FIFTY-SEVEN

 ABBEY DES FONTAINES

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11:40 AM

DE ROQUEFORT STARED ACROSS THE TABLE AT THE CHAPLAIN. THE priest had been waiting for him when he returned to the abbey from Givors. Which was fine. After their confrontation yesterday, he needed to speak with the Italian, too.

"You will not ever question me," he made clear. He possessed the authority to remove the chaplain if, as Rule stated, he caused disturbances or was more a hindrance than an asset.

"It's my job to be your conscience. Chaplains have served masters in this way since the Beginning."

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What went unsaid was the fact that any decision to remove the chaplain had to be approved by the brotherhood. Which could prove difficult, since this man was popular. So he retreated a bit. "You'll not challenge me before the brothers."

"I was not challenging you. Merely noting that the deaths of two men weigh heavily on all of our minds."

"And not on mine?"

"You must tread carefully."

They were sitting behind the closed door of his chamber, the window open, the distant waterfall a gentle roar. "That approach has taken us nowhere."

"Whether you realize it or not, those men dying has shaken your authority. There's talk already, and you've only been master a few days."

"I will not tolerate dissension."

A sad but tranquil smile came to the chaplain's lips. "You sound just like the man you so opposed. What's changed? Has the seneschal so affected you?"

"He's not seneschal any longer."

"Unfortunately, that's the only name I know him by. You apparently know far more."

But he wondered if the cagey Venetian sitting across from him was being truthful. He'd heard talk, too, his spies reporting that the chaplain was quite interested in what the master was doing. Far more than any spiritual adviser needed to be. He wondered if this man, who professed to be his friend, was positioning himself for more. After all, he'd done the same thing years ago himself.

He actually wanted to talk about his dilemma, explain what happened, what he knew, seek some guidance, but sharing that with anyone would be foolhardy. Claridon was bad enough, but at least he was not of the Order. This man was altogether different. He had the potential to become an enemy. So he voiced the obvious. "I'm searching for our Great Devise, and I'm close to locating it."

"But at the price of two dead."

"Many have died for what we believe," he said, voice rising. In the first two centuries of our existence, twenty thousand brothers gave their lives. Two more dying now is insignificant."

"Human life has a much greater value now than then." He noticed the chaplain's voice had lowered into a whisper.

"No, the value is the same. What's changed is our lack of dedication."

"This not a war. There are no infidels holding the Holy Land. We're talking about finding something that most likely doesn't exist."

"You speak blasphemy."

"I speak the truth. And you know it. You think finding our Great Devise will change everything. It will change nothing. You must still garner the respect of all who serve you."

"Doing what I promised will generate that respect."

"Have you thought this quest through? It's not as simple as you think. The issues here are far greater than they were in the Beginning. The world is no longer illiterate and ignorant. You have much more to contend with than the brothers did then. Unfortunately for you, there exists not one mention of Jesus Christ in any secular Greek, Roman, or Jewish historical account. Not one reference in any piece of surviving literature. Just the New Testament. That's the whole sum of His existence. And why is that? You know the answer. If Jesus lived at all, He preached His message in the obscurity of Judea. No one paid Him any mind. The Romans couldn't have cared less, provided He wasn't inciting rebellion. And the Jews did little more than argue among themselves, which suited the Romans. Jesus came and went. He was inconsequential. Yet He now commands the attention of billions. Christianity is the world's largest religion. And He is, in every sense, their Messiah. The risen Lord. And nothing you find will change that."

"What if His bones are there?"

"How would you know they're His bones?"

"How did those nine original knights know? And look at what they accomplished. Kings and queens bowed to their will. How else can that be explained except through what they knew."

"And you think they shared that knowledge? What did they do--show the bones of Christ to each king, each monetary donor, each one of the faithful?"

"I have no idea what they did. But whatever their method it proved effective. Men flocked to the Order, wanting to be a part of it. Secular authorities courted its favor. Why can't that be again?"

"It can. Only not in the manner you think."

"It galls me. For all we did for the Church. Twenty thousand brothers, six masters, all died defending Jesus Christ. The Knights Hospitallers' sacrifice cannot compare. Yet there is not one Templar saint, and there are many canonized Hospitallers. I want to right that injustice."

"How is that possible?" The chaplain did not wait for him to answer. "What is will not change."

He thought again of the note. THE ANSWER HAS BEEN FOUND. And the phone resting in his pocket. I WILL CALL BEFORE THE SUN SETS WITH INFORMATION. His fingers lightly caressed the bulge of the cell phone in his trouser pocket. The chaplain was still talking, murmuring more about "the quest for nothing." Royce Claridon was still in the archives, searching.

But only one thought raced through his mind.

Why won't the phone ring?

"HENRIK," MALONE SCREAMED. "I CAN'T TAKE MUCH MORE OF this."

He'd just listened to Mark's explanation that the ruins of the nearby abbey belonged to Thorvaldsen. They stood in the trees, half a mile from St. Agulous, where they'd parked and waited.

"Cotton, I had no idea that I own that property."

"We're supposed to believe that?" Stephanie said.

"I don't give a damn whether you believe me or not. I knew nothing of this till a moment ago."

"How do you explain it then?" Malone asked.

"I can't. I can only say that Lars borrowed a hundred and forty thousand dollars from me three months before he died. He never said what the money was for and I didn't ask."

"You just gave him that much money with no questions?" Stephanie asked.

"He needed it, so I gave it to him. I trusted him."

"The abbe in town said the buyer bought the property from the regional government. They were divesting themselves of the ruins and had few takers, as it's up in the mountains and in poor condition. It was sold at auction here in St. Augulous." Mark faced Thorvaldsen. "Yours was the high bid. The priest knew Dad and said he wasn't the one who actually bid."

"Then Lars engaged someone to do it on his behalf, because it was not me. He then placed the title in my name to give him cover. Lars was quite paranoid. If I owned that property and knew it, I would have said something last night."

"Not necessarily," Stephanie murmured.

"Look, Stephanie. I'm not afraid of you or any one of you. I don't have to explain myself. But I consider you all my friends, and if I owned the property and knew it, I'd tell you."

"Why don't we assume Henrik is telling the truth," Cassiopeia said. She'd stayed uncharacteristically quiet during the debate. "And get on up there. Darkness comes quick in the mountains. I for one want to see what's there."

Malone agreed. "She's right. Let's go. We can fight about this later."

The drive up into the higher elevations took fifteen minutes and required strong nerves and good brakes. They followed the abbe's directions and eventually caught sight of the crumbling priory, resting on an eagle's aerie, its shattered square tower flanked by a merciless precipice. The road ended about half a mile from the ruins and the hike up, along a trail of emaciated rock flowered with thyme, beneath a canopy of great pines, took another ten minutes.

They entered the site.

Signs of neglect lay everywhere. The thick walls were bare and Malone allowed his fingers to slip along the gray-green granite schist, each stone surely quarried from the mountains and worked with faithful patience by ancient hands. A once grand gallery opened to the sky with columns and capitals that centuries of weather and light had tarnished beyond recognition. Moss, orange lichens, and gray wiry grass littered the ground, the stone floor long ago returned to sand. Grasshoppers sang a loud castanet.

The rooms were hard to delineate, as the roof and most of the walls lay collapsed, but the monk cells were evident, as was a large hall and another spacious room that might have been a library or scriptorium. Malone knew that life here would have been frugal, thrifty, and austere.

"Quite a place you own," he said to Henrik.

"I was just admiring what a hundred and forty thousand dollars could buy twelve years ago."

Cassiopeia seemed enthralled. "You can imagine the monks harvesting a meager crop from the little bit of fertile soil. Summers here were brief, the days short. You can almost hear them chanting."

"This place would have been sufficiently forlorn," Thorvaldsen said. "An oblivion only for themselves."

"Lars titled this property in your name," Stephanie said, "for a reason. He came here for a reason. Something has to be here."

"Perhaps," Cassiopeia noted. "But the abbe in town told Mark that Lars found nothing. This could be more of the perpetual chases he engaged in."

Mark shook his head. "The cryptogram led us here. Dad was here. He didn't find anything, but he thought it important enough to buy. This has to be the place."

Malone sat atop one of the chunks of stone and stared up at the sky. "We have maybe five or six hours of daylight left. I suggest we make the most if it. I'm sure it gets pretty cold up here at night, and these fleece-lined jackets aren't going to be enough."

"I brought some equipment and gear in the Rover," Cassiopeia said. "I assumed we could be underground, so I have light bars, flashlights, and a small generator."

"Well, aren't you Johnny-on-the-spot," Malone said.

"Here," Geoffrey called out.

Malone glanced farther into the decayed priory. He'd not noticed that Geoffrey had wandered off.

They all hustled deeper into the ruin and found Geoffrey standing outside what was once a Romanesque doorway. Little remained of its craftsmanship beyond a faint image of human-headed bulls, winged lions, and a palm-leaf motif.

"The church," Geoffrey said. "They carved it from rock."

Malone could see that indeed the walls beyond were not human-made, but were part of the precipice that towered above the former abbey. "We'll need those flashlights," he said to Cassiopeia.

"No, you won't," Geoffrey said. "There's light inside."

Malone led the way in. Bees hummed in the shadows. Dusty shafts of light poured through slits cut through the rock at varying angles, apparently designed to take advantage of the drifting sun. Something caught his eye. He stepped close to one of the rock walls, hewn smooth but now bare of any decoration except a carving about ten feet above him. The crest consisted of a helmet with a swathe of linen dropping on each side of a male face. The features were gone, the nose worn smooth, the eyes blank and lifeless. On top was a sphinx. Below was a stone shield with three hammers.

"That's Templar," Mark said. "I've seen another like it at our abbey."

"What's it doing here?" Malone asked.

"The Catalans who lived in this region during the fourteenth century had no love for the French king. Templars were treated with kindness here, even after the Purge. That's one reason the area was chosen as a refuge."

The ponderous walls rose high to a rounded ceiling. Frescoes surely once adorned everything, but not a remnant remained. Water leaking in through the porous rock had long ago erased all artistic vestiges.

"It's like a cave," Stephanie said.

"More a fortress," Cassiopeia noted. "This could well have been the abbey's last line of defense."

Malone had been thinking the same thing. "But there's a problem." He motioned to the dim surroundings. "No other way out."

Something else caught his attention. He stepped close and focused on the wall, most of which rose in shadow. He strained hard. "I wish we had one of those flashlights."

The others approached.

Ten feet up he saw the faint remnants of letters roughly hewn on the gray stone.

"P, R, N, V, I, R," he asked.

"No," Cassiopeia said. "There's more. Another I, maybe an E and another R."

He strained in the dimness to interpret the writing.

PRIER EN VENIR.

Malone's mind came alive. He recalled the words at the center of Marie d'Hautpoul's gravestone. REDDIS REGIS CELLIS ARCIS. And what Claridon said about them in Avignon.

Reddis means "to give back, to restore something previously taken." Regis derives from rex, which is king. Cella refers to a storeroom. Arcis stems from arx--a stronghold, fortress, citadel.

The words had seemed meaningless at the time. But perhaps they simply needed rearranging.

Storeroom, fortress, restore something previously taken, king.

By adding a few prepositions, the message might be, In a storeroom, at a stronghold fortress, restore something previously taken from the king.

And the arrow that stretched down the center of the gravestone, between the words, starting at the top with the letters P-S and ending at PRAE-CUM.

Prae-cum. Latin for "pray to come."

He stared again at the letters scratched into the rock.

PRIER EN VENIR

French for "pray to come."

He smiled and told them what he thought. "The abbe Bigou was a clever one, I'll give him that."

"That arrow on the gravestone," Mark said, "had to be significant. It's dead in the center, in a place of prominence."

Malone's senses were now alert, his mind surging through the information, and he started to take notice of the floor. Many of the flagstones were gone, the remaining cracked and misshapen, but he noticed a pattern. A series of squares, framed by a narrow stone line, ran from front to back and left to right.

He counted.

In one of the framed rectangles he tallied seven stones across, nine down. He counted another section. The same. Then another.

"The floor is arranged seven, nine," he told them.

Mark and Henrik moved toward the altar, themselves counting. "And there are nine sections from the rear door to the altar," Mark said.

"And seven go across," Stephanie said, as she finished finding a final floor section near an outer wall.

"Okay, we seem to be in the right place," Malone said. He thought again about the headstone. Pray to come. He gazed up at the French words scratched into the stone, then down at the floor. Bees continued to buzz near the altar. "Let's get those light bars and that generator in here. We need to see what we're doing."

"I think we also need to stay tonight," Cassiopeia said. "The nearest inn is in Elne, thirty miles away. We should camp here."

"We have supplies?" Malone asked.

"We can get them," she said. "Elne is a fairly good-sized town. We can buy what we need there without drawing any attention. But I don't want to leave."

He could see that none of the others wanted to go, either. An excitement was stirring. He could feel it, too. The riddle was no longer some abstract concept, impossible to understand. Instead, the answer lay somewhere around them. And contrary to what he'd told Cassiopeia yesterday, he wanted to find it.

"I'll go," Geoffrey said. "Each of you needs to stay and decide what we do next. It's for you, not me."

"We appreciate that," Thorvaldsen said.

Cassiopeia reached into her pocket and produced a wad of euros. "You'll need money."

Geoffrey took the funds and smiled. "Just give me a list and I'll be back by nightfall."

FIFTY-EIGHT

 MALONE RAKED THE FLASHLIGHT'S BEAM ACROSS THE INSIDE OF the church, searching the rock walls for more clues. They'd off-loaded all of the equipment Cassiopeia had brought and hauled it into the abbey. Stephanie and Cassiopeia were outside, fashioning a camp. Henrik had volunteered to locate firewood. He and Mark had come back inside to see if there was anything they'd missed.

"This church has been empty a long time," Mark said. "Three hundred years, the priest in town said."

"Must have been remarkable in its day."

"This type of construction isn't unusual. There are subterranean churches all over the Languedoc. At Vals, up near Carcassonne, is one of the most famous. It's in good shape. Still has frescoes. All the churches in this region were painted. That was the style. Unfortunately, little of that art has survived anywhere thanks to the Revolution."

"Must have been a tough life up here."

"Monastics were a rare breed. They had no newspapers, radio, television, music, theater. Only a few books and the frescoes in church as intoxicants."

Malone continued to survey the almost theatrical darkness that surrounded him, broken only by a chalky fading light that colored the few details as though snow lay heavy inside.

"We have to assume the cryptogram in the marshal's report is authentic," Mark said. "There's no reason to think it's not."

"Except the marshal disappeared shortly after he filed the report."

"I always believed that particular marshal was driven like de Roquefort. I think he went after the treasure. He must have known the story of the de Blanchefort family secret. That information, and the fact that Abbe Bigou may have known the secret, has been a part of our Chronicles for centuries. He could have assumed that Bigou left both cryptograms and that they led to the Great Devise. Being an ambitious man, he went to get it himself."

"Then why record the cryptogram?"

"What did it matter? He had the solution, which the Abbe Gelis gave him. No one else even had a clue as to what it meant. So why not file the report and show your master that you've been working?"

"Using that line of thinking, the marshal could have killed Gelis and simply gone back and recorded what happened afterward as a way to cover his tracks."

"That's entirely possible."

Malone stepped close to the letters--PRIER EN VENIR--scratched in the wall. "Nothing else survived in here," he muttered.

"That's true. Which is a shame. There are lots of niches, and those would have all contained statues. Combined with the frescoes, this would have once been a decorated place."

"So how did those three words manage to survive?"

"They barely have."

"Just enough," he said, thinking maybe Bigou had made sure.

He thought again of Marie de Blanchefort's gravestone. The double-sided arrow and PRAE-CUM. Pray to come. He stared at the floor and the seven-nine arrangement. "Pews would have once been in here, right?"

"Sure. Wooden. Long gone."

"If Sauniere learned the solution to the cryptogram from Gelis or solved it himself--"

"The marshal said in his report that Gelis didn't trust Sauniere."

Malone shook his head. "Could be more misdirection by the marshal. Sauniere clearly deduced something, unbeknownst to the marshal. So let's assume he found the Great Devise. From everything we know, Sauniere returned to it many times. You were telling me back in Rennes about how he and his mistress would leave town, then return with rocks for the grotto he was building. He could have come here to make a withdrawal from his private bank."

"In Sauniere's day, that trip would have been easy by rail."

"So he would have needed to be able to access the cache, while at the same time keeping the location secret."

He stared up again at the carving. PRIER EN VENIR. Pray to come.

Then he knelt.

"Makes sense, but what do you see from there that I don't from here?" Mark asked.

His gaze searched the church. Nothing was left inside save the altar, twenty feet away. The stone top was about three inches thick, supported by a rectangular support fashioned from granite blocks. He counted the blocks in one horizontal row. Nine. Then he counted the number vertically. Seven. He shone the flashlight beam onto the lichen-infested stones. Thick wavy lines of mortar were still there. He traced several of the paths with the light, then brought the beam up toward the underside of the granite top.

And saw it.

Now he knew.

He smiled.

Pray to come.

Clever.

DE ROQUEFORT WAS NOT LISTENING TO THE TREASURER'S PRATTLE. Something about the abbey's budget and overages. The abbey was funded with an endowment that totaled in the millions of euros, funds long ago acquired and religiously maintained so as to ensure that the Order would never suffer financially. The abbey was nearly self-supporting. Its fields, farms, and bakery produced the majority of its needs. Its winery and dairy generated much of their drink. And water was in such abundance that it was piped down to the valley, where it was bottled and sold all across France. Of course, a lot of what was needed to supplement meals and maintenance had to be purchased. But income from wine and water sales, along with visitors' fees, more than provided the necessary sources. So what was all this about overages?

"Are we in need of money?" he interrupted and asked.

"Not at all, Master."

"Then why are you bothering me?"

"The master must be informed of all monetary decisions."

The idiot was right. But he didn't want to be bothered. Still, the treasurer might be helpful. "Have you studied our financial history?"

The question seem to catch the man off guard. "Of course, Master. It's required of all who become treasurer. I'm presently teaching those below me."

"At the time of the Purge, what was our wealth?"

"Incalculable. The Order held over nine thousand land estates, and it's impossible to value that acreage."

"Our liquid wealth?"

"Again, hard to say. There would have been gold dinars, Byzantine coins, gold florins, drachmas, marks, along with unminted silver and gold. De Molay came to France in 1306 with twelve pack horses loaded with unminted silver, which was never accounted for. Then there is the matter of the items we held for safekeeping."

He knew what the man was referring to. The Order had pioneered the concept of safe depositories, holding wills and precious documents for men of means, along with jewels and other personal items. Its reputation for trustworthiness had been impeccable, which allowed the service to flourish throughout Christendom--all, of course, at a fee.

"The items being held," the treasurer said, "were lost at the Purge. The inventories were with our archives, which disappeared, too. So there's no way to even estimate what was being held. But it's safe to say that the total wealth would be in the billions of euros today."

He knew about hay carts hauled south by four chosen brothers and their leader, Gilbert de Blanchefort, who'd been instructed first to tell no one of his hiding place, and second to assure that what he knew was passed to others in an appropriate manner. De Blanchefort performed his job well. Seven hundred years had passed, and still the location was a secret.

What was so precious that Jacques de Molay ordered its secretion with such elaborate precautions?

He'd wondered about the answer to that inquiry for thirty years.

The phone in his cassock vibrated, which startled him.

Finally.

"What is it, Master?" the treasurer asked.

He caught hold of himself. "Leave me, now."

The man stood from the table, bowed, then withdrew. De Roquefort flipped open the phone and said, "I hope this is not a waste of my time."

"How can the truth ever be a waste of time?"

He instantly recognized the voice.

Geoffrey.

"And why would I believe a word you say?" he asked.

"Because you're my master."

"Your loyalty was to my predecessor."

"While he breathed, that's true. But after his death, my oath to the brotherhood commands that I be loyal to whoever wears the white cassock--"

"Even if you don't care for that man."

"I believe you did the same for many years."

"And assaulting your master is part of your loyalty?" He'd not forgotten the slap to the temple from a gun butt before Geoffrey and Mark Nelle escaped the abbey.

"A necessary demonstration for the seneschal's benefit."

"Where did you obtain this phone?"

"The former master gave it to me. It was to be of use during our excursion beyond the walls. But I decided on a different use."

"You and the master planned well."

"It was important to him that we succeed. That's why he sent the journal to Stephanie Nelle. To involve her."

"That journal is worthless."

"So I am told. But that was new information to me. I only learned yesterday."

He asked what he wanted to know. "Have they solved the cryptogram? The one in the marshal's report?"

"Indeed, they have."

"So tell me, brother. Where are you?"

"St. Agulous. At the ruined abbey just to the north of the village. Not far from you."

"And our Great Devise is there?"

"This is where all clues lead. They are, at this moment, working to locate the hiding place. I was sent to Elne for supplies."

He was beginning to believe the man on the other end of the phone. But he wondered if that was from desperation or good judgment. "Brother, I'll kill you if this is a lie."

"I don't doubt that declaration. You've killed before."

He knew he shouldn't, but he had to ask, "And who have I killed?"

"Surely you were responsible for Ernst Scoville's death. Lars Nelle? That's more difficult to determine, at least from what the former master told me."

He wanted to probe further but knew that any interest he showed would be nothing but a tacit admission, so he simply said, "You are a dreamer, brother."

"I've been called worse."

"What's your motive?"

"I want to be a knight. You're the one who makes that determination. In the chapel, a few nights ago, when you arrested the seneschal, you made clear that that wasn't going to happen. I determined then that I'd be taking a different course--one the former master would not like. So I went along. Learned what I could. And waited until I could offer what you really want. In return, I seek only forgiveness."

"If what you say is true, you shall have it."

"I'll be returning to the ruin shortly. They plan to camp there through the night. You've already seen how resourceful they are, both individually and collectively. Though I'd never presume to substitute my judgment for yours, I'd recommend decisive action."

"I assure you, brother, my response will be most decisive."

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