The Templar Legacy (Page 39)
STEPHANIE POURED HERSELF A CUP OF HOT COFFEE AND OFFERED more to Geoffrey, but the younger man refused.
"We're allowed but one cup a day," he made clear.
She sat at the kitchen table. "Is your entire life governed by Rule?"
"It's our way."
"I thought secrecy was important to the brotherhood, too. Why do you speak of it so openly?"
"My master, who now resides with the Lord, told me to be honest with you."
She was perplexed. "How did your master know me?"
"He followed your husband's research closely. That was long before my time at the abbey, but the master told me of it. He and your husband spoke on several occasions. The master was your husband's confessor."
The information shocked her. "Lars made contact with the Templars?"
"Actually, the Templars contacted him. My master approached your husband, but if your husband knew that he was of the Templars, he never revealed it. Perhaps he thought saying it might end the contact. But surely he knew."
"Your master sounds like a curious man."
The younger man's face brightened. "He was a wise man who tried to do good for our Order."
She recalled his defense of Mark hours earlier. "Did my son help with that endeavor?"
"That's why he was chosen seneschal."
"And the fact that he was Lars Nelle's son had nothing to do with that choice?"
"On that, madame, I cannot speak. I only learned who the seneschal was a few hours ago. Here, in this house. So I don't know."
"You know nothing of each other?"
"Very little, and some of us struggle with that. Others revel in the privacy. But we spend our lives together, close as in a prison. Too much familiarity could become a problem. So we're barred by Rule from any intimacy with our fellows. We keep to ourselves, our silence enforced through the service of God."
"It's the life we choose. This adventure, though." He shook his head. "My master told me I'd discover many new things. He was right."
She sipped more coffee. "Your master was sure that you and I would meet?"
"He sent the journal hoping you'd come. He also sent a letter to Ernst Scoville, which included pages from the journal that related to you. He hoped that would bring you two together. He knew Scoville once didn't care for you--he learned that from your husband. But he realized your resources are great. So he wanted the two of you, together with the seneschal and myself, to find the Great Devise."
She recalled that term and its explanation from earlier. "Does your Order truly believe that there's more to the story of Christ--things the world doesn't know?"
"I have, as yet, not achieved a sufficient level of training to answer your question. Many decades of service are required before I'll be privy to what the Order actually knows. But death, at least to me and from what I have been taught so far, seems a clear finality. Many thousands of brothers died on the battlefields of the Holy Land. Not one of them ever rose and walked away."
"The Catholic Church would call what you just said heresy."
"The Church is an institution created by men and governed by men. Whatever more is made of that institution is also the creation of man."
She decided to tempt fate. "What am I supposed to do, Geoffrey?"
"Help your son."
"He must complete what his father started. Raymond de Roquefort cannot be allowed to find the Great Devise. The master was emphatic on this point. That's why he planned ahead. Why I was trained."
"Mark detests me."
"He loves you."
"How would you know that?"
"My master told me."
"He would have no way of knowing that."
"My master knew all." Geoffrey reached into his trouser pocket and withdrew a sealed envelope. "I was told to give this to you when I thought appropriate." He handed her the crinkled packet, then stood from the table. "The seneschal and Mr. Malone have gone to the church. I'll leave you alone."
She appreciated the gesture. No telling what emotions the message might stir, so she waited until Geoffrey had withdrawn to the den, then opened the envelope.
Mrs. Nelle, you and I are strangers, yet I feel I know much about you, all from Lars, who told me what troubled his soul. Your son was different. He kept his torment inside, sharing precious little. On a few occasions I managed to learn some, but his emotions were not as transparent as his father's. Perhaps he inherited that trait from you? And I do not mean to be flippant. What is surely happening at the moment is serious. Raymond de Roquefort is a dangerous man. He is driven by a blindness that has, through the centuries, affected many of our Order. His is a single-mindedness that clouds his vision. Your son fought him for leadership and lost. Unfortunately, Mark does not possess the resolve needed to complete his battles. Starting them seems easy, continuing them even easier, but resolving them has proven difficult. His battles with you. His battles with de Roquefort. His battles with his conscience. All challenge him. I thought that joining the two of you together could prove decisive for you both. Again, I do not know you, but I believe I understand you. Your husband is dead and so much was left unresolved. Perhaps this quest will finally answer all your questions. I offer this advice. Trust your son, forget about the past, think only of the future. That could go a long way to providing peace. My Order is unique among all Christendom. Our beliefs are different, and that is because of what the original brothers learned and passed on. Does that make us less Christian? Or more Christian? Neither, in my opinion. Finding the Great Devise will answer many questions, but I fear that it will raise many more. It will be to you and your son to decide what is best if and when that critical time comes, and hopefully it will, for I have faith in you both. A resurrection has occurred. A second chance has been offered. The dead have risen and now walk again among you. Make good use of that miracle, but a warning: Free your mind from the prejudices in which it has grown comfortable. Open yourself to conceptions more vast, and reason by more certain methods. For only then will you succeed. May the Lord be with you.
A tear streaked down her cheek. A strange feeling, crying. One she could not remember since childhood. She was highly educated and possessed the experience that decades of working in the top levels of the intelligence business offered. Her career had been spent handling one difficult situation after another. She'd made life-and-death decisions many times. But none of that applied here. She'd somehow left the world of good and bad, right and wrong, black and white, and entered a realm where her innermost thoughts were not only known, but actually understood. This master, a man to whom she'd never spoken a word, seemed to precisely comprehend her pain.
But he was right.
Mark's return was a resurrection. A glorious miracle with endless possibilities.
"Do the words sadden you?"
She looked up. Geoffrey stood in the doorway. She swiped the tears away. "In one way. But in another they bring happiness."
"The master was like that. He knew both joy and pain. Much pain, though, in his final days."
"How did he die?"
"Cancer took him two nights ago."
"You miss him?"
"I was raised alone, without the benefit of family. Monks and nuns taught me about life. They were good to me, but none ever loved me. So hard to grow up without the love of a parent."
The admission struck her heart.
"The master showed me great kindness, perhaps even love, but most of all he placed his trust in me."
"Then don't fail him."
She motioned with the paper. "Is this mine to keep?"
He nodded. "I was only the deliveryman."
She grabbed hold of herself. "Why did Mark and Cotton go to the church?"
"I sensed that the seneschal wanted to talk to Mr. Malone."
She stood from the chair. "Perhaps we, too, should--"
A knock came at the front door. She tensed as her gaze darted to the unlocked latch. Cotton and Mark would have simply walked in. She saw Geoffrey likewise come alert and a gun appeared in his hand. She stepped toward the door and peered through the glass.
A familiar face stared back.
DE ROQUEFORT WAS FURIOUS. FOUR HOURS AGO HE'D BEEN INFORMED that, on the night the master died, the archival security system had recorded a visit at eleven fifty-one PM. The seneschal had stayed inside twelve minutes, then left with two books. The electronic identification tags affixed to every volume identified the two missing tomes as a thirteenth-century codex he knew well and a marshal's report filed in the latter part of the nineteenth century, which he'd also read.
When he'd interrogated Royce Claridon a few hours ago, he'd not made known his familiarity with the cryptogram contained in Lars Nelle's journal. But one was included in the prior marshal's report along with the location where the puzzle had been found--in the abbe Gelis's church located in Coustausa, not far from Rennes-le-Chateau. He recalled from his reading that the marshal had spoken to Gelis shortly before the priest was murdered and learned that Sauniere had also found a cryptogram in his church. When compared, the two were identical. Gelis apparently solved the puzzle and the marshal was told the results, but the solution was not recorded and was never found after Gelis's death. Both the local police and the marshal suspected that the murderer was after something in Gelis's briefcase. Surely, Gelis's decipher. But was the murderer Sauniere? Hard to say. The crime was never solved. Still, given what de Roquefort knew, the priest from Rennes would have to be included on any suspect list.
Now the marshal's report was gone. Which might not be all bad since he possessed Lars Nelle's journal, which contained Sauniere's cryptogram. Yet was it, as the marshal reported, the same as Gelis's? No way to know without the marshal's report, which was certainly removed from the archives for a reason.
Five minutes ago, while he'd listened through a microphone stuck to a side windowpane as Stephanie Nelle and brother Geoffrey bonded, he'd learned Mark Nelle and Cotton Malone had walked to the church. Stephanie Nelle had even cried after reading what the former master had written. How touching. The master had clearly planned ahead and this whole matter was rapidly spinning out of control. He needed to yank the reins tight and slow the momentum down. So while Royce Claridon dealt with the occupants at Lars Nelle's house, he was going to see about the other two.
The transponder still attached to Malone's rental car had revealed that Malone and Stephanie Nelle returned to Rennes from Avignon in the wee hours. Mark Nelle must have come straight here from the abbey, which was not surprising.
After what happened last night with the woman on the bridge, he'd thought Malone and Stephanie Nelle were no longer important, which was why his men had been instructed only to subdue them. Killing a current and a former American operative would surely bring attention. He'd traveled to Avignon to discover what secrets the palace archives held and to capture Claridon, not to attract the interest of the entire American intelligence community. He'd accomplished all three objectives and managed to obtain Lars Nelle's journal as a bonus. All in all, not a bad night's work. He'd even been willing to let Mark Nelle and Geoffrey go, since away from the abbey they were a far lesser threat. But after learning about the two missing books, that strategy had changed.
"We're in place," a voice said in his ear.
"Stay still until I call for you," he whispered into the lapel mike.
He'd brought six brothers with him and they were now scattered around the village, blending in with the growing Sunday crowd. The day was bright, sunny, and characteristically windy. While the Aude River's valleys were warm and calm, the summits surrounding them were perpetually raked by mountain winds.
He strolled up the main rue toward the Church of Mary Magdalene, making no effort to mask his approach.
He wanted Mark Nelle to know he was there.
MARK STOOD AT HIS FATHER'S GRAVE. THE MEMORIAL WAS IN good condition, as were all the graves, since the cemetery now seemed an integral part of the town's growing tourist industry.
For the first six years after his father died, he'd personally tended to the grave, visiting nearly every weekend. He'd also tended to the house. His father had been popular with Rennes' residents since he'd treated the village with kindness and Sauniere's memory with respect. That was, perhaps, one reason why his father had included so much fiction about Rennes in his books. The embellished mystery was a money machine for the entire region, and writers who trashed that mystique were not appreciated. Since precious little was known for sure about any aspect of the tale, lots of room for improvisation existed. It also helped that his father was regarded as the man who brought the story to the world's attention, though Mark knew that a relatively unknown French book by Gerard de Sede, Le Tresor Maudit, published in the late 1960s, was what first ignited his father's curiosity. He'd always thought the title--The Accursed Treasure--apt, especially after his father suddenly died. Mark had been a teenager when he'd first read his father's book, but it had been years later, while he was in graduate school, honing his knowledge of medieval history and religious philosophy, that his father told him what was really at stake.
"The heart of Christianity is the resurrection of physical bodies. It's the fulfillment of the Old Testament promise. If Christians will not one day be resurrected, then their faith is useless. No resurrection means the Gospels are all a lie--the Christian faith is only for this life--there's no more after. It's the resurrection that makes everything performed for Christ worthwhile. Other religions preach about paradise and the afterlife. But only Christianity offers a God who became man, died for His followers, then rose from the dead to rule forever.
"Think about it," his father had said. "Christians can have a lot of different beliefs on a lot of subjects. But they all agree on the resurrection. It's their universal constant. Jesus rose from the dead for them alone. Death was conquered for them alone. Christ is alive and working toward their redemption. The kingdom of heaven is waiting for them, as they, too, will be raised from the dead to live forever with the Lord. There's meaning in every tragedy, since the resurrection gives hope for a future."
Then his father asked the question that had floated in his memory ever since.
"What if that never happened? What if Christ simply died, dust to dust?"
Indeed, what if?
"Think of all the millions who were slaughtered in the name of the risen Christ. During the Albigensian Crusade alone fifteen thousand men, women, and children were burned to death for simply denying the teachings of the crucifixion. The Inquisition murdered millions more. The Holy Land Crusades cost hundreds of thousands of lives. All for the so-called risen Christ. Popes for centuries have used Christ's sacrifice as a way to motivate warriors. If the resurrection never happened, so there's no promise of an afterlife, how many of those men do you think would have faced death?"
The answer was simple. Not a single one.
What if the resurrection had never happened?
What had been gained?
More important, what had been lost?
He shook the confusion from his mind and refocused on his father's tombstone. He'd commissioned the slab and watched while it had been laid in place one dreary May afternoon. His father had been found a week earlier, hanging from a bridge half an hour to the south of Rennes. Mark had been at home in Toulouse when the call came from the police. He remembered his father's face when he identified the body--the ashen skin, a gaping mouth, dead eyes. A grotesque image he feared would never leave him.
His mother had returned to Georgia right after the funeral. They'd spoken little during the three days she was in France. He was twenty-seven years old, just starting at the university in Toulouse as a graduate assistant, ill prepared for life. But he wondered now, eleven years later, if he was any more prepared. Yesterday he would have killed Raymond de Roquefort. What happened to all that he'd been taught? Where was the discipline he thought he'd acquired? De Roquefort's failings were easy to understand--a false sense of duty powered by ego--but his own weaknesses were perplexing. In the span of three days, he'd gone from seneschal to fugitive. From security to chaos. From purpose to wandering.
And for what?
He felt the press of the gun beneath his jacket. The reassurance it offered was troubling--just one more new and strange sensation that brought him comfort.
He stepped from his father's grave and crept across to Ernst Scoville's resting place. He'd known the reclusive Belgian and had liked him. The master had apparently known of him, too, since he'd sent Scoville a letter only last week. What had de Roquefort said yesterday about the two mailings? I've tended to one of the receivers. Apparently so. But what else had he said? And will shortly tend to the other. His mother was in danger. They all were. But there was little that could be done. Go to the police? No one would believe them. The abbey was well respected, and not a single brother would speak out against the Order. All that would be found was a quiet monastery devoted to God. Plans existed for the secretion of all things related to the brotherhood, and not one of the men inside the abbey would fail.
Of that he was sure.
No, they were on their own.
MALONE WAITED IN THE CALVARY GARDEN FOR MARK TO RETURN from the cemetery. He'd not wanted to intrude on something so personal since he fully understood the unsettling emotions the man was surely experiencing. He was only ten when his father died, but the sorrow he'd felt at knowing that he would never see his dad again had never faded. Unlike with Mark, there was no cemetery for him to visit. His father's grave had been at the bottom of the North Atlantic inside the crushed hulk of a sunken submarine. He'd tried once to find out the details of what happened, but the entire incident remained classified.
His father had loved the Navy and the United States--he'd been a patriot who willingly gave his life for his country. And that realization always made Malone proud. Mark Nelle had been lucky. He'd shared many years with his father. They'd grown to know one another and shared life. But in a lot of ways he and Mark were similar. Both of their dads had been committed to their work. Both were gone. Neither death possessed a good explanation.
He stood by the Calvary and watched as more visitors streamed in and out of the cemetery. Finally, he spotted Mark following a Japanese group out through the gate.
"That was tough," Mark said as he approached. "I miss him."
He decided to pick up where they'd left off. "You and your mother are going to have to come to terms."
"There's a lot of bad feelings there, and seeing his grave just brought them into focus again."
"She has a heart. It's encased in iron, I know, but it's still there."
Mark smiled. "Appears you know her."
"I've had some experience."
"At the moment, we need to concentrate on whatever the master has concocted."
"You two dodge the issue well."
Mark smiled again. "Comes with the genes."
He glanced at his watch. "It's eleven thirty. I need to head out. I want to pay a visit to Cassiopeia Vitt before nightfall."
"I'll draw you a map. It's not a long drive from here."
They left the Calvary garden and turned toward the main rue. A hundred feet away Malone spotted a short, rugged-looking man, hands stuffed into the pockets of a leather jacket, marching straight for the church.
He grabbed Mark's shoulder. "We've got company."
Mark followed his gaze and saw de Roquefort, too.
Malone quickly assessed their options as he spotted three more short-hairs. Two stood ahead at the Villa Bethanie. Another blocked the alley that led up to the car park.
"Any suggestions?" Malone said.
Mark stepped toward the church. "Follow me."
STEPHANIE OPENED THE DOOR AND ROYCE CLARIDON ENTERED the house. "Where did you come from?" she asked, motioning for Geoffrey to lower his weapon.
"They took me from the palace last night and drove me here. They kept me in a flat two streets over, but I managed to slip away a few minutes ago."
"How many brothers are in the village?" Geoffrey asked Claridon.
"Who are you?"
"His name is Geoffrey," Stephanie said, hoping her compatriot understood to offer precious little.
"How many brothers are here?" Geoffrey asked again.
Stephanie stepped toward the kitchen window and gazed out at the street. The cobbles were deserted in both directions. But she was concerned about Mark and Malone. "Where are those brothers?"
"I don't know. I heard them say you were in Lars's house, so I came straight here."
She didn't like that response. "We couldn't help you last night. We had no idea where they'd taken you. We were knocked unconscious trying to catch de Roquefort and the woman. By the time we woke up, everyone was gone."
The Frenchman held up his palms. "It is all right, madame, I understand. There was nothing you could do."
"Is de Roquefort here?" Geoffrey asked.
"The master. Is he here?"
"No names were given." Claridon faced her. "But I heard them say that Mark is alive. Is that true?"
She nodded. "He and Cotton walked to the church, but they should be back shortly."
"A miracle. I thought he was gone forever."
"You and me both."
His gaze raked the room. "I've not been inside this house in some time. Lars and I spent a lot of time here."
She offered him a seat at the table. Geoffrey positioned himself near the window, and she noticed an edge to his otherwise cool demeanor.
"What happened to you?" she asked Claridon.
"I was bound until this morning. They untied me so I could relieve myself. In the bathroom, I climbed out the window and came straight here. They will surely be looking for me, but there was nowhere else to go. Getting out of this town is quite difficult, since there is but one way in and out." Claridon fidgeted in the chair. "Might I trouble you for some water?"
She stood and filled a glass from the tap. Claridon downed it in one swallow. She refilled the glass.
"I was terrified of them," Claridon said.
"What do they want?" she asked.
"They seek their Great Devise, as Lars did."
"And what did you tell them?" Geoffrey asked, with a hint of scorn in his tone.
"I told them nothing, but they asked precious little. I was told that my questioning would be later today, after they tended to something else. But they failed to say what that was." Claridon stared at her. "Do you know what they want from you?"
"They have Lars's journal, the book from the auction, and the lithograph of the painting. What more could they want?"
"I think it's Mark."
The words visibly stiffened Geoffrey.
She wanted to know, "What do they want with him?"
"I have no clue, madame. But I wonder if any of this is worth bloodshed."
"Brothers have died for nearly nine hundred years for what they believed," Geoffrey said. "This is no different."
"You talk as though you're of the Order."
"I'm only quoting history."
Claridon drank his water. "Lars Nelle and I studied the Order for many years. I have read that history you speak of."
"What did you read?" Geoffrey asked, amazement in his voice. "Books written by people who know nothing. They write of heresy and idol worship, of kissing each other on the mouth, of sodomy, and of the denial of Jesus Christ. Not a word of which is true. All lies designed to destroy the Order and take its wealth."
"Now you truly speak like a Templar."
"I speak like a man who cherishes justice."
"Is that not a Templar?"
"Should that not be all men?"
Stephanie smiled. Geoffrey was quick.
MALONE FOLLOWED MARK BACK INTO THE CHURCH OF MARY Magdalene. They hustled down the center aisle, past nine rows of pews and gawkers, toward the altar. There Mark veered right and entered a small anteroom through an open doorway. Three camera-toting visitors stood inside.
"Could you excuse us?" Mark said to them in English. "I'm with the museum and we need this room for a few moments."
None questioned his obvious authority and Mark gently closed the door behind them. Malone looked around. The space was naturally illuminated by the light from a stained-glass window. A row of empty cupboards dominated one wall. The other three were all of wood. No furniture was inside.
"This was the sacristy," Mark said.
De Roquefort was no more than a minute from being upon them, so he wanted to know, "I assume you have something in mind?"
Mark stepped toward the cupboard and searched with his fingertips above the top shelf. "Like I told you, when Sauniere built the Calvary garden, he constructed the grotto. He and his mistress would go down into the valley and collect stones." Mark continued to search for something. "They'd come back with hods full of rocks. There."
Mark withdrew his hand and grabbed hold of the cupboard, which swung open to reveal a windowless space beyond. "This was Sauniere's hiding place. Whatever else he brought back with those rocks was stored here. Few know of this addition. Sauniere created it during the church remodeling. Plans for this building, prior to 1891, show it as an open room."
Mark withdrew an automatic pistol from beneath his jacket. "We'll wait in here and see what happens."
"Does de Roquefort know of this room?"
"We'll find out shortly."