Authors: James Becker
Then there was a sudden thump and the chest rocked backward.
* * *
On the other side of the rock pile, the mass of stones completely muffling the sound of their voices, the three
Italians were standing in a group and staring at the section of the rock pile that they could see.
It was obvious that the narrow entrance to the tunnel had stopped any of the bigger rocks from entering it, which in turn meant that the tunnel itself remained passable. All of the larger boulders had smashed into the walls of the cavern beside the entrance, forming an untidy pile.
“It’s not completely blocked,” Toscanelli said, sounding pleased. “There’s a gap over to the right that I can see,” he added, shining his flashlight beam that way. “If we can shift half a dozen of those rocks, we should be able to climb up the stones and get into the cavern that way.”
Mario looked doubtful.
“They’re big,” he said, “and we have no tools with us.”
“No, but we do have those planks of wood. We can use them as levers to move the stones. You and Salvatori go and grab a couple of them while I try to climb up that slope and see how high I can get.”
Minutes later, they’d worked out a potential route over and through the rock pile, and had already started levering away at some of the stones that blocked their path.
* * *
Mallory released the lid and he and Robin walked around to the front of the chest to see what had happened.
What they saw was almost a repeat of the antitheft mechanism built into the chests they’d found on Cyprus. Except that this mechanism was a lot simpler, though identical in concept and operation.
Projecting from the gap below the partially open lid
were two double-edged steel blades, each well over a foot long. They had obviously been forced out of the chest by a powerful spring when the opening of the lid released whatever mechanism had held them in check over the centuries. The blades were long enough that if somebody had been standing at a normal distance in front of the chest when it was opened, he would have suffered two very serious, perhaps even fatal, stabbing wounds to the abdomen.
“Whatever you think of the Templars,” Robin said, looking at the two blades, “you can’t deny that their engineering was first-rate. Lethal, but first-rate.”
Mallory extended the crowbar again, positioned the end of it under the edge of the lid, and lifted it to open the chest fully. The two blades and the mechanism that had driven them were clearly visible as he did so, attached to the underside of the lid of the box.
“Hopefully there aren’t any other nasty surprises lurking inside,” Robin said.
“Probably not. It’s not that big a chest, and there really isn’t room for another device like that one.”
“I was thinking more about poison on the documents inside it, that kind of thing.”
“I doubt it,” Mallory said, looking at the collection of pieces of parchment revealed by opening the lid of the chest, “because whatever these papers are, they’re records that would be handled by members of the order and perhaps by other people as well. I think poisoning them would have made that far too difficult. And, even if they
had been, a medieval poison probably wouldn’t be dangerous today. But maybe we should wear gloves, just in case.”
He pulled a packet of latex gloves out of his rucksack, and they each pulled on a pair. Then he reached into the chest, pulled out the document that lay on top of the pile inside, and handed it to Robin.
“So, what have we got this time?” he asked, then turned round to stare back into the cavern, where he’d just heard the sound of a rock falling.
“What was that?” Robin demanded.
“Probably just a stone settling in the rock pile.”
“As long as it’s not those bloody Italians tunneling their way out.”
“Look at the size of the pile,” Mallory said. “I think it’ll take days or weeks to get through that lot.”
Robin stared back into the cavern for a few moments, then unfolded the parchment and looked at the first few lines of the Latin text.
“I’m not going to bother translating it,” she said, “but I can tell you that this is a land grant made by a nobleman and it relates to a large piece of property in France. Obviously we would need to do a bit of research to find out exactly where the land is, but according to the first section of this grant, it was in the vicinity of the Templars’ Paris preceptory. And that, as you told me the other day, was pretty much in the center of the city.”
She unfolded the final section of the parchment and looked at the last few lines, mentally translating the Latin as she did so.
“So presumably this French noble gave the property
to the Templars when he joined the order?” Mallory asked.
“Yes, but there is a kind of caveat. In 1204 he handed over control and ownership of the property and the farms and buildings that were on it to the Knights Templar in perpetuity, but there’s another sentence here that is interesting. He specifically gave the land also to the then grand master, Phillipe de Plessis, and to his descendants—I suppose the modern expression would be his ‘heirs and assignees,’ something like that—in the event that the Templar order ever ceased to exist. I suppose that was a kind of belt-and-braces provision, but what’s really interesting is this short Latin phrase,
prout moris est
. That translates as ‘according to custom’ or ‘as is usual,’ something like that. That suggests that giving assets both to the Knights Templar and to a named individual within the order was the normal procedure. In this case, logically that provision should have been exercised when the Knights Templar were purged and the order dissolved. And that’s very interesting.”
“It is,” Mallory agreed, “because if Phillipe de Plessis had any children—and a lot of the Templars were married and had families before they took their vows and joined the order—that could mean that some French family actually has a genuine legal title to a significant part of the French capital. That document you’re holding could potentially be worth billions of euros.”
“And that’s just the first one,” Robin agreed. “This stuff is explosive, if this document is any indication of what else is in that chest.”
“Right,” Mallory said. “That is what we were hoping to find, so let’s find our way out of here.”
He carefully reset the antitheft mechanism, because carrying the chest with the blades extended was far too dangerous in case either of them stumbled, and secured the lid and used his Allen keys to relock it.
The escape tunnel they had uncovered by removing the larger chests was too narrow and low to allow them to walk side by side, so Robin led the way, Mallory following a few feet behind her and carrying the chest.
The tunnel ran fairly straight for perhaps a hundred yards, the slope gradually increasing, then turned somewhat abruptly to the left and widened significantly.
“I think this is probably a natural fissure in the rock that the Templars just opened up,” Robin suggested, taking hold of the handle on one side of the chest to help Mallory with the weight. “Cutting this tunnel out of the rock would have been far too much work otherwise.”
“You’re probably right. And there’s something else. Have you noticed the air? It seems to be fresh, not musty, which is what you’d expect if this tunnel was sealed. There must be a way out of it somewhere ahead of us.”
“I hope so,” Robin said. “I have what I hope is a long life ahead of me that I have every intention of enjoying. Ending my days trapped in an underground tunnel in Switzerland was never a part of any of my long-term plans.”
“Then let’s hope that that blank wall I can now see in front of us doesn’t mean that we’re out of options.”
Robin looked ahead, at where Mallory’s flashlight
beam was illuminating a flat and largely featureless wall of rock, and muttered a curse.
“Oh, shit,” she said.
* * *
The opening that Toscanelli and the other two men were trying to create was both very restricted and close to the roof of the cavern, but as far as he could see, it was the only way through the mass of fallen stones.
When he’d climbed up onto the tumbled rocks, he was able to see the solid and undisturbed roof of the cavern only in one place. And that was where they were now directing all their efforts. The stones they were trying to move were cumbersome and extremely heavy and the space around them severely restricted, meaning that using the lengths of timber as levers was much more difficult than any of them had expected. But they were making progress.
It was hot, sweaty, and exhausting, made that much more difficult by the extremely restricted space and having to work only by the light of their handheld flashlights. All three men were filthy, their clothes blackened by the dust and debris that coated the rocks, their hands bruised and bloody from their exertions. But they’d managed to shift more than half a dozen boulders already, painstakingly levering them far enough out of the way so that they could get past.
They still had perhaps another five or six stones to move before they could climb all the way to the top of the pile of rocks and then—hopefully—find a way down the other side to the floor of the cavern.
And when they got out, it would just be a matter of tracking down Mallory and Jessop, silencing them permanently, perhaps taking their time over the woman, and then recovering whatever the English couple had found.
* * *
They lowered the chest to the floor of the tunnel and looked around. The wall in front of them appeared to be depressingly solid, as were the side walls of the tunnel.
“I don’t believe there isn’t a way out,” Mallory said bitterly. “What was the point of the Templars opening up this tunnel if all it does is lead to a solid wall?”
Robin didn’t reply, just turned slowly through a complete circle, the beam of her flashlight covering the walls and floor. Then she shone the flashlight at the roof of the tunnel, which seemed just as solid and featureless as everything else around them. But then she stopped moving and glanced at Mallory.
“You mentioned the air,” she said. “I think I can feel a very slight draft on my face. If I’m right, that means we must be fairly near the surface. If we can find out where the air is coming from, maybe we can open up whatever gap there is and get out that way.”
“That could take a while,” Mallory said, “if it was even possible.” He looked around the end of the tunnel again, and pointed at the clear marks on the stone made by the chisels wielded by medieval masons. “But I can’t believe they would just have opened up this tunnel and done nothing else. I mean, what would have been the point? There must be something here that we’re not seeing.”
They both stood in silence, shining their flashlights
back down the tunnel and around the blank wall facing them.
Then Mallory let out an exclamation and pointed.
“I missed that,” he said, aiming his flashlight beam. “Or rather I saw it as we walked past it but I missed its significance.”
“What? Oh, I see.”
About twenty yards behind them a wooden arch had been constructed of ancient blackened wood, a length of heavy timber positioned vertically on each side of the tunnel with a horizontal crosspiece linking them at the top.
“This is solid rock, possibly granite or something, so why would they have needed to build a wooden archway? And we haven’t seen any other timber structures like that since we walked into the tunnel.”
They strode back to examine the wooden supports.
At first sight, the vertical timbers looked entirely normal, but when they aimed their flashlight beams at the very tops of them, where the horizontal length of wood had been positioned, they both realized something at the same moment.
“The crosspiece isn’t resting on both ends of these uprights,” Robin said, “only on one of them. The other end has been placed on a ledge cut into the rock. So at least one of these uprights must have another purpose. Another trap, maybe?”
* * *
Moving the last stones at the top of the pile didn’t take as long as Toscanelli had feared, precisely because they were at the top of the pile, with no other rocks or boulders
resting on them and holding them in place. Salvatori had moved the final two rocks by the simple expedient of lying on his back in the narrow opening and pushing the stones out of the way by using his feet, sending them tumbling down the outside of the rock wall to land on the floor of the cavern.
Moments later, he stuck his head out of the opening, his flashlight in one hand and his pistol in the other, and quickly scanned his surroundings.
“They’re nowhere in sight,” he reported, and climbed out onto the rocks and began making his way down the pile of stones.
He was followed within seconds by the other two men. They moved cautiously around the mass of fallen rock, using their flashlights as sparingly as they could and talking as little as possible.
The entrance to the tunnel that had been uncovered by moving the six chests was clearly visible, and it was immediately obvious to the three of them that that was the only way their quarry could have gone. There were no other possible exits, and they clearly weren’t hiding somewhere in the cavern.
Toscanelli shone his flashlight at the wooden chests as they approached the tunnel entrance.
“Those are probably what Mallory and Jessop came for,” he said. “We’ll check out the contents once we’ve dealt with the two of them.”
And then he began moving slowly and cautiously down the tunnel in front of them, his pistol ready.
* * *
Mallory and Robin shone their flashlight beams at the upright on one side of the tunnel. As far as they could see, it was completely solid, the base of the length of timber set into a cavity in the tunnel floor, and the top wedged behind a projecting piece of rock on the roof. When Mallory stuck the end of his crowbar in the narrow gap behind the timber and tried levering it, absolutely nothing happened.
“It’s completely solid,” he said.
Robin nodded, her eyes following the beam of the flashlight as she ran it up and down the wooden pillar.
“What about the other one?” she asked.