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XIV: THE SHADOW OF THE MADONNA


Chapter 4

“Oh well done, James,” Professore Fatamorgana said, his loud voice ringing with acidic irony. “Your final spectacle, and a well-played stunt it is, too.”

“Merde! Damn you, MacLantis!” a voice with a French accent boomed. From behind a barricade, Benoit Montcélance pushed forward. He held a beaten and bruised Dr. Death by the collar, with an old large-bore revolver pressed against the terrified physician’s temple.

At a signal from Marcel, the gendarmes opened the wooden barrier and stepped away. “You and the Cardinal, MacLantis, together you have betrayed us,” Benoit declared.

Gus stepped forward, spreading his hands wide. “Betrayed whom? For once, I am entirely willing to give credit to Maestro Fatamorgana. And Cosimo.”

“How generous of you,” Raimondo sneered. “You waving the gun, do you, sir, claim to be the head of the fabulous ‘Unknown Guardians’?”

“No,” Benoit said, dragging the doctor to the Altar, “merely the last of them. But I would go in peace to my grave with the great secret intact and unspoken, not even to family. I thought Doc would too, but for you and the Cardinal.”

“What?” both the Cardinal and the Maestro exclaimed.

“Yes, Your so-called Eminence, as you well know. Once the bomb exposed the Vault, we knew we would have to move the Maundy Grail, so we enlisted MacLantis. We had no other choice. But the rector of the Cathedral also needed to be told, isn’t that so, Cardinal?”

“You never informed me it was here, Benoit. And I never once asked. Never!”

“No, you just piously looked away, priest, feigning holy indifference. But your tune changed once Fatamorgana published his findings. Tell them, doctor.” He twitched the gun.

Cowering, Faustino held up his hands. “Once he realized from the Maestro’s book that Doc’s wife was the true Heiress, Father Mortens persuaded the Guardians to act, fearful that the couple would take the Holy Tub for their own. They hired me to infect both Maureen and James MacLantis. He thought he could worm into the Invisibles’ confidence that way.”

“Or?” Benoit said threateningly.

“Or if only she died, Mortens hoped Doc might lead him to it.”

“But MacLantis didn’t even fall ill,” Benoit finished for him. “He just wanted to get out. So, full of guilt but of course unable to admit anything, we helped him plan that ridiculous charade with the empty Vault, and filled it with sand. But since Maureven had worked so well against the Germans as a last-ditch diversion, we kept it in case it was ever needed again. When we realized Doc had drawn attention to it on his own without permission, we wondered if our earlier suspicions had been justified.”

“That’s why you murdered my father?” Gus blurted.

“No; again we would have let things be but for these two. Fatamorgana’s constant sniping provoked MacLantis to say extremely ill-advised things. We broke contact – but not Cardinal Mortens. He kept prodding Doc and finally convinced us that MacLantis intended to publicly reveal the location. So he asked you to be ready. Isn’t that right, Doctor Faustino?”

The doctor nodded in misery. “MacLantis’ announcement of his memoirs was the last straw, all the authorization I needed. And rightly so. He set this all up!”

Benoit scowled, revealing stained teeth and gaps between. “And all along you secretly lusted for the Holy Tub yourself, Mortens, you lying hypocrite. You used us shamefully and persuaded an innocent girl to join a damned cult to gain information on your foes!”

“Not so – all I’ve sought, all I’ve ever sought, is to protect the Church from fanatics and bring the lost sheep back to the fold,” Cardinal Mortens proclaimed, pulling himself erect with all the dignity of a prince of the Church. “She must be protected from all extremists who assault her on every side, no matter how well meaning, even you and your companions, my son.”

“You arrogant bastard!” the old man growled. He fired at Mortens. Shots rang immediately from Agent Marcel and Sundog. The Cardinal grabbed his chest and fell to the ground, grasping at the Altar, white robes reddening. Montcélance went down backwards amid screams from the crowd. The doctor remained standing, frozen in place.

Raimondo scurried, quickly scooping the fallen revolver off the ground. “My turn now,” he said waving it. “Nobody move, please. If anyone has earned the first look at this so-called Holy Tub, it is I, Maestro Raimondo Fatamorgana, who will reveal this fraud to the world!”

He lifted the steel lid and peered within. “What’s this?” he said, tossing speckled, yellow sheets of paper into the air. “Ha, Alfini’s missing pages? Piffle.” He threw them all aside. They floated across the Altar in the zephyr. “Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. What’s this?”

He pulled out a rack holding two vessels and placed it upon the Altar with a laugh. Both containers were shaped much like an old-fashioned kerosene lantern. Each held a thick glass flask, but there the resemblance ended. One was encased in simple, elegant silver, labeled “VITA” upon a half-rosette. The other was in a sinister, black metal frame ringed about with long, forbidding spikes. A heavy red wax seal secured the top. The central band bore a silver skull and the stark warning, “EGO SUM MORS” – “I AM DEATH.” He stopped, staring into the open cart. He bowed his head and struck the rim with his fist.

“Oh I see it now, James!” Raimondo laughed with sardonic bitterness. “What a joke, my old friend! You knew all along – from the day we met. You already knew! All the time, you knew, you sweet-smiling bastard, yet sent me on a magnificent fool’s errand. You led me around by the nose, and all the while set me up for this ultimate humiliation.

“How could you? I loved you so, Jim, but you never cared,” the old scholar sobbed. “You only had eyes for her. Thus, you show your true contempt for me, mocking me with this opportunity for a fine and final damnation.”

Gus moved, but Cosimo reflexively blocked him. “Get out of the way, you moron, before your crazy uncle kills us all.”

Cosimo shook his head in confusion while Raimondo reached for the black-shrouded flask. “The end of the world or the final hoax? Ha, dare I be the angel of doom or prove their foolishness to all?” he said as if to himself as he lifted the Vial of Death.

“Put the container down, Maestro: gently, now!” shouted Marcel.

Raimondo snarled, raising the iron-framed flask above his head. Sundog’s gun barked. The old man toppled sideways. He released the Death Vial in a high arc curving over the Altar.

“Uncle!” Cosimo shouted. Gus stumbled forward. Skip glanced at Cindi, eye wide and mouth half-open. “Oh hell,” he said, sprinting. Skip dived headlong across the Altar, arms extended before him. He reached out and somehow caught the Vial of Death in mid-air.

Spikes stabbed Skip’s hands but he embraced the iron-spiked carrier to his chest. Grunting in pain, his body bounced off the cold stone block. Glass shattered with a tinkling sound. A sickly grey-green puff of glittering dust flew around him.

Doctor Faustino moved in a frantic burst of energy, grabbing the gun from Fatamorgana’s limp grip in one hand, the rack with the silver vial in his other. “Cover him if you want to live,” he yelled, shielding his face with his arm. He dived into the shocked crowd.

Cosimo let go, moving towards his stricken uncle. Now Gus stood in indecision. “Bro,” Skip called weakly, still curled tightly. “He’s right! Cover me, Gus! We can’t let this out.” Red blood from between his fingers mingled with olive-colored motes on the white marble.

“Help me! Nigel! Allie! Anybody!” Gus called, racing to where the Cardinal lay bleeding. Mortens’ hands ineffectually pawed at him as he choked, blood bubbling from his lips. Gus awkwardly undid the heavy cope and with Marcel’s help, wrestled it free. Together they dragged the golden cape across Skip’s curled form upon the Altar.

Weeping, Gus collapsed on top of his dying brother.

Meanwhile, Nigel reached the Cardinal. The old man fought for breath, blood spraying as he gasped. He grabbed Nigel’s collar, whispered in his ear, and fell limp.

Not far away, Raimondo struggled to rise as his nephew held him. His left leg twitched violently, loudly banging the side of the cart. The noise was joined by choruses of shouts and the mournful wailing of sirens. Beyond the barrier, Cindi and her friends slowly and silently knelt amidst the surging crowd.

 


 

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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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