Achilles' Helmet Chapter 1

Chapter One

The marble figures of Patroclus, Ajax and Hector looked down on them with sightless grey eyes. The two men were standing side by side in the Aegina Marbles room in the Glyptothek museum in Munich gazing spell-bound at the statues. Charles opened the guide book and read, while his companion continued to stare at the statues.

The god Apollo, losing patience, strikes first. The helmet takes most of the blow, but Patroclus still staggers and falls back under the sheer force of the contact. The mark on his helmet is clearly visible and the clash of metal on metal has momentarily amazed his senses. He vainly struggles to regain his feet, to get some purchase in the wet sand, in order to fend off the next assault. But he is too late; Hector is already standing over him, gleaming sword raised, a dark silhouette against the sun dazzling his victim. He strikes, easily avoiding Patroclus’ vainly held up shield. He disdainfully drops his own shield to better deliver the final blow two-handedly. Patroclus’ helmet flops heavily onto the sand, the head inside gives out a rasping sigh, the eyes lose their shine and grow pale. The helmet rolls slowly to a stop in a pool of blood; darkness closes in.

        When Achilles is told the news his tormented cry can be heard all over the battle ground, reaching even inside the very walls of Troy itself, striking fear into the hearts of friend and foe alike. His vengeance will be terrible and many must die to ease his soul. Hector is slain and his body dragged round the city walls for all to see. Twelve young Trojans are sacrificed on Patroclus’ funeral pyre. But Achilles too must die young as his mother Thetis foretold. He will not live to see the fall of Troy.’

Charles snapped shut the guidebook and, turning his attention to his companion, continued in his own words:

“Then legend has it the two of them were buried together under a mound overlooking the Hellespont close to the walls of Troy. Their ashes were mingled and placed in a single urn. Their armour and other effects were buried beside them. The tomb has never been discovered as far as is known.”

Charles did not dare interrupt the silence which fell as he finished his account. The older man stood as if rooted to the spot, his eyes fixed on the frieze. Half a head shorter than Charles and stockier, he had that air of natural authority and confidence that comes with real wealth and status.

“Will ye just take a look at that helmet, Charlie,” he barely whispered, unable to take his eyes off the figure of Patroclus. “Achilles wore that helmet before Patroclus borrowed it. Just think of that, man - over three thousand years ago.”

        He tore his eyes away and turned towards Charles.

“It might still be there somewhere, Charlie. I must have it. Will ye find it for me? Do whatever ye have to, but find it for me.”

Slowly, as if in a trance, he moved away from the frieze and walked unsteadily towards the entrance to the gallery, head down, unable to contain his emotions any longer. He had just seen the missing centrepiece to his whole private collection. He could already picture the helmet in his mind’s eye taking pride of place in his secret gallery, which very few besides Charles and a few trusted friends had ever been allowed to see.

        Charles Everidge watched him walk across the room, the older man’s words echoing round in his head. The Collector turned at the door just before he left the gallery and looked again across to Charles. His eyes alone repeated his request: Achilles’ battle helmet. The real thing. Find it for me.

*

Hidden amongst the hills of Tuscany behind the towered village of San Gimignano the old stone shepherd’s cottage merged into the surrounding terrain. From a distance it was visible only to the most practised eye – the walls were constructed from the local stone which lay strewn around on the barren ground. The sun had basted the roof tiles to the same pale brown of the parched vegetation of this heat wave dried landscape.

Outside, the lookout sat motionless, conserving energy in the meager shade of a gnarled olive tree. A small troop of goats kept him company, swishing their tails to ward off the irritating flies and occasionally scratching their flanks against the trunk of the tree which at that height had been rubbed smooth and shiny, completely devoid of bark. Every few seconds the lookout fanned himself with his dust-covered beret, causing the flies to rise momentarily in a black cloud above his head, before settling back to where they had been previously the instant he replaced it. The sun hung high in the cloudless sky, any early morning mist having long been burned off. His eyes only narrow slits, his gaze never left the winding road far below.

Inside the old cottage the walls were bare and rough – the way the outside must have looked before the sun and the wind had weathered them. They were empty of ornament, only those tools necessary for the shepherd’s living hung on wooden hooks around the room. Blackened pots, pans and ladles surrounded the open fireplace. On one side of the hearth a wooden bunk was covered by a rough wool blanket.

Four men sat around the narrow table in front of the hearth playing cards. They played with the offhand concentration and silent commitment of well-honed habit. Hardly a word passed between them during each hand – each knew the characteristics of the others’ tactics. The bluff and counter bluff going on in their minds excluded all superfluous talk. Grunts and gestures took the place of words. They showed no outward sign of listening for the expected visitors from outside, but there was an almost imperceptible hesitation from all four half way through what was to be the final hand as each picked up the sound of the distant engine.

The hand reached its natural end with no quickening of pace. Without a word the dealer calmly collected the cards and placed the pack in the centre of the table. The others pushed back their chairs and turned to face the door. The lookout entered and, with a scarcely perceptible nod, took his seat beside the others. Five pairs of eyes focused on the door.

An old truck drew up in the yard outside, doors slammed and Charles Everidge and his partner at their London gallery Ed Robson entered the cottage, stooping to avoid the low doorway. They hesitated on the threshold temporarily blinded until their eyes adjusted to the gloom of the interior. Both were wearing jeans and open shirts, but, clearly unused to the heat, were perspiring heavily, their red faces streaked with the dust blown in through the open windows of the truck from the drive up the track.

The leader of the tombaroli, Vincenzo Samborini, stood as they entered. He was not a tall man, French in appearance rather than Italian; his face full and weather-tanned, hair greying, but with sharp piercing eyes and a way of staring at strangers which immediately disconcerted them as they realised they were being summed up. Ed and Charles were no exception, growing more uncomfortable by the second as they stood waiting for Samborini to pass silent judgement. At last he held out his hand and smiled with his lips. Both Englishmen relaxed a little when they saw they had passed whatever test it was that was being applied. They would not have been so pleased if they had known that Samborini had been deciding whether they were clever enough to lie to him or to double-cross him. His firm verdict was that they were not.

The atmosphere lightened and Charles and Ed took their seats at the table. A bottle appeared and glasses followed. Samborini filled each with the local eau de vie. Ed made a slight movement to pick up his glass, but quickly suppressed it at a glance from Charles. The five tombaroli listened as the visitors described what they wanted and offered a price. When the fee offered had been doubled and all the arrangements for the transfer to Turkey agreed, the first payment changed hands. At a nod from Samborini the glasses were raised and the deal was sealed.

*

“That went well. Odd bunch of blokes, though,” remarked Ed hesitantly as Charles put the truck into gear and edged across the yard trying to avoid the rocks strewn around. Ed Robson was shorter than his partner, slightly thinner with that pale freckled skin which goes with ginger hair, but with an expansive face which broke easily into a smile. Years in the art business had given him the habit of narrowing his eyes when he was thinking, as if he was concentrating on the details of a work of art in front of him and gauging its value on the market. He had said little in the cottage, content to leave the bargaining to Charles while he studied the faces of the tombaroli. He had come away from the meeting convinced that they were dealing with an experienced gang, but disconcerted by the feeling he had not been able to get behind their mask-like expressions and that they had controlled the bidding more than he would have liked.

Charles on the other hand had been too occupied with the negotiating to take in much about Samborini’s partners. He was more a planner of ways and means than a student of character. Not that it would have been much help to him to know more about the Italians - their lives were so far removed from his own that he would not have been able to make use of the knowledge – apart from the fact they were considered by those who knew, to be the best professional tomb robbers in Italy.

If Achilles’ helmet did still exist and the legends and historical facts which he and Ed had spent months researching in the UK were accurate, this gang would find it. The success or failure of the mission was now up to the experience and flair of this band of illiterate peasants. Ed chuckled to himself at the irony of it.

Comments