Boom was dead…
For ages I simply stood there, mouth agape, trying desperately, hopelessly to take it all in. Eventually however, the deep-seated instinct for self-preservation we all possess slowly began to take control of my dazed senses and I realised that I too was in mortal danger. I set off with purpose to find a policeman, but without success: the old adage that states ‘there never seems to be one around when you need one’ was never truer. I was just about to ask someone to direct me to the nearest police station when a sudden thought stopped me: going to the police was tantamount to committing suicide. Literally.
If even half of what I suspected about the Order of the Crimson Chalice were true then I was up against a ruthless, powerful organisation capable of operating on a global scale. I could forget all those fanciful ideas about secret societies you get from reading pulp conspiracy thrillers. There would be no remote castle in a forest somewhere which had served as the Order’s headquarters for a thousand years; no annual gathering of its members on Walpurgis Night; no arcane ritual, at which the High Council, resplendent in their crimson robes, would pledge to uphold the sacred precepts of the Brotherhood on pain of death…
On the contrary, for a group like the O.C.C. to have survived undetected for so long meant it had moved with the times. By now it would have evolved into a modern, efficient and extremely well-camouflaged organisation that could go about its business without attracting the least attention. More than that, like any other powerful entity, it was certain to have secured itself an integral—if invisible—place within that network of vested interests we call the establishment. Thus whenever the need arose, the Order would be able to call upon any branch of the establishment that suited its purpose: the government, the judiciary, financial institutions, big business, the security services, and of course the police. Not that any of those asked to do the Order’s bidding would know who they were really working for; indeed they would have no idea something called the Order of the Crimson Chalice even existed. Members of the Order would always make contact discreetly, indirectly, using an extended ‘old boys’ network in ways that could not be traced back to the source.
Say the Order needed to view a sensitive case file from an ongoing police investigation for example. The detective in charge would be approached by a senior officer who would ask if he could look over the file. He would then pass it on to the high-ranking Home Office official (a fellow mason) who had requested it. The civil servant would in turn give it to an old university friend, now working in some obscure branch of the security services, who had recently got in touch saying his department needed a quick look at the file for reasons of national security. The security officer would copy the file and see it was returned whence it came. Meanwhile the copy would continue its journey, passing through any number of hands until it reached its final destination.
The urgency of the current situation would compel the Order to act more directly, however. Those who prefer to remain in the shadows normally eschew violence because it attracts attention, but I was sure they intended to make an exception in my case, as they already had with Boom. They would have weighed up my possible options, considered what my next move might be and have a corresponding number of contingency plans in place. If I were to turn up at a police station for example, my name would immediately start flashing on a computer screen somewhere. It was not difficult to imagine what would happen next. I would be in the middle of giving my statement when the interviewing officer would be suddenly called away. Shortly thereafter a couple of plain-clothes detectives would appear. But they would not be detectives, they would be the kind of outside ‘contractors’ government agencies use when they want a dirty job done on the quiet. The ‘detectives’ would ask me to accompany them on some pretext and I would be led away to a quiet part of the building. Half an hour later I would be found hanging by my own belt.
Of course there would be no reason for anyone to suspect foul play. The interviewing officer, who was not part of the conspiracy himself, would confirm I had arrived at the station in a highly agitated state of mind. The only sensible conclusion to be drawn was that I had suffered some kind of nervous breakdown and taken my own life.
No- going to the police was out of the question. But then I had an even more worrying thought: what if the Order decided to bring things to a swift conclusion by getting the police to pick me up? After all the authorities had a good reason to question me after my cat burglar antics which had frightened the life out of Claude’s upstairs neighbour! I looked around. I could see a police car in the distance. I dodged quickly down a side street and into a shadowy shop doorway. I could not be certain if the police were after me or not but this was no time to take unnecessary risks. I needed to get off the streets for the night. But first I had two more things to do. One was to get rid of my mobile phone. The Order would certainly know the kind of people who were able to track phone calls. Worse than that, I had the nasty feeling they might be able to locate me even if I did not use the phone again. At first I was going to leave the thing on a bench for someone else to pick up but changed my mind. Having the minions of the O.C.C. chase around after that person might buy me more time but what if they killed the poor sod as well? Desperate as I was to save my own skin, I did not want to cause someone else to be murdered. So I wrapped the mobile in a plastic bag, placed it in the gutter and gently kicked it down a storm drain. Let them go looking for it down there amidst the stench and the filth. They should feel quite at home. Next I went to find a cash point. Bank transactions were another way I was sure the Order would be able to trace me, so I drew as much cash out as I could using all the cards I had with me.
Now it was time to lie low. But finding a secluded spot to hole up for the night in a city like Paris is not such an easy task. I wandered the streets for a good while till I came across a fenced-in building site. Perfect. The street was deserted so I went straight over the fence. Once inside I could see they were at an early stage in the construction process, doing the groundwork and suchlike. Amongst the stacks of materials and machinery were half a dozen massive sections of concrete pipe, about six feet in diameter, presumably destined to be part of the drainage system. I chose one as my shelter for the night.
I bedded down using my rucksack as a makeshift pillow. My lodgings may have been far from comfortable but that was not the reason I could not sleep. The shock of the last few hours hit me again with renewed vigour. I was utterly crushed. The world I had always known was gone, every fixed point in my life, everything I had so nonchalantly taken for granted shattered. It was a deeply disorientationg feeling. I felt very small and very alone. And as I lay there, everything started to tilt and shift as if I was on board a ship in rough seas. It was almost as if some cataclysmic force had thrown the Earth off its axis and sent it spiralling out of control. My head reeled, my stomach churned and I just managed to stagger out of the pipe before being violently sick. When I had recovered a little I crawled back into my hiding place, curled up on the floor and, like a wretched orphan in a Victorian melodrama, sobbed myself to sleep.
Not surprisingly my sleep was fitful at best and haunted by the same harrowing thoughts that had tormented my waking hours. Eventually it all became too much and I woke up. Not for the first time in my life my despair gave way to an intense bout of self-pity. How the hell did I end up in this situation? Why did I listen to Boom and let myself get drawn into all this? Why did I ever start the damned Ex-Files in the first place? Look where it had brought me- I was about to be murdered to stop me revealing a secret I did not even know. It was so pathetic it was almost laughable.
Worst of all was the realisation that if Boom had gone public with his discovery none of this would have happpened and he would still be alive now. With the cat out of the bag the O.C.C. would have no reason to go after him and anyway, they would be too busy trying to deal with the seismic consequences of the exposure of their precious secret to worry about anything else. Besides, since it was clear that whatever it was the Order had been guarding all these years was something truly earth-shattering, Boom, as the person who had made it public would be thrust into the middle of a worldwide media storm, which was a very safe place to be. Of course it was too late for all that now, but if he had only trusted me I would be still able to save myself!
I almost screamed out in frustration. What was the point in not telling me? Was he afraid I might claim some of the credit? The whole thing was hopeless! Stupid! Too stupid for words! Boom had been too clever for his own good and ended up taking his damned secret to the grave with him… Or had he? Just then it occurred to me that whatever it was that Boom had uncovered was summed up in the conclusion (or ‘magic formula’ as I preferred to call it) he had written on that master sheet taped to his desk. That was why he had been so angry the day I went to see him- he had caught me looking at the solution to the whole mystery! Of course I had no idea how important it was then, but my God, I did now. And if I could work out its meaning I could go public with it, the way Boom should have done. It was an impossibly long shot, I knew, but no drowning man ever made a grab for a more enticing straw. With trembling fingers I got my notebook and a pencil out of my rucksack and scribbled down the following:
I studied the mysterious equation for some time, but my initial excitement soon gave way to despair because try as I might, I could make neither head nor tail of it. There was no possibility that I had written it down incorrectly, of that I was sure. The dozens of times I had spent in the past trying to divine its meaning meant that I knew it off by heart. Of course back then I would give up each time after a few minutes; logic problems, anagrams and acrostics were Boom’s forte, not mine. But now my life depended on finding a solution and the damned thing still did not make any sense!
I threw the notebook down in frustration. What was the point? After all, nothing had changed- it was just as incomprehensible now as it had ever been! But after a while I realised I was wrong. Something had changed. The terrifying events of the last few hours meant that what I had before me was part of a much bigger picture whose existence I had until recently never even suspected. Perhaps if I were able to understand that bigger picture a little better it might put the formula into some kind of context and hopefully help me unravel it. Was I clutching at straws again? Probably, but it was just the kind of methodical approach Boom would have adopted. So I set about summarising, as clearly and concisely as I could, everything I knew so far.
First of all there could no longer be any doubt about the existence of the Order of the Crimson Chalice, nor the importance of the secret they were so desperate to preserve. Boom had uncovered that secret and had paid for it with his life. This much was obvious, but then I saw something else, something truly significant I had not thought of before. Not only had Boom managed to work out what the secret was, he had done so using evidence that was already out there in the public domain! True, he had had help, in the form of the inside information supplied by his source within the Order. That had been crucial, I knew, since it enabled him to see known historical events in a completely new light and make connections between them where none were thought to exist. Nevertheless the fact remained that all the clues necessary to solve the puzzle lay in the books and articles Boom had been consulting. And though I did not have the benefit of his inside information, I still had a couple of things in my favour. I knew the basic direction of Boom’s investigations, which meant I knew where to start when I began my own digging. And I had the ‘magic formula’ as a guide. Whether that would be enough remained to be seen, but I was determined to give it everything I had. I picked up my notebook and began to deconstruct the formula piece by piece.
It was logical to assume that the treasure referred to was the secret the O.C.C. had been founded to protect. The fact that Boom had placed the word in inverted commas indicated it was not going to be anything as mundane as a chest full of gold and jewels. Perhaps the Order referred to their secret as ‘The Treasure’. I also noted that Boom had prefaced the whole equation with the symbol for ‘therefore’, which served to emphasise that this was indeed the culmination of his investigations.
I knew ‘Caths’ stood for Catholics. That much had been obvious from the very first time I saw the formula. It was underlined still further by the fact that much of Boom’s research material was on the history of the Church. Was the O.C.C. some secret off-shoot of the Vatican?
I did not know the significance of ‘Bs’ but the fact that it was capitalised and connected with ‘Caths’ by a slash seemed to indicate an official body or order within the Catholic Church. The Benedictines sprang to mind. Boom had added a small ‘s’ to the capital B, which fitted in with the tradition of referring to religious orders in the plural. As for ‘Ps’, I could think of no religious order that began with that letter. The arrow linking it to the Benedictines (if that was indeed what ‘Bs’ stood for, I was determined to keep an open mind at this point) seemed to imply that ‘Ps’ had developed into ‘Bs’. Or perhaps the ‘Ps’ had changed their name to ‘Bs’?
‘His.’ was short for history, an abbreviated form I often used myself. I was not sure exactly why Boom had underlined it, but it clearly had some special significance for him. The use of an equals sign was odd given the context. ‘The treasure of x equals the history of y’ did not make sense. I decided this was Boom’s shorthand for ‘closely connected to’ or something of the sort.
I had no idea what the ‘lost gs’ were. My only hope was that things would become clearer once I had a better understanding of the rest of the equation.
That was all I could do until I could get to a computer and do some proper research. I waited till about eight o’clock before I left the building site. I did not want to be out and about too early, a lone figure wandering around on a quiet Sunday morning would stand out a mile. My first thought was to find a café. As well as needing to get off the streets I was hungry and very, very thirsty.
The area of Paris I had ended up in was a kind of semi-industrial zone with warehouses and factories as well as apartment blocks. The café I found was a pretty rough-looking place, with half a dozen customers, obviously locals. I ordered coffee and croissants. I also bought a couple of litre bottles of water. God alone knew where I would be spending the next night and I was not going to be caught without fluids again.
As I was eating I tried to figure out my next move. Clearly the priority was staying alive long enough to solve the mystery. Trying to get back to England was out of the question. It was just what my pursuers would be expecting me to do and all the airports and the Gare du Nord would be closely monitored. What I needed was a library or an internet café where I could do my research. The question was: would it be better to get out of Paris and go somewhere else? And if so, where? My train of thoughts was interrupted by the sound of the door opening.
I looked up and saw two men come in. I shuddered. I had only glanced at them for a moment but I could tell straightaway: contractors. Both were clearly ex-military, fit, muscular, with the grim-faced, hard-eyed, menacing look of the special ops types you see on TV documentaries. They walked past pretending not to notice me, ordered coffee and sat down somewhere behind. They spoke very little and when they did it was in hushed tones. All the time I could feel their eyes on me. Fear gripped me like a vice. What was I going to do?
The pair had been sent to pick me up rather than kill me, that much was clear, otherwise I would already be dead. It also appeared they had been instructed not to make a scene in the café, which bought me a little time, though probably very little, as I expected they were simply biding their time waiting for back-up. My one hope was to act as if I had not spotted them, get outside and make a run for it. Both men were very thick-set, almost muscle bound, and I was confident I could out run them even with my rucksack, which was pretty light. I forced myself to stand up and walk slowly to the counter. I paid and as I walked back to my table I casually grabbed the rucksack and headed for the door. I had half opened it when I heard a chair move and someone shouted ‘Monsieur!’ That was it- I was off like a flash.
I ran down the street for about fifty yards at which point I came to a crossroads, or to be more precise, a T junction. I took the nearest turning, which was on my left and as I rounded the corner nearly collided with a couple of women who were standing on the pavement gossiping. I just managed to avoid them, but not the dog that was sitting beside one of them. I tripped over the faithful companion and fell headlong, managing at least to put my arms out in front of me before I hit the ground. The dog howled, the women screamed, but I was straight up and off again. This was hardly the time for explanations and apologies.
The road I was now on was a long, wide thoroughfare. On the opposite side it was bordered by a high brick wall beyond which the overhead power lines of an electrified railway were just visible. My side of the road was lined with apartment blocks. I needed to get away from here as quickly as possible, because there was nowhere to hide. I kept on running as fast as I could and soon saw a turning up ahead. I was not far off reaching it when two men came round the corner and headed towards me. It was not the pair from the café, but as soon as they looked at me I saw the same grim, cruel faces the other two had had. Back-up had arrived.
I turned and dashed straight across the road without thinking and without even looking. If any vehicle had been passing at that instant I would have been hit, but I was running for my life and nothing else mattered. The wall ahead was nine or ten feet high and normally I would have been unable to scale it, however, in an attempt to make it more decorative, its builders had created a panelled design by recessing large rectangular sections a few inches deeper than the general level of the brickwork. The bottom of each panel thus formed a sort of ledge about three feet off the ground and I used one of these as a springboard as I leapt up and made a grab for the top of the wall with both hands. I managed it at the first attempt and had no trouble hauling myself up and over. I had always been a fair climber and the fact that I had four contract killers after me did my agility the power of good.
I found myself in a railway marshalling yard, a vast area of rail tracks, sidings, stationary goods wagons and locomotives. I set off for the far side of the yard, frequently having to go round the parked up rolling stock that lay across my path. I had just rounded the third or fourth of these when I was nearly frightened out of my skin by the deafening blast of a klaxon. The blare was so loud and so close it seemed to come from everywhere at once and would normally have frozen me to the spot. As it was I was moving so fast my momentum carried me over the rail tracks I was crossing, and that saved me from being crushed by the huge locomotive that rumbled over the spot I had just vacated. I kept on going, now looking to the left and right each time I came to another a set of tracks. Another train sounded an angry horn at me, but it was approaching from some distance away and did not slow my flight. I finally reached the far side of the marshalling yard, clambered over the wall that enclosed it and dropped down onto the street below.
The district was more bustling than the one on the other side of the railway lines and my appearance attracted more than a few unwelcome looks, but I had no time to worry about this. About a hundred yards ahead I saw two buses taking on passengers. The first one pulled away before I got there, but I reached the second just in time. I bought a ticket off the driver and sat down next to an old lady, hunching myself up as much as possible. I sensibly resisted the urge to turn round to see if my pursuers were anywhere behind. I was hoping that the train that almost crushed me had slowed them up quite significantly. If not, I figured the back of my head on a crowded bus would not be easy to spot. After an agonising thirty seconds’ wait the bus closed its doors and pulled away.
Within a couple of minutes I was hit by another wave of delayed shock. My hands started trembling uncontrollably and I felt cold all over, despite the fact I was still sweating from my recent exertions. I shook my head in despair and disbelief. This was not how it was meant to be! I had often wondered what it would be like to be caught up in the sort of rip-roaring adventure I had been fond of since childhood and sometimes used to imagine myself facing the same dangers as the square-jawed heroes of such tales. I, like they, would face every peril with unshakable aplomb and, no matter how desperate the situation became, always have a quick-fire wisecrack at the ready. My present circumstances could hardly be further from this happy illusion. I was so terrified I felt sick to my stomach and looking for a suitably flippant bon mot was the last thing on my mind. Besides, I had far more pressing things to think about, the chief one being trying to figure out how the O.C.C. had tracked me down so quickly. I could only assume that they had homed in on either my mobile phone or my cash-point transaction and flooded the area with operatives. I had managed to avoid detection by spending the night on the building site but must have been spotted once I emerged the following morning and followed to the café.
I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do next, indeed I could barely think straight. Fear and shock had accelerated my already jumbled thoughts into a swirl of confusion. No doubt I would have remained sitting where I was till the bus reached its terminus had I not happened to glance out of the window just then. Before me a massive steel and glass structure loomed up and I saw a sign saying ‘Gare Montparnasse.’ I knew this was one of the city’s mainline stations and though I had no idea which part of France it served, at least it would get me out of the city. When the bus pulled up I got off.
I went straight into the station’s bustling main concourse and looked up at the Departures board. There were trains for all manner of places: Bordeaux, Le Mans, Rennes, St-Nazaire, Le Croisic, Angers, Brest, St Malo, Nantes… Nantes! The board showed a train leaving for Nantes in two minutes! There was no time to buy a ticket, so I rushed up the escalator towards the platforms as quickly as the crowds allowed. Happily the platform I needed was not far off and I hurtled through the ticket barrier to find the train still waiting. One final sprint got me to the last carriage and I had barely closed the door behind me before the train pulled away.
I sat down and tried to calm myself. I was thirsty so I went into my rucksack for some water only to discover one of the litre bottles I had bought at the café was missing. I suppose it must have fallen out of the rucksack, which I had failed to close properly, at some point during my escape. My escape… I wondered how much distance I had really put between myself and those animals sent after me by the O.C.C. Hopefully they had been too far behind to see me board the bus and so would be unaware that I had gone to the Gare Montparnasse, but there was no way of knowing for sure. The horror films have it all wrong: when you are running for your life you do not look back.
After about a quarter of an hour the ticket inspector made an appearance. It was an ungainly woman with a waddling gait and a face you could have used to cut glass. She looked just like a manager I had once had on a summer job. The unlovely Kimberley was a cross between Rosa Klebb and Mrs Fothergill– and nastier than both. The inspector scowled, tutted, waved away my request to buy a ticket with an impatient hand and then rattled off a stream of French she knew I would not be able to understand. Normally I would have been cowed by such behaviour, but what I had been through in the past twelve hours put me in no mood to back down and I started to answer back. My French may have been halting, but my anger was plain. Things were on the point of turning really nasty when an elderly gentleman sitting nearby kindly intervened and as far as I could gather added weight to my assertion that I had arrived at the station too late to buy a ticket at the booking office. The dreadful woman finally relented and issued a ticket with all the bad grace you expect from such people, before moving on to find a more pliant victim. I settled back into my seat and for the first time that day managed a sigh of relief.