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CHAPTER 45

«The police are blocking the street,» André Vernet said, walking into the waiting room. «Getting you out will be difficult.» As he closed the door behind him, Vernet saw the heavy-duty plastic case on the conveyor belt and halted in his tracks. My God! They accessed Saunière’s account?

Sophie and Langdon were at the table, huddling over what looked to be a large wooden jewelry box. Sophie immediately closed the lid and looked up. «We had the account number after all,» she said.

Vernet was speechless. This changed everything. He respectfully diverted his eyes from the box and tried to figure out his next move. I have to get them out of the bank! But with the police already having set up a roadblock, Vernet could imagine only one way to do that. «Mademoiselle Neveu, if I can get you safely out of the bank, will you be taking the item with you or returning it to the vault before you leave?»

Sophie glanced at Langdon and then back to Vernet. «We need to take it.»

Vernet nodded. «Very well. Then whatever the item is, I suggest you wrap it in your jacket as we move through the hallways. I would prefer nobody else see it.»

As Langdon shed his jacket, Vernet hurried over to the conveyor belt, closed the now empty crate, and typed a series of simple commands. The conveyor belt began moving again, carrying the plastic container back down to the vault. Pulling the gold key from the podium, he handed it to Sophie.

«This way please. Hurry.»

When they reached the rear loading dock, Vernet could see the flash of police lights filtering through the underground garage. He frowned. They were probably blocking the ramp. Am I really going to try to pull this off? He was sweating now.

Vernet motioned to one of the bank’s small armored trucks. Transport sûr was another service offered by the Depository Bank of Zurich.

«Get in the cargo hold,» he said, heaving open the massive rear door and motioning to the glistening steel compartment. «I’ll be right back.»

As Sophie and Langdon climbed in, Vernet hurried across the loading dock to the dock overseer’s office, let himself in, collected the keys for the truck, and found a driver’s uniform jacket and cap. Shedding his own suit coat and tie, he began to put on the driver’s jacket. Reconsidering, he donned a shoulder holster beneath the uniform. On his way out, he grabbed a driver’s pistol from the rack, put in a clip, and stuffed it in the holster, buttoning his uniform over it. Returning to the truck, Vernet pulled the driver’s cap down low and peered in at Sophie and Langdon, who were standing inside the empty steel box.

«You’ll want this on,» Vernet said, reaching inside and flicking a wall switch to illuminate the lone courtesy bulb on the hold’s ceiling. «And you’d better sit down. Not a sound on our way out the gate.»

Sophie and Langdon sat down on the metal floor. Langdon cradled the treasure wadded in his tweed jacket. Swinging the heavy doors closed, Vernet locked them inside. Then he got in behind the wheel and revved the engine.

As the armored truck lumbered toward the top of the ramp, Vernet could feel the sweat already collecting beneath his driver’s cap. He could see there were far more police lights in front than he had imagined. As the truck powered up the ramp, the interior gate swung inward to let him pass. Vernet advanced and waited while the gate behind him closed before pulling forward and tripping the next sensor. The second gate opened, and the exit beckoned.

Except for the police car blocking the top of the ramp.

Vernet dabbed his brow and pulled forward.

A lanky officer stepped out and waved him to a stop a few meters from the roadblock. Four patrol cars were parked out front.

Vernet stopped. Pulling his driver’s cap down farther, he effected as rough a facade as his cultured upbringing would allow. Not budging from behind the wheel, he opened the door and gazed down at the agent, whose face was stern and sallow.

« Qu ’ est-ce qui se passe? » Vernet asked, his tone rough.

«Je suis Jérome Collet,» the agent said. «Lieutenant Police Judiciaire.» He motioned to the truck’s cargo hold. «Qu’est-ce qu’ily a là dedans?»

«Hell if I know,» Vernet replied in crude French. «I’m only a driver.» Collet looked unimpressed. «We’re looking for two criminals.» Vernet laughed. «Then you came to the right spot. Some of these bastards I drive for have so much money they must be criminals.»

The agent held up a passport picture of Robert Langdon. «Was this man in your bank tonight?»

Vernet shrugged. «No clue. I’m a dock rat. They don’t let us anywhere near the clients. You need to go in and ask the front desk.»

«Your bank is demanding a search warrant before we can enter.»

Vernet put on a disgusted look. «Administrators. Don’t get me started.» «Open your truck, please.» Collet motioned toward the cargo hold. Vernet stared at the agent and forced an obnoxious laugh. «Open the truck? You think I have keys? You think they trust us? You should see the crap wages I get paid.»

The agent’s head tilted to one side, his skepticism evident. «You’re telling me you don’t have keys to your own truck?»

Vernet shook his head. «Not the cargo area. Ignition only. These trucks get sealed by overseers on the loading dock. Then the truck sits in dock while someone drives the cargo keys to the drop-off. Once we get the call that the cargo keys are with the recipient, then I get the okay to drive. Not a second before. I never know what the hell I’m lugging.»

«When was this truck sealed?»

«Must have been hours ago. I’m driving all the way up to St. Thurial tonight. Cargo keys are already up there.»

The agent made no response, his eyes probing as if trying to read Vernet’s mind.

A drop of sweat was preparing to slide down Vernet’s nose. «You mind?» he said, wiping his nose with his sleeve and motioning to the police car blocking his way. «I’m on a tight schedule.»

«Do all the drivers wear Rolexes?» the agent asked, pointing to Vernet’s wrist.

Vernet glanced down and saw the glistening band of his absurdly expensive watch peeking out from beneath the sleeve of his jacket. Merde. «This piece of shit? Bought it for twenty euro from a Taiwanese street vendor in St. Germain des Prés. I’ll sell it to you for forty.» The agent paused and finally stepped aside. «No thanks. Have a safe trip.» Vernet did not breathe again until the truck was a good fifty meters down the street. And now he had another problem. His cargo. Where do I take them?

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