The Templar Legacy (Page 49)
MALONE STOOD AND MARCHED TOWARD THE ALTAR. IN THE BEAM of his flashlight he'd noticed that there was no mortar joint beneath the top slab. The seven-nine arrangement of the support stones had drawn his attention, and kneeling had allowed him to see the crack.
At the altar he bent down and shone the light closer. "This top is not attached."
"I wouldn't expect it to be," Mark said. "Gravity held them in place. Look at it. The thing's what? Three inches thick and six feet long?"
"Bigou hid his cryptogram in the altar column in Rennes. I wondered why he chose that particular hiding place. Unique, wouldn't you say? To get to it, he had to lift the slab enough to free the locking pin, then slide the glass vial into the niche. Shift the top back and you have a great hiding place. But there's more to it. Bigou was sending a message by that selection." He set the flashlight down. "We need to move this."
Mark walked to one end and Malone positioned himself at the other. Grasping each side with his hands, he tested to see if the stone would move.
It did, ever so slightly.
"You're right," he said. "It's just sitting there. I don't see any reason for niceties. Shove it off."
Together, they waddled the stone left and right, then worked it enough so that gravity allowed it to crash to the floor.
Malone stared into the rectangular opening they'd exposed and saw loosely packed stones.
"The thing is full of rocks," Mark said.
Malone smiled. "Sure is. Let's get 'em out."
"If you were Sauniere and didn't want anyone to follow your tracks, that stone top is a good deterrent. But these rocks would be even better. Like you told me yesterday. We need to think like folks thought a hundred years ago. Look around. Nobody would have come here looking for treasure. This was nothing but a ruin. And who would have disassembled this altar? The thing has been standing here for centuries unmolested. But if someone did do all that, why not another layer of defense."
The rectangular support stood about three feet off the floor, and they quickly tossed the stones aside. Ten minutes later the support was empty. Dirt filled the bottom.
Malone hopped inside and thought he detected a gentle vibration. He bent down and probed with his fingers. The parched soil possessed the consistency of desert sand. Mark shone the light while he scooped the earth away with a cupped hand. Six inches deep he hit something. With both hands he cleared away a foot-wide crater and saw wooden planks.
He looked up and grinned. "Ain't it nice to be right."
DE ROQUEFORT STORMED INTO THE ROOM AND FACED HIS COUNCIL. He'd hastily ordered an assemblage of the Order's officers after finishing his telephone conversation with Geoffrey.
"The Great Devise has been found," he said.
Astonishment crossed the assembled faces.
"The former seneschal and his allies have located the hiding place. I have a brother embedded with them as a spy. He's reported their success. It's time to reclaim our heritage."
"What do you propose?" one of them asked.
"We shall take a contingent of knights and seize them."
"More bloodshed?" the chaplain asked.
"Not if the action is handled with care."
The chaplain seemed unimpressed. "The former seneschal and Geoffrey, who apparently is your ally since we know of no other brother in league with them, have already shot two brothers. There's no reason to suggest that they would not shoot more."
He'd heard enough. "Chaplain, this is not a matter of faith. Your guidance is not needed."
"The safety of the members of this Order is all our responsibility."
"And you dare to say that I don't have the safety of this Order in mind?" He allowed his voice to rise. "Do you question my authority? Are you challenging my decision? Tell me, Chaplain, I want to know."
If the Venetian was intimidated, nothing in his countenance betrayed fear. Instead, the man simply said, "You're my master. I owe you allegiance . . . no matter what."
He did not like the insolent tone.
"But, Master," the chaplain continued, "was it not you who said that we should all be a part of decisions of this magnitude?" A few of the other officers nodded. "Did you not tell the brotherhood in conclave that you would chart a new course?"
"Chaplain, we are about to embark on the greatest mission this Order has undertaken in centuries. I have not the time to debate with you."
"I thought giving praise to our Lord and God was our greatest mission. And that is a matter of faith, to which I am qualified to speak."
He'd had enough. "You are dismissed."
The chaplain did not move. None of the others said a word.
"If you do not leave immediately, I'll have you seized and brought before me later for punishment." He paused a moment. "Which will not be pleasant."
The chaplain stood and tipped his head. "I will go. As you command."
"And we shall talk later, I assure you."
He waited until the chaplain left then said to the others, "We have searched for our Great Devise a long time. It's now within our grasp. What that repository contains does not belong to anyone but us. Our heritage is there. I, for one, intend to claim what is ours. Twelve knights will assist me. I will leave it to you to select those men. Have your choices fully armed and assembled in the gymnasium in one hour."
MALONE CALLED OUT FOR STEPHANIE AND CASSIOPEIA AND TOLD them to bring the shovel they'd off-loaded from Cassiopeia's Rover. They appeared with Henrik, and as they entered the church, Malone explained what he and Mark had found.
"Pretty smart," Cassiopeia said to him.
"We need to get the rest of that dirt out of there," Stephanie said.
"Hand me the shovel."
He bailed out the loose soil. A few minutes later three blackened wooden planks were revealed. Half were bound together with metal straps. The other half formed a hinged door that opened upward.
He bent down and lightly caressed the metal. "The iron's corroded. These hinges are gone. A hundred years of exposure has worked on them." He stood and used the shovel to chip away their remnants.
"What do you mean, a hundred years?" Stephanie asked.
"Sauniere built that door," Cassiopeia said. "The wood is in fairly good shape, certainly not centuries old. And it appears to have been planed to a smooth finish, which is not something you would see in medieval lumber. Sauniere had to have an easy way in and out. So when he found this entrance, he rebuilt the door."
"I agree," Malone said. "Which explains how he handled that heavy stone top. He just slid it halfway off, took out the rocks over the door, climbed down, then put everything back when he was through. From everything I've heard about him, he was in good shape. Damn clever, too."
He wedged the shovel into the gap at the door's edge and fulcrumed the door upward. Mark reached in and grabbed hold. Malone tossed the shovel aside and together they freed the hatch from its frame, exposing a gaping orifice.
Thorvaldsen stared into the void. "Amazing. This might actually be the place."
Stephanie shone a flashlight into the opening. A ladder stood against one of the stone walls. "What do you think? Will it hold?"
"One way to find out."
Malone extended a leg and gently applied weight to the first rung. The ladder was fashioned out of thick lumber, which he hoped was still bound with nails. He could see a few rusted heads. He pressed harder, holding on to the top of the altar support just in case something gave way. But the rung held. He placed his other foot on the ladder and tested more.
"I think it'll hold."
"I'm lighter," Cassiopeia said. "I'd be glad to go first."
He smiled. "If you don't mind, I'd like the honor."
"You see, I was right," she said. "You do want this."
Yes, he did. What lay below was beckoning him, like the search for rare books through obscure shelves. You never knew what might be found.
Still gripping the edge of the altar support, he lowered himself to the second rung. They were about eighteen inches apart. He quickly transferred his hands to the top of the ladder and descended one more rung.
"Feels okay," he said.
He kept heading down, careful to test each rung. Above him, Stephanie and Cassiopeia were searching the darkness with their lights. In the halo of their combined beams he saw that he'd come to the bottom of the ladder. The ground was the next step. Everything was covered with a fine gravel and stones the size of fists and skulls.
"Toss me a flashlight," he said.
Thorvaldsen dropped one of the torches to him. He caught it and focused the beam around him. The ladder rose about fifteen feet from floor to ceiling. He saw that the exit stood in the center of a natural corridor, one that millions of years of rain and melting snow had forged through the limestone. He knew the Pyrenees were riddled with caves and tunnels.
"Why don't you jump off?" Cassiopeia asked.
"It's too easy." He was alert to a chill that had settled in the hollow of his back, one that did not come solely from the cold air. "I'm going to swing around to the back side of the ladder. Drop one of those stones straight down." He positioned himself out of the way.
"You clear?" Stephanie asked.
The rock plunged through the opening. He followed its path and watched as it struck the ground, then kept going.
Light beams probed the impact site.
"You were right," Cassiopeia said. "That hole was just under the surface, ready for someone to leap off the ladder."
"Drop some more rocks around it and find solid ground."
Four more rained down and thudded onto hard earth. He knew where to leap, so he dropped off the ladder and used the flashlight to examine the booby trap. The cavity was about three feet square and at least three feet deep. He reached inside and retrieved some of the wood that had been laid loosely across the top. The edges were tongue-and-grooved, the boards thin enough to shatter away at the weight of a man, but thick enough to shoulder a layer of silt and gravel. At the bottom of the hole were metal pyramids, sharpened to a point, wide at the base, waiting to snare an unsuspecting intruder. Time had dulled their patina, but not their effectiveness.
"Sauniere was serious about this," he said.
"Those could have been Templar traps," Mark noted. "Is that brass?"
"The Order was expert in metallurgy. Brass, bronze, copper--all were used. The Church forbade scientific experimentation, so they learned things like that from the Arabs."
"The wood on top could not be seven hundred years old," Cassiopeia said. "Sauniere must have repaired the Templar's defenses."
Not what he wanted to hear. "Which means this is probably just the first of many traps."
MALONE WATCHED AS STEPHANIE, MARK, AND CASSIOPEIA CLIMBED down the ladder. Thorvaldsen stayed on the surface, waiting for Geoffrey to return, ready to hand down tools, if needed.
"I meant what I said," Mark made clear. "The Templars were pioneers in booby traps. I've read accounts in the Chronicles of techniques they developed."
"Just keep your eyes open," Malone said. "If we want to find whatever there is to find, we have to look."
"It's after three," Cassiopeia said. "The sun will be gone in two hours. It's cold enough down here as it is. Nightfall will be brisk."
His jacket kept his chest warm, but gloves and thermal socks would be welcomed, which were some of the supplies Geoffrey was obtaining. Only the light spilling in from the ceiling illuminated the passageway that stretched in both directions. Without flashlights, Malone doubted if they'd be able to see a finger touch their nose. "Daylight's not going to matter. It's all artificial light down here. We just need Geoffrey to get back with food and warmer clothes. Henrik," he called out. "Let us know when the good brother returns."
"Safe hunting, Cotton."
His mind swelled with possibilities. "What do you make of this?" he asked the others.
"This could be part of a horreum," Cassiopeia said. "When the Romans ruled this area they established underground storerooms for holding perishable goods. An early version of a refrigerated warehouse. Several have survived. This could have been one."
"And the Templars knew of it?" Stephanie asked.
"They had them, too," Mark said. "They learned from the Romans. What she says makes sense. When de Molay told Gilbert de Blanchefort to take away the treasure of the temple in advance, he could have easily chosen a place like this. Beneath a nondescript church, at a minor abbey, with no connection to the Order."
Malone pointed his flashlight ahead, then turned around and shone the beam in the other direction. "Which way?"
"Good question," Stephanie said.
"You and Mark go that way," he said. "Cassiopeia and I will go the other." He could see that neither Mark nor Stephanie liked that decision. "We don't have time for you two to fight. Put it aside. Do your jobs. That's what you'd tell me, Stephanie."
She didn't argue with him. "He's right. Let's go," she said to Mark.
Malone watched as they dissolved into the blackness.
"Clever, Malone," Cassiopeia whispered. "But do you think it wise to send those two out together? Lots of issues between them."
"Nothing like a little tension to make them appreciate one another."
"That true for me and you, too?"
He aimed his flashlight into her face. "Lead the way and let's find out."
DE ROQUEFORT AND TWELVE BROTHERS APPROACHED THE ANCIENT ruined abbey from the south. They'd avoided the village of St. Agulous and parked their vehicles a kilometer back in the thick woods. They'd then hiked through a landscape of scrub and red rock, steadily rising in altitude. He knew the entire area was a magnet for outdoor enthusiasts. Green slopes and purple crags closed around them, but the path was well marked, perhaps used by the local shepherds to herd sheep, and the route brought them to within a kilometer of the torn walls and piles of debris that had once been a place of devotion.
He stopped the entourage and checked his watch. Nearly four PM. Brother Geoffrey had said that he would return to the site at four. He looked around. The ruins perched on a rocky promontory a hundred meters above. Malone's rental car was parked farther down the slope.
"Into the trees for cover," he ordered. "And everyone stay down."
A few moments later a Land Rover churned its way up the sloping graveled path and stopped by the rental. He saw Geoffrey exit the driver's side and noticed the younger man appraise his surroundings, but de Roquefort did not reveal himself, still not sure if this was a trap.
Geoffrey hesitated at the Land Rover, then opened the rear hatch and removed two boxes. Grasping both, Geoffrey started up the path toward the abbey. De Roquefort waited until he'd passed, then boldly stepped out onto the trail and said, "I've been waiting, brother."
Geoffrey stopped and turned.
A cold pallor engulfed the younger man's pale face. The brother said nothing and simply laid the boxes down, reached beneath his jacket, and brought out a nine-millimeter automatic. De Roquefort recognized the gun. The Austrian-made weapon was one of several brands the abbey's arsenal stocked.
Geoffrey chambered a round. "Then bring your men and let's get this over with."
AN INSUFFERABLE TENSION FLUSHED EVERY THOUGHT FROM Malone's mind. He was following Cassiopeia as they inched their way through the underground passage. The path was about six feet wide and eight feet tall, the walls dry and jagged. Fifteen feet of hard earth lay between him and the surface. Tight confines were not his favorite places. Cassiopeia, though, appeared fortified with nerve. He'd seen her kind of courage before in agents who worked best under extreme pressure.
He was alert for more traps, paying careful attention to the gravel ahead of them. He'd always found it amusing in adventure movies when moving parts made of stone and metal, supposedly hundreds or thousands of years old, still functioned as if they'd been greased yesterday. Iron and stone were vulnerable to air and water, their effectiveness limited. But bronze was a different matter. That metal was enduring, which was precisely why it had been created. So more pointed stakes at the bottom of deep holes could be a problem.
Cassiopeia stopped, her light focused ten feet ahead.
"What is it?" he asked.
"Take a look."
He added his beam to hers and saw it.
STEPHANIE HATED ENCLOSED SPACES, BUT SHE WAS NOT ABOUT TO voice that concern, especially to her son, who thought little enough of her. So to take her mind off her uncomfortableness she asked, "How would the knights have stored their treasure down here?"
"Carried in a piece at a time. Nothing would have stopped them, short of capture or death."
"That would have taken some effort."
"All they had was time."
They were both intent on the ground ahead of them as Mark gently tested the surface before each step.
"Their precautions would not have been sophisticated," Mark said. "But they would have been effective. The Order possessed vaults all over Europe. Most they guarded, along with rigging traps. Here, secretion itself and a few traps had to do the job without guards. The last thing they would have wanted was to draw attention to this place by having knights around."
"Your father would have loved this." She had to say it.
Her light caught something ahead on the passage wall. She grabbed hold of Mark's shoulder and stopped him. "Look."
Carved into the rock were letters.
NON NOBIS DOMINE
PAUPERS COMMILITONES CHRISTI TEMPLIQUE SALAMONIS
"What does it say?" she asked.
" 'Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to Thy name give the glory. Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon.' It's the Templar motto."
"So it's true. This is it."
Mark said nothing.
"May God forgive me," she whispered.
"God has little to do with this. Man created this mess and it's up to man to clean it up." He motioned farther down the passage with his light. "Look there."
She stared into the halo and saw a metal grille--a gate--that opened into another passage.
"Is that where everything is stored?" she asked.
Not waiting for an answer, she moved around him and had taken only a few steps when she heard Mark cry out, "No."
Then the ground slipped away.
MALONE STARED AT THE SIGHT ILLUMINATED BY THEIR COMBINED lights. A skeleton. Lying prostrate on the cavern floor, the shoulders, neck, and skull propped up against the wall.
"Let's get closer," he said.
They inched ahead and he noticed a slight depression in the floor. He grasped Cassiopeia's shoulder.
"I see it," she said, stopping. "It's a long one. Stretches a couple of yards."
"Those damn pits would have been invisible in their time, but the wood beneath has weakened enough to show them." They moved around the depression, staying on solid ground, and approached the skeleton.
"There's nothing left but bones," she said.
"Look at the chest. The ribs. And the face. Shattered in places. He fell into that trap. Those gashes are from spikes."
"Who is he?"
Something caught his eye.
He bent down and found a blackened silver chain among the bones. He lifted it out. A medallion dangled from the loop. He focused the light. "The Templar seal. Two men on a single horse. It represented individual poverty. I saw a drawing of this in a book a few nights ago. My bet is this is the marshal who wrote the report we've been using. He disappeared from the abbey once he learned the solution to the cryptogram from the priest Gelis. He came, figured out the solution, but wasn't careful. Sauniere probably found the body and just left him here."
"But how would Sauniere have figured anything out? How did he solve the cryptogram? Mark let me read that report. According to Gelis, Sauniere had not solved the puzzle he found in his church and Gelis was suspicious of him, so he told Sauniere nothing."
"That's assuming what the marshal wrote was true. Either Sauniere or the marshal killed Gelis to keep the priest from telling anyone what he'd deciphered. If it was the marshal, which seems likely, then he filed the report simply as a way to cover his tracks. A way for no one to think he left the abbey to come here and find the Order's Great Devise for himself. What did it matter that he recorded the cryptogram? There's no way to solve the thing without the mathematical sequence."
He turned his attention away from the dead man and shone his light farther down the passage. "Look at that."
Cassiopeia stood and together they saw a cross with four equal arms, wide at the ends, carved into the rock.
"The cross patee," she said. "Allowed to be worn only by the Templars thanks to a papal decree."
He recalled more of what he'd read in the Templar book. "The crosses were red on a white mantle and symbolized a willingness to suffer martyrdom in fighting infidels." With his flashlight, he traced the lettering above the cross.
PAR CE SIGNE TU LE VAINCRAS
"By this sign ye shall conquer him," he said, translating. "Those same words are in the church at Rennes, above the holy water fount at the door. Sauniere put them there."
"Constantine's declaration when he first fought Maxentius. Before the battle, he supposedly saw a cross on the sun with those words emblazoned beneath."
"With one difference. Mark said there was no him in the original phrase. Only By this sign ye shall conquer."
"Sauniere inserted le after tu. At the thirteenth and fourteenth position in the phrase. 1314."
"The year Jacques de Molay was executed."
"Seems Sauniere enjoyed a touch of irony in his symbolism, and he got the idea right here."
He searched more of the darkness and saw that the passage ended twenty feet ahead. But before that, a metal grille locked by a chain and hasp blocked a path that led off into another direction.
Cassiopeia saw it, too. "Seems we found it."
A rumble came from behind them and someone shouted, "No."
They both turned.