After desserts, people began to drift around the hall. Jesús patiently herded them outside into the soft evening air as servants quietly began to clear tables and move them aside. Nigel was absorbed in conversation with a buxom brunette. Gus stared into a candle while Allie idly played with the wax when Skip leaned over. “Hey guys, I’m going out to take a breather.” So his siblings joined him.
They exited past knots of chatting party-goers and continued through the side gate to the chateau’s smaller courtyard. Across from the mossy stone well stood the entrance to the castle’s small private chapel. Candlelight flickered faintly through the stained glass windows. A gargoyle stuck his tongue at them from the roof.
“What a beautiful night,” Gus said, but did not smile, as he sat upon the stone curb. Skip nodded and lit a cigarette of exceptional foulness.
“Do I sense an ‘except for,’ brother?” Allie asked, hopping onto the rim of the well.
Gus flipped the long tail of his hat forward and leaned against the rough cool stone. “You have to ask? You know, nothing never appears until very late. She could have come without risking anything, other than to be seen with me.”
“Sounds like you’re jealous,” Skip said, blowing a thin stream of smoke.
“Yeah,” Allie agreed, “of God, no less. Good luck with that, buster. But at least you have somebody worth carry a torch for while I meet pretentious art school dropout losers even here.”
A sudden hubbub of voices erupted from the larger courtyard. Cindi and her entourage had finally arrived, also in full costume. One of the men was dressed in a colorfully-spattered painter’s outfit with a huge beret, another in a Templar’s robe with a blood red cross. But the woman stood out like she was in a spotlight. Like Allie, the singer wore a flapper’s glittering sequined tube, translucent and as silver as starlight, clinging in the best places. Her white-plumed boa was matched by a bejeweled eye patch. “Great,” Allie said. “Just what I needed.”
The guys exchanged glances. “Go for it, Skip,” Gus said, rolling his eyes, “but be careful. Don’t do anything too stupid.”
“You know I’m always careful on ascents,” Skip said as he ground the butt on the stone.
“You guys.” Allie shook her head slowly and sighed. She looked at the full Moon hanging low above the dark bulk of the castle. “Go, have fun, Gus. I may drop by the Cathedral in a little bit, see the show.”
“You okay, sis?” Gus asked. She nodded. “I’m fine, really. Just need to think a while.”
“Okay, Allie, but please call if you’re staying out late, okay?” Skip said.
“Sure, bye,” she said, and shooed them away.
“What about you?” Skip asked as Gus hesitated.
“I just remembered a bone I have to pick with Nigel.”
“Be careful, too,” Skip said. “Whatever else, the guy really knows how to party.”
After her brothers departed, Allie sat back upon the worn edge of the well in the rear courtyard. Watching the Moon serenely drift across the starry sky, she listened to the music coming from within for a while. She looked into the basin. Around the dark shape of her face in the mossy depths of the font, a few stars wavered. She sighed and dropped a coin in.
“Here I am in the most romantic city at the most romantic time,” she muttered to herself as it splashed, “and this is the best I can do? I might as well wish for the Holy Tub.”
In the rippling image below, a black shape suddenly loomed behind hers; Allie felt a hot breath onto her neck and heard curses spat in French. Before she could swing around, strong arms seized hers, pulling her off-balance backwards. As a black bag was roughly forced over her head, she bit hard into a man’s meaty thumb.
The man shouted in pain, and another person grabbed her face through the cloth. She screamed as loudly as she could. “Help!” she screamed, unable to recall any French.
“Quiet, bitch!” a deep voice growled in barely understandable English. Through the bag, she could smell the garlic and cheap wine souring his breath. “She’s the right one, isn’t she?”
“Oui, she called the others her brothers. She’s one of them.”
The deep voice whispered close enough to her to make her skin crawl. “No harm will come to you if you co-operate. Don’t make us hurt you.”
Allie fought anyway. The hand let go to slap her hard, and quickly grabbed her face. Other hands brutally bound her wrists with tape. “Let’s go, we must get her out of here.”
Helpless, they dragged her through the grass and gravel towards the small postern gate behind the fountain. She lost one shoe, then the other as she stumbled unwillingly forward. Stones bit into her feet. The hand across her face cut off her breathing. She struggled even harder and the grip grew ever tighter.
Allie heard a roaring, and felt the darkness taking her.
A few minutes earlier, a small knot of people still blocked the entrance. As Gus looked for a way around, a voice behind him said, “Excuse me, please. I need to pass.”
Behind him stood a young woman, dressed in a snug, gleaming sable satin nun’s habit. Her wimple revealed a neat hairline just as glossy. Her red lips were pursed in an anxious pout as she tapped the clipboard with a pen.
“Huh?” Gus said. “Oh, sorry, miss.” He bowed as he let her pass. “There you go, sister.”
“Most courteous,” she said, “Thank you.” As she turned to leave, he said, “Wait, pardon me, Miss. I just want to say, that is one fine costume.”
She laughed. “Oh?”
“Yeah, I mean, I love the contemporary look, how you modernized the whole Scolding Madonna thing.” He stammered. “By the way, I’m Professor Gus MacLantis, and you?”
“Oh, the other brother, winner of the debate.” She politely offered her hand, “I’m Sister Christina Santarovel, and this ‘fine costume’ is my religious habit.” Ignoring his shocked look, she continued, “Have you seen Count Roland, by any chance?”
“Sorry,” he stammered, “but in this crowd –” He pointed towards the Great Hall.
“Think nothing of it, Professor MacLantis. I’ve heard worse. Perhaps my frock is a bit too fine, but this weekend is special. I fear I may have fallen into the sin of vanity.”
“I don’t know if even sackcloth and ashes would suffice, ma’am.”
“Spoken like a true poet,” she said.
Gus heard his sister scream from the side yard.
“What the hell?” he said. The note of desperation in her voice made him move. Stepping through the gate, he saw two men in black struggling with a man in serving garb, white wig askew. Behind them a woman lay sprawled in the gravel before the rear exit of the Chateau.
He waded in, taking one guy by surprise. But the man twisted out of his grip, and an elbow to the face spun him around. The waiter, despite his weight, did better. The nun joined in, bashing one of the attackers with her clipboard. The men shared an incredulous look and took off running. Gus attempted to follow, but one flung the gate at him and knocked him flat.
Behind him, the waiter threw down his wig and knelt beside the woman, quickly pulling off the black bag so she could breathe. He wadded his coat and as he raised her head to place it beneath, she suddenly awoke.
Allie kneed him hard in the groin. He fell groaning. Sister Santarovel helped Gus slowly rise. Allie abruptly sat up, fists balled, ready for anything, glasses askew.
“Hold on, dear,” the nun called, “this man tried to help. The ones after you got away.”
Allie looked around, confused, and adjusted her spectacles. “I’m so sorry,” she said to the man rolling at her feet. “I thought you were going to rape me.”
He managed to shake his head. “Mon Dieu, mademoiselle,” he gasped, “why would I give you a pillow?” He groaned.
“Oh, sorry.” She looked curiously at him. He was a large nondescript man, brown hair balding on top, with a moustache almost as scant. “Do I know you?” she asked. He shook his head, and dug in a pocket until he found a whistle, which he blew three sharp blasts. Whistles resounded from outside the gates.