“Bloody Christ on a cracker,” Nigel said. “Did anyone else catch that?”
No one spoke. Allie pulled on the bookcase’s edge. The crack widened.
“Hey, look at this.” She pulled again. The case squeaked as it swung open along old ruts beneath the dust on the floor where Bigfoot long stood guard. A snug office filled the compact space beneath the stairs. A small lamp hanging above the tiny built-in desk clicked on.
“No way, a secret room?” Gus leapt out of the chair, fatigue forgotten. “Hey Skip, a real one, not a closet this time.”
“Ha!” Skip said. “I knew it!” They pulled the bookcase open, crowding around the portal. Nigel dropped his backpack and stood on tiptoes behind, craning for a view.
A glass-encased shelf loaded with books hung from the underside of a stair tread bore an old sign with rusty bullet-holes: “KEEP OUT. DANGER.” A faded note attached to it bore a heart next to a lightning bolt, a black dot, and the sign of the Scolding Madonna. The scrap of paper read, “This means YOU, kids!” It hung above a small desk, piled high with papers, crammed in next to a short filing cabinet.
“Oh boy, this is it, guys,” Gus chortled, “the mother lode!”
The inside of the door held a gallery of black and white photos and old color postcards of France. Many of the prints showed Doc as young man, including one of him smiling with their mother in a flower garden; others were war scenes from his days in the OSS. But there was more.
“Look at this,” Allie said. The bookcase swung out to reveal two panels. Hung on them was a large map of the southern French coast from the invasion, dotted with thumbtacks between which were woven a complex web of red strings. Among them were cards with symbols, many unfamiliar. The red lines extended from Bellegraal, tying together black and white pictures, dingy clippings, faded halftones from magazines, and odd scraps of French poems. Another cluster of threads from spots in Haute Maureven led to a list on yellowed Army letterhead labeled “PROJECT MOLEHILL” next to a group photo of a young Captain MacLantis in uniform with a row of other officers.
“Wicked, an honest-to-Hitchcock crazy board!” Nigel chuckled. “Let me grab some snaps.” He fumbled in his pack for a camera.
“Yeah,” Gus agreed, “just like in those police shows.”
The others nodded. The board was out of a Hollywood thriller, but it took several minutes for the full scope of the secret sanctum to sink in. Doc had put a lot of time and thought in here during his years alone, as an overflowing ashtray with one his pipes on top of the cabinet demonstrated.
Beside it was a dusty, foot-high, highly-detailed wax maquette of the gigantic Grieving Mother statue from Bellegraal, complete with a fort-like base filled with broken toy guns and tanks. On the other side sat what appeared to be a dusty antique reading glass, an arrangement of several lenses mounted in dull brass, standing on four screw-like legs.
“The lens! Thank Heaven, I feared it was sold or stolen long ago. Oh, I’m keeping this!” Gus crowed in delight as he grabbed it.
“Dad never gave up,” Skip said in awe. “Just look at these papers.” He tossed aside a greenish lump of corroded metal serving as a paperweight on the disorderly mound beside the typewriter. He extracted a hardback book from the pile. It was a first edition of their parents’ bestseller, The Holy Tub and the Holy Grail, crammed with slips of paper. The dust jacket, with the names of the authors, “Dr. James H. MacLantis and Maureen Masterson, with Professore Raimondo Fatamorgana,” somehow hung together with shriveled brownish tape.
On the rear was the famous picture snapped the day the three future collaborators met for the first time, posed together before the grand new monument to Mary at its grand unveiling on Midsummer’s Day in 1949. Doc had scrawled a bold inscription in bright blue ink across it: “I know you will do what is right.”
Allie looked at it with puzzlement, biting her lip. “Was this meant for us?”
Skip shrugged and handed it to Nigel, who flipped through it. Worn and dog-eared, bookmarks and crammed-in notes stuck out like sprouting leaves. Doc’s small neat notes were scattered throughout in different pens, correcting or commenting on the text.
Gus pawed through the stack of typing paper behind the old mechanical typewriter. “I suppose these must be the memoirs he mentioned. I wonder how far he got with it.”
Allie shrugged. “Look at the drawers on the cabinet. Here’s the Scolding Madonna symbol, and others, too. Hey, ‘UG’ – ‘Unknown Guardians?’ But why is it locked?” She shook the handle but it didn’t budge.
“What’s this?” Gus wondered, flipping through a folder of yellowed sheets. Covered with dense writing, a jagged edge along one side revealed they were ripped from a book. “Are these Alfini’s missing pages? Where could Dad have gotten these?”
“Let me see.” Allie grabbed the folder. Beneath sat a packet of plastic sheets stuffed with strips of film. “Mom’s photo files, too. I’ve looked everywhere for these.”
Meanwhile, Skip squinted at the books behind the glass. “A lot of Bellegarde stuff here, most in French. Holy hopping Horrig, Gus – Doc’s dig diaries!”
Gus lit up like a kid at Christmas. “This is where they went! No wonder I couldn’t find them. Nigel, check this out, Doc’s records – they could explain everything!” He started to reach for the bookcase handle, but Skip elbowed him aside. He was already shaping a paperclip to pick the lock.
Allie tried to stop them. “Wait a minute – why lock his files inside his secret lair?” Pointing at the bold symbols drawn on the note, she said, “Danger signs! He never kidded about those. Skip, be careful!”
But her warning came too late. As Skip lifted the door, there came a flash with a pop and a loud hiss. He slammed it shut. No good: a claxon began to blare and the light started flashing.