple little Sunday night specials couldn’t compete with the Discovery Channel and the History Channel, and all the rest.”
        “So now you’re here authenticating treasures for a hoodlum,” Peacock said.
        “Not exactly,” Ryan protested.  “I mean, they are genuine treasures, and I have made it very clear that I will have the final say on whether or not they are authentic.  He has some pretty amazing stuff and being his curator is not so___”
        “Oh, don’t mind me,” Peacock said. “You were my star pupil and you made such a good start, but I know times change, and you have to do what you have to do.  I can quite understand you prostituting your name, we all have to do it from time to time.  I’ve put my name on some research papers that were just ...”
        He stopped in mid-sentence, shrugged his shoulders and sat himself down in an armchair. 
        “Did you call Room Service?” he asked.
        Ryan nodded his head.
        Peacock drew a cigar from the depths of his appalling tweed jacket. “Fine wine, fine cigar, and a fine student, what more could I ask for?”
        “This is a no-smoking room,” Ryan protested as Peacock clipped the end of the cigar.
        “I should hope so” Peacock said, “a fine Havana cigar is not something that should be smoked in the company of any lesser leaf.”
        “They’re not legal,” Ryan said. “Havana cigars are not legal in this country.”
        “I’m not a citizen of your petty-minded country,” Peacock said. “I am a guest and as such I am entitled to certain ethnic comforts.  Anyway, this is Vegas, and as I understand it, what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.  Now stop frowning at me and sit down, and let’s get down to business.  I really don’t like to say much before I have a glass of something in my hand, but no doubt Room Service will make its way up here before too long.”
        “No doubt,” Ryan agreed, and sat down on the sofa.
        “I’ve found something,” Peacock said, “that goes beyond your wildest dreams and you and I, Marcus, are going to sell it to the man who owns this hotel.”
         “Michael Mandretti?” asked Ryan.
        “Michael Mandretti, yes, that’s right.  He’s going to give us a great deal of money for what I’ve found.  Maybe everything he possesses.”
        Ryan smiled and kept his doubts to himself.  In addition to cataloguing and curating Michael Mandretti’s collection for the past twelve months, he had also been instrumental in finding new treasures for Mandretti’s horde.  Ryan had no idea what was behind his employer’s hungry search for rare and irreplaceable treasures, or why the man would spend hours at a time in the air conditioned treasure vault simply staring through the armored glass at the jewel encrusted relics of lost civilizations.
     Ryan had personally bargained with treasure hunters, divers, wreckers and private collectors for whatever historical artifacts appealed to Mr. Mandretti’s eclectic taste.  When it came to collecting, Mandretti was like a butterfly landing greedily on whatever attracted his attention.  He was not a discerning collector but on any given day Mr. Mandretti knew what he wanted, and Mr. Mandretti got what he wanted, at the price he wanted to pay. Every time. Ryan could not imagine for one moment that Professor Peacock could have found anything that Michael Mandretti could not have found for himself, if he truly wanted to.
        Peacock puffed contentedly on his cigar. “You don’t believe me, do you?” he asked.
        Ryan said nothing.
        Peacock looked around for an ashtray. Seeing nothing suitable he hopped to his feet and trotted off to the bathroom, returning with the bathroom wastebasket. “You used to smoke,” he said accusingly. “I suppose that wife of yours talked you out of it.”
        “She’s not my wife any longer,” Ryan said. “Hasn’t been for years.”
        “Yes, yes, I read about it in one of the London rags,” Peacock said. “Sorry to hear it.  Oh well, onward and upward my boy, onward and upward.  By the time I’m finished with you, you’ll be able to buy any woman in the world.”
        “I don’t want to buy a woman.”
        “Figure of speech;” Peacock said, “don’t be so damned touchy.”
        He blew a cloud of pungent smoke into the air and looked at Ryan through the haze.
         “What,” he asked, “would be the greatest treasure anyone could find?”
        Now there’s a question, Ryan thought. “The greatest?” he repeated.
        “Yes,” said Peacock, “the find of finds?”
        Ryan rose to his feet and looked out of the window.  Below him the Las Vegas Strip slashed through the desert.  Tall buildings reached for the sky and inside the buildings desperate men and women threw their money into the gaping mouths of one-armed bandits or onto the hungry green fields of the playing tables.
        “Money?” Ryan asked.
        “More than money,” said Peacock, “a find of such historical value that no museum could ever afford to buy it, a find that could be housed here in this hotel.  People would come from every corner of the world just to see it.  What would Mandretti pay for something like that?”
        “I don’t know,” Ryan said. “I don’t know what it is.”
        “Of course you don’t” Peacock agreed. “I’m just asking you to use your brain.  You’re the expert.  You’re the television personality.  You’re the man Mandretti trusts with his treasures.  So, what would that treasure be?  Think, lad. Think.”
        Ryan was a freshman again, being harassed by an eccentric bullying Englishman.  “You don’t change, do you?” he said sullenly.
        “No,” Peacock agreed. “I don’t change. I don’t want to change.  So what do you think I’ve found?”
        Ryan answered off the top of his head. “The Holy Grail.”
        “Yes,” he said, “the Holy Grail.”
        Ryan stared at him. “You’ve found the Holy Grail?”
        He shook his head. “No, of course I haven’t found the Holy Grail.  I can’t find something that doesn’t exist.  I’m using a metaphor.  What is the holy grail of treasure hunters?”
        Determined to impress him, Ryan reeled off a list. “The Lost Dutchman Mine, Atlantis, Noah’s Ark, the Fountain of Youth.”
        “No basis in fact,” Peacock said impatiently. “Think rationally, Marcus.”
        Ryan glared at his tormenter. “Just tell me,” he said. “I know you’re dying to tell me.”
        “Excalibur,” said Peacock.
        Ryan’s heart sank.  For a moment he had thought that the old man had really found something, but apparently he had only come to torment his student.
        “The sword of Arthur,” Peacock said. “What would Mandretti pay if he could own Excalibur?”
        “I thought we were talking rationally,” Ryan said.
        “We are,” Peacock insisted. “I’m telling you that I have found it.  I have seen it with my own eyes.”
        “Excalibur?”
        “Yes.”
        “Impossible.”
        “Why?”
        “Why?” Ryan asked. “Why is it impossible that you’ve seen King Arthur’s sword?  Because it never existed, that’s why. King Arthur never existed, ergo his sword never existed.”

BOOK: Excalibur Rising
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