VAULTS OF POWER
Hotel La Bastide was above Marseilles’ old harbor, across the industrial port. It had a view of the sea and a view of the city. Waxed furniture, heavy armchairs. A park with lavender and a swimming pool. Terraces and air conditioning.
“This is the middle of August,” the receptionist apologized to Robyn. “All our rooms are sold out. The suite with Jacuzzi and dining room is gone. I can offer you our villa.” He clicked through his computer. “Unless you want the suite with a fully equipped office?” he grimaced.
The office turned out to be the only room in which she didn’t feel like a fraud.
The bed was four poster and flowery canopy and lace and Louis XVI chairs and pale rose carpeting. Robyn slept until dawn with the window open, against claustrophobia.
The bathroom was twice the size of her boat cabin. The faucets seemed gold-plated. The toilet was separate and the end of the tissue folded in the shape of an exotic bird. She showered quickly and escaped to the harbor for breakfast. Sat in the sun at an outdoor café and ordered espresso and buttered baguette.
Looked at the big blue sky and started feeling better.
She fired up her Blackberry, called Tom and got his voice mail. Left a brief message.
The waiter brought the baguette and espresso—half a tiny cup of thick brown coffee. She downed it in one shot. It burned her stomach and cleared her mind. She ordered another one. Double, in a large cup. Dunked the buttered baguette in it. Eating slowly, she thought things through.
She thumbed through her phone and looked up the address of the bank. Mapped it. It was within walking distance of the café. She’d go there right after breakfast. She also wanted to see where Sybil had been found. Château d’If, the nurse and the Gendarmes said.
Before she left for the bank she called Parker and gave him a toned-down description of Sybil’s wounds. Didn’t mention the branding. “Tom brought her back home,” she said as if that settled it. “I just need to take care of a couple things before heading back.” She didn’t want him to ask questions. “How’s the diving going?”
Right where she predicted, he said, they had come up with a bucket of gold coins. Sybil’s words echoed in Robyn’s memory like a blame. You mean you’re going to miss on the fun. She wondered how things would have turned out had she gone to Switzerland with Sybil. Maybe not that different. She wanted to believe there was a reason she stayed behind. “I got something else for you,” she said to Parker. “I need a file on the Voynich manuscript.” She spelled it out.
“Got it,” he said.
“Anything you can get your hands on, ASAP.”
The line filled with static, then his voice came out somewhat staccato. “What else?”
Despite the distance and the static the bitterness came across. She hadn’t told him why she needed the research on the Voynich.
“Get me that stuff—“
“—I know. ASAP,” he said.
Every now and then, after work, Mack would stop for a beer in the city to get the pressure off before heading home. When he needed to take some kind of pulse of the markets he’d stick to the downtown bars. But elbowing Wall Street guys wasn’t his idea of relaxing. So when he just needed to unwind, he’d head mid-town. Mingle with strangers around Grand Central. Or walk a few blocks north and hook up with some old boys. Swap war stories. Help out a friend. Hear them say, “I owe you.”
Mack never asked for help. He was born into money, was smart and hard working. He’d never needed a favor. That was about to change.
Barton had screwed up in France, and the job was the easiest it would get. All he had to do was steal the Logonikon from the girl. She was alone, the perfect prey. Mack didn’t know if he bought the accident story, but he sure didn’t like the other two coming to the rescue. The sister would be taken care of by the French police and the US consul. That left the fiancé.
The man he was looking for was predictably sitting at the far end of the bar, sideways so he could see who was coming in and out and still talk to the barman and check out the women’s bare legs when weather allowed. He wore a brownish blazer over dark grey pants, a light blue shirt and a dark blue tie. Crew cut hair, thick strong arms and a recent beer belly. His name was Butch. His grandmother and Mack’s grandmother had been life-long best friends, their offspring like family. In Mack’s opinion, better than family.
After graduation Butch got irritated with comfort. He disappeared. When he showed up a quarter of a century later he had a young body and a hard face and an office waiting for him at the Pentagon.
For some reason he didn’t care to explain and Mack would have loved to know, he was now based in New York.
Mack picked up the tab.
“What can I do for you?” Butch said. No bullshit.
“Care to do something for your country?”
“I serve my country every damn day. Shit or get off the pot.”
Mack slid him a paper with the fiancé’s name on it. “Can you keep this Marine out of my way for a couple weeks?”
Butch glanced at the paper. Didn’t touch it. Nodded.
Robyn climbed under the scorching sun. The bank was on top a steep hill. Cars wormed along a one-way street with no sidewalk. Pedestrians could cut straight up on stairs carved in the rock. The harbor gradually turned into a slit in the ochre city, deep blue with the white speckles of boats.
She verified the address on her cell phone and looked up. Private house. A glass, bullet-proof round door system was the only clue that the building might be a bank. No flashy neon sign, no classy brass slab. She pressed a button and the first door revolved. She stepped on a round rubber mat. The revolving door clicked shut behind her, a recorded voice said something, the cubicle chimed and the door scooped around to let her in.
Plush carpeting. Dim lighting, restful. Roses stacked tight in a crystal vase.
“Miss Gabriel.” A male receptionist stood from his antique desk and picked up a phone. “Monsieur César, Miss Gabriel is here,” he said in French.
She hadn’t said a word yet. Welcome back to twinhood.
Monsieur César tornadoed in, tall and thin, waves of silver hair around his patrician face. A studied three-day stubble roughened the superior air of the hawk nose. Except for the grey slacks and navy blazer, he looked more like a trendy art gallery owner than a banker. “Miss Gabriel, this way please,” he said in English, opening a door. A staircase winded down. “We expected you yesterday.” The tone going up as in a question, but out of politeness.
“You said today.” The staircase kept going down. “I thought.” She let her hand glide on a thick burgundy rope along the wall. Sleek aluminum spotlights distilled a soft glow. “I'm sorry,” she added.
She was mistaken for Sybil and had not done anything to clarify the situation. This meant two things, one good and one bad: she was going to know what business Sybil had here. No power-of-attorney needed, or however the heck they did things in this country. That was the good thing.
The bad thing was she had started lying and she better watch carefully what she was going to do or say.
“Not to worry,” César said. “But we do have a larger problem.” His voice was clipped, as if he was in a hurry or upset. His accent was French applied to British. “Something came up since we met.”
She kept quiet.
“A judge is about to authorize a search warrant into our vault. Because of your safe-deposit. The contents thereof.”
The winding staircase butted against a round metallic door operated by a wheel.
He turned around to face her. “We cannot allow that to happen. I did not get into details when you visited us unexpectedly last week, but you need to know that this bank was built for a purpose.” He said it as if there were some kind of spiritual mission involved. “The whole hill is ours. We own all the buildings and rent them out to tenants we control. The city farmed out the utility maintenance to our subsidiaries.” He knocked on the wall. It made a dull sound. “This vault was carved in the limestone of the hill.” His eyes did not leave hers. “In other words, this is a fortress. No one enters without our permission.” He pushed his hair back. “Using the force of law to break us is unacceptable.”
He turned toward the submarine-like door. Slid a hand in an opening inside the wall. A reddish glow blinked. The door clicked. “We need you to empty your vault and close your account. For your protection, ours and our clients’.”
So far, so good, Robyn thought. Nothing I can’t handle. A fake signature here, a handshake there and I’m off.
The thirty-inch thick iron door glided seamlessly into the depth of the rock, revealing the vault room.
Semi-circular arches were carved off the roof of the cave in a Romanesque church style. The back and side walls were lined with rows of black deposit boxes with brass numbers, interrupted only by a small door off the right wall. In the center of the room, a glass cubicle held larger deposit boxes. One of its panels had a double set of walls, with a double-door system. “Your safe is in the air-controlled area,” César said, pointing to the glass encasement. “Twenty degrees Celsius, twenty five percent humidity, year round, rain or shine, backed by a power generator with six months of self-sufficiency.” He made a proud pause. Punched buttons on a control panel on the first door. “I will need your key,” he said.
“Miss,” César said. “The key please.”
She processed the little she knew one last time. Their father’s letter. Sybil’s meeting with the Swiss lawyer, still a mystery. But in Sybil’s handbag, an envelope with both their names on it and two keys inside.
She slowly reached in the back pocket of her jeans. Looked César straight in the eye when she handed him the flat key. That better be it.
“That’s it?” he said.
She shrugged. Could mean, Sure, that’s it. Or, I don’t know. Or, Let’s see. Could mean pretty much anything and at this point she needed options.
He looked at the key in the palm of his hand. Looked back at her. Shook his head.
A bead a sweat started forming on her forehead.
“Your problem.” His time to shrug.
Then he turned around, taking his time. Slid the key in the lock.
The lock opened.
He pulled out a thirty- by forty-inch box, mumbling, “Who carries that key in their pocket?”
He came out of the glass encasement and told her to follow him to a small room carved inside the rock. He put the box on the table, pointed to a button next to the door and said, “Ring when you're done.” His footsteps resonated through the vault. The round door glided and shut with a thick click. Then silence. Just Robyn and the box.
There was a strong earthy smell in the small room. Neon tubes cast a cold light. The furniture was efficient. Two steel chairs, a steel and glass table on which the box lay. It was the standard bank box, with no lock, just a sliding top. Robyn slid the cover off. Two large, red ribbons were folded on top a wooden chest that fit snugly in its encasing. She pulled the ribbons and the chest lifted out. It was solid cedar, soft and warm, with brass corners and a peppery smell.
And a lock. A small rectangular slot managed in an intricate design of brass on the small side of the box. She took a closer look at the designs. Flames coming out a dragon's mouth. This time there was no question. She pulled out the jade key from the padded envelope.
It entered the lock smoothly, its whole length disappearing inside, and stopped with a soft click once the tail was entirely in. She tried to turn it to the right, but it wouldn't move. To the left. Blocked. She pulled on it slightly, in case she had pushed too far. It didn't nudge. She tried to wriggle it. Nothing. Wriggled a little harder. The box moved with it. Shit.
Jade was sturdy, but the key was thin. Eventually, it could break.
I'm missing something.
Her finger played on the engravings around the lock. Her nail clicked when the level of brass changed. She looked closer. At that particular place right above the lock, the top flame was on a much higher level than the rest of the engraving.
Chinese locks operated like puzzles. That’s what she had read on some website she accessed from Tom’s cell phone just yesterday, when she had found out that the statuette was not just a statuette, but a key. What else did she read in there? She tried to remember. Turning a key just didn't do it. The person opening the lock had to know how to operate it. It worked like a combination lock. If you didn't know the digits that formed the combination, there was no point trying.
She looked inside the envelope again. There was nothing else in there. How could their father give them the key without instructions as to how to open the lock? She dropped the envelope on the table. It glided on the glass surface and flew to the floor, hovered mid-way like a faulty paper plane, then landed with a soft swoosh, the only outside sound she’d heard in a while. Glided and hit the wall and lay there upside down, the writing hid, the embossed seal showing.
Robyn picked it up and sat on a chair. Her finger went over the seal in a mechanical gesture, her eyes looked without seeing, her mind wandered in search of an answer, the only link to the outside world the feeling of the bumps under her forefinger. Just like… Her gaze focused. Just like the brass plaque, with its flame sticking out with no particular reason. She took a closer look at the embossing and its intricate designs. Waves? She pulled her cell phone. The network logo flashed on and off. But the battery was full. She took a picture. Zoomed on its display on the screen. The flash had flattened everything. She tilted the envelope, turned the lights off and took another picture. The flashlight snapped in the darkened room, and this time, when she checked her screen, she could see the trick had worked. Shade enhanced the design. She zoomed again until the picture was much larger than reality.
Not waves. Flames. Just like the ones on the cedar chest. She took a closer look at the lock, then at the picture.
Same designs, but something was different.
In the middle of the seal there were only straight angles. Like a labyrinth, simplified. She looked back at the chest, leaning over. It had only the flames.
Could the labyrinth be a representation of the inside lock? She'd give it a try.
She scrolled through the picture on the screen, then lay the camera on the table and put two fingers on the key. Forget about the key for now. It clicked when you entered it, so something's happened in there already.
Usually these locks had exterior devices that had to be moved in a certain order. She looked around the chest. Nothing. The front part had different levels of brass flames. That had to be it. The top flame, right above the lock, was made of a different sheet of brass, cut out and affixed on top of the rest. It stuck out. It wasn't there for effect. It was only useful.
It was meant to be moved, activating an inside process.
She pushed it to the right with her nail and it tilted easily. Something clicked inside the box, and the flame came automatically back to its initial, upright position. So far, so good.
She looked back at the picture of the labyrinth on the camera. The next move would be a right.
It wouldn't make sense to move the flame again. Robyn tried the key. It moved right into place, one quarter of a circle to the right.
The angle on the embossed seal was to the left.
She tried the key again. It yielded, half a circle left.
Then left, and that was it.
She wiped her hands on her jeans, and turned the flame left. There was some clicking inside the chest, the flame jumped back in position, and the lock popped open.
Inside the lid, dozens of sharp blades were folded. Had she entered the wrong combination, or attempted to force the box open, the blades, activated by complex clockwork, would have shredded the contents.
She reached inside and picked up a strange book. The smell of cedar yielded to that of leather. Its back and cover were made of calfskin, free of inscription. Two leather straps ran through coarse holes and tied the pages together. She opened the book. The inside was thick, creamy paper. The first page was blank and had small holes. She turned to the next page. It, too, had small holes, at different places. She leafed through the whole volume, and it was pierced vellum page after pierced vellum page. No writing at all. Nothing but holes.
Looking closer, each hole appeared to have been punched with cutting-edge preciseness. The holes were randomly arranged, sometimes spread over the whole page, or grouped in one area.
César wanted her to empty the vault. She could probably take the chest with her and fly it home. She glanced at it. There was something on the bottom that she had not noticed, in her haste to open the book. A folded sheet of paper.
She opened it.
Her heart missed a beat. It was her father's handwriting. Just one short line on a plain piece of paper, in black ink. There was a small smudge where the writing started. He’d used a ball point to write a name--Monastère Sainte-Thérèse, La Sainte Baume. A monastery. She slid the paper in her bag.
She needed to go to the monastery and she needed to go to the Château d’If. She needed to think things through. The chest and the book were stored in the controlled-atmosphere portion of a very private vault for a reason.
César would have to wait.
But there was the looming search warrant, and the police’s questions. Both probably linked, both equally puzzling. All this for a bunch of holes? She picked up her cell phone and started shooting pictures of the book. The memory filled. There was on and off network. She started emailing them to herself. Less than thirty seconds later they were uploaded to her email account. She repeated the process until she had captured over two hundred pages, then pulled out her passport and pictured it next to the book, for measurement.
She put the book in the chest and the chest in the box and rang for César.
He was down in a minute, glanced at the metal box on the table and put it back in the air-controlled glass encasement, handed her the key and walked out of the vault without a word. Under the careful stubble, his jaws bulged rhythmically.
As they reached the top of the staircase he cleared his throat and said, “Monsieur Toslav is here to see you, Miss Gabriel. Perhaps he can solve both our problems.”
In the hallway, a bony man was killing time admiring the bouquet. Swinging a cane in his left hand, he turned toward them. “Doryan Toslav,” he said.
She extended her hand. “Sybil Gabriel.”
Toslav looked amused, took her fingers and tilted her hand, then bowed above it.
A proper baisemain. That doesn’t happen every day. His hand was cold and dry, his skin brittle. She stroked her arm.
“I hope my car won’t be in the way,” he said to César and waved toward a deep red Silver Cloud, stopped right in front of the glass door, blocking the whole street, a young man behind the wheel.
“Not at all. We are not expecting anyone this afternoon.”
Not expecting anyone. And it sounded like good news.
César walked them to a small lounge with floor-to-ceiling windows offering views of the sea and the nearby islands. One of them the Island of If, where Sybil had been found nearly dead. César pointed to low armchairs arranged around a coffee table and busied himself behind a small bar. “Coffee?”
Toslav set his cane against the table, pulled on the creases of his pants, and dropped in his seat. “Champagne.” His long legs angled upward. “Uncomfortable seats, but a beautiful view. Is this your first visit to Marseilles?” he asked Robyn. His skin was taut against the bony features of his face, parchment-like, with liver marks. A modern mummy in a silk bow-tie. His accent didn't place him as a native from any English-speaking country, but wasn't distinctly foreign either.
“Where are you from?” she asked.
He waved his hand around. “I'm from many places.”
César set three glasses of champagne on the table and sat with them.
The mummy smiled, uncovering small, yellow teeth, the creases around his mouth rippling to his ears. He lifted his glass. “Welcome!”
To Sybil, Robyn thought as she sipped her champagne. Somewhere in transit, or in a hospital bed. They thought she was her, and it made her feel uncomfortable and strong at the same time.
The mummy was looking around and seemed to just want to enjoy his drink. His neck was too thin to fill his collar, and it pleated when he turned his head. “I always combine business and pleasure.” He smiled and winked. “I'm one of those lucky few.” He brought his glass down and rested it on the edge of his armchair. “You're young,” he said. “Follow the advice of an old man who's seen it all. Turn whatever your pleasure is into business. It's the only way to get gracefully through this vale of tears.”
That's exactly what I'm trying to do, she thought, but I'm not going to discuss it with you.
“Let's talk,” he said, and pulled a card.
César set his empty glass on the table and excused himself. The door shut softly behind him.
She picked up the card. The name was Doryan Toslav. The occupation, Acquisitions Department, Fondation Blaise Pascal. The printed phone number was crossed out and replaced by a scribble. “And… what does this foundation concern itself with?” she asked.
“Lost treasures of the French culture.”
She wondered whether he was one of those treasures. “I'm afraid you'll have to do without a business card.” She smiled. “I doubt you would have any business with me, though.”
“On the contrary, Ms Gabriel, I'd be delighted to. It was a pleasure dealing with your father.”
He raised his thin eyebrows. “Why of course! We've met once, here in Marseilles. Quite a while ago. Fifteen years, perhaps a little less. Great man. We had friends in common and went golfing. They had this one golf course outside the city. Lousy. Still is, I believe.” His gaze became a little hazy, and he shook his head, as if trying to clear his memories. “Your father was an excellent golfer, I remember. And quite a gentleman. Pleasure dealing with him.” He leaned over to reach for his drink. “A terrible thing, that accident. Your mother too, I heard?”
“Dealing with him?” Robyn asked.
“We had some unfinished business. I'm assuming that's what you're here for?”
Robyn slugged the rest of her champagne.
“It's a small world, Miss Gabriel. Word gets around very quickly.” He cleared his throat. “Your father got in touch with me concerning a manuscript he had. A rare… edition, of no market value per se but of great interest to the foundation I represent. He stored it at the Banque des Deux-Rives at the time. It's probably still here?”
“What kind of manuscript are we talking about?”
“Never heard the name.”
Toslav went on. “It's rubbish if you ask me—no offense—but some people regard it highly as one of the greatest artifacts in occultism. The next-to-ultimate manuscript. Your father didn't know what to do with the Logonikon. The market wasn't ripe for it at the time.” He put the cigarette holder back between his lips and Robyn thought she saw him draw on it. “I wasn't with the Fondation Blaise Pascal at the time. I was dealing curiosa back then, and having a hard time educating my clients to appreciate the occult. I told your father to hold on to the Logonikon until I sensed a genuine interest leading to solid market value.” He paused and clearly mimicked pulling on the cigarette. “When I finally tried to get in touch I learned he had been… killed.”
“So someone eventually wanted to buy it?” Robyn asked.
“If you're willing to part from it, we can look at different options.” He tried to cross his legs, but the coffee table didn't give him enough room. He just sat there, his knees poking up. A vein beat in his temple. “I have a few international clients who would be serious bidders for the Logonikon. The Fondation Blaise Pascal, on the other hand, has more limited means but offers recognition to its donors. Some people like to believe their name on a brass plaque in a museum is more valuable than a few million dollars in a bank account.” He waived the cigarette holder as if a seven-digit figure were a puff of smoke in his world. “It's entirely up to you.”
A few million dollars. “Can you tell me a little about these buyers?”
“Definitely not,” he coughed up. “The thing is,” he said, waving his cigarette-holder, “now is the time to either sell or donate, and in your position you should be glad to even have the choice.”
“In my position?”
“The ownership is challenged,” he said. He finally managed to stick his right foot on top of his left knee. “Surely you are aware of that.”
“Why would you buy or receive an artifact of tainted origin?” she asked.
He barely looked at her, and turned to the window. “Because my clients don't care. And neither does the foundation. Right now there is interest for the Logonikon. There might still be two years from now, and there might not be in three months. There's no way to know.”
“You're saying the ownership is questionable,” Robyn said, “yet you represent people who are ready to acquire, or receive the Logonikon or whatever you call it. Shouldn't they be concerned too—about the possibility that their ownership would ultimately be challenged?”
Toslav straightened in his chair and looked at Robyn. “Quite frankly, I doubt the foundation will offer any money for it. You could donate it to them as a philanthropic gesture, and if they have to relinquish it to someone else, there will not be any damage. The serious clients I have are abroad and private. No one will ever know where the Logonikon is once the transaction is completed. The fund transfer would be invisible, as well.” He waived his hand in a regal gesture. “You see, only if you decided to put it on the market through an antiquarian or at an auction might trouble occur.” He finished his glass of champagne.
“You seem to know a lot more than you're willing to say, Mr Toslav,” she said.
“The less you'll know, the better off.” He folded his cigarette holder. His hands trembled a little.
“That'll be a problem,” she said.
He turned his question-mark eyebrows to her.
“I was born nosy.”
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