The knock came again, louder and more insistent. Andre sighed and closed his eyes, inhaling a deep, calming breath. This was his time for prayer and contemplation and the church was closed. Whoever was at the door would have to come back in the morning.
He counted to ten in his head, waiting to see if the knock would come again, but it did not. Satisfied that he would not be interrupted he returned to his prayer.
A crash shattered the momentary silence and seemed to rattle Andre’s very bones. He sprang to his feet and hurried from his study.
The front door stood open and a veritable bear of a man loomed in the doorway. Silhouetted against the moon, he was scarcely more than a shadow blotting out the light but, as he closed the door behind him, the sight of the intruder turned from frightening to horrifying.
Though it was evening, he wore wraparound sunglasses that did not conceal his badly scarred face. He looked like a man who almost lost a battle with leeches. What had done this to him? Some sort of plague?
The man must have seen the horror in Andre’s eyes, because his pockmarked face split into something between a sneer and a grin.
“This is the church of Saint Victor.” The words, spoken in heavily accented French, formed a statement, not a question. His voice was a cold, low rumble from deep within his chest and sounded to Andre like boulders crashing down a hill.
“It is.” Andre swallowed hard. “What can I do for you?” He supposed it was possible the man had no ill intentions, and was merely here to see the church. Andre was wrong to judge him by his appearance. He was a child of God, the same as any other. And yes, it was rude of the man to intrude, but entering a church during prayer time was far from the most grievous of sins.
“Take me to the head of Lazarus.”
“You can see all of him right here.” Andre nodded to the statue of Lazarus of Bethany. The venerated saint stood with his face lifted toward heaven. In his left hand he held a crosier. “You might be interested to know that, beneath this stature, are two stones from the saint’s sepulchre in Bethany.
“Don’t mess with me. I don’t want a statue. I want the real thing.”
Andre frowned. “I do not understand.”
“The skull!” The man seemed to blot out the light as he came closer. “I want to see the skull of Saint Lazarus.”
“The bones of Lazarus are not here.” Andre felt the blood drain from his face and his stomach grow cold. “The saint died in Cyprus and his remains were later taken to Constantinople. Perhaps if you look...” The man snatched Andre by the neck, squelching his words in a vise grip.
“We know the truth. The grotto, the three hares, all of it.” He pulled Andre near enough that the priest could feel his hot breath. Up close, the scarred face was even more disconcerting.
Andre steeled his nerves, reminding himself that he was a man of God and the Spirit would protect him.
“It is a common misunderstanding,” Andre gasped. “Many confuse Lazarus of Bethany with the bishop of Aix, Lazarus.”
“You aren’t fooling me, and if you waste one more minute of my time you will die a slow and painful death. I want to see the head of Lazarus. Now!” He gave Andre a shove, sending him hard onto his backside. The man opened his jacket to reveal the handle of a weapon. Andre knew nothing about firearms, but the sight of it was all he needed to confirm the danger he was in.
Andre had always considered his own mortality with a serenity grounded in his assurance of salvation. Of course, he had always iMagined meeting his maker at an advanced age, lying in his sick bed. The life of a priest was a secure one, at least physically. Now, for the first time in his life, he felt death staring him in the face. This man oozed evil.
“I will take you there.” Andre slowly crawled to his feet. “It is not far.” His heart pounding and his bowels threatening to empty, he led the man to a door on the south side of the nave. It opened onto a staircase descending down into the ancient subterranean church beneath Saint Victor. This church, untouched after nearly two thousand years, had been built by Cassianite monks in the third century. Behind him, the man switched on a flashlight and Andre began his descent. The cold air chilled him to the bone, as did the feeling of great age and power. While many people found the fortress-like exterior of Saint Lazarus dark and intimidating, it was down underground where the true darkness lay.
Andre did not care that this place had once been a church. Something was wrong down here. Perhaps it was that this place had the feel of a dungeon. Or, maybe it was the grotesque carvings, so many of which should not be in a place dedicated to Christ. No matter how many times Andre came down here, he always felt vulnerable and unwelcome.
He passed beneath the high ceiling supported by a few round pillars, the silence broken only by the footfalls of the man behind him. Each step sounded to him like the ring of a hammer nailing the lid on his coffin. He forced himself to keep moving, and soon came to the entrance to the ancient grotto that had been the original first-century church of Saint Lazarus. A tangle of carved vines wound its way around the entrance, adding to the forbidding nature of this dark recess.
“It is in here.” Andre stepped back and motioned for the man to enter.
“You first.” The man’s tone made it clear he would accept nothing less than total obedience.
Andre stepped inside with only the greatest reluctance. It was as if invisible hands held him back. His fear of the crypt, however, was nothing compared to his fear of the man behind him.
“Which one is Lazarus?” The man swept his beam across the two stone sarcophagi. Between them lay a stone rectangle where a third sarcophagus had once rested.
“Neither,” Andre stammered. “These were too large to move. Lazarus is here.”
He hurried to the back wall, cursing himself for cowardice. Keeping the secret had been a simple thing when it was only a matter of misleading researchers, but an armed man was more than he had ever bargained for. His fingers searched the rough, shadowed surface until it found what he was searching for- the odd carving of three joined hares. Some said it was a symbol of the Trinity, but Andre knew it to be an evil pagan symbol. Grimacing, he pressed his hand to the hateful symbol and pushed. The stone slowly gave way. When he heard it click, he turned it to the right once, twice, three times. It locked into place and, behind him, Andre heard a grinding sound. He turned to see the foundation stone slide back, revealing a dark hole the size and shape of a grave.
The man shone his light down into the darkness where the beam fell on a small stone box inscribed with the same three hares symbol.
Andre did not hesitate, but clambered inside, turning his ankle in the process. Trying to ignore the burning pain, he knelt down by the ossuary. He had never actually laid eyes on it before. Taking a deep breath, he took hold of the lid and heaved.
It was a struggle. He was not a strong man and the lid was heavy, but fear had his adrenaline pumping and he was able to wrestle it free and slide it to the side. Despite his terror, he could not help but feel a thrill at knowing what was inside. The air in the ossuary smelled of dust and age. Andre leaned closer to see what lay inside.
The shaft of light shone on a perfectly preserved skull. He found he could not breathe, but it was not due to fear– that had been forgotten. He was gazing upon the remains of Lazarus himself, whom God incarnate had raised from the dead.
“Take it out and hand it to me.” Despite having found what he sought, the man sounded angry.
Andre reached in and gently cupped the skull in his trembling hands. Though the air down here was cool, a solitary bead of sweat rolled off his forehead and dropped to the floor, making a crater in the dust at the bottom of the ossuary. Slowly, carefully, he raised the skull to eye level and took one long look at it before handing it over to his captor.
The man turned the skull in one hand, scowling. He shone his light back down into the ossuary.
“There’s nothing else?”
“No.” The fear was back, twisting his insides into a queasy knot. “We have had only the skull, nothing more, for many centuries.”
The man moved the skull to the crook of his left arm, took the flashlight in his left hand, and drew his gun with his right. He leveled the weapon at Andre’s head.
“What was the secret?” The bearlike voice was now a scratchy whisper. “How did he bring Lazarus back from the dead?”
Andre gaped. Did the man not know the story?
“By the power of God. He spoke the word and Lazarus rose from the dead.”
Fire lanced through Andre’s leg as a sound like a thousand thunderclaps erupted in the crypt. He slumped to the ground clutching his wounded thigh. He had never dreamed such pain was possible.
“Last chance to live,” the man snarled. “What is the secret? How was he brought back?”
“I only know what the scriptures tell us.” Andre’s voice was a whimper. “I do not know any secret.”
“Are you sure?”
Andre nodded. “I know nothing. Please, let me go.”
The flashlight winked out, leaving them in absolute darkness. Pulse pounding in his ears, Andre strained to listen for any sounds, hoping to hear receding footsteps that would mean his terror and suffering were at an end. Silently he prayed, eyes squeezed shut. He heard the soft tread of footsteps and then...
The loud scraping of stone on stone filled the room. He tried to get to his feet, but his wounded leg betrayed him and he fell down hard. Summoning all his remaining strength, he hurled everything he had into the effort, and sprang to his feet.
Pain exploded through his skull as he cracked the top of his head on hard stone, and he crumpled to the ground with a whimper. Head swimming and ears ringing, he tried to push himself up, but his strength was gone. Only a moan of pain and desperation escaped his lips as the stone cover slid back into place, entombing him where the saint had once lain.