Nigel skulked in just as the concert outside drew to a climax. In front of the cathedral, screen mounted upon the stage below the balcony showed Cindi and Barefoot Left’s grand reunion from the Roman Theatre beyond the Chateau on the other side of the highway. Inside, only a few bored policemen paid attention, while keeping watch over the locked doors and the entrances to the crypts below.
With Gus’ help, Allie still fussed around beneath the lift platform, adjusting and tightening the fabric hanging like a limp sail between two poles, while others waited to lower the painting.
Skip finished setting out cameras and wiring the controls together at the main panel. Nigel found him in the nave, sitting alone upon the steps leading to the choir, watching the play of light across the front rose window, as the music echoed eerily throughout the building. With the echoes and delays, merely random scraps of words and phrases were discernable.
“Kisses of poison,” her voice rang, “Addict me… thrills… your sweet heavenly venom… fatal taste… I crave even… yeah, even from my grave.”
“Rather apt lyrics, are they not?” Nigel said, sitting. “I know the look too well, mate, so I don’t need to ask how it went. I warned you, old man.” He pulled out a pack of French cigarettes and lit two, passing one to Skip. “Here. Last one before we go over the top.”
“Thanks,” Skip sighed. He took a long drag and tucked a medal he toyed with back inside his shirt. “I suppose you did warn me. I thought you were just, you know, a tad extravagantly metaphorical, even for you, Hotfoot.”
With a final burst of music, the scheduled show ended. But silence did not last long. The crowd began clapping in time for an encore. “Cin-di, Cin-di, Cin-di,” they chanted.
“There’s a lot of symbolism floating around that woman, Monkey-boy,” Nigel said, “But she’s authentic and as serious as cyanide. But if I’d told you of her other life, would you have believed me?”
“Probably not; I’d have likely assumed it was crazy jealous talk.”
“You wouldn’t be entirely wrong,” Nigel said. “It’s an ache you must learn to live with.”
“For a one-night stand with her, I figured it would be worth it. Something I could handle, at any rate,” Skip said with a sigh. “But this could be more than that. What, I’m not sure, and I don’t know what to do, especially with her um, unusual expectations.”
“Seriously, you’re asking me? Your single hope is she dumps you, old man,” Nigel said, “the sooner the better. Her throwing me away so publicly was actually the best thing she could have done. Anger helped me survive. But I fear you’re doomed already, oh chosen one.”
A cheer rose outside as the band came back onstage for the encore, followed by the wail of electric basses. The opening chords, so familiar to the audience, set off another cheer.
“Thanks; great advice,” Skip said. “Say, Mister Award-Winning Investigative Reporter, why have you never exposed her religious enthusiasms? It’d be one hell of a scoop.”
“Listen to her sing,” Nigel said. “Hear that?”
First came a series of blasts from trumpets, followed by a harsh, slow pounding of drums. Cindi’s triumphant, soaring voice cut through the empty church above the howling electric guitars: “That Day of Wrath, that dreadful day, when Heaven and Earth shall pa-ass a-wa-ay...”
“She’s hardly really hidden it, has she? But she never ratted on me, so why should I betray her? Believe it or not, I can keep a secret, too” They listened to the rest in silence.
“I suppose,” Skip said, as a final crescendo crashed accompanied by another burst of fireworks, the silence following punctuated by long scattered waves of applause. “Sounds like it was a pretty good show we missed.”
Gus stuck his head around the corner. “So there you are, Skip. Oh hi, Nigel, I see you survived, too. Raimondo just arrived, and they want to go over the procedure. They also have asked one of us to go up on the lift to fiddle with the lens if it needs it. You want to try?”
Skip nodded and stood with a loud sigh.
“Hey, sorry to interrupt, fellows, if you’re busy, I’ll save you a place,” Gus said, dripping sarcasm. “Or maybe we could do this another time when it’s more convenient.”
“Gus, I said I was sorry; it was an accident. If it’s any consolation, I had a pretty god-awful time myself,” Nigel complained.
“You must really regret not using your backstage pass, little brother.”
“Really, guys?” Gus said. “Here we are, a little while away from what just might be the most critical moments in the history of the Maundy Grail, and you fools are in here mooning like love-sick schoolboys.” He stomped off and they extinguished their smokes and slowly followed.
In the South Transept, Lacnuit explained the final details of the experiment to Fatamorgana. Cosimo already looked bored, or perhaps irritated for missing the last set.
“Fascinating,” the Professore said. “I am thrilled to be here. You know, I was unable to be below for the opening of the Vault. This may prove to be even more entertaining.”
“Maestro, this is not meant as a carnival diversion; but science, complete with measurements,” Lacnuit loftily objected. “Whatever happens, we will have learned something.”
“Rightly said, Professor,” Fatamorgana apologized. “I certainly do not mean to mock your efforts. Ever since discovering the fraud of Scolding Madonna, I’ve strongly suspected as much flim-flam was involved in the Vision as well. I am excited by the prospect that once again, my theories will be proven correct.”
“Gentlemen, if you’re through prematurely congratulating yourselves, I’d like you to gather around,” the Cardinal loudly declared. “I’ve a few words.” The crowd shuffled, assembling before the Templar’s Tomb. Sister Santarovel stood stiffly by his side.
“Now, we know why we’re here,” he said. “I trust the details of what needs to be done have been worked out.” The people muttered agreement.
“Augustine, is it set?” he called. From the lift platform above the door, Gus held onto the railing. “Yes sir,” he said. “The lens is in place, but I may not be able to adjust it.”
“Understood, Professor. Well, Miss Alix, are you ready?” he asked.
Allie stood behind a cable-festooned table where various monitors and control boards were set. “As ready as we will ever be, sir,” she said, with obvious nervousness. “The fabric is hung as best it can be.” Where the picture hung before the altar screen, the bed sheet was now tautly suspended, marked with lines and circles, stretched between two poles held by lashings of silver tape. The Ascension stood propped in a corner nearby.
“Thank you. This is a historic event,” Mortens said. “Not just for what might happen, but what has already taken place. For the first time ever, I believe, most, if not all, the secret societies and factions in this town have dared come together openly.” His audience looked suspiciously at each other as the prelate beamed beneficently at all.
“I know most if not all of you; I can guess your various allegiances,” the Cardinal continued with a broad, knowing grin, spreading his hands. “At the moment, I don’t care. I won’t ask you to identify yourselves or your interests. Let me just say I am gratified you have come together peacefully in this way to try to solve this mystery. I do hope and pray this spirit of amity and peaceful cooperation will continue long after tonight is just a fading memory.”
He looked around, business now. “Whatever occurs tonight, I remind you this is sacred ground. Please maintain respect and decorum at all times. Find a place to watch outside the central area and stay there, quietly. Remember, this will be recorded for posterity.”
He paused. “Speaking of which, I believe Mister MacLantis has something to say.” “Yes sir, thanks,” Skip said, startled. “First, for the record, I think I’m a Buddhist, actually. As for the recording, the lights will shortly be turned off. Be careful with flashlights, if you must use them, and please, no laser pointers.
“We’ve several fixed cameras, there, there, and there,” he said, pointing around. “They’re all connected – I’ve run most of the cables under the safety glass floor. But you’ll notice the thickest power cables from the infrared camera and other devices to Professor Lacnuit’s station, are above, so be careful.”
“Thanks for clearing that up,” the Cardinal said. “You will note the railing in front of the Tomb is now open. To protect the original floor, only those with special booties are permitted to enter the area. Agent Marcel, what’s the crowd situation like outside?”
Marcel stepped forward at attention. “It is worsening, Eminence. A mob has gathered outside of angry people, mostly townsmen but some outsiders, too. Smaller groups surround each of the other entrances. I fear what might happen when drunken revelers arrive, now that the show is over. The church can withstand a siege outside better than a riot within,” he glanced around suspiciously, “but we do not have enough men for both.”
“What of below?” asked the Cardinal.
“Quiet as the grave, sir, just as it should be,” said a cop in full tactical gear.
“That’s welcome news, in any case.” Mortens turned to the nun. “Where’s Bishop Galliard, by the way?”
Santarovel replied, “Should be out front, sir, getting ready for the rosary, as ordered.”
“Oh yes,” Mortens said, smiling again. “I’d forgotten.” He took a deep breath.
“If we’re ready, dim the house lights.” Section by section, the interior illumination darkened. In the gloom, the spotlight of the oculus and the colored pool of moonlight on the western side of the Tomb were surprisingly bright. “Let us join together in prayer,” he began. “Oh Blessed Lady, dear Queen of Heaven –”