Book II: Chapter 33
Time shifted in my vision and and I now saw Alan and Miriam leave their hiding spot.
I guessed that it was probably sometime after midnight since the church was now deserted.
As for my friends, they were now dressed in black clothing, having ditched their bright tourist garb within the choir stall.
“It’s after hours, security is tight.” Miriam whispered. “I can sense a number of the guards’ minds who are patrolling on foot, as well as those operating cameras. I’ll do my best to direct their thoughts elsewhere, but you must only move when I say so and only go where I tell you to. We have one chance at this. May the Lord be with us!”
Alan merely nodded, yet if he thought they would get moving immediately he was wrong – for Miriam merely stood in place without moving and her eyes became unfocused as her mind turned inward.
After long moments, I could tell Alan was getting more and more worried, yet just as he was getting ready to poke at Miriam, suddenly she hissed, “Now. Follow me. Quickly!”
Keeping close to the walls, Miriam led Alan out of the Chapel of the Choir, past the monuments of Leo XI and Innocent XI, on a sharp left in front of the Altar of the Transfiguration, and into the Clementine Chapel.
After pausing in front of the monument to Pius VII and hiding briefly behind the railing of the Altar of Saint Gregory The Great, she forced Alan to scamper across the aisles towards the Altar of The Lie.
I managed but a brief glance at one of the mosaics that I’d always found to be a curious edition to the Basilica’s collection – for Cristoforo Roncalli’s altarpiece representing the punishment of Ananias and Sapphira from Acts, Chapter Five was certainly NOT the most heartwarming of scenes – after all, Peter was quite unforgiving to that pair, wasn’t he? Nonetheless, Miriam didn’t give me much time to ponder that mystery, and instead she drove Alan behind the altar and right up to the massive mosaic, then she took her thumb and pressed hard into the left eye of Sapphira – immediately a bottom section of the right arch clicked open – revealing another secret chamber!
(Now that’s interesting — even I wasn’t aware of this secret spot).
Miriam pushed Alan into the cramped darkness, “Ssssh! They’re coming.” And she pulled fast the portal behind her.
<Click. Clop. Click.> Roving footfalls sounded in the hallway.
Both of my friends held their breath.
<CLOP. CLOP.> The steps paused just outside the altar.
Seconds ticked anxiously by, until at last, <CLOP. Click. Click. Click.> The guard moseyed away.
At this, Miriam flicked her lighter, igniting a yellow glow and revealing that they were not just in a small stall like back in the Chapel of the Choir, but instead in a long hallway – one that led down into the darkness…
“Watch your step.” Miriam advised. “The way is narrow and the stone steps are centuries old. I’d move ahead of you, but there’s no room.”
She spoke the truth on that last, for Alan had to walk sideways in order to squeeze through the hallway – the ragged stones snagging at his clothes.
After they had descended about twenty stairs, the way leveled off, and after another ten paces, Miriam directed, “Stop here.”
The hallway had reached a triple doorway, giving Miriam the opportunity to take the lead. After choosing the far left door and going down more stairs, they were presented with a new set of doorways – here she went straight ahead. Another ten paces, another set of caves – another left and another stairway.
On the way, Miriam’s light flashed over the walls, revealing a glimpse of bones stacked into carved out sections of the cave.
“Catacombs?” Alan gasped. “Something more I didn’t know? Ugh!”
“They were crafted to look like such — La Papessa wanted to keep everything authentic and we agreed that if this vault was ever discovered that having the bones of unknown ‘saints’ would surely keep everyone preoccupied — away from the real purpose of this place.” She pulled down a cobweb, “Although it seems as if nobody has been down this far?”
By now the walls and floor had become slick, slowing their progress considerably. More than once Alan caught Miriam as she lost her balance and I could tell both of them were being taxed by this dark maze. Even still, onward they went over level, yet slippery ground.
Another set of doors, but just as Miriam was about to step down onto this next stairwell, Alan grabbed her, “Beware, the steps are gone!”
<tick-tick-trickle.> The pebbles under Miriam’s feet scruffed off the shelf, cascading down the hole before her.
After regaining her balance, she knelt and held her lighter out, “Three stairs are missing – leaving a jagged chasm. But, I can see the rest of the steps just a short jump ahead.”
“Miriam, I can’t let you go first on this.” Alan held her back. “What happens if you land on the steps but they crumble beneath you?”
“Don’t underestimate me. I call upon the Lord… now!” And she wriggled away from Alan and leapt like a cat into the darkness….
Leaving Alan to grasp at thin air.
Luckily for Miriam, she’d successfully landed on the top step of the other side of the chasm and it held firm beneath her. “Praise God, I’m OK,” she called back to Alan. “Wait just a moment while I move down to give you room.” And after a pause, “OK, come on.”
Alan said a quick prayer and then he jumped into the inky darkness.
<CRACK!> Alan’s weight broke the step he landed on and it immediately started to crumbled – causing him to lose his balance and fall backwards as the hungry cavern below opened its maw to receive him.