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Medieval Memories: Origins

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Bush in Hand

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Contents

Chapter I 3

Chapter II 12

Chapter III 17

Chapter IV 21

Chapter V 38

Chapter VI 45

Chapter VII 49

Chapter VIII 67

Chapter IX 80

Chapter X 95

Chapter XI 114

Chapter XII 136

Chapter XIII 150

Chapter XIV 159

Chapter XV 170

Chapter XVI 175

Chapter XVII 177

Chapter XVIII 184

Chapter XIX 212

Chapter XX 231

Chapter XXI 247

Chapter XXII 254

 

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Chapter I

 

 

His broad forehead wasn’t terribly stooped, but enough so that he didn’t have to press it very hard against the cool thermal pane to have a clear view, forty floors down, to the vast porch onto which the building was disgorging its contents. Only one small thing, he reflected, made him unlike the tiny people scurrying about the business of acquiring ever more; he alone had no apparently useful memories to guide him through the infinite subtleties which layered even the simplest exchanges among humans.

The restless crowd evolved into familiar patterns. Those that herded together in lumpy groups his savvy eye told him were prey. Around these clusters the predators hovered in twos and threes, always alert to even the smallest opportunity. He would mostly be dealing with the latter, his own kind, once he began working here. Little thought was spared for the impending interview, since he expected it to be but a formality. In any event, he didn’t have much in the way of memories to guide him in such matters. In truth, he didn’t have much in the way of memories to guide him in most matters since those he had at hand, he has been assured, were all pure fabrications. But he would nevertheless keep in mind the practical truths which had guided him all his presumably imaginary life.

He was barely ten when the priest in a moment of spirited honesty confided to him, “my lad, our partnership is the foundation of our success. There are but a few simple rules you must unfailingly follow.” The lascivious agent of Rome, having once been brought to heel by the determined boy, paused for a moment when he saw consternation darkening his charge’s stern features and quickly thought to add, “do not fret, you will find in these prescriptions nothing onerous.” He waited a moment for the scowl to disappear from the child’s expressive face. “As long as we keep it that way you can lie with your neighbour’s wife and covet his ass, you can kill, you can steal and you can be untruthful, all these transgressions very quickly leading you to riches and power. As regards honouring your parents, pride and you know the rest, only if convenient.” But the drunken haze had not entirely fogged up this stout cleric’s good senses.

He did assure his by now perceptibly astonished charge that there was still a God and in the Almighty’s view he would be deemed a sinner and even he, his noble lineage notwithstanding, would need the intercession of the priest’s fine institution to acquire the keys to paradise. When the time came he would also, like everyone else, have to expiate for all his earthly and all too human lapses and generously endow Mother Church. Indeed, the leering ecclesiastic suggested, even when grown to manhood he should not leave such matters to the very last moment, given the hazards of the violent life he would be leading, but take every opportunity to keep his repentance ledger in good balance. However, for this priest, his clever attempt to make of himself the indispensable lubricant for Abelard to pass through the eye of the proverbial needle did not quite work out.

As it happened, some years later when Abelard’s career as a captain was in full flourish, this particular man of the cloth, who had so shaped his life strategies, did himself become bothersome and had to be put to the sword. But that was a very long time ago, at least in Abelard’s false memories. In his own defence he does recall that this venal servant of God was entirely deserving of his end – a debaucher, fornicator and, worst of all, a French sympathizer. Odd as it may seem, in this make-believe world things were attractively different. Everything had a comfortable certainty, a preordination, so to speak. Do unto others before they did unto you and be sure to make peace with the Almighty just before passing on. Follow this simple formula and a choice spot for Abelard at the court of eternal joy was practically guaranteed, not to belittle the great pleasures he would moreover extract while still trapped in his mortal coil. No matter the butchery, the thievery, even the blasphemy, a legacy to Mother Church and all would be forgiven. Not that the basic rules had changed much since then, only the institutions with which he would be in partnership were now mostly extra-ecclesiastical.

Tearing his gaze from the circling creatures in the busy plaza and lifting it towards the heavens on this limpid, balmy spring noontime, he took a moment to muse on something that had caught his attention earlier in the day. It seemed a fine touchstone for his personal situation and he had put it aside for later mulling. A hornpipe voice had screamed from his tuner, claiming to represent Moral Society. The early morning harangue was greatly agitated and spared no adjectives or found no admonishment too out of place, aiming to convince the worried listeners that turning the clock back to the good old days was the only tonic to a suppurating divine wrath. Abelard was not convinced. Save for the inevitable setbacks and disappointments the past was a very good place indeed, at least for him it was so. But was the past really better? Judging from the limited experiences to which his mind did have legitimate access, the wonderful memories from his past notwithstanding, it seems to him that the present is so much better. In the past the code was simple, he took what he wanted from the weaker, he meted out swift justice to those he disagreed with and in the process handsomely enriched himself. He didn’t, like many of his peers, expressly seek out violence but brought it to bear with ruthless determination whenever the need arose and that, he mused, was more often than not. But to his mind, despite his brilliant successes, there is no contest. Today, yes wonderful, splendid today, things are hugely superior. The rules are still more or less the same, not as much direct violence, a little more complicated, but the spirit is unchanged and the rewards are incomparably fabulous.

He wasn’t terribly fussed that The Society was still operating, had already tried to kill him and would probably make more attempts. Something to do with his past which, in any event, no one believed. Certainly connected to the little cross he no longer had about his neck when he was revived by Felicity and Oliver. He would be on his guard. Child’s play in contrast to the hazards he endlessly faced in those false memories.

That humans had faithfully remained to this day as craven and grasping, untrustworthy and duplicitous as he recalled did not in the least mystify him. He had somehow always felt that base venality was a human instinct as permanent as the need to eat and sleep. Indeed, he suspected, modern man’s demented consumption of food must surely be driving Mother Church to distraction, what with the fat, rather than the meek who would soon be inheriting the earth. Sloth and Gluttony, the ugly handmaidens of uninhibited self-interest, have inevitably and most completely triumphed over Toil and Abstention.

That morning, laying out to Felicity his strategy for the interview, she had shown her usual patience with his ‘dumb view’ of human behaviour. “No, my dearest Abelard, the pursuit of rational self interest is not the norm. How do you explain with such a simple notion that people do stupid things like engage in unnecessary violence, self-destruct through envy, vengeful obsession and pride? Of course, you have no good answer, because most people are emotional, not rational. And your supposed experiences during the Hundred Years war are not real. They are made up. They are there only as a placeholder while you figure out what happened and who you were before you lost your memory. Good luck. I have to run.” A passionate embrace and she was gone to fill another day.

Abelard felt that these were not at all good objections, but was unable to put into compelling words what he knew with iron conviction to be basic human nature. He understood that she was confusing the means different people used to attain that which they saw serving their self-interest with the basic motivation to self-interest. Not everyone was equally skilled in its pursuit. Some still relied on the always popular quick recourse to violence, while others, like that clever Machiavelli fellow he had read about, could bring to bear huge intellectual resources to so much more efficiently fulfill all that served their self-interest. He resolved, for the hundredth time, to avoid this topic with Felicity.

Although the substance remains as true as ever, the wicked priest’s lessons had by now become a bit frayed about the edges. Eternal rewards and divine retribution can no longer be counted on. All he’s got now to help him make important decisions about the future are a handful of probabilities and a growing crowd of neuroscientists telling him that even his very thoughts are no more than the ramblings of a machine destined to shut down and, and….., that’s it. Attractive as the simple world he remembers might be, he could see why this should be better for him. If there is no eternal afterlife he no longer has the nagging worry about when to repent and change his ways. He can happily debauch, butcher, thieve and blaspheme to his very last breath, with no more consequence than if he were to lead a saintly life, such as the one his therapist has been trying to treat him into for almost a year now. Poor woman, she will fail, for Abelard is but human and so impelled to self-interest, which he knows is best served in the ways revealed to him by the iniquitous cleric.

Four or five more sessions and his promise to Felicity is fulfilled. Then he shall be stamped ‘cured’ and be able to shed all the fantasies which he has been harbouring in place of a real memory. Only he still doesn’t have even a nanosecond of what are supposed to be his genuine recollections and he doubts very much the rubbish that passes for therapy will make the difference when it does come finally to an end.

Although not nearly as self-confident of his roots as he had been four years earlier, Felicity and her experts have all but failed to convince him that things are as they appear. To his good fortune, though, when he looks about him at the world as it is he does not see any great difference in substance from the world he remembers. These are the same human beings he recalls, only they get around a lot faster than he did, they keep in touch over much larger distances than he could ever have imagined and they have devised devilishly clever ways to kill each other unimaginably quickly and in astoundingly large numbers.

Alas, he must be patient. As soon as he has the resources available he will be able to prove, once and for all, to himself and to Felicity, which way lies the past and the future. He had asked Felicity, who seems to have an unlimited wherewithal at her disposal, for help but all he received was a severe admonishment for clinging to dead end delusions.

For him there was nothing unusual about his recollections – cruelty, torture, casual death, the lives of most worth less than a Twinkie bar. He was little troubled that those close to him would recoil at these horrors. After all, he didn’t care much for most other human beings, perhaps for none. This he was not yet sure about. What did annoy him, though only a little, was that they also pitied him for his amnesia; a sorely misplaced sentiment. He knew that wherever might be the truth he would always be one step ahead of the crowd. It had something to do with his past, something which endowed him with an intimate feel for man and his insatiable cravings. He was very good at the games other humans played and he pursued them always with ardour, despite his muddled memories. He was terribly grateful for their utter predictability. Whatever he had learned about the species in his non-existent past seems not to have lost any of its value.

 

 

***

 

 

“So, Mr. Bush, let’s look and see what else might qualify you for a position here at VBI,” pausing a moment to peer at this strange man, “besides your claim to be from the distant past,” her attempt to appear earnest and appropriately serious was all but washed away by a gratingly squeaky voice.

The Vice-President, Human Resources was used to this by now. Might as well have told her he was from another planet. It wouldn’t have mattered. A relative or close friend of the boss needs a job and would Alberta be a dear and see if anything could be conjured up. By her rough reckoning she probably spends a good fifth of her time dealing with what she likes to call ‘paying her dues’. It’s not as though Alberta does this useless stuff for free. On occasion she does cash in her IOU’s. A seat on the company jet, an extended vacation, questionable expense claims easily approved. All executives get to buy and sell privileges. The boss of course, being at the top of the heap, gets the most privileges. One such is the right to ask Alberta to interview otherwise unemployable people.

To Abelard, sitting primed and confident in the straight backed seat he had chosen over the plush altogether too red leather armchair, the scene had quite another perspective. In his world, filled with complex engagement rules, the social taxonomy begins with a prey-predator distinction and then branches down through many finer features – helpful, hindering, good, evil, important, unimportant, amusing, boring, innocuous, harmful, friend, enemy, attractive, repelling, and all the other ways in which a person can be described, once the prey-predator label had been settled upon. And, to complicate matters, we are all sometimes predators and sometimes prey.

Although Abelard knew better, Alberta imagined herself to be the hunter. Her closely set eyes had covered the field, searching for weaknesses, of which there were a great many. She had quickly picked one from the pack. The birth date is what had caught her unwanted attention.

Alberta was now working very hard to create an illusion for the benefit of Abelard Bush. She hunched her considerable bulk over the single sheet that constituted Abelard’s entire Curriculum Vitae, and engaged what little body language she possessed to convey to Abelard that she was deeply interested in finding for him a future at VBI. She scrunched her eyes in exaggerated concentration, vigorously shook her head and fluttered her lips, gestures she expected would impress even this moron that she was actually reading his crummy little CV. And it was truly tiny, barely covering half the page.

She needed to put in that extra effort to overcome any wrong impressions her appearance could easily leave with the casual observer. Collagen puffed lips, big hair, florid skin and an altogether too tight and too short dress – oops, must be at the wrong interview.

“Ah, Abe. Do you mind if I call you Abe?” Alberta didn’t like using full or formal names. She didn’t want interviewees to feel she might be predisposed against them. For her, familiarity was meant to breed comfort and confidence.

“If it’s all the same to you, I would rather you call me either Abelard or Mr. Bush.” It also occurred to him that he should have listened to Felicity and left his birth date off the CV. He automatically put in the one he remembers most, the one in his false memories. No one puts it in anymore. Something about age discrimination being illegal.

“Of course, that’s your name and why shouldn’t you want me to use it,” she gushed, as matronly as her appearance would permit. Her annoyance, try as she might, was no more containable than the folds of flesh trying to spill over the boundaries of her inadequate clothing. No one had ever objected. She’ll give him another five minutes and then send him on his way. Even if this jerk is the CEO’s niece’s boyfriend, there is no way she is going to bring him in to endanger the cozy culture at VBI. She’s given enough ‘suggestions-from-the-boss’ jobs and has the right to decline now and then. This would be one of those nows.

“You’ve an MBA from a fine b-school, but you don’t seem to have much management experience.” Even discounting his advanced age, which in fairness she generously ascribed to a typographical error; this would make him overqualified for an entry level position and under qualified for anything else. “In your own words, Mr. Bush, what would you envisage for yourself here at VBI?”

“A job with power, influence and money,” without the least hint that he was pulling her visibly gargantuan leg, the one he could see through the thick glass desk, the other she had somehow managed to tuck out of sight under her sofa sized chair.

“That’s not what I meant Mr. Bush,” impatiently folding and unfolding her plump hands. What I did mean was why should VBI want to hire you?”

Here Abelard seemed genuinely stumped. Was he dealing with an imbecile? His next response was, if nothing else, equally candid. “Because I’m well connected.”

“Mr. Bush,” exasperation now increasing the squeaky quality of her voice, “connectedness has never been a criterion for hiring at VBI,” except perhaps for the idiot now in marketing, the chairman’s son-in-law. “What can you contribute to VBI that will make it a better company?”

“What do you mean by a better company?”

Alberta remained silent for a time, thinking who knows what vengeful thoughts, trying to regain her composure, trying to keep from yelling. But she thought better of long explanations about Company Values, Company Reputation, Company Social Responsibility and some of the other stuff on the little plastic coated cards all the employees were supposed to carry around lest they forgot the VBI core values the folks in Organizational Development had invented. Keep it simple and get rid of him. Fast.

“I mean, what can you do to make VBI more profitable?”

This was easy. Abelard didn’t take any time at all to answer. He’d prepared for this question. He’d read up on VBI’s recent transactions, what analysts were saying and what public perceptions had been forming. Combined with vivid memories of a violent past, he felt perfectly matched with the company. “I believe I have exactly what you need. VBI has traditionally grown through M&A and I have probably more experience than anyone here in fast, efficient, cost effective takeovers. Also, if you think VBI has a reputation for giving no quarter, taking no prisoners, you haven’t seen anything. My own notoriety for dealing with troublesome competition is really quite awesome. I would say that I’ve cleared out more competitors than VBI will ever have, and I did so with very little loss…at low cost is what I meant.”

Alberta was now more than just a little perplexed and thinking she might be dealing with a madman. He couldn’t be more than 30, despite his CV. Too young for so much experience. “But, Mr. Bush, where did you get all that experience? None of this is anywhere indicated on your CV.”

Abelard was ready for this. He shuffled a bit in his chair and shifted his gaze to the floor, trying to appear uncomfortable. Had he still been looking at Alberta he would have seen surprise and more than a little consternation perk up her sagging, pendulous jowls as she watched the CEO quietly slip into her office. The door had been ajar and he’d been standing at the threshold, intrigued by Abelard’s putative qualifications. And Abelard knew he was there. He had been conveniently reflected in the tinted windows behind Alberta. But before either the CEO or Alberta could stop him he began to speak.

“You see, Miss, er, what do I call you?”

“Bertie is what I like and…” not fast enough. She couldn’t stop him.

“You see, Bertie, my approach to takeovers and competition is very effective but it wouldn’t do to talk about it in public. Some people could be offended even though it’s pretty common practice. You know, values and all that other stuff you mentioned earlier. I thought it best to just bring it up informally.”

Now Bertie was in a pickle. The potential Uncle-in-Law, the CEO, Milford Yonkers Lord – aka Milly – was an interested party, was her boss’ boss’ boss and was right there. She was going to tell Abelard that she would be in touch and then simply throw out his file and let time bury it beyond memory. But now she would have to be more definitive. Stale dating was one of Milly’s favourite management strategies, but he didn’t like to see others using it – values and so on.

“Hey, I like that,” speaking as he strode into the office, also solving Bertie’s dilemma. “What’s your name son? Mine’s Milly, Milly Lord. Oh yes, met you with my niece at the wedding. Told you to call Bertie here. Bush something? Right? Well I really like your frankness and I get the sense that you might be someone who truly understands the jungle.”

He rambled on a bit more with almost sentences – while Abelard was still considering the possibility of being transferred to a distant rainforest – and wouldn’t let go of Abelard’s hand. He was a strongly built man. Easily as tall as Abelard, but considerably stockier. Much like a hockey player who’d forgotten to remove all the padding.

M.Y. Lord had very plainly taken a liking to Abelard. Well, not really a liking. M.Y. Lord didn’t like anyone, other than himself, of course. He found others useless, useful, helpful and very helpful. No one was necessary or indispensable. Abelard, he thought was somewhere between helpful and very helpful. With a little coaching from him and his team he guessed Abelard would soon be at the top of the ‘very helpful’ heap. And M.Y. Lord was seldom wrong about these speculations.

“Bertie,” who’d been trying to understand the unexpected turn of events, was momentarily inattentive and did not at once respond. The second “BERTIE,” did the trick, jiggling her fleshy face to attention.

“I’ve certainly heard enough to make up my mind about this young man. What about you?”

Indeed, Bertie had also made up her mind about young Abelard, a mere 670 years old, barely a geological blink. But in light of all this new very reliable input from M.Y. Lord, she was prepared to rethink her original judgement.

“Yes I have, sir…, I mean Milly.” M.Y. Lord very much wanted all his executives to call him Milly. Not that he cared a fig for the name. He believed that first names like nicknames helped create a family like atmosphere and, with it, a cocoon of loyalty.

“So, what do think, start him at the bottom, let him learn the ropes and work his way to the top, eh? Merit, merit, merit is what guarantees excellence in our ranks and competitive advantage in the marketplace.” Shifting his gaze to Abelard, he added, “I’ve a feeling about you, that you’re like us, that you’ll see in our culture all the values with which you’ve grown up.” It was to Abelard as though Milly shared his bogus memories.

“Bertie, what do you think of putting him into M&A, with Robby? Since that awkward incident that took Hook from us, Robby’s been desperate for a new VP.”

“VP sir…, er, Milly? Are you sure? I thought you wanted an entry level…..I haven’t even run a background check on him,” all this while Abelard stood expressionless next to M.Y. Lord. “We also don’t know about his qualifications. I mean he’s told us what he did and maybe we could discuss it a little more deeply, even though I’m sure there shouldn’t be any problem,” she quickly added as a growing scowl hardened M.Y. Lord’s far from genial features.

“Of course, of course, you must run a background check, but I’m sure there wouldn’t be anything we couldn’t fix if need be. And, Bertie, don’t go worrying about his technical, you know, financial and statistical modelling skills. We have enough of those nerds.”

M.Y. Lord was not particularly fond of analysis. ‘Bullshit,’ was pretty much his usual conclusion to adverse analyses on his investment decisions and ‘So what, not news to me,’ to those reports validating his thinking. He was a man of action. He followed his instincts.

 

***

 

Abelard had known men like Milly all his made up life. He knew how to deal with them. He had to because he wanted to be one of those men. And had it not been for the incident, which seemed so real it still made him feel phantom pains, he would have been well on his way to becoming one. But now he had a second chance. Sure, much had changed, but the most important stuff had remained the same. Humanum est, thankfully human nature would always be there to guide him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter II

 

 

Felicity was not the queasy type, nor was she easily taken to abhorrence. Disapproval is what would most fairly describe Felicity’s sentiments each time Abelard turned to violence as his apparent only recourse to conflict resolution. She did not like strong feelings. In her more thoughtful world they interfered with problem solving and Abelard’s preference for brutal solutions was just that, a problem that she must solve. She would need much patience, since the common thread running through all these episodes was the guidance reliably provided by his most common memories. And now that he was back in the game he would need to much more often call upon his past experience for trustworthy counsel. Would Felicity be a problem? She certainly appeared altogether too good for the stock from which she sprang. Perhaps she just hadn’t yet rediscovered her roots which were after all the same as Milly’s. There was a perfect human being. Abelard had had only fleeting contact with him, but enough for his own strong instincts to shape an altogether favourable picture of the man. Milly was highly competitive; he greatly needed to be at the top and to always have more than others; and nothing that worked was beyond his call. He understood that loyalty was the bedrock of a powerful hierarchy and despite his deep mistrust of everyone he valued it above all else. Abelard hoped, no, strongly believed that at her core Felicity was also like that. In her he saw a reliable partner.

These were not his only thoughts on this beautiful, splendidly clear mid-spring evening as he walked home from the interview. He was happy. Four years on and he was perfectly integrated. He was no longer awed by the skyscrapers, the automobiles, the computers, flight and all the other trappings of a modern, technologically advanced society. It wasn’t always like that. He still recalled the terror of his first airplane trip. Even the automobile had numbed him with a dread he had never known in the countless memories of being stalked by gruesome death.

Deep in blissful self-appreciation, his ruminations were annoyingly interrupted by a burly man who bumped him rather harder than he would have expected from an accidental brush with a passing stranger. Abelard may have put down the heavy coat to an excessively careful personality worried about last minute end of winter diseases, but his suspicions were aroused by the woollen balaclava, revealing only the eyes and moist lips through three crudely cut holes; utterly out of place, even for those who most terribly felt the cold.

Conveniently, or so it seemed for Mr. Balaclava, they were where a dark alley gave onto the street. Abelard was quickly shoved into the dim lane way and pressed against a wall. The assailant’s face was close to Abelard’s, exhaling the putrefying remains of his last meal. “I’ve a butcher knife under my coat,” he sneered, surely to explain that there was a good reason other than insanity or cold for him to be so overdressed and, presumably the word butcher was meant to conjure frightful thoughts of being filleted alive, “and my buddies are also about so don’t yell or try anything stupid.”

Abelard could only smile. It had been altogether too long now since he had had the opportunity to physically really hurt someone. There were some incidents since waking up, but too few compared with the fondly remembered regularity of violent transactions prior to the accident. As much as he liked to think he had adapted well to modern civil society, which encouraged bloodless conflict resolution, he did have intense urges to settle disputes in a more traditional fashion.

Abelard’s brain went, in a blinding moment, from sober contemplation to basic instinct. In Abelard’s more familiar world there could not be any ending to a confrontation other than death. In these contests hesitation was almost always fatal. And that is how the moment’s events had coalesced in his hidden mind.

The unwavering stare from Abelard’s transparent grey eyes motivated the mugger to reach inside his coat but, all his determination and frequent participation in such ventures notwithstanding, he was hopelessly outmatched against Abelard’s recalled experience in these matters. His hand was still fumbling inside his coat as Abelard was bashing his head against the brick wall, stopping regularly to smash a large fist into the hidden face. As the unlucky thug slipped slowly to the ground, leaving a bloody smear on the grimy brick behind his descending head, Abelard picked up a discarded lead pipe and began to systematically break his bones, starting with the easily accessible knees. In such circumstances, he remembered, it was necessary, as a dissuasive measure, to inflict the severest pain before finally putting such criminals to their ultimately deserved deaths – a thought that Abelard suspected was laden with hypocrisy.

Ordinarily an undesirable presence for him, to the erstwhile assailant’s good fortune a prowl car was just turning into the alley and caught Abelard’s exertions in its headlights. Another moment and he would have lost his life. Like a feral creature caught in the harsh electric glare, still on the upswing, ready for the final sweep to crush the miscreant’s skull, Abelard froze.

Had it not been for the insistent contralto voice, piercing the darkness, pleading for attention, Abelard may have come to blows with the two constables who, in the momentary confusion, quite logically mistook Abelard for the assailant. They already had their weapons in hand and were approaching what appeared to be a particularly gruesome case of assault and battery. Abelard’s mind was still roaming in a place where quarter was rarely given and it would never have occurred to him to relinquish the lead pipe, the only weapon he held.

Had the German accented contralto not calmed sufficiently to identify mugger and muggee, things may have finished very badly for Abelard. She must nevertheless have had a momentary doubt as to whether she had gotten it right as she looked more closely at the prone figure, bloody and misshapen. His head was bleeding, the balaclava had not withstood Abelard’s punishing blows and was no more than shredded wool, revealing a red pulpy goulash, making it difficult to recognize as a human face. The right knee showed as splintered bone and the left arm was bent in an unnatural position at the elbow.

The condition of Abelard’s attacker also left the two constables with some doubt as to the sanity of the presumed victim. They were taking no chances. Although they had put away their weapons they remained mainly vigilant. Abelard by this time no longer felt any imminent threat from the police and had already reset his mind. He allowed himself to be frisked and then bundled into their cruiser for the ride to the station. While they waited for an ambulance and backup to arrive they questioned the contralto voice.

Hanelore Jurgenstrop, a solid woman who was clearly able to fend for herself, attending an international conference, assured them of what she had seen. She would be in Montreal for the remainder of the week and, yes, would be available if they had any further information needs. She had originally understood Montreal to be a walking city, free from the urban dangers plaguing most others of similar size. Being a scientist, though, she also intimately understood the laws of chance and knew such an improbable event possible anywhere anytime. However, from the grandmotherly lore with which she had grown up, the ‘lightening can strike twice’ stories still held much weight. She opted for a taxi back to her hotel.

At the station the police were not yet quite prepared to relax around Abelard. He had, after all, been breathtakingly bloody minded in beating back his attacker. The hospital had him in surgery and they weren’t fully confident that he would live. To boot, they were more than a little unsettled by his manifest indifference.

They couldn’t place his accent when he spoke French and, as to his tainted English, they stabbed at some remote East European country as its source. He was a strongly built man, probably a little over six feet and, if he was insane, where their suspicions were tending, then they had better be quite careful. He was surrounded by several of the bigger men in the room as he sat waiting for Felicity to show up.

They didn’t seem to believe this apparently able fighter when he said, “I would have just given him my wallet had I been thinking straight.” And his credibility was again the main issue when he added, with an unnatural calm, “I can’t remember very much of what happened, my mind just went blank and I’m dreadfully sorry if I went too far.”

They had just scrummed and concluded that it would be best to keep this madman in a holding cell until someone more senior made a decision, when in ran Felicity. He had called her upon his arrival at the station. Abelard looked at her and felt overcome with affection. She was more, much more than her apparent beauty.

At present, he was hopeful that she was in transition. She needed still to discard all the rubbish about noble savages and good people corrupted by bad societies. Humans were not like that. He didn’t need to read Hobbes or have anything to learn from this mushrooming crowd of neuroscientists. She would also eventually have to stop fighting the same people he was striving to become. Until she did, though, he would have to play her game. He was fairly certain he loved her and also owed her a great deal. Without her he would not have survived more than a few hours after waking up. There was an unsettling thought which intruded now and then to rattle his composure; that perhaps he loved her as she was – someone striving for an absolute good. This annoyed him to no end. He was, if nothing else, realistic and her ideas were not.

“Hey!, halloo in there!,” supplemented by a hand on his shoulder, as the detective tried to get his attention, “Mr. Bush, are you still with us,” thinking he may have slipped into another murderous minded delusion, like the one about the savage beating he had administered having been out of character. “I can’t keep you here, since you were technically the victim, but if it was up to me I would hold you for psychiatric assessment,” said the one who identified himself as lieutenant Sanschagrin. “However, since you did severely injure someone, I must ask you to be available for further questioning.”

Abelard ignored the lieutenant and turned all his attention to Felicity and the lawyer she had in tow. He detected some mild annoyance in her unsmiling demeanour. She didn’t have the omni forgiving, unconditional motherly love expression reserved for favourite sons – hazy eyes, adoring stare, as though anything he did was only to be expected. But neither did she crease her brows, nor clench her fists, displays so rare for her that he would have been quite alarmed had she done so. She would eventually understand but, for a little while, she wanted him to know that she was annoyed.

They had spoken at length about his swift and, for her, all too frequent recourse to lethal force. He had most solemnly undertaken to forsake violence for common disputes and to control his excesses for others. True, the man clinging to life was a scoundrel, but she is sure Abelard could have mastered the situation without having to practically dismember him.

Finally free to leave Abelard ignored whatever the lawyer was whispering in his ear, claimed Felicity’s naked hand and waved and smiled congenially as Sanschagrin said, a bit too loudly, “I’ll be in touch, Mr. Bush.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter III

 

 

Felicity had patiently pointed out to Abelard that there was but the very tiniest chance he had gone and dozed off for 650 years, so small that it would be best to just set aside the memories of an active medieval life. They were filling a void left by his amnesia. She couldn’t quite account for the abject circumstances in which he was found. She would think about it and eventually come across a perfectly sensible explanation. Until that happened, ‘unknown causes’ would have to do. Felicity poorly tolerated those who would fall back on superstition to pave over current ignorance. That was almost four years ago, at the ruined castle, when she had with great tact and much tenderness decided to reset his pendulum. To her mind if Abelard was ever to remember his past, such uncompromising love was the only possible way.

Much as he relied upon Felicity’s good judgement, Abelard trusted no one. To be fair he trusted no one completely. It was a question of degree. Some he trusted not all and Felicity more than anyone else. True, four years of constant pressure to accept amnesia as his condition had let some doubt dribble in and weaken his own self-assurance, but he was still mainly convinced otherwise, and when the time was right he would prove it to all and sundry. He knew how to go about it, only Felicity he was sure would not be willing to support him in his quest. The idiot twins, their erstwhile guides, had believed him, but were no longer around to support him. He had had to kill them.

It was not always easy keeping the faith. He very vividly remembers the violent encounter on the steep, rocky donkey path, but nothing between then and when he finally awoke in the cave. He also has a perfectly detailed recall of a full life lived before the attack. Since then, nothing. He had been unconscious for a very long time. When revived, his withered body had barely the muscular energy to raise its eyelids and his mind was still working the deadly brawl.

These events have remained a closely kept secret, shared by only three people. Even if they, Felicity and the good doctor, believed there to be a perfectly sound story, the peculiar circumstances under which they discovered Abelard, not to mention the suspicious business since, meant that it would remain secret, probably forever. Felicity was particularly jealous to preserve their furtive little world. She seemed to draw sustenance and comfort within its shroud. There was, of course, The Society, which had learned about the dodgy events and had seized upon an altogether outlandish explanation, but there was little risk they would reveal it to anyone, given the nature of their enterprise.

Felicity Lord was taken in by her uncle after her parents had perished in an air crash. She was an only child, seven at the time, leaving Milly to ensure her proper upbringing and education. Well before the ideas became fashionable, Milly viscerally understood that you could present a menu to children but could not choose the items for them. He provided whatever resources she might need, but let her decide, perhaps more accurately, let her fall into whatever best suited her inherited traits. Much of her subsequent uncommon sanguinity in the face of extraordinary events has much to do with Milly’s understanding of human nature.

All his solicitous behaviour notwithstanding, Milly did not actually love Felicity since he was no more capable of such feelings towards another human than was a child. Being genetic kin, she was automatically near the top of the heap and would less easily be sacrificed if that need arose than, say, his wife, who shared no genetic material with him. Milly was perfectly qualified to bludgeon his way up the food chain; a primordial being, fully equipped with modern skills, predatory intelligence and resourceful cunning to most efficiently pursue his fully defined self-interest. He lent substance to the selfish gene notion.

At 24 Felicity had completed her Ph.D. in medieval archaeology and, four years on, she was taking up a tenure track position at the University of Montreal. It was during post-doctoral research for an article on the Cathar heresy that she found Abelard. It was also then that she took her distance from friends and family, including her uncle. She remained in Europe for almost four years, keeping communications to bare essentials. Milly, as he had done for most of her life, had let her be, providing anything she wanted with no questions asked. He trusted her good sense. Even when she asked him to use his influence to shoehorn someone he did not know into a well known b-school, he indulged her.

She never tampered with her natural features. No makeup. Her hair was black and her skin not quite swarthy, and not quite white. She had a broad high forehead and dark eyes, widely set, like a ruminant rather than a carnivore. She had a slight overbite, protruding her upper lip with enough charm to mute the rakish flare of her nostrils. Although she had a penchant for rich foods, a severe fitness program kept her strong and agile.

She overtly shunned the visible trappings that wealth could buy, meeting only her needs, which she felt happiest keeping at a modest level. True, during the past four years she had drawn heavily on her family’s substantial resources, but not for herself, only to care for Abelard. Such seeming self-abnegation was certainly not meant to nourish a secret proclivity to moroseness. On the contrary, she was almost always effusively joyful. Depression or black moods or moments of hopelessness were virtually unknown to her. These were so rare because Felicity dealt decisively with those things she could control and rolled with those things she could not. When the uncontrollable got the better of the controllable she never had a basis for regret. Bad outcomes happened and then you moved on. That was easy for her because she believed that all her decisions were well considered. She accepted it was just in the nature of chance that they might not always have a favourable outcome.

Saintly as she may seem, Felicity was still a product of natural selection operating within the same bounds as all other human beings – yearning for status, a predisposition to mistrust, a trait often hidden in most people by stupid gullibility or advanced greed, and a propensity to competition. In fairness, though, there were great differences in degree. The overt excesses to which much of her uncle’s circle were driven to feed a craving for status, found no equivalent in Felicity. This did not mean that she was not also motivated by a need to have more than others, only that she found its expression in other ways. A simple vehicle for transportation was all she required, but it would be transporting a Ph.D. with a status position at a good university.

She was also inclined to give others the benefit of the doubt, but only once. She trusted greatly in her usually incisive judgements to accurately assess intentions in others. Inevitably errors did sometimes mar her endeavour but these were handsomely compensated by the many other instances when a calculated risk turned out to be well placed.

Nor did she disappoint nature’s blind design when it came to competition. She engaged in it with an uncommon ferocity. Whether it had to do with physical prowess, intellectual challenges or collecting the most for worthy causes, she wanted to win. Fortunately she also had a thick skin. For Felicity lived in a world of principle and that often enough foreclosed on precious victories. She would not stoop, for any reason, or so she believed.

Although Felicity could have access to most anything another with her resources might wish for, she had learned from watching her uncle that more was an endless, potholed road, while enough was a comfortable absolute. It was this rule of happy parsimony that guided almost all she undertook. It was as close to an exact regulator of physical and mental equilibrium as could be found. Without a driving ambition for more, great stress was mostly a stranger to Felicity.

She did have one source of uncommon anxiety. Dilemmas that made it difficult to clearly distinguish between principle and intrigue could throw her into prolonged, paralyzing periods of self revulsion. And when doubt would finally disappear she’d soak lavishly in moments of great personal satisfaction. Balanced objectivity was so dear to her, she would be dominated by questions of equity to the exclusion of all else. For those who saw her as fearless, she was always stalked by the fear of being unfair.

Felicity was rarely a fish out of water. She could appear comfortable and perfectly in place for any circumstance. At receptions for the really-full-of-self-importance, at which Milly requested her charm or at fashion events immersed in the vapid small talk of the incredibly-full-of-self-importance, there was nothing that made Felicity stand out other than her unstinting and enthusiastic participation. She may have wished to be elsewhere at these times, but she did accept her responsibility to deal respectfully with all the other human beings on her small planet.

It was this Felicity, erudite, self-confident, highly principled and endlessly curious who, one fine June morning, under the blazing Perigordian sun, below the gates of Rocamadour, stumbled upon Abelard.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter IV

 

 

Oliver was appalled at their shabby treatment. They had been looked over like so much merchandise and obviously found wanting. The snivelling waiter with the black stare had shown them to a table near the lavatories, away from the main dining area and no where near any natural light. And to add to the unpleasantness, he mumbled some nonsense about nothing else being available when it was plain that there was not another soul in the restaurant.

“You would be forgiven in thinking that these people disliked us. They do not hate you, me or anyone else for that matter,” Felicity tried to reassure Oliver with yet another apology for the behaviour of the local folk. “It is that they are very suspicious by nature, and so behave sometimes with what looks to the entire world like duplicity but is really only awkward vigilance.” Felicity, always quick to empathize, tried to view garbage in such a way that it no longer smelled like garbage.

They had arrived for lunch wearing the same clothes in which they had been rappelling that morning over the cliffs just outside Rocamadour. Where these were not streaked with the brown clay common to the area, they were worn and faded. Although Oliver did most of his schooling in Canada he had been born in the USA and retained some very American peculiarities; one such being that they did not dress to go to restaurants. They were customers and they could come as they liked, as long as they had money. But there was the rub, Oliver’s pockets were stuffed with their funny coloured and oversized lucre – this being still a couple of years before the common currency came into use – and the dignified treatment he felt his due had not materialized.

As Felicity explained, the French would be just as happy to take their money as their lives but they did always want to make sure that the money was there. Great emphasis was placed on appearances as a singular signal, and impecunious was the strongest impression given by Felicity and Oliver. The garcon had clearly put much strategic thought behind the table he had chosen for them. Not only would these two thoughtlessly grimy foreigners be invisible to any other patrons who on the very slim chance might yet show up but, above all, they would not be able to break for the exit if their intention was only to eat and run. This waiter knew foreigners were not to be trusted, particularly the run down variety.

“You see, Oliver,” Felicity continued, “the French have a long history, way back even before they were French, to the time of Gaul, of unspeakable suffering. The last two thousand years have not been a picnic for these people. If it wasn’t the Romans, then it was the gangsters disguised as nobles, or the invaders disguised as liberators, or the tyrants disguised as modernizers that kept the apocalyptic horsemen well watered and fed. I know you will be thinking that not near enough time has passed but I am convinced it was nothing less than natural selection which fortified the extant lines with those traits most likely to survive the exceptionally long period of harshness – suspicion, duplicity, callousness and let us not unfairly forget rampant hypocrisy. They’ll eventually get over it I suppose, inasmuch as they can remain at peace long enough. Wasn’t it Henry V who marvelled at the uncanny ability of the French to squander the best piece of real estate in all of Europe?”

Felicity was doing post-doctoral work on the Albigensian crusade, incited and organized by Catholic Rome to stamp out the Cathar heresy that had taken root during the high medieval period in what is now southern France. By the thirteenth century Christian domination in Jerusalem had come to an end, leaving suddenly no shortage of armed men across Transalpine Europe looking for opportunities to secure for themselves prime real estate. The remuneration, besides the usual eternal gratitude of the Almighty, for their diligent pursuit to keep Rome’s monopoly on Christianity in Western Europe, was ownership of all and any heretical lands they could seize. In their motivated zeal these stalwarts of civilized society perpetrated frightful atrocities and engaged in such wholesale massacres as was heretofore unknown. Historians would later record the progress of this crusade with titles such as ‘The Stake of Mont Segur^^1^^’ to describe the orgy of bloodletting unleashed in the name of God.

Obscure texts Felicity had discovered in a remote Cluniac monastery convinced her that far from being isolated to the southern strip of modern day France, the heresy had spread further north, up to the winding Dordogne river. She had rented a small farmhouse in the area and Oliver, who had recently finished his residency requirements, thought to take his vacation scaling cliffs and looking into caverns with Felicity.

Oliver Littlebridge ached for adventure. He had spent most of his life either in school or at summer camp. He had prepared to travel to remote dangerous areas with Doctors without Borders – North Ossetia, Djibouti, anywhere that might be fertile ground for hero building. But he could not, at 30, break the strong grip his mother had on him and his yearnings. She had only agreed to stop whimpering about being abandoned because she knew Felicity and felt that France did not pose any imminent danger to her only son.

They were out again the following day. Their two guides, Benoit and Aubrey Malvue, with climbing skills and a lifelong knowledge of the area, had by now led them to most of the grottos and small caves gouged into the cliff walls around Rocamadour. But Felicity could find none of the inscriptions she had hoped others would have missed. This was to be their last attempt, what looked to be an opening hidden behind a stunted tree growing from some soil in a crack between two solid sheets of rock. She would not listen to the guides who tried to explain to her that this was only an illusion created by the angle, the shading and a discolouration from underground water seepage. The worst that could happen, she reasoned, would be a wasted rappel, something she in any event enjoyed.

The routine was the same for each attempt. They bounced along in the Malvue van, more rolling scrap metal than motor vehicle, several times cited for safety violations, all patched with reliable duct tape, including a strip which seemed to keep the steering column from collapsing. There was only one real seat, a metal kitchen chair welded to the floor with a plywood slat duct taped to the frame. This, as one might reasonably have expected, was not for the driver but for Aubrey, the first born, who never drove. The Malvue were twins, but Aubrey slid down the channel first and so was given a name beginning with the first letter of the alphabet. The unlucky Benoit was thus doomed to a life of second best and hand-me-downs. He sat on an unattached wooden crate held partly in place laterally by the ribbing running along the floor and mostly by his own weight. Back support was provided by what looked to be a rusted bed frame cut to size and welded to the metal floor. Fully equipped guides were hard to come by at that time of the year. Besides, the Malvue were her temporary neighbours and landlords, her rented house on their property.

She had declined their offer of climbing equipment, having happily brought her own. She did have to trust them to provide safety backup when she and Oliver descended the steep cliff faces. It’s not that they would be deliberately mischievous, although that thought was always a tiny nagging presence, only that they were mostly negligent when not being watched. They seemed inexorably drawn to arguing about everything and nothing, paying scant attention to the safety of their clients.

They were now running along a particularly devilish piece of road, more of a large rut with pretensions. Felicity already had several developing bumps and bruises and tried to avoid looking at Oliver, who was more than usually alarmed. She often teased, sometimes with regrettable cruelty, Oliver’s cautious approach to life, but this would not be a good time for such indulgence. Oliver worshipped her. Not as an object of sexual desire, although Felicity would certainly have qualified, but as a model of desirable behaviour. He often felt loathing at his all too human frailties and he aspired to the ease and serenity which Felicity brought to most any circumstance. Felicity was a leader. She was courageous and she was fair, untouched by base subjectivity. She was, for Oliver the quintessentially moral person.

Then a jarring stop as Benoit engaged at once the foot and hand brakes, figuring at least one set would still be in working order. Running off the pretend road and up the embankment was more like insurance than necessity, on most occasions. By this time Felicity and Oliver were flirting with heat stroke, the unrelenting sun having baked what little air remained inside the dark van. They were also soaked through. The worst they had to endure, by far, was the acrid smell freely emanating from the twins’ vast stores of aging, caked perspiration. The French beat the European average at three washes per week, and the Frères Malvue did one better, no washes at all. Oliver was the first to burst from the van, having lost some precious breathing time to disentangle the coat hanger which kept the doors from sliding open. Felicity was marginally more restrained, as befitted her character, and left the death trap as slowly as she thought dignity demanded, jealously gulping fresh outside air as soon as she had put a safe distance between her and the brothers’ malignant odour.

Felicity and Oliver hauled their equipment from the van. She wouldn’t accept the brothers’ help. She didn’t quite trust their inattention to common decency. She didn’t like to use extravagant language, but crooked is what most came to mind when thinking about the twins. They had been known to steal unattended articles when and wherever they came across them and she didn’t want to find a crucial clip, or worse, missing when hanging too many meters above the hard ground.

It was now past mid-morning, very much later than Felicity would have liked for their very first descent. The Malvue boys had had some chores to complete before beginning their guide work and when all was ready to depart their very early model Renault would not respond to either insult or injury and did not budge until given a shot of petrol. Without a working gauge, it had all been guesswork as to what ailed the long expired use-before-this-date machine.

The spot from which they would have to rappel to reach the cave, about two thirds of the way down, was overgrown with wild roses and their handmaidens, long sharp thorns. This meant heavier protective clothing if they didn’t want to be tending to multiple puncture wounds. Neither was there any respite from the pitiless heat as the sun approached its noonday zenith. Their ropes were anchored to two sturdy trees and the Frenchmen were at their positions. Felicity was to go first, to be followed by Oliver once she safely alighted in the cave.

“Nothing, barely a toehold,” a frustrated voice echoed up the valley, telling Oliver that he needn’t bother. “There’s a little donkey path about 20 meters below. I’ll slip down there and walk to the road where you can pick me up,” wanting to shorten as much as possible the time she would need to spend in close proximity to the malodorous Malvue boys. Each time she touched the cliff wall the pulleys would momentarily stop squeaking only to begin again as she kicked off in a predictable rhythm of squeaking-silence-squeaking until the comforting sound pattern was abruptly broken. Instead, Oliver and the twins heard a last pattern of silence-squeaking-elongated squeaking-silence. Something had happened.

Oliver looped the rope attached to the tree around his arm and leaned his long body over the edge far enough to see the small path to which Felicity had been heading. There was only a terrible emptiness. His disquiet grew when he was finally able to make out the rope, which seemed to end somewhere just above that path. A small cloud of dust hung defiantly in the still air just where it disappeared from view.

Oliver had very little French and could only make himself understood by manhandling Benoit – he wouldn’t dare touch Aubrey, the first born – towards the van and pointing over the cliff. It was probably due to his greater age that Aubrey was first to understand that Oliver wanted them to drive him down to the roadway below, from which he could easily reach the narrow donkey path. Once in the van, to show he fully appreciated the urgency of the matter, Aubrey pushed Benoit to heretofore unattained speeds – that they were heading downhill helped a great deal.

At the sharp angle where the roadway met the donkey path Oliver jumped from the van and ran to the spot above which he could see the rope. From his vantage it seemed to have been sucked into the cliff wall. He looked in vain for a way to climb the three meters up to where the rope end was lost to view, but it may as well have been three hundred meters for the lack of any visible hand holds. The van, he would need the van. The donkey track looked to be at least a couple of centimeters wider than the wreck. He would get them to drive to just under the rope and from there he should easily be able to get to it from the roof.

Aubrey immediately understood the plan but hesitated, gently caressing his faded treasure, while flashing the remainder of his crooked tobacco stained teeth. Oliver being American was baffled by such sign language; Aubrey would need to be much less subtle. He tried rubbing his thumb against his index and middle fingers with one hand and with the other he gestured first at the van and then at the donkey path; still to no avail. Oliver was by now overwrought with worry and took matters into his own hands. He ran to the truck. The surprised Aubrey did not move, as tough nailed to his spot, frozen halfway into one of his obscene gestures. Oliver leaped in and began maneuvering to drive up the donkey path. The brothers only just avoided being run down.

Oliver’s reckoning had been only slightly off, the van being marginally larger than the path. He would have to run close to the cliff wall, stripping at least one layer of rust from the vehicle. The greedy twins were close behind, but were helpless to stop him. When Oliver finally braked below the spot he needed to reach the boys opened the back doors, leaped in and made for him. Too late, he had already clambered out the door and onto the roof. From there he could make out a small opening in the cliff wall into which the rope had disappeared, with a lower ledge just within reach. The livid siblings were almost upon him when he gave a final tug and hoisted himself through the opening and over the rubble heap at the entrance. He then fell about a meter onto a gravel strewn surface.

The transition from brilliant sunlight to the still dusty and very dark surroundings inside the hole left him totally blinded. As he was adjusting his eyes to the intense darkness he detected a low pitched sound, towards which he very carefully groped his way. As he got closer to the source his eyes were quickly fine-tuning to the low light and he began to make out shapes, one of which coalesced into a body. It was Felicity. She was obviously alive, propped on one elbow, but Oliver could not tell how badly she may have been hurt. She quickly assured him that she had painless mobility in all her limbs. Nothing broken, nothing severed. He examined her head. No bumps or blood. All very encouraging. She appeared only to be shaken from her unexpected jolt. She sat up and took several deep breaths.

“Merde de putaine, espèce de con,” and other meaningful communications were freely flowing from two very red faced Frenchmen. Until they saw Felicity. This placed these simple people in a pickle. Perhaps the American was justified in taking extraordinary measures, the lady needed to be rescued. They did not know and did not want to just yet take any big chances. They would have plenty of time to exact retribution at a more propitious moment. They chose a low risk hovering strategy, just shuffling in the background.

Felicity was soon on her feet, examining the new hole through which she had fallen. Where there had been only dust and dried rock, there was now a good deal of moisture. The solid barrier at this level seemed to have been weakened by underground water and it took no more than a hard thump for it to give way. She had stumbled upon a hidden cave. Her earlier disappointment at finding no proof for her theory about the northward migration of the Cathar heresy momentarily gave way to guarded optimism. She splashed the dark enclosure with electric light and scanned for any tell tale graffiti. As she moved closer to the far wall, opposite the entrance, intensely absorbed by every bump and indentation, lest they be purposefully made, she didn’t notice the smooth black surface onto which she was about to step. She let out more of an annoyed grump than an alarmed yelp, as she splashed into the gelatinous liquid.

Hypnotized by the light traveling over the worn rock, neither Oliver nor the eternally scheming Frenchmen had seen the pool. Then there was only darkness and alarm. “I’m OK, calm down,” she whispered as her intense electric beam settled onto three surprised faces. She was sitting in what looked to be some black oily liquid about half a meter deep. Indeed, Aubrey slapped Benoit’s Zippo from his hand, thinking it might actually be oil. His eyes were wild with anticipation, as he rushed to the pool to touch and sniff what he believed to be his new found fortune. But it neither smelled nor felt like crude. Aubrey had been a roughneck on an oil rig in the North Sea and he knew what black gold should feel and smell like. Another “merde, putain,” which seemed to define the limit of Aubrey’s expressive vocabulary.

There was a distinctly fishy smell to the muck. Benoit received a sharp slap to the top of his head for pointing out the obvious to Aubrey; they were very far above sea level and large bodies of water were noticeably absent in the vicinity. As for Felicity, she was not faring any better than poorly treated Benoit. A sudden sharp piercing pain shot through her hand as she groped for support, sending her completely beneath the surface. To her small audience Felicity was unrecognizable as she emerged from the pool. Her hair and face were covered in the dripping ooze. Her apparent poor fortune notwithstanding, she would not stoop to impatience or childish petulance. She would sit there until calm and reason returned. No such luck. Another “merde, putain” broke her meditative posture. This time she was angry and was about to let Aubrey know it. But something about his leer gave her pause.

He was talking, which wasn’t surprising for him, but there was no sound. He was pointing at something to her right. It was conical and metallic and it was on its pointy end that Felicity had put her hand when she had tried to rise. They had missed this object in the first sweep, the muck with which it was coated not being a very good reflector. To Felicity this could be the find she needed to prove her thesis. She thought for a moment about any damage she might do to whatever it was laying in the muck and decided it would be best to take a chance. She stoically concluded that any harm to the submerged artifacts had already been done. As for her own well being, Felicity reasoned there was little cause for concern as the slime had neither corroded any of her limbs nor burnt her skin. She was already completely covered in the slop and any movement would, at worst, only redistribute it.

Kneeling before the object she carefully slid her hands down the conical sides, feeling for a base and a handhold. Her fingers made out a larger cylindrical shape with a rounded end to which the cone seemed attached. Using only light pressure she tried to move the submerged bulk but it would not yield. Leaning forward to bring all her weight to bear did not fare much better, resulting in a barely detectable movement. Was it attached to a deeper section? Was it heavier than suspected? She ran her fingers further along the cylinder sensing soon enough that it was attached to something larger. Following the outline, sometimes jagged, sometimes granular, whatever it was she reckoned the object stretched along for well over one and a half meters. She would need help.

Whereas Oliver was wired to jeopardize personal well being to vague notions of selfless sacrifice, the twins had crushingly overwhelming survival instincts, which were always particularly fired up when they were called upon to help others. This time was no exception. From long experience with such types, Felicity fully understood their struggle between self preservation and the potential for gain. She knew there was a price at which they would submit – she was looking for their cupidity index. She toyed with offering them her continued silence, for they were bit players in the stolen artifacts trade, but quickly jettisoned the thought. These were two basic people, for whom violence was stored near the top of their very small, crowded crisis management tool box.

Aubrey was clearly disappointed and it showed as he scowled at Benoit, who smiled with delight at the outcome. He felt resentful when Felicity accepted his first offer. He would have settled for half but now, in his hopelessly muddled mind he added another black mark against Felicity’s name. She had clearly cheated him of the greater amount, whatever that may have been, which she had been prepared to pay for his services, had he only asked.

Reluctantly, the illegal dealers in artifacts waded into the muck and moved to either side of the submerged object. Oliver stood ready at the end opposite to Felicity. They each slid their hands under the heavy bulk and at Felicity’s signal they heaved in tolerable unison. But it was too solidly lodged. They would have to all stand to one side and roll it out. They were fairly close to the edge and all it took was two rolls and a last exertion to move it onto dry land.

The Frenchmen immediately brightened, a broad smirk sharpening even further Aubrey’s spear like nose. Business was about to improve. Apart from the ooze still sticking to the metal, Aubrey was quite certain what he was looking at. He had often enough smuggled these things out of the country for Americans, Asians and others willing to skirt the strict French laws governing archeological finds and patrimonial objects. This would be worth probably ten times the pittance the bitch had offered for his help.

Aubrey would have to be clever about this if he was to take possession. Aubrey tended to exaggerate when he was nervous and he was now very nervous. His opening gambit was to laugh so loudly as to alarm Benoit, who promptly drew a small handgun from his overalls. This unexpected turn distracted Aubrey away from his one act play, needing to quickly disarm his rather stupid sibling. After much brotherly shaking and yelling Aubrey returned to his clever little deception to convince Felicity and Oliver that they were staring at a worthless counterfeit.

This, he explained, gesturing with an exaggerated whirling of his arms to what appeared to be a complete, mint condition medieval suit of armor, is a fake. He had seen many and was somewhat of an expert. This was obvious, he went on, and one need look only at the visor arrangement to see that it was produced in a modern workshop and was all but valueless. While talking he walked over to the cylindrical helmet, which was still oozing the crud which had filled its cavity when they rolled it onto dry land. Pointing to the hinges, Aubrey let his attentive audience know that visors never swung up and down, but laterally like a door. With this he put his finger on the conical face plate and swung it up, as a last demonstration that his knowledge in these matters was infallible.

Aubrey had at his disposal a bottomless well of misunderstanding. The gawking, staring and pointing by his visibly affected audience only confirmed his utter and now unshakable confidence in his own cleverness. These foreigners, not to mention his witless brother, were no match for his fluid guile. Perhaps he was too good. His dazzling display seems to have caused some distress. The bitch had her hand on her undersized breasts. Was she going to be a nuisance with heart trouble? Why is he, Aubrey Malvue, always burdened with such poor luck? He was still deeply absorbed with this last bit of self-pity when he was pushed to the ground by the foreign shrew as she rushed to have a closer look at the helmet and face visor.

“Salaude,” was all he could utter before it was the American Bastard’s turn to push him back to the ground as he also rushed to get a better look at the face plate. Benoit, however, was not as fortunate as the foreigners. He had only to think about taking a closer look to be slapped up the side of the head by a now deeply wary Aubrey.

“Mummified, probably,” Felicity opined in an almost reverential whisper. “Don’t touch it,” she now raised her voice, as Oliver tended his hand towards the bony, emaciated, ashen face. “What if it falls to pieces,” speaking again in the low voice which seemed most appropriate under the circumstances? They were staring at the ooze slowly seeping from the many joints along the length of the armor when Aubrey’s gravelly growl disturbed the hallowed aura that had settled into the cave. Guessing that these stupid foreigners had finally figured out his ruse to fool them about the value of this find and ever with an eye to profit he was opening negotiations. But he thought better of his timing when Oliver and Felicity both turned to glare at him.

The lips were only vaguely darker than the ghostly face and they were slightly parted, revealing a quantity of ooze that had penetrated into the mouth when they had rolled it. The nose was given great prominence as it soared from wasted flesh around the cheek bones. Much of the head and face were still hidden by the helmet. Nothing else was visible, the body being fully covered by either armor or chain mail. They did find it odd that everything appeared to be untarnished since the cave was actually quite humid. Their eyes were running over the length of the prostrate form, looking for clues to explain its presence in this previously sealed cave, when they again heard a gravelly growl. They both turned on Aubrey, only to find him chewing on a mouthful of baguette. Then they heard it again, but more of a cough than a growl.

This time it was Benoit’s turn to become hysterical. He dropped his long sandwich and mumbled a prayer to his favourite saint while rapidly and repeatedly crossing himself. Aubrey was a slow assimilator of new information that didn’t fit with his laboriously constructed realities. He simply squinted and tried to make sure that there was no chicanery afoot. Apart from Benoit, and he was not always above suspicion, others were not to be trusted, particularly the doubly damned – strangers and foreigners to boot.

“It’s coughing,” Felicity bellowed, much louder than she would have wanted. “Do something,” she barked at Oliver, the only person to her mind qualified to deal with medically distressed mummies in suits of armor!

“Shoving me will get my attention, but it will not add to my capabilities,” he told her, speaking calmly but curtly. Oliver was convinced that he could never be fully composed in stressful situations, and this was arguably such a moment. A previously dead mummy was now in clear distress, trying to breathe through a mouthful of viscous muck. His head and chest were inaccessible, both well fortified by heavy armor. But in medical emergencies Oliver was not only calm, he was also given to sarcasm and a temptation to cruelly attack incompetence and those who would unnecessarily meddle in his endeavour. He had to consciously restrain these baser tendencies.

“Felicity, remove the helmet,” he ordered, firmly but respectfully. At the same time he unfolded from his pocket knife the large blade and busied himself cutting the leather straps which held the front and back sections of the armor around the torso. He knew he was about to take some risks, but his professional instincts had by now dominated all other considerations and he proceeded as he was supposed to. He did have a couple of nagging worries: it could have an incurable disease which he would undoubtedly contract when he began mouth to mouth, a matter in which he had no alternative; and to pump out the ooze, which had seeped into the open mouth, he might kill it if he pressed too hard on the frail body.

The helmet came off easily enough and the chest plate was also quickly removed. Oliver put his finger into the gaping, gurgling mouth to remove any debris and to open a passage which the tongue might be obstructing. He didn’t dare put all his weight into pumping, and he didn’t have to, a little pressure was sufficient to send gobs of muck streaming from the parted lips. He then forced himself to place his mouth over the revoltingly cadaverous bluish aperture, now silent, and to blow air into its lungs, if that is what it had. It did not take long before the coughing and sputtering resumed. Oliver stopped and began lightly to slap the flaccid cheeks. After a moment the breathing began to lose its frothy flavor and to settle into a hoarse but regular rasp.

“Merde, encore les Templiers,” Aubrey revealed to his captive audience. Early in the fourteenth century Philippe le Bel had ordered the round up and annihilation of the Templars and the public immolation of Jacques de Molay, their Grand Master, spawning a giant and ever growing conspiracy industry. One such bit of local lore has it that the Templars were not all killed. Some had evaded what still remains the greatest manhunt ever undertaken in France. They formed a secret society which to this day still carries out clandestine ritual burials in the old tradition, dressing the body in full armor. The actual coffin at the public funerals would invariably be filled with debris and, sometimes, even with missing people, usually drawn from among the homeless. Over the centuries, despite the odd investigation, nothing had ever surfaced to verify these rumors. This, however, did nothing to quell the twins’ ardour for the templar conspiracy.

Oliver scoffed at the superstitious drivel which Felicity had translated for him and tended to the more pressing business at hand. He put his fingers against the carotid artery, bulging from an emaciated neck, to count out a pulse rate. “He needs to be in a hospital,” he pronounced, with medical authority. “I’d guess we have about an hour before his blood pressure plummets, he goes into shock and expires.”

“Arretez,” Aubrey growled, abruptly ending Oliver’s attempt to summon an ambulance. He was pointing a handgun at Oliver, who quickly understood that Aubrey wanted him to put away his phone. There followed a short, charged exchange between Felicity and Aubrey. “He wants the armor,” she translated and added, a little hesitantly, “and he wants us to leave him here to die,” looking all the while kindly but dispassionately at the soon-to-be corpse. She had not yet had enough time to dip into her unusually well stocked empathy warehouse. “He reasons, quite rightly, that no one will miss an already missing person and,” she continued, a bit more emphatically, “we could be in for an endless headache if we reported him. Knowing the French, they might even accuse us of somehow being involved in this wretch’s misfortunes. But we can’t just leave him. We’ve got to try and do something,” decency having finally trumped her fleeting dispassion.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” was all Oliver could say.

“We are prisoners of our circumstances,” was Felicity’s stoical response. “Let’s not make a huge fuss. Not only has he got the gun, but all indications to my untrained eye are that he is also a psychopath. Think hard what you might do with drugs we can get at the local pharmacy up the hill in Rocamadour, because that’s the only kick we are going to get at this can. Don’t stare at me as though I had artificial fluids running through my veins. Let’s get moving,” she ended, an authoritative edge to her usually collegial tone.

While Felicity was motivating Oliver, Aubrey had pushed Benoit back into the muck to troll the bottom with his hands. “Putaine,” Benoit’s usual growl replaced by a shriek. He had been looking for the sword Aubrey guessed should also be there and had inadvertently slid his right index finger against the blade, almost severing it. In his undamaged left hand he held a large broadsword, dripping ooze, and on his right hand a bloody finger tip, where it had been sectioned by the sword, clinging to the last joint by bits of pulpy skin. He extended it pleadingly towards Oliver, great gobs of blood dripping onto the cave floor.

Oliver did not have to worry about who to tend to first. Aubrey had already made that choice, motioning with the berretta towards his clumsy sibling. Oliver found satisfaction in small gestures of defiance against those who held power over him. He took solid hold of Benoit’s shirt pocket and with a firm tug ripped it away. This caused a momentary panic when Aubrey cocked his pistol. Felicity intervened here to calm the situation, explaining as though to a child that Oliver needed a bandage to stanch the blood flow.

With Benoit still staring dumbly at the crimson stain slowly spreading over the faded blue former shirt pocket Oliver returned his attention to the man in armor. He worked quickly, cutting the stays holding all the other metal together. He went on until there remained only a pile of faded cloth clinging to what looked to be lifeless sticks. Not much chance here he thought. He should try, though. Water. Must start re-hydrating. Anticipating the need, Felicity had been to the van to fetch a bottle, which she had already placed next to Oliver, along with a clean cotton t-shirt.

Oliver bunched the t-shirt and soaked it with water. This he squeezed over the pale, cracking, slightly parted lips, taking care not to let too much run into the mouth and down a throat virtually bereft of muscular control. This brought an unexpectedly strong reaction, the lips parting further and a bluish tongue emerging like a large pustule. It roamed the surface of the quickly drying lips, desperately seeking the elusive, delicious moisture. Encouraged, Oliver increased the flow, rewarded by even more vigorous tongue action. Then it happened. His eyes began to crack open, only the thinnest of slits, but it was happening. In the almost dead body was a brain wired with an exceptionally powerful will to live.

Aubrey seemed to have calmed down and he could hear him in the background grumbling to Felicity, who responded with appropriately timed grunts of her own, not saying anything, as far as Oliver could make out with his non-existent French, just acknowledgement that she had heard him.

Oliver was prepared with a moist strip of clothe, laying it gently over the eyelids to block the light he worried might damage his sight. He had no idea how long he had been asleep, but he guessed it was long enough for him to take the precaution. There was some barely perceptible resistance by the prone figure to being blindfolded, but no real movement other than spasmodic twitching. “Please tell Napoleon to stop waving his cannon in my direction and that we will not be leaving him here to die. We will have to move him to someplace where I can minister more adequately to his needs, whatever those may turn out to be.”

Another short exchange, another fistful of French currency changing hands and Aubrey was swayed towards the more humane solution. He pocketed his pistol and then quickly pulled it out again to show he had not let down his guard and not to fool with the fastest gun east of America. Not that he trusted Felicity any further than he had a moment before, but he did need both his hands to haul his loot. He would eventually pay dearly for not having stuck to his initial base instincts to let the stranger die.

Benoit had by now returned with the field stretcher which Felicity always insisted on bringing along for rappelling expeditions. He had also brought with him, to transport the artifacts, a large recently emptied rucksack, suspiciously identical to the one in which Felicity carried her climbing equipment. Oliver and Felicity strapped the limp body to the stretcher and proceeded towards the entrance. Long as he was, he barely weighed 30 kilograms, not much for two people to transport, with a third to help move him from the cave down to the donkey path. Benoit was easily conscripted, having more heart – perhaps even more brain – than Aubrey, which still didn’t amount to a great deal. Luckily, since Aubrey needed to carry the armor and would not, in any event, have helped.

Should he survive the jarring drive, the plan was to stop at a pharmacy in Rocamadour, get enough glucose solution and intravenous equipment to keep him on IV for several days, and so try to avoid kidney and other internal organ damage. Oliver, as a licensed physician, would receive the same prescription privileges at a French Pharmacy as he would anywhere in North America.

They rattled through the narrow south gate into Rocamadour and about three quarters of the way through the town they came to the pharmacy. The roadways in these medieval towns were not wide enough for parking, people usually leaving their vehicles at the outskirts and going about their business on foot. They did not have that luxury. Aubrey, of course, had to watch both the foreigners so he accompanied Oliver and Felicity inside while leaving his sibling with the van. Oliver had prepared for the rampantly suspicious French with a story for the pharmacist about his afflicted aunt who could only be fed intravenously. There was some friction when he presented his prescription in the reviled Anglo-Saxon language, but this was quickly muted by Felicity’s excellent French.

“Tabernac”, Aubrey bellowed, as quietly as he could, a profanity he had learned from a French Canadian he had once mugged. He was pointing, not with his finger but, rather, with his sharp chin towards the van. They had been in the pharmacy far longer than expected, having had to endure the medical counsel French pharmacists felt compelled to dispense as to the best way to set up the intravenous mechanism. In France Pharmacists are relied upon a great deal for basic medical and drug advice.

The gendarme was strutting slowly around the van, noting not only the license number but, as well, the general disrepair of the vehicle. Benoit was at the driver’s side door working very hard at his nonchalant posture, with head tilted back as though he had not a care in the world, cigarette dangling from his lips, leaning against the van door. He was so engrossed with his efforts to appear carefree that he did not respond to the gendarme’s demand to look inside until he was shoved and almost fell to the ground. At this point Aubrey had already reached the unfolding drama and finished the gendarme’s work by knocking his younger brother onto the pavement.

“Fils de chien, con,” he roared, sending the gendarme into retreat. Felicity and Oliver had come close enough to be able to hear the exchange but not that close as to attract any further attention from the law. Felicity translated for Oliver. Aubrey was explaining to the gendarme that it was alright to be kicking Benoit because he was stupid and had not obeyed his older brother’s order to properly park the van. This did not go over that well and the gendarme intervened to put an end to the beating. Appearing now somewhat uncomfortable dealing with an evident lunatic, he also stopped insisting to see inside the van, Aubrey’s distraction having had its intended effect. He quickly finished writing the ticket, which he ripped from his notebook and gruffly handed to Aubrey.

“By my reckoning,” began Oliver, in flat, calm tones, belying the recent near career-ending events, “we are now accomplices to a crime, which in itself is worrying, but it is having these two sociopaths,” looking at the twins, “as our accessories that is truly frightening.” In the everyday world of dull events and routine life Oliver spent a great deal of his time worrying about small things, losing sleep over the mundane and proffering gloomy predictions about the insignificant. But drop him into danger and his mind becomes suddenly an orderly place, structured to think swiftly and effectively, meticulously accurate in its assessments, solutions and execution of plans. Until today he thought that this ability to deal serenely and articulately with sudden crises was confined to medical emergencies, the only type he had ever experienced.

“500 Francs,” Aubrey grumbled to Felicity, showing her the ticket with one hand and extending the other for Felicity to reimburse him. Aubrey did not like loose ends when there was someone else about to anchor them in place, particularly when it came to money. Knowing that this village idiot would wait there all day, risking another encounter with the local constabulary and not caring a wit whether the mystery man lived or died, Felicity did not betray the least surprise at this outrageous demand, and handed him the money.

They were on their way again, Oliver hunched over the wasted figure, keeping a steady flow of water dripping onto the parched lips. The breathing was still audible, but erratic and scratchier than before. All his urgings to the contrary, Benoit drove faster than usual, exaggerating the effect of each blemish in the roadway. Oliver tried as best he could to shelter the frail head from too much movement and from being bashed about at every bump. He had wedged it into a pile of rags, something the van had in great supply. It was all he could do, knowing full well that Aubrey didn’t have even the slightest care as to the man’s well being.

Felicity was a wellspring of empathy. She was mentally wired to become fully immersed in the misery of strangers and this distressed individual was by now almost family, having been with her nearly two full hours. When they left the small, but paved tertiary road and started up the loose gravel and very uneven approaches to the farmhouse, she sidled up to Oliver and without warning took the gaunt figure into her arms and hugged him closely. “He’ll be smashed to pieces on this gravel,” she offered by way of explanation.

It was only a matter of minutes, once inside, to move the stretcher up the narrow stairs and into the empty bedroom, arrange the intravenous stand and to set nourishing liquid flowing into the exhausted body. Now they could do no more than wait to know whether they would need to dig a grave or prepare to care for a complete stranger. For Felicity and Oliver, concern and misgiving crept into their thoughts, momentarily free from the demanding minutiae of crisis management. There came the realization that they were now deeply involved with something whose bounds were well out of sight, even if the stranger died. The evil twins had disappeared with the armor and sword, doubtless already counting their unexpected windfall, but their machinations and scheming would have unimaginable consequences for Felicity and Oliver.

 

 

***

 

 

After some sober reflection Felicity punched 17, the police emergency number, reported their find and would someone please come and pick him up. Sorry Madame but we do not deal here with homeless people. You must call social services…. Yes, of course we will send someone right away, the only person at the local social service office assured her, evidently put out by the call. The huffy woman had been relaxing in the sun when the annoying foreigner disturbed her. Why couldn’t they just leave the homeless alone, particularly during the summer when the outdoors would do them so much good?

Yes he does look to be in poor health, the mannered social worker exclaimed. You should not have waited. Such things must be reported immediately. Do you expect me to believe you were threatened, by local residents no less? I am not a fool and you, my friends, are in big trouble…. Hello, Hello, merde, my cell is not working. You will not let me use your telephone she huffed, quite convinced that they would not even though Felicity had actually picked up the receiver and offered it to the by now hysterical government official. I shall be back, she screamed, propelling her small, bulbous frame out the door and into her tiny subcompact.

Oliver and Felicity, now very uncertain as to their future, watched as the little car spun its wheels in the dirt before finally spurting down the long driveway. They followed with much dismay the red insect like vehicle until it disappeared at the horizon for the short dash to the roadway. Then the blare of a semi trailer air horn filled the hot late afternoon air followed by screeching tires and metal crashing into metal. They ran to Felicity’s car and quickly drove to where the farm’s road gave onto the paved public thoroughfare. The truck was so large its bumper had passed right over the little red car leaving it perfectly in tact only to be crushed like a beer can under its massive front wheels. The flattened remains finally came to rest under the trailer’s foremost wheels. The police concluded that the little red vehicle had attempted an unfortunately timed u-turn and closed the case. For Oliver and Felicity, their immediate pickle had suddenly been resolved as a greasy smudge on a French road. They would have more time to deliberate on this vexing problem.

Chapter V

 

 

It was well into the best part of the night and her guard was down when she was caught by the moaning demon which suddenly oozed into her sweet smelling safe haven. In the pitch black she snapped upright as though activated by a taut spring. But she could still hear the demon’s moaning, sharp as it was the moment it had wrapped its serpentine fingers around her arm. It took another moment to grasp that a persistent grumble was coming through the thin walls, from the next room. Fast footfalls soon joined the low wail. Was it possible? Could the poor devil be well enough to walk about? She bounded from her bed, threw a robe over her nakedness and rushed into the narrow corridor. A rectangular cube of light from the stranger’s open door spilled into the hallway.

The moaning had by now morphed into mumbling. Oliver was being talked to while he ministered to his patient. Felicity approached the bed to better hear the low, hoarse whisper leaking from a thin part in the barely moving dried lips. They had lost their bluish pallor and seemed a little less cracked than only a few hours earlier. Felicity wasn’t sure, but the words, if there was in fact deliberation behind the moaning, sounded suspiciously like Provencal. He may have been emaciated but he certainly didn’t look old enough to be using such an archaic language.

The transparent grey eyes, so pale they seemed unseeing and huge, sunken into the starved face, looked from Felicity to Oliver and back, without any apparent emotion. It was a cold stare. Then, there was no mistake about it, he purposefully changed to another tongue. It seemed to be French but with much that was unrecognizable to Felicity, who spoke the language fluently. He tried again and this time it was some sort of antediluvian English. The final attempt she very quickly recognized as Latin. Then, silence. He had exhausted his language resources. His gaunt face became surprisingly mobile, displaying anger and impatience.

“I’ve heard this gibberish before,” Oliver said, hovering over the bed trying to examine the eyes which the cadaverous head was doing it’s best to resist. “It’s the pitiful sound my high school English teacher would make when peddling Chaucer to the uncomprehending. It was just so much twaddle then and it has not gotten any more intelligible.”

“Perhaps, but before that I’m guessing he was speaking medieval French and, if I’m not mistaken, some form of Provencal, and with little doubt, Latin” Felicity added. “But it could be anything, Gascon, old languages from the Languedoc, Provencal, all of the above.” Felicity was passably familiar with medieval European tongues, very handy for the practicing archaeologist. The problem being, she had never actually heard them spoken.

“Let me try something,” she said to Oliver, who had been receiving blank stares from both Felicity and his patient, as he attempted to talk Chaucerian English. Speaking very slowly and articulating each word, Felicity rolled a ream of babble at the bed ridden figure. She could see comprehension crack the corners of his mouth, his eyes, remarkably, growing bigger in happy surprise. Then he responded, also slowly and deliberately, perhaps because he was not well enough to talk more quickly or simply because he knew he must be patient with these two gawking idiots.

“Does he have any head injuries,” Felicity asked Oliver after her brief conversation? Oliver adjusted the bedside lamp, taking care not to tax the frail eyes, and ran his fingers through long ragged hair, and over the skull. He was surprised to feel the jagged scar lines of several healed injuries, all about the head.

“Definitely, more than a few, but none very recent” he finally responded.

She looked at him kindly, cooing soothingly, stroking his long hair, of still indeterminate colour; muck and dirt together creating a rough cap. “He is quite delusional,” she resumed. “He says his name’s Sir Abelard de Buch and that he is a captain in the Black Prince’s armies. He thinks he is our prisoner, which would seem to be a reasonable conclusion from his present perspective. He does, however, give me his word as a noble that his family will pay whatever ransom we demand to set him free. So, Doc, what’s the diagnosis; amnesia, delusion, most recent home probably a sanatorium, hopefully not for the criminally insane, all of the above?”

“Could be anything. If we ever find out why he was where we found him that might help. I have only the obvious to report. Malnutrition and severe disorientation. Give me a minute, I’ll feel around for his internal organs. See if they’re all there.” Abelard was by now naked and all he could do was look, like a dog might, perplexed at the very suspicious activities of his captors. Some movement was returning to his limbs, at least to his fingers, which he was moving in ever so slow wave patterns. Oliver began to palp and tap Abelard’s torso, checking for swelling and any pain he might induce, which would find expression in Abelard’s face. It was all easier than usual, no fat or bulky muscle to come between his fingers and Abelard’s liver, kidney, intestines, appendix and on and on. Oliver had never come across such advanced starvation and he knew he had to be careful about breaking anything with too great a pressure.

“He’s fine, fit as fiddle nurse, please discharge him, and make sure you hide his reproductive organs,” Felicity’s attention having been captured by Abelard’s penis, appearing hugely outsized, drooping between his thin, featureless legs. A low sigh escaped her lips.

“I wonder if it still works,” she asked, to no one in particular, more to herself.

“Actually,” Oliver responded, “it’s a wonder that he has any working parts at all. Great genes. I’d expect that everything will function very well once he fully recovers. He just doesn’t seem the giving-up-and-dying type” Here Oliver paused. He fiddled with the intravenous equipment, checked Abelard’s eyes, hemmed and hawed. He had something to say.

“So, what are your plans for Abelard here over, say, the next few months? That’s when he should be more or less recovered.”

“What do you mean, ‘my plans’? I thought we were in this together. I suppose you would’ve left him there to die because it wasn’t convenient for that moron Aubrey. Perhaps we should have kept on the social agency path after that horrible little woman was sent to hell? A long stay at a choice French prison would be just lovely. Do you think they have tourist brochures so that we can choose a good location?” Felicity had raised her voice a tone because she was angry and hurt that Oliver would think of sloughing this whole mess onto her. She hadn’t fully thought through the consequences of waiting until Abelard recovered. Oliver’s prognosis of ‘months’ had alarmed her.

“Bad choice of words,” Oliver said, contritely, “we’re in this together. I still have six months before I take up my new position in Montreal. I’ll hang here with you until then. With a little intensive care we should have our patient up and about in a couple of months and ready to be abandoned somewhere obvious where the authorities can find and care for him. In the mean time my money will run out, I won’t pay you any rent here and I will live off the fat you provide. Is that OK?”

With tears of relief rolling down her flushed cheeks, Felicity hugged and held onto Oliver. She had been for a moment frightened for her future. It was an unusual and unpleasant sensation. She was not used to it and did not want any more practice.

“You’ve got a boyfriend now,” Oliver said, nodding his head at the bedridden figure, “not very perky but still a warm body. I’ll have to tend to my needs too. Six months is a long time to go without.” Oliver and Felicity were old friends and there had never been so much as a single moment when either would have thought otherwise.

 

 

*

 

 

Not unexpectedly, Aubrey had insisted that two more people meant an increase in the rent, to which Felicity agreed without argument. She and Oliver had to plan and organize their lives around the care and feeding of Abelard. Although no one wanted to admit it, they had begun to grow fond of their deluded knight. They sincerely believed he would eventually regain his memories and reveal who he was. That Abelard could as easily be a murderous psychopath as someone’s lost and kindly son, husband, father, was momentarily swept from their thoughts.

The evil twins, the only way Oliver now referred to them, had stashed their haul for later sale. They suspected these may be stolen goods and waiting until the case grew cold, a few months perhaps, would only be prudent. They rarely came to the farmhouse, preferring their crumbling hovel at the edge of the 50 acre property. Oliver and Felicity had all the liberty they needed to care for Abelard.

Oliver laid in tons of vitamin supplements and much balm for bedsores, which Abelard seemed to have in place of a normal back. He’d been lying down for sometime. How long, he could only guess. Oliver figured that he had already been starved by the time he was put into the cave and that he may have been there for several days more. The mystery of how he could possibly have been hidden away in such an inaccessible place, which was then perfectly and undetectably resealed, he preferred not to think about just yet. The muck in which he was sleeping was another unknown which he had filed for further reflection at another time. He did, however, have the foresight to scoop up a small sample, which he threw into the freezer.

He had no way of detecting whether Abelard had been drugged, but that would not have surprised him. He had heard about cult kidnappings, even in the U.S.A., to provide fodder for perverse rituals. Oliver looked at a few of the over 19 million missing person references on the WEB. Some images were evocative as to what Abelard might look like fully recovered. He had paused a moment at a missing professor, a possible explanation for Abelard’s Latin, but there were altogether too many old wounds to believe he could be an academic. He did retain a couple which he reckoned were very close fits. A diver who had mysteriously disappeared in Lake Annecy, in the Haute Savoie, and the other, a police detective, believed kidnapped by the mob on the outskirts of Bordeaux, not too far from the farmhouse.

Both these men were just over six feet tall, blondish hair, thick noses and beefy lips, just as he would imagine Abelard fleshed out with another 50 kilograms or so. Abelard did have an unusually large number of scars all over his body, most evidently made by blades and some by heavy objects. It was his guess that if he turned out to be one of these missing men, it would be the detective who would be more likely than the diver to collect wounds in these ways. Must have been stabbed and, perhaps, bludgeoned several times.

His convalescence was not an entirely peaceful affair. In the early first days Abelard’s sleep was fitful. There was much screaming, some meaningful and the rest mostly gibberish. The little Felicity did grasp was mildly alarming. A favourite seemed to be “Death to All, Buch” followed closely by “For Edward and Albion”. When he was awake, he stayed quiet but very alert, following every movement around him. He seemed to have believed Felicity when she told him that they were negotiating a ransom and that he would soon be free. He did ask once whether the ‘Archpriest’ was nearby.

 

 

***

 

 

Unknown to Oliver and Felicity, Aubrey and his hapless sibling had left the cave with one other item beyond the perfectly preserved armour and weapons. They had torn a small jeweled cross from Abelard’s neck. Benoit had engineered this complex maneuver as Aubrey was making threatening gestures with his pistol. It had been partly obscured by the thickly layered muck, enough of which had dribbled away to make it visible while Benoit crawling about near Abelard’s head, was searching for the sword.

Benoit had been immensely proud of himself and positively imbibed the affectionate pat on the head he had received from Aubrey for his clever ploy. Benoit knew in his heart that Aubrey loved him and would always be his protector, but like a small puppy he did greatly appreciate a little extra warmth, particularly as it was ever so rare.

As occasional traffickers in stolen goods they had some connections to experts who could discreetly assess the value of antiques, electronics, large vehicles and, yes, even small jeweled crosses. One such was a dealer in Sarlat, a well preserved medieval town, not far from their miserable hut. They would go there.

The dealer, a huge man, appearing absolutely gigantic compared to the tiny magnifying glass he seemed to have permanently attached to his right eye, did a brisk business in disguised glass which he sold to well uninformed foreigners during the summer tourist crush when the stolen goods trade had a seasonal slowdown. Responding to a meaningful nod from Aubrey, with whom he had already done business, when the twins walked in he immediately locked the front door with the obligatory ’back in five’ sign.

The dealer shuffled his considerable bulk behind an old style wood and glass counter, which displayed an array of trinkets, each with a small tag, describing the bauble, the artist and its requisite historical connection. He had personally written each and every small story, making up the content as he went along. There he waited impatiently, vigorously rubbing his thumb and fingers together, for Aubrey to tell him the purpose of his visit.

Aubrey had not let his guard down for an instant since pocketing the jeweled cross in the cave only two days earlier. He had hardly slept, keeping a close watch on the small strongbox into which he had placed it for safekeeping. That strongbox, weighing a good 20 kilograms, he now placed into the hands of Benoit, since the dealer had meaningfully shoved him back when he had tried to put it on the glass counter. He pulled from his pocket a small key attached to a large label and proceeded to unlock the strongbox. The dealer was by now overcome with curiosity and had draped his vastness over the counter, positioning for the best view.

Aubrey had been extra cautious to snugly package his precious artifact in what even he recognized was an overly large container. He had obviously taken the time needed to develop a comprehensive transportation strategy. The same crumpled newspapers that kept the cross snugly in place would be used for the return trip. With that in mind, and not wishing to litter the dealer’s shop, Aubrey carefully straightened each of the tabloid sized sheets and placed them in a neat pile at the side for reuse. The dealer, a fully numerate human, quickly calculated that the box must contain at least 200 such sheets and that Aubrey’s fastidious process would require more than two hours. Determined to expedite the enterprise he gave Aubrey a helpful shove, more energetic than intended, sending him to the floor, and began to scoop out the packing material at speeds that belied his sluggish frame.

Aubrey, mistaking the dealer’s benevolent gesture for a hostile act, pulled his pistol and gestured for him to withdraw. It took several tense moments for the dealer to reassure Aubrey and for Aubrey to resume emptying the strongbox, but with less attention to neatness. At last, he withdrew a small grey cloth, neatly folded in four. This he placed on the counter and for the first time noticing the painful grimace clouding his brother’s features, ordered him to put down the heavy strongbox.

Until he set eyes on the cross the dealer had begun to weary of the two half wits and their ridiculous strongbox. He expected little and was preparing to show them the door. There was, after all, a business to run and he could not give these village idiots any more of his precious time. He was not prepared for the jeweled cross. He knew immediately that this had been worth waiting for. As hard as he tried to control his face, not to give away his bargaining advantage, he began to lick his chops. To him everything looked like food and here he saw victuals extending to the horizon. He wanted to reach for the mouthwatering object, but remembered how touchy Aubrey had been when it was only a question of crumpled newsprint. He looked from the cross to Aubrey and back, his watery eyes begging to let him at least touch it.

Aubrey, always planning and scheming, often missed such small signs of clear advantage and this time was no exception. He intended to ask for a particular sum, very large in his mind, and then to let himself be bargained down by ten percent. Having fully failed to notice the dealer’s great interest he handed him the cross and named his price, take it or leave it. At that moment the dealer understood he was dealing with the stupidest person in all of France. He took the cross, carefully examined it under his eyepiece and using his deep experience with complete idiots, offered him ten percent less. And the deal was struck.

Aubrey left the shop utterly overwhelmed with his commercial skills. Not only had he gotten the price he had planned on but managed to recoup the ten percent he had given up simply by revealing the origins of his find.

The merchant of baubles and beads did not immediately reopen his shop. Instead, he went to the back, pulled an oversized tome from a small cluttered bookshelf and leafed through it until he came to the image for which he had been searching. He compared the cross to the likeness and when he was satisfied he made two calls. One to a number in Florence and a second to reserve an airline ticket.

 

 

 

Chapter VI

 

 

It is much like a bottling plant operation where new employees are first passed through a mind scrubber to purge old ideas and then they are filled with the nonsense a large organization believes will give them long shelf lives before being slotted into old packages for shipping through career land. Abelard and the other recent hires were to be put through the VBI orientation machinery.

 

Alberta Reed’s irredeemably boring drone as she went on about the virtues of VBI to its newest inductees set Abelard’s mind adrift. Who was he if not the person of his memories? How could it be otherwise? Nothing had happened since he awoke to weaken the only past he recalls: about his childhood; about life prior to the battle, the last thing he remembers before awaking in the care of Felicity. A year of psychotherapy notwithstanding. Elizabetta Trebella had finally ended their sessions with the typical arrogance of her profession, “you are marvelously adapted, so let’s not worry about your lost memories,” she had said, “and I don’t think we should be too distracted by the apparently violent world you’ve chosen to fill in the gaps, there do not seem to be any real consequences. Good luck.” How little she knew. True, he could not explain the missing years, a mere 650 of them, but he felt certain he would eventually find the answer.

Confident and dismissive as she may have appeared to Abelard, little did he know that Elizabetta was uneasy with almost everything about him. Her other patients who had become trapped in borrowed identities were hampered by their troubled minds in almost all their daily endeavor. In Abelard, apart from his improbable choice of personality, she could find nothing extraordinary in his day-to-day behaviour. A bit violence prone perhaps, but not off the charts. He had reluctantly agreed to periodically check back with her, after subtle hints his therapy could otherwise be prolonged.

“…and our new logo,” Alberta looked to very much like this part. In her excited state she couldn’t keep her squeak from pumping up a decibel, roughly pushing Abelard’s musings into the background, “since we began using VBI instead of VeryBigIndustries, is meant to evoke the basic values we were fortunate to inherit from the two merged companies, Very Bank and Big Project Engineering – integrity, industry, individualism. The last two, remarkably, also guided our engineering divisions and PeoplePharma Inc., which we had acquired two years earlier.” Those who were still listening may have wondered what could have been so remarkable about others using values as oppressively common as these. Alberta continued for another bit, squealing her way into the fertile young minds preparing to go out and do the company’s bidding. She was followed by the IT people, there to underline the singular importance of not surfing pornographic sites on company computers. Religious, political and astrology sites were fine. After listening to people who wanted everyone to be one big family, and others who made it clear that death by firing would be instantaneous if so much as one cardinal rule was contravened, the Vice Chairman – one of six – finally finished the day with a rousing welcome, which he sang to the tune of Bizet’s First Arlesienne Suite.

“Hey, so we’re both working for The Predator,” the whining buzz saw interrupted Abelard’s rush to the door. Gummy smile, lantern jawed, tall and blond, true VBI material, had also extended a caricature sized hand towards him, leaving Abelard no options. The Predator was Robert, “Robbie” Robertson, head of mergers and acquisitions, his new boss.

“Badger Va-low-iss, spelt V-A-L-O-I-S”, gummy smile went on, hand still extended. Valois, who had in the fourteenth century taken over the French Monarchy after murdering the last male heir of the previous dynasty, was a hated name in Abelard’s bogus memories and he took a moment to compose himself before slipping his own hand around the fleshy fist. Abelard immediately appreciated that Badger would need close watching. He was definitely ambitious, the company’s mythologies already at his fingertips. Abelard understood about moving around and up organizations. He would be going Badger hunting at some time in the future.

“Abelard, Abelard Bush,” with a broad grin, indistinguishable from the real thing. He had quickly retooled his protocol equipment. In his vivid past emotions were worn on the outside. First impressions were apt to be much more revealing; unprovoked aggression for serious competitors and a smile for friends. “I’m starving, how about you,” he added, welcoming the distraction of the buffet to extricate himself from Badger.

Besides Valois, the VP Analysis and Market Intelligence, there were three other junior execs, including himself, employed in M&A. He was the VP Negotiating Strategy, a position specifically recommended to Robertson by Milly, who must have recalled Abelard’s self promotion in this area. From what he remembered, his negotiating skills were quite formidable. He had, after all, been a Gascon captain in the Black Prince’s armies. At the battle of Poitiers he had helped avoid a military catastrophe, riding with his father, the Captal de Buch, to lead their small troop of archers and men-at-arms to attack a numerically vastly superior French rear, causing them to panic and flee. For him that was just six years ago, still relatively very fresh memories. For everyone else it was in 1356, almost 650 years ago. For that exploit he was handsomely rewarded with rights to seven valuable prisoners, enabling him to finance an increase in the size of his own troops, and so rise in esteem and importance. It needn’t have been thus, but he had worked hard ingratiating himself to the Black Prince and becoming his trusted hand above all others at his station, including the Prince’s own cousins.

He had also participated in the seizure and looting of John II’s baggage train. John II, described by historians as the stupidest of all French Kings, a well earned title, had been captured by the Black Prince. It was entirely serendipitous that he had been part of the attack on the rear, putting him closer to the baggage train than all the other victorious thugs rushing to the prize; a small chest filled with jewels, gold handicraft and coin and intricately worked religious objects. Nothing of that fabulous treasure had ever turned up. Historians all agree that it was carried off by the looters but why it has never resurfaced remains a completely mystery.

These and other 650 year old memories were all that made up Abelard’s palpable experience. He drew on them for guidance in difficult situations, when he had hard decisions to make and when he felt threatened. He had nothing else.

“So where’s the accent from,” Badger’s irritating nasal whirr was again at his ear, “Eastern Europe, I’ll bet?” Then he just stood there, close up, mouth open, rancid breath pillaging Abelard’s sensory organs. Abelard was used to staring people down. He also fondly recalls his easy recourse to permanent solutions, slicing, dicing and chopping up those who annoyed him. He even considered having a go at Valois with his tiny plastic knife and fork combo. But only for a delicious moment.

“From South West France,” he finally loosened the imaginary rope holding Valois upright and in thrall. “Gascony, actually. We all develop this strange Eastern European like accent when we learn English. Our original language, for the longest time, was Gascon, sort of a little like Provencal. Then we all learnt the English of Chaucer’s century when the Plantagenet took over the Duchy of Guyenne. And by the time the French finally settled in we had evolved this really funny speech defect,” he continued, always smiling and gesticulating, so that Valois could no longer be sure whether he was being derisively mocked or seriously informed.

“Well that’s just great. Keep up the good work,” was the only inanity Valois was able to manage, before disappearing behind the bulk of Alberta Reed. A successful diversion, thought Abelard. He could now concentrate on more practical matters like scheming to move up the organization ladder. Just then happenstance made a felicitous appearance. The Predator having at last arrived to mingle stepped directly into the Valois grip, unrelenting like a steel trap. All his impatient sighing and maneuvering to no avail, he could not escape what seemed to be an iron embrace. Opportunities were for Abelard like carrion to a scavenger, he could spot them anywhere and his reaction was always swift and sure. As surreptitiously as possible he slipped through the crowded room and, placing himself just inches from Valois, barely outside his peripheral vision, he waited for him to turn, as he knew he would, having taken a few moments to observe how he so successfully kept glued to his prey. Then, thud, slosh and it was all over. Valois’ refreshments had neatly subdivided into an empty cup and a large soggy, black, syrupy splotch across his white polo shirt.

“Shit, what the fuck”, he bellowed, “now see what you’ve done!” He looked to Robertson for sympathy and detected none. He looked to Abelard for an apology and got none. Neither did Abelard have to actually say anything.

“Mr. Badger,” Robertson’s clearly modulated voice began by getting his name wrong, “you should have been more careful, now go and get yourself cleaned up, we’ll all still be here when you return,” he lied.

As Abelard also turned to go, without acknowledging Robertson, he felt a hand grip his upper shoulder and Robertson saying, “Robbie Robertson,” his other hand extended to shake. Mission accomplished.

“Abelard, Abelard Bush,” he growled, “sorry about the interruption,” without any self-justifications or apportioning of blame.

“On the contrary Mr. Bush, I owe you one,” he whispered. “We shall surely meet again. And, Abe, mind me calling you Abe, name’s Robbie, from now on.”

A good captain, he recalled being told by history’s most famous mercenary, Sir John Hawkwood, should always know when to break off an engagement and now seemed a most opportune moment. “Uh oh, Alberta there is giving me the evil eye; I’d better get to the next session.” A knowing nod from Robertson and he was off.

This was all going to be much easier than he had dared to imagine. He would quickly demolish Valois and if he was anything to go by, the other VPs in his way would also be swiftly dealt with. These happy thoughts carried him through the remainder of the day’s crushingly boring orientation activities. He was fully prepared to act the eager apprentice to the master takeover artist, Robertson, until such time as an opportunity arose for him to demonstrate his superior abilities in this area where he remembers always excelling. And that would not be long in coming.

Chapter VII

 

 

Abelard reread the three pages he had earlier been handed by the Predator, for the third time. He did not need more than one reading to see that this was the opportunity, after only four short months on the job, he was meant to seize. The other two were for pure enjoyment at the delicious prospects which had warped out into the main pathways of his mind. Under the ‘Top Secret’, ‘For Your Eyes Only’, ‘Highly Confidential’ in light red, stamped across each page, was a brief narrative outlining a ‘Hostile’ takeover target and the proposed ‘Team’.

He and Badger Valois were to contrive the battle plans. The grunt stuff: put together the financials; detail the target’s Strengths and Weaknesses; hazard an opinion of the market’s potential reaction and the effect on their own stock price; find out all they could about the target’s top management. They were to work together and needed to present their findings and recommendations to Robertson in one week. Abelard was overjoyed as he hit the send button on his e-mail to Valois suggesting a first planning session within the hour. The response was immediate. They would meet in a small conference room near to his office.

The target was to be a mid-sized oil company which had nothing at all to do with any of their businesses but was intended as a ‘Triple P’ – Purchase, Pillage and Part with. VBI was evolving into a merchant bank with stock performance providing the single guiding principle by which management lived, prospered or perished. After so many years of blending together all the unrelated businesses which now made up VBI, there was no real business to run other than a money spinning enterprise based mostly on clever financial manipulation by fast men racing to resell acquisitions before the house of money could be blown away by the winds of reality.

This one, though, might be more difficult. Yes, the target had lots of cash, which when it would fall into the deft hands of the VBI team would be used to pay off all their backers – the banks, the senior managers putting their own money in, the idle rich hanging about waiting for their wealth to be multiplied by the clever people at VBI. But the dominant shareholder, also the founder and CEO, had often said he intended to die at the helm – he would never sell.

This would not normally have been a problem for Abelard, at least not in his previous life. He would not hesitate to use any means, including murder, if that’s what it would take for him to succeed. Although killing was not entirely discarded as a fallback position, if it came to that, he hoped it would not since this could potentially cause him much trouble with the authorities. In the mean time he would try and think of something less socially objectionable.

The two ambitious company men worked through the night. They were each quite intent on showing more enthusiasm than the other and neither wished to be the first to pack it in. As the dawn light lifted the darkness enough to make out the magnificent St Laurent, flowing flatly around the maze of artificial islands and seemingly more swiftly under the main bridges, their financial model passed the final reliability test.

“As I see it,” Abelard was the first to interrupt the inspired silence, “we will have to find another route to this prize. There just aren’t enough available public shares floating on the markets for us to ever trigger a takeover. Old Beelzebub – they had labeled Horst Hecht, the owner, with the mandatory code word to keep the project secret – will have to be convinced otherwise to sell out.”

“Nah,” Valois drawled, the nasal twang irritating Abelard more than usual. “I’m goin ta recommend we pick up all the available shares we can in the markets, Valois countered. There may not be a pile around for a takeover, but it’ll give us enough of a moral toehold to force them to the table.” Fatigue was affecting his grip on the fine practiced diction he normally used in place of his folksy drivel. Either he was abysmally stupid, sort of an idiot savant, remarkably adept at building complex financial models, but utterly out to sea when it came to simple sound reasoning, or he was singularly Machiavellian, to Abelard’s thinking the least likely scenario. Abelard rather took to the Prince, when he read about him, even though Abelard’s memories predated him by more than a century. There was no possible way, from the information he presently had, for VBI to ever find enough shares on the market to make even the tiniest impact on a takeover decision. Much of the remaining float, not in the hands of Hecht, was held by his close relations.

“Sure thing, Badger,” was the most he was willing to risk with this Machiavellian disguised as an idiot, or the other way around. “Let’s call it a day and I’ll prepare something to present to Robbie, of course passing it by you first,” which he had no intention of doing. This was high theatre and he was the director, producer and principal actor.

His memories were surfacing; Abelard reaching back to find relevant experience that he could draw on for this problem. He was thinking back to the siege of Castle Gard. These crystal clear recollections were reassuring to Abelard. If all this had never happened, would his recall be so vivid, so detailed? Surely not. Regardless, he would draw inspiration from the bloody encounter along the bucolic river. It was to be his roadmap for the takeover.

His father had asked him to handle the matter. It was somewhat delicate since the target castle lay at the frontier between Gascony and the lands controlled by the Counts of Toulouse, with whom they had observed an uneasy peace for more than two years. But the Black Prince was unhappy with the arrangement since the Counts were still nominally loyal to Charles V, King of France, with whom they were at war. And the Black Prince saw the protrusion of enemy territory into his own like the middle finger of a French hand up the Gascon backside.

The situation on the ground was not very favourable to an attacker, even a determined one like Abelard de Buch. The Castle defenders were a bad crowd, who had much to discourage them from giving in. They were a collection of desperate men, routiers – private armies that terrorized the countryside in search of loot – and Gascon mercenaries who would be put to the sword if they were overrun and hunted down by the French and their Toulousian allies if they fled. The defending captain was, so to speak, holding most of the voting shares.

This was not the only problem he had to get around. If he devastated all the land about, and killed every human being he could catch, the castle gave onto the Garonne River, wide enough to carry large supply barges and these Abelard was not equipped to stop. He would have to do his murdering quickly, before the barges made their way to the castle. Also, the rebels had sent word to Arnaud de Cervole – the Archpriest – and he would be coming with his “Bandes Blanches” – the white group – to reap the rewards such saviours – white knights – usually demanded.

The captain of the castle, a wily old Norman, held several other good cards. Like shareholder rights agreements – poison pills – he also had more than a few strong defenses, not the least being ten metre crenellated walls, no less than three metres thick at the base and not much thinner at the top.

Added to the already seemingly insurmountable objects, Abelard had also to contend with the fragile confederation which was his own force. Many of the Captains who had accompanied him had come for the rewards that only enthusiastic pillage could offer and would not stay around forever. Like the merchant bankers willing to backstop a takeover bid, who would only keep their money tied up for so long before looking elsewhere for more promising opportunity, the Captains and their men knew that in those perilous times they could easily find potentially profitable engagements elsewhere if this one dragged on too long. All in all these takeovers could be tricky affairs.

Abelard’s plan was simple but forceful. The rushing pressures of time would be his biggest worry. He needed to strike quickly, forcefully and convincingly. He would leave half his force before the castle walls, to guard against a preventive sortie and with the remainder he would launch a chevauchée of, at most, five days, before any barges loaded and dispatched from Toulouse could reach the defenders. The chevauchée was an English improvement of an age old tactic that fit remarkably well with the general disregard for human life in the fourteenth century. It involved large, heavily armed, ruthless men who would quickly ride across huge swathes of countryside killing every creature they caught. It was really nothing more than a scorched earth action, stretching over days and, sometimes, over months. It was meant to deprive the enemy of resources, terrorize populations that had yet to be overrun and, of course, to enrich the attackers. These were extremely callous affairs, with unmatched levels of violence, cruelty and limitless brutality. Nothing was spared – man, woman, child, old, infirm, animal, abode. All was put to fire and the sword.

This was nothing new to Abelard. He had taken part in many of these murderous outings. He knew they were effective. His mob of men-at-arms knew their jobs. They had not the slightest scruple about impaling infants on their pikes or burning alive the inhabitants of entire villages should they make the inevitably fatal mistake of taking refuge in their local house of prayer that had nothing worth looting. Perhaps not to his credit, Abelard was utterly dispassionate in these matters. He was never moved by hatred towards the enemy, as were many of his associates. He was motivated entirely by practical considerations – the quintessence of rational self-interest. He knew that to successfully encourage enemy populations to abandon their crops and workshops and so deny any material advantage to their armies all and sundry would have to be put to death. Any show of mercy would most assuredly send the wrong message. There was also the matter of providing sport, not to mention opportunities for personal enrichment to keep his troops motivated and willing to take the serious personal risk of death or mutilation inherent in such enterprises.

Abelard, with 200 men-at-arms and 300 archers headed due south along the river; where he would find everyone he needed to kill or frighten off in order to deprive the castle of its needs. They rode hard and they raised so much dust and made so much noise, the peasants a long way off had ample warning to flee into the surrounding forests and low hills. The first two villages were practically deserted except for a few elderly peasants too sick and too slow to run. They were quickly dispatched and the village put to the torch. At the third stop, the men in need of some diversion were luckier, the peasants had been crowded in the church for a wedding ceremony and by the time they heard the noise of approaching horsemen it was far too late to flee. All but the females were ruthlessly dispatched and as was customary Abelard left his men enough time to satisfy their lust before also putting them to the sword. Impatient as he was, Abelard knew he could not deprive his soldiers of their expected pleasures. The church, obviously meant to service more than just the local peasants, contained objects of some value and was dutifully pillaged.

Chance always had a role in such a venture, and in this one it was felicitously lined up in Abelard’s favour. A landside up river had lowered the water level at the castle sufficiently to prevent any and all barge traffic. By the tenth day, the Norman had wisely decided he had little choice but to negotiate a surrender that would spare him and his men from immediate annihilation. His last gambit had failed. He had sent a small party of men-at-arms along the river, to float to a landing a little behind the besiegers, hoping to take them by surprise and so inflict enough damage as to scare them off. But Abelard had anticipated such a move and set up a visual signaling network from his spy in the woods across from the castle, through a man on his bank and back to him. He was prepared and annihilated the raiding party. Now his cold calculation had convinced him his chances, albeit still very small, were far better trying to outrun the retributive French than to hold off against the determined Gascon, while his own resources were being quickly depleted from the effects of the chevauchée. With no sign of the Archpriest he knew he was out of time.

Abelard would suggest a similar strategy to the Predator. While Badger was still trying to figure out how he could miraculously multiply the meager available float, he was already preparing his presentation. As a personal touch he would use the Castle takeover as the contextual metaphor.

 

 

*

 

 

With the appropriate deference, a touch of temerity and the most complete sanguinity, Abelard launched his presentation to the Predator. The astonished expressions, the furtive glances at the Predator, not even the furious whispering seemed to surprise Abelard. Indeed, if confidence had a name it would have found full expression in Abelard’s beguiling smile.

Abelard’s first and only slide was hardly the stuff his audience was accustomed to see. Where were the polished graphics, the reams of numbers, the fluid motion, the useless but greatly entertaining special effects? In place of the habitual little-content-great-form show, the screen was a troubled landscape of childish doodles, little colour, not what one would describe as a business like picture.

 

 

 

 

 

The Predator knew that Abelard would not be here but for the good graces of Milly. Neither, for that matter, would he nor any of the senior executives at VBI, had Milly not given the nod for their appointments. He could not recall a single error Milly had ever made in selecting those destined to care and feed his creation. Could this be the one? The failure of judgment. The sign that Milly might be in decline. He greatly doubted it. But he would remain cautious.

“Please go on Abe”, the low growl bringing an abrupt stop to the circling scavengers who had smelt the blood of an injured Bush. They withdrew behind masks of interest and solicitousness but remained tense, like an indecisive mob, quivering with murderous impatience, waiting to see whether it would be a fight or flight ending.

“Medieval history, particularly the One Hundred Years war….you have all heard of the One Hundred Years war?” Abelard thought to ask. Nods of yes-I’ve-heard-of-it-and-wouldn’t-admit-it-if-I-hadn’t, all around. “Yes, then, Medieval history has been a hobby of mine since, yes, since I was very small. I often gather inspiration from its events. The people who lived in this pre-enlightenment world had to be quite quick to find solutions to problems in a very difficult environment. And the first thing I do whenever I come across a tricky dilemma is to look through some of the clever campaigns of the Hundred Years War. And here, with this takeover target, we seem to have a problem which will not yield to our traditional attack strategies, Badger’s heroic attempts to find enough non-existent outstanding common shares notwithstanding.” The jackals had suddenly picked up a new scent and Badger hunting season had officially opened.

“The Castle, if no one objects to the new code word,” Abelard was looking directly at The Predator, who only a moment ago had been mentally composing an e-mail to Milly about Abelard’s dubious mental health. Now he was not so sure. What had been a silly slide with juvenile graphics was now the instrument of a brazen commander who would brook no opposition. As much as he tried to deny it, he was a bit frightened.

“Good, the Castle, as you can see,” pointing to what had quickly become an inspired picture, “is practically impregnable. It has a Poison Pill which will trigger a massive stock issue and dilute away all the potential profits of an acquirer; it has a cadre of fiercely loyal management, with a huge financial incentive to fight any attackers; it is impervious to any lenders that might try to pressure it to surrender, since it has no debt burdens; it has a practically bottomless cash well to keep it comfortably watered and; as we knew from the outset, there are not enough shares on the market for us to buy control. All in all, the kind of company we would love to take over and drain.”

Abelard did not even bother to look at The Predator, sensing in the pin-drop silence that had settled in the room, he had everyone’s complete attention. “However, in our favour, the high ground, so to speak, is poorly defended. There are suppliers we can bully to slow the flow of necessities and so create hardship in the day to day affairs of the Castle; while there is no long term debt, there are short term cash flow needs which we can squeeze through our vast network of connections so profitable to the banks; the customers of the Castle are also, in many cases, the petrochemical concerns that are highly dependent on sales to VBI and they can be intimidated to look elsewhere until the Castle gets its new owners and; finally, there is always the possibility that the CEO, may not survive another heart attack, as the stress of battle takes its toll, leaving control in the hands of his weak daughters.”

He paused for a moment, even though he knew there would be no questions. “So, where do we go from here,” he asked, rhetorically, staring out the window, his determined profile to the audience? He had laid out a broad strategy, and now the team would have to deal with its many details. He had already decided his role and would now inform The Predator. But he must be careful. He knew that telling the boss what to do was a bit risky. But he sensed he was on solid ground, having seen the ever so slight nod of The Predator’s shaven head, a satisfied nod. He took that as tacit approval.

There were four Vice presidents in the room. “It might be best if we each prepared and executed an attack plan against the four objectives. Badger, you might want to take a crack at…,” his thought remained unspoken as Badger suddenly erupted in visible disbelief that a peer was giving him marching orders, “who the fuck do you think you are, telling us what to do?” He was definitely the only one in the room who was not yet convinced that Abelard had The Predator’s support and wanted to seize an apparent opportunity; apparent apparently to him alone.

“Shut up Badger, Abelard has been making good sense and I urge you to listen to what else he has to say,” The Predator had sealed his bargain with Abelard. Given its source, even Badger understood that he should not take the word urge at its literal meaning.

“Thank you Robbie,” acknowledging the anointment, “and Badger, please forgive me my eagerness to get this job done,” further injuring the hated Valois. “I thought,” he paused for effect, “of course if you had no objections, that you might take a stab at convincing our bankers that business with the castle would be bad for business with us. Do you think you could do that?”

Trying to recover some dignity, his clumsy attempt to apologize pushed him ever closer to extinction, “I didn’t mean to be so testy, but I’ve already got lots on my plate and…,” those buts, the big guys hate them, “thanks Valois,” last name, not a good thing coming from the boss, “please go on Abe.”

Abelard felt, after this definitive victory, that it would be best to behave more civilly towards his other peers. After all, didn’t he want to be a team player, always appreciated by the captain?

“Sam, if you’ve the time would you be able to deal with our suppliers, their customers, see what you can do to convince them that salvation lies with our side; Gardner, we may have to actually buy one or two of their suppliers if we want to starve them out; and I will look into convincing their CEO to listen to reason and agree to an honourable surrender.”

Disquiet had again returned to trouble The Predator. He felt a pressing need to reassert control of the proceedings. He raised his head, as though to sniff for danger and, in a tone much too abrupt for the occasion and more shouted than spoken, he put an end to Abelard’s presentation with, “Brilliant, this is going straight to Milly as our strategy.” He then set his hawkish gaze to the audience and in a much more familiar growl warned that, “you should be prepared to deliver the goods by mid-month.” Looking back to Abelard, he belatedly acknowledged, mostly to call attention to his leadership, “Castle is the code word for this one.”

 

 

*

 

 

Milly was delighted with the strategy or, as The Predator, in his own endearing way recounted to Abelard, “this,” waving the presentation he himself had made to Milly, “got his juices going.” Even if he had no memory of ever having learned modern English more recently than four years ago, he did recognize The Predators limitations with the language. Abelard was put in charge of the dossier and proceeded with diligence and enthusiasm to execute his plan.

The onslaught was relentless. Over the following months The Castle lost enough of its customers to wipe out its profit margin. It was having trouble keeping its installations running for want of spare parts. Inevitably The Castle was unable to respect certain of the protocols in its lending agreements, which gave the banks a pretext to withdraw credit facilities without offering to restructure, which they would have normally done, but for the encouragement from VBI. This succession of guided misfortunes led the credit rating agencies to put it on a ‘negative’ watch, inciting investors to punish its stock price with the result that it would have difficulty raising money on the equity markets, not to mention making it much cheaper for VBI to eventually acquire. Abelard was delighted.

These troubles notwithstanding, there was nothing to stop The Castle negotiating with others interested in buying a company at distress prices, the so called white knights or, if viewed from a slightly different angle, the vultures. Such an outcome would mean a bidding war and, of course, a reduced take from any subsequent looting of The Castle. Abelard hoped to avoid such a situation by appealing directly to the captain of The Castle, Horst Hecht.

Mr. Hecht thought him mad to ask for a private meeting and categorically refused to have any direct dealings with his tormenters. But the incessant offensive had taken its toll with Mr. Hecht’s health. Before the hostilities his disciplined fitness schedule and strict diet had put him in top physical condition for a man with a heart problem. He had to work longer hours, and when he did get to bed he was unable to sleep. He had put his diet on hold for the duration and the more dangerous sort of fat was showing at his waistline.

Abelard’s plan, however, required that he deal directly with Mr. Hecht. He decided on a bold move. He would kidnap him, only for the briefest period, during his regular lunch time stroll, which is the one activity Mr. Hecht refused to give up. He always walked alone. No matter how harmless it may have seemed to him, Abelard did understand that kidnapping and sequestration, even for only very short periods, was frowned upon. He would need to arrange for everything to appear normal.

At lunch time, the day of the event, Abelard sent an e-mail to Mr. Hecht, knowing full well that he would not see it until that afternoon, too late to alert him. The contents were brief and to the point;

 

Mr. Hecht,

 

I was gratified to hear from my colleague, Badger Valois, that you would be willing to meet with me over lunch today to discuss alternative ways in which we could bridge our differences. And, by the way, Badger very much liked your speech yesterday. Until later. Take care.

 

As it turned out, Horst Hecht was the keynote speaker at a charity dinner and Abelard had sent Badger to attend. Badger had not had any actual contact with Mr. Hecht but that did not matter. At such an event no one would ever be able to recall whether Mr. Hecht had actually spoken to Badger or, for that matter, to anyone else. And Badger, now wholly dependent on Abelard for his very survival, would definitely not object to participating in his little ruse.

 

 

*

 

 

Among the company chauffeurs that regularly ran VBI executives around town, Abelard had spotted one that he recognized to be like minded – unscrupulous, criminally inclined and quite unfamiliar with empathy. He chose him to aid and abet in the deed. McCurdle – he insisted that people not use his first name and no one actually knew it – pulled the large German car into the slow moving traffic and headed for the corner in the older part of Montreal where a three hundred year old church abutted onto most of the sidewalk and so altogether obscured the view on one of the streets. This is where he would force Mr. Hecht into the car. Abelard carried no weapons. He was strong enough to subdue most men and Mr. Hecht, in his debilitated state, would cause him no great difficulty.

Abelard stood with his back to the direction from which Mr. Hecht would arrive, looking intently at a map. McCurdle stayed in the car and kept it idling. As Mr. Hecht passed by, he spotted the map and gave the large man no further thought. He was certainly not surprised to hear, “excuse me sir would you know where…” and as he turned to respond he was quickly pushed into the open back door, followed by Abelard’s large hand now around his throat and pinning him to his seat. All in less than 10 seconds. Before Mr. Hecht had a chance to utter a single objection the car had already pulled away and was heading to a small house, with a very private entrance, Abelard had rented for the occasion.

“In a few minutes we will arrive at our destination. Please do not say anything until then. Should you do anything to concern me I will put you to death,” Abelard’s phraseology still retained much of its old charm. Something about Abelard convinced Mr. Hecht that this was no idle threat. Involuntary reflexes made Mr. Hecht run through the full range of expected facial gymnastics, from wide-eyed disbelief, through glowering skepticism, to the agitated glances of cornered prey as he turned his gaze from Abelard’s business card to Abelard and back again.

McCurdle pulled straight into the garage of the small stone, two story, early 19th century house. Absent the need for brute force and Abelard was always very well mannered with his peers, even those he intended to most hideously torture and kill. Mr. Hecht, being the captain of his own castle, was unambiguously a peer. He helped him from the car and politely showed him the way through to the main house. He led him over the darkly lacquered hardwood floors to a large dinning area with a long, polished oak table. He asked him to sit at the head of the Table and himself took a seat at his left side.

“Mr. Hecht, you have surely by now guessed the purpose of our meeting,” Abelard began, in an unvarnished, utterly neutral monotone. “We do not have much time if you are to be back at your office before someone notices an extended absence. Your secretary has by now seen the e-mail I sent you acknowledging our meeting and will assume all is as it should be. When you do return, any attempt to characterize the circumstances of our meeting as coercive will likely reflect very poorly on your mental health.”

Abelard waited a moment for Mr. Hecht to appreciate just how fully forlorn was his predicament. Abruptly leaving his chair to place himself behind Mr. Hecht, he continued, but with a noticeably more menacing tone. He wanted to introduce into Mr. Hecht’s mind a sharp ambiguity as to his own psychological well being.

“You may be thinking, even as I speak, that your disadvantage is but fleeting, since your office will be expecting you to return later this afternoon with news of our meeting. You may even have wrapped yourself in the warm blanket of stoicism – Abelard having learned about Epictetus from the very same priest he had put to the sword – that very soon all this will be but a bad memory. And, to a point, you would be right. However, Mr. Hecht, you know nothing about me. You have no idea what I am capable of to get what I want. I have killed hundreds of men, and had countless more murdered.”

Mr. Hecht was now visibly frightened. Large droplets of nervous perspiration seeping from the pores in his forehead had splashed over the thin metal rims and left long, oily streaks along his glasses. His blue eyes all but disappeared into his skull as he tried to follow the madman circling around behind him, for his head remained motionless, paralyzed with fear.

Abelard had another reason besides intimidation, to walk around behind his quarry. He needed to hide the telltale concern creasing his own forehead. Abelard was being buffeted by feelings he did not completely comprehend. He did not care for other human beings but he was also unsure whether he could actually hurt Mr. Hecht. He looked at the large head with its short grey hairs and mused that there was something endearing about the elderly, fastidiously dressed gentleman. He had to this moment seen Mr. Hecht as he saw all competitors, just another predator, smaller than him and meant to be devoured. It was not that Abelard had a limited intellect. On the contrary, Abelard had a very fine mind, of that he was fully aware and which he ascribed, in his false memories, to the lessons he had received from the hapless priest. He had no doubt that the world was a complex place and that some problems demanded deep thought and intricate strategies, but that at the heart of it all there was only the simple ‘eat or be eaten’ rule.

Resourcefully convenient as he made his rule box, it would not accommodate Mr. Hecht. For such a wholly alien endeavour it would need shaping, renovating and resizing well beyond his capabilities in so short a space of time. Abelard had been diligent, as he always was, to prepare for this encounter and had scoured most available information on Mr. Hecht. He knew all about his family, the three daughters, all married, none working in the business, but all major shareholders. He also knew that he voted their shares at annual meetings. But that was not all he had learned about his captive. Mr. Hecht lived very modestly and kept only a small fraction of the salary he had been granted by his board. The rest was distributed to his favourite charities, mainly for the handicapped and a handsome sum for animal welfare. He had a reputation, even among his fiercest competitors, of unblemished honesty. Mr. Hecht, if he was to believe all he had read, was the rarest of humans, making decisions exclusively on principle.

“Mr. Bush,” the German accented voice, in a kindly but fragile tone, spoke for the first time, “why am I being dealt with so harshly? You must think me a ferocious creature. Perhaps I have done something to offend you and this is some sort of vendetta. Please forgive me, I am not a vengeful person nor am I a dangerous monster. You have been systematically ruining my business in your implacable attempt to takeover my company. But that is fair. It is the way of business. I would not proceed that way but that does not give me the right to fault others. Please be kind enough to stop this nonsense now. You are a young man and I have no intention of ruining your life with a complaint to the police. So please, let us part company peacefully.”

For Abelard, this was terra incognito, utterly beyond the pale. Hurting Mr. Hecht would be like harming a Saint. He was struggling with his novel dilemma when Mr. Hecht’s head hit the table edge and then smashed against the hardwood floor where it bounced once on the pliant surface before coming to rest on its right cheek. Blood was seeping from his temple where it had cracked against the table’s sharp corner. But he was still conscious and clutching his chest. He was having a heart attack.

Abelard was immobilized by his own ambivalence towards this elderly man. Here was an opportunistic scenario he had himself considered, even mentioning it as a possibility to his takeover team. For his mercenary purposes it was no less than the greatest of good luck. For that small part of his brain reserved for compassion, and largely unused, it was a major headache. In the end, utter novelty trumped long habit and his vanishingly small, but insistent compassion pushed him to reach into the pocket Mr. Hecht seemed to be struggling to get to and pull out a small vial of pills. He quickly poured a few into his hand and began stuffing them into Mr. Hecht’s foaming mouth.

Alas, it was too late. Mr. Hecht had drawn his last breath. He continued to stare at Abelard, the pills creating a sparsely toothed grin, as though in disbelief rather than fear or pain. In the final anguished moments, racked with numbing pain, Horst Hecht had watched incredulously as this self-confessed mass murderer tried to administer what could have been life saving medication.

Abelard was no less mystified at his reaction and made a mental note for a thorough post mortem. In the mean time, there was business to attend to and Abelard, his predatory instincts back in full control, was again attentive only to his current objectives. He quickly dialed 911 and reported the emergency. He took a moment to groom himself at the ornate entrance mirror and then stepped out into the splendid, late autumn warmth, under a glaring early afternoon sun, to greet the police. The shares held by the daughters, he schemed, could be his if he contacted them before the news got out.

 

 

*

 

 

All three vehicles arrived at almost the same moment – the prowl car, the ambulance and the unmarked cruiser. Sanschagrin identified himself to the uniformed police and then went directly to Abelard, who was standing at the small concrete staircase which led into the house, hands clasped before him in a relaxed posture, more like a curious bystander than an active participant in the unfolding drama.

“Mr. Bush, you should first show the ambulance attendants to the victim and then we can talk,” he said, in a voice that seemed to Abelard to bode no good. He did as he was asked and then stepped back outside.

“This is quite the coincidence, eh? It’s been, what, five, six months since our last chance encounter, Detective Sanschagrin. Does it always stay this warm so late into the fall here in Montreal,” he prattled on, proffering his hand to the dour policeman?

“Our encounters are hardly the stuff of chance, Mr. Bush. Both have been police matters and I, Mr. Bush, as you might recall, am a police detective. I do not normally respond to heart attack calls but when your name came up on this one I could not resist the opportunity to learn how you might be involved. And, yes, Mr. Bush, we are fortunate here in Montreal with what are known as Indian Summers – a sudden warming which could run for as much as a couple of weeks. Please wait here for a moment.” Sanschagrin disappeared into the house.

He very soon emerged again and began to speak to Abelard. “So what incredible accident has brought you together with a corpse, so soon after almost creating one? By the way, the mugger you maimed is now up and about and you, I’m sure, couldn’t care less.” He fell silent and after a moment Abelard concluded that Sanschagrin’s question was not just rhetorical. He would have to answer.

“In the event that you have not read the business press,” an irritating simplicity accenting his words, as though talking to a thoughtless child, “my company and Mr. Hecht’s organization, for some months now, have been involved in a rather nasty takeover battle. Mr. Hecht had agreed to meet with me privately to see how we might bring our disagreements to a happy conclusion.”

“Mr. Bush,” Sanschagrin cut in, “I would have to have left the planet to miss all the dirt on your disagreements with Mr. Hecht. The press we mere morons read has also been covering the story and it has been unkind to your company and to you, in particular. It’s been local drama here and everybody I know has been rooting for Mr. Hecht. He said he would rather bankrupt the company than sell to the VBI slime, a direct quote. So, why would he agree to meet with you if he had no intention of being bullied into a deal?”

“Detective Sanschagrin, you are obviously a little naïve about the ways of business. No, no, no means the price is too low. We agreed to meet because VBI had decided to stop negotiating through the media, which had pushed the price too high and Mr. Hecht knew we would be withdrawing our offer. We felt that in private we could reach a win-win deal.”

Sanschagrin shuffled uncomfortably in place while Abelard treated him like a patent idiot, droning on about how business is carried on. When Abelard had finished his patronizing pedagogy, Sanschagrin said in a bitter tone, “I didn’t buy your victim story last time and I don’t buy your tragic coincidence story this time but I still have nothing that will stick to you. Something tells me, though, that we will meet again Mr. Bush. Good day.”

Abelard smiled at Sanschagrin and without another word slipped into his car to be driven back to the office. He wasn’t much fussed with Sanschagrin’s veiled threats. He worried more about his mysterious episode of compassion. Fortuitously, Mr. Hecht had not lingered a moment longer. It would have been ruinous for Abelard. During his entire recovery and rehabilitation period he does not recall even once having to deal with such unnatural emotions.

 

 

***

 

 

The daughters, having been told that their father had a mouthful of pills when the ambulance personnel first saw him, were deeply touched that Abelard would have tried to save him. They concluded that the press had been unfair and very unkind to the nice Mr. Bush and had no hesitation in tendering their shares to VBI and, as they say, the rest is history. VBI vacuumed the company dry, posted a huge increase in profits as a result and then closed it down throwing 18,000 people out of work.

 

 

***

 

 

The time had come to have a chat with Abelard, the same one he took the trouble to have with each and every senior executive at VBI that he judged could one day challenge his leadership. Milly was of course delighted with Abelard’s stellar performance but that was not the reason he had summoned him to his office the very next day following Abelard’s crushing takeover victory. It was rather the public nature of that triumph which signalled to Milly that Abelard was attracting far too much attention and would need to more fully appreciate the ways of Milly’s world. When he arrived at the VBI building Milly was waiting in the lobby to personally greet and escort him up to his office. Abelard was astounded by the gesture. His memories were full of medieval trivia. One such piece had to do with the symbolism surrounding such a gesture. In those times only superiors, such as an immediate suzerain or higher were received at the main entrance to a castle by the baron himself and then escorted by him to the inner sanctum. All others were ushered in by lower ranking servitors depending on the importance of the visitors. Flattered as he felt, Abelard remained wary until they entered Milly’s private office, his keep. That single act, more than anything else that Milly did afterwards to cultivate his ancient instincts, pushed him towards the course he was too follow over the next several months. It triggered a whole set of obligations to Milly. It defined his space in the social structure, a space with which he was intimately familiar. It was as though Milly knew Abelard’s medieval mind.

Except for two hunting dogs, pitch black Flatcoats, sprawled before the roaring fire, suddenly alert and observing him with their almond eyes, they were alone in his vast office. He poured coffee and asked how it had felt to win such a complete victory. Milly didn’t actually expect an answer, and after a moment he signalled for Abelard to follow him. They walked to his desk where he pulled a control panel from under the top and touched a key. Sections on the far wall opposite his desk slid silently and swiftly apart to reveal a large screen on which was displayed a map of the world. Satisfied that all was happening as it should, he touched another key and many small green dots began to sparkle. “Those are the places around the world where I own major enterprises”, he said with not a little pride. Then he once again touched the keys and this time a multitude of twinkling orange points joined their green cousins. “Those are areas of the world where I own large enough portions of major enterprises to control them,” he said, this time with a wistful sigh, as though he would one day ultimately fully own these as well. Another jab at the keys and numerous red lights joined the blinking fray on the screen. “Those indicate where I want to be but without risking too much capital, relatively unstable areas, just keeping my finger in the important enterprises is sufficient”.

He then pressed other keys and the map disappeared to be replaced by an organization chart. His name was on top with ten boxes directly under him and then smaller and more numerous boxes for several layers under those. The ten squares each had a name except for the one under the PHARMco heading, in which was written the word vacant. Standing proud and erect, this man who controlled such vast resources, puffing up his already large barrel chest, slipped suddenly into childish metaphors.

“These people, Abe,” he began, “under my watchful eye control all the enterprises shown by all those coloured points you saw on the screen. And through those enterprises and those people on the chart below me I often have a substantial say in how the host countries are run. If you imagine the heads of those countries as the kings then people like me who command such vast organizations are like dukes, barons, counts. Some of us are more powerful than others and have larger fiefs, more people. The kings try to control us but are not always successful. And when they do catch us doing something undesirable then they usually don’t kill us, just make us pay sort of a ransom, which we euphemistically refer to as a penalty or fine. We nobles also have a lot of private wars and we end up killing each other’s peasants, only here we don’t usually actually kill, except sometimes, but only in certain countries. Instead, we fire people. And being fired today, what with the loss of income, corporate benefits, prestige and power, it is almost like a death sentence.

“And what do you imagine we would value most in our peers, the people of our class? It is, above all, personal loyalty. No, not loyalty to the corporation nor to the host country, but loyalty to your immediate superior or, if you like, lord. Almost anything is forgivable in our world except a breach of personal loyalty. Of course, with all our corporate wars, hostile takeovers, forced mergers, suzerains can change frequently so that personal loyalties must also adapt to new situations. Surprised? Don’t be. In our world of confusing complexity, the boss can’t possibly understand what all his people are doing and depends on the primitive, but reliable device of personal loyalty to safeguard against being deliberately compromised by his subordinates”. Then he fell silent and looked at Abelard for a long moment with a small, superior smile imprinted on his thin lips.

“How can I possibly, you may wonder, as the lord of this vast empire, tolerate loyalties to anything but VBI? Since, after all, I am VBI. Well, Abe, the ten people you saw on that chart just below me are all personally loyal to me. Therefore, they are personally loyal to VBI. So you see, Abe, the personal loyalties of even the lowliest worker, at the farthest reaches of the empire, ultimately feed up through the hierarchy and finish as personal loyalty to me.” Another pause to let all this brilliant bullshit sink in.

“Now, Abe”, he resumed, “I can tell that all this doesn’t impress you as so very strange. And why should it? Robbie has told me you have an intimate knowledge of the medieval world and, I suppose, the medieval mind. I’ve read a bit about that world and I was struck by the similarities much more than by the differences. People like me controlled the lives of thousands of peasants and townsfolk. Today people like me and, I daresay, like you control the destiny of millions. Some of us do it to fulfil pathological needs to bully and exercise power. I find those motives base and repugnant,” he portentously added, knowing how others less fortunate than him might easily suspect a more infantile purpose behind his ravings. “I do it for business reasons. Take the Captal de Buch, for example, a personal hero of mine,” causing Abelard to spill his coffee, “when he had to he never hesitated closing down whole villages or terminating, so to speak, as many people as necessary, including those from his own class, like when he killed Thomas Badefol for treason. He was a truly admirable man”.

Then Milly once again touched his keyboard and this time Abelard’s name appeared in the PHARMco box. “What do you think about that,” he asked, filled with an immature delight at his display of absolute power? “Or, how about this one,” he practically laughed the words, as he moved Abelard’s name to the president’s box, erasing, at the same time, Hornblower. “But, perhaps”, he whispered, conspiratorially, “you would prefer this”, and Abelard’s name replaced his at the top of the organization chart. Then, just as quickly, he made it disappear entirely from the board. “No,” he said, “you, I’m sure were taught to play by the rules of loyalty from earliest childhood. You would be the last to act upon a natural desire to be number one, if it meant committing an act of betrayal. The others, Robertson, Hornblower, even Bull, they are less predictable. They had to learn the rules. They didn’t inherit them”.

Another longish moment to bask in his own greatness, a final keystroke and he shut down the wall display, let the large wooden panels slide back into place and led Abelard, with a great show of respect, back to the fireplace. “You, Abe”, he began, in a grandiloquent, yet serious voice, “can be part of this world, near the very top. I know you more than I know any of the others. I sense a communality of spirit that is beyond anything I’ve ever shared with my other executives. I want you to serve me as you would have served the Black Prince had you been alive at that time,” causing Abelard to dribble coffee down his cheek, fortunately not visible in the semi-darkness. “I want you to be my vassal and I want to grant you a fief. What do you say?”

He hesitated for only the briefest moment, not because he was unsure of what he wanted, no, it was rather because he was thoroughly overcome with a sense of good fortune. He would again be among the elite, the masters of the world. He could have yelled with joy. His life as he was meant to live it, from earliest childhood memories, was about to resume.

 

 

***

 

 

Abelard was a hero at VBI and would be handsomely rewarded with bonus and promotion. His new position would lead him to even greater feats in the never ending wars to dominate the corporate landscape. He felt a sense of accomplishment well beyond what anyone may have imagined. Not because he was able to succeed with such improbable ease. After all, he had been groomed for the field ever since his imagined childhood, from where both mercy and quarter were banned. There was nothing particularly surprising that Abelard should be, at the very least, a formidable match for all other contenders. The real triumph had been how completely he had been able to adapt to what had been such a fearful new world only four short years ago.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter VIII

 

 

It was well into the second week since his circumstances had taken a turn for the bizarre before Oliver’s misgivings seeped into his conscious mind. Providing emergency care to stabilize his patient had absorbed all his attention. That done, he could now let his mind wander to other matters and it set him to wondering out loud, Felicity looking on, whether there was not perhaps a heaven and if he would get a VIP pass for his awesomely stupid act of generosity when those responsible for trying to murder the crackpot in the spare bedroom came finally to finish the job.

“My dear Oliver,” Felicity rose to the challenge, “imagine us as characters in a play that is being written as we speak. True we cannot yet see the ending and, the gods only know, there are many possibilities, some bad, some good and a whole lot in between. The good news, however, is that we are the authors.”

“Huh, I count at least five authors, three of which are utterly unpredictable and two of those, nodding his head towards the twins’ hovel, we know for sure are the gold standard for base humanity. The third we have yet to hear from. But those ‘Death-to-All’s’ he regularly lets loose don’t inspire great confidence in his endearment to happy endings.”

“Cheer up, the little choice we have left means we don’t have to worry about making too many hard decisions. It’s a bit late to go to the authorities. They would have to believe that we were coerced by the evil twins to hide Abelard and they would have to disbelieve the evil twins when they would surely heap all the blame on two perverted foreigners with ritual designs on an easy victim. These are two unlikely events.”

“Cheer up? I must be missing something. What is there in what you have just said to bring me joy?”

“Stoicism my friend; with only one course of action, give it your best shot; and don’t waste energy with self pity. But, fear not, it occurs to me that after we nurse him back to health a plethora of choices will suddenly become available to us. If he then remembers who he is we will send him along his way and he will never know who we were. If he never recalls his past we will bring him to the nearest public place and leave him there to be found by the authorities. For now though, we should make it our priority to get him back on his feet. And, the best part, from your perspective, is that there will be no implications for your future. I will be the only actor in the final scene. In the event of problems, which I do not foresee, my uncle I am sure will see to my welfare.”

Felicity knew that her analysis was more of a sieve than a water tight intellectual exercise. Moreover, she did not care. There was something compelling about this story and she had an overwhelming desire to be part of it. There were all sorts of emotional threads weaving this tale and she could not isolate them for proper analysis. She felt charitable, protective, defiant, invincible, challenged, deliciously frightened, industrious, loving and much more. It was child’s play for her over-active self-confidence to brush aside the undeniable cautionary signals. Abelard might be an innocent victim fallen into the wrong hands, a man with an irreproachable past caught in the tentacles of outrageous misfortune. He might also be, at best, a self loathing psychopath and, at worst, a murderous, ethically unconstrained, ambitious scoundrel. Her inexplicable need to see this through had closed down her incisive intellect.

The tinkle of breaking glass, crashing metal and the thud of a large object, which sent a shudder through the ceiling, put an abrupt end to their conversation. By the time Oliver raised his eyes from his mock after-you-madam bow, Felicity had already disappeared onto the second floor landing. He just stood there for a moment, daunted at how quickly maternal concern can propel a human being, until Felicity bellowed his name with an insistence that he felt cried for prompt attention.

Blood, in plump blobs, was scattered over the wooden slats. Bulbous droplets were oozing from Abelard’s left hand, hanging limply at his side, the other propping him up against the window sill. His nightshirt was clearly going to be a washerwoman’s nightmare. Shards from the shattered water glass, which had been on the now upended night table twinkled red and bright yellow in the dull illumination from the ugly ceiling lamp.

“Raise your hand above your head,” Oliver bellowed, interrupting the unintelligible gibberish passing between Felicity and Abelard, “only, of course, if you want to stop the bleeding,” he added somewhat more politely to remove any doubts in Felicity’s mind his tone may have left as to his feelings towards Abelard.

He needed coherence and calm. All he got was dumb staring, as though he were the one speaking in tongues. It took another moment and Felicity, whose belligerent roar had so quickly fetched him up the stairs, was suddenly the kindly, selfless mother bear, gently taking Abelard’s bloody hand and raising it above his head. For Oliver she had but harsh words, “can’t you see he’s bleeding, do something,” the protective female snarled, removing any doubts he may have harboured as to her priorities.

Oliver moved closer to Abelard and quickly concluded that he had some nasty cuts on his palm and fingers, a few bits of embedded glass shard from having fallen on the broken tumbler and little else. He righted the night table and from the small first aid kit he kept in the slim drawer he took a fine needle and little tweezers. He motioned to Felicity that he needed Abelard to sit. She was obviously still unsettled and glared at his apparent unwillingness to move at a more obsequiously blinding pace to help her poor cub. Abelard, calm as Felicity was upset, sat and without prodding and with unmistakable haughtiness extended his hand to Oliver.

Normally very delicate in such matters, Oliver felt that Abelard had somehow turned Felicity against him and he needed some redress. He jabbed and poked and picked at the glass splinters somewhat more energetically than needed. Yet, butcher as he might, Abelard never flinched, did not even appear to acknowledge Oliver’s presence. He just continued chatting with Felicity, a broad grin of teenage culpability dimpling his still emaciated face. The extensive network of old injuries, most of them inflicted by sharp and pointed objects, had already tipped Oliver off that Abelard was quite used to being mutilated. Oliver also noted that he had gained a remarkable 30% in body weight over the past 10 days, but was still some way off from the 85 to 90 kilograms he expected someone of his height and with such large bone structure to reach at peak. That would be another two to three months at the very least.

“He assures me that he was not trying to escape. He is a knight and his word is his bond,” Felicity said, grinning like a recently minted twit, greatly relieved that he was not seriously hurt. Oliver was more perplexed than miffed at the giddiness this probable mass murderer had excited in Felicity. He also silently scoffed at the notion that knights were honourable men. King Arthur, Sir Lancelot, Ivanhoe and all the other medieval heroes were fictions foisted on audiences by greedy studios who knew that romanticism sold better than pre-digested food. The Dark Age warrior was just that, a metaphor of his cruel, brutal times.

“He was trying to get to the window. He wanted to see what place this was where rooms were lit, as if by magic, when one of us entered and then darkened when we left. Where could we have come from, with our outlandish clothes, bizarre food and unrecognizable language? But he had not appreciated just how weak his legs had become.” Felicity became more reflective after translating for Oliver.

“Oliver, he doesn’t remember anything. The modern world is an alien place for him. He has only his make believe space. I’m hoping he’ll snap out of it if he sees something familiar. When he is well enough we should drive him around the area.”

“I would have bet anything that the light bulb, jeans and the little clock on the dresser would have won hands down in a familiarity contest,” Oliver said with more than a little irony. “Never mind,” he reckoned it best to back off in the harsh stare of Felicity’s disapproval. But his need to vent was overwhelming. He went on speaking through an artificial grin, “I’d better do a quick heart check on him just to make sure it hasn’t aged as quickly as his brain. If the electric light astonishes him, the automobile will almost surely stop his ticker for a moment or two. Then there are the airplanes, big buildings, telephones and on and on. You know what. We may want to think about boarding him here permanently. He just won’t be able to handle the world outside his mind,” Oliver was gesticulating with the needle and tweezers, like a rapper, deliberately exaggerating the intended irony. “There, I’ve made my contribution to his incredible scar collection, I’m through.”

“Oliver, do I detect anger, perhaps a little frustration? What’s up?”

“Nothing, really….well yes, I’m feeling a little uneasy with the blossoming relation between you and him.”

“Oliver, are you jealous?” she asked with indignation.

“No, I am not,” he said, emphatically! “You should know better than that.”

“Sorry, I misspoke.”

“I am quite frustrated, though, at your unusual naiveté. As far as I can tell, you’ve let your attachment to Abelard become irreversible. Felicity, we have no idea who or what he is. Had he recalled being Mother Teresa and nothing else, it may have been boring but comforting. Instead, his brain is wired for a distinctly unpleasant period that was not remarkable for kindness and where none of the bleeding was for empathy. And you, of all people, should know that. How and why he was remade into the Medieval Candidate we do not know, but it could not have been to prepare him to care for the needy. You’ve got to be realistic. I agree we have little choice. We must nurse him back to health but, for both our sakes, let’s be sensibly mature about this. More business, less emotion. OK?”

“You’re absolutely right. What have I been thinking?” she responded, looking lovingly at Abelard. Oliver sensed that his appeal had not registered and that he would have deal with Felicity’s growing infatuation on a day-to-day basis.

“Very good, down to business then,” he said, trying to suppress the stoic sigh. “We are obviously running on instinct. We will be better off with a plan. There are the bare necessities for an amnesiac recovering from starvation. He will need an exercise program so that he doesn’t have to fall his way to the window. He will also need a tolerably strict diet of massive protein and, lucky him, lots of fat; did you know that all the taste in food hides in the fatty parts? To boot, and you may not like this, we will have to figure out to what extent his brain is actually functioning. Can he dress himself? Is he able to remember stuff for any length of time? Does he know about personal hygiene – although the state of his teeth and skin, apart from its tendency to be frequently punctured by sharp objects, would suggest that he does? Can he read, write, learn a live language? I’ll think of more stuff as we go along.” He paused a moment, looked at his watch and added, “we should shoot for an outing in three, at most, four weeks.”

“Oui, mon General,” Felicity shouted, leaping to her feet and saluting. This provoked a sharp outburst from Abelard. After exchanging some hurried gibberish with him, Felicity turned to Oliver, “he had thought you were some sort of retainer and that I was the boss. He now has a great deal more respect for you and would like from now on, to have direct contact with you,” she said, pausing a moment and then, with a wide grin only Oliver could see, she clicked to attention and promoted Oliver on the spot with an exuberant “si El Supremo,” accompanied by another lively salute.

Despite his frustration and growing concern, this was too much for Oliver, a rare genuine smile broke through the grim features that had settled over the past two weeks in his usually eager face. A comfortable serenity seemed to suddenly take hold. Just to have a plan was a strong tonic against despair, for keeping oblivion at bay. There is very little more disheartening than to lose a rudder and fall to the vagaries of the wind and sea.

They would find that Abelard already had a great store of knowledge, a mind trained to learn, a capacity for fine judgment and a set of operating principles that would, at the very least, alarm them.

 

 

*

 

The following day they began in earnest, albeit not without some awkward moments, to fill Abelard’s brain with all the needed bits and pieces his medieval memories might be missing if he was to become an active and civil member of modern society. Language training was the first priority. ”I am Oliver,” exaggerating the articulation, pointing to himself and then to Abelard, all the while tilting his head to one side. He had had several dogs and knew that to be their universal expression for perplexity.

“Oliver, I’ve always had some misgivings about your early education,” Felicity interjected, without giving Abelard the time to respond. “He is not a dog,” she went on. “We humans, it may be of interest to you, also depend on body language to communicate and use another gesture to indicate a question. Here, let me show you. “I am Felicity,” she said, also pointing to herself, with emphasis on her name, at the same time turning both her palms face up. She looked at Abelard and waited.

But Abelard had quite easily understood Oliver’s canine allusion and preferring not to propagate any unnecessary ambiguity as to his mental acumen responded to Oliver, “I am Abelard,” he said, pointing to himself and looking directly at Oliver, with a slight tilt to his head. This set Oliver off. He began to laugh, quite loudly, eliciting an angry reaction from Felicity.

“You’re training him to behave like a dog. Stop it.”

Abelard had by now fixed Oliver with a malevolent glare. It’s not that he minded being laughed at, but Oliver was the enemy and his amusement could only be contemptuous. In an instant all that remained of the audible whoop was a frozen, toothy grin. Oliver quickly understood what had occurred and moved to defuse the situation. He strode over to the bed and gently took Abelard’s hand in his, giving it a slight squeeze and, at the same time he gave him a thumbs up sign – figuring if the Romans used it, he would know about it, since they predated where he had chosen to place himself in history – along with a broad smile. This was sufficient. After a moment, Abelard responded with his own warm regard.

“Ok, language is your responsibility. I’ll tend to matters of health. And I will be sensitive to his feelings. But this little episode was not a complete loss. His brain, happily, does seem to be receiving and processing signals in what looks to be a pretty normal way. It doesn’t mean that he isn’t suffering from some murderous personality disorder, only that he can learn.”

There was also the matter of his body, which very visibly needed major restoration work, although bringing Abelard up to full strength did somewhat worry Oliver, in view of his evident proclivity violence. After one week, with the help of small weights and exercises designed to work on the very largest muscle groups – abdominals, quadriceps, pectorals, traps – and the two of them as supports, Abelard was able to get to the window more or less under his own power. For the most part there was not much to see that would surprise him. The house was surrounded by tall oaks and to the horizon there were only rolling hills with building outlines sparsely dotting the distant escarpment. The two nearby paved roads both ran through shallow ravines and their traffic would have been invisible to Abelard, although he did inquire about the occasional roar from invisible, straining vehicles. “Construction activity,” was all he got in response. Felicity’s mystic blue German vehicle was explained away as a carriage, which Abelard pointed out could not with such small wheels be very useful.

The castle tower, its crenellated top just peeking over the horizon, was another matter. It had an odd feature about it that caught and held Abelard’s eye. There was a small bell tower which had been built over the top of the battlements. With hundreds of castles lining the Dordogne, Oliver and Felicity had never taken any special notice of this one. But Abelard obviously had some familiarity with the distant stone building.

“I, Abelard, go there,” he said, with an excitement that belied his normal matter-of-fact attitude, pointing a long bony finger, trembling ever so slightly, at the castle battlements. The momentary silence and his two erstwhile captors’ complete immobility convinced Abelard that he had not been understood. He excitedly began to speak in Occitan to Felicity, his hands more lively than usual, trying to draw a picture in the still air, all the while turning his gaze from Felicity, to the window view and back.

“He claims to be familiar with that castle,” Felicity said to Oliver. “An important ally of his father’s presumably lives there. They are quite tight and he is pretty sure that this baron would advance to us the ransom needed to buy his freedom. Would we be so kind as to convey him to the castle?” Felicity rolled her eyes at Oliver, suppressed her grin from taking on noticeable proportions and suggested, “Why don’t we say yes? Of course, in your opinion, only when he is ready to travel. Might be just the thing to revive his memory.”

“He should be OK by the end of next week. Tell him and see what he says.”

The disappointment was writ large, but he just nodded and turned back to the window, releasing an audible sigh. But he was very resilient and his frustration quickly evaporated. He was now pulling at the night shirt which had been his single and only garment since he awoke. He shuffled over to Oliver and repeated the pulling gesture on his clothes, pointing all the while to himself.

Clothes,” Felicity articulated, slowly, deliberately at once pulling at her own shirt.

“Clothes,” Abelard mimicked with almost perfect diction.

“I need clothes,” Felicity went on, again using her hands to convey the meaning she wanted him to retain. And so would Felicity seize any opportunity to teach Abelard English. She was quite looking forward to the outing; the closed quarters in the room had become oppressive. They had not yet brought him downstairs, worrying that his legs might give. They also in this way avoided his inevitable questions about the appliances and other paraphernalia of a modern house, even the quite moldy and very outdated one which they rented from the evil twins. He had been very impressed with running water and flushing toilets but of such conveniences he had already heard rumors and knew that they had been in use by the Romans, but never expected to actually see them. She and Oliver had also rehearsed their act for the moment when Abelard would experience his very first automobile trip since waking up. But, all her optimism and exuberance and all her rehearsals could not prepare her for events at the castle.

 

*

 

The August morning was hot, humid and ominously overcast, an ideal time not to visit crumbling, overcrowded old castles. The dreaded moment when Abelard would be introduced to internal combustion technology was but a few moments off. He had been awed by the unpredictable ringing of the telephone, kept away from the television and was still not reconciled with electric lighting. Felicity worried greatly that he would become apoplectic when strapped into his seat and then propelled at speeds unknown to the medieval brain.

In his present emaciated condition Abelard scarcely filled the hand-me-downs from Oliver. The shoulder seams fell about where his biceps would have been and the sleeves could only be managed if rolled halfway up. The pants were held up with a belt from Felicity, his childish waist useless as a support. The shoes were stuffed with cloth to keep his feet from sloshing about.

Abelard scrutinized his image in the full length entrance hall mirror and grimaced at his emaciated face and wasted body. The zipper was a source of great curiosity. He operated it at various speeds, pinched his finger once, drawing blood but no complaint, and jammed it finally on the clothe, from which he was unable to work it free. There was no risk that he would apply too much force and so break it, since his strength was no greater than a child’s. This led to the awkward situation where Felicity began to fiddle with the mechanism, eliciting at once a look of surprise and delicious expectation.

Then they were congregated about her mystic blue automobile cum farm cart, which Abelard supposed was to be hitched to as yet unseen draft horses. Felicity coughed loudly in a crude endeavour to mask the familiar electronic keyless entry beep, but could do nothing about the flashing light signal or the multiple clicks as the doors unlocked. This last noise, coming from an empty wagon did cause Abelard to recoil and defensively raise his arms.

“He wants to wait for the horses before getting in,” Felicity translated Abelard’s haughty grunts for Oliver. Not willing to use force they had little choice but to rely on subterfuge. Felicity shuffled over to where the evil twins were busy looking busy as they spied on their suspicious tenants. From a distance Oliver could make out that some paper had changed hands just before the proto humans headed for the barn. They soon came out, leading two large draft horses, and headed towards the car. There was much activity with harnesses and hooks as the horses were ostensibly prepared to pull the car. When all seemed in order Abelard took his place in the front passenger seat and after seeing Felicity strap herself in permitted Oliver to do the same for him. He was momentarily alarmed when Felicity locked all the doors, but that quickly passed, until she put the car in reverse and noisily backed away from the two horses, and very hastily lurched forward and down the long dirt drive towards the main road.

“Best slow down a bit,” Oliver said as calmly as he could manage, “if his heart doesn’t give out from sheer terror, these ‘G’ forces might do him in. Oh, and if we can manage to talk normally,” he added, trying to be heard over Felicity’s hysterical imprecations to do something, “that would be quite helpful. So,” he continued, with only a barely perceptible hint of impatience, “have you ever done the castle tour?”

The matter of fact backseat drone, while Abelard was frantically twisting to free himself from his belt with one hand and, with the other, protecting himself from a seemingly inevitable collision, instantly silenced Felicity. Her eyes, in the rearview mirror, were huge with astonishment. But only for a moment. The adjustment was impressively fast.

“No,” she sang, looking for that just right reassuring tone. “I’ve always meant to do so but each time, after throwing up at the thought of mingling with all the gawking amateurs, I reconsidered,” she twittered through an abnormally broad smile.

This artificial exchange only exacerbated the situation. Abelard was now ever more determined to escape, for the first time grasping that his captors were deranged. He began to pound his fists against the door and window, being apparently unfamiliar with door handles and locks. This was too much. Felicity slowed and came to a stop on the shoulder.

She waited for Abelard to notice that they were no longer moving and to stop his struggle with the seat belt. She said a few words to him, at the same time moving her arms in wide circles and, each time another vehicle passed, she pointed to it. Very soon, Abelard broke into a laugh, surprisingly hearty for his still frail state.

“Well done,” Oliver clapped, “I suppose you explained to him the mysteries of internal combustion technology and he accepted it all just like that?”

“Not quite. It was a bit more nuanced. Rather more like creative. I told him that this cart operated on the trebuchet principle. He now believes that under the hood is a large wheel, tightly wound with a long rope, which is quickly unwinding to propel us forward. He is greatly impressed with this technology. And he is no longer concerned. Shall we proceed?”

“He believed you?” Oliver asked, incredulously.

“Don’t be so smug,” Felicity shot back, her tone tinged with impatience. “Have you never explained to a child that her dead pet had gone on a long journey or was perhaps in heaven with its mom? I guess not. You likely just slapped her around with strong doses of reality. Well, our friend’s knowledge base is temporarily even smaller than a child’s, so please spare him any feelings of superiority you may have suddenly acquired.”

“Alright, back off, this is all new to me.” He hung his head in shame, sighing like a wounded lover. Although he tried his best to not tinker with Felicity’s emotions he did sometimes give in to the temptation to go after a little sympathy and much apology.

“Sorry, sorry, sorry and mea culpa, mea culpa. I will stop being so touchy. OK? But, I should warn you, we may have a bit of a problem when we get to the castle. I’ve promised to let him look at the magical mechanism.”

Oliver smiled to signal the peace and Abelard stopped glaring at him. Felicity pulled back onto the road and the immediate crisis was over. She amused herself for a few minutes at Abelard’s expense, raising and lowering his window to watch him recoil each time the air rushed in to envelope his head. Like a child, having been shown the button, he didn’t stop playing until they reached their destination.

 

 

***

 

 

Abelard may have been temporarily pacified with Felicity’s contrived explanation but the increasing vehicle traffic but there was much to rekindle his unease; broad smooth roadways unlike the narrow cratered dirt affairs he recalls; hordes of people, none dressed as he would have expected, all seemingly well fed; and more. Nothing here even remotely resembling the world he remembers: sacked and burned villages; large blackbirds feeding on routinely available cadavers; armed men at every turn and; a desolate, ruined landscape. Had he been asleep long enough for so much change? Had an unusually durable peace interrupted normal warfare? He would know more at the castle.

As the stone fortress grew larger he was able to make out portions of crumbled wall, a partially destroyed keep and when they finally pulled into the visitors parking lot, an uncountable mass of vehicles and more people than he remembers ever seeing in one place not actually engaged in killing each other. He understood something fundamental had changed but he could not furnish a plausible explanation, a task to which his imagination was not quite adequate.

Felicity thought it best not to just yet delve into Abelard’s first impressions and he was much too engrossed with his surroundings to ask any questions. She was secretly hoping, against all odds, that he would be able to sort all this out for himself. She paid the admission and they made their way onto the site in silence. She kept a close watch on Abelard, who seemed to be moving about as though in familiar surroundings. He walked purposefully, without regard for his presumed captors. They simply fell in behind him. Felicity felt another surge of optimism that Abelard might be having his memory jogged by what seemed to be a familiar environment. He made straight for the north wall, which faced the river and then stopped, a look of childish perplexity softening his wasted features.

 

“Stairs,” he asked, pointing to the top of the wall? How could he have known that there was once a staircase against the wall Felicity wondered, there remaining only a faint outline, which would not have been visible from the entrance? Here Abelard reverted to his ancient speech and asked how he might get to the top for a better look at the countryside. She quickly found a grounds employee and was told that they could get a view from the north east tower but, not unexpectedly, it would be 20 francs for the privilege, per person.

To a flaccid, emaciated Abelard, the steep stone stairs were a laborious effort. By the top level, which held a small observation deck, Abelard was gasping for air. Quickly as he was able to he made his way to the guard rail and, disregarding all else, he fixed his gaze on a small village bordering the Dordogne, directly north east. He had evidently known exactly what he was looking for and where to find it.

“Church, we go church,” he shouted, pointing to the massive stone structure dominating the small village. “Now,” he insisted! Believing they were on the cusp of his real memories Felicity and Oliver were only too happy to ignore his imperious manners and accommodate his wishes.

They were very soon before the Romano-Gothic building, the main massive double doors in a simple façade with the barest minimum of small head sculptures and protruding gargoyles. Just then the priest, in full regalia, doubtlessly returning from some official function, appeared at the entrance to the church cemetery. He was about to slip around the side of the main building when Abelard shouted in Latin. This got the priest’s immediate and full attention. He remained motionless, eyeing Abelard with no little suspicion, which increased substantially as soon as Abelard began to speak.

Their conversation was quite animated, as though they were old friends. It was not long before the priest asked Abelard to follow him and they disappeared into the cemetery, from which a small group of mourners had just emerged. This was a working graveyard. After what seemed an eternity, Felicity and Oliver thinking it best to be patient and wait for a signal, saw the priest emerge and wave for them to approach. He was visibly agitated, his gait halting and his face ashen. It was an effort for him to regain his composure, his first words no more than an incoherent babble, as though he had an urgent need to all at once blurt everything out. After a considerable effort he regained enough control to relate to Felicity the details of his encounter with Abelard. Although unable to make out what was being said, Oliver saw her jaw dropping as the priest spoke; she was very plainly receiving an unpleasant account.

“Abelard,” she began, disenchantment stripping all the usual optimism from her tone, a tear rolling down her cheek, her shoulders gently heaving at each sob, “has repeated the same story to the priest, entirely in Latin. To try and set him straight, the priest gave Abelard a quick tour of the cemetery, which has graves dating as far back as the late fifteenth century right up to today, with a fresh grave just filled in. But the effect was not as happy as the priest had hoped. Abelard apparently collapsed at the latest tombstone inscription and cried inconsolably. He then asked the priest to hear his confession, which he agreed to do, expecting a brief litany of ordinary transgressions against divine regulations. What he heard instead so frightened and concerned him that he felt it permissible in this instance to break the sacred bond of secrecy to which confessors are held. The avowals were so gruesome the priest could only conclude that Abelard was a madman. I don’t think he was any more at ease when I told him that Abelard had amnesia and that these were but placeholder memories.”

She paused here for a moment and added, more to comfort herself than to calm any further suspicions Oliver would now have as to just how dangerous Abelard may actually be, “but it is very encouraging that he recognizes the difference between right and wrong. He surely understands that the worrisome stuff we have been hearing during his somnolent flights of rhetoric is wrong. Why would he otherwise confess?” Oliver only nodded, more of an acknowledgement that he had heard than any tacit agreement. He was far from reassured.

“Confession, my dear Felicity, is more like an IOU, which is eventually called in by the church, for the right to wallow in delicious sin. It is a pass for the unrestrained, as is common for most humans, to behave as nature has designed us; nasty, brutish, grasping and utterly selfish. Sorry to burden you with reality, but we should remain very vigilant.”

They slipped somberly through the cemetery gate to collect Abelard, who was still sitting propped against the latest tombstone, his eyes red from weeping. He didn’t say anything, stood and began walking towards the gate. The silence hung somberly about them until they were cruising along the main road on route back to the farm.

“You lie,” he began, “you not believe me.”

“It is an amazing story,” Felicity answered. “Would you believe me if I woke up near your castle and said I was a Roman general?”

Abelard didn’t respond. He stared out his window at the rushing countryside, examined his boney hands, felt his hollow face, massaged his sagging chest and then seemed to be having trouble catching his breath, making a sort of snorting, gasping sound. The sound grew and changed until it developed into complete, uncontrollable belly laughter. Oliver was now fully alarmed. He regretted not having brought a sedative. He was preparing to restrain him when Abelard lifted his right hand, seemed to be slowing his laughter locomotive and said as best as he could over the hoarse hooting, “it is fine, do not worry.

“I have much to learn,” he continued after a moment, only a thin smile remaining, “will you teach me?” Abelard had a very practical bent. Now that the charade was over, the nonsense about trebuchets powering the cart without horses a sham, he needed to be realistic. He was in a world he did not know. No one believed his story and he needed to adapt. He was also a man of supreme self-confidence. To his mind he had a personal history, all of it in the turbulent and violent fourteenth century. To everyone else’s he had a memory loss and the rest was make believe. He now knew this but it mattered little. He was inexhaustibly cocksure and knew with near certainty that he could survive and prosper anywhere.

And so began four years of education, adaptation, preparation, murder and mystery.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter IX

 

 

The small jeweled cross was treated with great respect, snug in a velour clothe on an ornate silver tray, as it was passed around the large mahogany table, for each person to caress, examine and compare to the photocopied image that they had earlier on received. The agenda for this special meeting of The Society’s board had only one item: to assess and judge the unusual project which had been proposed by Dona Maria Donatello, its current Chief Executive Officer. John, as it had been code named, was printed on the cover page of the document that had been placed before each member. Other than regular quarterly meetings and one annual meeting, The Society board met on occasion in special session and only when the CEO needed consent for an extraordinary venture. This was such a meeting.

The Society was governed by the same rules and standards as any large publicly traded corporation. But The Society was not listed on any stock exchange or registered with any government, since it paid no taxes, even if it was neither a charitable nor religious enterprise. At the traditional head of the perfectly round table, at the far end of the spacious room, in the elegant Florentine palace, sat the current chairman, Gianni Donatello, patriarch of the family which traced its roots to the early thirteenth century. Unless disqualified by severely debilitating mental or physical infirmity, as far back as anyone can remember, the chairman has always been the sitting family patriarch.

The Society had started life in the high middle ages as a family concern, specializing in condottiere, or mercenary recruitment, the provision of assassins and the monetization into local currency of looted treasure. At the time, all of its activities had been officially sanctioned and were scrupulously governed by carefully worded contractual obligations. The hiring and remuneration of condottiere captains was particularly closely regulated by the Condotta, a specialized contract developed by the Florentines. In later centuries, when such activities were no longer recognized as legitimate enterprise, when the state reserved unto itself the monopoly on organized violence, the Donatello reinvested their substantial profits into legitimate endeavour. The Society, however, was not closed down. It was simply reengineered into a clandestine activity, which continues to this day.

The Society was more than a lucrative distraction. It was a vast network that had been diligently assembled over the centuries. It collected intelligence valuable to their other, legitimate business interests, particularly in finance, energy and mining. Much of that intelligence was Insider information, provided by The Society’s clients in lieu of direct monetary remuneration. This was a most convenient arrangement for the large corporations that availed themselves of The Society’s many otherwise unavailable necessities. Auditors, difficult, but not impossible to influence, were notorious for tracing even the smallest transaction when money changed hands. With fees for assembling small rebel forces in remote regions to destroy competitors’ installations running into the tens of millions, another way had to be found. Not uncommonly, the Donatello would sometimes be pleasantly surprised by unexpected lucrative contracts; timely information about an acquisition, on which they might decide to take a gamble; prior knowledge of major mineral discoveries and other bits and pieces of useful intelligence.

Outside the purely mercantile motivation for running and maintaining a sub rosa enterprise, the Donatello looked upon The Society as a reality training ground for their men and, more recently, women. Managing The Society was a key prerequisite for future Donatello leaders, very much as in private corporations where executives are groomed by moving them through key positions to acquire vital experience and knowledge. They learn how to deal with people whose only fuel is high octane intrigue; the extent to which human beings are driven by undiluted self-interest; how quickly the unobserved hand will reach into the untended pocket and much more. The family has long understood, from centuries of experience, that most humans will be guided not by good intentions but by raw, highly varnished self-interest.

Appearances to the contrary Dona Maria, related in varying degrees to all the other members of the board, was refined, well educated and an eminently practical business woman who would always try and resolve disputes brought to her by clients of The Society through arbitration and compromise. It’s not that she was squeamish about murder, only that she preferred to minimize risk all around – a natural enough strategy from someone with an advanced degree in statistics. Her weakness for body-clinging leather and spandex and spiked heels, hardly the gear for a serious business leader, did tend to irritate her father, Gianni Donatello.

As in the once hit pop song, Dona Maria was a witchy woman. Thick black hair, long face, flared nostrils, huge mahogany eyes and lips of the most basic red, all sitting atop an airbrushed body. Since she also dressed to enhance what needed little enhancement she sometimes found herself in the awkward position of having to rough up those clients who may have honestly mistaken what she was actually selling. Even here, in the bosom of her family, some of her more distant relatives were sure to find their attentions wandering from her altogether very serious and keenly excellent presentation.

As brokers in looted treasure, for almost 700 years, the missing wealth from John II’s baggage train was the stuff of stories the Donatello children imbibed with mother’s milk. They all knew that the little jeweled cross the senior Donatello had purchased from the French dealer, along with information as to its provenance, had been part of the fabled fortune looted by the Gascon force that had turned the tide at the Battle of Poitiers. In those unsettled times, Kings and nobles always traveled with their valuables, since that was the most convertible currency of the time and they might be on the road for months if not years at a go.

“To support you in this one, Dona Maria, I would have to believe that the treasure is still intact,” the elder Donatello began, “that we could actually find buyers for such well documented artifacts and that it would be a sound business proposition. The sudden appearance of the cross leads me to accept that the treasure may, indeed, still be intact. As for buyers, in our specialized network there is little doubt that we would find a few willing to spend if for nothing else the chance to own something entirely unique. As for it being a sound business proposition, that’s where I have a problem. While such a treasure, circulating in the open market would be worth hundreds of millions, moved through the underground, I’m guessing that we could earn, at most, thirty to forty million. Such a pittance would be worth neither the effort nor the risk.”

“Father, you are right, with the evidence of the cross the probabilities that this treasure does not exist are vanishingly small. Since no other pieces have ever turned up, the risk that the treasure has already been disassembled and sold off discreetly, bit by bit, can also be discarded as trivial. The really big risk, father, is one you have not mentioned; Abelard may not know where it is. He may have gotten the cross from someone and never been aware that it was part of a larger haul. But, if that is the case, then we still have a good chance of tracing it through Abelard. The investment should be fairly small; two guys, with some expenses, to kidnap him. Once we have Abelard here we will know soon enough whether this venture is worth pursuing. So our downside risk is small but the potential gain, father, is actually well beyond what you have guessed. If it was only the treasure by itself, you’re point about small potential rewards should quite rightly kill my proposal.”

This last bit got the attention of everyone in the room. “There are two reasons why we might expect returns well beyond our minimum hurdle rate. Firstly there is very likely much more than just the idiot King’s looted treasure. I have been looking through our oldest records of the period and it seems we had dealings with one Abelard de Buch, the son of the Captal de Buch who had led the looting raid on King John’s baggage train. This Abelard, a captain in his own right, was several times engaged as a condottiere during brief periods of peace that now and again broke out during the Hundred Years war. He was also a notorious highwayman, maintaining a small force of temporarily unemployed English and Gascon knights, which he put to very lucrative use on the trade routes in French controlled territory. He was apparently very successful and amassed a hugely valuable cache. The last time he was in Florence, we had negotiated with him to broker valuables well in excess of what is believed to have been taken from King John. The description, still preserved in the minutes of that meeting, included jeweled reliquary cases, chaplets, cluster brooches, coronets, sapphires, rubies, diamonds and on and on. You each have,” speaking now to the entire board and holding up four sheets filled with tightly spaced printing, “the entire list as taken down by a clerk named, simply, Francesco. Should the treasure still be intact, as I believe it is, the potential gain for us would approach 200 million. Even if that was the end of the story, we would already have our business case.”

A cacophonic babble drowned out Dona Maria’s sultry voice. She waited for the excitement to subside. Her fluid body glided around the table much like a hungry panther, stopping opposite her father. “The second and, in my opinion, more important reason why we should diligently pursue this matter has to do with a tale that has been passed down through the centuries about an incident near Rocamadour, in France. The dealer, who so kindly brought us the cross, related it to me.

“In the year 1358, two years after the French catastrophe at Poitiers, Abelard de Buch, the same Abelard that had visited our ancestors one year earlier, was again en route to our fine city. He had been contracted by Sir John Hawkwood, probably the most famous of all the condottiere, who was himself under contract with Florence, to protect the city from its main rivals, Milan and Siena.

“Although much out of his way, he wished to pray before the remains of St. Amadour and ask that his father’s shaking disease be cured. Henry Plantagenet had made a pilgrimage to Rocamadour, the village that grew up around the sanctuary, two centuries earlier and had reputedly been cured. He was to bequeath a small but valuable jeweled cross to the sanctuary.

“As he and his small group laboured towards the village, along the narrow path hugging the cliff wall, more than 150 metres above the Alzou Canyon floor, they were attacked by a band of routiers, French knights without a day job during periods of peace. The fight was fierce and Abelard was gaining the upper hand, many of the attackers already dead or dying. The Gascons were formidable combatants. Suddenly, there was a deafening whistle and a ball of fire came hurtling from the heavens to crash against the cliff wall. Abelard’s horse, greatly spooked by the explosion, reared up and threw its rider. The attackers had seized the opportunity presented by the ensuing commotion to flee and when the smoke cleared Abelard was nowhere to be found. Where the object had struck the cliff wall there was now only a pile of rocks jammed into what may have been an opening. Of Abelard, nothing was ever heard again. At first it was suspected that the attackers had used the chaos to kidnap him, but there was never any ransom demand. Over the years, the belief emerged that God had caused him to be swallowed by the cliff wall, to punish him for his banditry and blasphemous ways.

“The dealer tells me that our Abelard was found in a cave, which had opened up suddenly from the pressure of a climber. He was dressed in full armour and wearing the jeweled cross. Is this the same man, asleep for over 650 years?”

“Donita,” her father answered, “we may believe in miracles and certainly in the Almighty, but fairy tales, please. What you are suggesting is impossible.”

“Do you have any other explanation?”

“Because we cannot explain something does not mean we must fall back on the absurd. A perfectly sensible explanation will eventually turn up.”

“This is true father, but the only game in town, as the saying goes, is that the heavenly object was a meteorite and it had somehow put Mr. de Buch into stasis. If that turns out to be the case, the chemical formula of whatever that was, would beggar all the treasure Abelard may have hidden. Many would be willing to pay princely sums for such a formula: Governments looking to send people on long space voyages or just to minimize the size of prisons; pharmaceutical companies looking to increase life spans; cryogenic enterprises currently freezing the recent dead with hopes of reviving them when cures may be found for whatever killed them would be delighted to find a more reliable technology.

“It is, I admit, a long shot. And if it turns out to be a dead end we will still have a good shot at the astounding treasure this Mr. de Buch seems to have amassed. What do you say father?” Dona Maria knew she was taking a risk with this project. She could see that her father was more than a little uneasy at what an objective observer might judge to be a worrying turn of mind for a future Donatello leader and he implied as much with his final words.

“Do whatever is necessary to find the treasure and get the formula if it exists, but it is the treasure which we are after. Do not take on any additional risks for the formula. Are we clear?”

“Yes father, and thank you.”

The elder Donatello would regret his decision.

 

 

***

 

 

A part the Malvue property was conveniently covered by a thick wood. Felicity and Oliver could now and then leave Abelard with an assignment and slip away into the small forest to walk and talk about his progress and future. It was now six months since they had found him and his headway had been remarkable. His language skills, apart from an unrecognizable accent, were excellent. He had hoovered up the history of Western Civilization, learned how to use a computer and no longer brought up his medieval memories. At 85 kg he was fully fit. He remembered some useful stuff from his past, like basic numeric skills, writing and reading. The groundwork was well laid for more formal education, an absolute necessity if he was to at some point qualify for a useful degree at a university.

Felicity kept on walking, not wanting to stand idle in the cold damp January air as Oliver stopped for a moment to tie his bootlaces. The sky was overcast and gigantic blackbirds were circling high above perhaps, like the Valkyrie, in search of carrion. They distracted her and she wandered further ahead than she had intended. The terrain was textured with regular rises and dips, so that Felicity would regularly pop in and out of sight. When he looked up, he saw her head dip below one of the wave-like rises, about 50 metres on. As he approached he was a bit surprised not to see her reappear. Then he heard the muffled scream. He ran towards her and before he could cover the last few metres a gravelly voice filled the air. Oliver crawled up the rise where he had seen Felicity disappear and cautiously peeked over the crest. She was being held by one man while another pointed a gun at her. Their faces were completely hidden by balaclavas and they were very big.

The gunman spoke French and to Oliver’s ear seemed as polite as could be expected under the circumstances. From the largely unintelligible flow, in a very calm, but definitely meaningful tone, Oliver was able to make out that this had somehow to do with Abelard. His name was mentioned twice, rolling off the gunman’s tongue with a strong French tinge, like Ah Bey Lard. This unfolding drama put Oliver in a bit of a dilemma. Should he rush back and warn Abelard; should he try and rescue Felicity; should he do nothing, let them have Abelard, guessing that with their faces hidden they intended not to kill anyone except, perhaps, Abelard.

Felicity did not responded and the three began moving back towards the main dirt track that led to the house. It was on a rise and fairly flat, about three metres wide, enough for a motor vehicle. Tackling the two large, heavily armed and evidently experienced thugs he assessed as the absolute highest risk alternative, with zero options if he failed. They were nearing the farmhouse and he would soon also lose the alternative to run and warn Abelard. It looked like his strategy would default to the do-nothing one.

Then he heard it; a regular pounding sound, getting louder with rapidly increasing cadence. Felicity and the thugs had also taken notice of the rhythmic beat, slowing their progress to better prepare for whatever was approaching. Although the horizon was far into the distance along the very straight track, a rather wide dip, some 100 metres on, obscured a good portion. They could see the tops of the leafless trees that lined the invisible part of the gravel way. Their branches seemed to be trembling in sympathetic harmony with the pounding. A moment on and the regular rumble had unmistakably morphed into horses’ hooves beating the frozen ground.

First it was only a feathery bouquet, fluttering into existence. It seemed endless, growing to improbable length, until a bobbing blade appeared at its side. The sword lengthened and the metal point morphed into a helmet, which both Felicity and Oliver quite quickly recognized as the one in which Abelard had been found. Neither imagined that the evil twins had decided to come to their rescue. Their suspicions were confirmed when the rider yelled, this time in good English, “Death to all.” The horse was now approaching at a full run and the crest, just where the track dipped out of sight, was soon filled with the complete regalia of a medieval knight. There was a comical make-do air about the equipment, particularly the clothe covering where a coat of arms appeared and the words McGill University writ large across the top. But there was no mistaking the intent of the rider, his large sword held at a menacing angle before him.

The unusual site did not seem to greatly fuss the two thugs. They exchanged a few words and, it seemed to Oliver, a little joke about the idiot on the dray horse, which he recognized as the Danish nag the twins kept in a spare room of their hovel. The thug with the drawn gun, which now loomed to Oliver like a small artillery piece, took careful aim at the horseman and fired. The bullet fell short, sending up a small plume where it hit in front of the horse’s front hooves. As this shot across the bow did not seem to deter the rider, who was now almost upon them, he again took aim, but did not have the time to fire before Oliver was upon him. Despite his misgivings, Oliver was unable to just stand by and watch Abelard callously murdered.

Oliver had contrived to close the gap between him and the thugs under cover of the noise from the pounding hooves and was near enough to jump in front of the gunman to deflect his aim and, at the same time land several effective blows that deftly sent the thug to the ground. Oliver’s heretofore useless years of grueling training had finally paid off. The thug holding Felicity now released her and swiftly drew his own weapon, which he never got to use. By then the horseman was upon him and the very last sound he heard was a swish as the broadsword cut the air, sliced his balaclava and cleaved into the soft tissue of his neck. His head gracefully traced a perfect arch before landing with a satisfying thud some ten metres on, well before the body finally crumpled to the sooty ice and gravel.

Abelard dismounted and removed his helmet, beaming a grand smile at Felicity. Her thoughts had remained frozen in the instant just before Abelard’s bloody intervention, causing her quite incongruously to blurt out what she at that moment already gone by had wanted very much to say, “so, that’s why you needed my old university blanket.” She then proceeded to vomit.

Abelard desired nothing so much as to comfort Felicity but needed more urgently to give his attention to the thug Oliver had pummeled into submission. He prodded him with his sword and made the usual small talk reserved for such occasions, “who are you, why are you here, remove the mask.”

Since his arm was quite obviously useless, bent the wrong way at the elbow, Abelard kindly helped by grabbing the balaclava, as well as a sizable chunk of hair. The man, his face a mask of defiance, did not respond and Abelard, noticing a chain about his neck, deftly used his sword point to expose it and its pendant. It was a small deformed cross, with one arm pointing up and longer than the other, like the thumb and first two fingers of a hand when they are splayed. Abelard’s face showed all the signs of recognition and the thug seemed to grow alarmed. Almost at once, and to the utter horror of Oliver and Felicity, Abelard pushed the sword deep into the thug’s chest. This time Oliver, all his years slicing up bodies notwithstanding, joined Felicity for a good retch.

 

 

***

 

 

“Have you ever heard of The Society?” Abelard asked, with the most detached nonchalance, as though making small talk at a bar-b-q. He was standing over the blood soaked ground where the thug had been put to death. He didn’t really expect an answer. He went on, “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised they would still be around after all these years. They were a very orderly lot, practical and fair. Their business depended on that kind of solid reputation.”

This was all too much for Felicity, “hello in there,” she was now tapping his skull with her forefinger and talking very loudly, more like screaming, “you have just murdered a wounded, harmless man.” Do you remember that much or has your amnesia taken a turn for the worse?”

“I have not done any such thing,” Abelard responded, with distressing dispassion. “I have put a Society assassin to death, something he would have expected. Although, I’m guessing he must have had instructions to take me alive. These are usually very highly trained people and he should not normally have missed his first shot.” Then he laughed, to the horror of both Oliver and Felicity, unbuckling his breastplate and tapping the Kevlar vest he had on beneath, proudly displaying it to them. “It would not have mattered, though, since I borrowed this from the Malvue boys. I’d been expecting someone, certainly not The Society, but someone to come and investigate the cross, and I prepared for that moment.” He laughed again.

“We had better bury these two.” he continued, with little to indicate that anything out of the ordinary had happened, a very otherwise normal day. “This will give us plenty of time to move to another location. I’m guessing that it will be several weeks before The Society finally decides they are dead and sends others. We will be long gone by then.” He fell silent here, noticing that Oliver and Felicity appeared to be in a state of shock. “Let’s go back to the house, get some shovels and I’m sure you’ll understand when I explain to you about The Society and the little jeweled cross.”

“How did you know they were here,” Oliver thought to ask?

“I saw them. Whenever you and Felicity,” a warm smile for her, “left to walk and talk about me,” a sly grin dimpling his now full cheeks, “I took care to keep an eye out for you. From the window on the second floor landing there is a very good view, almost to the forest’s edge. Without any leaves on the trees it was easy to spot the intruders.”

“You stood watch at the window each time we went out,” Felicity asked with some astonishment?

“Yes.”

The walk back to the house was positively funereal, at least for Felicity and Oliver who appeared to be dragging large lead weights. It gave Abelard, who did not for a moment lose his jaunty good humour, enough time to summarize the business of The Society and the history of the stupid King’s looted treasure. He omitted the part where he remembers being there, sensitive to Felicity’s concerns that he might be delusional. At the house Felicity pulled Oliver aside for a private chat.

“How do we know he had this mysterious little cross? I don’t recall ever seeing it,” Felicity whispered to Oliver.

“He’s outside, tending to the horse, you can stop whispering,” he whispered to Felicity.

“He’s being delusional again,” she continued.

“There may be something we can check, I’m not sure,” Oliver piped in. “I did take some pictures while we were in the cave and if we’re really lucky we may have caught enough to decide one way or another. It’s a long shot. I’ve downloaded a lot over the last few months and have been intending to look and organize the muddle but have been remiss”

They both rushed up the stairs to Oliver’s computer. In a moment he had isolated the photos from that fateful June day. There was Felicity crouched near the find, wiping mud away. There was Abelard, partly cleaned, revived and waiting for his captors to do something. There was Malvue the younger blocking a shot and there he was again blocking another shot. These were quickly passed over.

“Hold on.” Felicity said “Go back to those shots of Benoit. “There, see, he’s looking around with his guilty face and he’s putting something into his pocket. Can you crop and zoom in on his hand? There that’s it, he’s holding a bit of chain. The rest is already in his pocket. Do you think it might be the cross?” she asked, with considerably less skepticism and an unmistakable conspiratorial slant to her tone.

“It would be a good bet,” Oliver said, “but that’s it for the pictures, we’ll never know any more from these. I’m a little less sure about anything now.”

“What about the two dead guys, are we just going to bury them like in the gangster movies?” Felicity asked a little annoyed at their apparent helplessness.

“I don’t think we have much choice,” Oliver said in an unsure voice.

“That seems to be our most common refrain, ‘we have no choice’. When will all this stop,” Felicity sighed.

Abelard had been standing at the door and wanting to be helpful, suggested, “if you can lend me a little money I will leave you in peace and this can all be over for you right now. I will be able to manage on my own.”

He was still wearing his chain mail and the ridiculous McGill University blanket. The scene was so utterly implausible, and piled on the huge stress she had been under, Felicity could not hold back. She broke into uncontrollable laughter, which caused Oliver to again become very concerned. He seemed to have developed a pattern hovering between great, mild and little concern.

“It’s ok,” she said, between guffaws, waving Oliver back. “I’m OK,” she insisted.

“Abelard,” she began, when she regained control of her voice, “my dear, having come this far together I am sure we can contrive to finish our voyage together. So, big deal. You sliced and diced a couple of guys from a secret criminal society that’s been around for 700 hundred years. They did after all try to kidnap you. You also seem to have a well developed comfort with the weapons and paraphernalia of medieval violence, something which I cannot yet explain. Are we going to let little things like that come between friends? I’ve had worse happen to me. I’ve been dealing with the Malvue boys, who would easily turn up at the top of anyone’s most wished for death list.”

“Is that what you want, Felicity?” Abelard asked without a hint of humour.

“Only joking, Abelard. Let’s go put those guys in the ground.”

Abelard then turned to Oliver and asked, “Could you teach me how to fight like you? It was very impressive.” Oliver puffed up like an aggressive bullfrog.

 

 

***

 

 

“Abelard,” Felicity shrieked, as calmly as she was able to under the circumstances, “I need to see you.” She was holding the local news rag with its screaming headline, ‘ACCIDENT DE ROUTE, CORPS CALCINÉS RETROUVÉS’. It had been two days since she had last seen the Malvue and she now had little doubt as to their current whereabouts.

“I told you I was only joking. Why did you kill them?” she said, trying to keep her voice at a low yell. “You weren’t lost last Sunday, were you? All those scratches, the mud on your clothes, you’d been in the woods where this happened and it took you all day to make it back here. You murdered the Malvue. They were really horrible and very unhinged people but not enough for this.”

“They kidnapped me. Sit, he commanded,” Oliver’s dog training approach having left its mark, “and I will tell you what happened,”

 

 

***

 

 

As an almost dead nobody, he was just so much carrion for the ever alert scavengers. They had taken whatever last bits the flesh would yield, the rest being of no use they left for others below them on the food chain – the Canadian bitch and her pretentious apish drone. But, with handsome returns from the cross and yet to be monetized rewards from the stashed medieval gear, it all got them thinking that there might be a good deal more harvest from a now much warmer Abelard. They would be alert to any opportunities.

About a month before The Society men came for him, Abelard had begun to range about the property, several times bumping into and talking with the twins. Nothing weighty; nice horse; Aubrey is the boss; the rules of salvage means that the suit of armour belongs to them and they have guns to back up their claim; the guns function very well, Aubrey demonstrates by shooting a hole through the side of their cherished van; but this vest here, made of Kevlar, can stop bullets.

The relationship was a developing one. Very soon Abelard recognized their social status, as the classification existed in his only available memories, and he began to subtly treat them as a cross between serfs and groveling merchants. This emerging hierarchy was reflected in Abelard’s increasingly snooty attitude, as would be expected of a nobleman dealing with his inferiors. As though from a natural bent, the boys fluidly evolved into the roles which Abelard had designated for them. There was no open subservience, just little things like not looking directly at him, rushing a chair to where they anticipated he might want to sit, letting him peer about their hovel and sneering at him when he was not looking, a small act of defiance by the oppressed.

In the dirt, grime and vast collection of cheap and broken bric-a-brac, Abelard found three things of great interest. He knew where they had put his armour and sword; he was greatly fascinated by the Kevlar vest, particularly after seeing how easily a bullet could penetrate metal and; the horse and saddle were within easy reach.

Much as they felt inferior to Abelard and partly because of that, the twins would jump at the first opportunity to kill him if they believed there was profit in it. The motive came very soon after the disappearance of the two Society assassins. When they had failed to bring in Abelard, Dona Maria Donatello had asked the dealer to look into the matter. He lost no time and at once made his way out to see the twins. As it happened, he arrived as Abelard was ending one of his short visits and they crossed paths, briefly exchanging courtesies. The Malvue were of no help in solving the mysterious disappearance, since they had been away that very same day. The dealer had slight regard for the twins and would not normally engage their services for even the most menial of tasks. But, when he learned that the large stranger he had just seen was the very same Abelard of such great interest to his client, he spotted an immediate opportunity for personal enrichment and thought that he had perhaps too harshly judged Aubrey and Benoit. The always eager entrepreneurs were quick to assure the dealer that they could deliver Abelard, alive and ticking, to his shop the following day at noon, a Sunday, when he would be closed.

The fateful morning arrived, they waited for Abelard to come and look at what they had told him would be an interesting artifact they had discovered. Benoit greeted him at the door, and as he stepped in Aubrey was waiting with gun in hand. After the usual ‘don’t move or I will kill you’ Aubrey handed a length of rope to Benoit and motioned for him to bind Abelard. The act of handing the rope to Benoit was the small opening for which Abelard had been waiting. Aubrey was momentarily inattentive and ever so slightly unsteadied. With practiced speed, Abelard drew the long filleting knife from under his jacket and put it to Aubrey’s neck while tightly gripping his gun hand. He kept digging the knife point further into the skin until Aubrey dropped his weapon and then motioned to Benoit to bind his brother. Looking for guidance from his older sibling, Benoit remained frozen at his place until Aubrey reluctantly nodded for him to proceed.

Abelard did not need to hear the elaborate explanations about a harmless meeting they had arranged with the dealer. He had little doubt that they were up to something with their dubious invitation to see them just after running into the altogether too well dressed stranger, quite out of place at the Malvue hovel. He had prudently prepared for foul play and brought with him the filleting knife.

Abelard ushered the twins out to the van, shoved Aubrey to the floor and motioned for Benoit to drive. The confident skill with which Abelard handled the knife so greatly impressed Benoit that he made little fuss and quickly did as he was told. Abelard directed them to a narrow roadway that edged along deep ravines with steep rocky sides. At a sharp turn in the road he told Benoit to stop and pull over to the edge. The moment the van stopped moving, without as much as the smallest warning, Abelard plunged the knife into Benoit’s rib cage, the long narrow blade slipping easily through the flesh, between the bones until the point pierced the heart, leaving Benoit only the briefest moment to look at Abelard before dying. He did not waste an instant, turning quickly to deal with Aubrey who did not have the time to either struggle or beg. Abelard, it seemed had a thorough knowledge of anatomy, able to find entry points unobstructed by bone and perfectly aligned to reach only the most vital of organs.

He had watched Felicity enough to know that the parking gear immobilized a vehicle, making it practically impossible to move. He turned the steering wheel to the appropriate position, moved the lever to neutral and with only the slightest effort gave the van the momentum it needed to roll off the cliff and plunge into the ravine. The extra petrol the twins always kept handy in twenty litre tin drums made the fire that finally consumed their van and their remains all that much more intense. The police had been unable to identify the charred flesh.

 

 

***

 

 

“Now, we must make haste and vacate this place,” Abelard finally said, after kindly leaving Felicity and Oliver the few minutes of silence needed to fully digest the story.

“When the police do finally show up,” Felicity suggested, “it might be best if there was someone here to show that we did not feel the need to slip away in the night. Oliver, since you have to in any event be home about now, why don’t you leave and take Abelard with you. It would be good that he was not questioned. My uncle keeps an apartment in Paris, which he almost never uses. I’ll join you as soon as I can, in a few days I expect. Then you can leave for New York at your leisure. It’d be best if you drove, he might not survive the shock of flying. How’s that?”

“What about these Society people?” Oliver asked. “They seem to be quite well informed about us and they might have an arrangement with the local gendarmes. I say this based on highly questionable authority; the film industry. But from what Abelard tells us, they seem to be a very successful criminal organization, and I’d be surprised if they didn’t have good sources. You’d better prepare a story about Abelard.”

“Your cousin; and he’s gone back to America with you,” Felicity answered, hesitantly.

“I could not have done better,” he said and then turned to Abelard, “eh cousin Abelard, what do you say?”

“Amateurs,” Abelard scoffed. From the counter he then picked up a heavy iron pot and hurled it through the closed window, letting in the frigid air. “Now we can go to the police and inquire as to the owners’ whereabouts because our kitchen window needs replacement.”

“Astounding,” Oliver said. “Skilled rider, warrior, assassin and brilliant tactician; we can only go downhill from here.”

 

 

***

 

 

Felicity dutifully went to the local government offices, persevered before a daunting bureaucracy, found the right person and lodged her complaint about the absentee landlords and her urgent repair problem. It must be attended to immediately since she was soon to leave on an extended trip. She was, however, somewhat skeptical that these simple people would get their sums right and conclude that her landlords and the unidentified accident victims were one and the same. For good measure, to account for the often unusual density known to afflict much of officialdom, she asked if they could not please do something about the awful noise and smell the proprietors left behind when driving their aged van. And what colour is this van Madame, the clerk asked, all the while staring at the accident report in the local paper conveniently spread out on her little desk? One moment please, she barely had time to whisper, now much in awe of this potentially famous foreigner, as she jumped from her chair and furtively disappeared through a little door behind her. As expected, she rushed to telephone the police to suggest that the unidentified bodies might be the Malvue boys.

A closer inspection of the vehicle’s remains confirmed that it was the same model they had been driving and the case was closed. It was deemed an unambiguous accident and Felicity was assured there would be no need for further follow up. She and her companions could leave at any time. The house and broken window would be looked after by a local official until next of kin could be notified. Bon voyage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter X

 

 

“An MBA, that is what you shall have my dear Abelard,” Felicity declared, like a generous parent, at their new lodgings near Fontainebleau, the eponymous chateau having once been the residence of Napoleon. Fontainebleau was also, most opportunely, the home of a well regarded business school. For some time she had been agonizing over Abelard’s future, having rejected most fields as either unsuitable to his character, such as anything in the humanities or unattainable, due to his late start, such as something in the hard sciences. She had reasoned that MBA’s were formed from any educated raw material, which meant that there was little specific prerequisite for an aspiring student. Her conclusion she drew from the short advertisement of a well known MBA program: ‘Successful MBA candidates, while displaying a remarkably wide range of backgrounds and experiences, are distinguished by a combination of academic excellence, international awareness, strong interpersonal skills and the potential to succeed as a leader/manager in a competitive business environment’.^^2^^ The last bit looked to her as though it could have been written specifically for Abelard’s memories. Within two years her prize pupil would have all the other requirements. Then one year at the school, in the accelerated MBA program, and he will be a perfectly desirable candidate for a career in business. She could not have been more pleased with the plan.

And, it felt good to have a plan. It gave her resolve and a foundation on which to purposefully apply her considerable industry. Felicity had many doubts about Abelard but none about his intelligence or his limitless capacity to quickly adapt. She could not explain why the single memory he possessed and that she suspected was real should be about the small jewelled cross. Abelard’s story around the artifact was another matter. She considered it a pure fabrication. The Society was too fantastic for her to put much store by; although, it would have been a helpful convenience to do away with her disquiet over his callous dispatch of the helpless thug. But where would he have come by such a far-fetched conspiracy theory? There was little doubt that someone was after him for what he was before waking up. She also sifted through a few scenarios: secret government agents after a rogue operative; gangsters looking for a dishonourable thief who may have absconded with everybody’s share of ill gotten gains; members of a cult seeking to finish a botched ceremony or, the one she most hoped for; mistaken identity. In the end, she opted to stop thinking about it rather than choose among poor alternatives.

She also thought a great deal, more than she cared to admit, about why Abelard had not made any attempt to become more intimate with her. Although she tried as much as she could to emphasize all her qualities other than personal appearance, she knew that she was not an unattractive woman. She was also quite certain that over the past six months Abelard had not tended to his natural urges even if he did shamelessly ogle every woman, within a surprisingly wide range of shapes, ages and looks, whenever the opportunity arose. It’s not as though she didn’t sometimes also try to entice him, despite her fears.

Here was a man, whose recourse to extreme violence was altogether without measure, able to resist what were sometimes the most unsubtle of invitations. Perhaps her more intimate garments were not as daring as she imagined when she would burst through into his room ostensibly to offer him an afternoon snack? Should she swallow her disgust at the drivel that passes for women’s magazines, and research how their vapid readers were choosing to seduce their quarry? Such hard and fast men did not normally wait for permission to take what they wanted and most often they wanted sex. Was it her? Was she simply not his type? She had thought for a while that he might be gay. But his indiscreet leering convinced her to reject that hypothesis.

She did finally step forward with what she thought was a clever ruse only to get an explanation she found wanting. They were friends, she said, and she wanted him to understand that intimacy between them was out of the question. Much to her distress, he quickly agreed. He did assure her that he loved her dearly and desired her greatly but had taken a vow that between them it could never be more than courtly love. It fell flat with her as something from his fabricated past, when knights would be intimate but completely abstemious with women that circumstances put out of their reach. They would be their defenders, give and receive gifts but never step across the invisible barrier to joyful promiscuity. Felicity put this down to the common ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ rejection pretext.

Felicity could bare only so much obsession. She would stop wasting her spare time thinking about the missing relation and concentrate rather on her own career, which she would advance through prolific publication while she was still registered as a post-doctoral student. She felt confident that at the end of the four year Abelard plan she would easily find a good position at a ranked university. There remained still the pressing reality that she too needed some distraction and had hoped Abelard would fill that gap. He was a rugged individual, a sort of large blond scarface, more than adequately within her standards of male attractiveness. But all else having failed she could not very well overpower him. A surprising turn of events would soon change all that.

 

 

***

 

 

They had driven into town to have lunch and run errands at the local shops. It was an early spring day, vestigial dampness hung in the cold air, and the fields were still muddy. They had been to their favourite bake shop and were leaving with a full load of bread and pastries when Abelard suddenly turned and threw both his arms around her and the bags she was carrying, squashing in his embrace their delicate contents. He began, right there on the shop’s narrow stoop, to awkwardly kiss her on the lips; really more of a mashing than a smooch. Her alarm lasted only a moment, her sense of indignity even less and she responded with an exuberance fuelled by months of pent up passion.

But her unexpected happiness was not to last. In her thrall she failed to notice that Abelard may have had other things on his mind than an irresistible urge to possess her. He had been intently watching their reflections in the shop’s glass door panel, as people passed along the crowded sidewalk. When he had seen what he was searching for he let go of Felicity and hurriedly whispered, “please forgive me, but we must hurry, I’ll explain as we move,” leaving her breathless and like a drowning wretch clutching the eviscerated pastries.

“That man wearing the long leather coat, just approaching the corner, we have to follow him.”

Here we go again, she thought, a little dismayed that she was perhaps dealing with a borderline psychotic. “Why are we following him,” she ventured, hoping to bring him back to the blissful place they had been only a moment earlier?

“That’s the same man I saw and who also saw me at the Malvue just before they tried to kidnap me. If he was the one who incited them to take me it would be better if he didn’t see us. I’m not saying there is a connection but the coincidence is mighty suspicious. We should try and learn what he is doing here, so far from home.”

Trailing behind Abelard, Felicity was still a little uneasy with his new conspiracy as they followed the dealer from Sarlat. He headed along the main street and soon turned down a narrow alley which led to a grimy industrial area. There he finally entered a small, one story building with large gothic lettering across the front, Reproductions Artisanales Philpot et Fils. They waited for almost half an hour, keeping out of sight, before he came out. They followed him back to the large municipal parking lot at the town centre, where he had left his small, late model van. Abelard suddenly eased up and broke into a narrow smile after reading the lettering across the van’s panels as it pulled out of its spot, Antiquaries, J. Chartrand.

“Just another coincidence,” Abelard finally said. He probably gets his supplies from here. He was not looking for me.” Then, inexplicably, relief gave way to panic in Abelard’s wide eyed stare. He put his hand to his mouth and looked intently at Felicity.

“My dear Felicity,” he more sighed than said, “can you forgive my unforgivable behaviour?”

“I can’t remember exactly what it is I’m supposed to forgive,” she said, puckering her lips and proffering her face to Abelard, “would you mind showing me again.”

“Please don’t mock me Felicity, I have taken a solemn vow and cannot at a whim break it.”

Felicity was not going to pass on this opportunity. She would fight for another embrace, one with unbridled passion rather than purposeful resolve. She had read about the logic of oaths to oneself and now she would put that interesting but until now worthless bit of philosophical obscurity to good use.

“Abelard, who gave you the authority to bind yourself to a vow?”

“I don’t need any authority to set standards for myself,” he hesitantly answered, unsure as to just what she was after.

“That’s right, the authority to make decisions that affect only you is part of you. It is an authority that is completely unrestrained by any rules or laws but those you choose to set or, as the case may be, undo.”

“I cannot undo a rule I have set for myself. That would leave me in an aimless wilderness.”

“In that case, what would happen if you found that the rule no longer made sense or that you had made an error when you first set it?”

“I suppose that I would have to change it. But I would have to be convinced that it should be changed.”

“There is my point. You have equally the power to make and to break any binding future obligations you may have set for yourself. And I know a great one to start with.”

Here she again moved closer, stood on her toes and proffered her pouted lips to a momentarily confused Abelard. But not for long. They were soon busy enjoying Abelard’s new and improved code of behaviour, which was a good thing, since much would happen to test their steadfast and mutual loyalties.

 

 

***

 

 

Felicity would not abide the sniveling naysayers who could never see an enterprise but for its flaws. To them nothing would ever be just right unless it was wholly blemish free. In such matters she sided with Plato and accepted that perfection was not of this world. Abelard, she would be the last to deny, certainly had his faults: for most problems extreme irrevocable violence could always be found at the top of his how-best-to-react list; he had an unpleasant tendency to haughtiness; his background was, at the very least, highly suspicious. But, weighed against these stains he was, at any rate towards her, kind, honourable and, inexplicably, given his other proclivities, not misogynous. On balance, which was the only fair way to make assessments, she saw Abelard as good. Moreover, she had little faith in him ever recovering his memories and expected him to be around for a very long time.

Felicity had two goals, one for her and one for Abelard. She also had set for these ends a precise and, as was her habit, detailed time line. Four was the magic number. Almost a full year had already come and gone and she was overjoyed with Abelard’s progress. The next 24 months would be like preparing foie gras, the goose’s gift to starving fat cells, stuffing into Abelard all he would need to succeed at an MBA program. Happily she knew that Abelard would be a willing bird. Getting admitted to a prestigious institution worried her not in the least. Her uncle, she was sure, would to that end use his all pervasive influence.

For herself, three years on, she wanted a tenure track position at a good university. She would hold on to her post-doctoral student status for the next few years, until society finally reabsorbed Abelard into its anonymity. Over that time she would become a veritable publication machine, keeping her profile high and admired in the medieval archeology world. Blissfully, it was a small world.

Abelard was full of surprises. Arithmetic, Algebra and Geometry were already part of his repertoire. Upgrading him to basic statistics and Calculus was child’s play. Unwilling to be ridiculed about his memories, he said that he could not explain how he had acquired such useful knowledge. Felicity took it as an encouraging sign that he was rejecting the fantastic fiction that he claimed as his past. Abelard, however, knew better.

 

 

***

 

 

In fact, the memories of his years at the monastery in Gascony, where he was sent for his early education, between Pau and Mont-de-Marsan, a stone’s throw from the foothills of the Pyrenees, are quite limpid. During those years he learned much that was unknown to most of the medieval world. He still recalls with some amusement that day when Felicity had prepared for what she was sure would be an arduous effort. She had assumed, quite reasonably, that Abelard’s pre-Columbian memories saw only a flat world. He was to be broken the momentous but difficult news that the world was in fact spherical. She stood at her chalk board, rolled charts and maps at the ready to display the full glorious triumph of the globe over the tyranny of Cosmas of Alexandria’s rectangular rhomboid. She tightly interlaced her hands, pensively touching her lips with the tips of her fingers, as though praying, looking soberly down at the floor, evidently preparing to tell the student something so awe inspiring, so monumental as to surely be unbelievable. He looked, waited, listened to her lengthy introduction about ancient and medieval mysteries, all the while a deepening frown furrowing his brow. Why, he asked her, was she telling him something so obvious. For the longest time Felicity could only stare incredulously. Ever so slowly, she reduced her telescopic pointer to the size of a pen, put it on the lip of the chalk board and moved close enough to hover over her precocious student. She very deliberately put her hands on top of his small desk and asked, as nonchalantly as she could manage, how he knew what was unknowable in the Middle Ages. He of course only grinned and kept to himself the remembered source of his knowledge, letting on only that this was a bit of trivia inexplicably lodged in his brain.

His father, the Captal de Buch, Gascon bigwig, loyal to the English and serving the Black Prince, was also a very thoughtful man. Strength, courage and brute force were all essential qualities that a noble preparing for the hard business of war must have, but by themselves insufficient. Learning would make the difference between a merely successful warrior and one who would go on to greater things. He was sent for his education to the monastery. There was, of course, always the possibility that he would have to become a man of the cloth if too many of his siblings survived the dangerous lives they would be leading. Father wanted to avoid two things: breaking his properties into many small pieces, each ending up poor and indefensible and; having too many siblings killing each other in attempts to acquire larger, more economically viable and easier to defend estates. Father did want a certain number of stalwarts with sufficient means so that they could build allegiances on blood ties and assist each other in a mutual defense, or aggression pact, whichever circumstances demanded. Alas for Abelard, father had more than enough surviving sons, well beyond what the probabilities of the time would have predicted. Thus, it might be to a life of celibacy and learning that he was destined.

If any good at all could be found in such a fate, he was fortunate to fall under the tutelage of Lucidus, also the parish priest. True, he was a lecherous abuser of boys, very fond of the monastery’s distilled and fermented products and hugely obese. None of these moral blemishes troubled young Abelard. He had, soon upon arriving, set the priest’s compass to always point away from him whenever his loins demanded young flesh. Abelard was ten when he arrived and he came armed with a small dagger, which he had been given at six, when his father was yet too unsure as to how long his other boys might survive. Noble families groomed their sons to be warriors and the Captal de Buch was no less diligent than another. Daily instruction from the castle constable left Abelard, after four years, easily able to defend himself against any untrained rabble, including larded priests obsessed with forbidden fruit.

Alone with him in the scriptorium, two dark embers peering from the fleshy face, the mountain of rough cloth and cowl stalked its prey. He sat his huge mass upon a small stool and bade young Abelard to come closer. The large red face, giant lips parted, fetid breath hanging in the still air, closed slowly with that of the child. He lifted his heavy hand to caress the beauty he so lusted after when the child suddenly withdrew the object he had kept hidden under his shirt and with a swift thrust ran his knife through the priest’s hand. The jab had been so unexpected and deft that the pain had hardly had the time to register before the dagger point was pressing lightly against the priest’s jugular. Under the circumstances, the two came to an understanding which greatly favoured Abelard.

But Lucidus was also a renaissance man well before the Italians brought it to the rest of Transalpine Europe. He cared as much about the content of the manuscripts that the monks spent all their time transcribing, as he did about his irresistible moral lapses. He had looked at carefully and closely studied the Arabic texts on Algebra, Astronomy, History and Medicine. He did not teach these subjects to all his students, still viewed as suspicious and often dangerous by the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Only a select few, those he deemed worthy and not just to those he desired, although the two sometimes coincided. Abelard was among that small group.

He spent four years at the monastery being groomed for a life of piety, mental exertion and a place in the church in the event all his male siblings managed, against the odds, to survive. Then, at fourteen, disaster struck his family. The Hundred Years war was in full swing, pitting the English under the Plantagenet gang against the French under the Valois mob. In 1345 the English struck a humiliating blow in Upper Gascony, making important gains. The French counterattacked the following spring and made little gain but did inflict considerable casualties upon the English and their Gascon allies. As hazard would have it, two of the Buch brothers were among the fatalities. Very soon thereafter a rider, chest emblazoned with the Captal’s coat, arrived at the monastery and left with a two-minded teenager. While he yearned to live the dreams of violence which he had imbibed with his nursemaid’s milk, he had also been very powerfully drawn into the world of the mind. He knew he had little choice in these matters but did resolve to never abandon the precious knowledge he had joyfully acquired from the chastised priest.

 

 

***

 

 

Abelard was soon to learn that Felicity was far less fussed than he by the rules of engagement he remembered as essential to the maintenance of a broader peace. Summer was just handing the season off to a reluctant autumn when Oliver showed up. He had arranged to spend a year at a nearby French hospital. Diligent study had given him a good working knowledge of the language and his curiosity about Abelard had propelled him to alter his career path for a year, at least.

Any excuse for a good dinner at a fine restaurant was welcome and Oliver’s appearance was as good as any. They would go into town to Le Beauharnais, noted for their tiny birds, stuffed with expensive mushrooms. They drove in the slowly fading daylight through the old forest that surrounded Fontainebleau. Approaching the intersection which would put them on the main road into the town centre, they noticed a commotion near a popular area bar. Spectacles being barely resistible to most people, even if only for the merest glance, Felicity slowed to creeping speed and all three craned their necks to catch the unfolding episode. There were evening crowds on their way home and elsewhere and they also turned their heads to look, but did not slow and gave the scene a wide berth. Three men were beating a fourth, who had just fallen, his arms about his head and his body in a protective fetal position. As far as Abelard could tell, there was no mad rush to put a stop to the assault.

“We should do something?” Felicity declared, her tone leaving little room for debate.

“This is not our affair,” Abelard said with equal determination. “Unless there is a good personal reason to intercede, such matters are best left alone. We have no idea why they are beating him. It might make perfectly good sense. I do not think I would like others to intervene in my affairs.”

“What if that were you?” Oliver asked, a bit incredulously.

“It would never be me,” he answered, with a chilling confidence.

From what he is able to recall, that’s the way things were always done. If it wasn’t your family, at least those with whom you were not quarreling, or if it wasn’t your lord, to whose aid you were obliged to come, or if it had nothing to do with personal enrichment, then it was the unwritten rule that you kept away from the business of other people.

Felicity finally precipitated events. She abruptly pulled right up to the curb and began honking her horn and screaming at the men to stop. This they did while they undertook to locate the source of the unwelcome annoyance. During this pause in their initial enterprise they took the opportunity to walk over to the car, where the one wearing a metal studded leather jacket, three earrings in his right lobe attached to a completely shaven head that sat solidly on an oversized neck, put his hand through the open window and made the mistake of grabbing Felicity’s hair.

Abelard had been sitting in the back so that Oliver would have the better view, as all the sights were new to him. Annoyed as he was at Felicity’s inability to restrain her meddlesome impulses, he could not simply abandon her, as much as he thought it would be an edifying experience. She fell somewhere between categories one and two in his rules that governed when intervention was permissible. While Oliver was still fiddling with his seatbelt, he was already out the door and smashing his extra large fist into giant-neck’s face, while gripping his shoulder to keep him steady. After a moment he tired of the routine and began smashing the head against a conveniently located lamppost. His two colleagues were slow to react, surprise having confused the apparently simple circuitry of their minds. When they did finally stir, it was with surprising nimbleness for such big guys, but it was already too late. Giant-neck lay bleeding on the sidewalk and Oliver had by then mastered the seatbelt mechanism and slipped quietly behind them. He delivered a single powerful blow to a right kidney, which instantly deactivated its owner. The remaining thug never saw the circular kick to his head that launched him against the same lamppost which had so disagreeably pulped his buddy’s skull.

Then something took place which Abelard found highly unusual. The fearful crowds that had kept their distance were now converging on Abelard and Oliver and clapping and smiling and thanking them for their heroic intervention. In all of Abelard’s memory, he had only once undertaken a purely selfless endeavour and that had failed. He felt conflicting emotions now. He believed that Felicity had acted stupidly and that they should never have intervened. But there was no denying he did not dislike the praise and admiration, even if it was for something he would never have voluntarily done. He would file these mixed messages for later analysis.

“Abelard,” Felicity whispered, “It may be best if you just went along now and met us at the restaurant. It wouldn’t do for you to have to answer any questions the police might have. They will probably be here at any moment.” Abelard slipped away into the gathering darkness.

In the confusion the original victim had been forgotten. He was just pulling himself up and trying to regain his balance. The three thugs had also limped off into the evening gloom. The sirens were growing louder and the relieved onlookers had begun to chatter loudly. An ambulance closely followed the police cars and it was only a moment before the victim was on a stretcher and the police began to question Felicity and Oliver, while the crowd was shouting obscenities at them for leaving a helpless citizenry to fend for itself. Very soon they were asking about the apparent hero that had so aroused the crowd, and so were Felicity and Oliver, wondering where that silent hero had disappeared to. No one had actually seen him emerge from the car. It would remain a mystery.

The victim had been transported to the same hospital at which Oliver would be taking up his new position. He would later learn that the man was a local small time thief and the men beating him were acting on behalf of a well known lender of last resort, who did not wish to write off any more loans than he absolutely needed to. This fringe banker sometimes used delinquent debtors to encourage all his other clients to closely respect their own individually designed payment schedules. To Oliver this somewhat diminished the pride he had felt in taking a risk to help a complete stranger. To Abelard it only reinforced his principle of non-intervention. He firmly believed that they had meddled in a legitimate business dispute between a financier and his client. This last thought, he felt, might be misunderstood and should be kept to himself.

But smug self-satisfaction was not all that Abelard saw in this felicitous episode. Ever vigilant for opportunity, he spotted here the solution to a vexatious problem. He had no identity. Anytime there was even the smallest possibility of contact with the authorities, whether for something as mundane as a traffic offense, or more serious such as being a material witness to a crime, Abelard had always had to quickly and quietly disappear. Travel outside of France was impossible as would be the ordinary task of applying for admission to a business school. Both he and Felicity had for months now been silently mulling over this problem. He made known his thoughts that the delinquent debtor might be the key to his acquiring a false identity.

“Abelard,” Felicity sighed, “I’ve never done anything like this.” Looking at Oliver’s wide eyed stare, she added, “and I’m guessing that neither has the good doctor.”

“Besides,” Oliver intoned, “you’d be putting your trust in someone with apparently little regard for his own word. He’s already tried to renege on people who take such things very seriously. You would be just something else for him to trade for his personal gain. I’ll bet he has commerce with the local gendarmes; they look the other way now and again as long as he feeds them information that is good for their business, arresting charging and convicting malefactors and anti-social cretins.”

“You are quite right, Oliver. We should not deal with him. We should deal with his creditors. They will eventually come looking for you and Felicity and when…,” he was saying when Felicity interrupted him.

“What are you saying?” she asked, somewhat exasperated, by Abelard’s matter-of-fact tone. “What do mean when? How do you know all this?”

“Let’s just say I have a feeling about such people.”

In Abelard’s memories power was mostly in private hands. There was no real state to speak of and the local nobility, with their own armed forces, was usually structured around powerful barons to whom they pledged to send their men whenever he needed substantial armed forces to engage in organized, large scale violence, the King being at the top of this well heeled gangster fraternity. They made and enforced their own laws. His father, during periods of open conflict in the Hundred Years War, often called upon his vassals to send armed men so that he could fulfill his own obligations to the English. The powerful barons also had a rule; unless you were planning a hostile takeover, never interfere in someone else’s conflicts.

Running his finger behind his right ear, over a long jagged scar, Abelard recalled the spat his own disregard for the no-meddle rule had spawned. He was still quite young, barely sixteen, when out hunting with two of his father’s trusted men. They had just come out of the woods into a large clearing. At the far end three horsemen were riding circles around a dismounted figure. He approached the group and soon recognized the daughter of a poor baron, desperately trying to protect herself from the shrinking circle of determined horsemen. One of them dismounted and seized the girl by the hair. She could not have been older than fourteen. Clutching her dark mane in one hand he began to tear off her clothes. She was thoroughly terrorized and shrieking for help.

Abelard had a secret fondness for her and could not restrain his youthful exuberance. He quickly covered the distance to the riders and demanded they stop. No one was wearing armor and no swords were drawn. The leader sidled his horse over to Abelard and quietly whispered that this was a personal dispute between her family and the very powerful Count of Foix. It would be wisest for Abelard and his friends to leave. But, of course, he could not. He had already committed himself to the girl’s side and withdrawal would have been shameful, even though he knew that he should not have in the first place butted into this obviously personal dispute.

He refused and the inevitable fight ensued. There was tacit agreement that no weapons would be used and blows were exchanged. It was a bloody affair, the two sides fairly evenly matched. The men were too distracted to notice that in the commotion the girl had retrieved her own mount and ridden off. When exhaustion had finally closed down the combat and the girl was nowhere to be seen, the Count’s men backed off and left shouting that Abelard would pay for his meddling.

The following day, Abelard still recalls as though he had actually been there, the watchman shouted from his tower that horsemen were approaching. They were soon identified as carrying the Count’s colours. His father, the Captal de Buch, from the parapet above the gate, would permit two riders through the gate to bring in whatever message they were carrying. Abelard and his brothers accompanied the Captal to meet the Count’s emissaries in the main courtyard. The larger of the two riders, wearing full armour, dismounted and approached the Captal while surveying the crowd around him. He looked up to the rider who had accompanied him to see him pointing directly at Abelard. Without warning he turned on Abelard and with all his force swung his mailed fist to deliver a loud and punishing backhanded blow to Abelard’s head, catching him behind his right ear. He was knocked into the air and fell on his back, blood already gushing from his wound. There was a stunned silence, no one sure about the next move. This paralysis passed quickly and suddenly the courtyard was filled with the noise of emptying scabbards. The bearded, small eyed, hook-nosed man who delivered the blow did not bother to acknowledge his perilous situation. He looked straight at Abelard, accused him of interfering in a private quarrel and demanded satisfaction. The following day he would be expected at the Count’s jousting grounds. Once Abelard acknowledged that all was as his father had heard, swords were replaced and the riders permitted to leave.

Even at sixteen, Abelard was very big. He was also one of the most skilled jousters and swordsmen in Gascony. The gruff, loutish nobel who had challenged him knew his own chances of survival were far from assured, but those were the rules of the day. He had been humiliated by the girl’s father and he decided to exact revenge, as was his right, by raping the daughter. Now, as fortune would have it, he had a fair chance of being killed by Abelard. Backing down would have meant the end of his life as a knight and in those times it was better to be dead than to be out of a job, and an outcast to boot.

Next day, under a mixed sky, the two combatants each took their positions and at the signal charged with lowered lances. Jousting demanded great agility, not to mention strength. Not only must the rider be able to stay on a running horse while wearing about 50 kilograms of armour, but he must have excellent hand eye coordination able to track and maneuver many different objects. He must keep an eye on the lance coming towards him all the while adjusting his shield to counter incoming blows; and he must keep adjusting his own lance to aim for an effective entry point as the other rider repositions his own shield to protect all vulnerable parts.

They were allowed to break three lances each before dismounting to continue the combat which would only end in either death or until someone was disabled. Good as Abelard was, his opponent was very determined and he was unable to unhorse him before breaking all three lances. They resumed afoot and fought for a good half hour before Abelard was finally able to seize a momentary lapse by his opponent and drive his sword into the slim vulnerable space between the head and chest armour, running it through the neck. The combat was over and except for a few more scars in addition to the one he had received at the time of the challenge. Abelard would live to remember never again to trifle with the no-interference rule.

 

 

***

 

 

“That’ll be them,” Abelard said, in his annoying blunt, impassive tone, always the same whether in danger or in love. He was looking out the window at the large vehicle pulling through the open wrought iron gates and into the small forecourt of their house. The driver, bareheaded and hairless, which seemed to be this crowd’s marque de commerce, unfolded his ample frame from the car and moved with surprising agility, for such a large fellow, round the front to the right back passenger door. With admirable coordination, the large, shaven headed men in the front and left back passenger seats also stepped briskly from the car and stationed themselves beside the vehicle, as would an efficient security detail. With a bird-like swivel, watching for predators, the driver looked about before finally opening the right back passenger door. Out stepped Mr. Really Big. The others suddenly seemed small by comparison. He must have been a tad less than two metres.

The giant among giants was taking no chances with anyone who would dare to interfere in his business. He barked at his driver who at once began honking the car horn. The blare was greatly amplified as it bounced off the not inconsiderable stone surfaces. After a moment, the heavy oak door slowly swung open, drawing immediately the close attention of the men in the forecourt. Abelard appeared in the entrance and to everyone’s astonishment gingerly skipped down the few stairs, with a wide grin and hand extended, approached the huge, black suited, long haired putative boss, the only one with a mane. Taken unawares, instinct alone moved the giant’s hand level with Abelard’s and they shook. Abelard was wearing a very stylish, gracefully tailored grey suit and utterly dazzling red tie. It was just the most natural gesture to want to shake his extended hand. And when the bodyguards finally received urgent messages from their plodding brains to protect their boss, he contemptuously waved them back.

‘Do you speak English?” Abelard asked, his own hand still covered by the big man’s. His own French was excellent but he thought a little mystery would do no harm at this stage.

“Yes, I studied in England,” the incredibly low pitched voice answered, with a strong British accent and truly excellent diction. This was an educated and probably erudite man, despite all appearances to the contrary.

“Would you join us for coffee?”

“Tea will be fine. You have obviously been expecting us.” He accepted the invitation only because his curiosity had trumped his impatience.

“I cannot deny that.”

His men ran up the stairs ahead of him and were about to enter the house to do what such man are hired to do, check out the premises, when he gruffly stopped them. It was obvious to him there would not be any need for that. He didn’t trust anyone but was able to identify situations where this did not matter. Once inside his men stationed themselves where they could best react to treachery, at the windows and the doorways. Soon the big man was sipping his tea, holding the altogether too tiny teacup with the massive tips of his thumb and index finger. Abelard made the introductions for his side, Tom, Dick and Harriet.

“I am Jacques. Can we please get down to business? I’m assuming you also know why I am here.”

“It is best to be perfectly clear,” Abelard began. “The incident last week was entirely coincidental. We had absolutely not the least idea what the dispute was about. Indeed, even now we do not know who you are.”

“Is this some sort of joke?”

“Not in the least, and we do not care to know who you are unless of course you would wish to tell us your life story, which would greatly surprise me.”

“I’m listening,” Jacques answered, low level menace leeching into his growl.

“When we learned the identity of the victim, a petty criminal, being roughed up by men in good suits, it became clear that we had stumbled into a private dispute between unconventional businessmen. I also guessed that we would be hearing more about this.”

“Excellent. Now you know. You have made a mistake with, I suppose, the wrong people. But the fact remains that you have made a mistake, a big one and we must set it right. Any suggestions?”

“I’m glad you asked,” Abelard said, never losing his toothy smiling, “we do, as a matter of fact, have a couple of suggestions. First, you have lost some interest income due to the delay we have caused you in collecting from your client. We will compensate you for that. The principal amount, however, is still your responsibility. Second, we would need to engage your services for another matter.”

While the suggestion that he would be compensated for the lost income from his usurious loan did not increase his heartbeat, the second item did perk him up a bit. He began to wonder whether he wasn’t dealing with something more than just three too-clever-by-half meddlesome nuisances.

“I need an identity,” Abelard continued. “A full one, with birth certificate, passport and some boring history.”

“Why would I trust you? This might be an elaborate sting.”

“I don’t expect you to trust me any more than I would want to trust you. In your business the only trust you place is in retribution. You know where we are and you will also know my new identity. Besides, you will only be giving the orders; others will do the work and will pay the price if this turns out to be a sting.”

Jacques rose to his feet and walked out of the house into the forecourt without saying a word. There he dialed a number on his mobile phone. He was soon back in the house.

“The lost interest comes to 3000 euros,” he began, as though he had never left. “The identity will cost you 15,000 euros, much of that for the boring history. I will need a picture and the name you wish to use.”

Abelard pulled open the drawer of the small table in the entrance and took from it two envelopes, one small, passport photo size, and the other large, a pad of paper and a pen. He scribbled Abelard Bush on the paper and handed it along with the small envelope to Jacques. He then pulled a thick wad of bills from the large envelope, counted out 10,500 euros and handed these to Jacques.

“That’s 3000 for lost income and half now for the identity. The other half when you deliver. Is that satisfactory?”

Jacques was now truly surprised, if not somewhat stunned.

“You have to be the most confident person I have ever met. How did you know I would agree to do this?”

“Let’s just say that I have often dealt with people like you and no reasonable offer has ever been refused.”

There was no further discussion. Jacques and his boys left. Oliver and Felicity were still too stunned at the ease with which Abelard took to criminal enterprise. They knew only too well that hiding Abelard was quite illegal but for them it had been an agonizing decision laced with many layers of hesitation. For Abelard, this all seemed as natural as breathing.

What they did not know were the risks Abelard had already factored into his dealings. Abelard was quite aware that The Society lived and prospered through its extensive network connecting most of the world’s important criminal organizations. It would be highly likely that Jacques’ small galaxy was also part of The Society’s universe. He was sure that The Society had already put out a request to the network to locate him but he was counting on that request being low down in the queue of the many such requests ordinarily circulating in the criminal universe. No different than any large national spy agency that could take very long to put together all the pieces that might point to an impending threat, before any action is ever contemplated.

 

 

***

 

 

“Uncle,” Felicity’s voice ever so unsubtly shifted up from the easy unguarded tone only his favourite niece would use to assure him that all was as it should be to the higher plateau where more serious business is done. “Remember I had told you I was seeing someone,” she asked, waiting for his short grunt, “well he is quite a brilliant go-getter and will be applying to the local b-school here. You probably know it.”

“Of course I do,” he growled, “everyone knows it. We employ a whole bunch of their grads. We send recruiters there every year. Why do you ask?”

“Well, I’m sure he could get in on his own merit, but I would feel a lot easier if you could write him a reference letter. I would really want him to get in this coming semester. I’ve a good chance of getting a position at the University of Montreal next year and if he finishes by then I could come back with him. What do you think?”

“You know I’ve always trusted your judgment. If you say he’s good then that’s good enough for me. I’ll go one better and have my assistant telephone the dean’s office to make a personal recommendation. I doubt there will be a problem. Hey, George W. Bush made it into Harvard, anything’s possible.”

“Love you. Bye.”

It had been almost two years since the serendipitous run in with Jacques and in that time Abelard had acquired all the basics he would need for b-school. He had also spent every spare moment learning hand-to-hand combat techniques from Oliver. He had the instincts of a warrior and anything to do with fighting came easily and naturally to him. Discipline was second nature and he would undertake any task, arduous as it might be, if he felt that he needed to master it. And after watching Oliver in action he quickly understood he must have that talent. Practice meant receiving hard, injurious blows that made it appear as though Abelard was in a permanent state of physical abuse, fresh welts and cuts about his head a common sight. But Abelard did not seem troubled by the damage. Oliver was not surprised since somewhere in his past Abelard had been very regularly slashed, punctured and bludgeoned, as he recalled from the multiple disfiguring scars he had seen on much of his body.

Oliver had with little effort gotten quite accustomed to the rigors of life in a French Chateau town within an hour’s drive to Burgundy and Champagne. So much so that he extended his tenure at the local hospital for another year. As to satisfying the demands of the flesh, all his early anxieties were for naught. True, he could not say with certainty whether he actually acquired a mistress to tide him over or was himself the innocent plaything of the intensive care nurse whose husband was on the road much more often than on his wife. Who cares, he reasoned, the arrangement was to his liking and, apparently, traditionally French. Oliver was altogether too respectful to ever wish to tamper with local custom.

Towards the end of the fourth year, Abelard had successfully received his MBA and they made arrangements to return to Montreal where Felicity would be taking up a tenure track position at the University of Montreal. No one, except Abelard perhaps, could foresee the turmoil gathering like locusts around a fat land.

They would have to fly, which did not loom as a major issue. Abelard had a complete familiarity with air travel although since waking up he had actually never flown. He had listened to airline case studies at business school; seen countless aircraft of all shapes and sizes flying overhead; been to the airport to fetch Oliver and; visited an air show where he toured all manner of flying machine.

At Charles DeGaulle, they checked in, made their way to the gate and uneventfully passed through security with Abelard no less impassive than he would be in any other circumstance. Felicity had booked in business class, where she knew the engine noise and vibration, which could be very worrisome to a skittish traveler, were less apparent than in steerage. She did have some, albeit very small, concern for Abelard’s reaction first time flying. She recalled his initial unease with the automobile. She also thought it best that Abelard have the window seat, so that his brain would have the visual input to confirm the motion it would already be processing. Otherwise he might become air sick and throw up or, worse, panic and try to run.

Abelard heard the engines revving, felt the vibrating airframe as the noise grew louder. He was soon feeling control slipping away. Then the g-forces thrust him back into his seat as the huge, lumbering jet lurched forward and accelerated to speeds he had never before experienced. No matter how many times he had rehearsed in his mind for this moment, he had mostly failed to convince himself that something the size of a medium sized building, lying on its belly, would actually take to the air. As the aircraft sped down the runway, he was sure they would never become airborne. Felicity bit her lip to suppress the pain she felt in the hand Abelard was gripping with panic strength. She hoped that the small bones around her knuckles would come through this intact. Then it happened, the lumbering, creaking, whining craft took to the air. Abelard went completely pale and he clenched his eyes tightly shut. It was as though he was waiting to be struck by a killing blow, his head swiveled to the side and both his arms were raised to protect him. For Felicity this came as a relief since the pain in her all but mangled hand had by then long passed its threshold.

For Abelard he was again trapped under his dying horse, the giant in bright red hose swinging his iron mace in great big circles, picking up speed for the ultimate blow that would disintegrate his skull like so much dried tinder. He and his men had been on a chevauchée for several days by then, putting to death all that moved and everything else to the torch. They were leaving nothing for the advancing French forces heading towards Maupertuis and ultimate defeat in 1356 at the Battle of Poitiers. But they had wandered too close and were caught short by Marshall d’Audrehem’s forward guard. They were hopelessly outnumbered and dashed for the thick wood on their flank. There they would have some advantage when the French would find their large force suddenly broken into smaller, more easily digestible pieces.

But after several days of intense riding their horses were tired and considerably slower than the fresh and rested French mounts. They were caught in the open and fought a running battle as they tried to fend off the enemy blows while continuing to race for the woods. Screams filled the air as his men were implacably pursued and cut down. Many fell, to be finished off later by the French knifemen who would unfailingly be following close behind. Abelard’s horse was struck by an arrow and tumbled forward, falling across his right leg. He had lost his sword and was defenseless. He knew his chances were poor. The red knight halted his horse beside Abelard and dismounted to get maximum leverage for what he was about to do. By this time those who had made it were fighting on more equal terms against the French and very well holding their own.

The red colossus lifted his face plate, wishing to openly gloat at his good fortune and to better see the gruesome spectacle he was about to launch. Abelard, never one to give up, struggled to free himself, all the while listening to the whooshing, spiked iron ball circling about his would-be killer’s head, twirling faster at each revolution. Then, a new sound. More of a thud and the deadly ball suddenly ceased its sickening noise. He paused a moment from his fruitless struggle and raised his head in time to see the look of utter surprise in the red knight’s eyes as he held onto the blade point sticking out his chest. Behind him, a satisfied smile beaming from De Gestaubon’s grotesque face, told him all he needed to know. He would live to fight another day. He would also soon enjoy seeing d’Audrehem captured at Poitiers

“Can I help you sir? Is there something wrong? Are you ill? Here, use this little bag.” A kindly, solicitous smile beaming from the attendant’s face, ugly as De Gestaubon’s, waiting for a response. The aircraft had by then reached its cruising altitude and relative calm had returned. He would live to fly another day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter XI

 

 

Apparent apprehension etching its unkind features, the shaven head leaned over to disturb him at dinner. There was little that irritated Jacques so much as being distracted from his food and wine. It would have to be an emergency of extraordinary proportions. He took a moment to look about him and saw only normalcy, calm, and other diners who were fortunate enough to be enjoying their meals in peace. It was another moment before he was able to sufficiently bring under control his simmering, neurotic impatience.

“That man over there insists he has the most urgent of business to discuss with you. He says it has to do with the Italian Company.”

This did very sharply bring him to attention. He looked over to the side where he saw the bulky dealer from Sarlat nodding in his direction. He beckoned him to come.

“I am very sorry to disturb you during dinner,” he had been warned about Jacques’ near devotional relation to food and drink. “The Italian Company,” he resumed with the three magic words which were usually sufficient to calm but the most recalcitrant fringe, “believes you may be able to do them a great service. It might be no better than a false alarm, but it seems one of your employees vacationing in Sarlat had gotten a bit drunk with a colleague of mine and began complaining that you had arranged for a new identity for someone with an unrecognizable accent, instead of having him killed for beating up on your men. He described him to me and it appears from the description that he might be of immeasurable interest to the Italian Company. They would very much appreciate if you would let them know who you created.”

 

 

***

 

 

“Since you are the only person from our end, still alive, to have seen the original, it will have to be you, my friend,” Dona Maria said, without any tonal hints that suggested consequences if the dealer did not obey. She wisely husbanded such intimations for those rare times when she might need to be more forceful in her suggestions. Underused they would carry much more weight than otherwise. The dealer, of course, accepted his level in The Society’s food chain. It was for him already a great privilege to be dealing with number one.

Armed with an identity, it was child’s play to quickly track his movements. He traced him to Montreal and he had an address. Dona Maria was delighted and he was soon on his way to Canada.

Since Abelard also knew the dealer by sight he would have to take great care not to be seen, in the event the mystery man turned out to be him. In the woods, at the edge of Mount Royal Park, there was nothing suspicious about a man carrying a camera equipped with telephoto lens. The renovated yellow brick Couvent de Marie Reparatrice, now expensive condominiums, was directly across the road. Each time someone would leave the building, either by car from the parking lot or by foot from the front entrance, the dealer would train his powerful lens and verify whether it was the man he was looking for. It was not long before he spotted Abelard, in black athletic gear, running directly towards him. He was not prepared for that and with as much speed as such a large man could summon he moved his bulk out of Abelard’s path. He could not very well follow him. It would have been absurdly obvious; a corpulent photographer in leather loafers wheezing along Olmsted Road. He would make more appropriate arrangements for the following day.

This time around he was waiting on a mountain bike and had stationed two men, also on bikes, further along the gravel road which ran through the park. The second man saw where he exited the park and was able to follow him to the entrance of a modern office tower. The next morning the dealer was waiting for Abelard to show up at the building and after seeing him disappear through the doors he hurried in and made his way to the security desk, past which Abelard would have had to pass.

“I’m here to see,” he began, searching in his pockets and then his small leather folder. “I know I’ve got it somewhere,” he mumbled and then, “those bicycle messengers should be made to dress more appropriately” he said with some disgust, nodding in Abelard’s direction, who was just moving towards an open elevator door.

“Oh, that would be Mr. Bush, the Senior Vice President of the Pharma division,” the smiling receptionist volunteered.

“Ah here we are, Mr. Caldicott, Omnipex Corporation.”

“I am sorry sir, but you must have the wrong address. This building has no tenants other than the VBI Corporation. What address were you looking for?”

“Is this Peel street?”

“No, you’re on Drummond here. Peel is one over.”

“’I am sorry to have bothered you. Have a good day and thanks.”

He had what he needed.

“Hello, is this Mr. Bush’s office? I would need an appointment with him about the problems your heart drug is causing my clients.”

“I’m sorry sir, but Mr. Bush won’t be available for the next two weeks. He will be traveling.”

At this the dealer’s face betrayed a little disappointment. He then dialed another number.

“I need to know where Bush will be traveling over the next two weeks. And I need to know quickly.”

The clerk, in the VBI travel services office, whose name the dealer had been given by The Society’s local contacts, punched a few keys on his computer and answered, “he’s in Vancouver next week and then he’s at the company’s hunting lodge in the Laurentian Mountains, some big strategy session with the CEO and all the top brass.”

“Good, send the exact location of that lodge to my cell.” The dealer hung up, waited to receive the text message and then dialed a number in Florence.

 

 

***

 

 

The lodge was located some 150 kilometers north of Montreal, surrounded by the lakes and forests of Nominingue. It was large, more of a small hotel, a cavernous entrance soaring to the massive beams supporting a great domed ceiling to awe and humble visitors. Colossal stone staircases either side led to the bedrooms. In contrast, smaller more modest doorways, overhung with Roman arches led off the entrance to the dining hall, library and smaller conference rooms. This was, after all, a place of business, financed by the many anonymous shareholders of VBI. It was also a spectacle for Milly so that all who enter should tremble at his power and manly virtues. In that very same spirit Milly had a small plaque, but not that small as couldn’t be seen by anyone with normal eyesight, fixed to the stone arch over the doorway, a quote from Shelley warning;

 

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:[
**]Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” 3

 

In view of the man’s overflowing self-importance, there is a good chance he may have misunderstood the meaning of Shelley’s poem.

Abelard was ecstatic. Everything here evoked fond memories, only far better than what he recalled. He had often been to such dwellings, but none so rich and comfortable as this one. The better sort had tapestries to cover the rude stone walls and animal furs strewn across the cold, rough floors. They may have been large enough for horsemen to rise through but they were cold damp places, particularly during autumn. Here, the castle was outstanding. Warm, walls hung with beautiful portraits, most depicting lively hunting scenes and, best of all, decent furniture to sit and lounge upon. No backless benches, shaky stools, only large, overstuffed armchairs and divans. This is where he belonged. He knew this with unshakable confidence.

The long, highly polished Empire style oak table, easily seating 50, was most obviously out of place in its surroundings. A heavier, courser affair, on temporary stands would have been more realistic in a room where the walls were hung with medieval military paraphernalia. But that would have been uncomfortable, not to mention unrefined. It was always difficult packing too many messages into a single room’s décor. There was toughness, wealth, refinement, your-comfort-is-us and many more small hints Milly wanted to pass along, to the decorator’s distraction. Viewed as an impossible task, she had most admirably kept screaming dissonance to a minimum.

The VBI crème de la crème had barely enough time to leave their bags in their rooms when they were summoned to an afternoon boar hunt. The property was very large, stocked with game and fenced to keep it all in. The executives assembled in the vast entrance and were each given a large caliber rifle. Milly simply supposed that anyone working for him would know how to shoot. The hunt master thought otherwise. He had seen this before. He looked each person in the eye and knew immediately whether they were to get clips with blanks or the ones with real ammunition. There were only 14 senior and executive vice presidents at VBI and they were all there, including two women, both of whom received real bullets. They were far from the meekest of the crowd.

Directly below Milly in toughness, since no one would dare be as tough as him, was the SVP of special situations in the investment banking division. He did not receive real bullets, since the hunt master was fairly certain he was not completely sane. It was his job to go into the field when a company in which VBI had invested turned sour. He first assessed the best course. Was it a complete write off, mass firing and save the furniture situation or; a kick ass and revive situation? He would usually take a quick glance at the books which, if truth be known, were now a little beyond him, what with creative accounting that was all the rage today, and then rely on a more personal approach. This usually meant very close interrogation methods. The delinquent company’s executives would be individually grilled, typically in small windowless rooms, sometimes for hours on end. A steady diet of crime dramas had inspired this personal touch. He always came away with denunciations, odious revelations about questionable tactics and, what he liked best, personal admissions that risks had been taken. Not that it mattered to him that these same risks, had they turned out differently, would have been handsomely rewarded. Milly fully condoned such a non-technical approach to these vexatious work-out situations. He knew very well that the human mind worked in very simple ways, regardless of the complex analyses, gigantic spreadsheets and rocket scientist advisors. He needed a curious, disdainful creature to ferret out all the simple little mistakes, deliberate or otherwise, that had been made if special situations were to be effectively dealt with.

When it was Abelard’s turn, he shunned the firearm and pointed instead to a sturdy crossbow decorating the entrance hall wall. This brought the hunt master’s mind to a grinding halt. He had no experience with such a request. He restarted his brain and tried again to give Abelard the fine bolt action .308 hunting rifle with mounted scope, but to no avail. Abelard insisted on the crossbow. Milly would have to intervene. He excused himself to Abelard and went to seek wisdom from the boss. Abelard watched the short exchange, Milly’s quick laugh and glance in his direction and the hunt master’s swift strides to fetch the cross bow and accompanying full quiver, mounted alongside the weapon.

During the ride to the lodge, through the private forest, Abelard had instinctively studied the terrain. He remembers always doing so. Being able to choose the place and position conferred immeasurable advantage in a battle. He would note points that would be good if retreat was a strong possibility and spots from where it would be difficult for the enemy to withdraw if he thought that might be the outcome. There were several sites from where a cornered boar would be unable to escape; bowls with high steep embankments on three sides. Hunting boar was also something he remembered, not as sport but as the medieval equivalent of going to the supermarket.

Persistent mounds of packed snow still clung to the ground. The air was crisp and the afternoon sun blinding as it intermittently appeared from behind the large trees along the northwest horizon. The hunt master, the beaters and the dogs would be on foot while the VBI nobility would be riding All-Terrain-Vehicles. They were not yet out a full hour when the alarm was given that a boar had been spotted. Not a great surprise since several had been released for the hunt. The ATV crowd began hooting and cheering as only heavily armed city folk could. Abelard, unlike the others who made a bee-line towards the sighting, headed to the left. He knew there was an embankment up which the boar would not be able to climb and would also have to head left. He considered the ATV and regretted not having a horse, which would easily fly over obstacles the ATV could only circumnavigate. Then he was behind the baying hounds, closing in on the trapped boar. He was always amazed at how well beagles were artificially selected so as not to fear attacking a large dangerous animal, unlike the wolf that would only do so in desperation. He watched the boar deftly wield its claws and sharp tusks to eviscerate two dogs. The hunt master finally arrived to call them off and prevent any more carnage to his fine animals. Abelard was now alone before the trapped creature. He dismounted and watched the berserk beast, a very large one he estimated to be at least 175 kg, pawing the ground, preparing to attack. He seemed entirely unconcerned as he calmly, in one fluid motion, pulled a shaft from the quiver and slid it into the crossbow.

Just then, with a great roar of engines and thick petroleum exhaust smoke swirling around the trees, the others arrived. As one they shouldered their weapons, but before they could fire Milly bellowed for them to hold back. He wanted to watch Abelard in action. Abelard was very aware that he and not the boar had suddenly become the main attraction and he was glad. The giant brute stopped pawing, leaned back on its hind legs and like a primed bolt shot towards Abelard, the only obstacle to its escape. Abelard deliberately waited until the creature was only a few metres away before he loosed the shaft. It entered just above the boar’s neck, exposed by its bowed and charging head, and drove through its thick hide to lodge in its brain stem, instantly putting it to death. But that did not stop the beast. The momentum kept its flesh hurtling forward until it finally crumpled almost at Abelard’s feet. He had not flinched, even as the already dead animal, propelled by blind inertia, seemed destined to gore and mangle him.

“You must teach me that trick, it was mighty impressive,” Milly drawled. “A cheer and applause for the hunt champion,” he commanded. And Abelard’s place near the top was all but assured.

 

 

***

 

 

“Our man of infinite surprises, finally,” Milly bellowed above the din as Abelard walked in from the kitchen, imposing on the buzzing room a sudden silence. “Abelard here,” he continued, unusually jovial, indicating with outstretched arm the object of his attentions, “is not only a skilled and unflinchingly courageous hunter, but he also insisted on instructing the chef as to the way gamy meat should be best prepared. You must reveal to us how you came by such extraordinary talents or we shall have to question your loyalty,” his laughter now of a more sinister quality.

“I had a look at the background check Bertie did eventually run on you, and it has left me a bit perplexed,” his monologue was taking on a very personal tone. “You are exceptionally good at what you do and, since this afternoon, at what no one would have suspected you can do. I had been thinking about where you could possibly have acquired so many eccentric talents. You know what I found?” he asked, rhetorically. “Nothing, absolutely nothing in your background gives me any clue. As I recall, and correct me if I leave something out or, worse, distort the facts,” ratcheting up the intimidation in his tone, but ever so subtly. You would have to be listening very carefully, as most around the table were apt to do when Milly spoke, to notice the small shift. “Born to a farming family in Gascony; only child; alone at five when parents die in automobile accident; raised in orphanage run by the Jesuits; joined military at 19, and availed yourself of educational opportunities to complete university degree; met my niece and breezed through an MBA at a good b-school in France; job and great success at VBI. End of story. Nothing there to even hint at the ambitious drive you’ve shown at VBI, the astounding aptitude for the takeover game and now, the exemplary skill at hunting large dangerous animals with little more at hand than a man may have had 600 years ago. The floor is yours my lad.” He gestured to Abelard who was trying desperately to think in the small moment he bought himself with the single swig from the large beer glass each person had at their place.

“Milly,” you do me great honour. You are the one we should be listening to. Not me. We’re all seated around a table, in a magnificent lodge, owned by an awesome organization built by you. There is really nothing to add to what you have already said about me that would explain my simple accomplishments.”

“That is not good enough,” Milly growled, “you will…..,” was all he could get out when the kitchen staff came shuffling through the doorway with their hands in the air. The other lodge employees, gardener, two maids, two secretaries and two chauffeurs, marched in through the doorway from the entrance hall, also with hands in the air. Behind each group followed a hooded man with a machine pistol.

There was a third hooded man, holding at his side a semi-automatic 9mm Beretta. He seemed to be the leader. “If you will all please stand and move against that wall the sooner this unpleasant business will be over and the sooner you will be able to return to your fine meal,” he insisted in a deep, but exquisitely polite voice. Obviously a man of culture and good manners. No one moved, all eyes on Milly. At that the polite gunman shot the gardener in the thigh. He was a small, wiry man and was spun right around by the projectile’s force, before falling to the floor. He did not yet feel any immediate pain and only looked, like a dog would, with a questioning tilt of the head, at the small hole in his trousers, the centre of a spreading, dark blotch. “Please be good enough to not make me waste any more of this planet’s scarce resources and do as I say.”

Milly was quick to his feet and nodded for everyone else to follow his lead. They lined up along the wall, concern etching the features of most. Abelard was more deliberate than the others. He placed himself below two crossed broadswords, overlaid with a very long bladed dagger, adorning the wall and, like the others, raised his hands.

The leader pulled a photograph from his jacket pocket and after giving it a brief glance he ran his eyes over his captives and stopped at Abelard. Without warning he punched him in the stomach, causing Abelard to double over. He quickly straightened up to again look down at the shorter man. “That was for Jean and Claude, whom you may remember killing.” Only Milly, standing next to Abelard, had heard the gunman’s low snarl. His two accomplices were slightly behind the leader and off to either side, watching the mostly frightened people in the room.

In subsequent statements to the police everyone agreed that after Abelard took the blow everything happened very quickly, so much so that they may have missed some of the action. As soon as he was able to firmly grasp the dagger handle in his raised right hand Abelard swung it with a powerful downward thrust droving the blade through the leader’s left shoulder, down through the muscles around the clavicle, the point boring down, deeper and deeper until it was stopped at the hilt and lodged firmly in his heart. He did not wait for him to fall, the two broadswords already in his grasp, he was leaping over the table and heading for the doorway to the entrance hall. The machine pistols began spewing bullets at the spot where he had been, cutting down the SVP of special situations, one of the women executives, the cook and the Vice Chairman in charge of retail banking. While the others were howling in pain, Charlotte ‘Jaws” Barker and the Vice Chairman were plainly quite dead. Barker’s notorious crocodile grin contrasted like a Flemish school painting with her dark, unseeing eyes. She had earned the ‘Jaws’ moniker when it was understood that nothing amused her so much as to chew up her enemies, and of those she had more than a few. Not many would miss her.

“I’ll get him,” shouted the gunman nearest the entrance through which Abelard fled, and obviously taking over command, “you watch them.” He rushed through the doorway, towards the exit, supposing that Abelard would dash outside to safety. Fatal miscalculation. As he opened the front door, Abelard emerged from the large cloakroom to the right.

“Leaving so soon?” Abelard asked, with uncharacteristic solicitousness. “Here’s a little something to remember me by,” a swishing sound being the last thing he heard before his head fell with a squishy thud to the stone floor, and rolled almost to the centre of the entrance hall.

“Gordy,” the remaining gunman yelled after a couple of minutes, “Gordy, answer me. Ok, Bush,” he yelled to the still empty doorway, “if I don’t hear from you in five seconds I will blow these people away.”

“You must learn to be more patient,” Abelard said, without the least emotion.” He was standing in the kitchen doorway, his crossbow aimed at the gunman. “But your type wouldn’t know the meaning of the word,” he added, before loosing the shaft which entered the thug’s skull between the eyes, the point emerging from the back of his head, where it came finally to a stop. He then joined his dead comrades sprawled on the beautiful floors the lodge was so proud to show.

“Why did you kill him?” Milly asked with great alarm. “We may never find out why they wanted to take you. Perhaps that’s what you intended. Who were they?” he demanded. He was by now livid and showed not the least empathy for the dead and wounded, their moaning but meaningless background noise. Milly was a man who needed answers and only a species ending event could possibly distract him.

Abelard at first entirely disregarded Milly and stopped to have a closer look at each of the dead gunmen. Then he turned to Milly. “I just don’t know who these people were. But I would sure like to find out,” he said with exaggerated surprise, an innocent rustic, as though preparing a final omigosh.

Milly would very much have liked to strangle Abelard, there and then, but he also desperately needed to master the situation. He shepherded everyone into the entrance, where they all got to see the headless third gunman. There was some retching and groaning before he had them all through the doorway into the large conference room. Only Abelard lagged behind. He again bent over the leader and pulled the folded photograph from his pocket, which he crumpled before tossing it into the crackling fireplace.

Milly did not like to lose control of any situation. This one he particularly wanted to keep close to his senses. There was something very important about Abelard and he would need everything at his fingertips if he was to find out just what that might be. He was utterly convinced that the police must be kept well out of the way. With that at the forefront his first tactical order was that he, and only he, would say anything meaningful to the police. Everyone would tell the truth about their personal experience but nothing more. No idle speculation.

“Why did they single out Abelard for special treatment?” the Predator’s voice rose above the low din. Milly had instructed him to ask this question. It was a loose end he did not want dangling before the police.

“They didn’t. It was just chance. The thug imagined Abelard had looked at him the wrong way and needed to teach him a lesson. He obviously made a big mistake. Although it would be easy for someone who does not know Abelard as well as we do to sometimes mistake his expression for disdain. Before he hit him he said, ‘what do you think you’re staring at creep?’

 

 

***

 

 

“Shakespeare,” Milly growled at the head of VBI security, no relation to his more famous namesake, “you have let us down.” The chastised eponymous corporate cop had no explanation as to how his six man security detail could have been so easily sidelined. His suspicions tended to the coffee they had regularly delivered to them at their makeshift headquarters in the small coach house about 50 metres to the side of the main house. But the blood tests had not detected any drugs. The men had simply dropped off, one by one, to remain unconscious for over five hours. This meant that a drug did not have to be administered all at once; over two four hour shifts would have been sufficient to ensure that everyone did take at least one coffee. Shakespeare had no other explanation. He did promise to review the security personnel eating and drinking habits, to which Milly did not respond kindly. They were by then back in Montreal and Shakespeare had already spent the previous night going over what the surveillance cameras had captured during the fateful moments.

“There was something odd,” Shakespeare dared to interrupt Milly’s ruminations; largely to do with the fathomless contempt he had for his security chief’s competence. When Milly did finally give Shakespeare his attention, it was with plain derision. “Mr. Bush,” he continued, “stopped to examine each body. I didn’t see anything happen with the two he killed in front of everyone, except when he took out the photograph and tossed into the fireplace, but there was something that interested him greatly with the headless body in the entrance hall. I got a close up made for you.” He handed the picture to Milly and waited a moment before daring to point out the obvious.

“I see it, Shakespeare,” Milly said icily, wondering whether he should strike him. “There are some things even my tiny brain can pick out as important. So, what does that little crooked cross tell you?”

“I’ve got somebody looking into it, going through museums, police files, stolen artifacts and anything else that might give us a lead.”

“I hope he is more competent than you,” Milly said scornfully.

“It’s a she, Maude Cumber.”

“Also,” apprehension now coursing through Shakespeare’s voice, “there’s a cop, a Detective Sanschagrin, who is now on this case here Montreal, who will be here this afternoon to see you and Abelard.”

“That was to be expected. Dead people don’t go unnoticed in our society. On your way out, ask Molly to send in Abelard. And, Shakespeare, destroy the original surveillance tapes but, and I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, make copies. Good day.”

Shakespeare lost no time leaving the office. He had always worked for men like Milly; whether as a soldier, as a mercenary or private bodyguard. He knew better than to sulk at the insults, react angrily or even to quit; people who employed people like him hated such feedback. They were tough, often unfair and very vengeful and Shakespeare understood that when they threw garbage it was best to just duck, smile and forget.

 

 

***

 

 

“Abelard, there is a Detective Sanschagrin coming in to see us.”

“Sanschagrin, again?” Abelard muttered.

“You know this man?”

“I have seen him a couple of times. He was the detective on the case the time I was mugged, something that happened just before I began working here. And, quite by coincidence, he was also there to investigate the death of Mr. Hecht, who you may….,” Abelard here ran up against Milly’s impatience.

“Yes, Abelard, I recall quite clearly the timely demise of Mr. Hecht. Now this Sanschagrin must think you a very suspicious character, what with violence your constant companion. Is there anything you want to tell me before Sanschagrin gets here?”

“I have no new information since the incident and, as I told the police, I had never seen those men before. They were probably trying to rob us or,” and here he lowered his voice as though to thwart a conspiracy afoot, “perhaps worse; take us hostage to hold for ransom.”

But Milly was having none of that. “Abelard, you may not have ever seen those men before,” he pushed on relentlessly, “but they did have your photograph and they were looking for you and, most distressing of all, the man you so efficiently dispatched with my thirteenth century knife, very clearly believed you had something to do with the death of people he knew. There is something you are not telling me,” he ended, with an uncharacteristic plea.

Abelard shrugged and tried to reassure Milly with, “Sanschagrin will hear the same story I gave at the lodge. There is absolutely nothing that can connect me to those criminals we killed in self defense.”

“We, Abelard, we did not kill those men. A remarkably industrious and, I daresay, very skilled fighter killed those men. As far as I could tell, they never had a chance. And, I also had the very strong feeling that you made sure they would never talk.”

“Milly, those men were very dangerous and I could not risk any more deaths. Had I tried only to incapacitate the last man, he may have begun to fire wildly and you may have been killed, just like those poor devils that caught the bullets meant for me.” All this was said without any perceptible compassion. An uninformed visitor may have concluded he was talking about accidentally squashing unwelcome insects.

“Thank you Abelard, I will call if Sanschagrin needs to speak with you,” he said, dismissively and imperiously turning his back as though to gaze out the window.

 

 

***

 

 

“Detective Sanschagrin,” exaggerated exuberance in his tone, Milly rose from his desk and strode around to greet him, arm extended to shake hands.

“You are a busy man so I will keep you no longer than need be,” giving the standard police code for ‘you’d better cooperate or I’ll haul your ass downtown’.

Having assured Milly that he would be expeditious in his inquiries, he at once undertook a leisurely stroll around Milly’s gargantuan office, stopping at each of the many medieval artifacts, largely weaponry. Had anyone else dared to run their fingers over his precious collection, they would rather quickly have been devoured by Milly’s wrath, but Sanschagrin was different. He could fully and fearlessly choose to annoy even the most prominent citizens, from political figures through captains of industry all the way to men and women of the cloth. Sanschagrin, believing himself to be a man of the stoutest integrity, knew he would never do so gratuitously but only in the service of pursuing, apprehending and, with God’s help, ultimately incarcerating guilty men and women. Milly, of course, knew all this and so very wisely kept his counsel.

“What does Abelard Bush do here?” Sanschagrin suddenly spoke, turning on his heels to face Milly, nearly knocking over a delicate Chinese vase, awkwardly out of place among the middle ages killing paraphernalia.

“He is easily one of our very best. Indeed, if I can trust to your discretion,” seeking to seduce Sanschagrin by making him an insider, worthy of confidence, “Abelard would definitely be in any horse race to succeed me if I would choose to step down.”

“How long have you known him,” he continued, choosing to ignore Milly’s cheap attempt to buy his favour.

“He’s been here for almost one year now, but my niece, in whose judgment I take but the greatest comfort, has known Abelard for more than four and intends to soon wed him.”

“What do you know about his past? Has he ever been in trouble with the law?”

“Shakespeare, our security chief, would have done a thorough background check and brought any oddities to my attention. As far as I recall, there were none.” Milly was by now fairly certain that there were all sorts of oddities crawling about Abelard’s thin past. He would spare no effort to uncover the delectable ones and put them to the finest scrutiny money could buy. The detective would have to make do with his own resources, from Milly there would be no serious help forthcoming. He and Sanschagrin trotted around each other for another twenty minutes or so, much of the time Milly recounting the fateful events.

Men in Milly’s position felt themselves Legibus Solutus, unconstrained by the law. They controlled vast resources, nominally subject to close scrutiny by a plethora of rules and regulations but they saw their own success as a divine message that they were somehow better, above the fray. They didn’t realize that their brains were about the same size as everyone else’s, only that they misfired a lot into the vacuum where the bits and pieces that constrain most people’s proclivity to satisfy extreme self-interest had gone missing.

“Would it be too much to ask to have Mr. Bush join us?” Sanschagrin inquired, his dull, average voice breaking the short silence.

Milly considered, but only for a moment, using his standard code to alert his secretary that what he was asking for he really did not want, but thought the better of it. He would rather listen to Abelard’s responses than have to fret about them later. He strode purposefully to the door, shunning the intercom, and asked his secretary to summon Abelard.

Abelard had reckoned Sanschagrin would want to also speak with him and mulled the merits of disconnecting himself from the network, to render himself incommunicado. Too much trouble; shut mobile phone; smash wired phone; cut public address system wiring; drop laptop onto hard tiled floor; immobilize secretary; burn down building. It was really almost impossible to easily drop out of sight and sound. Besides, the fawning, uber suspicious Sanschagrin would probably launch a manhunt if he didn’t show up. Not to mention, of course, the boundless rage into which Milly would fly and the resources he would muster, in cahoots with Shakespeare, to search far and wide, not omitting a single stone, until he was found.

Sanschagrin was still simulating an enjoyable smoke with his unlit cigarette in a strictly non-smoking environment when broadly grinning Abelard strode in. A naturally morose person, Abelard’s evident good cheer did nothing to alleviate his oppressive dourness. Inexplicably, he had imagined the suspected sociopath would slither into the room with guilt and panic etched across his resentfully handsome features. Disconcerted by Abelard’s demeanor, he stubbed out his cold smoke and frowned at having just wasted a perfectly good and now quite expensive product.

“Detective Sanschagrin,” Abelard enthused, arm snapped into handshake mode, “why am I not surprised too see you?”

“No more surprised than I am to see you,” he answered, choosing not to shake the unnaturally steady hand. “The dead, the almost dead and the soon to be dead seem to have your number, Mr. Bush. As for me, I just follow the rules. The computer tells the dispatcher that I have already had contact with you and it dispassionately puts me on the case.”

Sanschagrin walked around behind Abelard towards the more informal sofa arrangement in the far corner of the vast office. He dropped himself, far too heavily, onto the firm leather Cayman chair. Even while mentally wincing at the injury to his vestigial tail, he swept his arm over the sofa, inviting Abelard and Milly to join him.

“Mr. Bush,” Sanschagrin began, his head drooping off his longish neck, intently peering at a single sheet of slightly crumpled paper, which he had removed from his jacket pocket and meticulously unfolded. “A baby yet unborn might have a longer history than you. There is so pathetically little that one page is apparently far more than sufficient to cover your entire personal background, from birth to the present. My colleagues in France kindly offered to make some inquiries about you and your family in Pau, which is listed as the place of your birth. Conveniently, it seems, the Jesuit orphanage, where you had lived as a child, had been torn down some time ago. All records were inadvertently destroyed making it impossible to contact any former residents. The military would only say that an Abelard Bush had done his service. Is there something, even of the smallest importance that we are all missing? Could you enlighten me as to why you barely seem to exist?” Here Milly perked up, hoping to also learn a little more about his future nephew-in-law.

To Sanschagrin, Abelard’s trademark wide gage, indomitable grin, was like a sharp object jabbing painfully at his own bottomless pessimism. He knew that the good nature was all a deliberate sham, which only increased his natural antagonism for this criminal. He wished very hard that something would emerge, anything, even an unpaid speeding ticket, to give him the justification he needed to sit on this self-assured dandy.

“That is a little sad,” Abelard began, now looking at the thin, very tightly woven Persian rug beneath their feet, a noticeable frown in place of the smile, “but not very surprising. I don’t know how much background your colleagues had when they made their inquiries, but orphanages, I can tell you, are very unpleasant places. Memorable would not be my choice of words to describe a stay at a Jesuit institution. What would a poor, orphaned wretch want to recall; little food, beatings, loneliness, abusive men in black? It would have made no difference had you been able to locate former residents; they would have remembered only their own struggle to survive, not that of another hapless orphan,” Abelard concluded, dabbing at the corner of his eye, as though holding back an ocean of tears.

Abelard had been loathe to pay the extra money for the more bullet proof background but Felicity, being more sensible, had argued for the deluxe fabrication. It had been a good decision and now it also had a good outcome. Sanschagrin was clearly nonplussed by Abelard’s magisterial performance. He had ignored the bit at the bottom of his fact sheet about the fire being suspicious, possibly set by a disaffected resident of the notorious institution, and other normally useless trivia. His eyes now fretfully imbibed the unwelcome data. He fell, like the bested hunter, from the heights of sweet triumph to the despair of self-pity. An audible sigh escaped from frustrated lips as he absorbed his complete defeat.

“It appears you have been bullet proofed, Mr. Bush. No matter, I will just have to look harder. You see, Mr. Bush, six dead people, and those are only the ones I know about, all have you in common.” Abelard was relieved that Sanschagrin would never hear of either the Malvue boys’ fiery demise or the two Society assassins he had dispatched very early on in his new existence.

“Detective Sanschagrin,” Milly suddenly stood up and growled, “you seem convinced that Abelard has done something wrong. This will not do. If you have an accusation to make, do so. Otherwise, you must stop casting about with innuendo and veiled threats. If we are done, my secretary will show you out and the next time you wish to speak with Abelard our lawyer will be right beside him.”

Sanschagrin was not alone in his surprise at the abruptness and vigour of Milly’s support for his Senior Vice President. Abelard, normally poised and unflappable, hesitantly turned his head to openly stare at Milly. Ever mindful of treachery and hidden snares, he was this time utterly unprepared and could make no immediate sense of Milly’s seemingly unequivocal support. He would very soon recover his natural pessimism.

Sanschagrin, bewildered and now doubly wary, quickly jumped to his feet, left hand holding right firmly, as though to prevent it saluting a chagrined commander. “You are quite right Mr. Lord, a lawyer for Mr. Bush would be appropriate,” he said, trying unsuccessfully to modulate the anger and confusion out of his voice, at the same time hoping to save his dignity with a final veiled intimidation. He then turned towards the door, where Milly’s secretary was waiting to escort him out. He hesitated a moment, tempted to leave a parting shot but thought better of it and left in silence.

 

 

***

 

 

“Thanks for that” Abelard said.

“The least I can do for my star executive and future nephew-in-law,” Milly said, while wrapping his arm around an increasingly suspicious Abelard and steering him towards the large windows behind his massive desk. Could it be that he wants to push me through the glass to my death.

“Abelard, you are incontestably the only person in this organization who could possibly succeed me,” he said, unabashedly, his growly voice now taking on an unfamiliar silky and fatherly aspect. “People who look out these windows think, prosaically, that this is such a lovely, spectacular view. But it is much more than a view, Abelard, it is a regard on my domain. I am the most powerful businessman in this city. That means I am the lord and all others grovel before me.” Milly’s tone was now of an unmistakable demented quality. Abelard did not know whether he was working his way labouriously towards some profound point or just being delusional. He thought it best to keep his peace.

“…and one day you could be standing here with your arm about a promising young executive’s shoulders and saying the same thing.” Ah, understanding flickered through Abelard’s mind; first the promise then the demand. “Men like me were born to rule and we always, in the end, will prevail.” Abelard, at that very moment, knew with certainty that in the depths of his mind, Milly was just like him, and he would have to be very watchful, indeed.

“There is something you are holding back from me Abelard, and if I am to protect and enrich you, it is vitally important that you be completely open with me. You must trust me….,” he trailed off with an experienced sigh.

Abelard had dealt with much fiercer and equally untrustworthy Milly’s numerous times in his unmentionable memories. He had had many agreements, ententes, working arrangements with such men, but never in these had there ever been the slightest hint of trust. He knew, with unreserved certainty, that hard, acquisitive men like Milly used the word trust as others would a meaty pheasant bone; suck it dry and render it to the rubbish heap. But he did appreciate the delicate dilemma into which Milly’s crocodile plea had put him. Milly could make life very difficult if he did not give him some tempting morsel to chew upon. The trick here would be to give as little as would seem credible so as to buy as much time as possible; for it would have been lunacy to think Milly could be held at bay forever.

“That’s a relief, this thing is driving me crazy,” Abelard began, eyes on the handy carpet, easily the best diversion in the room, hands dug deeply into his pockets, his words appropriately peppered with annoying sighs. Whereas Milly was hampered by his reputation in how far he could go in the ‘trust-me’ game, Abelard was as yet an unknown quantity and a superb liar. He could still hoodwink even the hardest heart unaware of his gory memories. “I never suspected how much trouble it would bring. It’s been extremely difficult keeping up appearances. I was even considering asking for some time off, partly to hide and mostly to give me time to think.”

This last bit, hinting at a burn out, was said with clenched eyes as though damming up a torrent of self-pity. It was very effective. Milly jumped to the bait. He practically bounded the small distance separating the two and again put his arm around Abelard’s shoulder, which seemed to be heaving, ever so slightly.

“Go on, my friend, you’ve nothing to fear from me.”

“Now, I don’t know if there is any connection, but it’s the only thing I can think of. We had been doing the medieval battlefields tour in France, about three years ago. You know me, Milly, sometimes I don’t quite follow the rules,” he said, with a naïve grin. We were at the 1356 Battle of Poitiers site, where the French got their butts very badly kicked by the Black Prince. Part of the site was being excavated by an archaeological team from some university and was off limits to the tours.”

Milly, with the patience of a brain damaged beagle, had begun to fidget, wondering where this drawn out tale was leading. He began to bite very hard on his tongue trying to purge his urge to kick Abelard, as he would any piece of machinery that was running slower than it should.

“Go on son,” he said most solicitously. This only made Abelard want to talk even slower than he was.

“As we passed the dig, which was then empty, it being a legal holiday that day, I lagged behind until the tour group slipped out of sight. I remembered…, I mean I had read about that famous battle and I wanted to take a solitary look at the place where the French had lost their king and almost lost the Hundred Years war. Near a large oak I noticed a piece of timber sticking through the surface at a spot where digging had already begun. The heavy overnight rains must have washed away the loose earth to expose the rotting wood. I was fairly certain that this had not yet been spotted by the diggers. Using a small trowel left by the diggers I began to poke around the exposed timber until I reached what was clearly the hub of a wagon wheel. It occurred to me that this must have been the baggage train of the French, since it was where the guide had said was behind their lines. I felt lucky and plunged the trowel afresh into the earth only to hear the clink of metal. I dropped the tool and used my fingers to feel for whatever had made that sound. That was when I found it. The small jeweled cross.”

“The what?” Milly’s tongue biting patience control mechanism had backfired. In his surprise he had drawn blood and the question came out as a pressurized hiss, a small red fleck staining his lower lip. Abelard was now drawing great pleasure from the destructive tension his complete fabrication had built up in Milly.

“Yes, it was a small, obviously very old jeweled cross, like something a medieval noble man or women would carry. You are the only person to whom I have told this tale and I don’t think it should go any further until I get a better feel for what is going on.” Abelard, thought it an appropriate moment to stop and wait for a word from Milly.

Holding a handkerchief between his lips, to stanch the bleeding tongue, Milly judged it prudent to limit his response to a nod and an assuring wave of his free hand. He then pinched his lips between thumb and index finger as a final personal guarantee that Abelard was dealing with none other than Mr. Probity Discretion, aka Milly Lord.

“It was really quite a beautiful piece. I intended on keeping it for my own personal pleasure.” Here he paused and turned abruptly to look directly into Milly’s eyes, which were still moist from the painful wound to his tongue. Caught by surprise, Milly recoiled from Abelard’s sudden, personal attention. “Do you think it was wrong to wish to possess this small, stunningly attractive object?” he asked, and quickly added, “It’s not as though I was going to put it on e-bay to turn a quick profit.”

Speaking was still an awkward affair, particularly the ‘th’ sound, but Milly had run out of his limited body and sign language vocabulary and would have to make a little effort. “Not at all. Anyone wit an eye for fine art and a little courage would have done da same ting. Gosh, I would have,” winking and swiveling his oversize head to look at his own collection.

Abelard was feeling more confident by the moment. Milly was practically scrambling aboard his speeding fabrication. He now needed a good plausible ending that left only cold, dead end trails. Milly would then go off and beat all the empty bushes to which they might lead. He reckoned that Milly would carefully sift through all parts of his story, some of which did have very small openings into the truth, but finding those, Abelard felt, would be akin to winning a lottery.

“I was uneasy about what I had done and I though it best to keep Felicity out of my obviously illegal activities. I buried the cross in the woods behind the house and intended to leave it there for as long as we stayed at the farm. However, the very next day, nervous about scavengers possibly following my scent to the spot, I went to retrieve the cross, having it in mind to find a more suitable hiding place. There was only an empty hole, the freshly dug earth just piled beside it. I was outraged. I know I should not have been, since I had done the same thing at the archaeological dig site, but I couldn’t help myself. It was such an astoundingly lovely object. It was not difficult to figure out what happened. The earth was damp and the tracks from common steel toed work boots were still fresh. The trail led from the tree, near where I had buried the cross directly to the little shack where the Malvue brothers, our landlords, lived. I ran to their little hovel to question them but they were not in. I would have to wait. Three days later, the police showed up to let us know that there had been an accident in which the Malvue brothers were killed. It had taken so long for the news to finally reach us because the explosion and fire had made identification very difficult. In fact, the destruction was so complete I reckoned that the cross must have been destroyed if it was still in their hands at the time. But, and this is the key, the accident did not occur until the evening, so they must have had a full day to try and sell it to one of the local dealers, which is what I imagine those two small time crooks would have tried to do. So, and this is my best guess, Milly, someone else is now aware that I had the cross and for some unknown reason wants to get to me. End of story.”

Abelard had been standing at the windows, staring out over the city, his back to Milly. He had avoided looking at him as he concluded his creative storytelling. He heard him approach, but did not turn to face him. He needed for Milly to believe that this was a difficult moment, not a time for tough questions.

“I do greatly appreciate your candor. But, I’m puzzled, why didn’t you come to me right away?”

“I had thought about that but I had this illegal thing hanging over me. I was hoping it would all blow over and let me get on with my life. But no, Sanschagrin has to be nosing around and now you’ve become involved. I’m really very sorry about that. It would probably be best if I just resigned so that you and VBI don’t get dragged any further into my stupid mistake.”

“Nonsense! I won’t hear of that. Don’t fret, my boy, I’m not in the least fussed over you taking that little cross. I’ve done worse. Let me take care of Sanschagrin and be sure, if the need arises, and I’m sure it won’t, you will have access to the best legal help available.” He said all this while steering him out the door.

Milly waited a few moments, to be sure that Abelard was indeed gone. He then asked his secretary to find Shakespeare. It wasn’t long before the security chief was standing before Milly’s desk. No one had noticed that Abelard did not actually leave the floor, but was in the washroom, the door slightly ajar, waiting to see if, as he suspected, Shakespeare would show up.

 

 

***

 

 

“Here, find out what you can,” Milly said, handing him the small digital recorder which had been running as Abelard told his tale. “You’ve complete discretion to do whatever is needed to get me some answers. I think Abelard is hiding much more than he’s telling. Indeed, everything on that small device may turn out to be no more than pure fabrication. He does talk a lot about a small jeweled cross. There might be something there. That reminds me, any news on the crooked cross?”

“We might have something, but I wanted to be sure before telling you,” Shakespeare said, a little nervously, not wanting to raise Milly’s expectations. He knew how Milly could easily elevate a ‘maybe’ to ‘almost sure’ and, inevitably, to ‘without a doubt’ all in the space of a single sentence, which were often unusually short.

“Out with it man, I’m paying you to keep secrets from others, not from me,” Milly bellowed, loudly slapping onto his desk the thick report he had been scanning while waiting for Shakespeare.

“I’m not sure quite what to make of it,” Shakespeare began, hesitantly, worried that if he had later to recant because the information did not stand up to closer scrutiny, Milly would become prejudicially unhappy with him. His hope had been that Milly would not ask. A slim hope he knew. But movement was like an opiate for bosses. They liked to see progress, to sense that their orders had consequences. Shakespeare knew this and had prepared his fall back position. “We have a match for the cross. It seems to have been part of the crest of a Florentine condottiere family going back to the thirteenth century. The Donatello were very successful at the mercenary game and established an excellent reputation as reliable assassins, soldiers, military suppliers and bodyguards. They were even used by the most famous of all the condottiere, Sir John Hawkwood, to clean up the trail of enemies his line of work often left in its wake. But by the end of the fourteenth century they seem to have left the mercenary trade.” A very safe report, completely verifiable.

“Surely you’ve checked out all the living Donatello,” Milly asked with uncharacteristic hesitation?

Shakespeare had detected the change in Milly’s attitude. He wasn’t quite sure what it meant and began to shuffle in place. If he denied doing so, and Milly later discovered that he had, he would pay dearly. He had no more options. He would have to take his chances that the information he was about to give Milly would hold up to closer scrutiny.

“Yes we have and there are matches with reasonably high probabilities of some connection to the medieval family. But even if we traced a direct line to someone living today, it might not mean a thing. Anyone could have been taken by the crooked cross symbol and simply adopted it as their own secret sign. And if the same family is still operating, they would hardly be using their known names. Maude is taking a closer look at the data.”

Milly needed no more evidence. His senses were alive with strong signals from a prey he knew to be close at hand but not yet in sight. He would follow the Donatello trail and felt certain he would also come across his star executive, who was still doing his best to reach the top, when the final chase began.

Milly kept his counsel to himself for a moment, not at all in keeping with his usual quick parry and thrust style. He knew the Donatello and his mind was now sweeping across all the memories he had of the clan. Dona Maria provoked particularly vivid neural activity as he recalled her showy beauty and ruthless pragmatism. He had dealt with both her and Gianni, the family patriarch. They had extensive business holdings whose activities in some areas inevitably touched those of VBI. What he didn’t know of was their connection to The Society. Clients never dealt with an identifiable criminal organization, only with individuals who acted as its discreet agents. Direct dealings had stopped when such activity became a state monopoly, towards the close of the fifteenth century. It was then that The Society and other similar alternative business enterprises reorganized around a loose connection of intermediaries whose activities were sustained by word of mouth. They would quietly bring their business to The Society. The agents would receive, in lieu of monetary compensation from their clients, insider information, which they passed on to The Society and which ultimately found its way to the Donatello who would put it to profitable use.

He had been to the family’s Florentine palace for a celebratory dinner at the conclusion of a deal which saw a Donatello finance subsidiary take over a small bank branch network that VBI had inherited when it purchased the assets of a bankrupt Mexican conglomerate. He was mightily impressed that this family had an unbroken history going back more than 700 years. There crest had captivated his imagination and drew his thoughts to his own crest of more recent vintage, which he imagined would also endure through many future centuries.

“Shakespeare,” he said, breaking the long silence, “I need a picture of the Donatello family crest, now. Can you do that,” he asked, derisively?

Shakespeare knew no answer was expected and he immediately left to carry out his orders. He went directly to Maude Cumber’s small cubicle and asked her to locate the crest, which she did very quickly at one of the many heraldry sites that had sprung up on the WEB. The crest was quite a busy affair, with four quadrants and much detail in each one. Although he was sure Milly would be looking for the crooked cross, which he had spotted in the bottom right corner, he also knew that Milly hated to be second guessed. He would bring along Maude Cumber to pull up the entire image on Milly’s computer so that the boss could then look at whatever he wished.

The upper left quadrant showed a wolf stalking sheep watched over by a shepherd with the head of a vulture. The bottom left and top right quadrants were more traditional with couchant lions in one and religious profession in the other. The bottom right scene was more evocative of the times with a brightly garbed knight in full armour riding between what appeared to be two encampments. This was obviously the Donatello intermediary.

“Maude,” Milly asked with unnatural solicitousness, “would you be kind enough to zoom in on the knight at the bottom right, on his pendant?”

“There, that’s it, the crooked cross,” Milly whooped, but did not elaborate why he was pleased, guessing that Maude would have been kept in the dark about its provenance; from around the neck of a dead man at the VBI hunting lodge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter XII

 

 

Some were fidgeting nervously, as though the proverbial pea was pushing up through their thick leather seat bottoms; others found solace by manipulating the different objects within the bounds of their small territories on the long polished table, water glasses, lined paper pads, VBI embossed pens and; one or two could have been mistaken for wax figures, staring straight ahead without the least signs of life, the best way to avoid detection by prowling predators. Not having heard anything further from Milly since the violent hunting lodge incident, Abelard simply resumed his role at VBI and presided, as he usually would, over the edgy gathering.

The ten executives reporting to Abelard, the VBI Pharma division boss, knew that this meeting would not end well for some. The little magenta pills – for these finance types colour was the common code they all used to identify the products purveyed by their company – had become a big red headache. The losses from production runs that had to be destroyed due to poor quality control were mounting. Abelard was furiously discomfited by this persistent problem. He had been assured by Badger Valois, who now reported to him, and was the operations head, that all would soon be as it should. That was more than a month ago.

“ Badger,” Abelard began, in a flat, inscrutable monotone, “not only has the fourth consecutive batch had to be destroyed, which would already be unacceptable, but we have now lost a second large magenta pill customer. Harry, our very own bean counter, tells me this will reduce our earnings by over 10% for the quarter. I’m sure there is a perfectly good explanation for this regrettable turn of events. If you can satisfy us we will end this meeting and return to our day jobs. The floor is yours my friend,” Abelard’s intent less veiled than before.

“Everything checks out, the raw materials are pristine, the machinery has just been inspected by the FDA, the packaging line is working perfectly and shipping has just been given top marks by our own internal audit team. The trouble,” Badger paused to cast a malevolent look towards Taylor Hemlock, the human resources chief, “is almost surely with sabotage by disgruntled employees. I don’t know if Taylor has told you about the little problem we are having over at the plant. The people who push the little magenta pills around, checking for defects, making sure no contaminants leak into the processing tanks and so on, have been complaining about abusive treatment by the supervisors. I would have to guess that they have taken matters into their own hands since nothing seems to have been done about their grievances.”

“That’s bullshit,” Taylor Hemlock sprang to his feet. “I have set up a committee to give me recommendations by the end of this month and all indications are that the folk on the magenta line believe that their complaints will be addressed,” he all but shouted at Badger and then turned to Abelard. “You might want to check a little more closely on those glowing reports that Badger has been feeding you about everything working properly.”

Abelard had in fact looked at those reports and didn’t believe them. Nor did he have any faith in Taylor’s committee or any committee for that matter. He could no longer count on these two and they would have to go. He would waste no more time.

“Badger, Taylor, Alberta is expecting you to come by her office this afternoon. I will be in at our magenta pill plant tomorrow to see about its future. This might be a good time to take a break. See you all in fifteen.” Abelard moved briskly through the door which led from his private conference room directly to his office. Behind his desk he leaned back heavily in the tightly tensed, cloth upholstered chair and reflected on the swift justice he had just administered. Everyone in the room knew that a meeting with Alberta, arranged by the boss, was little more than a pre-dismissal formality. Alberta would already be prepared with an attractive severance package to entice the pariahs to leave without a struggle and a threat of long, expensive litigation should the package not be sufficient encouragement.

Abelard was quicker than most when it came to weeding out those he found wanting, could no longer count upon or who displeased him in other ways. He recalls always being like that. Procrastination, vacillation, the appearance of indecisiveness, Abelard knew were all fatal flaws for a leader. Human nature being what it is, these are like open sores begging to be jabbed; rules are broken, discipline is but a fond memory and the more adventurous are grabbing for ever larger shares of the take. When his law is broken, when a subordinate can no longer be relied on to do his bidding, there can be no outcome other than swift sanction. His memories were full of incidents that could have ended his career had he not acted swiftly and unambiguously. Brigandage, an alternative employment during the tiresome peace that now and again broke out to interrupt the lucrative Hundred Years War, counted many. The industry engaged men of a rather violent nature which demanded stern leadership. He attributes his enviable success in this enterprise to his uncompromising decisiveness. Among many he immodestly recalls one particular incident which plainly highlighted his outstanding leadership abilities.

 

 

***

 

 

At the main crossroads where the north-south way led to Bordeaux and Pau and the other to Dax and the coast, Abelard and his horsemen kept out of sight behind a low rise in the forest floor waiting impatiently for the signal from his lookout, dressed as a leper and begging for alms on the crowded highway. The moment the merchant caravan they were expecting arrived at the intersection he would ring his bell, which all lepers must have to warn others of their malady.

There was considerable traffic, mainly pilgrims, most of them diseased, maimed or dragging their suffering relations to the different shrines selling cures and holy unguents, that competed for the custom of the poor and beaten who still had two coins to rub together. It wasn’t much from each supplicant, but it was a volume business.

There were also the soldiers on their way to fights or those dragging their wounded from recent engagements. And then there were the merchants who either traveled in mufti, disguised as tradesmen or beggars or pilgrims; or in heavily protected convoys, escorted by captains with there own small troop, reduced to guard duty while waiting for the century’s main event, the Hundred Years War, to resume. Abelard had heard of a particularly laden convoy, coming from Toulouse and heading to Bordeaux to trade with the English. He was waiting for them.

The horses were nervously stamping the ground. They smelled the excitement of their riders. These powerful, beautifully turned beasts were preparing themselves for the coming demands on their strength, speed and obedience. They were snorting and moving around the very small piece of ground each rider had demarked as its bounds. They were very large animals, protected by their own heavy armour and able to run under the weight of a big rider, himself wearing a 50 kilogram panoply.

The disciplined horsemen knew the convoy would soon be at the crossroads. The rider sent to look into its progress had just returned with word that they were almost upon them. Visors clanged shut, weapons were drawn and Abelard moved to the front of the shuffling brigands. They would now wait for the leper’s bell and Abelard’s signal to surge from the wood and fall upon the convoy.

“You can kill everyone,” Abelard began, in a low voice, knowing that it would take a moment to have everyone’s attention, and when all eyes were upon him he repeated, “you can kill everyone,” here he paused for another moment before firmly saying, “except women and children. This is not a chevauchée. Anyone disobeying will have to answer to me.” Then he turned towards the intersection and waited for the signal to lead his men to the attack. Women and children, hogs and chickens, it was all the same to him; to be killed if necessary, let be otherwise.

“Out of the way leper,” the captain of the troop escort shouted at the crouching, cowled figure.

“Please, alms for a starving Christian,” the leper pleaded staying his ground. He had to slow the convoy enough for it to lose some momentum when it would inevitably try to outrun the brigands.

This so outraged the captain that he drew his sword and prodded his horse to run at the hunched figure. But this was a mistake. In one fluid movement the beggar cast off his rough cloak, raised his very large battle ax and rang the signal bell. The captain’s ruthless attitude had temporarily thrown the convoy into disarray and realizing that a trap had been sprung it was all he could do to ward off the crashing ax and turn to prod the convoy out of its momentary lethargy. By then the thunder of hooves was already drowning out his voice and the swift horsemen were surging from the wood.

The escort captain knew that a moving convoy made for a more difficult target, even if their speed was greatly hampered by the laden wagons carrying the merchants’ baggage and families. Travelers too slow to make way for the desperate dashing horses and wagons were trampled under hoof or, the lucky ones, sent sprawling off the road. But it would be only a moment before the brigands closed and began to hack at the escort. They were fairly evenly matched in numbers but the terrain favoured the attackers. The recently harvested fields, dried out and hard, gave good footing to their large horses as they maneuvered alongside.

The clash was intense, the escorting men selling their lives dearly. Abelard, with much experience in these matters knew that once there no longer remained any reason for resistance, the surviving guards would bolt to save themselves. He had already designated several of his troop to stop the wagons. The swiftest way to do so was to kill the drivers and force the directionless rigs off the road. The arrows would be a problem. Each driver was accompanied by an archer and three of his men had already been felled. He hated losing experienced riders but it was the price to be paid in these ventures. And three lives was not an exorbitant cost for what appeared would be a rich take. The drivers and archers were eventually hacked off their perches and the wagons stopped. The surviving guards, and those merchants nimble enough to be still breathing, seized the momentary lull to break off the engagement and bolt to safety. Abelard was shouting at several men to pick up the reins of the wagons so as to drive them to the spot he had chosen for counting the take. Then he heard the screaming coming from the very last wagon. He prodded his horse towards the commotion which now included the shrieking of at least one infant. He was not at all pleased by the scene which opened before him when he lifted the flap.

Abelard was not fussed by all the blood and body parts, he had seen much the same many times. He was, though, thoroughly enraged that his orders to spare woman and children had been disobeyed. It was very bad for business. Merchants would be more leery making such trips and when they did they would do so in far larger and much better protected convoys if they believed the risks had become even greater than they already were.

The insane grin cracking the cruel, hard face, as the brute waded through the pulpy red mass of bodies – Abelard counted three women and two infants – did nothing to calm his ire. Abelard still held his bloody, unsheathed sword as the butcher jumped to the ground, splashing him with the streaming blood that was still rolling down soiled armour. He looked up at Abelard, the mad grin even wider than before, and it was the last thing he would ever see. With only the quietist sigh, Abelard drove his sword into the middle of the man’s face, knocking the back of his skull to the earth and emerging with most of the brain.

 

“This man is no longer with our Company,” Abelard said, very matter-of-factly, to the poker faced men who had just witnessed his swift justice. “He has chosen to disobey my instructions and could not be trusted any further.” Abelard set his eyes on each man in turn to make sure that everyone, without exception, understood that his justice was fair and, above all, that he was perfectly and unambiguously cold blooded in these matters. Lessons worth giving were best given well.

 

 

***

 

 

Ending a meeting on a sour note was something Abelard did not believe to be good for morale. After the short break and the public, summary execution which sent Badger and Taylor to outplacement hell, Abelard turned the crowd’s attention to lighter, more amusing and potentially very rewarding distractions. How, he asked, to no one in particular, could they lever Pharma to ever greater accomplishments? Always a step ahead, Abelard had asked his favourite to prepare an action plan. Annabelle Pucker, a grim faced lady, had but one iron principle; money uber alles. She rose from her chair like a ballistic missile and strode to the front, wielding her laptop like a throwable weapon.

Breaking the ice was something Annabelle felt was best left to icebreakers and she tore directly into her performance. “What have you eaten for breakfast this morning,” she demanded, before adding, “and only the fat people will respond? Also, you must not leave out any details such as high or low fat, with or without butter and so on.” Abelard would have wished to have only lean and hungry people on his team but was constrained by harsh statistics to also include the fat, the growing ever fatter and the obese. He did skew his group a little against the trend and that only because he had pull with Milly, with less than 30% fat as opposed to the 54% national average.

“Two cheese and cherry Danish, toasted, with butter and a huge high fat cappuccino,” the slimmest of the big ones said with clear defiance. The poorly shaped were just as aware as those who looked in from the outside that they had a problem, but no one was going to tell them how to run their lives. So there! Indeed, whereas almost any advice, pleasant or otherwise was usually fair game, it was never done to so much as whisper anything even remotely connected with fat to a stricken person. Loved ones, perhaps especially loved ones could only watch and suffer in silence.

“Do you ever exercise,” Annabelle more accused than asked, as only the morally superior thin can?

“Oh, yes, very regularly,” porky replied, evidently happy to have been asked an easy question.

“And when was the last time you actually did,” Annabelle shot back, growing surprisingly confident?

“Well, uh, with all the work I’ve had to catch up on and some personal stuff,” a moment’s pause, eyes to the ceiling in a pensive pose, “didn’t really have time since I can’t remember when, but I’ll be for sure going to the Salsa class, um, let’s see, yes, next week.”

“That’s all I need,” Annabelle snapped when she was sure her shill was preparing to stretch his defence as well as try her limited patience.

“What is most apparent,” Annabelle began to expostulate as would only be expected of one with an advanced degree in theoretical astrophysics, “from our fat colleague’s self admitted lamentable inability to balance calories coming in with calories going out,” revulsion seeping to the surface, “is the infantile nature of his disorder. He recognizes that his lifestyle is harming not only his health but, I strongly suspect, also his sexual diversions and he can do absolutely nothing about it. He is fighting a forlorn battle against the formidable and irresistible allied forces of sloth and gluttony. He is obsessed with food and revolted by physical exercise. He deeply resents, as only the obsessed can, anyone who would venture sensible advice.” She paused for a moment to be sure that everyone had time to digest her first proposition which she would need to buttress her subsequent strategy.

“Annabelle,” a thin person suddenly intervened, to everyone’s surprise but Annabelle’s, since she had prior to the meeting set it up that way, “why have sloth and gluttony become obsessions?”

“Very good question,” Annabelle almost gushed, inasmuch as she could exercise such an underused faculty. “For my answer to have any meaning everyone here must accept Darwin’s theory of Evolution. Is there anyone who doubts that this is the most sensible explanation of how we got to where we are now,” she solicited, as a professor might to a suspiciously dozy class? Although many still clung to a superstition based account, undoubtedly some of the very people in the room, not a hand was raised.

“Good,” she said, gleefully, or so it seemed from the way she rubbed her hands together, for her truculent demeanour did not actually send any such signal, “now we can proceed to the second proposition, that our chubby friend here,” pointing to her hero, “is pre-programmed to behave as he does in the presence of food and to jealously crave the absence of physical exertion. Not very long ago, which I intend to mean too short a period for any significant evolutionary adaptation to have taken place, humans never had enough to eat and were compelled to devote all of their waking hours to find what little they could. When they were fortunate enough to kill a large animal or find a rich wild berry and seed harvest, they ate as much as they could and slept for as long as possible. If any of you have dogs you will notice the same behaviour. Even less available than large animals and edible grains and berries were fat and sweets. In those days it was the rare creature that ever came across free fat. Whenever they did felicitously fall upon lards and sugars,” endlessly rolling out her r’s and extending the sweet shhh, “their appetites went positively berserk or, as some of you might prefer, ape shit. Evolution selected for survival those creatures that were able to find and capture these delicacies better than others.” Annabelle again paused and looked accusingly at each face except, of course, Abelard’s, to satisfy herself that she had their complete attention.

“Very recently,” she resumed, “and this is the third proposition I need to put before you, our industrious society developed an unprecedented ability to not only produce astonishingly large quantities of edible material but also found ways to expeditiously deliver such presumed nutrition practically into the consumer’s lap.” Here she shot an approving glance at fat boy, whose cream filled scone, which he had been busily stuffing into his mouth had squirted a white load onto his shirt front, which quickly oozed down over his pants.

“So, what have we got,” she asked, her snarl exposing an unfortunate overbite, the closest anyone would ever witness Annabelle coming to a smile? “An infantile disorder which causes people to reject perfectly good advice; coupled with a genetically programmed proclivity to eat all that is available while keeping physical exertion to a bare minimum; and the two fully complemented by an abundant and easily accessible food supply; the ideal basis for an interlocking, high growth business model.

“I propose,” she resumed, triumphalism creeping into her voice, “and I’ve already chosen, I mean identified,” casting a contrite glance at Abelard, not wishing to appear as though she was usurping the boss’s prerogatives, “the targets, that we might wish to acquire to gain a foothold in the junk food and weight control industries. My research shows that food chemists have developed many devious and clever ways to alter foods so as to increase the craving, and the gods only know how intense that is already,” she leered at the heaviest person in the room, “for their products so that sales and profits in these companies are practically guaranteed. I believe, however, that the management of these enterprises have missed an important profit opportunity. If each item sold, whether a hamburger or a candy bar, had a message about the benefits of good weight control and a recommendation to a particular weight control program, the joint profits would propel earnings into the stratosphere, and I know about the stratosphere,” leaning on her academic background. “The sale of junk would, of course, never be compromised by these messages, given my propositions one and two,” she added, smug as can be.

“You may quite legitimately be asking,” her enthusiasm, obvious to the trained observer who cared to look at the way in which she leaned forward on her hands, becoming almost unbridled, “how does this fit in with Pharma? Well, we know that most people will not stop eating what is patently bad for them and that all weight loss programs are just so much money making rubbish, leaving the poor wretches with little recourse but, and if I may have your attention here,” as though anyone would have dared withdrawing theirs, “to specialty weight control drugs, which we are already developing. To the extent that most drugs end up as expensive failures when they don’t live up to expectations, delivering only meagre improvements over placebos, the desperate will welcome even those slim to non-existent benefits. Pharma, as the last recourse of the hopeless will not only avoid the losses associated with a failed drug but will market and sell what a normal consumer would never purchase. At the end of the line Pharma will be the monger of last resort.

“There is also a small publishing factory, I don’t know what else to call a collection of I’ll-write-anything-for-the-needy authors, which we shall acquire so that they can flood the market with self-help books, the crutch of the hopeless, encouraging people to seek pharma solutions not only to their weight problems but, as well, to the depression that always accompanies unsuccessful efforts at weight control. I can already see fat boy panting, wanting to inform me that such depressions are of short duration and almost always disappear without any encouragement. It may perhaps be fleeting for you tubby, but why should anyone suffer for even a short moment when they can pop our brain candy for instant relief?

“In closing, let me summarize the supply chain I am proposing. From Junk food to weight loss programs to self help books to, finally, VBI pharma drugs.”

“Thank you Pucker,” Abelard enthused, leading the room in a rousing applause. “At our next meeting I expect to see at least the beginnings of a plan to operationalize Pucker’s strategy. Good day ladies and gentlemen.”

 

 

***

 

 

Taylor’s report on the possible human causes of the magenta pill crisis was not the cause of his demise as a VBI creature. He wasn’t dismissed due to incompetence, but because he had broken a cardinal rule which Abelard had laid down the very first day he took up his new position at Pharma. Most people, Abelard had long ago concluded were incompetent, but could produce good work if properly managed. What Taylor had failed to do was report it to Abelard as soon as the problem surfaced. It may have gone away with the passing of time but such an outcome hardly ever occurs in a world where weak links always attract predators. Indeed, Abelard had rarely known problems that with time did not grow progressively worse and ever more difficult to happily resolve.

Comfortably settled in the richly appointed VBI Boeing 767 jet, he studied the dossier that Taylor had compiled on the major trouble makers he had identified at the Pharma division. There were two which he quickly isolated as the ones he would need to shut down. The day shift supervisor, which he nicknamed Karl after the most reviled name in capitalist lore and the shipping room manager, whom he affectionately named Uncle Joe, another bogeyman of the haves.

He was met at the Philadelphia airport by the driver he had specifically requested, a man personally vouched for by McCurdle, his preferred thug in Montreal. Walkup was a man of impressive proportions and equally impressive lack of principle. He was the mercenary’s mercenary. He could be completed trusted to lie, cheat, intimidate or all of the above, whenever the need arose, and the need for such qualities, Abelard anticipated, would very soon be pressing. He had chosen to hit Uncle Joe first, having guessed from the profiles so helpfully prepared by the late Taylor, that Karl could be encouraged by example to put a stop to his disruptive tactics. Uncle Joe seemed a tough character, a military background with the marines, while Karl was but a nuisance with a little education, albeit just enough to let him see his way forward more clearly after Abelard got through with Uncle Joe. Taylor’s report, Abelard could not have known, neglected to mention Karl’s long struggle with paranoia. It would have a big impact on his own life.

They arrived at the shipping entrance and McCurdle, who had accompanied Abelard, fell in step with Walkup behind the boss. The steel door swung open as Abelard swiped his plastic pass against the reader. No one knew he was coming and that was part of his strategy. He was counting on surprise and very few witnesses. He walked down the wide corridor directly to a small office at the very end, just as it gave into the vast warehouse where product was sorted for shipping.

Abelard stopped a bit before the glass walled office, remaining invisible to anyone inside. Walkup pushed open the door and Uncle Joe, who had been watching through the large plate glass window a shipment being loaded in the warehouse, was startled by the unexpected activity at his back.

“What is it,” he asked, gruffly?

“There’s something you should see out here,” Walkup said, with contrived urgency in his tone.

“Mr. Bush,” Uncle Joe blurted, recognizing Abelard from the pictures of its top executives VBI always sends to the employees. He seemed confused, which is just what Abelard had been counting on.

He didn’t get a chance to say anything more. Without a word and with much energy, Abelard smashed his outsized fist into Uncle Joe’s face, knocking him unconscious. Neither McCurdle nor Walkup had expected this outcome. They were not squeamish men and would have trounced anyone their boss may have asked them to, but this was so out of the blue it stunned them. They were now a bit uncertain as to whether they themselves might not be in some danger. They tried as best as they could to move unnoticed out of Abelard’s range.

“McCurdle,” Abelard growled, “put on his glove and hit me hard, on the jaw. Remember, on the jaw, I don’t want a black eye or a broken nose, only a visible bruise on the jaw. Is that clear?”

McCurdle may not have been overly intelligent in most matters, but when it came to underhandedness and general dishonesty he was remarkably talented. He very quickly understood the game and snapped out of his momentary confusion at the recent turn of events. He pulled on the almost perfectly fitting glove, begged Abelard to forgive him and let fly with a withering right hook. Abelard reeled from the blow, touched his burning jaw and without losing another moment calmly gave his men their marching orders.

“Walkup, get the phone in the office and call plant security. Tell them I have been attacked and that they should call in the police, making sure to let them know that it was not an emergency – he did not want the blare of sirens to widen the audience for his two act play. Pick him up and bring him into the warehouse. Drag him over to the open window that gives into the plant. I want everyone to see this.” He wanted, specifically, Karl to see this. As for everyone else, he thought it would be a good lesson. Well laid as it may have been, his plan to accuse Uncle Joe of assault, get rid of him and at he same time encourage Karl to good behaviour was about to go awry.

As Karl came through the door Uncle Joe also regained his senses, raised his bloody head and yelled, “they’re goin ta get ya, like they did me. Run!” Abelard knew then and there that these two had been working together to sabotage the magenta pill line. Karl ran towards a door at the other end of the plant which gave onto a smaller garage where less than full lot shipments were handled. Unfortunately for her, a clerk checking on an outgoing load was in Karl’s way. He grabbed her, pulled a gun from his waistband and put it to her head. He now faced a large crowd of people, day shift workers curious about the commotion, Abelard, McCurdle, Walkup and Uncle Joe, still a bit dazed from Abelard’s blow. The police had also been called, for the second time.

As Abelard tried to calm the situation and reason with Karl, he heard the approaching sirens and was thoroughly annoyed. He had hoped to settle all this quietly, through some personal intimidation and Uncle Joe’s well remunerated departure. But now he would have to operate in the glare of public attention. Within moments there were six policemen with guns drawn and pointed at Karl and his confused hostage. Despite his severe paranoia, for which he had once been institutionalized, Karl was not considered dangerous and had been taught coping strategies that made it possible for him to hold down a normal job under ordinary circumstances. But these were hardly commonplace conditions and no one had known about the gun.

The hostage was quite young, a student with part time work, was Abelard’s guess. She was not a beautiful woman but tall and wholesome, and immediately grabbed Abelard’s attention. She evoked in him memories of rare selfless compassion he had carried for another human being.

 

 

***

 

 

He was riding through the woods, to the wheat fields to have a look at the harvest, which had been meager that year. He was eighteen. The day was overcast, as had been most of the summer, accounting for the slim yields. He emerged into a small meadow to be assaulted by a rank smell. He was downwind from a group of peasants who had been working in the fields and were now spilling into the clearing. He heard screams and saw that the men were dragging someone by the hair. The women followed with staves which they used to beat the hapless victim. He moved nearer and was able to make out that it was a girl they were dragging. The mob stopped moving as he got closer and stared uneasily at him. While the peasants were momentarily inattentive, the girl rose to her feet and ran towards Abelard, wrapping her long skinny arms around his leg and sobbing for help.

The men were not slow to react and had soon surrounded Abelard and the desperate, bleeding girl. She was also a peasant and Abelard recognized her as one of his fathers, a tall girl, not yet hunched and broken from toil. She had been accused of witchcraft and the cause of the poor harvest, which would leave famine and death in its wake. The ignorant village priest had been caught up in the mounting hysteria and enthusiastically validated the suspicions of the angry peasants. She was now to be lynched and Abelard had better not try to thwart the will of God. Much of European humanity was still mired in deep superstition and mere human authority, no matter how exalted, could ever hope to stop these peasants from carrying through divine retribution. They recognized Abelard. He demanded they scatter but they were now worked into a frenzy and his threats fell on deaf ears. A blow from a heavy wooden club knocked him to the ground. Several men held him down while the girl was dragged shrieking to a solitary gnarled tree at the meadow’s dead centre. It was over very slowly, the noose tightened around her neck as the men who had been holding her up let go. She kicked at the empty air for a long time until a last gasp escaped her bluish lips. The next day five of the peasants that Abelard had identified as the leaders, met the same fate on the same tree. For Abelard it had been a traumatic experience. He wasn’t really sure why he felt so strongly for that one human life when for most others he lacked any empathy whatsoever. Was it because she had noble bearing? Was it the senseless, random injustice? He thinks it may have been that. He had already participated in murderous chevauchées, butchering woman and children, but none had begged him for mercy. The plea had stirred in him a sense of responsibility for another human being that he had never before experienced. It may also have been the incident that bolstered the priest’s lesson that justice was not of this world.

Watching Karl threatening the young woman, he fought to disentangle his memories from the present. They were muddying what should have been a simple case of self-preservation. He was confused and had lost his usual decisive edge. Then it happened. Karl turned his gun at the crowd and fired. There was a scream and a man fell to the ground. Karl then put the gun back to the woman’s head. The sudden turn of events shocked Abelard from his momentary torpor. He had had enough. He began walking towards Karl as the policeman in charge yelled for him to get back and Karl stared in wide eyed surprise.

“I just want to talk,” Abelard said, hands in the air. “I’m not armed.”

“Get back or she dies.”

“Wait, you can take me hostage. I’m much more valuable than the nobody you’re holding.” A few more steps he thought to himself. Almost there. But Karl had lost patience with this insistent suit and abruptly aimed the pistol at Abelard, squeezed the trigger and nothing happened. It was not an automatic and had to be cocked after each shot. But he did not get that moment needed to revolve the chamber to put a new bullet in the breach. It was over in a split second. Abelard had had a special harness made for him. It fit under his shirt with a sheath right over his spine, in the crack between his shoulders. In it he carried, from old habit, a long thin stiletto. He was close enough and in one smooth motion moved his right hand, still in the air, towards his back, withdrew the knife and threw it at Karl’s head, which it pierced to a depth of eight centimeters, instantly stopping all brain activity. It also brought everyone else to a complete standstill. There followed a few seconds of perfect silence, not a breath, not a shuffle, like the absolute hush in a crowded chicken coop when the hens hear an egg break, each hoping to make it its very own meal.

First the gun dropped to the concrete floor, followed ever so slowly by Karl falling like a stiff board, straight back, making a dull squishy sound when his skull cracked against the cement. Pandemonium followed; police yelling for everyone to get down and then jumping Abelard, forcing him to the floor, three quite hefty officers pinning him under their combined weight. They reluctantly let him up when McCurdle was able to shout loud enough above the din to be heard, assuring them that Abelard was a good guy.

“Why did you risk your life,” the young woman asked, having pushed her way through the uniformed men surrounding Abelard, pure astonishment stretching her elongated face? “We’ve never met. We would never meet. Why did you do it?” She was still a little shaky, her hand trembling slightly as she placed it on Abelard’s chest, wanting to touch this strange man.

“Would you have done as much for me,” Abelard asked, in a kindly voice?

“I would have so much wanted to, but I would not have. I’m not brave enough.”

“You’re very honest. I didn’t actually see fear in your eyes; only surprise that anyone would want to harm you. That’s why I think I did it. There may be many people that I have harmed that were just like you. Only I had never known that. I always found it convenient to believe that they were all like me and so it didn’t matter. It was a comforting fiction in my business. An ordinary matter. I’m glad you’re OK. Now I have much to think about.”

As he walked away from the now mildly astonished young woman, a new voice in the crowd vied for his attention. “Mr. Bush, I’m Lieutenant Carnap and would need to see some identification.” Abelard showed him his passport.

“French with a Canadian resident visa,” he said, mostly to himself, leaving him an extra moment to think about what he was supposed to do with a foreigner who just killed an American with an expert knife throw.

“When were you planning to return home?”

“This evening, detective Carnap.”

This put Carnap into a dilemma. There was a dead body and the man responsible for making it dead was going to leave the country. His boss would be very upset with him.

“I don’t think….,” was all Carnap had a chance to mutter, when a man with the perfect part in his hair, wearing a dark suit and a lipstick smudge on his shirt collar, stepped breathlessly to the fore.

“Mr. Bush,” he managed, between laboured breaths, ignoring the Lieutenant, “I am George Probis, the plant manager. I was at a client’s when I heard about this and came immediately,” the red gloss stain competing for Abelard’s attention. He had arrived in time to hear Carnap hesitate about what to do with Abelard.

He then turned to Carnap and stated more than asked, “Mr. Bush charged with something!”

He didn’t wait for an answer and simply affirmed, “I’m sure Mr. Bush will be available for any questions you might have.”

“I have a question,” a nasal drawl grated in. It was a uniformed man who had responded to the earlier complaint about Uncle Joe’s assault. “Weren’t you attacked by one of your employees Mr. Bush?”

Abelard thought for a moment and then said, “I’d prefer not to press charges at this time.” McCurdle and Walkup were both visibly puzzled by this turn of events, until Abelard threw them a conspiratorial wink. He thought it best to reassure these two even though he didn’t have the slightest idea as to where he was heading. He knew only that something profound had changed and he would have to give the rest of his life some serious thought.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter XIII

 

 

Milly slipped his mind into rumination mode. He drew great solace from vengeful thoughts and he was presently devising delicious retribution strategies. He wasn’t yet fully sure as to how far Abelard had gone in his duplicity or, for that matter, whether there was even any treachery involved. Milly was endowed with an overconfident intuition, which had always served him well, and that keen sense had told him Abelard fabricated at least part of his story about the small jeweled cross. That was sufficient for Milly to place Abelard on his undesirables list and make him a target for hard lessons. The cross, he was in no doubt, existed. How Abelard acquired this famous artifact and why the Donatello were showing such a keen interest in Abelard was still a mystery. For this intelligence he would have to talk directly to the Donatello. He didn’t need intuition to know they were involved. The crooked crosses Abelard had lifted from the dead men at the lodge were plainly the same ones that appeared on the family crest. An extensive search had uncovered no other sightings of such a cross. Milly was not surprised that they would be behind the armed intrusion at the lodge. After all, he reasoned, the Donatello ancestors willingly sold their shady services to people much like him when reason and cajolery failed to bring obstreperous competitors to heel.

“Shakespeare,” Milly said, “we are going to Florence, you know what arrangements to make.” Shakespeare had been through this before and was familiar with the drill. Milly wasn’t privy to what went on at the Florentine palace but assumed that it would not meet the standards set for acceptable behaviour by either the securities watchdogs or the legislative frameworks of most western countries. He would set up his doomsday mechanism that would destroy the Donatello if anything unpleasant should happen to him while dealing with them. It was a hardened briefcase which housed a wireless transmitter programmed to send messages to the computers of all major news outlets if it was not turned off at the specified time set by Milly. He was very pleased that this technology was now available as he never felt comfortable with the human element he had previously used to run the doomsday system. The current message had to do with the Fixer, who he is now close to certain is a Donatello agent. Whenever Milly needed outside help to turn a deal in his favour he would meet with the Fixer and a felicitous outcome was practically guaranteed.

Shakespeare sat in steerage on the big private VBI jet. He was not at all happy with his role in this affair. As an ex security agency operative he was fairly certain that Milly was about to operate outside the law. He knew that Milly often resorted to unscrupulous tactics but there was nothing apparently illegal about unscrupulous behaviour. These trips to Florence, though, and this was the third one in as many years, he knew were beyond unscrupulous. The other two were each followed by events which turned out to be very favourable to VBI. On one occasion, a containment dyke at a gold mine in South America had suddenly burst, polluted much of the surrounding countryside, killed several people and drawn the operator into a criminal investigation. Coincidently, that very same operator had been in a bidding war against VBI for a particularly strategic takeover. Inevitably, the operator abruptly withdrew from the battle and VBI made the acquisition at a very favourable price.

At the airport area reserved for private traffic, they were met by two vehicles; an armoured limousine and an SUV. Shakespeare instinctively made his way to the SUV and greeted the two large men who were part of the protection detachment he had contracted from the local offices of an international security firm with which he usually did business. The driver’s first gesture was to pass Shakespeare a fully loaded 9mm berretta automatic. They departed almost immediately, closely following Milly’s limousine. It was early Spring and tourists were all but absent, greatly facilitating travel through the city.

The Donatello palace sits on the Via Ricasoli, which also leads to the church of St. Mark and the Accademia in which Michaelangelo’s David lords it over a daily sea of gawking humanity. At the gate, a five meter high steel grill, cameras began swiveling in place to scan the waiting vehicles and a small man, the first small person Shakespeare had seen in this context, emerged from a small doorway through which even he had to stoop. Here, Shakespeare surmised, the circumstances were perfect for employing a small person. His only job was to aim a camera into arriving vehicles so that each occupant could be looked over by someone, somewhere who would make the call as to whether they had any legitimate business at the palace.

While the outside had the same brown grey, unpretentious brick exterior as most of the other buildings in the area, the inside was of an entirely different character. The vehicles passed through the gate into a large cobblestone courtyard, a fountain at the centre, around which they maneuvered to arrive at the main entrance. There were three floors, the middle one dominated by a balcony enclosed by delicate filigreed columns. Once through the main entrance, there were three dominant colours, burgundy, royal blue and forest green covering the walls, mainly in stripes with the occasional flourish into gigantic swirls.

Milly did not deign to admire the almost perfect architectural and textural balance. He needed to give an impression that he was not impressed; that compared to perhaps his own possessions these were, at best, tedious. He had wasted no time, stepping briskly up the small stone staircase to the ornate main doors, which were held open by yet another small man in very sober black livery. Shakespeare, on the other hand looked admiringly at the surroundings and, in his mind, compared them very favourably to Disney World, which was one of his favourite vacation spots.

“Milly,” Gianni Donatello, the family patriarch, boomed in a perfect operatic tenor, “it has been too long,” he flattered, a little concerned as to why exactly this powerful man wanted so eagerly to see him. “As soon as I got your message, I cleared the decks, as you Americans like to say,” he snorted in his peculiar laugh. Milly did not bother to correct his nationality error. He ‘cleared the decks’ so quickly only because Milly had added the P.S. to the message: ‘You may be interested in a set of little crosses I have recently come across’.

“It is growing late,” the elder Donatello said, “and I do hope you will join us for dinner.”

“You are very kind Gianni, but I do have a previous engagement,” Milly lied, not wanting to spend too much time in the scorpion’s abode. “I would need only a few moments of your precious time. It is about some intriguing little crosses; a crooked one, like the splayed three fingers of a hand, which has turned up with the men, now deceased, who recently held myself and my executives at gun point; and a mysterious little jeweled cross, which I have been told about by a trusted executive.”

Gianni was aware that the attempted snatch of Abelard had not succeeded and he had guessed his men were no longer among the living, but he knew none of the details. Abelard and the entire enterprise connected to him had become an irritation, which had by now cost him five men. He kept silent for a few moments, averting his gaze from Milly, concentrating rather on the autostereogram his brother had recently given him which hung near the door to the first floor study. The intricate trompe-oeil pattern helped him concentrate on anything but the inscrutable picture. Sensing Milly’s impatience he made his decision.

“Milly, it would be best if you could change your plans and have dinner with me and my daughter, Dona Maria, whom I believe you have already met. It is a rather involved tale and I would much prefer we were sitting and that Dona Maria be there. Please say you will stay.”

“Fine,” Milly intoned, without hesitation. He was pleased. This would be much easier than he expected. But, as though there existed only a limited supply of pleasure at any one time, it was his host who was now uneasy. As people who deal in duplicity and rarely, if ever, hesitate to lie, Milly’s quick and easy acquiescence was immediately regarded with suspicion by the senior Donatello. What is Milly’s game? Only a moment earlier he was bound by urgent other business that can now be discarded with impunity. He would need closer scrutiny.

Donatello summoned the man in the waiter’s tuxedo, who had been practically invisible, standing motionless against the bright rays of a setting sun streaming through the oversized, ornate windows. He was to inform the kitchen that there would be three to dinner. Shakespeare, who had been discreetly shuffling about on a tiled floor that seemed to have been carefully conceived to magnify even the most determined attempts at inconspicuous shuffling, seized the opportunity made available by the family patriarch’s momentary inattention to whisper a warning into Milly’s ear. He was sure that each and every person in the house was carrying a weapon. Would Milly prefer that he arrange for more body guards?

“Gianni,” Milly said, without acknowledging Shakespeare’s word of warning, “I’ve been in these clothes too long and would need to freshen up. I’ll be back in about an hour.” There was no question mark at the end of ‘back in one hour’. This was Milly’s wish and this is how it would be. The valet, who had been following them, not so closely as to be a nuisance, but not so far that he would miss his cue, had barely time enough to lead an already departing Milly to the doors. Milly, once a decision had been taken, did not hesitate. His car was already half way out the gate before Gianni could send him off with a feeble wave. At the hotel Milly at once set about preparing for the evening dinner. But he did leave part of his attention free to enlighten Shakespeare.

“A man in Mr. Donatello’s business,” Mr. Shakespeare, Milly having effortlessly jumped from speculation to certainty about the family’s clandestine activities, “cannot depend for his security and peace of mind on the goodwill of others or, indeed, on the disinterested cooperation of the authorities. It is hardly surprising that he would wish his employees to be able to help out in the event of any misunderstandings that must now and again arise during the normal course of his affairs.” Milly tended to slip into a sort of cruel sarcasto-speak each time Shakespeare pointed out the obvious. “So the trained bodyguards posing as household domestic staff should not be taken as a sign that I am being personally targeted. Now, that I have put your mind at ease, be so kind as to give me the briefcase.”

Shakespeare’s face betrayed a complete failure to grasp the dripping mockery in Milly’s words as he smartly handed over the case. Milly sometimes wondered why he even bothered with such petty attacks; a cruel streak, hope that one day Shakespeare would catch on, chronic impatience, all of the above. No matter, Shakespeare’s future did not depend on quick intelligence, only on loyalty and experience in security matters. He put it out of his mind and proceeded to dial the combinations on the two locks. Inside was a small grey metal box, bolted to the case, with a short antenna protruding from one end. Milly flicked the power switch and the display on a numbered keypad sprung to life. He punched the four button and the display switched to countdown mode. Milly closed the case and gave the combination buttons a spin. He handed it to Shakespeare.

“If I do not walk out of this palace within four hours, you know what to do,” Milly said, with more than usual solemnity. Although he had set up a process to be followed in the event of his unexpected end – to ensure proper succession at VBI and, much more importantly, to seamlessly pass on his estate to his wife and his niece – the rare time such a possibility arose, it did leave him mildly uncomfortable.

 

 

***

 

 

“Milly,” his name never sounding as poetic as when spoken in Dona Maria’s sensuous lilt, “how very delightful to see you again.” She didn’t often stray from her hard, unambiguous speech but, when called upon, she could detour even the most determined minds towards exuberant sexual fantasies. Not forever, though. Only long enough to confabulate an unlikely intimacy, one that would invite confidences otherwise withheld. It did not always work out. With Milly, she already knew that he would not rise to the occasion. It was only habit, whenever she foresaw difficult negotiations that made her act the seductress.

“Dona Maria,” he responded, a tone reserved for long absent intimates, arms outstretched as if to be crucified or receive his dearest friend, “it’s been too long.” They had met on only three occasions and each time surrounded by many others, strangers for the most part. No matter, they each needed to set an opening ambiance as they thought would best serve their interests. There was the usual embrace, a brush of cheeks and Dona Maria sliding her arm around Milly’s to walk him to the small intimate dining room reserved for more serious discussion. During this ritualistic dance the patriarch was all but ignored.

Dinner was anything but a simple affair. The pan grilled duck liver, on a bed of fresh spinach, a raspberry sauce running suggestively red around the plate’s perimeter was served with a 1976 Chateau d’Y’Quem, the colour of polished amber. The talk was light, prancing around the alarming increase in worldwide obesity, decrying the tendency to consume too much fat in ever greater quantities. A sumptuous 1983 Chambolle Musigny accompanied the quail in their delicate sarcophagi like pastries and the filets from the wild boar recently shot by Dona Maria at the family hunting lodge in the Dolomites, were perfectly matched with a luscious 1991 Tignanello. They expressed their unanimous disgust at the recent accounting scandals and the general difficulty in finding reputable business partners. Cheese was of a local Tuscan variety, which Milly had not seen before and was washed down with a younger wine, another Pinot Noir, but this one from Oregon’s well known Willamette Valley. Here talk was at last tending towards matters at hand. There was some discussion about the quirky language in Southwest France, the persistent English influence in Bordeaux and much speculation as to the shape of today’s world had the French not ultimately prevailed at the Second Hundred Years War. Dessert, a simple bowl of field berries with optional dark chocolate sauce beckoning in small glass bowls set at each place, wonderfully mingled with the black-red 40 year old port. The heady mixture of chocolate and port turned Milly’s attention to the Donatello family crest, prominently displayed on the noticeably spartan wall opposite the glittering row of windows.

“Always was jealous of people with histories long enough as to have a legitimate coat of arms. Never did like the new money coats. Insufferable, every last one of them. What can they be thinking; that they could hide their commonness behind a tacky picture?” Milly of course believed his own crest, which he had stitched onto every outer and under garment, was different. It was, after all, most of two generations old. The Donatello listened with old money politeness. They quite rightly did not feel targeted by Milly’s disdain for the recently arrived imposter.

“Now, your crest, there’s a splendid piece of work.” Milly rose from his chair, gazing at the shield, making his way around the table to the opposite wall. There was an audible gasp, but the Donatello were too civilized to object when Milly ran his fingers over the 600 year old images. The digit promenade paused in the bottom right hand quadrant. “That little cross on the knight’s armour in the bottom right hand corner, now that’s something I’ve only seen once before,” he said, appearing genuinely surprised. The Donatello squirmed.

“And where would that have been, “Dona Maria asked, also prepared to drag the tedious innocence game through all its intricate steps? Milly paused for a moment, his puckered lips betraying the imminence of unpleasant news.

“Sadly, Dona Maria, on a dead man.”

“Oh,” she intoned, neither recognition nor revulsion in her voice. She turned with unseemly sensuality to her father and more breathed than asked, “what do you make of that?”

Instead of answering her, considering the game at its end, he turned to Milly and asked about the circumstances. As Milly ran through the events at the VBI hunting lodge there was much hemming and hawing and a great deal of facial mobility, the Donatello duly expressing shock and dismay. They were still not sure just how much Milly actually knew. They were not about to jump to any bait and if he was only fishing they had no intention of giving him any help whatsoever.

“Well,” Dona Maria sighed, that’s quite a tale. I’m sure we don’t know who these men were. Milly, you are a valued business associate and we would never undertake anything so vile against your interests. What do you take us for,” careful not to pause long enough for a response? “Would you like us to look into this matter? It seems someone has appropriated one of the symbols on our family crest and we have no idea why they would have chosen that one. Perhaps we should for that reason alone make it our business and look into it.” Again she turned to her father, a convenient foil in this delicate duel, and asked, “what do you think, father?”

“Yes, most definitely yes,” he said, his voice as formulaic as his response. “Such brazen attacks on our friends, using our own symbols, just won’t do.”

Milly’s undisguised disappointment told them that he was now unsure. But they were wrong in thinking that he was unsure that they were involved. He was fairly confident about that. The dodgy business he was now certain they sometimes concluded for him, the crooked cross on the family crest and their willingness to see him on such short notice after he had thrown them the bait was for him evidence enough. Rather, he doubted he could get them to admit anything. His problem unfortunately had just grown bigger and, very likely, much riskier. He would be competing with a highly successful criminal organization in an endeavour, and he was still no wiser as to quite what that was. If that is the way it had to be then that is the way it would be. He did have one last card to play.

“If you are to look into this matter,” he said, speaking directly to Dona Maria, “you will need to talk to Abelard. I could arrange for you to have direct access whenever you get around to doing so. Unfortunately, he seems to have misplaced the jeweled cross.”

Dona Maria had already been contemplating the early demise of Milly, even if he had no proof that she was involved. For her, his suspicions alone were sufficient to constitute an unacceptable threat to the family’s business interests. Milly’s offer to produce Abelard would no more than delay the inevitable, as it occurred to her that some profit could be extracted from postponing his termination. Abelard had, after all, shown himself to be a dangerous nuisance, five of her men dead and him walking around with far more knowledge about the family than she cared.

“What do you think father,” she said, again using him as her third party channel to communicate with Milly? It was a useful device to keep others from knowing just how powerful she actually was. It was like harbouring a secret weapon, the element of surprise. “Milly’s offer is very generous and would help us enormously in our investigation. Also,” she continued, but with more emphasis, as she was coming to the central point of her argument, “we know nothing about this Abelard and could avoid a costly confrontation if Milly were to intercede on our behalf and facilitate a face to face meeting.”

“I agree,” Gianni sighed, right on cue.

“Excellent,” Milly bellowed. “I will, of course, want to be there whenever it is you decide to interview Abelard.”

“Naturally,” Dona Maria said, thinking that all this would be easier than she dared imagine.

 

 

***

 

 

“Dona Maria,” Gianni began, in a voice signaling the onset of fatherly wisdom, “I am not at all happy with the turn this enterprise of yours has taken. Milly, as you well know, is an excellent client of ours. We have profited handsomely from his custom. The wise thing would have been to put a stop to all this as soon as you learned this Abelard was with VBI. You could not have known that he was also to be married to Milly’s niece but that makes it all the more sensible to end this adventure now.”

“You are quite right, father,” as though talking to a misguided child who needed encouragement, “we should not be jeopardizing a going lucrative commercial relationship for something that may perhaps turn out not to exist. Let me then put your mind at ease. I have done some homework and calculated the value, to date, of the VBI relation, as well as any future business we might reasonably expect. Against that I have set the potential gains should Abelard be the key to King John’s lost treasure and, of course, to Abelard de Buch’s own ill-gotten gains as well as the possibility that he holds the key to a very long life. In the end there is no contest. It would be vastly more profitable to kill Milly, thereby definitely drying up the VBI connection, and pursue the Abelard trail. Of course, unless we have a way of making that trail as certain as the trade we are sure to do with Milly my case is very weak.”

“And how do you intend doing that?”

“Our ancestors, father,” she began, evidently delighted that her shortsighted father had asked the right question, “were very careful record keepers. They noted things about the people with whom they did business that we would never imagine today. Positive identification in those times had to rely on much more primitive devices. I had another look at the entries recorded by Francesco, the clerk who met with Abelard de Buch, and found an interesting detail. Abelard had recently been wounded during a drunken brawl with soldiers from Milan. When he arrived in Florence he was recovering from his injuries, which consisted of two stab wounds, one to his upper back, just below the right shoulder and another to his chest, which just missed the heart. Our clerk, having had some experience with treating such injuries, offered to put ointments and new bandages onto Abelard’s wounds. Afterwards he duly noted the position and extent of the injuries.”

“So, what does that do for us?”

“Father, such injuries would leave permanent scars. If we were to find these on Abelard it would add greatly to the probability he is one and the same as Abelard de Buch. How this could be, father, is what we would then try to learn.”

“Wonderful, I suppose you will ask Abelard to disrobe and he will be happy to oblige,” Gianni said with no small measure of sarcasm.

“Father, I do not wish to be immodest, but most men would not hesitate to remove their clothes if I asked them nicely.”

“I forbid it. You were educated to use your mind, not your body, to get what you want. Keep it that way.”

“I was only joking father. I have another plan.” Dona Maria was by now used to the special limits most men applied to the behavioral playing fields of women. In her family the ends justified all and any means a male member chose to use. Women, herself included, were arbitrarily handicapped with the onerous task of preserving the family honour by not engaging in particular activities. Naturally, these activities had all been defined by the men. Growing up, Dona Maria would fight against such patent unfairness. Now, understanding much better that these one-sided rules are no more than deliberate strategies put in place to carry through emotional objectives unconsciously and inexorably driven by the brain’s most primitive areas, she wisely put an end to her useless battles. It’s best, she has found, to agree and then do whatever is necessary, a strategy, she has observed, clearly favoured by every successful woman she had ever met.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter XIV

 

 

Whereas Milly had as yet to unravel the mystery surrounding Abelard’s apparent popularity with large gunmen wearing small crooked crosses, Abelard was under no illusions either as to the Donatello motives, or to the lengths to which they would go to pursue their goals. He also guessed that Milly, urbane, powerful Milly, would be aghast at just how dangerous they could be. It was armed with these apprehensions that Abelard accompanied Milly to the rendezvous.

They had arrived at the hotel mid-afternoon, hours before their arranged meeting with the Donatello. Milly had agreed to see them, but at a neutral location. That was to happen later in the evening at a private dinner. Abelard’s very first destination was the hotel gym. He had only stopped long enough in his room to change. Ever since he could recall, strenuous exercise had always been part of his daily routine. There were others in the sweatshop, creating a familiar background chatter of voices, poorly lubricated equipment, loud laboured breathing and the thud of heavy weights being slammed to the floor. Comfortable, common noises.

Suddenly a rolling wave of silence swept across the room. It lasted only a moment, but Abelard had never yet experienced the absolute stillness of a fully functioning gym. Then he saw her. He was probably the last one to do so, as every other breathing person, male and female, was staring fixedly at the woman in black. There was nothing immodest in her outfit. Halter top, bare mid-riff and bicycle length shorts. There was, however, everything immodest about her body, as though it were airbrushed to perfection. Each part in itself was not unusual, the other women in the room could make some claims to a beautiful face, a flat belly, perhaps, or magnificently proportioned legs but not one had everything, as did the woman in black.

Being a gym, where people presumably came for the serious business of personal physical torture, after the initial surprise, the hubbub resumed, each man and certainly some of the women secretly wishing that this magnificent creature would either disrobe or, at the very least, ask if she could use the equipment they were presently tying up. Surreptitious stares followed her breathing as she swiveled her head about the room, as though searching for easy prey. Discreetly, as is the rule in all good gyms, dozens of eyes followed her meandering course around treadmills, elliptical trainers, global gyms, barbell stacks and runaway giant exercise balloons. Then, as one, the collective gaze turned to Abelard, curious to see the lucky recipient of the goddess’ attention.

“You don’t know me yet,” she chanted, a firm hand extended to be shaken, “but we are to have dinner this evening. I’m Dona Maria Donatello,” only the slightest accent adding unnecessary extra charm to her words.

“Abelard Bush,” he panted, partly because of his recent exertions and mainly because he had forgotten to exhale when this astonishing woman stopped to greet him.

“I know. I recognize you from the newspapers. You are well known in business circles as a rising star, and being a businesswoman I read about rising stars.”

On closer inspection, he saw that she was perspiring heavily, great droplets squeezing through the pores on her perfect face, neck, arms and all about the slight cleavage she was showing.

“I’ve been for a run,” she said, “and wanted to come in for a stretch,” she lied. She had had Abelard followed and knew he was at the health club. Upon being told she at once made her way back to the hotel and up to the gym. “I am really thirsty, how about a beer and we can talk about what we want to talk about tonight?”

“Sure, when?” Abelard had been told by Milly not to speak to anyone even remotely connected to the Donatello, but then who was Milly to tell him how to spend his private time. Whether he would stay with VBI was also, to Abelard’s mind, a still unresolved issue. Since the incident at the Pharma plant he was no longer sure about very much. His unquenchable thirst for ever more, a reliable lifelong beacon, no longer seemed to need slaking. He was running on a daily schedule rather than the long term plan to replace Milly he had imagined at the outset.

“Right now, if that’s OK.”

“Sure, I’ll shower and where shall we meet?”

“Forget the shower; I prefer a natural basic scent. I’ve a great bar in my suite. Unless you mind, of course.”

Abelard did not know quite what to make of the invitation. This woman was incredibly attractive and quite definitely, very fast. It’s not as though this hadn’t happened to him before. Not often. Just once, a long time ago, in his vividly clear false memories. He spared a thought for Felicity but in Dona Maria’s presence found he could not hold it for very long.

 

 

***

 

 

Abelard had spent the afternoon with Sir John Hawkwood to coordinate for the following day’s activities. Several independent captains had been engaged by the legendary condottiere to protect the Avignon Pope and his cardinals, who had been convened to shore up his claim to the throne of St. Peter. This was the period when the Papacy, under pressure from an earlier French king, Philip Lebel, had abandoned Rome, its fickle rabble, its glory fallen to decrepitude, and set up shop in Provence. There were many unhappy Catholics who would not have shed a tear at news of the absentee Pope’s demise, leaving little surprise at the large number of armed men guarding the magnificent Palace of the Popes. Although not quite falling overboard, Abelard’s pride was ever so slightly heightened knowing that it was a countryman, a fellow Gascon, Bertrand de Goth, formally known as Pope Clement V, who had moved the Holy See to Avignon.

The sun was still a good hour from setting and the oppressive heat of the day had all but disappeared as Abelard made his way back to his troop. He was moving at a brisk canter and practically ran into the two immobile horses as he came out of a blind turn. He heard the angry, high pitched voice before he saw the very dead coachman lying across his perch, blood still seeping from a gaping wound to his chest. The coach itself was swaying wildly and the female voice was now joined by a hoarse bellowing. When he lifted the flap at the back to investigate he was greeted by the angry look of someone who did not want to be disturbed. It was a huge face, scarred, pitted and wild. He recognized the crest of a Teutonic knight. They had a very poor but well deserved reputation for being utterly unreasonable and insanely fearless. He did not really care for them.

They were two, the other still busy trying to disrobe a woman whose face was covered by her carelessly raised outer garments. The momentarily unoccupied ruffian had by now drawn a long Welsh knife and in one bound leapt at Abelard, knocking him from his horse. The struggle was intense but short. Abelard succeeded in landing several blows with his mailed fists to repulse his attacker, giving him time to draw his sword which he vigorously embedded in the Teuton’s protruding belly. His back was still to the wagon when he heard the unmistakable sound of a sword being drawn from its scabbard. He quickly turned to see a large bearded man staring dumbly at him, sword still tightly held, but not raised. Before he could bring his own sword down in a killing arc, the second Teuton fell forward, quite dead. It took a moment to notice the small wooden shaft protruding from the base of his skull.

When he looked up again, a very beautiful, mature lady, with long black hair and a wicked smile was pointing a very small crossbow at his head. Having witnessed her apparent dexterity with the little weapon, he thought it best to bow, mount and ride on. His horse had barely moved when he heard the sweetest voice beckon him. Yes Madame, Abelard de Buch at your service. Yes, I would like very much that you show your appreciation at my having saved your lovely behind.

 

 

***

 

 

Would he also find two men in her suite, this time after him directly? Abelard in these matters was no different than other males. His decision would depend on the outcome of a compromise between his nucleus accumbens, the part of the primitive brain that looks for rewards such as food and sex, and his anterior insula, the part that assesses risk and keeps you from doing dangerous things. Unfortunately, the stronger the desire, the poorer is the ability to properly assess risk. That is why people often do unusually stupid things.

His temporarily besotted reasoning told him that he could handle anything they might throw at him so why not take the quickly vanishing risk and go for the irresistible invitation. To the drooling envy of every man, and some of the women, Abelard followed Dona Maria out of the gym. He spared another thought for Felicity, but it was quickly swept away by the visual flood sweeping through his brain as he closely followed Dona Maria’s splendid legs into the elevator. There were, indeed, two large men in her suite, both evidently afflicted with the same itchy rash under their left armpits, where they were fidgeting with their right hands. Abelard’s flight or fight instincts had barely engaged when a nod from Dona Maria sent the two scratchers out into the hotel corridor.

“Ever since I saw your photograph,” Dona Maria cooed, “I have been looking for an excuse to meet you.”

“The personal touch, sending all those nice men to fetch me first at the farm and then at the hunting lodge was quite charming but please, next time, it would be best if you just called.”

“Details, details, I can’t be expected to micromanage everything. That was not my direct doing. I just asked that they contact you on my behalf and what do they do. Idiots. I’ve chided them and they have promised to be extra careful in the future,” she pleaded to a forgiving Abelard who knew with certainty that at least some of her employees, the very dead ones, would in fact not ever again disobey Dona Maria.

Dona Maria was holding Abelard’s hand, her lips brushing against his cheeks, body pressed up close, and pushing him gently towards the bedroom. Both their minds were alight with anticipation, which was fortunate since little conscious room was left to take in the acrid smell of dried, layered perspiration. In the bedroom, at the floor to ceiling mirror, she stopped to remove his shirt. She was momentarily disoriented by the large number of scars covering his back. Then she spotted what Francesco had described. A neat, straight scar, about two centimeters across, just below the right shoulder. Satisfied, she moved her lips across his face, kissing his neck and then down to his chest, where again she was confronted with a plethora of small, large, jagged, indented and raised reminders of old injuries. Then she spotted the fateful one. It also fitted the helpful description the long dead clerk had so carefully recorded. She had what she needed and slid her hand to a small call button beside the mirror. Not ten seconds passed before there was a loud knocking at the door. She pressed a finger against Abelard’s lips and left him standing there in the direst need.

“I’m dreadfully sorry,” she came back to say, “but a small emergency has arisen and I must see my father. Do you think we could take up where we left off a bit later,” she asked, with apparent regret? While she had planned this scene with deliberate intent, there was something about Abelard which genuinely excited her. As far as men go, he was certainly to her taste, ruggedly handsome, evidently courageous and, most thrilling of all, he might actually be the genuine article.

 

 

***

 

 

Secure in the knowledge that his doomsday device was armed and ready to indiscriminately destroy both his own reputation and that of the Donatello, should anything happen to him, Milly agreed to dinner in Gianni’s suite. The elder Donatello greeted them with polite indifference. He was fretful. His daughter had not confided to him her plan for the evening. He did not yet know that she had already asked room service to cancel the dinner. The two men serving drinks he saw were not hotel staff. There was nothing in the room to give him more than a forlorn hope that all would turn out well. That Milly and Abelard seemed unconcerned also left him but little comfort. His bowels were responding to the stress with sharp cramps.

A light knock at the door signaled Dona Maria’s arrival. As she and the two men entered Abelard sensed that all was not as it should be. His instinct told him to prepare for battle. His prescience was soon validated. The new arrivals, as well as the two men who had been serving promptly drew large caliber weapons that it was evident they would not hesitate to use, particularly in view of the silencer attachments.

“That’s him, father,” Dona Maria said, with no more emotion than she might have shown choosing a detergent. “I have seen the scars and,” she added very quickly, “I did not shame you.” Then she nodded to the man standing behind Milly. With a deft movement he manacled Milly’s hands behind his back.

“Abelard, you will come with us and, Milly, I’m afraid we will have to take you for the proverbial ‘ride’,” she said without a hint of regret. At that she nodded to another man who then pulled a syringe from under the white cloth on the serving tray.

“Dona Maria,” Milly said, with a calm that belied his unambiguously precarious circumstances, “there is a briefcase containing a small computer which will begin to wirelessly transmit, in just under one hour from now, everything I know about you and your organization. Only I have the combination to the briefcase and the code to deactivate the transmitter. It would be best for all if you would put an immediate stop to this nonsense and let us be on our way.”

The thin smile slowly forming on Dona Maria’s sumptuous mouth left Milly a little less reassured about his position. He became positively downcast when Dona Maria nodded to the man at the bedroom door, who opened it to reveal a bloodied Shakespeare standing unsteadily and holding the remnants of a briefcase which looked suspiciously like the one he had just been describing. The wobbly security chief was guarded by a fifth thug.

“I knew about your doomsday device, Milly. Did you imagine that any private security firm could operate in Florence without our complicity, if not actual participation,” she ended with a flashing display of flawless teeth.

“To show that there are no hard feelings, Milly, I’ve instructed Angelo to make it so that you won’t feel anything at all, not even concern.”

Standing next to the syringe man, at his right, and a very surprised Gianni at his left, his hands over his head, Abelard was alert to every movement in the room.

“What is this all about, Dona Maria,” Gianni said, in a voice quaking with anger and surprise. All eyes turned to him, giving Abelard the opening for which he was waiting. Slipping his hand behind his head and sliding it beneath the collar and into his jacket, his fingers coiled around the cool ribbed steel shaft, and in a swift circular motion he cut the syringe man’s throat. At the same time he grabbed Gianni with his left hand and pulled him to his chest. The first shot intended for Abelard instantly killed the old man, stunning the gunmen into a momentary paralysis, long enough for Abelard to throw the knife and embed it in the shooter’s heart. The dead gunman had not yet fallen to the floor as Abelard leapt at the remaining two thugs and Dona Maria, dragging Milly along with him. There was a heap of bodies as Dona Maria and her men fell to the floor with Abelard on top. The guns had been thrown by the shock across the large room, one landing at Shakespeare’s feet. He had by then collected enough of his wits to seize the weapon and use it to hammer his own jailor into oblivion.

“I’m flattered that you would again go to so much trouble to have me all to yourself,” Abelard whispered to Dona Maria, as he lay on top of her, “but you must learn to be gentler.” He then landed a blow to her jaw, knocking her unconscious. The two surviving thugs on the floor were still groggy, their heads having quite vigorously smashed against the unyielding Italian marble. Abelard had pulled the knife from the dead man’s chest and was about to put an end to the two half-conscious thugs when Milly laid a hand on his shoulder and with a shake of his head counseled Abelard not to murder them. Blood would squirt from the wounds and it might be awkward, he pointed out, to be walking through a hotel with large red stains on his clothes. Also, Milly was the product of a social evolution which permitted all sorts of excesses, but seemed to have made taboo the slaughter of the wounded. Abelard, though, was mentally still in the Middle Ages where enemies had to be unambiguously incapacitated; ergo, killed. On this occasion he decided to follow Milly’s advice and only temporarily incapacitate them, picking up a heavy Inuit soapstone sculpture to shatter their jaws and put them to sleep.

“We had better hurry Milly,” he said, with astonishing serenity. Followed by Shakespeare, they then bounded out of the room and down the hall to Abelard’s suite, where he immediately telephoned the concierge to come up and collect their bags. They were checking out. The drive to the airport passed in complete silence, and not until they were in the air did Milly say a word.

“Why’d you save my life,” Milly asked, his eyes closed, savouring the sting and warmth as he swiftly emptied his second very old Armagnac? Pathetic, Milly would have thought, had another so mistreated a libation from his favourite brandy producing region. ‘Sip, don’t gulp’, would have been his silent admonishment. But these were extraordinary circumstances and they demanded extraordinary transgressions. He had been in tight situations before, but never in such danger or dead centre such practically fictional levels of violence. The second double drink had sufficiently dulled the overwhelming urge that had exploded in his brain to throw Abelard from the soaring jet. He blamed only him for the almost fatal circumstances in which he had found himself. Had he come clean earlier, trusted him with the full story, none of these terrifying events would ever have taken place. The alcohol had worked its magic and he knew he could now rely on good sense to guide the conversation he inevitably must have with Abelard.

“I don’t know, Milly, I’ve been asking myself the same question,” he answered, looking at the wild honey brown liquid swirling around inside his own snifter. He seemed to be talking more to himself than to Milly. “I can recall only three occasions when I have intervened to save someone else’s life and you do not fit into any of the categories that would move me to that.”

“It’s perhaps because you need a friend, an ally in what ever it is you are caught up.”

“No Milly, at present I cannot see what you could possibly do to help me. My best bet would have been to let them dispose of you and to wait for the odds to improve in my favour; six to one was a little steep, even for me. My guess, and it will have to do, is that I acted as I did because I owed you more than one. You have been generous to Felicity; you have given me status and wealth; and you did not fuss about my dodgy background, until now. That is all I can tell you.”

“As it stands, if you choose not to reveal your secrets the trail I have been following has now run cold. I have little doubt that the tale you fed me about finding a cross at an archeological dig is entirely fabricated. The Donatello are obviously a depleted resource. What recourse do I have? I guess I could press my niece. She is, after all, the one who seems to have plucked you from obscurity. She has drawn quite substantially on my resources, which as you probably know I have given without the least accounting. Perhaps the time has come for me to ask her help. What do you think?”

Abelard wondered why it had taken so long for it to come to this. He knew that if matters got out of hand, Milly would eventually go to Felicity. So, why didn’t he just let Dona Maria take care of this problem? Again, no clear explanation for his uncharacteristic behaviour. Besides the debt he felt he owed to Milly, he had a strong hunch that it also had much to do with the episode at Pharma.

“You won’t believe me Milly,” he sighed, “Felicity never has. Though she can verify what I’m about to tell you.”

“For Felicity, logic always trumps intuition, no matter how beguiling the tale. Try me.”

“I am Abelard de Buch, fourth and last son of the Captal de Buch, powerful Gascon baron and loyal ally to the Black Prince……,” Abelard began, and went on until interrupted by the attendant who came to tell them they were about to land and would they be kind enough to strap in. Milly just stared at her, as in a daze. He had sat dumbfounded, listening to this most unexpected account for the better part of two hours.

“Is that what Dona Maria meant when she said ‘it’s him’?” Milly finally found his voice in the limousine whisking them to the VBI offices.

“I’m not really sure about that. I have never actually spoken to The Society, at least not recently. They may simply be interested in the rest of King John’s treasure, of which the cross was a part. My guess is that the Malvue boys sold the cross to a dealer in Sarlat who is part of The Society’s network. He must have recognized the artifact for what it is and contacted The Society.”

“What do you mean by ‘recently’?”

“As with everything I say, Felicity may turn out to be right that they spring from false memories and are only placeholders for the real ones, if and when those ever return.” Abelard thought it best to keep Milly guessing, even though he himself had very little doubt as to the veracity of his memories. It used to be that he had no doubt at all, but Felicity and the years had somewhat eroded his certainty. “I recall, quite vividly, that I had visited the Donatello in 1358, well known traffickers in looted treasure. Although many at the time preferred to barter their treasure for what they judged to be at least equivalent value in things they needed, I was looking for something more portable and easily divisible. I was negotiating with Dante Donatello and with him was a helpful clerk named Francesco. They were advising me to exchange my loot for either Venetian Liras or Florentine Florins, both widely circulated gold coins at the time. Nothing was concluded but I had something to think about and I planned to return in a year or two if I would by then decide to take their advice. However, as you now know, I never made it back, falling instead into a very long sleep.”

Nothing more was said during the ride to the VBI offices. Milly’s head was alive with heightened neural activity. He cared little for the treasure. What mattered most was the astounding possibility that someone could stay alive for so long. That alone was sufficient for Milly’s mind to begin the process of resourceful validation. The allure of immortality made his normally incisive brain porous, from which skepticism freely leaked away. That someone would be asleep for over 600 hundred years is already beyond belief. But that Milly would ignore Abelard’s repeated lying showed just how far desire had come to trump good sense. Loathe as he was to risk poking holes in his fairytale, Milly did think to inquire about the treasure.

“I’m intrigued, Abelard, with the treasure you described. Why have you not yet tried to recover and monetize it? You could be fabulously rich and if there is one thing I am sure about you it is that money counts in a very big way. Do you even remember where it is?”

“I have not yet had an opportunity to reclaim it.” He didn’t bother raising with Milly the strange prospect that money may have also lost the singular visceral importance it had always had in his life.

“What do you mean?”

“I prefer not to discuss that with you or anyone else. Would you give me the passwords to your bank and investment accounts? I expect not.”

That piece of incredibly flimsy evidence – Abelard does not want to talk about it and therefore knows where it is – confirmed to Milly’s fevered mind that he was at the threshold of discovering Ponce de Leone’s proverbial fountain of youth.

“One final question, Abelard, if it’s all the same to you,” Milly asked solicitously, but did not bother waiting for Abelard’s agreement, “do you know why you were able to stay alive so long?”

“Not a clue. Might have been something in the slime where Felicity found me sleeping.”

Vivisection, Milly pondered, may be his last recourse. It would be messy and troublesome but if that is the only way then so be it. Before, though, he would talk with Oliver. He had been there at the find and could perhaps have something that would obviate the need to dismember Abelard.

“Let’s not allow any of this to derail our lives,” Milly’s concerned parent tone suddenly dismissing the excited questioning of moments earlier. “We’ve a company to run. Your brilliant ‘junk food, to fat, to self-help books and depression, to pharmaceutical solutions’ for example. That is the best scheme I’ve heard in years. Keep up the good work. Let’s talk again before the week’s out.” Abelard took the cue, leaving the lord to his thoughts.

Abelard did not bother letting Milly know that he had quite another future in mind. He would have to be mad to trust in him; well beyond insane to ignore The Society who would without doubt soon regroup and mount a massive manhunt. He also thought it very likely that Milly and The Society would eventually find it in their mutual self-interest to turn the hunt for Abelard into a joint venture. He would have to put Plan B into effect. As with Plan A, Plan B was barely yet a work-in-progress; little more than a broad, mostly sketchy outline; collect the sample which Oliver had taken from the cave, now stored at the VBI Pharma lab in Italy; then drive to France and dig up his treasure. The last part he was hoping was more than a false memory. Even if it turned out that he was not the same Abelard de Buch who lived 650 years ago, he reckoned that his memories, however they got into his brain, had already been right on with the Donatello and might just be good enough for the treasure.

Most of the details still had to be filled in. Getting the sample should be fairly easy if he moved quickly, before Milly could deny him access to VBI facilities, which he would surely do as soon as he realized that he could no longer contact him. It was getting to the treasure that would be his first difficult problem. It would require substantially more financial resources than he had available and Felicity would most assuredly be cut off by a cautious Milly. These were difficulties he would deal with as they came up. For now he must arrange to flee. But first he had better get in touch with Oliver.

“Oliver, Milly might contact you,” he began to leave a message at the beep. “If he does, it would be best not to talk about the sample or its whereabouts. I’ll explain later.”

 

 

***

 

 

“That ungrateful pig, after all I’ve done for him,” Milly raged as he listened to the message which Shakespeare had recorded from a small bug he had planted in Abelard’s telephone. “Go immediately to Oliver’s and get me that sample. It’s probably in the freezer. And hurry!”

“Get me Dona Maria Donatello,” he spoke calmly into the intercom.

“Dona Maria, I am sorry about your father,” he lied, “and I would like you to know that I am still prepared to work with you….. Oh, forget about the misunderstanding…. Yes he is still here and we are, so far, still buddies…. Yes, of course I trust you, but I do have this doomsday device, to replace the flimsy one which so badly fell apart when your men handled it and which I just can’t deactivate. It will send compromising e-mails to all the major newspapers and police departments who might care to know about The Society…. No, no, of course I can’t shut it down. That is the nature of a doomsday device, it tells the other party that absolutely nothing can stop massive and mutually destructive retaliation….I’m sorry you feel that way but you shouldn’t worry since the only way the device can be set off is if something untoward happened to me and I’m in perfect health….Yes, next week here in Montreal. See you then.”

 

 

***

 

 

“It’s not in the freezer,” McCurdle yelled from the kitchen.

“Tear the place apart,” Shakespeare ordered.

The three men reduced Oliver’s condominium to a shambles. They left empty handed and Shakespeare duly notified Milly, who was inconsolable. He had thought to end this matter that afternoon. He was going to safely store the sample and greet Dona Maria with a fait accompli. Now he would have to track down Oliver and again confront Abelard; two unpleasant prospects. He telephoned the hospital to talk with Oliver and was told he would not be back for two days. A conference in Toronto. He had no cell number and would have to detain him in Toronto. Shakespeare would take care of that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter XV

 

 

“We shouldn’t be doing this,” Elizabetta Trebella murmured as she snuggled against Oliver. They were huddled on the sidewalk surrounded by noontime crowds spilling from the Toronto Conference Centre. “You have a fiancé and we have a professional relationship. There must be, at the very least, millions of ethical arguments against this sort of thing.” They had known each other since she first began treating Abelard for his seeming amnesia. They had become close friends and until today had never been physically intimate.

“The fiancé business will very soon be put to rest. I have recently come to see that marrying Dominique would be a major mistake. I should have seen through her right from the start but, as you well know, good sense is helpless before the compelling logic of sexual gratification. Something about the selfish genes manipulating the host body to ensure that copies of them are made and passed on to the next generations and so on and so forth. You know the rest of the story.”

“So, you’re pleading the helpless victim of natural brain chemistry. Courts have as yet to permit such excuses and I don’t see why I should.”

“What I finally saw,” he continued, ignoring her objections, which he felt were in any event half-hearted, “was her obsessive-compulsive nature. She’s a very successful banker and from what I hear she behaves appropriately in her professional life but with me and her friends she is utterly infantile. There is no conversation that she cannot hijack and transform it into something about her, no matter how remote the connection. She overeats and is headed for obesity. There is not a drink to which she can say no and is quite regularly intoxicated. To quote her, she doesn’t have a problem with alcohol she has a problem with sobriety. I cannot imagine spending the rest of my life with her. I pine for the company of an adult, even if it’s only me”

“I know, my dear Oliver, as do your other friends. She can’t easily hide that sort of behaviour, try as she might. I do sympathize with you,” she sighed, burrowing deeper into his arms. She had for too long now fantasized about this moment. She was, not so secretly, delighted.

“Hold on,” he said with visible annoyance, as he fumbled to look at his cell phone screen to see whether he should take the call. If it was the hospital he would take it. Otherwise it would be shunted to his voice mail. It was Abelard. He knew he was away and Abelard is not the type to make frivolous calls to friends temporarily out of town. This must be important.

“Hi, what’s up,” he said. “I must have misheard, say again….Florence, very nice town but I would need more than six hours notice………..I’m not sure about that. Are you OK? I thought we had this put to bed….They did what to my condo? I’m a little worried about you….Sure, I can get Felicity to check it out but all that’ll do is confirm that my condo was thrashed, not who did it…..Hold it, I’ll need to write that down, that’s a lot of digits.

“Elizabetta, do you have a pencil and paper?

“OK, shoot….Yes I’ll repeat it. I’m to call this number and ask for Dona Maria and tell her I’ve got a sample from Abelard’s slime and I will hang up within 30 seconds. Who is this Dona Maria….Those two guys you killed, they were her men….She believes your story…. Milly believes your story. How do I know you didn’t put her up to this just to get me to believe you….Milly, you want me to call Milly?…..Only from the airport….The Dona Maria call is to get me to the airport and the Milly call on the plane. OK. I’ll trust you.”

He snapped his phone shut and turned to Elizabetta. “Didn’t you assure me that Abelard had adapted,” he grumbled, visibly annoyed?

“What happened” she asked, more than a little disheartened at Oliver’s sudden mood change?

He quickly related his conversation to an increasingly downcast Elizabetta. She took a moment to compose her thoughts before daring to speak. “Abelard tried to convince me that his memories were all real, that he was actually a fourteenth century noble and had inexplicably survived until the present. I’d seen Napoleon, Julius Caesar and, the most popular one, Einstein reincarnations many times. But these people all had one flaw in common; they were completely dysfunctional outside their assumed personalities. Abelard was different. He was perfectly normal in every other respect. True, he was a bit scary with the way he matter-of-factly related the most gruesome stories from his imagined past. In fact, if the truth be known, I was at first concerned that I might be dealing with a sociopath. But none of the tests I ran on him revealed any abnormalities. His brain looked perfectly ordinary in the scans I took. In fact, if I could have suspended belief, he was so normal I could easily have fallen for his account. There was only one treatment for him; get him to concentrate on the future and forget where he thought he came from. I wasn’t even going to try and cure an amnesia that was so obviously persistent.”

“So, he’s not cured, only learning to cope. I, of all people, should have known that. Although, I have to admit, you’re right about the physical evidence. It’s all in his favour. There is no detectible damage to his pre-frontal cortex, at least from the scans I’ve seen, and no apparent lack or, for that matter, overload of any particular chemicals. This must be one in the behaviouralists’ court.

“Dona Maria Donatello, please,” Oliver said to the Italian speaker.

“Who shall I say is calling,” the Italian speaker answered in perfect British accented English?

“Please tell her I have a sample from Abelard’s slime,” he said matter-of-factly.

“One moment please.”

“This is Dona Maria, how can I help you,” came the most charming voice he had ever heard.

“I understand you are interested in Abelard’s extraordinary longevity and I happen to have the only sample of the slime in which he was found.”

“Yes, I am very interested, where can we meet. I….,” Oliver had hung up by then, having waited just under thirty seconds, as instructed.

“Well, that one checks out,” he said to Elizabetta, “let’s try Milly,” needing to get the full story before heading to the airport to make what he suspected would be an irreversible decision.

“Mr. Lord, please,” he asked.”

“Who shall I say is calling?”

“Oliver.

“One moment please.”

The response was almost instantaneous. “Oliver, my lad,” Milly shouted unable to hide from Oliver his intense excitement.

“I understand you are interested in a sample I have,” he said with some hesitation, since he still wasn’t sure about Abelard’s mental state.

“Are you in Montreal” Milly inquired?

“No.”

“Do you have the sample with you?”

“No.”

“Would you like to bring it to me or shall I come and meet you somewhere?”

Oliver again cut the connection as quickly as he could. He was now quite unsure as to his next move. But only for a moment. Shakespeare had contracted with a local shady security firm to pick up and hold Oliver. The sleek limousine pulled up to the curb where he and Elizabetta were still trying to figure out what to do.

“Mr. Lord would like to have a word with you,” the well dressed, stocky man said as he stood by the open back right hand passenger door, his arm gesturing for Oliver to get in.

“Oh, good, I also need to see Mr. Lord. Would you mind terribly waiting until the next session is over, it is very important to my research. It won’t be more than an hour and we could meet right here again.” Oliver had not expected to get agreement from this determined looking thug but, amazingly enough, he assented and got back into the car. He then turned his attention to Elizabetta.

“You are the biggest single reason for my regrets, but I think I should go to Florence tonight,” he said very softly, covering her mouth with his lips.

“I had planned on taking some vacation right after this conference, so do you mind if I tag along,” she asked, a little winded from the extended kiss? “In fact, it really doesn’t matter whether you mind since I plan to go in any event,” she asserted, in response to Oliver’s negative head shaking. “My mother lives in Florence and it is about time for my annual visit.” She didn’t wish to trouble him with the minor detail that her mother was not actually home, having gone away on vacation.

“OK,” he sighed, at once happy she was to come along and worried because he knew there could be considerable danger. “Let’s get back inside, pick up our bags and leave by the stadium exit.”

Shakespeare suspected that Oliver had been alerted to Milly’s interest and when his man in Toronto reported that he was waiting for Oliver to return, he tersely ordered that they immediately take him. They were too late, Oliver and Elizabetta were by then on the way to the airport.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter XVI

 

 

“Mr. Bush is back on our screens, yet again,” Sanschagrin sighed, his eyes searching each face in the room for inspiration. He had decided to take matters firmly in hand. This last episode convinced him that things could no longer be left to chance. He was now quite sure that Abelard posed a danger to society. Exactly what that danger was he could not yet say. Many thoughts occurred to him; international terror, drugs, arms, illegal warfare, all of the above. From the pattern of his transgressions nothing could be inferred. They were all unrelated, at least from the evidence he had to date. The brutal beating he had so callously administered to the mugger; he was present at Mr. Hecht’s sudden timely death; he had killed three still unidentified men, in apparent self defense; he willfully attacked a demonstrator with the express aim of provoking a major riot; he had killed a worker at a VBI plant in the USA, ostensibly to rescue a hostage; and now, the report from the Florence police that he had been at the hotel where well known industrialist, Gianni Donatello, with whom he had also been in contact, was shot. Enough! Hector Sanschagrin would put a stop to his criminal enterprise, whatever it was. He would marshal all the resources at his disposal, including the international police. That is why he had invited Georges Outremer, the headquarters liaison with outside police forces. Apart from his predestined name, Outremer, in Sanschagrin’s opinion, was one more useless burden on the taxpayer. Procedure, alas, most unfortunately dictated that all dealings with foreign police departments pass through him. The feelings, Sanschagrin knew, were perfectly mutual; Outremer was openly contemptuous of Sanschagrin and considered him a bungler and a fool.

“Two nights ago Mr. Bush left, in a hurry it seems, for Florence. He purchased the ticket on his own credit card, which suggests that he is not traveling on company business,” Sanschagrin began.

“There you go again,” Outremer jumped in with a derisive sneer, “making a mystery out of a common event. These guys who run the big companies often travel suddenly and unexpectedly and pay out of pocket only to be reimbursed later. Have you bothered checking with VBI? If not then I suggest you are wasting our time. I’m out of here.” And he got up and promptly left.

Sanschagrin, a little upset by the sudden departure and very upset at his own massive stupidity for not checking with VBI called for a short break while he took care of the obvious.

“Mr. Bush, please,” he asked as calmly as his brooding anger would permit.

“I’m sorry, but Mr. Bush is in an all day meeting and is not taking any calls,” the secretarial voice chimed through the network; it was as music to Sanschagrin’s ears. As he moved back to the front of the room after the break he made no attempt to control the bounce of triumphalism, which had lightened his step.

“If you can keep your ass in one place for just a bit a longer we can all finish here and get back to work,” Sanschagrin said with gleeful contempt to Outremer, who he insisted rejoin the meeting.

“The Florentine police are presently trying to locate Mr. Bush and when they do will put him under 24 hour surveillance. The French police, since we know he has been operating in that country as well, will take over if he does cross the border. Monpetit and Blackburn, you two will make sure he is watched if and when he comes back to Montreal.”

Abelard had expected that the police would eventually become more serious players in his life, he just didn’t know when and certainly didn’t expect them to so quickly join the hunt or to be as well organized.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter XVII

 

 

“Florence, you’re going to Florence this evening,” Felicity jabbed at the keys, at once incredulous and deliciously hopeful? Things had not been going very well between them since he had become a VBI man. She secretly pined for the vagaries of their earlier existence, despite the lifelong aversion she has always harboured for wishful thinking. They were then intimate, passionate and engaged, the basic ingredients, psychologists have identified, in the recipe for love. All that remained from that happy time for Felicity were scraps. Meaningful confidences were no longer shared, selfless acts were mostly rare and sex uncommon.

“You’ll have to trust me,” he answered, “The Society is back and more, which I will tell you about in one week at noon, Chez Artois,” the small, famous for its goose confit, restaurant in the 13th arrondissement, in Paris. “Don’t forget to erase this exchange. I love you. See you next week.”

Abelard was mindful that Felicity would be an easy mark to follow and that Milly would do so, quite rightly expecting her to come to him. Chez Artois was indeed a fine little restaurant but it was also a code he had insisted that she remember, in spite of her objections to the cloak and dagger feel. The actual rendezvous was elsewhere, the following morning.

Abelard, however, was not sure that she would actually show up. He imagined her thinking that this was the last straw, another Abelard fantasy followed by a mechanical declaration of love. Her legendary tolerance for all things Abelard was badly frayed. She had been growing increasingly disenchanted with his obsessive campaign to reach the top. To her his methods, some of which she read about in hostile press coverage, and a good deal she heard from others, were an outright disgrace. She was tired of telling herself that very soon he too would eventually be revolted by a game whose rules were set in an ethical vacuum. He would soon withdraw from the constant territorial battles, settle down, spend more time with her and, perhaps, only perhaps since she was herself unsure, have children.

His apparent lack of scruples had left her uneasy. She had carefully nurtured, like an endangered species, the little hope that remained, until his latest brutal takeover battle finally pushed her to look more closely at his driving ambition. The turning point came less than two months earlier, when her doubts suddenly took a turn for the worse, a final signal added to the many that had been accumulating. It was the Electro Prod takeover celebration bash thrown by Milly at Abelard’s condominium that pushed her through the gate and hastened her slide down the slippery slope of looming despondency. It was picked up by the local business pages and there was not a newspaper literate person in Montreal who did not know about the event. Local 424 of the Allied Worker’s union also knew and they had a particularly rancorous grudge against Abelard. They had been employed by Electro Prod when Abelard closed the plant down, moved production to Mexico and dismissed everyone.

At the entrance to Abelard’s prestigious building a small crowd of determined people had gathered, some carrying unofficial placards with obscene anti-VBI slogans. ‘FUCKING VBI BULLIES’, ‘M.Y. LORD THE VAMPIRE, ‘M.Y. LORD, BEWARE THE WHITE KNIGHT’, ‘DEATH TO THE ARROGANT VBI BASTARDS’ and, the one which most pleased Abelard, ‘CLOSE DOWN BUSH’. There was much jostling and the crowd was obviously in the mood for a fight and might even interfere with the guests. These were the disaffected, cast into the cold by the whimsical humour of a rapacious takeover. They were here to hit back.

The cloudless sky would have been beautiful to look at, a magnificent dark blue, this cold, end of winter evening, had it been visible through Montreal’s electric glare. Mindful of the hostile crowd the limousines dared not stop to disgorge their passengers. They would all be waiting around the bend to return after the trouble cleared up, and that it did, but in a most unexpected way.

Abelard was in the lobby watching, waiting and smiling. His unnatural self-assurance before the hostile mob had an easy explanation. At the end of the street, lined up for the charge, were two dozen mounted policemen and Abelard knew just how to mobilize them. His memories were fully loaded with the group dynamics of armed, trained and primed men on horseback. He had guessed the signal to which they would respond and he knew how they would do so; swiftly, violently and single-mindedly. An ancient consciousness was arising; a mixture of euphoria and alertness. He could soon no longer hold back.

Abelard stepped suddenly out the doors and with a smashing blow to the face sent one of the demonstrators who had been unlucky enough to be standing on the stone stairs tumbling to the sidewalk. The sharp crack was followed by pervasive silence as a thousand minds tried to digest and understand the sudden turn in the unfolding drama. The induced hesitation was but momentary, time enough for the fallen man to try unsuccessfully to rise, blood trickling from the corner of his mouth. Then, as Abelard had expected, the now grown unruly mob surged towards him and that was it. He had succeeded in precipitating the resulting battle.

The police line, taking its cue from the menacing gesture, began to move forward in two disciplined rows, spanning the entire width of the street. They started slowly, disciplined to keep tight formation, the clicking of metal shod hooves against hardened asphalt reverberating along the roadway and echoing off the massive brick of the building on one side and the rock face of Mount Royal on the other. The horses’ heads were held high, bridled by their own impatient riders from the headlong rush for which they yearned, jets of white mist shooting from flared nostrils into the frigid night air.

Gradually, but perceptibly, the clicking rose and became a deafening clatter as the horsemen loosened their grips on the reins, letting their mounts accelerate towards a full run. They were a truly awesome sight; beauty, grace and belligerent power in a choreographed line, the glare of street lights twinkling over the polished metal helmets and reflecting off the plastic face visors. Billy clubs swinging above their heads like fine battle maces, they fell upon a crowd that had by now lost its cohesion, had turned into a mindless, leaderless rabble and was agitating its frayed mass in the throws of fearsome panic; cavalry always had that effect on infantry formations. The rudderless mob was no match for the highly trained horsemen, experienced in the art of crowd control, experts in the precise application of brutality. Swinging their weapons, now to one side now to the other, they cracked bone and skulls at will, smashing those that had so arrogantly strutted their terror only moments before, denying them their desperate attempts to disperse.

Abelard loved it. He was literally laughing out loud, at random grabbing fleeing, frightened, disoriented people, and smashing them to the ground. They were no longer the arrogant self assured parts of a fearsome threat. They were now only simple people, each pitiful in lonely, shivering isolation. If it wasn’t for the doorman and Felicity, who had by this time also come down, struggling to pull him back, he would soon have had his own skull cracked by the horsemen, drunk with the thrill of victory, the pungent, intoxicating smell of fear.

It was very soon all over; the street now littered with debris and injured demonstrators groaning from broken bones, cuts and bruises. Ambulances had arrived and this flotsam was being removed, like so much unwanted debris. As the limousines began to return Abelard was arranging with the police to put off his statements and complaints until the following day, after the party. He didn’t, until it was all over fully appreciate how much he had missed the excitement of battle and the exhilaration of complete victory.

Abelard, lord of the chateau, conquering hero, stood triumphantly under the green and white striped awning to receive the adulation of his peers. He felt, at that moment, closer than ever to the father in his memories, who more than six hundred years earlier at the massacres in Meaux, had also thrown himself against the peasant hordes and prevailed. John de Grailly III, the Captal de Buch and his erstwhile enemy, Gaston Phoebus, the Count of Foix were returning from a religious crusade in Germany when they were summoned to help free the French King’s wife and her ladies from the Jacquarie uprising. They were only 25 knights up against thousands of peasants but they prevailed, slaughtering great numbers without any apparent losses. Skill at arms, Abelard knew, will always triumph over a leaderless, untrained rabble.

The mounted police were still milling about. Horses moving among the limousines, the radios of their riders squawking incomprehensible static, gave the evening’s drama the allure of an anachronism. M.Y. Lord was standing beside him when scruffy, paunchy Sanschagrin, the antithesis of Abelard de Buch, the victor of the field, approached and began to speak.

“This is becoming a little tedious,” the ubiquitous Sanschagrin said. “Let me guess; hard day at the office; not thinking straight; a nobody gets too close; you’re afraid it might be another dangerous mugger; and without thinking the peaceful Mr. Bush decks him. Did I get that right, Mr. Bush?” he asked, flipping the pages of his notebook, looking for a clean patch on which to write. “Oh, yes, let me read you your rights,” which he proceeded to do in a nasal, aching monotone.

“Well, did you assault the man,” he asked, losing the earlier sarcasm?

“Say absolutely nothing. Our lawyers will take care of everything tomorrow.” Milly, who had been silent all the while, confidently, arrogantly intervened on Abelard’s behalf.

“Ok, that’s your right but you’d better ask for me when you come down to the station tomorrow to tell your side of the story.” He handed him his card, yet again, his sad face reflecting what could only have been abject disgust.

“Hey, the party’s upstairs, not here in the street, come on.” Abelard’s triumphal tone resonated well with the murmuring, huddled guests.

The corridors and elevators were alive with deafening whispers and affected exclamations, the story of Abelard’s physical prowess had captured the imagination of the elite. A legend was in the making. Other residents of the prestige building were pressed against the walls and behind thick, Doric supporting columns, gawked at the man who led the charge against the villainous rabble, who would surely have invested the building and committed unspeakable horrors.

Suddenly, silence, hushed anticipation as an elderly, patrician lady in sober but expensively cut dress moved out of the shadows to stand before Abelard. She took his hands in hers and gazed at him for a moment. “I have read about you in the newspapers,” she began, her voice trembling slightly, not only because she was old but also from the emotion of the moment. “You are that young business genius who has just engineered, how did they say it, oh yes, one of the most elegant and brilliant takeovers in more than ten years now. Quite an accomplishment young man, and you do indeed look as young as they say. Extraordinary.”

This set everyone off to supportive nodding and babbling approving noises. Abelard was truly overcome, the shining saviour being thanked by the matron of the rescued chateau, just as it may have happened in the old days. He was positively beaming at the assembled multitudes, a completely innocent smile unnaturally softening his features. Then, raising her head, with its exquisitely fine, porcelain like features, which she had momentarily bowed in apparent homage to the great warrior, she resumed her anticipated eulogy.

“I say extraordinary Mr. Bush,” she continued with the same elegant, natural poise, “because it is to me a sad sign of our lost experiment in freedom and happiness that one as young as you is already able to wield enough destructive power to cripple large, respected institutions, put people out of work and then, with complete impunity engage yourself personally, almost as though it were a sport, along with the forces of law and order to brutalize those you have already brought to their knees. You behave, Mr. Bush, as though base instinct is your only guide. In fact, Mr. Bush, what I found most remarkable, was not your youth, although I still think it is extraordinary, but that unlike others of your ilk in this game, you don’t even make any pretence of feeling sorry. In that respect Mr. Bush, you are certainly much more honest than the others of your species.”

The verbal assault was thoroughly unexpected, falling leadenly on the soaring mood in the thin atmosphere of euphoria, on the high spirits of victory. A deafening silence hung over the complete confusion. It took some time to react. The old lady was still holding his hands in the frozen, stunned silence. Nobody moved. Nobody dared move. What would they do now? This old hag had broken the spell. They can’t very well attack her. They were defenceless. Only Abelard seemed to remain utterly unperturbed, still smiling, no less expansively than a moment ago. He was now shaking his head from side to side in an expression of charitable pity at this otherwise pleasant old lady’s unfortunate naiveté about such matters. He was skilfully manipulating the apparent, attempting to keep the victory of only moments earlier from turning to ash. Then they were saved.

“Mother, mother, please let me take you inside, you know what the doctor has told you about stress,” a disembodied concerned voice from somewhere in the crowd suddenly intoned. And then the well groomed middle aged man in dark smoking jacket joined his advance words.

“Please forgive her,” he continued, as his arms went around the old woman’s frail shoulders, “she is on medication which sometimes provokes these sudden, bizarre outbursts. I saw the whole thing, Mr. Bush,” his words measured with sufficient awe and respect to mould them into an appropriately lavish expression of thanks, “and I think I speak for all the building’s residents in congratulating your personal bravery in this ugly matter which could have turned nasty without your intervention. Thank you again.” He led his mother away, now stoop shouldered and sunken, to recede into her world of civility and social responsibility, where being nice was everything.

The guests were like a living, interconnected organism, a renewed sense of well being rippling through their ranks in a slowly mounting crescendo of relieved murmurs. As one, they began to flow towards the elevators, only Abelard hanging back a moment to exchange some words with the concierge, who finished by whispering something in his ear and pointing towards the ceiling. Felicity had seen the brief exchange and inquired of the doorman as to its content. Abelard, it seems, had wanted to know the old lady’s name and where she lived. Felicity squeezed onto the elevator fearing the worst.

It was as though she were suddenly jolted awake from a long deep sleep walk. Abelard, she accepted, for the first time, had always been like that. How could it be otherwise? The memories that defined his life were peopled by hard, ambitious men who knew no limits. Those were still the only recollections he possessed. No act was too outrageous, no lie too big, no odium out of bounds, if it was the swiftest means to his ends. She had let her obsession with the once helpless Abelard cast an opaque veil over her reason. No more. She was resolved to confront him at every transgression against common decency. If that led to irreconcilable differences, so be it. She was determined to never again embrace forlorn hopes; to love only those who met her own personal standards for integrity.

From the moment she chose to cast tolerance to the side endless bickering filled much of their time together. She objected to the disdain with which he treated others he considered beneath him. When he stayed late at the office she accused him of infidelity. She would no longer tolerate occasional drunken revelries with his ‘men’, the executives who reported directly to him. She picked on even the smallest things such as his cologne which she insisted made her want to throw up. When the constant squabbling had worn him down and he confronted her, she did not shirk and told him that she would not much longer be able to share her life with someone who was the gold standard for ruthless behaviour. That was just two weeks ago, before the incident at the Pharma plant.

 

She was ambivalent about Florence. It would be folly, she reckoned, to deliberately put herself at close quarters with a man whose way of life inspired in her deep revulsion, and she was leaning heavily towards not going. This would be the proverbial relationship ending straw. Then everything changed. Milly called.

“Have you seen Abelard,” Milly asked, agitation adding an extra pitch to his voice? “I need very badly to get hold of him. Please let him know, if you talk with him, that the incident last week was an unfortunate misunderstanding and they would like to do a deal where everybody comes out a winner.”

“Sorry uncle,” forcing an unfelt flippancy to her tone, “I have not seen or spoken with him and don’t expect to until next week when he gets back from I’m not quite sure where. But I will let him know.” Got to run now, love you,” and she hung up. She had sensed disquiet in Milly and he was, indeed, very alarmed that he had lost track of Abelard. Felicity then called to reserve an open ticket to Paris. She would leave in six days, giving her a full day for the drive to Brittany.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter XVIII

 

 

Getting the sample would not be a simple affair. There were no exceptions, everyone who did not directly work at the Florence pharmaceutical research facility needed to give at least 24 hours notice prior to a visit. Security was elaborate. Upon receipt, a request for access was run through the company’s central data banks to ensure that the person was still actually employed at VBI. Most VBI employees, as they were not directly connected with the Pharma division, also needed special executive permission if they wished to enter the facility. The no-exception rule excluded Milly. He could do as he wished, and dropping in at the facility unexpectedly was one of the things his place at the top of the heap permitted him to do. His security card was programmed for such arbitrary decisions.

Abelard had chosen to leave Montreal on the weekend to boost the odds that Milly would not try and contact him and so avoid raising his suspicions. He had reckoned his risks as fair that over the 24 hour notice period Milly would not yet have alerted all VBI installations to be on the lookout for him. These risk assessments he had chosen not to share with Oliver. Neither did he manifest any outward annoyance at Elizabetta’s unexpected presence although it did put him out. He was confidently prepared to face danger with Oliver at his side but felt Elizabetta could limit his options. That was not, however, why he had asked Oliver to meet him in Florence. He reckoned it best both for his own as well as for Oliver’s security that he be kept away from Milly.

They had chosen to stay at the Savoy, conveniently located near all the major tourist attractions. Not that Abelard intended to mix business with pleasure, but with the 24 hour wait he saw no reason to stay away from the elegant refinement that was the Florence of his memories. To his mind he had been here more than 600 years ago. His quick visit just weeks earlier with Milly to see the Donatello had not given him any occasion to satisfy the yearnings his recall had awakened. He had suppressed an overwhelming urge to rush out and look again upon those wonders he had already seen and those that may still have been under construction at the time but had since been completed. He had been able to see the city only through the blur of a swiftly moving vehicle on the way to the research facility to store the sample; the sample that everyone knew about, that he had a hunch would soon be on everyone’s must-have list. This time he would indulge himself.

Halfway through spring and it was still unusually cool. They left the hotel and headed to the tree-lined Via Calzaiuoli, which gave onto the Piazza Del Duomo where Abélard wanted to see again the magnificent Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. In his vivid memories Brunelleschi’s magnificent dome had not yet been built when he first saw the cathedral under construction and the geometrically set, coloured marble facade was relatively modern, the original having been destroyed in the sixteenth century. He also felt as though a small part of the cathedral belonged to him. His neural pathways were alive with images of a quarrel that arose with the Republic when his mercenary earnings were unexpectedly taxed to help pay for the building’s construction. As he recalls, at the time he had been faced with a bit of a dilemma. He couldn’t very well refuse donations to Mother Church but he couldn’t either allow his employer to set a dangerous precedent, arbitrarily altering the terms of a contract. The cloth-makers’ guild, which had been a major sponsor of the cathedral construction, along with the Republic, had fallen on hard times, which sent the notoriously miserly Signoria scrambling for new sources of finance. It made the mistake of trying to gouge a Gascon. Abelard suggested to the Signoria that he might not be able to dissuade his men from taking employment with another, less honourable captain, about to sign a contract with the Pisan Republic, one of Florence’s more aggressive rivals. Unable to legally give him more than the contract stipulated – laws, arbitrary though they may have been, were nevertheless supreme – and unable to rescind his ecclesiastical taxes, they cleverly invented the forward condotta, signing a contract for the defence of Florence, beginning six months hence and conditional on Venice attacking at the time, which was highly unlikely since the Doge of that city was otherwise preoccupied with his Genoese rivals. He was made whole and happy with only the very smallest risk he would actually have to fight for his already earned income.

“Hey, look, they finished the tower,” he yelled, excitedly pointing to the tall, slim campanile which Giotto designed and began to build well before Abélard first saw the city. But construction had stopped when Giotto died and the structure was not completed until well after he was asleep. “Sorry, I got carried away.” he quickly added, “This guide book is so well done, I imagined an unfinished tower,” he trailed off with a contrived laugh.

Elizabetta and Oliver watched Abelard with a mixture of awe and some amusement. He was rooted to the pavement in front of the Baptistery’s east door, which Michelangelo called the Gate to Paradise, in which Lorenzo Ghiberti, who also did the north door, sculpted Old Testament scenes onto its ten panels. They might have been less amused had they been able to listen in on Abelard’s thoughts. He clearly remembers Andrea Pisano’s magnificent south door, done before he would have first set foot in the Piazza during the troubled fourteenth century, but the other two were executed too late for him to have ever viewed. He was transfixed, unaware of all else.

His special memories gave him a window on what ordinary people at the time would have seen. He didn’t perceive it as art that was great for the fourteenth century, to be admired for its period creativity and innovation and at the same time to be thrilled by its great age. For him, this was current and dealt with outstanding beauty in subjects of intimate familiarity to a medieval nobleman. While the ready explanations that science provided for most natural phenomena had by now stripped away much, if not all of Abelard’s piety, at the time God was the only available story for all that was unknown to the medieval mind. Art, mostly religious in character, was meant for the believer, to titillate, impress and inspire.

Along the Via Calzaiuoli on the way to the Piaza della Signoria they passed a small, compactly built man carrying a plastic shopping bag. He twisted his head in all directions but theirs, as though looking for someone. He wasn’t difficult to spot, being the only human that morning wearing a loud, chequered jacket. It may all have been meaningless coincidence but Abelard sensed that he was following them.

Ah, Abelard reminisced, the old palace of the Signoria is still there and not much changed. He had signed more than a few contracts here and even proffered a number of threats when not in the employ of Florence. But these Florentines were very clever indeed, and maddeningly shrewd. Of all the states with which he had dealt, they were certainly the toughest negotiators. At some point the Signoria did something that VBI and many other companies today should do, they asked themselves what business they were in, deciding that the military business was not one in which they cared to excel. They were shrewd merchants, excellent cloth makers and craftsmen, but as soldiers they really couldn’t hope to do any better than their rivals. During that period of military adventurism this was a capitally important realization. It was in that spirit they were able to develop such skill at contracting, or as it would be called today, outsourcing their military requirements to people like Abelard, very talented at making war. And by specializing in mercantile enterprise, their forte, they did more than well enough to pay for someone else to organize violence in their favour.

The next morning they hired a car. The facility was along the Via Ponte Rosso, on the road to Bologna and their appointment was for later that afternoon. It was a much warmer day and after spending part of the morning wandering through the gold and silversmith shops lining the Ponte Vecchio and a quick tour through the Pitti Palace they left the noisy, crowded city and headed into the Fiesole Hills for a picnic. They drove out of the city’s smoggy haze and moved into the soft light of Italy’s mountainous countryside. There was nothing harsh about the fabric like quality of the sun’s rays as they were diffused through the humid air rising from between the verdant hills. It was a light so skilfully captured by the brush strokes of Giotto, Masaccio, Fra Angelica and later, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio and Filippino Lippi.

They stopped at a small hotel of low, pretty white buildings surrounded by budding olive trees. There was a restaurant which was happy to prepare for them a lunch to be eaten in the grove. They had a splendid view of Florence, the outsized cathedral dome dominating their vision at every angle. After devouring his food Abélard curled up on the ground and fell almost instantly soundly asleep. Elizabetta was busy on her cell chatting with her mother and Oliver was growing happier, calmer, and drowsier when he was suddenly startled by a gentle hand shaking his shoulder. It was a hotel employee who thought it best to let Oliver know that someone was snooping about their car.

Oliver was immediately alert and dashed through the grove. Emerging unexpectedly from the hedge surrounding the lot he startled the stalker who was still carrying the plastic bag and wearing the ugly chequered jacket. When he saw Oliver coming towards him he turned and jumped through the already open passenger door of a black car. They were already through the main gate and on the road before he could get close enough to make out the license.

“If something happens and we are separated, we will meet at the cloister in the Museo di San Marco, tomorrow morning,” Oliver said, after telling them that they had been followed since their arrival. Abelard, completely at ease with danger and already having spotted the sore thumb, was not surprised. Elizabetta was left breathless at the thought that she was in some sort of peril. She looked at Oliver a long while, as though begging him to say that this had all been a poor joke, her eyes grown imploringly big and round, her skin paler than usual. Oliver felt both sorry and guilty that he could do nothing to change their situation.

Abelard did not say much because what he suspected would have alarmed Oliver and, especially, Elizabetta. He reasoned that he had perhaps overestimated his leeway. Milly may in fact have earlier than expected discovered Abelard’s absence. Unable to reach him, he would by now have put everyone in the company on alert. Even worse, if all VBI employees were on alert, they could find themselves in an awkward situation at the research facility, particularly since Milly would by then surely have been informed of their impending visit.

 

 

***

 

 

They walked through the glass doors into the windowless two story building at exactly the time when everyone else was on the way out and they were harshly jostled by people evidently in a hurry to be leaving. It looked like an emergency evacuation but it was something that happened every day with the same intensity, people desperate to distance themselves from an unpleasant environment. The well furnished reception area was empty except for a security guard in a drab olive uniform, complete with military belt and covered holster. He punched Abelard’s name into the computer and activated his security card to give him access to the entire facility. Had he not been so intensely focussed on retrieving the sample he may have been alerted that all was not right when the guard raised no objection to Oliver and Elizabetta accompanying him through the steel barrier and into the high security area.

The door had barely clicked shut when, as one, they recoiled at the Doctor Mengele type who greeted them. He was older, gimp eyed and with a caricatural hard face. Oliver and Elizabetta were at any moment prepared to run. It wasn’t only the Dr. Mengele type who kept them alert, all the people behind the steel door, without exception, seemed to have deliberately made an effort to appear unsavoury. A little like a horror show. For a moment even Abelard wondered whether they should be taking them seriously. Having been here before he was only a little less flummoxed than the others.

“Herr Büush,” the man who greeted him said, the umlaut almost visible in the harsh accent breaking Abelard’s name into two distinct syllables, “nice to see you again. You had so little time to look over this facility when you were here last, would you like to finish your tour?”

“That is very kind of you Herr Doctor Gruber, but I am again in somewhat of a hurry. I require that you to give me access to the cryogenics laboratory. I have left something there and would now need to reclaim it.”

When Gruber insisted he should accompany him into the lab Abelard pulled rank and went in alone. He was still, after all, the boss at VBI Pharma. In the cryogenics lab there was a bank of small freezers against one wall, each with an attached tag on which was scrawled a do-not-disturb-until-after date. Fortuitously the telephone on the small desk in the corner kept up an insistent ring, which the technician had tried to ignore, but felt eventually compelled to answer. Abelard used the distraction to quickly retrieve the small vial and put it into a portable freezer. During his brief earlier visit he had quietly placed the sample into the freezer with the longest remaining time to open date. No one but Abelard knew it was there.

“It is late Doctor Gruber,” he said, as he came out of the lab, “we must be going. Thank you for your help and keep up the good work. I’m watching you and your excellent progress.” Gruber carefully pulled the door to the lab shut until he heard the reassuring snap and then led them back to the exit. After a flurry of handshakes, and always with that annoying smug smile, he opened the steel door to the reception area. There, casually dressed in deep purple polo shirt and dark slacks, leaning on the high reception counter, was Milly.

“Abe, Oliver, and you must be Ms Trebella,” he said, looking up from the small, ornate bronze sculpture of a hound gripping a fox in its jaws, which he had been admiring. He wasn’t smiling. His face was at once severe and sad, as though prepared to do what he must, unpleasant as that may be. Short cold tremors visibly convulsed Elizabetta’s shoulders.

“I won’t keep you very long, it’s late in the evening and you are surely hungry and tired. But there is something I need to talk to you about.” He was looking only at Abelard, as though the others had suddenly disappeared. “You will probably think me terribly silly to have come all this way just to tell you how disappointed I am, no, more than disappointed, actually very, very distressed with how you have turned against me. We had a bond between us, no different than if you had taken an oath of personal loyalty to me, as I now believe you had done with others before we met.” Only Abelard caught the last bit.

He paused for a moment as though trying to keep his emotions in check. The pressures inside him to release long pent up volatile anger were building into a massive explosion. He continued, his words growing louder as he spoke. He was now practically shouting. “I kept my end of the bargain. I gave you power, prestige, wealth, made you a law unto yourself. And how do you repay me? You disavow me. You ignominiously tell me I am no longer fit to be your protector. You, whose life I made, remade as you were before falling into your deep sleep; there it was again but unnoticed by Oliver and Elizabetta, too surprised to pay any attention to such small details. You had the temerity to repudiate me. I can never forgive you because, Abe, I can never again trust you to be loyal to me. Loyalty, personal loyalty, Abe, is the measure of a man. You have been appraised and found wanting. Goodbye Abe. You will of course never tell anyone about our little talk.”

Then he stopped and Elizabetta really began worrying. He hadn’t even warned her and Oliver to keep quiet. In fact, he didn’t even seem to be asking or, for that matter, warning Abelard to keep his secret. Ominously, he appeared to be making a statement of fact that Abelard would never tell anyone, in spite of his harangue against Abelard’s apparent lack of loyalty and his own capacity to trust him. Then he turned away.

“Oh, before you go,” he said, his voice now controlled and icy, “please give me the sample.” Abelard was aware there were cameras everywhere in the facility but couldn’t help showing some surprise that Milly would know about the sample.

“How did you know about it?”

“I suppose you must still neglect the ordinary precautions that anyone who imbibed common technologies with their mother’s milk would instinctively keep in mind,” his tone now laced with some pity and a little regret at the outcome. He didn’t bother to tell him that listening devices had been placed in his telephones. He then turned away from them to dial a number on his phone. “Dona Maria,” he snapped, and then waited a moment, before resuming, “I have a Bush in hand,” this time with an arrogant self-confidence that seemed his due, under the circumstances.

But serendipity had that evening chosen Abelard as its favourite. The security guard created the circumstances for which Abelard had been searching since first seeing Milly. He had been a little too quick to unlock the glass doors. For Abelard, always attuned to even the tiniest opportunity, this was sufficient. He still had the portable freezer slung at his side. He suddenly took two strides forward, upended Milly with a swift circular kick to the knees and the hapless guard, holding open the door, did not have time to be surprised as he was rendered unconscious by a blow from Oliver. They rushed through the exit into the damp, cool night air.

It was by now quite dark and the few dim sodium lamps illuminating the large, virtually empty parking area cast little light. The lot had been full when they first arrived, the only empty space being at the farthest corner. They were already a good way across the vast vacant expanse when they heard the engine roar and tires squealing for traction. The large black automobile stopped some ten metres from where they were standing. Then they heard the grating of the facility’s glass door as it swung open in the distance. The slightly dazed security guard moved speedily down the stairs in their direction, Milly hard on his heels. Abelard quickly concluded that their pursuers were positioning to surround them. He looked back and forth between the security guard on one side and the black car on the other.

“Oliver,” Abelard whispered, “there is a park across the road with a small heavily wooded area in one corner, we are going run for that shelter and try to lose them in the dark.” Upon arriving, with a cunning wisdom rooted in the stalking predator he had instinctively reconnoitred the area to plan his escape route before doing battle.

The enemy was in position, the security guard was approaching, his right hand primed to draw the pistol. He stopped a few paces from where they stood, smiled and gestured towards the big car saying, in heavily accented English, “please, we will drive you; your car does not work,” astoundingly as though he expected to be believed.

“That’s very kind of you,” Abelard muttered through a thin smile. He turned towards the black car, taking Elizabetta with one hand and Oliver with the other. But he didn’t move, just waiting, as though unsure of where to go, all the while hearing the guard’s footsteps approaching, closing the gap so as to goad them on towards the car. Swiftly and suddenly Abelard swung around and struck the guard hard enough to daze him, grabbed his gun and hissed at Oliver and Elizabetta to run. They made it into the thicket of trees just ahead of their pursuers.

“As soon as they enter the wood,” Abelard shouted to Oliver, “you and Elizabetta make for the road down this side and I will flee in the other direction.”

“Now!” Abelard gave his clipped order just as several men slipped past the outer trees, and they bolted off in their respective directions. Oliver and Elizabetta had to move slowly at first, the trees were practically invisible in the dark and hitting one at high speed would surely have knocked them out. Once beyond the last tree they broke into a dead run, heading towards the road at the dark spot between two street lamps.

The hunters spotted them but could not quickly enough decide who to follow and so gave them the precious moments they needed to get away. Oliver and Elizabetta had reached the bridge over the railway tracks and were across in an instant. That’s when they heard several gunshots from the general direction in which Abelard had run. They did not know what was happening; only that Abelard did have a gun.

They ran across the Piazza della Liberta and at Via San Gallo they spotted a sign indicating a police station further down the street. They were by this time breathing heavily from exertion. They turned to see headlights moving quickly towards the piazza from the other side. Their pursuers had seen them, tires screeching as they accelerated to come around the small square. They ran towards the police station, only two blocks ahead. But they weren’t fast enough, not more than a few seconds from the stairs leading up into the station the big black car was already slowing beside them and the door swinging open.

“Arresto,” was all they heard the fallen officer say as they continued running after knocking him to the ground. He had, very fortuitously, appeared out of nowhere, stepping into their path. Seeing him the black car closed its door and drove a few feet more, stopping at the stairs leading up into the station.

They bounded up those stairs and through the glass doors. They were exhausted, falling to the floor. Anyone who had not been on their feet when they burst in was now standing and everyone who was carrying a gun now had it drawn and cocked. The policeman whom they had collided with was just stepping through the doors and wham, he was bowled forward by one of the pursuers. A colleague kept him from falling, easing him over to lean against a high counter, guessing it might not be safe for anyone to just yet sit down.

As though on cue, dozens of people all began jabbering at once. Then Milly walks in, waves his hands and in the silence that follows oozes solicitously, “Oliver, Oliver, you poor man, please don’t be frightened, we won’t hurt you. You’ve been through a lot and it is time to rest. Come, we will go back to the hotel together.”

From where he had collapsed onto the hardwood floor Oliver stared up at him in open disbelief at what he was hearing. Milly didn’t actually think that Oliver would just get up and accompany him because he asked so nicely. He expected the police to believe him. He was talking for their benefit, not Oliver’s. And they were warming to him. One of his men was busily explaining something to someone who looked to be in charge and judging from his gestures, pointing to his head with a knowing squint, he was telling him that Oliver was not of sound mind. This would not have been an outlandish conclusion given Oliver’s decrepit condition; muddy, unkempt and like a cornered animal quickly moving his wide eyes in all directions.

“No, no,” Oliver’s screaming had by now become quite frantic, reinforcing first impressions, as the two policemen who had picked him up began leading him toward the doors. They were helping Milly take him away. “He’s the one that’s insane, not me,” Oliver shouted, pulling away from the two holding him and making for the door, only to be pounced on by the entire crowd. Now even the doubters must have been convinced he was surely mad.

“Basta, basta,” Elizabetta was yelling, the sound of her voice seeping through the crush of bodies holding Oliver down. Then they were all gone and there were Elizabetta’s large, lovely, pale green eyes, broad round forehead and those lips made entirely of sweet empathy. There was also a man, the captain of the station he guessed, who seemed to be in charge, waving everyone back with one arm and helping Oliver up with the other. He said a few words to a uniformed cop and suddenly Milly and his men were surrounded by the mob. He then spoke briefly to Elizabetta, smiled and gestured towards the door.

“We are free to go,” she said, with considerable disbelief. “They will be holding Milly for questioning.

As they left they did not see the captain, back in his office, showing a man in a gaudy chequered jacket out the rear door.

 

 

***

 

 

Oliver and Elizabetta arrived at the convent in a state of apparent bliss, as if the previous night’s adventures were but habitual and mundane fare. They had taken a room at a small, unremarkable hotel to which the taxi they flagged at the police station had taken them. By the dull light from the street lamp outside their window, seeping in at the edges of the inadequate drapes, Oliver saw the persistent tension in Elizabetta’s eyes. With his own nerves also frayed, neither of them could find any good reason not to seek comfort in each other’s embrace. They both understood that the day’s extraordinary events were a clear notice that some pleasures should be enjoyed at once.

But bliss can only go so far. The long awaited pleasures of the night were sadly replaced by gnawing anxiety in the morning. After a few minutes alone at the monastery reality began to set in. Abelard was nowhere to be seen. It was almost nine on a sombre day and there were no more feeble excuses they could contrive to reasonably explain Abelard’s absence; he overslept; he stopped for breakfast to feed his notorious appetite; he was still hiding. The gunshots they had heard finally intruded to turn thin explanations into worrying epilogues. But they waited. They did not even dare to descend into the small cells under the convent to admire the celebrated works of Fra Angelico. By ten they had all but given up hope and were heading for the exit. They were walking slowly down the east cloister gallery when they crossed a hooded monk and fell into the annoying repetitive right-hop left-hop right-hop left-hop right-hop dance impatient people fall into when they try to get by each other. They had seen him loitering in the cloister for the better part of the last hour. He may have been there when they arrived but had gone unnoticed. At the fifth unsuccessful attempt to get by two muscled arms shot from the extra wide sleeves and seized Oliver in an iron grip. Instinctively Oliver folded his arms inwards to break free against the weak hold of the thumbs and then raised both arms to deliver a blow to his assailant’s shoulders.

“Mercy, please have mercy,” a very familiar voice pleaded before Oliver could bring down his clenched fists. “You wouldn’t strike a man of the cloth, would you,” the monk continued in Abelard’s easily recognizable voice. It didn’t for moment occur to Abelard that Oliver might take his delay in revealing himself as an unfortunate, ill-considered practical joke until he noticed the bulging jaw bones and snarly lips of an obviously agitated Oliver. He took care to hastily add, “I needed to make sure you were not followed.” That seemed to satisfy Oliver, leaving him to put aside outrage.

With a shake of his head Abelard threw back the cowl to reveal a mud caked face with overnight stubble clearly visible where the encrusted dirt had already fallen away. Long embraces, tears and joy followed. Two of their pursuers had located Abelard and had made the mistake of trying to shoot him in the darkness. They quickly emptied their weapons and before they had time to put in fresh clips, Abelard was upon them with his blade. They did not have a chance. He then made ready to spend the night in the wood, planning to make his way to the rendezvous at daybreak. The small crooked crosses he retrieved from around the dead men’s necks confirmed his earlier suspicions that Milly would eventually find it in his interest to work with the Donatello. His clothes were dirty and torn in several places and he worried about attracting the wrong attention. Just then the horseshoe that seemed to have been permanently lodged up his backside produced a lone monk at the edge of the wood hurrying along the street. Having no quarrel with this hapless servant of the Lord, Abelard asked him politely if he might not borrow his robes for a matter of some urgency. True, intimidation may have played a small role in the monk’s quick and positive response; he did not hide the already bloodied knife and, in the event their meeting would not fall within the confidentiality conventions such meetings between ecclesiastics and lay persons were expected to, he had also covered his face with a cotton scrap torn from his own shirt. As it was late, with no hotel to which to return and too dark to take his bearings, Abelard donned the habit and bedded down in the wood for the night, the generous monk quietly shivering beside him, with warmth but a forlorn hope. At daybreak he reclaimed the rope belt conveniently used to bind the monk and asked him to solemnly promise not to move for another 20 minutes. He set off on foot to the rendezvous. Since monks were known to walk everywhere he reckoned that hailing a cab would arouse suspicion. He moved briskly in the general direction of historic Florence and arrived at the convent less than two hours later, well before Oliver and Elizabetta.

Their baggage was still at the Savoy but they thought it safer not to go there. They had no clothes, no car and no where to go for shelter. Elizabetta’s mother lived in Florence. They would go there to plan their next move. Her lodging was only a few streets from the convent. They stopped at a café, a little before her building, and huddled in the doorway to monitor traffic in the event her apartment was being watched.

Mother, her sometimes intolerant mother, was in Tunisia, willing to cavort with foreigners as small price to keep her bones warm. But something was wrong. As Elizabetta turned the key to the apartment, the sound of lock tumblers falling in place seemed to be everywhere. The stairwell door behind them was being slowly pushed open. Elizabetta, wary not to attract attention, slowly twisted her head towards the noise, only to see Abelard standing next to a tall, stocky stranger, wearing a long grey coat with what seemed to be an out of place cherry stain below the neck. Abelard was not constrained by inexperience. He reacted instantly and swiftly. The gunman had but a very short second to peer through the open door before Abelard was upon him. He was already dead by the time Elizabetta saw him falling slowly to his knees and then forward onto his face, the thick carpet muffling the sound as his heavy weapon hit the floor. Abelard, impassive as ever, the bloody knife firmly in his fist, did not give the body a second glance.

“No one could possibly have heard,” Abelard said, looking carefully, professionally along both ends of the corridor, ignoring Elizabetta’s evident distress, “let’s go inside. It will be best if someone else finds the body. When the police show up, we saw and heard nothing.” They entered, closed and bolted the door, Abelard moving to look out the window and Elizabetta swiftly to the kitchen for a quick retch.

Listening to Abelard relate his sordid stories during therapy was one thing. It was unpleasant, but like watching a horror film. The feelings of intense fear, revulsion, terror were all momentary, fading with the session. But this was real. Elizabetta had just watched Abelard swiftly, efficiently and with a remarkable sang-froid, butcher another human being. He operated on remembered experience, driven entirely by ruthless necessity. He revealed no emotion as he ushered them into the apartment, already planning their story for the authorities. He was right, of course, in everything he had done. He had saved their lives, yet it was to no avail for Elizabetta’s emotional mind, the one she used to assess her personal experiences. No matter how much she reasoned there was just not enough logic in the world to wash away the gruesome scene. She took solace in recalling that Abelard was, of his own admission, now repelled by such violence. Although, he could have fooled her. Instinct.

“We cannot stay here very much longer,” he said. “They will soon know,” he added, dangling the small crooked cross from his fingers.

“My mother also has a house in Lucca, about 70 kilometres west of here,” Elizabetta told him in an unnaturally frail voice. “We will be safe there,” she said, more of a question than a statement of fact.

“We should leave immediately,” Abelard said, “I didn’t see anyone else watching this building but it will not be very long before they find their friend,” he said, pointing to the door. His swift reaction apparently owed as much to habit as to having first spotted the assassin in the shadows by the staircase doorway in the building lobby.

From the bedroom Elizabetta emerged waving a small plastic card. Her mother kept a spare for emergencies and Elizabetta was sure she wouldn’t mind if it was her daughter’s emergency. They needed clothes and a car. Elizabetta first changed into the best fitting garments she could find. Her mother being a bit heavier and shorter, Elizabetta’s hands stuck far out of the sleeves and her waistline disappeared in the excess cloth billowing about her. She then left to shop for everyone. It would have been too dangerous for all three to go out together. She returned with clothes for all and the keys to a rented car. They were ready to head for Lucca and, ultimately, France where they were to connect with Felicity.

The rains had made everything dank and cold, leaving a swampy odour clinging to their clothes. The inside of the car had the same musty smell. They would use the Lucca house to plan and make their next moves. On the road, mulling over their predicament, Abelard had developed a plan which involved lying to his friends, normally not a problem but leaving him this time mildly uncomfortable. Oliver had a while back said something, which now set Abelard thinking and scheming. It seems he had kept in regular contact with an old school buddy who now lived in France. Martin Dumouchel had been a very successful investment banker and very quickly made a fortune and even more quickly tired of the constant stress that was the investment banker’s lot. He had taken his winnings and invested in a small exclusive hotel with storied restaurant in the Perigord region of France. Abelard’s curiosity had gotten the better of him on a previous trip to the region and he couldn’t help a short detour to look at Martin’s estate. He at once realized that he already knew the place quite well. Abelard would set his strategy in motion when they got to Lucca.

The house was just off the Piazza San Martino in the old university town. Some of the buildings were familiar to Abelard, who remembers visiting Lucca while in the service of Florence, the two cities being often in dispute. Driving by the church of San Martino Abelard looked wistfully out the window at the Romanesque facade, its superposed galleries, its columns carved with chimerical animal forms. He wondered if they couldn’t stop by in the morning to see the famous Volto Santo with Nicodemus’ supposedly accurate reproduction of Christ’s features.

“Art, my dear, glorious art is all that motivates me. Nothing more,” he assured his therapist. Not quite ‘nothing more’. There was apparently another matter. The unrecognizable but by now familiar tune Abelard began humming alerted everyone that he had something delicate to bring up.

“I have been keeping something from you,” he began, standing at the kitchen table like a lecturer before his students. “Very recently, perhaps from all the excitement, some memories have been coming back to me. They have to do with the little cross which the Malvue boys took from me in the cave. It is part of a very much larger treasure, the lost loot of King John the Good also known as John the Stupid, which is buried in Gascony. I now recollect…”

“Hold on,” Oliver broke in, “this sounds suspiciously like the treasure one Abelard de Buch, Gascon noblemen, warrior and mercenary, tried to convince me actually existed. I’m not sure this is a good time to have a relapse Abelard.”

“Elizabetta,” he decided to try another tack, “please tell our friend here that while the totality of my memories may be nonsense, there are almost certainly bits and pieces that are real. It’s only that they are difficult to identify.”

“He’s right about that my dear Oliver,” she said with great tenderness and not without a little apprehension.

“Alright, tell us more,” scepticism lacing Oliver’s tone.

“I don’t recall ever actually touching it, but I do remember studying a map, which for inexplicable reasons is engraved in my mind,” he lied, in a flutter free voice, looking them directly in the eyes.

“How did you come by this potentially very beneficial drawing?”

“I just don’t remember. It’s a complete blank.”

“So,” Oliver interrupted, “let me see if I understand. “You are serendipitously in the possession of a very valuable document, the map to a great treasure buried somewhere in Gascony. You have memorized the map but have never actually seen the stash. Did I get this about right?” Oliver’s voice now tinged with some sarcasm.

“Oliver, Abelard” Elizabetta piped in, looking up from the laptop with which she had been busy, is this the cross? She turned the screen towards them and there it was under the heading, Lost Medieval Treasures.

“That’s it,” Abelard responded unable to hide his glee, smug satisfaction writ large in his eyes.

“So, what does that prove? Only that there is, or was, a famous little jewelled cross somewhere on this planet.” Oliver remained obstinate. “So what is it you want us to do, supposing we were willing to give you more credit than we had a moment ago?”

“Right, that’s all I was looking for, some credibility. I would need just a little more trust from you, no more than the little bit you now have in my map. Getting to the treasure will not be easy. I mean it would be really easy except for a small obstacle, which is why I would need some financing. And I can assure you it would be incredibly low risk for the provider of such finance.”

“Let me guess, you want me to introduce you to Martin Dumouchel,” mild disdain again creeping in to taint his words. Abelard felt the edge to Oliver’s voice but remained patient.

“That is all I want. Only an introduction. I will put my business case directly to him. I’ve dealt with enough investment bankers to know they are not naïve. With them it’s not so much the story by itself that is important, although it must have complete credibility, but the risks, clearly and fully enunciated, they would have to take relative to the rewards they might earn. I’m sure he will make his decision based on those considerations alone. You will be entirely absolved from any responsibility. That is what you want isn’t it?” This last question was meant to wound and it did. Oliver did not immediately answer. He withdrew into his thoughts.

“One last question,” he finally said. “What is this obstacle you refer to?”

“The place where the treasure is buried has recently been developed and is covered by a suburban community. I took a quick trip there last year and pinpointed the spot, which has a house right on top.”

“I suppose the house is inhabited.”

“Unfortunately, yes.”

“What do you propose?”

“That we buy that house as well as the eight houses surrounding it so that the noise and vibration of our digging will not be detected.”

“That’s going to be expensive.”

“Yes, about three to four million euros, all in.”

“I’d be surprised that Martin would go for that.”

“ I doubt Mr. Dumouchel would care about the three to four million as such. In his game he cares mainly about potential gains versus losses and whether he is happy with the spread. There are two possible outcomes: we find the treasure and he makes fabulous returns from his percentage; or we find nothing and he loses up to 20% of his investment, which is what I reckon we will have to pay as a premium above and beyond the market value of the houses in order to acquire them all.”

“Hmm, what do you think, Elizabetta?”

“It’s worth a try. But I’m not optimistic. We know Abelard and we are still sceptical because he might just be confusing wishful thinking with facts. No one has ever actually seen this cross, yes even if we know it exists, so we are still relying mainly on the word of one man with, and I’m sorry to have to say this, amnesia and delusional memories. Abelard will have to have something more substantial to pull out of his hat when he sees Mr. Dumouchel. So, what’s the worst that can happen? He’ll say no and we will have had a nice trip. Let’s go for it.”

“Great,” Abelard said, “now we must hurry to meet Felicity.”

 

 

***

 

 

Felicity took some simple precautions to thwart anyone who would want to follow her. Upon entering her room at the Hotel Scribe in the Opera district she clicked the dead bolt home to avoid interruptions from helpful hotel staff. She unzipped the large bright red valise from which she extracted a smaller more sober black tote bag and pulled from it an intense red wig, which she carelessly adjusted at the entrance mirror. The ankle length skirt was quickly stuffed into the suitcase, the legs of her jeans unrolled and a heavy wool sweater slipped over the sober blouse in which she had registered at the hotel. Not bad, she thought, hardly recognized myself.

Other than the disdainful inspection from self appointed fashion mavens that haunt expensive hotel lobbies, no one gave her a second look as she made her way to the street, the large tote bag, not much bigger than the huge handbag substitutes that had recently come into fashion, slung over her shoulder. She walked the three blocks to Boulevard Haussmann and stopped at the rental agency to pick up the car she had reserved over the internet before leaving Montreal. She would drive to Quiberon, at the end of a small Breton peninsula on the Atlantic coast, about 500 Kilometres east of Paris, stay the night at a hotel and then drive to the prearranged rendezvous at Locmariaquer, about 30 kilometres inland.

At midmorning the following day, the fog shrouded Gulf of Morbihan all but invisible from the shore, she set out and drove the short distance to Locmariaquer, deliberately arriving over an hour and a half early. She would make her way to the spot described by Abelard and monitor it from a distance just to be sure all was at it should be. How Abelard could have known about this place she had not the slightest inkling. It was the French version of Stonehenge, with huge chiselled boulders laboriously placed in some order that remains a mystery to this day, presumably by ancient Celtic tribes. She would be looking for the Great Broken Menhir which should resemble a gigantic stone monolith that had been broken into four pieces. Easy enough to find.

Easy enough perhaps when the view was clear, which did not happen very often in this gloomy coastal area. The fog was thick and she was having trouble locating the marker. She had seen a sign which assured anyone reading it that the field of menhirs, megaliths, dolmens and other piles of prehistoric rubble was a mere two kilometres along. She could see shrouded stone structures outlined against the wispy air but could not make out any sizable fragments that may have once been a larger structure. She would need to ask directions, which was itself a problem since she seemed to be the only human in the area.

Cool, collected, unflappable Felicity had apparently suffered far more than she let on from the disheartening picture that had emerged of an Abelard more sordid than valiant. She had placed a very tidy emotional bet on him. Now she was vulnerable beyond her control. Her legendary ability to deal with stress had been greatly compromised. As the noon deadline loomed anxiety began to show in her body. Her pulse quickened, her bowls were loosening and in spite of the cool mist, perspiration beads were growing across her forehead. The first inklings of panic flowed from her brain to her hands and on to the steering wheel, ending with her car off the road. She needed to stop and restart her mind. Tears were now rolling down her flushed cheeks. If she missed this rendezvous there was no telling when and where another could be arranged. Abelard had been clear about not using cell phones and she didn’t want her stupidity to jeopardize anyone else. The door groaned loudly as she vigorously flung it open, jumped to the shoulder and began to yell Abelard’s name, hoping the rendezvous point was not too far off. Nothing. Then she had a coherent thought.

She rolled her window down, slipped Bach’s Magnificat into the CD player and chose Abelard’s favourite piece, the Omnis. She turned the volume right up and set the car to roll at barely walking speed. It worked. After a moment the blaring car horn came through clearly and very close by. Then she spotted the flashing lights and was much comforted that all was working out as it was supposed to.

Relieved as she was to see Abelard, the bad memories were still there. Her infatuation with him had suffered severely since he had joined VBI and given free reign to his fathomless ambitions. The seamy side that Oliver had warned might be lurking in someone whose only guide to life was drawn from Medieval rules of engagement had been oozing through a very thin veneer indeed. She was sickened by his callous disregard for anything and anyone that could hamper his feeding frenzy. And that, she painfully realized, included her. She had been planning to end their relationship when she received the urgent summons to the rendezvous. Inertia, long habit, her uncle’s insistent ominous inquiries, still simmering love or whatever, she would see what this was all about and if it was not a real emergency she would end it right here.

“Still upset with me I see,” Abelard said after the unenthusiastic embrace. He spoke quickly, trying to squeeze much emotion into the little time he believed he had in which to make his case. “I wish I could say I’ve changed and you will never have reason for regret, but that would be dishonest. I can say that I have begun to rethink everything about my life, about what I want and about how I see others. I don’t know where it will all lead but I do know that I don’t like the way I have been. I also don’t know how long it will all take. I can say only one thing with certainty; I don’t want to lose you.”

This was a new element that she had not reckoned on. She had been fooled long enough and was not to be so easily lured back into unconditional passions. She paused a moment and thought, quite sensibly, that she would always retain the option to leave, so the risks were low. There was also something spontaneous about Abelard’s self assessment that gave it more credibility than it perhaps deserved. She would for the present, at least, hold off on any irrevocable decisions. But she would also hold on to the scepticism with which she arrived.

“Fair enough,” she said. “So what’s up, now that we’ve all travelled thousands of kilometres to a secret rendezvous?”

Felicity’s features cycled through an entire range of expressions as Abelard recounted the events in Florence and his subsequent meeting with Milly. She was astounded, incredulous, shocked and sceptical, sometimes all at once.

”What do you two think about this treasure hunt,” she asked Elizabetta and Oliver, who had already compromised their neutrality in this matter, nodding approvingly throughout Abelard’s personal epiphany?

“You really want to know if he’s making all this stuff up as he goes along,” Oliver answered, shuffling uncomfortably and deliberately keeping his eyes away from Abelard. “I wish I knew. But I can tell you with certainty that there are people out there who are incredibly upset with him and that includes your uncle. I can only hope they’re part of the same crowd that Abelard let live just long enough for you and me to make their acquaintance at the Malvue farm. Otherwise I’ve got to assume Abelard here just can’t seem to make permanent friends.”

“I don’t want to intrude into such personal matters,” Elizabetta said in her ever soft professional tone, “but if I might make a suggestion, we should put our doubts aside for a bit and let Abelard lead us to the treasure. If it turns out to be a delusion,” here she turned to Abelard, asking him silently to forgive her blunt words, and was rewarded with what appeared to be a sympathetic smile and an approving nod, “we can urge him to go to the police and report that he is being hunted by The Society.” Abelard was grateful for any help he could get to move his deception along.

The fog had begun to thin, revealing deliberately placed large stone blocks, some towering well above the others, covering a vast field. The clouds were losing their gloomy grey and little bits of blue were making short intermittent appearances. The sky dumbly reflected the mild relief that was settling on the little group. They at least now had in hand a plan and an end, of sorts. Felicity’s mistrust did not disappear, but it did recede sufficiently to lower the initial tensions she had brought with her to Locmariaquer.

“Lead on then,” Felicity broke the momentary silence adding an audible sigh to temper the growing enthusiasm she felt was gaining on them. “I’m quite looking forward to seeing how quickly your buddy Dumouchel’s going to warm up to this story, with which I suppose everyone but me is familiar,” she said to Oliver.

“Well,” Oliver could barely be heard, speaking into his jacket, visibly uncomfortable.

“Oops, my hearing hasn’t yet evolved to make out the sub-decibel stuff, could you speak up.”

“Ahem,” he cleared his throat, “sorry about that,” his voice now too loud, looking to the others for support.

“It’s my game, I’ll fill her in,” Abelard said, without his usual assertiveness.

“No, no, I’m quite capable,” Oliver insisted.

It was no great mystery why everyone was so hesitant to relate their contrived story to Felicity; it was a tale of laughable simplicity, bordering on the juvenile. Abelard, our Argentinean friend traces his ancestry back to medieval Gascon nobility. No, he does not have the genealogical data with him, but he does have something else. While rummaging through artifacts, handed down over the centuries, he came across a map transcribed by one of his forbears, just as the French Revolution was institutionalizing the reign of terror.

Over the centuries this incredible family never wrote down the location of its secret treasure, preferring instead to pass this knowledge orally down through the generations. Until the French revolution this strategy worked very well. However, the systematic and inexorable eradication by the French of their hereditary nobility made it plain to the family that it would be best to transcribe the location. The resulting map, after disappearing from circulation and from memory in the turmoil following the 1848 revolution, was finally, albeit accidentally, discovered by Abelard. Even though he was not fully convinced that it was authentic, he had heard rumours and whispers from older family members about the existence of such a map and decided it would be fun to do some treasure hunting. Lo and behold, it turned out not to be a hoax after all. The small jewelled cross, which you can see on the laptop, is actually in his aunt’s possession. Now Abelard would like to convert his find into useful wealth. End of story.

Felicity was not able to immediately give them the benefit of her thoughts. She was laughing too hard. Tears had rolled off her cheeks leaving long grey flecks on her black silk scarf. When she did finally manage to compose herself she very directly let them know it might all be a bit too simplistic, perhaps even a touch simple. Would Martin be offended by such a transparent lie? Yes, Elizabetta weighed in with a plausible psychological argument. If Martin thought that we were actually trying to make him believe our story and then finished by thinking he had actually swallowed it, it would all end on a sour note. If, on the other hand, he saw it as something of a game, an honest game that would be entirely different. We would be telling him the map was authentic but that we couldn’t tell him everything. He might easily live with that, putting much trust in an old friendship. “I’m sorry to be laying such responsibility on your moral shoulders,” she ended with an imploring look at Oliver.

They arrived at the inn under leaden sky. It didn’t officially open to the public until late spring, early summer, catering only to small, select groups during the remainder of the year. The heavy green metal shutters were all closed, leaving a sense of dismal lifelessness about the imposing stone facade. Oliver had telephoned, leaving a message with the caretaker that he would be visiting the following day. Martin would be back from Paris by then.

“It’s unlocked, go right in,” the deep baritone voice coming from behind them said, as they were about to knock at the massive wooden door. There was Martin. Big, burly Martin, dressed in a speckled brown sheepskin bomber jacket, black knit sailor’s tuque, blue jeans and knee-high, fur lined boots, walking briskly towards them, emerging from the woods surrounding the inn.

“Good to see you again Oliver,” he said, grasping his hand to shake and his body to hug with an encouraging affection. Oliver needed that. Good sign. The rare affinity they had all their early lives, when they saw each other on an almost daily basis, had not worn off.

“These, Martin, are my dearest friends. In fact, outside all of you, I couldn’t name another person who is closer to me.”

“Come in, let’s get to the fire and warm ourselves,” here he sniffed the cold damp air, “Francoise is preparing some worthwhile coffee.”

After a little banter, thank you for having us, lovely inn, must be quite old, did you restore it, wonderful decoration, been here long and on and on, the coffee came and the general comfort level rose to a point where asking what they wanted to ask seemed almost civilised.

“Three Canadians and an Argentinean who speaks English with an obscure accent,” Martin observed in that unobtrusive, loving way he had of observing things.

They pointedly ignored Martin’s remarks about Abelard’s suspicious origins, not bothering to lie to him any more than they had to. The prepared story about Abelard’s English teacher being French was discarded. Besides, they reckoned, it added the mystery which they counted on to convey to Martin that there was a real story somewhere which they could not reveal. Would he be kind enough to play the game?

“Oliver, you and your friends will of course stay for lunch,” he more stated than asked.

“Martin, you’re running a business here, not a soup kitchen for people who never show up at your door but that they need something.” There, he had told him that his visit was purposeful, beyond just friendly.

“My dearest friend,” without the sarcasm that often tinges that endearment, “you are more family than the real thing. You need not apologize,” Martin’s edgeless voice gave them much comfort. “I imagine you haven’t had much free time,” so brushing aside Oliver’s worry that he might seem the opportunistic fair-weather friend. “Besides, it must have escaped your notice that I didn’t call you either and living in the woods as I do I could hardly claim to be distracted by too much company. So you see, Oliver, it is I who should be begging you to stay, asking for forgiveness and imploring you not to think ill of me for wanting to profit from your company.”

Abelard was more wide-eyed than usual. He didn’t realize the world still had people like Martin. Indeed, he had never noticed that the world actually had people like Martin, outside the pages of common romantic literature. He was gentle beyond belief. This was all the more astonishing since Martin came from an investment banking world and Abelard, being familiar with the breed, had never seen one that didn’t slither and hiss, if you knew what to look for.

“Ok Martin, you’ve set us at ease. Now stop while you’re ahead. My friends here are going to be thinking it’s you that’s after something,”

“And they would be right. All I’ve had are clients. I’ve greatly needed more intimate company. Never mind, it is agreed then, lunch.”

“Mr. Dumouchel,” Abelard began, only to be stopped by Martin.

“Martin, please Abelard, no formality here.”

“Thank you. Martin, I couldn’t help but notice how well maintained this property is. Yet it is very old. Who was the original builder?”

“It’s about late thirteenth century, but we haven’t been able to find any accurate records. The revolution was quite unkind to anything connected with the Ancien Regime and probably destroyed any existing historical chronicles of this place.”

“Oliver may not have mentioned it to you,” and this was also news to Oliver, “but I am a student of medieval history, as a hobby only, of course. I make no pretensions to scholarly credentials.” Here Abelard looked at Oliver for a reaction. All he saw was surprise and some apprehension, obviously wondering where all this was going. These thoughts he prudently kept to himself.

“I seem to recall reading about such a place in some obscure works about the middle ages. I wonder if it is the same one. It had been built by a baron during the Plantagenet suzerainty. At some point it was owned by the Count of Foix. Then, during a short interval of peace, in 1353, a feud pitted the Captal de Buch against Foix. The castle was attacked and seized by the Gascons, held for ransom and returned after suitable payment.”

Everyone listened raptly, including Martin. Oliver wasn’t sure whether Abelard was making it up as he went along or whether he was speaking from his memories, but he didn’t try to stop him. After a pause, which appeared to signal the end of his story, Martin could no longer contain himself.

“Go on, make up the rest if you have to, but tell us more about the siege.”

“Give me a moment to recall what I had read, it was so long ago.” Abelard was playing the game, and Oliver was convinced that Martin sensed something was awry, although neither his eyes nor his voice betrayed any scepticism, only a genuine reaching out to touch this teller of fascinating tales.

“Gaston Phoebus, the Count of Foix,” Abelard continued, “through alliances, vassals and personal property held sway over everything in the Ariège at the southern tip of France, below Toulouse, as well as various and sundry properties through strategic marriages, royal gifts and outright spoils of war. His southern properties touched those of the Captal’s ancestral dominions which extended south from the bay of Arcachon. To be fair, the Captal also controlled a number of other properties and concessions, such as the great fortress of Chastillon near St. Emilion and the salt trade around Bordeaux, to name but two. These were rewards and gifts from the English crown for unflagging service and loyalty. Indeed, except for a brief episode, when the Captal served the French king, not against the English but against the ‘companies’, he went to his death rather than renounce his ties of continuous loyalty.”

He said this with enough emotion to surprise Oliver who had not realized that Abelard was so deeply involved with his memories, and how attached he apparently was to his presumed father. He paused for a moment, unable to look away from his audience, as though waiting for them to regain their composure after so momentous a scene from the life and death of his ancestor. They just waited, a bit unsettled at Abelard’s sudden discomfort.

Martin was intrigued. He had a talent for reading people through their behaviour much more so than from what they said. Such flair made the difference between success and failure in his previous incarnation as an investment banker. In perpetual negotiations with adversaries saying little beyond the empty form demanded by legal and social protocols, moves were made largely on the basis of observed behaviour – to avoid the deliberate confusion between walking and talking that the players routinely sowed. Abelard’s reaction belied the apparent personal disinterest in his narrative. He heard it in Abelard’s breathing, momentarily brittle and tremulous. He saw it in the misty confusion of his gaze, suddenly disconnected from the present. And he also captured it in the nervous agitation of his hands, alternately splaying the fingers and tensing them into fists. What must Martin have been imagining? A crazy Argentinean, still close to his ancestral roots? A mystic, channeling medieval personalities? He didn’t give any hints. His intense listening, eyes fixed in spellbound concentration, was the only indication that he may have seen more in Abelard’s demeanour than in his story.

“Foix,” Abelard resumed after the seemingly eternal momentary pause, “always ambitious and wishing to demonstrate his sometimes dubious loyalties to the French king, looked the other way when his vassals with territory bordering the Captal’s, launched destructive raids against his rival’s villages and towns. In those times the noble who did not respond to such provocation was not long for this world. That is why well armed knights most of the time had legitimate employment, even when kings made peace. They could usually find a good baronial war too keep them gainfully occupied. These professional warriors had tremendous overhead, what with keeping war horses, armour, men at arms and retainers. The brigandage and growth of the companies, in fact, coincided with an unfortunate, alarming and entirely unexpected decline in the frequency of baronial wars. I guess the bloody struggle between France and England had chewed up so much of their resources, the barons were literally forced to slump into a period of tranquil regrouping, all to the woe of needy fighting men, whose sole means of support was armed conflict.

“The Captal had a couple of options. He could assemble a great force and march directly against the Foix stronghold in the Ariège or some other major holding of his enemy and go for the really big win. Such a course entailed enormous military and financial risks. The big castles were truly forbidding to a besieging force. They were exceptionally well fortified, some with three concentric and successively stronger walls from which the defenders would hurl all means of nasty death at attacking troops; stones, arrows, boiling substances, Greek fire, not to mention flooding and the particularly gruesome butchery that awaited those without much ransom value unlucky enough to be captured.

“The other most often exercised alternative was to go after a weaker castle with a smaller force and so oblige your enemy to either up the ante by risking a siege on his part or come to terms and make peace with amends for damages caused during the earlier provocations. Wisely, this is what the Captal decided. He chose as his target a small chateau on the Dordogne belonging to one of the Count’s half sisters.

“He assembled two battle groups, one under his own command and the other entrusted to his son, Abelard. Yes, that’s right, my namesake. The force consisted of about 200 men, including 50 knights, 100 men-at-arms and 50 archers. The weather was not very pleasant, winter was still clinging tenaciously to the new spring. It was cold and the ground was a muddy nightmare, slowing progress considerably and turning a four day ride into a week.”

For Felicity, Elizabetta and Oliver it was troublingly evident that in his mind he was the same Abelard who accompanied the Captal. They hoped that something so apparent to them would not soon be obvious to Martin. But then again they didn’t fully appreciate Martin’s own unrestrained imagination.

“Awesome, Abelard, it seems like you were there,” Martin suddenly said. “This is all so damn realistic, I expect you to say we or I rather than he and they. You are a very gifted story teller.” If he only knew just how mindful Abelard was being precisely to avoid such incriminating personalization.

“You are too kind Martin. But such stories about our ancestors were so common when I was little much of my tale today is a blend of those boyhood yarns and what I have read over the years. They are so mixed together I wouldn’t ever be able to identify which parts come from where.”

Felicity’s noticeable giggle was the best she could do in suppressing her own amusement. All eyes turned towards her, waiting, expecting a sensible explanation.

“Your story sounds pretty good Abelard,” Felicity, finishing what she had started, finally piped in, “but historically you seem to have the facts confused. Abelard must by that time already have mysteriously disappeared. How could he possibly have ridden with the Captal on that punitive expedition?”

“You may be right about Abelard, my dear Felicity, but so what. There was an expedition and someone had to lead the troops so why not Abelard, since the dates about what happened when are still not accepted by everyone.” And thus did Felicity and Abelard smooth over her clumsy lapse into misplaced amusement.

“Outside the castle walls,” Abelard continued with his story, “the Captal burned the village, killing those peasants who were unable to escape to safety within the walls or into the woods and also taking about a dozen captives for later use as infected bodies to be catapulted over the castle walls. Early biological warfare. The guard house,” here he looked towards the windows, staring as though he could see through the shutters, and asked, “this is the guard house, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Martin answered, unable to manage more than a loud whisper.

“Remarkable!” Abelard exclaimed. “Looks just as I would have imagined it from the stories. Now, where was I? Oh, yes, the guardhouse,” and again he looked around for a moment, “it was abandoned without a fight upon seeing the relatively large attacking force. The few soldiers were meant to protect against small groups looking to do mischief, not full battle groups. The Captal made his camp below the walls and then went through the usual formalities, demanding surrender under threat of otherwise unspeakable consequences. The defenders, led by a young, recently knighted captain and Foix clan member, surveying the arrayed enemy guessed his chances pretty good and responded with assorted insults and a long dead putrefying pig, hurled in the direction of the Captal, splattering against a large boulder, to show how unconcerned they were about a long siege, much like the myth about the pig at the siege of Carcassone. In response the Captal flayed his captive peasants over a period of several days terrorizing the defenders with the screams of the victims. He then hung them from trees in full view of the walls and let the defenders watch while big black crows picked out their eyes and time filled their carcasses with all manner of contagious disease. Psychological warfare was just as important then as it is today.

“But the Captal was worried. He wasn’t prepared for a long siege. The weather was bad and he risked seeing his vassals disappear as their mandatory 40 days service came to an end. After consulting with Abelard and his constable, Maître Gaucelm, the Captal decided to mine the west wall while creating a diversion on the east side. The muddy earth made digging difficult, but after about a week the sappers had tunnelled under the wall and were prepared to set fire to the supporting timbers. During that time the Captal, to keep the defenders from searching for and finding his sappers, had made a great show of gathering his men and baggage together, looking for all the world ready to depart in defeat. A great cheer went up inside, as the besieging force began its ostensible and ignominious retreat, insults flying thick from the ramparts.

“Then all went quiet, excited children hushed by terrified mothers. They had obviously smelled the smoke. The horrible realization that their walls would soon crumble dawned upon the defenders. They all knew, every man woman and child old enough to have listened to stories, that flames were at that very moment inexorably eating through the timbers that the sappers had used to replace the earth upon which the walls rested. And when they would be consumed, the walls would tumble and the attackers would burst into the castle and kill everyone but the captain and his family, holding these for a rich ransom. They had only one hope. Come to terms with the attackers to spare their lives through surrender. The captain did not care for this cowardice. But then why should he, knowing he would be ransomed if defeated.

“The west wall inescapably crumbled. Abelard, with a party of ten knights and 30 men-at-arms charged out of the woods and through the breach. One of his men opened the main doors and the Captal came through with his main force. The rest was pretty routine for the times. Everyone was slaughtered without mercy, the castle was looted and the captain and his family were taken for ransom. Total losses for the attackers, one knight, unlucky enough to take an arrow through the eye. For the defenders, ten knights, 12 squires 60 men-at-arms and 130 others, mainly peasants who had sought refuge within the walls. Not a bad price for ending a war. Foix relented, paid the ransom for both his family and the castle and indemnity for his attacks which led up to the war. A few months later, as the best of friends, John de Grailly III and Gaston Phoebus as the Captal and Foix were known, rode off together to participate in the brutal crusade against religious heretics in Germany. Strange world.”

“What about injuries, don’t these knights ever take home wounds to nurse?” Martin asked, unwittingly setting the stage for a little showmanship.

“Oh yes,” Abelard answered, still caught up in the exuberance of his story, “both the Captal and his son received multiple but not life threatening wounds. The Captal received a blow which actually knocked him from his horse and his son was almost killed by a pike man at his back when he went to the aid of the fallen Captal. It was only very good luck that one of his men deflected the blow, but not quite quickly enough to avoid a nasty gash along the side of his neck.”

This last yarn prodded Oliver’s mind. Yes, of course, Abelard had a scar in just about the same place. He had many scars, Oliver recalls, but this one was quite prominent. He suspected Abelard was making up the entire story, his scars providing a foundation. Oliver knew he was in the presence of a master storyteller when he saw Abelard moving his hand with extraordinary nonchalance to raise the collar of his shirt over the nasty, long white jagged scar running along the side of his neck, all the while smiling with the utmost detachment.

“Remarkable coincidence, my grandfather who told me the tale, never stops reminding me whenever he looks at my old scar from falling against a fence during a moment of recklessness. At the time of my accident mother thought I was dead. She became quite hysterical.”

“Lunch is ready,” Francoise announced just then, cutting short Martin’s open investigative questioning and Abelard’s unabashed lying.

“Well my friend,” Martin said to Abelard, putting one massive arm around his shoulders as they walked to the dining room, “you told that story so well I could have sworn you were there.”

No one laughed, everyone evidently of the same mind that no laughter was better than nervous laughter. They sat down quietly and Oliver prepared himself to move the topic towards the treasure hunt. But Martin, ever prescient Martin, saved him the trouble.

“This local foie gras seems like an excellent dish over which we might discuss your needs my dear Abelard. And don’t worry about secrecy, I share absolutely everything only with Francoise. She would be joining us but for the meal she must supervise, to feed some group of local dignitaries who have reserved the restaurant for the evening.”

Abelard related the prepared story about the old map in his family for centuries which might be bona fide and could lead them to an ancient treasure in jewels and artifacts. There were two obstacles. First was the matter of financing an archaeological dig in someone’s living room, which might run as high as four million euros and, if there turned out to be a treasure, a second problem would arise; that of converting it into cash, since there could potentially be some issues with laws concerning finds of historical value and national treasures. Why does Abelard want to sell things of such beauty? Easy. It will buy him personal freedom. This last part had some truth to it, but not quite in the way it was taken.

“Abelard, as regards the disposition of any actual treasure, such transactions are not part of my normal business agenda. I run a hotel and a very fine restaurant. This is what makes me happy. But,” and this is where they all became very attentive. It was a pregnant ‘but’ with bountiful promise.

“But,” he said it again, after a short pause, “I do know some people who do other things for a living but look for opportunities everywhere. I can guarantee nothing, except to tempt them. I suppose that you will show me anything you may fortuitously find so that I can decide who to contact.

“Now, as regards the financing, even for me four million dollars is a great deal of money. I have made a deliberate decision when I came here; to live more modestly. Do you know why” he asked, rhetorically? “Not very mysterious, the less I need the less I need to earn to satisfy those needs. You would have to tell me more about the financial side. There, my background is oozing to the surface. How horrible. But I do need to know how much I can lose in this enterprise. And you are going to have to be more convincing that the map is actually genuine. I am very sorry if I seem suddenly so tough minded, but Francoise and I have something precious here and we don’t want to see it jeopardized. Do you hate me for that?”

“No, of course not,” Abelard answered. “And I’m sure Oliver doesn’t either. I’ve done enough deals to know the drill. So I haven’t come empty handed.” Here he pulled out a sheet of paper, a spreadsheet with several lines of numbers. “I’ve done some rough calculations to answer your question about how much you could potentially lose in this transaction. Since most of the outlay will be to purchase the house which stands over where the treasure is buried as well as the eight houses which immediately surround it, these will be assets which you will be able to resell. However, if we are to get all the houses, we will most likely have to pay a premium above the market price. Martin, you’ve probably often times paid premiums when you wanted to buy all the outstanding shares of a takeover target. That premium, I’m guessing at 20%, will probably not be recouped. Then there is of course some chance that you will lose if the price of real estate drops, but there is also an equal chance that you may gain from a potential appreciation in the price. The net expected effect should be zero so that you will most likely recoup all the money which would have been paid for these properties except, of course, for the premium. You will also incur losses, if there is no treasure, for the equipment we will need to excavate the site as well as for the cost of repairing the damage to the house which sits atop the treasure. I reckon your maximum loss can be as high as one million euros.”

 

“That’s still a great deal of money for a map whose authenticity relies entirely on your word. Not that I think you might be lying, only that what you may have could turn out to be worthless.”

“You’re right to be sceptical and I really have no way to convince you that it is authentic. I guess we were counting on a slim hope that you would share our enthusiasm, but that is apparently not the case. Also, Martin, you must believe me when I say we completely understand and do greatly appreciate that you have at least listened to our story.”

Abelard’s concession of defeat took everyone by surprise and a heavy silence descended on the room. There was a clatter of dishes as people prepared to get up and put an end to the awkward moment Abelard’s definitive surrender had created when he quite unexpectedly took up again.

“There is one more thing. That story about the siege and ransom I recounted earlier, well I did leave something out. It was a bit gruesome so I let it be. I didn’t want it to reflect too badly on my ancestors.” He again had everyone’s complete attention.

“In the guardhouse cellar, behind the last supporting column, there is a small doorway which has been bricked over. If you break that down, you will find the bodies of three knights. They were staunchly loyal retainers of the Foix. The Captal had to send a strong message to Foix. Only asking for ransom would not have been sufficient. He had to convey to him how grave was this matter. The young baron and his wife, as credible witnesses, were forced to watch the live burial. When I told the story this morning I wished to spare you these gruesome details, fairly normal behaviour at the time but thoroughly revolting by today’s standards.”

“How do you know they are still there?” Martin asked, somewhat sceptically.

“I wandered around a bit by myself this morning and checked. Nothing appears to have been disturbed. At least according to the accounts I have read”

“How do you actually know, like with the map, that what you have read is true?”

“I don’t. If you’ve a sledge hammer and are thinking of renovating, we could check,” Abelard answered without any apparent excitement. But Felicity had spotted him cracking his right thumb, always a sure sign that he is chomping at the bit.

Martin was clearly tempted. It was only with the greatest reluctance that he had all but said no to their proposition. Here was an opportunity to put Abelard’s credibility to the test. What could it cost him to knock down a wall at the end of his cellar? He had, in fact, that very morning been thinking about expanding it.

“I’m game,” he said with exaggerated exuberance.

“Are you quite sure you want to do this now? You could always do so at some later time when it would also be practical, say, for an expansion of you cellar,” Abelard said to a mildly astonished Martin who wasn’t sure now whether Abelard wasn’t reading his thoughts.

“Oh, I see, now you’re backing out. Unsure perhaps of your family history,” Martin teased.

“Not at all. Let’s go then.”

Abelard brought them to the wall section, between two short pillars joined by a Roman arch. Abelard offered to do the heavy lifting and began to swing the sledge hammer in great arcs, smashing it repeatedly against the brick. It was short work, the old construction crumbling to rubble after only a few blows. The dust had completely enveloped the wall and covered everyone in a fine greying powder. When it had cleared enough to see, Martin approached and shone his light into the large breech that Abelard had opened.

“Phew,” was all that Martin could manage as he stared at the bits of cloth and metal sticking out of the rubble. It was the in tact skulls, three of them, that got their attention and their revulsion. They imagined the desperate gasping for air from the gaping holes in the brittle bone.

“It’s a deal,” Martin said to Abelard. “Whatever you’ve been reading seems to be of very good quality. It was all Felicity, Oliver and Elizabetta could do to keep from openly gawking at Abelard. They were in little doubt that Abelard had planned every intricate detail of their visit, right down to the dramatic punch line in the cellar. He had known, they were now fairly certain, that lacking a bona fide map he would need something intensely spectacular to reassure Martin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter XIX

 

 

“Who’s your friend,” Felicity asked in breathless anticipation as she surprised Abelard in their bathroom garbing a life-sized inflatable male doll? It was very early in the morning, dawn had barely broken.

“You’ll be driving him into town presently, if you don’t mind,” he answered, not for a moment distracted from his task.

“Will you be making an announcement as to how I have cast you aside for this handsome, unassuming airbag,” she sighed with a mischievous twinkle in her eyes? Humour, however, did not seem to be on Abelard’s agenda that morning.

“He is about my size and it will seem as though you are driving me when I will in fact be hidden from view in the back seat,” he said to a now more alert Felicity.

“You’re obviously keeping something from me and I want to know right now what I am not supposed to be afraid of,” an appropriately more serious bent to her tone.

“Felicity, we will soon be leaving to retrieve a fabulous treasure and I would not like anyone to follow us.”

“Are we being followed,” she asked, alertness having morphed into alarm?

“I have not actually seen anyone do so but that does not mean it isn’t happening,” he half-lied. He had noticed at the neighbouring property during his morning runs over the past few days more activity than he thought natural. Martin had assured him that the owners were away. Felicity was not happy with this lame response. Abelard was not one to imagine danger where there was none. But she also knew there would be no more forthcoming from him and she could do nothing about it except follow him in his enterprise, whatever that might be.

“And where will I be driving my new boyfriend,” she asked with stoic resignation?

“You will drive to the centre of town and stop at the pastry shop, the one that sits beside an alleyway. I have yesterday, when I went to purchase our friend here, ordered a large cake. When you come back to the car and open the back door to put it in, I will slip out. I have rented a car which I will pick up and drive to the small road at the back of Martin’s property where I will wait for you, Oliver and Elizabetta to make your way through the woods.” That this was not the first time Felicity had witnessed Abelard’s near neurotic attention to detail when planning an operation did nothing to help her suppress the mild astonishment which crept into her voice.

“Will we be away overnight? Will we need bags,” she asked, now a little angry at Abelard’s elaborate evasive strategy that he refused to admit had anything to do with the reality that they were being followed. Although she hadn’t actually seen anyone watching them but she refused to believe Abelard’s detailed planning was but mere precaution. To no avail, she was helpless before his unbreakable silence.

“No,” was all he said before suddenly rising, taking the fully dressed doll under his arm and stepping briskly from the room, expecting to be followed.

 

 

***

 

 

Two hours later they were on their way to La Teste, where Abelard assured them a great treasure was waiting to be reclaimed. Martin would make all the necessary financial arrangements. The day was more typically winter; damp, cold, a cloud mass coloured in infinitely varying tones of the same sombre grey darkened the early light. Much of the woods were still obscured by milky white fog banks rising from the water logged earth. Spring had arrived in name alone.

Thanks to Abelard’s elaborate ploy, their pursuers would not know that their quarry had left until they would see them return the following morning. They would also never know where they had been.

The road from Bordeaux to La Teste was surrounded by the great southern pine forests. These were so quintessentially French. Perfectly cultivated, all the trees closely identical in width and height, branches clustered near the top. Truly a model forest, the product of Cartesian minds. But boring as hell to look at for longer than needed to take in a curiosity. Boredom did sometimes give way to beauty, when slow moving fat fog banks rolled in to impose on the forest the charm of variability and the interest of randomness. Trees appeared and disappeared, varied their height and looked to be changing clothes as rare sunlight succeeded in penetrating the thick mist, here sometimes and there at others.

They soon came upon the small sign announcing that they were entering la Teste, population 17,035. These were the outskirts. Occasional small workshops in dilapidated, corrugated tin structures, leaving a third world flavour, squatted at the roadside. Rough stone houses and familiar two story brick and concrete buildings were becoming more numerous as they approached the town centre. It had the allure of an industrial area, grimy and particularly sombre looking in the black drizzle that had been hounding them since Bordeaux.

The centre was extraordinarily similar to so many other little towns they had passed through; as though the same urban plan was circulated to all builders and applied with only the barest minimum of modification. All along the wide, two lane street, which wound right around the hippodrome shaped square, stood two story stone and masonry buildings crammed with small shops. The church, relatively modern looking, perhaps less than 200 years old, dominated all with its imposing stone facade and easily visible buttressed sides, receding endlessly into the background. While all the other buildings were wedged into their minimal slots, the church alone stood in splendid solitude, presiding over the entire gathering.

“Where to,” Oliver asked as he parked close to the church?

Abelard walked up the stone steps and onto the front porch of Notre Dame de La Teste to read the inscription on the small bronze plaque fixed to the wall beside the main entrance. The church had been built on the site where St. Éloi had stood, over the ashes of the original building, utterly destroyed by the French Revolution. There were two towers, the right one had been built directly over the one which had stood with the original church from about 1300 through to the bloody fall of the Ancien Regime.

“The treasure,” Abelard informed the others, “is directly south east from this tower.” He waited for approval, perhaps even some applause, but got only blank stares.

“How far south east, exactly,” Felicity ventured?

“Oh, about 25 minutes by horse at a walking pace,” Abelard mumbled, knowing that this was where he was going to be roasted by the others.

“Is that a big horse, small horse, toy horse, perhaps,” Oliver asked with feigned gravity?

“What colour was the original horse,” Felicity added?

“Abelard,” a calmer, no-nonsense Elizabetta, piped in, “is that all the information you have as to the exact location of the presumed treasure,” she thoughtfully added to remind everyone that their enterprise was still not a certain thing.

“Don’t blame me, but that’s the way people in a hurry, at the time, would measure stuff. But, not to worry, I’m sure it’s accurate,” he tried to reassure them in a voice utterly lacking conviction. “Come on up here,” he urged from his vantage at the top of the fairly high church porch, “and you will be able to see the housing development directly south east.”

“I’m sure you found a good way to exactly measure the distance a horse,” Felicity posited, sarcasm greasing her every word, “and I’m supposing a medium horse here, would walk in 25 minutes. I’m not going to even ask how the original map maker measured twenty five minutes at the time, perhaps with a small wristhourglass.”

“If you must know, there is a farm about three kilometres from here where I rented a horse and did the ride to get an exact location.”

“And, I suppose you just rode right through all the buildings and other structures which seem to be cluttering the straight line south east of this tower,” it was Oliver’s turn to mock Abelard.

“No,” Abelard answered, infinitely patient and hugely thick skinned, “I rode east until I could turn south, then I rode south as far as I could and repeated the process, compensating, in my mind for the extra riding this added.”

 

Felicity had fallen silent for a moment and was concentrating on her small calculator, into which she was furiously punching data. Then she looked up with a smile and asked, “Abelard, how far east did you ride, all together, do you remember?”

“Of course,” he growled, fishing from his pocket the little notebook, which he always carried. “Nine minutes east and, in case you need to know, 17 minutes south,” he finished, smug satisfaction larding his voice.

“Abelard,” Felicity observed, you have obviously forgotten your Pythagoras and some basic trigonometry. Unless this calculator is not functioning as it should, your meandering brought you to a point only about 19 minutes medium horse walking distance south east of this church tower. You needed to go about 13 minutes east and 21 minutes south if you wanted to get to your destination.”

 

“But that would have brought me down to the beach and I don’t remember,” he hesitated a moment, “I mean the map didn’t mention water so close by.”

“There was never a map, was there,” Felicity asked, incredulous?

“No, there was not.” He said emphatically. “I lied because I knew you would never go along if I told you it was all from my memories. Am I right?”

This was too much for Felicity. She turned away, ran to the car and once inside put a finger to each ear and yelled at the top of her lungs. Oliver was much less discreet than Felicity. He stepped onto the roadway to pick up a discarded tail pipe he had earlier on spotted and waving it wildly over his head he began to chase Abelard around the square. Elizabetta had missed the last bits and was unaware of the brewing crisis. She had wandered across the square to look at the shops, hoping to find a charcuterie or pastry, the chilly weather having made her quite hungry. She had found what she was looking for and was about to shout for the others to come when she first noticed Oliver attempting to murder Abelard and quickly concluded that something had changed. She began shrieking until she caught Oliver’s and Abelard’s attention, as well as that of all the people wandering about the square.

“Food and coffee here,” she shouted to be sure someone would hear. Felicity, who had by then joined the chase, also stopped when she heard the suspicious shriek. The brief but intense exercise had succeeded in calming their murderous instincts and they slowly made their way towards Elizabetta.

“Never mind, Abelard,” Felicity finally said, wiping tear stains on her sleeve, her stoicism taking over, as she realized brooding would get them nowhere. “Let’s get some food and think about this. Ok?” He agreed and walked with a sad step and stooped shoulders, as though carrying a great load.

“Let’s get our goodies,” Elizabetta said, quite cheerfully, yet unaware of the earlier tensions, “and we can wander down to the beach to eat and look at the historical site.”

“Historical site,” Abelard asked, suddenly a bit perkier?

“Yes, it’s on that sign over there,” she said pointing towards the corner where a very narrow street gave onto the main road.

There it was, the familiar yellow gothic lettering on a navy blue background, official French government indications for historic sites. One and a half kilometres down the narrow street would bring them to the ruins of a 12th century castle. Abelard could not seem to tear his eyes from the sign. Felicity tugged at his arm but was unable to move him. Oliver finally raised his hands to Abelard’s ear and clapped very loudly. This brought him around.

“That’s it,” he said, to no one in particular. “That’s where it is. It still exists. I didn’t know. We don’t need to buy any houses or dig through any foundations.” A great big smile had banished his earlier gloom.

“You’re not being coherent,” Oliver said. “What is it, I’m afraid to ask?”

“That’s what we were looking for. That castle. I didn’t know it was still standing. I thought it was much further from the water than it is. I guess the sea must have reclaimed some of the land here. The 25 minute ride was actually meant to indicate the distance from the church to the castle.”

The narrow street ran into a small departmental road surrounded by forest for about the first kilometre. Further on the vegetation became sparse, grassy, clinging precariously to giant undulating sand dunes. Then the road ended at a beach on the Bay of Arcachon, about 200 yards deep. Nothing, not even a stone that might have been a castle was visible. Only the rising and falling dunes. There were no signs indicating where the castle ruins might be. They had decided to drive back to town for more information when they spotted the little girl watching them from her perch on the dune to their right.

Felicity walked over to speak with her. She stopped at the bottom of the little girl’s mountain. There was some pointing between bits of conversation and then Felicity climbed the dune towards the girl to look at something on the other side. She bent down to thank her, appeared to button up the little girl’s coat for her and, kicking up great clumps of wet sand, she ran as fast as the clinging grains would allow back to where the others were waiting.

Her laboured breathing could not mask her excitement. “It seems that there were too few visitors to justify keeping an unrecognizable pile of ruins on one of the few pieces of solid ground with beach frontage in this area. It is almost all sand everywhere else. They’re going to build a hotel and her father is there now doing the preliminary surveys. She also assures me she is not being naughty since today is a school holiday.”

The little girl reacted quite predictably when she saw Abelard making towards her at full tilt. She ran down the far side of her dune, presumably towards her father. Abelard stopped at the top and stood still, hair plastered to his skull by the drizzle, which was now just tapering off. His great lined gabardine coat of black and white diamond pattern, unbuttoned in the heat of his excitement, was flapping like the cape of the medieval Italian horseman riding between two warring camps and captured in a beautiful tableau now housed at the Uffizi gallery.

The others joined him on his perch. But the scene from the top was terribly unimpressive. Easy to understand why the guide books kept so silent; more dunes and sand, except for a flat, rock strewn patch at the beginning of a short rocky promontory jutting into the bay. That was it. The castle. Not much left. Hardly worth redecorating. With all that beach though, they could easily imagine a nice little 50 to 100 room hotel for the summer tourist trade.

Carefully as they looked they could detect not the tiniest discouragement in Abelard. They didn’t quite know for sure what he might have been expecting but what they were seeing should have been, well, a little disappointing, at the very least.

They walked briskly towards the rubble. As they got closer, however, the rubble began to look less random. There was not much, but traces of tantalizing foundations suggesting a larger organized structure were evident. From their vantage the lines etched into the small patch of solid ground had deliberate, intelligent patterns. Abelard had seen this from the very first moment he laid eyes on the ruins.

The surveyor halted his work when he saw the small group approaching. He looked to be a fairly big man, a wool sailor’s cap on his head and a long heavy blue coat giving him considerably more bulk than he actually had. His little girl, minuscule next to him, in her navy pea coat and rainbow coloured scarf was clinging to his leg, as much out of sight as she could manage. Felicity approached, introduced herself as a Canadian studying the works of Froissart and particularly interested in the Captal de Buch, Jean de Grailly III. This evidently pleased the surveyor who himself turned out to be an amateur historian with a strong interest in local lore. This was not very surprising since every place in the entire country with even the merest history was crawling with them. Had she heard some of the unrecorded gossip about the Captal and his amorous adventures he asked, displaying all the characteristic enthusiasm of the chronic ear hunter. And, of course, the story about Abelard’s disappearance was pure nonsense. He had it on very good authority from the monastery at Dax, where they keep unclassified fragmentary records, that Abelard had faked his own disappearance because he was being pursued for brigandage. He then retrieved the stolen treasures he had buried and moved to Lombardy where he set himself up in a sturdy castle.

Here Abelard, standing behind Felicity, could no longer contain himself. “Do you really believe all that rubbish?” Abelard asked through a broad smile that was squeezing back a strong urge to openly laugh. “I heard from someone claiming to be the Captal’s direct descendant that he was inducted into a shady society of surviving Templars, and from them learned the secret of immortality. He, so this descendant claims, is still among us, keeping his identity secret.”

The astonishment in the surveyor’s face made it seem even longer than it already was. Gawking to reveal missing back molars, he resembled, more than anything, a smiling boar. Here was a man who thought he knew more about this relatively obscure medieval Gascon nobleman than anyone else unexpectedly talking to someone who apparently knew more than him. He tried to speak, but all that came out was a hoarse croak. He cleared his throat, in a nervous gesture wiped his already dry, creased brow with the back of his sleeve and tried again. But before he could get in another word Abelard offered to send him the name of this descendant and even arrange a meeting if he would be kind enough to allow him to visit the site. Done. The surveyor was only too happy to comply.

Abelard hurried towards a water filled rut, his steps tracing a path in the mud along its edge. The small ditch was not perfectly uniform. There were occasional obstacles. The jagged blackened stone piles must have been part of the ruined wall whose remaining foundations were now the water filled ditch. He stopped where the ditch appeared to come to an abrupt discontinuity. A space about the width of a small driveway was flat ground, creating a break in the sunken earth. The main entrance. This had been a small castle, probably with only one protective wall.

In the gathering dusk, made even more sombre under ever blacker clouds, Abelard positioned himself just at the spot where the right front wall section would have extended off from the entrance. He then raised his arms, extending them straight out to either side, his long, black and white diamond gabardine, now soaked to the lining, stretching over his back like a great wet cape. He stood there for a moment, a giant painted bird of prey, fingers splayed and taut, as though preparing to cast its dreadful shadow across the landscape.

“Bizarre,” muttered the surveyor, as Abelard began to trace consecutive arcs against the imaginary wall, the chord length of each being equal to the distance from tip to tip of outstretched arms. From where the others stood it resembled a ritual of some sort. Felicity whispered something to the by now quite anxious surveyor. This appeared to reassure him, judging from the knowing nod and shake of his head.

“I’ve told him,” Felicity whispered to the others, “that Abelard had come here only to perform this ancient, quasi Druidic ceremony. He dabbles in the occult.”

About a third of the way along the imaginary wall tracings, Abelard appeared to become disoriented, stopping, his arms falling to his sides and feet beginning to shuffle and stamp. But only for a moment. He looked around and as though by random impulsion he moved along the same axis, not stopping until the corner where seven centuries earlier stout front and side walls might have joined in their protective embrace. There he resumed his mysterious arcing ritual along the imaginary perpendicular wall. Once again the momentary apparent disorientation and rather violent shuffling of feet, this time about a quarter the way along the ditch outlining where the thick wall would have stood. Then he stopped as suddenly as he had started. He walked over to a circular impression, well inside the original walls and strewn with rubble, all that remained of the original donjon, the castle keep, a central structure in medieval military architecture where desperate defenders would make a last stand against determined attackers. He stopped for a final, lingering glance around the ruined bastion.

“I don’t know how I could ever thank you,” he said to the surveyor. “Give me your address and I will send you the name of the alleged immortal descendant.”

The site was becoming more difficult to see, the sun completely obscured by the dark, moisture laden clouds.

“I am very hungry,” Abelard continued. “Would we be able to eat in the area somewhere?” he asked the surveyor.

It was now a little after five and the restaurants would not yet be open for the evening meal. Oliver suggested they go to Bordeaux and also arrange to stay the night at a hotel. But Abelard was intent on remaining in the area. Oliver would soon understand just why he was so insistent.

The surveyor recommended an inn, whose restaurant he described in mouth watering detail, about eight kilometres down the road, just beyond Arcachon, the big town at the southern tip of the bay. La Teste apparently had but one flea bitten hotel which also obliged its guests to suffer its meals, renowned for their inedibility.

They left with much hand shaking and appreciative noises. Once inside the car, Abelard looked at the others with a deep, blissful sigh, the closest they had yet seen to what could have been mistaken for genuine, uninhibited love. It didn’t feel like the pure thing yet, the eyes still had that calculating, judging furtiveness. But it was certainly a great improvement. He had this little grin, no, more of a smirk, but a sweet smirk, one telling them that he was almost embarrassingly happy with his lot, his friends, his existential experience at being in familiar surroundings. Even without the walls, without the bare stone structures, without the people, he seemed to know exactly where he was. His level of comfort was delicious, sumptuous, exquisite. But he was also a bit anxious. When the surveyor’s daughter had begun to imitate his arcing ritual he watched her with unusual intensity. It was only when her father had called her back that he again relaxed, his shoulders slumping back from their tense heights.

“I want to buy a flashlight,” Abelard announced, rather than said, as they drove past the shops in Arcachon. “A good one that has a strong narrow beam like a laser light.

“You must be joking,” Oliver said, “hotels here all have electric lighting. Are you worried about a power failure? Afraid of the dark?” he asked, with a smile.

“Indulge me, please, Oliver,” he said, pointedly ignoring his gratuitously stupid remarks.

“Is this one to your liking monsieur?” Felicity inquired after returning with a black, rubber encased flashlight. “It even comes with batteries and all for the modest sum of 24 euros.”

Abelard was being very deliberate, everything he did was purposeful. He was deadly serious, playing another game, a secret game. He categorically put a damper on all attempts at levity. He heard from the others only what he needed, remaining untouched by all else. There was a child-like quality to the way in which he examined the flashlight, playing with the mechanism, testing the intensity of the beam, as though it were a weapon with nothing less than his life depending on its proper functioning.

 

 

*

 

 

“That was absolutely criminal,” Elizabetta sighed as she looked forlornly at the clean bones from the sumptuous goose preserve carelessly scattered about her plate. She drained the last of her coffee and announced, “I’m about ready for a short walk and then bed.” She would get her walk and some fresh, cool air but not quite in the way she expected.

“I need to go back to the castle, now!” Abelard suddenly broke in with a crashing abruptness. There was also a touch of menace in his voice. He was not prepared for a refusal.

“Why?” Felicity was surprised by his insistence. “What do you expect to see in the dark that you missed in the daylight? It’s quite late. Besides, we would probably be trespassing.”

“The treasure, my dear, the treasure. We certainly can’t just arrive tomorrow, bid a good morning to the work crews and the engineer and begin excavating, can we?”

“You have our attention,” Oliver spoke for the others.

“Then let’s be on our way,” he said, not wasting a moment to thank them for their accommodation. He was now conducting serious business and expected their cooperation.

“At the castle, over a period of five years, Abelard de Buch had been burying his share of spoils from brigandage,” he revealed in the car as they headed back to la Teste and the ruins.

“But, Abelard,” Oliver exclaimed with some surprise and not a little bit of sarcasm, “be realistic, it’s been almost 650 years, there’s no way it’s still there.”

“You may be right, Oliver, but I must see for myself.” There was no mistaking that he was now just humouring him. Oliver could tell he was fairly certain it was in fact still there. Something he had spotted during the arcing ritual must have told him so.

“Abelard, what’s made you just now so desperate for all that wealth?” Oliver needed to know why he was suddenly comsumed with his mission to find the treasure.

“Because, Oliver, wealth is everything today, as it was in Abelard’s time. Without it you are at the mercy of those who have it,” spoken as to a child who had asked a stupid question.

“Thank you gramps,” he responded in the same spirit.

“That, young Abelard, is only true if you play the same game they do,” Felicity stepped in to set his mind right. “If you embrace the same values. If you are unable to break away from how they define the world. Wealth, Abelard, is only as important as you make it. Break the rule and stop desiring it and it becomes meaningless.”

“Then how would you defend yourself against those who would pay to have you killed?”

“You do have a valid point there,” Oliver said, without his earlier mockery. “I suppose those men were after you and we were just in the proverbial wrong place at the wrong time.”

“Alas, my friends, the sad reality is that you are all three now also in their sights,” he said in a sombre voice.

“Felicity, I’m mentally ready to decouple from wordly values but I don’t believe it is possible to do so in reality. What I have been able to observe during my brief tenure at VBI has convinced me that human culture, not just the Western variety, is very much defined by business, by the deal, by success in the accumulation of wealth; that giant corporations are central to the welfare and social activity of a great many of this planet’s citizens; and that these large institutions that make up the corporate world are controlled by sometimes very autocratic, egocentric individuals, just like the leading nobility in Abelard’s time.”

Oliver acted as though this was nonsense. But had there been enough light, the surprise that Abelard’s words sent through him would have been apparent in his eyes, where emotion tends to show off like a bright window display. He had no idea that Abelard had to such an extent become disenchanted.

The rains had stopped, the clouds evaporated and the almost full moon filled the night with sparkling water and glistening sand. Even in the bright night light, except for the rocky promontory extending the ancient manorial plot into the sea, it would not have been possible to detect any signs that there had ever been a castle on the site. They had to get much closer to see anything. Huddled against the damp windborne cold, near where the entrance would have been, they were able to make out the faint outlines of the ruined foundations.

They followed Abelard along the traces of the long gone wall, the swirling mists captured in the sharp, narrow cone of light illuminating the ground before them. The waves washing against the near shore drowning out, at precise intervals, their anxious breathing as clumsy footfalls in the soft spongy ground drained their energy. Oliver sensed that only Abelard actually truly believed that there would be a hidden treasure at the end of this expedition. Elizabetta and Felicity were certainly not taken in. He was sure the moisture in their eyes was but generous pity at Abelard’s delusional dream. Oliver was confident they never even supposed there actually was a treasure. Bizarrely, Oliver had no trouble accepting that somewhere there was a treasure. He just did not believe that it would be found. He was wrong about the women, though. Their expressions were in fact ones of anxious anticipation.

For Oliver it was evident, as were too many things, that the attempt on their lives had formed Abelard’s unshakable resolve to become independent. What would happen to his world after tonight when his dream was shattered? They had been powerless to stop his building preoccupation. He had kept everything hidden until the last moment. Events had raced towards this moment at breakneck speed. Abelard had been so quickly, so completely possessed by this idée fixe, it caught them all by complete surprise. Oliver’s only comfort, cold at that, was to at least be prepared for the worst during this anxious night.

“Stop,” Abelard whispered, a little too loudly, shooting adrenaline through the others, tightening their muscles, preparing them for flight. They resembled more the three stooges than determined, quasi criminal treasure hunters, walking too closely one behind the other. The halt had been so abrupt that Felicity painfully bumped her nose against Oliver’s back and Elizabetta stepped on Felicity’s heels. Abelard was arrogantly oblivious to their discomfort. He was single minded in his mission.

“Oliver,” he continued, “you stand here,” taking both his arms and positioning him with exaggerated precision, “and do not move, even a little, until I tell you. Felicity, Elizabetta come with me.”

Oliver stood at his assigned station, dumbly watching them and their cone of light move away, leaving him alone in the pale light cast by a luminous moon. Then he became conscious that he was standing in a slight depression and he suddenly understood why Abelard had appeared to be shuffling his feet earlier in the day as he traced those eerie arcs against non-existent walls. He was deliberately marking the axes of a 90 degree quadrant. Abelard was locating a point in two dimensional space through intersecting coordinates on a Cartesian plane. Oliver watched him stop at a point on the line that would have defined where the perpendicular wall had stood and position one of the women, Elizabetta, he guessed from the dim features of her head he was able to make out in the moonlight. He then played his narrow beam at ninety degrees away from the imaginary wall and Oliver saw Felicity walk along its beam. She used the position of her shadow to keep her in a line defined by the centre of the widening beam.

“Stop,” he said, this time just loud enough for Felicity to hear. She was now almost directly in front of Oliver. Abelard then ran over to where Oliver was standing and shone the light at ninety degrees to our imaginary wall.

“Felicity, now walk directly back towards Elizabetta.”

She did so, following his instructions as obediently as Oliver had.

“Stop,” he said, as she stepped into the centre of the beam. “Stay right there.”

“You can both come here now,” he said to Elizabetta and Oliver after he had placed himself next to Felicity.

Some of the few surviving old paving stones from the original castle under foot, the four of them stood in the glow of the electric light, now paled by Abelard’s positively radiant smile. If he had any doubts, they were imperceptible. He was clearly certain about recovering his treasure; he was a portrait of anxiety that builds around ‘when’, not ‘if’. Oliver, of course, was positively alarmed. When the disappointment came, Abelard would be inconsolable.

Why was he so worried? Felicity and Elizabetta were also anxious, but for different reasons. Oliver had finally understood they were hoping to find the treasure but lacked Abelard’s confidence that it would still be there. They were looking at him with great expectation, not pity as he had originally thought. They were part of his world. But Oliver couldn’t be. That was his nature, always focusing on the dark side of potential consequences. Always needing to be prepared for the worst, Oliver payed a price for being that way. When the best happened his ecstasy would always be so excruciatingly intense, burning like a bright flame, too rapidly consuming its fuel and leaving him with little lasting joy, a great void, after only a very short happy experience. But he so feared not being mentally wired for the despair of disappointment he could not do otherwise.

“This is it,” Abelard began, still with that happy assurance of a child playing a game whose outcome he knows. He put down the heavy sack holding the shovels and crowbars Felicity had purchased at the same time as the flashlight.

“It should be somewhere under these stones, about one of my leg lengths down.”

He took a crowbar and began prying at a paving stone. The others just stood there dumbly watching. He was acting as though he owned the place which, in some sense, in his memories, he actually did. The cracks between the flat, rectangular stones were filled with earth and moss. There was still some old, disintegrating mortar, but not enough to demand great exertion.

“Oliver,” he said, pulling him out of his hypnotic reverie, “would you please help me pull up on the stone.” He had pried it loose and wedged the crowbar underneath, leaving a space for fingers to grab hold. Oliver did so, and they heaved it to a standing position. It was very thick and heavy. They removed six of the stones that way. The work was strenuous and despite the cold night air Oliver had begun to heavily perspire. Abelard pulled two shovels from the bag and they began digging in chain gang fashion.

“We are there,” Abelard let it be known, at about three feet or so down. They had hit a solid barrier and heard the clink of metal against stone. Abelard on his knees began clearing the dirt with his hands. Beneath the dirt cleared away by Abelard was a stone slab about two by two feet, with indentations on two sides plainly made for grasping. Neither wood, which would have rotted, nor metal which would have rusted, had been used. It was as though the artisan wanted whatever was under the slab to be accessible even at the end of time. They each slipped their fingers into the grips and hauled the stone slab up. It was the tight perfectly fitting top of a small sarcophagus. There it was, as Abelard firmly knew and as Oliver had fearfully denied; a small metal chest, dry as bone, ready to be retrieved from its crypt. The vault had been so well constructed no water had seeped in. They hauled up the very heavy box and set it on the paving blocks beside the hole. Only Abelard remained as he was, very pleased. He had known all along it was there and was not suddenly more surprised. The others were gaping. This was buried treasure. The stuff of childrens’ tales. Elizabetta was on her knees caressing the plain heavy timber box, running her fingers over the metal bands reinforcing the top and onto the clasp holding it closed. Felicity, trying to be detached, nudged her foot over to the box and rubbed her booted toes against its sides, just to satisfy herself that it was not an illusion.

“Felicity, please shine the light on the box,” Abelard asked, handing her the flashlight, much more civil, now that the quest was done. He then pulled a skeleton key from his pocket, which he inserted into a small hole on the face of the chest and just as quickly removed it. Then he looked up and smiled that broad Abelardian smile of self satisfaction, when he has cleverly fooled everyone.

 

“You missed this,” indicating the key nodding at the key which he was now waving about, “when you removed my armour. A very skilled blacksmith, the same one who built this clever little vault, had fitted the inside of the breast plate I was wearing with a small receptacle, just big enough to keep my key. The armour you found me in was indeed very old.” He had been careful not to include himself in the dating of the armour.

“But how did you know he hadn’t come back to take the box at some later time when it was full?” Oliver asked, innocently of course, already suspicious as to what the answer would be.

“Because,” as Oliver had guessed, “he was already dead.”

“Eliminated the only witness, eh? Good idea.” he remarked, with considerable, naked sarcasm.

“Oliver, Oliver,” he said, looking at him with a mixture of hurt and sadness, shaking his eerily illuminated head from side to side. “You really do not think very much of Abelard’s morals, honour, loyalty, do you? I have sensed that for some time now. You are judging by other world standards, not even your own. I am very sorry, but I forgive you.”

Oliver didn’t know what to think, or how to respond. Had Abelard become so skilled at manipulating people? Had he, Oliver, been so unwittingly cruel, so unfair as to judge with retroactive morality? But Oliver didn’t have to fret for long; Abelard jumped right back in to move the drama forward.

“No, Oliver, Roncival died in battle, saving Abelard’s life. They were riding with a company of Navarrois, on their way to an Italian war when they were attacked by a large French force, quite illegally, since a peace treaty was in effect which forbade such aggression. It looked pretty hopeless, they had lost a number of good men and the captain of the Navarrois prudently and wisely chose to withdraw. Abelard could not follow. He was unable to extricate himself, being surrounded by a very determined group of knights and peasants carrying crude weapons. He was not worried about the knights, knowing that they were looking for ransom and would have preferred to have him alive. The peasants, however, did not care for these games and were determined to do him to death. Abelard was furiously slashing and butchering those small, stunted men, but they kept on coming. Suddenly, mercifully the great battle cry of ‘death to all, Buch’ pierced the screams of the dying and of those doing the murdering, Roncival had dashed through the mob, swinging his great axe and leaving a trail of limbless bodies in his wake. But, as he came up beside Abelard, he took a boar spear through the middle of his face, throwing him to the ground, dead, long before the peasant soldiers, wielding their dull blades, began cutting him to pieces. But he had succeeded in opening a wide swathe through the enemy ranks long enough for Abelard to get away, pursued by the mounted knights, but only until he was too close to his own people for their comfort and then they broke away, without their prize. Abelard’s loss was heavy, he was very sad at losing Roncival. He paid for 5000 masses and two perpetual lamps to keep his eternal soul.” All three were staring at Abelard, Oliver deeply shamed, the treasure momentarily forgotten.

Abelard was now speaking in the third person. He had a very detailed story about most events of the time but was no longer the central character. Elizabetta noticed this before the others and took it as a hopeful sign that Abelard, the Abelard of today was finally snapping out of his delusions. But Felicity and Oliver didn’t catch the nuance.

“Oh, Abelard,” Felicity said, sadness weighing down her words, “when will all this stop? Can’t you just drop the medieval knight persona?”

“It’s alright Felicity,” Elizabetta said softly, “he wasn’t talking about himself just now. You probably missed that because he had so many details it was almost as though he were actually there. These are his only memories. He’s been very good about keeping them hidden for all these years. Imagine if we asked you to never talk about anything you remembered unless it occurred only after we met. I don’t think it can hurt and might even help him disassociate from them.”

“You really had me going there,” Felicity quickly changed tack, “those details you make up, no, that you have at your fingertips, had me completely off base.”

Oliver was almost in tears over poor Roncival. He felt himself an absolute ass in the eyes of the two women, having accused Abelard, the elder, of such vile treachery. And who comes to the rescue? Yes, Abelard again.

“Don’t blame yourself, Oliver,” he said, a small, sly grin across his lips, “in your place I would also have had suspicions about Abelard. Let’s forget it and look to the future.”

Oh, stop it you jerk, stop it, Oliver silently commanded. Any more and the two women will pick up the handy sharp edged spades and lance him like some giant, suppurating boil.

“Felicity,” he said, abruptly, “the light, please.”

He turned the key, the mechanism, as though newly installed, clicked and he lifted the latch. Then, carefully, like picking up a baby, he began opening the cover. The box had been so well preserved, the creaking was barely audible. The electric beam was trembling in Felicity’s nervous grip, giving Abelard’s movements a silent film flavour. At last, the first light to penetrate into the chest in over 600 years splashed against the brilliance of its contents.

“Who said crime doesn’t pay,” Elizabetta was the first to speak after what must have been several minutes of complete silence, even the waves no longer registering. They were transfixed, staring, no, gaping at the contents of the box from the high Middle Ages. Their faces were illuminated by the reflection from Felicity’s tremulous light off the glittering spoils of medieval brigandage. Even Abelard, still kneeling before his booty, was stupefied by what he saw, obviously well beyond what he remembered. In his memories, by the time he fell into his deep sleep, more than a year had gone by since he had buried the loot.

There were no coins that they could see, only assorted valuables; rings, necklaces, brooches, crosses, most jewel encrusted. There were many little cloth and leather bags, all containing unset stones; emeralds, sapphires, diamonds. There was a very considerable fortune in that small box.

“We should be going,” Felicity whispered, not wanting to drag them too rudely back to the present. “It is getting on towards morning and we don’t know when the work crews will show up.” Besides we still have to fill the hole and replace the paving stones. We shouldn’t leave any trace of our visit.”

In the hazy pre dawn light, clouds moving in to cover the clear night sky, they replaced the last paving stone and headed back. There was no question about stopping for breakfast. In La Teste they picked up some croissants at the early opening pastry shop and drove straight back to see Martin Dumouchel. The box was in the trunk, away from potentially prying eyes and barely a word was said during the three hour trip. Mercifully, for Oliver. After the embarrassment of last night’s insinuations that Abelard had murdered his friend, he found solace in silence. Felicity was thinking back to Abelard’s confession which the priest had revealed to her. All the riches in the small casket were tainted with gruesome reminders.

When they arrived at the inn Martin was not there. He was in Paris on business and would not be back until the following day. They brought the box up to Abelard’s room and then got some sleep before worrying about the major problem of fencing the loot, which in any event was to be Martin’s responsibility. Well, to the extent that all the brigandage occurred so long ago it was not technically your traditional stolen goods. But they were certainly historical, archaeological artifacts. The French government would take a dim view of someone claiming them as private property, even if they were to believe Abelard’s original story. And then, that would attract far too much unwanted attention.

 

 

***

 

 

“I’m not an expert in this area,” Oliver said to the women, as all three peered at the computer screen. Abelard was fast asleep in his room. “All I can venture right now is that Abelard may not be all that we think he is. A few weeks ago, when he asked for the sample from the guck in which we found him, I took a few drops out and sent them to a biochemist friend of mine. He ran some tests and gave me the results. They are very interesting, to say the least. Not to worry, my buddy has no idea where the sample came from.”

“Enough qualifications now, your beginning to sound like an academic,” Felicity cut in, recognizing her own professional habit of covering all her bases whenever she wrote up or spoke about her research. “What’s the verdict?”

“Well, excuse my clumsiness,” he said with feigned injury, “but that is what I’ve been trying to tell you, there is no verdict, just bits and pieces of information pointing to Abelard as more of a mystery than the amnesia with which we’ve all been getting comfortable. First of all the easy part; most of the liquid is water, about 90%. Now the hard parts; some is human DNA, probably from Abelard’s saliva and a lot from the blood that must have seeped from what looked to be fresh wounds when we first found him; then there’s other DNA, the sort that’s found in some types of fish eggs and has something to do with Embryonic Diapause which, for all intents and purposes, arrests the aging process; and, fnally, there are primitive cellular structures, which remain unidentifiable but resemble what biologists speculate may have developed spontaneously from material that could have been deposited on earth by comets about three billion years ago.”

“Are you saying that he may actually be from the middle ages?” Elizabetta asked, with the practiced serenity common to psychiatrists.

“I am saying nothing of the sort, although it sounds suspiciously like that. But, I did do a search on meteor, asteroid and comet impacts and there are no official records of any such events at that time.”

“That eliminates the unbelievable scenario, I guess,” Felicity said, relief in her voice.

“Not quite, I’m afraid; there are all sorts of unsubstantiated tales of sightings in the mythologies of most cultures. The extended daylight, for example, which Moses ordered during a crucial battle between the Israelites and the Ammalakites, when they had the upper hand, is thought to have been a comet. And there is a tale of an impact at the place where we found Abelard that would coincide with the date he had given us of the fateful battle which put him into his presumed deep sleep.”

“So, is he the same person,” Felicity insisted?

“Inconclusive and still highly improbable,” Elizabetta answered. “He could have had all that knowledge he reveals to us, some myth, some real history, before he was walled into that cave. In there, being pitch dark, he may have simply fallen into the pool, which may have been created by a meteor impact 650 years earlier.”

“Then,” Oliver added, “there is the question as to why any one would go to all the trouble of opening a hole, three meters above the path and then resealing it so well as to be unnoticeable. A sturdy body bag, which would not biodegrade for 25 thousand years, weighted with cheap rocks and dropped in a large deep body of water would have done just as well to permanently hide a corpse.”

“You seem to have forgotten,” Elizabetta raising one more obstacle, “the mystery of the key. Suppose the loot was to be shared by a criminal syndicate as we had already speculated, why would they bury him with the key?”

“The key, the cave and the authentic armour all point to a ritual burial as the best contender to explain our mystery, even if it is not fully satisfactory,” Felicity ventured, with little enthusiasm.

“You’re right,” Oliver said, with hopeful finality, “we would need more tests and even then we might never find a precise answer. In the mean time we should all be careful not to stare too hard each time Abelard tells us a tale from his imagined past. Talking in the third person as he did last night is fine with me. I’d feel a little creepy if it was in the first person. He’s just got too much detail. I really can’t explain how he so accurately pinpointed the treasure. It’s not like no one knew it existed. It’s just that he knew exactly where it was. That was eerie.”

“Well, I’ve heard enough, I’m going to break it off with him,” Felicity affirmed to her astonished friends.

“Why,” came the collective question?

“I’m not yet thirty. He might be much too old for me,” she said with a straight face. It took a moment for the others to laugh. There was, however, palpable nervousness to their merriment. They had taken Abelard at his word when he bared his soul and asked for a second chance to show his humanity at the rendezvous in Brittany. But, now, with these new possibilities they were troubled.

“His origins aside,” Elizabetta thought to add, sensing the unease in the others, “his mind has been parked in a very dangerous neighbourhood since you found him. Here is a man, evidently very skilled and equally uninhibited in the application of violence, telling us he has made a conscious decision to renounce his previous ideas and ways. Should we expect him to keep to his word?” She suddenly had everyone’s attention. “Both of you, and I as well, we are all mentally equipped to perpetrate the most abominable cruelties no less so than Abelard. There are, happily, other parts of our brains equally capable of suppressing our most murderous instincts and, best of all, wired even for apparently selfless acts. Which parts dominate will depend entirely upon what the individual believes is necessary for survival. In a lawless, tribal society, it is most likely that those bits and pieces cobbled together for violence will dominate. In an ordered environment the opposite would be the case. We humans would prefer peace and security since it would seem to give us the best chance at survival so that if a society is properly organized, where trust between its members is not an issue, then harmony should definitely trump violence. Will Abelard be able to reshuffle his mental machinery so that it can adapt to a new reality? I think he can, but I also expect he will have relapses and that we will have to be there to help him stay the course, if he is serious in his intent.”

“Thank you Professor Trebella for an excellent presentation at this first ‘Abelard’ conference,” Oliver said with much gravitas, only to receive a vigorous shove from Elizabetta.

“I suppose you have a better assessment,” she asked?

“No, my dear, only a simpler one. Given the right circumstances we would each very quickly become what Abelard has been up to now. But, unlike Elizabetta’s weak endorsement, I firmly believe that the opposite is equally true and that Abelard will very quickly adapt to his changed circumstances and become just like us.”

“Or,” Felicity added, unhappily, “just like my uncle. We should stop now, I hear someone approaching.”

“Breakfast, anyone, I’m famished,” Abelard roared through the doorway with the great good humour of the well rested.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter XX

 

 

The invited guests gathered at the inn would have been at home in any epoch. They were as self indulgent as they were wealthy beyond reason. These people were old business acquaintances of Martin’s. They knew no limits to their needs and no restraints in fulfilling them. They would eat vile tasting wildlife if only to say they had consumed the last living member of a species; they would pay to watch human blood sports; they would engage in any depravity which they believed was unique and accessible only to them. In the same spirit they were prepared to buy artifacts which were irreplaceable and otherwise priceless. These were to be the conduit for turning Abelard’s treasure into usable currency.

There were only 15, but between them they purchased everything that was put up for sale. One particular buyer, a strongly built, dark haired man attracted Abelard’s attention. There was something elusively familiar about him. He knew he had never seen this man before but that he resembled someone he had known; whether in his memories or after being found, he was not able to say. He was showing a great deal of interest in a jeweled coronet. A good opportunity for Abelard to scratch his increasingly itchy curiosity.

“Belonged to King John the Good,” Abelard said, as amiably as he could manage.

“You mean King John the Stupid, don’t you,” the buyer said with a smile. “Martin tells me this is your loot; something about your ancestors having taken it during the battle of Poitiers. Apparently you have only just succeeded in locating it after all these years. Very impressive, indeed. I’m thinking of donating this piece to the national museum. I can always say it has been in my family for centuries. No one will delve any further.”

“That would be very generous of you. I didn’t catch your name.”

“That’s because I haven’t given it,” he said with a warm smile and handed Abelard a simple business card: Cassius del Verme and underneath, Splendid Co. SC., Geneva. Abelard could only stare. He was struck dumb.

“Abelard Bush,” he finally managed, evidently somewhat disoriented. “Please excuse me, I shall be right back.”

“Is something wrong,” del Verme asked, solicitously.

“Thank you, no I’m fine. It’s been a trying week and I guess I need some rest. But I do have to see that gentleman over there about an extremely urgent matter,” and he strode across the room where a small man with a giant lady in tow was examining a cluster brooch.

“Damn, how did that piece get here? It’s already been sold,” he said with oozing concern. “Please forgive me,” and he snatched the piece from him. He did not wait for any feedback but simply shoved the brooch into his pocket and walked away. He had other plans for that artifact. On his way back to del Verme he stopped beside Martin and suggested that the disappointed guest might need some mollifying.

“Please accept my apologies for so abruptly walking away,” Abelard begged.

“No problem, my friend and if you are ever in Siena, where I actually live, my coordinates are on the back of the card. Geneva is no more than a convenient tax advantage. Please call if you have a moment. Siena is a very pretty town.” Abelard could not agree more; he was quite familiar with the small city.

Apart from some items Abelard had decided to hold back, for sentimental reasons, he claimed, everything was sold. The take was fabulous; just over 400 million dollars, with 10% going to Martin as commission.

“And what will you do with all that money,” Martin asked Abelard?

My share,” he emphasized, will buy me freedom and keep the wolves at bay,” which elicited knowing nods from Elizabetta, Felicity and Oliver.

“What do you mean your share? I thought this was your family’s treasure,” Martin asked, evidently baffled.

“Without Oliver and Felicity I would not be here and the treasure would never have seen the light of day. One third of what remains after you and Elizabetta receive your dues belongs to me. The rest goes to them.”

“However,” Abelard continued, with a sly glint in his eyes, “I’m hoping that Felicity will throw her lot in with me and so her third will never leave my sight as,” he was quick to add, “would my third always remain within hers.”

Oliver was openly blushing, as everyone expected him to make a similar statement with regard to Elizabetta. He did not oblige, tacky talk not being in his nature. He just put his arms around her and held her tightly. Elizabetta’s neutral smile, no teeth showing, left her thoughts unfathomable.

“Where to now,” Oliver asked?

“I’ve got some unfinished business in Florence. It won’t be long and I would hope you would stay here with Felicity and Elizabetta until I get back, I’d guess in under a week.”

“You’re going to see that witch, aren’t you,” Felicity cried? “They will kill you, you know that. Why are you doing this?”

“No one will be killing me,” Abelard said, nonchalantly, “if I give them what they want. Otherwise we will be running all our lives.”

“And just what are you going to give them,” Oliver asked, already knowing the answer?

“The sample, of course.”

“Why would they want that sample,” Felicity asked, also guessing what he would answer?

“They believe I’m the authentic article and expect to extract from the sample the secret to immortality.”

“I’m sorry to break into what is apparently a private conversation being held in public and I’m the public,” Martin broke in, “but what are you talking about?”

“I guess there’s no harm in telling Martin about the delusions of Dona Maria, is there,” Abelard stated, rather than asked? “There are people in Florence, quite a rough crowd, who have convinced themselves that I am the same Abelard de Buch whose tales I have been telling, my 650 year old ancestor, and there is nothing I can do to convince them otherwise. They want a sample of my DNA which they believe they can then clone and produce some sort of long life potion. Have you ever heard anything so ridiculous? Those Italian gangsters, it seems, will believe anything.”

“I have this itchy feeling, Abelard, that you’re not telling me the entire story. But, hey, I just made 40 million dollars today, I’m perfectly happy to leave you your secrets. But do take care. I’ve grown quite fond of your stories.”

“At least let me come with you,” Oliver pleaded.

“Thanks, but no thanks. It will be a lot quicker if I go alone. I know these people and I don’t want to alarm them by showing up with someone else. I would like to leave in the morning.” Abelard kept to himself his own assessment as to the risks a confrontation with Dona Maria might entail.

 

 

***

 

 

No one noticed the green minivan pulling out of a small clearing in the woods, a bit below Martin’s drive. They would not have noticed it when it took its place on the roadway, a safe five car lengths behind them, because they would never have seen this particular vehicle; the occupants had been exceptionally careful about being detected, using many different transports all the way from Florence. Although Abelard had taken extraordinary measures to avoid detection when he had gone in search of the treasure, being wary of the suspicious activity at the supposedly vacant nearby property, on his present mission he was unconcerned about being followed.

Felicity drove Abelard to the airport at Brive le Gaillard from where he would fly to Nice and then on to Florence.

 

 

***

 

 

At Peretola Abelard hired a car and drove directly from the airport the 50 kilometres to Siena. The old core, engraved in his memories, a little cleaner perhaps, no horse dung underfoot, had hardly changed since the sharp wars he remembers having fought on behalf of Florence. This would give him a territorial advantage in the highly likely event that the Donatello might be in a vengeful mood. City Hall was housed in the same early 14th century building and the adjoining Campanile was still standing. The original defensive walls crumbling and in disrepair, where so much butchery had taken place, were easy to spot. He had intended to meet Dona Maria in the Piazza del Campo, the most public place in Siena. That might dissuade her from any rash impulse to avenge her father’s death. But experience counseled him otherwise. He would prepare an alternate plan. After a brief call to Florence, he fished the business card from his pocket and proceeded with the other affairs that had brought him to Siena.

 

 

***

 

 

“He’s in Siena. He wants to meet me tomorrow. He is expecting me to call him in one hour with my answer,” Dona Maria said to her brother Angelo, more puzzled than content, “and he has the sample with him. He wants to give it to us.”

“That’s all,” Angelo asked? “He wants nothing in return?”

“In a manner of speaking. He wants our word to leave him be.”

“You know we can’t do that. Not after he killed father, never mind the others.”

“How long do you need to get men, and I mean lots of men, to Siena? He is very skilled at putting people in the ground.”

“It’s 09:00 AM; I can have a team ready by noon.”

“Good, I’ll call him now to confirm.”

 

 

***

 

 

“Mr. del Verme, please,” Abelard asked.

“Which one,” inquired the pleasant male voice at the other end?

“Cassius.”

“Whom shall I say is calling?”

“Abelard Bush.”

“One moment, please, Mr. Bush.”

“I’m very sorry but Mr. del Verme is in an all day meeting can he call you tomorrow?”

“Can you please give him the following message: Aut inveniam viam aut faciam.” Silence. No response. “Did you get that,” Abelard thought to ask?”

“Yes Mr. Bush, I got that and I will be able to repeat it if that is what you are about to ask. Will there be anything else.”

“Yes, you might want to give him the number where I can be reached.”

“Yes, Mr. Bush, I can see it right here on my screen. Thank you and good day,” the recently pleasant green voice had taken on a distinctly unpleasant hue.

Abelard was sitting outside waiting for his coffee, the cool morning limpid air mostly tamed by the hot sun. The resemblance he had seen at his artifact auction in Cassius del Verme to a very famous fourteenth century condottiere in Italy, Jacopo del Verme, leader of the Splendid company was uncanny. How they chose the names for their troops – the White Company, the Splendid Company, the Red Company – sometimes baffled him, but an import-export outfit called Splendid, operated by a del Verme was much too much of a coincidence to let by. Del Verme had been one of the best for arranging clean, discreet, untraceable assassinations. In fact, his contract business for private murder became so successful he hardly ever engaged in full scale warfare. Abelard recalls once hiring him to do away with an Italian nobleman who reneged on a contract. It was important at the time to let people know that the condottiere were not to be trifled with.

The waiter had just brought him his steaming cappuccino when his cell jingled for attention. “Bush,” he growled.

“Do you know what that means, Aut inveniam viam aut faciam,” Cassius asked?

I shall either find a way or make one,” Jacopo’s moto, Abelard answered as though such conversations were his daily fare.

“How do you know so much about our family history?”

“I have an intimate knowledge of everything Abelard de Buch ever did and thought. That includes everyone with whom he ever had any contact. Since he had done business with Jacopo, your ancestor, whom you very closely resemble, by the way, I also know everything he knew about him.”

“How do you know I resemble Jacopo, and I can assure you that I do, there not being any portraits of him outside of our own collection, at least of which I am aware?”

“Abelard de Buch was a very visual man with some noteworthy artistic talents and he left a great many sketches behind,” Abelard lied as best he could. It was thin gruel and Cassius’ silence told him he had not succeeded very well.

“What can I do for you Mr. Bush,” del Verme finally asked?

“I would need the services of the Splendid Company.”

“Where are you now?”

“Right here in Siena.”

“If you would come to our offices, I would be very glad to run through the services our Import-Export company offers.”

“I’ll be there in 20 minutes,” he said and rang off.

 

 

***

 

 

“Bush,” he growled into the cell.

“Dona Maria, Abelard,” her voice as seductive as ever, “I hope you can forgive me for the misunderstanding, my men just jumped to the wrong conclusions,” she tried.

“Meet me at the bottom end of the Piazza del Campo at noon, tomorrow,” he said without any room for negotiations and hung up. The Piazza was a huge sea shell shaped space, cobble stoned, with the medieval buildings housing City Hall at the very top, shops and cafes along the sides which sloped gently down towards a large exit at the bottom end. Under the sun the Piazza took on a distinctly pinkish colour.

 

 

***

 

 

“They’re meeting tomorrow at noon, Piazza del Campo. This just might be the moment,” the woman behind the screens and sound equipment hushed into the microphone hovering close to her lips. “Yes I’ll keep on monitoring his calls.”

 

 

***

 

 

Abelard walked to the Piazza dei Salimbeni and headed straight for the Rocca, which still resembled the keep of the medieval fortress it had once been. He stepped through the huge arched entrance at the left corner. The space in the Rocca and the two adjacent buildings in the square was occupied mainly by the Bank of the Monte dei Paschi di Siena, which claims to be the world’s oldest bank. The top floor housed the Splendid Company offices. As soon as he spoke his name into the intercom a loud buzzer unlocked the door. Cassius was standing at the reception desk. Abelard wondered how long he had been waiting there.

“A pleasure to see you again,” Cassius said as though he really meant it.

“Likewise, Mr. del Verme.”

“Please call me Cassius, Abelard, if I may,” politeness oozing from every visible pore.

They stepped into Cassius’ office, which was gargantuan. Abelard had by now concluded that important Italians were conducting the equivalent of an arms race when it came to office size. As for Milly, the uber achiever, his office wouldn’t even rank here.

“Which is it you need Abelard, to import or export,” Cassius asked him, hinting at noting other than a prospective business transaction? Abelard was not quite sure what to think. He even began to have doubts about whether Splendid was still in the same business. Cassius soon tried to clear matters up.

“I hope you do not think we are in the same business that Jacopo launched,” he said with genuine amusement. “We are a respected enterprise, importing everything from machinery to lumber and exporting anything we can sell abroad.”

Abelard remained unconvinced, reckoning that del Verme would not have been invited to the artifact auction if he were but a dull importer-exporter. “That’s too bad; I had rather hoped our families could continue to do business. I guess I’ll have to go and buy what I need from Dona Maria.”

“You couldn’t possibly go….,” Cassius did not catch his error early enough.

“And why would that be,” Abelard asked, poorly disguising his satisfaction?

“I had heard that Dona Maria is very annoyed with you, since you killed her father,” Cassius answered, accepting that his attempt to hide the nature of his business had failed.

“The correct version of the story is that one of her men actually shot the elder Donatello. Ultimately, though, it was her clumsy treachery that did the old man in.”

“The truth is, Abelard, our other business is done exclusively for governments and their agencies. We never take contracts from individuals and you are an individual. I’m sorry.”

“That is very disappointing and also a bit sad,” Abelard said with a sigh as he fished from his pocket a small package loosely wrapped in silk cloth. He carefully unfolded the grey fabric and placed it on Cassius’ monstrous desk.

“What is that? It’s beautiful. Why wasn’t it up for sale with the other artifacts,” Cassius asked, clearly impressed with the piece.

“This cluster brooch actually belonged to Jacopo. He used it to pay the ransom for his son’s release from the condottiere, hired by Florence to harass Siena. He had been captured during a skirmish just outside the walls. It was a massacre, all his men were killed and he was spared only for his redemption value. He was an arrogant little sop, and Jacopo was very upset with him when the exchange took place. He had ridden out with his men to teach the Florentine mercenaries a lesson. It had been a simple trick. Abelard de Buch had taunted him and seeing that there were only a few men with Abelard he collected a small troop and rode out to make his name. The rest you can imagine. The men hiding in the woods came rushing out and it was all very quickly over.”

“How do I know this is the genuine article,” Cassius asked with a sceptical grin.

“Look at the inscription on the back.”

“Astonishing, utterly unbelievable,” he practically stuttered.

“Can you wait here a moment, Abelard,” he finally calmed down sufficiently to again become coherent?

“Certainly, but it would be better if I held on to the brooch, if that is all the same to you.”

“Of course, of course,” and he reluctantly returned the piece.

He left the office in a hurry and was gone for a good ten minutes. When he finally returned, he had an old man in tow. This set Abelard to wondering whether all Italian families have an old patriarch hanging about in the background.

“This is my father, the family patriarch, also named Jacopo,” Cassius said to an unsurprised Abelard.

“You’re the one who killed Gianni,” Jacopo asserted, in a barely audible voice. Gianni also had a low voice; must be a genetically selected characteristic, peculiar to patriarchs of Italian mob families, he reckoned.

“I did kill two of his men, but I do not wish to take credit for killing him,” Abelard answered with a smile that belied the sombre atmosphere dragged into the room along with Jacopo.

“Our families seem to have crossed paths early in our history. How is it you know so much about your ancestors?”

“For the same reason you probably know about your own family tree, we kept good records.”

“There is a rumour that you are the one and same Abelard de Buch who has somehow managed to stay alive all this time. How do you think such a rumour could have been started?” Cassius was obviously not aware of that particular rumour and wondered whether his father was perhaps not a bit too old for this business.

“Dona Maria seems to have added two and two and concluded that they summed to at least five. That is the only sensible explanation I have.”

“You’re identity is also very new. I do know with certainty that it was purchased not more than five years ago. Any reason why I should also believe the even newer Argentinean story?”

“Well, Jacopo, it seems we have arrived at a conundrum. I had need of the identity for some very good reasons, which shall remain my secret. But, whatever the identity, my ancestry remains a fact. I do trace my history back to the Twelfth century, even though our predecessors didn’t actually meet until the fourteenth. It is too bad though that we had to get distracted by rumours and details, I would have been delighted to reunite this piece with its original owner’s descendants. I won’t keep you any longer, you must be very busy,” he finished and abruptly rose from the chair, pocketed the brooch and extended his hand, making ready to say his adieus and leave.

“Please be patient with an old man,” Jacopo said, his voice now stronger and firmer than earlier. “Why don’t you tell us what business you are looking to do with us?”

Abelard would have liked to include the Donatello along with Milly in his proposed deal but knew that he would have to deal with the them on his own. He was fairly certain there would be a tacit understanding between the criminal organizations regarding territory and the undertaking of business which might throw them into open warfare. Although, in all fairness, Splendid was not a bona fide criminal corporation since it did all its clandestine killing for legitimate governments, Abelard contrived, rather than reasoned.

“I need to conditionally destroy Milford Yonkers Lord. The condition being if something inexplicable happens to any one of four particular individuals; me and three others, whose names I will furnish when and if you agree to the job.”

“That is a contract that could go on for years and entail great expense,” Cassius observed.

“Yes, quite and I would expect the price to reflect that.”

“How much would you want for the brooch,” Cassius asked, “if we were to undertake this assignment, of course,” he hastily added?

“Perhaps, it would be best if we started with the value of the ransom demand at the time. It was for five thousand Florentine Florins. It is estimated that one Florentine Florin from that period was worth about 300 dollars today, to put it into a modern context. If we assume a modest long term annual inflation rate of three percent and do the calculation, then the brooch should today be worth just over 331 trillion dollars.”

There was a moment of stunned silence before Jacopo, followed closely by Cassius burst into loud raucous laughter. They kept on repeating the amount and each time could not stop from slipping into insane hilarity.

“I hope,” Cassius finally finding his voice, said, “that we don’t have to give you change,” which sparked another round of laughter by father and son, neither noticing that Abelard did not appear amused.

“What is so funny,” Abelard asked, when he felt that he could finally be heard over the snorting and guffawing?

“We must be realistic,” Cassius answered. “We will have to agree on a reasonable price for the brooch and then make up the difference in cash.”

“Mr. Bush,” Jacopo said, ignoring his son’s reasoned argument, “we must have this brooch, its sentimental value being too great to let pass. We will undertake the assignment for the brooch in an even trade, if that is satisfactory to you.”

“But father…,” Cassius broke in only to be interrupted by Abelard.

“It’s a deal,” he said, extending his hand. I suppose you have a standard cover contract for this sort of assignment.”

“Yes, it’s a bodyguard contract where we agree to provide you with the service for, in this case, an indefinite period of time. But you will have to trust us to deliver. How do you feel about that?”

“From the records I have seen, Jacopo always dealt fairly and reliably with my ancestor. I would expect that nothing has changed since then.”

“Good, I’ll have the papers ready for signatures by tomorrow. Can you come back here?”

“That may be difficult,” Abelard said, not knowing how tomorrow’s meeting with Dona Maria would turn out. “Could you send the contract to my home in Montreal, where I will look it over when I get back there next week, sign it and send it back to you?”

“No problem.”

Abelard then left to prepare for the following day’s meeting, which he expected to be arduous.

He reserved a room at a small, no star hotel on via Cavour. It was close to the Piazza del Campo and it was too cheap for anyone interested in locating him prior to the next day’s meeting to bother checking. Why would anyone stay at the Loggia Trepiccolo, let alone a man such as Abelard, who could easily afford to buy the rundown establishment?

 

 

***

 

 

Abelard returned to the Piazza del Campo. From there he headed towards the Duomo, but followed a circuitous route through a neighbourhood with renaissance buildings sharing narrow twisting alleyways and haphazardly placed arches. If he had to choose his spot for tomorrow’s battle, this would be it. The streets were too narrow for automobiles and the masses of stone, on the streets, on the walls and in the overhanging arches would render it almost impossible to pinpoint the source of any and all sounds. It was an ideal spot to confront a much larger force, which he fully expected Dona Maria to have at hand. It would be like confronting heavy horse in a forest, which imposed severe limits on their massed advantage. Then there was a larger roadway, separating the Piazza del Campo from the stone forest, if he chose to meet the enemy on a more open field. Abelard was content as he filled his small digital camera with images that he would study more closely at his hotel.

His next stop was at a shop which specialized in authentic period weaponry, every piece as serviceable as any medieval warrior could have expected. He picked out a crossbow, big enough to kill a large human but not so big as to make drawing the string a major impediment to rapid shooting. He chose a mace with a one kilogram spiked ball attached to a solid grip with a half metre chain. There was a comforting reliability about a weapon that managed to retain its popularity for so long, from the Stone Age right through to the sixteenth century. It was as useful for smashing skulls as it was for striking terror and, in a pinch could be used to knock down annoying partitions when doing home renovations. Add a few knives and he had what he needed. He explained to the clerk that he was throwing a costume party and these were for ambiance.

Hs last stop was at the stables,just outside the old walls, where horses were boarded for the Palio, Siena’s ruthlessly contested races. Yes, they did rent horses but to be ridden only under the strictest of supervision and only on designated trails. Yes, of course they can maneuver on cobblestones, the races, after all, are run around the Piazza del Campo and what do you think they have there, dirt? He was being treated as a village idiot by the head groom. The demeaning arrogance was quickly replaced by sniveling obsequiousness as the 1000 euro note floated slowly to the dusty stable floor, as though it had inadvertently been drawn from Abelard’s pocket when he pulled out his sunglasses and made ready to leave. No, no my friend, rules are only guidelines here. Where would we be if rules ruled our lives? We would certainly not have three Palio champions in this stable, now would we? For another 500 euros, to be paid the following day, Abelard could also leave his bulky bag at the stables. To demonstrate how much he valued good faith in others, Abelard pierced the 1000 euro note with a knife, which he drew from the bag, and threw it into a thick supporting beam, ten metres distance. He looked carefully at the groom and his sudden loss of colour was evidence enough that he had understood just how deeply Abelard felt about complete honesty. He smiled and promised to return just before noon the following day to collect the horse and his bag.

 

 

***

 

 

The next morning Abelard walked into the café shortly after it opened for the day, well before he reckoned Dona Maria would have anyone there to watch the place. There were already people milling about with steaming coffees and sweet pastries loading up on empty calories before beginning the day’s routine. After a moment his trained eye fell on a long thin man with slicked back hair and a cocked eyebrow. He seemed to have a word and a smile for everyone.

As he made his way towards him he was bumped from behind, rather hard, by a strongly built, stern looking woman wearing a loud conspicuous red leather half coat. She laid a heavy hand on Abelard’s shoulder, practically crushing his collar, her grim demeanor now replaced by gawking surprise. She was terribly sorry and could he forgive her. If there is any damage she would pay, immediately, if Abelard so wished. No, no, no damage, thank you and he was in great a rush and could not stay to chat. He moved back to disentangle himself from the unyielding grip on his shoulder and left her standing alone, arm still outstretched, as he made his way over to the bar and the likely compliant waiter he had identified.

Would he be so kind as to give this sealed envelope to the lady, probably accompanied by several large men, who would be here at noon? And would it be alright if he gave him the other 20 euros when he came back that afternoon? No problem. Good.

Dona Maria was not quite sure what to conclude from Abelard’s change of plans, but she was fairly certain that there could not be anything in them to her benefit. The Piazza del Campo would be so well known to anyone who had ever set foot in Siena, it had never even crossed her mind that she might need a local thug to guide them. It was, after all just a Piazza, a big square surrounded by buildings without mysterious hiding places. She had intended to take the sample, kill Abelard and cut off an arm, to satisfy the microbiologist who needed his DNA in order to do a proper study. What should she do now about this change of plans? Ever resourceful, Dona Maria sent someone to purchase a city map.

At the intersection to where Abelard had moved the meeting, the narrow cross streets were guarded by silent metal stanchions at either end. On a north-south street, Dona Maria, with three thugs in tow, came up from one direction while the three others made their way down from the other. Abelard, who was standing directly at the crossroads, moved towards Dona Maria when he saw her approaching. After a few steps he stopped and waited.

“That will be far enough,” Abelard said.

“Do you have the sample,” Dona Maria asked?

“Yes,” he answered and waved something at them.

Then he saw the slight nod of Dona Maria’s head and knew it was time for him to withdraw. He was already well inside the alleyway beside which he had stopped before the first bullets, fired by the men coming up behind him, ricocheted off the stone walls. Then the neighbourhood reverberated to the clatter of metal horseshoes. Only the echoes could still be heard when the first man reached the narrow passage down which Abelard had disappeared. As he peered into the semi-darkness, trying to adjust his focus to the lower light conditions, a metal jacketed crossbow bolt embedded half its length into his forehead. The impact was so severe it threw him two metres back before his limp body touched the cobblestones. Then the clatter of hooves began again. His pursuers rushed into the narrow chasm between the buildings, running towards the noise. But in the brick and stone maze it was impossible to pinpoint where the galloping sound was coming from. Suddenly it stopped, and as Dona Maria and her thugs were still staring into the gloom there came the unmistakable sound of an arrow flying threw the air. Thud, into the back and out the front of a tall thin man. He too was hurled a distance before falling dead.

That was enough for the others. They rushed towards the larger road where they had left their cars. Once there, Dona Maria ordered the two vehicles to circle the neighbourhood in opposite directions, reckoning Abelard would eventually be spotted either trying to leave or down one of the narrow streets which intersected the larger roadway. They did finally catch sight of him but not quite in the way they had expected, Abelard suddenly appearing, galloping alongside the car, the one without Dona Maria. Before the two men could draw their weapons, Abelard had swung his great, spiked metal ball at the window, which was conveniently rolled down for shooting, and smashed the driver’s skull. The car lurched forward and picked up speed as the dying thug depressed the accelerator. It then spun out of control, glanced off a metal stanchion and finally bounced over the side of the road, plummeting twenty metres to the valley floor and bursting into flames. The odds are now much better, Abelard thought, four down three to go.

But he was a little too confident. As he stared down at the burning wreck, Dona Maria and the surviving thugs pulled up behind him. Dona Maria and one man stayed in the gloom of an alley while the other gunman took careful aim at Abelard.

“Shoot him;” shouted Dona Maria, “now, shoot him now.”

With nothing to lose, and being quite sure he was finished, Abelard took a knife from his belt and threw it at the gunman. It did strike its mark but not before the gunman’s head had already exploded. The sharp crack of a high powered rifle followed soon after. It was the rifle bullet that saved him; not the knife. Then the overcast, moist air was filled with police sirens.

“You, I guess will have to be kept alive,” Dona Maria said, next to his ear, her gun touching his temple. “Take him to the car she ordered her surviving man. We will need him to get away.”

Screeching at high speed through the winding streets, they soon reached the outskirts from where they turned towards Florence. They were not alone, being pursued by several police vehicles shrieking their high pitched staccato wail. About three kilometres along the Siena-Florence road, Dona Maria concluded that they could not possibly outrun the police and ordered the driver up a long driveway which led to a small stone chapel. There were no vehicles to be seen and she had guessed it was empty. They skidded to a dusty stop and rushed towards the door, which they broke down. A moment later the police had surrounded the building. The inside was austere, adorned only with a raised alter and a large cross hanging behind it on the sparsely plastered wall. The shouted demands by the police to give themselves up began almost immediately.

“Well Abelard,” Dona Maria began, “we seem to have a situation here. You may think that you can get off by revealing what you know about The Society but you are wrong. They will never believe a man with an unknown past and, besides, I will have the best team of lawyers money can buy. But why take a chance with the vagaries of the courtroom and, especially, nosy investigators? My best bet is to shoot you right now and plead that you were a madman who had attacked us and forced me to drive you to safety.”

“What if we made a deal,” Abelard said, playing for time as he moved ever so slowly towards the only remaining stained glass window, the others having been removed or broken long ago and the spaces bricked up. “I won’t say anything about the murders, the assassinations, the simulated terrorist attacks and other parts of your business; and I will help you find the secret to my longevity. What do you say?”

“Sorry my dear Abelard but you seem to know much more than I had suspected and I am quite sure that I cannot trust you. Besides, I am under a family obligation to avenge my father’s death. Shoot him,” she barked at the thug standing just beside her. Too late, Abelard had already moved close enough to the window and hurled himself through it. The thug rushed forward and as he aimed at Abelard, who was already distancing himself from the chapel, sharpshooters put four closely spaced bullets into his chest.

“Alright, I’m coming out,” Dona Maria yelled, as she threw her weapon out the door.

“This man attacked us and has killed four of my people,” Dona Maria screeched hysterically pointing at Abelard who was now standing next to the police captain. Abelard was just as confused as Dona Maria. No one seemed to be paying him any particular attention. He wasn’t being manacled or interrogated. He was not quite sure what was happening.

“Ever since you pulled Mr. Bush into the car, earlier on, until the moment he left the chapel, we have recorded everything you said,” the captain practically whispered, or so it seemed to Abelard, having endured Dona Maria’s deafening ranting for much of the afternoon.

“Thank you Mr. Bush,” he said, as he put his hand on Abelard’s shoulder and from under his collar removed a finishing nail head sized device. “This is the microphone my officer placed on you at the café this morning,” he continued, pointing to the strongly built stern looking woman wearing a conspicuous red leather half coat, standing a few metres away, who had bumped into him that morning. Then he pointed to a large van with its doors open and through which could be seen banks of electronic equipment.

As Dona Maria was being led away, screaming bloody murder, Abelard saw a familiar figure step from one of the squad cars and approach him. It was Sanschagrin. “Hello Mr. Bush. I did say we would meet again. This is Captain Giancarlo Tremonti of the national police. When I asked for his help to keep an eye on you and hopefully solve the mystery of who you really are, he became very interested when he learned there was a connection to the Donatello. He has been trying for years, without success, to infiltrate their organization. He saw you as an opportunity to advance his own case.”

“So you used me as bait,” Abelard asked without seeming terribly fussed that they may have deliberately put him in death’s way?

“Actually not, since we remained as passive trackers right up until the last minute when we saved your life. All initiatives were your own without the least prodding from the captain.”

“About that saving my life event; thanks.”

“Shall we hold him for you, Hector,” the captain asked? “We have no reason to detain him as far as Italian law is concerned. He has not done anything wrong here.”

“Alas,” Sanschagrin sighed, without a trace of regret, “neither do we have any reason to hold him.”

“You are free to go, Mr. Bush. We already have enough self incriminating evidence against the Donatello and will not be likely to need your presence.”

Abelard, still heady with his run of good luck walked back into the warren of narrow streets to chase down and return the rental horse.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter XXI

 

 

“The VBI building,” Abelard bellowed and thought it best to add, “please.” He would soon need all the cooperation he could get from the surly driver. It then occurred to him that he should stop at his condo to first pick up the del Verme contract, which he supposed would by now have arrived. Polite as can be he instructed the driver to make that stop before heading to the VBI building. With the push of a button he then isolated him behind thick, soundproof glass.

“But how do you know he’s in today?” Felicity asked. He had intended to confront Milly alone. He would go there directly from the airport, along the way dropping Felicity at their apartment. Oliver and Elizabetta were quite content to make their own way when they arrived in Montreal but Felicity was another matter. Mindful that her uncle could be most unkind to his enemies, she had insisted on coming along and would not for an instant consider abandoning dear Abelard.

“Board meeting day tomorrow,” he answered confidently. “The quarterly reporting board meeting which he would never miss. He always prepares very well. Two full days, cloistered in his office, seeing only those who will provide him with the critical bits and pieces necessary to craft a believable tale of inspired leadership and personal glory.”

In the event the airports should be watched some precaution was taken. Abelard and Felicity both donned dark, short haired wigs, which may have had the unintended effect of drawing more attention to them than otherwise. In his rush to leave the stuffy costume store Abelard had simply taken two identical hair pieces. Add for Abelard a walrus moustache and loud Caribbean shirt with dazzling floral flourishes tucked loosely into leaf green buffoon pants and he appeared nothing so much as a person desperately seeking the attention of strangers. Felicity, not one to give much thought to style was nevertheless sufficiently put out to be so mocked that she deliberately put some distance between her and Abelard. But she prudently did not remove the disguise. The limo driver at first refused to take the oddly dressed couple until Abelard handed him the full fare. He did take care to closely watch his strange passengers, particularly after they removed their unsightly camouflage.

“Don’t stop here, drive right into the garage, please,” Abelard insisted as the car slowed in front of the building.

“Hey, we don’t do that, this is as far as we go with our service,” the wary chauffeur responded with brusque, arrogant resolve. He was not so stupid as to give these two cretins a chance to have him alone in a dark garage.

“It’s just around the corner,” Abelard pleaded, but this time with two one hundred dollar bills he was noisily swishing between the tips of his fingers, “and I may have forgotten to add a tip to the fare,” he added, as the chauffeur spotted the money. Prudence not having a monopoly in this man’s mental makeup, greed handily triumphed over fear.

Felicity, who had been leaning forward to follow the negotiations was thrown back into her seat, as the long limousine accelerated and screeched around the corner. But he stopped just at the entrance where the sign clearly stated they were entering a private garage. The chauffeur turned to Abelard to complain when he saw that another hundred had now joined the two already at the tips of his fingers. The security guard just gawked as the car lurched forward while he was still in the act of preparing to come out of his glass booth.

“You can’t stay here,” the guard at Milly’s private elevator announced, fingers hovering near his visible revolve to remove any ambiguity the strangers might have as to his meaning. The guard’s telephone had suddenly and insistently come to life. The tinted glass kept him from recognizing Abelard, against who he had been instructed to take any and all measures were he to try and enter the elevator. He made a poor decision to turn his attention to the ringing telephone. As the guard entered his small booth to answer, Abelard silently left the car and swiftly restrained him, one arm firmly pressing on the astonished man’s neck, the other holding the point of his knife in front of the guard’s eye.

“I want you to do two things and then we will quietly leave you to your duties,” Abelard’s tone cold enough to be convincing. The guard did not for an instant doubt Abelard’s resolve. He nodded, unable to squeeze enough air through his neck to respond otherwise.

“When I let you go you will contact your friend at the front and tell him all is well. Then you will telephone upstairs and have Mr. Lord informed that Mr. Bush is here to see him.” Abelard was not yet assured that the guard fully appreciated how annoyed he would be if everything didn’t proceed as he wished. “Is there anything you have not understood,” Abelard whispered, sliding the blade’s cold flat edge along the guard’s fleshy cheek, as though preparing to separate the nose from the face? The guard, unable to move anything but his incredulous eyes in Abelard’s iron grip, managed to convey that he had caught everything.

The first call only took a moment. He had to hold for a bit after giving his message on the second call. Then he confirmed what he had heard, put the receiver down and said, with some astonishment, “you can go right up Mr. Bush.”

The elevator was at the top of the building and they had to wait a moment while it dropped to the garage. The door opened and out stepped two well groomed young men. “Only you Mr. Bush, we have no instructions for anyone else,” the dark haired one said, looking disdainfully at Felicity.

“You had better talk into that little box of yours and get new instructions,” Abelard said, pointing to the two way radio in his hand. “I will not leave her here alone.”

“Ok, come on,” he said brusquely, after conferring briefly with his black box, annoyed at having to retreat before these outsiders, pipsqueaks he would rather have crushed like squirming rats.

The elevator gave onto an ornate ante room, large enough to comfortably hold at least a dozen people. They spent no time there but were ushered directly through the already opened door at the opposite end, adorned with a bronze plaque informing all who entered that this was the lair of M.Y. Lord.

Milly was dressed more formally than he had been at the Florentine police station. He had been stoking the roaring fire and was just straightening up, tightly gripping the black, heavy metal poker, tip still glowing red from the flames. Abelard had little doubt as to where Milly’s thoughts were just then wallowing.

“Abelard, good to see you again. I asked the guard to let you in because I didn’t want to lose a man and I did want to tell you how very disappointed I was when you ran off without a word and just disappeared,” he said, without the least hint he might be making a bad joke. “You of course know Len,” he quickly added. He gestured to a slightly built man emerging from the shadows beyond the harsh glow of halogen light enveloping the small carpeted area in front of the fireplace. Leonardo Attendolo was the corporate secretary and close confident of Milly. He knew all that could be known about VBI. “One more thing,” he said, looking at Felicity, sad disappointment clouding his eyes, “she will have to wait in the other room or this meeting is over now.” Abelard looked imploringly at Felicity, knowing he neither could nor would force her to do anything. She hesitated only a moment, handed him her purse and then quickly made her way back into the ante room. Felicity had accepted that she was no longer part of Milly’s family.

“As you know, we are very busy preparing for the board meeting, is there something so urgent troubling you that it couldn’t be dealt with later on?” M.Y. Lord asked, almost solicitously. He had his priorities. But it was easy to tell from the contrived boredom in his voice he already knew the answer.

“That depends upon how much you value your life,” Abelard responded, never taking his eyes off M.Y. lord.

His sudden agitation was palpable. He was not used to being threatened, this powerful primal being overseeing a vast empire. He seemed to lose control of his perfectly manicured head, twisting it from side to side, wrinkling the skin of his thick neck, as though trying to slip out from the prison of his clothes. His breathing became heavy and erratic, more of a low snarl. He was struggling to regain his composure.

Abelard appeared to be taking great pleasure in M.Y. Lord’s discomfort. But he remained cautious, moving ever so slowly, unclasping Felicity’s purse and pulling out the carefully folded contract. The body guards, alarmed by Abelard’s actions had both already slipped their hands into their jackets, preparing to defend the boss.

“You surely remember Elizabetta Trebella, the psychiatrist who looked after me,” Abelard said. “She has already signed an affidavit accusing you of trying to kill me. If anything should happen to any of us then it will surface and you will be held responsible.”

“Abelard, my friend,” M.Y. Lord began, a smile of relief transforming his features from the wild, psychopathic distortions of a moment earlier into the benign regard of a selfless philanthropist, “do you truly believe they will take her seriously, swearing that a man with a fabricated identity, yes I know about that, was my potential victim. Frankly, I am disappointed. You always impressed me as a lot brighter than that.”

“To tell the truth Milly, I didn’t really think you would be affected by the mere threat of exposure. You’ve never shown anything but contempt for rules that are not your own and only slight regard for those who would enforce them. You’re full of yourself Milly,” Abelard said, smiling sadly, stoically, not cruelly and vengefully as he had earlier. “That is why I also took one extra precaution,” he added, stretching out his arm, offering the still folded contract to Milly. Attendolo came forward, snatched the papers and dutifully brought them to his master. Milly was not very sure what to make of this new and unexpected development. He seemed to have lost some of his self-assurance, wary of a trick. He read its contents.

“Is this some sort of joke,” he asked, very threateningly? “What’s all this compensation shit? Why you showing me this crap?” Milly’s polished veneer was surprisingly thin. It was inadequate to contain his deeply anchored, simmering brutality, prepared always to strike. He crumpled the paper and threw it across the office where it bounced off Attendolo’s head, who fetched the projectile from where it had fallen and unravelled it for a quick read.

“Milly,” Attendolo was saying, trying to catch Milly’s attention. “Milly,” he said a bit louder this time, provoking a violent reaction, as from a primitive tribal chieftain, uncertainty making him lash out at all around him.

“What the fuck do you want?” He yelled.

Then he stopped, seeing a more than usually pale Attendolo, his frightened rodent eyes repeatedly scanning the room. There was something about the contract Attendolo evidently did not like.

“We need to talk,” Attendolo said, in a low, timid voice. The two conferred, Milly standing beside Attendolo, head slightly bowed, arms arrogantly on his waist, listening until he slowly began to look up, the utter astonishment in his face apparent even at a distance. There was some further discussion, hand wringing and head nodding. Milly walked into the semi darkness to the far corner of his vast office and picked up the telephone, said a few words and then came back to join Abelard and Attendolo.

As they were talking, it became apparent to Abelard that Attendolo knew what the del Verme seal on a contract meant and had explained its seriousness to Milly. Abelard wondered then whether Leonardo Attendolo was not descended from the fourteenth century Attendoli, whose famous member, Muzio Attendolo, would become one of Italy’s great condottieri and eventually take the name Sforza as the Duke of Milan. But even if he was not of that famous stock he would still surely be aware of Splendid Company through his convenient connections to the Italian underworld.

“Leonardo tells me that the contract is quite legitimate,” he began with a renewed confidence which immediately put Abelard on guard. He had regained his poise, a sure sign he felt the upper hand would again soon be his. “But he also tells me these contracts have more hidden fine print than insurance companies would ever imagine putting in. For example, my friend, the contract kicks in if and only if you or those mentioned are killed under my orders. It says nothing about anything else I might do to you.”

He then shook his head in apparent disappointment at Abelard, looked over at Attendolo standing beside him and, without warning, twisted violently towards him and smashed him full in the face, sending blood squirting in all directions and Attendolo to the carpet in a crumpled heap. The sharp crack meant that he had also broken his nose. Milly then turned to Abelard, a sly smile flashing momentarily across his quivering, demonic face.

“You’re mad, how dare you attack Leonardo,” he suddenly yelled at Abelard, who remained motionless, utterly astonished, unable to react.

“You all saw what happened,” he turned to his bodyguards, who nodded to indicate their complicity. “Leonardo, you poor man, I will have that lunatic arrested and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Don’t worry, we will take care of your nose and you can be sure I won’t forget what happened here.”

Attendolo, having spent so much time near Milly, was exquisitely in tune with his body language and voice inflections. Still stunned from the blow, he nevertheless very quickly understood Milly’s strategy. Not trusting himself to speak, the pain in his nose had by now made him sensitive to any movement, he nodded ever so carefully to confirm his complicity.

Then a smaller man, who had remained almost totally obscured by the darkness at the far end of the office, emerged.

“Bull,” Abelard said, anxiety in his voice. John Bull, nominally the head of strategy and organization development, was Milly’s toady-in-chief.

“You’re finished Abe,” he snarled from a mouth disfigured into a permanent sneer. “This time nothing will save you. I saw everything and the courts are going to put you away forever.”

Abelard lost control. He lunged at Bull, taking him by the lapels of his jacket and throwing him against the wall. He turned in time to stop the blond haired thug coming at him full force with a blow to the chest and then bring his fist hard against the side of the big man’s head. The second bodyguard did not fare any better, Abelard grasped his arm in mid throw, and repeatedly kicked him in the ribs, the cracking sound barely audible, being absorbed by the conveniently thick carpeting. Then he turned to Milly who had moved back to the fireplace and picked up the heavy poker with its long, dangerously pointed hook. Abelard bounded over to the fireplace and, in turn, picked up the metal fireplace shovel. He then smiled and prepared to play with Milly. It was like dealing with a child, Abelard the experienced warrior, master swordsman, against Milly’s untrained thrusts and wild swings. This went on for a few moments, their giant shadows moving eerily across the walls in front of the roaring fire, until Abelard grew tired of the game and swiftly knocked the poker from Milly’s hand. He picked it up and put the pointed tip against Milly’s neck. The still hot metal filled the still air with the pungent scent of burning flesh.

“Game’s over, Milly. Prepare for oblivion,” he said, with an entirely expressionless stare. He was now the victor of the field, the final source of vengeance and legitimate punishment.

“No,” Felicity said, “you can’t.” Even the thick carpeting and soundproof walls could not entirely mute the crashing sounds, giving Felicity the reason she needed to barge into the office.

Those few extra seconds, purchased through Felicity’s intervention were enough to turn the tables. Uniformed policemen burst suddenly through the open door. Abelard didn’t resist. He was manacled and brought before a small, grubby looking detective, entirely out of place in the sumptuous surroundings of Milly’s cavernous office. He had taken Abelard’s chin in his clammy paw and was sneering into his face when a hand pulled him back. It was Sanschagrin.

“Nice to see you again Mr. Bush,” he said, “I’m guessing that today your friend here will not be taking your side.” He nodded, with surprising sadness, for his men to take him away.

“Thank you Felicity, you saved my life,” Milly said to her, a sarcastic grin creasing his sweaty face, after the door had closed behind the departing policemen. “Fortunately I had the presence of mind to call the police after Attendolo explained to me that the Splendid contract was legitimate but that having Abe locked up would not be cause to trigger any action. Oh, you are free to go, I wouldn’t want to unnecessarily anger the del Verme,” he ended, breaking into an ugly snorting laugh.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter XXII

 

 

They sat on the hard wooden bench, a holdover from the old courthouse, straining each time the familiar gong broke the monotonous human babble, to catch a glimpse of everyone the elevators had brought to the seventh floor. Abelard was being kept in the holding cells under the building, awaiting his arraignment and hearing for assault and attempted murder. Felicity had already been in to see him. They had just finished drinking the watery coffee, in the barely insulated cups dropped out of the noisy, decrepit vending machine, when a dapper man, early thirties, curly hair, medium height and wonderfully kind face stopped before their bench.

“Monsieur Braun,” Felicity said, jumping to her feet, “I was so worried you wouldn’t come,” she said with evident relief.

“And why would I not come,” he asked, somewhat perplexed?

“VBI and my uncle seem to control so much here, I guess it’s made me a little paranoid.”

“I suppose you mean Mr. Lord, the principal witness for the crown, and his company, VBI. Well, not to worry, I have never knowingly dealt with either your uncle or his firm. But these big companies do have a wide reach, so I’d be greatly surprised if somewhere along the way I didn’t purchase something that had its origins with VBI.”

“I’m sorry,” she said to Elizabetta and Oliver as they patiently waited to be introduced. “This is Mr. Jean-Marie Braun, the best criminal lawyer in Montreal, I have been assured.”

“I’m flattered,” he said to Felicity, shaking Elizabetta’s and Oliver’s hands. “I do hope you will not have to change your mind after the case. By the way, would you know why your uncle is here today? Other than asking Abelard to enter a plea and to set a trial date, nothing else will actually happen today.”

“My uncle, Mr. Braun, always takes a detailed interest in matters that affect him personally. This spat with Abelard has been a big disappointment and you can be sure he will follow this case very closely.”

“Ms Lord,” the gravity in his tone meant that Jean-Marie Braun was now back to the business of law, “in my office you mentioned that Abelard had stumbled upon some nefarious activities at VBI, but you would rather not see these brought up unless absolutely necessary,” the lawyer summarized what Felicity had not told him. “I’m afraid these are very serious charges Abelard is facing, attempted murder, etc. It will be his word against that of the VBI people regarding who assaulted who. We can try to negotiate a retraction from them, based on the possibility that a judge could eventually acquit Abelard, leaving them with a big PR headache. But, in the end, if it looks hopeless, will you or Abelard bring out the secrets?”

“Yes, but I hope it won’t have to go that far.” Felicity may have discovered her uncle’s seamier aspects, but she could not so easily put aside a lifetime experience, mainly good, and dispassionately turn against him, all her lofty principles notwithstanding.

“I’ll try my best,” he said, with a very welcome, sincere smile. But he also gave them his best guess. Without something dramatic to bring out, Abelard really did not have much of a case. “Now let me go over and see my client,” he ended their short conference, quickly getting up to go and do what he could.

When the courtroom doors were finally opened, they were carried forward by the surging mass of voices, human smells, arms and legs as the crowd jiggled into the large room through the inadequate entrance. They moved quickly to the front and slid into the pew like bench on the left side of the aisle. Others, of all shapes, sizes and colours did the same until all the available seats were taken.

“Excuse me, miss,” a tall woman was saying to Elizabetta. She was very heavily made up, wearing a camisole that highlighted her prominent breasts and a piece of cloth around her thighs, that in a pinch obviously doubled as a mouchoir, themselves capping long, shapely, never ending legs shod in the highest stiletto heels she had ever seen.

“Yes,” she said, doubling her neck on itself to look up into her black eyes.

“Will ya make some room,” she demanded!

“Oh, I am sorry, we need to sit here,” Elizabetta said, with perfect Italian charm.

“Move your fuckin ass over or I’m gonna hafta rip your eyes out, and I ain’t tellin ya again.”

It took a while but she finally understood that this woman was serious and she squeezed over almost crawling onto Oliver’s lap and leaving an inadequate space for Felicity.

“Thank ya honey, Bartholomy likes his girls here for his bail settings. He sometimes don’t have the cash so we use what we earned overnight ta help him out,” she said, with surprising friendliness, now that their misunderstanding had been cleared up. This set Elizabetta to wondering how nice it would be if everyone could so quickly toss acrimony onto the rubbish heap and start every next moment afresh.

Ever so slightly, not wishing to be indiscreet, she bent over and looked along the bench past the Amazon. Eight pairs of legs, long, short, thick, thin, muscled and flaccid, they were all represented there; waiting for their boss, manager, pimp, Bartholomy to be arraigned. He would probably appear before Abelard since these things, she had been told, proceeded in alphabetical order. In her agitated state Elizabetta did not fully appreciate the opportunities for academic study such a spectacle represented.

“All rise,” the tar pit voice droned through the courtroom, “Judge Eugenia Libertas Schwarz, presiding. They all stood and the side door opened, through which emerged a diminutive black judge. Elizabetta is not normally a superstitious person but for just one little moment she hoped that her middle name would prove as predestined as her last.

There were so many A’s that morning they surmised that frequent clients of these courts must often change there names to be first on the roles. It wasn’t until past 10:00 on the old clock Felicity had been eyeing that the B’s began arriving. She expected quite a wait, considering the twenty letters which occur before the letter ‘u’. Mr. Bartholomy was first.

“How do you plead Mr. Bartholomy?” the judge asked, looking down at the thick folder before her, and not at the defendant. He was a young man, not more than 20, black hair in a long permanent running to the base of his neck. Mr. Bartholomy meant something to Elizabetta. She had already gone through a love-hate relationship with one of his girls. He was actually very attractive and, queer as this may sound, very respectably dressed in pin striped, dark grey woollen suit, of excellent cut. Much like any of Milly’s executives.

“It is Bartholoméo, Madame, Italian,” he said, and Elizabetta cringed in embarrassment. “Not guilty, your honour.”

“As I suspected,” the judge said, not hiding the sarcasm in her surprisingly deep voice. “Unless the prosecutor has any objections, bail is set at 500 dollars,” she said, looking up at the defendant and his lawyer.

Bartholoméo looked behind him, over to his girls now visibly fidgeting beside Elizabetta, the Amazon nodding vigorously in his direction. He turned back with a broad smile, “Thank you, your honour.” And he left to pay the bailiff.

Then the door through which so many other accused had stepped opened and Abelard walked into the courtroom. He was unshaven and still bruised from the fight he had had at the jail to establish his position in the food chain, but otherwise seemed in good cheer, alert and surprisingly unconcerned. Many of the others came before the judge furtively glancing at faces in the crowd looking for support, gazing with fear and disdain at the authorities. Not Abelard, he strode in, erect, confident. He could have been the host and the judge an invited guest.

“Bush, Abelard” the clerk’s viscous voice began by naming the defendant, as he had with all the others. But just then there was a disturbance at the back. The large double doors had opened to admit a latecomer. As one, the spectators turned their heads to look at the new arrival. Oliver, Felicity and Elizabetta could only gawk. It was the man in the chequered jacket they believed was following them in Florence. Right beside him was Detective Sanschagrin, who had arrested Abelard two days earlier. Their lawyer, Jean-Marie Braun had earlier told Felicity that it was Sanschagrin who had asked the court to delay by one day the hearing. She was baffled by the request but not concerned. Normally there would have been a plea within 24 hours. Abelard, it was easy to see from the crease in his forehead, was also mystified. As for Milly and Atendollo, they expressed no reaction at all.

Sanschagrin and his companion took seats right behind Milly as the judge hammered her desk to demand silence. While the judge was looking at the small file folder to familiarize herself with the case, Sanschagrin leaned forward and to get his attention tapped Milly on the shoulder. Felicity was looking at them and could see that whatever it was Sanschagrin had said to Milly it was having a visibly negative effect. Milly then had a quick exchange with Attendolo before leaning forward to tap the crown attorney on the shoulder. All this time the judge was still reading the charges out to Abelard, who was waiting to plead not guilty. Then the judge stopped, tired of competing with the growing racket from the prosecutor.

“May we approach the bench,” a visibly upset crown counsel practically yelled at the judge, who summoned both him and Abelard’s lawyer to come forward. After a few moments of angry whispers and head shaking, a clearly annoyed judge sent everyone back to their places.

“You are free to go, Mr. Bush,” she said, with surprising calm, “it seems the plaintiff has decided to drop all charges. Next.”

Abelard just stood there, stunned, until Jean-Marie Braun took him by the arm and led him over to the court bailiff to have his manacles removed. He then led all four out of the courtroom where Felicity burst into tears and hung her entire frame from Abelard’s neck.

“May we know to what felicitous intervention I owe my discharge,” Abelard asked the lawyer?

“Better ask him,” Jean-Marie Braun said, pointing to Sanschagrin.

“The man I was with just now was kind enough to come to Montreal from Rome as quickly as he could,” Sanschagrin said very matter-of-factly. “He is with the Italian National Police and had been interrogating Dona Maria Donatello. Apparently she was willing to tell all for a reduced sentence and he very soon had enough information to tie her to Mr. Lord and VBI. When I mentioned this to Mr. Lord he immediately saw the wisdom in dropping all charges against you.”

“But why,” Abelard asked, mostly very surprised. “I was under the distinct impression that you were out to get me.”

“I was and I still have some misgivings about you and your obviously fabricated past. However, when I reread your dossier I noticed a very distinct pattern. All the people you put in the ground were objectively bad, except for the man you killed at the VBI Pharma plant. But there you risked your own life to save a stranger. I chose to see the pattern in a positive light, when I could just as easily have seen it as evidence that you hang out with people of your own ilk. So that’s it, Mr. Bush. I am still very curious about who you really are but a little less concerned that you might be a dangerous predator. Perhaps one day you shall be able to tell me.”

“I hope so too,” Abelard said with an expansive smile and an outstretched hand.

 

 

***

 

 

Elizabetta and Oliver had come out and hung the imaginary sign on their common door: we are a couple. Abelard and Felicity decided to remain in Montreal despite misgivings about sharing the same city with Milly. They put great reliance into the del Verme contract. Abelard knew that his small circle was not yet convinced as to either his identity or his philosophy. Was he still the same man with unrestrained ambition willing to use any means to further his ends or had he moderated his goals and put principle above intrigue in their pursuit? Abelard tried, as best he could to reassure them and, undoubtedly, himself.

“I had always firmly believed that all humans were predatory by nature and I still do. That is why trust is probably so very rare. It is most jealously guarded and rarely, if ever, freely given, to the delight, I expect, of divorce lawyers.” He paused a moment, noting the consternation saddening his friends’ faces. “But as you may have guessed these are personal beliefs I’ve cooked up from what I recall, and that is all I have to go on, so please forgive me, since my more familiar world was a hard place where trusting anyone was more often than not a fatal mistake. Today, however, what looks like trust is freely given, not because individual humans are more trustworthy, since as far as I have been able to observe they are not, it is rather that people legitimately expect dishonesty to be punished by a disinterested authority. So, trust is still important if conflict is to be avoided, and most people would rather do so, particularly conflict of the violent variety. But now they only have to trust the system to be fair, rather than each other.

“Do you trust us,” Felicity asked with some doubt, having found Abelard’s apology, too abstract and all but depersonalised, not very satisfying?

“Of course I do.

 

 

 

.

1 Z. Oldenbourg, Le Bûcher de Montségur

2 From INSEAD web site

3 From Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley

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Medieval Memories: Origins

Imagine waking up with a 650 year hole in your recollections, stopped dead somewhere in the 14th century during the Hundred Years War? As memories guide human behaviour, such a state might pose a problem for an ambitious modern man clawing his way up the corporate and social food chain, grasping for power and wealth. For the enigmatic Abelard Bush, however, lessons in good manners from the murderous 1300's are all he needs, and the missing centuries are not the least obstacle in his quest for ever more. Indeed, his memories prove to be a great advantage. He remembers having begun life as the fourth son of the Captal de Buch, and then going on to an extraordinary career as a Captain in the Black Prince’s armies, a mercenary to the Italian City States and even, during periods of peace, as a ruthless brigand stalking the highways of medieval France. How could someone whose golden rule is to do unto others before they do unto him fit so snugly into Felicity’s orderly, civilized world? Abelard is a man apparently unhampered by empathy, who relies mainly on duplicity and violence. Is Abelard an amnesiac who has lost his moral way, a psychopath who has lost his memory or, astonishingly, is he just an ordinary human with an extraordinary story?

  • Author: manuel werner
  • Published: 2016-02-19 21:40:16
  • Words: 116495
Medieval Memories: Origins Medieval Memories: Origins