Langdon felt a shiver. Astrological prophecy never held much interest or credibility for him, but he knew there were those in the Church who followed it very closely. “The Church calls this transitional period the End of Days.”

Sophie looked skeptical. “As in the end of the world? The Apocalypse?”

“No.” Langdon replied. “That’s a common misconception. Many religions speak of the End of Days. It refers not to the end of the

world, but rather the end of our current age—Pisces, which began at the time of Christ’s birth, spanned two thousand years, and waned with the passing of the millennium. Now that we’ve passed into the Age of Aquarius, the End of Days has arrived.”

“Many Grail historians,” Teabing added, “believe that if the Priory is indeed planning to release this truth, this point in history would be a symbolically apt time. Most Priory academics, myself included, anticipated the brotherhood’s release would coincide precisely with the millennium. Obviously, it did not. Admittedly, the Roman calendar does not mesh perfectly with astrological markers, so there is some gray area in the prediction. Whether the Church now has inside information that an exact date is looming, or whether they are just getting nervous on account of astrological prophecy, I don’t know. Anyway, it’s immaterial. Either scenario explains how the Church might be motivated to launch a preemptive attack against the Priory.” Teabing frowned. “And believe me, if the Church finds the Holy Grail, they will destroy it. The documents and the relics of the blessed Mary Magdalene as well.” His eyes grew heavy. “Then, my dear, with the Sangreal documents gone, all evidence will be lost. The Church will have won their age-old war to rewrite history. The past will be erased forever.”

Slowly, Sophie pulled the cruciform key from her sweater pocket and held it out to Teabing.

Teabing took the key and studied it. “My goodness. The Priory seal. Where did you get this?”

“My grandfather gave it to me tonight before he died.”

Teabing ran his fingers across the cruciform. “A key to a church?”

She drew a deep breath. “This key provides access to the keystone.”

Teabing’s head snapped up, his face wild with disbelief. “Impossible! What church did I miss? I’ve searched every church in France!”

“It’s not in a church,” Sophie said. “It’s in a Swiss depository bank.”

Teabing’s look of excitement waned. “The keystone is in a bank?” “A vault,” Langdon offered.

“A bank vault?” Teabing shook his head violently. “That’s impossible. The keystone is supposed to be hidden beneath the sign of the Rose.”

“It is,” Langdon said. “It was stored in a rosewood box inlaid with a five-petal Rose.”

Teabing looked thunderstruck. “You’ve seen the keystone?” Sophie nodded. “We visited the bank.”

Teabing came over to them, his eyes wild with fear. “My friends, we must do something. The keystone is in danger! We have a duty to protect it. What if there are other keys? Perhaps stolen from the murdered sénéchaux? If the Church can gain access to the bank as you have—”

“Then they will be too late,” Sophie said. “We removed the keystone.”

“What! You removed the keystone from its hiding place?” “Don’t worry,” Langdon said. “The keystone is well hidden.” “Extremely well hidden, I hope!”

“Actually,” Langdon said, unable to hide his grin, “that depends on how often you dust under your couch.”

The wind outside Château Villette had picked up, and Silas’s robe danced in the breeze as he crouched near the window. Although he had been unable to hear much of the conversation, the word keystone had sifted through the glass on numerous occasions.

It is inside.

The Teacher’s words were fresh in his mind. Enter Château Villette.

Take the keystone. Hurt no one.

Now, Langdon and the others had adjourned suddenly to another room, extinguishing the study lights as they went. Feeling like a panther stalking prey, Silas crept to the glass doors. Finding them unlocked, he slipped inside and closed the doors silently behind him. He could hear muffled voices from another room. Silas pulled the pistol from his pocket, turned off the safety, and inched down the hallway.

CHAPTER 63

Lieutenant Collet stood alone at the foot of Leigh Teabing’s driveway and gazed up at the massive house. Isolated. Dark. Good ground cover. Collet watched his half-dozen agents spreading silently out along the length of the fence. They could be over it and have the house surrounded in a matter of minutes. Langdon could not have chosen a more ideal spot for Collet’s men to make a surprise assault. Collet was about to call Fache himself when at last his phone rang.

Fache sounded not nearly as pleased with the developments as Collet would have imagined. “Why didn’t someone tell me we had a lead on Langdon?”

“You were on a phone call and—”

“Where exactly are you, Lieutenant Collet?”

Collet gave him the address. “The estate belongs to a British national named Teabing. Langdon drove a fair distance to get here, and the vehicle is inside the security gate, with no signs of forced entry, so chances are good that Langdon knows the occupant.”

“I’m coming out,” Fache said. “Don’t make a move. I’ll handle this personally.”

Collet’s jaw dropped. “But Captain, you’re twenty minutes away! We should act immediately. I have him staked out. I’m with eight men total. Four of us have field rifles and the others have sidearms.”

“Wait for me.”

“Captain, what if Langdon has a hostage in there? What if he sees us and decides to leave on foot? We need to move now! My men are in position and ready to go.”

“Lieutenant Collet, you will wait for me to arrive before taking action. That is an order.” Fache hung up.

Stunned, Lieutenant Collet switched off his phone. Why the hell is Fache asking me to wait? Collet knew the answer. Fache, though famous for his instinct, was notorious for his pride. Fache wants credit for the arrest. After putting the American’s face all over the television, Fache wanted to be sure his own face got equal time.

Collet’s job was simply to hold down the fort until the boss showed up to save the day.

As he stood there, Collet flashed on a second possible explanation for this delay. Damage control. In law enforcement, hesitating to arrest a fugitive only occurred when uncertainty had arisen regarding the suspect’s guilt. Is Fache having second thoughts that Langdon is the right man? The thought was frightening. Captain Fache had gone out on a limb tonight to arrest Robert Langdon— surveillance cachée, Interpol, and now television. Not even the great Bezu Fache would survive the political fallout if he had mistakenly splashed a prominent American’s face all over French television, claiming he was a murderer. If Fache now realized he’d made a mistake, then it made perfect sense that he would tell Collet not to make a move. The last thing Fache needed was for Collet to storm an innocent Brit’s private estate and take Langdon at gunpoint.

Moreover, Collet realized, if Langdon were innocent, it explained one of this case’s strangest paradoxes: Why had Sophie Neveu, the granddaughter of the victim, helped the alleged killer escape? Unless Sophie knew Langdon was falsely charged. Fache had posited all kinds of explanations tonight to explain Sophie’s odd behavior, including that Sophie, as Saunière’s sole heir, had persuaded her secret lover Robert Langdon to kill off Saunière for the inheritance money. Saunière, if he had suspected this, might have left the police the message P.S. Find Robert Langdon. Collet was fairly certain something else was going on here. Sophie Neveu seemed far too solid of character to be mixed up in something that sordid.

“Lieutenant?” One of the field agents came running over. “We found a car.”

Collet followed the agent about fifty yards past the driveway. The agent pointed to a wide shoulder on the opposite side of the road. There, parked in the brush, almost out of sight, was a black Audi. It had rental plates. Collet felt the hood. Still warm. Hot even.

“That must be how Langdon got here,” Collet said. “Call the rental company. Find out if it’s stolen.”

“Yes, sir.”

Another agent waved Collet back over in the direction of the fence. “Lieutenant, have a look at this.” He handed Collet a pair of night vision binoculars. “The grove of trees near the top of the driveway.”

Collet aimed the binoculars up the hill and adjusted the image intensifier dials. Slowly, the greenish shapes came into focus. He located the curve of the driveway and slowly followed it up, reaching the grove of trees. All he could do was stare. There, shrouded in the greenery, was an armored truck. A truck identical to the one Collet had permitted to leave the Depository Bank of Zurich earlier tonight. He prayed this was some kind of bizarre coincidence, but he knew it could not be.

“It seems obvious,” the agent said, “that this truck is how Langdon and Neveu got away from the bank.”

Collet was speechless. He thought of the armored truck driver he had stopped at the roadblock. The Rolex. His impatience to leave. I never checked the cargo hold.

Incredulous, Collet realized that someone in the bank had actually lied to DCPJ about Langdon and Sophie’s whereabouts and then helped them escape. But who? And why? Collet wondered if maybe this were the reason Fache had told him not to take action yet. Maybe Fache realized there were more people involved tonight than just Langdon and Sophie. And if Langdon and Neveu arrived in the armored truck, then who drove the Audi?

Hundreds of miles to the south, a chartered Beechcraft Baron 58 raced northward over the Tyrrhenian Sea. Despite calm skies, Bishop Aringarosa clutched an airsickness bag, certain he could be ill at any moment. His conversation with Paris had not at all been what he had imagined.

Alone in the small cabin, Aringarosa twisted the gold ring on his finger and tried to ease his overwhelming sense of fear and desperation. Everything in Paris has gone terribly wrong. Closing his eyes, Aringarosa said a prayer that Bezu Fache would have the means to fix it.

CHAPTER 64

Teabing sat on the divan, cradling the wooden box on his lap and admiring the lid’s intricate inlaid Rose. Tonight has become the strangest and most magical night of my life.

“Lift the lid,” Sophie whispered, standing over him, beside Langdon.

Teabing smiled. Do not rush me. Having spent over a decade searching for this keystone, he wanted to savor every millisecond of this moment. He ran a palm across the wooden lid, feeling the texture of the inlaid flower.

“The Rose,” he whispered. The Rose is Magdalene is the Holy Grail. The Rose is the compass that guides the way. Teabing felt foolish. For years he had traveled to cathedrals and churches all over France, paying for special access, examining hundreds of archways beneath rose windows, searching for an encrypted keystone. La clef de voûte

—a stone key beneath the sign of the Rose.

Teabing slowly unlatched the lid and raised it.

As his eyes finally gazed upon the contents, he knew in an instant it could only be the keystone. He was staring at a stone cylinder, crafted of interconnecting lettered dials. The device seemed surprisingly familiar to him.

“Designed from Da Vinci’s diaries,” Sophie said. “My grandfather made them as a hobby.”

Of course, Teabing realized. He had seen the sketches and blueprints. The key to ftnding the Holy Grail lies inside this stone. Teabing lifted the heavy cryptex from the box, holding it gently. Although he had no idea how to open the cylinder, he sensed his own destiny lay inside. In moments of failure, Teabing had questioned whether his life’s quest would ever be rewarded. Now those doubts were gone forever. He could hear the ancient words … the foundation of the Grail legend:

Vous ne trouvez pas le Saint-Graal, c’est le Saint-Graal qui vous trouve.

You do not ftnd the Grail, the Grail ftnds you.

And tonight, incredibly, the key to finding the Holy Grail had walked right through his front door.

While Sophie and Teabing sat with the cryptex and talked about the vinegar, the dials, and what the password might be, Langdon carried the rosewood box across the room to a well-lit table to get a better look at it. Something Teabing had just said was now running through Langdon’s mind.

The key to the Grail is hidden beneath the sign of the Rose.

Langdon held the wooden box up to the light and examined the inlaid symbol of the Rose. Although his familiarity with art did not include woodworking or inlaid furniture, he had just recalled the famous tiled ceiling of the Spanish monastery outside of Madrid, where, three centuries after its construction, the ceiling tiles began to fall out, revealing sacred texts scrawled by monks on the plaster beneath.

Langdon looked again at the Rose.

Beneath the Rose.

Sub Rosa.

Secret.

A bump in the hallway behind him made Langdon turn. He saw nothing but shadows. Teabing’s manservant most likely had passed through. Langdon turned back to the box. He ran his finger over the smooth edge of the inlay, wondering if he could pry the Rose out, but the craftsmanship was perfect. He doubted even a razor blade could fit in between the inlaid Rose and the carefully carved depression into which it was seated.

Opening the box, he examined the inside of the lid. It was smooth. As he shifted its position, though, the light caught what appeared to be a small hole on the underside of the lid, positioned in the exact center. Langdon closed the lid and examined the inlaid symbol from the top. No hole.

It doesn’t pass through.

Setting the box on the table, he looked around the room and spied a stack of papers with a paper clip on it. Borrowing the clip, he returned to the box, opened it, and studied the hole again. Carefully, he unbent the paper clip and inserted one end into the hole. He gave a gentle push. It took almost no effort. He heard something clatter quietly onto the table. Langdon closed the lid to look. It was a small piece of wood, like a puzzle piece. The wooden Rose had popped out of the lid and fallen onto the desk.

Speechless, Langdon stared at the bare spot on the lid where the Rose had been. There, engraved in the wood, written in an immaculate hand, were four lines of text in a language he had never seen.

The characters look vaguely Semitic, Langdon thought to himself,

and yet I don’t recognize the language!

A sudden movement behind him caught his attention. Out of nowhere, a crushing blow to the head knocked Langdon to his knees.

As he fell, he thought for a moment he saw a pale ghost hovering over him, clutching a gun. Then everything went black.

CHAPTER 6S

Sophie Neveu, despite working in law enforcement, had never found herself at gunpoint until tonight. Almost inconceivably, the gun into which she was now staring was clutched in the pale hand of an enormous albino with long white hair. He looked at her with red eyes that radiated a frightening, disembodied quality. Dressed in a wool robe with a rope tie, he resembled a medieval cleric. Sophie could not imagine who he was, and yet she was feeling a sudden newfound respect for Teabing’s suspicions that the Church was behind this.