The Templar Legacy (Page 34)
THE SENESCHAL STOPPED THE CAR IN THE VILLAGE CENTER. HE and Geoffrey had been traveling northward in a meandering route for the past five hours. Intentionally, they'd bypassed the larger communities of Foix, Quillan, and Limoux, opting instead to stop in a tiny hamlet, nestled within a sheltered hollow, where few tourists seemed to venture.
After leaving the master's chamber, they'd exited through the secret passages near the main kitchen, the portal cleverly concealed within a brick wall. Geoffrey had explained how the master had taught him the routes, used in centuries past for escape. For the last hundred years they'd been known only to masters and rarely utilized.
Once out, they'd quickly found the garage and appropriated one of the abbey's cars, leaving through the main gate before the brothers assigned to the motor pool returned from noontime prayers. With de Roquefort unconscious in his chambers and his entourage waiting for someone to open the locked door, they'd bought themselves a solid head start.
"It's time we talk," he said, his tone conveying that there would be no more procrastinating.
They left the car and walked to a cafe where an older clientele filled outside tables roofed by stately elms. Their robes were gone, replaced with clothes bought an hour ago in a quick stop. A waiter appeared and they placed an order. The evening was warm and pleasant.
"Do you realize what we did back there?" he asked. "We shot two brothers."
"The master told me violence would be inevitable."
"I know what we're running from, but what are we running to?"
Geoffrey reached into his pocket and produced the envelope he'd displayed to de Roquefort. "The master told me to give you this, once we were free."
He accepted the envelope and tore it open with a mixture of eagerness and trepidation.
My son, and in many ways I thought of you as that, I knew that de Roquefort would prevail in the conclave, but it was important that you challenge him. The brothers will recall that when your time truly arrives. For now, your destiny is elsewhere. Brother Geoffrey will be your companion.
I have faith that prior to leaving the abbey you secured the two volumes that have held your attention the past few years. Yes, I was aware of your interest. I, too, read both long ago. Theft of Order property is a serious breach of Rule, but let us not consider it a theft, merely a borrowing, as I'm sure you will return both books. The information they contain, along with what you already know, is supremely potent. Unfortunately, the puzzle is not solved solely by it. There is more to the riddle, and that is what you must now discover. Contrary to what you might think, I do not know the answer. But de Roquefort cannot be allowed to obtain the Great Devise. He knows much, including all of what you have managed to extract from our records, so do not underestimate his resolve.
It was critical that you leave the confines of our cloistered life. Much awaits you. Though I write these words in the final weeks of my life, I can only assume that your departure was not without violence. Do what is necessary to complete your quest. Masters for centuries have left words for their successors, my predecessor included. Of all who came before me, you alone possess enough of the pieces to reassemble the entire puzzle. I would have liked to have accomplished that goal with you in my lifetime, but it was not to be. De Roquefort would have never allowed our success. With brother Geoffrey's help you can now succeed. I wish you well. Take care of yourself and Geoffrey. Be patient with the lad, for he does only what I have bound him to do by oath.
The seneschal looked up at Geoffrey and wanted to know, "How old are you?"
"You bear a lot of responsibility for one so young."
"Why didn't he tell me directly?"
Geoffrey did not immediately answer. "The master said you withdraw in the face of controversy and shy away from confrontation. You do not, as yet, know yourself fully."
He was stung by the rebuke, but Geoffrey's look of truth and innocence stamped great emphasis onto his words. And they were true. He'd never been one to search for a fight and had avoided every one that he could.
But not this time.
He'd confronted de Roquefort head-on and would have shot him dead if the Frenchmen had not reacted quickly. This time he planned to fight. He cleared his throat of emotion and asked, "What am I to do?"
The waiter returned with two salads, crusty bread, and cheese.
Geoffrey smiled. "First, we eat. I'm starved."
He grinned. "Then what?"
"Only you can tell us that."
He shook his head at Geoffrey's fervor of hope. Actually, he'd already given their next move thought on the drive north from the abbey. And a comforting resolve formed as he realized there was only one place to go.
MALONE STARED UP AT THE PALACE OF THE POPES, WHICH stretched skyward a hundred yards away. He, Stephanie, and Claridon were sitting at an outdoor cafe in a lively square directly adjacent to the main entrance. A north wind swept in from across the nearby Rhone--the mistral, as the locals called it--and banged through the city unchecked. Malone recalled a medieval proverb that spoke to the foul smells that once filled these streets. Windy Avignon, with the wind loathsome, without the wind poisonous. And what had Petrarch called the place? The most odiferous on earth.
From a tour book he'd learned that the mass of architecture rising before him, at once a palace, fortress, and shrine, was in reality two buildings--the old palace built by Pope Benedict XII, begun in 1334, and the new palace erected under Clement VI, finished in 1352. Both reflected the personality of their creators. The old palace was a measure of Romanesque conservatism with little flair, while the new palace exuded a Gothic embellishment. Unfortunately, both buildings had been ravaged by fire and, during the French Revolution, looted, their sculpture destroyed, all of the frescoes whitewashed. In 1810 the palace was turned into a barracks. The city of Avignon assumed control in 1906, but restoration was delayed until the 1960s. Two wings were now a convention center and the rest a grand tourist attraction that offered only fleeting glances of its former glory.
"Time we enter," Claridon said. "The last tour starts in ten minutes. We must be a part."
Malone stood. "What are we going to do?"
Thunder eased past overhead.
"The abbe Bigou, to whom Marie d'Hautpoul de Blanchefort told her great family secret, would, from time to time, visit the palace and admire the paintings. That was before the Revolution, so many were still on display. Lars discovered there was one in particular he loved. When Lars rediscovered the cryptogram, he also found a reference to a painting."
"What kind of reference?" Malone asked.
"In the parish register for the church at Rennes-le-Chateau, on the day he left France for Spain in 1793, Abbe Bigou made a final entry that read, Lisez les Regles du Caridad."
Malone silently translated. Read the Rules of the Caridad.
"Sauniere found that particular entry and secreted it away. Luckily, the register was never destroyed, and Lars ultimately found it. Apparently, Sauniere learned that Bigou had visited Avignon often. By Sauniere's time, the late nineteenth century, the palace was nothing but a gutted shell. But Sauniere could have easily discovered that there'd been a painting here in Bigou's time, Reading the Rules of the Caridad, by Juan de Valdes Leal."
"I assume the painting is still inside?" Malone asked, staring across the expansive courtyard toward the Chapeaux Galo, the palace's central gate.
Claridon shook his head. "Long gone. Destroyed by fire fifty years ago."
More thunder rumbled.
"Then why are we here?" Stephanie asked.
Malone tossed a few euros on the table and let his glance dart to another outdoor cafe two doors away. While others were heading off in anticipation of the coming storm, one woman sat under an awning and sipped from a cup. His gaze lingered only for an instant, enough for him to note well-cut features and prominent eyes. Her skin was the color of creamed coffee, her manner gracious when a waiter delivered her meal. He'd noticed her ten minutes ago, after they first sat, and he'd wondered.
Now for the test.
He grabbed a paper napkin from the table and balled it into his closed fist.
"In that unpublished manuscript," Claridon was saying, "the one I told you Noel Corbu wrote about Sauniere and Rennes, which Lars found, Corbu talked about the painting and knew Bigou referred to it in the parish register. Corbu also noted that a lithograph of the painting was still in the palace archives. He'd seen it. In the week before he died, Lars finally learned where in the archives. We were to go inside for a look, but Lars never returned to Avignon."
"And he didn't tell you where?" Malone asked.
"There's no mention in the notebook about a painting," Malone said. "I read the whole thing. Not a word on Avignon."
"If Lars didn't tell you where the lithograph is, why are we going inside?" Stephanie asked. "You don't know where to look."
"But your son did, the day before he died. He and I were to go inside the palace for a look when he returned from the mountains. But, madame, as you know--"
"He never came back, either."
Malone watched as Stephanie suppressed her emotions. She was good, but not that good. "Why didn't you go?"
"I thought staying alive more important. So I retreated to the asylum."
"You don't know that. In fact," Claridon said, "you don't know anything." He glanced around the plaza. "We need to hurry. They are particular about the last tour. Most of the employees are older residents from the city. Many are volunteers. They lock the doors promptly at seven. There's no security system or alarms within the palace. Nothing of any real value is displayed there any longer, and besides, the walls themselves are its greatest security. We will drift off from the tour and wait till all is quiet."
They started walking.
Droplets of rain pricked Malone's scalp. With his back to the woman, who should still be seated a hundred feet away eating, he opened his hand and allowed the mistral to sweep the balled napkin away. He whirled and pretended to go after the stray paper as it danced across the cobblestones. As he retrieved the supposed errant piece of trash, he stole a glance toward the cafe.
The woman was no longer at her table.
She was strolling their way, toward the palace.
DE ROQUEFORT LOWERED THE BINOCULARS. HE STOOD AT THE Rocher des Doms, the rock of the doms, the most picturesque spot in Avignon. Men had occupied the summit since the neolithic age. In the days of the papal occupation the great rocky outcrop served as a natural buffer for the ever-present mistral. Today the hilltop, which sat directly adjacent to the papal palace, supported a splendid park with lakes, fountains, statuary, and grottoes. The view was breathtaking. He'd come here many times when he worked at the nearby seminary, in his time before the Order.
Hills and valleys stretched to the west and south. The swift Rhone cleaved a path below, sweeping beneath the famous Pont St. Benezet that once bisected the river and led from the pope's city to the king's on the other side. When, in 1226, Avignon sided with the count of Toulouse against Louis VIII during the Albigensian Crusade, the French king razed the bridge. Rebuilding eventually occurred, and de Roquefort imagined the fourteenth century when cardinals rode their mules across to their country palaces in Villeneuve-les-Avignon. By the sixteenth century rains and floods had cut the restored bridge back to four spans, which were never extended to the far side, so the structure still stood uncompleted. Another failure of will for Avignon, he'd always thought. A place that seemed destined to only half succeed.
"They're headed into the palace," he said to the brother standing next to him. He checked his watch. Nearly six PM. "Which closes for the day at seven."
He brought the binoculars back to his eyes and stared down five hundred yards at the plaza. He'd traveled north from the abbey and arrived forty minutes ago. The electronic surveillance on Malone's car was still functioning and had revealed a trip out to Villeneuve-les-Avignon, then back to Avignon. Apparently, they'd gone to retrieve Claridon.
De Roquefort had climbed the tree-lined walkway from the papal palace and decided to wait here, on the summit, which offered a perfect vantage of the old city. Fortune had smiled upon him when Stephanie Nelle and her two companions emerged from the underground parking garage directly below, then took a seat in a clearly visible outdoor cafe.
He lowered the binoculars.
The mistral whipped past him. The north wind was howling today, sweeping the quays, swelling the river, pushing storm clouds that scudded the sky ever closer.
"They apparently intend to stay in the palace after closing. Lars Nelle and Claridon once did that, too. Do we still have a key to the door?"
"Our brother here in town keeps it for us."
He'd long ago secured a way to enter the palace through the cathedral after hours. The archives inside had held Lars Nelle's interest, so they'd likewise drawn de Roquefort's. Twice he'd sent brothers to scurry around during the night, trying to ascertain what had attracted Lars Nelle. But the volume of material was intimidating and nothing was ever learned. Perhaps tonight he'd discover more.
He returned his eyes to the lens. Paper slipped from Malone's grip, and he watched the lawyer chase after it.
Then his three targets vanished beyond view.