The Templar Legacy (Page 32)

2:05 PM

DE ROQUEFORT OPENED HIS EYES. THE SIDE OF HIS HEAD pounded and he swore that brother Geoffrey would pay for his assault. He pushed himself up from the floor and tried to clear the fog. He heard frantic cries from outside the door. He dabbed the side of his head with his sleeve and the cassock came away stained with blood. He stepped into the bathroom and doused a rag with water, cleaning the wound.

He steeled himself. He must appear in charge. He slowly walked across the bedchamber and opened the door.

"Master, are you all right?" his new marshal asked.

"Come inside," he said.

The four other brothers waited in the hall. They knew better than to step into the master's chamber without permission.

"Close the door."

His lieutenant complied.

"I was struck unconscious. How long have they been gone?"

"It's been quiet in here for twenty minutes. That's what raised our fears."

"What do you mean?"

A puzzled look came to the marshal's face. "Silence. Nothing."

"Where did the seneschal and brother Geoffrey go?"

"Master, they were in here, with you. We were outside."

"Look around. They're gone. When did they leave?"

More bewilderment. "They didn't come our way."

"You're telling me those two did not walk out that door?"

"We would have shot them if they had, as you ordered."

His head started to hurt again. He lifted the wet rag to his scalp and massaged the throbbing knot. He'd wondered why Geoffrey had come straight here.

"There's news from Rennes-le-Chateau," the marshal said.

That revelation piqued his interest.

"Our two brothers made their presence known and Malone, as you predicted, eluded them on the highway."

He'd correctly deduced that the best way to pursue Stephanie Nelle and Cotton Malone was to let them think they were free of pursuit.

"And the shooter in the churchyard last night?"

"The person fled on a motorcycle. Our men watched as Malone gave chase. That incident, and the attack on our brothers in Copenhagen, are clearly related."

He agreed. "Any idea who?"

"Not yet."

He didn't want to hear that. "What of today? Where did Malone and Nelle go?"

"The electronic surveillance we affixed to Malone's car worked perfectly. They drove straight to Avignon. They've just left the sanatorium where Royce Claridon is a patient."

He was well acquainted with Claridon and did not for one moment believe Claridon was mentally ill, which was why he'd cultivated a source within the sanatorium. A month ago, when the master dispatched Geoffrey to Avignon to mail the package to Stephanie Nelle, he'd thought contact might have then been made. But Geoffrey paid no visit to the asylum. He suspected that the second parcel, the one sent to Ernst Scoville in Rennes, the one he knew little about, was what led Stephanie Nelle and Malone to Claridon. One thing was certain. Claridon and Lars Nelle had worked side by side, and when the son dabbled in the quest after Lars Nelle's death, Claridon had assisted him, too. The master had clearly known all that. And now Lars Nelle's widow had gone straight to Claridon.

Time to deal with that problem.

"I'll travel to Avignon within the half hour. Prepare a contingent of four brothers. Maintain the electronic surveillance and tell our people not to be tagged. That equipment has a long range, use it to our advantage." But there was still another matter and he stared around the room. "Leave me, now."

The marshal bowed, then retreated from the chamber.

He stood, his head still woozy, and surveyed the elongated chamber. Two of the walls were stone, the remaining two maple paneling framed out in symmetrical panels. A decorative armoire dominated one wall, a dresser, another chest, and a table and chairs the others. But his gaze stopped on the fireplace. It seemed the most logical location. He knew that in ancient times no room possessed only one way in and out. This particular chamber had housed masters since the sixteenth century, and if he recalled correctly, the fireplace was a seventeenth-century addition, replacing an older stone hearth. Rarely was it used now that central heating was employed throughout the abbey.

He approached the mantel and studied the woodwork, then carefully examined the hearth, noticing faint white lines stretching perpendicular toward the wall.

He bent down and gazed into the darkened hearth. With his curled hand, he probed up inside the flue.

And found it.

A glass knob.

He tried to turn it, but nothing moved. He pushed up, then down. Still nothing. So he pulled, and the knob came free. Not far, maybe half an inch, and he heard a mechanical snap. He released his grip and felt a slipperiness on his fingers. Oil. Somebody had been prepared.

He stared into the fireplace.

A crack ran the height of the rear wall. He pushed, and the stone panel swung inward. The opening was large enough to enter, so he crawled forward. Beyond the portal was a passageway the height of a man.

He stood.

The narrow corridor stretched only a few feet to a stone staircase that wound down in a tight spiral. No telling where that led. No doubt there were other entrances and exits scattered throughout the abbey. He'd been marshal for twenty-two years and never had he known of any secret routes.

The master knew, though, which was how Geoffrey knew.

He pounded his fist onto the stone and allowed his anger to work itself out. He must find the Great Devise. His entire ability to govern rested on its discovery. The master had possessed Lars Nelle's journal, as de Roquefort had known for many years, but there'd been no way to obtain it. He'd thought that with the old man gone his chance would come, but the master had anticipated his move and sent the manuscript away. Now Lars Nelle's widow and a former employee--a trained government agent--were connecting themselves with Royce Claridon. Nothing good would come of that collaboration.

He calmed his nerves.

For years he'd labored in the master's shadow. Now he was master. And he was not going to allow a ghost to dictate his path.

He sucked a few deep breaths of the dank air and thought back to the Beginning. AD 1118. The Holy Land had finally been wrestled from the Saracens and Christian kingdoms had been established, but a great danger still existed. So nine knights banded together and promised to the new Christian king of Jerusalem that the route to and from the Holy Land would be safe for pilgrims. But how could nine middle-aged men, pledged to poverty, protect the long route from Jaffa to Jerusalem, especially when hundreds of bandits lined the way? Even more puzzling, for the first ten years of its existence no new knights were added, and the Order's Chronicles recorded nothing of the brothers helping any pilgrims. Instead, those original nine occupied themselves with a greater task. Their headquarters was beneath the old temple, in an area that had once served as King Solomon's stables, a chamber of endless arches and vaults, so large that it once housed two thousand animals. There they'd discovered subterranean passages hewn from rock centuries before, many of which contained scriptural scrolls, treatises, writings on art and science, and much about Judaic/Egyptian heritage.

And the most important find of all.

The excavations consumed those nine knights' entire attention. Then, in 1127, they loaded boats with their precious cache and sailed for France. What they found brought them fame, wealth, and powerful allegiances. Many wanted to be a part of their movement and, in 1128, a mere ten years after being founded, the Templars were granted by the pope a legal autonomy unmatched in the Western world.

And all because of what they knew.

Yet they were careful with that knowledge. Only those who rose to the highest level were privileged to know. Centuries ago, the master's duty was to pass that knowledge along before he died. But that was before the Purge. After, masters searched, all to no avail.

He pounded his fist again into the stone.

Templars had first forged their destiny in forgotten caverns with the determination of zealots. He would do the same. The Great Devise was out there. He was close. He knew it.

And the answers were in Avignon.