Authors: James Becker
“Yes,” Mallory said shortly. “And I know it’s too late now, but I’m really sorry I got you into this.”
“Hang on a minute.” Robin sounded more irritated than anything. “You didn’t get me into anything. I walked into this with my eyes open, just like you did. And I still think triggering that Templar trap was the right thing to do. If we hadn’t, right now we’d be lying dead on the floor of this cave. At least we’re still alive. Deep in the shit, I grant you, but still alive.”
Mallory wrapped his arms around her and squeezed her tight, tucking her head under his chin.
“Sorry,” he said again, staring into the utter blackness that surrounded and enveloped them.
Then he released her because against all the odds he’d just seen something. And just thought of something else.
* * *
Toscanelli reacted first. Maintaining his grip on the metal handle of the chest, he spoke in Italian to his companions. “He can’t kill us all. On my command, drop the chests, split, and then take him down.”
can’t kill you all,” the figure said, in equally fluent Italian, his words relayed through his mobile to the sniper on the hillside above, “but my friend can. Look at your chest.”
Toscanelli glanced down and there, right in the middle of his torso, was a tiny but fiercely bright red dot. And even as he looked, the dot skipped sideways, settling on each of his companions in turn before returning to Toscanelli.
“You have some things that don’t belong to you, inside those chests you’re carrying, and the people we work for want them back. So what I want you to do is lower those two chests to the ground, because your arms must be aching by now. Then you can step back and then, one at a time, each of you take out your pistol with your left hand and put it on the ground. Don’t even think about doing anything stupid, because if I don’t kill you, my friend on the hillside with his long rifle certainly will. This is an open valley, so you’ve got nowhere to hide and you can’t outrun a bullet.”
The spotter gestured with the end of the barrel of the SPAS-12 and the Italians lowered both the chests, then followed his instructions and removed their pistols as well. Once all five weapons—Toscanelli had been carrying Nico’s pistol in his pocket as well as his own—were on the ground, the spotter ordered the men to step back and sit down cross-legged, because that would make it impossible for any of them to get up quickly. Then he collected the weapons and placed them on the ground behind him and well away from the Italians.
“Now what?” Toscanelli demanded, his voice grating.
“Now we wait.”
“For some other people to arrive. When they do, they’ll decide what to do with you.”
Toscanelli didn’t like the sound of that, but he—and the others—knew there was nothing they could do about it. Right then, they were outgunned and vulnerable. Their only ace in the hole was Mario, still armed and no doubt
watching what was happening from beside the waterfall. But Toscanelli also knew that the sniper, hidden somewhere on the neighboring hillside, would undoubtedly be watching him as well as them, and at the first hostile move could kill him as easily as swatting a fly.
The only sound in the valley, apart from the occasional snatch of birdsong and the noise of insects, was the continuous and unvarying roar of the waterfall, but then a new sound began to intrude. At first, it seemed little more than a subtle alteration in the noise of the tumbling water, but after a few moments it was obvious to all of them that the direction the sound was coming from was entirely different—from down the valley rather than from its end—and that the noise was mechanical in origin. It was the sound of a big diesel engine, probably turbocharged, and within seconds it was also clear that there was more than one vehicle.
Out of sight of all of the participants, about a minute later three Mercedes four-by-four G-Wagens drove up to the end of the road and parked in a line across the center of the open area. Six men, all wearing dark suits, emerged from them, stood together in a group for a few moments, then set off through the patch of woodland toward the end of the valley.
“Company,” the sniper said softly into his Bluetooth earpiece. “Six men, no visible weapons, approaching from behind you.”
The spotter glanced quickly over his shoulder, then looked back at the Italians. He moved over to one side,
away from the hillside where his partner was located so as not to get in his line of fire—you could never be too careful in his game—and clear of the path the six newcomers were taking.
Nobody spoke. Toscanelli and his companions were switching their attention between the approaching men and the spotter, just in case any opportunity to escape or turn the tables presented itself, though the ever-present unwinking red eye of the sniper’s laser target designator, roaming among them, ensured that they didn’t dare move.
The six men came to a halt just a few feet away.
Toscanelli stared at them. They looked like successful middle-aged businessmen, which was not at all what he had expected. Their dark suits and highly polished shoes suggested they would be far more at home in a boardroom or office somewhere than in an anonymous valley deep in the Swiss countryside. They didn’t look like criminals, and that at least suggested that he could try to negotiate with them.
“Six men went inside the cave,” the spotter reported in German as the new arrivals stopped and looked at him, “but only these five came out. The principal targets, the English man and woman, are still in there. I stopped these four carrying these two chests down the valley. The fifth man is still up there near the waterfall, with another four chests. He hasn’t moved since I showed myself.”
“And your colleague?” one of the men asked. “Where is he?”
“On the hillside, covering all of us.”
“Can you ask him to join us?” the man asked, glancing toward the side of the hill.
The spotter shook his head firmly. “He’ll stay where he is. He’s my insurance policy against any possible problems.”
The man’s smile slipped slightly.
“Do you think we intend to betray you?” he asked. “Try to shoot you, or something?”
“I have no idea what you intend to do,” the spotter said. “But I’ve been betrayed before. So he stays where he is, watching everything that happens, until this is over. If I go down, he’ll kill every one of you. And we’re linked through our mobiles as well, so he can hear everything that I say.”
“There’ll be no deception on our part; of that I can assure you.”
“So you say.” The spotter sounded entirely unconvinced. “Anyway, this is your show, and we’ve done our bit in stopping these guys, so over to you.”
Toscanelli had watched, but not understood, the exchange in German between the two men, but he had formed the opinion that they were not on the best of terms. Perhaps working together out of necessity, but coming from very different molds: probably principal and mercenary. So as the man in the suit turned in his direction, he spoke up.
“Before you do anything,” he said in English, hoping it might be a common language, “you need to know that we all hold diplomatic passports, and that our whereabouts is known to our government.”
The man stared at him for a moment, then nodded.
“I already knew that,” he replied. “I presume you’re either Marco Toscanelli or Salvatori Vitolli, as those two were the last of the group to arrive in Switzerland,
presumably only traveling here after your minions had identified the target. But I doubt very much if your government has the slightest idea where any of you are, because no government actually issued your passports. That was the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, though I’ve no doubt you’ve been keeping your Dominican masters in the Via di Sant’Alessio fully briefed with your progress.”
That was absolutely the last thing that Toscanelli had expected the man to say, and he immediately revised his opinion of the new arrivals. They might look like businessmen, but the level of knowledge that that man had just displayed meant that either he was a senior member of the Swiss government or alternatively he had access to somebody who was. And that altered the game, and the odds.
“What are you going to do with us?” Mario asked.
“Anything we want,” the man in the suit said coldly. “It all depends on what we find inside those chests.”
Canton of Schwyz, Switzerland
“We’re not dead yet,” Mallory said, “and something’s just dawned on me.”
“What? And this had better be good.”
“Two things. First of all, I can see just the faintest glimmer of light down there. It must have taken all this time for my eyes to adjust to the darkness.”
“You mean there is a way out? You can see it?”
“Not exactly. Or not yet, anyway. But think about it,” he went on, taking Robin’s hand and leading her down the cavern toward the rockfall. “We’ve just triggered the Templars’ last booby trap in this cave system. When they constructed it, they would have known that releasing that timber was going to completely block the tunnel—which it has—but as we said before, they weren’t suicidal. And they would also have known that if they were being
attacked by a large force, that rockfall wouldn’t have been enough. A hundred men, equipped with picks and shovels and ropes, would be able to get through it in a few days, and if they did, then whatever assets the Templars had dragged in here to this end of the tunnel and were trying to protect would be captured.”
“Which means what, exactly?”
“Which means that the rockfall trap could only ever have been intended to be a delaying tactic, just something to hold up their enemies long enough for the Templars to escape and to take their assets with them. There
to be another way out of here.”
“Are you just saying that to keep my spirits up?” Robin asked, more than a hint of weariness in her voice.
“No. Definitely not. Look, we know the walls and floor here are solid, and the Templars would have known roughly how big an area those rocks would occupy once they were released, so the only possible way out of here is straight up. In fact, straight up the hole that those rocks have just come out of. It’s the only possible escape route.”
Robin grabbed his arm.
is bloody good thinking,” she said. “Let’s get to it.”
The height of the tunnel was around twelve feet, and as they approached the edge of the fallen rocks they shone their flashlights upward, into the dark cavity out of which the boulders had tumbled.
It was roughly circular, almost like the bottom of a funnel down which the stones had tumbled. That was not
unexpected, given what they had witnessed, but Mallory realized it posed a very obvious problem: how were they going to be able to climb up it?
“I’ll clamber up these rocks and take a look,” he said, switching off his flashlight as Robin turned hers on to guide his footsteps.
The boulders were heavy enough that he had no doubt they would provide a firm foothold, and in a few seconds he was able to look up into the open space above him. And as he did so, he began to laugh.
“What is it?”
“I’ll do better than tell you,” Mallory said. “If you come up here I’ll show you.”
He shone the beam of his flashlight so that Robin could see the best route to climb, and in seconds she was standing beside him.
“So show me.”
Mallory shone his flashlight up, the beam revealing the smooth walls above them.
“There’s no way we’re going to be able to climb that,” Robin said, “so I hope that wasn’t what you were laughing at.”
“It wasn’t. You know we can’t climb that, and I know we can’t climb that. But there’s something else.”
* * *
With a gesture to his colleagues to follow him, the man strode across to the first of the chests and lifted the lid. He and the other men peered inside, and then one of them reached into the chest and took out a handful of documents. He selected one of them, a folded sheet of
parchment, opened it up, and then handed it to the man who was clearly the oldest member of the group.
He studied it carefully, his eyes and his right forefinger tracing the lines of faded Latin text, while the other men watched.
After a few moments, he shook his head, folded the parchment again, and handed it back, taking a second document from the other man. This time, his inspection was even quicker, and at the end of it he again shook his head. He issued a brief instruction in German, handed back the document, and stepped over to the open chest. There, he thrust his hands down into the pile of documents, reaching deep into the chest. He seized something, held it out, and looked at it. And, again, he shook his head, tossing the piece of folded parchment back into the chest.
He strode over to the other chest, opened it, and began scrabbling through the documents that it contained. He selected three from different levels in the contents and inspected each in turn, with the same result.
He called out the name Marcel, and the man who appeared to be the leader of the small group, the one who had spoken to Toscanelli, walked over to him and they had a brief conversation. Marcel then stepped in front of the seated Italians and issued a series of simple instructions.
“You will go back to the waterfall and bring the remaining four chests here,” he ordered. “I presume the other member of your group waiting there is armed, so just in case you get any ideas about indulging in some heroics, let me remind you that the sniper will be watching everything
you do. So when you get about twenty meters from that man, you are to tell him to take out his pistol, hold it up so that the sniper can clearly identify it as his weapon, and he is then to throw it into the pool below the waterfall. If he fails to do this or there is any doubt that he has actually disposed of it, I will instruct the sniper to kill one of you. The remaining four, or five if you’ve behaved, can carry the chests. If any of you do anything other than follow those instructions, the sniper will kill you. Now go.”
Hardly taking their eyes off the spotter and the muzzle of his combat shotgun, the Italians clambered to their feet and headed up the valley toward the waterfall.
“Is there anything we can do?” Mario asked, once they were out of earshot.
“Nothing,” Toscanelli replied bitterly. “At the moment, they hold all the cards. But all of you, keep your eyes open and if you see an opportunity, take it.”
* * *
“More important,” Mallory went on, “the Templars also knew that they couldn’t climb it.” He shifted slightly to one side and pointed. “So they helpfully built a staircase.”
He pointed his flashlight over to one side so that Robin could see what he had found. A matter of about three feet above them, just above the bottom of what Mallory had mentally termed “the funnel,” and in an oval opening on one side, was the start of a rough-hewn staircase that led upward, curving gently out of sight.
“That was their escape route, the way out of here that they would use as a last resort,” he said. “I’ve no idea where
it goes, but I can’t believe it won’t lead somewhere that will get us out of this cave system.”
They climbed down from the rock pile and Mallory retrieved most of the length of the climbing rope, cutting it off where it vanished underneath the fallen stones. He knew they wouldn’t need the rope to reach the stone staircase, but he thought it might well prove useful later.
The presence of the staircase also meant that they could take the small chest with them. It was heavy, but Mallory could lift and carry it unaided if necessary, and in the narrow confines of the staircase they would be able to manage it between them.
“You know,” Mallory said as they reached the top of the rock pile again and prepared to start their ascent, “this is a really clever piece of design. And it must’ve been bloody hard work to construct it. There was probably a natural cleft in the rock already that connected the end of the tunnel to the mountainside above. I guess they opened it up to create the funnel, and hacked the staircase into the rock alongside it to provide their escape route. They would then have had to build that massive wooden platform down in the tunnel to seal the base and erect the heavy timbers to hold it in place before they filled the funnel with stones from the top.”
“And of course the rockslide did two separate things,” Robin agreed. “It blocked the tunnel to keep their enemies at bay, and would also have provided the Templars with a way of climbing up to reach the bottom step of the staircase, just as we’re doing now. You’re right: it’s a very
clever idea that, as it’s turned out, has worked exactly as they’d intended, just about seven hundred years later than they would probably have expected.”
The staircase was twisting and narrow, the builders obviously having taken advantage of the natural fissures and cracks in the rock to make their work easier, and it changed direction fairly frequently, though always keeping close to the side of the funnel, as they saw at intervals.
Neither of them was counting steps, but Mallory guessed they’d probably climbed at least fifty or sixty before they finally saw daylight in front of them. A few seconds later, they reached the end of the stone staircase and stepped out of a more or less oblong opening and onto a flat stone at the bottom of a pit about eight feet deep. Set into the sides of it were flat stones, clearly intended as steps to allow someone to leave the pit.
Carrying the chest up them was clearly not practical, because they were far too narrow, so Mallory took out his climbing rope, lashed it carefully around the chest, and then climbed out of the pit, carrying the remainder of the rope. Once he was standing on level ground, he pulled on the rope as Robin lifted the chest from the stone below, and in a couple of minutes they were both out of the pit and looking around, the chest lying on the ground in front of them.
Robin looked back down into the pit with a thoughtful expression on her face.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Mallory said. “These hills are probably full of hikers during the summer
months, and the top of that staircase is clearly visible, so why didn’t somebody spot it?”
“Got it in one,” Robin said. “So what’s the answer?”
Mallory grinned at her. “I think it’s really very simple. Nobody spotted the staircase because it wasn’t there. Look, the sides of the pit are bare earth. If they’d been exposed for any length of time, there’d be grass and plants growing all over them. I think that stone we stood on to climb out was originally at ground level, just another rock sticking out of the grass on the hillside. But unlike every other stone, it was resting on the top of that pile of rocks that tumbled down into the tunnel. When those rocks were freed, it fell down about eight feet and jammed itself, probably into a narrow cleft in the bedrock below, exactly as the Templars intended, and in doing so it exposed the staircase and at the same time provided a stable platform that they could have used to get out.”
Robin looked at him. “I know I wasn’t entirely convinced you were doing the right thing down there, but I’m really glad you spotted that release device and decided to activate it. Talk about a clean getaway. Do you think the Italians are at the bottom of that rock pile, or on the other side of it?”
Mallory shrugged. “We were able to get out of the way easily enough, so I don’t see any reason why they couldn’t have done the same. And that means they’re not out of the game. They can get out of the cave system the same way we came in, so we’ll probably run into them again.”
“That’s what I thought, so what do we do now?”
Mallory pointed at the chest. “What we can’t do is run around Switzerland carrying that between us. So we need to walk down this mountain and work our way around the hills and back to where we left the car. And because we know that the Italians have been following us, we need to find another hotel and another car as soon as possible.”
“And then we see exactly what we’ve got in that chest. Once we know that, we’ll be able to decide what to do about it.”
* * *
When the Italians reached the waterfall, they did precisely what they had been told to do, and about ten minutes later they’d walked back to where the other men waited and lowered both chests to the ground beside the first two. Then they repeated the journey, and recovered the final two chests.
Once again, the older man selected a random sample of documents from each of these chests as well, and examined them carefully. But none of the documents appeared to be what he was looking for.
Again, he had a brief conversation in German with Marcel, who then walked over and stood directly in front of Toscanelli.
think is in those chests?” Marcel asked.
The Italian knew there was no point in prevaricating. In his view, the identity of the documents—what they were—was self-evident.
“I believe we’ve found the Archive of the Knights Templar,” he said simply.
Marcel clapped his hands in a manner that could only be described as ironic. “Bravo. Well done. And that’s exactly what you have found. Unfortunately we know from our research that the order maintained two separate archives. The one that’s contained in these chests is certainly one of them, but not the one we’re looking for. What you’ve stumbled upon are the day-to-day records of the transactions that the Templars conducted, the loans, deposits, and payments and so on that they made as a part of their normal business. What we’re looking for is the other archive, the records of major capital acquisitions, grants of land and property, and the like. That would fit in a box that would be, most probably, much smaller than even one of these chests, and it would almost certainly be locked.”
Marcel looked appraisingly at Toscanelli.
“Now,” he said, “despite your diplomatic passports and the illegal weapons you were all carrying, I’m quite sure that your interest in the Templar Archive is purely academic. No doubt you intend to take these chests and the documents that they contain back to Rome with you where they can be properly studied and eventually a few selected items might be placed on display in some of the better European museums. And the good news from your point of view is that we are perfectly prepared to let you do this. I noticed that you came here in a large van, easily capable of accommodating these six chests, and I might even be prepared to provide you with a document that will avoid the vehicle being inspected at the border, just in case your passports don’t do the trick.”