Fast Track To Glory

By Tomasz Chrusciel

Action & adventure, Thriller, Crime & mystery

Paperback, eBook

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492
15 mins

Chapter 1

NINA JUMPED OFF the Intercity the moment it pulled into Heidelberg Central Train Station. A growing crowd of passengers absorbed her and carried down the open roof platform. Seeing a gap in the flow of bodies, she squeezed through and stepped aside between two metal benches.
A digital clock hanging over the platform showed 21:50. She grimaced and put her business suitcase down.
On her tiptoes, she craned her neck, scanning the surroundings over groups of excited travellers who were moving to the exit.
Did she arrive too late? No one was holding a sheet of paper with her name on it.
She reached down to a side pocket of her suitcase and pulled out the pearl-black envelope with an Italian Ministry of Culture seal. A bicycle courier had handed it over three hours ago, just when she was calling a taxi to take her to the airport so she could catch the last flight home from Frankfurt to Venice.
Inside was an invitation to a confidential meeting in the Heidelberg Castle tonight at ten. Massimo Campana had scribbled his signature at the bottom. Above it she read: “Again, please excuse the short notice. I will be sending a chauffeur to collect you, Signora Monte. Please wait at the platform.”
Nina had never met Campana. She suspected he was relegated from another department lately, as she knew employees in the Ministry well. They had called her to consultations before. Most recently on interpretation of religious rituals depicted on walls of the amphitheatre, dated second century A.D., that were unearthed close to Rome’s Fiumicino airport.
But the Ministry had always informed her in advance what they expected from her.
Tonight was odd in this respect. One hour and seventeen minutes’ journey from Frankfurt left her without any valid conclusion as to why her professional advice was required, why they organized such a gathering that late and outside of Italy.
Shivers crawled over her body despite the cashmere jacket wrapped around her torso. Early September in Germany was cooler than she was prepared for.
She bounced on her feet to warm herself up. She was supposed to be at home now, relaxing in a long, hot, scented bath with a glass of red wine in her hand.
The crowd on the platform thinned out. Then it was only Nina.
Feeling abandoned, without a sign of a promised driver, in the city she didn’t know, she grabbed the handle of her briefcase and rolled it behind her to the station’s hall.
When she entered the building, the rich smell of coffee, toasted sandwiches, and pastries reminded her of a half-eaten almond croissant she carried in her handbag. She hadn’t had time to finish it when rushing to catch the train over here, and then she had forgotten about it.
She navigated her way to the exit.
In a lane adjacent to the station, taxi after taxi drove off, but the queue of customers was long. Those more impatient continued on foot.
‘Signora Monte!’
Nina turned to her left. Four metres away, a man wearing a navy suit and a hat in the same colour came up to a skinny girl in her early twenties dressed in a chiffon blouse, tight blue jeans and shiny metallic sneakers. The chauffeur towered over her one-metre-sixty, give or take, frame.
Had he really confused her with Nina? What had Massimo Campana told him she looked like?
Although Nina had to admit that the girl was the same height. Her straight black hair cut at the shoulders was similar too. When she turned her head, Nina also caught a glance of her face, the olive skin tone and subtle jaw line mimicking her own.
But despite the resemblance, Nina didn’t look as if she were going to a Justin Bieber concert, and the time when she starved herself to fit into a size six glorified by Vogue had long been left behind. After all, she turned thirty-six last month.
She felt growing irritation at the chauffeur for his mistake, and at Massimo Campana for robbing her of the pleasure of the hot, soothing bath she deserved. This morning, she had gotten up at five o’clock to prepare for a hectic conference day in Frankfurt on ancient scientific thought, where she had given two long lectures on social and religious movements in the Mediterranean.
The girl smiled at the chauffeur, who was close to her age, and shook her head. He winced and excused himself, took off the hat and ran his fingers through his short auburn hair.
The passengers dispersed, and now only two of them were left standing by the main entrance to the train station.
He noticed Nina, and rushed towards her. ‘Signora Monte. I’m sorry for the delay. My name is Felix,’ he said in Italian with a noticeable German accent. ‘With that crowd coming to see the fireworks, I couldn’t find a parking space closer to the station. Whew, I thought you were already gone.’
‘Buonasera, Felix,’ she said. ‘Good evening.’
He picked up her briefcase. ‘I’ll take you to the castle. Follow me, please.’
He started to walk off.
Nina shadowed him two steps behind. ‘How long have you been doing this job, Felix?’
‘Ahem … this is the first time, Signora,’ he said, glancing at her over his shoulder. ‘I do all sorts of things to pay for my college.’
At least that explained his lack of professionalism and coming late. Her students were the same.
Nina meant to ask what he was studying, but at times she had to jog to keep up with his swift pace. She preferred to concentrate on the road so as not to sprain her ankle on some sidewalk pothole where the sporadic street light wasn’t reaching.
He led her away from the stream of people. After two hundred metres, Nina sighed when he finally stopped at a parking square neighbouring a shopping mall.
‘I’m sorry, Signora Monte,’ he said, opening the rear door of an Audi A6. ‘Was it too fast? My girlfriend is teasing me that I should walk like normal people.’
‘She might have a point,’ Nina said and clambered into the car. ‘Unless you’re training for a marathon.’
‘No, Signora. I just don’t like wasting my time moving from one place to another.’ He closed the door and put her suitcase into the boot.
Then he took a seat behind the steering wheel. ‘If I could, I would run everywhere.’
He turned around to her. ‘Do you like running, Signora?’
Nina never pictured herself to be one of those people who got up at five or six to go jogging in the park. With spending too many hours behind her desk at university, though, perhaps she needed to think about it.
‘I presume you don’t know anything about the meeting you’re taking me to,’ she said, fastening the seatbelt.
‘Oh no.’ He pressed a button and the engine hummed to life. ‘I wouldn’t know anything about that. My job is just to bring you to the castle.’
The car pulled out from the shopping mall, and soon Felix drove into congested human traffic. He used the horn now and then to shove off pedestrians who were marching in the middle of the road. Nina saw groups of teenagers, families with small children, a man carrying on his shoulders a boy who was waving an inflated crocodile balloon attached to his forearm, and an ambling older couple, holding hands.
It took twenty minutes to reach the point beyond which the car traffic was not permitted. Two men clad in fluorescent yellow vests moved a heavy barrier aside. Felix touched the rim of his hat and gave them a quick nod.
The Audi swung sharply left and then right, narrowly avoiding a scattered group of schoolboys who stepped on the asphalt. From there, the ride up the road, leading to a hill overlooking the city and the Neckar River, was swifter.
A few minutes later the car pulled over in front of the gateway to Heidelberg Castle.
‘Here we are, Signora,’ Felix said. ‘This is the entrance.’
Nina pressed the button on the door and the car window slid down silently.
The castle looked as if it were becoming deserted, and the several men she saw through the gate walking in the dim yard were staying to make sure no elders, children or sick people were left behind.
‘Signora, this is it. Please follow through the gate tower, then straight through the yard. Someone will meet you there.’
Nina took another glance at the gloomy yard. No one awaited her. ‘Are you sure?’
‘This is what I have been instructed to tell you,’ Felix said.
‘Of course you have.’
‘Please leave your luggage in the car. I will pick you up after the meeting.’
She opened the door and stepped onto the cobblestone pavement. The moment she shut the door, the car drove off.
The tower was built from red brick and was as high as a four-storey building. Above the entrance, two statues of medieval knights, armed with swords and lances, guarded the gate. Next to them, two lions stood on their rear legs. There was a clock on top of it, but it was too dark to read the time.
Nina rubbed her shoulders with her hands. Then she went through the entrance and walked into the vast courtyard, which was surrounded on all four sides by the castle buildings. She relaxed, seeing that it was better lit than what she had seen from the car. More people bustled about the square, carrying boxes, some tools, briskly crossing the yard.
Across the square, there was a brighter lit entrance; probably the main building of the whole complex.
When a man came out of there, and made merely ten steps, Nina knew he was there to bring her in, and not only because he walked straight in her direction and seemed to smile at her. He wore an elegant grey or cream suit while everyone else around was in their working clothes.
He held out his arms when he was the last four metres away from her. ‘Signora Monte, welcome! My name is Massimo Campana.’
He stopped to let through two workers who were carrying long pipes.
Campana was a good-looking, fifty-something, stylish man, and Nina thought that it must be stressful work at the Ministry that covered his forehead and eyes with too many furrows. His short hair had grey streaks at the sides and was thinning.
When the workers went about their job, Campana stepped forward, took Nina’s hand and squeezed it firmly. ‘Welcome. Welcome, Signora!’
‘Good evening, Signor Campana.’
He pulled her towards the castle entrance. ‘Everyone is waiting.’
He was taller than Nina, but not by much as he hunched forward.
‘I was hoping for a briefing before the meeting. Your invitation was quite vague,’ Nina said.
‘I know, and I truly apologise for that,’ he replied. ‘You will find out everything soon enough. I can only tell you that the name of our host is Christoph Gerst from the German Ministry of Education, Science and Culture. Our French partners sent a representative of their Ministry of Culture and Communication in the person of Julien Traverse. Although, from his bearings, I’d say he works for Defence.’
Campana had a low, self-assured voice, the kind that was in the habit of giving instructions, not taking questions.
When they were in the middle of the courtyard, the lights changed to a red colour, engulfing the castle in a crimson glow.
‘Aha, the show is about to begin,’ he said and pouted his lips. ‘Pity we will miss it.’
For one short moment Nina lost her sense of direction, and let him guide her. She felt as if she were being dragged from behind the scene to the main stage of a school theatre, to be thrown into penetrating spotlights to perform a play without knowing its script.
He released his soft grip on her arm when they entered the castle.
Inside was murky, and Nina smelled a slight whiff of fresh paint in the air. They walked out of the shadows into a well-lit corridor. To her left, she saw man-sized figures of former nobles of the castle, or so she guessed. To the right, horned animal trophies lined the wall. Nina shuddered. She would have never put up anything like that in her home—it felt like an alley in an animals’ graveyard.
Her high heels clanked hurriedly on the corridor’s marble floor, giving the sound she considered inappropriate in any graveyard.
Massimo Campana, who was two steps ahead of her, stopped abruptly at a door guarded by a bulky man dressed in a black suit. His head and face were clean shaven; he looked like a celebrity bodyguard. Without a word, the man opened the door.
Campana gestured to Nina.
‘After you, Signora.’

Chapter 2

NINA SAW TWO men sitting at a wooden few-hundred-year-old table set in the middle of a ten-by-ten metre room. They were engaged in a conversation, oblivious to her and Massimo Campana’s arrival.
Above the men, a single chandelier hung from a stucco ceiling decorated with colourful paintings. A stove stood in the left corner. Court scenes were depicted on its green tiled walls. Beside it was a second door. Was it also guarded?
‘Gentlemen! I’m back with our charming expert. Let me introduce Signora Nina Monte,’ Campana said in impeccable English. ‘We can continue in untroubled fashion now.’
Nina exchanged brief pleasantries with both men, and took a seat at the table across from them in the carved, upholstered arm chair that harmonized well with fuchsia walls and a polished marble floor.
Campana sat next to her. He put his burgundy briefcase on the table, pulled out a stack of documents, and browsed through them.
Four bottles of water, glasses, coffee cups, a jug, and appetizing pastries lay on the table, untouched.
Christoph Gerst pretended to be interested in Campana’s documents, but he kept glancing at Nina with a nonchalant smile. He was dressed in a burgundy turtleneck sweater and a dark-yellow sports jacket with elbow patches. His short blond hair was trimmed in a stylish manner and combed to the side. If that bodyguard was indeed hired by celebrities, Gerst could be one of them.
Julien Traverse, who was the oldest person in the room, maybe in his late sixties, wore an exquisite Italian suit and a purple mosaic tie. Nina thought that behind the old-fashioned, thick lenses, his eyes looked oddly large.
‘As you all have been already informed…’ Campana started, and then paused, looking at everyone.
Nina asked herself who, in his mind, all was.
‘…the progress in the search for the item of our interest is at its peak.’
‘Signor Campana, do you mind presenting the credentials of your associate?’ Traverse said and folded his hands on the table.
Nina looked at the brownish patches on the back of his hands. Then her eyes shot up. What did he say?
‘I’ve only been informed that Ms Monte is a professor at the University of Padua,’ he added.
She raised her eyebrows.
‘We shouldn’t have any doubt in the competences of our Italian friends, Monsieur Traverse,’ Gerst said flatly.
For a person who represented as powerful a country as Germany, Christoph Gerst looked surprisingly young.
Traverse disconnected his magnetic glasses at the bridge ‘Dear Christoph, the matters we discuss here are too grave. I will leave nothing to chance.’
Campana frowned at the Frenchman. ‘Monsieur Traverse, Signora Monte has been studying and teaching history of religions at the Department of Historical and Geographic Sciences and the Ancient World at the University of Padua, which she is also head of. I can assure you that her credentials are flawless.’
The firework show set off above the castle. Gerst pushed his chair back, crossed to the windows and shut them. The explosions stifled to a level allowing a conversation.
When he sat down, Nina felt his gaze boring into her with increased interest.
‘I doubt there’s another individual in Italy able to overshadow the credentials of Signora Monte,’ the Italian went on. ‘In addition, Signora and the Italian Ministry of Culture are well acquainted. Nevertheless, details of our previous dealings will not be the subject of this meeting.’
‘So what is it?’ Nina’s words came out in an uncontrolled manner. ‘I’m sorry, Signor Campana, but you’re making me guess what is expected of me, and I feel quite confused at being kept in the dark.’ She paused when three muffled explosions made the water in the bottles vibrate. ‘And why are you organizing this meeting during the fireworks?’
‘I agree.’ Gerst sent her an emphatic smile. ‘Signora Monte must be thoroughly briefed.’
‘This was exactly what I was getting to,’ Massimo said.
Traverse spread his palms on the table and opened his mouth, but the blasts of fireworks grew to a deafening level for a moment.
Nina touched her forehead. She started feeling uneasy in a small medieval castle room with three strangers who couldn’t tell her why she was there. She opened the bottle of water and drank straight from it. Glancing back at the door she had walked through, she saw that it was now secured by another man.
She flinched, feeling a hand on her arm.
‘Are you all right, Signora?’ Campana said.
‘Yes,’ she said in a low voice. ‘Although, I might have lost track of this conversation. But please—continue.’
Campana hesitated for a second and then dug out another document.
‘Before tonight, only four persons have been allowed to see it. Now, you’ve joined our group.’ He offered her a large picture. ‘Do you know what this is?’
Nina looked at the underwater photograph of a shipwreck. Her anxiety at being in the wrong place at the wrong time receded.
‘It’s a warship galley, I presume,’ she said.
‘You presume,’ Julien Traverse said.
Nina shot him a glance over the frame of the photo. ‘I’m not an expert at underwater treasure hunts, if this is why I’m here.’
The Frenchman averted his gaze. It felt like a tiny triumph; so he wasn’t as threatening as she imagined.
Campana cleared his throat.
A discreet smirk crossed over Gerst’s face. ‘It is about a treasure hunt,’ he said. ‘Sort of.
‘This picture was taken three days ago on the bottom of Lake Garda,’ Massimo Campana said. ‘It was quite a coincidence that the whereabouts of the ship has been discovered only now. As it so happens with many great things, they often come unexpected, Signora.’
Her head started to throb. ‘Signor Campana, I may be an expert at history of religions, but I am certainly not an expert at underwater excavation. I still don’t understand.’
‘True; however, we are hopeful that you are an authority on what we intend to find inside this galley,’ Campana said.
Nina scanned the photograph.
‘What you see,’ he went on, ‘is a galley that sank during the battle of Maderno in 1439. It was a period of wars between Venice and the Visconti family.’
‘Wars in Lombardy. The history of Italy before unification,’ Nina said. ‘Venice, being at war with Milan, went to great lengths to help Brescia, their protectorate, which was under siege. As Milan controlled the south of Lake Garda, Venetians sailed their ships up the Adige River. From there they used five hundred oxen and three hundred men to drag six galleys over the mountains to the north of the lake. Each galley weighed one hundred tons. A third of the people perished in that gruelling expedition.’
The Italian glanced at Traverse with an expression of: “I told you.”
‘The Venice fleet was eventually defeated, and this,’ Campana said, pointing at the picture in her hands, ‘is Santa Lucia, one of their ships that went down.’
‘And … you have found something valuable on board and you want my expertise to confirm its authenticity. Am I right?’
‘We don’t have it in our hands yet,’ Traverse said. ‘We are confident it will be found any time now.’
Nina put the picture on the table. ‘Do you mind me asking what the French government has to do with all of that? And,’ she said, looking at Gerst, ‘German, for that matter?’
Traverse winced. ‘Ms Monte, I think I can also speak in the name of our German partner.’ He pointed at Gerst with his open palm, as if she needed a clue who the German partner was. ‘The artefact in question might be lying on the bed of an Italian lake, but it never belonged to Venice, or to Milan, or to the later Kingdom of Italy.’
‘Monsieur Traverse,’ Campana cut in, ‘the item might not belong to Italy, but Lake Garda certainly is part of my country. The ship in which the item lies is our heritage. And you gentlemen are here due to … let’s call it, friendly surveillance.’
Traverse raised his chin and pouted his lips as if finding an insult in that statement.
Nina understood where the tension among them came from. The three countries spied on each other. Germany, France and Italy had sent their men to something that, on the surface, was a joint undertaking.
Christoph Gerst propped his elbows on the table and leaned towards her. Nina could smell his citrus aftershave. ‘Signora Monte, let me tell you about your part in all of this. As soon as the item is located and secured, you will be kindly asked to confirm its authenticity.’
Nina frowned. She had already said that, hadn’t she?
‘We count on you,’ Campana said. ‘There are great hopes in regard to what we will unveil, but we need an interpreter. It may change many things.’
‘What kinds of things?’ she asked.
‘What kinds of things?’ Traverse said with a half-smirk. ‘All kinds of things. The world without terminal disease, poverty, without limitations that plague our population.’
She couldn’t imagine such a place. But she could easily imagine the world without Julien Traverse.
‘It has potential to become an enormous step in our evolution! I only wish the French nation had its men among the crew who are right now exploring the wreck,’ Traverse added coarsely.
‘If I understand correctly,’ Nina said, ‘you’re fighting over something that you haven’t even seen yet.’
Both Gerst and Traverse started to speak at once. Nina raised her outstretched palm over the table, causing the gibberish to die away.
Massimo Campana spoke first. ‘Monsieur Traverse, you will be pleased to know that Mister Lammert van der Venn and his crew of experts in underwater exploration are the best possible choice for this enterprise. And,’ he said, glancing at Nina, ‘if Signora Monte will join them, we couldn’t have assembled a better team.’
Traverse stared into Campana’s eyes, as if they were continuing their argument on a non-verbal level.
The Italian gathered his documents. ‘Unfortunately, we have to wrap up for now. We will reconvene in the same place in three days. Thank you, all.’
Nina lifted her eyebrow and bent her neck forward. Was that all?
Traverse and Gerst stood up and shook hands with each other. Nina noticed that the Frenchman wasn’t looking at Campana when he held out his hand to him. The handshake she received from Traverse was a brief limp grip of the tips of her fingers.
‘Let me walk you to your car,’ Gerst said to Nina.
‘Herr Gerst,’ Massimo said, ‘you’ve been an excellent host. Signora Monte and I have further arrangements. Have a good night.’
Gerst set his lips into a disillusioned grin. ‘Absolutely. Good night. Have a safe journey, Signora. I hope to see you again.’
When he and Traverse left the room, Nina turned to Campana. ‘What is going on here?’
He finished shovelling the documents into his briefcase, and said, ‘Our German colleague has a great impression of you, Signora. I don’t think there would be anyone to blame him for that affection.’
Nina felt a flush on her cheeks. ‘What did he mean by saying “have a safe journey”, and what did you mean by “Signora Monte will join them”? Do you really expect me to get involved after that farce?’
‘Let’s walk,’ he said.
When they stepped onto the courtyard, the firework show was over. The stink of burned charcoal and sulphur drifted through the air, stinging at the inside of Nina’s nose.
‘The meeting took place in Germany for your convenience, Signora, as you were already in this country,’ Campana said. ‘The gathering of the ministerial employees in the castle wouldn’t draw too much unwanted attention, but if it did, it would be explainable why we met: cultural exchange, et cetera. But…’ He sighed and said, ‘This is an official version. The truth is I had no other choice but to involve France and Germany. They already knew what we were up to. And as we gave them no choice when we asked for your and van der Venn’s cooperation, they insisted on meeting you immediately. That, we couldn’t refuse. Although I knew that by organizing our gathering at such a short notice they had aimed at discouraging you from coming here at all. I’m sorry for that, I’m glad you came. Then, as you’ve witnessed, the meeting wasn’t going well. If we carried on, we wouldn’t have come to any valid conclusions.’
He stopped before the gate tower. ‘You see, Signora, I wish I knew better what’s exactly happening on Lake Garda, and if our German and French partners made an impression on you that they do know, don’t let them fool you.’
Campana handed her a leather binder. ‘Inside is everything that you need to know about Lammert van der Venn, and your next steps—if you accept, of course.’
‘Signor Campana, I have my du—’
‘We’ve informed the university that you’ll be off for a couple of days.’
‘What?’
‘The Ministry thinks it won’t take longer. After this is over, we will award your department a generous grant. Think how much your studies would benefit. Naturally, we will add a special bonus for your involvement and for any inconvenience we might have caused.’
Nina furrowed her eyebrows. Never before had the Ministry been so determined to recruit her.
‘Let’s assume I agree to your proposal,’ she said slowly. ‘What exactly would you expect me to do?’
Massimo pointed through the gate. ‘The same driver will take you to Milan. Journey shouldn’t take more than six hours. We know that you have an apartment there. Tomorrow morning you will meet Cardinal Vittorio Ermanno Esposito and present him a short briefing from tonight’s gathering.’
He must have read her puzzled face. ‘Signora Monte, you are the last person I thought I would have to explain to that the Church is always engaged where serious sacral matters are at stake,’ he said. ‘In the afternoon you will take a train to Peschiera del Garda, and from there a direct bus to Malcesine by the lake, where you will finally catch a breath. Van der Venn will get in touch with you later on the next day.’
‘I can see you’ve already arranged everything,’ Nina said.
‘We’ve booked a hotel for you. Although, without a lake view. We have to think about taxpayers. We went overboard with spending this year,’ he said, then winced. ‘Media are only waiting for any dodgy move a politician would make.’
‘No problem. Although, I do hope you booked me for a full board. Three hefty meals a day.’
‘Please keep your receipts. We will reimburse your expenses,’ Campana said, ignoring her sarcasm. Then he headed to the car that had brought her to the castle.
Resigned, Nina shook her head and followed him.
‘Please have a thorough look into those documents. If there’s anything unclear, van der Venn promised to explain every aspect.’
Campana came to a stop by the car. He dropped his eyesight for a short moment, then looked up at Nina. ‘Actually, it was van der Venn who insisted it was better if you learned everything from him.’
He reached into his inside pocket. ‘My private number. You can get in touch with me in case of an emergency.’
Felix opened the door for Nina. She put the folder on the seat and turned back to ask Campana what kind of emergency he had in mind, but he was already halfway back to the castle.
‘How was the meeting, Signora?’ Felix said when they both settled in the car. ‘Have you got your answers?’
Nina switched on the light above her head and opened van der Venn’s portfolio. ‘I will have to wait for that a bit longer.’



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