Authors: James Becker
Via di Sant’Alessio, Aventine Hill, Rome, Italy
“There’s been a shooting,” Silvio Vitale said as Toscanelli walked into his office.
“What? Where? Here in Rome?”
Vitale shook his head. “Probably, but that’s not what I’m talking about. It was in England. In Devon, to be exact.”
Vitale looked closely at his subordinate.
“Do you know anything about it?” he asked.
“Me? No. Why should I?”
“I’m just asking, because the watchers I tasked with following Jessop and Mallory have lost contact with them.”
“Were they involving in this shooting?” Toscanelli asked.
“Not as far as I know. But I don’t like coincidences, and for those two to vanish from sight at the same time
as there’s a shooting in exactly the same area seems remarkably coincidental. Shootings in Devon are quite rare, especially using handguns, which were apparently the weapons used in this incident.”
Vitale’s gaze never wavered.
“I know you have issues with those two,” he went on, “but I specifically ordered you not to touch them because of this quest. If I find out that you were involved in this, you will live—at least for a short time—to regret it.”
“But how do you know this killing was anything to do with them?” Toscanelli protested, feeling a chill run down his back as he digested the implications of what Vitale had just said.
“I didn’t say it was a killing,” Vitale said. “Only that there’d been a shooting.”
“I just assumed that was what you meant,” Toscanelli said quickly, immediately aware of his slip.
“Maybe. Assumptions can be dangerous. Sometimes they can even be fatal. Anyway, my watchers are on their trail, and they should relocate them quickly. Sooner or later one of them will use a credit card or do some other kind of transaction that will identify them so we can pick up the trail again.”
“You still think they could be useful to us?”
Vitale stared at Toscanelli for several seconds, as if considering his response. Then he nodded. “Possibly. At this stage, I don’t know. But what I do know is that somehow they managed to decipher the first clues in the Templar trail before anyone here was able to do so, despite the number of alleged experts we employ and the resources we can
command here. However you look at it, that was an impressive feat, bearing mind that Jessop is only a bookseller—”
“An antiquarian bookseller,” Toscanelli pointed out.
“She sells old books, yes, but as far as we’ve been able to discover, she has no knowledge or experience of cracking ancient ciphers.”
“But Mallory apparently has. We know that he responded very quickly to her first e-mail and solved the Atbash cipher she discovered on the parchment. And I said right from the start, as soon as we first encountered him, that there was more to him than at first appeared. He might not be a computer expert, but we do know that he was previously a police officer, and he can handle himself in a fight.”
“I understood it was Jessop who did most of the damage to your men. And she’s only a woman, and a small one at that.”
Toscanelli nodded, a grim smile on his face. “She may be small, and she’s easy to dismiss as a threat, but she’s extraordinarily competent in martial arts, and we’ve since discovered that she has a competition driving license, which means she’s a qualified racing driver. She also has a private pilot’s license. As a pair, they do pose a potential threat, and in my opinion they should be eliminated.”
“But not in mine, Toscanelli. They beat you to Cyprus, and in fact you ended up following them because we hadn’t managed to crack the code in that manuscript. If they hadn’t got involved, we wouldn’t even have discovered those two chests in the cave. So for the moment at least we don’t touch them, just in case we can’t work out where we should be looking next, but they do.”
The following morning, Mallory woke early and slid out of bed without disturbing Robin. He sat down at the small table where he’d left his laptop, logged on to the Internet, and began searching, looking for any ancient relic, any object from antiquity that could possibly fit the vague shape they seemed to have identified: a tallish oblong box with a raised lid that might be decorated with an image of either a small face or the wing of a bird. Or maybe both.
And whatever it was, assuming they were looking in the right place—the cathedral of Notre Dame—it also had to be an object that they could identify at Chartres, either in the cathedral itself or possibly very close to it; otherwise the clue didn’t make sense. Mallory assumed that he was most probably looking for an unusual memorial, or some part of the fabric of the building itself, such
as the outline of one part of the ancient cathedral, or maybe a gravestone. Something of that nature. Or, and despite what he had said to Robin the day before, just possibly it could be the end of one of the raised stone tombs that were popular in the medieval period.
It seemed like a fruitless task. They’d both spent the previous evening staring at dozens of photographs, sketches, and plans of the building, and neither of them had seen anything that even vaguely resembled the shadowy outline they thought they’d identified within the metal scrollwork. And the Internet, almost invariably everyone’s first port of call when they had a question that needed answering, to the extent that a new verb—“to Google” something—was now an established part of the English language, was for once not producing anything that seemed particularly helpful.
There were pages and pages of Web sites that contained information about the cathedral, including the history and construction of the building, its importance as a center of worship, scholarly architectural analyses of the design and construction of the cathedral, and the inevitable sites produced by the lunatic fringe making a wide variety of astonishingly unlikely claims about hidden purposes and hidden meanings relating to the place, most of which made no sense whatsoever.
Quite apart from its obvious importance as a Roman Catholic place of worship, and one of the most important such buildings not just in France, but anywhere in the Western world, Mallory also found a large number of sites dedicated to the Labyrinth. In the main, these consisted
either of serious studies covering the origin, meaning, and construction of this well-known feature of the cathedral, or far more speculative Web sites that concentrated on the
reason for its construction. Unfortunately none of the sites agreed as to exactly what this real reason might be, and many of the suggestions would have stretched the credulity of most people to well beyond breaking point.
He was just about to give up completely when a sleepy voice interrupted his concentration.
“What are you doing?” Robin asked. “Not looking at porn sites while I’m asleep, I hope.”
“With you around the place,” Mallory replied with a grin, “the very last thing I need to look at is any porn. No, I was just doing a quick cruise around the Web, looking for anything that might fit that other shape you found in the scrollwork.”
“I believe you, but most women probably wouldn’t. Any luck?”
“Not yet, no. In fact, if there was anything, any object or feature that looked anything like that shape, I would have thought there would at least have been a hint about it in one of the guidebooks. After all, they do cover the entire building in considerable detail. In fact, the only positive suggestion I have is that we go and check all the gravestones.”
“You mean the ones inside the building?” Robin asked. “I saw a number incorporated in the floor of the cathedral, and there are probably quite a few built into the walls as well.”
Mallory shook his head.
“We can check those, of course,” he said, “but I was actually thinking about regular gravestones, the kind you find in most churchyards. Think about it. The shape we sketched out is an oblong that’s almost square, with a straight base and straight sides, just like the sides of the box, in fact. But that shape could also be a gravestone, the base sunk into the ground with straight sides, and the suggestion of a face and a wing at the top of the object could well be a depiction of an angel. Or something of that sort.”
Robin sat up in bed and nodded enthusiastically.
“You’re absolutely right,” she said. “We could very well be looking at the shape of a gravestone, and the other obvious thing about a gravestone is that there will invariably be words carved onto it. Even if it’s only the name of the person buried there and the dates that he or she was born and died.”
“And realistically,” Mallory agreed, “the person who compiled that parchment could have used any combination of letters—proper names or an epitaph or anything else—as a code word, so I really do think we could be on the right track.”
French breakfasts tend to be heavy on coffee and light on almost everything else, and ten minutes after they’d each consumed a couple of croissants and a small
pain au raisin
, washed down by large cups of strong black coffee, Mallory and Robin strode out of the hotel and made their way through the streets, covering the short distance to the cathedral. Mallory had somewhat reluctantly left his
laptop locked up in the hotel room—as he had frequently admitted to Robin, he was paranoid about losing the computer and it went almost everywhere with him—and he was carrying a digital camera plus a spare battery and printed copies of the photographs they had been working from. Robin was toting quite a large handbag that contained her camera, plus her tablet computer.
And, as she pointed out to Mallory as they walked toward the cathedral, she had also brought along her brain, which was by far the most important component the two of them possessed.
“If what we’re looking for is anywhere here,” she assured him, “then I promise you I’ll spot it.”
There were a lot of gravestones in the vicinity of the cathedral, and they immediately decided to split up, to search independently, simply because that would speed things up.
“Are you happy about the date range?” Mallory asked.
“I think so, yes. We don’t know exactly when that parchment was written, but it has to be after 1307, because that date is actually encoded within the text, and my guess is that it was probably written a few years after that, so say after 1320. So if we take that as the cutoff date, we’re looking for gravestones of any year prior to—well, let’s say 1330, just to give us a bit more of a margin.”
“Got it,” Mallory said. “I’ll start over there,” he added, pointing to the far side of the graveyard.
What quickly became apparent was that there was no sort of order or plan to the timing of the burials. In some cases the occupants of adjacent plots of land had died as
much as five hundred years apart, and the appearance of the gravestones was a far from infallible indicator of their age, some of the comparatively newer stones looking much more ancient than many of the much older grave markers. That meant checking the dates listed on every stone was an essential first step. And sometimes even that proved difficult, when patches of lichen, moss, and other greenery obscured the relevant parts of the inscriptions. So both Mallory and Robin inevitably spent time simply clearing vegetation from some of the older stones before they could confirm the date of the burial.
And although they found plenty of tombstones that had been erected before the end of the thirteenth century, almost all of them were plain and simple grave markers, devoid of any form of decoration apart from occasional random shapes carved by long-dead stonemasons to frame or separate the information on the gravestone in the case of multiple burials in the same plot.
A little over two hours after they’d started, they met again at the entrance to the graveyard, both hot—it was a very warm day—sweating, and irritated.
“Anything?” Mallory asked.
“Oh yes,” Robin said brightly. “I now know almost all the popular family names of people who died in this area eight hundred years ago. And I also know that almost every man and woman seemed to have preferred the simplest possible memorials. Usually just their name, date of death, and some kind of French or Latin one-liner if they were feeling particularly elaborate, usually something along the lines of the contemporary equivalent of ‘rest in
peace.’ But if you’re asking me if I’ve found a roughly oblong gravestone decorated by the face of an angel flapping its wings, then the answer is no.”
“I thought so,” Mallory said. “Let’s go and get a drink or something.”
They took their combined irritation to a small bar a few streets away and fairly close to the river. Strong alcohol seemed like a bad idea, bearing in mind the comparatively early hour, the heat of the day, and the fact that they still had to find what they were looking for, so they both opted for glasses of lager.
“There are still a few gravestones we haven’t looked at,” Mallory said, lowering his half-empty glass to the table in front of him. “We might get lucky. There’s still a chance.”
Robin shook her head. “Frankly I doubt it. If it had been the local habit to decorate tombstones with carvings, then I think we would have found far more evidence of this in the graveyard. As it is, about the only embellishments I found on any of the stones from the right period were just straight lines or occasionally curved marks to function as a kind of border to the epitaph or whatever was carved on it. What I didn’t see, anywhere, was anything as frivolous as an angel. Mind you,” she added, “there were a lot of tombstones with that kind of decoration from the post-medieval period, and especially moving right up toward the present day. But almost all of the early stones were largely undecorated, very plain and austere.”
Mallory took another sip of his drink.
“So, do you think we’re wasting our time?” he asked.
“I’m sorry, but I do. When you came up with the idea of checking gravestones, I really thought that might be the answer, because it fitted so well with that vague shape we detected. But now I definitely believe we’re looking in the wrong place for the wrong thing. We need to go back to the drawing board and start again.”
Mallory pulled out the photographs and put them on the table between them.
“I still think we got the shape right,” he said. “More or less oblong, like a box, and with this angel or something decorating the lid.”
They both bent forward over the printed image, struggling to see any other marks that would indicate what they should be looking for.
“What about that?” Robin asked, pointing. “Could that be another wing? I think I can see what look like feathers etched into the metal.”
“Possibly,” Mallory agreed. “If you’re right, it’s on the opposite side of the box, so it can’t really be an extension of the same wing. So are we looking at two angels?”
Then a sudden thought struck him, and it was almost as if a surge of excitement passed through his body as his mind struggled to come to terms with the possibility that had just presented itself.
The sudden change in his mood communicated itself to Robin, and she looked at him quizzically. “What? What is it?”
Mallory didn’t reply for a moment, but instead stared with total concentration at the photograph.
“I really don’t believe it,” he said, his voice trembling with excitement, “but just look here. And here.”
He pointed at the photograph, roughly two-thirds of the way up from the base of the oblong shape.
“Do you see that?” he asked.
Robin stared at the mark he was indicating.
“I see a small vertical line,” she said. “Nothing more.”
“Exactly. There’s one line here, on this piece of metal, and there’s another one just here, matching it.”
He had already drawn pencil lines on the photograph to indicate the base and sides of the object depicted there. He now took a pen from his pocket and drew a line that extended well beyond the box shape and passed through the two short vertical marks that he had identified. Then he turned the paper round so that Robin could see it in what he believed to be the correct orientation.
“What do you see?” he asked softly.
“I see what might be a box with a line drawn across it,” she said. “Obviously.”
“Just imagine for a moment,” Mallory said, “that those two vertical marks are rings on the side of a box, and that the line I just drew represents a pole that’s been passed through them. Now what do you see?”
“A box that can be lifted and carried about the place, I suppose,” Robin said. “But I still don’t—”
“There is one particular box,” Mallory interrupted, “that the Knights Templar would certainly have known all about. In fact, there is a body of opinion and possibly even some circumstantial evidence that they didn’t simply know about it, but possessed it. That they found it when they were doing their excavations underneath the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. And two of the most important
characteristics of that box were the rings on each side, which allowed wooden poles to be inserted so that it could be carried, and the decoration on the lid. And that decoration was not angels with wings, but two cherubim, facing each other on the top of the lid.”
Robin looked at him, a mixture of dawning comprehension and blatant disbelief clouding her features. “You’re not talking about the Ark of the Covenant, are you?”
“That’s exactly what I’m talking about,” Mallory stated.