Today I'm featuring an excerpt from my friend Matthew Peters. I've included a passage from his thriller The Brothers' Keepers. Religion, History, Thrills, Suspense, Excellent Writing; this one has it all.
“Okay, you can take it off now,” Jessica told him.
Branson removed the red silk scarf from his eyes and opened them. Late afternoon sun filtered into the car.
“Sorry about that,” she said in a serious tone, “but the blindfold was necessary.”
The car swerved onto a narrow dirt track. Branches from the dark fir trees lining the road lashed against the car’s roof. Branson had no idea where he was but guessed they’d been driving for forty-five minutes, maybe an hour. He needed to text Han and tell him what was happening. Casting furtive glances at Jessica, he wormed his hand into his pocket and fished out his cell phone, but when he flipped it open, no signal registered. He slid it back into his pants.
He started to ask a question, but she silenced him with a look. He watched her as she drove, her gloved hands clinging tightly to the steering wheel, wondering if her silence lay in a need to concentrate on her driving, or if she’d decided to delay any more talk until they reached their destination. There were so many questions he needed answered. Why did she know so much about the Cathars? How did she know about the document found on the senator’s desk? How could she have foreseen Branson’s interpretation of the differences between Lambert’s sketch and the Templar scroll? Why was she taking him to meet someone, and why did she think this person so important in all this? Exactly what was going on? Why did she trust him so much? And why was he trusting her? He hadn’t told anyone about his theories and yet he’d shared them with a total stranger, who may or may not have his best interest in mind.
His life had certainly gotten very strange over the past few days.
“You drive like a maniac,” he grumbled as they rounded a particularly sharp bend at seventy miles an hour.
She pointed to the strap on the car ceiling. “Just hold on to the ‘oh shit’ handle over your head.”
Abruptly, the dirt path ended. The black Honda Accord squeezed between two trees, and after about a mile they came to a dilapidated cabin amid a small, man-made clearing. She slammed her foot on the brake and the car screeched to a halt. “We’re here,” she said.
“Where’s here? The home of Jason Voorhees? Come on, only serial killers live in places like this.”
A crease formed between her eyes.
“Forget it,” he said, waving his hand. “You’re too young to remember the old—”
“Friday the 13th slasher flicks.”
“Now, would you mind telling me exactly where we are?”
“I can’t tell you exactly. Hence the—”
“Blindfold, yeah, got that.” He picked up the red scarf.
Before he could say another word, the door to the cabin opened. A stocky, owl-faced man in his mid-sixties clad in a beige jacket over camouflage fatigues wheeled onto the porch. He wore a cypress green beret on his head. Dark glasses prevented Branson from seeing his eyes, but even in his wheelchair he had a detached, superior air. He executed a slow military salute with his palm turned out over his brow, and then gestured inside.
“Okay, let’s go,” Jessica said, returning the salute.
“Might as well,” Branson murmured.
There were no introductions, no handshakes. The man wheeled through the doorway, and Jessica and Branson followed. Two chairs, an old couch, and a small table made up the furnishings. A steady stream of warmth emanated from a couple of thick logs ablaze in a sooty fireplace. The man, sitting stiffly in his wheelchair, took off his glasses to reveal a pair of piercing mahogany eyes. Branson took a seat in one of the chairs, Jessica in the other.
“Welcome, Dr. Branson,” the man said in a soft British accent, removing his beret to reveal a shiny bald head. “You may call me Albert. My apologies for the clandestine nature of your arrival, but I’m afraid we can’t take any chances.”
“First, let me assure you that you are in no danger—not in the least. In fact, it is my job to see that nothing untoward happens to you. You’re in very high demand. Besides, if we’d wanted to kill you, we’d have done so already.” He chuckled and Branson forced a smile.
“We’ve been watching you, Dr. Branson.” Albert took a cigar from his inner jacket pocket, cut off the end, and tossed it into the fire. As he lit the cigar—an expensive one from the smell of it—and took a few puffs, a flume of blue smoke rose to the rough-hewn support beams of the ceiling.
Branson inhaled the sweet, rich smell.
“I’d ask if you’d like one,” Albert said, “but I know you quit smoking. I’d also ask you if you’d like a drink, but I know you no longer imbibe.”
Branson shifted in his chair, convinced that if ever there were a time in his life when he needed a drink and a smoke, this was it. He tried to distract such thoughts by conjugating Latin verbs.
“Yes,” Albert continued, “we know a great deal about you, your upbringing, your education, your personal relationships, and your life with the Jesuits and the Church of Satan.”
“Albert!” Jessica admonished.
“I’m sorry, my dear,” he said with little regret in his voice. “I mean the Catholic Church. The other name is what some of the Cathars still call it.”
Branson’s eyes boggled. “Still? But the Cathars were—”
“Extinguished in the thirteenth century,” Albert finished. “That’s what the Church wants people to think. In a way, it’s what the Cathars want people to believe, and in some cases what they believe themselves. But the Cathars have never been completely eradicated. Jessica here is a proud member. I myself am not, but I am certainly sympathetic to their cause.”
Branson struggled to make sense of what he’d just heard. But both Jessica and Albert-whoever-he-was, clearly had no doubts about their version of history. The Jesuit realized he had no option but to hear them out. Until they returned him to civilization, he was their prisoner.
Albert puffed on his cigar and continued. “Perhaps I should start in the thirteenth century. You’ll remember the Church in Rome launched a crusade against the Cathars in 1209. The official end of that crusade, the Albigensian Crusade, was some twenty years later. But, in fact, the attempt to wipe the Cathars from the face of the earth was only a part of something that dates back two thousand years—namely, doing away with any opposition to the Church. Are you with me so far?”
“So far, so good.”
“Good, because we’ll soon leave the received wisdom and move into what may be for you uncharted territory. Most of the Albigensian Crusade was confined to Languedoc, in what is now southern France. What you may not know is that in April of 1243, ten thousand loyal Roman Catholic troops besieged the fortress castle perched atop Montségur, where some four hundred Cathars—men, women, and children—sought refuge. The siege lasted until March 1244, when the Cathars were allowed to leave, even to retain their weapons, provided they renounced their beliefs and submitted to questioning by the Inquisition. At least half the Cathars refused, and in an immense bonfire, they were burned alive.” He paused, his eyes fixed on a far-off vision. “Legend tells us they went into the fire singing.”
“My God,” Branson muttered.
“But on the eve before that fateful day, four of their number slipped out of the castle into the darkness and down the sheer, treacherous cliffs of Montségur. They carried with them a mysterious treasure. Over the centuries there has been a great deal of speculation about that treasure, its contents, and its whereabouts. Some say it was actual treasure—gold, silver, precious stones. Others think it was some unknown scripture. There is even a faction that believes it was the Holy Grail.” Albert smiled.
“Personally, I don’t subscribe to the Grail theory. One thing, however, is abundantly clear. The Roman Catholic Church sought that treasure the four Cathars spirited away on the night of March 16, 1244. And they still seek it.”
Outside the wind picked up, rattled windowpanes, beat against the door, and whistled down the chimney.
“So you’re telling me the treasure, whatever it is, has been missing for almost eight hundred years?”
“And the Church has been trying to find it all along?”
“That’s exactly what I’m telling you, Dr. Branson. In fact, if I’m correct, and I have every reason to believe I am, the treasure dates back to the time of Jesus. And perhaps just as interesting to a scholar such as yourself, a good deal of historical events that seem otherwise quite inexplicable can be understood in light of the Holy See’s ongoing attempts to find it.”
Branson shook his head. “What do you mean?” In his encounter with Rawlings the other day, after he’d affirmed his commitment to the Lord, his Father Superior told him of the Church’s efforts to retrieve a mysterious “Jezebel.” With possession of Jezebel, Rawlings claimed, evil forces could wreak havoc, not only on the Church but on Judeo-Christian civilization. The meeting had ended with a bald appeal for Branson’s help in locating Jezebel, which Branson assumed was a code name for some physical object. Were Rawlings’ Jezebel and this man’s Cathar treasure one and the same?
Albert puffed on his cigar for some time before answering. “There’s a school of thought which holds that the Albigensian Crusade and the Inquisition, as well as more recent conflicts, were attempts to secure the Cathar treasure.” He peered at Branson through a haze of cigar smoke and then turned to Jessica. “Let’s bring him up-to-date, shall we, my dear?”
Jessica picked up the tale. “Think of Europe in 1914, poised on the brink of the Great War. In Bosnia there was a resurgence of a medieval sect called the Bogomils. Their beliefs were remarkably similar to the Cathars’. Now, you’ll remember the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was heir-presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, which included rule over Bosnia. While Franz Ferdinand was a practicing Catholic, he was also expected to be more liberal, more willing to consider other ideas, and most likely would have allowed the Bogomils greater freedom than Emperor Franz Joseph. On a fateful Sunday in late June, a nineteen-year-old Bosnian youth stepped out of the crowd in Sarajevo and assassinated the archduke. And so, we must ask, who gained by the archduke’s death?”
Branson squared himself in his chair. “You’re telling me that Franz Ferdinand may have died so the Church could maintain its hold in Central Europe? And that the war was more about crushing a group of people similar to the Cathars than a result of Germany’s efforts to expand, or even the desire among Austro-Hungary and Germany to quell Serbian nationalism? It all sounds pretty far-fetched.”
“Yes, well,” Albert said, taking up the thread, “I did say we were taking you into unfamiliar territory. Facts are open to interpretation. How sure are we that what history calls facts are unbiased? But we should continue. Time grows short.
“The Great War raged for four years, and millions died across Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. To this very day the causes remain contested. By all accounts, the struggle should have been contained. There is no real reason why it spread. But all the major powers were drawn in at the cost of a generation of men. Trenches were dug, and soldiers fought over territory often measured in yards and feet. It was almost as if the combatants were searching for something, yard by yard, foot by foot, inch by inch. Is it possible that this war conveniently camouflaged an ongoing search for the Cathar treasure?”
“I’ll acknowledge the small possibility.” Despite Albert’s assurance no harm would come to him, Branson didn’t want to argue too much with his interlocutors. He was still at their mercy and would remain so until he was returned to civilization. Maybe even longer.
“Then I’ll proceed.” Albert flung his cigar into the fireplace. “In the Second World War, the forces of Fascism were at least given a nod by the Catholic Church, as seen in its cooperation with Mussolini and its tolerance of Hitler. Hitler considered himself a Catholic, yet was never excommunicated by the Church. And the Holocaust. My God. The Holocaust almost seems like a twentieth century Inquisition of sorts, more deadly to be sure, but eerily well-documented. It’s almost as if the Germans were looking for something. Witness the ransacking of homes and the uprooting and liquidation of millions of people. In a way the Holocaust was the ultimate form of depersonalization—human beings became numbers and were slaughtered like animals. Yet, there was something very personal about the way Hitler and his henchmen went about it. A maniacal, diabolical form of search and seizure that knew no bounds and was meticulously documented. Of course, it was shortly after the end of the war that the Gnostic texts were discovered in the Egyptian desert, and the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in Qumran, now in the West Bank. Is the timing just coincidence?” He shrugged. “You tell me. You’re the scholar. Maybe I’m just a silly old man with some radical ideas.”
“This nonconformist history lesson is hinting at something,” Branson said.
Albert looked at his palms as if they held the answers to life’s mysteries. “You’re right. Perhaps we’ve crossed the Rubicon, as it were, and it’s time to put our cards on the table. So be it. We believe that over the centuries, powerful forces have searched and continue to search for a mystery they cannot define.”
“The Church and secular powers are looking for whatever it was those four brave Cathars secreted away from Montségur almost eight hundred years ago. And it’s important. So important both secular and religious powers have devoted virtually unlimited resources to secure it. I think whoever finds it could control the rise and fall of nations, civilizations, and perhaps the fate of the world.”
“I still don’t understand what this has to do with me or the document found on Senator Caldwell’s desk. I mean—” Suddenly he knew. “Okay, I get it. One of you put it there. And now that I’m out on a limb, way out, I bet you put it there for the FBI to find. I’ll bet you were pretty sure they’d call me. Damn it all!” He stood abruptly, knocking over his chair.
Unperturbed by the outburst, Albert continued. “We’ve given a lot of thought as to what the Cathar treasure might be.”
Branson set the chair upright and sat again. Albert had no intention of discussing the document found on the senator’s desk, and Branson couldn’t risk angering him. If these people had something to do with placing the document on Caldwell’s desk, it was more than a little possible they had something to do with his murder. He had to proceed cautiously.
“What have you come up with?” Branson asked.
The man lit another cigar. “As hard as I try not to smoke these things, I just can’t seem to help myself. The treasure must have something to do with the Roman Catholic Church’s claim as God’s sole representative on earth. Nothing else makes sense. So it has to be something that threatens their claim to such authority, and taking into account the involvement of secular powers, I think whatever it is threatens Judeo-Christian civilization as a whole.”
“How could anything bring down the dominant civilization?” Branson had thought of this often since his session with Rawlings.
“Among the world’s religions, Christianity is uniquely susceptible to having its underpinnings knocked out. Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism all developed slowly along the lines of indigenous cultures. Without Mohammed, Islam would still live, as would Buddhism without Gautama. Christianity rests on one thing—the resurrection of Jesus. If Jesus was not raised from the dead, Christianity becomes a mere set of moral maxims, at best a good way to live one’s life, perhaps even a precursor to secular humanism. But if Jesus died and was raised from the dead, then Christianity has what other faiths only promise—the guarantee of eternal life in paradise.” Albert puffed on his cigar until it glowed fiercely.
And so, Dr. Branson, another question. Is there proof of Jesus’ resurrection?”
Branson was on familiar ground now. “The Gospels give us eyewitness accounts. Mary Magdalene sees Jesus in the garden near his tomb. His disciples see him again in the Upper Room and elsewhere.”
Albert knocked his cigar ash into the fireplace and smiled. “Let me ask you this. Which Gospel is the oldest?”
“Mark, written around 70 AD. The next oldest is Matthew, followed by Luke, and finally John.”
“How does Mark, the earliest of the Gospels, end?”
“Tell me how Mark ends his story.”
Jessica joined in. “Three women go to Jesus’ tomb and find it empty. They meet a young man dressed in white who tells them that Jesus is risen. Then, not long after that, he appears to the apostles.”
“Does she have it right, Dr. Branson?”
“Well, she’s pretty close. The three women go to the tomb, find it empty, and are told by the white-robed stranger that Jesus has risen. But…”
“Yes?” Albert pressed.
“The fact is the original version of Mark’s Gospel ends there. The material about Jesus appearing to the apostles and his ascent into heaven was added later. But in the original, Mark makes no mention of any appearance of the resurrected Jesus.”
“Is an empty tomb proof of resurrection?” Albert asked. “Is hearing about the resurrection from a stranger proof? A rather shaky foundation to build a world religion on, n’est-ce pas? What about the testimony of the Roman guards? Of course they agreed with the resurrection story. If they’d admitted to falling asleep, or leaving their posts, or getting drunk, they would have lost more than their jobs. Just an empty tomb does not a resurrection make.”
“No, but that doesn’t mean the resurrection and appearance to the apostles didn’t happen.” Branson sounded more defensive than he’d intended. He didn’t feel himself to be in a strong position to serve as apologist for the Church, not here and now.
Jessica cleared her throat. “So let’s ask a different question. What would constitute proof that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead?”
Branson let the objective scholar within take over from the Catholic believer. Under the circumstances, he was certainly glad he had the ability to do so. “Well, off the top of my head, I’d say finding his bones.”
“Very good,” Albert said, puffing away on his cigar. “But is that really the case? Old bones in some ossuary. How would you prove they’re the bones of Jesus Christ? Highly unlikely. So proving Jesus died is probably not the threat.”
“Isn’t there anything else that might challenge the foundation of Christianity?” Jessica asked.
Branson thought for a moment. “I suppose something that brought into doubt the virgin birth or the crucifixion.”
“Very good, Dr. Branson,” Albert commented in between puffs of his cigar.
“Also very unlikely,” Branson admitted. “How can you prove the virgin birth? It’s not like Mary went around town saying, ‘Look at me, I’m the Virgin Mary.’ That title was bestowed upon her by the Church hundreds of years after her death. Unless you could find the equivalent of a two-thousand-year-old birth certificate or a paternity test from Joseph, you’d be hard pressed to disprove it. And even if we allow for the fact that Jesus had siblings, as he clearly did from what the Gospels tell us, there is nothing to say that he wasn’t the eldest, and thus Mary could still have been a virgin at his birth while the other children were conceived by Joseph.”
“What of the crucifixion?” Albert said. “How can that be proved?”
“Well, I suppose you could find the cross upon which Jesus was crucified, or the nails used to affix him to the cross, or the crown of thorns he wore. However, proving any of that is next to impossible. The Romans crucified thousands, and there is no way to tell from the remnants of wood who was crucified on a particular cross, the nails that were used, or the crown that was worn.” Branson thought for a moment. “So what do you think the Cathar treasure is, and just where is it?”
Albert blew smoke rings into the cabin’s stale air. “Those are exactly the questions we hope you can help us answer, Dr. Branson. Will you join us in our efforts?”
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