While trying to decipher what few clues they have managed to recover about the Templar’s secrets, Jessop and Mallory discover that the legendary “treasure” they have been searching for may not be what they thought. Rather than gold or precious jewels, their long-sought prize may, in fact, be something far more valuable...
For the Templar Knights were the original inventors of international trade. And not all of it was in money. Lands, titles, the fates of entire noble houses were placed in their keeping. The records of such transactions, though centuries old, may possibly yield the greatest wealth in the world. But hunting for such an archive places Jessop and Mallory in the cross hairs of Europe's most powerful families...
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Via di Sant'Alessio, Aventine Hill, Rome, Italy
Privacy costs money, and was a benefit that few could afford in Rome. The Via di Sant'Alessio was one of the most exclusive areas of the city, and in that quiet road privacy was both expensively purchased and expected. Very few of the properties located there displayed the slightest outward indication of what activity or activities were carried out inside them. One of these, a substantial detached building encircled by well-tended gardens behind high walls, offered nothing more than a house number to anyone who looked at it.
Inside this building it was always busy, because it contained some of the more private administrative facilities of a much more public organization that was located in a building facing the Lungotevere Aventino, not too far from the minor basilica of Santa Sabina.
One of the departments working within the building was a specialist intelligence and operational unit, a group of people who had virtually no contact with any of the other staff in the building because they had no need to do so. Their place of work was a small suite of air-conditioned rooms in the lowest level of the basement, accessed only through a steel-lined door that was permanently locked and only ever opened to allow the unit's staff to come and go. None of the other people working in the building, not even the most senior administrators, had any right of access to the basement at any time or for any reason. It formed the most private and deniable part of the Ordo Praedicatorum, was answerable to nobody, and had essentially unlimited funding. Provided, of course, that the long-term goals of the organization-goals that might appear senseless to an outsider-were met.
In his private office within that suite, Silvio Vitale leaned back in his chair and stared with barely disguised hostility at the man standing in front of him. It was an obvious measure of the tone of the interview so far that his subordinate, Marco Toscanelli, was still standing rather than sitting in one of the comfortable leather chairs in front of the desk.
"How sure are you that they're both dead?" Vitale demanded.
He was a slim man who had a pencil-thin mustache and a deceptively friendly appearance. Deceptive because, as Toscanelli knew only too well, he could erupt without warning into violent rages that were characterized by calculated brutality and extreme violence directed against anyone who had offended him. As always, Vitale was wearing a black suit, the unofficial uniform of the organization of which he was the head.
Toscanelli shook his head. "I can't be certain of that, no. After we opened the chests in the cave, they both ducked down into the tunnel system that ran under the cave. We didn't even know that the tunnel existed, because the entrance that had been exposed once they'd shifted the rocks and timbers just looked like a hole in the ground. We tossed a grenade after them, but I don't know if they were caught in the blast or not. I had other things to deal with at the time."
"Yes," he said frostily. "You had to take care of things like shooting two of your own men because they were too badly injured to be moved out of the cave. That brought your tally of men from this organization that you have personally executed out in the field to an impressive total of five. Not to mention the other man who you claim was killed by Mallory. And all of them, I would remind you, died on one single operation."
"I had no choice," Toscanelli protested, shaking his head. He had Italian movie-star good looks, tanned and regular features under curly black hair, but the anguish in his brown eyes was obvious and his unusually pale complexion was a sign of the strain he was feeling. He knew there was a better than even chance that Vitale would end the interview by ordering his execution, because failure was something the order never tolerated willingly. He shook his head and explained again what had happened.
"Their injuries were so severe that even if we could have somehow got them to a hospital, they would certainly have died from shock and blood loss. We had no clue that those two medieval chests contained booby traps. Lethally effective booby traps."
"Obviously," Vitale replied dryly. "But what I find interesting is that from what you've told me both Mallory and Jessop apparently guessed that some kind of device might have been built into the chests, because of the way they made their escape at the very instant that your two men opened the lids. I've seen the chests, obviously, but not the booby trap. How exactly did the mechanism work, the device that did the damage?"
"I can do better than explain it to you," Toscanelli replied, encouraged by what he thought was a subtle change in Vitale's tone. "I have one of the chests outside and I can show you precisely how it worked. With your permission, of course."
Vitale nodded assent.
Toscanelli turned, walked back to the office door, opened it, and issued a short command. A few moments later, a man walked into the office carrying a fairly small and obviously old wooden chest, the curved lid inlaid with an intricate pattern of wrought-iron decoration. He stepped forward, lowered the chest to the carpet where Toscanelli indicated, bowed respectfully to Vitale, and left the room.
"It's smaller than I had expected," Vitale said, "and it doesn't look like much."
"It's not what it is so much as what it does. And that's really impressive, in a brutal sort of way."
Toscanelli stepped behind the chest, leaned forward over it, grasped the front of the lid, and lifted it. With a faint creak from the pair of ornate hinges that were mounted on the back edge of the chest, the lid swung open, revealing an entirely empty interior.
"That," Toscanelli said, "was what we expected to happen when my men unlocked and opened the two chests. What we hadn't anticipated was this." He pointed inside the curved lid, where an intricate construction of metal had been concealed by whichever medieval craftsman had fabricated it. "And because of the weight of the chests we were certain they were full, and of course they were, but filled only with rocks, which we definitely hadn't expected."
He closed the chest again and pointed to a pair of small metal objects in the form of rings or circles, one on either side of the lid and each rising about an inch above the complex decoration.
"Obviously these aren't the original locking pins," he said. "I had these made up in the workshop here, once we worked out how the mechanism had been set and triggered."
He slid his right forefinger through one of the circular objects and pulled firmly. As the length of steel emerged, Vitale heard a very faint metallic click from somewhere within the chest, a sound that was repeated a couple of seconds later when Toscanelli removed the second pin. Each piece of steel was about four inches long and roughly a quarter of an inch in diameter.
"With the pins removed, the holes are virtually invisible and appear to be just a part of the complex decoration on the lid. Which was obviously the idea, so that there would be no external indication of the mechanism inside."
"So removing the pins was like priming a hand grenade?" Vitale suggested. "A hand grenade with a fuse set for half a millennium?"
"Yes, though it was set, in fact, for eternity, because they'd only be triggered when somebody came along and opened the chests. Both mechanisms had obviously been very well lubricated to ensure that they stayed in good condition. And they were also protected by the chests being closed and locked and then buried underground, because both booby traps worked faultlessly. This is what happened when my men opened them."
Toscanelli again reached forward and grasped the front edge of the chest lid and lifted it back and toward him.
The moment the lid cleared the body of the chest, there was a metallic clatter and two polished steel blades scythed outward from it, the action like opening an enormous pair of scissors. The speed of the blades, clearly driven by powerful springs because of the way the chest itself rocked backward, was too fast for the eye to see, but the deadly intent of the booby trap was obvious.
Toscanelli raised the lid all the way, revealing the extent of the complex mechanism within, a mechanism that was now harmless because it had just been triggered.
"The blades are hinged at the base, but the whole frame is cantilevered to give them extra reach," he said, pointing at one part of the structure. "When it's released, this whole section moves forward as the blades swing out. The arc they cover is wide enough to ensure that anyone standing or sitting in front of the chest will be severely injured. You saw the way the chest moved with the force of the blades deploying?"
"When we found the chests, they were full of rocks, as I said. I think the people who hid them under the floor of the cave in Cyprus did that for two reasons. First, the rocks would give the impression they were stuffed full of treasure, to ensure that they'd be opened as quickly as possible by whoever discovered them, but I think the second reason was to give them enough weight to provide a firm base for these blades to do their work. When they were triggered, neither chest moved at all when the lids were opened, despite the blades cutting two of my men virtually in half."
"And you said the chests were locked as well."
"They were. But again I think that was just to convince anyone who found them that they contained something of great value, which would make them more eager to get the chests open without inspecting them too closely."
"Someone exactly like you, in fact," Vitale observed.
"Yes," Toscanelli replied shortly, his tone bitter.
"But as I said a few minutes ago, you told me that Jessop and Mallory took advantage of the confusion to dive into the tunnel under the cave and escape. That suggests they knew-or at least they guessed-that something was going to happen when you opened the chests, which raises all sorts of other questions."
"I have a theory about that."
"Do enlighten me," Vitale said, shifting his attention from the chest on the floor and back to Toscanelli himself.
"Back in Dartmouth, when I went up into Jessop's apartment to find out what had happened, I saw the most horrendous wounds on Giacomo's hands. It looked as if somebody had driven several large nails through the palm of his left hand and others into the knuckles of his right. He was unconscious and had bled a lot, though either Jessop or Mallory had secured his wrists with plastic cable ties, and these were acting as a tourniquet. Both our men had been armed, and the people they were facing were not, so to me the only thing that makes sense is that there was some device in the apartment that had caused these wounds."
"What do you mean by 'device'?"
Toscanelli shrugged. "I don't know. But we know Jessop must have found the Ipse Dixit parchment or scroll because of the search strings she used on the Internet, and it wouldn't have been just lying around somewhere. Logically it must have been secured in some kind of container, a box or something, and because of the mechanism we found inside the chests, I think that was probably booby-trapped as well. There was nothing I could see in the apartment that could have been the cause of the injuries I saw on Giacomo's hands, but there was a safe in the corner of the room, so maybe whatever it was had been locked away in there. Either that or presumably Mallory or Jessop took it away with them."
Vitale nodded slowly.
"That makes sense," he said. "But if you're right, why didn't Jessop also trigger the booby trap when she opened whatever this object was?"
Toscanelli shrugged. "I don't know, but I can guess. She's a woman, so I suppose she might have used some kind of tool to open the container rather than just her bare hands, and that could have protected her from injury."
"Or maybe she was a lot smarter than Giacomo and guessed the object incorporated a defensive system," Vitale suggested. "And then she managed to jam or disable it."
"Perhaps. But with any luck, we've seen the last of those two. Hopefully they're dead and buried somewhere in the tunnel system under that cave in Cyprus."
Vitale shook his head decisively.
"They're not," he snapped. "We know that they flew out of Cyprus the day after you left the island, and ended up in France. Then they flew in a private aircraft to a small airfield in Devon called Dunkeswell, near a town named Honiton, and then, according to one of the tertiaries who acts for us in the British police force, they drove to Exeter. According to the same man, they're talking to the police there at this very moment, presumably putting their side of the story. How well they tell it will no doubt affect how quickly they'll be released. But I'm sure they will be back on the streets soon because they would hardly have gone to the police unless they'd got their stories straight and had devised a sequence of events that ensured that they weren't implicated in any of your killings."
Toscanelli looked both surprised and extremely irritated by this information.
"So what do you want me to do about them?" he asked.
Vitale gave him a long look. "What I want done is exactly the same thing I wanted you to do originally. Thanks to your incompetence, they know too much about us and our quest and they're probably going to try to interfere with what we have to do next. So we-not necessarily you, but some members of the order-are going to have to find them and kill them."
"And that's your story, is it? You're going to stick with it? Is that it?"
The disbelief in the man's voice was both quite obvious and quite obviously intentional.
On the other side of the metal table, David Mallory stretched out his long legs and leaned back as comfortably as the hard wooden chair would allow. For a few moments he didn't respond, just stared up at the ceiling, which was painted the same depressing institutional light gray as most of the rest of the interview room. The color was relieved only by a lower band of cream paint that began about four feet up the walls and continued down to floor level. Much of the paint was faded, and in places small areas had been scraped or had cracked off to reveal whitish plaster underneath. It was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a pleasant place to be. But on the other hand, that was really the point.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Unlikely part is uncovering meaning in ironwork on treasure chest, but still good.