The Templar Legacy (Page 33)
MALONE STOPPED THE PEUGEOT. ROYCE CLARIDON WAS WAITING on the roadside, south of the sanatorium, exactly where he'd said. The man's scruffy beard was gone, as were the stained clothes and jersey. The face was clean-shaven, the nails trimmed, and Claridon was wearing a pair of jeans and a crew-necked shirt. His long hair was slicked back and tied in a ponytail, and there was vigor to his step.
"Feels good to get that beard off," he said, climbing into the rear seat. "To pretend to be a Templar, I needed to look like one. You know they never bathed. Rule forbade it. No nakedness among the brothers and all that stuff. What a smelly lot they must have been."
Malone shifted the car into first and motored down the highway. Storm clouds filled the sky. Apparently, the weather from Rennes-le-Chateau was finally making its way eastward. In the distance lightning forked across the rising plumes, followed by growls of thunder. No rain was falling yet, but soon. He exchanged glances with Stephanie and she understood that the man in the rear seat needed interrogating.
She turned back. "Mr. Claridon--"
"You must call me Royce, madame."
"All right. Royce, could you tell us more of what Lars was thinking? It's important we understand."
"You don't know?"
"Lars and I were not close in the years before he died. He didn't confide much in me. But I've recently read his books and the journal."
"Might I ask, then, why are you here? He's been gone a long time."
"Let's just say I'd like to think Lars would have wanted his work finished."
"On that you are right, madame. Your husband was a brilliant scholar. His theories were well founded and I believe he would have been successful. If he'd lived."
"Tell me of those theories."
"He was following the abbe Sauniere's path. That priest was clever. On the one hand, he wanted no one to know what he knew. On the other, he left many clues." Claridon shook his head. "It's said he told his mistress everything, but she died without ever saying a word. Before his death, Lars thought he'd finally made progress. Do you know the full tale, madame? The real truth?"
"I'm afraid my knowledge is limited to what Lars wrote in his books. But there were some interesting references in his journal that he never published."
"Might I see those pages?"
She thumbed through the notebook, then handed the book back to Claridon. Malone watched in the rearview mirror as the man read with interest.
"Such wonders," Claridon said.
"Could you enlighten us?" Stephanie asked.
"Of course, madame. As I said this afternoon, the fiction Noel Corbu and others manufactured about Sauniere was mysterious and exciting. But to me, and to Lars, the truth was even better."
Sauniere surveyed the church's new altar, pleased with the renovations. The marble monstrosity was gone, the old top now rubble in the churchyard, the Visigoth pillars enlisted for other uses. The new altar was a thing of simple beauty. Three months ago, in June, he'd organized an elaborate first communion service. Men from the village had carried a statue of the Virgin in a solemn procession throughout Rennes, ending back at the church where the sculpture was placed atop one of the discarded pillars in the churchyard. To commemorate the event, he'd carved PENITENCE, PENITENCE on the pillar's face to remind the parishioners of humility, and MISSION 1891 to memorialize the year of their collective accomplishment.
The church roof had finally been sealed, the exterior walls shored. The old pulpit was gone and another one was under construction. Soon a checkerboard tile floor would be installed, then new pews. But prior to that, the floor's substructure required mending. Water seeping from the roof had eroded many of the base stones. Patching had worked in places, but several required replacement.
Outside loomed a wet, windy September morning, so he'd managed to secure the help of half a dozen townspeople. Their job was to bust away several of the damaged slabs and install new ones before the tilers arrived in two weeks. Men were now working in three separate locations throughout the nave. Sauniere himself was tending to a warped stone before the altar steps, which had always wobbled.
He remained puzzled by the glass vial found earlier in the year. When he'd melted the wax seal and removed the rolled paper, he found not a message but thirteen rows of letters and symbols. When he showed them to Abbe Gelis, a priest in a neighboring village, he was told that the arrangement was a cryptogram, and somewhere among the seemingly meaningless letters lay a message. All one needed was the mathematical key to its deciphering, but after many months of trying he was no closer to solving it. He wanted to know both its meaning and why it had been secreted away. Obviously, its message was of great importance. But patience would be needed. That was what he told himself each night after he again failed to find the answer, and, if nothing else, he was indeed patient.
He gripped a hammer with a short handle and decided to see if the thick floor stone could be cracked. The smaller the pieces, the easier their removal. He dropped to his knees and slammed three blows into one end of the yard-long slab. Cracks immediately spread down its length. More blows lengthened them into crevices.
He tossed the hammer aside and used an iron bar to pry the smaller pieces loose. He then wedged the bar underneath a long, narrow fragment and angled the thick chunk out of its cavity. With his foot, he slid it aside.
Then he noticed something.
He laid down the iron bar and brought the oil lamp close to the exposed subfloor. He reached down and gently swiped away debris and saw that he was staring at a hinge. He bent close and swiped away more dust and debris, exposing more corroded iron, his fingertips stained with rust.
The shape became clear.
But to where?
He glanced around. The other men were hard at work, talking among themselves. He set the lamp aside and calmly replaced the pieces he'd just removed back into the cavity.
"The good priest did not want anyone to know what he discovered," Claridon said. "First the glass vial, now a doorway. This church of his was full of wonder."
"A doorway to what?" Stephanie wanted to know.
"That's the interesting part. Lars never told me everything. But after reading his notebook, I now understand."
Sauniere cleared the last of the stone from the iron door in the floor. The church doors were locked, the sun having set hours ago. All day he'd thought about what lay beneath the door, but he'd not said a word to any of the workers, merely thanking them for their labors and explaining that he intended to take a few days' rest, so they wouldn't be needed back until next week. He'd not even told his precious mistress what he'd found, only mentioning after dinner that he wanted to inspect the church before going to bed. Rain now pelted the roof.
In the light from the oil lamp he calculated that the iron door was just over a yard long and half a yard wide. It lay flush to the floor with no lock. Thankfully its frame was stone, but he worried about the hinges, which was why he'd brought a container of lamp oil. Not the best lubricant, but it was all he could find on short notice.
He doused the hinges with oil and hoped time's grip would loosen. He then wedged the tip of an iron bar beneath one edge of the door and pried upward.
He pried harder.
The hinges started to give.
He wiggled the bar, working the rusted metal, then applied more oil. After several efforts the hinges screamed and the door pivoted open and froze in place, pointing toward the ceiling.
He shone the lantern into the dank opening.
Narrow steps led down five yards to a rough stone floor.
A surge of excitement swept through him. He'd heard tales from other priests about things they'd found. Most of it stemmed from the Revolution when churchmen hid relics, icons, and decorations from republican looters. Many of the Languedoc's churches fell victim. But the one in Rennes-le-Chateau had been in such a state of decay, there was simply nothing to loot.
Perhaps they'd all been wrong.
He shone the light near a few of the tombs and saw that each was identified with a chiseled name. All were d'Hautpouls. Dates ranged from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. He counted. Twenty-three filled the crypt. He knew who they were. The lords of Rennes.
Beyond the center arch, a trunk lying beside an iron pot caught his eye.
He stepped over, lamp in hand, and was startled when something glistened back. He thought at first his eyes were deceiving him, but quickly realized the vision was real.
He bent down.
The iron kettle was filled with coins. He lifted one out and saw that they were French gold pieces, many bearing a date: 1768. He knew little of their value but reasoned that it was considerable. Hard to tell how many filled the cauldron, but when he tested its weight he was unable to move the container one millimeter.
He reached for the trunk and saw that its hasp was not locked. He pushed open the lid and saw that the inside was filled, on one side, with leather-bound journals and, on the other, with something wrapped in an oilskin cloth. Carefully, he poked with his finger and determined that whatever lay inside was many, small, and hard. He laid down the lamp and peeled back the top fold.
The light again caught a sparkle.
He laid back the rest of the oilskin and the breath left him. Lying within the trunk was a cache of jewelry.
Without question, republican looters of a hundred years ago made a mistake when they bypassed the ramshackle church at Rennes-le-Chateau. Or maybe the person or persons who selected this as their hiding spot simply chose wisely.
"The crypt existed," Claridon said. "In the notebook you have there, I just read that Lars found a parish register for the years 1694 to 1726 that speaks of the crypt, but the register does not mention its entrance. Sauniere noted in his personal diary that he discovered a tomb. He then wrote in another entry, The year 1891 carries to the highest the fruit of that of which one speaks. Lars always thought that entry important."
Malone eased the car to the side of the road and turned back to face Claridon. "So that gold and those jewels were Sauniere's source of income. That's what he used to finance the church remodeling?"
Claridon laughed. "At first. But, monsieur, there is even more to the story."
Never had he seen so much wealth in one place. What fortune had come his way. But he needed to salvage it without arousing suspicions. To do that, he would need time. And no one could be allowed to discover the crypt.
He bent down, retrieved the lamp, and decided that he might as well start tonight. He could remove the gold and jewels, hiding both in the presbytery. How to convert them to useful currency could be decided later. He retreated toward the staircase, taking another look around as he walked.
One of the tombs caught his attention.
He approached and saw that the niche contained a woman. Her burial dress lay flat, only bones and a skull remained. He held the lamp close and read the inscription beneath:
MARIE D'HAUTPOUL DE BLANCHEFORT
He was familiar with the countess. She was the last of the d'Hautpoul heirs. When she died in 1781, control of both the village and surrounding lands slipped away from her family. The Revolution, which came only a dozen years later, forever eliminated all aristocratic ownership.
But there was a problem.
He quickly climbed back to ground level. Outside, he locked the church doors and, through a blinding rain, hustled around the building to the parish close and worked his way through the graves where the tombstones seemed to swim in the living blackness.
He stopped at the one he sought and bent down.
Shining the lamp, he read the inscription.
"Marie d'Hautpoul de Blanchefort was buried outside, too," Claridon said.
"Two graves for the same woman?" Stephanie asked.
"Apparently. But the body was in the crypt."
Malone remembered what Stephanie had said yesterday about Sauniere and his mistress molesting the graves in the churchyard, then chiseling away the inscription on the countess's headstone. "So Sauniere dug up the grave in the churchyard."
"That's what Lars believed."
"And it was empty?"
"Again, we'll never know, but Lars felt that to be the case. And history would seem to support his conclusion. A woman of the countess's stature would never have been buried. She would have been laid in a crypt, which is indeed where the body was found. The grave outside was something altogether different."
"The tombstone was a message," Stephanie said. "We know that. That's why Eugene Stublein's book is so critical."
"But unless you know the story of the crypt, the grave in the cemetery would generate no interest. Just another memorial, along with all the others. The abbe Bigou was smart. He hid his message in plain sight."
"And Sauniere discovered it?" Malone asked.
"Lars believed so."
Malone turned back to the wheel and motored the car onto the road. They headed down the last stretch of highway, then turned west and crossed the swift-moving Rhone. Ahead rose Avignon's fortified walls, the papal palace looming high above. Malone turned off the busy boulevard into the old city, passing the market square containing the book fair they'd visited earlier. He wound a path back toward the palace and parked in the same underground garage.
"I have a stupid question," Malone said. "Why doesn't somebody just dig beneath the church at Rennes, or use ground radar to verify the crypt?"
"The local authorities will not allow it. Think about that, monsieur. If nothing were there, what would happen to the mystique? Rennes lives off Sauniere's legend. The whole Languedoc benefits. The last thing anyone wants is proof of anything. They profit far too well from myth."
Malone reached under the seat and retrieved the gun he'd taken from his pursuer last night. He checked the magazine. Three rounds left.
"Is that needed?" Claridon asked.
"I feel a whole better with it." He opened his door and stepped out, stuffing the gun beneath his jacket.
"Why do we have to go inside the palace of the popes?" Stephanie asked.
"That's where the information is stored."
"Care to explain?"
Claridon opened his door. "Come and I'll show you."