ABBEY DES FONTAINES

11:30 AM

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THE SENESCHAL SAT IN HIS CHAMBERS. HE'D SLEPT LITTLE LAST night as he pondered his dilemma. Two brothers guarded his door and no one was allowed inside except to bring him food. He didn't like being caged--albeit, at least for now, in a comfortable prison. His quarters were not the size of the master's or the marshal's, but they were private, with a bath and a window. Little danger existed that he'd climb through the window, the drop beyond the sill was several hundred feet down a sheer mass of gray rock.

But his fortunes were sure to change today, as de Roquefort was not going to allow him to roam the abbey at will. He'd probably be held in one of the underground rooms, places long used for cool storage, the perfect spot to keep an enemy isolated. His ultimate fate was anybody's guess.

He'd come a long way since his induction.

Rule was clear. If any man wished to leave the mass of perdition and abandon that secular life and choose communal life, do not consent to receive him immediately, for thus said Saint Paul: Test the soul to see if it comes from God. If the company of the brotherhood is granted, let the Rule be read to him, and if he wishes to obey the commandments of the Rule, let the brothers receive him, let him reveal his wish and desire before all of the brothers and let him make his request with a pure heart.

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All of that had happened and he'd been received. He'd willingly taken the oath and gladly served. Now he was a prisoner. Accused of false charges leveled by an ambitious politico. Not unlike his ancient brethren, who'd fallen victim to the despicable Philip the Fair. He'd always thought the label odd. In truth, the Fair had nothing to do with the monarch's temperament, since the French king was a cold, secretive man who wanted to rule the Catholic Church. Instead, it referred to his light hair and blue eyes. One thing on the outside, something altogether different on the inside--a lot like himself, he thought.

He stood from his desk and paced, a habit acquired in college. Moving helped him think. On the desk lay the two books he'd taken from the library two nights ago. He realized that the next few hours might be his last opportunity to scan their pages. Surely, once they turned up missing, theft of Order property would be added to the list of charges. Its punishment--banishment--would actually be welcome, but he knew his nemesis was never going to allow him off that easily.

He reached for the codex from the fifteenth century, a treasure any museum would pay dearly to display. The pages were scripted in the curvy lettering he knew as rotunda, common for the time, used in learned manuscripts. Little punctuation existed, just long lines of text filling every page from top to bottom, edge to edge. A scribe had labored weeks producing it, holed up in the abbey's scriptorium before a writing desk, quill in hand, slowly inking each letter onto parchment. Burn marks marred the binding and droplets of wax dotted many of the pages, but the codex was in remarkably good shape. One of the Order's great missions had been to preserve knowledge, and he'd been lucky to stumble across this reservoir amid the thousands of volumes the library contained.

You must finish the quest. It is your destiny. Whether you realize that or not. That's what the master had told Geoffrey. But he'd also said, Those who have followed the path you are about to take have been many, and never has anyone succeeded.

But did they know what he knew? Surely not.

He reached for the other volume. Its text was also handwritten. But not by scribes. Instead, the words had been penned in November 1897 by the Order's then marshal, a man who'd been in direct contact with Abbe Jean-Antoine-Maurice Gelis, the parish priest for the village of Coustausa, which also lay in the Aude River Valley, not far from Rennes-le-Chateau. Theirs had been a fortuitous encounter, for the marshal had learned vital information.

He sat and again thumbed through the report.

A few passages caught his attention, words he'd first read with interest three years ago. He stood and stepped to the window with the book.

    I was distressed to learn that the abbe Gelis was murdered on All Saints' Day. He was found fully dressed, wearing his clerical hat, lying in his own blood upon his kitchen floor. His watch had stopped at 12:15 AM, but the time of death was determined to be between 3 and 4 AM. Posing as the bishop's representative, I spoke with villagers and the local constable. Gelis was a nervous sort, known to keep windows closed and shutters drawn, even in summer. He never opened the presbytery's door to strangers, and since there was no sign of forced intrusion, officials concluded that the abbe had known his attacker.

    Gelis died at age seventy-one. He was beaten over the head with fire tongs then hacked with an ax. Blood was copious, splatters on the floor and ceiling were found, but not one footprint lay among the various pools. This baffled the constable. The body was intentionally laid out on its back, arms crossed on the chest, in the common pose for the dead. Six hundred and three francs in gold and notes, along with another one hundred and six francs, were found in the house. Robbery was clearly not the motive. The only item that could be considered evidence was a pack of cigarette papers. Penned on one was "Viva Angelina." This was significant since Gelis was not a smoker and detested even the smell of cigarettes.

    In my opinion, the true motive for the crime was found in the priest's bedroom. There, the assailant had pried open a briefcase. Papers remained inside but it was impossible to know if anything had been removed. Drops of blood were found in and around the briefcase. The constable concluded that the murderer was searching for something and I may know what that could be.

    Two weeks prior to his murder, I met with Abbe Gelis. A month before that, Gelis had communicated with the bishop in Carcassonne. I appeared at Gelis's home, posing as the bishop's representative, and we discussed at length what troubled him. He eventually requested that I hear his confession. Since in truth I am not a priest, and therefore not bound by any oath of the confessional, I can report what was told me.

    Sometime in the summer of 1896, Gelis discovered a glass vial in his church. The railing for the choir had required replacing and, when the wood was removed, a hiding place was found that contained a wax-sealed vial holding a single sliver of paper, upon which was the following:

    This cryptogram was a common coding device popular during the last century. He told me that six years earlier the abbe Sauniere, from Rennes-le-Chateau, found a cryptogram in his church, too. When compared, they were identical. Sauniere believed that both vials had been left by the abbe Bigou, who served at Rennes-le-Chateau during the French Revolution. In Bigou's time, the church in Coustausa was also served by the priest from Rennes. So Bigou would have been a frequent visitor to Gelis's present parish. Sauniere also thought there was a connection between the cryptograms and the tomb of Marie d'Hautpoul de Blanchefort, who died in 1781. Abbe Bigou had been her confessor and commissioned her headstone and marker, having an assortment of unique words and symbols inscribed thereon. Unfortunately, Sauniere had not been able to decipher anything, but after a year of work Gelis solved the cryptogram. He told me that he was not entirely truthful with Sauniere, thinking his fellow abbe's motives unpure. So he withheld from his colleague the solution he had determined.

    Abbe Gelis wanted the bishop to know the complete solution and believed he was accomplishing that act by telling me.

Unfortunately, the marshal did not record what Gelis said. Perhaps he thought the information too important to write down, or maybe he was another schemer, like de Roquefort. Strangely, the Chronicles reported that the marshal himself disappeared a year later, in 1898. He left one day on abbey business and never returned. A search yielded nothing. But thank the Lord he recorded the cryptogram.

The bells for Sext began to ring, signaling the brothers' noontime gathering. All, except the kitchen staff, would gather in the chapel for Psalm readings, hymns, and prayers until one PM. He decided to have his own time of meditation, but was interrupted by a soft rap at the door. He turned as Geoffrey stepped inside, carrying a tray of food and drink.

"I volunteered to deliver this," the younger man said. "I was told you skipped breakfast. You must be hungry." Geoffrey's tone was strangely buoyant.

The door remained open and he could see the two guards standing outside.

"I brought them some drink, too," Geoffrey said, motioning outside.

"You're in a generous mood today."

"Jesus said the first aspect of the Word is faith, the second is love, the third is good works, and from these come life."

He smiled. "That's right, my friend." He kept his tone lively for the two pairs of ears just a few feet away.

"Are you well?" Geoffrey asked.

"As well as can be expected." He accepted the tray and laid it on the desk.

"I have prayed for you, Seneschal."

"I daresay that I no longer possess that title. Surely, a new one was appointed by de Roquefort."

Geoffrey nodded. "His chief lieutenant."

"Woe be unto us--"

He saw one of the men outside the door collapse. A second later, the other man's body went limp and joined his partner's on the floor. Two goblets clattered across the flagstones.

"Took long enough," Geoffrey said.

"What did you do?"

"A sedative. The physician provided it to me. Tasteless, odorless, but fast. The healer is our friend. He wishes you Godspeed. Now we must go. The master made provisions, and it's my duty to see they're accomplished."

Geoffrey reached beneath his frock and produced two pistols. "The armory attendant is our friend, too. We may need these."

The seneschal was trained in firearms, all part of the basic education every brother received. He grabbed the weapon. "We're leaving the abbey?"

Geoffrey nodded. "It is required to accomplish our task."

"Our task."

"Yes, Seneschal. I've been training for this a long time."

He heard the eagerness and, though he was almost ten years older than Geoffrey, he suddenly felt inadequate. This supposed junior brother was far more than he appeared. "As I said yesterday, the master chose well in you."

Geoffrey smiled. "I think he did in both of us."

He found a knapsack and quickly stuffed a few toiletries, some personal items, and the two books he'd taken from the library inside. "I have no other clothes but for a cassock."

"We can buy some once we're gone."

"You have money?

"The master was a thorough man."

Geoffrey crept to the doorway and checked both ways. "The brothers will all be in Sext. The way out should be clear."

Before following Geoffrey into the hall, the seneschal took one last look around his quarters. Some of the best times of his life had been spent here, and he was sad to leave those memories behind. But another part of his psyche urged him forward, to the unknown, outside, toward whatever truth the master so obviously knew.

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