Authors: James Becker
They crossed the few steps to the other side of the tunnel and repeated their inspection of the other length of timber.
“The bottom of this piece of wood is in a hollowed-out cavity,” Mallory said, “just like the first one, but the top isn’t locked in place as far as I can see.”
He lifted up the crowbar and repeated the treatment on the second length of timber. This time, the heavy balk of wood moved very slightly as Mallory applied pressure to the end of the tool. He removed the crowbar and looked up thoughtfully toward the roof of the tunnel.
“I’m wondering,” he said, “if this upright is acting as a kind of hinge, or maybe a release for the horizontal timber above us.” He shone his flashlight at the roof of the tunnel again. “If you pulled that vertical timber out of place, then there’d be nothing supporting the end of the horizontal length of wood.”
“You might be right,” Robin said, “but what we don’t know is what would happen if you did that, and I’ve got no intention of standing underneath this kind of wooden archway if you’re going to experiment. Bearing in mind what happened in the other part of the cavern, that could just literally bring the whole roof down on top of us. This could just be another Templar trap.”
“It could be,” Mallory agreed, “but I don’t think it is, because there’s one very clear difference between what we’re looking at here and what we saw in the cavern. Back there, the trigger was carefully hidden and positioned so that almost anyone entering the cavern from the narrow tunnel would trip it. This is completely different. In order to move that timber you have to actually lever it away from the wall, a very deliberate act. I don’t think that this is a booby trap at all. I think this could be the location of the last hidden exit from the tunnel system that the Templars prepared in case they were ever trapped inside this cave.”
“You might be right, but do you really think it would be a good idea to stand here, stick the crowbar into position, and shift that timber?”
“No, I don’t. And I very much doubt if the Templars would do so, either. Think about it. There are three pieces of timber here, one supporting another one and the third one doing absolutely nothing apart from being waged firmly into position on the opposite side of the tunnel. That was done for a reason, and my guess is that it was to provide a fulcrum, a way of pulling the other upright out of position from a distance.”
“But a lever wouldn’t work,” Robin objected, but then
she smiled in the darkness. “Right. Now I see what you mean. Not a lever, but a rope.”
Mallory nodded and pointed at the fixed length of timber.
“When we were looking at that,” he said, “I noticed that about two-thirds of the way up there’s a gap between the wood and the rock behind it, and the back of the timber looks very smooth, almost as if it had been planed so as to provide a gentle curve. No rough edges or sharp bits sticking out.” He shifted the beam of his flashlight to point at the other upright. “And in about the same position on this timber is another gap between it and the rock, where you could tie the end of a rope. And rope is something that we have.”
Mallory opened up his rucksack and took out a coil of climbing rope, thin and tough but immensely strong.
“Before you do anything else,” Robin said, “you need to work out where you’re going to stand.”
“What do you mean?”
“If you’re right about using that upright as a fulcrum, or rather as a kind of rudimentary pulley, then obviously you could pull the rope from either side, either the cavern side of where we’re standing or the dead end of the tunnel. So what you need to decide is what the Templars were thinking when they constructed it. Which side of the structure is going to be the safest.”
“I think that’s fairly obvious,” Mallory replied. “This had to be a last-ditch location, somewhere they would only use if they’d been beaten back all the way through the cavern system. That means they’d trigger from the
end of the tunnel, which is where they would make their last stand.”
“Then let’s hope that your logic is the same as the Templars’. Let’s get on with it.”
The locations that he had identified on both timbers were higher than he could comfortably reach, so he unraveled the end of the rope and passed it to Robin, then hoisted her up onto his shoulders so that she could thread it through the gap that he had identified. Then he simply walked across the tunnel to the other upright with her still on his shoulders so that she could tie the end of the rope around the timber.
“Make it a good knot,” Mallory said.
“I did think of that,” Robin snapped. “I tied a clove hitch. If it’s strong enough to moor a boat, it should be strong enough for what we need.”
She clambered down off his shoulders, and together they moved the chest all the way down the tunnel to the wall at the end. Then Mallory uncoiled the remainder of the climbing rope and walked with it to the tunnel end. He took a firm grip on the rope with both hands, winding some of it around his arm to ensure that it wouldn’t slip out of his grasp.
“Are you sure about this?” Robin asked.
“Frankly no. But as far as I can see we’re right out of other options.”
And then they both heard the unmistakable sound of approaching footsteps and muffled voices from somewhere down the tunnel and knew that, against all the odds,
somehow the Italians had managed to find their way around the rockfall.
“Kill the lights,” Mallory said urgently as he and Robin extinguished their flashlights.
But then other flashlight beams speared toward them, the Italians looking for targets, confident that they had now finally trapped their quarry, unarmed and helpless at the end of the tunnel.
Mallory braced himself and started to heave on the rope, knowing that their only possible chance of survival lay in the hands of the medieval carpenters and masons employed by the Knights Templar.
Then the light from one of the flashlights picked him out and immediately the tunnel echoed to the sound of a shot, the bullet missing him by a matter of inches rather than feet before smashing into the solid rock wall behind him.
And as the other flashlight beams converged on Mallory, Robin ran to his side and grabbed hold of the rope that was already pulled taut, and then both began heaving as if their lives depended on it.
Canton of Schwyz, Switzerland
Time seemed almost to stand still.
For several long seconds—or at least that was what it felt like to Mallory and Robin—their frantic heaving on the rope produced no results whatsoever.
Another flashlight beam picked them out, and Mallory knew that behind the light one of the Italians was moving steadily forward and taking careful aim with his pistol, closing the distance to be sure of his shot.
And then, at the very instant when they both guessed that their lives were at an end, the rope moved slightly. They pulled even harder, exerting every ounce of strength that they possessed, their shoes scrabbling for grip on the rock floor beneath them.
They both heard a loud creak from the wooden structure and suddenly the rope went limp, causing them both to collapse backward onto the ground. A volley of shots
rang out at the same moment, the bullets accurately tracing lethal paths through the spaces that their bodies had occupied just a split second before.
But then they all heard an ominous rumbling, the sound of stone striking stone, and the Italians switched their attention to the roof above them, their flashlights illuminating the dark rock.
As the vertical length of heavy timber moved out of position, pulled by the rope that Robin had attached to it, it freed the end of the horizontal beam running across the roof of the tunnel. And behind that, held in place behind a massive wooden platform, as dark and almost as solid as the rocks themselves, tons of stone had been carefully positioned ready for precisely this eventuality.
Freed from its vertical support, the end of the horizontal beam swung swiftly downward in an arc, pivoting about its other end. In the intermittent light of the flashlights, Mallory could see a black and ominous shape—the wooden platform itself—emerge from the rock ceiling. And behind it the first of a virtual torrent of stones and boulders tumbled into view, seeming to move almost in slow motion.
“We’ve got to move—now,” he shouted, scrambling to his feet and reaching down to help Robin.
She was already moving, and the two of them fled deeper into the blackness of the tunnel, heading for the dead end where they’d left the wooden chest. They already knew that there was no escape that way, but at least they hoped to avoid being crushed by the falling rocks.
Behind them the roaring and crashing sounds increased
as yet more rock poured out of the roof of the tunnel. When they reached the end, they turned round and looked back, Mallory clicking on his flashlight as they did so.
“The light,” Robin began. “We’re targets. They’ll see us.”
Mallory shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. We’re too far away now for accurate pistol shooting. And they’ve got other things on their minds right now,” he added.
The beam from Mallory’s flashlight shone on swirling clouds of dust that almost filled the tunnel like a vast plume of black smoke. Beyond the dust, and as far as he could see completely blocking the tunnel, was a tumble of dark boulders, more stones falling from somewhere in the mountain above them.
As they watched, the noise died away as the last stones fell, to be replaced by complete and utter silence.
For a few seconds neither of them spoke. Then Robin coughed to try to clear some of the dust from her mouth and sighed deeply.
“Well, that certainly seems to have stopped the Italians,” she said, a catch in her voice. “It’s just a shame that we’ve buried ourselves alive in the process.”
* * *
“I wish we knew what the hell is going on inside there,” the sniper murmured. He was studying the forked waterfall at the end of the valley, a waterfall that appeared completely unchanged, despite the second unmistakable rumble of what sounded like an explosion from somewhere underground.
“I’ll call it in,” the spotter replied, “but I bet we’ll just
be told to keep watching. I just wish they’d make their mind up about what they want us to do.”
He was right. Their anonymous employer listened with interest to his report and then rang off, apparently to consult with his colleagues.
He called back about five minutes later and instructed the two-man team to continue with their surveillance.
“What about these explosions, or whatever they are?” the spotter asked. “Do you know what’s going on?”
“We’re not certain,” their employer replied, somewhat reluctantly. “Our best guess is that the people in there are opening up locked chambers, and possibly using explosives to do it. We have an interest in what those chambers might contain, so contact me again the moment you see any of the targets emerge, and take special note of anything they may be carrying. We may want you to act immediately if the targets bring out large boxes or anything of that sort. Confirm that you now have the weapons you requested.”
“Confirmed,” the spotter said, glancing at the dark green bag he’d collected a few minutes earlier from a man wearing camouflage clothing and waiting at the coordinates he’d been given. Then he ended the call.
* * *
On the opposite side of the rockfall, Toscanelli stared at the vast pile of boulders that completely blocked the tunnel and cursed fluently and lengthily in Italian.
As soon as they’d realized what was happening, he and his two companions had run back along the tunnel, retracing their steps to get as far away from the ancient Templar
trap as possible. Once they were satisfied that the last stone had fallen, they stopped and walked back cautiously.
Unlike with the rockfall they’d managed to find a way round in the main cavern, this time the tunnel was completely blocked, floor to ceiling, and without even trying to move any of the stones, the three men knew that they were just too heavy to shift without specialist equipment.
“So that’s it,” Mario said. “To get through that lot we’d need winches and hydraulic jacks and ideally a forklift truck, and you know as well as I do that there’s no chance of us getting anything like that down here. Let’s go.”
Toscanelli nodded slowly, his flashlight beam quartering the area in front of them, looking for any possible way through the rockfall, and finding nothing.
“When we saw those two before the rocks fell,” he said, “did either of you notice if they were carrying anything? Or was there anything near them in the tunnel?”
“The man—Mallory—had a rucksack on his back,” Salvatori said. “Was that what you meant?”
“No. I was thinking of a chest or a box, something of that sort. Something that they might have recovered from the cavern and were taking with them.”
“I was trying to get a decent shot at them,” Mario said, “but I think I did see some kind of box behind them, right up in the end wall of the tunnel. It could have been a chest, I suppose, but I was looking at them, not at it. What I do know is that it was nothing like the size of those chests we saw back in the larger cave. They were probably too big and heavy for those two to carry with them, so maybe they’d just left them and were only looking for a way out.”
“So there might have been a smaller chest as well,” Toscanelli said. “That isn’t what I was hoping to hear, but at least we know where it is, and if Vitale wants us to recover that as well, we’ll just have to come back with the right sort of tools to get through that rockfall. And we’ll check those other six chests before we leave.”
“The targets might have opened them,” Salvatori suggested, “and removed some documents from them. That is what you think is in them, isn’t it? Old documents? The Templar Archive?”
“Probably.” Toscanelli took another look at the impenetrable pile of rocks and shrugged. “If it were me,” he said thoughtfully, “I’d rather take a couple of bullets than wait to die of hunger and thirst behind a rockfall in a cave. Still,” he added, “knowing that they’re rotting away behind those tons of stone is the best news I’ve had all day. At least we know they won’t be bothering us again.”
With a final look behind them, the three Italians turned away and again retraced their steps down the tunnel and into the larger cave, their flashlights lighting the way. They stopped beside one of the chests, and Mario tentatively eased open the catch.
“It’s not locked,” he said, “but I’m not opening it from the front. I know what happened with those chests you found in the cave on Cyprus.”
“Stand on one side of it,” Toscanelli instructed, and gestured for Salvatori to walk to the opposite end of the chest. “Don’t use your hands,” he added, “just in case. I gave you knives. Use them instead.”
While Toscanelli stood in front of the chest, but a safe
distance away, and shone his flashlight at the ancient wooden object, Mario and Salvatori each produced a switchblade and clicked the button to open it. The single-edged five-inch blades sprang out and locked in place. Each man jammed the point of the blade into the side of the wooden lid of the chest and then slowly lifted it.
Nothing happened, except that the lid opened on its metal hinges to reveal a mass of documents placed haphazardly within the chest. Toscanelli strode forward, looked carefully inside the chests to ensure that there were no booby traps inside it, then picked up one of the folded sheets of parchment. He looked at it in the light from his flashlight, then shook his head.
“What?” Mario asked.
“I’ve no idea what it is,” Toscenalli confessed. “I can only read the odd word or two, but I’m fairly sure that this is Latin.”
He picked up another piece of parchment and looked at that as well.
“It’s old, obviously,” he continued, “but that’s all I’m certain of. Check the other chests. Use the same method to open them, just in case.”
Mario and Salvatori followed his instructions, and as each chest lid creaked harmlessly open to reveal another collection of ancient documents, he gave them a cursory glance and a brief inspection. But the contents of all the chests were remarkably similar: piles of old documents written in Latin.
“One of our experts is going to have to look at these
and see what we’ve got,” Toscanelli said, a note almost of triumph in his voice, “but this looks to me as if it really is the Templar Archive. I mean, what else could it be?”
“So what do we do with it?” Mario asked.
“We get it out of here and back to Rome, obviously. That’s not going to be easy, but we don’t have any choice. We’ll carry these chests over to the tunnel entrance, and then we’ll just have to work at widening the path we made until we can fit the chests through it.”
“Why can’t we just empty the chests and carry the documents out of the cave?” Salvatori objected.
“Because the chests themselves might be important. There might be clues embedded in the pattern of the metalwork or inscribed inside them. The chests have to go with us. And the sooner we get started, the sooner we’ll get out of here.”
Grumbling under his breath, Salvatori grabbed the handle on one end of the chest and waited until Mario was ready to lift it. Then, with Toscanelli leading the way and illuminating the path with his flashlight, they carried the heavy object toward the place where they’d forced their way through the rockfall. Once all six chests were there, Toscanelli climbed up the slope and looked down at the passage they had forced, measuring heights and widths by eye.
“It’s not too big a job,” he announced, climbing back down into the cavern. “I reckon there are four rocks we’ll definitely need to move, and two or three others that would make the job easier. We’re probably only looking at a couple of hours’ work.”
* * *
Surveillance is one of the most boring tasks imaginable, but sitting in a car with nothing to read and nothing to look at, and with only a radio for company, is even worse.
Paolo had got fed up with just sitting there, trying to get comfortable, and walking around the small parking area was little better, so after he’d eaten his sandwich lunch—which he’d spun out as long as he could—he locked the vehicle, took a couple of candy bars from the trunk, and walked through the patch of woodland to where Carlo was watching the valley and waiting for Toscanelli and the other three men to return. At least he would have someone to talk to, if nothing else.
Once he got there, he and Carlo lounged on a fallen tree that offered them both a good view up into the blind end of the valley, ate the chocolate bars, and talked. It wasn’t a scintillating conversation, but it did pass half an hour or so. Then, with not the slightest sign of the other men returning, he ambled back to the car, unlocked it, and climbed back inside.
He switched on the ignition and lowered all the windows far enough to provide a through breeze, but not so far that anyone could put their hand or arm inside and unlock the doors. Then he locked the doors, reclined the seat, and closed his eyes.
A few minutes later, he roused himself, his subconscious mind kicking him awake, and he sat up and looked around the parking area.
He hadn’t checked the target vehicle, which was the main reason he had been told to stay there.
Grumbling under his breath, he got out of the car and walked over to the other side of the cleared area until he could see the other car.
“They’re not going anywhere,” he muttered to himself. “Don’t know why I even bothered looking.”
He walked back to his own car, climbed in, lay back again, and closed his eyes. Within five minutes, the interior of the car reverberated to the sound of his snoring.