Andre Vernet looked awkward with a pistol, but his eyes shone with a determination that Langdon sensed would be unwise to test.
"I'm afraid I must insist," Vernet said, training the weapon on the two of them in the back of the idling truck. "Set the box down."
Sophie clutched the box to her chest. "You said you and my grandfather were friends."
"I have a duty to protect your grandfather's assets," Vernet replied. "And that is exactly what I am doing. Now set the box on the floor."
"My grandfather entrusted this to me!" Sophie declared. "Do it," Vernet commanded, raising the gun. Sophie set the box at her feet.
Langdon watched the gun barrel swing now in his direction.
"Mr. Langdon," Vernet said," you will bring the box over to me. And be aware that I'm asking you because you I would not hesitate to shoot."
Langdon stared at the banker in disbelief. "Why are you doing this?"
"Why do you imagine?" Vernet snapped, his accented English terse now. "To protect my client's assets."
"We are your clients now," Sophie said.
Vernet's visage turned ice-cold, an eerie transformation. "Mademoiselle Neveu, I don't know howyou got that key and account number tonight, but it seems obvious that foul play was involved. Had I known the extent of your crimes, I would never have helped you leave the bank."
"I told you," Sophie said," we had nothing to do with my grandfather's death!"
Vernet looked at Langdon. "And yet the radio claims you are wanted not only for the murder of
Jacques Sauniere but for those of three other men as well?"
"What!" Langdon was thunderstruck. Three more murders? The coincidental number hit him harder than the fact that he was the prime suspect. It seemed too unlikely to be a coincidence. The three senechaux? Langdon's eyes dropped to the rosewood box. If the senechaux were murdered, Sauniere had no options.He had to transfer the keystone to someone.
"The police can sort that out when I turn you in," Vernet said. "I have gotten my bank involved too far already."
Sophie glared at Vernet. "You obviously have no intention of turning us in. You would have driven us back to the bank. And instead you bring us out here and hold us at gunpoint?"
"Your grandfather hired me for one reason - to keep his possessions both safe and private. Whatever this box contains, I have no intention of letting it become a piece of cataloged evidence in a police investigation. Mr. Langdon, bring me the box." Sophie shook her head. "Don't do it." A gunshot roared, and a bullet tore into the wall above him. The reverberation shook the back of the truck as a spent shell clinked onto the cargo floor.
Shit! Langdon froze.
Vernet spoke more confidently now. "Mr. Langdon, pick up the box." Langdon lifted the box." Now bring it over to me." Vernet was taking dead aim, standing on the ground behind the rear bumper, his gun outstretched into the cargo hold now.
Box in hand, Langdon moved across the hold toward the open door.
I've got to do something! Langdon thought. I'm about to hand over the Priory keystone! As Langdon moved toward the doorway, his position of higher ground became more pronounced, and he began wondering if he could somehow use it to his advantage. Vernet's gun, though raised, was at Langdon's knee level. A well-placed kick perhaps? Unfortunately, as Langdon neared, Vernet seemed to sense the dangerous dynamic developing, and he took several steps back, repositioning himself six feet away. Well out of reach." Vernet commanded," Place the box beside the door."
Seeing no options, Langdon knelt down and set the rosewood box at the edge of the cargo hold, directly in front of the open doors. "Now stand up." Langdon began to stand up but paused, spying the small, spent pistol shell on the floor beside the truck's precision-crafted doorsill.
"Stand up, and step away from the box."
Langdon paused a moment longer, eyeing the metal threshold. Then he stood. As he did, he discreetly brushed the shell over the edge onto the narrow ledge that was the door's lower sill. Fully upright now, Langdon stepped backward.
"Return to the back wall and turn around." Langdon obeyed.
Vernet could feel his own heart pounding. Aiming the gun with his right hand, he reached now with his left for the wooden box. He discovered that it was far too heavy. I need two hands. Turning his eyes back to his captives, he calculated the risk. Both were a good fifteen feet away, at the far end of the cargo hold, facing away from him. Vernet made up his mind. Quickly, he laid down the gun on the bumper, lifted the box with two hands, and set it on the ground, immediately grabbing the gun again and aiming it back into the hold. Neither of his prisoners had moved.
Perfect.Now all that remained was to close and lock the door. Leaving the box on the ground for the moment, he grabbed the metal door and began to heave it closed. As the door swung past him, Vernet reached up to grab the single bolt that needed to be slid into place. The door closed with a thud, and Vernet quickly grabbed the bolt, pulling it to the left. The bolt slid a few inches and crunched to an unexpected halt, not lining up with its sleeve. What's going on? Vernet pulled again, but the bolt wouldn't lock. The mechanism was not properly aligned. The door isn't fully closed! Feeling a surge of panic, Vernet shoved hard against the outside of the door, but it refused to budge. Something is blocking it! Vernet turned to throw full shoulder into the door, but this time the door exploded outward, striking Vernet in the face and sending him reeling backward onto the ground, his nose shattering in pain. The gun flew as Vernet reached for his face and felt the warm blood running from his nose.
Robert Langdon hit the ground somewhere nearby, and Vernet tried to get up, but he couldn't see. His vision blurred and he fell backward again. Sophie Neveu was shouting. Moments later, Vernet felt a cloud of dirt and exhaust billowing over him. He heard the crunching of tires on gravel and sat up just in time to see the truck's wide wheelbase fail to navigate a turn. There was a crash as the front bumper clipped a tree. The engine roared, and the tree bent. Finally, it was the bumper that gave, tearing half off. The armored car lurched away, its front bumper dragging. When the truck reached the paved access road, a shower of sparks lit up the night, trailing the truck as it sped away.
Vernet turned his eyes back to the ground where the truck had been parked. Even in the faint moonlight he could see there was nothing there.
The wooden box was gone.
The unmarked Fiat sedan departing Castel Gandolfo snaked downward through the Alban Hills into the valley below. In the back seat, Bishop Aringarosa smiled, feeling the weight of the bearer bonds in the briefcase on his lap and wondering how long it would be before he and the Teacher could make the exchange.
Twenty million euro.
The sum would buy Aringarosa power far more valuable than that.
As his car sped back toward Rome, Aringarosa again found himself wondering why the Teacher had not yet contacted him. Pulling his cell phone from his cassock pocket, he checked the carrier signal. Extremely faint.
"Cell service is intermittent up here," the driver said, glancing at him in the rearview mirror. "In about five minutes, we'll be out of the mountains, and service improves."
"Thank you." Aringarosa felt a sudden surge of concern. No service in the mountains? Maybe the Teacher had been trying to reach him all this time. Maybe something had gone terribly wrong.
Quickly, Aringarosa checked the phone's voice mail. Nothing. Then again, he realized, the Teacher never would have left a recorded message; he was a man who took enormous care with his communications. Nobody understood better than the Teacher the perils of speaking openly in this modern world. Electronic eavesdropping had played a major role in how he had gathered his astonishing array of secret knowledge.
For this reason, he takes extra precautions.
Unfortunately, the Teacher's protocols for caution included a refusal to give Aringarosa any kind of contact number. I alone will initiate contact, the Teacher had informed him. So keep your phoneclose.Now that Aringarosa realized his phone might not have been working properly, he feared what the Teacher might think if he had been repeatedly phoning with no answer.
He'll think something is wrong. Or that I failed to get the bonds. The bishop broke a light sweat. Or worse... that I took the money and ran!
Even at a modest sixty kilometers an hour, the dangling front bumper of the armored truck grated against the deserted suburban road with a grinding roar, spraying sparks up onto the hood.
We've got to get off the road, Langdon thought.
He could barely even see where they were headed. The truck's lone working headlight had been knocked off-center and was casting a skewed sidelong beam into the woods beside the country highway. Apparently the armor in this" armored truck" referred only to the cargo hold and not the front end.
Sophie sat in the passenger seat, staring blankly at the rosewood box on her lap. "Are you okay?" Langdon asked. Sophie looked shaken. "Do you believe him?"
"About the three additional murders? Absolutely. It answers a lot of questions - the issue of your grandfather's desperation to pass on the keystone, as well as the intensity with which Fache is hunting me."
"No, I meant about Vernet trying to protect his bank." Langdon glanced over. "As opposed to?" "Taking the keystone for himself."
Langdon had not even considered it. "How would he even know what this box contains?"
"His bank stored it. He knew my grandfather. Maybe he knew things. He might have decided he wanted the Grail for himself."
Langdon shook his head. Vernet hardly seemed the type. "In my experience, there are only two reasons people seek the Grail. Either they are naive and believe they are searching for the long-lost Cup of Christ..." "Or?" "Or they know the truth and are threatened by it. Many groups throughout history have sought to destroy the Grail."
The silence between them accentuated the sound of the scraping bumper. They had driven a few kilometers now, and as Langdon watched the cascade of sparks coming off the front of the truck, he wondered if it was dangerous. Either way, if they passed another car, it would certainly draw attention. Langdon made up his mind.
"I'm going to see if I can bend this bumper back."
Pulling onto the shoulder, he brought the truck to a stop. Silence at last. As Langdon walked toward the front of the truck, he felt surprisingly alert. Staring into the barrel of yet another gun tonight had given him a second wind. He took a deep breath of nighttime air and tried to get his wits about him. Accompanying the gravity of being a hunted man, Langdon was starting to feel the ponderous weight of responsibility, the prospect that he and Sophie might actually be holding an encrypted set of directions to one of the most enduring mysteries of all time.
As if this burden were not great enough, Langdon now realized that any possibility of finding away to return the keystone to the Priory had just evaporated. News of the three additional murders had dire implications. The Priory has been infiltrated.They are compromised.The brotherhood was obviously being watched, or there was a mole within the ranks. It seemed to explain why Sauniere might have transferred the keystone to Sophie and Langdon - people outside the brotherhood, people he knew were not compromised. We can't very well give the keystone back tothe brotherhood.Even if Langdon had any idea how to find a Priory member, chances were good that whoever stepped forward to take the keystone could be the enemy himself. For the moment, at least, it seemed the keystone was in Sophie and Langdon's hands, whether they wanted it or not.