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First Chapter: Looking for the King

June 15, 2015 6:07 pm | Leave a Comment


Read the first chapter of the novel Looking for the King by David C. Downing. If you like what you’re reading, visit the novel’s page to learn more or order!

Chapter 1

Glastonbury, England
Mid-April 1940

“Here lies buried the renowned King Arthur with his wife, Guinevere.” Tom McCord studied the marker in front of a coffin-sized rectangle in the grass, outlined in stone.

Or maybe it’s the marker that lies, thought Tom. He knew the story: there had been a great fire in Glastonbury in the twelfth century, destroying most of the abbey and its relics. Pilgrims had started going elsewhere—Tintagel, Malmesbury—until the town’s soothsayer located the supposed graves of Arthur and Guinevere, right there on abbey property. The pilgrims returned—gladdening the hearts of the monks and filling the purses of local innkeepers and tradesmen.

“If Arthur did not exist,” Tom muttered to himself, “it might be necessary to invent him.” He shifted the pack on his shoulders and took a step back to survey the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. Between the blue sky and the green lawn were scattered acres of fallen stones—crumbling yellow walls, staircases to nowhere, dogtoothed blocks jutting out of the earth. Straight ahead were two halves of a broken arch, reaching up to the sky like supplicating hands.

This had been a magnificent edifice once, a city in itself, a fortress of faith. But all that remained were walls without a roof, foundations with nothing to support. It was a splendid ruin, but forlorn too. Like religion itself, thought Tom.

Walking past the broken arch, Tom spotted a stone building in the corner of the grounds that looked like an abbey in miniature, with sturdy buttresses, arched windows, and a funnel-shaped ceiling. This was the abbot’s kitchen, all that remained of what once had been a grand palace. Tom strode toward the building and peeked in through its single arched doorway. Inside he saw a dim room where motes of dust swirled and danced in the slanting light. Stepping in, he found one great room under a domelike ceiling, with cavernous fireplaces, taller than he was, built into every corner. What feasts must have been prepared here! There was plenty of room for a score of workers and dozens of cupboards and tables. He could almost see a great boar roasting on a spit in one corner, a giant stewpot simmering in another, delicate cakes coming out of an oven nearby. Clearly, the abbot did not live by bread alone. The room was nearly empty now, except for a long wooden bench in front of the fireplace nearest the door.

Tom sat down on the bench and set his pack on the ground. He took out three metal rods and screwed them together, making a pole about as long as a broomstick. Then he attached a metal disk to one end and a handle to the other. Clamping a black box onto the handle, he strung two wires from the box down to the disk. Finally, he took out a set of headphones, plugged them into the black box, and put them over his ears. Rising to his feet, Tom held the disk a few inches above the loose flagstones on the floor and took a few steps ahead, moving the device in a slow, sweeping motion, like a scythe. Tick! he heard suddenly. He took another step forward. Tick! Tick! Tick! Tom snatched off the earphones, set down the device, and got down on all fours for a closer look. His rubbed his finger in the dirt between two flagstones and felt some kind of metal object. His pulse quickened as he dug in with his fingernails to uncover whatever it might be—an ancient coin, perhaps, or a gold bracelet fallen between the cracks. Scratching at the dirt until his fingers were almost raw, Tom finally exposed the metal object: a rusty hairpin.

Well, at least the Metallascope works, Tom sighed. He was just reaching for the earphones again when he was startled by a voice behind him: “Lose something?”

Tom scrambled to his feet and looked around. At first all he could make out in the dim light was a silhouette, a tall man wearing a broad-shouldered suit and a derby. “Excuse me?” said Tom, not really in the mood for conversation.

Stepping forward into a shaft of light, the man doffed his hat, revealing a square jaw, graying temples, and sad eyes. “I asked if you lost something”, he said. Glancing at the headphones on the floor, he added, “I suppose you didn’t hear me come in.”

“I guess not”, said Tom absently. He held up the hairpin. “I didn’t lose anything. But this is what I found.”

The man reached out for the hairpin, inspected it carefully, and handed it back. “Someone’s lost treasure”, he said without smiling. “You found it with that gadget there, I suppose?” he asked.

“That’s right”, said Tom. He picked up the device and demonstrated how to hold it. “It’s called a Metallascope. It detects metal objects on the ground or just under the surface.”

“I thought so”, said the sad-eyed man. “They’ve got those in the army now, for detecting mines.” Holding his hat in front of him, the man gave Tom a long looking over. “You don’t look like a military man”, he said.

Tom unconsciously brushed his sandy blond hair out of his eyes. He didn’t really feel like having a chat, but this fellow seemed to insist on a conversation. So Tom decided he could keep it up for a least a few minutes, out of politeness.

“No, I’m not”, he said. “I’ve come over here from America. Doing some research for a book.”

“Good to meet you, son”, the man said, reaching out his hand. “My name is Huffman, Joseph Huffman. One doesn’t meet too many Yanks over here, with the war on.”

“Tom McCord”, said Tom, shaking hands. “I came over several months ago”, said Tom. “When I crossed the sea, it didn’t look like there was going to be much of a war. After Poland fell last autumn, nothing much happened. ‘The Phony War’, we called it in the States.”

“That’s what the papers called it over here too”, said Huffman. “But now that the Huns have gone up to Denmark and Norway, it’s starting to look like the real thing.”

“I guess Hitler has overreached himself this time”, said Tom. “It’s one thing to overrun Poles and Danes. But I don’t suppose the little corporal and his Wehrmacht will be any match for the French and the British.”

“We’ll see about that”, said Huffman solemnly. “That’s what they said back in 1914. They told us we’d be home by Christmas.” Huffman mused to himself a moment, then turned back to Tom. “So, tell me about this book you’re writing”, he said.

Tom had been trying to wind up this conversation, but suddenly he grew more animated. “It’s a guidebook to all the Arthurian sites in Britain”, he said. “I’ve already been to Tintagel, where legends say Arthur was born. And down to Bodmin Moor, where Arthur got his sword from the Lady of the Lake. And, of course, I’ve been spending a lot of time in dank, dusty archives.”

Huffman gave Tom another long looking-over and pointed to the Metallascope. “Surely, you don’t need that thing to locate books”, he said with a wan smile.

Tom was feeling that this little chat was turning into an interrogation, and he wasn’t sure how much more he wanted to say. “It’s not all book research”, he explained. “I’ve studied archaeology too. I’m over here looking for Celtic artifacts. I’d like to prove once and for all that there really was an actual king named Arthur.”

“And how do you propose to do that?” asked Huffman. Perhaps realizing that this question sounded too aggressive, Huffman added in a softer tone: “I fancy myself a student of archaeology too. They’ve been trying to settle that question for about a thousand years now, haven’t they?”

Tom noted the British habit of ending a statement as if it were a question, and he wasn’t sure if he was expected to answer. But he tried to explain: “There’s a recent theory by Professor Collingwood at Oxford, backed up by a colleague of his named Tolkien. They’ve shed a lot of new light on who the historical Arthur might have been. As the Empire fell apart, the Romans pulled out of Britain in the fifth century, leaving the Celts on their own. The Britons fought among themselves for a few generations, until they recognized the true threat was coming from the east, from waves and waves of Teutons arriving from across the Channel.”

“Same thing we’re worried about now”, said Huffman. “Something like”, answered Tom, warming to his topic. “Collingwood argues that a Celtic leader named Arthur could see that the only way to stem the pagan tide was to do as the Romans had done—to organize troops of cavalry. The Angles and Saxons were strictly foot soldiers, lightly armed with shields and spears. So Arthur must have trained companies of horsemen, adopting hit-and-run tactics. He seems to have harried the Saxons up and down the land, keeping them out of the western kingdoms for half a century.”

“That’s all very interesting”, said Huffman, sounding not very interested. “But you still haven’t explained this”, he said, pointing at the Metallascope and speaking in a surprisingly direct tone. “How is hunting up hairpins in Glastonbury going to help you find King Arthur? And how did you get hold of your own military equipment?”

Tom didn’t like Huffman’s tone, and he decided it was time to go. “I told you, I’m writing a guidebook to all the Arthurian sites. And while I’m here, I’m looking for artifacts.” Tom picked up his knapsack and slung it over his shoulder as he added a few words of explanation. “I rented the metal detector from a specialty shop in London. It’s a simplified civilian model. I was testing it out in here, to see if I might find an old hinge, a metal latch, something to suggest a buried entrance.”

Feeling that he’d said enough, or more than enough, Tom strode toward the doorway. Huffman gave a slight whistle and suddenly there appeared in the entrance a burly man with a red face. He stood right in the narrow exit with his arms folded across his chest, wearing a wrinkled shirt and a baggy tweed jacket.

Tom had played fullback in high school, and his first instinct was to bowl the man over and not look back. But he didn’t like the odds, and he wasn’t sure who else might be outside. He turned back to Huffman. “You’re not letting me leave?” he asked.

“I wouldn’t put it that way”, said Huffman with unconvincing friendliness. “It’s just that we were having such a lovely chat. This is my associate, Mr. Durham. He has some interests similar to yours and mine.” Durham nodded his head without unfolding his arms.

“Mr. Durham,” continued Huffman, “allow me to introduce Mr. Tom McCord from America. He’s over here looking for King Arthur.”

“Last I heard, the bloke was dead”, said Durham gruffly.

“Perhaps not dead”, said Huffman cheerfully “The legends say he was brought right here, to the Isle of Avalon, to recover from his wounds. He’s supposed to return in times of trouble, like the ones we’re having now.”

“I wouldn’t hold my breath”, answered Durham. “I’d rather see a few armored divisions from America.”

Durham stared directly at Tom, as if he were supposed to answer for all his countrymen. Tom decided the better part of discretion lay in evasion. “Not speaking for myself,” he said, “but a lot of Americans can’t figure out what we were doing over here in the last war. They’re quoting George Washington about avoiding entangling alliances.”

Durham took a step forward, as if he’d heard fighting words.

“Halt!” said Huffman to Durham in a tone of command, holding his hand straight out. Then he added in a soothing tone, “Come, come, Mr. Durham. We’re all friends here. Mr. McCord isn’t a diplomat or a soldier. He’s over here writing a book.”

Durham stepped back into the doorway. Gesturing toward the Metallascope, he said, “That don’t look like a typewriter to me. More like a wireless transmitter.”

“It’s a metal detector”, explained Huffman casually. “Mr. McCord thinks it might help him locate an underground chamber at one of the Arthurian sites he’s visiting.”

Durham’s eyes widened. “Oh, he does, does he? And what gave him that idea?” Huffman and Durham both looked at Tom, as if he’d have to answer that one for himself.

“It’s an open secret”, said Tom. “There’s supposed to be a crypt below Cadbury Castle, that old hill-fort not far from here. Some people think that’s the real Camelot. And everywhere I go, there’s some old fellow in a pub telling me about a buried tunnel or a cache of Celtic weapons and jewelry.”

“Is that what you’ve been doing?” asked Huffman. “Questioning the locals?”

Raising himself to his full six feet in height, Tom dropped his pack to the ground and gripped his Metallascope with both hands. “No more questions”, he said. “I’m not looking for any trouble here. But I can take care of myself if I have to.”

Huffman made a downward sweep of his hand, as if trying to calm everyone down. “No need for that kind of talk”, he said calmly. Durham just grinned and patted something underneath his jacket.

banner_lfk“Let me say this one last time”, said Tom, with his jaw clenched. “My name is Tom McCord. I’m an American citizen over here researching a book. I have the papers back in my room to prove it. So if this gentleman would just let me by—” Tom took a step toward the door, and Durham glanced at Huffman, as if seeking instructions. Instead of looking at either of them directly, Huffman took out a pack of cigarettes and offered one to Tom. Tom shook his head, and Huffman took out a lighter, lit up, and blew out a gray puff of smoke into the dusty air. “Well, that’s an admirable quest, Mr. McCord”, he said casually. “Sailing clear across the Atlantic—dodging U-boats all the way, I shouldn’t wonder—looking for the king. That’s a fine cover.”

“Cover for what?” said Tom. “I don’t understand.”

Huffman threw his cigarette down and ground it under his shoe. “Oh come now, Mr. McCord, let’s drop the charade. As long as we’re in this quiet little chapel, don’t you think it would be a fine place for confession?”

Tom backed toward the wall and gripped the metal detector like a baseball bat. “It’s not a chapel; it’s the abbot’s kitchen”, he explained between clenched teeth. “The peaked roof is to let smoke out. Any student of archaeology would know that.”

Durham took a step toward Tom, but Huffman signaled for him to stand still.

“I stand corrected”, he said. “But we know who you are, and we know what you’re looking for. And I think you know who we are.”

“I already told you who I am”, said Tom. “And I have no idea who you are. Though I’ve ruled out the tourist board.” A little grin flickered across Huffman’s face. But then he said slowly and sternly, “This isn’t a game, son.”

“Let’s find out who he really is”, said Durham, stepping out of the doorway and reaching for the pack at Tom’s feet. Tom pointed the metal detector straight ahead, like a lance, and turned up the dial on the box until it made a distinct hum. “Keep your distance”, said Tom. “That is, if you ever hope to have children!” Durham froze and then took several steps back, pulling his jacket down tight in front of him. Huffman laughed out loud, the sounds reverberating throughout the small enclosure. “He’s bluffing, you idiot!” said Huffman.

Tom scooped up his pack and ran toward the entrance. Durham made a quick lunge at him, grabbing hold of Tom’s jacket. Not having a free hand, Tom tried to stomp on Durham’s foot but missed.

“Let him go, Durham, let him go”, Tom heard over his shoulder. Breathing heavily, Durham thrust his face about an inch away from Tom’s, glared at him eyeball to eyeball, then let go of his jacket and walked back to Huffman’s side. Tom clutched the pack and the metal detector to his chest and caught the welcome sight of green grass and blue sky just over his shoulder. He backed out of the room, seeing the forms of the two men still standing near the doorway.

“Just one more word?” said Huffman, with the same forced politeness he had used when the conversation began. Tom knew it would be wiser just to keep walking, but he wanted to show them, and maybe himself, that he was no coward. So he stood in the doorway, his back to the sun, and glared at the two figures standing in the dim light.

“Maybe you really are who you say you are”, said Huffman.

“And maybe you’re as thick as you seem to be”, added Durham.

Even in the dusky light, Tom could see Huffman cast a withering glance at his stocky partner—or minion. “One last piece of advice”, said Huffman. “Even if you find what you’re looking for, you may discover it’s not worth the price.”

Tom thought this over for a moment and then replied, “That’s true of most things in life, isn’t it?” Huffman grinned and nodded his head, then made a wave of his hand, as if to say, “Be off with you.”

“Auf Wiedersehen”, Tom heard behind him. “We’ll see you again.” He walked hastily away from the stone kitchen, toward a guard booth he’d seen when he entered the grounds a few hours before. His heart was thumping in his chest, partly for the sheer joy of being outside in the open air, safe and free and surrounded by ordinary people just enjoying the day. But there was also anger and fear in that beating heart. Who were these men, and what did they want? How dare they treat him that way? And how dare he let them? Tom had visions of taking on both of them and leaving them on the ground writhing in pain. But that sort of thing seemed to work better in movies than in real life. Tom glanced over his shoulder to make sure no one had followed him. His stride had almost become a run, and he forced himself to slow down to a brisk walk.

When he got to the entrance to the abbey grounds, there was no one in the guard booth, but there were plenty of people coming and going, so he felt safe enough. What a relief and a pleasure it was just to see a little red-cheeked girl reaching up with stubby fingers to grab onto her mother’s hand. Or to watch a white-haired man and his frail wife standing close together to admire the pink wildflowers growing on top of a stone wall.

Tom sat on the lawn and laid down his pack and his Metallascope. He started to disconnect the wires, but it took a few tries because his hands were still trembling. Taking a deep breath, he steadied himself and carefully unhooked the wires, coiled them up, and put them into the pack. Then he removed the disk at the end and unscrewed the sections of pipe. It was good to have something to do with his hands, something he didn’t have to think about.

The more he relaxed, the more the whole incident seemed almost farcical to him. Here he was, trying to write a book about King Arthur, and those thugs acted like he held the fate of the world in his hands. What was it they thought he was after? If Huffman’s intent was to quench Tom’s curiosity, then he had mistaken his man. An hour ago, Tom would have been thrilled to find a Roman coin or a centuries-old shoe buckle. But now the question that blazed in his brain was, What should he be looking for?

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