Authors: James Becker
Toscanelli had no idea whether there were any tertiaries in Switzerland who could help him track down Mallory and Jessop. That information was closely guarded, but
obviously Silvio Vitale, as the head of the section, would have access to the classified database that would provide the answer.
Toscanelli rang the direct line number, and seconds later he was talking to Vitale himself.
“We know what Mallory and Jessop were looking for,” he began. “They were following clues that led them to the Templar Archive, though we still don’t know exactly what those clues were.”
“And did they find it?” Vitale demanded.
“Yes and no.”
“Don’t talk in riddles, Toscanelli. I’m not in the mood for it.”
“Right. They did find it, but there isn’t just one archive, but two of them. Most of the documents seem to refer to their daily transactions, and those were stored in six large wooden chests, which Mallory and Jessop led us to.”
“Where were they hidden?”
“In a complex cave system underneath a Swiss mountain, the entrance concealed behind a waterfall. We followed them inside, and we now have possession of this archive. Mario and Carlo are transporting those chests to Rome by road right now.”
“That’s good news.” Vitale sounded both surprised and pleased, an unusual combination for him. “So, what are you and the other three men doing right now?”
The question wasn’t unexpected, and Toscanelli knew there was no point in trying to duck it. He’d delivered one piece of good news: now it was time to pass on the bad.
“We lost Nico,” he said. “The cave system had three booby traps in it at least. Three that we know of, I mean. We managed to avoid two of them, but when we went in Nico was in the lead, and he fell into a well-concealed killing pit. He was dead the moment he hit the bottom. There was nothing any of us could do for him.”
There was a heavy silence as Vitale digested this unwelcome information.
“You’d better hope that that is as high as the body count gets, Toscanelli. I suppose it goes without saying that Mallory and Jessop somehow managed to miss being killed by these ancient traps?”
“Yes. They avoided the killing pit by putting wooden planks over it, and they actually triggered the other two booby traps themselves because they knew we were getting closer to them. They’ve been very lucky.”
“With those two,” Vitale said, “I don’t think luck has much to do with it. They’ve shown themselves to be particularly astute and very competent. So are you telling me that they beat you to the punch and that they have the other part of the Templar Archive? And is that part the more important of the two?”
“We can’t be completely certain, but we think they did get out of the cave system carrying a small chest, and that most probably contains the most valuable part of the archive, yes. The problem we have now is that because we encountered them in the cave system, they obviously know we’ve been following them. We had their hotel under surveillance, and fitted a tracker in their hire car, but now they’ve checked out and removed the tracker,
we’ve got no idea where to find them. Do we have a tertiary in the Swiss police force or some other organization over here who could help track them down?”
“Possibly. I’d need to check. What exactly do you want?”
“Ideally the location of whatever hotel they’ve moved to. Switzerland is highly regulated, so I don’t think they could get into a hotel here without showing their passports or using a credit card. If their details don’t turn up, it might be worth trying Liechtenstein and the other neighboring countries, just in case they’ve decided to cross a border. And if they’ve hired another car—which I think they could well have done, just to move the chest they found, unless they’re still using their original vehicle—then the same sort of regulations will apply. So I’d like the make, model, color, and registration details of whatever vehicle they’re now using.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” Vitale said. “Try not to get any other members of your team killed in the meantime.”
* * *
Toscanelli and his men weren’t the only people interested in locating David Mallory and Robin Jessop.
The Mercedes sedan that had been parked near the hotel to monitor the conversations recorded by the voice-activated bug in their room had been replaced by a small and anonymous dark blue van, the rear section of which contained an impressive array of surveillance equipment of one sort or another.
When the technician climbed into the vehicle to check the recordings that afternoon, a task that he expected to
be a mere formality bearing in mind the known movements of the two targets, he was slightly surprised to note that there were three bursts of activity in the room that day. The first two were predictable enough: the two targets chatting together as they prepared to leave the room after breakfast, and the sound of the chambermaid singing softly to herself when she arrived to make up the room about two hours later.
The third recording was very short, the bug obviously having been triggered by the sound of the door to the room opening. What followed was apparently the sound of hasty packing, interspersed by a number of brief comments and remarks exchanged between the targets.
The technician played it twice to ensure that he hadn’t missed anything. Then he locked the van, walked into the hotel, and showed his identification to the receptionist. Faced with his official credentials, she had no trouble in confirming that Mallory and Jessop had checked out earlier that afternoon. She also passed on one other piece of information that was somewhat unexpected.
The bug was now obviously redundant, so the technician returned to the room, accompanied by the duty manager, who used his passkey to open the door, and removed it. He returned to the van, stowed both the bug and the handful of tools he’d used to remove it, and then called his superior.
The substance of that call was passed quickly up the chain until it reached Marcel, who was sufficiently perturbed by what he had heard to insist on speaking to the
technician directly. “You’re certain about the time they checked out?”
“Yes, sir. The receptionist showed me the hotel documentation, but also the credit card receipt for the final payment. That slip included the time that the card was swiped, so there’s absolutely no doubt.”
“And she also told you that somebody else had been asking when they left and where they’d gone?”
“An Italian, she thought,” the technician replied, “but she couldn’t be completely sure of his nationality.”
“Right. Thank you.”
Marcel turned to his colleagues, who had assembled in his office as soon as they had been told about the information obtained by the technician.
“We have a problem,” he said. “The birds have flown the coop. Mallory and Jessop are definitely alive and definitely checked out of their hotel two or three hours after those Italians claim the rockfall imprisoned them in the tunnel.”
“Do you think they were lying to us?”
Marcel shook his head. “No, I don’t. I think it’s much simpler than that. I think that last Templar booby trap did more than just block the tunnel so that the Italians couldn’t get to them and kill them. It most probably opened up another tunnel or route that they used to escape. It was almost certainly a deliberate construction, intended to delay an attacking force and give the Templars time to get away.”
“So, what do we do about it?”
“Three things,” Marcel said crisply. “First, we’ll send up a chopper to try to find whatever exit those two people used to get out of the cave system. Once we’ve done that, we’ll send a team inside the mountain to check the situation. But the very first thing we do is find these two people. I want details of all registrations from every hotel in Switzerland checked, along with every car hire company. We are looking for either the name Mallory or Jessop. And the other thing we do is find those Italians, because it looks like they’re still sniffing about. Oh,” he added, “contact the sniper team and get those men back here. I don’t think we’ve finished with them yet.”
Almost three hours after she’d started, Robin leaned back in her seat and stretched her arms above her head.
“Coffee?” Mallory asked, pointing at the fairly limited hospitality tray on the other side of the room. “Or we can go down to the bar if you’d like something stronger.”
“Coffee for now,” Robin said, “but definitely something stronger later on.”
Mallory filled the kettle from the tap in the bathroom sink and switched it on.
“So, what have we got?” he asked, ripping the tops off the sachets of coffee and pouring the powder into two cups.
“Documents,” Robin replied. “Lots of old documents, all written in Latin. I’ve no doubt at all that they’re genuine. And, basically, they’re explosive. Every single one is some kind of deed or transfer, some just relating to a
single farm or a small tract of land, while others are conveyances relating to hundreds or even thousands of acres. It’s impossible to be sure of all the sizes because many of them refer to landmarks that were around in the medieval period but that have probably long since vanished. But what they all do is state clearly and unequivocally that these deeds are in perpetuity and are irrevocable, presumably because that was the way the Templars wanted the transfers done. And almost every one hands the property over not just to the Knights Templar order, but also to the then grand master or some other named high official, and on from him to his heirs and assignees should the order cease to exist.”
The kettle boiled and Mallory handed her the cup.
“What we’re looking at here,” she added, “is undeniable proof that potentially huge tracts of what is now prime real estate throughout Europe don’t actually belong to the people who think they own them. There are deeds relating to most of northern Paris, large sections of southern France in the old Languedoc region, parts of Germany and Austria, a large chunk of Switzerland, a lot of Portugal, and huge tracts of land in Spain. And those are just the bits I remember.”
Mallory nodded and took a sip of his drink.
“That isn’t exactly what I was expecting to find when we set off on this quest,” he said, “but in fact what we recovered is potentially more valuable than the bullion and other stuff that formed the main part of the Templar treasury. At the time, these documents were obviously of value because if the Templars owned a particular estate,
they could employ farmers to work the land on their behalf to generate an income, or simply sit back and collect the rents if that was more appropriate. What they couldn’t possibly have known was the way that land values would increase after the Middle Ages.”
“In fact,” Robin pointed out, “it’s not just an extraordinarily valuable resource. It’s also extremely dangerous. Almost every country in Europe has one or more pieces of land mentioned in these documents. If it became common knowledge that the land on which a city like Toulouse, for example, has been built actually belonged to some descendant of a Templar grand master, the potential legal battles that could result might drag on for years, and with a very real probability that the courts would decide in favor of that descendant. The financial implications are immense. More to the point, I can absolutely see why somebody who found out about that and was facing financial ruin as a result would feel entirely justified in doing their best to destroy the original deed or transfer document.”
“And to probably kill anyone who stood in their way,” Mallory agreed. “Which creates the obvious question: what the hell do we do with it? With all these documents?”
“We’re right in the firing line,” Robin said, “and in this case, that isn’t just a figure of speech.” She paused for a few seconds, then nodded. “As I see it,” she continued, “there are really only two options. First, we can destroy all the documents. Soak them in petrol and set fire to them, or something like that. I really don’t want to do that, because every one of these documents is of
vital historical importance, and that would just be archaeological vandalism. And the other obvious problem with doing that would be convincing anybody else that the documents really had been destroyed. Just reducing them to ashes might not be enough to stop those Italians—and quite possibly forces sent out later by most of the governments of Europe if news of the archive gets around—from trying to kill us.
“The second option is to somehow deliver the relevant documents to the nations that are affected by them, so that the government of the day can decide what to do. As far as I can see, that’s just as fraught with problems as destroying the deeds, and probably would be no more successful in getting us out of the target zone. So I think the expression that pretty much covers our present situation is ‘screwed.’ I wish we’d never found that bloody chest. What the hell are we going to do?”
“There is another option,” Mallory said, after a few moments, “but the trick is going to be pulling it off.”
Robin looked at him hopefully.
“Right now I’ll consider anything,” she said.
Mallory collected his thoughts and began outlining the glimmerings of a plan that had struck him while Robin was talking.
“I’ve been trying to do a bit of lateral thinking,” he said, “trying to approach the problem from the other end, as it were.”
“That sounds good, but what do you actually mean? What, exactly, is lateral thinking?”
“Have you ever heard the story of the merchant’s daughter?”
“If this turns out to be a dodgy story full of sexual innuendo,” Robin stated firmly, “then I’m quite likely to hit you over the head with that chest.”
Mallory shook his head.
“There’s no sex in it,” he protested, “and it’s not dodgy, whatever you mean by that. What it does is illustrate the art of lateral thinking quite neatly. Briefly, a merchant had a beautiful daughter, but business was bad and he was falling further and further behind with the rent. Eventually the landlord approached him and told him they had to sort it out. The merchant couldn’t pay, and the landlord knew that, so he proposed an exchange. If the merchant would let him sleep with his daughter, then the landlord would wipe out the backlog of rent owing.”
“I knew there was going to be sex in it,” Robin protested.
“There isn’t. Just wait. The merchant told his daughter what the landlord said, and explained their dire financial situation. The daughter was unhappy, obviously, about it, but because of her love for her father she agreed, with one caveat. And that was that they should leave it to chance. The landlord agreed to a change in the conditions. The element of chance was to be decided by the daughter picking a pebble out of a closed bag. If she picked the white pebble, then the backlog of rent would be written off, but she wouldn’t have sleep with the landlord. If she picked the black pebble, then again the rent would be
forgotten about but she would have to sleep with the man. When the three of them met outside the house to perform the wager, for want of a better expression, the daughter noticed that the landlord had actually put two black pebbles into the bag.”
Mallory paused in his recitation and glanced at Robin.
“So the obvious question,” he said, “is what she does next. If she accuses the landlord of cheating, then he’ll probably foreclose on the rent and evict her and her father. If she picks a black pebble out of the bag, then she knows she’ll have to sleep with the landlord. Looked at in conventional, straight-line linear thinking, that is her only option. She has to bite the bullet, take out the black pebble, and lie back and think of England or wherever she came from. But there is one thing she can do that will guarantee that the rent arrears will be forgotten about, and without her having to sleep with anybody.”
He paused and looked at Robin quizzically. “Any ideas?”
Robin shook her head. “No, actually. I haven’t. So what’s the answer?”
“She uses lateral thinking. What she actually wants out of this is one of two things. Either a white pebble in her hand, or a black pebble in the bag. So she sticks her hand in, picks out one of the black pebbles, and immediately drops it on the ground. Then she turns to the landlord and smiles sweetly, apologizes for dropping the pebble, but simply tells him that if he looks in the bag he will see the color of the pebble that is left and that will confirm the color of the one that she had picked out. So instead
of thinking in a linear fashion from the beginning of the problem to the end, what she did was start at the end with the result that she wanted and then work out how she could obtain that result.”
“It’s easy enough,” Robin said, “when you explain it. But I think our problem is a bit more complicated than picking out a pebble from a closed bag.”
“But we can use the same technique. What we want is to walk away from here, ideally with that chest and the documents intact and undamaged. So what we have to do is work out a way of achieving that, while at the same time letting the Italians and anybody else who’s chasing us think that they’ve achieved their objective. Which is probably destroying the archive and killing us in the process.”
“I did have one idea,” Robin said tentatively. “It’s a little complicated, and we need to start right now if it’s going to work. And it is,” she added, “a bit of lateral thinking, I suppose.”
Five minutes later, the two of them walked out of the hotel, Mallory carrying the soft bag containing the chest of documents.
* * *
The crew of the military helicopter had been quickly but comprehensively briefed. The aircraft was to be flown by one of the two pilots while the other man concentrated his entire attention on the landscape beneath them. Behind the pilots, four men wearing military camouflage clothing studied the view out of the side windows of the aircraft. Their instructions were simple enough: they were
to start from the forked waterfall at the end of the valley and cover the entire area around that position, looking for any kind of entrance into the cave system that the Swiss authorities now knew was located inside the mountain.
The search didn’t take long. Almost as soon as the helicopter flew over the top of the waterfall, the brown-and-white scar on the otherwise green hillside immediately attracted the attention of the crew. Landing the aircraft on the slope was not practical, so the pilot brought it to a low hover and held it there while the four men in the passenger compartment climbed out, each carrying a bulky rucksack and wearing a sidearm. Once they had deplaned, the pilot lifted off and flew the aircraft to a level patch of ground about five hundred yards away, landed the helicopter, and shut down the engines. While finding what looked like the entrance to the caves hadn’t taken very long at all, exploring them might be a very long job indeed.
The rucksacks they were carrying contained climbing equipment, including ropes, belaying pins, pitons, and all the rest of it, but almost as soon as the men reached the feature that had caught their eye, they realized that most of it was probably superfluous. The upper end of an ancient stone staircase was clearly visible, as were the stepping-stones that led down to it.
The leader of the group quickly assessed the situation and then issued his orders.
“You two stay here,” he said. “Jacob and I will go down and check it out. If one of us is not back in thirty minutes,
radio the pilot and update him on the situation, and then one of you—and only one—is to follow us down.”
The two men removed powerful flashlights from their rucksacks, checked that their SIG P226 pistols were loaded and cocked, with the safety catches on, and then made their way cautiously down into the almost circular hole and from there began descending the stone staircase.
They were both back at the surface less than twenty minutes later. As soon as they’d climbed out of the hole, the leader used his short-range transceiver to summon the helicopter, and ten minutes after that the chopper rose high enough into the air to allow reliable mobile phone communication, and he called a mobile number that he had been given during the briefing.
“It’s Erich Weiss,” he began. “We’ve located the entrance to the cave and two of us have been down to investigate it. As you instructed, we’ve taken a large number of photographs.”
“It’s a fairly small cavern, more like a tunnel, really. The walls and end are solid rock, and the other part of it is completely blocked by a huge rockfall. Getting into it was easy because whoever built it—you said it might have been a Templar construction—cut a stone staircase into the roof of the tunnel that led all the way up. The rockfall itself provided access to the bottom of the staircase, which meant that—”
“Never mind that. Was there anything in the cavern? Anybody or anything?”
“Nothing at all, though clearly somebody had been there, because we saw the end of a new climbing rope sticking out from underneath the rocks.”
“That’s all we need to know. You can return to base and stand down, but stay at five minutes’ notice. Draw assault rifles and ammunition. I’ve detailed a sniper team to join you, so expect them to reach you within the hour. We may need you to stop a vehicle leaving the country.”
For a couple of seconds, Weiss didn’t realize that the other man had ended the call. He removed the earphones—essential for making a telephone call in the noisy confines of the helicopter—and put the phone in his pocket. Then he moved the boom mike on his headset in front of his mouth, switched on the intercom, and told the pilot what he wanted him to do.
“Back to base,” he instructed. “Make sure the aircraft is fully fueled, and stand down to alert five. We may need to get airborne again at really short notice, and I’ve been told to draw more weapons. And we’ll have a couple of passengers as well. A sniper team will be flying with us as a precaution.”
“As a precaution against what?” Jacob asked.
“Right now I don’t really know.”
* * *
When Silvio Vitale rang Toscanelli’s mobile about three hours later, he had no concrete news to impart.
“Basically,” he said, “they seem to have dropped off the radar. The last credit card transaction that Mallory undertook was settlement of his hotel bill in Schwyz. Since then, there have been no charges placed on his card
of any sort. No cash withdrawals, no hotel booking, no hire car deposit, not even a tank of petrol. It’s possible that they’ve already left Switzerland, and we’re also running checks on the neighboring countries, but so far with no results. Don’t forget,” he added, “that these transactions sometimes take a while to filter through the system, so it is possible that they have booked a hotel room but we just haven’t heard about it yet. We have two tertiaries looking into this now. We’re also checking traffic cameras for any sightings of their original hire car, just in case they’re still driving it.”