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XIV: THE SHADOW OF THE MADONNA


Tuesday, 23 June 1949,
Feast of the Scolding Madonna

The nurse parks the man’s wheelchair and retreats after promising to return after the ceremony. “Did you ever imagine we would ever see a day like this, Françoise?” James MacLantis says happily once she stops fussing and departs. “Or such a magnificent monument?”

Next to him, the frail man in the wheelchair finishes combing the thin strands of his waxed mustache and squints up at the great statue through his small round glasses. He smiles, shaking his head. Above them looms the just-completed Maureven War Memorial festooned with garlands of flowers this bright, clear summer morning. The face of the Grieving Mother, covered with the French tricolor, awaits her formal unveiling.

“No, we’re not hallucinating, James, trapped underneath the cathedral,” he asks. “Or if we are, please don’t wake me. We’re free, honored heroes, and I’m a best-selling writer. I do regret that the others remain opposed to letting the light be seen again, I should like to witness it once. Otherwise, I rather enjoy this dream, even stuck in this chair and badly needing a cigarette.”

“Ask sister,” James says. “She might allow it, in exchange for another autograph. You know, I’m not the storyteller you are, but I would like appreciation like that. Perhaps I ought to try writing something myself.”

“No doubt,” says a man joining them. Like the dapper man in the wheelchair, the newcomer, slender and with untamable brown hair, is French, another companion of MacLantis from the War. “All this is definitely real; we worked hard enough to make this day happen, Françoise. As for you, James, regarding your fictional abilities, I’m certain you could spin fantastic yarns. I’ve read your reports, remember?”

“Henri, how fine it is to see you upon this day of days,” James says as they exchange embraces, “this amazing pile of transformed junk will make you and Benoit famous. You’ll have your choice of commissions, and trash, as well.”

“Actually, inquiries are already coming in,” Henri Montcélance modestly replies with a happy grin. “No doubt Noël’s flattering article in Le Monde helped. But I don’t think my younger brother harbors artistic ambitions anymore.”

“Too bad; he should be here, savoring this moment of triumph,” MacLantis shakes his head. “We earned it, him especially with all he’s lost. Or is he still opposed to the plan?”

“I won’t lie; he’s not happy with it and you know how stubborn he is,” Henri says in a low voice. “Benoit thinks it’s altogether too easy.”

“No more traps,” Françoise Noël says, voice briefly strong. “Don’t you think the damned thing is deadly enough by itself? We must permit discovery someday despite the risks. That’s why we agreed that it should not be too difficult. As always, we must ultimately trust the Lady to guard it for us.”

“But of course,” says Henri. “We’d talked for years about moving it, but from the moment you spotted the door of the Vault and somehow sensed its secret, James, we knew something needed to be done. But then, when you found the other entrance in the crypt a few days later, a decision became crucial.”

“I’ve often wondered that with so much at stake,” James quietly voices an old worry aloud at last, “why you just didn’t kill me then and there.”

The two veteran fighters both shrug uncomfortably in unison. “It occurred to us,” Noël admits. “With the War ending, you were no longer needed, but you proved yourself useful and an honorable comrade, crucial to our success then, and now this. That’s why we gave you the key piece of Heronimo’s projector as a memento of our thanks.”

“Once the Vault was exposed, we wondered if it was a sign that it was time to tell the world,” Henri adds. “It wasn’t just the atom bomb that persuaded us otherwise. With other awful things like the death camps being revealed, we agreed that the apocalypse needed no further encouragement. Hence the move. Your adventures underground seeking the bones provided just the cover we needed.”

“And all along I thought it was due to my charm and rugged good looks.” James laughs, and then quickly sobers. “In any case, my friends, if this neither can nor should last forever, when will the right time come to finally reveal that which is hidden? How will you know?”

“God’s concern, not ours. We won’t make the Mad Cardinal’s mistake, Captain, by presuming to know His will,” Françoise shrugs. “Believers would say what we have seen merits forgiveness despite all the blood on our hands. But preserving that sight for others will earn our ultimate reward. Never doubt it, my young comrade.”

The Resistance commander’s voice is weak but with an edge of steel, and behind his thick glasses, his eyes are as sharp and shrewd as ever.

Voices suddenly draw their attention. A photographer is trying to line up clergy and other dignitaries for a group picture behind the Altar of Sacrifice. A slim, bronze-skinned man in a smart silk suit and slicked-back black hair steps forward, marveling at the construction. “What an incredible monument to the folly of war,” he exclaims, waving a walking stick. “I must congratulate the sculptor. Where is the genius behind this fantastic edifice?”

James helpfully points at his friend. The man rushes to Henri and embraces him, kissing him upon either cheek. “I, Raimondo Fatamorgana, professor of ecclesiastical history, salute you sir,” he proclaims, “and your brave companions. Such a masterpiece! May I present my dear friend and traveling companion, Miss Maureen Masterson?”

Behind the Italian, a pretty young woman in a bright floral summer dress steps forward. Brushing aside a lock of hair as glossy as red gold, she smiles shyly at James. “Are you a true believer, by any chance, Mister MacLantis?”

“No, Miss Masterson, I’m not particularly religious,” he says with a wide grin, “but some people do call me psychic. And I’ve got a sudden strong hunch that this is my lucky day.”


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“Perhaps
it is but mad folly
to earnestly seek this artifact
whose mysterious appearances
promise naught but death
and horror
on such a monumental scale.”

– Françoise Noël,
The Visions of Old Bellegarde,
1947

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