The Templar Legacy (Page 40)
FORTY - TWO
DE ROQUEFORT STOPPED OUTSIDE THE CHURCH. ODD THAT HIS targets had fled inside. But no matter. He was going to personally tend to Mark Nelle. His patience was at an end. He'd taken the precaution of consulting with his officers before leaving the abbey. He wasn't going to repeat the former master's mistakes. His tenure would at least carry the appearance of a democracy. Thankfully, yesterday's escape and the two shootings had galvanized the brotherhood onto a singular path. All agreed that the former seneschal and his ally must be returned for punishment.
And he intended to deliver.
He surveyed the street.
The crowd was growing. A warm day had brought out the tours. He turned to the brother standing beside him. "Go inside and assess the situation."
A nod and the man walked off.
He knew the church's geography. Only one way in and out. The stained-glass windows were all fixed, so they would have to shatter one to escape. He saw no policemen, which was normal for Rennes. Little ever happened here except the spending of money. The commercialization sickened him. If it was his decision, all tours of the abbey would be stopped. He realized the bishop would question that move, but he'd already decided to limit access to only a few hours on Saturdays, citing the brothers' need for more solitude. That the bishop would understand. He fully intended on restoring many of the old ways, practices that had long been abandoned, rituals that once separated the Templars from all other religious orders. And for that he would need the abbey's gates locked far more than they were open.
The brother he'd sent inside exited the church and walked his way.
"They're not there," the man said as he drew close.
"What do you mean?"
"I searched the nave, the sacristy, the confessionals. They're not inside."
He did not want to hear that. "There's no other exit."
"Master, they're not there."
His gaze locked on the church. His mind swirled with possibilities.
Then the answer was clear.
"Come," he said. "I know precisely where they are."
STEPHANIE WAS LISTENING TO ROYCE CLARIDON, NOT AS A WIFE and mother on a mission important to her family, but as the head of a covert government agency that dealt routinely in espionage and counterespionage. Something was out of place. Claridon's sudden appearance was too convenient. She knew little about Raymond de Roquefort, but she knew enough to realize that either Claridon had been allowed to escape or, worse, the prickly little man sitting across from her was in league with the enemy. Either way she had to watch what she said. Geoffrey, too, had apparently sensed something since he was offering precious little to the Frenchman's many questions--too many inquiries for a man who'd just survived a life-and-death experience.
"Was the woman last night in the palace Cassiopeia Vitt, the Ingenieur mentioned in the letter to Ernst Scoville?" she asked.
"I would assume. A she-devil."
"She may have saved us all."
"How? She interfered, as she did with Lars."
"You're alive right now thanks to her interference."
"No, madame. I am alive because they want information."
"What I wonder is why you're even here," Geoffrey said from his position by the window. "Escaping from de Roquefort is not easy."
"And how would you know that?"
"They spoke of you and Mark. Apparently there was shooting. Brothers were hurt. They're angry."
"Did they mention attempting to kill us?"
A moment of uneasy silence passed.
"Royce," Stephanie said. "What else might they be after?"
"I only know that two books are missing from their archive. There was a mention of that."
"You just said a moment ago that you possessed no clue as to why they wanted Madame Nelle's son." Suspicion laced Geoffrey's declaration.
"And I don't. But I know they want the two missing books."
Stephanie glanced at Geoffrey and saw not a hint of acquiescence in the younger man's expression. If indeed he and Mark possessed the books de Roquefort sought, no admission came from his eyes.
"Yesterday," Claridon said, "you showed me Lars's journal and the book--"
"Which de Roquefort has."
"No. Cassiopeia Vitt stole both from him last night."
Another new piece of information. Claridon knew an awful lot for a man whom his captors supposedly ignored.
"So de Roquefort needs to find her," she made clear. "As we do."
"It seems, madame, that one of the books Mark took from their archive also contains a cryptogram. De Roquefort wants that book back."
"Is this more of what you overheard?"
Claridon nodded. "Oui. They believed me asleep, but I was listening. One of their marshals, from Sauniere's time, discovered the cryptogram and recorded it in the book."
"We have no books," Geoffrey said.
"What do you mean?" Astonishment filled the man's face.
"We have no books. We left the abbey in a great rush and took nothing with us."
Claridon came to his feet. "You're a liar."
"Bold words. Can you prove the allegation?"
"You're a man of the Order. A warrior of Christ. A Templar. Your oath should be enough to prevent you from lying."
"And what prevents you?" Geoffrey asked.
"I don't lie. I've been through a difficult ordeal. I hid in an asylum for five years to avoid being a prisoner of the Templars. Do you know what they planned to do to me? Grease my feet and hold them before a hot brazier. Cook my skin from the bone."
"We have no books. De Roquefort is chasing a shadow."
"But that's not so. Two men were shot during your escape, and both said Mark carried a rucksack."
She perked at the information.
"And how would you know that?" Geoffrey asked.
DE ROQUEFORT ENTERED THE CHURCH, FOLLOWED BY THE brother who'd just been inside. He walked down the center aisle and entered the sacristy. He had to give Mark Nelle credit. Few knew about the church's secret room. It was not part of any tour, and only Rennes purists would have any inkling the concealed space existed. He'd often thought it curious that the domain's operators did not exploit Sauniere's addition to the church's architecture--secret rooms always added to any mystery--but there were a lot of things about the church, the town, and the story that defied explanation.
"When you came in before, was the entrance to this room open?"
He gently shut the door. "Allow no one to enter."
He approached the cupboard and withdrew his gun. He'd never actually seen the secret chamber that lay beyond, but he'd read enough accounts from previous marshals who'd investigated Rennes to know that a concealed room existed. If he recalled correctly, the release mechanism was in the top right corner of the cupboard.
He reached up and located a metal lever.
He knew that once he yanked down, the two men on the other side would be alerted and he had to assume they were armed. Malone certainly could handle himself and Mark Nelle had proven he was not a man to underestimate.
"Prepare yourself," he said.
The brother withdrew a short-barreled automatic and aimed at the cupboard. He popped the latch and quickly stepped back, gun pointed, waiting for what would happen next.
The cupboard inched open, then stopped.
He stayed at the far right edge and, with his foot, pivoted the door wide open.
The secret room was empty.
MALONE STOOD CLOSE TO MARK INSIDE THE CONFESSIONAL. They'd waited inside the hidden room for a couple minutes, able to observe the sacristy through a tiny Judas hole strategically placed in the cupboard. Mark had watched as one of the brothers entered the sacristy, saw the room empty, and left. They'd waited a few more seconds, then exited, watching from the doorway as the brother left the church. Seeing no other brothers inside, they'd quickly hustled to the confessional and stepped inside just as de Roquefort and the brother returned.
Mark had correctly surmised that de Roquefort would know of the secret room, but that he wouldn't share that knowledge with anyone unless absolutely necessary. When they'd spotted de Roquefort waiting outside, sending another brother inside to investigate, they'd lingered only long enough to buy a couple of minutes to change locations, since once the scout returned and reported they were missing de Roquefort would immediately surmise where they were hiding. After all, there was only one way in and out of the church.
"Know your enemy and know yourself," Mark whispered as de Roquefort and his minion entered the sacristy.
Malone smiled. "Sun Tzu was a wise man."
The door to the sacristy closed.
"We'll give it a few seconds, then we're out of here," Mark said.
"Could be more men outside."
"I'm sure there are. We'll take our chances. I've got nine shots."
"Let's don't start a shootout, unless there's no other choice."
The sacristy door stayed closed.
"We need to go," Malone said.
They exited the confessional, turned right, and headed for the door.
STEPHANIE SLOWLY CAME TO HER FEET, STEPPED CLOSE TO GEOFFREY, and calmly took the gun from his grip. She then whirled, cocked the hammer, and rushed forward, pressing the barrel to Claridon's skull. "You slimy little scum. You're with them."
Claridon's eyes went wide. "No, madame. I swear I am not."
"Open his shirt," she said.
Geoffrey ripped away the buttons, exposing a microphone taped to the thin chest.
"Come. Quick. I need help," Claridon screamed.
Geoffrey slammed his fist into Claridon's jaw and sent the impish man to the floor. Stephanie turned, gun in hand, and spotted through the window a short-hair running toward the front door.
A kick and the door swung open.
Geoffrey was ready.
He'd positioned himself to the left of the entrance and, as the man burst inside, Geoffrey spun the attacker around. Stephanie saw a gun in the short-hair's hand, but Geoffrey deftly kept the barrel pointed down, pivoted on his heel, and kicked the man into the wall. Allowing no time to react, he delivered another kick to the abdomen that brought a yelp. When the man keeled forward, the breath gone from him, Geoffrey propelled him to the floor with a blow to the spine.
"They teach you that at the abbey?" she asked, impressed.
"That and more."
"Let's get out of here."
"Hold one second."
Geoffrey darted from the kitchen back toward the bedroom and returned with Mark's knapsack. "Claridon was right. We have books and I can't leave without them."
She noticed an earpiece on the man Geoffrey had subdued. "He was listening to Claridon, and is surely in communication with others."
"De Roquefort is here," Geoffrey said with conviction.
She grabbed her world phone from the kitchen counter. "We need to find Mark and Cotton."
Geoffrey approached the open front door and carefully peered in both directions. "You'd think more brothers would be here by now."
She stepped up behind him. "Could be they're occupied at the church. We'll head there following the outer wall, through the car park, staying off the main rue." She handed the gun back to him. "You watch my back."
He smiled. "With pleasure, madame."
DE ROQUEFORT STARED INTO THE EMPTY SECRET ROOM. WHERE were they? There was simply no other place to hide within the church.
He slammed the cupboard back into place.
The other brother surely saw the moment of confusion that had passed across his face when they'd discovered the hiding place bare. He washed any doubt from his eyes.
"Where are they, Master?" the brother asked.
Considering the answer, he stepped to the stained-glass window and gazed out through one of the clear segments. The Calvary garden below was still busy with visitors. Then he saw Mark Nelle and Cotton Malone rush into the garden and turn toward the cemetery.
"Outside," he calmly said, stepping toward the sacristy door.
MARK THOUGHT THE TRICK WITH THE SECRET ROOM MIGHT BUY them enough time to make an escape. He was hoping de Roquefort had brought only a small contingent. But three more brothers had been waiting outside--one on the main rue, another blocking the alley to the car park, and a final one positioned outside the Villa Bethanie, preventing the tree garden from becoming an escape route. De Roquefort had apparently not thought the cemetery a threat since it was walled with a fifteen-hundred-foot drop on the other side.
But that was precisely where Mark was headed.
He now thanked heaven for the many late-night explorations he and his father had once performed. The locals frowned on people visiting the cemetery after dark, but that was the best time, his father would say. So they'd many times scoured around, looking for clues, trying to make sense of Sauniere and his seemingly inexplicable behavior. On a few forays they'd been interrupted, so they'd improvised another way out than through the skull-and-crossbones gate.
Time to put that discovery to good use.
"I'm afraid to ask how we're going to get out of here," Malone said.
"It's scary, but at least the sun's shining. Every other time I've done it has been at night."
Mark turned right and scampered down the stone stairs to the lower part of the cemetery. Fifty or so people were scattered around, admiring the memorials. Beyond the wall the cloudless sky was a brilliant blue and the wind moaned like a stricken soul. Clear days were always breezy in Rennes, but the cemetery air was motionless, the church and presbytery blocking the strongest gusts, which came from the south and west.
He hustled straight for a monument that lay adjacent to the east wall, beneath a canopy of elms that draped the earth in long shadows. He noticed that the crowd loomed mainly on the upper level, where the grave of Sauniere's mistress sat. He hopped onto a thick tombstone and clambered up onto the wall.
"Follow me," he said as he jumped down on the other side, rolled once, then came to his feet, brushing off grit.
He looked back as Malone leaped the eight feet down to the narrow track.
They were standing at the base of the wall, on a rocky footpath that measured about four feet wide. Anomalous beech and pines sustained the downward slope beyond, beaten back by the wind, their branches twisted and interlaced, their roots stuck between clefts in the rock.
Mark pointed left. "This path ends just ahead, beyond the chateau, with nowhere to go." He turned. "So we have to go this way. It takes us around to the car park. There's an easy way up there."
"No wind here, but when we round that corner--" Malone pointed ahead. "--I imagine it'll get breezy."
"Like a hurricane. But we have no choice."
FORTY - THREE
DE ROQUEFORT BROUGHT ONE BROTHER WITH HIM AS HE ENTERED the cemetery, the remaining three waited outside. Clever what Mark Nelle had done, using the secret room as a diversion. They'd most likely stayed inside only long enough for his scout to leave the church. Then they hid in the confessional until he'd ensconced himself in the sacristy.
Inside the parish close he stopped and calmly surveyed the graves, but did not see his quarry. He told the brother standing next to him to search left and he went right, where he came across Ernst Scoville's grave.
Four months ago, when he'd first learned of the former master's interest in Scoville, he'd sent a brother to monitor the Belgian's activities. Through a listening device installed on Scoville's telephone his spy had learned about Stephanie Nelle, her plans to visit Denmark then France, and her intent to obtain the book. But when it became clear that Scoville did not like Lars Nelle's widow and was merely leading her on, intent on thwarting her efforts, a speeding car on the Rennes incline solved the problem of his potential interference. Scoville was not a player in the unfolding game. Stephanie Nelle was and, at the time, nothing could be allowed to impede her movement. De Roquefort had personally handled Scoville's killing, involving no one at the abbey since he could ill afford to explain why outright murder was necessary.
The brother returned from the other side of the cemetery and reported, "Nothing."
Where could they have gone?
His gaze settled on the tawny gray wall that lined the outer edge. He stepped to a spot where the wall rose only breast-high. Rennes sat on the backbone of a summit with slopes as steep as pyramids on three sides. Objects in the valley below were lost in a grayish haze that blanketed the colorful earth, like some far-off Lilliputian world, the basin, highways, and towns as if seen on an atlas. The wind from beyond the wall washed over his face and dried his eyes. He planted both hands on top, leveraged himself up, and hinged his body forward. He glanced right. The rocky ledge was barren. Then he looked left and caught a glimpse of Cotton Malone turning from the wall's north side to its west.
He dropped back down.
"They're on a ledge moving toward the Tour Magdala. Stop them. I'm going to the belvedere."
STEPHANIE LED THE WAY AS SHE AND GEOFFREY FLED THE HOUSE. A sunburned lane paralleled the west wall and led northward to the car park and beyond to Sauniere's domain. Geoffrey was clearly alight with anticipation, and for a man who appeared only in his late twenties he'd handled himself with a professional ease.
Only scattered houses stood in this corner of town. Firs and pines climbed skyward in patches.
Something whizzed by her right ear and pinged off the limestone of the building just ahead. She whirled to see the short-hair from the house taking aim fifty yards back. She dove behind a parked car that nestled close to the rear of one of the houses. Geoffrey dropped to the ground, rolled, then hinged up and fired two shots from between his outstretched legs. The pop, like a firecracker, was dulled by the howling wind. One of the bullets found its mark and the man cried out in pain, then grabbed at his thigh and fell.
"Good shot," she said.
"I couldn't kill him. I gave my word."
They came to their feet and rushed ahead.
MALONE FOLLOWED MARK. THE ROCKY ESCARPMENT, LINED BY spikes of brown grass, had narrowed, and the wind, which before was only a nuisance, had now become a hazard, molesting them with gale force, its monotonous murmur masking all other noise.
They were on the town's west side. The lofty stem of copses from the north slope were gone. Nothing but bare rock plunged downward, gleaming in the fiery afternoon sun, colored by tufts of moss and heather.
The belvedere Malone had crossed two nights ago, chasing after Cassiopeia Vitt, spanned twenty feet above them. The Tour Magdala stood ahead and he could see people atop the tower admiring the distant valley. He wasn't wild about the view. Heights affected his head like wine--one of those weaknesses that he'd hid from the government psychologists who were once required, from time to time, to evaluate him for duty. He risked one glance down. Scant brushwood dotted the steeply inclined plane for several hundred feet. Then a short ledge leveled, and below that an even steeper drop began.
Mark was ten feet ahead of him. He saw him glance back, stop, then turn and level his gun, pointing the barrel his way.
"Was it something I said?" he yelled.
The wind buffeted Mark's arm and shook the weapon. Another hand came up to steady the aim. Malone caught the glare in the man's eye and turned back to see one of the short-hairs coming straight for them.
"Far enough, brother," Mark hollered over the wind.
The man held a Glock 17, similar to the one Mark gripped.
"If that weapon comes up, I'll shoot you," Mark made clear.
The man's arm stopped its rise.
Malone did not like his predicament and pressed himself against the wall to give them room for the duel.
"This is not your battle, brother. I realize you're simply doing what the master ordered. But if I shoot you, even in the leg, you'll go over the edge. Is it worth it?"
"I'm bound to follow the master."
"He's leading you into peril. Have you even considered what you're doing?"
"That's not my responsibility."
"Saving your life is," Mark said.
"Would you shoot me, Seneschal?"
"Is what you seek important enough to harm another Christian?"
Malone watched as Mark pondered the question--and he wondered if the resolve he noted in the eyes was matched with the courage to follow through. He, too, had faced a similar dilemma--several times. Shooting someone never came easy. But sometimes it simply had to be done.
"No, brother, it's not worth a human life." And Mark lowered his gun.
In the corner of his eye, Malone saw movement. He turned to see the other man take advantage of Mark's concession. The Glock started to rise as the man's other hand whipped across to meet the weapon, surely to help steady the shot he was about to take.
But he never fired.
A pop muffled by the wind came from Malone's left and the short-hair was thrown back as a bullet sank into his chest. He couldn't tell if the man was wearing a protective vest or not, but it didn't matter. The close shot scrambled his balance and the man's stocky frame teetered. Malone rushed toward him, trying to prevent a fall, and caught sight of two tranquil eyes. He recalled the look from Red Jacket atop the Round Tower. Two more steps was all he needed to reach him, but the wind swept the brother off the promontory and the body rolled downward like a log.
He heard a scream from above. Some of the visitors on the belvedere had apparently witnessed the man's fate. He watched as the body continued to roll, finally settling on a ledge far below.
He turned to Mark, who still held the gun level.
Mark lowered the weapon. "Not really. But we need to go."
They turned and scampered down the stony track.
DE ROQUEFORT RUSHED UP THE STAIRS THAT LED TO THE BELVEDERE. He heard a woman scream and saw excitement as people flocked to the wall. He moved close and asked, "What happened?"
"A man fell off the edge. Rolled a long way."
He elbowed his way to the wall. As in the parish close, the stone was nearly a meter wide, making it impossible to see down to the base of the outer wall.
"Where did he fall?" he asked.
"There," a man said, pointing.
He followed the outstretched finger and saw a figure in a dark jacket with light trousers far down the barren slope, lying still. He knew who it was. Damn. He planted his palms on the rough stone and pushed himself up onto the wall. Pivoting on his stomach, he cocked his head left and saw Mark Nelle and Cotton Malone making their way toward a short incline that led up to the car park.
He dropped back down and retreated to the steps.
He pressed the SEND button on the radio clipped to his waist and whispered into the lapel mike, "They're coming your way, at the wall's edge. Contain them."
STEPHANIE HEARD A GUNSHOT. THE POP APPEARED TO HAVE COME from the other side of the wall. But that made no sense. Why would anyone be out there? She and Geoffrey were a hundred feet shy of the car park--which, she noticed, was filled with vehicles, including four buses nestled close to the stone water tower.
They slowed their advance. Geoffrey shielded the gun behind his thigh as they calmly walked ahead.
"There," Geoffrey whispered.
She saw the man, too. Standing at the far end, blocking the alley down to the church. She turned back and saw another short-hair strolling up the lane behind them.
Then she spotted Mark and Malone as they ran up from the other side of the wall and hopped over the knee-high stone.
She trotted toward them and asked, "Where have you two been?"
"Out for a stroll," Malone said.
"I heard shooting."
"Not now," Malone said.
"We have company," she made clear, pointing to the two men.
Mark scanned the scene. "De Roquefort is orchestrating this whole thing. Time to leave. But I don't have the keys to our car."
"I have mine," Malone said.
Geoffrey handed over the knapsack.
"Good job," Mark said. "Let's go."
DE ROQUEFORT HUSTLED PAST THE VILLA BETHANIE AND IGNORED the many visitors making their way toward the Tour Magdala, the tree garden, and the belvedere.
He turned right at the church.
"They're attempting to leave by car," a voice said in his ear.
"Allow them," he said.
MALONE BACKED FROM HIS PARKING SPOT AND THREADED HIS way around the other cars to the alley leading to the main rue. He noticed that the short-hairs made no attempt to stop them.
That worried him.
They were being herded.
But to where?
He crept through the alley, past the souvenir kiosks, and turned right onto the main rue, allowing the car to coast down the incline toward the town gate.
Past the restaurant, the crowd thinned and the street cleared.
Ahead, he spotted Raymond de Roquefort, standing in the middle of the lane, blocking the gate.
"He means to challenge you," Mark said from the rear seat.
"Good, because I can play chicken with the best of them."
He gently rested his foot atop the accelerator.
A couple of hundred feet and closing.
De Roquefort stayed rooted.
Malone saw no weapon. Apparently the master had concluded his presence alone might stop them. Beyond, Malone saw the road was clear, but a sharp curve lay just outside the gate and he hoped no one decided to come around it in the next few seconds.
He rammed his foot to the floorboard.
Tires grabbed pavement and, with a lurch, the car shot forward.
A hundred feet.
"You plan to kill him," Stephanie said.
"If I have to."
Malone kept the wheel steady and stared straight at de Roquefort as the man's form grew larger in the windshield. He braced himself for the body's impact and willed his hands to hold tight.
A hurried form leaped from the right and shoved de Roquefort out of the car's path.
They roared out through the gate.
DE ROQUEFORT REALIZED WHAT HAD HAPPENED AND WAS NOT happy. He'd fully prepared himself to challenge his adversary, ready for whatever would come, and he resented the intrusion.
Then he saw who'd saved him.
"That car would have killed you," Claridon said.
He pushed the man off him and rose to his feet. "That remained to be seen." Then he asked what he really wanted to know. "Was anything learned?"
"They discovered my ruse and I was forced to call for help."
Anger seethed through him. Again, nothing had gone right. One salvation, though, rang through his brain.
The car they'd left in. Malone's rental.
Still equipped with an electronic monitor.
At least he'd know exactly where they went.