A thick layer of fog shrouded the capital. It wasn’t bad enough to keep people inside, but it was still vaguely unsettling. Teens on scooters, who usually slalomed with ease along the narrow streets, took their time, unsure of what lay ahead. The few high points of the city, including the dome of Sacré Coeur, had vanished altogether. Only the revolving light of the Eiffel Tower managed, more or less, to pierce the opaque surroundings.
Léo, an independent taxi driver in Paris for twenty years, dropped off his customer on the Avenue de La Bourdonnais. The damned pea soup was making it impossible to find another fare. Everyone was taking the metro. He parked his dark blue Mercedes on the Rue du Général Lambert and listened to the weather forecast. More precipitation. He grumbled and turned off the radio. Until today, the spring weather had been pleasant. Feeling sullen, Léo got out and stretched his legs. The damp cold hit him right away. He shivered, pulled up his collar, and headed toward the Eiffel Tower. The atmosphere, enchanting on any other night, was unreal and ghostly.
A second later, he heard a scream rise up from tourists gathered under the Iron Lady.
“Damned tourists,” Léo muttered. “Always getting pickpocketed.”
As he got closer he could see thirty or so Japanese sight- seers in red plastic ponchos staring up at the tower. Next to them, two young women in black T-shirts and ripped jeans were pointing at something. No, the commotion wasn’t about someone getting her purse nabbed.
Leo followed their fingers. Three meters above them, a dark figure was appearing and disappearing in the fog, like a string puppet, its head tied to a rope—a life-sized toy gracefully oscillating in the white cloud.
The tourists applauded.
“Nothing serious,” Leo said to himself, ready to turn away.
“Just another street artist.”
But as the sway of the rope began to slow, the figure’s face came into full view. The two young women were the first to realize the terrible error they had all made. They cried out in shock.
Léo felt bile rising in his throat.
The puppet was a man, red in the face, tongue hanging out, arms slack.
The crowd stepped back in unison and let out a wave of shrieks.
RUE LAFAYETTE, PARIS PRESENT DAY
Antoine Marcas was sipping a sweet brandy on the terrace of Le Régent café. The night before, he had celebrated his forty-second birthday. It was nothing like the shock of forty—a mere step away from a half a century. In the two years following that disaster, the affronts of time had been minor.
Sure, life had sucked after the breakup with Jade. The idyllic love had turned to vinegar after a few months of living together. She was too independent, too loud, too different—and yes, even too beautiful. Too much for Marcas. The relationship had gotten stuck in mounds of pettiness, and they were both saved at the last minute by separation. She accepted a position at the French embassy in Washington, leaving him alone one night in his vast apartment on the Rue Muller in Paris.
For a while, resentment and doubt ate away at him. His doctor, a Freemason brother, suggested some rest. Marcas thought he might try therapy. Would he have to choose a Freemason shrink? The question seemed both strange and meaningful. Only a brother could understand the personal development offered by regular temple attendance. If he had to explain the transformation of uncut stone into polished cubes to a profane, he’d never get better. Did Freemason-specific therapy even exist? He had considered asking his worshipful master. Then the need passed.
He examined himself in the mirror just inside the café. His hair was beginning to gray at the temples. His son, Pierre, had recommended the new style, which made him look younger and less serious. Or at least that’s what Marcas told himself. There were a few wrinkles around his brown eyes, but his natural expression was always pleasant. His smile became more pronounced when he was feeling sure of himself. Those who didn’t know him sometimes interpreted it as mockery.
Marcas straightened in his chair and checked his leather briefcase, making sure he had brought his master’s apron. The Masonic meeting was scheduled to begin in a half hour at the Grand Orient Masonic Hall. He’d never have time to go home and come back. He grinned. He hadn’t been forced to let out his belt by a single notch in the four years he’d been wearing the apron. He had maintained a steady seventy-seven kilos, the ideal weight for his size, according to his doctor. Not an easy task, considering the feasts that followed their meetings every second Thursday.
The hubbub in the café rose as new customers arrived for happy hour. Marcas gestured to the waiter. He want- ed to pay his tab. Just then, two thirtyish men in suits, their ties loosened, plopped down in chairs at the next table.The older one, who had carefully groomed blond hair, ordered two beers.
“Did you hear the news?”
The other one shook his head and grabbed a fistful of peanuts.
“ISIS is making something like eighty million euros a month on the oil wells it’s seized, and now it’s bragging that it can get its hands on nuclear weapons from Pakistan. We’ll never be able to get the better of these guys. They’ll be riding into Paris in the back of their pickups the same way the German troops came marching in.”
Marcas leaned in a little closer. He loved café talk, especially when it was laced with paranoia. Yeah, ISIS was a threat. But France had seen worse—the Gestapo and the storm troopers, for example. And France had prevailed.
The younger man, who had brown hair, nodded while giving the waitress a visual once-over.
“TV news is full of crap,” he said. “It’s all controlled by the establishment. If you want the truth, you’ve gotta go to the Internet and find the right sites. I’m following a great blog now that claims the Freemasons are behind a lot of the havoc we’re seeing now.”
“Come on. In with the terrorists? You’ve got to be kidding. I’m all for conspiracy theories, but that’s too much. Look around Paris, and you can see all the good work they’ve done.”
“Just go to the blog,” the blond-haired man said. “You’ll understand. The newspapers and TV stations are full of liars. But they’re all Freemasons anyway. What do you expect?”
Marcas sighed. So many assholes and so little time. When would everyone just drop the Masonic conspiracy thing? It was one conspiracy after another—for centuries now. Every year, he and some brothers from his Freemason lodge would get together over dinner to discuss the latest and craziest conspiracy theories. The brother who told the most off-the-wall story would win twelve bottles of Haut Brion. Last year, his friend Jean-Marc had taken the prize with a story that claimed the Freemasons were descendants of extra-terrestrials that had abducted Jesus in a flying saucer.
The blond-haired man continued. “Listen, those guys control the European Union and our French elections. You have no idea.”
Marcas couldn’t take it any longer. “Excuse me,” he said, leaning over. “I couldn’t help but overhear. And I have to say that I agree. The Antichrist is among us, and guess what. He’s a Freemason.”
Marcas smirked and stood up. The two men glared as he tossed a bill on the table, gathered his things, and walked away.
If only they knew that his oddly shaped briefcase held a ceremonial sword.
Marcas looked at his watch. It was nearly eight. The meeting would begin in exactly twenty minutes. He hurried up the Rue Lafayette and turned right on the Rue Cadet.
Delicious aromas wafted from the rôtisserie on the left, and the Detrad Bookstore next to the lodge headquarters was still open. He had just enough time to take a look. Three customers—brothers, he assumed—were leafing through books in the central aisle. He nodded to the affable-looking man and the smiling blonde behind the counter and glanced at the new releases. The huge number of books about Freemasonry published every year always impressed him. One would think that everything had been written already, but no, there were always new books.
And there it was. The book he was looking for: La Chevalerie Maçonnique by the French historian Pierre Mollier.
His brothers had spoken highly of it. He picked it up and headed to the back of the store, which had a showcase of Masonic objects, including aprons, canes, glasses, and plates. A rectangular box adorned with a mother-of-pearl eye in a triangle caught his attention. Another Masonic cigarette lighter for his collection. He had more than twenty of them now. His ex-wife, son, and friends teased him about this hob- by of his. Even after he quit smoking, he always carried one. They reminded him of his childhood, when he spent much of his time in his father’s woodworking shop on the Rue Saint Antoine.
The cashier rang up the sale and handed him his purchases in a plastic bag. They exchanged a few words about upcoming events at the lodge and said good-bye.
Marcas hurried over to the lodge headquarters, a Spartan and somewhat unsightly building that hid a fascinating secret. Behind its modernistic metal and glass façade, elaborate and mysterious ceremonies were routinely orchestrated in any number of magnificent Masonic temples.
RUE SAINT JACQUES DE LA BOUCHERIE,PARIS MARCH 13,1355
Nicolas Flamel heard the clamor rising from the banks of the Seine River and decided to shut his shop. People were already running toward the water. Shouts and the sound of horse hooves hitting cobblestones filled the air. The wind was picking up, too, carrying the acrid smell of resin. All of Paris seemed electrified.
As Flamel closed his shutters, he saw that other bourgeois were doing the same thing. One could never be too careful. The English were encamped a few leagues from the city and could attack at any time. And then there were the common people, the poor who lived in the faubourgs, whose fever of revolt, exacerbated by famine and taxes, always ended in pillages and blood baths.
Flamel took down the parchments displayed in front of his shop and put each fine work away. He had something for everyone: war chronicles, prayer books, and stories of chival- ry, all illustrated in fine gold powder. Every day, his workers plumbed their imaginations to create angelic Virgins, warriors with bloody weapons, and dragons spitting fire in the shadowy depths of caverns.
“Neighbor, do you fear for your paintings?”
Flamel turned around. Master Maillard, a furrier, was staring at him with mockery in his eyes.
“My kind neighbor, I don’t like the air we breathe tonight. And I certainly don’t like to take any risks. There are rumors of a riot.”
“True, true. They lit the fires a little too early tonight,” the furrier answered. “But one must keep the people entertained even before the show begins.”
“My neighbor and friend, I fail to understand. Your language is as obscure as a tree in a pitch-black night.”
“What? You haven’t heard what’s happened? What world do you live in, with your nose always in your books? For that matter, you should…”
Master Maillard lowered his voice. “It’s not good to spend too much time with books these days. One doesn’t know what could be hidden in them. Our Holy Mother Church cannot check everything. Who knows? An apprentice could be copying one of the Devil’s gospels in your very own shop.”
“Lower your voice, my neighbor. I was just giving you some advice, that’s all. Books are under suspicion these days. Too many heretics are spreading their doctrines on parchment. Too many witches are writing down their accursed rites. You’ll see. Soon we’ll be burning books, along with their authors.”
“Yet, my dear Master Maillard, none of that explains what’s happening at the moment.”
The furrier looked at him with incomprehension written all over his face. “So you really don’t know?”
“No, I don’t. I spent all week with my aids recopying a volume of Aristotle’s Physics for the university. The illustrations were very costly, and not only in man hours. I had to import a special blue powder from the Orient. There—”
Master Maillard made the sign of the cross. “Don’t talk to me about those monsters. Those black-skinned Saracens are damned to hell. Don’t you know they worship a goat- headed god named Baphomet? The Templars, cursed as they are, adored that impious idol and paid for it with their lives.”
GRAND ORIENT MASONIC HALL, PARIS PRESENT DAY
Antoine Marcas smoothed his apron and made sure his double-edged sword was secure at his side.
Next to the elevator, a display system similar to the ones at airports informed him that the meeting would be in Lafayette Temple. The 9 p.m. initiation ceremony was the only gathering scheduled for the night. The seventeen other temples in the building were closed. Marcas checked his watch. Only five more minutes.
“Well, my brother, I see you’re a fan of modern technology. So what’s next? Skyped initiation ceremonies?”
Startled, Marcas turned around. A man in a wheelchair was smiling at him.
“Paul! I didn’t hear you.”
Paul de Lambre, a physician who had lost the use of his legs in a car accident, was a descendant of the illustrious Marquis de Lafayette and a high-ranking Freemason.
“You wouldn’t believe what they’re doing with wheelchairs these days,” Paul said, tapping one of the wheels. “This one’s made of carbon fiber: strong, flexible, and darned-near silent. Four detachable components, and the footrests even have LED lights. That means I can see you in the dark, but you can’t hear me coming.”
“As long as you’re being sarcastic, that’s a good sign, my brother.”
A shadow seemed to cross the man’s face, and his eyes became serious. “The signs are not very good right now. I have something on my mind, Antoine, and since you’re a police detective and a brother, I think you’re the person I should be talking with.”
Marcas studied the man. “Of course. The ceremony is about to begin. Why don’t we get together afterward? Right now it’s time to go to the temple of your glorious ancestor. That must be quite an experience for you.”
Paul de Lambre’s jaw stiffened. “You could put it that way,” he said as he spinning his wheelchair around.
The hooded man wearing the Masonic apron waited in the darkness of the closet. He fiddled nervously with the ceremonial sword as he ticked off the minutes. Finally, he took a deep breath, opened the closet door, and made sure the hallway was empty. He stepped out of the shadows.
“I am the Sword of Light. I march in the night,” he chanted in a low monotone.
He advanced noiselessly. Slipping through the dark corridors was child’s play. Tricking the security system had been a joke. It was even intoxicating. He’d been exploring this prodigious labyrinth for at least a dozen nights. Each time he’d stop just before reaching the chamber of reflection. Then he’d leave. Only one time had he crossed paths with a brother, and that hadn’t caused any problems. He knew the building’s strange topography by heart, and now he could make his way over it blindfolded. The tangle of hallways, the crooked floors, and the myriad temples in this vast structure made him feel like he was moving on a gigantic movie set.
But this would be the last night he’d go unnoticed. His quest would begin with sacrifices.
He could hear the voice again. Perhaps it was his. “I kill, and I die. I kill, and I am born again.”
He took the stairs two by two and reached the next floor in a matter of seconds. He smiled in the darkness.
“I am the chosen one.”
He was on pins and needles as he recited the ritual words.
The taste of blood filled his dry mouth.
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