THIRTY SEVEN

MALONE OPENED HIS EYES, TESTED HIS SORE NECK, AND DETERMINED nothing seemed broken. He massaged the swollen muscles with his open palm and shook off the effects of being unconscious. He glanced at his watch. Eleven twenty PM. He'd been out about an hour.

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Stephanie lay a few feet away. He crawled toward her, lifted her head, and gently shook her. She blinked her eyes and tried to focus on him.

"That hurt," she muttered.

"Tell me about it." He stared around the expansive hall. Outside, the rain had slackened. "We need to get out of here."

"What about our friends?"

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"If they wanted us dead, we would be. I think they're through with us. They have the notebook, the journal, and Claridon. We're unnecessary." He noticed the gun lying nearby and motioned. "That's what kind of threat they think we are."

Stephanie rubbed her head. "This was a bad idea, Cotton. I should have never reacted after that notebook was sent to me. If I hadn't called Ernst Scoville, he'd probably still be alive. And I should have never involved you."

"I believe I insisted." He slowly came to his feet. "We need to leave. At some point cleaning personnel have to come through here. And I don't feel like answering any police questions."

He helped Stephanie up.

"Thanks, Cotton. For everything. I appreciate all that you did."

"You make it sound like this is over."

"It is for me. Whatever Lars and Mark were looking for will just have to be found by somebody else. I'm going home."

"What about Claridon?"

"What can we do? We have no idea who took him or where he might be. And what would we tell the police? The Knights Templar have kidnapped an inmate from a local asylum? Get real. I'm afraid he's on his own."

"We know the woman's name," he said. "Claridon mentioned it was Cassiopeia Vitt. He told us where she is. Givors. We could find her."

"And do what? Thank her for saving our hides? I think she's on her own, too, and more than capable of handling herself. Like you say, we're not deemed important any longer."

She was right.

"We need to go home, Cotton. There's nothing here for either of us."

Right again.

They found their way out of the palace and returned to the rental car. After losing the first tail outside Rennes, Malone knew they'd not been followed to Avignon, so he assumed either men were already waiting in the city, which was unlikely, or some sort of electronic surveillance had been employed. Which meant the chase and shots before he managed to send the Renault into the mud was a dog-and-pony show designed to rock him to sleep.

Which worked.

But they were no longer deemed players in whatever game was unfolding, so he decided they would head back to Rennes-le-Chateau and spend the night there.

The drive took nearly two hours and they passed through the village's main gate just before two AM. A fresh wind raked the summit and the Milky Way streaked overhead as they walked from the car park. Not a light burned within the walls. The streets were still damp from yesterday's weather.

Malone was tired. "Let's get a little rest and we'll leave out around noontime. I'm sure there's a flight you can catch from Paris to Atlanta."

At the door, Stephanie opened the lock. Inside, Malone flipped on a lamp in the den and immediately noticed a rucksack tossed into a chair that neither he nor Stephanie had brought.

He reached for the gun at his belt.

Movement from the bedroom caught his eye. A man appeared in the doorway and leveled a Glock at him.

Malone brought his weapon up. "Who the hell are you?"

The man was young, maybe early thirties, with the same short hair and stocky build that he'd seen in abundance over the past few days. The face, though handsome, was set for combat--the eyes like black marbles--and he handled the weapon with assurance. But Malone sensed a hesitancy, as if the other man was unsure of friend or foe.

"I asked who you are."

"Lower the gun, Geoffrey," came a voice from inside the bedroom.

"Are you sure?"

"Please."

The weapon came down. Malone lowered his, too.

Another man stepped from the shadows.

He was long-limbed and squarely built with close-cropped auburn hair. He, too, held a pistol and it took Malone only an instant to register the familiar cleft, swarthy skin, and gentle eyes from the photo that still angled on the table to his left.

He heard the breath leave Stephanie.

"My God in heaven," she whispered.

He was shocked, too.

Standing before him was Mark Nelle.

STEPHANIE'S BODY SHOOK. HER HEART POUNDED. FOR A MOMENT she had to tell herself to breathe.

Her only child was standing across the room.

She wanted to rush to him, to tell him how sorry she was for all their differences, how glad she was to see him. But her muscles would not respond.

"Mother," Mark said. "Your son is back from the grave."

She caught the coolness in his tone and instantly sensed that his heart was still hard. "Where have you been?"

"It's a long story."

No shade of compassion tempered his stare. She waited for him to explain, but he said nothing.

Malone came toward her, placed a hand on her shoulder, and broke the awkward pause. "Why don't you sit."

She felt disconnected from her life, a jumble of confusion violating her thoughts, and she was having a hard time settling her anxiety. But dammit, she was the head of one of the most highly specialized units within the U.S. government. She dealt with crises on a daily basis. True, none was as personal as the one now facing her from across the room, but if Mark wanted their first reception to be a chilly one, then so be it, she'd not give any of them the satisfaction of thinking emotion ruled her.

So she sat and said, "Okay, Mark. Tell us your long story."

Mark Nelle opened his eyes. He was no longer eight thousand feet high in the French Pyrenees, wearing spike shoes and carrying a pick, hiking a rough trail in search of Berenger Sauniere's cache. He was inside a room of stone and wood with a blackened beamed ceiling. The man standing over him was tall and gaunt with gray fuzz for hair and a silver beard as thick as fleece. The man's eyes were a peculiar shade of violet that he could not recall ever having seen before.

"Careful," the man said in English. "You're still weak."

"Where am I?"

"A place that has been for centuries one of safety."

"Does it have a name?"

"Abbey des Fontaines."

"That's miles from where I was."

"Two of my subordinates were following and made rescue when the snow began to engulf you. I'm told the avalanche was quite intense."

He could still feel the mountain as it shook, its summit disintegrating like a great cathedral falling apart. An entire ridge had shattered above him and snow had poured down as blood would from an open wound. The chill still gripped his bones. Then he recalled tumbling downward. But had he heard the man standing over him right?

"Men were following me?"

"I ordered it. As with your father before you sometimes."

"You knew my father?"

"His theories always interested me. So I made a point to know both him and what he knew."

He tried to sit up from the bed, but his right side jarred with electric pain. He winced and clutched at his stomach.

"You have broken ribs. I, too, in youth, broke mine once. It hurts."

He lay back down. "I was brought here?"

The old man nodded. "My brothers are trained to be resourceful."

He'd noticed the white cassock and rope sandals. "This a monastery?"

"It's the place you've been seeking."

He was unsure how to respond.

"I am master of the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon. We are the Templars. Your father sought us for decades. You, too, have sought us. So I decided the time was finally right."

"For what?"

"That's for you to decide. But I am hoping you choose to join us."

"Why would I do that?"

"Your life is, I'm sorry to say, in utter chaos. You miss your father more than you could ever voice and he's been dead a long six years now. You're estranged from your mother, which is difficult in more ways than can be imagined. Professionally you're a teacher, but you're not satisfied. You've made some attempts to vindicate your father's beliefs, but have been unable to make much progress. That's why you were in the Pyrenees--searching for the reason Abbe Sauniere spent so much time there when he was alive. Sauniere once scoured the region looking for something. Surely you found the coach and horse rental receipts among Sauniere's papers that evidence the fees he paid to the local vendors. Amazing, isn't it, how a humble priest could afford such luxuries as a private coach and horse."

"What do you know of my father and mother?"

"I know much."

"You expect me to believe that you're the master of the Templars?"

"I can see how that premise might be hard to accept. I, too, had trouble with it when the brothers first approached me decades ago. Why don't we, for now, concentrate on mending your wounds and take this slow."

"I stayed in that bed for three weeks," Mark said. "After, my movements were restricted to certain parts of the abbey, but the master and I spoke often. Finally, I agreed to stay on and took the oath."

"Why would you do such a thing?" Stephanie asked.

"Let's be realistic, Mother. You and I had not spoken in years. Dad was gone. The master was right. I was at a dead end. Dad searched for the Templar treasure, their archives, and for the Templars themselves. One-third of what he'd been looking for had just found me. I wanted to stay."

To calm her growing agitation, Stephanie allowed her attention to stray to the younger man standing behind Mark. An aureole of freshness hovered about him, but she also registered interest, as if he were hearing things for the first time. "Your name is Geoffrey?" she asked, recalling what Mark had called him earlier.

He nodded.

"You didn't know I was Mark's mother?"

"I know little of other brothers. It is Rule. No brother speaks of himself to another. We're of the brotherhood. From where we came is immaterial to who we are now."

"Sounds impersonal."

"I consider it illuminating."

"Geoffrey sent you a package," Mark said. "Dad's journal. Did you receive it?"

"That's why I'm here."

"I had it with me the day of the avalanche. The master kept it once I became a brother. I discovered it gone after he died."

"Your master is dead?" Malone asked.

"We have a new leader," Mark said. "But he's a demon."

Malone described the man who'd confronted him and Stephanie in the Roskilde cathedral.

"That's Raymond de Roquefort," Mark said. "How do you know him?"

"We're old friends," Malone said, telling them some of what had just happened in Avignon.

"Claridon is surely de Roquefort's prisoner," Mark said. "God help Royce."

"He was terrified of the Templars," Malone said.

"With that one, he has good reason."

"You still haven't said why you stayed at the abbey for the past five years," Stephanie said.

"What I sought was there. The master became a father to me. He was a kind, gentle man, full of compassion."

She caught the message. "Unlike me?"

"Now is not the time for this discussion."

"And when would be a good time? I thought you were dead, Mark. But you were secluded in an abbey, commingling with Templars--"

"Your son was our seneschal," Geoffrey said. "He and the master ruled us well. He was a blessing to our Order."

"He was second in charge?" Malone asked. "How'd you rise so fast?"

"The seneschal is chosen by the master. He alone determines who is qualified," Geoffrey said. "And he chose well."

Malone smiled. "You have a devoted associate."

"Geoffrey is a wealth of information, though none of us is going to learn a thing from him until he's ready to tell us."

"Care to explain that one?" Malone asked.

Mark spoke, telling them what had happened over the past forty-eight hours. Stephanie listened with a mixture of fascination and anger. Her son talked of the brotherhood with reverence.

"The Templars," Mark said, "rose from an obscure band of nine knights, supposedly protecting pilgrims on the way to the Holy Land, to a multicontinent conglomerate composed of tens of thousands of brothers spread over nine thousand estates. Kings, queens, and popes cowed to them. No one, until Philip IV in 1307, successfully challenged them. You know why?"

"Military prowess, I'd assume," Malone said.

Mark shook his head. "It wasn't force that gave them strength, it was knowledge. They possessed information no one else was privy to."

Malone sighed. "Mark, we don't know each other, but it's the middle of the night, I'm sleepy, and my neck is killing me. Could we skip the riddles and get to the point?"

"Among the Templar treasure was some proof that related to Christ on the cross."

The room went silent as the words took hold.

"What kind of proof?" Malone asked.

"I don't know. But it's called the Great Devise. The proof was found in the Holy Land beneath the Jerusalem Temple, hidden away sometime between the first century and AD 70, when the Temple was destroyed. It was transported by the Templars back to France and hidden away, known only to the highest officers. When Jacques de Molay, the Templar master at the time of the Purge, was burned at the stake in 1314, the location of that proof died with him. Philip IV tried to obtain the information and failed. Dad believed that the abbes Bigou and Sauniere at Rennes-le-Chateau succeeded. He was convinced that Sauniere actually located the Templar cache."

"So was the master," Geoffrey said.

"See what I mean?" Mark glanced back at his friend. "Say the magic words and we get information."

"The master made clear that Bigou and Sauniere were right," Geoffrey said.

"About what?" Mark asked.

"He didn't say. Only that they were right."

Mark looked toward them. "Like you, Mr. Malone, I've had my fill of riddles."

"Call me Cotton."

"Interesting name. How'd you get it?

"Long story. I'll tell you sometime."

"Mark," Stephanie said, "you can't really believe that there exists any definitive proof relating to Christ on the cross? Your father never even went that far."

"How would you know?" The question carried bitterness.

"I know how he--"

"You don't know anything, Mother. That's your problem. You never knew anything about what Dad thought. You believed everything he sought was a fantasy, that he was wasting his talents. You never loved him enough to let him be himself. You thought he sought fame and treasure. No. He sought the truth. Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again. That's what interested him."

Stephanie collected her scattered senses and told herself not to react to the rebuke.

"Dad was a serious academician. His work had merit, he just never talked openly about what he really sought. When he discovered Rennes-le-Chateau in the seventies and told the world about Sauniere's story, that was simply a way to raise money. What may or may not have happened there is a good tale. Millions of people enjoyed reading about it regardless of the embellishments. You were one of the few who didn't."

"Your father and I tried to work through our differences."

"How? By you telling him he was wasting his life, hurting his family? By telling him he was a failure?"

"All right, dammit, I was wrong." Her voice was a shout. "You want me to say it again? I was wrong." She sat up from the chair, a desperate resolution vesting her with power. "I screwed up. That what you want to hear? In my mind, you've been dead five years. Now here you are, and all you want is for me to admit I was wrong. Fine. If I could tell your father that, I would. If I could beg his forgiveness, I would. But I can't." The words were coming fast, emotion charging her, and she intended to say it all while she possessed the courage. "I came here to see what I could do. To try to follow through on whatever it was Lars and you thought important. That's the only reason I came. I thought I was finally doing the right thing. But don't shoot that sanctimonious crap at me anymore. You screwed up, too. The difference between us is that I learned something over the past five years."

She slumped back in the chair, feeling better, if even in a small way. But she realized the gulf between them had just widened and a shudder passed through her.

"It's the middle of the night," Malone finally said. "Why don't we sleep a little and deal with all this in a few hours."

THIRTY EIGHT

SUNDAY, JUNE 25

ABBEY DES FONTAINES

5:25 AM

DE ROQUEFORT SLAMMED THE DOOR SHUT BEHIND HIM. THE iron clanged against the metal frame with the retort of a rifle, and the lock engaged.

"Is all ready?" he asked one of the assistants.

"As specified."

Good. Time to make his point. He strolled ahead through the subterranean corridor. He was three floors below ground level, in a part of the abbey first occupied a thousand years ago. Endless construction had transformed the rooms surrounding him into a labyrinth of forgotten chambers, now used mainly for cool storage.

He'd returned to the abbey three hours ago with Lars Nelle's notebook and Royce Claridon. The loss of Pierres Gravees du Languedoc, the book from the auction, weighed heavy on his mind. He could only hope the notebook and Claridon would supply him with enough of the missing pieces.

And the dark woman--she was a problem.

His world was distinctly male. His experience with women minimal. They were a different breed, of that he was sure, but the female he'd confronted on the Pont St.-Benezet seemed almost alien. She'd never shown even a hint of fear, and handled herself with the cunning of a lioness. She'd lured him straight to the bridge, knowing precisely how she planned to make her escape. Her only mistake was in losing the journal. He had to know her identity.

But first things first.

He entered a chamber topped by pine rafters that had remained unaltered since the time of Napoleon. A long table spanned the room's center, upon which lay Royce Claridon, prone on his back, his arms and legs strapped to steel spikes.

"Monsieur Claridon, I have little time and I need much from you. Your cooperation will make everything so much simpler."

"What do you expect me to say?" Desperation laced the words.

"Only the truth."

"I know little."

"Come now, let us not start with a lie."

"I know nothing."

He shrugged. "I heard you in the archives. You are a reservoir of information."

"All that I said in Avignon came to me then."

De Roquefort motioned to a brother who stood across the room. The man stepped forward and laid an open tin container on the table. With three extended fingers, the brother scooped out a sticky white glob.

De Roquefort pulled off Claridon's shoes and socks.

Claridon raised his head to see. "What are you doing? What is that?"

"Cooking grease."

The brother rubbed the grease onto Claridon's bare feet.

"What are you doing?"

"Surely you know your history. When the Templars were arrested in 1307, many means were used to extract confessions. Teeth were pulled out, the empty sockets probed with metal. Wedges were driven under nails. Heat was used in a variety of imaginative ways. One technique involved greasing the feet, then exposing the oiled skin to flame. Slowly the feet would cook, the skin falling away like meat from a tenderloin. Many brothers succumbed to that agony. Those who managed to survive all confessed. Even Jacques de Molay fell victim."

The brother finished with the grease and withdrew from the room.

"In our Chronicles, there's a report of one Templar who, after being subjected to foot burning and confessing, was carried before his inquisitors clutching a bag with his blackened foot bones. He was allowed to keep them as a remembrance of his ordeal. Wasn't that kind of his inquisitors?"

He stepped over to a charcoal brazier that burned in one corner. He'd ordered it prepared an hour ago and its coals were now white hot.

"I would assume you thought this fire was to warm the chamber. Below ground is chilly here in the mountains. But I had this flame forged just for you."

He rolled the cart with the brazier within three feet of Claridon's bare feet.

"The idea, I'm told, is for the heat to be low and steady. Not intense--that tends to vaporize the grease too quickly. Just as with a steak, a slow flame works best."

Claridon's eyes went wide.

"When my brethren were tortured in the fourteenth century, it was thought God would fortify the innocent to handle the pain, so only the guilty would actually confess. Also--and quite convenient, I might add--any confession extracted from torture was nonretractable. So once a person confessed, that was the end of the matter."

He pushed the brazier to within twelve inches of the bare skin.

Claridon screamed.

"So soon, monsieur? Nothing has even happened yet. Have you no endurance?"

"What do you want?"

"A great many things. But we can start with the significance of Don Miguel de Manara Reading the Rules of the Caridad."

"There's a clue there that relates to the abbe Bigou and the tombstone of Marie d'Hautpoul de Blanchefort. Lars Nelle found a cryptogram. He believed the key to solving it lay in the painting." Claridon was talking fast.

"I heard all that in the archives. I want to know what you failed to say."

"I know nothing more. Please, my feet are frying."

"That's the idea." He reached into his cassock and removed Lars Nelle's journal.

"You have it?" Claridon said in amazement.

"Why so shocked?"

"His widow. She possessed it."

"Not anymore." He'd read most of the entries on the trip back from Avignon. He thumbed through until he found the cryptogram and held the open pages up for Claridon to see. "Is that what Lars Nelle found?"

"Oui. Oui."

"What's the message?"

"I don't know. Truly, I don't. Can you not remove the heat? Please, I beg you. My feet are in agony."

He decided a show of compassion might loosen the tongue quicker. He slid the cart a foot back.

"Thank you. Thank you." Claridon was breathing fast.

"Keep talking."

"Lars Nelle found the cryptogram in a manuscript that Noel Corbu wrote in the sixties."

"No one has ever found that manuscript."

"Lars did. It was with a priest, whom Corbu entrusted the pages to before he died in 1968."

He knew about Corbu from the reports one of his predecessors had recorded. That marshal, too, had searched for the Great Devise. "What about the cryptogram?"

"The painting was referenced by Abbe Bigou himself, in the parish register, shortly before he fled France for Spain, so Lars believed it held the key to the puzzle. But he died before deciphering it."

De Roquefort did not possess the lithograph of the painting. The woman had taken it, along with the book from the auction. Yet that could hardly be the only recorded image of Reading the Rules of the Caridad. Now that he knew what to look for, he'd find another.

"And what did the son know? Mark Nelle. What was his knowledge?"

"Not much. He was a teacher in Toulouse. He searched as a hobby on weekends. Not all that serious. But he was looking for Sauniere's hiding place in the mountains when he was killed in an avalanche."

"He did not die there."

"Of course he did. Five years ago."

De Roquefort stepped close. "Mark Nelle has lived here, in this abbey for the past five years. He was pulled from the snows and brought here. Our master took him in and made him our seneschal. He also wanted him to be our next master. But thanks to me, he failed. Mark Nelle fled these walls this afternoon. For the past five years he's scoured through our records, looking for clues, while you hid like a cockroach afraid of the light in a mental asylum."

"You speak nonsense."

"I speak truth. Here is where he stayed, while you cowered in fear."

"You and your brothers were who I feared. Lars feared you, too."

"He had reason to be scared. He lied to me, several times, and I detest deceit. He was given an opportunity to repent, but he chose to offer more lies."

"You hung him from that bridge, didn't you? I always knew that."

"He was a nonbeliever, an atheist. I believe you understand that I'll do what is necessary to achieve my goal. I wear the white cassock. I'm master of this abbey. Nearly five hundred brothers await my orders. Our Rule is clear. The order of the master is as if Christ commanded it, for it was Christ who said through the mouth of David, Ob auditu auris obedivit mihi. He obeyed me as soon as he heard me. That, too, should place fear in your heart." He motioned with the journal. "Now tell me what this puzzle says."

"Lars thought it revealed the location of whatever it was Sauniere found."

He reached for the cart. "I swear to you, your feet will become nothing but stubs if you don't answer my question."

Claridon's eyes went wide. "What must I do to prove my sincerity? I only know parts of the story. Lars was like that. He shared little. You have his journal."

An element of desperation clothed the words with believability. "I'm still listening."

"I know Sauniere found the cryptogram in the Rennes church when he was replacing the altar. He also found a crypt where he discovered that Marie d'Hautpoul de Blanchefort was not buried outside in the parish close, but beneath the church."

He'd read all that in the journal, but he what he wanted to know was, "How did Lars Nelle learn that?"

"He found the information about the crypt in old books discovered at Monfort-Lamaury, the fief of Simon de Montfort, which described the Rennes church in great detail. Then he found more references in Corbu's manuscript."

He despised hearing the name Simon de Montfort--another thirteenth-century opportunist who commanded the Albigensian Crusade that ravaged the Languedoc in the name of the Church. If not for him, the Templars would have achieved their own separate state, which would have surely prevented their later downfall. The one flaw in the Order's early existence had been its dependency on secular rule. Why the first few masters felt compelled to link themselves so closely with kingship had always perplexed him.

"Sauniere learned that his predecessor, the abbe Bigou, erected Marie d'Hautpoul's tombstone. He thought the writing on it, and the reference Bigou left in the parish records about the painting, were clues."

"They are ridiculously conspicuous."

"Not to an eighteenth-century mind," Claridon said. "Most were illiterate then. So the simplest of codes, even words themselves, would have been quite effective. And actually they have been--staying hidden all this time."

Something from the Chronicles flashed through de Roquefort's mind, from a time after the Purge. The only clue recorded to the Great Devise's location. Where is it best to hide a pebble? The answer suddenly became obvious. "On the ground," he muttered.

"What did you say?"

His mind snapped back to reality. "Can you recall what you saw in the painting?"

Claridon's head bobbed up and down. "Oui, monsieur. Every detail."

Which gave the fool some value.

"And I also have the drawing," Claridon said.

Had he heard right? "The drawing of the gravestone?"

"The notes I made in the archive. When the lights went out, I snatched the paper from the table."

He liked what he was hearing. "Where is it?"

"In my pocket."

He decided to make a deal. "How about a collaboration? We both have certain knowledge. Why don't we pool our efforts."

"And how would that benefit me?"

"Having your feet intact would be an immediate reward."

"Quite right, monsieur. I like that a great deal."

He decided to appeal to what he knew the man wanted. "We seek the Great Devise for reasons different from you. Once it's found, I'm sure a certain monetary remuneration can compensate you for your trouble." Then he made his point crystal clear. "And besides, I'll not let you go. And if you manage to escape, I will find you."

"I seem to have little choice."

"You know they left you to us."

Claridon said nothing.

"Malone and Stephanie Nelle. They made no effort to save you. Instead, they saved themselves. I heard you pleading for help in the archives. So did they. They did nothing." He allowed his words to take root, hoping he'd correctly judged the man's weak character. "Together, Monsieur Claridon, we could be successful. I possess Lars Nelle's journal and have access to an archive you can only imagine. You have the gravestone information and know things I don't. We both want the same thing, so let's both discover it."

De Roquefort gripped a knife lying on the table between Claridon's outstretched legs and severed the bindings.

"Come, we have work to do."

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