The Templar Legacy (Page 47)
DE ROQUEFORT THREADED HIS WAY THROUGH THE FOREST OF tall pines, the ground beneath him silvered with white heather. A honey scent hung in the morning air. The rocky clefts of red limestone surrounding him were shrouded by a wispy fog. An eagle soared in and out of the haze, on the prowl for breakfast. He'd eaten his with the brothers, the meal taken in the traditional silence as Scripture was read to them.
He had to give Claridon credit. He'd deciphered the cryptogram with the seven, nine combination and unlocked the secret. Unfortunately, the message was useless. Claridon told him that Lars Nelle had found a cryptogram within an unpublished manuscript by Noel Corbu, the man who'd promulgated much of the fiction about Rennes in the mid-twentieth century. But had Nelle changed the puzzle or had Sauniere? Was the frustrating solution what drove Lars Nelle to suicide? All that effort and when he finally deciphered what Sauniere left, he was told nothing. Was that what Nelle meant when he'd declared There's absolutely nothing to find?
Hard to know.
But he was damn well going to find out.
A horn blared in the distance from the direction of the castle. The workday was probably about to begin. Ahead, he spied one of his sentries. He'd communicated with the man by cell phone on the trip north from the abbey and learned that all was quiet. Through the trees he caught sight of the chateau, a couple of hundred meters away, bathed in a filtered morning glow.
He approached the brother who reported that an hour ago a group of eleven men and women had arrived on foot from the construction site. All period-dressed. They'd been inside ever since. The second sentinel had reported that the rear of the building remained quiet. No one had entered or left. Plenty of inside movement came two hours ago--lights on in rooms, servant activity. Cassiopeia Vitt herself emerged at one point and walked to the stables, then back.
"There also was activity around one AM," the brother said to him. "Bedroom lights came on, then a downstairs room was lit. About an hour later the lights went off. Seems they all woke up for a while, then went back to sleep."
Perhaps their night had been as revealing as his own. "But no one left the house?"
The man shook his head.
He reached for the radio in his pocket and communicated with the team leader for the ten knights he'd brought with him. They'd parked their vehicles half a mile away and were hiking through the forest toward the chateau. He'd ordered that they quietly ring the building, then await his instruction. He was now informed that all ten were in place. Counting the two already here and himself, thirteen armed men--more than enough to accomplish the task.
Ironic, he thought. The brothers were once again at war with a Saracen. Seven hundred years ago, Muslims defeated the Christians and retook the Holy Land. Now another Muslim, Cassiopeia Vitt, had involved herself in Order business.
His attention was diverted to the chateau and the front entrance, where people were exiting, all dressed in the colorful peasant garb of the Middle Ages. The men in plain brown cottes with cords tied about their waists, legs sheathed in dark hose, feet covered by thin shoes. A few sported cockers tied about their ankles. The women wore long gray gowns and heuks tied around their hips with apron strings. Straw hats, broad-brimmed caps, headrails, and hoods covered the heads. Yesterday, he'd noticed how all of the workers at the Givors site wore authentic clothing, part of the anachronistic atmosphere the place was surely designed to evoke. A couple of the workers started jostling with one another in good humor as the group turned and slowly headed for the lane leading back to the castle site.
"Perhaps some sort of meeting," the brother standing next to him said. "They came and are returning to the construction site."
He agreed. Cassiopeia Vitt personally oversaw the Givors project, so it was reasonable to assume workers would meet with her.
"How many went in?"
He counted. The same had exited. Fine. Time to act. He raised the radio to his lips and said, "Move in."
"What are our orders?" the voice on the other end of the radio asked.
He was tired of toying with his opponent.
"Do what is necessary to contain them until I get inside."
He entered the chateau through the kitchen, an enormous room loaded with stainless steel. Fifteen minutes had passed since he gave the order to take the house and the siege had proceeded without a shot. In fact, the occupants had been eating their breakfast when the brothers made their way through the ground floor. Men stationed at all the exits and outside the dining room windows had destroyed any hope of escape.
He was pleased. He did not want to attract any attention.
As he moved through the many rooms, he admired the walls covered in colorful brocade, the painted ceilings, carved pilasters, glass chandeliers, and furniture sheathed in varying shades of damask. Cassiopeia Vitt possessed taste.
He found the dining room and prepared himself to face Mark Nelle. The others would be killed, their bodies buried in the forest, but Mark Nelle and Geoffrey would be returned to face discipline. He needed to make an example of them. The death of the brother in Rennes must be avenged.
He stepped through a spacious foyer and entered the dining room.
Brothers ringed the room, their weapons drawn. His gaze raked the long table and he registered six faces.
None of which he recognized.
Instead of seeing Cotton Malone, Stephanie Nelle, Mark Nelle, Geoffrey, and Cassiopeia Vitt, the men and women gathered around the table were strangers, all six dressed in jeans and shirts.
Workers from the construction site.
They'd escaped right before his eyes.
He contained his rising anger. "Hold them here until I return," he said to one of the knights.
He left the house and calmly strolled down the treed lane toward the car park. Only a few vehicles present this early. But Cotton Malone's rental, which had been parked there when he arrived earlier, was gone.
He shook his head.
Now he was at a loss, with no idea where they'd gone.
One of the brothers he'd left inside the chateau ran up from behind. He wondered why the man had left his post.
"Master," the man said. "One of the people inside the chateau told me that Cassiopeia Vitt asked them to come to the chateau early today, dressed in their work outfits. Six of them switched clothing and were all told by Vitt to enjoy their breakfast."
That much he'd already surmised. What else?
The man handed him a cellular phone. "That same employee said a note was left that indicated you'd be coming. When you did, he was to give you this phone, along with this."
He unfolded and read from a scrap of paper.
The answer has been found. I will call before the sun sets with information.
He needed to know, "Who wrote this?"
"The employee said it was left with his change of clothes along with an instruction that it be given directly to you."
"How did you get it?"
"When he mentioned your name, I simply told him I was you and he handed it to me."
What was happening here? Was there a traitor among his enemy? Apparently so. Since he possessed no idea where they'd gone, little choice remained.
"Withdraw the brothers and return to the abbey."
MALONE MARVELED AT THE PYRENEES, WHICH WERE SO MUCH like the Alps in appearance and majesty. Separating France from Spain, the crests seemed to roll to infinity, each jagged peak crowned with bright snow, the lower elevations a mixture of green slopes and purple crags. Between the summits lay sun-scorched valleys, deep and foreboding, the haunts of Charlemagne, the Franks, Visigoths, and Moors.
They'd taken two cars--his rental and Cassiopeia's Land Rover, which she kept parked at the construction site. Their exit from the chateau had been clever--the ruse apparently working, since there'd been no tails--and, once away, he'd given both cars a thorough searching for any electronic trackers. He had to give Cassiopeia credit. She was imaginative.
An hour ago, before heading up into the mountains, they'd stopped and purchased clothes at a shopping plaza outside Ax-les-Thermes, a thriving spa resort that catered to hikers and skiers. Their colorful tunics and long gowns had won them some strange looks, but they were now dressed in jeans, shirts, boots, and fleece jackets, ready for what lay ahead.
St. Agulous perched on the rim of a precipice, surrounded by terraced hills, at the end of a narrow highway that corkscrewed a path up through a cloud-dimmed pass. The village, not much larger than Rennes-le-Chateau, was a mass of time-worn limestone buildings that seemed to have merged with the rock beyond.
Malone stopped short of entering the town, easing off into the trees, down a narrow dirt lane. Cassiopeia cruised in behind him. They climbed out into sharp mountain air.
"I don't think it's a good idea for all of us to just ride in there," he said. "This doesn't look like a place that receives a whole lot of tourists."
"He's right," Mark said. "Dad always approached these villages cautiously. Let me and Geoffrey do it. Just a couple of guys out hiking. That's not unusual for summer."
"You don't think I'd make a good impression?" Cassiopeia asked.
"Making an impression is not your problem," Malone said, grinning. "Getting folks to forget that impression is the problem."
"And who put you in charge?" Cassiopeia asked.
"I did," Thorvaldsen declared. "Mark knows these mountains. He speaks the language. Let him and the brother go."
"Then, by all means," she said. "Go."
MARK LED THE WAY AS HE AND GEOFFREY STROLLED THROUGH the main gate and into a tight plaza shaded by trees. Geoffrey still carried the rucksack with the two books, so they appeared as a couple of hikers out for the afternoon. Pigeons circled above the jumble of black slate roofs, dueling with a blast of wind that whistled through the clefts, shoving clouds northward over the mountains. A fountain in the center of the plaza trickled with water, green with age. No one was in sight.
A cobbled street radiating from the plaza was well kept and checkered with scattered sunlight. The tap of horned feet announced the appearance of a shaggy goat, which vanished down another side lane. Mark smiled. Like so many in this region, this was not a clock-driven place.
One vestige of any former glory came from the church, which rose at the end of the plaza. A set of wide narrow steps led up to a Romanesque door. The building itself, though, was more Gothic, its bell tower an odd octagonal shape that immediately arrested Mark's attention. He could not recall seeing another like it in the region. The size and grandeur of the church spoke of a lost prosperity and power.
"Interesting that a small town like this has a church that size," Geoffrey said.
"I've seen others like it. Five hundred years ago, this was a thriving market center. So a church would have been a must."
A young woman appeared. Sun freckles gave her the air of a country girl. She smiled, then entered a small general store. Next door stood what appeared to be a post office. Mark wondered about the strange vagary of fate that had apparently preserved St. Agulous from the Saracens, Spaniards, French, and Albigensian Crusaders.
"Let's start in there," he said, pointing at the church. "The local priest may be helpful."
They entered a compact nave topped by a star-spangled ceiling of vivid blue. No statuary decorated the plain stone walls. A wooden cross hung above the simple altar. Worn boards, each at least two feet wide, probably hewn centuries ago from the surrounding primeval forest, sheathed the floor and creaked with each step. Where the church at Rennes was animated in obscene detail, an unnatural quiet reigned in this nave.
Mark noticed Geoffrey's interest in the ceiling. He knew what he was thinking. The master had worn a robe of blue with gold stars in the last days of his life.
"Coincidence?" Geoffrey asked.
"I doubt it."
From the shadows near the altar emerged an older man. His crooked shoulders were poorly concealed under a loose brown frock. He walked with a jerky, stooped gait that reminded Mark of a puppet on a string.
"Are you the abbe?" he asked the man in French.
"What's the name of this church?"
"The Chapel of St. Agulous."
Mark watched as Geoffrey strolled forward, past where they stood, to the first pew before the altar. "This is a quiet place."
"Those who live here belong only to themselves. It is indeed a peaceful location."
"How long have you been abbe?"
"Oh, for many years. No one else seems to want to serve here. But I do like it."
Mark recalled what he knew. "This area was once a hiding place for the Spanish brigands, wasn't it? They would slip into Spain, terrorize the locals, rob farmhouses, then slip back over the mountains, safe here in France, out of reach of the Spanish."
The priest nodded. "To plunder Spain, they had to live in France. And never once did they touch a Frenchman. But that was a long time ago."
He continued to study the church's austere interior. Nothing suggested that the building harbored any great secret.
"Abbe," he said. "Have you ever heard the name Berenger Sauniere?"
The older man thought for a moment, then shook his head.
"Is that a name anyone has ever mentioned in this village?"
"I'm not accustomed to monitoring my parishioners' conversations."
"Nor did I mean to say that you were. But is it a name you recall anyone mentioning?"
He shook his head again.
"When was this church built?"
"In 1732. But the first building was erected here in the thirteenth century. Many came after. So unfortunate, but nothing remains from those early structures."
"Does he bother you?" Mark asked.
"What is he looking for?"
Good question, Mark thought. "Perhaps he's in prayer, wanting to be near the altar?"
The abbe faced him. "You don't lie well."
Mark realized the old man standing before him was far smarter than he wanted his listener to believe. "Why don't you tell me what I want to know."
"You look just like him."
He fought to repress his surprise. "You knew my father?"
"He came to this area many times. He and I spoke often."
"Did he tell you anything?"
The priest shook his head. "You know better."
"Do you know what I'm to do?"
"Your father told me that if you ever made it here, you should already know what it is for you to do."
"You know he's dead?"
"Of course. I was told. He took his own life."
"That's fanciful thinking. Your father was an unhappy man. He came here looking but, sadly, found nothing. That frustrated him. When I heard that he took his own life, I was not surprised. There was no peace for him on this earth."
"He spoke to you about those things?"
"Why did you lie to me about never hearing the name Berenger Sauniere?"
"I didn't lie. I've never heard that name before."
"My father never mentioned him?"
Another riddle stood before him, as frustrating and irritating as Geoffrey, who was now walking back toward them. The church surrounding him clearly contained no answers, so he asked, "What about the abbey of Hildemar, the castle he turned over to Agulous in the tenth century? Is any of that still standing?"
"Oh, yes. Those ruins still exist. Up in the mountains. Not far."
"It's no longer an abbey?"
"Goodness no. It hasn't been occupied in three hundred years."
"Did my father ever mention the place?"
"He visited there many times, but found nothing. Which only added to his frustration."
They needed to go. But he wanted to know, "Who owns the abbey ruins?"
"They were bought years ago. By a Dane. Henrik Thorvaldsen."