Work in Progress

From the roof of the University of the Sorbonne, the gargoyles heard the insistent, contented sound that drifted up from the cafés and restaurants. They had watched the city destroyed and rebuilt, time and again; the bloodshed of the Terror, the anarchy of the Commune, the industrial destruction of the Great War. The streets changed, but the spirit of the city remained, the noise a consistent background. They kept their own stony, silent council.

But tonight, among the frozen poses of the statuary, a figure is moving. As the bright full moon grinned indulgently down, it approaches a stained glass window which, at a casual glance, looks firmly closed. Yet there is just enough of a gap to get a finger in, and he swings it slowly, carefully, open, and enters. From the window, the top of a bookshelf is just reachable. With his back against the wall, gripping the mounting of an inoperative gas-lamp, he leans out across the gap, straining with his left foot towards the shelf. He knows that, if he stumbles, the guards will be on him like lightning. There is a brief moment of panic as he releases his weight from the lamp, but then his foot found purchase on the shelf. Releasing a breath he doesn’t even know he was holding in, he shimmies easily down the shelves like climbing a ladder, to the floor.

“Fortune and glory, Rene,” it whispers.

As the moon casts distorted squares of brightness into the Archaeology department storeroom, where the University’s collection of artefacts is stored, barring those on display in glass cases in the corridors of the department itself, upstairs. The room is long with a stone floor and a high roof crisscrossed with wooden beams, as though it had been designed as a chapel. Rows of hefty wooden shelves run along each side like pews, separated by a central corridor. The figure – small and quick – lowers itself to the floor, and begins to work its way along a shelf filled with identical and seemingly endless cardboard specimen boxes. They are covered in a thick patina of dust, betraying that they have lain undisturbed for many years.

Kring… Frrrick.

By the light of his Zippo lighter, he scans the labels, one by one, often straining to decypher the barely legible scrawl. After working his way along the shelf he pauses –

whatever he is looking for, he hasn’t found it. He moves instead onto the next row.

Still not seeing what he’s looking for, and raises the lighter to check that he has the right shelf. But as he does, the shadows move, and he notices a small box sitting behind the others, dropped back to sit between the shelf and the one behind. Immediately, he pulled the boxes in front out of the way, and has to strain to reach it, his fingertips just catching the frayed edge of the lid. He catches it and brings it out; it is long and shallow like a squashed shoe box. The lid fits so tightly that he must remove it slowly, raising it gradually and evenly at each corner rather than simply pull it off; in the weighty silence of the storeroom, he could hear the air wheezing into the box.

Inside, nesting in straw, lies a golden dove, which glints and glistens under the dancing flame of the Zippo. The Reliquary of Saint Gilles. Its feathers are picked out in jade, wings stretched as though ready to take flight. The eyes are two points of utter blackness amongst the opulence. Gently he lifts it out, turns it over in his hands, his eyes wide.

Suddenly, he is not alone the darkness. A groaning squeak as a door opens, and then flashlights begin to scan the room. He blows out the lighter and stuffs it into his pocket. He starts to crawl quickly along behind the shelves, hugging the golden dove close against his chest with his left arm.

He can hear the night watchmen whispering. They must have seen the light from his Zippo as he searched, and were shining their flashlights where he had been just moments before. Just doing their job – but he couldn’t let them catch him. He cursed himself that they were already between him and his exit before he had even noticed.

At the end of the row was a metal ladder mounted on rollers. Still hunching down, Rene shimmies along the row, still clutching the cross. Reaching out, his hand finds the cold metal of the handrail. His heart pounding in his chest, he climbs up halfway, trying to make no sound. Searching randomly with his toe until it finds a spot on the shelf, he places his shaking foot down, and he kicks for his life.

The ladder rattles along its rails, stiffened wheel bearings squealing in the cool night air. The sound echoes in the vast space. The watchmen’s flashlights swing suddenly to point in his direction, illuminating him like a jailbreaker as he sails past.

As he reaches the bookshelf by his window, he jumps, catching the top ledge and pulling himself up. The ladder continues to roll, and he prays that they will make his life easy and continue to follow it. Once on top, he runs to the window frame and pulls himself up through the half-open window. Squeezing through, his jacket pocket catches on the corner of the frame, swollen and ragged where rust threatens to burst through decade-thick layers of careless paint. The watchmen are close now, so no option but to pull and pull and The pocket tears free, and he is out. The lighter it held falls, clatters to the floor, as loud as a whip-crack.

Out into the cold air, and a moonlit rooftop high above the formal lawns and pavements of the courtyard. He shoots across the sloping tiles, looking for a hiding place. At the far end stands a chimney, below which is a carving depicting – he remembered from his induction – the University founders. He dropped down, standing against it on a thin ledge and holding on to the base of the chimney. He is out of luck — the first watchman emerges from the window just in time to see him disappear. The heavy-set guard charges after him, but his feet slide out from under him on the dewey tiles, and he falls with a wet smack. The second is out now, and is directed to the apex of the roof by the first as he hauls himself back to his feet. There they stand, just a few feet above him as he clings to the wall, scanning the building with their torches.

But Rene knows the position is too awkward to hold for long, and his arms are getting tired. He begins to work his way silently along the ledge, delicately moving his weight from one foot to the other, aiming for the drainpipe at the far end. But as he puts his weight onto his right foot with only two steps to go, a chunk of the sandstone ledge breaks off, tumbling to the ground. He grits his teeth as the medieval carving smashes to pieces on the courtyard below.

Footsteps running on the roof. The watchmen look down to see the broken masonry; then to the young man clinging to the ledge below them. They look to each other, clearly confused as to the safest course of action. One takes the initiative, pointing to either end of the ledge — they are going to try and head him off. They lower themselves down the tiles until they are standing on either side of the gable ledge. Rene is trapped.

He takes the golden reliquary from his pocket, and holds it up. The watchmen

begin to shout demands that he give it back to them. Rene throws it in a wide arc. It twists as it falls, glinting as it spins. Clatters and bends on the flags at the far side of the courtyard. The watchmen look at one another, unsure what to do. Finally, one of them climbs back up the roof and goes to retrieve the cross. Left on his own, the remaining watchman isn’t fast enough to stop Rene sidling along the ledge and onto another rooftop. He watches powerless as Rene disappears down a drainpipe.

Once out of sight, he shimmies along the ledge to an open window. Climbing through, he emerged squinting into a brightly lit room.

“You didn’t get it, did you, Rene?”

 

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