In a quiet English seaside town, antiquarian bookseller Robin Jessop has acquired an odd medieval volume. What appears to be a book isn’t a book at all, but a cleverly disguised safe, in which she finds a single rolled parchment, written in code.
For encryption expert David Mallory, the text is impenetrable. Until an invaluable clue opens the door to a mystery, and a conspiracy, stretching back seven centuries, when the most powerful man in Europe declared war on the most powerful clan, the Knights Templar.
Now, Jessop and Mallory find themselves on a global hunt for an unsurpassed treasure and this much closer to the keys to secrets that could change history, topple an empire, and bury them both alive. Because they’re not only the hunters. They’re also the hunted.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||7.40(w) x 4.20(h) x 1.20(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
PRAISE FOR JAMES BECKER’S NOVELS
ALSO BY JAMES BECKER
“We have no choice. We agree or we die. All of us. It’s that simple.”
Pierre de Sevry, the marshal of the Knights Templar in the Holy Land, rested his left hand on the pommel of his sheathed battle sword and looked around at the assembled company. His white tunic, bearing the unmistakable symbol of the order, the bloodred croix pattée, which had been used in various forms since 1147 to signify membership of this illustrious company of warrior monks, was ripped and torn and heavily stained with blood, some of it his own. His plate armor was dented, holed, and scratched from the almost continuous close combat that had been a daily feature of the siege of Acre since the first Mamluk attack on the city.
The Mamluks—an elite caste of warrior slaves who had fought for the Egyptian rulers for over a century—had assumed power in Egypt a short time earlier, ending the reign of the descendants of the great Muslim leader Saladin. Thirty years earlier they had utterly destroyed a Mongol army at Ain Jalut, south of Nazareth, and had been undefeated ever since. By any standards, they were formidable opponents.
A deep voice cut across the suddenly silent chamber.
“For myself, I would be happy to give my life in this glorious mission.”
De Sevry looked at the knight who had spoken, a man he knew had acquitted himself with conspicuous valor over the last few days, and nodded.
“None of us doubt either your courage or your resolve, my brother, and all of us have been prepared to give our lives for the honor of God every day since we arrived in this place. But I have no wish to sacrifice myself or any of this company to no purpose. We are a mere handful of men, less than two hundred strong, and by our latest count the sultan Khalil has mustered an army of over one hundred and fifty thousand soldiers, not to mention his siege engines and catapults, and his miners who are probably even now tunneling somewhere in the ground under our feet. Even if each of us in the coming battle managed to slay five hundred of the enemy, there would still be well over fifty thousand of them left. This is a fight that we simply cannot win, no matter what we do or how courageously we conduct ourselves. If we decide to fight, then it is inevitable that we are also deciding to die. And if we die, then the only chance the forces of Christendom have of regaining the Holy City will die with us.”
De Sevry paused in his grim recitation and again looked around at the company of his most senior knights, a bare dozen men whom he considered his brothers in Christ as well as his most trusted comrades in arms. All of them looked haggard and wearied by over six weeks of unrelenting and utterly brutal hand-to-hand combat, facing the teeming hordes of Mamluk attackers who had thrown themselves, wave after wave, against them.
From the very beginning, the sultan’s siege engines and catapults had been raining missiles down on the city, their target the massive outer wall surrounding Acre. The wall was studded with ten separate and formidable towers, the principal entrance tower possessing walls almost thirty feet thick, a huge structure that had looked utterly impregnable to some of the inhabitants. But that hadn’t proved to be the case.
As well as the knights of the Templar order, the beleaguered garrison included Hospitallers and Teutonic Knights, and a joint force of Templars and Hospitallers had barely repelled a determined attack by the Mamluk soldiers on Saint Anthony’s Gate on May fifteenth. But already the writing had been on the wall: the siege was only ever going to end one way, and all of them inside the fortress knew it.
Three days later, a sound like distant swelling thunder had echoed off the old stones of the city walls as all the war drums of the Mamluk attackers had been sounded simultaneously, the noise growing rapidly until people within the city were almost deafened. And then with a suddenness that was almost shocking, the drumming stopped and there was the briefest of instants of total silence.
And then the screaming had started, the awe-inspiring sound of tens of thousands of voices bellowing their battle cries to the heavens. Then line upon line, wave upon wave, of Mamluk soldiers had begun running headlong over the rough ground toward the fortifications, converging on the battered structure from all sides simultaneously, their unsheathed swords glinting like a sea of silver in the rays of the morning sun. Above them, the sky had darkened as tens of thousands of arrows had flown overhead, the archers targeting the soldiers waiting on the walls. It had been the beginning of an unrelenting and all-out assault on the city.
And of course it wasn’t just the Mamluk soldiers that the defendants faced. The sultan had assembled an array of siege engines, massive catapults, and trebuchets that could hurl rocks ranging from the size of a man’s head up to massive boulders three or four feet in diameter that might require a dozen or more men to lift into position on the weapons.
The moment the war drums had fallen silent, the siege engines had fired, the rocks arcing up into the sky before plummeting to earth with devastating force, obliterating anything they hit. For a whole number of reasons, the weapons were inaccurate, but there were so many of them that accuracy was not really an issue. Even the handful of boulders that had smashed into the inner wall of Acre’s defenses had been enough to cause significant damage, and most of the rocks that missed this target had slammed into the area beyond the defenses, causing utter carnage among the soldiers and civilians who were unfortunate enough to find themselves in the impact area.
The first breach on one of the towers—the so-called Accursed Tower—had occurred that day, and immediately the attackers had swarmed through the opening driven into the wall, forcing the beleaguered Christian defenders to retreat to the next line of defense, the inner wall, fighting all the way.
And it had been on that very same day that the tragic event occurred, which had unexpectedly thrust Pierre de Sevry into the position of commanding the few remaining Knights Templar.
Guillaume de Beaujeu, the grand master of the order, had been taking a brief rest from the fighting when he was told that the Mamluk attackers had actually forced their way inside the city. Without pausing to don all his plate armor, Guillaume had immediately rushed out and taken his place at the forefront of the defenders, as was the norm for Templar grand masters, wielding his double-edged battle sword to lethal effect against the swarm of Mamluk besiegers.
In the heat of the battle he had raised his weapon to strike down another attacker when an arrow slammed into his body underneath his upraised arm. His full armor would probably have stopped the missile, but the mail he was wearing was insufficiently strong to deflect it. The arrow had delivered a fatal wound, and he had died within the day.
The next most senior officer was de Sevry, and when Guillaume de Beaujeu had drawn his last breath, the marshal of the Knights Templar reluctantly assumed the mantle of leadership. But it was clear to all the knights that there was very little chance de Sevry would retain the title he had inherited for very long. Or, at least, that had been what everybody believed until a few days later, on May twenty-fifth, when an unarmed emissary sent personally by the sultan al-Ashraf Khalil had arrived at the gates of the Templar castle with an unexpected offer.
Unexpected, because the Mamluk forces had very quickly gained the upper hand after the outer wall had been breached. The less substantial defenses of the inner wall fared little better, the first crack occurring in the area controlled by the Hospitallers, a battle during which their grand master—like Guillaume de Beaujeu, a man who had commanded his troops from the front—was seriously wounded. Mamluk forces had poured into the gap created in that wall, and then the besiegers had managed to open the Saint Anthony Gate, allowing them unfettered access to the interior of the fortification. At a stroke, hordes of the attackers had swarmed inside, indiscriminately slaughtering soldiers and civilians as they did so.
The battle had raged on the open ground inside the wall, but the outcome was never in any doubt: the city was going to fall. Fighting every step of the way, the defenders were forced back before the waves of determined Mamluks, retreating to the safety of the sea and the handful of boats that still remained, or taking refuge in the Templar castle, the last unbreached redoubt.
The Mamluks had quickly gained the upper hand, and the streets and buildings had echoed with the howls of agony of the wounded and dying. For those who were unable to hide or make their escape, no quarter was given. As soon as the city had been secured and the fighting largely over, the Mamluk soldiers had worked their way steadily down the ranks of prisoners, dragging out all the men and the elderly of both sexes, as well as the infants, and summarily executing them. Young boys and women of childbearing age were spared, only to be clapped in irons to be later sold as slaves, or worse.
But despite the overwhelming superiority of numbers and the resources of the besieging army, one single building, the Templar fort at the southern extremity of the city, still stood, massive and solid, somehow having managed to resist and repel every attack the Mamluks had launched against it.
Most of the Templar knights, the pitiful few still left, could have escaped by sea—the fortress possessed its own guarded access to a small loading dock where a handful of boats were still moored—but that option had never even been considered by de Sevry and his colleagues for one very simple reason: the other people in the fort. Even before the outer wall had been breached, a ragged and desperate clutch of women, many with their infants and older children in tow, had taken refuge in the fortress. The creed of the Templars was simple and inviolate: one of their duties was to protect the innocent, and there was insufficient space in the boats for everyone to escape, and so they had vowed to fight on to the end.
The fortress had held out for five days, the final obstacle standing in the path of the sultan, and still the massive outer walls showed no signs of crumbling under the almost continuous assault by the siege engines. And this failure by his troops to eliminate the last remaining group of enemy soldiers had clearly rankled with the Mamluk leader, for on the sixth day the assaults had suddenly ceased, and a single unarmed figure, carrying a white flag of truce, had walked up to the immense wooden doors that guarded access to the castle.
It was the offer that man had conveyed that the Templar leaders were now discussing. If the sultan was to be believed, and not all of the Templars assumed that suggestion was a given, then in return for handing over the fortress, the Mamluk sultan was prepared to allow all the women and children sheltering inside the fortress to leave the building unharmed. Not only that, but he had also stated that the Templars themselves could walk out, with their weapons and anything else they could carry. It was a remarkably generous offer, and that was why the Templars were immediately so suspicious of it.
They all knew, as, presumably, the sultan also knew, that eventually the fortress would fall. No building or garrison could hold out forever, and especially not against such overwhelming odds. The Mamluk leader was perhaps getting impatient or maybe, as one knight suggested, he wanted to avoid any further deaths among his own men, though the way he had conducted his campaign suggested that this was extremely unlikely to be a consideration on his part.
“I do not trust this infidel,” another of the knights stated flatly. “What is to stop him cutting us all down the moment we leave the safety of the castle?”
“Nothing,” de Sevry immediately admitted. “They could slaughter us all within seconds. But that might almost be preferable, a quick death in the open, fighting man to man, rather than being crushed beneath the stones of the walls of this castle when the siege engines finally finish their work.”
Again he looked around at the other knights. Every one of them met his gaze unflinchingly, their expressions hard and determined.
“If we accept this offer,” he continued, “there is at least a chance that we can leave this place with the women and children who have entrusted their lives and their souls to our care and protection. If we reject it, then both we and the innocents will surely die and, as I said before, the one true religion that we serve will lose the last hope of ever regaining the Holy Land.”
He paused for a moment. “I know this is a heavy burden to bear, as you will be speaking on behalf of your fellow knights who do not have a voice in this matter, and a difficult decision to make, but the envoy requests and requires an answer, one way or the other. So what do I tell him?”
For a few seconds, none of the armored knights responded. Then one man took a half step forward.
“I am unconcerned for my own life,” he growled, “but our master is right. We have accepted into our charge and care the innocents, the women and children who have taken refuge within our fortification. If we do not accept this offer, then they will surely die or end their lives as slaves. If we agree to leave this castle as the Mamluk has requested, then there is at least a chance that we can continue to offer our protection to these people. I vote that we accept.”
De Sevry noticed that several of the other knights had nodded agreement at the man’s suggestion.
“Very well,” he said, his gaze resting briefly on each member of the company in turn. “Am I to assume that that suggestion is acceptable to you all? If not, speak now.”
No dissenting voice was heard, and the newly elected grand master himself nodded.
“Very well. Resume your posts, my brothers, and have the sultan’s envoy brought before me. I will address him myself.”
* * *
Within the hour, a group of roughly one hundred Mamluks, a significant force and each armed with both a scimitar and a curved dagger mounted on a belt worn outside his robe, strode boldly toward the closed doors of the Temple castle. But before they reached it, de Sevry, who had been watching their approach from the crenelated wall above the gate, ordered it to be opened, as soon as he was satisfied that only this group of men was close enough to enter the building.
The Mamluks swaggered inside the fortification, looking around them with interest at the battered and bone-weary defenders who had held out against their attacks for so long. Like the Crusader knights, many members of the Templar order spoke at least some Arabic, but when the leader of the Mamluk group made his first demand, none of the knights present would allow it. But during his earlier conversation with the envoy, de Sevry had been told precisely what the enemy soldiers would wish to do, and had reluctantly agreed to it. In a tired and resigned voice he instructed one of his knights to lead them to the highest point of the castle, where the flagpole stood.
It was the work of only a few seconds to haul down the distinctive battle flag of the Knights Templar, the black-and-white Beauseant, and replace it with the sultan’s own personal standard. As the new flag reached the top of the pole, a light breeze briefly fluttered it, revealing its colors and design to the watching men. The Mamluk group immediately responded to the sight with a ragged cheer, the sound instantly echoed by a thunderous roar of approval from members of the encircling army. Sultan al-Ashraf Khalil now had nominal possession of the castle, and the inhabitants, under the terms of the accommodation de Sevry had agreed to with the envoy, would vacate the building within twenty-four hours.
In the courtyard below, several knights had already begun packing their few possessions, ready to leave, and in other places groups of the women and children who had sought refuge in the building were also beginning to assemble. Through this scene of hurried preparations the Mamluk soldiers strode, confident of their own superiority and invulnerability, there in the very heart of the enemy camp.
De Sevry and a handful of the senior members of the order stood together on one side of the courtyard, watching the activity with jaundiced eyes.
“When we leave this place,” the grand master said quietly, “ensure that your sword arms are unencumbered. We may walk out of here freely, but that does not mean that we will easily be able to pass through the enemy lines.”
“You do not trust the infidels?”
“I do not,” de Sevry replied flatly. “They may still plan to fall upon us the moment we step beyond the gate. As I said before, we may simply be exchanging a quick and honorable death in battle to a more prolonged process of dying if we allow the siege to continue. But we will know soon enough.”
A shrill scream, suddenly silenced, echoed from somewhere within the gray stone walls of the fortress, and instantly each knight reacted. With a metallic slithering sound, battle swords were drawn from their scabbards as they attempted to identify the unseen threat.
“Spread out,” the grand master ordered. “Find out what’s happening.”
The knights dispersed in different directions, each trying to identify the source of the sound. It didn’t take long to find it.
One of the senior knights rounded a corner in one of the passageways and was confronted by an appalling scene. Two of the Mamluk soldiers had apparently happened upon a woman and her young son and had set upon them. The woman lay, clearly unconscious, on her back, her face bloodied and bruised, while the Mamluk heaved his body on top of her. The boy was still conscious, but the second Mamluk had effectively silenced him by twisting a length of cloth around his neck. The boy had been bent forward over a barrel, his clothes ripped asunder, to allow the Mamluk to enter him from behind.
The knight didn’t hesitate. The scene before him was an affront to every tenet of the order and to simple human decency. His sword was already in his hand, and in two swift strides he reached the infidel who was sodomizing the boy. He seized him by the shoulder, dragged him backward, and swung his sword around in a lethal arc, the broad double-edged blade cutting deeply into the man’s body.
The other Mamluk scrambled to his feet and reached for his curved scimitar, but he never had time to draw his weapon. As the first man tumbled backward to the ground, already dead, the knight withdrew his blade and swung it toward the second Mamluk. The end of the sword cut through the enemy soldier’s right arm just above the elbow, and the man screamed in agony. An instant later the knight reversed the direction of his blade and swung the tip through the Mamluk’s neck, instantly decapitating him. His body collapsed to the ground as his head bounced to one side.
The knight stood for a moment, sword still in his hand and ready for immediate use should any other danger present itself. After a moment, he heard the sound of running footsteps approaching him and turned to face this potential new threat, raising his sword with a two-handed grip.
But the man who appeared was not a Mamluk, but another member of the Templar hierarchy, and immediately the knight lowered his weapon.
The newcomer sheathed his own sword as he stared at the two dead men.
“We should never have trusted these infidels,” he said bitterly.
He strode across to where the boy still lay spread-eagled over the barrel, removed the length of cloth from around his neck, and helped him stand up.
The first knight bent down beside his decapitated victim and cleaned the blood from the blade of his sword with the Mamluk’s robe. Then he sheathed the weapon and knelt beside the woman who’d been raped. She was still unconscious, but at least she was breathing. The knight rearranged her clothing to cover her thighs and groin, affording her a slim measure of decency, and then stood up.
Moments later, Pierre de Sevry himself appeared on the scene with two other senior knights, his face reflecting the fury he felt at what had taken place.
“I was perhaps too hasty, Master,” the first knight said, somewhat hesitantly, “but when I saw what was happening I reacted instinctively.”
De Sevry shook his head. “No, my brother. You did what any of us, what any decent man, would and should have done.”
He paused for a moment, and then nodded, his decision made. He turned to the knights standing beside him and issued three simple orders.
“Find them,” he said. “Find them all, and kill them all. When you’ve done that, tear down that rag and hoist the Beauseant in its place. And then summon Tibauld de Gaudin to my presence.”
* * *
“I am unhappy about this,” de Gaudin said, sitting on the opposite side of the table to the grand master. “I feel that my place is here, with you and the other members of our order, until the end comes.”
De Sevry nodded.
“I know that,” he replied, “but we have to look at the whole situation. Because of what happened here today, and no matter what transpires tomorrow, this fortress is going to fall. Perhaps not this week, perhaps not even next week, but within a month the siege engines and the miners will have done their work and the walls will give way. I know that you are unconcerned for your own life, but we have charge of these women and children and the only hope they have is you, my brother. I have already ordered my men to load the chests onto the ship. As soon as they have completed that work, I want you to take on board the vessel as many of the women and children as the ship will physically hold, and then sail as quickly as you can to Sidon and to our castle there. That would at least ensure that we salvage something from the disaster of Acre, even if it is only the lives of the innocents.”
“Very well,” de Gaudin said, “if that is your order, then I will of course obey. When I reach Sidon I will organize a force to sail here as quickly as possible to assist you.”
“Do not bother, my friend. I have a feeling that this will all be over long before any reinforcements could possibly arrive.”
That evening, while it was still light enough to see, the galley that had been allocated to Tibauld de Gaudin, the treasurer of the Pauperes commilitones Christi Templique Solomonici in Outremer, the land beyond the sea, moved slowly and silently away from the dock that was protected by the Templar castle. Positioned in a line above the keel were half a dozen ironbound and locked chests, and sitting or standing on every available few square inches of space on the deck were the women and children fortunate enough to have been selected to accompany him.
The galley headed directly away from the shore, opening out to the west, so as to put some distance between the vessel and the archers of the besieging Mamluk army as quickly as possible. Only when the crew was certain they were out of range did the heavily laden vessel begin a slow and somewhat cumbersome turn to starboard, around to the north, for the fifty-odd-mile journey up the coast to Sidon.
In those days, vessels rarely sailed at night, for a number of reasons, but on this occasion they had had no option, and they did have one device that helped them in their mission. Next to the helmsman, illuminated by a shielded oil lamp, was a small container of water in which floated a piece of wood carrying a slim length of steel, one end bearing a daub of red paint. The Templars were one of the first groups ever to use a basic compass, and there were still discussions about exactly how and why it worked, but the pragmatic view was that it did and so they employed it. For whatever reason, the red end of the metal always pointed in the same direction, and that was all the sailors of the order needed to know.
Tibauld de Gaudin stood in the stern of the craft, behind the helmsman, and stared back toward Acre. A few lights flickered in the Templar castle, the torches placed in sconces on the battlement walls, and beyond them he could see the much brighter and more obvious illumination from the blazing fires that delineated the front line of the besieging army. De Gaudin stared behind the slow-moving galley until he could no longer see anything save for a dull yellowish glow in the sky, and then he left his post to stare with equal intensity into the blackness of the night ahead of the ship.
He knew with absolute certainty that he would never see any of his Templar brothers from Acre again.
And in this belief he was perfectly correct.
* * *
The morning after de Gaudin had made his somewhat reluctant escape from the doomed city of Acre, another envoy arrived at the Templar stronghold bearing a further message from the sultan, in response to the brief explanation de Sevry had already provided for the continued presence of the Templars. According to the envoy, the group of Mamluks who had entered the fortress the previous day had clearly been guilty men who had acted in an unacceptable manner, and the sultan was so embarrassed by their conduct that he wished to apologize in person to the commander of the Templar forces and give his personal guarantee that the terms agreed for the surrender of the fortress would be respected.
In hindsight, the Templars should have known better than to have even listened to the man. But in accordance with the expressed wishes of the sultan, de Sevry and a handful of his senior knights left the fortress and strode toward the center of the encircling army. The moment they were outside bow shot range of the fortress walls, they were surrounded, swiftly disarmed and forced down to their knees, and then one by one beheaded to the accompaniment of the spaced beats from a single Mamluk war drum. The defenders of the castle looked on in horror, but were powerless to do anything to intervene.
One of the great strengths of the Templar order was that if a leader fell in battle or was otherwise unable to continue in his post, the members of the order simply elected a new leader and carried on fighting. As was the custom, a senior knight was duly elected to command the force inside the castle, but it was already obvious that his tenure in the post was likely to be even shorter than that of his predecessor.
Three days after de Gaudin had left, the Mamluk miners set fire to the stacks of timber that they had placed in the tunnels they’d dug under the outer wall of the castle, and within a matter of hours the first crack appeared in the outermost wall of the structure. And as soon as that happened, an attack was launched against the building by over two thousand Mamluk soldiers, the attackers outnumbering the remaining defenders by more than ten to one.
But even as the final battle for the Templar castle began, other sections of the wall that had been seriously undermined by the tunneling operations simply collapsed, crushing most of the attackers as well as virtually all of the defenders. Once the dust had quite literally settled, hundreds of other Mamluk troops swarmed into the ruins, slaughtering every Christian they found.
* * *
At Sidon, when news of the fall of Acre reached the Sea Castle, de Gaudin was elected grand master of the order of the Knights Templar in Outremer, though his command now only comprised a bare few dozen knights. About a week after he had safely landed his human cargo at Sidon, he returned to his galley and ordered the crew to sail back out into the eastern Mediterranean to the island of Cyprus, then owned by the Templars, in order to raise reinforcements to protect and defend the last remaining Templar mainland strongholds in the Holy Land.
But in this quest de Gaudin was unsuccessful, and the relieving force he had hoped to create never materialized. After he left, Sidon itself was attacked and quickly fell to the massive army of the marauding Mamluks. The few surviving knights, squires, and sergeants of the order made their way to Tortosa, but that stronghold, like the other remaining mainland Templar castle in the Holy Land, Athlit, was abandoned in August that year, even before the Mamluks had launched an attack on either.
The last redoubt for the Templars proved to be the tiny fortress island of Ruad, located about two miles off the coast of the mainland, where the few surviving members of the order gathered. It held out for some time, but in 1303 it, too, was besieged and then captured by the victorious Mamluks. The defenders who managed to survive the siege were either randomly slaughtered as soon as the walls finally tumbled or marched in chains to Cairo where they were slung into the dungeons and later died through starvation and ill treatment.
De Gaudin blamed himself for the failure to summon reinforcements. He had both called for volunteers to fight against the infidels as a simple Christian duty and tried to hire mercenary soldiers, without success. Clearly even mercenaries were only too aware that attempting to take on the Mamluks was simply opting for an unusual form of suicide, and no amount of money would act as a sufficient inducement.
The reality was that never again would Christian forces occupy the Holy Land. The Crusades were over, and in less than twenty years the Pauperes commilitones Christi Templique Solomonici, the Poor Fellow Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, would effectively cease to exist, betrayed by the greed, cupidity, and treachery of the king of France, Philip the Fair.
De Gaudin died a bitter and broken man less than two years after the fall of Acre, and was succeeded as grand master by Jacques de Molay, one of the senior knights who had accompanied him to Sidon and then on to Cyprus, and with whom he spent many hours talking in private.
And during one of those quiet conversations, toward the end of his life, de Gaudin finally and almost reluctantly confided a single piece of information to the man who would succeed him, vital information that de Molay would himself jealously guard during his tenure as grand master of the Knights Templar, and the agonizing end of his own life in the so-called cleansing flames of his execution pyre in Paris.
Robin Jessop gazed curiously at the leather cover of the book in front of her. The lettering on the spine was nearly illegible, and the front of the volume, which should arguably have been better protected if it had, as she’d been told, been stored in a proper bookcase over the years, showed considerable signs of wear, although the title was still readable. What it said didn’t make any sense, but she could certainly read it.
“‘Ipse Dixit,’” Jessop murmured to herself. “Who on earth would give a book that title? And why? And no author’s name, either.”
It was Latin, obviously, the two words translating more or less as “the master has spoken,” which Jessop, as a former classics scholar, albeit some time ago, and, lately, a somewhat reluctant antiquarian bookseller and valuer, a young woman operating in a world that was normally occupied by elderly and shortsighted men, had not the slightest difficulty in translating.
It had seemed like an easy, if rather dull and tedious, assignment. A middle-aged man named William Stevens who lived just outside Torbay had received an unexpected bequest from an uncle whom he barely knew existed. It wasn’t money, but simply the entire contents of the old man’s library, a collection of well over one thousand books that ranged from a couple of hundred paperback novels published over the last few dozen years through early-twentieth-century hardback books to almost one hundred ancient leather-bound tomes. And it was these latter volumes that the beneficiary of the will hoped might be worth a small fortune.
When Stevens had first telephoned Jessop, she explained to him at some length that age in itself was no guarantee, or even a reliable indicator, of a high price. Condition, edition, and rarity, she went on, were the three most vital words. To have real value, the book had to be in as good a condition as possible, and the older the book the less likely it was that the condition would be fine enough to command a high price. And a first edition would invariably be worth more than all the subsequent printings, and by definition there were always a smaller number of first editions printed.
Stevens had seemed unimpressed, and Jessop, who had seen the way the conversation was heading and didn’t much like it, because she really didn’t want to have to waste her time looking at a collection of worthless old volumes, had marshaled her final arguments. A lot of old books, she had told Stevens, were so common and so undesirable that they might only fetch a few pounds at auction, and probably a lot less if they were sold to a dealer, especially as a job lot. The days of a genuine treasure turning up, like a fragment of a Gutenberg Bible or other fifteenth-century relic of the very earliest days of publishing, were long gone. There was even less chance of anything older being in the collection. Antiques programs on television and the arrival of the Internet had more or less ensured that almost all the genuine finds had been, not to put too fine a point on it, found.
“But you don’t know that for certain,” Stevens had insisted. “As far as I know, old Isaac inherited this collection from his great-great-grandfather, and from what I’ve been able to find out it was always kept in the library at the old family home, and had been for centuries.”
That had sounded to Jessop like something of an exaggeration.
“The paperback novels as well?” she’d inquired mildly.
“No, of course not. I meant the old stuff. It’s only seeing the light of day now because they’re having to sell the house up in Scotland. Bloody death duties, of course.”
“Scotland?” Jessop had asked.
“Yeah. Had to hire a bloody van to get it all down here, and now the boxes are blocking up half of my garage. Anyway, I hear what you say, but I still want you to look at the collection. If it’s worth anything, you can buy it off me and sell it through your shop, because I certainly don’t want it. I live in a small apartment, and I’ve got no room for it here. If you tell me that none of the books are of any value, either you can have them for nothing and sell them through the trade or I’ll get them picked up from your shop and give them away to some charity shop, I suppose. They seem to take pretty much anything these days. And if you don’t want the books I’ll pay you a reasonable fee for your time,” he added, before Jessop could point out that she had no option but to charge for the time it took her to do valuations.
Part of success in life lies in recognizing a fait accompli when you’re looking at one. Robin Jessop knew that Stevens simply wasn’t going to let it go, not least because she was well aware that there were no other antiquarian bookshops anywhere in the area she could suggest as alternatives, and she had finally and reluctantly agreed to inspect the collection on the terms Stevens had suggested.
Pretty much ever since the seven large heavy-duty cardboard boxes had been delivered to the back door of her shop, she’d been regretting her decision. Even as she’d unpacked the first box, she saw immediately that there was almost nothing in it of any obvious value. But she’d persevered, emptying all the boxes before picking up any of the books to inspect them.
As a first step she’d gathered together all the paperbacks, some of which had been packed into each box, and replaced them in the largest of the cardboard boxes after only the most cursory of inspections. Paperbacks were disposable items, in her view, and almost none of them had any value at all. But she did check the first few pages of each book, just in case. A first edition paperback of Ian Fleming’s initial “Bond” book, Casino Royale, and signed by the author, for example, would be of very significant value. But she quickly saw that there was nothing of any interest, just a somewhat broad selection of Westerns, thrillers, and a few historical novels, none signed by anybody and all in only average condition.
Shifting those had cleared the decks somewhat, and then Robin had begun working her way through the rest of the collection, but that had proved to be almost equally disappointing. She’d looked at a handful of religious books, a couple of old—but not valuable—Bibles, books of hymns, and others of common prayer, none of them first editions and all rather tatty. There were collections of significant English writers, including most of the usual suspects—Shakespeare, Bunyan, Milton, Keats, Wordsworth, and other Lakeland poets among them—but these books seemed to have been bought for their decorative appearance, for their leather spines to grace a bookshelf, rather than to be read. At least, as far as Jessop could see, none of them had ever actually been opened. All were comparatively recent reprints, just as she’d expected. Some charity shop, she thought, as she packed them away in one of the boxes, would probably be delighted to take them.
Then there was a motley selection of hardback novels, and these she looked at with more care. Until the advent of the Kindle and its hideous electronic kin—devices that Jessop privately regarded as the work of the devil, and which had changed the face of publishing for all time, and much for the worse, in her opinion—most novels had been published first as hardbacks and only later, perhaps as long as a year or even more after hardback publication, being released as paperbacks. Some of these hardback editions had sold in very small numbers, but if for some reason the paperback had then shot into the bestseller lists, many of those first edition hardbacks had acquired significant rarity value, especially if the author had written anything in them. Or, ideally, had written something and then died. So she checked the printing record and the first few pages of each one carefully.
There were a dozen or so first editions of little-known novels by obscure authors, all in reasonable condition, but none of them were signed. These Jessop put aside for checking later and packed the rest of them away. She had spent another couple of hours going through the remainder of the newer books—those less than a hundred years old—and had picked out another handful of books that looked interesting. And then she’d started working her way through the really old stuff, the genuinely ancient volumes.
In the early days of publishing, most of the books produced were religious in nature, all lineal and spiritual descendants of the very first mass-produced book in history, the almost priceless forty-two-line Gutenberg Bible. Nobody knew for certain how many copies of that first book had been printed: two contradictory letters had been written in 1455, one stating that the total was a hundred and fifty-eight, while the other claimed one eighty. Most modern researchers agreed the total was probably over a hundred and sixty, but what was known for certain was that only a mere forty-eight had survived the trials and torments, the fires and floods and general neglect, of the almost six hundred years since they were printed in 1455, and only twenty-one of those were complete works, the others being incomplete in one or another respect.
Robin was well aware of the value of the Gutenberg Bible. The last time a complete copy had been sold, back in 1978, it had fetched 2.2 million dollars, and most informed estimates suggested that the current value of such a volume would lie in the twenty-five-million to thirty-five-million range. Even individual pages, properly authenticated and with a provenance that stood up to scrutiny, could fetch anything between twenty thousand and a hundred thousand each.
Of course, she wasn’t expecting to discover such a treasure, and in this she had not been disappointed. There were more Bibles—another seven of them in all—a couple in pretty good condition with heavy and ornate leather covers, the pages intact and virtually unmarked, each of which had most likely come from a parish church somewhere. Those, too, she put aside, because they clearly had a value, if only as decorative objects. She also picked out another ten books on various subjects that seemed interesting enough to merit further study, and consigned the remainder of that pile to the cardboard boxes. And there were a few other books, on very specialized subjects, that she believed one or two of her longtime customers would probably want to buy, though in all honesty she couldn’t charge very much money for them, because those particular areas of the market were both extremely limited and not especially popular.
And that just left her with a final couple of piles of about forty old volumes to look at. She’d found the book entitled Ipse Dixit about halfway down the final pile, and it had puzzled her immediately. Her business was books, especially old books, and she normally expected to recognize every volume she saw, and to know it well enough to be able to state the date of its first printing to within a decade or two, to provide a précis of its subject matter, and certainly to know the identity of the author, if the book had been written by a single individual.
But the Ipse Dixit volume puzzled her, because not only had she never seen one before, but she’d never even heard of it, although she knew the title had been used on a recent memoir written by an American judge. Unless her professional knowledge was woefully lacking, that particular ancient tome had never appeared in any of the catalogues or listings with which she was familiar. That could make it unique, or possibly so, and that fact alone implied that it would have some value.
She placed the book on one side of her desk, deciding to look at it only after she’d examined the remaining volumes. It might take quite some time to locate any information about it. Or, she thought, with a sudden frisson of excitement, to perhaps fail to locate any information about it, to establish that it really was a genuine lost volume of some sort, a book never previously known, seen, or catalogued by anyone.
Just under an hour later, Jessop stood up from her desk, picked up the final three books she’d checked, and carried them over to the last of the cardboard boxes that lined the passageway, a box that was still under half-full because of the collection of books she’d put to one side to value separately.
Looking at all those took almost another two hours, and by the time she’d finished, her back was aching from the constant bending as she’d studied the volumes on her desk. But she was fairly satisfied. She’d identified almost twenty books that would be worth selling through a specialist auction house. She’d jotted down her estimates of the likely values they could achieve, and even after deducting her fee for providing the valuation and examining all the volumes, and the commission charged by the auction house, she hoped William Stevens would be pleased. He should come out of it with at least a few hundred pounds in his hands. She would have to discuss it with him, obviously, and arrange for all the other books to be removed and disposed of, but it was actually a far better result than she had expected.
She placed all those books in a separate box and moved it to one side of her study, leaving all the others out in the passageway, and made herself a cup of instant coffee in her tiny kitchen, a room the builder of the property had obviously decided was too small to serve any other function.
She lived literally above the shop. Downstairs and fronting onto the street was her bookshop, a corner-shop-sized premises comprising a largish single room lined with bookshelves and with stand-alone bookcases forming a kind of small literary maze through which browsers could amble at their leisure, hopefully plucking volumes from the shelves as they did so. At one end, near the counter, she’d positioned a low coffee table and four small armchairs, to encourage potential buyers to sit down, to enjoy a coffee or tea, and flick through the books they’d selected.
She still wasn’t sure that was a good idea, combining the functions of a café and a bookshop, but her business adviser had assured her it would help get her shop off the ground. And so far it had helped; the receipts from the drinks sold sometimes exceeded the sales of books.
It also helped that Betty Howarth, who ran the shop most of the time, was an accomplished home cook, with a noticeable skill when it came to baking, and her homemade cakes proved to be something of a draw, even for people who had apparently never read a single book in their lives and had no obvious intention of doing so at any time in the future. Betty, a slightly plump, dark-haired middle-aged lady who lived across the river in Kingswear, shared Robin’s love of books, even if she didn’t share her knowledge. That didn’t matter, because everything on the shelves was priced, and in the event of a query Robin could be downstairs in less than a minute.
Above the commercial premises was a small two-bedroom flat. When the estate agent had sent her the details of the property, the apartment had been described as “charming and compact.” Like almost everything said by estate agents, this was not actually a lie but certainly required the truth to be interpreted in a somewhat elastic manner. When Robin had seen the “spacious living room,” which supposedly doubled as a dining room, she almost pulled out there and then.
“I doubt,” she’d said to the agent, “if you could swing a six-week-old kitten in that room, and if you tried it with a fully grown cat you’d hit all four walls every time. That would certainly piss off the cat, and it doesn’t do much for me, either.”
“Actually,” the agent had replied, “that expression—”
“I know,” she’d interrupted. “It refers to a very different kind of cat. You don’t need to tell me.”
The agent had nodded—Robin suspected that all estate agents went through some kind of training course that taught them that whatever customers said you always had to agree with them—but pointed out certain advantages that she might not have appreciated. The small rooms would make it cheaper to heat in the winter, and she wouldn’t have to buy as much furniture with less space to fill. And he had closed his argument by emphasizing the unpalatable facts Robin already knew: that particular shop with the apartment above it was the only property for sale in the town that came anywhere near fitting her requirements and was also within her modest price range, and he did have three other clients who had all expressed a serious interest in the building.
So she hadn’t discussed it any further, but simply said she’d take the property, subject to the usual survey and the bank deigning to grant her a mortgage in exchange for a slice of her soul and a large proportion of her disposable income for the next quarter of a century, and had moved in just over six weeks later.
And, in fact, it hadn’t worked out too badly. The master bedroom—if the enlarged box room could be dignified with such a grandiose title—just about accommodated her six-foot-wide bed, albeit with only about a foot of space on either side and around five feet at the end of the bed. The so-called guest bedroom she had immediately turned into a study, and apart from that, and the miniscule living room, she also had a bathroom with a separate lavatory and a kitchen that was about six feet square.
Compact it certainly was.
She carried the mug of coffee into the study, maneuvering carefully around the cardboard boxes—even the central passage of the flat was quite narrow—and then resumed her seat, slightly altered the angle of the adjustable light on the desk, and positioned the mysterious book squarely on the leather desk protector in front of her. She took hold of the hand-tooled leather cover and lifted it.
Then she sat back in her seat, an expression of mild shock on her face, because something totally unexpected had just happened. She’d made a discovery that both surprised her and also, she suspected, served to explain something that up until then she hadn’t understood.
The Ipse Dixit book wasn’t actually a book at all.
One of the biggest problems with performing genealogical research is that it can be incredibly addictive, as David Mallory had already discovered. In fact, there were three problems with doing it. Apart from the addiction question, it was also comparatively expensive and definitely time-consuming.
His interest in the subject had been triggered by an apparently inconsequential remark his mother had made to him, just a few days before she’d died in the hospital the previous year after a long illness. At the time, he hadn’t given much thought to what she’d said—there were far more pressing matters occupying his mind in the days immediately before and following her death—but as the months had passed, his thoughts returned to what she’d told him, and he’d begun to wonder if she was right.
He’d also wondered if it mattered. And, although he was quite sure that it didn’t, the switch that engaged his curiosity had been tripped, and there didn’t seem to be any easy way of turning it off. So he’d done a little research on the Internet, but he had quickly realized that to fully explore his ancestors he would need a piece of specialized software to enable him to plot his family tree, because his standard word processing program just wasn’t capable of doing it and he didn’t want to have to write a database to do the job. He would also need a list of Web sites and other resources that he could access to obtain the information he was looking for. Successful genealogical research, he had quickly realized, was more a matter of knowing where to look rather than just knowing what to look for.
Once he’d bought and loaded the genealogy software, which cost less than he had expected, and had more or less gotten used to its quirks and foibles, Mallory had started rolling back the years, tracking his ancestors through time. And he’d found it simply fascinating, not to mention all-consuming.
Not the names themselves, of course, because that was what they were, just names and dates with links to other names and other dates, but the time he spent wandering off into the endlessly intriguing byways of history, fleshing out the characters behind the names on his charts, the men and women to whom he quite literally owed his very existence.
He’d quickly established that his mother’s throwaway remark—she’d told him that he was the eldest son of an eldest son of an eldest son of an eldest son, though she couldn’t remember all the names—was absolutely accurate. For whatever reason, he appeared to be the end product of a patriarchal lineage that had invariably involved firstborn male children, or that, at least, was what his researches had shown so far, and he had already managed to dig back as far as the end of the eighteenth century with some of the branches of his family tree.
The problem he was facing, and which he found was taking up more and more of his spare time, was that the further back he tried to go, the more difficult and time-consuming the search became. He’d been able to access the first, the most recent, records without even stepping out of his study, because he’d found them online, but he very quickly ran out of options there, and even the extensive records held by the Mormon Church didn’t contain all the information he sought. Instead he was having to physically visit cemeteries and churches, looking for weathered and faded headstones in forgotten weed-choked corners of graveyards, or search handwritten parish records, ancient property deeds, and the like. That sometimes necessitated spending a day off or even a full weekend traveling to another town and often booking a hotel room for one or two nights, and that meant his new and compelling hobby was starting to get expensive as well, with the escalating cost of fuel, meals, and accommodation.
But for the moment, he could afford it. Or, rather, he would afford it, which wasn’t exactly the same thing, because now the bug had really bitten. And his mother’s death had left him a house he didn’t like and didn’t need and was actively trying to sell, and a bit of money as well, so it wasn’t as if he was exactly strapped for cash.
In his own mind, he rationalized his new and almost all-consuming pursuit as a kind of tribute to his mother, a way of celebrating her memory by investigating and describing in detail her family tree, as if establishing her lineage would somehow help to reinforce his memories and recollections of her.
He barely even remembered his father, who’d died in a road accident when he was still a child, and his mother was all the family he’d ever had, or had ever known. His father’s untimely demise had robbed his mother, Mary Anne, of any chance of having any other children, and him of the possibility of growing up with any siblings. She had never expressed the slightest interest in finding another man with whom to share her life, and had settled down, grieving but apparently contented, to raise her son alone. It was only when he became a teenager that he finally realized that some of her irregular weekends away with one or other of her female friends, or slightly longer visits to distant and usually unnamed relatives, weekends and periods when the young David would be farmed out to a neighbor or another friend, might admit of an alternative explanation.
Not that he blamed her in the slightest. Ever since he first considered the matter, David Mallory had been convinced that each of us has only one life, and the secret to happiness is to be content with what one has, to play the cards fate has dealt. And fate, in the person of a driver so drunk that when he’d been cut from the wreckage of his car, suffering only from a broken arm, he was hardly able to stand, let alone drive, had at a stroke orphaned David and made a widow of his mother. As far as he was concerned, whatever it took to get through life was fine with him, and his mother, like everybody else, had needs and wants that had to be satisfied.
So in his opinion, establishing a full and complete family tree was one small way in which he could honor the memory of the woman who had brought him into the world and had largely been responsible for shaping him into what he was.
And so, when his workload permitted, he continued pursuing his hobby. At the age of thirty-two, Mallory was already established in his third career. He’d left school at nineteen, not having quite made the grade to get into even a minor redbrick university to read anything he thought would enhance his employment prospects. He couldn’t see a bad media studies degree doing much for him, and that was about all that was on offer. Instead he’d joined the police force for a brief and inglorious career.
The reason he’d left had nothing to do with his wishes but everything to do with the jagged scar that ran in a faint zigzag pattern down the left side of his cheek, white against his tanned flesh. He hadn’t wanted to leave, but his superiors had made it very clear to him that he and the police force were about to part company, permanently. And, the superintendent had told him on the day when Mallory handed back his warrant card, he was extremely lucky not to be facing prosecution himself over what almost everybody in the Bristol police force had begun calling “the Incident.”
He had always had a knack with computers, writing his first program in C while still a teenager, and after he had shed his dark blue uniform for the last time he gravitated toward information technology. He hadn’t wanted to get into programming because he’d always found the coding and seemingly endless debugging terminally frustrating, but IT support seemed a more attractive prospect, and he’d started doing that for a local company.
But almost five years of explaining what to do to people apparently too dense to actually follow simple instructions, and fixing problems that a reasonably bright fourteen-year-old could do in his sleep, had soured that for him as well, and he’d left after his mother died, to set up his own business.
He called himself a computer consultant, which meant pretty much whatever he wanted it to mean: everything from tuition on application software, through virus removal and security advice, up to systems analysis and supplying, installing, and commissioning complete systems for companies installing or upgrading networks.
He was able to pick and choose his jobs, big and small, and even when he was working that usually just meant he had to be available on the end of a telephone and have access to a computer with a broadband link to the Internet and hence to his client, but not necessarily physically in any office building, which he was finding very convenient as he pursued his new interest.
That afternoon, he’d left the company where he’d just finished installing a small network to replace their older system and driven the short distance back to his cottage, a square and uncompromisingly rugged granite-built house that had stood in its small patch of land at the edge of a village near Helston for almost two hundred years, changed and modified by successive owners but still retaining much of its original character.
Mallory had recently begun contacting other people who were carrying out genealogical and related research, finding them through Web sites, blogs, and chat rooms, and offering to supply copies of the information he’d so far established, in exchange for any help they could provide with the data he was still seeking. So far, this had proved to be a largely unproductive field of investigation, with almost nobody who had responded being able to give him any information that he hadn’t already uncovered for himself.
So when he’d made himself a coffee and switched on his laptop computer to check his e-mails that afternoon, he frankly wasn’t expecting very much from the various e-mail replies he’d been sent.
But actually the fifth message he opened seemed potentially hopeful, and when he opened the attachments the sender had provided and looked at the contents, at the scans of the documents his new correspondent had unearthed and the sections of the family trees he had managed to create, Mallory realized that he was looking at what amounted to a part, an important part, of the missing data in his own searches. Because a number of the new genealogical charts he was looking at unquestionably related to at least some of his forebears.
And when he read one of the accompanying notes that supported the family trees, he also realized that his research would now have to start heading in a direction that he had half suspected from one earlier trail he’d followed.
It looked as if he’d been right in his guess, and if so, that meant his family actually had its roots not just in a very different part of Britain, but in an entirely different country.
“How very curious,” Robin Jessop murmured to herself as she looked at the book that wasn’t a book.
Even on a close examination, it still looked as if that was what it was. The cover was black leather, fairly plain in design but with an embossed border, and with the words Ipse Dixit in capital letters impressed and picked out in gold leaf on both the spine and what looked like the front cover. Both titles were quite worn and the name on the spine, especially, quite difficult to make out. But it wasn’t a front cover, because it simply didn’t open. The edges of the pages, too, looked more or less as one would expect, but were firmly stuck together. The giveaway was a narrow flattened oval hole that ran through the sealed pages, more or less in the center of them but just below the front cover, obviously intended for some kind of key.
A key that, of course, she didn’t have.
But that wouldn’t necessarily be an obstacle, she reasoned. It was clearly a book safe, and it looked so much like a genuine book that she was quite certain that would be its principal defense against discovery. It was like the old adage: where do you hide a tree? Answer: in a forest. So where do you hide a book? In a library, obviously. The probability was that dozens or perhaps even hundreds of people might have seen the object on one of the bookshelves in the old house belonging to William Stevens’s relative and had never even thought to take it down and examine it. If anyone’s gaze had rested on it for more than a few seconds, he would probably just have assumed it was just a dull old book and ignored it.
And if she was right, and that had been the intention of the person who’d constructed it, the locking mechanism would quite probably be something fairly simple, a very basic key of some kind. What she needed to do was to try to find out exactly how the mechanism worked before attempting to open it, not just jam a screwdriver or something into the slot and hope for the best. And to do that she needed two things: a much brighter and more focused light and a magnifying glass.
The lens was no problem because she had two on the desk in front of her. One was quite small but powerful, offering a magnification factor of fifteen or twenty—she couldn’t quite remember which—that she used for detailed examinations, while the other was much bigger and low powered, a tool she used when the quality and size of the print inside books required it. She always mentally referred to that as her “Sherlock Holmes glass” because to her eyes it was very much like the magnifying lens the fictional detective was often portrayed as holding.
The light was more difficult, because it needed both to be bright and to have a very narrow beam to allow her to see right down into the interior of the flattened oval keyhole on the side of the object. Her desk light was bright, but far too diffuse to be much help, even when she angled it directly toward the keyhole. As she’d expected, she could see almost nothing inside the opening. For a few moments, she held the object in her hands, considering it. She shook it, but as far as she could tell it was empty. Certainly nothing inside it rattled or moved, and it weighed about what she would have expected, assuming it was basically an iron or steel mechanism inside the leather binding.
She needed a flashlight of some sort, and strangely enough, the best one for the job was probably the cheap and tiny battery-powered LED light attached to her car key ring. The light was sold as an aid to locating a keyhole in the dark, which was never necessary with modern cars because of the remote central locking system they all possessed, but she had found it useful on a number of occasions when trying to insert her Yale key into the back door of the shop. The beam wasn’t particularly powerful, but it was bright and well focused, and that was what she needed.
The keys to her Volkswagen Golf were in a shallow ceramic dish on the narrow hall table, which stood at the end of the passageway next to the door to her apartment, behind which a circular flight of metal stairs led down the outside of the building to the single-car parking space and the rear door of the shop. It was the work of just a few seconds for her to step into the passage, collect the keys, and return to her desk.
But when she sat down, she didn’t immediately do anything, just sat in thought for perhaps a minute, because before she went any further she definitely needed to contact William Stevens. At that moment, the object still belonged to him, and before she spent any time trying to open it, she needed to either buy it off him or get his permission to go ahead.
She touched the space bar of her laptop computer to wake it up and composed a detailed e-mail to him. In it, she explained that she had assessed the collection of books and the vast majority were of little or no value. However, she added, there were a number of older volumes that clearly were of some importance. She listed the titles and the latest auction values she had been able to find for each of them, included the dates and locations of those auctions so he could check them himself if he so wished, and then added all the values together. It came to just under eight hundred pounds. From this sum, Robin added, the auctioneer’s commission and charges would need to be deducted, and her own fee for valuing the collection.
She also described the book safe, for want of a better expression, describing it as accurately as she could and pointing out that it was most likely merely a curiosity and as far as she could tell from examining it, it did not contain anything and was locked. She finished the e-mail with a proposal, pointing out that some of the books were the kind she would be interested in buying as stock items for her shop, and making him a flat offer of seven hundred and fifty pounds for everything.
She marked the message high priority, and then sent it to him. As soon as it had gone, Robin picked up the phone and called Stevens on his mobile number. He answered almost immediately.
“William, it’s Robin,” she said. “I’ve gone through all the books you sent me, and done my valuation bit on them. There aren’t a lot there of high value, frankly, but there are a few that would be worth selling and that I would be interested in buying myself. What I’ve done is send you an e-mail listing those books and giving you the latest auction valuations that I’ve been able to find, and then I’ve made you a cash offer for the lot, for the entire collection.”
Stevens’s response was almost exactly what she had expected.
“How much?” he asked.
“Seven hundred and fifty pounds,” she replied, “and in my professional opinion I don’t think you’ll get any more than that if you take them to auction, but of course that’s entirely up to you.”
“That’s more than I expected,” Stevens said. “They’re yours.”
“Thanks. But could you please read my e-mail first, see what I’ve said to make sure you understand my valuations and why I’ve made the offer that I have? If you’re still happy with the figure, then I need your confirmation in writing—just replying to the e-mail would be fine—and your bank account details so that I can do a transfer. If you want cash, I can do that as well, but obviously I’ll need to go to the bank first.”
“No, a transfer’s fine. I’m just around the corner from my house now, so I’ll go and check my messages and get back to you in a few minutes.”
Robin didn’t have long to wait. Less than five minutes later her laptop emitted a musical double tone to indicate the receipt of an e-mail. She opened the program and read the message with a smile of satisfaction. William Stevens had simply confirmed that he was happy to accept the stated sum for the entire collection of books, including the book safe. He’d added his bank details, and within another few minutes Robin had logged on to her business account and arranged the transfer.
As far as she was concerned, the moment the bank’s computer reported that the transfer had been initiated and was in progress and could no longer be stopped or amended, the deal was done. She sent another very short e-mail to Stevens confirming that the money was on its way, then pushed the laptop to one side and turned her attention again to the mysterious leather-bound object sitting on her desk.
She propped it up with a couple of books so that it sat at an angle, the small hole in the pages directly in front of her, and shone the small LED flashlight directly into the opening. She took the small magnifying glass, the more powerful of the two, and used that to try to peer into the locking mechanism. It wasn’t easy to do, because even the tiniest movement of the magnifying glass meant that everything would suddenly become blurred and out of focus, because of the power of the lens, and it took several minutes for her to finally be able to gain a clear idea of what she was looking at.
Strangely enough, it didn’t look to her as if the opening in the locking system was designed for a key at all, because she could see no sign of a lock. In fact, as far as she could tell, the lid of the book safe was held in place only by a catch, or possibly by a number of catches, and all that she would need to do in order to release it was to slide something like a slim screwdriver through the hole until it made contact with the mechanism, and then give it a firm push. The thing that gave her pause was that although it certainly looked like a catch, held in place by a short spring, there seemed to be other levers as well that didn’t seem to be directly connected to it, and she had no idea what possible purpose they could be serving.
She shrugged, laid the book safe flat on the top of her desk, and positioned its spine against the horizontal pen holder that was an integral part of her old desk, to give herself something to push against because she expected that the mechanism would be stiff through lack of use and the dust of the centuries. And she didn’t think that was an exaggeration because her best guess was that the object was most probably medieval. The mechanism might even, she acknowledged, be rusted solid, though if it had been kept in a library for most of the time, she hoped that wouldn’t be the case.
She turned her attention to her small tool kit that, frankly, didn’t contain very much: four screwdrivers, a couple of pairs of pliers, and a utility knife with a retractable blade, plus a handful of the screws, nails, washers, and other assorted bits of hardware that seemed to migrate into every toolbox over the years. Two of the screwdrivers had Phillips head bits, and so were of no use to her, and one of the others was simply far too big, the blade too thick to enter the slot. But the last screwdriver had a narrow but quite long blade—she thought it was the kind used by electricians—and she guessed that would probably be long enough, because as far as she could tell from her examination of the book safe, the catch was only four or five inches inside.
Robin slid the end of the screwdriver through the hole cut in the false pages of the book safe, doing her best to keep it straight so that it would make contact with the catch on the inside. She heard the very faint sound of metal touching metal, and then the screwdriver blade would go no farther.
“Here goes nothing,” she muttered, changed her grip so that the heel of her hand was on the end of the screwdriver, and pushed firmly.
The screwdriver slid perhaps another half inch inside the book safe. There was a faint click and then a sudden loud thud.
Robin Jessop was so shocked she released the screwdriver and flung herself backward away from the desk, the back of her wheeled chair slamming into the wall behind her.
“Jesus Christ,” she said, getting to her feet, her eyes still fixed on the book safe.
As well as establishing the identity of his forebears and completing the various parts of his family tree, Mallory was also creating a map that showed the location where each person he’d been able to identify had been born, lived, and then died, marking each spot with, respectively, a green, blue, and red label bearing the name of the man or woman and the appropriate date or dates for each of those events or periods. He’d bought a large-scale map of the United Kingdom especially for this purpose and mounted it on one wall of the bedroom he used as an office. What he was finding particularly interesting, and obviously predictable, was that, although for the last few generations his family had lived in and around Cornwall and the western parts of Devon, the earlier he trod back in time, the more dispersed his ancestors seemed to become.
There appeared, in fact, to be a steady movement eastward the further back he went, toward London and the southeast of England, which really wasn’t what he had expected. He had always understood from what his mother had told him that his family had lived in the far southwest of the country for generations, but this was only partially correct. They had lived in that area, but only since about 1875. He had always mentally assumed that his roots lay in the mysterious country of King Arthur and the land of Tintagel, the rugged promontory that jutted out into the Atlantic, the most southwesterly point of England aimed like the tip of a spear toward the far distant shores of America, the rocks endlessly defying the pounding waves.
As a child he had been fascinated not just by tales of Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table and Avalon, but also by the stories he had heard of the legendary land of Lyonesse, which centuries, countless ages, ago had supposedly sunk forever beneath the waves somewhere off the Cornish coast, and he’d even briefly wondered if his ancestors might have been descended from the remnants of the noble families who had apparently perished in that long-forgotten tragedy.
Later in his childhood, he’d been equally enthralled by the tales of the wreckers and smugglers who, only two or three hundred years earlier, had haunted the rocky coves of the Lizard Peninsula—that name alone evocative and intriguing—using lights to lure ships onto the saw-toothed rocks and the unfortunate sailors to their deaths.
And it wasn’t as if the stories were all wild flights of fantasy. The sheer number of known wrecks around the coast of Cornwall was a persuasive argument that suggested that at least some of the tales of the wreckers had to be based in fact. There was one cove on the west side of the Lizard where gold coins from some wreck had been found so often that it was known locally as “Dollar Cove” in preference to its real name. And there were other echoes as well, somewhat less substantial than the discovery of an occasional gold coin, locations where shadowy figures had allegedly been seen in the night, apparently reliving some traumatic event from hundreds of years earlier, and still other places, lonely beaches, where the ghosts of long-dead sailors were said to walk the sands when the cold sea mist rolled in from the Atlantic.
These romantic, if somewhat gory, notions had colored his childhood dreams and his outlook, and he’d been secretly proud of the imagined feats of his ancestors, but now it looked as if at least some of his forebears had far more likely been soft city folk, probably scratching out a living as tradesmen somewhere near London, or possibly farmers, rather than the tough and ruthless land-based Cornish pirates he’d conjured up in his imagination. And that was actually rather disappointing.
But the information he’d just read related to another branch of his family, and their origins seemed to lie a long way from London. The genealogical search results he’d just been sent showed a steady migration toward London from some way north of the Scottish border and, even further back than that in the early fifteenth century, the earliest dates Mallory had yet seen, from northern France.
And not only that, but even his family name had been altered and amended along the way, the double L appearing as a permanent feature only in the late eighteenth century. Before that, there were numerous variants, the O and A changing places to give “Molary” and “Malory,” and occasionally one letter vanishing altogether, so there were several “Molorys” and “Malarys” among his forebears.
But it was the French arm of his family that he was beginning to find the most interesting, and what was driving his interest there was less the location than the spelling of the surname, and the possible implications if his parallel research into another, and totally unconnected, subject produced the results he was hoping to see.
Before she did anything else, Robin Jessop picked up her car keys and walked out of the apartment and down the spiral staircase to the parking area at the back of the building. Halfway down, she used the remote control to unlock her car, and when she reached ground level, she opened the vehicle’s trunk and took out a pair of heavy gloves that she kept there in case of having to change a tire. Then she locked the car again and climbed back up to her apartment, pulling on the gloves as she did so.
In the study, she sat down and slid the chair close to the desk and looked closely once again at the book safe. Gingerly she stretched out her gloved right hand, picked up the screwdriver she had been using, and, at arm’s length, carefully eased the tip of the tool under the lid of the object, trying to lift it. But it remained firmly closed, which was actually what she had expected, bearing in mind what had just happened. She would have to probe the lock again and try to free the mechanism a second time.
She mentally reconstructed the sequence of events, remembering the way the screwdriver had reached a dead end as it touched the latch mechanism, and the faint click she had heard when it freed some part of the catch. That was what she had been expecting.
Excerpted from "The Lost Treasure of the Templars"
Copyright © 2015 James Becker.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Praise for James Becker's novels:
“James Bond meets Alex Cross…check out James Becker.”—Fresh Fiction
“Becker blends historical accuracy with a complete and detailed course on surveillance, countersurveillance, and weaponry, throws in some amazing facts...and keeps the whole thing going at a cracking pace....It deserves the widest possible audience.”—Reviewing the Evidence
“Fast-paced action propels the imaginative and controversial plot.” —Publishers Weekly
“This is an utterly spellbinding book...stunning and breathtaking....I was left shattered and stunned.”—Euro Crime
“A superbly crafted novel which follows in the footsteps of The Da Vinci Code.... However, [it] stands alone among its contemporaries for one simple reason. It breaks new ground...a tightly worded, sharply written thriller.”—CrimeSquad.com
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Interesting bits of history with codes. Strong female character. Medieval traps saved the day. Lucky skill sets for the heros.
Don't read this book unless you want to become an expert in ciphers. The plot is really on about a hundred pages the rest is about ciphers. Don't waste your money.
Was kinda disappointed in this book. This book was painful to read. Better luck next time. Same story line as his other books just the names have changed.
Good read with just enough drama to keep intriguing while the quest continues
The only thing there are more conspiracy about than an alien crash at Roswell, is what happened to the Templar wealth. Waiting for the next chapter of the story. ,