Andre Vernet looked awkward with a pistol, but his eyes shone with a determination that Langdon sensed would be unwise to test.
Im afraid I must insist, Vernet said, training the weapon on the two of them in the back of the idling truck. Set the box down.
Sophie clutched the box to her chest. You said you and my grandfather were friends.
I have a duty to protect your grandfathers assets, Vernet replied. And that is exactly what I am doing. Now set the box on the floor.
My grandfather entrusted this to me! Sophie declared.
Do it, Vernet commanded, raising the gun.
Sophie set the box at her feet.
Langdon watched the gun barrel swing now in his direction.
Mr. Langdon, Vernet said, you will bring the box over to me. And be aware that Im asking you because you I would not hesitate to shoot.
Langdon stared at the banker in disbelief. Why are you doing this?
Why do you imagine? Vernet snapped, his accented English terse now. To protect my clients assets.
We are your clients now, Sophie said.
Vernets visage turned ice‑cold, an eerie transformation. Mademoiselle Neveu, I dont know how you got that key and account number tonight, but it seems obvious that foul play was involved. Had I known the extent of your crimes, I would never have helped you leave the bank.
I told you, Sophie said, we had nothing to do with my grandfathers death!
Vernet looked at Langdon. And yet the radio claims you are wanted not only for the murder of Jacques Sauniere but for those of three other men as well?
What! Langdon was thunderstruck. Three more murders? The coincidental number hit him harder than the fact that he was the prime suspect. It seemed too unlikely to be a coincidence. The three senechaux? Langdons eyes dropped to the rosewood box. If the senechaux were murdered, Sauniere had no options. He had to transfer the keystone to someone.
The police can sort that out when I turn you in, Vernet said. I have gotten my bank involved too far already.
Sophie glared at Vernet. You obviously have no intention of turning us in. You would have driven us back to the bank. And instead you bring us out here and hold us at gunpoint?
Your grandfather hired me for one reasonto keep his possessions both safe and private. Whatever this box contains, I have no intention of letting it become a piece of cataloged evidence in a police investigation. Mr. Langdon, bring me the box.
Sophie shook her head. Dont do it.
A gunshot roared, and a bullet tore into the wall above him. The reverberation shook the back of the truck as a spent shell clinked onto the cargo floor.
Shit! Langdon froze.
Vernet spoke more confidently now. Mr. Langdon, pick up the box.
Langdon lifted the box.
Now bring it over to me. Vernet was taking dead aim, standing on the ground behind the rear bumper, his gun outstretched into the cargo hold now.
Box in hand, Langdon moved across the hold toward the open door.
Ive got to do something! Langdon thought. Im about to hand over the Priory keystone! As Langdon moved toward the doorway, his position of higher ground became more pronounced, and he began wondering if he could somehow use it to his advantage. Vernets gun, though raised, was at Langdons knee level. A well‑placed kick perhaps? Unfortunately, as Langdon neared, Vernet seemed to sense the dangerous dynamic developing, and he took several steps back, repositioning himself six feet away. Well out of reach.
Vernet commanded, Place the box beside the door.
Seeing no options, Langdon knelt down and set the rosewood box at the edge of the cargo hold, directly in front of the open doors.
Now stand up.
Langdon began to stand up but paused, spying the small, spent pistol shell on the floor beside the trucks precision‑crafted doorsill.
Stand up, and step away from the box.
Langdon paused a moment longer, eyeing the metal threshold. Then he stood. As he did, he discreetly brushed the shell over the edge onto the narrow ledge that was the doors lower sill. Fully upright now, Langdon stepped backward.
Return to the back wall and turn around.
* * *
Vernet could feel his own heart pounding. Aiming the gun with his right hand, he reached now with his left for the wooden box. He discovered that it was far too heavy. I need two hands . Turning his eyes back to his captives, he calculated the risk. Both were a good fifteen feet away, at the far end of the cargo hold, facing away from him. Vernet made up his mind. Quickly, he laid down the gun on the bumper, lifted the box with two hands, and set it on the ground, immediately grabbing the gun again and aiming it back into the hold. Neither of his prisoners had moved.
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. Whats going on? Vernet pulled again, but the bolt wouldnt lock. The mechanism was not properly aligned. The door isnt 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 couldnt 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 trucks 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.