Authors: James Becker
Via di Sant’Alessio, Aventine Hill, Rome, Italy
One of the more unusual aspects of the organization based on the Aventine Hill was that although it was a very secure unit, particularly the intelligence section located in the windowless basement, there was almost nothing in the building—apart from the computers and associated equipment—that would attract even the most sophisticated thief or burglar.
There were a lot of old and even ancient books stored in the basement, books written in Latin, Hebrew, and Aramaic, and even more stored as collections of scanned pages on the massive hard drives of the secure local area network, which was both physically and electronically secure because no part of it was connected to the Internet. But none of these volumes, actual or virtual, had any particular value on the open market. The only people likely to be interested in them were academics working in
various somewhat obscure fields, and in any event the contents of most of the books were already out there in the public domain.
But despite this, security was extremely tight, which was why Marco Toscanelli never even attempted to take his unregistered personal mobile phone into the building: the portal scanners would have detected it the moment he tried to gain entrance. Instead he carried only his “official” mobile, the one issued to him by the organization, and left the other mobile locked securely in the glove box of his car.
Ever since he’d made the call to one of his contacts in Britain, he’d been expecting a text confirming that his orders had been carried out, and had made a point of leaving the building for lunch every day and checking his phone on his way to or from the restaurant of his choice.
That day, when he checked his mobile, there was a text message, but the content wasn’t what he had expected to read. Instead of a brief “Job done” or something similar, the text was an equally terse two-word message: “Call me.”
Toscanelli checked his watch. He had time to call the man before he needed to return to the building, so he called another unregistered mobile, this one with a British number.
“You asked me to ring you,” he said, without preamble.
“Yes, I did. There’s been a problem.”
“What kind of problem?”
“Terminal, really,” the other man replied. “The team we contracted to do the job failed. One of them didn’t make it, and the other one is in custody.”
Toscanelli muttered a particularly foul Italian oath.
“What about the targets?” he asked.
“As far as I know they walked away, or rather they drove away, after the contact.”
Toscanelli repeated the oath with even greater emphasis. “Where are they now?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t been able to talk to the member of the team who was wounded, because he’s still in intensive care at the hospital. He may not even survive. Contact took place at a parking area on a road in Devon, and by triangulating the main target’s mobile we’d established that she was in a hotel in Okehampton, a few miles west, earlier that day. Presumably she and the man then left, the team followed them and forced them to stop on the road, and then it all went wrong. I’ve no idea if the targets’ car was damaged or if they were injured, or where they went.”
“Can you find out?” Toscanelli demanded.
“I’m trying, but right now I have almost no sources of information I can use. The woman’s mobile is still off the network, and so far I’ve not been told her car has been spotted by any traffic cameras. That information takes a long time to collate unless it’s a high-priority investigation, and because I’m not officially involved I have to tread carefully. I can’t show too much interest in an investigation that I’m not a part of.”
“So what you’re telling me,” Toscanelli said, “is that until she surfaces, both of them are off the grid?”
“Exactly. Until then, there’s nothing more I can do.”
Toscanelli was briefly silent, considering his options, then issued another request.
“Can you do that?” he asked.
“Yes, but it will have to be low priority, which means I might not get the information until a day or so later.”
“That will have to do. Put it in place.”
Toscanelli ended the call a few moments later. His mood, when he walked back into the building, was dark.
“Are you absolutely certain about this?” Robin asked, for at least the fourth time since they’d caught a morning flight out of Gatwick Airport.
They’d flown to Paris, experienced virtually no delays at the arrival airport because they were each carrying only a cabin bag, and Mallory had quickly hired a car. They’d cleared Paris and picked up the A10 autoroute, L’Acquitaine, at Palaiseau on the southwestern outskirts of the city and headed straight for Chartres. At Ponthévrard the autoroute had divided, L’Acquitaine turning south for Orléans, while they continued southwest on the A11, L’Océane.
Mallory didn’t reply for a few moments, just pointed ahead through the windshield of the hire car at the green copper roof of the cathedral, which was then clearly visible.
“The short answer,” he said, “is no. I’m not sure, but
the only thing that made sense to me from trying to interpret those two pieces of carved metal was that the female figure most probably was Mary Magdalene, and the cathedral at Chartres is dedicated to Notre Dame, to Mary. Obviously there are lots of other cathedrals and churches dedicated to or named after the same person, but it was the circles that clinched it for me.”
“You still haven’t explained what you think that is,” Robin complained.
“Actually I thought you would have guessed it by now. As far as I know, there’s only one church anywhere in the world where there’s a pattern of concentric circles. Quite a famous pattern, in fact.”
Robin’s face clouded as Mallory glanced at her. Then she suddenly brightened and snapped her fingers as realization dawned. “You mean the Labyrinth?”
“Exactly. It’s one of the most famous features of that cathedral, and both the building and the Labyrinth predate the purging of the Knights Templar order by about a hundred years, so the man who manufactured the scrollwork would almost certainly have known about both.”
Mallory steered the hired Citroën off the autoroute and stopped at the tollbooth to pay the fee. Then he drove on toward the center of the city, passing the Aérodrome de Chartres-Métropole on his right. Flying directly to Chartres would have been more convenient, but the flight times simply hadn’t worked out.
He drove in toward the city center, the sat nav built into his smartphone navigating him perfectly competently. They were both keeping their eyes open for a
convenient parking place, and when they turned down the Boulevard du Maréchal Foch Mallory spotted at least half a dozen spaces on the opposite side of the street by the bank of the river L’Eure. He waited for a gap in the traffic coming toward him, then swung the car across the road into an unoccupied space.
“And I suppose now you’re going to tell me that that was the easy bit,” Robin said as they climbed out and Mallory locked the doors. “Just getting here, I mean.”
“It probably was,” he said. “We’ve got the obvious problem of discovering precisely where we should be looking. I’m pretty certain we’re in the right place, because of those two carvings, Mary Magdalene or Notre Dame, and a simple outline of the Labyrinth. It’s the next step that’s going to prove the tricky one, trying to find out exactly which bits of carved text or whatever we are supposed to be looking at.”
The vast bulk of the cathedral loomed in front of them as they made their way toward it.
“It’s a big place,” Robin said, “and I suppose right now you don’t have any idea where we should start looking.”
“You’re absolutely right,” Mallory replied. “I haven’t. I’ve never been here before, and to me the obvious way to tackle this is to have a wander around the entire building, inside and out, and just see if anything strikes us. Then hopefully we can try to narrow down the search area.”
Robin nodded agreement and walked on a few steps before she slowed to a halt to look up at the vast bulk of the cathedral.
“What?” Mallory asked.
“I was just thinking,” she replied. “This building’s been here for a long time, right?”
“Yes. I think it’s tenth century or thereabouts.”
“So whoever prepared that clue to be incorporated on the lids of the chests would have known about the building. That’s obvious. And he would also have known, I presume, that in a place of this size there are going to be dozens, perhaps even hundreds or thousands, of carved inscriptions decorating the walls, the tombs, and no doubt all sorts of other bits.”
She glanced at Mallory, who nodded agreement. What she was saying exactly mirrored his own opinion.
“And your point is?” Mallory asked.
“My point is that if that anonymous Knight Templar who started this hare running knew all that, he must surely also have known that he would need to provide more information or better directions to show anyone following the trail where they should be looking.”
“That makes sense. So?”
“So I think that outline of a box or whatever it was in that scrollwork must be significant. That must be the final clue. The outline of the woman, Mary Magdalene, told you the name of the place you should be looking, and the drawing of the Labyrinth confirmed the precise location, the cathedral of Notre Dame at Chartres. The image of the box must mean something, and we need to work out exactly what so that we don’t waste time looking in the wrong places.”
“Good thinking. But I still think it would be helpful
to take a look around the cathedral before we do anything else, just to get a feel for the place.”
“Absolutely. I agree. We need to do a quick visual survey, and pick up a decent guidebook written in English, then find a hotel for the night because it’s already late afternoon. Then we should do our best to work out which bits of the place we ought to be looking at when we come back here, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, first thing tomorrow morning.”
“I do like a woman with a plan,” Mallory said, grabbed Robin’s hand, and led her toward the entrance of the imposing cathedral.
It was already late afternoon, but despite that the building was still crowded, groups of tourists being shepherded from one area to another under the watchful eyes of their tour guides and the various uniformed security guards stationed at intervals throughout the echoing interior of the cathedral. Notre Dame had always attracted a wide variety of visitors from around the world. The Japanese tourists were unmistakable, festooned with cameras that they were using at every opportunity, and chattering away excitedly as each new feature was pointed out to them. A party of uniformed schoolchildren, possibly Dutch, walked past Robin and Mallory in an orderly crocodile, one teacher holding a flag as she led them across the stone floor while another teacher followed behind, presumably checking for stragglers and strays. And as they began their own survey of the building, Mallory heard four American tourists conversing in subdued whispers,
clearly somewhat overawed by both the immense size of the structure and its very obvious age.
Robin and Mallory didn’t make the slightest attempt to study any part of the building, just concentrated on identifying the principal features so that when they began looking at the guidebook—which they hadn’t yet bought—they would have a much better idea of what was being described in it.
Their quick walk-around over, they spent some minutes looking at the publications on offer in the shop before settling on two different large-format books, both containing a text written in English and both illustrated with what they hoped were accurate plans and diagrams of the building and numerous photographs.
By the time they stepped out of the building, the afternoon was virtually over, so as soon as they got back to the hire car, Mallory used the sat nav system on his smartphone to identify the hotels in the area.
“That’s handy,” he said. “If this is right, then there’s a hotel pretty much just around the next corner. That should put us about the same distance from the cathedral as we are now.”
“Can we walk it?” Robin asked. “We’ve only got our two carry-on bags to handle.”
“We probably could, yes,” Mallory agreed, “but there are plenty of vacant parking places along this stretch, so if the hotel doesn’t have parking we can always come back here. But I think we might as well drive there first of all.”
Less than five minutes later, he pulled the Citroën to a stop outside a hotel belonging to a chain that covered
much of Europe, a hotel that offered underground parking as something of a bonus, as well as air-conditioning and Wi-Fi in all rooms. They took a double room on the second floor, sorted out the stuff they would need to use overnight, and then they both began what Mallory had mentally referred to as their “homework,” reading through the guidebooks to try to learn as much as they could about the Notre Dame Cathedral in the shortest time possible.
They broke for dinner just after half past seven, and were back in their room an hour later. By ten, Mallory had gone through most of the chapters in his particular guidebook and had also looked carefully at all the illustrations, both photographs and diagrams. He closed the book with a brisk snap, then leaned back against the pillow.
“Anything?” Robin asked.
“Well, I now know a hell of a lot more about Chartres Cathedral than I knew before, and probably more than I ever wanted to know. But if you mean ‘have I worked out where we should be looking yet,’ then the answer’s no. It is an enormous building, and it could take us days or weeks to cover every part of it. And you were right in what you said earlier. There are inscriptions everywhere, so what we absolutely have to do is try to work out which one we should be looking at before we even set foot in the building again. Have you got anything?”
Robin shook her head.
“Pretty much the same as you, really,” she replied. “I now know an awful lot about the history and building of the cathedral, but as far as I can see none of it is in any way relevant to what we’re looking for.”
“So we definitely need to work out the meaning of that other image on the photograph of the scroll?”
“Absolutely. That really is the only way forward, as far as I can see.”
They studied the image together, and Mallory tentatively added a line between the two lower
shapes that Robin had discovered, then extended two vertical lines upward from those shapes toward the rather less distinct markings that she believed might show either the contents of the open box—if that was what it was—or the shape of the lid. That part of the photograph was crisscrossed by almost half a dozen lengths of metal, all part of the pattern on the lid of the chest, and each bore a number of markings that might, or equally well might not, form a part of the hidden image.
“That shape there,” Robin said, pointing at one particular part of the image, “looks almost like a small face. I think I can see eyes, maybe a mouth, and almost certainly a nose. But I don’t think that can be right, because on the bit of metal just to the right of it, behind the face, as it were, I think I can see a part of a wing.”
“You mean a bird’s wing?” Mallory asked.
“Maybe, yes. Or at least, there are lines etched into the design that look to me more like feathers than anything else.”
Mallory looked carefully at the area she was indicating. “Yes, I see what you mean, I think, though that really doesn’t make any sense to me. I was wondering if what you found was a diagram of a tomb, although the shape would be a bit odd if it is meant to be the grave of some
knight or local lord. But I don’t think feathers were ever the kind of decoration that you would expect to find on the tomb of an aristocrat. Swords, yes. Chain mail definitely, but feathers probably not.”
“Maybe I’m looking at it all wrong,” Robin said bitterly. “Right, that’s it. My head’s spinning with all the reading I’ve done, and my eyes are starting to ache because of these photographs. I’m going to sleep on it and hope one of us has some kind of brain wave before we go back to the cathedral tomorrow morning.”
They each spent some time in the bathroom, taking a shower and performing the usual ablutions, then climbed into the generous double bed. Neither of them fell asleep for quite a while, but that was nothing to do with trying to solve the riddle of the chests, and much more to do with getting to know each other a whole lot better.