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.
“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 phone close. 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 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 a way to return the keystone to the Priory had just evaporated. News of the three additional murders had dire implications. The Priory has been inftltrated. They are compromised. The brotherhood was obviously being watched, or there was a mole within the ranks. It seemed to explain why Saunière 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 to the 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.
The truck’s front end looked worse than Langdon had imagined. The left headlight was gone, and the right one looked like an eyeball dangling from its socket. Langdon straightened it, and it dislodged again. The only good news was that the front bumper had been torn almost clean off. Langdon gave it a hard kick and sensed he might be able to break it off entirely.
As he repeatedly kicked the twisted metal, Langdon recalled his earlier conversation with Sophie. My grandfather left me a phone message, Sophie had told him. He said he needed to tell me the truth about my family. At the time it had meant nothing, but now, knowing the Priory of Sion was involved, Langdon felt a startling new possibility emerge.
The bumper broke off suddenly with a crash. Langdon paused to catch his breath. At least the truck would no longer look like a Fourth of July sparkler. He grabbed the bumper and began dragging it out of sight into the woods, wondering where they should go next. They had no idea how to open the cryptex, or why Saunière had given it to them. Unfortunately, their survival tonight seemed to depend on getting answers to those very questions.
We need help, Langdon decided. Professional help.
In the world of the Holy Grail and the Priory of Sion, that meant only one man. The challenge, of course, would be selling the idea to Sophie.
Inside the armored car, while Sophie waited for Langdon to return, she could feel the weight of the rosewood box on her lap and resented it. Why did my grandfather give this to me? She had not the slightest idea what to do with it.
Think, Sophie! Use your head. Grand-père is trying to tell you something!
Opening the box, she eyed the cryptex’s dials. A proof of merit. She could feel her grandfather’s hand at work. The keystone is a map that can be followed only by the worthy. It sounded like her grandfather to the core.
Lifting the cryptex out of the box, Sophie ran her fingers over the dials. Five letters. She rotated the dials one by one. The mechanism moved smoothly. She aligned the disks such that her chosen letters lined up between the cryptex’s two brass alignment arrows on either end of the cylinder. The dials now spelled a five-letter word that Sophie knew was absurdly obvious.
Gently, she held the two ends of the cylinder and pulled, applying pressure slowly. The cryptex didn’t budge. She heard the vinegar inside gurgle and stopped pulling. Then she tried again.
Again, no movement. V-O-U-T-E
Nothing. The cryptex remained locked solid.
Frowning, she replaced it in the rosewood box and closed the lid. Looking outside at Langdon, Sophie felt grateful he was with her tonight. P.S. Find Robert Langdon. Her grandfather’s rationale for including him was now clear. Sophie was not equipped to understand her grandfather’s intentions, and so he had assigned Robert Langdon as her guide. A tutor to oversee her education. Unfortunately for Langdon, he had turned out to be far more than a tutor tonight. He had become the target of Bezu Fache … and some unseen force intent on possessing the Holy Grail.
Whatever the Grail turns out to be.
Sophie wondered if finding out was worth her life.
As the armored truck accelerated again, Langdon was pleased how much more smoothly it drove. “Do you know how to get to Versailles?”
Sophie eyed him. “Sightseeing?”
“No, I have a plan. There’s a religious historian I know who lives near Versailles. I can’t remember exactly where, but we can look it up. I’ve been to his estate a few times. His name is Leigh Teabing. He’s a former British Royal Historian.”
“And he lives in Paris?”
“Teabing’s life passion is the Grail. When whisperings of the Priory keystone surfaced about fifteen years ago, he moved to France to search churches in hopes of finding it. He’s written some books on the keystone and the Grail. He may be able to help us figure out how to open it and what to do with it.”
Sophie’s eyes were wary. “Can you trust him?” “Trust him to what? Not steal the information?”
“And not to turn us in.”
“I don’t intend to tell him we’re wanted by the police. I’m hoping he’ll take us in until we can sort all this out.”
“Robert, has it occurred to you that every television in France is probably getting ready to broadcast our pictures? Bezu Fache always uses the media to his advantage. He’ll make it impossible for us to move around without being recognized.”
Terriftc, Langdon thought. My French TV debut will be on “Paris’s Most Wanted.” At least Jonas Faukman would be pleased; every time Langdon made the news, his book sales jumped.
“Is this man a good enough friend?” Sophie asked.
Langdon doubted Teabing was someone who watched television, especially at this hour, but still the question deserved consideration. Instinct told Langdon that Teabing would be totally trustworthy. An ideal safe harbor. Considering the circumstances, Teabing would probably trip over himself to help them as much as possible. Not only did he owe Langdon a favor, but Teabing was a Grail researcher, and Sophie claimed her grandfather was the actual Grand Master of the Priory of Sion. If Teabing heard that, he would salivate at the thought of helping them figure this out.
“Teabing could be a powerful ally,” Langdon said. Depending on how much you want to tell him.
“Fache probably will be offering a monetary reward.”
Langdon laughed. “Believe me, money is the last thing this guy needs.” Leigh Teabing was wealthy in the way small countries were wealthy. A descendant of Britain’s First Duke of Lancaster, Teabing had gotten his money the old-fashioned way—he’d inherited it. His estate outside of Paris was a seventeenth-century palace with two private lakes.
Langdon had first met Teabing several years ago through the British Broadcasting Corporation. Teabing had approached the BBC with a proposal for a historical documentary in which he would expose the explosive history of the Holy Grail to a mainstream television audience. The BBC producers loved Teabing’s hot premise, his research, and his credentials, but they had concerns that the concept was so shocking and hard to swallow that the
network might end up tarnishing its reputation for quality journalism. At Teabing’s suggestion, the BBC solved its credibility fears by soliciting three cameos from respected historians from around the world, all of whom corroborated the stunning nature of the Holy Grail secret with their own research.
Langdon had been among those chosen.
The BBC had flown Langdon to Teabing’s Paris estate for the filming. He sat before cameras in Teabing’s opulent drawing room and shared his story, admitting his initial skepticism on hearing of the alternate Holy Grail story, then describing how years of research had persuaded him that the story was true. Finally, Langdon offered some of his own research—a series of symbologic connections that strongly supported the seemingly controversial claims.
When the program aired in Britain, despite its ensemble cast and well-documented evidence, the premise rubbed so hard against the grain of popular Christian thought that it instantly confronted a firestorm of hostility. It never aired in the States, but the repercussions echoed across the Atlantic. Shortly afterward, Langdon received a postcard from an old friend—the Catholic Bishop of Philadelphia. The card simply read: Et tu, Robert?
“Robert,” Sophie asked, “you’re certain we can trust this man?” “Absolutely. We’re colleagues, he doesn’t need money, and I