Authors: James Becker
“As I said before,” Robin murmured about forty minutes later, leaning back in her chair, her laptop open on the desk in front of her, “this
interesting. According to most of the references I’ve been able to find online, the Ark of the Covenant seemed to be consistently referred to, at least in the Latin Vulgate Bible, as the
, not the
. But you were right about the objects that the Ark was supposed to contain, and all of them are very clearly represented in that sculpture, so despite the two different words, I guess that both the expressions have to be referring to the same thing, though they have quite different meanings in Latin.”
“They do?” Mallory asked.
translates as an ark or a box, and
means a contract or a promise, so
is a very clear reference to the Ark of the Covenant. But
translates as an archangel, not an ark, and I’m still trying to work out the meaning of
. The word appears to be derived from the Latin verb
, which means to go, to make way, or to take the place of, but I really am not sure how that fits.
“I’ve done a bit more digging around on the Internet, and one reference suggests that
translates as ‘you are to work through the Ark,’ and that the whole expression
hic amititur archa cederis
means ‘here things take their course, and you are to work through the Ark.’ I’m not sure I agree with that, mainly because unless all the dictionaries I’ve looked at are wrong, I was right and the word
with a single
as the fourth letter never actually existed in Latin. The same word spelled with two letter
s could be translated as meaning to yield, in which case the sentence might translate as ‘here is the Ark, let it go,’ or something like that.”
“I thought Latin was supposed to be a precise language,” Mallory pointed out. “Do you think the mason who carved those inscriptions simply got the words wrong, or is there more to it than that?”
“I suppose it’s just conceivable that a mistake could have been made and
, but I think that’s unlikely as well because the word is repeated, and I can’t believe that the mason wouldn’t have been supervised by a priest or somebody else who would know precisely what the inscription was supposed to be. And
is so completely different from
that the spelling simply has to be deliberate. Even an illiterate and unsupervised mason—and he would have been a very rare animal indeed
in this period, especially working on a cathedral of this importance—couldn’t possibly mistake the two words. And you’re right: Latin is, at least usually, a very exact language, so personally I believe that that inscription reads precisely the way it was intended to be read, but perhaps the usage and meanings of these words has altered in the better part of a millennium since the carving was made.”
She slid her finger across the touch pad and opened up another of the tabs in her browser.
“I did find an alternative translation of the inscription that is quite interesting,” she said. “In fact, it’s more than interesting. It’s potentially explosive.”
“Well, don’t keep me in suspense,” Mallory said. “Tell me what you found.”
“If we assume that the first letter
is actually supposed to be a letter
, that changes the sense of the verb entirely, and the meaning of the whole sentence. If that assumption is correct, and if we agree that the words
do refer to the Ark, then
hic amicitur archa cederis
can be translated as ‘here is hidden the Ark of the Covenant,’ because the Latin verb
means hidden or covered up, something like that.”
Whatever Mallory had been expecting, that wasn’t it, and for a few moments he simply stared at Robin. Then he shook his head. “Do you really think that means that the Ark of the Covenant, arguably the most famous and important lost treasure from antiquity, could be lying hidden in a vault or crypt underneath the floor of the cathedral, about a quarter of a mile from where we’re sitting right now?”
Robin smiled at him before she replied.
“I’m just telling you what one translation of those words carved in the stone might mean,” she pointed out. “Personally I’m a long way from being convinced, because of the potential ambiguities and different possible translations of the expression. You have to ask the question why the carving uses the word
, and why it’s
, though the carving above the inscription does fairly clearly seem to be related to the historic Ark. And as I said, it is just one possible translation. Or an interpretation of a translation, in fact.”
“But actually,” Mallory said, “you could muster an impressive argument, based on circumstantial evidence, that the Ark did actually end up here in France, and at Chartres. If you go back to the earliest days of the order, and the digging they did below what is now the Al Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount, maybe they did find this ancient relic. And if they did, that does help explain several inconsistencies in what happened a few years later. Nine knights were involved when the Templars formed, and contemporary accounts suggests that they remained in their quarters on the Temple Mount, presumably digging away underneath it, for nine years. At the end of that time, they were still only nine in number, and apparently didn’t possess any significant assets at all.
“But despite that, the pope recognized the order remarkably quickly and soon afterward he published the papal bull, which exempted them from the payment of taxes, allowed them to cross any border unmolested, and confirmed that they owed allegiance to one person only,
the pope himself. All that was achieved with suspicious speed, and several researchers have speculated that one possible reason might have been a form of medieval blackmail. Because if the Knights Templar had turned up at the Vatican and confirmed that they were in possession of the genuine Ark of the Covenant, then the pope would immediately be aware of two things. First, he would know beyond doubt that the Jews, far from simply being seen as the killers of Jesus Christ, which was a popular medieval view, were in actuality God’s chosen people and that by definition the Catholic Church and Christianity had no believable spiritual or religious authority at all. That would probably have been enough to terrify the pope and everybody else at the Vatican, and would have been something that they would never, ever have wished to be made public under any circumstances.
“The second and perhaps even more frightening possibility for the occupant of the Throne of Saint Peter would have been that the Ark of the Covenant was essentially believed to be a machine for talking to God, and any group that possessed the Ark really did have the ultimate weapon of the age. So in that circumstance, it would be entirely unsurprising if the pope had acceded to any demands or requests made by the Templars.”
“That makes sense,” Robin said, “as long as you believe that the Ark is real, of course, and that it still exists, at least three or four millennia after it was supposed to have been fabricated, and two and a half millennia after it vanished from the historic record.”
“There is that. But if you assume for a minute that that
was the case, and the Templars had recovered it, then it’s quite likely that it could have ended up somewhere in France. That was where the founders of the Templar movement came from, and it was where the order held many of its most important assets. According to the guidebook I read, the Templars were probably responsible for providing much of the funding for the construction of Chartres Cathedral, and were almost certainly directly associated with it during the building process. So the idea that the Ark might still lay hidden away in some forgotten corner of the building isn’t quite as mad as it might at first appear.”
“I grant you all that,” Robin said, “but whether or not it’s still here today is probably quite doubtful. That carving was probably done in the first quarter of the thirteenth century, approaching one millennium ago, and while it might have been an entirely true and accurate statement of account when it was carved, it’s entirely possible that a year or a decade or a century later the Ark could have been removed from its hiding place in the cathedral and taken somewhere entirely different. Perhaps to another religious building, or maybe even to a different country. The carving obviously wasn’t amended, because that was never done, and so even if the Ark had been hidden in Chartres Cathedral at that time, we have absolutely no idea where it was taken to later, and no clue that we could start to follow to try to find it.”
“Unless,” Mallory suggested, “the section of text on the parchment we’ve been trying to decipher tells us exactly where we should start looking.”
“You mean you think it’s possible that the trail we’ve
been following is going to lead us to the Ark of the Covenant? Are you serious?”
“I have no idea. I was expecting that this kind of strange treasure hunt might lead us in the end to something of considerable value, but I never for a moment thought it would be something like the lost Ark. And I still don’t, really, but it is an intriguing possibility. Anyway, in the real world,” Mallory went on, “none of that actually matters. Maybe in the future the location of the Ark is another trail that we could think about following, but for the moment I’m much more interested in trying to crack the encrypted text that’s been bugging us ever since we started this. So let’s do it.”
“So which bit of the inscription do you think we should be using as the code word?” Robin asked. “We saw the words
on the left-hand cylinder, and that’s repeated within the expression on the one on the right-hand side.”
“Trial and error,” Mallory replied. “In my opinion, it’s not likely to just be
, because that’s too short, not to mention having four repeated letters—
. My gut feeling is that because both of the sculptures are concerned with the fate of the Ark of the Covenant, the compiler of this code probably used both of the inscriptions, so first of all we’ll try
archa cederis hic amititur archa cederis
, which gives us a total of thirty-five letters. I know there are also a lot of duplicates in that, but the sheer number of letters makes it feasible to use the entire expression as a code word to use in the Atbash cipher. Anyway, let’s give it a try.”
He wrote down the letters on a sheet of paper, leaving the same spaces between them so that they merged into a single combined word, then wrote out the standard full Latin alphabet, reversed, underneath it. When he reached the twenty-sixth letter, he started again until a letter of the alphabet was directly underneath each of the letters in the expression they had found.
“You reversed it,” Robin pointed out.
“Only because our expression also starts with the letter
,” he replied. “It just seemed to me that the medieval compiler of this message probably wouldn’t have wanted the first letter in the code to be represented by the same letter in the plaintext. If it’s wrong, if the decryption makes no sense, then we’ll try it the other way round. And there’s one other thing I want to do.”
Quickly he added the letter
above the above the first letter
“Just in case that is the correct spelling,” he explained.
Robin opened up one of the Word files on her laptop and scrolled down until she reached the transliteration of the encrypted text. Then she read it out, letter by letter, while Mallory referred to the table of letters he had already prepared and jotted down what he hoped would be the plaintext equivalent. Because of the number of duplicates in the putative code word, in many cases there was inevitably more than one possible letter, and when this happened he wrote all of the possible alternatives in a short vertical line in the correct place in his transcription. It was boring and repetitive, but because they had done it when they succeeded in transcribing the larger
section of text on the parchment, they knew what they were doing, and the operation didn’t take long.
When they reached the end, Mallory showed Robin the plaintext that he had produced, and she nodded thoughtfully.
“That might actually have worked,” she said. “Quite a lot of those words do look like Latin to me already. While I go through it, why don’t you nip downstairs and see if you can buy a sandwich or something? Because I’m starting to get hungry.”
As Mallory left the room, she took the piece of paper and spent about ten minutes checking it over, deleting some of the suggested letters and accepting others, and inserting spaces between words that she thought made sense. The original text had no breaks in it, a basic precaution to make deciphering it that bit more difficult. When she’d finished, she took a fresh sheet of paper, copied out a final version of the Latin text, and then again used an online Latin-to-English dictionary to render the text into the language they both spoke. Then she looked up as Mallory opened the door and stepped back into the room, carrying a paper bag from the end of which poked two baguettes.
“The one thing I can tell you, right now,” she said, shaking her head, “is that we guessed correctly about the code word needed to decipher that piece of text. And, just as an aside, I suppose, it’s worth saying that the translation only works if the second word is spelled
. The other thing I can tell you is that I’m quite sure we’re not on the trail of the Ark of the Covenant, but something very different.”
“So, where are they?” the thickset man wearing a dark suit asked. He was using the work name Paolo.
His companion—work name Mario—didn’t bother replying to what was clearly a rhetorical question. They’d been watching the hotel where their targets had booked a room, according to the information supplied by Silvio Vitale, and had been doing so for the last couple of hours.
They had identified the building within minutes of arriving in Chartres in the two cars they’d hired at the airport in Paris. They’d taken two cars because that provided them with a backup vehicle in the event of one breaking down or being involved in a traffic accident or any other unforeseen problem. They’d then decided to separate, two of them going to a café on the opposite side of the street that offered a clear view—traffic permitting, obviously—of the hotel, while the second pair took seats
at a table outside a bar just a few yards from the main entrance to the hotel. They’d decided to stay as two pairs, because a single man sitting alone and clearly watching a particular building was always likely to attract attention, whereas two men sitting at a table opposite each other and talking together looked completely innocent. They could just be friends meeting for a drink, or two businessmen discussing a job or a contract.
But whether they blended in to the pedestrian traffic of the street scene was of secondary importance to all four of them. What was giving them all cause for concern, to a greater or lesser degree, was the complete absence of any sign of the people they were supposed to be mounting surveillance on.
“I hope to hell that we haven’t missed them,” Paolo added. “I mean, it must at least be possible that they came here, found what they were looking for, and then got back in their car or on a train and left the city. They could be halfway to Paris, or halfway to almost anywhere, by now.”
“You could be right,” Mario said, somewhat testily, because it wasn’t the first time his companion had explored that subject since they arrived in Chartres. “You could also be completely wrong, and sitting here speculating isn’t going to answer the question one way or the other. So why don’t you just shut up and keep your eyes on the hotel? If they’ve not appeared by the time it gets dark, we’ll have to think again. Then we’ll need to ring Vitale or the duty officer and tell him the situation. But right now I don’t want to talk to him and I doubt very much if you do, either. He’s got a nasty temper at the best
of times, and telling him we haven’t even seen these people despite sitting out here for most of the afternoon would be a really good way of annoying him.”
“We’ll have to check in with him sometime today.”
Something across the street attracted Mario’s attention, and he didn’t respond, just picked up his smartphone and swiped the screen to wake it up, then stared intently at the display, where a picture of a male face was visible.
“That looks like him,” he said quietly, inclining his head slightly in the direction of the hotel. “I’m pretty sure that’s Mallory.”
A few yards down the street, a well-built man with an obvious healed scar on one side of his face had walked out of the hotel entrance and was heading down the street. Seconds later, he entered a boulangerie. By the time he emerged, a paper bag in his hand, Mario was already talking to Silvio Vitale.
“He’s just bought a couple of sandwiches, by the looks of it,” he reported in Italian, “but there’s no sign of the woman, so she’s probably in their room at the hotel. This is a confirmed sighting,” he added, as Paolo—who had been closely studying both the target and the two full-face photographs the order had uncovered of David Mallory—nodded to him.
“Good,” Vitale said. “Now we know where they are. They’ll have to come out sooner or later, and when they do you have to get close enough to them to see what they’re doing and where they’re going. Plant a bug on them if you can. If you can’t, try to overhear what they’re saying. You all speak good enough English to do that.”
Mario ended the call, and the two of them watched as Mallory reentered the hotel and disappeared from view.
As soon as he was out of sight, Mario waved to the other two men and they crossed the street to join them. Now that they’d established a definite location for the targets, they needed to prepare for whatever came next. They didn’t know if Mallory and Jessop had traveled down to Chartres on a train or by car, and that was something they needed to find out.
“Let’s make this easy,” Paolo suggested. “We know he’s in that hotel, and it looks like he’s just bought a late lunch for him and Jessop, so presumably they’ll be in there for at least another hour or so. We’re going to need somewhere to stay tonight, so why don’t I go and book a couple of rooms in the same place? That’ll give two of us access to the building, and we might be able to find out their room number.”
Mario glanced at the speaker. “There’s another hotel just across the road. You both take rooms there, and make sure one of the rooms faces the street, because that will give you eyes on the target hotel, just in case they slip out without us noticing.”
That seemed to work as a tactical plan, and there was an unexpected bonus: when he and Paolo had checked in and put their overnight bags in their rooms, Mario took the lift down to the underground parking garage. There were hire cars in three of the spaces, and he noted their makes, models, and registration numbers before returning to his room to call Vitale.
That meant a trace could be run by tertiaries of the order in France to identify which vehicle—if any of them—had been rented by the targets and that, in turn, would allow the surveillance team to attach a tracker to the vehicle. Vitale promised that he would get the information within a couple of hours, and until then there was nothing the four men could do apart from make sure that if one or both of the targets left the hotel, at least two of the team would be right behind them.