Gus spat his coffee into the cup to avoid choking. Skip wasn’t so lucky, and fell sideways in a coughing fit. Allie just stared at the old woman.
“Her death?” Gus asked. “What do you mean, Doña Imelda? Mom died of the Plague.”
“Yes, dear, your mother most surely did. How odd, a medieval disease like that, these days, huh? Even in the sixties they had powerful antibiotics. Around here, it’s not so uncommon, either; they’re quite familiar with the Bubonic Plague. Our doctors see it all the time.”
“That’s true.” Gus nodded. “The germ’s widespread in the rodents and soil around here, they say, and can’t be wiped out. A few cats and tourists catch the bubonic variety every year. In fact, I was the one who showed her the dead squirrel I found in the box which gave it to us.”
“Not your fault, brother,” Skip spoke up quickly. “Don’t go there again. Just remember how lucky you were to survive.”
“But why do you make it sound like murder, Auntie?” Allie asked.
Imelda shook her head, pulling her Indian shawl tighter around her shoulders. “Call it an old lady’s intuition, dearie. Your folks loved camping, but you didn’t go that year, remember? So where’d the poor squirrel come from? All this, your father’s death too, has something to do with that town. You know, they met there in Bellegraal. He’d gone back after the War a big hero, and became a genuine celebrity once he found those lost dinosaur bones.
“But maybe you don’t know she went there looking for her roots. Yes, from what Mo told me later, there were stories from her English grandmother, a black sheep for marrying your grandfather, an American officer during the First World War, concerning that French town. Your cousins, the Fawkeslornes, are still big shots there, aren’t they? Didn’t you get involved with those people, Chip dear, the last time you were there?”
“Indeed I did,” Skip said, scowling at the memory. “But what about the Maestro, Aunt Imelda?”
“Oh yes, Professore Raimondo. He didn’t bring her; the Maestro followed her around like a puppy. You know what happened. They got together and wrote the book; James and Maureen fell in love and eloped. The professor was abandoned and furious.
“Your parents moved here, not just to get away from the slick Italian Svengali, oh no. They wanted to get as far as possible from the madness in that crazy place, so they could raise you in peace. The stories James told of those horrible people backstabbing each other, the viciousness, during and after the War, incredible.” She shook her head.
“How happy Jim and Mo were at first, and they were so in love. But they weren’t left alone. Oh, I knew they felt watched, followed – that’s why he taught her to shoot, you know.
“A lot of those weird people hung around at her funeral, too. Then, you remember, the following spring he dragged you off to France, just like that. The next thing I heard, your Dad put on the ridiculous performance with the tomb.”
“Vault,” Gus corrected, as if by reflex. “What does that have to do with it, Auntie?”
“Augie, dear, nothing was more important to your father than you kids, especially after Maureen died. It was so strange for him to return to the place he so despised with you, and so soon after your mother’s death.
“We never talked about it. James didn’t talk about to it even to my Bernie, but he seemed different once you returned. Freer, somehow, like you said at the funeral, Alix. I don’t doubt he was glad to be finally done with all the Holy Tub nonsense, and much happier building his tiny cities.”
She leaned forward, dropping her voice. “I’ve always wondered if James didn’t arrange the whole Vault thing. A deliberate stunt so they’d leave you in peace. But at least he died painless, surrounded by friends and family, not withering away alone in a nursing home. Be grateful for that, children; a small blessing, but a blessing indeed.
“As for those mad people,” Imelda shrugged and muttered, “Goyim,” as if it said it all.
The fire cackled at a private joke as the silence stretched.
They started as Gus cleared his throat. “Maybe that’s why he never told us anything: he never thought he needed to.” He laid out the photos of the various marks. “Did Dad ever ask you about symbols?”
Imelda chuckled. “Oh, you know how he liked to lecture! James could prattle for hours about a few scratches on a rock.”
“Yeah, that’s Doc for sure, but I meant, did he ever talk about ones like these here?”
“No, not as I recall. I’ve never seen these, aside from the double spiral. But you know, several times your father requested a book like that. The first time I met James, he asked me about a book. A book with symbols.” When she frowned, her entire face puckered. “It was late during the War – he was on assignment but not in uniform, so I guess it was secret.
“I’d just moved here with Bernie. We’d finally escaped, safe at last, our lives starting again. I had never been so happy. I started working as a librarian again as soon as we arrived, you see, though it was for a, well, you know, religious school.” Her wrinkled face glowed with distant memories.
“The book? What about it?” Gus prompted. “Eh? Oh, the book, yes. Oh, my darling, it was so long ago! His initial request I referred to the head librarian. After your mother passed, he asked for it again, same book. I don’t remember the name; he said it had to do with the Bellegraal business. I recall it was a unique manuscript of which the University is exceptionally proud, written by some French fellow who fled here after Napoleon. It had to do with quarrelling secret factions there, I think.”
“That could be why Dad was so interested,” Allie said, pondering. “Something that might be helpful to us now, too.”
The old lady waved her hand. “I don’t know, child. I just know he wanted another look. There were different versions, and some censored or changed somehow. At the time he needed outside interests, so I saw no harm. I even attempted to borrow it myself. I couldn’t get near it; it was kept in the Eleventh Stack; as the pride of the Permanent Reserve of the Studiorum. It never leaves, and they wouldn’t let me in.”
Gus whistled. “The Studiorum Scholasticum? Just as we thought. Must be important – and doubtless hard to access. Top scholars are allowed in there, mostly retired, and by invitation only. So what happened?”
“Your father couldn’t get admitted, so he asked me to try to access it. But my innocent attempt backfired,” Imelda frowned again. “In my na�vet�, I attempted to gain entrance myself. When denied, I made a fuss and was brought to Sister Bailey, the Studiorum’s supervisor. The nun interrogated me like a suspect of the Gestapo. In fact, the skinny witch ultimately had me fired. The nerve of her!”
“Bailey? I can well believe it; she still runs the library as her personal kingdom.” Gus groaned and shook his head. “When I worked there part-time as an undergrad, I ran all over fetching materials for the eggheads up there, but never got near the Studiorum.
“I heard plenty of strange rumors of what’s kept in there on the top floor and why it’s always lit, though. The Studiorum is a privately-funded research institute, a cross between a club and a think tank for only the most distinguished academics. It has its own private elevator. Even after I became part of the faculty, I couldn’t find out much more.”
Allie noticed the old lady nodding and glanced at the others. “It’s late. We should go.”
Imelda roused herself once again as they rose. “Wait, come here, children.” Gazing at them with a stern, solemn look, she rolled up one sleeve, revealing faded ink marks in the loose skin of her forearm beneath her dangling bracelets.
“Just remember this, my darlings. Certain troubles you can’t hide from. Sometimes you either must run and keep running or stand and fight the evil bastards for your life. I learned the hard way.”
She clasped the hands of Allie and Skip in an iron grip. “My dears, you have big decisions to make. If you want to dispose of your parents’ collections, let me help. Don’t let Count Dracula near anything, not a single scrap. Whether or not he’s behind any of this, his false prophet is up to no good creeping around at night scaring poor Augie out of his wits. I wouldn’t accept anything from the man, nothing, not the time of day. People like that, they have a price, you know, often steep but kept hidden, and always collected in full.
“Bernie also knew the dealer Farouk whom your father trusted there; he’s fair for an Arab, and circumspect. I’ll get in touch. It would at least get the French stuff as far away from here as possible, back where it belongs and can get the highest prices.
“If the rich aristocrat wants anything, make him bid for it openly. Doing him any favors will just make others cross. Get out of the way: let them kill each other for it over there.”
“Excellent advice, but if we’re doing this, we should also have an auction here.” Gus added. “It didn’t sound like the Count fellow would be much interested in a stuffed Sasquatch dummy or a model of Atlantis. We’d make more money from that stuff here and might help a few other struggling museums, too.”
Allie looked at him like he was crazy and said so. “Brother, the blow to the head has made you nuts! Ever handle an auction? Remember the funeral? This’ll be ten times crazier!”
“It’d be interesting to see who comes, though,” Skip said.
Imelda took the last word. “Think it over, but whatever you decide, just let me know. But I warn you, dears, these people, they won’t be easily satisfied. If they thought your father had the stupid pot after everything he went through, that snake-tongued devil is right, they’ll be coming after you, too. They’re already trying to spook you into doing stupid things.
“You want to be safe, kids? The only way is to beat your parents’ enemies.”