STEPHANIE WANDERED AROUNDHER DEAD HUSBAND'S HOUSE.
The look was typical for the region. Sturdy timber floors, beam ceilings, stone fireplace, simple pine furniture. Not much space, but enough with two bedrooms, a den, a bath, kitchen, and a workshop. Lars had loved wood turning and earlier she'd noticed that his lathes, skews, chisels, and gouges were all still there, each tool hanging from a Peg-Board and frosted with a thin layer of dust. He'd been talented with the lathe. She still possessed bowls, boxes, and candlesticks he'd crafted from the local trees.
During their marriage she'd visited only a few times. She and Mark lived in Washington, then Atlanta. Lars stayed mainly in Europe, the last decade here in Rennes. Neither of them ever violated the other's space without permission. Though they may not have agreed on most things, they were always civil. Maybe too much so, she'd many times thought.
She'd always believed Lars had bought the house with royalties earned from his first book, but now she knew that Henrik Thorvaldsen had aided in the purchase. Which was so like Lars. He'd possessed little regard for money, spending all of what he earned on travel and his obsessions, the task of making sure the family bills were paid left to her. She'd only recently satisfied a loan used to finance Mark's college and graduate school. Her son had several times offered to assume the debt, especially once they were estranged, but she'd always refused. A parent's job was to educate their child, and she took her job seriously. Perhaps too much, she'd come to believe.
She and Lars had not spoken at all in the months before his death. Their last encounter was a bad one, another argument about money, responsibility, family. Her attempt at defending him yesterday with Henrik Thorvaldsen had sounded hollow, but she never realized that anyone knew the truth about her marital estrangement. Apparently, though, Thorvaldsen did. Perhaps he and Lars had been close. Unfortunately, she'd never know. That was the thing about suicide--ending one person's suffering only prolonged the agony of those left behind. She so wished to be rid of the sick feeling rooted in the pit of her stomach. The pain of failure, a writer once called it. And she agreed.
She finished her tour and entered the den, taking a seat across from Malone, who'd had been reading Lars's journal since dinner.
"Your husband was a meticulous researcher," he said.
"A lot of it is cryptic--much like the man."
He seemed to catch her frustration. "You want to tell me why you feel responsible for his suicide?"
She decided to allow his intrusion. She needed to talk about it. "I don't feel responsible, I just feel part of it. Both of us were proud. Stubborn, too. I was with Justice, Mark was grown, and there was talk of giving me my own division, so I focused on what I thought was important. Lars did the same. Unfortunately, neither one of us appreciated the other."
"Easy to see that now, years later. Impossible to know then."
"But that's the problem, Cotton. I'm here. He's not." She was ill at ease talking about herself, but things needed to be said. "Lars was a gifted writer and a good researcher. All that stuff I told you earlier about Sauniere and this town? How interesting it is? If I had paid it any mind while he was alive, maybe he'd still be here." She hesitated. "He was such a calm man. Never raised his voice. Never a bad word. Silence was his weapon. He could go weeks and never say a word. It infuriated me."
"Now, that I understand." And he added a smile.
"I know. My quick temper. Lars could never deal with it, either. Finally he and I decided that the best thing was for him to live his life and me mine. Neither of us wanted to divorce."
"Which says a lot about what he thought of you. Deep down."
"I never saw that. All I saw was Mark in the middle. He was drawn to Lars. I have a hard time with emotion. Lars wasn't like that. And Mark possessed his father's religious curiosity. They were so much alike. My son chose his father over me, but I forced that choice. Thorvaldsen was right. For someone so careful with work, I was inept at handling my own life. Before Mark was killed, I hadn't spoken to him in three years." The pain from that reality rocked her soul. "Can you imagine, Cotton? My son and I went three years without saying a word."
"What caused the split?"
"He took his father's side, so I went my way and they went theirs. Mark lived here in France. I stayed in America. After a while it became easy to ignore him. Don't ever let that happen to you and Gary. Do whatever you have to, but never let that happen."
"I just moved four thousand miles away."
"But your son adores you. Those miles mean little."
"I've wondered plenty if I did the right thing."
"You have to live your life, Cotton. Your way. Your son seems to respect that, even though he's young. Mine was much older and far tougher on me."
He glanced at his watch. "Sun's been down twenty minutes. Almost time."
"When did you first notice we were being tailed?"
"Right after we arrived. Two men. Both similar to those from the cathedral. They followed us to the cemetery, then around town. They're outside, right now."
"No danger they'll come in?"
He shook his head. "They're here to watch."
"I understand now why you got out of the Billet. The anxiety. It's tough. You can never let your guard down. You were right back in Copenhagen. I'm no field agent."
"The trouble for me came when I started to like the rush. That's what'll get you killed."
"We all live a relatively safe existence. But to have people tracing your every move, intent on killing you? I can see how that would wear on you. Eventually, you have to escape from it."
"Training helps with the apprehension. You learn how to deal with uncertainty. But you were never trained." He smiled. "You're just in charge."
"I hope you know that I never intended involving you."
"You made that point quite clear."
"But I'm glad you're here."
"Wouldn't have missed it for the world."
She smiled. "You were the best agent I ever had."
"I was just the luckiest. And I had enough sense to say when."
"Peter Hansen and Ernst Scoville were both murdered." She paused and finally voiced what she'd come to believe. "Maybe Lars, too. The man in the cathedral wanted me to know that. His way of sending a message."
"That's a big leap in logic."
"I know. No proof. But I have a feeling, and though I may not be a field agent, I've come to trust my feelings. Still, like I used to tell you, no conclusions based on assumptions. Get the facts. This whole thing is bizarre."
"Tell me about it. Knights Templars. Secrets on gravestones. Priests finding lost treasure."
She glanced over at a photo of Mark on the side table, taken a few months before he died. Lars was everywhere in the young man's vibrant face. The same cleft chin, bright eyes, and swarthy skin. Why had she let things become so bad?
"Strange that's here," Malone said, seeing her interest.
"I set it there the last time I came. Five years ago. Just after the avalanche." Hard to believe her only child had been dead five years. Children shouldn't die thinking their parents had not loved them. Unlike with her estranged husband who possessed a grave, Mark lay buried under tons of Pyrenean snow thirty miles to the south. "I have to finish this," she muttered to the picture, her voice faltering.
"I'm still not sure what this is."
Neither was she.
Malone gestured with the journal. "At least we know where to find Claridon in Avignon, as the letter to Ernst Scoville instructed. He's Royce Claridon. There's a notation and address in the journal. Lars and he were friends."
"I was wondering when you'd find that."
"Anything else I missed?"
"Hard to say what's important. There's a lot in there."
"You have to stop lying to me."
She'd been waiting for the scolding. "I know."
"I can't help if you hold back."
She understood. "What about the missing pages sent to Scoville? Anything there?"
"You tell me." And he handed her the eight sheets.
She decided a little thinking would take her mind off Lars and Mark, so she scanned the handwritten paragraphs. Most of it was meaningless, but there were parts that ripped at her heart.
. . . Sauniere obviously cared for his mistress. She came to him when her family moved to Rennes. Her father and brother were skilled artisans and her mother maintained the parish presbytery. This was in 1892, a year after much was found by Sauniere. When her family moved from Rennes to take jobs in a nearby factory, she stayed with Sauniere and remained with him until he died, two decades later. At some point he titled every single thing he acquired in her name, which shows the unquestioning trust he placed in her. She was totally devoted to him, keeping his secrets for 36 years after he died. I envy Sauniere. He was a man who knew the unconditional love of a woman and returned that love with unconditional trust and respect. He was by all accounts a difficult man to please, a man driven to accomplish something for which people would remember him. His garish creation in the Church of Mary Magdalene seems his legacy. There is no record of his lover ever once voicing any opposition to what he was doing. All accounts say she was a devoted woman who supported her benefactor in all that he did. Surely there were some disagreements but, in the end, she stood by Sauniere until the day he died and then after, for nearly four decades. There is much to be said for devotion. A man can accomplish much when the woman he loves supports him, even if she believes that what he does is foolishness. Surely, Sauniere's mistress must have shook her head more than once at the absurdity of his creations. Both the Villa Bethanie and the Tour Magdala are ridiculous for their time. But she never let a drop of water fall on his fire. She cared for him enough to let him be what he needed to be, and that result is being seen today by the thousands who come to Rennes each year. Such is Sauniere's legacy. Hers is that his still exists.
"Why did you give me this to read?" she said to Malone when she finished.
"You needed to."
Where had all these ghosts come from? Rennes-le-Chateau might hold no treasure, but this place harbored demons intent on tormenting her.
"When I received that journal in the mail and read it, I realized that I had not been fair to Lars or Mark. They believed in what they sought, just as I believed in my job. Mark would say I was nothing but negative." She paused, hoping the spirits were listening. "I knew when I saw that notebook again I'd been wrong. Whatever Lars was after was important to him, so it should have been important to me. That's really why I came, Cotton. I owe it to them." She looked over at him with tired eyes. "God knows I owed it to them. I just never realized the stakes were so high."
He glanced at his watch again, then stared toward the blackened windows. "Time to find out just how high. You going to be all right here?"
She grabbed hold of herself and nodded. "I'll keep mine occupied. You handle the other."