The Templar Legacy (Page 36)
MALONE HAD BEEN EXPECTING CONTACT FROM THE WOMAN, BUT this voice was not hers. He reached for his gun.
"Stand still, Mr. Malone. Weapons are trained on you."
"It's the man from the cathedral," Stephanie said.
"I told you we'd meet again. And you, monsieur Claridon. You weren't that convincing in the asylum. Insane? Hardly."
Malone searched the darkness. The sheer size of the chamber produced a confusion of noise. But he spotted human forms standing above them, before the upper row of shelving at the wooden railing.
He counted four.
"I am, though, impressed by your knowledge, monsieur Claridon. Your deductions about the headstone seem logical. I always believed there was much to be learned from that marker. I, too, have been here before, rummaging through these shelves. Such a difficult endeavor. So much to explore. I do appreciate you narrowing the search. Reading the Rules of Caridad. Who would have thought?"
Claridon made the sign of the cross and Malone spotted fear in the man's eyes. "May God protect us."
"Come now, monsieur Claridon," the disembodied voice said. "Do we need to involve heaven?"
"You are His warriors." Claridon's voice trembled.
"And what brings you to that conclusion?"
"Who else could you be?"
"Perhaps we are the police? No. You wouldn't believe that. Maybe we're adventurers--searchers--like you. But no. So, let's say for the sake of simplicity that we are His warriors. How can you three aid our cause?"
No one answered him.
"Ms. Nelle possesses her husband's journal and the book from the auction. She'll contribute those."
"Screw you," she spat out.
A pop, like a balloon bursting, sounded over the rain and a bullet careened off the table a few inches from Stephanie.
"Bad answer," the voice said.
"Give them to him," Malone said.
Stephanie glared at him.
"He'll shoot you next."
"How did you know?" the voice asked.
"That's what I'd do."
A chuckle. "I like you, Mr. Malone. You're a professional."
Stephanie reached into her shoulder bag and removed the book and journal.
"Toss them toward the door, between the shelves," the voice said.
She did as instructed.
A form appeared and retrieved them.
Malone silently added one more man to the list. At least five were now in the archive. He felt the gun wedged at his waist beneath his jacket. Unfortunately, there was no way to retrieve it before at least one of them was shot. And only three bullets remained in the magazine.
"Your husband, Ms. Nelle, managed to piece together many of the facts, and his deductions as to missing elements were generally correct. He was a remarkable intellect."
"What is it you're after?" Malone asked. "I only joined this party a couple of days ago."
"We seek justice, Mr. Malone."
"And it's necessary to run down an old man in Rennes-le-Chateau to achieve justice?" He thought he'd jostle the barrel and see what spilled out.
"And who would that be?"
"Ernst Scoville. He worked with Lars Nelle. Surely you knew of him?"
"Mr. Malone, perhaps a year of retirement has dulled your skills. I'd hope that you were better at interrogating when you were working full time."
"Since you have the journal and the notebook, don't you have to be going?"
"I need that lithograph. Monsieur Claridon, please be so kind as to take it to my associate, there, beyond the table."
Claridon clearly did not want to do it.
Another slap from a sound-suppressed weapon and a bullet thudded into the tabletop. "I hate repeating myself."
Malone lifted the drawing and handed it to Claridon. "Do it."
The sheet was accepted in a hand that trembled. Claridon took a few steps beyond the spill of the weak lamp. Thunder pounded the air and rattled the walls. Rain continued to burst forth with fury.
And the lamp exploded in a burst of sparks.
DE ROQUEFORT HEARD THE GUNSHOT AND SAW THE MUZZLE flash from near the archive's exit. Damn. Somebody else was here.
The room was plunged into darkness.
"Move," he screamed to his men on the second-floor catwalk, and he hoped they knew what to do.
MALONE REALIZED SOMEBODY HAD SHOT OUT THE LIGHT. THE woman. She'd found another way in.
As darkness overtook them, he grabbed Stephanie and they dropped to the floor. He was hoping the men above him had been likewise caught off guard.
He brought out the gun from beneath his jacket.
Two more shots exploded from below, and the bullets sent the men above scurrying. Footsteps pounded on the wooden platform. He was more concerned about the man on the ground floor, but he'd heard nothing from the direction where he'd last seen him, nor had he heard anything from Claridon.
The running stopped.
"Whoever you are," the man's voice said, "must you interfere?"
"I could ask you the same question," the woman said in a languid tone.
"This is not your business."
"You assaulted two of my brothers in Copenhagen."
"Let's say I ended your attack."
"There will be retribution."
"Come and get me."
"Stop her," the man yelled.
Black shapes rushed across overhead. Malone's eyes had adjusted and he made out a staircase at the far end of the catwalk.
He handed Stephanie the gun. "Stay here."
"Where are you going?"
"To repay a favor."
He crouched down and hustled forward, weaving through the shelves. He waited, then tackled one of the men as he leaped from the last tread. The size and shape of the man was reminiscent of Red Jacket, but this time Malone was ready. He brought a knee into the man's stomach, then pounded a fist to the back of the neck.
The man went still.
Malone surveyed the darkness and heard running a few aisles over.
"No. Please leave me be."
DE ROQUEFORT HEADED STRAIGHT FOR THE DOOR THAT LED OUT of the archives. He'd descended from the ramparts and knew the woman would want to make a hasty retreat, but her choices were limited. There was only the exit to the hall and one other, through the curator's office. But his man stationed there had just reported through the radio that all was quiet.
He now knew she was the same person who'd interfered in Copenhagen and probably the same one from last night in Rennes-le-Chateau. And that realization spurred him on. He must learn her identity.
The door leading out of the archives opened, then closed. In the wedge of light that splashed in from the hall he spied two legs lying prone on the floor between the shelves. He darted over and discovered one of his subordinates unconscious, a small dart planted in the neck. This brother had been stationed on the ground floor and had retrieved the notebook, journal, and lithograph.
Which were nowhere to be seen.
"Do as I instructed," he called out to his remaining men.
He raced for the door.
MALONE HEARD THE MAN'S COMMAND AND DECIDED TO HEAD back to Stephanie. He had no idea what the men had been commanded to do, but he assumed it included them and wasn't good.
He crouched down and eased his way through the shelves, toward the table.
"Stephanie," he breathed out.
He slipped close to her. All he could hear now was the rain. "There must be another way out of here," she mouthed through the darkness.
He relieved her of the gun. "Somebody left through the door. Probably the woman. I saw only one shadow. The others must have gone after Claridon and left through another exit."
The door leading out opened again.
"That's him leaving," he said.
They stood and rushed back across the archives. At the exit Malone hesitated, heard and saw nothing, then led the way out.
DE ROQUEFORT SPOTTED THE WOMAN RUNNING DOWN THE LONG gallery. She whirled and, not losing a step, fired a shot his way.
He dove to the floor, and she disappeared around a corner.
He came to his feet and bolted after her. Before she'd fired, he'd caught sight of the journal and the book in her grasp.
She had to be stopped.
MALONE SAW A MAN, DRESSED IN BLACK TROUSERS AND A DARK turtleneck, gun in hand, turn a corner fifty feet away.
"This is going to get interesting," he said.
They both ran.
DE ROQUEFORT KEPT UP HIS PURSUIT. THE WOMAN WAS CERTAINLY attempting to leave the palace, and she seemed to know the geography. Every turn she took was the right one. She'd deftly obtained what she came for, so he had to assume that her escape would not be left to chance.
Through another portal, he entered a rib-vaulted hall. The woman was already at the far end, turning a corner. He trotted over and saw a wide stone staircase leading down. The Great Staircase of Honor. Once, lined with frescoes, broken by iron gates, and sheathed with Persian runners, the stairway had lent itself to the solemn majesty of pontifical ceremonies. Now the risers and walls were bare. The darkness at the bottom, some thirty yards away, was absolute. He knew below were exit doors into a courtyard. He heard the woman's footsteps as she descended but could not make out her form.
So he just fired.
MALONE HEARD WHAT SOUNDED LIKE A HAMMER REPEATEDLY striking a nail. One sound-suppressed shot after another.
He slowed his approach to a doorway ten feet ahead.
HINGES SQUEALED AT THE BASE OF THE INK-BLACK STAIRWAY. DE Roquefort recognized the sound of a door groaning open. The storm outside grew louder. Apparently his indiscriminate shots had missed. The woman was leaving the palace. He heard footsteps behind him, then spoke into the mike clipped to his shirt.
"Do you have what I wanted?"
"We do," was the reply through his earphone.
"I'm in the Conclave Gallery. Mr. Malone and Ms. Nelle are behind me. Handle them."
He rushed down the staircase.
MALONE SAW THE MAN IN THE TURTLENECK LEAVE THE CAVERNOUS hall that stretched out before them. Gun in hand, he ran ahead with Stephanie following.
Three armed men materialized from other portals into the room and blocked their way.
Malone and Stephanie stopped.
"Please toss the gun aside," one of the men said.
No way he could take them all before either he, Stephanie, or both of them went down. So he allowed the gun to clatter on the floor.
The three men approached.
"What do we do now?" Stephanie asked.
"I'm open to suggestions."
"There's nothing for you to do," another of the short-hairs said.
They stood still.
"Turn around," came the command.
He stared at Stephanie. He'd been in tight spots before, a few just like the one they were facing. Even if he managed to subdue one or two, there was still the third man, and all were armed.
A thud was followed by a cry from Stephanie and her body collapsed to the floor. Before he could move toward her, the back of Malone's head was pounded with something hard and everything before him vanished.
DE ROQUEFORT FOLLOWED HIS QUARRY, WHO RUSHED THROUGH the Place du Palais, quickly fleeing the empty plaza and winding a path through Avignon's deserted streets. The warm rain fell in steady sheets. The heavens suddenly opened, cleft by an immense flash of lightning that momentarily lifted the vault of darkness. Thunder shook the air.
They left buildings behind and came close to the river.
He knew, just ahead, the Pont St. Benezet stretched out across the Rhone. Through the storm he saw the woman navigate a path straight for the bridge's entrance. What was she doing? Why go there? No matter, he had to follow. She possessed the rest of what he'd come to retrieve, and he did not plan to leave Avignon without the book and journal. Yet he wondered what the rain was doing to the pages. His hair was matted to his scalp, his clothes pasted to his body.
He saw a flash ten meters ahead of him as the woman fired a shot into the door that led to the bridge's entrance.
She disappeared inside the building.
He rushed to the door and carefully gazed inside. A ticket counter stood to his right. Souvenirs were displayed in more counters to the left. Three turnstiles led out onto the bridge. The incomplete span had long ago ceased being anything but a tourist attraction.
The woman was twenty meters away, running down the bridge, out onto the river.
He rushed forward and leaped over the turnstiles, racing after her.
A Gothic chapel stood at the end of the second pylon. He knew that it was the Chapelle Saint-Nicholas. The remains of St Benezet, who was originally responsible for the bridge being built, were once preserved there. But the relics were lost during the Revolution and only the chapel remained--Gothic on top, Romanesque below. Which was where the woman had gone. Down the stone staircase.
Another greenish bolt of lightning flashed overhead.
He shook the rain from his eyes and stopped at the top riser.
Then he saw her.
Not below, but back on top, racing toward the end of the fourth span, which would take her halfway out into the Rhone with nowhere to go, since the spans to the other side of the river had washed away three hundred years ago. She'd obviously used the stairs to dip beneath the chapel as a way to block any shot he may have wanted to take.
He dashed after her, rounding the chapel.
He didn't want to shoot. He needed her alive. Even more important, he needed what she carried. So he sent a bullet to her left, at her feet.
She stopped and turned to face him.
He rushed forward, gun leveled.
She stood at the end of the fourth span, nothing but darkness and water behind her. A clap of thunder violated the air. Wind came in wild gusts. Rain poured across his face.
"Who are you?" he asked.
She wore a black bodysuit that matched her dark skin. She was lean and muscular, her head sheathed in a tight hood, only her face visible. She carried a gun in the left hand, a plastic shopping bag in the other. She extended the shopping back out over the edge.
"Let's not get hasty," she said.
"I could simply shoot you."
"Two reasons why you won't do that."
"One, the bag will drop into the river and what you really want will be lost. And two, I'm a Christian. You don't kill Christians."
"How do you know what I do?"
"You are a knight of the Templars, as are the others. You took an oath not to harm Christians."
"I have no idea whether you're a Christian."
"So let's stick with reason one. Shoot me, the books swim in the Rhone. The swift current will take them away."
"Apparently we seek the same thing."
"You're a quick one."
Her arm stayed extended out over the edge and he contemplated where best to shoot her, but she was right--the bag would be gone long before he could traverse the ten feet that separated them.
"Looks like we have a standoff," he said.
"I wouldn't say that."
She released her grip and the bag disappeared into the blackness. She then used his moment of surprise to raise her gun and fire, but de Roquefort pivoted left and dropped to the wet stones. When he shook the rain from his eyes, he saw the woman leap over the edge. He stood and rushed over, expecting to see the churning Rhone sweeping by, but instead below him was a stone platform, about eight feet down, part of a pylon that supported the outer arch. He saw the woman yank up the bag and disappear beneath the bridge.
He hesitated only an instant, then jumped, landing on his feet. His middle-aged ankles rattled from the impact.
An engine roared and he saw a motorboat shoot out from under the far side of the bridge and speed away, toward the north. He raised his gun to fire, but a muzzle flash signaled she was firing, too.
He lunged flat to more wet stone.
The boat dissolved out of range.
Who was that vixen? Clearly, she knew what he was, though not who he was since she'd not identified him. She also apparently understood the significance of the book and the journal. Most important, she knew his every move.
He came to his feet and stepped beneath the bridge, out of the rain, where the boat had been moored. She'd also planned a clever escape. He was about to climb back up, using an iron ladder affixed to the bridge's exterior, when something in the darkness caught his attention.
He bent down.
A book lay on the soaked stone beneath the overpass.
He brought it close to his eyes, straining to see what the damp pages contained, and read a few of the words.
Lars Nelle's notebook.
She'd lost it during her hasty retreat.
He now possessed part of the puzzle--not all, but maybe enough--and he knew precisely how to learn the rest.