Authors: James Becker
Just over two hours later, Mallory braked his Porsche Cayman to a standstill in an open-air parking lot, purchased a ticket for an hour at the machine near the entrance, placed it on the dashboard where it would be clearly visible, and then strode away down the street. It was lined with shops of various kinds, charity shops being in the majority, as was the case with so many British high streets after the recession, but he ignored them all. He knew exactly where he was going.
On a corner about a quarter of a mile away and fairly close to the city center, he pushed open the door of a café, glanced around, and then walked over to a table by the back wall where a slim, pretty girl with short dark hair was studying something on the screen of a small tablet computer, an empty coffee cup and a small plate in front of her, a scattering of crumbs on it.
He put his computer bag down beside the table, retraced his steps, and bought two coffees at the counter, then pulled out the chair opposite her and sat down.
“You certainly took your time,” she said, lowering the tablet and nodding her thanks for the fresh cup.
“It was Wilson,” Mallory replied. “He’s like a bloody terrier, just wouldn’t let go. He kept on digging and probing, looking out for inconsistencies. I really thought he was going to hold me on suspicion of something, just because he’s got four unsolved murders on his hands, and no halfway believable suspects anywhere in the frame apart from the two of us. In the end, I started insulting him, trying to make him angry, because I thought that might make him a bit less critical of what I was saying.”
“You mean he might miss some of the lies you were telling?” Robin Jessop inquired sweetly.
Mallory grinned at her, and lowered his voice.
“Technically,” he said, “I wasn’t actually telling lies, just not telling the entire truth, which isn’t the same thing at all. The only actual lie I trotted out during that entire final interview was when he asked me what I knew about a dead Italian lying in a wood near Exeter, and I said I knew nothing at all about it. Obviously we both know what happened because we were there when he died, but apart from that our stories have stuck pretty closely to the truth all the way through.”
“Well, it worked, because you walked. And here you are.” A sudden thought struck her. “What about your car? It is still in the police pound?”
“No. It’s in the car park just down the street. As far as
I can tell, that Italian thug didn’t damage it while he was driving it, and I even got back the original key, so I guess he just dumped it in some back street after we’d got away from him, and probably left the key in the ignition.”
Robin nodded and smiled. “If he did, you were really lucky that the woodentops found it before some local tea leaf got his hands on it. Unattended cars with the keys in the ignition have a really short life around here. Porsches especially, I would have thought.”
“I know. But the Italian did leave me a kind of present.”
Robin looked quizzically at him, but didn’t respond, and Mallory looked around cautiously before he said anything else, again ensuring that his words could not be overheard by any of the other patrons of the café or the man behind the counter.
“Tucked away neatly under the driver’s seat,” he said, “was one of the Beretta pistols that all those Italians seemed to be carrying, along with three spare magazines, all fully loaded. That was probably the weapon he used to kill the three men in your flat. He probably left the pistol in the car in the hope that the police would find it and that would provide a definite link between me and the murdered men. A link I’d find very difficult to disprove.”
“But why didn’t they find it? Don’t the police search stolen cars that they recover?”
Mallory shook his head. “That’s a slightly gray area. Strictly speaking, in order to search the vehicle they need either permission from the owner or a search warrant. With stolen and recovered vehicles they sometimes get around that by claiming to be looking for clues to the identity of
the person who nicked it. And if, during that search, they find some marijuana or crack cocaine or anything else that’s interesting from a legal—or rather an illegal—point of view, they’ll happily charge the owner of the vehicle with whatever offense they think they can make stick.
“If the plods had found the pistol, then I would certainly be sitting in a cell right now, and quite probably so would you. The only favor that Italian did me was to tuck the weapon well out of sight so that it was invisible to anyone looking into the car, or even driving it, but making sure that anything more than the most casual inspection of the vehicle would find it. And obviously nobody did carry out a check.”
“I’m amazed that Wilson didn’t order the car to be searched.”
Mallory smiled again. “That’s the thing, you see. Traffic officers are the lowest of the low. Even other police officers call them ‘black rats.’ The detectives are at the other end of the scale, and officers who specialize in murder investigations are another few levels above that, right at the top of the tree. Most detectives won’t sully their reputations by actually talking to traffic officers, and the reverse is also true. There really can be that much of a lack of communication between the different sections. And there’s another factor as well that would have muddied the waters.”
“The Porsche isn’t actually registered in my name,” Mallory pointed out. “Just like you, I have an accountant, and when I told him that I was going to buy a fairly
expensive car he explained that there were a couple of helpful tax breaks I could use if I bought it in the name of my company, rather than personally. So that’s what I did. If by any chance Wilson had decided to take a look at the list of vehicles held by the Exeter nick, my name wouldn’t have appeared anywhere, only the name of a small and obscure IT outfit down in Cornwall. So I’m pretty certain that he would have had no idea my Porsche was sitting in the police pound while he was trying to persuade me to confess to a bunch of crimes that I genuinely hadn’t committed. Because if he had, I’m absolutely convinced that men with latex gloves and wearing white overalls would have been scrambling all over it, just in case they managed to find something to put me in the frame.”
“What have you done with the pistol? Not left it in the car, I hope.”
Mallory shook his head. “Right now it’s in a left-luggage locker at Exeter Airport, wrapped up in a track suit and inside a sports bag I found in a charity shop. I’ll collect it later and find a better place to hide it.”
“Should we just dump it somewhere? Get rid of it completely?”
“Not yet, because I don’t think this is anything like over. I like the idea of having a weapon or two available, just in case the Italians decide to pay us a return visit to try to finish off what they started. And we’ve still got that other Beretta stashed away, the one we brought back from France in the Cessna you kind of borrowed from your pal Justin when he wasn’t looking.”
“I hadn’t forgotten. And you’re probably right. Being
armed is no bad thing, bearing in mind what we’ve been through already. So what next?”
“That all depends,” Mallory replied, “on whether we can work out the next clue Tibauld de Gaudin or Jacques De Molay left for us. If we can’t do that, then we’re going nowhere.”
Robin nodded and turned her tablet computer round so that he could see the screen. On it was a detailed image of an ornate piece of metalwork overlying obviously old wood, the metal formed into swirls and curves and intricate shapes. “The good news is that the pictures we took of the lids of the two chests we found in Cyprus are surprisingly good quality, bearing in mind we were only using the cameras in our mobile phones. But the bad news is that the patterns just look like decoration—complex and intricate decoration, granted, but just decoration—to me. I simply don’t see anything that could be a clue to help us decipher the next section of the manuscript.”
Mallory used his finger and thumb to alter the size of the image on the screen, zooming in to examine particular sections of it, and then widening the field of view to look at the entire image.
“I’ve been going boss-eyed looking at those pictures ever since the rozzers let me walk out of the station,” Robin said, “and I can’t see anything useful in them.”
“But there has to be something,” Mallory insisted. “Nothing else makes sense. The trail led us to that cave on Cyprus, and apart from the chests there was nothing else in there. No markings or signs of any sort. Which makes sense, because if there had been carvings or
something, that might well have prompted other people to start exploring it years earlier. As it was, we only discovered the chests because you spotted that pile of weathered stones inside the cave. Stones that shouldn’t have been there. Most people—including me—would probably never have seen what you saw. The chests were so well hidden that if there really was a clue to the next part of the quest anywhere in that cave, it had to be either on or in those two wooden boxes.”
“Luckily, or perhaps unluckily, we never got to see inside them,” Robin said. “But suppose the clue, whatever it was, was inside the chests? That would make sense, because the Templar knights who set the trap could then be sure that whoever found the chests would have to bypass the booby trap, those lethal blades, and get the chests open before they could decipher the clue or clues. It would be one more test that would have to be passed.”
Mallory nodded slowly.
“Maybe,” he agreed, “but there could be another way of looking at it. We know the chests were filled with rocks, and perhaps that means there probably wouldn’t be a carving or something on the inside of them, because the sheer bulk and weight of the rocks might damage it and make it unreadable. And I still believe whoever started this quest or whatever you want to call it intended that the trail should endure. He would have been hoping that the Templar order would somehow be revived, emerge from the darkness and disgrace forced on it by Philip the Fair, and resume its former power and authority. So perhaps he planned that a Templar who discovered the chests would
have assumed they contained some kind of trap or device, and wouldn’t have risked trying to open them. And in that case, the clue—whatever it is—would have to be visible on the outside. Well hidden, obviously, but certainly visible, which means it would have to be somewhere in the scrollwork.”
Robin looked completely unconvinced.
“I suppose you could be right,” she said, the tone of her voice making it clear she thought this a most unlikely possibility. “And if you are, then the only way we’re going to find it is if we look at these images on a full-size computer screen, not this microscopic tablet. The only bit of good news, I suppose, is that we both took several photographs of the chests when we found them, so if there is some hidden meaning lurking in the metalwork, there’s a fighting chance we’ll be able to see it on at least one of the pictures.”
Mallory finished his coffee and glanced at Robin, who nodded. She slipped the tablet computer into a leather case and put that in her handbag. Then they both stood up and walked out.
As they left the café, a man who’d been sitting at a table against the opposite wall lowered his copy of the
newspaper and looked thoughtfully at their retreating backs. He was in every way average, and that was, strangely enough, his strength, his edge. Average height, average build, average and unmemorable features, his clothes carefully chosen so as not to stand out in any way in a crowd.
He was a member of one of the smallest professions in the United Kingdom: a private inquiry agent. Unlike America, where according to some reports you could find the office of a “private dick,” a PI, on almost every street corner, in Britain they were comparatively rare. Those who did exist tended to work either in the commercial sector, checking for an insurance company that one of their policyholders who claimed to have broken his back at work wasn’t in fact playing tennis every afternoon, that
kind of thing, or out gathering evidence for suspicious wives that their husbands’ excessive overtime was being spent in hotel rooms with secretaries rather than analyzing and reviewing important balance sheets, which was what these errant males frequently claimed. Or occasionally vice versa, when husbands started to suspect that their wives were enjoying entirely different kinds of ball games with their tennis coach than might be expected.
Gary Marsh—that was his real name, though it wasn’t the name printed on the business cards tucked inside his wallet—was rather more of a specialist than that. He didn’t usually get involved in matrimonial matters, because these usually ended in either screaming matches or violent recriminations, or sometimes both, and he much preferred the quiet life. And he found the commercial field—sitting for hours in a parked car staring through the viewfinder of a high-spec camera waiting for the person he was investigating to finally appear and do something that he shouldn’t—too utterly boring to bother with, despite the fact that it usually paid well.
Marsh was both more and less of a specialist. He’d realized at a fairly early age that his appearance was a considerable asset. He was so nondescript that he could almost literally spend an evening at a party talking to a dozen or so people, and at the end of the evening not one of them would be able to provide anything like a useful or usable description of him. His specialty was nonmatrimonial close-quarters surveillance. Specifically following people to see where they went, who they met, and, where possible, what
they did, and ideally obtaining both photographic and audio evidence of whatever deeds or misdeeds they got up to. It was the kind of work often commissioned by companies that were worried they had become the victims of industrial espionage, and which usually suspected one of their employees to be the person playing both sides against the middle.
This job was turning out to be rather different. He’d been contacted the previous day by phone, given the outline of the job, and offered a fee that was substantial enough to dispel any hesitation he might have had about accepting it. The first tranche of the money had appeared in his bank account less than half an hour later. Half a dozen photographs of a pretty dark-haired girl had been sent to his professional e-mail account at virtually the same time. These had clearly been taken from some kind of surveillance camera. That in itself was not unusual, but on two of the pictures the background clearly showed that the footage had been taken inside a police station, inside an interview room, in fact, and that was a first, even for him.
Marsh knew perfectly well that access to audio and video recordings of suspects being interviewed was very carefully regulated. That suggested that his unidentified client—his initial and, so far, single subsequent contact had been by mobile phone with no names being mentioned—most likely worked for the police force and was, in all probability, a police officer.
And that conclusion rather forced the question: why was a police officer employing a private investigator to
follow a person who was presumably a suspect in some kind of crime? Wasn’t that what the police themselves were supposed to do?
Marsh had contacts with people in dozens of different organizations, including the police force, a network of paid helpers who could be relied upon to supply information that he needed when he wanted it, and doing a back check on the mobile phone number used to contact him was easy enough. Unfortunately it was also a dead end. The pay-as-you-go phone had been bought with cash in a shop in Exeter the previous day, and the SIM card had been loaded with fifty pounds’ worth of credit by the purchaser as part of the transaction. In the parlance of the time, the phone was a burner: a cheap, virtually obsolete model that could be dumped at any moment, and with no way for the police or anyone else to link the mobile to the man who’d actually used it.
As well as the photographs, Marsh had been given a name—Robin Jessop—and an address in Dartmouth, which turned out to be a bookshop owned by Jessop. That name rang a bell, and a few minutes’ work on the Internet produced some information that had served only to confuse Marsh even more. According to the newspaper reports he found, Jessop had been wanted for questioning by the police over the murders of three men in her apartment. It wasn’t usual for even the British police force to let murder suspects out to roam the streets. Usually they were required to occupy alternative accommodation characterized by substantial steel doors, barred windows, and a marked lack of entertainment facilities.
That afternoon, he’d received a third call on his mobile that had confirmed his suspicion about the probable occupation his client followed. He’d been told that Jessop would be leaving a specific police station in Exeter, and at approximately what time. That information had made everything that followed remarkably easy.
He’d chosen a position on a public bench on the street from which he could see the front of the station, taken out his newspaper and opened it, and then fixed his eyes on the entrance door. He wasn’t ideally placed, because the main door was some distance away, but the bench offered a kind of concealment: people didn’t usually lean against a wall to read a newspaper—his only other option—but many sat in parks and elsewhere to do so. There’d been a couple of false alarms, but finally a young woman who was quite clearly Robin Jessop—he’d transferred the photographs to his mobile phone and checked the images to make absolutely certain of his identification—had walked out of the station. She barely even glanced in his direction, but instead had walked briskly down the street, heading, as it turned out, straight for the coffee shop.
Marsh had quickly caught up with her, matched her speed along the pavement, and then stepped into the café a few minutes after her. He’d taken a seat at a table from which he could observe her covertly, a task not made any easier because the café was clearly not the most popular establishment along that particular street, and was virtually empty. It was always much easier to be covert in a crowd. In fact, when Jessop and Marsh walked in, they had precisely doubled the number of customers, the only
other occupants being an elderly man sitting in one corner perusing the sports page of a tabloid newspaper and muttering to himself, and a teenage girl on the opposite side of the room talking earnestly into her smartphone, her side of the conversation consisting almost entirely of the phrases “yeah,” “you know,” “like,” “right,” “know what I mean?” and “whatever.”
All Jessop had done since that moment was study something on a small tablet computer, drink two cups of coffee, both quite slowly, and consume a cake that looked to Marsh like some breed of muffin. After she’d walked over to the counter and purchased her second cup of coffee and the cake, Marsh had quickly used the lavatory at the back of the café—he didn’t want to be caught short, not knowing how long his target would remain in the café, or where she would be likely to go next—and had purchased another café Americano when he returned.
Then Marsh had had a stroke of luck, precisely because the café was not a popular rendezvous. In technological terms, he was highly proficient, more or less a necessity because of the nature of his employment, and was very well aware that the intelligent use of cutting-edge technology would provide him with a significant edge in many situations. In particular, he knew only too well that a single man trying to provide surveillance of a single target was at a very considerable disadvantage. To do that kind of job successfully would normally take at least half a dozen people. Despite his fortunately nondescript appearance, it really would only ever be a matter of time before any target he was allocated realized he or she was being followed. Even
the most relaxed and unobservant of people would eventually be bound to spot him and start wondering.
But technology, and particularly Bluetooth technology, could provide an answer. Originally considered to be essentially a solution looking for a problem, Bluetooth had come of age with the introduction of smartphones, which relied heavily on this particular piece of electronic wizardry. Virtually everyone who owned a smartphone had Bluetooth almost permanently enabled on it, so that the device could be linked to printers, hands-free car systems, and other peripherals, and Bluetooth was designed to be as easy as possible to use, which was both its strength and—from the point of view of people like Gary Marsh—also its weakness.
The theory was that before one Bluetooth device could link to another Bluetooth device, there had to be an exchange of data between the two pieces of equipment, and as a part of this a password would be sent between them. The weakness of the system was that in most cases the password was incredibly simple, precisely so that connection would be as easy as possible. In many cases, the password was “0000,” “1234,” or “4321,” which hardly required much in the way of decryption.
Gary Marsh owned a smartphone, an uncommon model that was significantly more bulky than the majority and with a rather larger screen, and on it he had what amounted to a surveillance tool kit, one part of which was a tracker.
The obvious problem with most tracking systems was that a transmitter of some sort had to be attached to the
target vehicle or placed somewhere on the person being followed, but both these methods offered the obvious and severe disadvantage that if the car was parked and the target proceeded somewhere on foot, the mobile tracker immediately became useless, and people tended to change their clothes, so even if a tracker could be attached to a particular garment, it would cease to be useful as soon as the target put on something different. Even women periodically tended to swap their handbags.
But the one thing almost everybody had with them at all times was their mobile phone, and that was the genius of the software that Marsh had built into his smartphone. The system was based on Bluetooth, and in order to set up a tracker, he only had to be within a reasonable range—a few dozen feet at the most—of the target phone. The only difficulty was that it was nondiscriminatory. Unless he knew the telephone number of the target mobile, he could not guarantee he was placing the tracking software on the right mobile.
He didn’t know the number of Jessop’s phone, of course, but once the teenage girl had finished her pointless conversation and left the café, he seized the opportunity. The old man in the corner didn’t look as if he would even know what a mobile was, and the burly man behind the counter had made only two telephone calls while Marsh was in the establishment, and had used the wall-mounted landline phone both times. The probability was that the only smartphone within range was the one sitting in Robin Jessop’s handbag. And he was quite sure that she would have one.
Marsh placed his smartphone on the table in front of him, but shielded by his newspaper, accessed the tracking program, and initiated a search for any Bluetooth devices within range. As he had hoped, the scan produced only a single result. His Bluetooth software connected with the other phone and requested permission to load the tracker. As usual, the recipient phone generated a request for a password before pairing could take place. His software automatically accepted the six-digit random number her phone generated, and then the clever part of his program kicked in. Normally she would have had to press the “OK” option on her phone, so that both parties were aware of the link, but Marsh’s software used the partial Bluetooth link to force her mobile to accept the pairing without her intervention or knowledge. And then, in confirmation that the installation and initiation of the tracker had been successful, the phone in Jessop’s handbag emitted a single muted beep.
Throbs, beeps, and other noises from smartphones were not exactly unknown, and as Marsh had expected, Robin Jessop did precisely what most people would do. She opened up her handbag, took out her phone, pressed a button on the side of it, and then swiped her fingertip across the screen to wake it up. For a few seconds, she looked at the display, but apparently saw nothing to account for what she had just heard, the tracker being entirely covert in operation. She shrugged, put the phone back in her handbag, and turned her attention once again to her tablet computer.
A few minutes later, the man had appeared and bought
two coffees. He and Jessop had talked together, and perhaps ten minutes after that both Jessop and the new arrival had left the establishment.
The moment the door closed behind them, Marsh stood up, folded his newspaper neatly, and slipped it into the side pocket of his coat. Then he, too, left the café and took up station about fifty yards behind them, easily matching their speed.
Although he already knew that the tracker was working, and that he could access the mobile phone network through his software and locate Jessop—or at least her mobile phone—to within a matter of yards as long as it was switched on and she was in an urban environment, he was curious enough about his assignment to rely upon his normal surveillance skills and simply see where they were going, if possible hear what they were talking about, and watch what they ended up doing.