The Once & Future Con

When the grave of the legendary King Arthur is discovered in the West Country Nick Madrid and his trusty companion Bridget Frost can't resist going in search of Camelot themselves. But instead of chivalrous knights they find rival heritage industry marketing men willing to go to any lengths to make money from the discovery. ?Cue Camelot casinos, Avalon theme parks, medieval Excaliburger banquets and a frenzy of feuding archaeologists as the South West's tourism and heritage industry goes loopy for Lancelot and co. When Nick does some digging of his own, it's not relics he finds but murder victims. Is there a Camelot-crazy serial killer on the loose? And what about King Arthur himself, who promised to return if his country needed him? If the bones in the West Country grave are his, who's that guy on the white horse riding out of the mists of time...?

Chapter One

When the crumhorn player fell out of the minstrels' gallery Bridget finally began to enjoy herself. She giggled as the lute player and the bloke who'd been blowing up a furry animal's bottom dropped their chosen instruments and grabbed their colleague as he toppled headfirst over the carved balustrade.
Whilst the assembled black-gowned guests at the long tables below the dangling musician held their collective breaths, Bridget hooted. She could see what was going to happen. The crumhorn player was hanging over the balustrade, his loose-fitting green doublet shrouding his head, whilst his desperate colleagues scrabbled for any kind of purchase on his legs and waist.
One of them got a firm hold on the musician's red tights. He kept hold, even when the musician slowly slid out of them, mooning the dinner guests below with his skinny, spotty buttocks.
Bridget's laughter and the man's exposure set off the atavistic heartiness of the couple of hundred men and handful of women in evening dress assembled in the neo-gothic dining hall below. They had been downing white and red wine with abandon all evening and were even now passing the port as if it were a party game. The men laughed basso, jeering laughs and banged fists on the long waxed tables, making the cutlery leap. The women were less abandoned although some of them tapped their knives fiercely against their wine glasses.
I thought the crumhorn player had been playing off-key - though how can you tell with these medieval instruments? - but I didn't realise he was as plastered as the rest of the room until his two saviours managed to get a grip on his bare thighs and haul him back over the balustrade. He stood there swaying and gazing round blearily until they bustled him off the balcony.
Bridget had taken against the musicians from the start. Not just because they insisted on dressing in Elizabethan gear but because they took turns to introduce each piece of music in mock-Elizabethan, with lots of prithees and forsooths. And because she was in a bad mood. Had been since we'd left London.
We'd set off late after she'd been held up at her new newspaper - we're both journalists, though Bridget went into editing several years ago. On the M40 we got stuck behind a convoy of ancient vans and cars spluttering towards the West Country to hear the Wiltshire Messiah's latest sermon on Silbury Hill.
Once we'd reached Oxford I'd abandoned the car in a parking space outside the Lamb and Flag and we'd hurried through the cobbled alley to my old college. Dinner had already started when we finally entered the mock-medieval dining room. We'd found our places on opposite sides of the long table. Everyone was sitting on long benches.
Bridget was dressed with her usual restraint in a figure-hugging little micro-skirted number. Getting in had proved tricky and involved her showing a great deal of thigh and a flash of her knickers to my side of the table. In particular to the banker sitting beside me, a chubby man with razor rash on his jaw and a florid complexion. He had leered at what he saw. Bridget caught him looking.
When she'd got settled she wagged a finger at him. "Know your limitations," she said. "Stick with the blow-up doll."
Then she leaned across the table to hiss at me: "Have you ever seen so many mid-life crises gathered in one room? Tears before bedtime, mark my words." The chubby banker overheard.
"Oh I think there are a number of people here who feel quite content with what they've achieved," he said, sitting back in his seat.
Bridget appraised him. Uh-oh. After a moment she said: "I wasn't talking to you, lard-arse." Which wasn't up to her usual standard of repartee but seemed to do the trick. Bridget had settled down. It was the arrival of the medieval musicians that had soured her. I could see she was restless during the first jaunty little number.
"The man playing the crumhorn is simply marvellous," said a man wearing one of those waistcoats patterned seemingly to look as if someone has vomited down it.
"Isn't he," his companion, a woman with too many frills for a woman of her age, trilled.
"That guy blowing up an animal's bum?" Bridget said.
"It's a utriculus actually," vomit waistcoat said, a superior smirk on his face. "An ancient bagpipe ? the bag is formed from the entire head of a sheep or goat, with the chanter fitted into a wooden stock at the neck. The drones come from stocks in the forelegs. The chanter has seven holes in front and a thumbhole behind."
"Jesus H Christ," Bridget muttered, reaching for the port and pouring herself a generous slug. She leaned across the table towards me. "I see why you've turned out the way you have," she said.
"What do you mean?" I said.
"With a poker up your bum."
I actually started to look before she said: "See?"
When the musicians had finished Bridget busied herself with her cigar until the din died down then looked around.
"What a bunch of tossers," she said, loud enough for those either side of us to hear. The chubby banker put his hands flat on the table and leaned towards her, a tight smile on his face. "Somebody had too much to drink have they?" he said.
I held my breath. My amigo Bridget Frost, the Bitch of the Broadsheets, drinks to excess, it's true, but rarely if ever exhibits signs of it - or indeed suffers the consequences. More to the point, her verbal ripostes can be life threatening. She opened her mouth and exhaled, engulfing the banker in cigar smoke. "This is Bridget sober, actually," I said quickly. "You couldn't handle her drunk."
"Nick Madrid - my champion," Bridget cooed, patting my hand.
"I'm damned sure I wouldn't want to," the banker said huffily through the wreath of smoke. Which is when Bridget stubbed her cigar out on the back of his hand.
He yelped. She smiled sweetly. Always a frightening sight.
"So sorry," she said silkily. "I was aiming for the ashtray."
The banker clutched his hand like a wounded paw under his double chin. He started to say something but was drowned out by the voice of the Warden from the top table. A short hunched figure, with sparse white hair and long, yellow teeth, the Warden bellowed an introduction to the guest speaker, Lord Williamson of Fleming.
The guests at the top table were so meagrely lit that little more could be seen of them than flashes of white shirt front or faces occasionally emerging from shadow. Only when Williamson stood could I see him clearly - a tall, patrician-looking man with a thick shock of black hair and an aristocratic manner.
He was actually a docker's son from Newcastle, one of the government's life peers. He was a socialist millionaire who had made his money out of genetically modified foods and was now the head of one of the government committee impartially investigating the risks of said foods. Makes sense to me.
He was also chair of one of the numerous committees competing to save Venice from sinking into the sea. The college had long links with the Italian city ? in the first term of their third year, history students these days moved to the city to study the Renaissance there. At the risk of sounding old: there was nothing like that when I was there.
Williamson enjoyed his own voice rather more than his audience did. He spoke for an inordinate length of time. During the many longeurs of his speech I saw in the dim light thrown from table lamps another side to the atavism I had witnessed earlier.
Men sinking into melancholy, flicking bemused glances around them, gazing in an abstracted way at the smoke darkened portraits on the brick walls and up at the remote rafters of the high arched roof. Thinking of lost youth and faded dreams. At least that's what I was thinking about. But then I was on the second bottle.
It was some fifteen years before that I'd first entered this gothic revival baronial hall. There was something dispiriting about coming back so many years later. Then, I'd been seated on these long, narrow benches as an undergraduate. I was shy and insecure. No change there then.
I wasn't quite sure why I had agreed to come to this reunion. I had never fitted in. And not because I'd been a punk. That was just another kind of uniform and passed away after the first term into billowing New Romanticism - no, nobody has seen the pictures. But I'd had a chip on my shoulder. My dad had just died - I think I got in on the sympathy vote rather than my academic excellence ? and I was angry at anything and everything.
As I listened to Williamson's spiel I watching a spiteful-looking man in his late forties at the next table. He'd been late too. I'd noticed him outside in the quadrangle when Bridget and I arrived. He'd been talking earnestly to someone in the entrance to staircase H, although who it was had been hidden in the shadows.
The man was very tall, narrow shouldered, with long thin legs. His body widened around the waist and hips so that he looked like a pear on stilts. His head was the same: narrow at the crown but widening into soft jowls and flabby neck. His hair was black and receding, slicked back and chopped off straight just above his collar.
His name was Jonathan Askwith and we'd loathed each other at College. He was a couple of years ahead of me but our paths crossed often. He'd had a thing about my girlfriend and was always trying to get her into bed. Now that we had in common.
During Williamson's speech he sat with his cronies, doling out port from his own bottle, thumping the table with the heel of his hand as commentary on the speech, twisting his mouth to make facetious remarks whenever the socialist lord stumbled.
A woman facing him leaned forward to address a remark to him but he ignored her, a contemptuous expression on his face. She was wearing a low-backed silk dress. She had good shoulders and short red hair and even though I couldn't see her face I knew exactly who she was. My heart sank.
At the end of Williamson's speech, which received only desultory applause, people began to move between the tables or nip off to visit the loo. I was waiting for the woman in the low-backed dress to turn round to confirm my identification when the thin, bespectacled woman opposite me, wearing a garish purple velvet number and a badge in her lapel, leaned over and held her hand out to me.
"Camilla Witherspoon. '87. And you are?"
I took her hand and shook it. It was like a seal's flipper. I mumbled my name.
"Have you come back to Jesus as He has come back to you?" she asked, smiling a little too broadly. I read her badge: He's Back - And Better Than Ever.
Ah. The Millennium had a lot to answer for.
Half the world had of course gone bonkers at the time. For several million people lunacy took the form of following one of the many Millennial Messiahs who popped up everywhere from Alabama to Vladivostok to proclaim their Second Coming. (The one sad guy who obviously wasn't with the programme and had come back as Pontius Pilate lasted only a couple of days.)
Three of the Messiahs had popped up in the United Kingdom. The one woman among them didn't survive the tabloid onslaught on her affair with her Mary Magdalene, even though she insisted that He had probably done the same the first time around.
The two remaining British Messiahs were both remarkably media-savvy. The one from Wiltshire - who announced his return on 1 January 2000 and used the slogan Camilla had on her badge - had been the first to get major sponsorship. He'd employed one of the big PR firms who'd got him the cover of everything from The Sunday Times magazine to Hello.
He seemed to know his scripture. He'd even done a "modern re-creation" of the Sermon on the Mount on Silbury Hill, near Avebury. It was a fundraiser - ?10 a ticket for a day-long event with live music. And no loaves and fishes - overpriced food was provided by various pizza and soft drinks franchises. He was due sometime soon to go on breakfast TV in front of an audience of clergymen and priests for a debate with the other Messiah, the one who'd been discovered working for his dad in the building trade in the East End. The East End Messiah was more militant. The first newspaper report headline was This Messiah's Not For Turning The Other Cheek.
His slogans - Don't Get Cross Get Even and Gethsemane -This Time We Fight - encouraged a certain amount of anti-semitism. Synagogues and mosques had been attacked and Hassidic Jews beaten up in the streets. There had been a lot of religious types at the college when I'd been here as a student. The college was famous for its magnificent chapel and Holman Hunt's painting of Christ as The Light of The World which hung in it. Since those days a rough rule of thumb through my life has been: keep the God-Squad at arm's length. I avoided the woman's fanatic eyes, therefore, mumbled something non-committal and excused myself. I glanced across at the pear-shaped man in time to see the redhead lift a long leg over the bench she was sitting on.
As she turned to get up she looked across at me and stopped, straddling the bench. She glanced back at the pear-shaped man then, smiling at me, hooked her other leg over the bench and came up to me. "Nicholas," she said, holding her long, slender hand out.
"Faye," I said, clutching rather than shaking her hand, my eyes scanning her face for any sign of ageing. She looked no different to the last time I'd seen her, years before. Except for the wedding ring on her finger that is. There was an awkward silence. I couldn't think of a single thing to say. Meeting your First Love much further down the line is like that.
"I said to Jonathan -" she gestured behind her towards the pear-shaped man - "that I bet we'd see you." I looked at the spiteful man and back to her. She was married to Askwith?
"You've cut your tresses," I said, smiling nervously. She was the only woman I'd ever met to whose hair the word tresses might apply. I remembered a pale beauty with long, auburn hair and full lips. I used to tease her about her pre-Raphaelite appearance, her looks accentuated by the clothes she wore. Burne-Jones and all the pre-Raphaelites had been back in fashion at that moment and she had played it to the full.
She raised a hand shyly towards her head.
"A long time ago," she said. Another silence, then she started to move past me. "Well, nice to see you, Nick -"
"You're married then?' I blurted out. "Children?"
There was a beat as she looked again at the pear-shaped man.
"Sometimes things don't turn out as you expect,' she said, and I didn't know if she was talking about children or her marriage.
"Hey shagger! Look who I've just met!"
Bridget's bellow would have given the trumpet that blew down the walls of Jericho stiff competition. It had been known to strike terror in people three cities away. Her voice now was not particularly raised so there was no immediate risk to the walls of the college, but it was piercing.
"Hi Bridget," I said, blushing, as Faye, mouthing 'Shagger?' and lifting a quizzical eye, moved on.
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