The Templar Legacy (Page 19)

1:30 PM

MALONE AND STEPHANIE MADE THEIR WAY ACROSS THE CROWDED hamlet. Another bus churned up the central rue, easing its way toward the car park. Halfway down the street Stephanie entered a restaurant and spoke with the proprietor. Malone eyed some delicious-looking fish the diners were enjoying, but realized food would have to wait.

He was angry that Stephanie had lied to him. Either she didn't appreciate or didn't understand the gravity of the situation. Determined men, willing to die and kill, were after something. He'd seen their likes many times, and the more information he possessed the better the chances of success. Hard enough dealing with the enemy, but worrying about an ally simply compounded the situation.

Leaving the restaurant, Stephanie said, "Ernst Scoville was hit by a car last week while he took his daily walk outside the walls. He was well liked. He'd lived here a long time."

"Any leads on the car?"

"No witnesses. Nothing to go on."

"Did you actually know Scoville?"

She nodded. "But he didn't care for me. He and I spoke rarely. He took Lars's side in our debate."

"Then why did you call him?"

"He was the only one I could think of to ask about Lars's journal. He was civil, considering we hadn't spoken in years. He wanted to see the journal. So I planned on making amends while I was here."

He wondered about her. Bad blood with her husband, her son, and friends of her husband. The source of her guilt was clear, but what she planned to do about it remained cloudy.

She motioned for them to walk. "I want to check Ernst's house. He owned quite a library. I'd like to see if his books are still there."

"He have a wife?"

She shook her head. "A loner. Would have made a great hermit."

They headed down one of the side alleys between more rows of buildings that all seemed built for patrons long dead.

"Do you really believe there's a treasure hidden around here somewhere?" he asked.

"Hard to say, Cotton. Lars used to say that ninety percent of Sauniere's story is fiction. I'd chastise him for wasting his time on something so foolish. But he always countered with the ten percent of truth. That's what captivated him and, to a large degree, Mark. Strange things apparently happened here a hundred years ago."

"You referring to Sauniere again?"

She nodded.

"Help me understand."

"I actually need help with that, too. But I can tell you more of what I know about Berenger Sauniere."

"I cannot leave a parish where my interests keep me," Sauniere told the bishop as he stood before the older man in the episcopal palace at Carcassonne, twenty miles north of Rennes-le-Chateau.

He'd avoided the meeting for months with statements from his doctor that he was unable to travel because of illness. But the bishop was persistent, and the last request for an audience had been delivered by a constable who'd been instructed to personally accompany him back.

"Your existence is far grander than mine," the bishop said. "I wish to have a statement as to the origin of your monetary resources, which seem so sudden and important."

"Alas, Monseigneur, you ask of me the only thing I am not able to reveal. Deep sinners to whom, with the aid of God, I have shown the way of penitence have given these considerable amounts to me. I do not wish to betray the secrets of the confessional by giving you their names."

The bishop seemed to consider his argument. It was a good one, and just might work.

"Then let us talk of your lifestyle. That is not protected by the secrets of the confessional."

He feigned innocence. "My lifestyle is quite modest."

"That is not what I am told."

"Your information must be faulty."

"Let us see." The bishop parted the cover of a thick book that lay before him. "I had an inventory performed, which was quite interesting."

Sauniere did not like the sound of that. His relationship with the former bishop had been loose and cordial, and he'd enjoyed great freedom. This new bishop was another matter.

"In 1891 you started renovations on the parish church. At that time you replaced the windows, built a porch, installed a new altar and pulpit, and repaired the roof. Cost, approximately twenty-two hundred francs. The following year the exterior walls were tended to and the interior floor replaced. Then came a new confessional, seven hundred francs, statuary and stations of the cross, all hewn in Toulouse by Giscard, thirty-two hundred francs. In 1898 a collecting trunk was added, four hundred francs. Then in 1900 a bas-relief of St. Mary Magdalen, quite elaborate I'm told, was placed before the altar."

Sauniere simply listened. Clearly, the bishop was privy to parish records. The former treasurer had resigned a few years ago, stating that he'd found his duties contrary to his beliefs. Someone had obviously tracked him down.

"I came here in 1902," the bishop said. "For the past eight years I have tried--in vain, I might add--to have you appear before me to answer my concerns. But during that time, you managed to build the Villa Bethanie adjacent to the church. It is, I am told, of bourgeois construction, a pastiche of styles, all from cut stone. There are stained-glass windows, a dining salon, sitting room, and bedrooms for guests. Quite a few guests, I hear. It is where you entertain."

The comment was surely designed to elicit a response, but he said nothing.

"Then there is the Tour Magdala, your folly of a library that overlooks the valley. Some of the finest woodwork around, it is reported. This is in addition to your stamp and postcard collections, which are enormous, and even some exotic animals. All costing many thousands of francs." The bishop closed the book. "Your parish income is no more than two hundred fifty francs per year. How was it possible to amass all this?"

"As I have said, Monseigneur, I have been the recipient of many private donations from souls who want to see my parish prosper."

"You have been trafficking in masses," the bishop declared. "Selling the sacraments. Your crime is simony."

He'd been warned this was the charge to be leveled. "Why do you reproach me? My parish, when I first arrived, was in a lamentable state. It is, after all, the duty of my superiors to ensure for Rennes-le-Chateau a church worthy of the faithful and a decent dwelling for the pastor. But for a quarter century I have worked and rebuilt and beautified the church without asking a centime from the diocese. It seems to me that I deserve your congratulations rather than accusations."

"What do you say was spent on all those improvements?"

He decided to answer. "One hundred ninety-three thousand francs."

The bishop laughed. "Abbe, that would not have bought the furniture, statues, and stained glass. To my calculation you have spent more than seven hundred thousand francs."

"I am not familiar with accounting practices, so I cannot say what the costs were. All I know is that the people of Rennes love their church."

"Officials state that you receive one hundred to one hundred fifty postal orders a day. They come from Belgium, Italy, the Rhineland, Switzerland, and all over France. They range from five to forty francs each. You frequent the bank in Couiza, where they are converted to cash. How do you explain that?"

"All my correspondence is handled by my housekeeper. She both opens and answers any inquiries. That question should be directed to her."

"You are the one who appears at the bank."

He kept to his story. "You should ask her."

"Unfortunately, she is not subject to my authority."

He shrugged.

"Abbe, you are trafficking in masses. It is clear, at least to me, that those envelopes coming to your parish are not notes from well-wishers. But there is something else even more disturbing."

He stood silent.

"I performed a calculation. Unless you are being paid exorbitant sums per mass--and last I knew, the standard rate among offenders was fifty centimes--you would have to say mass twenty-four hours a day for some three hundred years to accumulate the wealth you have spent. No, Abbe, the trafficking in masses is a front, one you concocted, to mask the true source of your good fortune."

This man was far smarter than he appeared to be.

"Any response?"

"No, Monseigneur."

"Then you are hereby relieved of your duties at Rennes and you will report immediately to the parish in Coustouge. In addition, you are suspended, with no right to say the mass or administer the sacraments in church, until further notice."

"And how long is this suspension to last?" he calmly asked.

"Until the Ecclesiastical Court can hear your appeal, which I am sure you will forthwith file."

"Sauniere did appeal," Stephanie said, "all the way to the Vatican, but he died in 1917 before being vindicated. What he did, though, was resign from the Church and never left Rennes. He just started saying mass in the Villa Bethanie. The locals loved him, so they boycotted the new abbe. Remember, all the land around the church, including the villa, belonged to Sauniere's mistress--he was clever there--so the Church couldn't do a thing about it."

Malone wanted to know, "So how did he pay for all those improvements?"

She smiled. "That's a question many have tried to answer, including my husband."

They navigated another of the winding alleyways, bordered by more melancholy houses, the stones the color of dead wood stripped of bark.

"Ernst lived up ahead," she said.

They approached an olden building warmed by pastel roses climbing a wrought-iron pergola. Up three stone stairs stood a recessed door. Malone climbed, peered in through glass in the door, and saw no evidence of neglect. "The place looks good."

"Ernst was obsessive."

He tested the knob. Locked.

"I'd like to get in there," she said from the street.

He glanced around. Twenty feet to their left, the lane ended at the outer wall. Beyond loomed a blue sky dotted with billowy clouds. No one was in sight. He turned back and, with his elbow, popped the glass pane. He then reached inside and released the lock.

Stephanie stepped up behind him.

"After you," he said.