Authors: James Becker
“And now they’re back,” Toscanelli mused, “so they must believe that they’ve found something, something of importance, in that cave.”
“Haven’t our experts in Rome deciphered whatever clues were hidden in those chests?”
“If they have,” Toscanelli replied somewhat sourly, “they haven’t told me yet.”
“So how come these two English amateurs”—Mario almost spat the word—“have apparently succeeded where our order has obviously failed, despite all our knowledge and resources?”
“I have no idea. Maybe they’re just lucky.”
“Bearing in mind they led you to that cave in Cyprus, I think it’s rather more than just luck. We’re still following their trail, dogging their footsteps, and that suggests to me that they’re a lot better at this kind of thing than we are.”
“Perhaps,” Toscanelli said dismissively, “but it won’t matter because we’ll be eliminating them once we’re certain they really have discovered what we seek. I’m looking forward to doing that personally.”
Mario glanced at his watch.
“They’ve been inside for nearly an hour already,” he said. “When do you want to do it?”
“This is as good a time as any. Leave one man in the car, and another here in the trees as a watcher. The rest of us will go in now and end this.”
Canton of Schwyz, Switzerland
“Stop,” Robin said, grabbing Mallory’s arm.
He halted in midstride.
“What is it?” he asked.
“There’s something wrong here. Something that doesn’t fit.”
Mallory looked around the passageway that they were standing in. The stones that formed the walls and ceiling around them were black and very obviously solid, and glistened damply in the light from their flashlight. The floor was more or less level and dotted with occasional puddles, clearly caused by the water trickling down some of the rocks. It all looked normal—or as normal as any hidden underground passageway abandoned for centuries could look—and completely nonthreatening.
Robin peered all around them, the beam of her flashlight tracing a slow path up and down the passageway.
“What is it?” Mallory asked again.
“I was just thinking about the booby traps we’ve encountered,” she said. “The spikes hidden inside the book safe and then the sword blades in those chests we found in Cyprus. But here we’re just walking down a corridor with no sign of even a door to unlock. We know that the Templars protected their property, and this is just too easy. They must have built in some kind of defense system, and it worries me that we can’t see it.”
Mallory nodded and, like Robin, scanned every part of the passageway cut through the rock.
“The only place I can see where they could have created a defensive mechanism,” he said, after a few seconds, “is the ground, the floor of this passage.”
“Now that you mention it,” Robin said, “we’ve been splashing through these shallow pools of water, but just in front of us is a much bigger puddle that covers almost the entire width of the passage. Maybe that’s it.”
They stepped forward cautiously and halted at the edge of the water. They both looked down, their flashlights shining on the still surface.
“It only looks about half an inch deep,” Mallory said, “and I can see the rock under the water quite clearly. Maybe this puddle is just a puddle.”
Robin continued staring down at the water, trying to see any sign of danger. Then she grabbed Mallory’s arm and pointed.
“Look down there,” she said. “That looks like a crack in the rock, running almost from one side of the puddle to the other.”
She traced the line she was looking at with the narrow beam of her flashlight, the reflection from the water lighting up the roof of the tunnel.
“It could be a natural feature,” Mallory said, “only a fissure in the rock, but I don’t feel confident enough that it is to just step on it. We could well be looking at some kind of concealed mantrap.”
“Can we jump over it?” Robin asked, mentally gauging the distance to the far side of it.
“Possibly, but we have to think about getting back as well. If the Templar Archive is hidden somewhere at the end of this passageway, we’ll have to return the same way, and we certainly couldn’t jump over it carrying a chest between us. I think we need to build ourselves a bridge.”
“The timbers we moved?” Robin suggested.
“Exactly. If we bring a couple of those from the cave, they’ll easily span that puddle of water and we’ll just be able to walk across to the other side.”
They quickly retraced their steps to the larger cavern, selected two of the broadest timbers, and between them carried them, one at a time, along the passageway to the shallow pool of water. There, they manhandled them to position the wood more or less over the center of the water. Each piece of wood was eight or nine inches wide, and by pushing them together they formed a wide enough platform to walk over easily.
When they reached the other side, Mallory turned and looked back at the pool of still water.
“I think,” he began, then paused. “Look, this might just be paranoia striking again, but I’d be happier if we
lifted those planks of wood off the ground and stacked them on this side of the puddle.”
“You still think somebody’s following us?” Robin asked.
“I don’t know, but I’ve had a sneaking feeling that we’ve attracted attention since we arrived here, and not all of it has been idle curiosity. And if those Italians are on our trail, shifting those timbers might give us a bit of protection, because they’ll have to either step through the puddle and maybe trigger whatever mechanism is hidden there—if we’re right—or do what we did and build a bridge over it.”
“You probably are paranoid,” Robin agreed, “but that doesn’t mean you’re wrong. Let’s do it.”
They pulled and lifted the lengths of wood and carried them a short distance down the passageway and stacked them on one side, where they were virtually out of sight of anyone approaching from the cave.
“Right,” Mallory said. “That might not be the only obstacle we face, so keep your eyes open and shout out if you see anything you don’t like the look of.”
* * *
Toscanelli led the way down the valley, the three men following him in a loose group a few feet behind, all of them watching the double waterfall in case their targets suddenly and unexpectedly reappeared.
When they reached the pool, they stood over to one side and prepared to enter the cave. Having watched Mallory and Jessop step through the waterfall the previous day, Mario had sent Nico out to buy waterproof outfits
that would fit over their normal clothes. He had come back with half a dozen pairs of rubberized overtrousers with rubber booties and braces attached, and six waterproof jackets with integral hoods. Nico opened the bulky bag he was carrying, pulled out the packets of protective clothing, and handed them round.
Within a couple of minutes, all four men were ready to go, their spare ammunition put away safely in the pockets of their clothes, along with the compact and powerful flashlights that Nico had also purchased, their outfits protected by the waterproof garments. Each man was holding his pistol, just in case they needed to use the weapons as soon as they stepped into the cave. The brief immersion as they stepped through the waterfall would have no effect upon the efficiency and operation of the weapons.
“Let’s do this,” Toscanelli said. “How did they get inside?”
Mario pointed at the large boulder sticking out of the pool and close to the curtain of falling and tumbling water.
“They climbed onto that rock and then stepped straight through the waterfall,” he said.
“It could be slippery,” Toscanelli said, “so all of you be careful. I’ll go first. The rest of you follow as quickly as you can.”
He cautiously tested the grip his rubberized booties provided on the wet rock, but they were surprisingly good and didn’t slip, and he carefully stood erect. He checked that his pistol was cocked and loaded, with the safety catch on, and grabbed his flashlight with his other hand.
Then he took a single stride forward, through the falling water.
The first thing Toscanelli was aware of was the utter blackness within the cavern. Although some light did penetrate the waterfall, because the valley was largely north facing, this did little to dispel the gloom.
With his pistol held at arm’s length, his thumb resting on the safety catch, ready for immediate use, he snapped on his flashlight and shone the beam in a complete circle around him.
Then Mario stepped into the cave through the falling water and the other two men followed him within a couple of minutes, each stepping from the rock and into the hidden chamber.
“It just looks like an empty cave,” Toscanelli said, his voice echoing in the confined space as he again shone the beam of his flashlight around the damp rock walls. Now that the other men were beside him, he placed his pistol on the ground and began to strip off his waterproofs.
“There’s obviously an exit somewhere in here,” Mario said. “We all watched the two of them step inside here this morning, well over an hour ago, and they haven’t come out since then.”
“Check all around the walls,” Toscanelli instructed, “and the floor as well. Look out for any traces of them.”
All four of the men moved to different parts of the walls of the cavern and began searching.
“There’s something over here,” Nico called out, and the other three men walked quickly across the floor of the cavern to join him.
“What have you found?” Mario demanded.
“There’s this kind of internal waterfall here,” Nico said. “I thought it was just water running down the wall, but there seems to be an opening behind it.”
He picked up an old gnarled root—actually the same object that Mallory had used the previous day to check what lay behind the curtain of water—and thrust it through the flow and into the hidden cavern. The root slid through without meeting any resistance.
“That must be it,” Toscanelli said. “We’ve got them.”
* * *
The narrow passage wound deeper into the mountain, twisting and turning every few feet. They made their way along it in single file because there wasn’t really room to walk abreast, Mallory leading the way. After a few yards, he paused and touched the rocks that formed one wall of the passage.
“That might be a good sign,” he said, turning back to face Robin. “The walls in that cave behind us were wet, or at least damp, but the rocks here are bone-dry. That’s another sign that this could have been—and hopefully might still be—the last repository of the Templar Archive. They would have needed somewhere with a cool and dry atmosphere so that the parchment wouldn’t just rot away.”
“That’s a good point. And this has to be natural,” Robin said, shining her flashlight at the rocks around them. “It would have taken years to hack this out of the living rock. You can see the hammer and chisel marks on some of the stones, but I think that’s just evidence of the Templars knocking off projecting bits and doing their
best to straighten and widen the passage so that walking up and down it was a bit easier for them.”
“You’re right,” Mallory agreed, “and I think that they probably used some of the rock they chipped off to form the floor of this passage, because it’s remarkably flat and level.”
He shone his flashlight down at their feet to emphasize what he was saying. Then he shone the light in front of him again, where the passage narrowed slightly.
Mallory slowed as they neared the natural choke point, alert for any medieval booby traps or other hazards, shining the beam of his flashlight mainly at the ground, because that was the logical place for any trip wire or trigger to be positioned. But he saw nothing.
“Maybe they didn’t bother building any other defenses in here,” he suggested. “Perhaps they thought that the chances of anybody stumbling on this place by accident were virtually nil.”
“Well, we certainly wouldn’t have found it without having deciphered those clues,” Robin said, “so you may well be right. Having to walk through two different waterfalls and then shifting a couple of tons of rock and timber would be a pretty good defense.”
Mallory stopped walking and just shone his flashlight at the passage in front of them.
That narrow section of the tunnel was very short, perhaps only eight or ten feet in length, and they’d just reached the end of it. And in the flashlight beam they could see that beyond it the natural cave opened up again, the walls widening abruptly, and the roof above their heads
climbing precipitously, almost vertically. The path they had been following virtually vanished, the floor of the cave flattening out into a level expanse before them. The new and wider section of the cave was like a cathedral compared to the narrow passage they’d just walked along.
Robin went to move forward, to explore what they’d found, but Mallory put his hand out to stop her.
“Not yet,” he said. “This is exactly where I would put a booby trap if there was something precious here I wanted to protect.”
He shone his flashlight at the ground, looking for evidence of a concealed pit or some other manufactured hazard, then shifted the beam to cover the roof and walls. He saw nothing but still didn’t move.
“What is it?” Robin asked.
“I don’t know, but as you said back in that first tunnel, this just seems too easy. We know the Templars were paranoid about protecting their assets, so why didn’t they construct some kind of defense here? It’s the obvious place for a mantrap or something. Or, if they did, why can’t we see it?”
Mallory carefully inspected the walls and floor again, then dropped to his hands and knees and began carefully feeling the ground directly in front of them.
“If there is some kind of trigger here,” he said, “it more or less has to be on the ground. A trip wire would probably have disintegrated centuries ago.”
The floor of the passage was, like the rest of it, covered in a layer of small stones, almost like gravel, and he was able to brush some of them away with his hand. Then he
used the tips of his fingers to try to trace any obstruction or unnatural feature that might be hidden just below this top layer.
After a minute or so he stopped, then changed the direction of his search, running his fingertips from left to right rather than in the circular motion he’d used previously.
“Yes, there is,” Mallory replied. “I don’t know what it is, or what the mechanism is, but I can feel straight lines, like the edges of wooden planks, just below this layer of stones. We’re lucky we didn’t go any farther.”
“So how do get across whatever booby trap that is?”
“I don’t know, but there must be a way. Even on that book safe you bought, the device that started all this, if the right size and shape dagger blade was inserted, the mechanism was locked so that the safe could be opened. There must be something like that here.”
Mallory stood up and shifted the flashlight beam to examine the solid rock walls on both sides of them.
“What are you looking for?”
“I don’t know. Anything that would take a key or locking bar or something of that sort. Perhaps a hole or a slit in the rock, that kind of thing.”
They both studied the area around them, but it was Robin who saw what they’d both missed up to that point.
“Could this be it?” she asked.
She pointed at a natural-looking hole in the rock to their right, at about head height and partially concealed by a projecting ledge.