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XIV: THE SHADOW OF THE MADONNA


Chapter 3

The Cardinal turned to his waiting liturgical director as Gus resumed his seat. Nigel squatted behind Skip’s chair next to him, trying to coax more information about the battle in the Cathedral. Skip stretched out, fingers laced behind his head. “As soon as Taff went down also, they rushed the statue. The bishop and Davey tried to hold it steady. They actually did for a second despite the mob,” Skip shook his head, “but they couldn’t get away in time.”

A bright flash caused Gus to look up. On the rampart opposite, a ruined anti-aircraft gun half upon its side, pointed its barrel upwards at the Sun. The top end of the tube had been brutally peeled back like the knife-edged petals of a metallic flower by a shell exploding within.

He squinted as a small spot of light on the concrete grew beneath the open breech. Slowly it revealed symbols he knew so well graven into the stone: A “P” with a crossbar above a wide “U” shape – and below it a heart. Beside it appeared Doc’s initials, JHML, run together to look like a handprint. Gus gasped, “Sweet Jesus!” His boredom and depression vanished.

Gus grabbed Allie’s leg. “Ouch,” she whispered, slapping his hand. “Stop it.”

“Do you see that?” he hissed.

“See what?” But the circle of light compressed. It faded out along with the symbols. Glaring sunlight reflected off a curved reflective sheet of metal next to the spot.

“The light?” Allie asked, shielding her face. “Wow, that’s bright!”

“No,” Gus choked out. He stood, shielding his eyes. “Just before.”

“I did,” Nigel whispered. He rose beside Skip and pointed. “I thought I imagined it, but I could swear I saw a sign in the concrete!”

“What sign, where?” Skip asked, startled, nearly falling out of his chair.

“It’s gone now, but it was right there. You saw it, too, didn’t you, Gus?”

“Damned right – the sign of the Maundy Grail above a heart, next to Dad’s monogram. But see how the Sun reflects, illuminating this plaque.” The wreath behind them shone as brightly as if a spotlight focused on it. But the moment quickly passed and the light faded.

Oblivious to all this, the Cardinal began his speech before the Altar to the Nation. “Beloved children lost in a troubled time, we come together again as pilgrims, seeking solace from the Mother of God. For as so often before, our sacred assembly has been grievously marred by strife and passion, not blessed with peace and charity. Today we mourn…”

Allie whispered to Gus, “What did Dad say? He planned to be here now. Why?”

“Because this was where he first met Mom and Raimondo?”

“He said he planned to announce his memoirs and astound the world, shut them up,” Skip said in an undertone. “Remember? I thought he was just blowing smoke again.”

“Was he?” Allie peered at the book. “See how he stands.”

In the photo, their grinning father casually posed next to Noël. One hand rested on the man’s wheelchair, the other upon his own bicep. One index finger pointed upwards towards the cannon, the other straight down. “Oh my God, is he using the language of statues?” she breathed.

‘I know you will all do the right thing,’” Gus read his father’s inscription aloud. “Sweet merciful Jesus, you’ve got to be kidding me.”

Together they turned to stare at the plaque. Hand to his ear, Raimondo had been carefully listening. “Oh, I see; the game is not yet finished, is it?” he snorted.

He stood, his chair scraping, drawing an irritated glance from the Cardinal who continued his speech. The old man poked a star with his cane, and it went in a little. “How childish,” he said, “and so like James.” He shook his head. “Cosimo, assist your uncle.”

The young man obediently sprang from his seat. Fatamorgana continued muttering, “‘Remember the old days, Ray,’ James said. ‘Remember 1949,’” he quoted, sneering. “Push them in so, one by one like this, my boy.” He tapped beneath the decade of stars, counting. “1 – 9 – 4 – 9.” With effort, Cosimo pushed them, one by one, and the second time he hit the ninth, it went further in. Other than a final click nothing happened.

Raimondo lifted his thick glasses and closely inspected the plaque. “Ah, now, the middle.” The young man pushed the Holy Tub in the center of the raised wreath. Suddenly the wreath popped out like a wheel. Cosimo reached towards it but his uncle batted his hand away.

“Ha, no you don’t, boy; back off. This one’s mine! I earned it! Hold this,” he said tossing his cane at him. The old man spit on his hands, braced himself, and began to rotate the wreath with all his might.

“Oh no, no, no,” Gus said. Cosimo raised the stick to block him while his uncle grunted, turning the wheel. It moved slowly at first, then spun more freely, soon all by itself.

To their left, the central dedication plaque, largest of them all, slowly began to pivot downwards with a high metallic squeak. It opened onto a fathomless void.

The Cardinal tried to ignore the ruckus behind him as the crowd stirred. “Therefore, my friends,” he said more loudly, “once again, we can be sure of nothing but the truths of our religion. This latest find appears to be merely a fraud, another ruse sent by the Prince of Lies to test our faith…” His voice faltered as he turned and stared with the rest of the people.

“Look out!” Gus said, shielding himself. Others stood, a few crossing themselves in fear. But with arms folded, Fatamorgana just shook his head and watched with a wry expression.

The metal plate softly touched the pavement at a slight angle. Released from the darkness, a boxy metal cart rolled slowly along the ramp into the sunlight. Covered with a steel lid, it had cushioned bars upon both ends and warning signs in four languages on the sides.

Forward the cart trundled down the slight incline. It rolled off the door, following slight decorative grooves in the pavement. Wheels squeaked as the metal box rolled straight towards the marble Altar of Sacrifice to the Nation, where a rubber bumper gently halted it.

 


 

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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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