The Templar Legacy (Page 30)




"I've had lots of practice." Claridon looked at Stephanie. "You are Lars's wife?"

She nodded.

"He was a friend and a great man. So smart. Yet also naive. He underestimated those who opposed him."

They were still alone in the solarium and Claridon seemed to notice Malone's interest in the door leading out.

"No one will disturb us. Not a soul wants to listen to my ramblings. I made a point to become quite a nuisance. They all look forward to my retreat here each day."

"How long have you been here?"

"Five years."

Malone was astonished. "Why?"

Claridon paced slowly among the bushy potted plants. Beyond the outer glass, black clouds girted the western horizon, the sun blazing through crevices like fire from the mouth of a furnace. "There are those who seek what Lars sought. Not openly, or with attention drawn to their quest, but they deal severely with those who stand in their way. So I came here and feigned illness. They feed you well, care for your needs, and, most important, ask no questions. I've not spoken rationally, other than to myself, in five years. And I can assure you, talking to yourself is not satisfying."

"Why are you talking to us?" Stephanie asked.

"You're Lars's widow. For him, I would do anything." Claridon pointed. "And that note. Sent by someone with knowledge. Perhaps even by those people I mentioned who don't allow anyone to stand in their way."

"Did Lars stand in their way?" Stephanie asked.

Claridon nodded. "Many wanted to know what he learned."

"What was your connection to him?" Stephanie asked.

"I had access to the book trade. He required many obscure materials."

Malone knew that secondhand-book stores were the haunts of both collectors and researchers.

"We eventually became friends and I started to share his passion. This region is my home. My family has been here since medieval times. Some of my ancestors were Cathars, burned to death by the Catholics. But then, Lars died. So sad. Others after him also perished. So I came here."

"What others?"

"A book dealer in Seville. A librarian in Marseille. A student in Rome. Not to mention Mark."

"Ernst Scoville is also dead," Stephanie said. "Run down by a car last week, just after I spoke to him."

Claridon quickly crossed himself. "Those who seek are indeed made to pay. Tell me, dear lady, do you know anything?"

"I have Lars's journal."

A look of concern swept across the man's face. "Then you are in mortal danger."

"How so?" Malone asked.

"This is terrible," Claridon said, the words coming fast. "So terrible. It's not right that you be involved. You lost your husband and your son--"

"What do you know of Mark?"

"It was just after his death that I came here."

"My son died in an avalanche."

"Not true. He was killed. Just like the others I mentioned."

Malone and Stephanie stood in silence, waiting for the odd little man to explain.

"Mark was following leads his father had discovered years before. He was not as passionate as Lars, and it took him years to decipher Lars's notes, but he finally made some sense of them. He traveled south into the mountains to look but never returned. Just like his father."

"My husband hung himself from a bridge."

"I know, dear woman. But I always wondered what truly happened."

Stephanie said nothing, but her silence signaled that at least part of her wondered, too.

"You said you came here to escape them. Who's them?" Malone asked. "The Knights Templar?"

Claridon nodded. "I came face-to-face with them on two occasions. Not pleasant."

Malone decided to let that notion simmer a moment. He was still holding the note that had been sent to Ernst Scoville in Rennes-le-Chateau. He motioned with the paper. "How can you lead the way? Where are we to go? And who is this engineer we're supposed to be watching out for?"

"She, too, seeks what Lars coveted. Her name is Cassiopeia Vitt."

"She good with a rifle?"

"She has many talents. Shooting, I'm sure, is one. She lives at Givors, an ancient citadel site. She's a woman of color, a Muslim, who possesses great wealth. She labors in the forest to rebuild a castle using only thirteenth-century techniques. Her chateau stands nearby and she personally oversees the rebuilding project, calling herself l'Ingenieur. The engineer. Have you met her?"

"I think she saved my hide in Copenhagen. Which makes me wonder why someone would warn us to beware of her."

"Her motives are suspect. She seeks what Lars sought, but for different reasons."

"And what is it she seeks?" Malone asked, tired of riddles.

"What the brothers of the Temple of Solomon left behind long ago. Their Great Devise. What the priest Sauniere discovered. What the brothers have been searching for all these centuries."

Malone didn't believe a word of it, but motioned again with the paper. "So point us in the right direction."

"It's not that the simple. The trail has been made difficult."

"Do you even know where to start?"

"If you have Lars's notebook, you have more knowledge than I possess. He often spoke of the journal, but I was never allowed to see it."

"We also have a copy of Pierres Gravees du Languedoc," Stephanie said.

Claridon gasped. "I never believed that book existed."

She reached into her bag and showed him the volume. "It's real."

"Might I see the gravestone?"

She opened to the page and showed him the drawing. Claridon studied it with interest. The older man smiled. "Lars would have been pleased. The drawing is a good one."

"Care to explain?" Malone asked.

"The abbe Bigou learned a secret from Marie d'Hautpoul de Blanchefort, just before she died. When he fled France in 1793, Bigou realized that he would never return, so he hid what he knew in the church at Rennes-le-Chateau. That information was later found by Sauniere, in 1891, within a glass vial."

"We know all that," Malone said. "What we don't know is Bigou's secret."

"Ah, but you do," Claridon said. "Let me see Lars's notebook."

Stephanie handed him the journal. He anxiously shuffled through it and showed them a page.

"This cryptogram was supposedly inside the glass vial."

"How do you know?" Malone asked.

"To know that, you must understand Sauniere."

"We're all ears."

"When Sauniere was alive, not a word was ever written about the money he spent on the church or the other buildings. No one outside of Rennes even knew any of that existed. When he died in 1917, he was totally forgotten. His papers and belongings were either stolen or destroyed. In 1947 his mistress sold the entire estate to a man named Noel Corbu. The mistress died six years later. The so-called tale of Sauniere, about his great treasure find, first appeared in print in 1956. A local newspaper, La Depeche du Midi, published three installments that supposedly told the true story. But the source for that material was Corbu."

"I know this," Stephanie said. "He embellished everything, adding to the story, changing it all around. Afterward, more press accounts came and the story gradually became even more fantastic."

Claridon nodded. "Fiction completely took over fact."

"You talking about the parchments?" Malone asked.

"An excellent example. Sauniere never found parchments in the altar pillar. Never. Corbu, and the others, added that detail. Not one person has ever seen those parchments, yet their texts have been printed in countless books, each one supposedly hiding some sort of coded message. It's nonsense, all of it, and Lars knew that."

"But Lars published the texts of the parchments in his books," Malone said.

"He and I spoke of that. All he would say is, People love a mystery. But I know it bothered him to do it."

Malone was confused. "So is Sauniere's story a lie?"

Claridon nodded. "The modern rendition is mainly false. Most of the books written also link Sauniere to the paintings of Nicolas Poussin, particularly The Shepherds of Arcadia. Supposedly, Sauniere took the two parchments he found to Paris in 1893 for deciphering and, while there, purchased a copy of that painting, and two more, at the Louvre. They are reported to contain hidden messages. The problem with that is the Louvre did not sell copies of paintings at that time, and there is no record that The Shepherds of Arcadia was even stored at the Louvre in 1893. But the men who promulgated that fiction worried little about errors. They just assumed no one would check the facts, and for a while they were right."

Malone motioned to the cryptogram. "Where did Lars find this?"

"Corbu penned a manuscript all about Sauniere."

Some of the words from the eight pages sent to Ernst Scoville swept through his mind. What Lars had written about the mistress. At one point she did reveal to Noel Corbu one of Sauniere's hiding places. Corbu wrote of this in his manuscript I managed to find.

"While Corbu spent a great deal of time telling reporters the fiction of Rennes, in his manuscript he did a credible job of detailing the true story, as he learned it from the mistress."

More of what Lars had written ran through Malone's mind. What Corbu found, if anything, is never revealed by him. But the wealth of information contained within his manuscript makes one wonder where he could have learned all that he wrote about.

"Corbu, of course, let no one see the manuscript, since the truth was not nearly as captivating as the fiction. He died in the late sixties from a car crash and his manuscript disappeared. But Lars found it."

Malone studied the rows of letters and symbols on the cryptogram. "So what is this? Some type of code?"

"One quite common for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Random letters and symbols, arranged in a grid. Somewhere in all that chaos is a message. Basic, simple, and, for its time, quite difficult to decipher. Still so even today, without the key."

"What do you mean?"

"Some numeric sequence is needed to find the right letters to assemble the message. Sometimes, to confuse the matter further, the starting point on the grid was random, too."

"Did Lars ever decipher it?" Stephanie asked.

Claridon shook his head. "He was unable. And it frustrated him. Then, in the weeks before he died, he thought he came across a new clue."

Malone's patience was wearing thin. "I assume he didn't tell you what that was."

"No, monsieur. That was his way."

"So where do we go from here? Point the way, like you're supposed to."

"Return here at five PM, on the road just beyond the main building and wait. I'll come to you."

"How can you leave?"

"No one here will be sad to see me go."

Malone and Stephanie shared a glance. She was surely debating, as he was, if following Claridon's directions would be smart. So far this whole endeavor had been littered with either dangerous or paranoid personalities, not to mention wild speculation. But something was going on, and if he wanted to learn more he was going to have to play by the rules the odd man standing across from him was setting.

Still, he wanted to know, "Where are we going?"

Claridon turned to the window and pointed eastward. In the far distance, miles away, on a hilltop overlooking Avignon, stood a palace stronghold with an Oriental appearance, like something from Arabia. Its golden luminosity stood out against the eastern sky with a fugitive brightness and cast the appearance of several buildings piled onto one another, each rising from the bedrock, standing in clear defiance. Just as its occupants had done for nearly a hundred years, when seven French popes ruled Christendom from within the fortress walls.

"To the palais des popes," Claridon said.

The palace of the popes.