Authors: James Becker
“What about the Italians?” Robin asked. “Do you think they’ve given up?”
Mallory shook his head in a decisive manner. “Not a chance, in my opinion. They were quite prepared to kill both of us in your apartment at Dartmouth—I’m quite sure of that—and then they did their best to finish us off with that grenade in the cave on Cyprus. They obviously still haven’t found what they’re looking for, so there’s no doubt that they’ll still be on the hunt. The only good thing, I suppose, is that they might think we’re both dead and buried in the rubble under the cave, and so they might not give us any more trouble here in Britain. But sooner or later I think we’ll come face-to-face with them again.”
“I guessed that would be what you’d think, and you’re probably right. So what’s your plan now? Have you got a plan, even?”
“I thought you knew me a bit better than that, despite our short acquaintance. Of course I haven’t got a plan. That’s not the way I work. I more kind of make things up as I go along.”
“Funnily enough, I expected that as well. So let me tell you what I think. What we have to do is try to crack whatever code is incorporated in the pattern of metalwork on those two chests. And if we can do that, then we can decide what to do next. Stay flexible. Think on our feet, that kind of thing.”
Mallory nodded again. “Exactly. Just like I said. We’ll make it up as we go along.”
“And if we can’t crack the code? Or even find it? What then?”
“I suppose we give up, because the only thing we’ve got is those photographs of the metalwork on the chests. If we can’t work out the next clue from them, that’s pretty much it. There’s nowhere else we can look, and nothing else we can do.”
Robin slowed her pace slightly and glanced sideways at Mallory.
“There’s something else we need to talk about,” she said.
“There is?” Mallory sounded puzzled.
“Yes, obviously. I mean you and me. You only got involved in this because I asked for your help in solving a riddle, to decode a piece of enciphered Latin text. You’ve got your own business to run in Cornwall, and I should really be heading back to Dartmouth to see what’s happening in the shop. Can either of us really afford the time
to go off on what might turn out to be another wild-goose chase? Following another set of clues that could very easily lead us to another couple of empty chests or whatever?”
Mallory suspected that there might be more to Robin’s question than was at first apparent. He’d had enough girlfriends to know perfectly well that the female of the species would often ask one question when she was actually expecting an answer to something completely different, something that she no doubt felt was implied in what she’d just said. And he also knew that most men were too stupid or out of touch to realize this.
What he was quite certain about was that Robin Jessop’s antiquarian bookshop could probably manage quite happily without any interference from the owner. Betty, the lady who actually ran the place on a daily basis, was more than capable of doing everything herself, especially as Robin would almost always be available on her mobile phone to field any questions that Betty couldn’t answer. And as Mallory had already explained to her a couple of times, his IT consultancy work required him to be contactable by phone, and to have high-speed Internet access when necessary to sort out any problems for his clients, but not necessarily to be actually on-site.
So he listened to the question that Robin had just asked, but gave her two answers: the obvious response to the question she’d actually asked, and then the answer to what he hoped she was really asking.
“I think both of our businesses can more or less take care of themselves, Robin,” he said. “We’ve got something more important going on here. I think we need to
continue the search as quickly as possible. Otherwise we might find that we’re beaten to the prize by whoever those Italians are working for. That’s the practical solution, in my opinion. And the other thing is that I think we make a pretty good team, so the last thing I want to do is walk away from you now, irrespective of what the next chapter of this peculiar quest might bring. I want to know more about you, and to spend a lot more time with you. So if you’re okay with that, then I’ll be here, standing right beside you, until the bitter end.”
“So you think we’re heading for disaster, do you? Why did you say the ‘bitter end’? There might be a happy ending to all this lot. You never know.”
Her voice was light, almost flirtatious, but Mallory sensed the emotion behind the words.
He stopped in the middle of the pavement, put his hand on Robin’s shoulder to turn her to face him, and then kissed her, long and hard, on the lips.
For a couple of seconds, Robin didn’t respond; then her arms snaked around Mallory’s shoulders and the back of his head and she pulled him firmly into a close embrace. Then she released him and took a half step back.
“Thank you,” she said, a smile dimpling her cheeks. “I needed that.”
“I think we both needed it,” Mallory said. “Seriously, I’m here for you for as long as you want me.”
As they continued walking down the street, Robin’s hand sought out Mallory’s, and he responded with a firm squeeze of her palm.
A few minutes later, Mallory opened the passenger
door of his Porsche for Robin, then walked around to the driver’s seat and started the engine. He waited for a couple of minutes until the oil temperature began to rise, then engaged first gear and steered the Cayman out of the car park.
* * *
Gary Marsh, their faithful but unseen shadow, stepped out from behind a parked van as the car drove away, the throaty exhaust note of the Porsche hinting at the power of the engine. There was no way that he could follow them, obviously. He had a car, but it was tucked away in a corner of a car park the better part of two miles distant, and his briefing had been to observe the woman and follow her on foot.
His mobile phone was in his hand, and on the screen was a very clear image of the rear three-quarters of the Porsche, showing the number plate with pinpoint clarity. He made a mental note of the letters and numbers, then dialed his contact’s mobile number from memory. The phone was answered almost immediately.
“They’ve just driven away in a Porsche Cayman,” he began, “and I’m not mobile, so there’s nothing else I can do right now. Do you want the plate number? You can probably track it through the traffic camera system.”
The man he’d called didn’t reply for a few moments, and when he did his tone was distinctly frosty. “How do you think I can do that?”
“I’m not stupid,” Marsh said. “I’ve spent a lot of my working life analyzing data and making connections, and
working out that you’re a copper wasn’t what you might call difficult. The only way you could have known when the female target was going to leave the station was if you were in there at the same time.”
“That doesn’t mean I’m a policeman,” the man responded. “I could be a civilian support worker.”
“And I could be Elvis Presley. Civilian support workers don’t have access to surveillance footage taken in interview rooms, and two of the pictures you sent me were definitely taken from a video of an interrogation. So you’re a copper, and probably hold a fairly senior rank. The kind of rank that can instruct somebody to prepare still images from an interview video without anybody being able to ask any awkward questions. Now you listen to me. I don’t care who you are or what you are or even what you want, but it makes things a hell of a lot easier to sort out if you’re straight with me, because I’ll always be straight with you. That’s how I work. Deal?”
There was another short silence, and then Marsh heard a long sigh before the man replied, “Deal. Give me the registration details.”
Marsh relayed the information, then asked the obvious question. “So, what do you want me to do now? I can do moving target surveillance, obviously, but I need a definite starting point. A home address or some other confirmed location. And do you want me to continue following the woman, or do you want both of them to be tracked? I have a colleague who can work with me if they split up. But I think they’re an item.”
“What do you mean?”
Marsh explained what he’d seen on the street after the two people had walked away from the coffee shop, and some parts of the conversation that he had overheard. In fact, he hadn’t just overheard it: he’d also recorded much of it. In one of the inside pockets of his jacket was a small digital recorder, and running down his right sleeve was a thin cable that terminated in a miniaturized directional microphone, the mike fitted with a simple slider switch that would turn the recorder on and off as required. It was a much more discreet piece of equipment than other directional recorders, and although most people might look slightly askance at someone pointing their hand directly at them, Marsh had found that simply carrying a newspaper in his right hand, with his arm bent at the elbow, looked entirely natural and worked very well, allowing him to point the microphone unobtrusively at his desired target. It was another very valuable part of his surveillance armory.
“Do you know the identity of the man she was with?” he asked.
“It was almost certainly a guy called David Mallory. He’s also in the frame for this investigation, but we’ve had to let them both walk because we don’t have enough evidence to hold them or charge them. We still think that the woman is the prime suspect, or at least the more important half of the couple. But I’ll send you pictures of Mallory as well, just in case she was with somebody else that we don’t know about.”
“You don’t need to bother,” Marsh replied. “I’ve got
half a dozen shots of him, in the street and in the car. I’ll pick the best two or three and send them to your mobile as soon as we finish this call. You can ident him for me.”
“Thanks. That’ll speed things up. Right, I’ll get back to you with new instructions once we’ve located either the suspects or that car. Can you be prepared to go mobile at very short notice?”
“Of course. I’ll grab a taxi and go to pick up my vehicle. I’ll be ready within a maximum of thirty minutes.”
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Robin asked. “That Porsche is powerful enough to get us away from any trouble we might meet.”
“I agree,” Mallory replied. “But unfortunately it’s also distinctive enough to get us into trouble in the first place. It’s a very difficult car to hide, and for the moment I think anonymity is a lot more important than speed.”
A few minutes later, Mallory reversed the Cayman into the single parking place at the back of Robin’s antiquarian bookshop. She had started her Golf and parked it a few yards away down the street to allow him to occupy the space. Mallory transferred their bags to the smaller vehicle, locked the Porsche, and walked over to the Volkswagen, carrying a small black bag in his hand.
“Do you think we’re going to need that?” Robin asked, pointing at it.
“I hope not, but having a loaded pistol with us still seems to me like a good idea, until we find out what’s happening with those bloody Italian thugs.”
“Are you sure we couldn’t stay in my apartment?” Robin asked, pointing at the level above the bookshop. “We are here now, after all.”
“I really don’t think that’s a good idea, just in case we are being watched. We should try to be as unpredictable as possible and just pick a hotel somewhere at random. I prefer the idea of staying somewhere where there’s more than one way in and out.”
“That’s okay with me, if that’s what you want.”
As Mallory approached her, Robin walked around the car to the passenger door and opened it.
“You drive,” she said. “I’m going to look at the pictures on my laptop again, just in case anything leaps out at me.”
“That’s fine with me,” Mallory said, buckling his seat belt and starting the Golf. “Any preference where you’d like to stay?”
“No, not really, but I think I’d prefer country rather than town. Just surprise me. You’ve done that once today already.”
Mallory smiled at the memory but didn’t respond.
Beside him, Robin opened her laptop and pressed the space bar to wake it up. She had a copy of the photographs they’d taken in the cave on Cyprus on the computer as well as her tablet, and hoped that the laptop, with its larger screen, would make it easier to identify the code or pattern that they believed had to be concealed within the
ornate metalwork that covered the lids of the two medieval chests. Assuming it was there, of course.
They had both taken a number of pictures of the chests with their mobile phones in the indifferent lighting of the cave, some using the flash and some without, and despite these unfavorable conditions the quality of the pictures was actually quite good. Certainly she could see a considerable amount of detail, even down to the tiny patterns, little more than groups of etched lines, that decorated almost all of the complex pattern of metal that encased the old wood.
She began by looking at the overall pattern on the photograph of one of the chests, tracing the intricately curved lines of metal with her eyes as she tried to identify any kind of symbol or shape that might be significant. Then she switched her attention to a photograph of the second chest and did the same thing before reducing the size of the two images, loading them onto the screen at the same time, and studying them as a pair rather than as individual objects.
“Any luck?” Mallory asked as he steered the car out of Dartmouth and pointed them in a generally westerly direction, mainly because there weren’t any roads going north, which was the direction he actually wanted to go.
“Not really,” Robin replied. “All I can tell you is pretty much the same as we already knew. Which is, basically, that the lids of these two chests are covered in a pattern of metalwork that is almost certainly too elaborate to simply be decoration, especially bearing in mind the circumstances in which they were buried. And, as we saw when we uncovered them in the first place, the patterns
are different, which again suggests that there’s some kind of hidden message in the scrollwork.”
“What about the etchings and marks on the metal itself? Could there be a clue hidden in those tiny marks?”
“I’d feel a whole lot better if we had the actual chests in front of us and could examine them properly,” Robin replied, “because it’s always possible that there’s something the cameras didn’t pick up. But, as far as I can tell from studying the pictures, those small marks are really just decorative. There are a few places where some of the marks do seem to form letters, but I really can’t be sure that I’m not seeing something that actually isn’t there. I mean, I’m looking at three straight lines, say, and if I apply a bit of poetic license I can almost make them form the shape of a letter
, and I can turn two lines into a
or four lines into a
. But if you looked you probably wouldn’t see the same association at all. I think I’m just seeing letters because that’s what I’m hoping to see, and the bottom line is that even if I am right and on one of the curved bits of metal there is a letter
, for example, that doesn’t really help us because it’s just one letter by itself. We’re looking for a phrase or at least two or three words, not individual letters.”
Mallory was silent for a few moments, mulling over what Robin just told him. What she said hadn’t come as a surprise. Although they hadn’t discussed it in detail, they had already come to more or less the same conclusion.
“What about the differences between the two patterns?” he asked. “We already knew the metalwork wasn’t the same on the two lids, but what actually is the difference? Are the
two patterns completely dissimilar, or are we looking at just fairly minor changes from one to the other?”
Robin glanced down at the computer resting on her lap before she replied. She studied the two images on the screen, the side-by-side photographs of the lids of the two chests, and then shook her head.
“They are sort of similar,” she admitted, “but different enough that you would never mistake one for the other, if you see what I mean. I can see shapes in one that aren’t there in the pattern of the second chest, and vice versa. But what I don’t see are any shapes that could be letters or anything of that sort, and unless we’ve got it completely wrong, we need another piece of plaintext or a code word that we can use to translate that final section of encrypted text on the parchment. Is that what you think as well?”
“Pretty much, yes,” Mallory said, nodding and glancing over at Robin. “That really is the obvious way forward.”
A few minutes later, he turned the Golf right at the Halwell T-junction to head north up the A381 toward Totnes.
“Where are we going?” Robin asked, a few minutes later. “Not Exeter again, I hope. I had about enough of that particular city the last time we were there. No good memories, except that we did manage to walk away.”
“No, not Exeter,” Mallory agreed. “I still haven’t got anywhere definite in mind, so I was generally heading up toward Okehampton. We should be able to find a quiet hotel somewhere up there on the edge of Bodmin Moor.”
“Sounds good to me.”
Robin closed the lid of her laptop with a decisive
and slid it back into her leather computer case.
“If I look at those pictures any more, I will definitely go boss-eyed,” she said. “We’ll have a proper look—both of us—once we get to the hotel, where it’s quiet and we can concentrate.”
* * *
A little over an hour after they’d driven away from Robin’s bookshop in Dartmouth, a nondescript Ford saloon drew to a halt a few yards down the road and an entirely unmemorable man stared across at the parked Porsche. He didn’t need to check the registration number because he had already memorized it. In his business, a good memory for numbers, information, and especially faces was a definite asset.
He made sure his car was legally parked, because coming to the attention of any of the British authorities for any reason was something he always tried to avoid, then walked away from the vehicle and approached the antiquarian bookshop’s street door. Inside, he held a very brief conversation with the slightly plump lady behind the counter, then stepped out again and returned to his vehicle.
Marsh took out his mobile phone and dialed the number of his temporary and still-unidentified employer.
“The good news,” he began, “is that I’ve found the address in Dartmouth and I’ve also found the Porsche. The bad news is that neither of the targets is here. According to the woman in the shop, they drove down from Exeter about an hour and a half ago, parked the car, and then left almost immediately in Jessop’s vehicle. And for that I don’t have a make or model, though the woman I
talked to thinks it might be silver or gray, and fairly small, maybe a hatchback.”
“That’s not a problem. I can get those details to you in a few minutes. Did this woman have any idea where they were going?”
“No. All that Jessop apparently told her was that she and Mallory were involved in some kind of project, and they were going off to do some research. I did manage to get Jessop’s mobile number, so you should be able to triangulate their location fairly easily, as long as she leaves the phone on, of course. That bit wasn’t difficult. She has it printed on her business card.”
What Marsh was not prepared to do was admit that he could also triangulate the location of Jessop’s mobile phone. That particular ability and that software were both entirely illegal under British law for anyone outside the police force or the security services.
“Good. I’ll set the wheels in motion. There’s no point in you staying in Dartmouth, because the one place they’re not going to be is back down there, so I suggest you return to Exeter and wait for me to contact you again.”
Marsh told him Robin Jessop’s mobile number and then ended the call. But for a few minutes he did nothing else except use his eyes and the rearview mirrors on his car.
One of the obvious characteristics of people involved in his profession was the ability to be constantly alert, to observe rather than simply to see. And what he was observing was giving him pause for thought.
A dark blue Ford sedan with two men inside it, one
driving and the other in the front passenger seat, had just made two circuits of the small block of buildings that included Robin Jessop’s antiquarian bookshop. Of course, the driver might just have been looking for somewhere to park, a task that was notoriously difficult anywhere in Dartmouth, but Marsh didn’t think he was. Apart from anything else, it was the fact that on each occasion as the Ford had driven past the rear of the shop, the vehicle had slowed down considerably, and both men had very obviously been staring up at the second-floor apartment, rather than at the Porsche, which was a more unusual sight in the town.
And on their third circuit, their intentions became clear. The car stopped at the side of the street on a single yellow line, where parking was not permitted, and the passenger stepped out of the vehicle, the driver remaining where he was, the engine of the car still running.
The passenger looked both ways up and down the street, but in a manner that seemed to suggest he was possibly looking for any potential witnesses rather than checking for oncoming cars, then crossed over to the rear of the shop and swiftly ascended the spiral staircase that gave access to Robin Jessop’s apartment. When he reached the metal landing, he walked over to the apartment door and rapped on it sharply.
There was no response that Gary Marsh could see, which was entirely unsurprising, as he knew for a fact that both Jessop and Mallory had left Dartmouth together some time earlier. As he watched the unknown stranger standing by the apartment door, Marsh sank a little lower in the seat of his car and at the same time took a powerful
compact digital camera from his jacket pocket. He aimed at the man, used the telephoto lens to zoom in on his face, and took about a dozen images. For good measure, he also took a handful of pictures of the illegally parked car, making sure that the registration plate was clearly visible.
The man on the landing turned and looked around him, then reached inside his loose jacket and took out an object that glinted metallically in the early-afternoon sun. As Marsh switched his camera to video mode and started filming, the man extended the object, which Marsh could then identify as a collapsible jemmy, stuck the point into the space between the door and the jamb, and gave a sharp push.
The crack as the door gave way was clearly audible even from where Marsh was sitting inside his car. Immediately the intruder vanished from sight into the apartment.
“Interesting,” Marsh murmured to himself, and continued both watching and recording.
It was perfectly obvious to him that the apartment had to be fairly small, simply because of the dimensions of the building, and so he wasn’t surprised when the unidentified man stepped back out of the door less than two minutes later, again glanced around him, and then descended the spiral staircase. At the bottom, he glanced over toward his companion in the parked Ford, shook his head, and headed through the alleyway that led to the main street and the front of Jessop’s shop.
Marsh briefly contemplated following him, but just as quickly rejected the idea. The most obvious reason for the man walking down the alley was for him to go into
the bookshop, exactly as Marsh himself had done only a few minutes earlier, to try to find out where Robin Jessop had gone.
This time, the man was out of sight for rather longer, but not by much. About three minutes after he had disappeared into the alley, he stepped out again and strode briskly across to the parked car. Again Marsh filmed him, the telephoto lens on his camera bringing his face and figure sharply into focus.
Almost as soon as the man sat down in the passenger seat, the driver of the Ford indicated and the vehicle drove swiftly away down the street.
Marsh watched it depart, but his attention was concentrated not on the car, but on the video images he had just recorded. Something had struck him about the man as he had walked back to the car, and he scanned through the digital images, looking for the relevant frames.