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St patricks gargoyle, p.10
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       St. Patrick's Gargoyle, p.10

           Katherine Kurtz
 
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Indeed, Paddy did not want to know anything about it. To lose his custodianship of St. Patrick's was unthinkable.

  "All right," he said. "It sounds like we go over to St. Michan's and check things out."

  Chapter 11

  At least getting to St. Michan's did not present any difficulty. Though not used as often as the passageway Paddy had just traveled, there was a very ancient tunnel that ran all the way under the River Liffey from Christ Church, to emerge in one of the vaults beneath the more modest St. Michan's.

  Cut-stone steps thick with the dust of centuries descended toward the river from the higher level of the cathedral undercroft. Brick-lined walls gave way to stone, and dust and cobwebs gave way to damp as the three gargoyles passed below the level of the riverbed.

  They covered the fifty yards directly beneath the river with some alacrity, for none of them much liked being this far underground, and with the weight of a mighty river above their heads. Though unaffected by merely physical conditions of the material world - they were, after all, angels - their long exposure to human notions of corporeal discomfort lent haste to their passage.

  Crouching low, wingtips scraping against the dripping ceiling of the tunnel, the three splashed their way through stagnant puddles that sometimes sloshed over taloned feet. Startled rats scurried before them at first, for intrusion was rare save by their own kind; but coming to no harm, the creatures soon paused to watch in fascination, instinctively sensing the angelic nature of these intruders into their subterranean realm.

  Very quickly the three gargoyles reached the other side and sped up another steep, narrow stairway lined with stone. This led, in turn, into a more crudely executed passageway hewn from the rough limestone, running more or less on the level and ending, at last, in a small, vaulted chamber whose dirt floor was dry as death, and undisturbed for at least decades. Several sections of discarded wooden paneling leaning against the back wall of the chamber obscured the tunnel opening, and the other end was closed by a barred gate of iron.

  Cautiously the three emerged from behind the paneling. Along both side walls, ancient coffins were stacked three- and four-deep, festooned with dust-heavy cobwebs, some of them still adorned with shreds of rotted velvet coverings or showing the remnants of painted decorations. A few had partially collapsed under the weight of the coffins above, leaving gaps through which bones and mummified remains could be seen, but there were no signs of damage other than from the passage of time.

  "Well, just offhand, I'd say that this isn't the vault where the vandals worked their mischief," C.C. said, shuffling up to the barred gate and passing through it like butter through a sieve. "Doesn't look like there's been anybody down here in years."

  "Well, there are five other vaults," Paddy said, following him into the corridor, which was studded with a full dozen barred gates, set in facing pairs. "I guess we'll have to check all of them, until we find out which one it was."

  "Terrific," Audie grumbled, as they quickly began checking each of the remaining crypts in that vault. "A wonderful lead-up to Christmas. We get to go poking around where dead bodies should be left to sleep in peace - and just because a few lager louts got to feeling frisky. I liked it better in the old days, when we used to give the Vikings whatfor. At least they did honest pillaging. Vandals these days just break things up for the fun of it, because they haven't got anything better to do."

  "/'// give 'em something better to do, if I find out who did it," C.C. muttered.

  With Audie uttering a deep gargoyle chortle of anticipatory delight, the three made their way to the steep stone stair that led out of the vault. Paddy went up first, pausing to peer out through the slit between the two heavy iron doors that closed the entrance from the outside, like a hatch. It was the most exposed of the five entrances that most people knew about, opening at the southernmost portion of the church's east face, which fronted onto Church Street, but at this hour, and with snow still falling, there was no one about. (Unlike most churches, St. Michan's was built on a T-plan rather than a cross, with the top of the T across the east end of the nave.)

  "Okay, looks clear," Paddy said. "As I recall, the next vault is just around the corner of the building, but it's still a bit out in the open, so let's leave that one until last. With luck, we won't have to bother with it."

  "Go," said C.C.

  In a blink, Paddy had oozed through the crack like a sliver of shadow and whisked around to shelter in an angle of the building which could only be seen from the silent, snow-shrouded churchyard. Audie and C.C. arrowed after him. The entrances to two more of the vaults were nestled in the angle, close against the sides of the church and almost flush with the ground, the double iron doors of each piled with several inches of snow and secured both with internal locks and with padlocked chains through the handles. Neither, of course, was any deterrent to gargoyles.

  "Either of you have a preference for which one to look at next?" Paddy asked softly.

  "I'd look in the one on the left," said a small voice from behind them.

  Being angels and therefore unaffected by physical danger, the reaction of the three gargoyles could not be described precisely as alarm, but they whirled quickly, nonetheless, to see no one.

  "I’m down here," said the voice, from close beside one of the ornate Victorian tombstones.

  There, blending with the dappled shadows cast by a faraway streetlight, sat a small, very self-possessed grey and tan tabby cat with a white bib front, thick grey and black banded tail curled demurely around pristine white forepaws. A thin drizzle of white across one side of her muzzle gave the appearance of a permanent milksplash. It looked to be quite a young cat.

  "Ah," said Paddy, with a glance at his two colleagues. For cats, being accustomed to look at kings and princes and anything else they fancied, were little more impressed with angels, even in the guise of gargoyles. The grass-green gaze turned upward at the three of them was curious but not at all diffident, quite unfazed by their celestial origins.

  Hunkering down beside the little animal, Paddy bent his great gargoyle head closer, well aware that cats, like most animals, needed no black mirror to see a gargoyle's true form.

  "So, little one," he said softly, "why is it you think we should look in the one on the left?"

  "Well, you're obviously here about that breakin a few nights ago," the cat replied.

  "That's true," Paddy admitted. "I take it that you saw what went on?"

  "Of course," said the cat. "I live in the next street, but this is where I hunt at night. And in the summertime, sometimes I go down into the vaults when the guides aren't looking. Occasionally, I do get locked in overnight," she conceded.

  Flicking a furry ear, she paused to give a nonchalant lick to one paw and briefly groom the whiskers on that side. Paddy heard C.C. and Audie shifting impatiently behind him, but he knew better than to try to hurry a cat.

  "There were three of them," the cat finally went on, after finishing her whiskers. "Nasty little men they were, with big, clumpy boots and lots of stinky beer and cigarettes, but they didn't try to bother me. I don't think they saw me. It was really cold that night, and they were really drunk."

  "I don't suppose you happened to go down there?" Audie said.

  The cat looked at him somewhat disdainfully for presuming to interrupt her narrative, then pointedly returned her gaze to Paddy.

  "It wouldn't have been very bright to do that while they were still there," she said somewhat haughtily. "I don't like smoke, and I didn't like the look of their boots. But naturally, I checked the place out after they'd gone. We cats have to know what's going on in our territory. They left a big mess. It was hours before anyone else came, after it got light. By then, it was time to go home for my breakfast."

  C.C. snorted, and Audie only just contained a growl of gargoyle frustration, but Paddy controlled a gargoyle smile, signaling the others to let him handle this, and scrunched down closer to the cat's eye level. In the grand scheme of things, cats were very good at
keeping their priorities straight; and as observers went, they were almost as good as Watchers, with the added advantage that they could move around.

  "Probably a very wise decision," he agreed. "Good cat, we would be very grateful to have your services as guide down below, if you would be so kind as to assist us."

  "I thought you'd never ask," the cat said happily, trotting over to the padlocked iron doors, tail like a question mark, where she swiveled her head around to glance expectantly among the three of them, mostly from upside down. "Are you going to make the chains fall away, like they talk about in the Big Book?" she asked eagerly.

  "Why, how do you know about that, little one?" Paddy said in some surprise.

  "Oh, I heard my human reading about it one time," the cat replied, as the three gargoyles moved closer to the padlocked doors. "After supper, she likes me to sit on her lap while she reads aloud from this great Big Book. In the mornings, sometimes I sleep on it in the sun.

  "Anyway, there was this fellow named Peter, I think she said it was, a long time ago, and one of your kind came and made his chains fall away." The cat cocked her head thoughtfully at Paddy. "Of course, I suppose you could just slip through the crack between the doors. But you should remember that I can't. Cats can't really walk through walls the way humans sometimes think we can."

  "Indeed, not," said Paddy, "but you can be carried through." He leaned down and made a cradle of his huge gargoyle talons in invitation. "May I?"

  With a little chirrup of delight, the cat bounded into his arms to snuggle happily against the great gargoyle chest, totally unafraid, her little body vibrating in an audible purr; for bliss lies within the compass of an angel's embrace. When Audie and C.C. had squeezed through the crack between the two iron doors, Paddy followed them with his purring passenger, dropping lightly to the foot of the steep stair inside.

  "It's really dark in here," the cat observed.

  At the will of the gargoyles - for their small feline friend could not see in total darkness the way they could- soft light flooded the vaulted chamber, emanating from the gargoyles themselves. This second vault was much shorter than the first one they had inspected, with only six arched crypts opening off it, three to either side. Five of these had barred screens with iron gates, but the sixth, the last on the left, was closed by only a flimsy grillwork of heavy wire.

  "That's the one where they broke in," the cat said, jumping down from Paddy's embrace and trotting to the far end of the corridor. "They built a fire out here in the passageway, and littered the place with empty cans." She paused outside the wire grillwork and wrinkled her nose. "And they pawed at the dead humans in here. They bothered some of the others, too," she added, indicating the other crypts.

  Scowling ferocious gargoyle scowls, the three gargoyles crowded to the far end of the corridor to look inside the crypt barred by wire. Unlike the ones they had already inspected, the coffins in this crypt were not stacked. Paddy recalled that this was the one where tourists were allowed to view a few of the famous "mummies of St. Michan's." Though several relatively intact coffins were pushed against the wall to either side, their lids adorned with a few skulls and other assorted bones, there were three open coffins in the middle of the chamber, their heads pointed away from the doorway, and another open one beyond, set parallel to the back wall.

  "I wish they'd let these people rest in peace," Audie grumbled. "Why do humans want to gawk at things like this?"

  "Because they're both fascinated and frightened by death, I think," C.C. replied. "It's the greatest of human unknowns, and every living creature has to make that last journey alone, past physical death. They have a hard time conceiving of existence that transcends the physical."

  "Well, they know that their bodies go back to dust, back to the elements," Audie pointed out.

  "Yeah, but a lot of them think they're going to get back a renewed physical body, come Judgment Day," Paddy chimed in, "and they get hung up on the idea. They lose sight of the fact that it's their immortal souls that count. Truth is, they won't need or want physical bodies by then. It will be a whole new order of existence for them."

  "Yeah, but earth's order of existence right now is that bodies should go back to dust," Audie said, gesturing toward the coffins, whose occupants, though dust-shrouded, had been mummified by the dry air of the limestone crypt, their flesh shrunken away beneath brown, leathery skin, still festooned in crumbling remnants of clothing. "This is an anomaly. What is He thinking, when He lets this kind of thing happen?"

  Paddy chuckled. "You trying to second-guess the Boss?' he asked. "Actually, I think it might have something to do with reminding people how well designed their bodies are. And of course, people are usually interested in how other people lived, years before. It isn't as if the former owners of these bodies are hanging around here."

  While they debated, the cat had squeezed through the wide mesh of the wire grille and jumped up onto the end of the center coffin, balancing gracefully on the corner edges at one side as she surveyed the bodies, left and right. The body in the coffin farthest to the right was mostly skeletal, but the one in the leftmost coffin still could be identified as a woman, said to have been a nun. The man in the middle was missing his right hand and both feet.

  "Where are his feet?" the cat asked. "For that matter, where is his hand? Did those messy humans take them?"

  "No, they've been gone a long time, little one," Paddy replied, "though I think that other 'messy humans' did, indeed, take them a long, long time ago."

  In fact, popular tradition suggested that the man had been a criminal, executed in a nearby prison, but Paddy remembered the man's burial, some four centuries ago, and knew he had merely been the victim of vandalism in the intervening years. Besides that, an executed criminal would not have been buried under once-fashionable St. Michan's. (It was true that the famous Sheares brothers were buried in one of the other vaults - hanged, drawn, and quartered as traitors by their English captors, after the ill-fated Irish Rebellion of 1798but the pair had been political martyrs, not common criminals.)

  "That's the crusader in the back, isn't it?" C.C. asked.

  "Yeah," said Paddy.

  "He's still got his head," Audie pointed out.

  "Yeah," Paddy said again. "I wonder what all this head business is about?"

  "What about heads?" the cat asked, looking up.

  "We were told that his head might be missing," Paddy said, before either of the others could answer. " "Oh, not his," said the cat.

  "Then, is some other head missing?" C.C. demanded.

  "No, but those nasty men took one of the coffins outside," the cat replied, "and one of them was playing kickball with a head. It was only a little one, though, and other men came in the morning and put everything back."

  The three gargoyles exchanged perplexed glances, and Audie rumbled, "I'd sure like to know what's going on."

  "I guess we'll find out tomorrow night," C.C. retorted. "We need to see anything else?" he said to Paddy.

  "I'll just have a closer look before we go," Paddy said.

  Accompanied by the cat, who walked delicately along the edge of the center coffin, Paddy oozed through the wire grille and shuffled back to the crusader's coffin. So far as he could tell, and judging from what he remembered of the body's condition on previous visits, the reports they had heard of damage to this particular body seemed to have been exaggerated. (Not that Paddy spent a great deal of time inspecting long-dead bodies, but one did tend to make periodic rounds of unusual sites, during a gargoyle career spanning nearly two millennia.) The skeletal right hand, its mummified skin stretched taut over the bones, was dark brown and shiny from being touched for luck by thousands of tourists over the past several centuries - which, perhaps, was what had saved the old crusader from serious vandalism by the lager louts of earlier in the week. The superstitious might think that abuse of such a good luck charm might result in bad luck.

  "What do you think?" he asked the cat, who had jumped down o
n the floor to stand on her hind legs beside Paddy and peer into the coffin beside him.

  "He's pretty old, isn't he?" said the cat.

  "Yes, one of the oldest ones here," Paddy replied. "Maybe as old as eight hundred years. The church above us much newer, but the crypts and some of the foundations probably date back to Viking days. I don't suppose you know about Vikings."

  "No, and she doesn't want to know about Vikings," Audie said irritably. "They were terrible people."

  "They were people," Paddy said, reaching down to pick up the cat again. "Come on, little one. We'll take you out of here. You'll be much better off going home to your human than poking around anymore down here. Besides, it will be dark, once we leave."

  'There might be mice," the cat said hopefully.

  "Maybe," Paddy replied. "But the vaults might not be opened again until after Christmas, and then where would you be? Besides, I think it's quite likely that your human will indulge you with a few bits of Christmas turkey - but only if you're around to eat it. Does that sound nice?"

  Licking her chops in anticipation, the cat rubbed her head against Paddy's scaly gargoyle chest, purring blissfully, and snuggled down to let herself be carried back to the steep stair that led out of the crypt.

  Chapter 12

  It was nearing dawn by the time Paddy got back to his post in the tower at St. Patrick's. The outing to St. Michan's, while agreeable enough a diversion from normal routine, had hardly been enlightening, so far as explaining any reason for the special conclave called for the next evening. At times like this, Paddy found it both puzzling and even mildly amusing that relatively minor functionaries like himself were regularly dispatched to investigate earthly goings-on, when an omniscient Boss was perfectly capable of Knowing what He needed to know - though Paddy always welcomed the opportunity to delve beyond his usual job description.

  Not that boredom was any part of a gargoyle's lexicon.

  How could one possibly be bored, when possessed of the supreme contentment that came of working in absolute harmony with God's Master Plan? However, the occasional departure from routine did enable even angels to share more directly in God's infinite variety.

 
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