The Templar Legacy (Page 17)


11:30 AM

MALONE TURNED THE RENTAL CAR EAST OFF THE MAIN HIGHWAY, just outside Couiza, and started up a twisting incline. The rising road offered stunning vistas of nearby tawny hillsides thick with summer rock roses, lavender, and thyme. The lofty ruins of a fortress, its charred walls standing like gaunt fingers, rose in the distance. The land, as far as the eye could see, oozed the romance of history when marauding knights swooped like eagles from the fortified heights to prey on their foe.

He and Stephanie had left Copenhagen around four AM and flown to Paris, where they caught the first Air France shuttle of the day south for Toulouse. An hour later they were on the ground and motoring southwest into the region known as the Languedoc.

On the way Stephanie told him about the village that stood fifteen hundred feet atop the bleak mound they were now climbing. Gauls were the first to inhabit the hilltop, drawn by the prospect of being able to see for miles across the expansive Aude River valley. But it was the Visigoths in the fifth century who built a citadel and adopted the ancient Celtic name for the location--Rhedae, which meant "chariot"--eventually developing the place into a trading center. Two hundred years later, when the Visigoths were driven south into Spain, the Franks converted Rhedae into a royal city. By the thirteenth century, though, the town's status had declined, and toward the end of the Albigensian Crusade it was razed. Ownership passed through several wealthy houses of both France and Spain, eventually resting with one of Simon de Montfort's lieutenants, who founded a barony. The family built themselves a chateau, around which a tiny hamlet sprouted, and the name eventually changed from Rhedae to Rennes-le-Chateau. Their issue ruled the land and the town until 1781, when the last heir, Marie d'Hautpoul de Blanchefort, died.

"Before her death, it was said that she passed on a great secret," Stephanie had said, "one that her family kept for centuries. She was childless and her husband died before her, so with no one left, she told the secret to her confessor, the abbe Antoine Bigou, who was the parish priest for Rennes."

Now, as Malone stared ahead at the last bend in the narrow road, he imagined what it must have been like to live then in such a remote place. The isolated valleys formed a perfect repository for both fleeing fugitives and restless pilgrims. Easy to see why the region had become a theme park for the imagination, a mecca for mystery buffs and new agers, a place where writers with a unique vision could forge a reputation.

Like Lars Nelle.

The town came into view. He slowed the car and eased through a gate framed by limestone pillars. A sign warned FOUILLES INTERDITES. Excavating prohibited.

"They had to post a notice about digging?" he asked.

Stephanie nodded. "Years ago, people were shoveling dirt in every corner looking for treasure. Even dynamiting. It had to be regulated."

Daylight dimmed beyond the town gate. The limestone buildings were packed tight, like books on a shelf, many with pitched roofs, thick doors, and rusted iron verandas. A narrow and flinty grand rue wound up a short incline. People with backpacks and Michelin Green Guides hugged the walls on either side, parading single-file back and forth. Malone saw a couple of stores, a bookshop, and a restaurant. Alleys led off the main rue to nests of buildings, but not many. The entire town was less than five hundred yards across.

"Only about a hundred people live here full time," Stephanie said. "Though fifty thousand visit each year."

"Lars had quite an effect."

"More than I ever realized."

She pointed ahead and directed him to turn left. They eased past kiosks peddling rosaries, medals, pictures, and souvenirs to more camera-toting visitors.

"They come by the busload," she said. "Wanting to believe in the impossible."

Up another incline and he parked the Peugeot in a sandy lot. Two buses were already there, their drivers milling about smoking. A water tower rose to one side, its tattered stone adorned with a zodiac sign.

"The crowds come early," Stephanie said as they climbed out. "Here to see the domaine d'Abbe Sauniere. The priest's domain--what he built with all that mysterious treasure he supposedly found."

Malone stepped close to a waist-high rock wall. The panorama below, a patchwork of field, forest, valley, and rock, stretched for miles. The silver-green hills were dotted with chestnut and oak. He checked his bearings. The great bulk of the snowcapped Pyrenees blocked the southern horizon. A stiff wind howled from the west, thankfully warmed by the summer sun.

He glanced to the right. A hundred feet away the neo-Gothic tower, with its crenellated roof and single round turret, had graced the cover of many a book and tourist brochure. It stood on the edge of a cliff, grim and defiant, seemingly clinging to rock. A long belvedere stretched from its far side and rounded back toward an iron glasshouse, then to another cluster of olden stone buildings, each topped with orange-tiled roofs. People milled back and forth on the ramparts, cameras in hand, admiring the valleys below.

"The tower is the Tour Magdala. Quite a sight, isn't it?" Stephanie asked.

"Seems out of place."

"That's what I always thought, too."

To the right of the Magdala rose an ornamental garden that led to a compact Renaissance-style building that also seemed from another locale.

"The Villa Bethanie," she said. "Sauniere built it, too."

He noted the name. Bethany. "That's biblical. In the Holy Land. It meant 'house with an answer.' "

She nodded. "Sauniere was clever with names." She pointed to more buildings behind them. "Lars's house is down that alley. Before we head there, I have to do something. As we walk, let me tell you about what happened here in 1891. What I read about last week. What brought this place back from obscurity."

The abbe Berenger Sauniere pondered the daunting task before him. The Church of Mary Magdalene had been built upon Visigoth ruins and consecrated in 1059. Now, eight centuries later, the inside was in ruin, thanks to a roof that leaked as if it weren't there. The walls themselves were crumbling, the foundations slipping away. It would take both patience and stamina to repair the damage, but he thought himself up to the task.

He was a husky man, muscular, broad-shouldered, with a head of close-cropped black hair. His one endearing feature, which he used to his advantage, was the cleft in his chin. It added a whimsical air to the stiff countenance of his black eyes and thick eyebrows. Born and raised a few miles away, in the village of Montazels, he knew the geography of the Corbieres well. From childhood he'd been familiar with Rennes-le-Chateau. Its church, dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene, had been in limited use for decades, and he'd never imagined that one day its many problems would be his.

"A mess," the man known as Rousset said to him.

He glanced at the mason. "I agree."

Another mason, Babou, was busy shoring up one of the walls. The region's state architect had recently recommended that the building be razed, but Sauniere would never allow that to happen. Something about the old church demanded that it be saved.

"It will take much money to complete the repairs," Rousset said.

"Enormous amounts of money." He added a smile to let the older man know that he understood the challenge. "But we shall make this house worthy of the Lord."

What he did not say was that he'd already secured a fair amount of funds. A bequest from one of his predecessors had left six hundred francs especially for repairs. He'd also managed to convince the town council to loan him another fourteen hundred francs. But the bulk of his money had come in secret five years ago. Three thousand francs had been donated by the countess of Chambord, the widow of Henri, the last Bourbon claimant to the defunct French throne. At the time Sauniere had managed to bring a great deal of attention to himself with anti-republican sermons, ones that stirred monarchist feelings in his parishioners. The government reeled from the comments, withdrawing his yearly stipend and demanding that he be fired. Instead the bishop suspended him for nine months, but his actions caught the attention of the countess, who'd made contact through an intermediary.

"Where do we start?" Rousset asked.

He'd given that matter a great deal of thought. The stained-glass windows had already been replaced and a new porch, outside the main entrance, would be completed shortly. Certainly the north wall, where Babou was working, must be mended, a new pulpit installed, and the roof replaced. But he knew where they must start.

"We will begin with the altar."

A curious look came to Rousset's face.

"The people's focus is there," Sauniere said.

"As you say, Abbe."

He liked the respect his older parishioners showed him, though he was only thirty-eight. Over the past five years he'd come to like Rennes. He was near home, with plenty of opportunities to study Scriptures and perfect his Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. He also enjoyed trekking in the mountains, fishing, and hunting. But the time had come to do something constructive.

He approached the altar.

The top was white marble pitted by water that had rained down for centuries from the porous ceiling. The slab was supported by two ornate columns, their exteriors adorned with Visigoth crosses and Greek letters.

"We shall replace the top and the pillars," he declared.

"How, Abbe?" Rousset asked. "There is no way we can lift that."

He pointed to where Babou stood. "Use the sledgehammer. There is no need for delicacy."

Babou brought the heavy tool over and surveyed his task. Then, with a great heave, Babou hoisted the hammer and crashed it down onto the center of the altar. The thick top cracked, but the stone did not give way.

"It's solid," Babou said.

"Again," Sauniere said with a flourish.

Another blow and the limestone shattered, the two halves collapsing into each other between the still standing pillars.

"Finish," he said.

The two pieces were quickly busted into many.

He bent down. "Let's haul all this away."

"We'll get it, Abbe," Babou said, setting the sledgehammer aside. "You pile it for us."

The two men lifted large chunks and headed for the door.

"Take it around to the cemetery and stack it. We should have use for it there," he called out to them.

As they left, he noticed that both pillars had survived the demolition. With a swipe he cleared dust and debris away from the crown of one. On the other a piece of limestone still lay, and, when he tossed the chunk into the pile, he noticed beneath, in the crown of the pillar, a shallow mortise hole. The space was no bigger than the palm of his hand, surely designed to hold the top's locking pin, but inside the cavity he caught sight of a glimmer.

He bent close and carefully blew away the dust.

Yes, something was there.

A glass vial.

Not much longer than his index finger and only slightly wider, the top sealed with crimson wax. He looked close and saw that the vessel contained a rolled piece of paper. He wondered how long it had been there. He was not aware of any recent work done to the altar, so it must have been secreted there a long time ago.

He freed the object from its hiding place.

"That vial started everything," Stephanie said.

Malone nodded. "I read Lars's books, too. But I thought Sauniere was supposed to have found three parchments in that pillar with some sort of coded messages."

She shook her head. "That's all part of the myth others added to the story. This, Lars and I did talk about. Most of the fallacies were started in the fifties by a Rennes innkeeper who wanted to generate business. One lie built on another. Lars never accepted that those parchments were real. Their supposed text was printed in countless books, but no one has ever seen them."

"Then why did he write about them?"

"To sell books. I know it bothered him, but he did it anyway. He always said that whatever wealth Sauniere found could be traced to 1891 and whatever was inside that glass vial. But he was the only one who believed that." She pointed off to another of the stone buildings. "That's the presbytery where Sauniere lived. It's a museum about him now. The pillar with the small niche is in there for all to see."

They passed the crowded kiosks and kept to the rough-paved street.

"The Church of Mary Magdalene," she said, pointing at a Romanesque building. "Once the chapel for the local counts. Now, for a few euros, you can see the great creation of Abbe Sauniere."

"You don't approve?"

She shrugged. "I never did. That was the problem."

Off to their right he saw a tumbled-down chateau, its mud-colored outer walls baked by the sun. "That's the Hautpouls estate," she said. "It was lost during the Revolution to the government and has been a mess ever since."

They rounded the far end of the church and passed beneath a stone gateway that bore what looked like a skull and crossbones. He recalled from the book he'd read last night that the symbol appeared on many Templar gravestones.

The earth beyond the entrance was littered with pebbles. He knew what the French called the space. Enclos paroissiaux. Parish close. And the enclosure seemed typical--one side bounded by a low wall, the other nestled close to a church, its entrance a triumphal arch. The cemetery hosted a profusion of table tombs, headstones, and memorials. Floral tributes topped some of the graves, and many were adorned, in the French tradition, with photographs of the deceased.

Stephanie walked to one of the monuments that displayed neither flowers nor images, and Malone let her go alone. He knew that Lars Nelle had been so liked by the locals that they'd granted him the privilege of being buried in their cherished churchyard.

The headstone was simple and noted only the name, dates, and an epitaph of HUSBAND, FATHER, SCHOLAR.

He eased up beside her.

"They never once wavered in burying him here," she muttered.

He knew what she meant. In sacred ground.

"The mayor at the time said there was no conclusive evidence he killed himself. He and Lars were close, and he wanted his friend buried here."

"It's the perfect place," he said.

She was hurting, he knew, but to recognize her pain would be viewed as an invasion of her privacy.

"I made a lot of mistakes with Lars," she said. "And most of them eventually cost me with Mark."

"Marriage is tough." His own failed through selfishness, too. "So is parenthood."

"I always thought Lars's passion silly. I was a government lawyer doing important things. He was searching for the impossible."

"So why are you here?"

Her gaze stayed on the grave. "I've come to realize that I owe him."

"Or do you owe yourself."

She turned away from the grave. "Perhaps I do owe us both," she said.

He let it drop.

Stephanie pointed to a far corner. "Sauniere's mistress is buried there."

Malone knew about the mistress from Lars's books. She was sixteen years Sauniere's junior, a mere eighteen when she quit her job as a hatmaker and became the abbe's housekeeper. She stayed by his side for thirty-one years, until his death in 1917. Everything Sauniere acquired was eventually placed in her name, including all of his land and bank accounts, which subsequently made it impossible for anyone, including the Church, to claim them. She continued to live in Rennes, dressing in somber clothes and behaving as strangely as when her lover was alive, until her death in 1953.

"She was an odd one," Stephanie said. "She made a statement, long after Sauniere died, about how with what he left behind you could feed all of Rennes for a hundred years, but she lived in poverty till the day she died."

"Any one ever learn why?"

"Her only statement was, I cannot touch it."

"Thought you didn't know much about all this."

"I didn't, until last week. The books and journal were informative. Lars spent a lot of time interviewing locals."

"Sounds like that would have been double or triple hearsay."

"For Sauniere, that's true. He's been dead a long time. But his mistress lived till the fifties, so there were many still around in the seventies and eighties who knew her. She sold the Villa Bethanie in 1946 to a man named Noel Corbu. He was the one who converted it into a hotel--the innkeeper I mentioned who made up much of the false information about Rennes. The mistress promised to tell Sauniere's great secret to Corbu, but at the end of her life she suffered a stroke and was unable to communicate."

They trudged across the hard ground, grit crunching with every step.

"Sauniere was once buried here, too, beside her, but the mayor said the grave was in danger from treasure hunters." She shook her head. "So a few years ago they dug the priest up and moved him into a mausoleum in the garden. Now it costs three euros to see his grave . . . the price of a corpse's safety, I assume."

He caught her sarcasm.

She pointed at the grave. "I remember coming here once years ago. When Lars first arrived in the late sixties, nothing but two tattered crosses marked the graves, overgrown with vines. No one tended to them. No one cared. Sauniere and his lover were totally forgotten."

An iron chain encircled the plot and fresh flowers sprouted from concrete vases. Malone noticed the epitaph on one of the stones, barely legible.





"I read somewhere that the marker was too fragile to move," she said, "so they left it. More for the tourists to see."

He noticed the mistress's gravestone. "She wasn't a target of opportunists, too?"

"Apparently not, since they left her here."

"Wasn't it a scandal, their relationship?"

She shrugged. "Whatever wealth Sauniere acquired, he spread around. The water tower back at the car park? He built it for the town. He also paved roads, repaired houses, made loans to people in trouble. So he was forgiven whatever weakness he may have possessed. And it was not uncommon for priests of that time to have female housekeepers. Or at least that's what Lars wrote in one of his books."

A group of noisy visitors rounded the corner behind them and headed for the grave.

"Here they come to gawk," Stephanie said, a touch of contempt in her voice. "I wonder if they would act that way back home, in the cemetery where their loved ones are buried?"

The boisterous crowd drew close, and a tour guide started talking about the mistress. Stephanie retreated and Malone followed.

"This is nothing but an attraction to them," Stephanie said in a low voice. "Where the abbe Sauniere found his treasure and supposedly decorated his church with messages that somehow led the way to it. Hard to imagine that anyone buys that crap."

"Isn't that what Lars wrote about?"

"To an extent. But think about it, Cotton. Even if the priest found a treasure, why would he leave a map for someone else to find it? He built all of this during his lifetime. The last thing he'd want was for someone to jump his claim." She shook her head. "It all makes for great books, but it's not real."

He was about to inquire further when he noticed her gaze drift to another corner of the cemetery, past a set of stone stairs that led down to the shade of an oak towering above more markers. In the shadows, he spied a fresh grave decorated with colorful bouquets, the silvery lettering on the headstone bright against a crisp gray matte.

Stephanie marched toward it and he followed.

"Oh, dear," she said, concern in her face.

He read the marker. ERNST SCOVILLE. Then he did the math from the dates noted. The man was seventy-three years old when he died.

Last week.

"You knew him?" he asked.

"I talked with him three weeks ago. Just after receiving Lars's journal." Her attention stayed riveted on the grave. "He was one of those people I mentioned who worked with Lars that we needed to speak with."

"Did you tell him what you planned to do?"

She slowly nodded. "I told him about the auction, the book, and that I was coming to Europe."

He couldn't believe what he was hearing. "I thought you said last night no one knew anything."

"I lied."