The Mondretti Cylinder
Elspeth McLeod looked down at the dead body at her feet. An early lesson from her much-missed Father, and one taken to heart was: “A plan never survives first contact with the enemy”. This, by anyone’s standards, was a significant deviation from a carefully prepared plan, but at this point it was unclear who the enemy was. She glanced around to see if anyone was in view. No-one. She had at least a few moments grace. What to do? The body had fallen out of the cupboard that she had just opened. Some might have screamed in this circumstance, and she might still do that, if it seemed expedient to do so. Some might have called for help; again, still an option. In the event, she quickly rummaged through the pockets to see if there was anything incriminating. Nothing. No coins, no tickets, not even any lint. Nothing. Which in and of itself was suspicious, and slightly worrying. What else could she learn? Rigor mortis had not yet set in, so the corpse was relatively fresh. The small(ish), neat hole in the back, was matched by one at the front, suggesting a through-and-through, which in turn suggested a reasonably powerful hand-gun using a fully jacketed ammunition. The bullet hole suggested that the gun was larger than a .22, smaller than a .45 or 9 mm. Probably a .38 then. It might be one of the oddities, but chances were that it was something vanilla, something untraceable. Two other inferences: the shooting hadn’t happened in the cupboard, so it had been moved from the actual scene, and the gunsel was using a suppressor – the body had been moved, but it couldn’t have been moved far, and any kind of gun going off here would have been…noticed.
The cupboard was exactly where one might expect to find a body if you were looking for one that had been hidden relatively quickly and was not expected to stay hidden for long. It was for cleaning supplies, and was located in a side annexe used for personal lockers and toilets. It could be argued that Elspeth had no really good reason for looking in there for anything. She certainly hadn’t been looking for the body, although it was good, in some ways, to know that it was there. She had spotted it earlier in the day when she arrived on site and had briefly thought about it as a potential hiding place for herself or as a place to re-home what she had come to find until an appropriate time when it could be retrieved. She’d discarded the idea because it was such an obvious hiding place that it probably wouldn’t even survive the double-bluff – if not the first place to be checked, it would certainly be ransacked at some point, if the Opposition decided that she had located the artefact but not extracted it from the building. Coming back to get her bag from the locker, she’d noticed that there seemed to be some sort of rag caught in the door, and it had piqued her interest.
It was as well to know that the body was there and she took a moment to put it back as she had found it, ensuring as best as possible that she left no trace of herself behind. Almost impossible, of course, but then there was no particular reason that anyone should connect her with the dead body. She didn’t recognise him, and he just looked like someone’s hired help. The muscular kind that is there to stop people from leaving of their own free will.
One would have thought that a dead body would make a genteel young lady queasy, but Elspeth was firmly of the opinion that it never did to be just a genteel young lady, and her Masters cohort would have been surprised at quite how ungenteel she could be when pressed. She was a young woman who knew her own mind and kept her own counsel: she was not vain, but she stopped for a moment in front of the large art deco mirror opposite the lockers, to ensure that she did not, in fact, look like she’d been moving a dead body. Content that she looked like just another student, with perhaps a more of a nod to the librarian she was training to be than most of those in her year. There was nothing unusual in any specific item, but the ensemble of sensible shoes (a pair of understated black brogues), Harris tweed skirt (green with a pattern picked out in black and violet) and a lighter green cotton blouse with a rather high collar, gave the appearance of a rather sober individual, which somehow made Elspeth look still a teenager, dressing up to look older.
She returned to the desk that she had been working at. Nothing had been disturbed – it was almost a shame to note that some rather ingenious tells were exactly how she had left them. She glanced at the clock on the far wall, a rather large faced affair which was strangely silent. She had been here all day, with a few brief rest breaks. The Institute Library was one of the last relics of the Industrial Revolution’s side effects: educating the working classes and promoting social mobility. Most of the colleges set up in the process at morphed into universities, but this one, an oddity from the beginning had survived in almost its original form. At the heart of a large library, open to the public, was a private collection of incunabula and other rare printings, handwritten tomes and various scholars’ research associated with the items in the collection. Elspeth was here for the very real purpose of collecting information on the Voynich manuscript for her Masters thesis, and indeed for other purposes as well. A more cynical individual might think that the choice of the Voynich manuscript, a book that had defied the efforts of codebreakers to broach its secrets, a book that some believed was simply a hoax, was a clever ploy to gain access to this collection, which contained some of the most significant unpublished research on the subject. Gaining access to this collection had been important, but the research that Elspeth had done today had been invaluable too. Certainly worth the cost of this visit to London.
She gathered her things together and collected her thoughts. She had hoped to find somewhere to hide after the library closed at 8 pm, but this had proven to be impossible. Being winter, it was already dark outside, even though it was only 6 pm. The general lighting was quite soft, making the wood-panelled room appear quite dark. Here and there, bright desk-lamps cast pools of light. The Inner Reading Room was large, with a book lined gallery running around all four sides. The open area was perhaps 10 m wide and 50 m long, with large round tables apparently cast randomly adrift, although with enough space to move between them comfortably. Alcoves, about 3 m in height, formed from bookcases, created little nooks under the gallery: many of these alcoves contained small tables. ‘Secret’ doors, built into some of the bookcases gave access to corridors that led to rooms dedicated to smaller collections or single books deemed valuable or important enough to be kept away even from those worthy enough to be given access to the Inner Reading Room.
Even if she’d been able to find a space to hide, now that she knew there were hunters on the prowl it made no sense to string things out for too long. It would be nice to have some kind of back up. It would be nice to know who the hunters were. Still, if wishes were horses… She was here to retrieve the Mondretti Cylinder and retrieve it she would. Being a realist, she wasn’t quite prepared to go all the way – dying in the attempt wouldn’t help anyone – but she thought that there was still quite a good chance that she could get what she wanted and walk away.
Mondretti himself had been architect, a reasonably good one in fact, of the late Tudor era. It had been he who had designed the house that had eventually become the Institute. He died a violent death only a year or two after the completion of the house. He had returned to Italy, been called out, duelled and was killed by an unlucky blow. That was the story, but those who chronicled the life of Mondretti know the truth: he was murdered by a rival who sought the Cylinder. The Cylinder itself was shrouded in legend, much of it woven by Mondretti himself. There was some talk of it being an Atlantean relic. Some said that it was a reliquary for a saint’s finger, and that it could cure the plague.
Elspeth knew more than almost anyone alive: she had found Mondretti’s diary in her Father’s desk when clearing out his office. Starting with her Father’s notes, she had pried open the secrets of the diary, and had located the resting place of the Cylinder, and she was pretty certain she knew the secret of its purpose. Purposes.
It was time to act. She checked her handbag and put her notes in her briefcase. She moved to one of the alcoves, using the perusal of various shelves as a cover to see if she was followed or observed. She slipped through the door at the back of one of the alcoves and into the corridor behind. She found the right door, one of the reserved collections was hidden behind it. Important enough to be locked away, not so important that it had anything more than a Yale lock, which Elspeth quickly picked. She took a little door wedge from her bag and placed it so that anyone trying to come in after her would not be able to get the door open without some little effort. She turned to the shelves on the left-hand wall. She would quite like to have had some sort of Indiana Jones’ style Grail Diary, but she’d felt that it was dangerous to carry that information around with her. She visualised the pages from Mondretti’s diary and her own interpretation side by side. Master cabinet makers sometimes displayed their skill by making writing desks or boxes or other contrivances that had multiple secret drawers. This bookcase was similar. There was a question at the back of Elspeth’s mind as to how this antique had survived and whether everything would work properly. In part it had survived because it was a curio – the book case hid a priest’s hole and in time this had become something of a tourist attraction, until such things became rather ordinary and the secret of the room had been forgotten. The priest’s hole was known, and the secret of opening it. The fact that there was a hidden compartment inside the hole was known. What had never been discovered was that there was a cubby inside the compartment. Elspeth completed the sequence and the cubby door did not pop open, but did at least stand proud of the panelling so that a finger nail could be used to open it properly.
Mondretti was reputedly a fan of the Borgias. It was unlikely that any organic poison would still be viable after all this time, but one need only look to the curse of Tutankhamun’s tomb: there was no curse really, but it started from the death of Lord Carnavon and an infected mosquito bite… Elspeth pulled a small Maglite torch from her bag and shone it into the cubby-hole. Yes…several oddly shaped needles…no, not needles, thorns…placed where an injudicious hand would be scratched. The clever traps from the films were unlikely to be in play here as there did not seem to be enough room for any mechanism but, to be on the safe side, she unclipped a sturdier version of a lecturer’s telescopic pointer from next to the pens in her bag. She’d used this several times before, usually with a powerful neodymium button magnet on the end, but the notes that she had on the Cylinder suggested that it was unlikely to be made of anything that could be picked up with a magnet. Instead she screwed a stub onto to the end to give a flat surface, about the size of a small coin, stuck a disc of double sided tape on, and removed the backing. Carefully, oh so carefully, she pushed it into contact with the Cylinder trying to ensure that the cylinder was not pushed further into the hole. Time was of the essence, but it would not do to fumble this. With the delicacy of someone disarming a ticking bomb, Elspeth pulled the object of her quest out of its hiding place. She paused for a moment, as if waiting for something, and felt almost disappointed that nothing happened. Gingerly she used her torch to look back inside the cubby in case there was anything else left behind. Nothing, this time. She closed the cubby door and tried to decide if it looked like it had ever been opened.
Tidily, she tucked her torch back in its pocket in her bag, removed the stub and returned that to its appointed place, closed the telescopic rod and clipped it back next to the pens. Only then did she look at the Mondretti Cylinder. Few had ever heard of this little artefact, and fewer still believed that it existed. It had taken two years, and now she had it in her hands. But for how long? The dead body suggested that others who wanted the Cylinder were very close.
The history of the Cylinder was as drenched in blood as any other artefact or gem of renown you cared to name. Despite having disappeared from view for more than 400 years, despite – or perhaps because of – countless fakes, the black deeds written about those who sought the Cylinder filled hidden history books. The general belief was that the Cylinder was the key to a vast treasure, for any who could decipher the message engraved on the outside. The Cylinder was about the size of a roll of coins or a shot-gun cartridge, in length and diameter, but considerably heavier. It was made, apparently from some kind of brass, which had become verdigrised with age, although not to the extent that the object appeared corroded. Indeed, it almost seemed as if instead of damaging it the green hue was from a protective patina, deliberately allowed to develop on the surface. The surface itself was completely covered in small cartouchesque blocks which contained designs in both relief and intaglio. The designs that had been uppermost during the long wait in the cubby hole were filled with dust. Each end of the Cylinder was knurled for about a coin’s depth: cautiously Elspeth twisted one end and heard tiny clicks. She reached for bag and pulled out the note book, ink pad and wet wipes. Time to move quickly…
The door handle rattled and the door itself moved a few millimetres, but the wedge held.
“I know that you are in there. It is time to come out. And do not bother to scream. There is no one in earshot that can hear you”.
Elspeth had hoped to regain the relative safety of the Inner Reading Room; on a positive note she had managed to finish taking a print of the design and cleaning up the cylinder, so hopefully no one would realise what she had done. She tucked the print away where a casual search would not find it, removed the wedge and returned it to her bag, and opened the door carefully.
“Young lady, you will hand over the artefact.”
The voice was disquieting more than sinister: almost completely accentless English, which made it impossible to identify a nationality, but spoken with inflection and emphasis in all the wrong places. If one had been inclined to laugh at the voice, the heavy, long-barrelled revolver (complete with suppressor, tick) emerging from the shadows would quickly dissuade levity. The owner of the voice and the gun moved into the light. He was as eerie as his voice, for much the same reason, although it took a moment to realise this: the man was completely average. It was the only adjective that could possibly be used to describe him. There was nothing exceptional or unusual about him that you could hang a label on. Elspeth wondered how much of this was cultivated, how much a strange roll of the genetic dice. Had surgery paid a part? Was it just an extension of the ordinary suit? Not too cheap, not too expensive; not bespoke, but not ill-fitting either.
“I will tell you that I am in earnest.”
Elspeth fidgeted with the Cylinder. She allowed her Scottish burr to broaden slightly, into the version that she’d been told made her sound as honest and trustworthy a person as you could hope to meet. “O! Don’t do that! I should never have got involved! O! What is to become of me?”
“Please, calm yourself. Give me the artefact and you have my word that you may go free.”
“But what about th’ other man? The man tha’ made me come here? He said he would kill my Mother if I didn’t fetch the Cylinder for him.”
“I have killed one man today for the object that you now hold in your hand. He knew much. Too much. Too much about me, and about my principal. I have no wish to kill you too.”
“Well, I have no wish to die for this, and if you say that you’ve killed the man tha’ threatened me then my mind’s at rest. Walk me out of the building and I will hand it to you when we are out on the pavement.”
“Very well – but if you attempt to flee…do not attempt it”.
They made their way back to the Inner Reading Room and then on through the building and out to the street. With some apparent misgivings, Elspeth handed over Cylinder.
“Very good. Two pieces of advice. Firstly, forget the artefact, forget me. Secondly, give up all this nonsense of the Voynich Manuscript. It is a hoax, a fake, this is well known.” And with that, he disappeared into the crowds on the street.
Elspeth sat on the train and looked at the small rod nestled in the palm of her hand. About the thickness of a pencil and shaped a little like a nail with one ended vaguely pointed and one slightly flattened, it seemed rather heavy for its size. It had been devilish tricky to extract it from the case without the strange man catching on. Thankfully her fingers had been sensitive enough to rotate the dial-lock. She had the Mondretti artefact. She had a print of the outer cylinder, if not the case itself, which should be sufficient. Whilst a plan never survives first contact with the enemy, the second lesson was that a plan is only as good as its ability to adapt: this plan had been proven to be supple enough. She smiled to herself. Fancy thinking that the Voynich Manuscript was just a hoax!
© David Jesson, 2018
Rushing in to the coffee shop, Monica spotted Oona sitting in the corner and waved. After ordering – soy latte with a biscotti to dunk – she slipped into the booth beside her friend, planting a kiss on her cheek: “So, what’s up? What was so urgent you had me cancel my mani/pedi?” Oona turned to face Monica whilst removing her dark glasses. The sight of Oona’s red puffy eyes caused Monica to utter: “Oh honey, what’s he done now?”
It was a while before Monica could stop Oona’s tears which erupted afresh and not just tears, but muffled mutterings of “I don’t know what to do” and “I’m so unhappy” and “how could he?” Taking a stab in the dark, Monica asked the unlikely question “Is there someone else?” That usually raised a smile, but this time, it was a smile tinged with sadness. “Not someone, something!” “What, like a robot? I’d heard they were in development, but surely Tim doesn’t need one of those. I mean, he may be a geek, but he’s got you. And he has always adored you!” This time Oona’s smile was more genuine, and less sad, but there was still far too much sadness there for Monica’s liking. “If you don’t spit it out, I’m going to sit here and guess, and as that’s my opener, you know it’s just going to get crazy.” Oona let out a small sound, it could even have been a chuckle: “I knew you were the right person to call. Give me a minute, I’m going to the ladies to splash my face with cold water and put a comb through my hair. I’ll be back in a minute. Drink your coffee before it gets cold!”
Monica felt relieved, once Oona was back to being concerned how she looked, things were getting back on an even keel. Still, she couldn’t remember the last time she’d looked that bad. And she’d never appeared in public looking anything other than immaculate. She took a deep breath, this was going to be tricky. Humour and home-spun wisdom may not cut it this time.
Oona had married Tim just two years before. He was different to all her previous boyfriends. He was smart for one thing, very smart, working for the government smart. He wasn’t exactly ugly, nor even bad looking, just a bit … unkempt and gawky. And what she’d said about him – that he absolutely adored Oona – was true. He did. But they’d lived very different lives before getting together, and there’d been a lot of ups and downs whilst they tried to find the middle ground. Monica had advised living together first, so they could iron all this stuff out, but Oona’s mind had been set. The last time she’d been upset, she’d admitted to Monica that she’d probably have left him by now if they’d not tied the knot. Even though she loved him to bits, he was that darn hard to live with.
He didn’t drink, take drugs, or play around, but it had taken a lot of hard work to get him to change his schedule. He had a routine – or used to have – and he was very set into it. It caused him enormous stress to change it – any of it. Even the smallest aspect seemed to cause him trauma. It had taken a lot out of Oona to get Tim to understand that she didn’t want him to change, she was just asking that he make room for her in his life. For if he stuck to his routine, she’d get to spend so little time with him, there was no point in them being a couple.
There’d been a lot of tears, so many deep and meaningfuls that Monica had lost count, but Tim had listened, he’d heard Oona and eventually, he’d understood. It’d been hard work, but they’d both made compromises. Not so many long lie-ins as Oona had hoped for, but not as many all-nighters and weekends at the lab as Tim was used to either. In fact, things had been so good for the past few months now that Monica had felt it was safe to exhale. That is, until this morning’s call from a sobbing Oona.
Once Oona rejoined Monica, she looked better. She’d not just washed her face, she’d applied make-up, and she’d not just put a comb through her hair, but she’d done something to it so it looked smooth and sleek. “Do you have a set of tongs in your bag?” Monica asked incredulously, only to receive a nod, together with a bit of a shrug from Oona in a ‘doesn’t everyone’ kind of way. Oona was clearly back on her game, so Monica suggested they go see if they could arrange a side-by-side mani/pedi, together with a bit of retail therapy at that new little boutique. For a moment, Oona looked hurt, but Monica re-assured her “you need to get your equilibrium back, we’ll talk over lunch, I promise.”
A few hours later and while Monica tucked into a burger, Oona played with a salad. She always did. Her excuse was usually that she had a proper evening meal with Tim. But she’d accepted a glass of wine – and a large one at that. Food over, Monica took a long contented sip of her wine and said “Shoot! Tell me about it.” Oona bit her lower lip: “I’m not sure where to start really.” Signaling the waiter to top up their glasses, Monica suggested: “I’ve got nothing better to do this afternoon, so start at the beginning and take your time. Having seen the state of you first thing, this one’s big.”
Oona’s hand shook slightly as she picked up her wine glass, but she set her shoulders, took a sip and started: “He’s been having these disturbed nights for a few months now. I’d wake up and find him gone. At first I thought he’d gone to the bathroom. As it was happening so much and so often, I worried that he was ill, that there was something wrong with him. But he wasn’t going to the bathroom. One night, I went to look and he wasn’t there. Most nights, I’d find him in the study, not at his computer or doing any work, just sitting in his chair. Sometimes he’d be staring out into space, sometimes he’d have his head in his hands. I’d ask him what was wrong, but he’d say it was nothing, he just had work stuff that was keeping him awake.” And then Oona did something unexpected, she signalled the waiter over and asked for the dessert menu. Not that Monica minded – at all – but she’d never seen Oona eat dessert before. Oh no, was this a signifier to the severity of the problem?
Setting her shoulders square – and taking another sip of wine – she prompted Oona to continue. “We talked a lot about it, but he kept saying he was just developing something new and it excited him so much that it was keeping him awake. After this went on for a few weeks, I asked if he’d find it easier to put in some all-nighters at the lab to get it done. He was so grateful, like ridiculously so, and started immediately. I insisted that he kept the weekends free – he needed some time to rest after all, but that he was free to work whatever hours he needed during the week.” “And did that work?” Monica asked, unable to hide the hopeful tone in her voice. “A little, I guess. But only because he wasn’t home for me to see. In fact, I never saw him during the week. After not seeing him for the first two days and nights straight, I took food into the lab for him, and when it became clear he’d not be coming home for days on end, I took a towel, toiletries and fresh clothes in too. But I made it clear, the weekends were still mine. And he kept to his word, he came home every weekend.” “But?” Monica asked. “But it became clear that his mind was elsewhere. Also he was becoming more and more tired, just dead on his feet. He fell asleep at the wheel that weekend when we went to the mountains, and of course he’d fall asleep at the cinema or watching TV, he even fell asleep over breakfast one morning. I asked him if he slept at the lab and he assured me that he took regular naps, but I was getting more and more worried so I got him to promise me he wouldn’t drive. I started driving him to and from the lab and if he needed anything, he’d call me to get it.”
“That explains why I never saw you, but this all sounds really instense. How long’s it been going on?” Monica wasn’t even attempting to hide her concern now. “About three or four months I guess. Maybe longer, I’m not really sure.” “But that’s way too long to go without proper sleep. Hasn’t Tim been to see a doctor?” “I tried to persuade him, but he insists it’s normal. And maybe it is in his world. I’ve bumped into a few of the other wives there, all delivering food, clothes and the like, so I kind of accepted his word for it. That was, until I met the wife of his usual lab partner.” A small sob escaped from Oona and Monica could see that the mascara she’d put on that morning wasn’t waterproof. She offered her a tissue and gave her hand a squeeze. “Are you OK to continue my lovely? It might be best if you get it all out.” Sniffing, Oona nodded, before mopping her eyes. “She told me her husband hadn’t seen Tim in ages. That he’d started working on this special project – and she did that thing with her hands when she said special, you know, miming quote marks. I didn’t like it when she did that. It seemed she was suggesting that it wasn’t really. So I asked Tim when I got to the lab and he told me some rambling tale about how his partner was jealous of his work, how he was upset that Tim wasn’t sharing his idea with him. When I asked him why, after all, he and Tim had been partners for years, even since leaving college, he just shrugged. Said the guy plain didn’t ‘get’ the idea, thought it was nuts and so Tim’d decided to work on it alone.”
“Sweetie, this all sounds a bit weird. What’s Tim working on?” “The Mondretti Cylinder” “The what cylinder?” “Mondretti.” “And what’s that exactly?” “I don’t know Mon. Worse when I asked Tim to explain, he couldn’t tell me” and with that Oona started to sob once more. Shaking her head, Monica got up and gave Oona a hug. “Honey, I don’t intend to be mean, but you and me, we’re neither of us big brains. We don’t tend to understand Tim when he gets all theoretic. That’s normal, isn’t it?” With a sigh Oona continued: “That’s what I persuaded myself too, at first. But … he started to become a bit hyper, even manic, so I put my foot down and refused to drive him to the lab. I insisted that he stayed home, got a good night’s sleep – or more – as he needed it. And that’s when things got scary. He went mad, absolutely mad. Screaming at the top of his voice, yelling at me that I was stupid, that I wasn’t being a supportive wife, that I was just the same as everyone else.”
Monica drew breath when she heard the last phrase and not just because Oona had put emphasis on it. “Honey, do you know what he meant by that?” “Yes” Oona’s voice had shrunk to that of a little girl now. “I went to see Tim’s boss. They told me they were all worried. That Tim wasn’t making any sense. That his behaviour was really erratic. That they were concerned he was having a breakdown. They’d wanted to reach out to me but my reaction to his old lab partner’s wife had suggested I wouldn’t be open to it.”
The tears were now pouring down Oona’s cheeks. Her mascara had run everywhere, her cheeks were covered in dark streaks, her nose was running, but she was staring off in to the distance. “They introduced me to a couple of doctors on staff – medical doctors I mean, not just guys with PhDs. They’d wanted to section Tim. They asked me to support them. They could do it without me, but they’d prefer not to leave themselves open to a lawsuit from me. They allowed me to sleep on it.” Oona reached out for her wine glass and took a long slow sip. “Not that I did sleep of course, how could it? When I called you this morning, I’d just left the lab. I’d just signed the papers to have Tim committed. Their two doctors co-signed it.”
Monica realised she was crying too: “Oh babe.” Oona nodded. “I know. I hate the Mondretti Cylinder. And yet I’ve no idea what it is. All I know is that it’s stolen my husband; it’s stolen Tim’s mind.”
© Debra Carey, 2018