ABBEY DES FONTAINES

THE SENESCHAL FOLLOWED GEOFFREY THROUGH THE WARREN OF vaulted corridors. He hoped Geoffrey's assessment was correct and that all of the brothers were in the chapel for noontime prayers.

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So far they'd seen no one.

They made their way to the palais that housed the upper hall, administrative offices, and public rooms. When, in times past, the abbey had been sealed from outside contact, no one not of the Order was allowed beyond its ground-floor entrance hall. But when tourism blossomed in the twentieth century, as other abbeys opened their doors, so as not to arouse suspicions the Abbey des Fontaines followed suit, offering visits and informational sessions, many of which occurred in the palais.

They entered the expansive foyer. Windows filled with coarse greenish glass cast dull shafts of sunlight onto a checkered tile floor. A mammoth wooden crucifix dominated one wall, a tapestry another.

At the entrance to another passageway, a hundred feet across the lofty expanse, stood Raymond de Roquefort, five brothers behind him, all armed with handguns.

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"Leaving?" de Roquefort asked.

The seneschal froze, but Geoffrey raised his weapon and fired twice. The men on the other side dove for the floor as bullets pinged off the wall.

"That way," Geoffrey said, motioning left to another passageway.

Two shots screamed past them.

Geoffrey sent another bullet across the foyer and they assumed a defensive position just inside the corridor, near a parlor where merchants once brought their wares for display.

"All right," de Roquefort called out. "You have my attention. Is bloodshed necessary?"

"That's entirely up to you," the seneschal said.

"I thought your oath was precious. Is it not your duty to obey your master? I commanded you to stay in your quarters."

"Did you? I forgot that part."

"Interesting how one set of rules apply to you, and another governs the rest of us. Even so, can we not be reasonable?"

He wondered about the show of civility. "What do you propose?"

"I assumed you would attempt an escape. Sext seemed the best time, so I was waiting. You see, I know you well. Your ally, though, surprises me. There is courage and loyalty there. I would like you both to join my cause."

"And do what?"

"Help us reclaim our destiny, instead of hindering the effort."

Something was wrong. De Roquefort was posturing. Then it hit him. To buy time.

He whirled around.

An armed man rounded the corner, fifty feet away. Geoffrey saw him, too. The seneschal fired one shot into the lower part of the man's cassock. He heard the smack of metal tearing flesh and a shriek as the man dropped to the flagstones. May God forgive him. Rule forbid the harming of another Christian. But there was no choice. He had to escape this prison.

"Come on," he said.

Geoffrey took the lead and they bolted forward, leaping over the brother who writhed in pain.

They turned the corner and kept moving.

Footsteps could be heard behind them.

"I hope you know what you're doing," he said to Geoffrey.

They rounded another neck in the passageway. Geoffrey stopped at a partially open door and they slipped inside, closing it gently behind them. A second later men ran past, their footfalls fading.

"The route ends at the gymnasium. It won't take them long to see we're not there," he said.

They slipped back out, breathless with excitement, and headed toward the gym, but instead of heading right at an intersection they went left, toward the dining hall.

He was wondering why the gunshots had not aroused more brothers. But the music in the chapel was always loud, making it hard to hear anything beyond the walls. Still, if de Roquefort expected him to flee, it would be reasonable to assume that more brothers were waiting around the abbey.

The long tables and benches in the dining hall were empty. Smells of stewed tomatoes and okra wafted from the kitchen. In the speaker's niche carved three feet up one wall, a robed brother stood, rifle in hand.

The seneschal dove under a table, using his knapsack for cushion, and Geoffrey sought refuge beneath another table.

A bullet burrowed into the thick oak top.

Geoffrey scampered out and ticked off two shots, one of which found the attacker. The man in the alcove teetered, then dropped to the floor.

"You kill him?" the seneschal asked.

"I hope not. I think I got his shoulder."

"This is getting out of hand."

"Too late now."

They came to their feet. Men bolted from the kitchen, all dressed in food-stained aprons. The cooking staff. Not a threat.

"Back inside, now," the seneschal screamed, and none disobeyed.

"Seneschal," Geoffrey said, anticipation in his tone.

"Lead on."

They left the dining hall through another passageway. Voices were heard behind them, accompanied by the rapid sound of leather soles slapping stone. The shooting of two brothers would motivate even the meekest among their pursuers. The seneschal was angry that he'd fallen into the snare de Roquefort had laid for him. Any credibility he once possessed had vanished. No one would follow him any longer, and he cursed his foolishness.

They entered the dormitory wing. A door at the far end of the corridor was closed. Geoffrey ran ahead and tested the latch. Locked.

"Seems our options are limited," the seneschal said.

"Come," Geoffrey said.

They sprinted into the dormitory, a large oblong chamber with bunk beds standing perpendicular, in military style, beneath a row of lancet windows.

A shout came from the hallway. More voices. Excited. People were headed their way.

"There's no other way out of here," he said.

They stood halfway down the row of empty beds. Behind them was the entrance, about to be filled with adversaries. Ahead, lavatories.

"Into the bathrooms," he said. "Let's hope they move on."

Geoffrey ran to the far end where two doors led into separate facilities. "In here."

"No. Let's split up. You go into one. Hide in a stall and stand on a toilet. I'll take the other. If we're quiet, we might get lucky. Besides--" He hesitated, not liking the reality. "--it's our only play."

DE ROQUEFORT EXAMINED THE BULLET WOUND. THE MAN'S shoulder was bleeding, the brother in agony, but he was showing remarkable control, fighting hard not to go into shock. He'd stationed the shooter in the dining hall thinking the seneschal might eventually make his way there. And he'd been right. What he'd underestimated was his opponents' resolve. Brothers took an oath never to harm another brother. He'd thought the seneschal enough of an idealist that he'd stay true to that oath. Yet two men were now headed to the infirmary. He hoped neither would have to be taken to the hospital in Perpignan or Mont Louis. That might lead to questions. The abbey's healer was a qualified surgeon and possessed a well-equipped operating room, one that had been used many times in years past, but there were limits to its effectiveness.

"Take him to the physician and tell him to mend them here," he ordered a lieutenant. He checked his watch. Forty minutes before prayers at Sext ended.

Another brother approached. "The door at the far end, beyond the dorm entrance, is still locked, as you ordered."

He knew they'd not come back through the dining hall. The wounded brother had made no such report. Which left only one alternative. He reached for the man's revolver.

"Stay here. Allow no one to pass. I'll handle this myself."

THE SENESCHAL ENTERED THE BRIGHTLY LIT BATHROOM. ROWS OF toilet stalls, urinals, and stainless-steel sinks encased by marble counters filled the space. He heard Geoffrey in the adjacent room, positioning himself in a stall. He stood rigid and tried to calm his nerves. He'd never been in a situation like this before. He snatched a few deep breaths then turned back and grasped the door handle, easing it open half an inch and peering through the crack.

The dormitory was still empty.

Perhaps the search had moved on. The abbey was lined like an ant mound with corridors. All they would need was a few precious minutes to make an escape. He cursed himself again for weakness. His years of careful thought and deliberate intent had all been wasted. He was now a fugitive with more than four hundred brothers about to be his enemy. I simply respect the power of our adversaries. That's what he'd told his master just a day ago. He shook his head. Some respect he'd shown. So far, he'd done nothing smart.

The door leading from the dormitory swung open and Raymond de Roquefort stepped inside.

His adversary locked the ponderous bolt on the door.

Any hope the seneschal may have possessed vanished.

The showdown was to be here and now.

De Roquefort held a revolver and studied the room, surely wondering where his prey might be. They'd not fooled him. But the seneschal had no intention of risking Geoffrey's life. He needed to draw his pursuer's attention. So he released his grip on the handle and allowed the door to close with a soft thud.

DE ROQUEFORT CAUGHT A FRACTION OF MOVEMENT AND HEARD the sound of a door, hydraulically hinged, gently nudge a metal frame. His gaze shot to the back of the dormitory and one of the lavatory doors.

He'd been right.

They were here.

Time to end this problem.

THE SENESCHAL SURVEYED THE BATHROOM. FLUORESCENT LIGHT illuminated everything in a daylight glow. A long wall mirror above the sink counter made the room appear even larger. The floor was tile, the toilets separated by marble partitions. Everything had been built with care and designed to last.

He ducked into the second stall and closed the swinging door. He hopped onto the toilet and folded himself over the partition until he could close and lock the doors to the first and third stalls. He then shrunk back, still standing on the toilet, and hoped de Roquefort took the bait.

He needed something to draw attention. So he freed the toilet paper from its holder.

Air rushed out as the bathroom's door swung open.

Soles swept across the floor.

He stood on the toilet, gun in hand, and told himself to breathe slow.

DE ROQUEFORT POINTED THE SHORT-BARRELED AUTOMATIC toward the stalls. The seneschal was here. He knew it. But where? Did he dare take a moment to bend down and examine the gap at the bottom? Three doors were closed, three cocked open.

No.

He decided to fire.

THE SENESCHAL REASONED IT WOULD TAKE ONLY A MOMENT BEFORE de Roquefort started shooting, so he flipped the toilet paper holder beneath the partition, into the first stall.

Metal found tile with a clank.

DE ROQUEFORT FIRED A BURST INTO THE FIRST STALL AND KICKED the door inward with his sandal. Marble dust clouded the air. He unleashed another round that obliterated the toilet and the plaster on the wall.

Water flooded out.

But the cubicle was empty.

IN THE INSTANT BEFORE DE ROQUEFORT REALIZED HIS MISTAKE, the seneschal fired over the stalls, sending two slugs into his enemy's chest. The gunshots reverberated off the walls, the sound waves racking his brain.

He watched as de Roquefort fell back across the marble counter and bucked as though punched in the chest. But he noticed no blood flowed from the wounds. The man seemed more dazed than anything. Then he spotted a blue-gray surface beneath tears in the white cassock.

A bulletproof vest.

He readjusted his aim and fired for the head.

DE ROQUEFORT SAW A SHOT COMING AND MUSTERED THE strength to roll off the counter just as the bullet left the barrel. His body skidded across the wet floor, through the puddled water, toward the outer door.

Bits of porcelain and stone crunched beneath him. The mirror exploded, shattering in a clangor then pulverizing onto the counter. The confines of the washroom were tight and his opponent was unexpectedly brave. So he retreated toward the door and slipped out just as a second shot careened off the wall behind him.

THE SENESCHAL JUMPED FROM THE TOILET AND BURST FROM THE stall. He crept toward the door and prepared himself for an exit. De Roquefort would surely be waiting. But he wasn't going to shy away. Not now. He owed this fight to his master. The Gospels were clear. Jesus came not to bring peace, but a sword. And so did he.

He steeled himself, readied the gun, and yanked open the door.

The first thing he saw was Raymond de Roquefort. The next was Geoffrey, his gun firmly nestled to the master's neck, de Roquefort's weapon lying on the floor.

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