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4

SHORT STORY

DECEMBER 22, 2006 THE CATHOLIC HERALD

Fact: all the historical information in this story is true ... pretty much. Respected author Dr Brandon House staggered around the allpowerful book chain’s 9,000th branch, and for once it wasn’t the drink. The gunshot wound draining his life and strength, he fell into the thriller shelf and clasped with his bloodied hands a copy of The Michelangelo Puzzle , the best-selling novel about the Vatican’s attempts to cover-up UFO landings in order to suppress alien birth control technology. Dr House took one last look at his killer, and pondered his last thoughts in italics: “ If I die, the truth will die with me .” A mile away, Fr Robbie O’Langdon crossed the threshold of the dark, cold church of St Chirac, its interior poorly lit, with only a sinister pentagon formation of red candles giving light to the Gothic interior. Gregorian chants echoed around the building, and a lone, grave-looking monk knelt by the entrance. “By what purpose do you tread these walls of God?” the monk called out. “Do you come in His name?” “Er, I’m here for the Christmas party,” O’Langdon replied. The monk locked eyes with the stranger. “Oh right. Second door on the left.” “Thanks. Why are you talking in that strange medieval way? And what’s with the candles?” “Some American tourists are coming later, and we want to give them a decent show. Besides which, you can’t imagine how expensive these old places are to heat properly.” ‘You see, zees is no ordinary crime scene, Fr O’Langdon,” the policeman explained. “It is almost as if it eez designed to be a puzzle.” O’Langdon was with the chief of police at the grim murder site. With his own blood, Dr House had spelled out what could

The Da Vinci Formula

The scene is Borders bookshop at the Louvre, 10.15pm. A deadly act has been committed and a conspiracy (familiar to readers of a certain blockbuster novel) is about to unravel. By Ed West

only be a mysterious riddle about his death. “Oh foolish readership... Will believe any old rubbish.” He even had enough blood left to sign one of his own books to ensure

non-return, and then a note asking to cancel his milk round. Why there? What was the significance? O’Langdon wondered. He was not the only one: the gruff Parisian pulled on a Gauloise and looked sus

piciously at O’Langdon. It was already Thursday and the chief had put in a back-breaking eight-hour week, and he needed results quick if he was to get his pension at 40 and enjoy retirement with his

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three mistresses. “Why would a man go to all zat effort as he lay dying? Why not just write his killer’s name?” “I don’t know. It all sounds utterly implausible, doesn’t it?” “We know zat Monsieur ’ouse was due to meet you zis evening, and since the only man who saw you at your party iz ze Bishop of Southwark, and he iz a leetle confused, zat makes you the prime suspect.” Dr House had indeed asked to see O’Langdon that evening, but the reason was a mystery. The murder victim was a leading world expert in the symbolism of trashy massmarket paperbacks, and was due to publish his findings just next year. While O’Langdon was himself the author of many essays dealing with the subject of religious controversy in such bestsellers as Jesus the Freemason , The Knights Templar and the Third Reich , and Magdalene: Confessions of a Judean Working Girl. Although there was enough evidence to convict O’Langdon, the chief had come to the end of his three-hour work shift, and under French and European law, overtime was now considered a breach of human rights. So, they had to let him go, and O’Langdon wasted no time in getting to the bottom of the mystery. Dr House’s bloody clue –cleverly arranged as an anagram –had led him to the shop’s “Catholic Conspiracies” section; there he’d found some more blood written inside Did The Vatican Kill JFK ? instructing him to find a Swiss bank vault, inside which was a Times cryptic crossword, also drawn in Dr House’s blood, which, using a system of coding devised by the Bletchley Park team in 1940, pointed him to a fiendish level Sudoku board that revealed the exact Ordnance Survey grid digits of the home of Montague Teabag. Teabag, an effete English historian living on the outskirts of Paris, was a specialist on secretive brotherhoods, especially the Brotherhood of the Blockbuster, and the whereabouts of their mysterious, and totally unproven, Da Vinci Formula. (Afterwards O’Langdon noticed there was a bit of paper at the bottom of the

vault on which Dr House had written: “Ask Montague Teabag, he’ll explain everything.”) “According to legend,” Teabag explained as he sipped Earl Grey from his immaculate fine china tea set, “a legend dating back

spent many years investigating the secrets of downmarket fiction, but was terrified that the Church might get hold of it. And so he devised a code so ingenious that only the Keepers of the Brotherhood would know

‘Teabag pointed to a reproduction of The Last Supper’

‘Churning out conspiracy theories about Catholics’

‘They went back to Paris to look for the next clue’

to a 1988 article, the Brotherhood has been around for centuries, entrusted with the sole aim of guarding the secrets of the publishing industry.” Teabag delicately pointed to a reproduction of Da Vinci’s “Last Supper”. “You see, as well as painting and inventing helicopters and stuff, Leonardo Da Vinci also

it. Among the Keepers in history are the greats of literature –Swift, Dickens, Archer –and many even put codes in their work to symbolise the sacred beliefs of the Brotherhood. Finnegan’s Wake actually makes sense if you use the Fibonacci sequence to rearrange the words. And central to this was Da Vinci’s Formula, the

holy grail of publishing. Brandon House was the Master Keeper of the Brotherhood, and in his final words, he must have been leading us to the Grail.” “But who would want the Grail enough to kill?” “Optimus Exigo Dei. Literally ‘God’s best seller’, they’re a shadowy secret society of publishers established to oppress women, the third world, disabled people, the Palestinians etc. They have twisted the true meaning of publishing to churn out mindless doorstoppers with outlandish conspiracy theories about Catholics, masons and the Illuminati. Even Da Vinci could not have foreseen such a powerful group.” O’Langdon was astounded. “How do you know all this this? Have you studied ancient scrolls, missing gospels?” “A taxi driver told me, but he swore he’d heard it from a man in his local who saw a documentary on cable television once. “He also said that the Brotherhood employs a 6’4” albino to go around in a black cape killing their enemies, even though that’s obviously the last person you’d use as a hit man. “But after murdering the Master Keeper, Optimus Exigo Dei may be close to finding the Da Vinci Formula!” “And possession of the formula would make them the most powerful men in publishing!” “Yes, and with it the movie rights, DVDs, spinoffs and even merchandising, so that they could become more dangerous than any other group in history!” O’Langdon took out the parchment from the Swiss bank vault and handed it to Teabag. On it was a map or Britain and a big “X” in Scotland, with a crude “secret thing here” in crayon. “The final mystery,” Teabag gasped, “perhaps written in the hand of Da Vinci himself.” The picturesque old church on the outskirts of Edinburgh seemed strangely familiar to O’Langdon, and he wasn’t sure if it brought back eerie, but significant memories of his childhood, or if it had just been used too often in films. Waiting for a party of tourists to leave, the two men inched down into the chamber below the altar, O’Langdon rather worried that they’d find a bit of House’s blood explaining that they had to go all the way back to Paris to look for the next clue. However they were not alone. “But, but... you’re the albino!” O’Langdon cried at the man now pointing a gun his way. “Actually I prefer ‘pigmentally challenged’. And now at last I have the final piece of the jigsaw.” He fired one shot at O’Langdon’s chest, knocking him to the ground. “But we don’t even have the Da Vinci Formula,” O’Langdon coughed. “There is no formula, I’m afraid, it was all concocted by our marketing department. You see; we have a big title coming out next year about a conspiracy revolving around the Catholic Church. “With your funny foreign names, strange rituals and non-violent social conservatism, you make an irresistible subject for our target market. “We really need the Secret First Course of the Last Supper to sell well in 2007, and after the Da Vinci Code lawsuit, we thought we’d need to up the ante for this year’s publicity drive.” Leaving O’Langdon dying on the floor, the assassin and Teabag chuckled and made their escape through the chamber. Minutes later, O’Langdon’s eyes slowly opened and, reaching under his jacket to feel the wound, he pulled out a bullet-holed copy of Dan Brown’s latest pot-boiler, which he’d been reading on the coach. And though some say his survival was an act of God, others point out that it was The Da Vinci Code ’s convoluted plot, extensive dialogue and overlong pseudo-historical waffle that saved O’Langdon from the assassin’s bullet that day. THE CATHOLIC HERALD DECEMBER 22, 2006

5

CHILDREN’S STORY

‘How different it was from my native village’

‘Reclining on a large foot was a domestic long-hair’

A tabby cat’s tale for Christmas

During a recent dig in Umbria a mysterious manuscript was unearthed. It is believed to date from the 13th century. Because of its great age many of the words are illegible. What now follows, therefore, is a translation that may be partly, or totally, inaccurate. By Fr John Chaloner

My name is Cocco. I am a Church Cat and I live in the little village of Greccio that nestles in a valley not far from Assisi. What a lot of fuss and bother there has been in our village of late! Rumours fly here and there; people pretend to know nothing, when they obviously know something, small groups gather in alleyways and move off as soon as you approach. Even animals and birds do the same. Sheep huddle in corners and look at you disdainfully as they trot off, other cats ignore you, and geese attack you. It’s all very odd. Recently, I was talking to my friend, Miagolo, about this state of affairs and he offered some good advice. “It’s like this,” he said. “People around here know that something big is going to happen. Some know what it is, others pretend they know what it is, but no one wants anyone else to think that they don’t know what it is. Of course, I know what it is, as I am a venerable and wise cat. If I tell you what it is, don’t let anyone think you know. Pretend to know nothing.” “Thank you,” I said. “I’ll do as you say.” “ Prego ,” he replied. “What’s going to happen is this: Francis of Assisi is coming here at Christmas and he’s arranged for a crib to be erected –just like the stable in

which Jesus was born. Of course, the big question is: who is to be invited to this major event? It’s causing a lot of ill-feeling, I can tell you. Why, just listen to those two over there.” He directed my attention to a nearby field where an ass and a cow were complaining bitterly. “After all,” said Asfodelo the ass, “everyone knows there was an ass in the stable where Jesus was born, but I haven’t been invited. I’m quite put out by it.” “So am I,” agreed Margheritina the cow. “Cattle were there too, you know.” “How upsetting,” I observed. “But tell me,” I asked Miagolo, “Why have only some residents of our village been invited? Surely Francis would want all of us to be there?” Miagolo purred in agreement. “Of course he would. But he’s not the one who decides, is he? Those in charge are the ones who decide and they want only a select number to be invited. It’s all to do with ‘cut-backs’ and ‘cost-effective strategies’ –so I’ve heard.” “This cannot be right,” I replied. “Jesus says that when we have a party we are to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. I would have thought that the same principle applies here. Is there no higher authority to whom we could appeal?”

Miagolo stretched out his front paws and sat down. He said something, but I couldn’t quite make out what it was as he was licking his left paw and then washing the back of his ears. “I didn’t quite catch that,” I said. “Were you talking about ‘hope’ and ‘bats’?” “Not at all!” he snapped. “I said that you could appeal to the Pope or have a word with

his cats.” “The Pope or his cats?” I exclaimed. “How could I speak to the Pope or his cats?” “You could go to Rome and ask to see them,” he replied. “You can’t expect me to travel that far as I am a senior cat, but you are a young cat and the exercise would do you good. In fact, as you are a Church Cat a pilgrimage to Rome would be most fitting.”

‘Francis of Assisi is coming here at Christmas’

“And how, may I ask, would I get to Rome? I don’t know the way.” “All roads lead to Rome,” he replied brightly. “So you can’t go far wrong.” And so it was that I set off on my pilgrimage. I journeyed most of the night and slept most of the day. After many adventures, which I shall relate in another manuscript, I arrived in Rome. ( Translator’s

note: This other manuscript has not been found. If it is found, don’t expect me to translate it. This one is more than enough. ) How different it was from my native village! All hustle and bustle and in all the ancient ruins –cats, hundreds of us! I was now very tired and hungry but I was determined to put my request before the Pope, or his cats.

All pictures by Fr John Chaloner

But how was I to find his cats among so many? Reclining on a large foot – the remains of an old statue near the Colosseum –was a domestic long-hair, mainly white but with a black patch above her left eye and black along her back and tail. “Hello,” she said. “What’s your name?” “I’m Cocco and I am a Church Cat.” “I am Signorina Machiavetti,” she replied. “By a strange coincidence, I too am a Church Cat. What are you doing here? Are you a tourist?” “No. I’m a pilgrim and I’ve come to see the Pope –or his cats –and to ask a favour for our village.” Then I told her all about the goings on in Greccio and explained that I wanted to ask the Pope to allow all the village residents to be present when Francis of Assisi blessed the crib on Christmas night. “Your request seems very reasonable,” she said. “Follow me.” I followed her along the narrow streets until at length we arrived in front of an enormous church, bigger than any I had seen, with crowds gathered everywhere. “This is St Peter’s,” she said. “It’s always like this during the day. Keep close to me. I know my way in and out of here like the back of my paw.” No one attempted to stop us as we trotted along. On the

contrary, doors were opened for us. Eventually we entered a room in which a cat was curled up asleep on the knee of a man. “Signorina Machiavetti!” the man exclaimed. “There you are! I haven’t seen you for hours.” “This is the Holy Father,” Machiavetti whispered. “Go and tell him why you are here.” How was I to tell him? I sat and stared hard at him. The Holy Father stretched out his hand towards me and smiled. Then a thought struck me: “I’ll do what all cats do when they want to tell people something. I’ll wrap myself around his legs and purr.” And that is what I did. “Ah, piccino ! Have food, milk and whatever you need,” he said kindly, and with that he blessed me. Many weeks later I arrived back at Greccio. It was Christmas Eve. Something wonderful had happened! A stable had been built and gathered inside were my friends: Miagolo, Asfodelo, and Margheritina. Francis of Assisi had brought together the whole village to praise and thank God for inviting us all to rejoice in the birth of his Son.

Miss Mac: The Church Cat and Ko-Ko: the Church Cat Who Found Love by Fr John Chaloner are published by Redemptorist Publications, priced £4.95 each

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