Three men in clerical robes lay around the fallen sarcophagus as if they had tried to defend it from whoever was after it. Dane knelt to check on the nearest man. He was dead. He’d been stabbed multiple times in the abdomen. Deep slices in his palms indicated defensive wounds. He glanced at Bones, who was examining another man. Bones shook his head.
“This man’s alive.” Angel knelt over the third man, feeling for a pulse. “But I don’t think he has much time.”
They surrounded the dying man, whose eyes suddenly popped open. He looked down at the blood soaking his vestments and he let his head fall back. He stared glassy-eyed at Angel, the knowledge of his certain death filling his eyes.
“Engel?” he gasped, reaching up to grab her by the sleeve.
“Angel, yes.” She looked surprised. “How does he know my name?”
Considering the dying priest’s probable delirium, Dane thought, the beautiful young woman clad in a white jacket with a few snowflakes still dusting her hair probably made her look like an actual angel to him. “I think he believes you’re an actual angel.” Dane kept his voice low, as if they sat at a hospital bedside.
“You guys, look at that.” Something had caught Jade’s eye. Carefully skirting the fallen bodies, she moved closer to the fallen sarcophagus, which lay on its side like an upended house. The top had either fallen or been tossed to the side, and on the floor nearby lay three skulls.
Jade slipped on her gloves and picked up one of the skulls to give it a closer look. Candlelight flickered across its surface, lending it a sinister feel.
“Do you think he’s a Magi?” Dane moved closer to Jade, and Bones and Otto followed.
“I don’t know what he is.” Jade’s voice trembled. “But he’s not human.” Slowly, as if turning over the last card in a losing hand, Jade rotated the skull for all to see.
Dane stopped short. Behind him he heard Bones’ sharp intake of breath, and Otto’s mumbled German curse. At least it sounded like a curse to Dane.
Protruding from the skull were two small, curved horns.
“What the hell is that?” Dane could not believe what he was seeing.
“Tuefel,” Otto whispered, taking a step back.
The priests eyes drifted toward Jade, and he seemed to experience a sudden moment of clarity as he saw what she was holding. “Nein!” he gasped. His grip on Angel’s sleeve tightened and he rattled off a stream of words. He let go of her arm and pointed beyond the altar toward the apse, where seven chapels formed the cathedral’s chevet. The priest was speaking so fast that Dane could make out only a few words, though he did catch “Mailänder Madonna” and something that sounded like “dry house and build.” He paused, gasping for breath, and hacked up a gout of blood. This seem to take everything he had left. He let his head fall back and his eyes close. “Ewige.” His voice was a scarce whisper. “Ewige.” He coughed again. “L...” He fell silent as life fled his body.
“What did he say?” Angel’s jaw was set and she looked like she was ready to punch anyone within arm’s reach.
Otto held up a hand and shook his head. He took out a cell phone and made a call. His voice sounded both grave and urgent. When he finally hung up, he turned back to Angel. “I apologize. I felt I should call the authorities right away.” He gave a quick shake of the head as if to jar his mind back on track. “The priest said the skulls must never be seen or people will lose faith. He begs us to take them away.” Otto scratched his head. “After that, I think he was confused. He said all the priests were dead and he had to share the secret or it could be lost forever.”
“What story?” Bones asked.
“I do not know. As I said, he sounded confused, though he was insistent that I listen to him. I could see in his eyes that it was important.”Otto looked around. “He mentioned the Milan Madonna, as you would say it in English, which is back there.” He pointed to a statue that stood beyond the altar, far to the right, where the first chapel began. “It is a well-known work of art.” Otto shrugged.
“He said something else,” Dane said. “It sounded like ‘dry’ something or other.”
“Dreihasenbild. The three hares.” When everyone looked puzzled, Otto continued. “The three hares is a symbol found on many churches, cathedrals, and other sites of religious significance, from England all the way to the Far East. It depicts three hares chasing one another in a circle. The image is rendered in such a way that each hare has two ears, but there are only three ears in total in the image.”
“I’ve heard of it,” Jade said, “though it’s not my area of expertise. It’s a symbol of the Trinity, is it not?”
“It can be.” Otto nodded. “But to the Pagans it can represent fertility or the moon cycle.”
“How does fertility connect with the Madonna?” Angel rose to her feet, finally turning away from the priest.
“She got fertile after Jesus was born, didn’t she?” Bones said.
“You’re a pig.” Angel scowled at her brother.
“No, really. I mean, he had brothers and sisters.”
“That is true.” Otto almost managed a smile. “In the middle ages, it was believed that the rabbit was a hermaphrodite that could reproduce without losing virginity, hence the connection to the Blessed Mother.”
“I get it.” Bones nodded. “So it’s not an Easter Bunny thing.” Everyone ignored him.
“Otto,” Dane began, “what was that last thing he said?”
“Ewige. It translates to English as eternal, perpetual, everlasting.”
“He didn’t get the last word out.” Angel folded her arms across her chest. “It started with an “l” though.”
“What’s the German word for life?” Bones asked.
“You mean like Chris Leben?” Angel grinned. “Chris Life doesn’t really suit that guy.” When Otto frowned she shrugged. “Sorry. He and I are in the same line of work.”
“If he was trying to say ‘eternal life,’ that would make sense, wouldn’t it?” Bones asked. “He’s a priest and this is a church.”
“If I was dying,” Angel added, “that would certainly be on my mind.”
Otto shrugged. “I just cannot believe this. Why would someone kill these poor men, and why would they want the bones of the Magi?”
“Why would they bust open the sarcophagus and not take the bones?” Jade asked. “Unless these skulls were not what they expected to find.”
“I do not think anyone expected to find skulls like...that.” Otto took a deep breath and, as he exhaled, seemed to deflate a little bit. “It is all too much. I do not understand why this has happened.”
Dane chewed on his lower lip. The gears in his mind were turning at a rapid clip. He had a sixth sense about secrets and mysteries, and something told him there was more to the priest’s final words than mere confusion.
“As long as we’ve got to wait here until the police come, we might as well do a little searching. See if we can make sense of what the priest was saying.”
“Great,” Bones deadpanned. “Another Maddock mystery.”
“I’m game.” Angel headed straight for the Milan Madonna and looked it up and down. “What exactly should I be looking for?”
“Maybe the three rabbit thing?” Bones said, coming up to join her. “He did make a point to mention it.”
Dane turned and scanned the seven chapels. The priest had said “Mailänder Madonna” but he had pointed to the left side of the chevet– the side opposite the Madonna. He carefully stepped around the shattered bulletproof glass that lay scattered around the altar and moved into the chevet.
Each chapel was a recessed area containing works of art. He inspected them one by one, looking for... he didn’t know what exactly. He thought Bones was on the right track in searching for the three hares. It was the sort of out-of-place symbol that might bear significance in a place like this.
His eyes were drawn to a large, busy painting. As he drew close, Otto joined him.
“The Adoration of the Magi. It depicts the donors being presented to the Madonna.” He indicated the figures in the foreground. “In the back are shown scenes around the birth of the Christ child.”
“The title is promising.” On either side of the painting, a figure knelt before a draped table, and on each drape a symbol was rendered– a dark background with three shapes. His heart racing, Dane moved closer, but was disappointed to find that the symbols were fleur-de-lis, not hares. He took hold of the frame and pulled, but it did not budge. He gave it a push, which made no difference either.
Jade sidled up to him and peered at the painting with keen interest. “You think there’s something here, Maddock?”
“I don’t know. Just checking it out.” He ignored the foreground for the moment and examined the background images. The world swam in his peripheral vision, and he was about to give up when something caught his eye. “Otto, what is this scene?”
“That is the Christ Child being presented in the temple.”
He could clearly make out the scene in the temple, but the artist had slipped some odd images into the scene: a child performing a handstand, a flock of birds, and animal that could have been a cat, or perhaps a rabbit, and...”
“What is this here?” He indicated a brown triskelion-like shape in front of one of the temple columns.
Otto leaned in close and his eyes widened with surprise when they fell on the spot Dane indicated. “Ja! I think it might be the three hares!”
Dane wasted no time. He placed his thumb over the image, grimacing at the thought of daMaging the work of art. He pressed down gently. There was definitely something underneath, a raised bump or... a button. Before he could change his mind, he pressed down hard.
He felt the raised area give way, heard a click, and a loud scraping sound filled the silent cathedral. He sprang back, putting his arms out to shield Jade and Otto, but there was no need. The portion of the wall where the painting hung slid forward. Dane stepped around behind it and saw a hole in the floor just big enough for a person to enter. There was no ladder, but he could see handholds cut into the stone.
“Sweet!” Bones was leaning over his shoulder, looking down at the passageway Dane had discovered. “Me first!”
Otto gaped at the discovery. “I cannot believe this.” He gave a sad smile. “It seems I am saying that a great deal this evening.” He straightened and looked Dane in the eye. “Clearly the priest was not confused. There is a mystery here, though I cannot iMagine what it is all about.” He turned to Jade. “There could be much at stake here, and if there is a secret, it should be entrusted to someone who understands the value of history and of spirituality.” He held out his hand. “I trust you.”
They shook hands and exchanged a solemn look.
“Go now. Die polizei should be here soon. I am a regular visitor here, so my presence will not rouse suspicion. Perhaps we can keep you and this mystery out of the public eye until you can uncover the truth.”
They thanked Otto and, one by one, climbed down into the darkness. Bones led the way and Dane brought up the rear. As he descended into the shaft, he saw Otto wave goodbye and reach up to press the button on the painting. The section of wall slid back into place, plunging them into darkness.