Monastic Mayhem (An Echo of Eco)

THOUGH I AM an old monk now, I have, I confess, had experiences. And among the experiences I shall never forget was a series of adventures involving my dear friend (dead of the plague these many years) Basil de Belge, a Dominican detective who, like me, was medieval. Together we helped solve the baffling crimes that occurred in 1329 at the École Supérieure of the Abbé d’Alton, where, within twenty-four hours, approximately six terrible murders were committed. We arrived at Nones; by Matins things were hopping.

MATINS

“Basil,” the Abbot said, grabbing my friend’s arm in the cloister. “I will not mince words. Someone is dead who wasn’t dead yesterday. I’m worried.”

“I see,”my friend replied. He stared into the distance. “A monk was found face down in the kitchen with a soup ladle in his hand and a paring knife in his back. He had been chopping garlic, though for some unaccountable reason there was about him the odor of roses.”

“Basil!” the Abbot exclaimed. “You amaze me! How did you deduce all that from my simple words?”

“I found the body.”

“Do you know who did it?”

“I have my suspicions, which are at the moment growing. Look for another corpse by Lauds.”

I looked at my friend, lost in admiration. I must write all this down, I thought. It will sell.

LAUDS

While Basil was in the herb garden, ingesting herbs, the Abbot approached. “Basil, I must speak with you.” “Yes?”

“Another body has been discovered. This time in the library.”

“Who found the body?”

“Brother Marcel.”

“I thought so. Can Brother Marcel read?”

“No, but he can write. An interesting case. He was a follower of the Flogensian heretics, then the Stalagmites. After that—”

“Spare me the dull details. Now tell me one thing: What time is it?”

“Seven-thirty. I mean, nearly Prime. Why?”

“Unless I am mistaken, we are too late. A third murder has been committed. And in Prime time.”Basil laughed mirthlessly. “A joke in my country.”Me frowned. “Let me speak with the librarian.”

“The librarian is dead.”

“Oh.”

“Would you care to speak to someone in the rare-book room?”

Basil snapped to attention. “The Abbé d’Alton has a rare-book room?”

“Of course.”

“ Then let me see it. At once. We haven’t a moment to lose.”

I looked at Basil, lost once again in admiration. Boy, I thought. This will really sell.

PRIME

After a quick tour of the rare-book room, Basil interviewed the rare-book librarian, one Brother García of Márquez.

“Let us get to the point, Brother García. Why is this rare-book room a place of evil and mystery? Why is it a veritable labyrinth of unspeakable horror?”

“May I reverently suggest that you have been reading too many books?”

“You think so? Then look in your card catalogue. Under R, as in rose.”

Puzzled, Brother García shuffled off into the stacks. A minute later we heard a bloodcurdling scream. Brother García came running back to us.

“There’s—there’s—”

“A severed hand, wearing a rose-colored ring, filed under R? I thought so.” Basil turned to me and smiled grimly. “And to think that the day is young,” he said.

TERCE

The Abbot was frantic.

“What can we do, Basil? And of all times for such terrible things to be happening.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because at Sext the Inspector General of Écoles will be arriving. He is a personal enemy of mine, and a skilled controversialist and amateur detective.”

“Who is this man? Perhaps I have heard of him.”

“McKee of Spillano, the Irish-Italian Scourge of God. Whatever will we do?”

Basil frowned. “Let me ask you one thing. Reverend Father: Where were you between Prime and Terce?”

The Abbot thought for a moment. “Let me see . . . why, yes. I was in the conservatorium with Colonel Mustard, a visiting English dignitary. Yes. As a matter of fact, I left him there.”

“You left him there? Alone?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Quickly. To the conservatorium.”

The Abbot conducted us through several tortuous passages and unlikely twists. At last we arrived at a tiny door, which the Abbot unlocked with a huge, rusted key. He rushed inside. We waited. “ . . . two, three,” Basil counted. Another bloodcurdling scream. The Abbot rushed out of the conservatorium, a look of horror on his face.

“Colonel Mustard is ... is ...”

“Dead,” Basil said, helpfully. “Was there by any chance a piece of iron pipe by his head?”

“No,” the Abbot said. “He had a noose around his neck. He was hanging from a curtain rod.”

“A curtain rod?” I burst in. “That means a window!”

Basil gave me a withering look. “Would you say that this window was . . . bigger than a breadbox?”

“Oh, yes. Much bigger. In fact, it’s a rose window.”

“Ah,” Basil said. “I begin to see the true nature of the criminal mind we are dealing with. Now go about your business, Reverend Father, and pretend that nothing has happened. Perhaps nothing has happened ...” His voice trailed off. The Abbot and I exchanged puzzled glances. Then we took them back.

SEXT

At noon McKee of Spillano and his party arrived at the Abbé. Amid the fraternal embraces and ritual greetings an undercurrent of bottomless contempt set the tone. Basil kept in the background, and then wandered off to the herb garden, where he played his viola in the fog. I returned to my cell, where I fell asleep and dreamed a dream in vivid, voluminous detail. When I encountered Basil an hour later, I told him of it. “I don’t believe a word of what you’re saying. But of course!” he shouted, slapping his forehead. “Where is McKee?”

“The Abbot is taking him on a tour of the Abbé.”

“We must get to the rare-book room before the Inspector General. Quickly!”

We arrived just as McKee and his party were entering the rare-book room. “Too late,” Basil sighed. We heard a commotion and then cries for help. Inching through the crowd at the door, I peeked inside. There, slumped over the MAY I HELP YOU? sign, was Brother García of Márquez, with an arrow in his back. A rose was clenched between his teeth.

NONES

“You don’t run a very tight ship here, do you, Abbot?”

“Please, Your Grace, you must allow me to—”

“Five murders in six hours. Pretty wild.”

“Please, Your Grace. That’s four murders,” the Abbot sobbed. “Four murders and a severed hand.”

“Details,” the Inspector General snapped. “It looks like I’m going to have to get to the bottom of this.”

“Reverend Father, Brother Basil de Belge is already—”

“Who? Basil de Belge? I’ve always wanted to meet that guy. I thought he’d gone over the Reichenbach Falls.”

“I did disappear, Your Grace,” Basil said, stepping forward. “But now I am back. And if I may be so bold, I would suggest you begin your investigation by finding the man with the missing hand. He should be easy to spot.”

“Thanks, Brother Basil. When we need some advice, we’ll know who to ask. Now, Abbot, call in the first witness.”

“But, Your Grace,” the Abbot said. “No one has seen anything.”

“Call in someone, then.”

As McKee began his interrogation, Basil and I retreated to the refectory.

Basil turned to me. “We must think, Dégleau, think!” My mind was blank. “Put yourself in the place of the murderer.” I tried this, but the effort made me feel uncanny. “You are killing one monk for each of the canonical hours. Why?”

A thought struck me. “But Basil. It’s nearly Vespers, and no one is dead yet. Perhaps—”

“That’s it, Dégleau! It’s now Nones! Between two and three o’clock! Two and three make five; a five-sided figure is a pentagon; Joachim of Fiore predicted that one day there would be a building known as the Pentagon that would be connected with unlimited wealth. The treasury of the Abbé! We must get there before the murderer!”

We didn’t.

VESPERS

The treasurer of the Abbé d’Alton had been bashed in the head with a heavy, jewel-encrusted object that had, apparently, been designed as a murder weapon. And written on the wall, in blood, was the cryptic message “Eye-ah illedkay e-thay onk-may. E-thay ose-ray.” Basil studied the words closely. “Not traditional Latin,” he said. “Or Greek. Not even Arabic, of which I know a smattering. Dégleau, I am beginning to wonder. . . ” His voice trailed off, perhaps significantly.

As the monks carried away the body of the treasurer, Basil stood lost in thought. “Why do I keep thinking of flowers?” he asked. “Mother’s Day is approaching,” I ventured. In the ensuing silence, Basil tugged at his lower lip, then his upper lip, then both lips at once. “The library, Dégleau. Yes, the library. We must return to the library.”

Since the librarian and the rare-book librarian were both dead, we had the place to ourselves. Basil pored over the precious volumes on the shelves, murmuring the Latin titles that were so meaningless to me. At last he pulled a book down and then stood for many minutes, reading by the fading light of the fourteenth-century sun. I stood watching him. Gosh, I thought. Maybe this won’t sell.

I wandered off into the labyrinth of the library, only to emerge in the laundry room. Ordinarily I would have been surprised to find a dead body in the laundry tub, but by now I was becoming hardened. In his lifeless hand was a piece of parchment with the single word “sélavy” scrawled across it. C’est la vie? I thought.

“Basil,” I said, coming back into the library.

“Shhh,” he said, not looking up. “I know.”

COMPLINE

That evening the Abbot called a general meeting of the monks. McKee of Spillano was present too.

“How’s the investigation?” he said, sneering at Basil. “Found out anything interesting?”

“As a matter of fact, I have,” Basil replied.

McKee looked incredulous. “Such as?”

“Such as the solution to the murders at the Abbé d’Alton.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“Yes.”

There was a silence. Finally the Abbot broke down and began to scream hysterically. “For the love of God, then, Brother Basil, tell us who has committed this grisly string of murders. I mean, this string of grisly murders!”

Basil looked about the room. “It may come as something of a shock,” he began deliberately, “given the fictiveness of our situation. But it just so happens that the murderer is none other than . . . the person telling this story! And by that I mean, none other than . . . Dégleau!”

For obvious reasons I immediately became the focus of attention in the crowded room. I laughed nervously, because I was nervous.

“Basil, don’t be ridiculous! Why would I do such a thing?”

“I’m not entirely sure,” Basil said. “Though I can tell you one thing: You got the idea from a book.”

“Book?” I said. “What book?”

“A book in the rare-book room.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I spluttered. “How could I—”

“Stop squirming, Dégleau. I saw the book with my own eyes; you checked it out only last month. A story of a murder in which the man telling the story commits the murder. Take him away.”

“But, Basil,” I screamed, as two monks grabbed my arms. “It’s not true! It’s a lie! I have never read such a book! Or even if I have, it was trash! What kind of a man do you take me for? No, you fools, I got the idea from—”

I stopped. Unfortunately, I had not stopped soon enough.

“Yes?” Basil said.

“All right,” I said. “I got the idea from a book. But not that book. From a book written by a famous philosopher of language. An intellectual.”

Basil looked incredulous. “Why would anyone read such a thing?” he asked. “Surely it would be boring?”

I hung my head. “Intertextual impulses.” I said softly. “I have never been able to control them.”

“Eh bien,” Basil said. “Intertextual impulses, indeed! They are the curse of the cursed times in which we live! When all one needs,” he said, tapping his forehead, “are the little gray brain cells!” And the last thing I saw was Basil de Beige tugging on his famous moustachios, which he prized so much, and which I previously forgot to mention. □