Authors: James Becker
Canton of Schwyz, Switzerland
The two-hour estimate suggested by Toscanelli to open up the route through and over the rock pile proved to be somewhat optimistic.
The problem, predictably enough, was the rocks. Their weight was brutal, and just lifting one far enough to get one of the lengths of timber underneath it to act as a lever sometimes took the combined strength of all three men. Add to that the extremely restricted space within which they were working and the absence of proper light, and it was perhaps not surprising that they had struggled for almost three hours before they managed to open up a big enough space to move one of the chests through.
In fact, the three of them only worked at it for about half an hour before Toscanelli realized that they needed help, and sent Mario back out of the cave to summon Paolo and Carlo to assist them. Even then, the space in
which they were working was so tight that they couldn’t all fit in it at the same time. But at least having the extra two men meant that they could spell each other when they got tired, and also meant that one of them could hold a flashlight, and that greatly helped to illuminate the area where they were working.
The other problem that hadn’t been immediately apparent was that on several occasions they had to move a number of rocks before they could shift the one that was actually blocking their path. And every rock that they freed then had to be rolled and tumbled out of the way, to keep the widened passage clear.
But eventually Mario and Salvatori picked up one of the chests by the metal handles at either end and slowly managed, with a great deal of inventive cursing and considerable effort, to get the first of the chests through the opened-up rock pile and into the narrow end of the tunnel. That, in fact, was the most difficult part of the whole maneuver, because they had to work the chest around a virtual right-angle bend, which necessitated standing the object on its end to make the turn. The sheer bulk and weight of the chest made this impossible until they had shifted another three rocks from that location.
The first chest, inevitably, was the most difficult of the six to shift, and moving the remaining five proved to be substantially easier. Working in relays, they carried each chest down the tunnel, into the cavern, and through the internal waterfall and then left it before going back to collect another one. When all six chests had been positioned there, they took a breather while Toscanelli decided what to do next.
“We can’t lug these chests around,” he said. “The Swiss are an observant nation, and if we’re seen with an obviously medieval wooden chest in the back of a car—and that’s assuming it would fit—I’m quite certain the police or some other official would stop us and start asking awkward questions. So what we need to do is hire a closed van or truck big enough to hold all six chests and keep them out of sight. Then we can simply drive over the border into Italy and deliver them to our headquarters in Rome.”
“So you think this is the Templar Archive?” Mario asked. “The second most important part of the assets of the order that our ancestral brothers were looking for seven hundred years ago? But we still have no idea where to find the lost treasure of the Templars itself? Or their wealth?”
Toscanelli lifted the lid of one of the chests and picked a document—a folded piece of parchment—at random, then opened it.
“I don’t read Latin,” he said, by way of answer, “but even I can see that the seal at the bottom of this piece of parchment is Templar in origin. So yes, I do think we’ve found the archive. As for the rest of it, I have no idea where that trail will lead us.”
He tossed the parchment back inside the chest and closed the lid. “Salvatori and I will go and hire a van right now. The rest of you, stay here until we get back. We’ll be as quick as we can, but it’s bound to take us at least a couple of hours.”
“What about Nico?” Mario asked.
“What about him?”
“Do you want to just leave him there? Or should we try to bury him?”
“He’s already buried,” Toscanelli replied, with a wintry smile. “He just needs covering up, and there are plenty of stones and rocks in this place that you can use. You can say a prayer for him as well. But before you do,” he added, “one of you needs to climb down into that pit and recover his pistol and spare ammunition, and anything else he has in his pockets. It might be a hundred years before anyone else comes in here and stumbles on his remains, but it’s not worth taking a chance.”
Minutes later, Toscanelli and Salvatori stepped out of the cave and through the waterfall.
* * *
It was late afternoon, but the sun was still high in the sky as the two men walked briskly down the valley toward the stand of trees that led to the car park.
On the hillside above them, the spotter watched their progress while talking to their anonymous employer on his mobile.
“They’re definitely not carrying anything?” he asked.
“Not unless it’s small enough to fit into a pocket of their trousers or jackets,” he replied. “I think,” he added, “that these two are a part of the original group of four men who went into the cave after the British couple, but I can’t be certain of that.”
“Right. Keep watching.”
“I’m getting fed up with this,” the spotter murmured as the call ended. “I’ve no idea what the hell is happening
inside that cave or who these men are. Or even who the voice at the end of the phone belongs to.”
“You talk too much,” the sniper said equably, well used to his colleague’s grumbling and complaining. “Just remember we’re being paid well for this, and so far we’ve not even had to kill anyone.”
* * *
Salvatori backed the car out of the parking space as Toscanelli clicked the buckle of his seat belt into place.
“Head back to Schwyz,” he instructed. “There should be a vehicle hire company somewhere there.”
On the way down the hill toward the town, Toscanelli pulled out his smartphone and switched on the tracker.
Pulsing steadily on the screen was a single return, confirmation—not that any was needed—that the target’s car was still where it should be, tucked in among the trees at the end of the road.
After a couple of false starts, the two Italians stopped outside a small commercial vehicle hire company on the outskirts of the town. Toscanelli went inside and a little over a quarter of an hour later he drove out of the yard that abutted the office building at the wheel of a medium-sized white closed van. The logo on the back said that it was called a “Jumper.”
He stopped the vehicle by the curb and waited for Salvatori to walk over to him.
“There’s no need for us to take both of these back up to the valley,” he said. “Lock the car and come with me. We’ll pick it up later.”
About twenty minutes later, Toscanelli pulled the van
off the road and parked it so that the rear of the vehicle would be easily accessible. Then he and Salvatori walked through the patch of woodland and headed toward the forked waterfall at the end of the valley.
* * *
When the two secondary targets had left, the spotter had left the sniper in place, covering the entrance to the cave behind the waterfall, while he himself had retraced his steps, walking back along the hillside until he reached a position from which he could see the rudimentary parking area beside the woodland. And there he had remained until he saw the white van approaching. He waited until he was sure of the identity of the two occupants—they were the same two Italians who had earlier driven away in one of the hire cars—and then reported in.
“Two of them drove away in a car,” he told their employer, “and they’ve just driven back in a white van, probably another hire job. My guess is that they found something bulky inside the cave, something too big to fit in a car, and they’re about to bring it out and put it in the back of that van.”
“Excellent news,” the anonymous man replied, his voice tinged with excitement. “We’re on our way. Whatever happens, do not let those men put anything in the back of that vehicle. How far is it between the waterfall and the parking area?”
“Probably a couple of hundred meters, and it’s very secluded.”
“Good. Try to intercept them somewhere in that valley. We’ll be with you within the hour. Use whatever force
is necessary, but try not to damage the van. We may need to use that ourselves.”
* * *
Once Toscanelli and Salvatori stepped back through the waterfall and into the cave, they quickly organized the removal of the chests. The most awkward part of the operation was clearly going to be lifting them through the waterfall itself, because the weight of the water falling onto the chests would effectively increase their mass significantly, meaning that it would be impossible for only two men to carry one.
“We’ll use those timbers,” Toscanelli said. “We’ll take a couple of the shorter ones and use them as a kind of stretcher for each of the chests. The wood is heavy, but doing that means we can have four people doing the lifting, and we can bring the chests out sideways, so that they’ll be under the waterfall for the shortest possible period of time.”
“Hang on a minute,” Mario said. “I’ve got a better idea, or rather a variation on that. If we take two of the longer pieces of timber, we can extend them through the waterfall and into the pond and then slide the chests along them. Use the wood as a kind of ramp. Two people in here to lift the chests onto the timber, and two people standing in the pool outside to lift them off once they’re clear of the falling water.”
“That’s good thinking,” Toscanelli conceded, “and doing that should be a lot faster as well.”
They selected two of the timbers that were roughly
equal in length and the same thickness and pushed them forward, through the curtain of water and down into the pool, making sure that they were lying parallel to each other, and about one meter apart.
Then Mario and Salvatori pulled on their waterproof clothing and stepped down into the pool. Inside the cave, Paolo and Carlo lifted up the first of the chests and rested it on the ends of the lengths of timber. While they held it in position, Toscanelli wrapped a piece of waterproof tarpaulin over the top of it, to protect it and its precious contents from the falling water.
When everything was ready, they pushed the old wooden chest forward, through the waterfall, and into the waiting arms of the other two men.
It was a lot easier than any of them had expected, the force of the waterfall actually helping to move the chests along the timbers, and it took less than fifteen minutes to complete the operation. They pulled the lengths of wood back into the cave, because leaving them exposed would obviously attract attention, and they knew they might still have to go back inside again, with the right kind of tools, if Vitale decided that they did need to recover the small chest that Mario had seen—or that he thought he might have seen, to be absolutely accurate—just before the Englishman triggered the final Templar booby trap.
With all six chests resting on the ground beside the waterfall, the Italians stripped off their waterproof garments and replaced them in the bag. Then four of them set off down the valley toward the hired van, each pair
carrying one chest between them, and leaving Mario by the waterfall with the remaining four boxes, just in case some wandering stranger appeared.
But they were only about halfway down the valley when a figure seemed to almost literally materialize in front of them. One moment that part of the valley appeared to be completely empty apart from the four of them, and the next second a nightmarish shape, the outline blurred and distended by the ghillie suit it was wearing, seemed to erupt from the ground just yards away.
But it wasn’t the shape of the figure that stopped the Italians in their tracks. It was the sight of the SPAS-12 combat shotgun it was holding, the muzzle pointed directly toward them, and the unmistakable sound as the stranger worked the action to chamber a round.
* * *
Mallory hadn’t replied to Robin’s remark, because there really didn’t seem anything useful that he could say.
Instead he’d switched off his flashlight and waited for his eyes to become accustomed to the dark, hoping against hope that he would see some glimmer of light that might suggest there was a way out of their new prison. But the blackness was total, and after a couple of minutes he switched his flashlight on again.
“I was just—” he began, but Robin interrupted him.
“I know what you were trying to do.”
Robin switched on her flashlight as well, shone it all around the space they had found themselves in, then switched it off.
“The Templars did a pretty good job of that, didn’t
they?” she asked. “It could take days, maybe even weeks, to shift enough of those stones to get through to the other side, and we’d be dead long before we were even halfway there. In fact, it’s even possible that that rockfall is airtight, in which case we’ll suffocate long before we die of thirst or starve. There’s a kind of rule of three somebody told me ages ago: three minutes without oxygen, three days without water, or three weeks without food. They’re all death sentences. And not a single one of them is an attractive option.”
Mallory nodded, because again he couldn’t think of a useful response. His mind was racing, figuring the angles, wondering if there was any possible way out, anything they could do. But they already knew the tunnel had been hacked out of the solid rock, and Robin was right about the tumble of rocks and boulders in front of them: there were just too many, and most or all of them would be too heavy to move.
But they still had to try to find a way out. And so, doing their best to conserve the life of the batteries in their flashlights, they examined almost every inch of their rocky prison, tapping the walls and checking the floor and ceiling for any crack or crevice that might possibly provide an escape route. After about half an hour, they ended up back again against the blank end wall of the tunnel, at the spot where they’d started, their patience exhausted and their last hopes dashed.
“So that’s it, then,” Robin said. “We’ve looked everywhere, and there’s definitely no handy escape tunnel. There’s no way out of this place. We’ve escaped getting
shot, but we’ve managed to imprison ourselves in a stone tomb instead. I think, on the whole, I would have preferred to get shot.”