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X. INTO THE UNDERWORLD


Chapter 4

Allie wasn’t answering her phone, so the brothers split up to search. Outside, the long grassy slope leading to the hotel was still filled with awnings and marquees. But this Monday market was meant for those local artisans and merchants who did not cater especially to tubbies or pilgrims, and they were out in force. It would take hours to check them.

Skip first headed to the hotel while Gus checked the South Transept. After early morning Mass, the Cathedral was still fairly crowded. Entering the nave, he thought he caught a glimpse of Angelique’s rich honey-golden cascade of hair next to a shorter haired redhead. Whoever they were, they were at the North Tower, on the far side of the church. They appeared to be in the queue descending to the catacombs below.

Gus hurried to the nearer staircase by the pulpit, but tour groups blocked him everywhere. By the time he arrived at the bottom, neither woman were anywhere to be seen amid the tourists wandering through the eerily-lit rock maze.

He thought he spotted them headed to the entrance to the Danse Macabre, the original scary amusement-park ride, now restored to full medieval gory glory and considerably enhanced.

By the twisty black wrought-iron gate stood two smiling skeletons, the child’s showing the minimal size allowed and the other bearing a reminder of the necessity of parental supervision. Beside them carved into the stone wall was a quote from Brother Tobias in red: “To light and life the true way is found, Through Death and Hell far underground.”

Gus turned to the ticket booth. The saleswoman was young, with heavy black eye make-up, numerous piercings, and a rosary around her neck. She chatted with a pair of bored-looking black-clad teens in Gothic threads when Gus impatiently approached.

“No, that part was true; the skeletons were real,” she said. “His neighbors that died in the Plague – isn’t it insane? But now –”

“Sorry to interrupt you, pardon me, but it’s really important,” he asked the clerk. “Did a red-haired woman with glasses just come in with a blonde?”

She looked at him in puzzlement followed by surprise. “Wait – aren’t you a MacLantis?”

“Yes, yes, I am,” Gus said, “it’s my sister I’m looking for. Did she go in?”

“A couple of women went in when we arrived,” a bored teen said. “So what?”

“I’m not sure what. Is there any way to stop the ride?” Gus asked.

“Sure, and I’d love to stop it dead. The cops would have to evacuate the place.” said the ticket seller. The teens perked up. “It’d be an awful mess so I’d need a really good reason, Mister MacLantis, a genuine emergency.”

Gus bit his lip. “Okay, how long does the whole ride take?”

“Not long, fifteen minutes.”

“Thanks.” They watched curiously as he left. He tried calling again but it was useless. He found a payphone yet was only able to reach Skip. Allie was not at the hotel, so Skip would take a quick pass by the booths on the way.

Near the exit from the attraction was the spiral staircase Gus had used. This way out appropriately emerged below the pulpit, next to the pier supporting the North Transept. But underground not far from the stairwell stood the entrance to the Vault, its massive wooden doors opened wide to reveal a few historical exhibits and a small gift shop within.

This portion of the labyrinth had been cleared, the floor smoothed as befit the tourist attraction it now was. Most branching passages were sealed off with barred gates so there were not many other places in the catacomb his sister could have gone. Gus wandered over towards the Vault while he waited.

His father’s mark upon the brickwork above the entrance was still there, lit by a spotlight – his initials, JHML, run together to look like a handprint. Put there on the day of discovery, beside it was the famous carved heart which hinted at treasure within. But there was something odd.

Gus craned his neck to squint at it, and again, closer. The symbol was much too clean. The rest of the surface was streaked with calcite deposits. But the heart had been pecked through these into the brickwork, and none had since accumulated on top.

“What the – it looks brand-new. Oh, they’re gonna love this,” Gus muttered to himself.

He was back at the exit with minutes to spare. But neither Allie nor Angel appeared.

Finally, the teens exited also. “Man, that was sure lame, all those bones,” said the male, but his hands were trembling too much to light his cigarette. “Yeah,” his pale date agreed. “Not scary but I’m kind of chilled, baby. Let’s go up into the sunlight.” They rushed upstairs.

 


 

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“And so I alone
returned
from the underworld
as if reborn,
with only these stone bones of dragons
from before the Flood
to prove my tale.”

Don Yago Ionas,
the Reliquarian,
1782

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