Authors: James Becker
Toscanelli nodded, the man’s comments reinforcing
his belief that Marcel was most likely a senior figure in the Swiss government.
“I have a feeling,” he said, “that there’s a large ‘but’ coming at the start of your next sentence.”
“There is, and I’m glad we understand each other,” Marcel said, with a brief and insincere smile. “All this is contingent upon you answering a couple of questions completely truthfully, and to my satisfaction. If you don’t do that, we may just decide to dump your bodies in the cave behind the waterfall. Where, if I’m not mistaken, one member of your group has already lost his life, because he certainly hasn’t walked out of the entrance. We’d rather not do that, because it would be messy and take time that we really haven’t got, but just remember that it’s still an option.”
He again smiled bleakly at the Italian, and in that moment Toscanelli saw himself in the other man’s eyes. He was a stone-cold killer as well, polished and urbane, but underneath the veneer of culture and civilization Toscanelli knew Marcel could be just as brutal and vicious as anyone he had ever met. Cooperating with him was the only way he and his men were ever going to walk out of that valley, and right then Toscanelli knew it.
“Now,” Marcel continued, “have you also recovered a smaller chest or box?”
Toscanelli shook his head. “No. When we got inside the cavern, all we found were the six boxes you see here. But we weren’t the first to get in there.”
“I know. Mallory and Jessop were ahead of you.”
“You know about them?” Toscanelli’s surprise was obvious from the tone of his voice.
“We know almost everything. Our sources are both impeccable and reliable. Did you catch up with them in the tunnels or caves? They got inside sometime before you and your men did.”
“We almost caught up with them in the final cavern, but they triggered an ancient Templar booby trap that nearly caught us. But what it did do was imprison them behind a wall of rock.”
“Tell me what happened. From the time you entered the cave system.”
Toscanelli briefly described how they’d followed the English couple, the booby trap that had killed Nico, and the trigger that had released the first rockfall.
“How did you get around it?” Marcel asked.
“The rocks didn’t reach the roof of the cave, and we managed to shift enough of them to work our way up to the top.”
“When we got into the larger cavern, the chests weren’t piled up, just standing on the floor of the cave, but I think when they’d been abandoned they’d probably been stacked one on top of the other, covering the entrance to the final tunnel. There were marks in the debris on the floor of the cave that suggested that.”
“So presumably Mallory and Jessop had moved them,” Marcel suggested.
“That’s what I thought. We carried on along the
tunnel, and we’d almost reached the two of them at the very end of it when they used a rope to release another rockfall. It all happened so quickly that we couldn’t see how they’d done it, but I suppose they’d identified another of the Templars’ booby traps and decided to trigger it rather than face us.”
“Presumably they knew you were going to kill them—that was your intention, obviously—so that might have seemed their only option at the time. They’d hope to find another way out rather than face a bullet.”
“Maybe,” Toscanelli agreed, “but it didn’t do them any good. That last rockfall was even bigger than the first, and they were standing in a dead-end tunnel with no way out. They’re going to die behind that rock pile.”
“At least we know where they are,” Marcel said, “and there’s an obvious question I need to ask.”
“I know,” Toscanelli replied. “Did they have a smaller box or chest with them? And I can’t give you an answer. I didn’t see anything, but Mario”—he pointed at him—“thinks he might have seen something like that in the tunnel before the roof fell in.”
“I can’t be certain what it was,” Mario said when Marcel turned his gaze to look at him, “but I think there was what looked like a box near the end of the tunnel. We only had flashlights, and we were trying to find the English couple, so that’s what we were looking for. But my flashlight did pick out something. I’m sure of that.”
“How big? Like a suitcase? Or something bigger?”
Mario paused before he replied, doing his best to replay the event in his mind. “Bigger, I think. What I really
noticed was that it seemed out of place—I do remember that. Straight edges and square corners where everything else was rounded. The rocks, I mean.”
Marcel nodded. “That could be what we’re looking for. And at least we now know where it is.” He paused for a few moments, considering, then continued. “That final rockfall—you said it blocked the tunnel completely, but presumably it would be possible to move enough of the stones to get through to the other side?”
“Yes,” Toscanelli agreed, “but it wouldn’t be easy, and you’d probably need special equipment, hydraulic jacks, hoists, and that kind of thing, because some of the stones are definitely too big to be moved by muscle power alone. But a properly equipped team of men could probably get through it in a couple of days.”
“We’ll think about that,” Marcel said. “But I think we’ll leave it for two or three weeks to make sure that Mallory and Jessop are dead. That will save us having to shoot them if they’re still alive when we break through, and means we can explain away their deaths as a potholing expedition that went disastrously wrong.”
He glanced at Toscanelli, then swept his gaze along the line of seated men, considering his options.
“I think you’d all better leave,” he said. “Leave this valley, and get out of Switzerland. As soon as possible. Take the chests with you because we don’t want them. I’m sure you’ll be able to talk your way across the border into Italy with them. Leave the weapons. We’ll take care of them. If I see any of you again, I’ll have you killed. Now go.”
Twenty minutes later, Toscanelli watched Salvatori and
Mario lift the final chest up and into the back of the closed van.
“That’s it,” he said as Mario closed and locked the rear doors of the vehicle. “We’re out of here.”
“Where are we going?” Mario asked. “And what are we going to do about the English couple?”
“We’re going to do exactly what that Swiss guy told us to do, because we don’t have any other choice. We’ve got the lost Archive of the Templars in the back of that van, and our first priority is to get it back to Rome. Don’t forget that that Swiss expert—I suppose that’s what he was—only looked at a handful of the documents they contain, and I think there’s a good chance that the other deeds and stuff might well be somewhere in those chests, despite what he said. And as for Mallory and Jessop, they’re as good as dead already, and they know it.”
“And the smaller chest I saw?”
“I know we talked it up, but you aren’t certain you saw a chest, Mario. But even if you did, there’s nothing we can do about it. You can bet that the Swiss will keep that cave entrance under surveillance from now on until they move in and shift those rocks, and if we try to get involved they’ll just blow us away. I know Marcel’s type: he’s a killer and if he said he was going to shoot us, that’s exactly what he’d do. We’re lucky we’re walking away from this right now.”
Toscanelli looked at the men standing in a rough half circle around him. “This is the end of it as far as we’re concerned. Mario—you and Carlo can go in the van. Get back to the hotel, pick up your stuff, and then drive the
van to Rome. I’ll go in the car with Salvatori and Paolo. We’ll collect the other hire car, hand them both back, and then fly out of here.”
The three men watched as the van reversed out of the parking space, maneuvered around the three Mercedes G-Wagens that partially obstructed the road, and headed off down the valley. Then they walked over to their hire car. Paolo reversed out and then swung the steering wheel to follow the white van. As they started driving down the road, Salvatori glanced out of the side window by the backseat.
“Stop,” he said urgently.
Paolo hit the brakes hard, and the car slewed to a stop.
“What?” Toscanelli demanded.
“Over there,” Salvatori said, pointing to the opposite side of the rough parking area.
“I don’t see anything.”
“Exactly. That’s the point. The car that Mallory and Jessop were driving has gone. Somebody’s driven it away.”
Toscanelli pushed open the passenger door and stood beside the vehicle, his keen eyes checking every possible parking spot at the end of the road. But Salvatori was right. There was no sign of the car that he knew the English couple had been using.
He sat down again in the front passenger seat and motioned for Paolo to drive on. At the same time, he took out his smartphone, swiped his fingertip across the screen to wake it up, and then navigated to the tracker app. He studied the screen for a few moments, then started laughing.
“The tracker is on the move,” he said.
“They must be in front of us,” Paolo said. “How far ahead?”
“They aren’t ahead of us, according to this,” Toscanelli replied, “and nor are they behind us. In fact, they’re exactly matching pace with us.”
Both Paolo and Salvatori instinctively glanced out of the windows, despite already knowing that they were in the only vehicle on the road.
“I don’t know—” Paolo began, but Toscanelli immediately interrupted him.
“I know you don’t. That’s why I do your thinking for you. It means that Mallory must have found the tracker we placed on his car, and he’s returned the favor. Somewhere on this vehicle the tracker is working perfectly, sending a signal to the three of us, sitting inside it.”
“And that also means,” Salvatori said, “that the English couple must have somehow managed to find a way out of that cavern after the rockslide.”
“Exactly. And that means we know something that the Swiss don’t, because they’ll be looking in the wrong place, digging their way through a massive rockfall into an empty chamber. So now we’re back in the game.”
“What made you think there was a tracking device on the car?” Robin asked.
“Just because of the way they knew where we were. On these roads, up here in the mountains, there isn’t that much traffic, and I was taking particular note of any cars that seemed to be following us. Which was easy, because there really weren’t any. But despite that, when we went into that cave system, the Italians turned up right after us, and that more or less meant that they already knew where we were going. So there really had to be a tracker somewhere on the car. It was the only thing that made sense.”
Robin’s face clouded slightly. “And you still think it was a good idea to attach the tracker to that car, the one the Italians must have been using?”
“I don’t think it’ll make any difference. They would have seen that our car had gone when they left the parking
area at the end of the valley, and that would have told them that we must have found a way out of the cave. And I think attaching the tracker to their car would have sent them a clear message that we know they’re watching us and that we’ll be on our guard.”
“What about the second tracking device?”
“Yes. That was a bit unexpected. I can only assume that it was a kind of belt-and-braces precaution on their behalf, having a second tracker already in place in case the first one failed. It was odd that they were two different types, though. I would have expected them both to be the same model.”
When they’d returned to their car, they put the small chest in the trunk. Mallory hadn’t started the engine, just let the car roll slowly backward down the slight slope before turning it around, again using the vehicle’s momentum, and coasting down the hill and away from the valley. He’d switched on the ignition so that the steering wheel was unlocked, and waited until they were some distance away from the patch of woodland before starting the engine by slipping the gear lever into third and releasing the clutch pedal as they coasted down the hill. Hopefully the sound of the engine starting wouldn’t have been heard by the Italians, or by the unidentified owners of the three black Mercedes G-Wagens. And there’d been no sign of pursuit, so Mallory reckoned it had worked.
They’d driven straight back to their hotel, collected their bags, and checked out. They’d talked about surrendering the hire car, just to muddy the waters somewhat. But eventually they decided that doing so wouldn’t
really help, because it would take time that they hadn’t got. And they would also have had to take a taxi to the new car rental company, and even the most unobservant cabdriver might well notice and remember an English couple hauling around an obviously medieval chest.
Speed, Mallory believed, was far more important, and trying to track down their rental vehicle without relying on a tracker would be difficult, perhaps even impossible. They needed to get out of Schwyz so that the Italians would have no idea where to even start looking for them. He flipped a mental coin and steered the car north out of the town.
“Where are we going?” Robin asked.
“I don’t know exactly, but we’re heading northish up toward Lake Zürich. There are good fast roads up there, plus railway stations, and the border with Liechtenstein isn’t that far away if we need to get out of the country. There are several towns along the southern shore of the lake, so we should find somewhere to stay there fairly easily.”
“And then we go to ground and try to work out what to do next. I don’t want to try to cross the border until we know for sure what’s in that chest.”
They ended up in Richterswil, very close to the lakeshore, but didn’t go near any of the hotels, because Mallory was worried. Instead he steered the car into a public parking area near a large group of shops, chose a spot at the far side, well out of the way, and switched off the engine.
“I’ve been thinking about that second tracking device,” he said, an apparent non sequitur to their previous
conversation. “There really wouldn’t be any need for the Italians to have put two of them on the car—one would have been quite enough.”
“And your point is?”
“I’m wondering if we’ve come to the attention of somebody else here in Switzerland. Or rather if what we’ve been doing has raised a red flag or two. Basically were our movements being monitored by some branch of the Swiss authorities,
as well as
those Italians? Hence the two trackers. One under each rear wheel arch.”
“I see what you mean,” Robin said. “If they are interested in us, renting a hotel room would be a really good way of letting them know where we are. They could track us by our passport numbers or credit cards, and we’d definitely have to use a card to take a hotel room.”
Mallory shook his head. “We could try to find some accommodation that’s off the books—a guesthouse or bed-and-breakfast place—but we could try something else first.”
He explained what he had in mind, and Robin nodded.
“That might work,” she agreed, “and the worst-case scenario is that they’d turn us away, so let’s give it a try. And if we can swing it, that would give us some breathing space and keep us below the radar at the same time.”
“Right. Now there’s something else I want to do first.”
Mallory and Robin climbed out of the car, opened the lid of the trunk, and spent a few minutes examining the wooden chest. Then Robin sat down in the driver’s seat and settled down to wait while Mallory headed off to
the group of shops they’d seen when they approached the car park.
One was a kind of general and hardware store, where he found a good selection of ironmongery. He wandered the aisles, picking up and discarding packets, and eventually selected an assortment of nails, bolts, and screws of different diameters, but all between four and six inches in length. About three doors down was a shop selling travel accessories, including cases and bags. There, he bought a capacious soft suitcase that looked as if it would be easily big enough to hold the wooden chest, and then he carried his purchases back to the hire car.
With Robin helping him, he lifted the chest and maneuvered it inside the soft bag and zipped it up, so that it looked just like a piece of regular travel luggage rather than an obviously medieval wooden chest.
“That’s a good fit,” Robin said approvingly. “What about the other stuff?”
“In my pocket,” Mallory said, pulling out a small paper bag and putting it in one of their other cases.
They drove out of the car park and headed east, toward the Swiss border with Liechtenstein, staying off the main roads and concentrating on the back streets where they would be more likely, Mallory hoped, to find a small hotel where the staff wouldn’t ask too many awkward questions.
Robin was using the mapping application on her smartphone to guide him toward the few hotels she’d found listed in the database. They rejected two for different reasons, but when the third came into view they decided it was worth trying.
“Let me do the talking,” Robin said. “I speak a bit of German, but I can also do the damsel-in-distress routine fairly convincingly. All you have to do is stand behind me looking worried and pissed off.”
“I can handle that,” Mallory said.
It was a small hotel, probably no more than a couple of dozen rooms, and with a small bar cum lounge on one side of the reception hall. The entrance was paneled in dark wood to about waist height and with somewhat faded wallpaper in a kind of floral pattern above this. It gave the appearance of a hotel that had left its best days behind it, but that still tried to cling to the values and traditions of the past. All this Mallory noted as he followed Robin over to the reception desk.
The girl standing behind it was wearing a dark green jacket with some kind of logo emblazoned on the left side of the chest, and greeted them with a warm smile and a couple of sentences in high-speed German that washed completely over Mallory’s head.
Robin moved her right hand up and down as if she were patting the head of an invisible child, the universal signal from one person to another to speak more slowly. Then she launched into a halting explanation in the same language to explain why neither of them had either a credit card or a passport about their person. But she’d barely even got started when the receptionist interrupted her.
“If you prefer,” she said, “we can speak English.”
They did prefer, very definitely.
“We have a problem,” Robin began. “Our car was broken into earlier today and my handbag and my
husband’s travel bag were both taken. We lost our passports and all our credit cards, but fortunately we were shopping at the time and so we still had cash in our pockets. We’ve contacted the Swiss police and we have been told to make a written report to them here in town tomorrow morning, but for now we just need a hotel room for a couple of nights.”
The receptionist’s smile had died away to a frown as Robin spoke.
“That is very unlike Switzerland,” she said briskly when Robin had finished. “It was probably an illegal immigrant or someone of that sort who robbed you. But you obviously should not have left the car unattended, or at least taken your bags with you. But,” she added, injecting a note of enthusiasm into her voice, “we can certainly let you have a room provided you have money to pay for it. We can process the registration information later, when you have had emergency travel documents issued to you.”
She passed over a sheet of paper with room rates printed on it.
“These are our current rates,” she said, “and in the circumstances we will obviously require payment in advance for both nights, and I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you for a security deposit as well to cover the cost of any meals or drinks.”
She took out a calculator, entered the figures that she needed, and then turned it around so that Mallory and Robin could see the final sum.
“Would that be all right?” she asked.
Mallory nodded and pulled out a wad of Swiss
francs—he’d drawn a decent sum at the airport when they arrived in Switzerland—counted out the required amount, and handed it over.
Ten minutes later, having registered as Mr. and Mrs. Devonshire, the first name that sprang into his head, Mallory carried the last of their bags—the soft suitcase containing the medieval chest—into the double room they’d booked on the second floor of the building. As Robin closed the door behind him, he unzipped the suitcase, lifted out the chest, and placed it on a small table against one wall of the room, a table that doubled as a desk. He looked carefully at the lid of the chest while Robin shone a flashlight at the old wood, supported by lightly rusted metal.
“There are quite a few holes in the wood,” he said. “Might be a bit of trial and error.”
“Try to keep the errors to a minimum,” Robin said. “Trials I don’t mind.”
Mallory opened the paper bag, took out the nails, and began gently inserting them into the holes they’d seen on the lid of the chest.
“They should go quite a long way in,” he said. “Some of these holes are only about half an inch deep, so they can’t have anything to do with the mechanism.”
Eventually he had identified three holes into which the five-inch nails sank virtually the whole way. He slid them home, then glanced at Robin.
“I think that’s it,” he said, “but there’s only one way to find out.”
He used the double-ended Allen keys to unlock the
chest, but took no chances when he lifted the lid. He placed the chest on the floor, made sure Robin was well clear, then stood behind it and lifted the lid. The lethal blades that had been triggered the first time he did that remained harmlessly in place, which was almost an anticlimax. Clearly he’d identified the correct locking positions and the nails he’d inserted had jammed the mechanism.
The logic was simple enough. Whoever had designed the antitheft device built into the lid of the chest must have also incorporated some means of deactivating the mechanism. Otherwise it would have been triggered every single time the chest was opened. They had spotted several holes driven through the metal scrollwork that adorned the lid, and it seemed obvious that some of these had to have been where the locking bars would have been inserted.
“Let’s see what we’ve got,” Robin said. She stepped forward and took half a dozen documents from the top of the pile inside the chest.
* * *
Toscanelli drummed his fingers impatiently on the steering wheel of the hire car, his gaze flicking between the rearview mirror and the entrance to the hotel where Mallory and Jessop had been staying. Paolo was checking the hotel’s parking area while Salvatori had gone inside to inquire at the reception desk about his “English friends.”
Both men returned to the car at almost the same time and reported the inevitable: the hire car had vanished from the car park, and the targets had both checked out about two hours earlier.
“I asked the receptionist if she knew where they’d gone,” Salvatori elaborated, “and she told me they were heading to Zürich to fly back to England.”
Toscanelli snorted in disgust.
“The only reason they would have told her that,” he said, “was if they were doing something entirely different. My guess is that they’re still in this area, somewhere. The trick is going to be finding them.”
Realistically he had only one option. The Dominican Order consisted of a fairly small number of active members, no more than about six thousand, the vast majority employed on pastoral or religious duties in various locations around the world, but almost from the start the order had made a determined effort to recruit anonymous helpers, known within the order as tertiaries. These were lay or secular members of the Ordo Praedicatorum, meaning the Order of Preachers, because preaching the Gospel and combating heresy were two of the most important tasks for which the Dominicans were created. Tertiaries subscribed to the aims and beliefs of the order but were unable because of their employment, personal circumstances, or other reasons to become Dominican friars or priests. Tertiaries performed vital duties for the order behind the scenes, obtaining information, supplying documents and equipment, and generally assisting members as much as they could within the constraints of their employment.