Authors: James Becker
Then he saw it. The unexpected bulge in the fabric of the stranger’s jacket and then the briefest of glimpses of the object that was causing it as he walked across the street.
For a few moments, Marsh studied the images, making sure that he wasn’t mistaken. Then he took his mobile and dialed his contact, the man who was his temporary employer.
“I’ve got a question for you,” he said, when his call was answered.
“Am I working this gig solo or have you got another team in play?”
His question produced a brief silence at the other end.
When his contact finally replied, his voice was hesitant, almost uncertain.
“No, it’s just you. Nobody else. Why?”
“I’m still in Dartmouth, and I’ve just watched a two-man team break into Jessop’s flat and, probably, check out her shop as well.”
“That’s nothing to do with me. Did you get pictures?”
“Obviously,” Marsh replied. “I always record everything. That’s what I do. I’ll send a copy of the stills and video to your e-mail as soon as I get back. But there’s something else you need to know. One guy stayed in the car while his partner did the breaking and entering, and unless I’m seeing things that aren’t there, the B and E player was tooled up. A shoulder holster and what looked to me like an automatic pistol rather than a revolver. And that does kind of add an extra dimension to this surveillance operation.”
There was another brief silence before the other man replied, “Are you sure? That he was armed, I mean.”
“Pretty certain, yes. When you see the footage, you’ll know what I mean.”
“Are you still in?”
This time Marsh didn’t reply immediately, choosing his words carefully. “For the moment, yes. But if and when the shooting starts, you won’t see me for dust.”
Via di Sant’Alessio, Aventine Hill, Rome, Italy
Vitale was a long way from being pleased. The order employed experts in a number of different disciplines, but primarily archaeologists—or, to be exact, people who specialized in the interpretation of archaeological information, which wasn’t quite the same thing—and linguists who had impressive skills in understanding and translating texts written in the numerous dead languages of the world, particularly Latin, ancient Greek, and Aramaic. But they could not call on experts in code breaking, because only very rarely did they encounter ciphers of any sort, and when they did, these were usually fairly simple letter substitution codes, such as Atbash, which were generally quite straightforward to unscramble. Roman Benelli, the man in the organization who knew most about encryption systems, actually specialized in the translation of Aramaic
and related languages into Italian. For him, codes and ciphers were definitely of secondary importance.
The problem the order was currently facing was trying to work out whatever message or other piece of information had been incorporated within the ornate metalwork adorning the lids of the two medieval chests they had recovered from the cave in Cyprus. And the main difficulty didn’t stem from any kind of decryption that might be necessary, but from a far more basic and fundamental question.
“So, are you telling me that there
a code or something built into that scrollwork or not?” Vitale demanded. “Are we looking at just a pretty piece of metalwork or is it something else?”
The man standing in front of his desk—late-middle-aged, short, plump, wearing a suit so tight that it looked as if it had been painted on him, and with an impressive five o’clock shadow, given that it was still early afternoon—shook his head. “At this stage we still don’t know. We’ve been over the chests with magnifying glasses, several times, and as far as we can tell none of the marks on the metalwork represent letters in any known language. They appear to be nothing more than decorative. Having said that, I’ll add that there are a number of markings that could perhaps be interpreted as letters in the Roman alphabet, but these are always isolated and it is difficult to see how they could possibly form part of a code word or key. By definition, any code word has to possess a reasonable number of letters. Otherwise it simply will not work.”
“What about the insides of the chests? Did you find anything there?”
Benelli shook his head.
“Again,” he said, “we examined them with the most powerful magnifying glasses we possess, and the insides of both chests are completely unmarked. We have even removed that hideously effective antitheft device from the inside of the lid of each box, just in case anything had been painted or carved onto the wood before it was assembled. But there is nothing. There are no marks of any sort inside the chests. If there is a clue to be found—and I’m by no means certain that that is the case—then whatever it is has to have been incorporated within that exterior scrollwork.”
Vitale glared at his subordinate for a few seconds, and then dismissed him. The man was, he knew, doing his best, but it was beginning to look as if the man who had ordered the chests to be constructed—definitely either Jacques de Molay, the last grand master of the Knights Templar order, or his immediate predecessor, Tibauld de Gaudin—had somehow managed to encode the vital information needed to decipher the last clue to the puzzle in a way that would defeat any later analysis.
Or perhaps, he thought as another possibility struck him, there was no clue built into the chests. Maybe the chests were just a kind of lethal farewell gesture left on Cyprus by the last of the Knights Templar before they returned to France.
But that really didn’t make sense. Vitale knew as well as anyone that the enormous treasure of the Knights
Templar had never been found. When the mass arrests were performed by the soldiers of Philip the Fair, the treasure vaults in the commanderies and preceptories throughout France were largely empty. The vast wealth of the Templars had somehow been spirited away and vanished from the historical record, and the only possible clue that could give even a hint as to the whereabouts of this hoard was in the form of the elaborate metalwork pattern incorporated in the lids of the two wooden chests now under the control of the order.
Even more pertinently, the Ipse Dixit parchment, the translation of which had led Toscanelli and his men to the cave near the castle of Saint Hilarion in Cyprus, a place they had become aware of only because they had been following Jessop and Mallory, was the only clue to the possible location of the treasure that had surfaced in well over half a millennium. And the clues in that parchment had resulted in the discovery of the chests. So, logically, and despite the lack of any hint as to what clue the chests might contain, the information they needed to obtain had to be encoded in them somehow. The chests simply had to be the next step in the path, because there was nothing else.
And the sheer fact that they had been so well concealed, buried under layers of heavy wooden planking in the floor of that remote cave on Cyprus and then covered with tons of stone, simply confirmed that. Nobody would have gone to that much trouble to hide the chests unless they either contained something of immense value—which they hadn’t, simply being full of rocks—or were
vitally important in some other way. Although they couldn’t see it right then, the metalwork had to be hiding the clue that the order was so desperately seeking.
That set him thinking about the English couple who had so effectively outwitted Toscanelli, both in England and on Cyprus. The interview he’d just conducted had reinforced his own doubts, and the mission on which the order was engaged was too important, far too important, to be allowed to fail.
He had considered ordering the elimination of Jessop and Mallory in Britain as soon as he’d found out that they had survived and returned to their homeland. That was why he had ordered the tertiary, the senior British police officer who acted for the order, to organize a surveillance operation against them. At the very least, he needed to know where they were and what they were doing.
But perhaps, as he’d suggested to Toscanelli earlier, just perhaps the English couple could still be useful. They had photographs of the metalwork on the chests, he was sure about that, and they had already proven to be both knowledgeable and resourceful. That was why they had beaten Toscanelli to Cyprus, obviously. Maybe his best tactic would be to give them a bit more rope. Let them work on decoding whatever clue was built in to the decoration on the chests.
Yes, the two of them could become a second string to his bow. He would delay ordering their execution for a little while longer.
Decision made, Vitale reached for the phone and dialed a U.K. mobile to issue his new instructions.
Outskirts of Okehampton, Devon
It was almost two hours after they had settled themselves down in the large double room on the fourth floor of the hotel, a room from which they had distant views of the bleak heathland of Bodmin Moor, before either Jessop or Mallory saw anything useful in the photographs they were studying. And even then, it seemed more accidental or coincidental than deliberate. It also didn’t seem, at least at first glance, to be particularly helpful.
Robin was sitting in front of her laptop, using the scroll button to zoom in and out on various parts of the photograph on the screen. Mallory had just made two more cups of instant coffee—he claimed the caffeine helped his concentration—at the small table behind her, and was walking back carrying the drinks. He glanced at the screen as he did so, and saw something that both of them had missed.
“Hang on,” he said. “Don’t alter the picture for a moment.”
He put the cups down and leaned closer to the screen, but almost immediately muttered a curse. “It’s gone. I can’t see it now.”
Robin looked at him in irritation.
“You can’t see what now?” she demanded.
“I saw a kind of shape in the photograph.”
“What sort of shape? You mean like a letter, or a word? Or what?”
Mallory shook his head. “No. It was more like a figure. The shape of a person, I mean. Or at least a face.”
Robin stared at the image on the screen.
“I don’t see anything like that,” she said.
“Nor do I, now,” Mallory admitted. “It was just an impression, like the outline of something familiar, the kind of shape that your memory or imagination or whatever fills in for you. You know, like those drawings of a cat’s face, where all you have are two lines showing the shape of the pointed ears and the bottom of the head. It doesn’t look much like a cat, really, but at the same time that’s quite unmistakably what it is.”
Robin looked back at him with an expression of dawning interest on her face. “As long as you’re not trying to tell me that you’ve seen the face of a cat in this scrollwork, I’ll buy it. What shape do you think you saw?”
“It looked like a woman, though that really doesn’t make any sense.”
Mallory sat down beside Robin and began manipulating the photograph, trying to recapture what he thought
he’d seen. Then he stopped altering the magnification, and instead began to rotate the image on the screen. He turned it through ninety degrees, so that they were looking at the picture of the chest as if it was standing on one end, and then he pointed toward the top of the pattern in the metalwork.
“There,” he said. “That curve looks like one side of a female face. Those two marks could be one eye and an eyebrow, and that line below them would be her chin.”
Robin shook her head, then stopped and nodded slowly.
“I think I can see what you mean,” she said. “But even if you’re right, I don’t see how this is going to help us. What we need is a code word to decipher the last part of the text on that parchment, and I don’t see what relevance a female figure could possibly have to that. And I’m still not certain that you’re not seeing something that really isn’t there.” Gathering her thoughts, she paused for a moment, then continued. “What we need are some photographs, printed photographs, that we can use to trace the outline of that figure. At least that way we should be able to confirm whether this is just a figment of your imagination.”
She selected two of the clearest photographs showing the metalwork pattern for both of the chests and copied them onto a memory stick. “You stay here and see if you can identify anything else. I’ll just nip downstairs and ask the girl at reception if she can run me off two or three copies of each of these pictures on the printer she uses.”
She walked back into the room a few minutes later holding a sheaf of paper. “I’ve got half a dozen copies of
each photograph, so we can really play about with them. Now,” she added, “grab a pencil and show me where you think this figure is.”
Mallory selected one of the printed photographs, rotated the page, and then drew a single curving line near the top of the image.
“That’s what I was trying to show you before,” he said. “That looks to me like one side of her face, which means her neck would be here”—he sketched a couple of short vertical lines to indicate that bodily feature—“her shoulders about here, and on down to her feet near the edge of the scrollwork.”
Robin took the paper from him and studied it for a few moments.
“I do see what you mean,” she said. “This is a bit like one of those images that used to be printed in the newspapers. The ones that looked like just a mass of dots or something, but which actually contained a clear and identifiable image.”
“I remember those,” Mallory agreed. “You could spend ages just staring at the thing and seeing absolutely nothing, and then it would suddenly click and you’d wonder why you hadn’t seen it right from the start.”
“And the reason why this is so obscure, I think, is that what looks like at least half of the image of the figure is missing. It looks to me as if whoever prepared this design first etched or carved the image of the figure onto a metal plate, and then cut out large sections of it so that the coherence of the shape was completely destroyed. So
unless you knew that you were looking for the image of a woman, you’d probably never see it.”
“That makes sense, but it still leaves us with the bigger question, which is how the concealed image of a female figure is going to help us identify the code word we need to use to decrypt that last section of the parchment text.”
“True enough,” she agreed, “but it’s all we’ve got to go on, so ultimately whatever that shape is supposed to represent, somehow it has to make sense.”