Batman and Catwoman in Cat-Tales by Chris DeeCat-Tales 52: Vault

Vault
by Chris Dee

Exposition by Jason du Sang


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There’s nothing quite so exhilarating to round out a night on the town in Zurich as a narrow escape from a chain explosion right in front of Grossmunster Church on a Vespa stolen from the LZ police less than an hour before.  But exhilaration only goes so far.  It was time for some old-fashioned exposition.  The key to this mystery was the secret nature of the vault.  The first question wasn’t the usual: who had the technical ability to get in?  It was a far more basic: who knew there was anything to get into?  Bernard hadn’t been that communicative, even though he’d brought me in on this in the first place, so I decided a chat with Jason Blood was in order before my next visit to DAZ. 

Jason doesn’t believe in securing telephone connections.  He doesn’t trust technology any more than Bruce trusts magic, and he says even if a line is secure, half the conversation can still be overheard.  He “prefers to be sure.”  So he sent me out—I’m not kidding—he sent me out onto the Bahnhofstrasse at nine o’clock in the morning to buy a hand-dipped taper of purest white, six leaves of sage fresh and fragrant, ground rosemary and dried basil.  That’s not as easy as it sounds when you don’t know a city well, but the nice boy at the front desk wasn’t holding a grudge about the fire in my room.  He pointed me to a farmers’ market at the end of the street for the spices and a big department store for the tapers.  Turns out, some people here have chandeliers that predate electricity and still burn actual candles.  I went back to my room, arranged the spices at the base of the candle as instructed, and lit up.  Within a few minutes, the flame grew very still and this peaceful white glow pooled out around it.  The candle sprouted a second flame—or rather, there was a second candle superimposed perfectly over mine.  And there was Jason sitting in front of it, looking as real and solid as if he was in the room with me.

“Selina, always a pleasure,” he began with a formal nod.  “How may I be of assistance?”

“How about we play a little game of ‘everything you wanted to know about the Knights Templar but were afraid to ask?’”

“Oh dear, so it’s come to this,” he grimaced.  “With respect to your delightful way of introducing the subject, Selina, perhaps you will allow me to reframe the question.  ‘The Knights Templar for beginners,’ perhaps?  Please don’t be offended.  I’m sure you know a great deal—or think you do—but the fact is that modern man, and particularly modern academics, are incomprehensibly stupid on this subject.  I would not trust anything you have learned in your undoubtedly complete education.  This is one of those areas where modern sources are quite hopeless.  You simply… had to be there.”

“Right.  At the risk of stating the obvious, Jason, that’s why I’m talking to you instead of Barbara.”

Again he grimaced.

“Yes, well, the fact is, the Templars are not exactly a pleasant memory for me.  I was still—at the age of five hundred and eighty, by which time far stupider men would have learned their lesson—I was still inclined to help humanity when I thought I could.  My efforts were scorned time and again by such arrogant, willful stupidity… It simply staggers the imagination that men so utterly lacking in wisdom or understanding can be so blind to their folly and so confident in their supposed ‘abilities’ when those abilities are only a manifestation of their intense ignorance!”

“Um, Jason, I’d like to point out that absolutely nobody is arguing with you.”

“Forgive me, Selina.  It makes me angry still.  It is you and Bruce who pay the price for those disappointments.  They poisoned the well of my good will for a great many who came after.”

I always thought Jason was quite helpful and a good friend.  I spent the next several minutes saying so, and finally he was ready to get down to business.

“Very well.  An overview of the Knights Templar by Sieur Jason du Sang, who knew them well enough to lend them money.  The order began, in theory, to protect pilgrims in the holy land.  They were a poor sect in the early days, hence their symbol of two knights forced to share a single horse.  Hence also, my occasional loan of two or three gold pieces which I never expected to see again.  It took almost three hundred hectares of land for a nobleman to support himself as a knight on crusade.  I never expected to see my money again.  I simply felt for those who had been men of consequence, reduced to such humble circumstances.  And I wasn’t alone.

“In 1118, Baldwin II gave these knights a place to live within the sacred enclosure of the temple mount.  Hence they became the ‘templar’ knights.  At the time, it was universally understood that they must be digging for treasure while they were there.  That’s why Baldwin put them there, not on a covert mission to obtain ancient secrets and blackmail the church, as some have surmised, but merely to give them a means to support themselves.  Baldwin was born a French aristocrat just as they were.  Such men take care of each other.  It is not charity; it is merely pride and the obligation of caste.

“Modern ‘scholars’ who say these were pious men that would not dream of defiling holy ground are simply blinding themselves to the reality of the crusader kingdom.  These ‘pious men’ thought nothing of slaughtering every man, woman, and child they found in the holy city, Christian and Saracen they murdered on ‘holy ground.’  Do you imagine for one minute they would shirk from shoveling a little dirt said to be blessed when they’d already soaked it into mud with the blood of the men who decreed it so?”

“Again, Jason, no one’s arguing.”

He took a deep breath, and we had a long digression about “Les Annales.”  In the 1960s, Jason had the misfortune to go to a dinner party in Paris where he was seated next to a woman from this group of French historians who evidently suck the life’s blood out of history.

“In the name of socio-economic analysis, they achieve the impossible: they make sex, war, and murder dull.”

“Okay, so, long story short.  Templars: named for the temple, dug for treasure.”

Jason coughed; it was his version of a bat grunt.

“Most likely.  In any case, the order did not remain impoverished for long.  Whether they came away with the Ark of Covenant, Holy Grail, or merely the reputation for having unfettered access to the Temple of Solomon—and therefore the ability to sell any fragment of wood, bone, or gristle as a priceless relic of a lauded saint—is ultimately immaterial.  They prospered.”

He stopped and chuckled.

“To put it mildly, they prospered.  To put it bluntly, they became an international wealth machine that made modern equivalents like LexCorp or Wayne Enterprises look smalltime and disorganized by comparison.  Official papal sanction made the knights a favored charity and exempted them from taxes.  When new members joined, as they did in force now that there was power and prestige to be had, they had to take an oath of poverty.  That meant signing over all their property—farms, vineyards, castles, what have you—to the order.  Additional revenue came from business dealings.  The knights themselves were sworn to poverty but had the strength of a large and trusted international infrastructure behind them.  Can you imagine a more desirable business partner? 

“So it came to be that many nobles leaving their estates for a time, whether to go on crusade or for some other purpose, would place all of their wealth and businesses under the control of Templars, a kind of bank and power of attorney in one, safeguarding their holdings until their return.  The order’s financial power became substantial, and the majority of the Templar infrastructure devoted itself to economic pursuits rather than combat.

“Thus began the Knights’ transition into the bogeymen of the day.  If you think the conspiracy theorists of the modern world are entertaining, the peasants back then imagined fantastic plots for which the virtuous fundraising for the crusades was but a smokescreen.  Ultimately, it came down to petty local jealousies, because Templar-managed businesses paid no taxes and were run efficiently.  It was that simple, really, but demonic influences like Etrigan’s can have a field day with such ‘simple’ jealousies.  I did try to warn them, but… well, in any case…

“Templars were rich and they were powerful.  They managed their holdings very well, and became richer still.  And that’s when the innovations began.  By 1150, the original mission of guarding pilgrims had changed into a mission of guarding their valuables through an innovative system issuing letters of credit.  It was difficult to travel with any significant amount of money, gold is quite heavy.  So they devised a system where a pilgrim might visit a Templar house in his home country, deposit his deeds and valuables, and receive an encrypted letter describing his holdings.  He could then take this simple, light, convenient parchment with him to any other Templar hall anywhere in the world, and there ‘withdraw’ his funds.”

“A twelfth century ATM,” I smiled.

“Essentially.  I personally found it a convenient solution to a sticky problem.  Before the Templars came along, I was forced to ‘die’ every few decades and manufacture documents to inherit as my own son; it’s really the only solution when you don’t age.  But that is an isolated case, of course.  Back to the ordinary men of women of medieval Europe.  Those who didn’t travel still found it prudent to deposit dormant wealth with the Knights Templar.  The order had a loophole which allowed them to charge interest lending it out again, something no others could do under church law.  And, as armed soldiers, they had the physical means to protect the goods.”

“So they were the first modern bankers.”

“Correct.  By the 14th century, they had grown a little too rich and too powerful.  Every king in Europe owed them money, particularly Philip the Fair.  They had also lost the holy land, and most European monarchs were very nervous about that kind of well-armed, well-financed fighting force being back in Europe.  So, as history records, Philip acted to remove them.  He installed a puppet of his own as pope, and on Friday, October 13, 1307, he arrested Grand Master Jacques de Molay and some sixty of his senior knights simultaneously, charged them with numerous heresies, and tortured them until they confessed… What history also records, but is quite bafflingly incapable of interpreting correctly, is that Philip failed to lay his hands on the Templar treasure. 

“Selina, Batman’s identity is one of the great secrets of the modern age.  How many people know it?  Besides you and I, his own handpicked confidants like Pennyworth and Grayson, numerous members of the Justice League, Ra’s al Ghul, Hugo Strange… No secret is absolute.  Philip wanted to arrest every Templar in France at the same moment.  You cannot keep an operation on that scale a secret, particularly when you are conspiring against the most notoriously wealthy men in the world.  The Templars knew what was to happen; it is that simple.  Word got out, and they sacrificed the men at the top because they had no choice.  The rest escaped with the treasure.  Those who find the very word ‘treasure’ to be too sensational for their dry, bloodless view of history would suggest it never existed… And if you choose to fixate on the Holy Grail, the head of John the Baptist or whatever else they’re thought to have dug up from the temple mount, I tell you frankly I don’t know about that any more than you do.  But the wealth they had beyond that?  The wealth they amassed over two centuries controlling and consolidating the greatest fortunes of the day?  That treasure is undeniable.  It existed.  Philip glimpsed it when he was busy entrusting the treasury of France to the Templars’ protection.  He realized what he saw was only a portion of the whole, that the Templars had forts and estates throughout France—over 9,000 manors at one count, just within his borders—each containing its own deposit of treasure.  He wanted it.  He didn’t get it...  That is your cue, Selina, to ask me where it went.”

“But I don’t have to, because this is where our talk began last time,” I pointed out. 

“Indeed.  At this precise moment in time, when the Templars become fugitives in France, a remarkable thing happens right across the Alps.  Swiss settlements who for generations had been farmers, suddenly turn into skilled warriors, defeat all the brigands that had plagued them for decades, and then settle down to become bankers.” 

“The Templars came to Switzerland.”

“Of course they came to Switzerland.  Just look at their flag, for God’s sake.  There are even stories of ‘white knights’ appearing to turn the tide of this battle or that one.  Some remained in France, I’m sure, disappearing into other monastic orders.  Some fled to England, Scotland, other countries not inclined to follow Philip’s lead… but the ones entrusted with the treasure came to Switzerland.  And they signaled they were a depository of some portion of the treasure with a designation that would have been perfectly obvious to anyone at the time who needed to know.”

Banque privée?

Oui, the majority of the Templars were French.  It was so simple; those who wished to continue availing themselves of the order’s discretion and expertise in financial matters could continue to do so.  A Templar bank was still clearly marked for anyone with eyes to see.  And Swiss banking secrecy is a natural outgrowth of Templar secrecy, and the Order’s outlaw status after 1307.”

“Bringing us to the telepaths?”

“An era obsessed with the devil’s black magic was more keenly aware than most that a man’s solemn oath is nothing when it comes to keeping secrets.  However sincere he might be, torture or magic may compel him to talk, and there are those with the power to pluck the knowledge from his mind without it ever passing his lips.  That is where I came in.  I gave the custodians of the treasure, and their heirs, the means to cloak their secrets from mind probes.  I did this because I… had a debt to repay.

“When a man like Phillip the Fair is determined to destroy you, he will find the means to do so.  He found it in this case in a mysterious ‘Esquire de Floyran,’ who claimed to have been a member of the Knights Templar and would provide the testimony for the initial charges of heresy.  Floyran said that the Templars had deceived the church for more than a hundred years.  That what began as a pious service to pilgrims had degenerated into a monstrous blood cult that worshipped, among others, a demon called Baphomet—who happens to be Etrigan’s cousin.”

“Here we go,” I laughed.

“Quite.  Philip’s inquisitors describe Baphomet as ‘a three-headed god of assassins’ and other accounts have run the gambit from the overtly satanic, feeding babies to demons and whatnot, to a Gnostic sect that committed the obscenest of blasphemies: recognizing women as the spiritual equals of men…  That was the mindset of the age: misogynist, obsessed, and absurdly overcomplicated.  The truth is simplicity itself: it was the name Etrigan used to seduce a woman he’d noticed.  Basina of Auvergne was a ‘freethinking’ woman of the time, who also happened to be an herbalist and midwife.  I have mentioned how attractive Etrigan finds your hatred of Zatanna.  Let’s just say a freethinking woman in 1304 had a great deal more to hate in the world around her.  Etrigan was a little drunk on the rampant chaos of the age, and he was quite determined to get free of me long enough to have her.

“He resorted to a trick I would never fall for today, but at the time, well, all I can say in my defense is there was so much talk of the Evil One plotting against the faithful.  Every dark shadow was said to cloak evil spirits.  As much as one knew it was nonsense, it was impossible to remain completely immune from the paranoia and dread.

“I had business with the Templars in the region.  As I’ve explained, with their system of encrypted letters, I had no more difficulty being Jason Blood from one century to the next.  So I found myself in Auvergne with a number of knights.  Etrigan convinced me he recognized a gentleman of our company, one Hugues de Poitou who I disliked intensely, as his cousin Baphomet in mortal disguise.  I admit I was too ready to believe him, too eager to set him free to take on Baphomet demon-to-demon.  In truth, I was seduced by the thought of Etrigan ripping Hugues to pieces, even if the body was nothing but an illusion.  So I set Etrigan free. 

“At a time when demonic possession was known, he did not risk exorcism by revealing his true name.  Basina, the knights, and others of the town all came to know him as Baphomet in the month he remained free.  I cannot tell you if Esquire de Floyran was on Phillip’s payroll from the beginning, if he was sent among the Templars deliberately to find or manufacture heresy, or if he joined the order sincerely and only went to Phillip later to avenge some personal grievance.  But I can tell you how he came to hear the name Baphomet, a name found in the charges and confessions by torture of Templar knights and Templar knights alone.  It’s because Etrigan got a hard on for Basina of Auvergne, and I was too weak to stop him.”

..:: Kitten? ::..

“Hey, Handsome.  I wanted to catch you when you got back from patrol.”

..:: Then you overshot.  I was about to turn out the light.  ::..

“Aw damn.  So you’re not in the cave?”

..:: Why, do you need something from the Batcomputer? ::..

“No, nothing like that.  I just hoped you’d still be in costume or something.  I spent the whole morning swimming in Templar knights and medieval intrigue, with a sidetrip into Jason’s personal complaints about constipated French historians.  I badly need a dose of Gotham.”

..:: I’m flattered.  ::..

“Mmmm,” Selina closed her eyes, letting the deep bat gravel flow through her.  “More, please.”

..:: More?  I always said greed would be your downfall.  ::..

Luxurious purring followed, and Bruce had to cover the mouthpiece so she wouldn’t hear his chuckle.

..:: Catwoman.  ::..

“Meoooooooowwwwww.”

..:: Remember, if you do find yourself in a lost Templar vault, nothing in there belongs to you.  ::..

The luxurious purring segued into an equally luxurious hissing.

..:: No souvenirs.  I’ll know.  ::..

And the luxurious hissing segued back into a long, moaning meow.

Refreshed by an invigorating dose of battitude, I began sifting through Jason’s interesting but remote Templar lore for the pertinent bits that applied to my case.  Specifically: who could know there was a Templar vault to get into?

Jason was certain a sacred trust like this would be a father-to-son deal.  That meant only the descendents of the founding partners of Ducret, Augustiner & Zaehringen. 

Bernard wasn’t a suspect, since he brought me in on the case.  If you’re dipping into a known vault, then okay, you might bring someone in just to divert suspicion.  But a secret vault is different.  Besides, if you did want to throw people off the scent, you’d get a bad investigator.  Bernard knew enough about my deposits over the years to know exactly how good I am at what I do.  And finally, to be blunt, Bernard was a middle-aged banker with a paunch.  Getting to the final vault entrance required wedging yourself in for a punishing vertical climb, one foot on each wall and pushing up like your life depended on it (because it did).  It required strength in the legs, balance, and ability to stop halfway up and catch your breath.  There was just no way I could see a man Bernard’s age doing it, and that went for Carl Augustiner and Gerald Zaehringen too. 

That meant, whoever might be behind it, the actual footwork was done by someone young and athletic, quiet possibly my friend the Eurothug from the first day's search-and-burn at my hotel.  But he had to find out about the vault somehow, and that meant one of the partners had talked… 

A father-to-son deal, Jason had said.  Bernard’s son was too young; he was eleven.  There was a daughter, nineteen, not in the running for patriarchal secrets.  Augustiner had a boy that would be just about the right age, but he was killed eight months ago in a skiing accident in Engelberg.  With Jason’s schemes to conceal his immortality fresh in my mind, it occurred to me that death can be faked, so I got on a train, went to the Châlet Spannortblick, and made some very indelicate inquiries.  I found out that Carl Augustiner Jr.  was killed doing some damn fool ski jump out of a helicopter, and, while they didn’t find the whole body, they had a head.  In other words, it wasn’t the kind of death you walk away from (an observation that brought the most astonished expression from the woman at the châlet, but I was past caring).  I crossed the last name off the list on the train back to Zurich.  Zaehringen was a “confirmed bachelor” with no children.  What’s more, I found out the Zaehringens were a late addition to the DAZ letterhead.  Up until 1890, the firm had been Ducret & Augustiner.  It was possible that Gerard Zaehringen didn’t know as much as I did.

I couldn’t accept another dead end, so I decided on the one Catwoman maneuver that had never failed: hit the jewelry stores.  One of those men that knew about the vault told somebody, and a good way to find out who men tell their secrets to is to find out who they’re trying to impress in other ways. 

The absolute best part of that plan was the proximity: the myriad of jewelers on the Bahnhofstrasse were only a few short rooftops from my hotel.  It felt just like the old days in Gotham, with my apartment so close to 5th Avenue jewelry stores, and I was giddy by the time I reached Cartier. 

In honor of those wonderful Gotham prowls, I had decided to hit Cartier first, even though I was certain the DAZ boys would favor a hometown jeweler.  Getting in was just the same as the Cartiers in Gotham and Paris.  I would have peeked in their vault, just for fun, but I did want to finish this particular bit of research in one night.  So I bypassed the gems and went straight for the sales records.  As expected, there was nothing for Ducret, Augustiner or Zaehringen.

I found Bernard at my next stop: Bucherer is considered Switzerland’s leading jeweler.  Twice a year, Christmas and late September, Bernard made a small purchase, a gold chain or a small cocktail ring… about half the September buys were sapphire or lapis, as in the September birthstones, as in his wife’s birthday… nope.

Beyer was next, and there I found exactly what I was looking for: Carl Augustiner had the same dull, predictable pattern of “wife purchases” as Bernard, dating back thirty-odd years.  But then, twenty-four years ago, a second set of purchases began… only one a year, but not at all dull and conservative.  Last year’s buy was a jeweled Rolex: forty-five square-cut emeralds, diamonds on the face, 140,000 Euros.  That’s a mistress.

The next morning, I took off in search of Seefeld in Kries 8, a residential part of the city I had never been to before.  I located the charming house on a quiet street where the Rolex had been delivered.  In the old days, I had a number of approaches to get a peek inside a target’s house, just to know the layout before returning as Catwoman.  But looking around the idyllic neighborhood—two little boys on bicycles, a woman waving at me for no reason—all my routines geared towards suspicious Gothamites seemed hopelessly out of place.  So I knocked on the door, jettisoned my French and pidgin German, and introduced myself with a decided American twang as the companion of a U.S.  industrialist considering a second home in Zurich.  I said I was checking out the different neighborhoods and wondered if she could tell me what it was like living in Seefeld.

It seems ridiculously simple, but it worked.  She introduced herself as Daniela Barras, she asked me in, she offered me tea.  She laid out these delicious tea cookies and told me the shop down the street that sold them.  I’d spent so much of my time in Zurich getting chased, shot at, and dodging fireballs, I’d forgotten how genuinely nice ordinary people can be.

Of course, counterbalancing Daniela’s helpful information about the neighborhood was her equally helpful information about a photograph I admired.  Her son, Mark… the Eurothug who tried to set my room on fire my first day at the Wittmer!

Small gap… tight squeeze… legs taking my weight… and finally… yes, stable.  I could rest until my breathing and heartbeat returned to normal.

A follow-up “candle call” to Jason Blood had told me everything I needed to know to return to the vault and finish this nonsense. 

Foothold… foothold… and… stretch…

A bastard son would not be brought into the 800-year old banking firm and told about their secret vault, not if there was a legitimate heir.

…lock the legs …

Carl Augustiner Jr.  would be told, and he somehow found out he had a half-brother. 

…and push up…

He looks up Mark Barras.  “Why should you get shut out of the good stuff and be left with a small trust fund?” or something along those lines.  For that matter, (thought but never said aloud), why should I have to WAIT forty years and work in the dreary bank when there’s a treasure out of legend right under our feet?

Foothold…

Mark likes the idea but not the partner.  Hence the “skiing accident.” Auf wiedersehen, Carl.

Foothold…

A lot of people have died for this treasure, what's one more?

…and stretch… lock… and up…

The partners were so skittish about bringing in the cops.

Foothold... 

An attitude I heartily approve of in the normal course of things. 

Foothold...

But at the risk of sounding like Bruce, we're not going to just shrug at murdering his half-brother, are we? 

…And here I finally get to use my arms, pull myself up… and this time you won’t sneak in behind me, you sniveling eurotrash creep, because this time, I don’t have to go around the steel spikes or the sand pit.  This time, thanks to Jason Blood (for whom I really would have to make one more stop at Beyer before I left and get him a nice Patek Philippe), I knew that any bible trivia made up by Templars for Templars would only bother with the Book of Nahum.

There are maybe a thousand passages dealing with treasure: from Genesis to Chronicles to Kings, it’s everywhere.  Hezekiah showing off the silver, gold, and spices in his storehouse; shields of gold made by Solomon; treasurers with names like Ahijah, Mithredath, and Pithom oversee the fortunes of Cyrus, Nehemiah and Egypt.  Job tunnels through rock until his eyes see all its treasures.  And, according to Proverbs, Vanity is the treasure of wickedness—or maybe it’s the other way around.  Point is, there’s way too much to cram for if you consider the whole bible in play—not to mention, in the holy land, these guys had access to the Gnostic gospels rejected from the standard bible. 

But Jason said it was the obscure Book of Nahum that the Templars could really relate to. 

God is introduced as a righteous, powerful, angry warrior against whom no one can stand.  The appeal there is obvious, and there is endless mention of destroying, attacking, plundering, and destruction.  There is also one single verse that is beautifully on point:

The lion killed enough for his cubs and strangled the prey for his mate, filling his lairs with the kill and his dens with the prey.  —Nahum, 2:12

Now that’s an analogy for treasure our boys could relate to.  And there was the word “LEO,” Latin for “lion” among the trilingual riddle etched above this large silver seal.  I pushed on it and...  rocky click… and there was the II, for book two …rocky click… and there was the XII…

A beautifully carved seal of gold and enamel dropped into place over the silver, and the “door”—which wasn’t even identifiable as a door until it started to open—began this slow, creaking, swing to reveal a clear pathway to the inner chamber.

Wow… just… wow.  There were chests, and I mean CHESTS of gems: diamonds, rubies, emeralds and sapphires, some set in gold but most lying loose.  There were gold coins, gold vases and gold cups… a gold shield and several swords and daggers with jeweled handles.  There was…

There was something very sharp and cold pushing against the small of my back…

“This sword has not run through any infidels in quite some time, but I am sure it is still sharp enough.”

To be continued…


 

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