“Sweet Jumping Jesus, Endurists for real!” Gus gasped, and finally shut the door. He tried another on the left. It opened onto an empty corridor. He crept quickly past yet more doors upon either side. Hearing footsteps from a side-passage ahead, the first one he tried opened.
Two candles flickered within the small chamber. They illuminated a fluffy bed covered with rose petals, and a woman in a white robe of fine gauze, kneeling upon cushions on the floor. Facing him, she was veiled in lace, head bowed, arms demurely crossed across her chest. He recognized her as the one who had been initiated.
“‘Come to me, beloved, who have waited so long,’” she quoted from Tobias. “‘I am the promise, and also the reward, once full of shame, yet purified by pain. I knew not grace until I had sinned; I knew not filth until I was cleansed. Lover, come unto my bower. Show me the staff of your power. Fill my mouth with holiness, so I might taste eternal bliss.’”
She rose to her knees and lifted her veil. Gus gasped, for it was Sister Santarovel. Keeping her eyes anxiously shut, she raised her face, leaning forward and opening her moist red lips. Gus could see her tongue quivering on her teeth, her taut nipples heaving in anticipation against the thin fabric, as he desperately, silently tried to make the damned doorknob work.
But he fumbled too long. After a moment, she peeked. Startled, she instinctively covered herself with her hands.
“Why are you still clothed? Wait – Professor MacLantis!” she said, recognizing him. She suddenly smiled. “Oh this is much better. I had no idea –”
The door flew open behind him, and Gus stumbled forward. There silhouetted in the light of the door stood a pudgy man with long black hair, wearing nothing but a translucent white tunic and a look as astonished as Sister Santarovel’s.
“Sorry folks, my mistake,” Gus grunted, trying to get past, but the other stumbled in his way. “What? Prof, what the hell?” he said.
“Reuben? Is that you?” Gus stupidly replied. Within moments, two burly acolytes firmly grabbed him, dragging him down the hall, others trailing behind. “Please, wait, brothers –” Sister Christina pleaded as they bore Gus rapidly down the corridor.
Hauled into the chapel, startled revelers jumped up, a few covering themselves, and an angry clamor began. The men continued, rushing Gus relentlessly towards the altar. “Wait, please, don’t,” he began, struggling uselessly as they dragged him toward the marble block.
But the men hauled him past the altar stone and the statue, and through a door in the rear. Up he stumbled, half-dragged along a dark narrow stairway and through a door into blinding light. He found himself in a courtyard at the rear of Café Mysterioux.
Strong arms pushed him into a chair, and held him firmly until he ceased struggling.
A voice asked, “Do you take sugar, Professor?”
He found himself sitting across from a frowning Madame Hélène on this bright, sunny morning. She finished pouring him a cup of tea, and fanned herself vigorously.
He shook his head. The two men stood behind him with crossed arms, glaring.
She placed the cup in front of him. “This is most unexpected, Professor MacLantis, and exceptionally rude,” she said with stern disapproval “How disappointing to hear you were found where you should not go.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to intrude. I went down looking for my sister,” Gus said.
“Not researching another guidebook?” she asked, dripping sarcasm. He shook his head.
“Why on Earth did you think Alix would be there?” Hélène demanded. “How did you find the place?”
“It’s a long story,” Gus said. “But basically, Allie became very distraught. She went into the Danse Macabre and when she did not come out, I followed. It was a lucky guess.”
She snorted in disbelief. “That’s why you invaded a private sanctuary?” she said. “You have put me in a most difficult position, young man.”
“Madame, I’m just worried for my sister. I don’t care about whatever goes on down there,” he said, but her look became more furious, if it were possible. “Just let us go and I won’t say a word to anyone. You’ve read my guidebook; you know I can be discreet. I never said anything about your back gate, did I?”
She stopped fanning herself long enough to sip tea, beady eyes never leaving Gus.
“It will be worse if you don’t let me go,” Gus said. “My brother knows where I went.”
“But I doubt he knows you’re here now,” she laughed. “Aren’t you afraid we’ll cut out your heart and liver and serve them with garlic before he can rescue you?”
“I’d certainly be surprised,” Gus said. “Such a novelty has never appeared on the menu here before. I rather doubt chef’s up to it.”
The gate onto the alley swung open, and Agent Marcel strode in wearing full gendarme uniform, Skip close behind.
“Bonjour, Madame,” he said, tipping his cap.
“Alphonse, what is the meaning of this nonsense?” Hélène snapped. “Why are you dressed like a foolish character from a comic opera?”
“Madame, I regret to tell you that waiting on tables is not my true vocation,” he said.
“That much was obvious from the beginning. So you are a spy for the police?”
“That it is not exactly my profession, either. Suffice it to say I work for the peace of Europe. I was not here to spy on you or anyone, madam. The café merely provided an ideal vantage point to keep watch over the Summer Festival’s participants,” he said with practiced smoothness. “But I come here today in my official capacity.”
“I love it when the cavalry arrives just in time,” Gus said, beaming with relief and a touch of self-satisfaction. “Good to see you, bro.”
Skip ignored him and spoke directly to Madame Hélène, “I hope he wasn’t much of a problem, Madame. We’ve been extremely worried about him.”
“Thanks a lot, Skip, but what about Allie?”
“You see, I’m afraid someone dosed my poor brother with a powerful hallucinogenic drug last night at the Count’s Ball,” Skip continued with concern. “Gus was out of his mind all night and hasn’t been himself since. Keeps wandering off, having hallucinations, raving the most incomprehensible things. I’m just grateful you found him before he caused more trouble.”
She looked at Marcel, who nodded solemnly in confirmation. “My goodness, how awful,” she replied, “but it certainly explains his strange and wild talk. It was rather upsetting.”
“I’m sure he’ll be fine with a little rest, and be terribly embarrassed by the whole thing, if he remembers any of it,” Skip said, idly fingering a medal hanging around his neck. “Please let me apologize for him in advance, to you and anyone else he might have offended.”
“I understand.” Hélène nodded. “Apology happily accepted, but there was at least one other person rather disturbed by what happened. Why don’t you go talk to her?”
“Of course,” Skip said, “this shouldn’t take long. Don’t go anywhere, Gus.”
Marcel looked at Gus. “Are you well, Professor?”
“I am flabbergasted, incredulous, amazed, totally astounded, maybe even gobsmacked,” Gus said matter-of-factly, smugness evaporated. “I can’t believe this is really happening, any of it.”
“Obviously, the effects have not worn off yet,” Marcel said dryly. “It must be a horrible ordeal. Don’t worry, Professor, I’m sure we’ll take good care of you.”
“Tsk, tsk, poor man,” Hélène said. “I will pray for your recovery, Augustine, especially that you will be blessed with peace resulting from forgetting this embarrassing tribulation.”
The door opened, and Skip entered, followed by Allie with a sullen look upon her face, and Angelique, defiantly keeping her chin high.
“Look who I ran into,” he said with a big smile. “Happily, they’d just arrived, too.”
“What a lucky coincidence,” Hélène said. “I’m so glad everything worked out.”
“Yes, fortunately,” Skip said. “We shouldn’t take any more of your time, ma’am.”
“Yeah, though we’ll miss the orgy,” Gus muttered.
“Ha, ha, very funny, little brother,” Skip said, forcing a smile, his hand upon Gus’s arm. “Still raving like a lunatic, I see. Say you’re sorry to the nice lady so we can go, okay?”
“Sure, fine,” Gus said with a resigned shake of his head. “I’m truly sorry. Relax, Madame Hélène, there’s no reason to worry. This won’t be in any guidebook. Who would ever believe me?”