VILLENEUVE-LES-AVIGNON

12:30 PM

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MALONE STUDIED ROYCE CLARIDON. THE MAN WAS DRESSED IN loose-fitting corduroy trousers smeared with what looked like turquoise paint. A colorful sports jersey covered the man's thin chest. He was probably in his late fifties, gangly as a praying mantis, with a comely face full of tight features. Dark eyes were sunk deep into his head, no longer bright with the power of intellect, but nonetheless piercing. His feet were bare and dirty, his fingernails unkempt, his graying hair and beard tangled. The attendant had warned them that Claridon was delusional but generally harmless, and almost everyone at the institution avoided him.

"Who be you?" Claridon asked in French, appraising them with a distant, perplexed gaze.

The sanatorium filled an enormous chateau that a placard out front announced had been owned by the French government since the Revolution. Wings jutted from the main building at odd angles. Many of the former salons were now converted into patient rooms. They stood in a solarium, surrounded by a broad embrasure of floor-to-ceiling windows that framed out the countryside. Gathering clouds veiled the midday sun. One of the attendants had said Claridon spent most of his days here.

"Are you from the commandery?" Claridon asked. "Did the master send you? I have much information to pass to him."

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Malone decided to play along. "We are from the master. He sent us to speak with you."

"Ah, finally. I have been waiting so long." The words carried excitement.

Malone motioned and Stephanie backed off. This man obviously thought himself a Templar and women were not part of that brotherhood. "Tell me, brother, what have you to say. Tell me all."

Claridon fidgeted in his chair, then sprang to his feet, shifting his spare frame back and forth on bare feet. "Awful," he said. "So awful. We were surrounded on all quarters. Enemies as far as the eye could see. We were down to our last few arrows, the food spoiled from heat, the water gone. Many had succumbed to disease. None of us was going to live long."

"Sounds a challenge. What did you do?"

"The strangest thing we saw. A white banner was raised from beyond the walls. We all stared at one another--saying with our puzzled expressions the words each of us was thinking. They want to talk."

Malone knew his medieval history. Parlays were common during the Crusades. Armies in a stalemate would many times work out terms whereby each could retreat and both claim victory.

"Did you gather?" Malone asked.

The older man nodded and held up four soiled fingers. "Each time we rode from the wall, out among their horde, they received us warmly and the discussions were not without progress. In the end, we came to terms."

"So tell me. What is your message the master needs to know?"

Claridon offered a look of annoyance. "You're an insolent one."

"What do you mean? I have much respect for you, brother. That's why I'm here. Brother Lars Nelle told me you were a man to be trusted."

The inquiry seemed to tax the older man's brain. Then recognition came to Claridon's face. "I recall him. A courageous warrior. Fought with much honor. Yes. Yes. I do recall him. Brother Lars Nelle. God rest his soul."

"Why do you say that?"

"You haven't heard?" There was incredulousness in the tone. "He died in battle."

"Where?"

Claridon shook his head. "That I don't know, only that he now dwells with the Lord. We said a mass for him and offered many prayers."

"Did you break bread with brother Nelle?"

"Many times."

"He ever speak of his quest?"

Claridon moved to his right, but kept his gaze on Malone. "Why do you ask that of me?"

The fidgety little man started to circle him, like a cat. He decided to up the ante in whatever game the man's loose mind envisioned. He grabbed Claridon by the jersey, lifting the wiry little man off the floor. Stephanie took a step forward, but he urged her back with a quick glance.

"The master is displeased," he said. "Most displeased."

"In what way?" Claridon's face was suffused with a deep blush of shame.

"With you."

"I've done nothing."

"You will not answer my question."

"What is it you wish?" More astonishment.

"Tell me of brother Nelle's quest."

Claridon shook his head. "I know nothing. The brother did not confide in me."

Fear crept into the eyes staring back at him, accented by utter confusion. He released his grip. Claridon shrank away toward the glass wall and snatched up a roll of paper towels and a spray bottle. He doused the panes and began cleaning glass that displayed not a speck of anything.

He turned to Stephanie. "We're wasting our time here."

"What tipped you off?"

"I had to try." He recalled the note sent to Ernst Scoville and decided to make one last attempt. He fished the paper from his pocket and approached Claridon. Beyond the glass, a few miles west, rose the pale gray walls of Villeneuve-les-Avignon.

"The cardinals live there," Claridon said, never stopping his cleaning. "Insolent princes, all of them."

Malone knew that cardinals once flocked to the hills outside Avignon's town walls and erected country retreats as a way to escape the town's congestion and the pope's constant eye. Those livrees were all gone, but the ancient city remained, still quiet, countrified and crumbling.

"We are the cardinals' protectors," Malone said, keeping up the pretense.

Claridon spat on the floor. "The pox to them all."

"Read this."

The little man took the paper and raked his gaze over the words. A look of astonishment filled the man's wide eyes. "I've stolen nothing from the Order. That I swear." The voice was rising. "This accusation is false. I would gladly pledge an oath to my God. I've stolen nothing."

The man was seeing on the page only what he wanted. Malone took back the paper.

"This is a waste of time, Cotton," Stephanie said.

Claridon drew close to him. "Who is this vixen? Why is she here?"

He nearly smiled. "She is brother Nelle's widow."

"I was not aware that the brother had been married."

He recalled some of what he'd read from the Templar book two nights before. "As you know, many brothers were once married. But she was an unfaithful one, so the bond was dissolved and she was banished to a convent."

Claridon shook his head. "She looks difficult. What is she doing here?"

"She seeks the truth about her husband."

Claridon faced Stephanie and pointed with one of his stubby fingers. "You are evil," the man shouted. "Brother Nelle sought penance with the brotherhood because of your sins. Shame on you."

Stephanie had the good sense to simply bow her head. "I seek nothing but forgiveness."

Claridon's face softened at her humility. "And you shall have mine, sister. Go in peace."

Malone motioned and they headed for the door. Claridon retreated to his chair.

"So sad," she said. "And frightening. Losing one's mind is terrifying. Lars often spoke of the malady and feared it."

"Don't we all." He was still holding the note found at Ernst Scoville's house. He looked at the writing again and read the last three lines:

    In Avignon find Claridan. He can point the way. But prend garde l'Ingenieur

"I wonder why the sender thought Claridon could point the way to anywhere?" he asked. "We have zero to go on. This trail may be at a dead end."

"Not true."

The words were spoken in English and came from across the solarium.

Malone turned as Royce Claridon stood from the chair. All confusion was gone from the man's bearded face. "I can provide that direction. And the advice given in that note should be heeded. You must beware the engineer. She, and others, are the reason I'm hiding here."

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