The streets were merry chaos. Artists displayed their work—blossoming apricot trees, lovers enveloped in murky fragrance. The academic style had not yet ruined the city. And there were masks, black chitin forged from carriage beetles. Everywhere, the faces of crickets, ants, and termites. Shells exaggerating the similarities between lacewings and lawyers, dragonflies and doctors, beetles and barons.
It was the carnaval de la coccinelle, when the natural kingdom is reversed. The mayor dresses as a maggot and squirms in the sty. A beggar is put in the government building. He is given cakes.
The only office uncontaminated is mine. For reasons of security, the commissariat de police remains intact. The carnaval is a time of excess, therefore abuse, and I am kept to the streets to deter license from turning criminal.
Today, my white beard, the wrinkles around my eyes, were hidden by the black face of the ninfly. Incognito, I rushed through the stalls. A man offered me a cage with a six-tailed scorpion. I pushed pass. In my fist I clutched a portent that I must not relax. A message taken from the thief Gabbard.
The thief was not really Gabbard. He was an Englishman named John Lawrence Kerr. Gabbard was a mask—a thin layer of words that ripped away in the interrogation chamber. The message was taken from his pocket.
Seek out the saint—the fête of fools.
The shank is there—but nones pour vous.
From pincer rust—to needle blue.
An annoying riddle. Some verse in English, the rest in French. I had solved one portion. There was some operation to be performed at the Church of Saint Trophime. Today, during the festival. But what was the scheme? And when would this deed occur?
The church I have always considered awkward, with walls that seem more dust than gray brick. These walls are unpunctured by scripture, except for a foyer, with its arches and columns decorated by the tediously holy.
The doors are wood from a sanguine tree. Inside, the hall is long and dark.
On this day, there was a line to the altar, where a priest stood. I saw his mask imitated the ant. He was blessing the merry-makers, one hand touching their foreheads, the other limp, shrouded by robes. This seemed poorly invented. Shouldn’t it be the rabble, in a reordering of tradition, blessing him?
I do not care much for churches or their congregations, although I prefer Religion to the concoctions of the Darwinists. There is comfort in mystical men, blessed by God, even if their stories are mixed with mythical creatures. Animals have always been the hardest for me to believe. It is difficult to believe in miracles, but must I also believe in lions and lizards? And hellfire if I do not?
In an office near the front, there was a man at the desk. His face pointed toward me, his mask dyed in blues and blacks. It was the common fly.
“I am Henri Moreau,” I said, showing him my papers. The mask stayed still, not caring for credentials.
“Today and only today, I am the subdeacon,” the man said. “My responsibility is the Liturgy of Hours.” Every few hours, then, he would sanctify the city with prayer. There were eight of these divisions, from matins to compline.
“You are not always a subdeacon,” I replied.
“We take the holidays seriously in Saint Trophime,” the man said. “Do you seek the true subdeacon? He is administering the blessings.”
The priestly fly meant the man before the congregation, camouflaged as an ant.
“But you are fast,” the man said. “We sent a boy for the police only a minute ago. Would you like to see the cage?”
Not knowing what he meant, I consented, and we walked around pews as black as street water. The fly led me to the crossing, where stood the red priest. Behind him, the altar. It was a design as awkward as the church. An iron cage built beneath a stone table. The bars were black with flecks of gold. The cage door was open, the lock resting on the floor.
I removed my mask, but the man hissed. “Return your covering. This is a holy observance, where those who are loved by God are raised.”
I failed to mention that insect masks were more diabolic than divine. Instead, I whispered, “I am not one for religion.”
“But God is—so keep your mask on.”
I examined the cage. “There should be a claw inside,” my companion said. “From the scarab which the messiah rode into Jerusalem.” It was the custom of clergy to call the creature a ‘scarab.’ In the book my father read, it was a dung beetle.
The man gave me an accounting. Most of the fathers were at the festival, rousing with the rabble, more for the blessed dignity of disorder than a desire to drink. Three remained. This man, who claimed to be subdeacon for the day, appointed to matins, prime, terce, sext, nones, vespers and compline. Put to a scribe’s desk when he wasn’t reciting prayer. The man at the crossing, giving blessings above his rank. And the bishop, put to the broom in the kitchen. As a man of near-eighty, the bishop avoided crowds, which carried sickness.
“Tell me what has happened here,” I said, examining the cage.
The man bent beside me and whispered confidentially, “We have been robbed. Someone in the last hour has stolen the claw.”
“How?” I said.
“Someone has picked the cage.”
I handed him the lock. “He would be very skilled. There are no nicks. See, no small, shiny scratches around the key hole.”
The man looked closely.
“I think a key was used,” I said. “Your relic would be worth something?”
I scoffed. “If this is the claw of the scarab. There are fifty across the Continent.”
“It is one of the six.”
“When was your last prayer?” I asked. The man looked at me again.
“The sext, or noon’s prayer.”
I examined the church. The high nave, the darkness. The ant giving sustenance to the faithful. I took another look at Gabbard’s note, and the line of rags and hidden faces. In front stood a man with a curved horn protruding from his head, a lesser below. The beetle of Hercules. Behind was a green shield—someone posed as a bush cricket. The metallic navy of the water bee. The fuzzy brown of the assassin bug. The translucent oranges and grays of the atlas moth.
Behind them all, three ninflies. My men in plainclothes.
“The claw is here,” I said. “In fact, it is not far at all.”
I walked to the red priest and took his limp sleeve and squeezed the cloth like a towel to be wrung.
My companion stuttered, somewhere between a shout and a slap of surprise at the lack of arm beneath. Then I punched the priest, more to keep him from running. The mask fell, the youth’s face revealed. Here was no priest at all, but one of those roughs who work for Gabbard. Through his robes, something fell, and then it was on the floor.
The leg of a beetle, a red shine to its black skin. Fire in deep water. The unholy thief had kept the relic beneath his cassock, pressed to his chest, with the unused arm.
“We must be grateful to the thief Gabbard,” I said to the dumbstruck. The revelers were still, heads peering around the line.
I read the instructions found on the English thief and explained.
“The saint—St. Trophime. The festival—today. The shank—the leg of a beetle. The nones—that was the cleverness. I had mistook it for grammatical error. A contraction in need of an apostrophe. But now I have realized it was the hour for when the bell strikes. The canonical fifth prayer. Nones. With the bishop distracted, the rusted red pincers of the ant could slip the artifact to the metallic blue bee, disguising evil with a blessing.”
My men sprang from the line and took the boy and his accomplice—the adherent in a blue mask. The leg was returned to its cage, the lock replenished. And I, returning to the carnaval, took a respite from my duty to purchase a blue-webbed apple, the sugar spun by Spanish worms.
In a defiant mood, I removed my mask and ate.
Desmond White writes speculative fiction in Denver, Colorado. His work has featured in The Tishman Review, HeartWood, Rue Scribe, and Theme of Absence. In 2018, he was featured in Z Publishing's America's Emerging Writers. Des lives with his wife, two cats, and a jungle of potted plants.