The Templar Legacy (Page 41)
FORTY - FOUR
MALONE DROVE AS FAST AS HE DARED DOWN THE TWISTING INCLINE to ground level. There he turned west for the main highway and half a mile later veered south toward the Pyrenees.
"Where are we going?" Stephanie asked him.
"To see Cassiopeia Vitt. I was going alone, but I think it's time we all get acquainted." He needed something to distract him. "Tell me about her," he said to Mark.
"I don't know much. I heard that her father was a wealthy Spanish contractor, her mother a Muslim from Tanzania. She's brilliant. Degrees in history, art, religion. And she's rich. She inherited lots of the money and has made even more. She and Dad clashed many times."
"Over what?" Malone wanted to know.
"Proving that Christ did not die on the cross is a mission of hers. Twelve years ago religious fanaticism was viewed much differently. People weren't all that concerned with the Taliban or al Qaeda. Then, Israel was the hot spot and Cassiopeia resented the way Muslims were always depicted as extremists. She hated the arrogance of Christianity and the presumptiveness of Judaism. Her quest was one of truth, Dad would say. She wanted to strip away the myth and see just how much alike Jesus Christ and Muhammad really were. Common ground--common interests. That kind of thing."
"Isn't that exactly what your father wanted to do?"
"Same thing I used to say to him."
Malone smiled. "How far to her chateau?"
"Less than an hour. We turn west a few miles ahead."
Malone studied his rearview mirrors. Still no one was following them. Good. He slowed the car as they entered a town identified as St. Loup. Being Sunday, everything was closed except for a gasoline station and convenience store just to the south. He turned in and came to a stop.
"Wait here," he said as he climbed out. "I have to tend to something."
Malone turned off the highway and drove the car down a graveled path, deeper into the thick forest. A sign indicated that GIVORS--A MEDIEVAL ADVENTURE IN THE MODERN WORLD--lay half a mile ahead. The drive from Rennes had taken a little less than fifty minutes. They'd headed west most of the time, passing the ruined Cathar fortress of Montsegur, then turning south toward the mountains where rising slopes sheltered river valleys and tall trees.
The two-car-wide avenue was well maintained and roofed by leafy beech trees that cast a dreamy stillness in the lengthening shadows. The entrance opened into a clearing matted in short grass. Cars littered the field. Slender columns of pine and fir lined the perimeter. He stopped and they all climbed out. A placard in French and English announced their location.
GIVORS ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITE
WELCOME TO THE PAST. HERE, AT GIVORS, A SITE FIRST OCCUPIED BY LOUIS IX, A CASTLE IS BEING CONSTRUCTED USING MATERIALS AND TECHNIQUES ONLY AVAILABLE TO 13TH-CENTURY CRAFTSMEN. A MASONED TOWER WAS THE VERY SYMBOL OF A LORD'S POWER AND THE CASTLE AT GIVORS WAS DESIGNED AS A MILITARY FORTRESS WITH THICK WALLS AND MANY CORNER TOWERS. THE SURROUNDING ENVIRONS PROVIDED AN ABUNDANCE OF WATER, STONE, EARTH, SAND, AND WOOD, WHICH WERE ALL NEEDED FOR ITS CONSTRUCTION. QUARRIERS, STONE HEWERS, MASONS, CARPENTERS, BLACKSMITHS, AND POTTERERS ARE NOW LABORING, LIVING AND DRESSING EXACTLY AS THEY WOULD HAVE SEVEN CENTURIES AGO. THE PROJECT IS PRIVATELY FUNDED AND THE CURRENT ESTIMATE IS 30 YEARS WILL BE NEEDED TO COMPLETE THE CASTLE. ENJOY YOUR TIME IN THE 13TH CENTURY.
"Cassiopeia Vitt funds all this herself?" Malone asked.
Malone had decided that the direct approach would be best. Surely Vitt anticipated that he'd eventually locate her.
"Where does she live?"
Mark pointed east, where the branches of oaks and elms, closed like a cloister, shaded another lane. "The chateau is that way."
"These cars for visitors?" he asked.
Mark nodded. "They give tours of the construction site to raise revenue. I took it once, years ago, right after the work began. It's impressive what she's doing."
He started off toward the lane leading to the chateau. "Let's go say hello to our hostess."
They walked in silence. In the distance, on the steep side of a rising slope, he spied the dreary ruin of a stone tower, its layers yellowed with moss. The dry air was warm and still. Purple heather, broom, and wildflowers carpeted the low earth on both sides of the lane. Malone imagined the clash of arms and shouts of battle that centuries ago would have echoed through the valley as men fought for its dominance. Overhead, a murder of screaming crows flew past.
A hundred or so yards down the lane he saw the chateau. It filled a sheltered hollow that provided a clear measure of seclusion. Dark red brick and stone were arranged in symmetrical patterns over four stories, flanked by two ivy-crowned towers and topped with slanting slate roofs. Greenery spread out across the facade like rust on metal. Traces of a moat, now filled with grass and leaves, surrounded three sides. Slender trees rose in the rear and hedges of clipped yew guarded its base.
"Some house," Malone said.
"Sixteenth century," Mark noted. "I was told that she bought the chateau and the surrounding archaeological site. She calls the place Royal Champagne, after one of Louis XV's cavalry regiments."
Two cars were parked out front. A late-model Bentley Continental GT--about $160,000, Malone recalled--and a Porsche Roadster, cheap by comparison. There was also a motorcycle. Malone approached the cycle and examined the left rear tire and muffler. The shiny chrome was scarred.
And he knew precisely how that had happened.
"That's where I shot."
"Quite right, Mr. Malone."
He turned. The cultured voice had come from the portico. Standing outside the open front door was a tall woman, lean as a jackal, with shoulder-length auburn hair. Her features reflected a leonine beauty reminiscent of an Egyptian goddess--thin brows, brooding cheeks, blunt nose. The skin was the color of mahogany, and she was dressed in a tasteful V-neck tank that exposed her toned shoulders and capped a knee-length, safari-print silk skirt. Leather sandals sheathed her feet. The ensemble was casual but elegant, as if she were off to stroll the Champs-Elysees.
She threw him a smile. "I've been expecting you." Her gaze caught his and he registered determination in the deep pools of her dark eyes.
"That's interesting, because I only decided to come see you an hour ago."
"Oh, Mr. Malone, I'm sure I've been high on your priority list since at least two nights ago, when you shot my cycle in Rennes."
He was curious. "Why lock me in the Tour Magdala?"
"I was hoping to use the time to leave quietly. But you extricated yourself much too quickly."
"Why shoot at me in the first place?"
"Nothing would have been learned from talking to the man you assaulted."
He noticed the melodious tone of her voice, surely designed to be disarming. "Or perhaps you didn't want me to talk to him? Anyway, thanks for saving my hide in Copenhagen."
She brushed his gratitude away. "You would have found a way out on your own. I just hastened the process."
He saw her glance over his shoulder. "Mark Nelle. I am pleased to finally meet you. Glad to see you didn't die in that avalanche."
"I see you still like to interfere in other people's business."
"I don't consider it interfering. Merely monitoring the progress of those who interest me. Like your father." Cassiopeia stepped past Malone and extended a hand to Stephanie. "And I'm pleased to meet you. I knew your husband well."
"From what I hear, you and Lars were not the best of friends."
"I can't believe anyone would say that." Cassiopeia looked at Mark with clear mischief. "Did you tell your mother such a thing."
"No. He didn't," Stephanie said. "Royce Claridon told me."
"Now, he's a man to watch. Placing your trust in that one will bring nothing but trouble. I warned Lars about him, but he wouldn't listen."
"On that we agree," Stephanie said.
"You're of the brotherhood?" Cassiopeia asked.
Geoffrey said nothing.
"No, I wouldn't expect you to answer. Still, you are the first Templar I've met civilly."
"Not true," Geoffrey said, pointing to Mark. "The seneschal is of the brotherhood and you met him first."
Malone wondered about the volunteered information. So far, the young man had been tight-lipped.
"Seneschal? I'm sure there's quite a story there," Cassiopeia said. "Why don't you come inside. My lunch was being prepared, but when I saw you I told the chamberlain to set more plates. They should be about finished with that."
"Great," Malone said. "I'm starving."
"Then let's eat. We have much to discuss."
They followed her inside and Malone took in the expensive Italian chests, rare armored knights, Spanish torch holders, Beauvais tapestries, and Flemish paintings. Everything seemed a cavalcade for the connoisseur.
They followed her into a spacious dining room lined with gilded leather. Sunlight poured in through casement windows draped with elaborate lambrequin and doused the white-clothed table and marble floor in verdant shades. A twelve-branched electrified candelabrum hung unlit. Attendants were laying out gleaming silverware at each place setting.
The ambience was impressive, but what caught Malone's undivided attention was the man sitting at the far end of the table.
Forbes Europe ranked him the eighth-wealthiest person on the Continent, his power and influence in direct proportion to his billions of euros. Heads of state and royalty knew him well. The queen of Denmark called him a personal friend. Worldwide charities counted on him as a generous benefactor. For the past year Malone had spent at least three days a week visiting with him--talking books, politics, the world, how life sucks. He came and went from the man's estate as if he were part of the family and, in many respects, Malone felt that he was.
But now he seriously questioned all that.
He actually felt like a fool.
But all Henrik Thorvaldsen could do was smile. "About time, Cotton. I've been waiting two days."