The mood during the rest of the walk down the hill was far different from when it began. But they had not gotten far when someone called to them from behind. Lacnuit rapidly strode towards them, his star-embroidered sleeves flapping behind. He had clearly heard the news just after a show, for a towel was still draped around his neck. He looked rather odd with just his fake beard and one eyebrow.
“Is it true?” the half-dressed actor demanded. “There’s a hole in the wall?”
“Yes, sir,” Skip said, glancing at Gus. “News travels fast. I went up to take pictures of the floor and found an opening above the oculus. Bats live there.”
The professor’s jaw dropped. “Oh my stars, that could change everything.”
“Nice jump,” Nigel said. “Quick, too.”
Gus shot him a look. “Don’t get carried away, Doctor Lacnuit; we don’t know exactly what it means yet,” he cautioned. “But really, we’ve said all we can.”
“Oh, drop a bombshell and leave it like that?” Lacnuit said with an irritated frown. “There’s obviously something more to the story.”
“Sorry, there’s nothing more we can say,” Allie said. “We were asked by Cardinal Mortens not to discuss it with anyone.”
The old man’s eyebrow flew upwards. “Then this must be big.”
“Maybe not,” Skip said. “They don’t want to raise anyone’s hopes too much.”
“Telling me that is supposed to lessen them?”
“Not entirely,” Gus said. “Listen, after Mass, the building caretakers will be going up to take a look. Maybe it would be possible to show up and, you know, just tag along.”
“If you have to ask, try the engineer first, then the Cardinal if you have to,” Skip advised. As Doc used to say, ‘It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission.’”
“More likely from him than Bishop Galliard anyway,” Lacnuit huffed. “Very well, I’ll try. Thanks.” He turned and strolled thoughtfully back to the Chateau.
After a silent lunch and naps, Gus and Skip cautiously peeked into Allie’s room later that afternoon. Her bed did not look slept in, but was covered with papers, photos, and diagrams. She scowled at her laptop, intently scribbling in a notebook.
“Hey sis,” Gus said, tapping upon the door frame. “I don’t mean to bother you, I just want to apologize for the crazy shit.”
“Me too. I know you were just worried about me. Skip also,” she shook her head, looking up, pale, and her cheeks puffy. “I’ve been thinking.”
Skip came in with coffee for them. “You okay? The piece really got you, huh?”
“Yeah, but I can’t explain it. I’ve never felt impressions as strong as those. Most are like whispers, this was more like being yelled at through a bullhorn. I can’t begin to describe the intense feelings of despair I felt. I needed to talk to someone, and Angelique told me she knew people who’d understand. I didn’t realize they were Endurists until too late.”
She gave a small rueful smile, “Thanks for coming to get me, guys.”
“Just call us next time you go to ground, okay sis?” Skip said. “Now, not to change the subject but you confirm the piece in the Vault is real,” Skip said, scratching his chin. “Yet it was planted? And now Gus says Doc made the treasure mark he claimed he found?”
“Looked like it to me,” Gus said. “Our old man was up to some tricks.”
“Or maybe just more psychic than he let on,” Allie said almost as an apology. “Even so, I felt weird vibes from the doctored chunk from the road out by the Montcélance estate, too.” She hesitated, and said, “It gave me a faint impression that Dad buried it.”
“Great, salting sites – to lead searchers first to the Vault and then on to Haute Maureven?” Gus speculated. “No need to guess why it would irritate the Montcélances. Legions of pothunters have poked around in their backyard for decades.”
“But was Doc leading to, or away from something?” Skip asked.
“That’s what I’m trying to understand,” Allie said. “I’ve been looking at Mom’s notes and the folder I rescued.” She picked up a large black and white photo.
“Mom acquired prints of the black and white photographs Angelique’s grandfather Émilien took, the way it looked before any damage. And somewhere,” she pawed through the pile, “a shot of the strange glow on the painting he photographed later, in the thirties.”
She showed them a dark print. The frame of the painting could barely be seen, but there was a circle of light in the center lighting the image of the flying tub above the smeared oval of light from the oculus. And there were half-a-dozen orbs of light scattered around the image.
“Proving what?” Gus asked.
“The light’s as real as those spots of moonlight refracted there from the Birdcage.” She shrugged. “Check this out: comparing the artwork from before the paint was thrown upon it and the shot you took shows Mom was right: the restorer changed the painting. I don’t know why yet, but certain locations were shifted.”
She turned her laptop towards them, and faded from Émilien’s black and white to a color version. Clearly, the position of hills and rocks in the background were different.
“Now we add a map. Took me a while to match the perspective.” She superimposed an old map atop the scene. A few of the markers upon the map were near sites on the gray shot of the painting. “Hey presto, the original painting matches.
“And now for final confirmation,” she said. “Voila! The floor medallion taken earlier.” The image of the great mosaic roundel upon the floor appeared, surrounded by people. The Sun disk sat squarely at the end of the Rose Line at top, below in the medallion framed by Skip’s knees were yellow spots as bright as gold coins in a mottled field of brown and green.
“With a little digital magic,” Allie said, “abracadabra!” The picture rotated, stretched, and as she reduced its opacity, the round circles also lined up on the map. The bright oculus positioned over the end of the Rose Line marked the town, while the “golden apples” were scattered across Haute Maureven, with the Sun marker centered on Hoprig’s Hermitage.
The silence grew as they considered this. “That’s truly amazing, sis, great work.” Gus finally said with genuine warmth. “Even better, we’re the first to know.”
“Yeah, break out the shovels,” Skip said.
“Not so fast, bub,” Gus said. “We still don’t know which location is real or a trap.”
“The sparkles!” Allie exclaimed. “Maybe the reflections from the Birdcage marked the actual sites.” She fiddled with the laptop, then pouted. “Oh heck, it’s too blurred to tell.
“It makes sense though.” she said. “The priest, Father Dupre, had the floor covered after Alfini started painting. Silviano started over; no one knows why. The last thing he made was the Birdcage; Dupre complained it took too long. Maybe while Alfini was dying, he played Heronimo with reflections off the glass roof of the enclosure, aligning them to locations.”
“Kind of a stretch, isn’t it, sis?” Gus sounded dubious.
“You have a better idea? This could be our ace in the hole,” Allie said proudly.
“It’s either brilliant or crazy,” Skip said. “I always wondered why they put the cage there. It seemed out of place.”
There came a tapping at the door. Skip answered it but no one was there.
He picked up an envelope from the floor. It contained a card and a folded sheet of paper. Skip read the card aloud. “It says, ‘Chapel of Chateau Bellegarde, at Vespers Monday evening. Come alone and prepared.’ No signature, just the question marks of the Triple Knot.
“Looks like it worked, guys: we’ve got a meeting,” Skip said.
“Funny, they first try to co-opt us individually, and now they they’re ganging up,” Gus said. “I don’t trust their alliance any more than they do. Tell them no more than necessary.”
“‘Come alone’?” Allie asked. Skip looked at the envelope and shrugged. “It’s addressed to the three of us, maybe it means ‘don’t bring Nigel’ – fine with me. We still don’t know how tight he is with Cindi’s bunch.”
“Fine by me: did I mention Sundog warned me about him, too?” Gus said.
Gus looked over his brother’s shoulder as Skip read the slip of paper. “Oh, lovely, there’s a ceremony involved. We have lines.”
“I sense Sir Gordon’s handiwork here,” Skip said. “He does so love his little rituals.”