Authors: James Becker
“You’re welcome to it. It’s all yours,” Mallory said, handing it over. “Now let’s see what we can do with this bullet hole.”
He used the rock again to distort the point of impact and conceal the cause of the damage. When he was satisfied that nobody would be able to prove that a bullet had hit the vehicle, he started the car, drove it a few yards along the track to the rocky outcrop, turned the vehicle, and then backed it hard into the rock. Then he got out again and checked the damage.
“That should do it,” he said. “It just looks like a bit of really clumsy reversing, which I know you wouldn’t do, not with your driving skills. But that’s the best we can do. Now we can book it into a garage somewhere and get the damage fixed without some eagle-eyed mechanic calling the cops.”
They checked that all the rear lights still worked, then got back on the road.
“Exeter, I suppose?” Robin asked.
“That’s as good as anywhere. All we need is a garage where we can leave the car to be fixed. Then we’ll hire something else so we can stay mobile.”
Robin was silent for a few moments, then glanced across at Mallory.
“And do what?” she asked softly. “I don’t know about you, but this really isn’t what I signed up for. Facing those armed Italians here in Devon and then in the cave on Cyprus was one thing. We were both hunting for the relic, obviously, and I suppose you could say it was inevitable that we’d end up in some kind of fight with them because
of that. But unless I’ve completely misunderstood, those two men had just been ordered to kill us. Not find out what we knew or what we were going to do, or anything like that, but just to shoot us down in cold blood. And that’s a whole different ball game.”
Mallory nodded. “You’re absolutely right, but I do think it was a predictable reaction, just because of what happened. Think about it. We managed to escape those Italians in Cyprus, and once we came back to the U.K. we passed over what we’d discovered about their identities to the police, including that video of the leader of the group telling us how clever they’d been, and admitting that he’d killed the three men in your apartment in Dartmouth. He only told us that because he knew we were about to die. But because we escaped, he’s now a wanted man here in the U.K., and that’s entirely down to us. So trying to kill us does make sense from his point of view. It’s simple revenge. Nothing more, nothing less. And he would have had to outsource the job because his face will now be on a watch list at all British airports and other points of entry to the country. Or it should be, if Wilson has any brains at all.”
“So are you saying that he’ll try again once he’s found out that his first attempt didn’t work?”
Mallory spread out his hands. “I have no idea. Possibly. Maybe even probably. And that really leaves us with two choices. We can hide, go to ground, and hope that whoever he sends after us next time can’t track us down. Or we do the other thing.”
“We carry on with the quest. We try to identify the next clue and see where that takes us.”
Robin nodded. “That’s what I guessed you’d say. But are you sure we’d be safer if we carry on?”
Mallory shook his head. “I really don’t know. I suppose my logic is that if we do follow the trail and find whatever the Templars hid all those centuries ago, then the quest will be over. We’ll have won, and that would finally knock the Italians out of the race.”
“But they might still come after us,” Robin pointed out.
“They might,” Mallory admitted, “but there’s not a lot we can do about that, apart from trying not to get killed when they show up.”
“That’s not a hell of an attractive plan, if you don’t mind me saying so: try not to get killed. Is that the best you can do?”
“It’s worked for us so far,” Mallory said, a smile briefly appearing on his face. “But,” he added, “I still think that going on, following the trail and trying to identify and decipher the next clue, is potentially the safer option of the two. Being active, I mean, rather than passive, just hanging about and waiting for something to happen.”
“Okay. Actually I think you’re right. Finding whatever the Templars hid might not just be the best way of getting these Italian comedians off our backs—it might be the
way to get rid of them. So we’ll crack on, agreed?”
Mallory used his mobile to locate a Volkswagen dealer on an industrial estate on the outskirts of Exeter. He was
very keen not to drive through the city, because he was certain the damage to the car would be visible on traffic cameras, and that could provide a tenuous link between them and the shooting, a link that he knew Wilson would definitely exploit if he got to hear about it. But the garage he’d picked was far enough out for that not to be a problem. He hoped.
Robin followed his directions to the dealership and handed over the Golf for repair. The workshop was pretty well backed up with cars awaiting servicing or repair, and the best estimate the workshop reception could provide was about two weeks before the car would be ready for collection. They would have preferred a rather shorter timescale, but right then they were out of other options.
They took a taxi to a car hire company and rented a rather dull and ordinary Renault, which Mallory hoped would be relatively anonymous.
“Do we find a hotel here, or do you want to go somewhere else?” Robin asked.
“We’ll head toward London and find somewhere en route,” Mallory said. “I’d like to put a bit of distance between us and Okehampton, because of what happened there. By now there’ll be a heavy police presence in the area, and being somewhere else seems like a pretty good plan to me, even though there’ll be nothing to connect us directly to the shooting.”
“The passenger might spill the beans about what happened.”
“I doubt it, actually. If he is stupid enough to tell the rozzers that he had a contract to kill us, what they’ll do
is add a charge of attempted murder to the murder rap he’ll already be facing, because bullets from that Beretta pistol killed the driver. So telling them what really happened will make his own situation worse, not better.”
“But he didn’t fire the weapon,” Robin pointed out.
“No, but he did fire the Browning, so a routine paraffin test on his hands will show that he’d used a firearm. The lack of his fingerprints on the murder weapon is bound to be an oddity that will puzzle the cops, but I doubt if that would stop a prosecution. They’ll just assume he wiped the pistol before he dropped it. The bigger anomaly will be the bullet that hit him in the stomach, which was the first one I fired from the Beretta. I don’t know how they’ll explain that one away, but knowing the British police they’ll think of something. Maybe they’ll decide he had an argument and shot the driver, then stumbled and accidentally pulled the trigger while the muzzle of the weapon was pointing at his stomach. Something like that.”
They didn’t drive that far, turning off the A303 near the Royal Naval Air Station at Yeovilton in Somerset and heading south to the market town of Yeovil and picking a small hotel on the northern outskirts. Once they were settled in their room, they started work again.
Working on the photographs, Mallory spent almost an hour trying to identify every mark on the metalwork that could possibly be a part of the shadowy female figure. It wasn’t easy, but knowing where her face was, and a part of one of her feet, meant that at least he knew where he should be looking. When he’d finished, he sat back, scrutinized what he had done, made a handful of tiny changes, and then showed the result to Robin.
“That’s as good as I can get it,” he said, “and at least I think I found enough marks on the metal to confirm that
it’s not just a figment of my imagination. There really is a drawing of a female figure concealed within that pattern.”
Robin took the page from him and looked at it intently.
“I believe you,” she said. “I really thought you were wrong on this, but I can see enough of a correlation between what you’ve drawn and the marks on the metalwork to confirm it. And that means that we know what we have to do next.”
“Yes. Go through the same process on the metalwork from the second chest. Maybe the second symbol or shape—and I’m sure there is one—will give us a pointer as to where we should be looking.”
It didn’t seem that difficult a job. After all, they had managed to identify and then re-create the image hidden in one part of the ornamental scrollwork, but trying to identify anything at all in the photograph of the top of the other chest proved to be much more difficult.
“I don’t know if it’s just me,” Mallory said, nearly two hours later, “but I’m not seeing anything in these pictures.”
“Nor me,” Robin agreed. “The only possible mark I have found is near the top of the pattern, and I think it might show a circle, something like that.”
“Let me see,” Mallory said, leaning over to look at the page Robin was holding.
“There are two marks, here and here,” Robin said, pointing near the top of the picture, “and another one much lower down, just here. If you connected those lines together, they would form a circle or a sphere, something like that.”
“I missed that,” he admitted. “I’ve been trying to find anything that looked like a human figure, but actually I was probably wasting my time. There’s no reason why the other symbol would have to be another figure. In fact, that’s probably quite unlikely.”
“Why?” Robin asked.
“Because the only purpose of these hidden images has to be to provide a clue to a name that we can use as a code word to decipher the last piece of that text, or to send us somewhere where we’ll find the code word. To me, nothing else really makes sense.”
“And as all we have so far is the outline of an anonymous woman, with no idea what historical figure the image is meant to represent, I suppose you think we will have to visit some significant location? Mind you, I still don’t think that’s necessarily right. I mean, why couldn’t they simply have incorporated the code word directly into the metalwork pattern?”
Mallory shrugged. “I don’t know. Don’t forget that we’re dealing with a cunning medieval mind, and what might seem sensible and logical to you and me might not have even occurred to whoever ordered that scrollwork to be fabricated. Or perhaps this kind of round-the-houses approach was intended to provide an extra layer of security.”
“Well, it’s certainly done that,” Robin said, “because we’re no further forward now than we were when we started.”
“That’s not quite true. We’ve managed to identify the outline of a female figure built into the metalwork, so that
at least means that we’re not looking for the name of a man. So whatever code word or other information is encoded into a decoration on those chests, we can be certain that it’s not the name of Jacques de Molay or any other Templar knight. Women were not part of the order, don’t forget. When knights joined the Templars, they were required to be single, and they were also forbidden from any and all contact with females while they wore the
. So while I don’t know who this woman is supposed to be, realistically there can’t be that many contenders.”
“So what you’re saying is that if this figure was meant to represent Mary Magdalene or one of the French queens or somebody, then the name of that person might well be the clue to deciphering the encrypted text?”
“Possibly, yes,” Mallory replied, “but if it was the Magdalene, and I guess that’s the most likely contender, then I would expect at the very least the figure to have a halo, or for there to be some other reference or object that would confirm her identity.”
As he spoke, Robin picked up the photograph again and began looking carefully at the area above the figure’s head. After a few moments, she muttered an exclamation and pointed at two lines she had just spotted.
“Unless I’m guilty of wishful thinking,” she said, her voice high with excitement, “that could well be a circle behind her head. Not the kind of ring of light that’s characteristic of paintings done after the late medieval period, but the solid white object that was used to indicate divinity in those early days. So if I’m right and I’m not seeing things, this could well be Mary Magdalene.”
Mallory looked carefully at the marks she was indicating.
“You may be right, you may be wrong,” he said, “but Mary was one of the very few women who fulfilled any kind of role in the early Christian church, and so if the Templars were looking for a female figure who could be identified later and who might be associated in any way with the order, she would be a pretty good choice. It’s certainly worth a try,” he added.
He took a sheet of paper from his computer case on which he had transcribed the final and so far undeciphered section of the parchment Robin had discovered what seemed like months ago locked inside the medieval book safe. Then he took a fresh sheet of paper and wrote out “Mary Magdalene” in a variety of different forms, including the spelling in Latin, in modern and ancient French, in Occitan, and any other language that the Knights Templars might have used at the beginning of the fourteenth century.
And then they began a process of trial and error, using the name of the Magdalene as they applied Atbash decryption—the oldest and simplest possible letter substitution encryption method—to the text.
But absolutely all they succeeded in doing was repeatedly turning one piece of gibberish into another, equally unintelligible, piece of gibberish.
“That’s not it,” Mallory said at last, throwing down his pencil in frustration. “And I suppose when you think about it, it’s not that likely a code word anyway, because even the English version contains the letter
three times, and
twice, which would make a code word
of only thirteen letters pretty much unusable. Any code word where only three letters represent over half of the possible letters really isn’t going to work, because there’d be so much repetition. That figure may be Mary Magdalene—I suppose she is the most likely candidate—but what we’re looking for definitely isn’t just her name. We’re missing something here, and I don’t mind telling you I have no idea what it is.”
“Nor have I,” Robin said, “but what I do know is that there simply must be something on the other chest. Something hidden within the scrollwork that would make sense of the image. So all we have to do is find it.”
“It sounds easy if you say it quickly,” Mallory said, “but absolutely the only thing you found was that circle. If it is a circle, of course. But you’re right. The rest of the clue has to be there somewhere, so we need to take another look at it.”
For the next few minutes, they sat side by side at the small desk, both concentrating on the printed copies of the photographs in front of them. And then, at almost the same moment, they each found something that might possibly help clarify what they were looking for.
“You go first,” Mallory said.
“I’ve found a couple of marks that might be the shape of a box,” Robin said, almost doubtfully. “These two sort of small letter
shapes could be the bottom corners of it, though the corresponding marks of the top aren’t anything like as sharp, almost as if there’s something on top of the lid, or maybe the box is supposed to be open and those shapes are objects that are sticking out of it.”
They both stared at the marks she’d found. They were faint, and definitely subject to interpretation—and of course misinterpretation—but what convinced Mallory she was on the right track was the fact that the two small marks she’d found lined up precisely, one with the other. He still had no idea what it could be representing, but at least the marks appeared to him to be deliberate rather than accidental. And that was good news.
“What have you spotted?” Robin asked.
“It’s this circle shape,” Mallory began, a smile spreading across his face. “It’s not a lot, but I’ve found what looked like the marks of several other circles inside the outer one that you spotted first.”
Robin looked at him suspiciously.
“And that means something to you, does it?” she demanded.
Mallory nodded slowly. “Actually I think it does. The figure of a woman, most likely Mary Magdalene, and a drawing of what looks like a large number of concentric circles? Oh yes, that very definitely means something to me.” He glanced at his watch. “It’s too late to head off today, but we should get back on the road first thing tomorrow morning. We’ve got a trip to make, and if my hunch is right, we might be able to read the plaintext of that parchment by tomorrow night.”