The Great Clock began to chime local noon. Skip scrambled nimbly up the pillar built into the wall beside the door, ignoring the muttering of shocked visitors below. Cosimo glared at him, and hopped down, worming his way through the crowd to the nave.
Skip hesitated at the transition when he reached the capital, and shinnied onto a ledge which ran around the whole room. He was surprised to find a narrow catwalk, invisible from the ground yet wide enough for him to stand and crab sidewise along it. The ledge led to the gable above the rose window and oculus. The pointed arch was equipped with an equally slender stairway. In moments, he was saddled upon the highest point, legs dangling on either side.
Skip grinned. He had a vantage point like none other, overlooking the entire transept. The chiming stopped; but not the commotion below.
He looked down through Allie’s camera. Sure enough, the light from the stained glass window lined up with certain patterns in the roundel making them much brighter, as the outlines upon the ground gave them definite form. The splotches did appear map-like but he could still see nothing but abstract shapes. He started shooting anyway.
After a half-dozen snaps, he changed cameras. Suddenly something tickled the hairs on Skip’s neck. He brushed it away, and heard a loud squeak in his ear. With a rush of flapping wings, a creature flew around his head, chirping in outrage. One after another flew past, one coming so close its claws scraped his neck.
“Christ!” he exclaimed, losing his balance as he swatted at the bats circling his head. The crowd gasped in unison. The camera flew out of his hand, and he missed the strap. Skip found himself way off balance, and looking a long way down into a sea of shocked, upturned faces. Luckily, Gus somehow caught the camera.
“Nice catch,” Nigel whispered. “But beat it – here come the dog-collars!” Gus nodded and fled outside as a mob of clergy entered from the sanctuary on the other side of the room.
High overhead, somehow Skip grabbed the stone edge. Desperately, he held on and steadied himself. Slowly he hauled himself upright. Twisting around, his elbow painfully struck the edge of a stone rosette directly behind him, which gave a hollow sound. “Ow!” The center held a round, dark opening a little bigger than his fist. The opening was stained with droppings, but it appeared well-crafted.
Skip carefully steadied himself, and tugged at a scrap of paper hanging from the hole. It was old newsprint. He could barely read a partial date. “‘Juillet 1931’? What the hell?”
He peered in the hole, rubbing his elbow, looking for more bats. No more flew out. But he could see a glint of something like glass behind the opening. Skip pulled out more scraps of soiled, yellow-stained newsprint, which fell on the crowd below. The gleam in the hole grew into a tiny patch of blue sky. He whistled.
Skip became aware of a sudden ruckus at the far end of the hall below.
He took a shot of the opening, and then snapped pictures at the floor. Below, a flying wedge of priests pushed their way forcefully through the outraged crowd.
While sable-clad clergy angrily swarmed below and black bats swirled above, all squeaking in outrage, Skip took a final shot. By now, the crowd was also thoroughly riled. Skip stuffed a wad of the paper into a pocket, and carefully made his way safely down to the ground to face the consequences.
He found himself faced with an angry mob. A nun with a clipboard and a slight limp pushed through the crowd, her boots clicking on the flooring, followed by the clergy. Behind them, came Cosimo, grinning.
Wearing a tight black habit of fine satin with a white wimple binding her perfectly made-up face, the religious shot Allie an angry glare and began to address Skip rapidly.
Jabbering at him in French, the nun led the attack, furiously waving her pen at him like a small sword. Surrounding him, the black-clad mob virtually pinned Skip against the wall. He looked upwards, either praying or considering a retreat.
But his sister stepped in front of him like Joan of Arc. Allie mounted a vigorous verbal counter-attack; angry and placating by turns, pointing at the floor, the crowd, the ceiling. She waved her arms like a semaphore as she pleaded. Her older brother’s high school language skills could not keep up with the torrent of sounds but her emphatic gestures were enough.
By this time, a gendarme shouldered his way through the crowd. He was a large nondescript man with a thin moustache, brown eyes but with the suspicious frown of a cop. “Will someone tell me what’s going on?” Anton Marcel demanded. “Charles? So soon?”
He was joined by two prelates. One was the short cardinal, plump and bald with a serene, unreadable face like the Buddha, in his scarlet robes with shoulder cape and surplice. Beside him was another; a taller, slim, ethereal clergyman with slicked-back black hair and a short goatee in a purple satin cassock with a watered red satin sash and a severe frown.
The diminutive nun rushed forward. “Holy fathers, Cardinal Mortens, Bishop Galliard, this tourist scaled the wall like an ape to take pictures!” she exclaimed. “Such a desecration has never happened before – not even by these, these American cowboys! We absolutely cannot allow childish and dangerous pranks in this sacred space. He should be arrested at once.”
“Calm yourself, Souer Santarovel; I’m afraid this is not the first time,” the cardinal said, “and by none other than this very cowboy.”
The short prelate looked at Skip and ruefully shook his head. “You again, Monsieur MacLantis; I should have known,” he said with enormous patience. “Why do you clamber up our lovely cathedral once more?”
Skip bowed, eyes nervously pleading for help from his sister. “Your Eminence, I’m surprised you recall the incident. It was so long ago.”
“Not nearly long enough.”
“Your Grace, I told this person not a half-hour ago to avoid pranks.” The gendarme calmly took a pad and pencil from his shirt pocket. “So I hope he has a good reason for this stunt. But perhaps it is for the best, sirs. Haven’t you sought the roost of those filthy vermin for ages?”
Both Allie and the prelates turned towards the policeman and began talking at once. Noting Skip’s incomprehension, the cop held up his hand and turned to Skip, “What do you have to say for yourself, Monsieur MacLantis?”
Skip swallowed hard, but Allie spoke again, sweet reason now. “Officer, if anyone is to blame, it is I,” she said demurely, her green eyes batting at Marcel. “I implored my brother, an accomplished professional photographer and climber, to get pictures. We were official guests of the Conference, and he was specifically tasked by the organizers to photographically document the meeting.”
“But the event is finished, is it not?” He looked up from jotting and frowned at her.
“Oui, monsieur, I am afraid so, sir. But I could see no alternative, officer.”
“Why is that?”
“The floor produces an important lighting effect at noon much like the Monumentum. We just saw it now for the first time in well over a century. It should be documented. Why did no one arrange for pictures of the floor from a high vantage?”
The bishop spewed fluid French. The nun blushed and explained urgently, launching questions of her own. “No, not treasure seeking,” Allie replied. “Although this pictorial effect will doubtless draw in more tourists and pilgrims, Excellency. The crowd will be worse tomorrow yet the alignment is near-perfect today. I felt it was essential to seize the opportunity before it passed. I’m very sorry for the disturbance it caused.”
“I see.” The cop frowned thoughtfully and put away his notebook. “This is my problem, mademoiselle. I sympathize but they are correct. Vous n’avez pas le droit: you don’t have the right. Stunts like that even by the most distinguished visitors cannot be permitted; an example must be made for others. No permit: no pictures. I must ask you to erase those photographs, unless you both prefer arrest. But you must swear to never attempt such a ridiculous stunt again.”
Skip agreed without hesitation, rubbing his neck. “Once was enough, sir, believe me.”
Marcel turned and spoke briefly to the prelates. The bland-faced cardinal shrugged and his subordinate nodded with a curt glare. Skip said nothing, just meekly handed Marcel the camera. Allie leaned in to push the “Delete” button in full view. At the rear of the crowd, Cosimo Fatamorgana stood on tip-toes to watch with a huge smile.
When complete, the officer handed the device back with a slight apologetic smile, touching his hat. He also demanded to check Nigel’s shots, but did not delete any.
The nun began to protest, but the gendarme shrugged fatalistically and said, with a heavy sigh, “Yes, I realize this, but it will be a long week. Let’s not overfill the jails just yet.” The nun continued to argue, her face almost as purple as the bishop’s robes, but Allie demurely apologized. “Quel faux pas!” she began contritely, but Skip couldn’t follow the rest.
The cardinal waved a dismissal. “I married your dear parents, you know, here before the Tomb so many years ago. I suppose we can make an exception for the children of a beloved hero of France, this once, can we not, officer?”
Allie took the cue. She demurely knelt upon one knee before him, pulling her brother beside her. She humbly kissed the Cardinal’s ring. He rested his hand briefly on her head and blessed her. Skip followed. “Your Eminence, we must talk,” he said quietly, looking up. “I found something up there which may be important.” Galliard glanced over at him, frowning sharply.
Mortens nodded slightly. “Come by the sacristy in a few minutes.”
He turned to face the short nun. “Sister Santarovel, please inform the facility people we need their mechanical lift to check the wall later, and leave it there for tomorrow. Now, what were you were saying before we were interrupted?” The cardinal looked resolutely serene.
This proved sufficient for Agent Marcel. He tipped his hat at Allie and departed, leaving her looking after him with a relieved smile of her own. Skip nodded his head at the front of the church, and they slipped into the nave followed by clouds of whispers.