Cover Art by Kendra Egert
Still befuddled after guiding these folks around Rome for nearly a full day, I studied them from beneath eyelids at half-mast while we waited in line at our last stop. When my smart phone rang, I whipped it out knowing it was Will, my fiancé. I hadn’t seen him in nearly two weeks.
Now, here’s the difficulty. Will was a spy… a Europol Special Agent, to be precise, which made our relationship difficult from the get-go. To complicate things, not only did he live in Spain ‒ I lived in Rome ‒ he traveled around Europe on assignments much of time, but he couldn’t tell me where or why. And I traveled a lot, too.
Worst of all, he’d recently uncovered some things about his troubled past that had been giving him nightmares. Events and people from a dark time in his early life haunted him and threatened our relationship. I urged him to go for therapy, but he refused for some good reasons.
We were on very shaky ground.
“Hi, Will. Where are you?”
“Yo, Harriet. I’m at Ciampino Airport. My plane just landed. I’ll be in downtown Rome in a little over an hour.” Just the sound of his deep voice breathed new life into me. This had been a long day at the end of two very long weeks. “Where are you?”
“With a tour group, waiting in line to get into the catacombs at San Callisto.”
“Ah. Visiting the dead on All Hallow’s Eve? How appropriate.”
The surface cheerfulness of his tone didn’t mask the underlying angst. More nightmares. My heart ached for him. Will and I shared a connection at the molecular level that, at times, scared me.
“If you say so.” I took a step or two away from my fourteen tourists, shuffling their feet in anticipation of entering the vast underground cemetery, and turned my back. “A grave yard is a good place for them,” I whispered. “Even as tour groups go, these folks are weird. They’re going to be trouble. I just know it.”
He drew in a sharp breath. “They’re not… hmm… little people, are they?”
Without meaning to, I shook my head vehemently. During our first Christmas together we’d experienced a strange adventure with a group of, well, elves, you might say.
“No. And don’t go there. But…” I hesitated and covered my cell phone with my free hand. “They’ll all strange, and most of them seem to be dressed in costumes, like they’re on their way to a Halloween party. But why would anyone in their right mind go on an all-day tour in a Halloween costume?”
His shrug came across in his voice. “It is Halloween, isn’t it? And what do you mean by ‘seem to be in costume’?”
Turning my head, I glanced at one old woman and her two companions and distanced myself another step or two.
“The getups are… well, there’s a young couple dressed like Roman traffic cops and another woman in a Roman toga…but they look and act like these are their everyday street clothes. I don’t know how to explain it. And an old woman, who looks like a bag lady wearing Sketchers and carrying a huge Vera Bradley tote, is definitely three sheets to the wind. And then there’s ‒ Oh.” Just then another tour guide emerged followed by the tourists who’d gone in before us. “I’ve got to go. They’re almost ready to let us in.”
“Wait. What time will you be off?”
Heaving a poor-me sigh, I glanced at my watch. “This is our last stop. It’ll take about an hour and a half, but then we have to haul them back to their hotels. I don’t think I can be at the apartment before seven. Maybe seven-thirty, if the traffic is bad.”
“Can your driver take them to their hotels without you?”
“I suppose so. I know him well enough to ask a favor. Why?”
“I have some plans for tonight and don’t want to waste any time.”
“Oh?” I wasn’t sure I wanted to go anywhere else today, but the Halloween holiday had gained a huge popularity in Italy in the last few years. “Are we going to a Halloween party?”
“No. Actually, I thought we’d go to the apartment, get naked, and do some trick or treating…just you and me. San Callisto is on my way. I’ll pick you up outside the office at six.”
My insides tingled with desire. That idea certainly perked me up after a long tiring day.
Smiling, I straightened my shoulders. “That sounds great.” I oozed genuine enthusiasm. “I’ll see you then.”
Clicking off, I scooted to the front of the line in time to pull out fifteen tickets, including one for me, and hand them to the attendant opening the entrance gate to let us into the interior corridors. As I watched my people go in ahead of me, I remembered Will’s comment about visiting a cemetery on Halloween, the night before All Saints Day a.k.a. Halloween a.k.a. Samhain. A cold shiver ran down my spine and settled at the base.
Nothing like tempting fate.
“We’re now entering San Callisto, the largest of the Roman catacombs. This cemetery was constructed after 150 A.D. and more than fifty martyrs and sixteen pontiffs were buried here. These stones are carved with some of the ancient symbols you’ll see throughout.” I indicated the wall displays. “The maps depict the extent of these vast galleries which cover thirty-seven acres and extend for twelve and a half miles, with four underground levels some sixty feet below the surface. Now, please follow me. Watch your step and always stay in the lighted corridors.” They all nodded obediently.
We ambled at a slow pace along a narrow intersecting passageway hewn out of the soft volcanic rock that surrounded Rome. “As we walk through, you’ll see the crypts of Popes as well as the burial niches of the common people. San Callisto is the most important of the forty known ancient underground cemeteries excavated by the early Christians and Jews.”
Lars, a blond man in his thirties wearing the police uniform I’d described to Will, squinted his eyes above high cheekbones and shot a furtive glance around us. “This is a graveyard?” He sounded astonished by the idea. His hand moved to rest on his side arm which, I sincerely hoped, was only a prop. “A cemetery?”
Where does he think we are? Disneyland’s Spirits of the Catacombs?
“Right. And what could be more appropriate for Halloween?” I had armed myself for this tour with all kinds of fascinating information about how the Roman festivals honoring the dead and celebrating the goddess of fruits and seeds had been incorporated into the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. “Dead is the theme of the day.”
My chuckle fell flat on the floor between me and my tourists, who gasped at me as though I’d gone insane.
Who, me? The one in normal street clothes?
Will always told me being a tour director ‒ babysitting adults bent on making fools of themselves ‒ required a degree of insanity. I never lost the opportunity to retaliate by pointing out that his career chasing terrorists, murderers, and smugglers required more mental instability than I was capable of.
“How come they buried people in tunnels?” a high juvenile voice piped up.
Ah. The most reasonable question so far and from a young boy about nine or ten, wearing cargo pants and an I-Love-Rome T-shirt.
“Good question… hmm…” I tried to think of the kid’s name, but my brain had gone to mush in the last fifteen seconds.
The pink-cheeked youth planted his tall but slightly chubby form in front of me and crossed his arms over his chest in defiance. “Calogerus.”
I blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
“I already told you my name’s Calogerus. Can’t you remember anything?”
That’s a name? How had I missed that before? Maybe because he and his parents appeared to be perfectly normal tourists.
Nervously, I cleared my throat and met his green-eyed gaze. I’m short, so our faces almost lined up. “Well, yes, Calogerus, these places came about because the Roman law forbade burials within the city, primarily for health reasons. Pagan Romans cremated corpses. Do you know what that means?”
The boy’s cheeks darkened to mottled red. “What’s the matter with you?” he spat, standing on tiptoes to get into my face. “Do I look stupid or something? They incinerated ’em, right?”
I cast a beaming smile at his parents. “Such a bright child.”
My sarcasm slid off them like slippery green snot. I cleared my throat a second time and regrouped. “Anyway, since the Christians and Jews buried their dead, they had to create cemeteries outside the walls. Let’s move along now.”
Brushing past Calogerus ‒ surely, he had some sort of nickname ‒ I took off in the direction of the stairs to the lower levels.
“I knew it.” I heard the exclamation behind me and cast a quick glance at Bria, the pseudo-bag lady. Short, dumpy, and with such a full bosom that she had trouble remaining upright, she hung on the arm of Lara, the young policewoman ‒ the spitting image of Lars ‒ and stumbled along, her booze breath wafting in the chilly air of the tunnel.
The old woman reached out and grasped the arm of the white-haired gentleman in front of her, who looked like a meld of Sean Connery and Colonel Sanders. Her claw like fingers pulled at the white fabric of his suit. That had to be a costume. Who would wear a white suit on a tour?
“’Ya know, I.J.,” she sputtered, “I knew from the beginning that new off-beat religious group would turn into a bunch of fanatics. Earth burial. Cremation is the clean way to go.”
A twenty-something redhead in white shorts and a flimsy wide-sleeved top hurried to catch up with the threesome. Her scanty attire in this nippy autumn weather sent a cold shiver through me. Already, at nine meters below the surface, the clammy unheated air called for a jacket.
“That’s right.” As she skipped forward, the tree-branch and apple blossom crown around her head bobbled and lost a bloom or two. “Cremation is non-polluting. Very environmentally correct. It’s no wonder there are so many problems these days. Verti always says—”
I. J. Fetrius shook off the old woman’s hand and shot his cuffs. “Please, Bria. You are wrinkling my suit.” He turned to the redhead and growled. “And you, Mona. Shut up about Verti. I’m tired of hearing about him.”
“Aren’t we all,” Lara muttered.
Who were these people?
Someone tapped me on the back, and I spun around. “Hey, lady, I—”
Skidding to a stop, I glared at Calogerus. “My name is Harriet, not Hey lady. Get it?” Immediately, I regretted my rudeness. If Will’s state of mind and our relationship troubled me, it wasn’t the kid’s fault.
Not to worry. Ignoring my comment, the child asked, “How can these caves hold all the people who’ve died since the Roman times?”
Gritting my teeth and faked a smile. “These aren’t caves but hand-dug caverns that were expanded as needed.”
I glanced up and noted we’d been joined by the boy’s parents, a tall pale guy with almost-translucent skin, and Andy, a muscular middle-aged man decked out in Greek armor made of leather and a helmet that looked like a ski mask with a curved bristle brush on top. Reining in my impulse to put the kid in his place once and for all, I engaged my brain and slipped into my singsong tour director mode.
“In the beginning, the Christian burial places were small, but after the second century A.D., they started excavating larger catacombs like this one. There are forty known subterranean burial chambers in Rome.”
“You said that already,” someone murmured.
I considered my audience with raised eyebrows, unsure which of them had spoken. No one moved a muscle. “And they don’t hold all the Christians who have died since Roman times. They were abandoned around the sixth century and not rediscovered until the fifteen hundreds.”
The thin man with the sunken eyes, whose clothes hung on him, inched forward, almost into my personal space. I jumped back a step as a musky, invasive resin-like odor assaulted my nostrils.
“You don’t make any of this very interesting.” His high-pitched voice seemed thin as a thread, grating across my nerves.
What is this guy’s problem? Other than the questionable aftershave, that is. He hadn’t spoken more than three words the entire day, and now I bored him. I frowned, trying to remember his name. Ah, yes, something L’Amour.
"I’m sorry, Mr. L’Amour. I suppose some people don’t find ancient cemeteries very interesting.” Although his appearance, and scent, suggested he should be a permanent resident.
By then we’d caught up with Bria and the others. Mentally, I checked off names to be sure the entire group had assembled and counted all fourteen. Thank goodness there weren’t thirteen. Even though, in Italy, seventeen is considered the most unlucky number, I had never done well with tour groups of thirteen.
“Now, please, follow me, and don’t wander into any side corridors.” I motioned my flock forward with a flap of my hand. “From here we’re going into some of the galleries where bodies were entombed. There are thousands of passageways, some less than thirty inches wide, curvy, and unlighted. In many places, the floors have collapsed, and you could fall.” Things could get dicey beyond this point. “As long as you stay in the lighted areas you’ll be fine, but you still don’t want to get lost, so stick with the group.”
“You do not inspire one’s confidence, Miss Ruby.” That criticism came from P. O. Naso ‒ no one in this group seemed to have a real first name ‒ a middle-aged man, who looked like a detective character from a 1930s mystery novel. He constantly scribbled into his notebook, as though evaluating me.
Great. A report card.
“It’s perfectly safe if you stay with me, Mr. Naso.” The word naso in Italian means nose, and he did have a somewhat spicular proboscis. “Now, moving right along, these are burial niches carved into the walls, stacked six high. They’re about two feet high and five feet long. The bodies were placed inside fully clothed and wrapped in linen.”
“You mean they left dead people on shelves?” Calogerus, again. He was beginning to get on my nerves.
“No. The niches were sealed with stones with the name, age, and date on them. Like a headstone. They’ve been taken off so tourists can see the insides of the crypts.”
“They were short,” the kid’s mother noted.
I shrugged. “Poor nutrition. Let’s move on.” With me in the lead, we followed the curving passage, the group “ohing” and “ahing” at the plethora of niches lining both sides of the corridor. When we came to a series of small rooms, which served in ancient times as chapels and meeting places, I planned to drop back to wait for the stragglers. In one room with carvings on the walls, we stopped for a breather.
“Now, here’s an interesting side note. As you know, today is Halloween, which in Italy is called All Hallow’s Eve, the night before Ognisanti or All Saint’s Day. You probably know Halloween originated as an ancient Celtic festival called Samhain, which was similar to other fall harvest festivals throughout the world. But Halloween is also an interesting merging of Celtic and Roman traditions.”
I couldn’t help staring at the folks in costume. It creeped me out that so many people had dressed up for a Halloween day tour. Strange group. “When the Romans conquered Britain and the Celtic territory during the first century A.D., they brought with them their own festivals. One of those was called Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans traditionally commemorated the dead.”
Bria let out a rough laugh that rang through the space and bounced off the walls. “Ha! That’s all you know. Feralia was celebrated in February.” She pushed her way forward and shouted at me. “February 21, to be exact. The last day of the Parentalia festival. Where’d you go to school, anyway?”
Heat crept up my neck. I hastily studied the printed notes provided to us by Adventure Seekers Travel and wondered who the heck bothered to challenge a tour guide about things like dates and ancient festivals?
“Hmm, well,” I sputtered and cleared my throat. “Many of these legends and myths are quite old. Sometimes our sources give conflicting information.”
“Have you not read Ovid Fasti II?”
Go blow it, Naso. I glanced at my watch, anxious to be done with this so I could meet Will. We needed some quality time together. At least this group kept my mind from dwelling on Will’s nightmares.
“As I was saying, a second festival introduced to the Celts by the Romans was the festival of Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit trees. Her symbol, the apple, shows up in Halloween activities even today. Pomona’s festival was celebrated by the Romans around the first of November, which fit in with Samhain—”
“It was August 13, not November,” Mona muttered, providing another unwelcome correction to my handout. “A shared festival with Vertumnus.”
I was so going to get in my boss’s face about this.
“Lusty old bastard,” Bria added with a disgusted sneer.
“How would you know?” Mona spat back.
With a glare at them from beneath a monstrous frown ‒ what toadstool had these folks crawled out from under? ‒ I shut down the argument by launching into my not-very-interesting spiel with as little enthusiasm for the subject as L’Amour and The Nose seemed to have.
“And one final Roman festival incorporated into Halloween was Lemuria, the Roman festival which included exorcizing malevolent ghosts of the dead from Roman homes by clashing bronze pots.”
At the exclamation, I glanced around, geared up to skewer the culprit. Andy, of the Greek Armor persuasion, was shaking his head violently. “Is there a problem, Andy?” Could I be sweet, or what?
Letting out a disgruntled snort, he muttered, “Bria may be drunk as a skunk, but she’s right about your lack of education. Lemuria was in May, and the pots are only part of it.”
Steaming mad, I planted my hands on my hips in attack mode, sauntered up to him, and got in his face. Which I regretted immediately. That close, he reeked of leather, sweat, and incredibly bad dog-breath. A thin film of perspiration covered his cheeks and forehead under the ski-mask helmet. Definitely a little ripe. If he intended to go trick-or-treating after this, he needed to take a bath first, or there would be no candy for Andy.
“You seem to know quite a bit more about it than I do.” I let the words out in a slow hiss. “Why don’t you explain to the others?”
The sharpness of my condescending tone captured his attention. Under the bristle brush, his face turned red. And the smell-o-meter ratcheted up a couple of notches. Yuck!
“Ah… hmm… I am a long-time student of Greek and Roman history,” he muttered. “I now about these things.”
Nodding, I studied the leather armor and the helmet with arched brows. “O course you do.”
Someone tugged on my arm. “Hey, Harriet.”
I shook Calogerus off and turned to him. “I’m having a conversation here, Cali. Give me a minute.”
Frowning, I wondered why his parents let him get away with being so obnoxious. “Don’t you have a nickname?”
His chubby form puffed up with indignation. “No! My name’s Calogerus.”
“Fine. Whatever. But please, give me a chance to talk to Andy. Then I’ll take care of your problem, whatever it is.”
His lips twitched into a nasty little smile. “Andy’s gone already.”
Startled, I looked up. Only four people remained in the room. The four normally dressed tourist-like people. Calogerus’s parents and a young college couple with backpacks.
“Oh. My. Gosh.” Putting my hands on the boy’s shoulders, I gave him a little shake. “Where is everyone? Where did they go?”
The kid snickered. “That’s what I was trying to tell ’ya. The whole bunch of them left. But no-oo, you didn’t want to talk to me. I’m just a kid.”
Grinding a layer of enamel off my teeth, I deep-sixed the rising snarl, let him go, and approached the others, who were chatting about the wall paintings.
“Did any of you see where the rest of our group went? We’re supposed to stay together. I don’t want anyone getting lost.” My voice sounded like Minnie Mouse on helium.
“We weren’t watching,” Calogerus’s mother answered with a shrug. “Sorry.”
“I think they went that way.” The female college student pointed at a dark side passageway at the end of the room. An orange ribbon of plastic with the words “Restricted ‒Do Not Enter” lay on the floor.
Okay, Harriet. Get a grip. Think. “Did anyone else see them leave?”
“I did.” The kid again. “That’s what I wanted to tell you. They went that way.”
A twinge of dread rippled through me. I pulled my phone out of my pocket without much hope for picking up the satellite signal this far underground. When I activated it, nothing came through.
“Long shot,” I murmured and stuffed it back into my pocket. “We’re too far down.”
A blanket of silence ensconced us. Finally, the female student pushed a strand of hair off her pale face and asked in a quavering voice, “What are we going to do? What if something happens to them?”
My thoughts exactly. My stomach roiled and threatened to embarrass me. Losing an entire tour group, even a small one, loomed as an unprecedented Harriet Ruby disaster in the long history of Adventure Seekers Travel. I drew in a deep calming breath and steadied my nerves. Tourists were forever wandering away from their groups. Routine procedure. No reason to panic.
Then why was sweat trickling down my spine and my heart pounding like a race horse?
“All right, people, here’s the scoop. I can’t let those folks wander alone in these tunnels. It’s too dangerous, and at best, they’ll get lost.” I knew my way around down there fairly well, as did most of the city-licensed tour guides in Rome. “I’ll look for them while you five go by yourselves to the exit and tell San Callisto Security that part of our group has wandered off, and I need some help.”
The male student fumbled in his backpack. “How do we get out of here? I have a compass.”
I forced a smile. “That’s good, but I don’t think you’ll need it. Just follow this wider corridor with the bright lights, and it will take you to the exit. Along here, it’s level. Don’t go into any of the intersecting passageways open to visitors. Stay in this one. There are exit signs along the way.”
“What do we do when we get out?” they asked together.
“There’s an attendant at the exit. He’s responsible for being sure the entire group is out, and he speaks English. Tell him what I said and stay with him until he sends a search party for us, then go back to the bus and wait. Our driver will be there with the door open. Tell him, too.”
Calogerus’s father nodded. “We can do that.”
“One other thing. My fiancé is supposed to pick me up here, outside the office, at six o’clock. He’ll probably be at the entrance. Tall, good-looking, dark hair.” Great buns, very sexy, smells delicious, incredible— Oh.
My face heated. I cleared my throat. “We’re the last tour today, so it shouldn’t be too hard to spot him. Be sure he knows what happened.” Will had put a GPS tracking device in my cell phone, so he could always find me. Why? That’s a long story best left for another time.
I checked my backpack for a bottle of water, my flashlight, matches, my cell phone ‒ a useless gesture but a habit ‒ and a few other things. Will would find me when he got here and, by now, he’d be only minutes away. But the rest of them?
I knew these people would be trouble. “Okay, let’s hit it.”
“’Bye,” they all chorused. “See you in a little bit.”
As I headed for the side passage the others had taken, then realized Calogerus trailed after me.
“Hey,” I called to the departing backs. “Don’t forget to take your son.”
All four stopped and turned. I pushed the boy in front of me in their direction.
Calogerus’s Dad ‒ at least, the man I thought was the kid’s father ‒ gaped from me to the boy and back. “He’s not our son. He walked in with us, but we thought he belonged to someone else in the group.”
“Not ours,” the college students insisted. “But we’ll take him with us, if you like.”
“No.” The boy ran behind me and cowered. “I want to stay with you, Harriet.” So, now he knew my name. Fancy that.
What to do? Other than wringing his neck for stringing me along, that was. Maybe he was an elf. “That’s all right. I’ll keep him with me. He’s probably worried about his family.” Yeah, right. I’d bet my cell phone no one in the group had ever seen him before.
We said our farewells again. They split toward the exit, the kid and I entered the side passage, which made a wide sweeping curve. After about ten meters, the lights petered out, and I flicked on the flashlight. It illuminated a spot on the floor, but the glow didn’t reach the walls at all. I held it in front of me with one hand, so I could see where I was putting my feet, and gripped Calogerus with the other.
“There aren’t any side passages along here for a few hundred yards.” My grip tightened on his arm, warning him I meant business. “You owe me one big-time explanation.”
We picked our way in the dark in silence for a moment or two, one careful step at a time. In this unfrequented gallery, our shoes crunched on loose grit and stirred up thick layers of dust settled on the stone floor.
“Remember, it’s Halloween.” He made his high voice sound small and contrite.
“I’m not buying it.” I coughed into my upper arm, wishing I could cover my mouth against the powder-fine soil and filth.
Then he said, “I can see in the dark.”
“Bully for you.” Cough.
He tugged against my hand. “No, I mean it. I‒”
“I don’t want to hear it.”
A blast of cold air sliced through me. “Yikes!” I screeched in surprise and almost dropped the flashlight. My body trembled, and I tightened my grip on my young charge.
“W-what w-was that?” he stammered.
For a moment, my chattering teeth kept me from speaking. I had no clue. “An air vent, probably. They have to get fresh air down here somehow.”
Still shuddering, I inched forward, dragging the boy with me. “We should be close to the steps to the next level, so be careful. What were these people thinking, taking off like this?
You’re absolutely sure you saw them go into this gallery?”
“Yes. I’m sure.”
“Then‒ aiii!” My foot slipped on a loose rock. I stumbled to one knee, flapping my arms for balance, and ripped my hand from Calogerus’s. The flashlight sailed out of my grasp.
Smash. Ping. The light went out.
Swallowing the string of curses that rose in my gullet, I crawled to my hands and knees and felt around for the lost light. “That’s just great. Are you all right?”
“I’m okay, but I think your flashlight is toast.”
Right. Okay, Harriet, now what? “Well, we can’t go any further without a light. We’ll have to go back and let the security guards find them. All we have to do is follow the wall. We didn’t make any turns so‒”
“They went that way,” the boy cried and tugged on my arm. “C’mon. Let’s go.”
“What? How do you know?” With one palm against the cold damp wall for balance, I scrambled to me feet.
“I told you, I can see in the dark.” I sensed him move away from me and almost screamed.
Instantly, he returned to my side. “Here. Open your hand.”
In a frightened daze, I complied, and he placed something soft in it. “What is it?” I fingered the object, like pulpy but thin vegetation.
“It’s an apple blossom.”
Whatever I might have said to that morphed into a startled gasp as an uncanny inhuman howl resonated through the enclosed space, coming from a distance in front of us.
“Let’s go. We’re running out of time.” Calogerus grabbed my hand and pulled me unwillingly along behind him. “Hold onto me. I’ll lead the way. Be careful on the stairs.”
An apple blossom? The stairs? Two brownie points for Calogerus.
What could I say? This was going to be a tough one to explain, even to Will. Okay, God. You and I need to talk. This is all about the sex without marriage, isn’t it? You know we’re working on that.
We clambered down the steps as fast as we could with a night scope-equipped ten-year-old leading the way and me as blind as a mole in a tenning booth and shivering with trepidation.
On the last step, I smelled it. My stomach churned as though I was about to hurl. Formaldehyde? L’Amour’s aftershave. Squeezing my lids tight, I swallowed hard and forced the sense of sickness back into my belly. When I opened my eyes, a faint glow shone from a room at the end of the long hall.
We both ran toward the light and the smell and, in seconds, burst into another wide cavern with pictures and symbols painted on the walls.
I skidded to a stop and wrapped my arms around my middle against the frigid damp air, mitigating the surge of panic I’d experienced. Burning incense sticks filled the space with a dim, diffused luminosity and the exotic scent of sandalwood, reducing the intensity of the essence of L’Amour.
My missing tourists stood with their backs against the walls, watching the old woman Bria, on her hands and knees, drawing a large circle in the center of the dirt floor.
“They have arrived,” Lars and Lara, the matched set of policemen, announced from
either side of the entrance. They had been waiting for us. I didn’t like that at all. An ominous cloud of dread settled over me like the layers of fine dust sent into the air by our feet.
Bria clambered to her feet and stood straight, all of about four feet ten inches. “Good. We will begin soon.” Then she dropped to her knees again and continued etching the circle in the floor by scraping the handle of a spoon on its surface.
“Excuse me! You can’t do that!” I dashed toward her to stop the defacing of the ancient floor. "We’ll be in terrible trouble with the UNESCO World Heritage Commission.” I’d already been in hot water once for something I did in China ‒ another long story ‒ and I didn’t have any desire to face them again.
“It is done,” Bria proclaimed and raised the spoon above her head in triumph, sending dust and dirt in to the stale air.
“’Tis as required.” Naso plucked the pencil from behind his ear and wrote in his notebook.
“Required by whom?” I demanded. Is everyone nuts or just me? Serious concern rumbled in my guts. A moustache of sweat beaded on my upper lip. I hadn’t anticipated this. I could deal with weird. But maniacs? That was not in the program. “I am going to have to insist you all follow me back to the main gallery. No one is supposed to be in these restricted tunnels. Come along.”
How they’d found their way down here eluded me. The licensing bureau, which we tour guides affectionately referred to as the Tourist Police, would slap me with a huge fine if anyone found out ‒ the best-case scenario. At worst, I could lose my tour guide license in Rome.
Part 2 - The final Chapters 4 and 5 will be my blog next week.