Authors: David Lee Marriner
He was taking his first sip when he heard the broadband call
signal coming from his study. An expression of weariness twisted the corners of
his mouth. He knew there was only one person who would call at this hour.
As he had expected, it was Lino Mancini, an Italian friend
and former fellow student from Oxford University, now living in Florence and
working at the Florence National Library. Lino was a zealous Catholic, coming
from a deeply religious family. His main passion in life was fighting against
secret societies and investigating conspiracy theories. During the last couple
of weeks, he had called several times to discuss his recent discoveries in that
field. Three days ago, Lino called to ask him to look at some notes that were
supposed to be a skeleton outline of his future book. James assumed that maybe
he wanted to talk about this.
“Morning, Lino, how are you? It’s a lovely, very
early, morning here,” James greeted him with a pinch of irony.
“Hi, James. I hope I didn’t wake you. I know what an early
riser you normally are.”
James had forgotten how well his old friend knew him. Over
the video link, Lino looked tired and sleepy, but his eyes burned with a
feverish impatience. James realised that he would not be able to get rid of him
easily. With a sigh of resignation, he settled down in front of his monitor. “I
still haven’t turned around the notes you sent me. I’m sorry. I’ve been busy
recently,” he said.
“That’s not a problem. I want to tell you about some very
interesting information I’ve just obtained.” Lino lifted his forefinger,
pausing dramatically for effect. “Last night I got their manifesto. It is an
ancient Mesopotamian hymn. Unknown to the general public. How about that?”
“Lino, I think you should get a girlfriend,” retorted James.
The mocking did not seem to have any effect on Lino. “This
is a breakthrough. I finally managed to lay my hands on something big. But it
didn’t come easy. I had to become a spy to make this happen.”
James raised his eyebrows in mock concern. Lino sometimes
could act childishly. “I hope you haven’t got mixed up in something improper.”
“No, nothing like that. Just a bit of working undercover,
you know, and job done.”
Lino’s glib patter irritated James. “For the love of God! Can’t
you speak normally?”
“Yes, sorry. You remember that for quite some time now I’ve
been associating with different sects?”
“Well, I became a trusted member of one of them. That’s how
I managed to lay my hands on that secret manifesto,” Lino explained. “The name
of the sect is the Church of Angels.”
James felt a tickle of professional curiosity. “I’ve never
heard of that one. Is it local or international?”
“They have branches in Russia and in some other places,
mostly Eastern European countries. Their structure is a four-ranked one. The
levels are Guest, Apprentice, Master and Maestro. Now you are conversing with
one Apprentice Pietro. That’s the name I’m known by. My mentor is Master
Silvio.” Lino paused to give a cheeky wink.
“So, this church must be part of that secret society of
societies you’ve been talking about.”
“No. That one is hidden, nameless, out of reach. It’s as if
it doesn’t exist. The Church of Angels and many occult groups are its
creations. Long-established secret societies are under its influence, too. All
of them accept this manifesto as a prophetical cornerstone teaching. That’s why
my discovery is so important. You would know more if you actually read my
“You say this manifesto has been kept secret,” said James.
“Well, it seems to me that you managed to acquire it far too
easily,” James challenged Lino’s reasoning.
“I got it from the guy who recruited me. He thinks I’m a
trustworthy follower. One thing also helped, though. You may call it a bribe. I
paid him the equivalent of two of my months’ salary.”
“Remind me about that when you next ask for a loan,” joked
“My dear friend, every cent was well spent. This time I’m
angling for the big fish. I might finally expose them. I intent to dig out
names, addresses, companies. My book will become a bestseller.” Lino spoke with
“I sincerely hope it does, but you need to be careful. If I
understand you correctly, some people certainly won’t be happy about your book.
If I were you, I’d consider possible implications. Mostly, legal ones,” warned
“Don’t worry. I won’t point fingers at anybody without
supporting facts,” Lino leaned closer to the screen. “I’m going to push things
as far as I can. Now is the most opportune time. Those clandestine
organisations act more openly. This means they are becoming more accessible.”
“From what I see, I think you’re enjoying yourself. That’s
good. But you keep your guard up, okay?” said James.
“Yes, of course.”
“Keep me up to date with the progress of your book,” James
saw that his interest visibly pleased Lino.
“You be careful, too. Tonight I’ll send you some more pages
and the manifesto. My emails are for your eyes only,” cautioned Lino.
At such a late hour, the town of Vladimir had usually sunk
into calm and darkness, but this evening was different. There were still many
people, horses and carriages out in the streets, including mounted and foot
patrols dressed in the uniforms of the Tsar’s guards. Music, singing and a
multi-voiced hubbub could be heard all over the town. The last of the February
snow had fallen, covering the streets and roofs with a thick, fluffy, crystal
white blanket that reflected the light of the street lamps and the moon that
hung in the clear, dark sky.
In the large entertainment hall of the main government
building in the heart of the town, Tsar Nikolai Romanov was throwing a party
for local nobles and dignitaries to mark the occasion of the special jubilee commemorating
three hundred years of the Romanov dynasty. The celebration was part of the
national trip that had started in Moscow and was passing through Vladimir on
the way to Nizhny Novgorod, and from there the Tsar’s cortege would sail down
the Volga River. The planned climax of the festivities was a liturgy on the
14th of March in the Ipachevsky Monastery to celebrate the date when Russian
nobles first offered the crown to the first Tsar of the Romanov dynasty,
The Tsar intended to make his subjects remember this jubilee
and had ordered his quartermasters not to stint on spending. All food and drink
in the inns and taverns that night had been paid for. Stalls had been set up in
the streets from which everyone could take a free bag of flour and a bottle of
vodka. Patrolling soldiers had been ordered not to disturb celebrating
citizens, only to collect up drunks that had fallen down in the snow before
they froze to death. The Tsar’s presence and generosity had attracted many
peasants from the surrounding areas of Vladimir. They came to watch street
shows, get a free drink or meal and go home with some flour.
There had been a constant toing and froing in the town the
whole evening, which is why nobody paid much attention to the men who sauntered
casually out of several inns and houses just before daybreak. All of them wore
simple villagers’ clothes, but they rode horses, which were beyond the means of
an ordinary villager. Their white faces and smooth hands were signs that they
were not used to hard labour. If someone had taken the trouble to look at the
men more closely, they would have noticed that they were anything but
They left the town by different routes, but after a while
turned towards one destination – the dark mass of the forest lying several
kilometres away from Vladimir.
* * *
At the same time, in the forest about thirty kilometres
away, a little settlement was awakening to its daily routine. One by one, the
chimneys of the wooden houses and huts began belching out smoke. Men and women
then came outdoors to engage in their morning chores. All the men and some of
the women of the settlement were armed with personally chosen weaponry: Berdan
and Mosin-Nagant rifles, different types of revolvers, sabres and knives. This settlement
was situated away from the main road and was surrounded by hills and a dense
forest. As far as the state authorities were concerned, the settlement did not
exist; it could not be found on any map. Its inhabitants and the few who were
acquainted with its location called it ‘Bezimiannoe’ or ‘the village without a
name’. The reason for this anonymity was because it was the winter residence of
the ringleader of the biggest and strongest criminal gang operating in the
Russian Empire. The tentacles of this notorious organisation spread from
Petersburg and Moscow to the eastern borders.
Around the settlement, strategically placed shooting points
had been set up. There were shooters in positions deep in the forest and in
front of the biggest house in the centre of the settlement. That morning,
inside this house, three men sat at a long wooden table enjoying a breakfast of
tea, black bread, dry fruits and meat. The flimsily dressed and dishevelled
women with whom they had shared their beds the previous night were serving them
in silence. At the head of the table sat a blond man in his late thirties with
a sinewy body and a longish face. His eyes were small, clear blue and slightly
sunken. This was the most wanted man in the Russian Empire. His name was Batka
Ivan, known simply as Batka, meaning ‘Father’. The table companions of this
notorious ringleader were his second and third in command, Big Leonid and
When Batka had finished eating, he pushed away a big silver
plate of leftovers. Immediately, one of the women took it away, cleaned the
table in front of him and added tea to his cup.
“The Tsar’s nobles are having fun in the town, Batka,”
Leonid said. “The festivities have attracted people like iron to a magnet.
There has never been so much movement in the forest before.”
“Let’s send a detachment closer to the forest’s edge. They
will be able to see if any soldiers are moving this way,” Stephan suggested.
“That’s not good idea,” Batka said, shaking his head in
disagreement. “The garrison and the police are quite jumpy now. They dispatch
patrols. Watching out for His Majesty’s safety. Someone may spot our men and
then we would be in trouble.”
“Right. We need to stay attentive but without attracting any
attention.” Leonid tried to sound wise.
“For now we’ll just put a few more sentries around the
village. That I’ll leave to you, Stephan,” said Batka.
“The weather is good, but we’re running low on meat.
We’ll have to go hunting in the forest. Why don’t you join us, Batka?” said
“I will. Get ready and wait for me at the stables.”
By the time the hunters had got back to the settlement, the
day was half over. Their horses carried the carcasses of wild pigs and deer.
When they were dismounting, Stephan approached them. “I’ve got news,” he said.
“One of our scouts has spotted armed men in the forest. He thinks there are
about twenty-five to thirty of them.”
“The Tsar’s soldiers?” asked Batka.
“No, city people we think. Our man says they were hiding
behind an outcrop overlooking the bypass road to Vladimir.”
“City people, you say,” said Batka.
“Yes. They seem to be acting clumsily in the forest.”
Batka frowned. “I don’t like it. Get a dozen men and the
scout. We’ll ride out there.”
* * *
The Tsar’s cortege of nine hussar riders and two troika
sleighs, each driven by three horses, travelled on the outskirts of Vladimir.
One of the sleighs, driven by a single coachman, was in the lead. The coachman
wore the uniform of a Poruchik of His Majesty’s Rifle Battalion, which was
garrisoned in Vladimir. Following this sleigh were four hussars, then the other
sleigh, and at the rear more hussars. The riders wore white and blue uniforms
and they waved white flags with golden eagle on them, indicating that they
belonged to the Tsar-Emperor’s elite Leib Guard. In the second sleigh, hauled
along by three giant white horses, sat two men: Tsar Nikolai II and his trusted
adviser, Semeon Laptin,a small, middle-aged man. Laptin was a high-ranking
secret-police officer. He had arrived in Vladimir the previous morning from Petersburg
with important news for the Tsar. His unexpected visit had prompted the Tsar to
change his schedule. Laptin wanted to have a private meeting with him, so the
Tsar had cancelled his morning appointments on the pretence that he would go
Although the hunting trip was a feeble and unconvincing
excuse, thought up at the last minute, the Tsar was secretly relieved that for
a few hours at least he would be able to detach himself from the sycophants
that had been following him and attending to him at every stage of his jubilee
After about an hour into the private ‘hunting’ trip, the
Tsar’s cortege was already travelling through Vladimir Forest. The Tsar and
Semeon Laptin were still absorbed in conversation when the Poruchik who led the
first sleigh shouted, “Hai, hai!” and smacked the horses’ backs with the reins.
The sleigh tore off quickly, increasing the distance between it and the rest of
“Poruchik, stop!” Commanding Hussar Rotmister yelled.
Instead of complying, the Poruchik began smacking the horses
even more frenetically and they galloped away at full power. Then shots were
heard and bullets began to fly, killing and wounding some of the hussars and
horses. Two trees fell across the road simultaneously to halt the royal party.
From amongst the woods on both sides of the road, silhouettes of the attackers
appeared, running towards the trapped cortege, brandishing their sabres and
firing their revolvers. Shouts of, “Death to the tyrant!” tore through the air.