Authors: James Becker
“Could be,” Mallory said, shining his flashlight toward
it. “I can’t see down into it. Can I lift you up so that you can check it out?”
Mallory slipped his flashlight into his pocket and grabbed Robin around the hips, lifting her almost straight up.
“Stop,” she said. “Right. Now I can see down into it. It’s quite deep, and seems to run almost straight down into the rock. The opening is rough and quite wide, and looks natural, but the hole itself is much narrower, maybe two inches wide or so, and is very straight. And it looks like it was drilled out, somehow.”
“Do you see any sign of wood in the hole? Splinters or anything like that?”
“Yes, actually. There are a couple of small pieces just inside the entrance to the hole. Yes, I see where you’re going with that. You’re thinking that’s the keyhole, and the key or whatever you want to call it was a length of stout wood that was shoved down into it.”
“Exactly,” Mallory said, lowering Robin to the floor again.
“So what do we do? How do we lock it?”
“How deep did you think it was?”
“Not very. Maybe seven or eight inches or so.”
“Then I think the crowbar should do it.”
Mallory dropped his rucksack to the ground, opened it, and took out the tool, then reached up and slid the straight end of the bar down into the hole, making sure it went all the way to the end.
“Will that do it?” Robin asked.
“I hope so, but we won’t just blunder on and hope for the best.”
He motioned Robin to stand a few feet behind him, then carefully rested his right foot on the edge of what he had assumed were planks of wood hidden beneath the gravel on the floor.
“They feel a little loose,” he said, slowly increasing the pressure. “There’s some give in them.”
Then they both heard a faint click and the end of the crowbar moved very slightly as some concealed mechanism began to operate.
Mallory immediately stepped back, away from the hidden planks, but nothing else happened, except that there was another click. He reached up and grabbed the end of the crowbar, almost expecting it to be jammed in place, but the tool was loose in the hole in the rock and moved freely. It looked as if the concealed mechanism was triggered by weight or pressure on the planks, but when that pressure was released it reset itself.
He repeated the process, stepping on the planks and hearing the click, then the second faint click, which proved to him that the hidden mechanism was working, and that the end of the crowbar had successfully jammed it.
“Okay,” he said. “I think we can carry on. Slowly and carefully. I’ll go first, just in case. Listen for the second click. It’ll be interesting to know how big this trigger really is.”
Mallory gingerly rested his left foot on the hidden planks, waited for the click, and then stepped forward. He took four swift strides, and on the first three he could feel a very slight give below his feet, but on the fourth step it seemed that he was back on solid ground. Almost immediately Robin confirmed his guess.
“The second click came when you lifted your foot after your third step.”
“That’s what I thought.”
Moments later, Robin stepped right beside him, and they both looked back at the end of the narrow passage.
“I wonder what it does,” Robin mused.
“It’s probably better that we never find out,” Mallory said. “Now let’s see what we have here.”
He swung his flashlight, the beam fitfully illuminating different parts of the open space in which they were standing. He wasn’t surprised, though he was definitely disappointed, when their quick visual search suggested that the large chamber was empty of everything except rocks and more rocks.
“Have we been beaten to it?” Robin asked.
“I hope not, after all this. Hang on. What’s that, over there?”
He shone his flashlight beam across the cavern toward a large dark oblong. There were shadows all around them, but that looked like something else. Something different.
They walked briskly across the cave floor, shining their flashlight in front of them.
“It’s a tunnel,” Mallory said. “A wide tunnel. Let’s see where it leads. Maybe there’s another chamber beyond this one.”
The start of the tunnel was easily wide enough for the two of them to walk side by side, and had a firm floor that sloped gradually upward.
“There’s something at the far end,” Robin said. “Something metallic, I think.”
As they neared the end of the tunnel, perhaps fifty yards from the cavern, they found themselves facing a blank stone wall. And positioned in a neat line against that wall, on a patch of level ground, were half a dozen ironbound large wooden chests, three resting on the stone floor and the other three positioned on top of them. Beside the two right-hand chests was a much smaller box, again reinforced by bands of metal.
“Could that really be it? The long-lost Templar Archive?” Mallory asked. “If it is, it’s a lot smaller than I was expecting, but we’re still going to need a biggish van or a truck to haul it all away.”
“There’s only one way to find out,” Robin said, and started walking over toward the chests. “Let’s see what we’ve got here.”
* * *
Toscanelli strode briskly across the cavern to where they had dropped their waterproofs, picked up one of the jackets, and slipped it on.
“Follow me,” he said, and waited while the other men donned their protective clothing and prepared themselves. Then he walked back over to the vertical column of falling water and stepped straight through it, his pistol held ready for whatever he might be confronted with on the other side.
He switched on his flashlight the moment he stepped clear of the water.
He found himself in another chamber, noticeably larger than the one he had just left, and carved out of the same dark and damp rock, but equally as empty. Or at
least, empty of their quarry and the treasure Toscanelli still believed he was close to recovering.
But there was one obvious difference. Whereas the outer chamber had no obvious exits, on the far side of this inner cavern was an arched opening. In front of it were several lengths of stout timber and a scattering of heavy stones.
As the first of his men stepped through the waterfall that concealed the archway between the two chambers, Toscanelli walked over to the opening. He shone his flashlight up the passageway that lay beyond, then turned back to look at the fallen timbers.
“They must have gone down that tunnel,” Mario said, walking over to him.
“Obviously,” Toscanelli snapped, then pointed at the stones and timbers. “I think these planks were probably used to hide this archway, the wood placed against the wall and then the stones used to cover up the timbers. It would probably have looked quite natural. I wonder how they knew it was here?” he mused.
“Does that matter?” Mario asked.
“No. Of course not. Let’s go. What we seek must be at the end of this passage. Have your weapons ready,” he instructed, raising his voice.
The four men began striding down the tunnel, Nico in the lead with Toscanelli virtually beside him, both men focusing their attention on what lay ahead of them, upon the possible danger posed by their quarry.
What they weren’t focusing on was the floor of the tunnel they were hurrying down.
Nico reached the large pool of water in a few seconds
and stepped into it without hesitation. The instant he did so, the double layer of thin planks of old wood, which Robin Jessop had assumed was rock, the seams caulked to make them watertight and lying just below the surface, shattered and split apart. The water cascaded down into the pit that opened up beneath it, and Nico’s body inexorably followed.
He screamed as he fell, but the sound was cut short almost immediately.
Canton of Schwyz, Switzerland
“The two English people have been in the cave system for over ninety minutes,” the spotter said quietly into his mobile phone, “and the Italians followed them inside about fifteen minutes ago.”
“All of them?”
“No. The last time we observed them, there were two Italians or Dominicans here, one watching the valley and the other waiting in a car. This time, six of them appeared, in two cars, and four of them are now inside the cavern. One’s watching from the tree line below us, and the other man is waiting in one of the cars. Have you confirmed their identity yet?”
“That is not your direct concern,” the deep-voiced man the spotter had called replied, “but according to the car hire company records the vehicle you obtained details of yesterday was rented at the airport by an Italian. Flight
records show that he flew to Switzerland from France on the same aircraft as the principal targets. Interestingly he was one of four Italian citizens on that flight traveling on a diplomatic passport.”
“So are you saying that they
diplomats or embassy officials or something?”
“No. Not everybody traveling on a diplomatic passport is a diplomat. Some are just people that their government or host organization wants to insert into another country without having them or their luggage searched. In this case, the passports weren’t issued by the Italian government but by the
Supremus Ordo Militaris Hospitalis Sancti Ioannis Hierosolymitani Rhodius et Melitensis
, more commonly known as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.”
“Who the hell is that?” the spotter demanded.
The man he’d called chuckled before he replied, “It’s a very ancient Roman Catholic religious order. It was originally headquartered in Malta, hence the name, but now it’s based in Rome, in the Palazzo di Malta, the Magistral Palace, on the Via Condotti near the Spanish Steps. More important, it’s the modern continuation of the even more ancient order of the Knights Hospitaller, which was of course contemporary with the Knights Templar.”
The spotter shook his head, obviously confused.
“I thought they were supposed to be Dominicans,” he said. “What have the Hospitallers got to do with all this?”
“Quite a lot, but only indirectly. Really briefly, the Hospitallers were supposed to be given all the recovered assets of the Knights Templar, but the Dominicans—who were the pope’s personal torturers and tasked with
interrogating the Templars—failed to find anything much. Nobody outside the two orders knows for certain, but the probability is that the Hospitallers have been helping the Dominicans track down every Templar asset that’s been discovered over the last half a millennium simply because those assets actually belong to them. So providing diplomatic passports to a bunch of Dominican enforcers isn’t really all that surprising.”
“Okay, I see that, but the more obvious question is what you want us to do now. Keep watching, go home, or what?”
“We haven’t decided yet. For the moment, stay where you are and maintain surveillance. Call me immediately if anything else happens, but be prepared to move quickly if necessary. We may decide to send you into the cave to finish this.”
“Understood. But remember that there are just the two of us, and there are now six people inside the cave and two more outside. We can pick them off one by one with the rifle if they’re in the open air—that wouldn’t be a problem and that was what we were contracted to do—but we would need different weapons if you want us to go into the cavern. As I told you a few minutes ago, we’re pretty certain that all of the Italians are armed with pistols because we’ve seen the four men who went to the cave carrying them. So at the very least we’ll both need pistols and either combat shotguns or machine pistols before we go inside. That’s nonnegotiable. And a couple of extra guys would be a help as well.”
“That will take time to arrange.”
“That’s your problem, not ours. What I’m telling you is that there’s no way we’re going to walk into a confined space like that cave carrying a long-distance sniper rifle to face four men armed with pistols. That would just be an interesting and unusual way of committing suicide. Either you get us what we need to do the job or we stay right where we are. Your choice.”
* * *
“What was that?” Robin said, turning to stare back the way they’d come.
“A scream,” Mallory said, somewhat unnecessarily. “Wait here and I’ll take a look.”
He strode away from the row of chests that they’d been examining and walked back down the tunnel and into the cavern and crossed to the point where the entrance tunnel started. He stepped over the hidden planks and went a few yards down the passageway, feeling his way with his flashlight switched off, until he could clearly hear the sound of voices—loud and angry Italian voices—and see the fitful light of their flashlights reflected off the rock walls.
That was enough for him. For a couple of seconds he stood there, listening, but knew that his feeling had been right: they had been followed, presumably again by members of the Dominican Order, and they were again in immediate mortal danger. He had no doubt whatsoever that they would be killed out of hand by them if they were caught. He was going to have to do something about that, if he could.
Mallory turned and walked slowly back to the narrowest
part of the passage, using his flashlight as little as possible, though he guessed he was well out of sight of their pursuers. Then he reached up, plucked the crowbar out of the hole in the rock, and called out softly to Robin, who’d followed him across the floor of the cave.
“Shine your flashlight down here, please,” he said. “I need light for this bit.”
“You’re not going to—”
“It’s the best plan I’ve got,” Mallory said, interrupting her. “I heard at least two voices back there in the tunnel, and we know what will happen if they catch us. This might slow them down a bit. I think whatever was under that puddle took one of them out—that was the reason for the scream we heard—and hopefully this will do the same.”
As he’d been talking, Mallory was walking back a short distance down the tunnel. Now he turned and took a couple of deep breaths, getting ready.
“Aim the light at the ground,” he said, “and try not to dazzle me, because that really would write me off.”
Robin did as he asked, then held her breath as well, not that doing so actually helped either him or her.
Mallory sprinted the short distance down to the narrow section of the passage, and about a foot before the point where he knew the planks were situated he launched himself into the air, arms flailing as he tried to cover the maximum possible distance, his hands brushing the walls on either side as he jumped.
He landed hard and stumbled on the rocky ground a couple of feet from Robin, who grabbed his arm and pulled him to his feet as he did so.
They both looked back, fearful that he might have tripped the trigger to unleash whatever hideous anti-intruder device the Templars had constructed, but all was silent.
“You did it,” Robin said flatly. “Were you an athletics star at school? House captain, that kind of thing?”
Mallory shook his head.
“Not so’s you’d notice,” he said. “I did all the usual stuff, but I was never much good at any of it. But it’s amazing how the prospect of imminent death can improve your athletic performance. Now we have to try to find another way out of here, if there is one. And if there isn’t, we’ll have to find somewhere we can hide from these Italian killers.”
* * *
Nico’s body had slammed into the double row of sharpened stakes and rusty sword blades that projected from the bottom of the hole, each rooted firmly, wedged into holes chiseled into the bedrock.
Toscanelli barely managed to stop himself from following Nico into the eight-foot-deep pit, and stared down in horror at the carnage, Mario and Salvatori beside him, their flashlight beams coldly illuminating the dreadful sight.
The Italian’s body, the limbs still twitching fitfully, had been pierced by at least five of the lethal stakes, one of which had been driven straight through his chest, killing him instantly. That was the only mercy—he would have been dead the second he landed at the bottom of the hole. There was surprisingly little blood, because once his
heart had been penetrated it would have stopped pumping, but as they looked down they could hear the faint sound of dripping as Nico’s lifeblood was released from his multiple wounds.
Mario crossed himself as he stared at the dead man, a gesture repeated by his two companions.
“Who did this?” he demanded, his voice hoarse with the rush of emotions he was feeling. “Was it the two we’ve been following?”
“Of course not,” Toscanelli said. “This is old, really old. This trap was set for a very different group of intruders, many centuries ago. This was prepared by members of the Knights Templar order to protect their treasure. At least we now know for sure that we’re on the right track. And that nobody else has been in here since this trap was set.”
“So how come the English couple didn’t end up like Nico? How did they get across the pit?”
Before he answered, Toscanelli moved his flashlight and stared all around him. Then he pointed farther down the tunnel, the beam of light illuminating part of a straight dark brown shape leaning against the wall.
“They used those,” he said. “Two or three of the wooden planks from the other cave. They must have laid them over the puddle, walked over it, and then removed them.”
“But that means they must have known about the booby trap,” Mario said. “And known that we’d be following them.”
“I don’t know too much about those two, but they do seem to be lucky. And cautious. They’ve seen Templar engineering before, so maybe they were expecting
something like this. Some kind of protection device to be concealed in the tunnel. They can’t have known that we’d be coming along behind them, but they’re probably paranoid and shifted the timbers just in case anyone was following them. But either way, it doesn’t matter, because now we’re here in the cave system with them. There’s no way out, and we’ll finish them in here.”
The three men returned to the cavern they’d left minutes earlier and walked back into the tunnel, each carrying one of the heavy timbers they’d seen there. They maneuvered the wood into position to form a substantial bridge over the lethal booby trap. With a last glance down at the twisted and torn body of Nico, they stepped onto the wooden planks they’d placed over the pit and walked down the tunnel. They were moving much more slowly and cautiously than before, alert for any fresh sign of danger, their pistols held ready in their hands, their flashlights showing the way.
* * *
Mallory had hoped that the large open area in the cave would be penetrated by enough tunnels and passageways that they could lose themselves and take refuge from the men who were even then audibly getting closer. But although they had quickly searched all around the perimeter of the cavern, all they had found was that wide single tunnel on the opposite side to that by which they had entered. And there were no hiding places in that short passageway that either of them had spotted.
“We’ve got two choices, as far as I can see,” Mallory said. “We can try to hide somewhere in this cavern, if we
can find anywhere that offers some kind of cover, and hope like hell that they don’t spot us. The problem with trying to hide is that we already know the tunnel is a dead end and there aren’t a lot of options in this cave. The other option is that we confront them right here in this cavern and hope that we can take them out before they kill us.”
Robin’s face was a pale oval in the darkness as Mallory swept his flashlight beam around the cavern once more, just in case they’d missed anything.
“I’ll say this for you,” she said. “Life with you is never boring. Exciting, even terrifying, yes. And probably terminal. But boring, no. You seem to be offering a choice of different ways to die. Basically being hunted down like cornered rats somewhere in this cave system, or getting killed in hand-to-hand combat, but going down fighting. And if it’s all the same to you, I’ve never been much of a rodent. Let’s see if we can do these guys some serious harm.”
Mallory wrapped his arms around her and kissed her firmly on the lips. Then he disengaged and took a step back.
“I thought you’d say that,” he said. “The trick is going to be trying to find any weapons at all in here that we can use. I mean, we can lob rocks at them, and we might get lucky, but I wouldn’t put much money on our chances.”
* * *
The walls of the tunnel seemed to close in on the three Italians as they walked farther into the mountain. Their progress slowed as the opportunities for inadvertently tripping some ancient Templar booby trap became more
obvious. In the narrowing passage, another hidden killing pit or something similar was a serious possibility.
Salvatori was in the lead, Mario directly behind him, and Toscanelli, as the senior man present, a slightly more distant third. The beams from the flashlights of the men were never still, the circles of light moving from the ground, up the wall, across the ceiling of the passageway, and back down the opposite wall to the ground again, pausing only when some object or mark attracted the attention of one of the men.
They had nearly reached the narrowest part of the tunnel when Mario tapped Salvatori on the shoulder to make him stop moving forward, and then turned to Toscanelli.
“Are these two people likely to be armed?” he asked. “Because walking down this narrow passage carrying flashlights would make us sitting ducks if they’re waiting for us in the darkness up ahead with a couple of pistols.”
“That’s most unlikely,” Toscanelli replied quietly. “They flew to France from England and then from France to Switzerland. It’s not that much of a problem to get a disassembled pistol, especially something like a Glock, which is mainly plastic anyway, onto an aircraft in the hold luggage. But according to Vitale, these two only had carry-on bags, and that makes it much more difficult. And in order to smuggle a gun onto an aircraft, you have to have a gun to smuggle, and in Britain that’s not easy.”