My journey to Nice took me past some extremely picturesque portions of the French Riviera that no photo could possibly do justice. Not that my demented scribblings are much better, but that’s what you’re getting, like it or lump it.

A passenger had abruptly perished under mysterious circumstances, which earned me a free upgrade to the dining car. There were waiters and wood panelling and everything. I felt egregiously underdressed.

 

I should have been surprised to find Valerian Strauss sitting down at my table, but I’d grown used to coincidences on this trip. Also I left a message on his answerphone with details of my journey – you can’t really be “surprised” to meet someone in those sorts of circumstances.

 

‘I had a feeling I’d be hearing from you, Mr Hopkins,’ Valerian clicked at the waiter, ‘I’ll have the grilled halibut with lightly-graised pom de terres and a bottle of chateau le blanc 1957, s’il vous plait.’

 

‘Uh…lasagne and coke for me, thanks,’ I coughed. I whispered to Valerian, ‘sorry about the whole fibbing thing, but I thought you were one of THEM.’

 

‘Entirely understandable, Mr Hopkins, your paranoia is a credit to you,’ a fully-cooked meal suddenly appeared in front of Valerian while I was still waiting on my lasagne, ‘so I take it you have the disk drive our undercover detective entrusted to you?’

 

‘It’s in a safe place,’ I didn’t want to reveal that the drive was sitting in my pocket – I still didn’t entirely trust this fellow, ‘but you’re not really Interpol, are you?’

 

‘Oh?’ Valerian savoured the wine, ‘what makes you say that?’

 

‘Your meal,’ I pointed out, ‘only a secret agent is that scrupulously fussy about their food and drink.’

 

‘Very astute!’ Valerian smiled, giving nothing away, ‘but I fear you have stumbled onto something way over your head. A conspiracy older than the nations you have been travelling through.’

 

‘The name on the drive, “princescradle1442,” what does it mean?’ I probed.

 

‘It is the shibolleth of an ancient mystic society,’ Valerian dabbed his lips, ‘I believe you have acquainted yourself with a couple of its members. They call themselves the Ordo Nostra.’

 

My eyebrow tweaked, ‘the “New Order?” That sounds doubly sinister.’

 

‘They were founded during the Renaissance by Niccolo Machiavelli,’ Valerian picked a fishbone out of his teeth.

 

‘Quadruply sinister!’ both my eyebrows tweaked, ‘how powerful are they?’

 

‘They count Popes and Presidents amongst their number, as well as titans of industry and finance, and have influenced the course of history,’ Valerian handed his plates back to the waiter, ‘they will stop at nothing to remake the world in their image. That disk drive may just be the key to stopping whatever diabolical scheme they are planning.’

 

‘How can I help?’ I blurted.

 

‘Oh, we’ll handle the operation, you just get us that disk drive,’ Valerian laid his napkin on the table and rose, ‘I know you’ll do the right thing.’

 

Valerian walked away. A few moments later the waiter returned, and instead of getting me my lasagne and coke he banished me back to coach. Typical.

 

I arrived in Nice with my mind buzzing, entailing a lot of staring out over the very blue, VERY sodden Cote d’Azur looking pensive and thoughtful.

‘twas as if the heavens knew my mind’s torment.

Or something.

I also saw a bloke braving the Mediterranean for a bracing swim. The photo I took of it was rubbish, but trust me, it happened.

That brave, foolhardy swimmer’s determination made up my mind. I had to get to Florence.